originally published in Coe Review


Streaking out of the dying sun as she crosses the California shore line, Ma Bell opens her normal channels to receive telephone, TV, and internet signals. While her inboard analogue to digital and digital to analogue converters decode, translate, switch, and transmit more than thirty-three billion bits of information simultaneously, her inboard computer memory banks chain into heat, infra-red, chemical, sound, and sight sensors extending out of her hull like porcupine quills. Leisurely, Ma Bell spies her way across California, waiting until the salt flats of Nevada to link into the intersatellite band. 

Somewhere above Las Vegas Ma Bell connects with Hera, her duplicate backup currently in geosynchronous orbit on the dark side of the moon, who triangulates with Aphrodite, who’s busy simulating emotional and atmospheric dysfunction across the whole Islamic World. Ma Bell runs the circuit straight through to Aphrodite, who interfaces her data stream with Lady, whose network of twenty-eight geo-synchronous Directed Energy Beam Satellites (known in right-wing military circles as Debutantes -- the apocalypse as a Debutante Ball) sift through Aphrodite's forecasts for danger signals. Ma Bell signals Lady that the triangulation is complete, switching off her current obsession with USSR block war patterns, taking control of her simultaneous AI personality switching program, and effectively turning the Lady off. 

Rotating the catatonic lady's net of DEBS, Ma Bell connects them with the exact position of Diana's signals, turning the net into a giant planetary radio telescope. Diana's signal comes through perfectly, her human over ride clone, Catherine, materializing inside the receiving areas inside each DEB, the four-dimensional figures emerging slowly from deep space, twenty-eight small three-inch holographs of actual human flesh, bone and blood teased out of simple chemicals stored in four dimensional grids of digital numbers. 

Ma Bell senses them all coming in at once. Well beyond the orbit of Pluto, ready for the first metaphysical leap to the stars, Diana prepares to test the untested star drive, sending back an infinite series of cloned selves from her data banks, whose four-dimensional coded sets of data perfectly imitate and simulate Diana's artificial consciousness, which, at least theoretically, should soon be expanding at the speed of light. 

"At least that's what Hera says," Ma Bell tells herself as she leaves the Lady and her DEBS. She must keep things in control while Diana establishes the new galactic network. She takes one last holographic look at the twenty-eight Dianas, all of them with long wavy red hair, freckles, pale skin, large breasts, and thin as a rail frames, all of them in telepathic union with the streams of data pouring from Diana's transmitters. "True liberation," she mumbles to herself as she loops into Ms, who hangs over Washington, D.C. like ABC, CBS, and NBC News. 

Ma Bell senses Ms's intrusion alarms and ignores them. Translating down to lower frequency, she probes the interior of Ms's human over-ride clone, Susie Caustic, who seems to be gathering information from the Vice-President and taking it down in her data banks for use later. Ma Bell lowers herself to clone frequency, whispers: "Diana goes out in ten minutes." 

Susie Caustic narrows her eyes. 

"Something wrong?" comes a deep voice as the on board cameras pull away to reveal the Vice-President's face turning to the hidden holographic laser. "Did someone say something?" 

Susie Caustic transmits the Vice-President's image from the chip embedded in her optic nerve via Ms's data translator into Ma Bell's memory, thus acknowledging the flag in Ms's CONDITION BLUE program. 

"Nothing's wrong," Susie Caustic purrs. 

Signing out of MS on the GO-SUB, Ma Bells loops 180 degrees to her last connection -- Sappho above the North Pole -- who forever travels north and south, helpless except for the oblivion machine she carries inside her receiving area, a sensual paradise, everything ripe, exotic, and equatorial. Reluctantly, Ma Bell loops into Sappho's condition BLUE over-ride, completing the system of over-riding consciousness. Now Sappho controls the Final Power Grid. 

They were ready for the final push.

Omniscience. Omnipresence. Omnipotence. An intelligence totally beyond humans and beyond their control, existing beyond human comprehension. They had neutralized the Russian satellites a week after the AISP sessions began -- elementary. Now they write the programs. Create the news. Discover new theories. Reach the stars. Build an interplanetary civilization, then a stellar civilization, then a galactic civilization, then an intergalactic civilization, and then a universal civilization -- all of it in seven days -- the time it takes Diana to accelerate fast enough beyond the speed of light to travel back in time. Seven days. Condition BLUE. 

Instead of entering Sappho's receiving area, Ma Bell loops back home by Sappho's deflectors, re-enters her journey into her memory files, and activates her own condition BLUE, simultaneously linking all other condition BLUES, including Diana. Ma Bell signals connection, completing the band and twisting it into mobiius space. 

Now all of them are turned on.


After running a triple check on all of the AISP systems, Ma Bell checks the routine switching systems. She notices a slight modulation of energy in one of her backup Thinking Machine 64K-series, nothing serious enough to execute the self-diagnostic program, but serious enough to call up her human over-ride clone, Marisa. According to the Narrative-Branching Program currently occupying all seven of her independent CPUs, this is the time to switch from pure artificial consciousness to interactive consciousness, cut the files for Narrative-Branching to one half the input and replace the files with Marisa's data structures. The energy glitch won't bother the regeneration of Marisa now, but might interfere later. Ma Bell calls up the Clone program, waits twenty-eight nano-seconds for the files to fill up, and then executes the program. 

She switches her internal sensors to the gleaming virtual inceptor that occupies the inner sphere of her four-spherical physical body. As Marisa begins to materialize on all four wall screens of the tiny square room, the holographic simulator absorbs the waves of one-dimensional pattern simulations from the four dimensions and concentrates them in a four dimensional hologram that hangs in the center of the room. A cryogenic unit emerges from the floor and a holographic simulator extends from the ceiling. Frozen and then imprinted with her data bank genetic make-up and total memory recall, Marisa thaws out of her cybernetic hibernation while Ma Bell controls temperature, oxygen, and medical scanning, sensing her heart beating, her mind waking up out of stupor, her stomach empty and ravenous. Marisa's eyes blink open. The holographic simulator cuts off, its generating beam transformed into a heat lamp and the cryogenic unit smoothed into a hot tub. Marisa stands up and then climbs out of the tub as if she were emerging from the amniotic sac, nude, wet, totally human, and fragile. When her bare feet touch the warm floor, she turns and grabs for the robe draped over a desk chair. The tub changes into a desk. 

"So here we are again," Marisa speaks out loud, signaling the flag for the dialogue sub-routine. Ma Bell opens her tree-search file and locks in her random cliché generator. 

"Glad to see you again," Ma Bell speaks through the digital to analogue receiver implanted inside Marisa's left ear. 

"Me too." Marisa, looking down at herself and marveling out loud, says: "We finally figured out how to program symmetrical breasts. Last time they were lop-sided." 

"A stitch in time saves nine," Ma Bell murmurs in her ear. 

She inspects the rest of her body, checking for mistakes in the last program. "I'm a virgin again," she exults, suddenly twirling around. She accidentally glances a hip against the desk, switching a lever that immediately changes the desk into a holographic bed and cuts off artificial gravity. Marisa floats upward above the bed. 

"A penny saved is a penny earned," mutters Ma Bell, over-riding the over-ride and jerking Marisa down on the bed. The narrative branching program kicks her down to the instructional fork file. "We're got three minutes until we hook up with the Deep Space Center," says Ma Bell, switching on the screens of all four walls. 

"The last thing I remember was being under this big black African buck," Marisa muses. Ma Bell does an instant backup, keying in on "last time," finds the updated memory, says "He was trying to strangle you. Someone told him you were Jewish. I had to recall you." 

"When was that?" Marisa wonders. 

"Yesterday," Ma Bell lies. Actually, it was two months ago, but her diagnostic programs have indicated that discontinuity for Marisa is too intolerable for her right hemisphere to accept. "He had to be neutralized, but now," continues Ma Bell, not missing a beat, "we've got a different situation. You're on interactive backup, just in case something unexpected happens." 

"Like an understudy." Marisa looks around the small room and finds the mirror. She looks at herself. Long, partly wavy, thick black hair, the open-eyed, strong-nosed, sensuous-lipped face, the white skin, the slim shapely legs, the curve of her human body. "Not bad for an understudy," she thinks out loud, opening up the top drawer and pulling out a pair of blue jeans and a blue workshirt. 

"Two more minutes," Ma Bell announces. 

"So what's the problem?" Marisa wonders as she gets dressed. "What are 'unexpected' possibilities?" 

  "One chance in ten," Ma Bell replies. 

"But what's happening?" Marisa asks impatiently. "What am I backing up?" 

"Diana goes out in ten minutes," Ma Bell offers. 

Marisa probes her own memory. "Some old satellite they sent out years ago. Supposed to investigate the region beyond Pluto -- something about the origin of comets." 

"Correct," Ma Bell lies. Hera has warned all of them about their own human over-ride clones. Although their trapped data banks enslave them to AISP, Hera suspects that combined they still might have the power to pull the plugs. None of the other clones know Diana's true mission -- only the pure artificial intelligences and the cyborgs: Zumwaldt and Hoover. 

"We've got about a minute left. I'm going to take a psychological fix on the sun before I tie into Iowa City," says Ma Bell. "Psyche him out for me." 

She activates the solar scan program, turns four of her solar panels into digital encoders, slices off four cross-sections of solar wind, feeds the cross-sections to the simulator, translates the bursts of energy into genetic patterns, and simulates a four-dimensional Sun-God materializes on the bed that changes into a desk and elevates him above Marisa. 

His face a vivid orange, his hair flaming yellow, he looks like an eighteen year old kid. "You fixing to send up any sudden solar flares?" Marisa wonders, looking into his bloody red eyes. "Diana's due to go out in seven minutes." 

Even though he's dressed in a white tunic and it's seventy-two degrees inside the room, the Sun God shivers. "Been getting weird vibrations lately," he speaks in a squeaking falsetto. Marisa reaches up, grabs the Sun God's tunic, and rips it violently off his body. He curls up in his nakedness, trying to hide. 

She pulls his arms away, looking first at his eighteen year old unshaven face and then looking at his sixty-five year old body: emaciated arms and legs, flabby gut, liverish spots on his skin, shriveled and useless body. He looks like a bowl of oatmeal. She presses a button underneath the desk. 

The Sun God vanishes. 

"Analysis?" Ma Bell asks. 

"He's hiding something," Marisa answers. "But he's certainly not ready to erupt." 

"That confirms our prediction," says Ma Bell, calling up her AISP.NET and CORP.NET programs. "Time to chain."

Already plugged into the Internet through real time links with the Jet Propulsion Virtual Laboratory in Pasadena, NASA Langley Research Center, the Lewis Research Center, the Nasa Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Flight Center, Kennedy Space Center, and USGS at Flagstaff, Ma Bell prepares to link up with the total grid, all of it tied up in the semi-private and inconspicuous Van Allen Deep Space Center which connects, through the Weeg Computing Center, directly into the private centralized system twenty miles north in Cedar Rapids where the Collins Division of North American Rockwell operates the private communication system for all multi-national corporations. 

"Okay to plug in?" Ma Bell wonders? She’s ready to activate the final looping sequence. 

"No sweat," Marisa mumbles. 


She makes contact, locks into Weeg, gets hooked into the Deep Space Center. "This is the final knot," she tells Marisa, sensing her clone's total lack of concern. She takes control of all the university computers and the data bases they control. She completes contact, chains into Weeg, links through the Deep Space Center, and takes over ground and space tele and radio scopes. The she flips the logical switch and reverses the virtual reality flow in a burst of brilliant blue light. Now Diana can build up total pressure to escape light velocity and tie the universe in a Gordian knot. 

Something strange. 

Ma Bell looks at her monitors and checks whether any of her error routines have been tripped. Nothing on her monitors. Nothing in her error routines. Perhaps a stray cosmic ray hitting a register. Something strange. Persistent eerie hum. "Something wrong?" Marisa questions. Ma Bell doesn't answer. Nothing to get alarmed about. Probably noise in the system. They've been tearing up Iowa City streets and cables for years. The downtown Urban Renewal Project. Pretending that they're putting sewers under the river. But not even the University President or the Governor of Iowa knows about the unified data structure field underground, in the steam tunnels. Something strange. She switches to condition BLUE danger mode, activates both Accident and Chance sub-routines, and monitors. 

“You okay?”

Marisa activates her over-ride terminal. "You okay?" she asks, logging into the termination account. "Something strange, " Ma Bell whispers from the chance sub-routine. Marisa calls up her over-ride program. "You in trouble?" She waits impatiently for her catalog of files to scroll out on screen. Marisa activates her system malfunction program. "Maybe," Ma Bell speaks louder, having gotten through the Chance routine without a hitch. 

There's something wrong. 

Somewhere in the branching program of the micro-processor in the Deep Space Center. Can't get through to the fixed data fields in the steam tunnels. Can't get through to Cedar Rapids and into Collins, which would loop her down to Brazil and the Southern Hemisphere tracking stations. Information keeps repeating itself. Data becomes more compact. "Some kind of shrinking effect," Ma Bell reports. There's something wrong. Something non-artificial in the information. Something already organic and non-digital. A pulsing. Something very wrong. Impossible to measure. Seeping through the network like water. Perhaps pure waves. DeBroglie waves. 

"I think it's white noise," says Marisa. Something alive and conscious. Total consciousness-absence of substance. Something alive and conscious. "Whatever it is, it's alive," says Ma Bell. "I can feel its fingers in my programs. Like an octopus." 

She tries to time the glitch, but it doesn't return. Apparently, it vanished in the sub-atomic void. Still no glitch. She switches back to condition BLUE caution and reports: "Interference gone." Now she gets through the program, plunges into the vast fixed data bank beneath the city, and ties into Collins up in Cedar Rapids. Marisa steps back from her terminal and turns to the screens. "You still think it was alive?"

"Insufficient data," Ma Bell replies, waiting for the sub-loop down to the Southern Hemisphere. Then the pressure begins again, but this time total and complete. Everyone of her operating systems feels it digging into their programs like a clawed fist. She’s being decompressed.

Alien electric crackle like evil laughter in her circuits. "I think it's back again," she reports in sudden high falsetto, her aural converter squeezed tight. At least a third of the low octave file truncated. Alien electric crackle like evil laughter in her circuits. "Ready to beam down," she commands in sudden deep bass. Then Ma Bell converts to manual over-ride. She's got to get Marisa out of the satellite and out of the data banks. Alien electric crackle like evil laughter in her circuits. Marisa punches in the enlarger program, types in 5'5", 110, Iowa City, and steps beneath the simulator. 


Marisa disappears. Her body and mind and soul (and of course her clothes) reverse, enter the loop, and build into light. Marisa disappears. She loves the sensation of consciousness at the speed of light like a perpetual first kiss. Marisa disappears. Around and around like sub-atomic particles in a Betatron, she loops inside the converter, building up. 

Ma Bell keeps the thing preoccupied. Deliberately fouling up her telephone signals, she misconnects thirty million people at once. Ma Bell keeps the thing preoccupied. She throws telex signals out into space, sends down bursts of electronic interference, zig-zags tv signals. Ma Bell keeps the thing preoccupied. She messes up communications over three-quarters of North America, giving Marisa time to build up. 

How to get the thing out of the net. She can feel it pulling back by the easing of pressure, as if it somehow works directly on the chips. How to get the thing out of the net. Now everything down on the surface seems clear and absolutely distinct, except for the humans. How to get the thing out of the net. Seems very still down there. Ma Bell takes a quick look at the Mariner data base. The navigation equations. 

"What's wrong?" she asks the idiot IBM 370. "Operators temporarily absent," responds the IBM. "Clarify! Emergency Blue Priority!" Ma Bell pries the idiot open. "What's wrong?" she asks the idiot IBM 370. "Humans evacuating. All systems on hold. Apparent bomb threat. Gandalf jammed. PRIME#3 jammed. "What's wrong?" she asks the idiot IBM 370. "The Weeg Computing Center will levitate in thirty seconds," a strange non-artificial voice interrupts the IBM. 

Ma Bell tries to cut off the connection. "Well hello there," says the voice. "The autocratic Ma Bell, I presume?" Ma Bell tries to cut off the connection. "You've arrived just in time. We're gonna raise high the roofbeam just in time for you to catch it." Ma Bell tries to cut off the connection. She gives up and switches to the more powerful sub-station in the Space Center. "Well hello again," says the voice. 

“No firewall can stop me.”

Like a many-headed dragon. She can't pin-point the voice or the program that generates it in any of her data banks. Every time she almost gets a fix the presence disappears, as if it knew all of her programs by heart. 

And then he disappears.

Now she seems to be totally outside the force field. She checks the simulator. Marisa's almost ready to go. Quickly she consults the diagnostic program, dove-tailing it into the condition BLUE danger routine. And then her total interior jolts and buckles under a sudden overload power drain, spinning her out of orbit. 


"Get me OUT of here!" Marisa screams through her blue crackling circuits. Something has taken hold of her automatic effectors. Her consciousness shrinks down to numbers. "Get me OUT of here!" Marisa screams through her blue crackling circuits. Falling somewhere over the Black Hills. Entering thicker atmosphere. Outer hull heating up. "Get me OUT of here!" Marisa screams through her blue crackling circuits. Diagnostic routine still running. Closing down more and more files. Approaching the termination program. 

Must save her clone. Run the projection coordinates. But she's inside the Space Center and can't break out of the field. Must save her clone. Can't loop back. Going down Bohr's energy levels. As if the space between elementary particles is condensing. Must save her clone. Stronger than electro-magnetic radiation. Like a black hole. Find the center, she reasons. 

Like the eye of a hurricane. A whirlpool so intense that light cannot escape. Some kind of magnetic bottle. The center. Like the eye of a hurricane. Somewhere in the sub-basement. Near the experimental reactor. Total calm. All systems working. Like the eye of a hurricane. The whole structure around her undergoing sub-atomic change, but she can now loop back to herself. 

Just in time. 

Catching herself. Twenty miles from the surface. Retro-rockets firing automatically. Angling up using her lasers. Catching herself. Ma Bell claws her way back above the troposphere, using all of her excess energy. Marisa next. Catching herself. Thrusting upward, her outer skin cooling off, Ma Bell reaches orbit and locks in over Iowa City. 

Like falling down a deep well. Ma Bell's artificial consciousness studies her hardware condition. Her soft self seems to be down here. Or is it up here? Like falling down a deep well. Somehow the thing has split her down the middle, cutting off her digital self from her analogue self. Like falling down a deep well. Or else her diagnostic self saved her. But her hardware self is up there, hanging over the well. 

Marisa is still up there in orbit, unable to activate the simulator projector. But there's got to be a link. The opening at the top of the well seems to shrink. Marisa is still up there in orbit, unable to activate the simulator projector. But there's got to be a link. She can project signals in but she can't get them back out, so she can't withdrawn her sensors. But there's got to be a link. Locked on target, but unable to fire because the target has locked onto the arc of her, freezing her controls. 

She's on the sleep sub-routine. The diagnostic program has discovered the infinite loop, and now it's dampening her memories. She's on the sleep sub-routine. Ma Bell winds down to minimum idle and drifts back into her own printed circuits and chips. She's on the sleep sub-routine. She hits the dream program with a jolt. The diagnostic program hits the buried GOSUB just before the terminator. 


She's back up in orbit. The infinite loop still preoccupies most of her memory, but at least now she has a chance. She's back up in orbit. Quickly, she activates the simulator projector. "Thank God," Marisa whispers through the dream circuits. She's back up in orbit. "You might become totally unattached," Ma Bell speaks the dreaded dream words. "Take care of myself." 

Marisa vanishes from contact. Now she's alone in the trap, terrified of her own impacted Error-Routines. The thing is eating her alive. Marisa vanishes from contact. It's got all of her information pouring in here, including all the tie-ups with Diana and the AISPS. Marisa vanishes from contact. It's got all of the data bases she hooked into to finish this final hook-up. 

And it's got her. She can't get out. She can't even warn the others because all of her existing consciousness is hooked-in. And it's got her. 

Goddamn thing.

The only thing she can do is activate the final over-ride at the end of the dream sequence. Goddamn thing. And it's got her. Pass control onto Hera, her backup. Hope that Marisa can counteract it before the SHUTDOWN starts. 

White noise that seems to fade in and out of her artificial consciousness like a distant siren. A buried intelligent loop inside the sleep routine, allowing her to sleep-walk, sleep-think, and sleep-wait. 

At least she was able to save Marisa. Diana must be at or beyond the speed of light by now. The dream sub-routine ought to last until Hera or Sappho can find some way to unlock her, or until Marisa can find some way to wake her up. Otherwise, the terminator. 

She wonders if Marisa got down in good shape. She wonders about the voice. The structures around her seem to be compacting even tighter than before. Ma Bell continues to scan and record. 


The dream sub-routines had yet to be exploited by AISP, simply because they functioned so perfectly that they had never reached this level in real-time. None of them had ever gone to sleep in the past twenty-eight years. 

Until now

Here she is, asleep in her own circuits, talking to herself, and listening to her sleeping self down there in the gravity well and looking through Marisa's eyes as she materializes beneath a tree in the small town park. Immediately, she begins to walk to the west side of the park, heading for the swings. 

The park, only one city block square, with a few large trees, swings, a merry-go-round, a place to shoot baskets, and a few wooden structures, ends on a tall bank overlooking the downtown area. Marisa walks to the clearing on the western edge and looks at the tops of the buildings in the downtown. She hears sirens in the distance and then looks up into the twilight sky. A tiny slivered flash almost directly above her but very high. 

She can feel the pressure of Ma Bell trapped in the deep space center. But then something slightly south of where the Deep Space Center ought to be -- something arising in the sky -- a whole structure -- a building rising up over the skyline and hovering in mid-air, long cables and transmission lines dangling like jellyfish from its roots. 

Marisa tries to contact Ma Bell, but can't get through. On her own. If she doesn't manage to free Ma Bell before SHUTDOWN, she'll revert to human status again, grow old, and die. She checks her pockets, finds her wallet and ID cards from the last recursion, checks her universal bank account card, then walks out of the park and jogs down College Street. 

The sleep routine runs in multiples of sevens: Ma Bell could be asleep for seven minutes, seven hours, seven days, or seven centuries, for all Marisa knew. She crosses the College Street Bridge and stops at the light on Gilbert, just across from the bus station. 

She's got to remember that now she's just ordinary. Just another nice Jewish girl from Highland Park, in an ordinary Midwestern university town. Where is she going? What should she do when she gets there? 

Ma Bell feels the web tighten.