The Switch in Sector 13

Just about everyone knows the first rule of interplanetary space driving on the BlueWay: when you own a five wheeled motorcycle you don’t need to worry about stoplights.  Especially if you tote a triple barreled MaxiGun around on the back of your cycle.  Then, the stoplights worry about you.

Common sense observation though that might be to most people, yet common sense is not – never has been, never will be – nearly as common as it should.  I ask you: does it make any sense that my neighbor, Tony Hartley, who rides a bicycle – yes, literally a bicycle, a relic of the twenty-first century, barely glossed over with the veneer of a space-capacity G resistant cockpit bubble and a hypersonic pedal intensifier – does it make any sense that he should feel himself entitled to pedal on down across the intersection and cause me to come to a screeching halt?  Red light or no red light, that is carrying matters too far!  Fair exchange and no robbery, he says, and I can’t deny that he got me out of a pretty tight predicament, so maybe he has a right.  But stopping at the stoplights is going to annoy me a lot longer, I can tell you!

Okay.  Felt good to get that out of my system.  Now I can tell my story properly… or maybe I should say, Tony Hartley’s story.

Tony Hartley is – like his bike – a relic.  He collects “antiques” – that’s what he calls them.  He has a collection of nearly a hundred of those flat rectangles called “smartphones” – you know, the ancient kind that belong to the race of the dinosaurs – those things that connected to the “internet,” an information sharing service whose methods are so outdated now that our Historical Technology professor told us it would be the modern equivalent of trying to walk on the BlueWay from earth to the moon.

But the pride of his collection is a piece of technology that is flatly antediluvian in origin – if not older.  He calls it a “Commodore 64.”  It’s a hulk: three pieces, if you want to do anything with it: a monitor, a keyboard, and a “floppy disk” drive.

If you’ve taken Historical Technology, then you know that a monitor is the old fashioned way of projecting an image using a screen.  But the Commodore 64 doesn’t just have any monitor: it has a foot long, heavy box of a monitor and a screen that couldn’t be over 12×12 inches.  Can you even fathom trying to do anything on a screen that small?  I mean, I’ve always felt sorry for the last generation, who had to find a flat wall big enough to project onto and couldn’t get their hands on the new holographic technology – but imagine actually being irretrievably confined to a screen that’s a foot square!

Tony says there may have been larger monitors, he just happens to have a foot one.  I don’t know, but I do feel sorry for those poor antediluvians – or were they from the twentieth century?  I’m really not sure.

Then there’s the keyboard.  Tony says it’s really a computer, but it looks like a keyboard – sort of – and so that’s what I’m gonna call it.  ‘Course everyone knows what a keyboard is, though we’ve probably all wondered why it’s called a keyboard when it’s not a board at all, really, just a holographic set of buttons.  But this keyboard… well, it takes the word to a whole new level.  It’s solid plastic, inches thick, pounds heavy, with wire ports everywhere.  Another interjection here for my younger readers: wires were thin string-like things that carried information or electricity from one device to another.

Lastly, there’s the floppy disk drive, and honestly I’m not even gonna try to describe that one for you.  Just imagine a box with a slot in it where you could stick a square plastic pancake, and you’ve got it.  The whole thing holds about as much information as you could fit on the head of a pin nowadays… maybe less.

Well, I could go on about how outdated the contraption is… but that would be ungenerous of me, because after all, it did save Sector 5X-13, and incidentally my job, though I doubt anyone will ever believe it.

Last week, as all Mercurians know, the hyper-electric was switched to a new code for the entire planet, one Hexa-Section at a time.  Most sectors defaulted to 110 Electricity for a few hours (which reduces function to lighting, a few basic appliances, and the backup air and water systems), then were seamlessly incorporated into the new connection.  MercurOne had issued a code pack to each Hexa-Section, and 5X got its code pack and divided it up among Sectors as the protocol demanded.  I work for MercurConnected as a Technical Electrician, so I was responsible for dealing out the code to the Sectors.

Honestly, I’m not sure what happened.  Maybe I spilled coffee or maybe there’s a serial hacker on the loose.  Anyhow, the code got scrambled as it sent.  I panicked.  It would be a race against time to unscramble and send the right code to the Sectors before the default to 110.   Once my own Sector defaulted to 110, I wouldn’t have the technical capacity to unscramble the code.  Even the Sector BlueWays are shut down, and recharging any vehicle is out of the question.  Of course, a Sector can send SOS messages on 110, and there are emergency exits available as a last resort, but I sure didn’t want to get to that point!

It took all of 55 minutes to figure out how to decode the scramble.  I could see the countdown to 110 that was being publicized throughout the Sector.  Five minutes.  My hands were wet with sweat but I felt cold all over.  Five minutes was not likely to be enough to run the decoder and send out the new codes.  Technology is fast, but I’m not so fast.  And it was essential that I double check every digit.  Why, oh why, does MercurOne have to use 18-digit codes?

Four minutes left: six Sectors to go.

Three minutes: four Sectors.

Two minutes, and I hit a snag.  Three Sectors left.

One minute left, two sectors to go.

For a terrible second I really was afraid I would pass out.  One Sector left.  I didn’t dare to look at the clock.  I just dug my fingernails into the desk and prayed as the decoder worked.  I couldn’t breathe.

Then the buzz sounded.  It was the signal for the switch to 110.

The computer died in front of me.  I had missed one Sector… and of all Sectors, Sector 5X-13.

I groaned, feeling helpless.

I can’t say that I know what most people do when they feel helpless, but I usually eat a donut.  Nothing ever seems quite so desperate after a good donut, so I headed down to the cafeteria.  And who would I meet there but Tony Hartley?

“What’s the problem, bro?” he asked, cheerfully.  Tony Hartley is always cheerful whenever I’m feeling glum.  I don’t know how he does it.

“Sector Code is scrambled,” I muttered through donut bites.  “We’ll be stuck on 110 and have to evacuate until MercurOne gets notified and issues a new code.”

Tony is a Technical Electrician too, so he knew what I was talking about.  “You serious, bro?  Man, that’s bad!”

Tony’s expressions get on my nerves.  Bro is so last century.

“Any other codes scrambled, or just ours?”

“They were all scrambled, but I decoded most of them and sent them off.  I just ran out of time on the last one.”

“You decoded them?” Tony asked meditatively.  “Well, knowing you, the formula is all digital… you don’t chance to have a hard copy, do you?”

“Well, yeah, actually.  I copied it down because I had to transfer from the UnHack app to MercurConnected…”

“You wrote it down?  Perfect!  As long as you’ve got the scrambled code on you, I’m sure we can figure it out!”

I laughed at him.  Tony is a bit of a geek and a math-whiz, but I didn’t think there was any way he could decode 18-digits using my complicated formula.

I laughed even harder when he brought out his prize Commodore.  “Does that dino even work, bro?” I asked sarcastically.

“Oh, it’ll work.  The question is… well, bro, you’ve got yourself in kind of a deep hole here, you know what I mean?  Scrambling the code… I’m not blaming you, of course, but your bosses might – know what I mean?”

I growled.  “Rub it in!”

“I’m just trying to point out that my assistance could be very valuable.”

“Don’t beat around the bush.  What d’you want for it?”

“Well, if you’d just promise to always stop at the red lights from now on…”

“Are you kidding?”

“You don’t have to take the offer…”

“Okay, okay… but only if it works.  And I keep my job.”

“Deal!”

Tony and I huffed and puffed and finally got the sauropod out of its shell, plugged it all in, and then sat back and waited for it to “boot up.”  I made caustic references to ancient mechanical contrivances the whole time.  But Tony went calmly on the even tenor of his way, and after he had typed in the whole code he turned to me and said coolly, “You may as well go home, because the Commodore probably won’t have it figured out until tomorrow.”

“You do realize that’s something any modern system could do in, oh, about thirty seconds?”

“But, as it happens, there’s no modern system to do it at all, is there?”

As that was unanswerable, I went home.

I did sleep in, but it must not have taken all night anyways, because by the time I woke up we were on the new hyper-electric and I had to stop at all five stoplights on my way to work.

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