The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

The desk computer, with a more demanding task, had been caught before finishing it. The fourth—no, the fifth—of today’s Delphi assessments protruded from it like a pale stiff tongue, duly stamped with his automatic notary’s seal.

That, however, was not important right now. What he had to discover was whether Fluckner (who else could or would have discredited him overnight?) had contrived to isolate his phone as well as his power supply.

The answer was yes. A sweet recorded voice told him his phone credit was in abeyance pending judgment in the lawsuit that was apt to end with all his assets being garnisheed. If he wanted service to be renewed he must furnish proof that the verdict had gone in his favor.

Lawsuit? What lawsuit? Surely you can’t take someone to court in this state for wishing a curse on you?

Then the answer dawned on him, and he almost laughed. Fluckner had resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the store and turned loose in the continental net a self-perpetuating tapeworm, probably headed by a denunciation group “borrowed” from a major corporation, which would shunt itself from one nexus to another every time his credit-code was punched into a keyboard. It could take days to kill a worm like that, and sometimes weeks.

Unless the victim possessed a means to override the original command. This one did. Any 4GH code-holder—His embryo laughter died. What if, since he last exploited its potential, the validity of a 4GH had been downgraded or even deeveed?

There was only one way to find out. Dutiful, the machinery was waiting for him to furnish the asked-for evidence. He punched his full code into the phone, added the standard group for “input error due to malicious malpractice,” and tailed it with an order to give the reference number of the lawsuit he had allegedly been cited in.

The normal dial tone sounded within seconds.

He had been holding his breath, unaware, and let it go with a gasp that sounded terribly loud in the unfamiliar silence. (How many separate soft hums had ended? Computer, water cooler, water heater, air conditioner, alarm monitor… et cetera. It was not customary to recall offhand how many powered devices one owned; therefore he didn’t.)

Promptly he sent a retaliatory worm chasing Fluckner’s. That should take care of the immediate problem in three to thirty minutes, depending on whether or not he beat the inevitable Monday morning circuit overload. He was fairly sure he wouldn’t. According to recent report, there were so many worms and counterworms loose in the data-net now, the machines had been instructed to give them low priority unless they related to a medical emergency.

Well, he’d know as soon as the lights came on.

Now it was time for Reverend Lazarus to commit suicide. Fortified by a glass of lukewarm mock orange juice, sickly-sweet but not actively harmful to his metabolism—he was careful about the brands he patronized—he pondered the details of his next incarnation.

Thirty minutes and the power returned. Sixty, and the dome was inflated. Ninety, and he started on his rebirth.

It was always a bad experience, this computerized parturition. Today, because he had not intended to give up the Lazarus role yet and in consequence had not properly prepared his mind, it was the worst ever. His skin crawled, his heart hammered, sweat made his palms slippery, and his buttocks—bare, since he had not wasted time on getting dressed—itched all over the area in contact with his chair.

Even having found out that his code remained valid, he had to break off twice while priming the Fedcomps with his new lies. His fingers were trembling so badly, he was afraid of mis-hitting the phone buttons, and regular phones like this weren’t equipped with a “display-last-five” facility.

But eventually he punched the final group to activate the phage that would eliminate all trace of Lazarus, the super-tapeworm compared to which Fluckner’s was negligible, and he was able to stretch and scratch and do all the other things he had to forgo in order not to interrupt the invention of his new self.

No one below congressional level was entitled to call for a printout of the data stored behind a 4GH. It must have been devised for people with official permission to live other lives than their own. More than once he had been tempted to try to discover just what sort of person his code in theory made him—an FBI operative on undercover assignment, a counter-espionage agent, a White House special representative mopping up the mess his boss had left… But he had never actually been so foolish. He was like a rat, skulking in the walls of modern society. The moment he showed his nose, the exterminators would be sent for.

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