The Mind Like A Strange Balloon

Tom Maddox
The Mind Like A Strange Balloon
by Tom Maddox

This story originally appeared in Omni, June 1985.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Me, too, I guess I tried to fill it in my usual
ways. Drank too much beer, cooked elaborate Mexican dinners, walked
aimlessly in the dripping woods under slate-gray Oregon skies.
And of course, I watched television: old movies seen in worn prints,
music videos with strutting rock stars, baseball games inching to
conclusion across bright-green fields Ghost images, ghost voices pulled
by my dish antenna from the satellite-thick sky. The void remained: I
had a talent growing slack from disuse; I had an empty space in my
The image in my living room was real enough, though Toshi Ito had
come calling to offer me a job. "How are you, Jerry?" he said. He
shook the water off his raincoat and draped it over a chair, then looked
around at the pine veneer on the walls, green plastic sofa, mismatched
chairs. "You like it here?"
"It's all right, Toshi." Not quite a lie Though in Palo Alto I'd had the
usual company-sponsored condo, it hadn't felt like mine. Not just the
apartment, the work I'd done and life I'd lived--none of it had seemed to
belong to me. Tawdry as it was, this place did.
"You making any money?"
"Some... enough. " That was true. A few high-priced consultations with
Control Data, a week spent lecturing for the International
Telecommunica tions Union in Zurich-- I'd done all right financially.

With the money I'd saved while at SenTrax, I had more than enough.
"Cheryl says hello," he said "MIT made her a nice offer, so it looks like
Stanford has to give her tenure or lose her."
"Next time you see her, give her my congratulations"
"Don't you miss her?"
"Of course I do, but so what?
"I couldn't drag her off to live in the woods. She's got things to do.
Anyway, that's over, Toshi. How can I help you?"
"We've got problems with an Aleph-Nought IA." he said. Intelligent
Assistants are just computers in the fast lane, but they have such sweet
moves--so responsive to human touch they don't seem to be computers
at all.
There were only two Aleph Noughts in existence, and one was buried
deep beneath the National Security Agency complex in Fort Meade,
Maryland, sucking up the daily gigabytes of intelligence and decidedly
off-limits to me.The other was working for ICOG, the International
Construction Orbital Group, managing construction of a solar-energy
grid. It hung in geostationary orbit several hundred kilometers above
the equator, at Athena Station.
ICOG's system had to be the one he was talking about because I had
blown my chance to work with the government. When SenTrax
delivered the first Aleph system to NSA, I was one of those chosen to
spend a few months at Fort Meade helping install, configure, and
troubleshoot their new toy, but NSA hadn't liked my background,
particularly my left-wing connections from graduate school at Berkeley.
So the agency had wanted to give me the full security treatment--six
months of interview and investigation. I told them to forget it. When
SenTrax insisted, I told them the same thing.
Cheryl said I was looking for a confrontation, a way out; maybe I was.

At any rate, Toshi had been my section head, and he carried the
message up the corporate ladder. He fought hard for my right to say no,
but the most he accomplished was preserving what you might call my
good name. I could still use SenTrax as a reference, and I wasn't on
anyone's blacklist, as far as I could tell.
"So ICOG's got problems with the Aleph system. What are they?"
"At most times, nothing. At others, it's slow, muddled." His dark hair
gleamed in the lamplight, and he was pale beneath his light-yellow
"We can't have it, Jerry. It's not even carrying a full load yet, and it has
the IA team running around like mad hens. No apparent
reason--diagnostics programs nominal across the board."
"So you want me to see what I can find. Is Alice Vance still running the
"Yes. She concurs that we should bring you in. You helped design it,
"So I did. How does SenTrax feel about involving me?"
"They were not eager, but they now agree."
There was a story there, I was sure. Moment of haragei between us,
visceral communication the Japanese prefer to mere words. I could
picture him quietly, unaggressively but persistently pushing until they
"I can't promise much, Toshi, but I'll give it a try. What does one pack
for high orbit?"
"As little as possible, Jerry. Travel light."
Athena Station spun gracefully amid a mad clutter of wire and frame.
The nest of concentric rings
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