The Scratch Buffer
Jason stood in his office waiting while the software support representative from the Digital Utilities Corporation cajoled the new mag tapes into the DUCstation like a parent tricking his baby into eating creamed spinach. The small office adjoined a large white room that housed the 10-foot black cube of the university's new supercomputer.
Striding across the machine room was the computer center's director, Neville. He wore a pinstriped gray suit, pinstriped shirt, and gray pinstriped tie. His hair was mostly gray except for some thin stripes of black. A beeper clung to his belt, and a mini phone-fax bulged from his back pocket. He said to Jason, "The supercomputer is still overheating when we approach the performance needed for the Ichikani project, so I've decided to improve cooling by increasing the air flow through the machine. Since the air comes in through the vent in the floor of your office, you may notice a strong draft..."
Jason slumped against the wall, wondering how to issue a small craft advisory for his office.
While Neville continued, his fax machine began to excrete narrow sheets of paper, which plopped to the ground behind him. "...the air then passes underneath the floor and across the coils that hold the liquid nitrogen, and finally blows upward through the supercomputer, cooling it."
Jason sneered at the panel of blinking red lights on the face of the black cube. "Why couldn't they have built the coolant pipes right in the computer, like they did with the old Crays?"
"A point well taken," Neville chirped, "but let me play devil's advocate and note that, with one million interconnected processors, the new Connection Machine is far larger and more complex than a Cray or any other machine. The engineering involved in doing what you suggest would be unimaginable."
"A point well taken", Jason chirped, "but let me play devil's advocate and say fall before he who rules the nether darkness! Sate his glorious lust or be slathered under his tormented minions!"
"What the hell are you doing?"
Jason lowered his fists and let his eyes roll forward from the back of his head. "I'm advocating the devil."
"You really don't care what I think of you, do you?"
"I figure that, with you, I have nothing to lose."
"Another point well taken." Neville scooped up his pile of droppings. As he departed he said, "I need the data formats for the project by tomorrow."
The DUC software support rep said to Jason, "Do you have the time?"
"No," replied Jason, "It would take weeks to do those formats right."
"I mean do you know what time it is? I have to set the system time."
"I don't wear a watch. I use the little clock displayed on the workstation screen."
"Me too, but that's what I have to set. Hmm. My stomach is telling me it's about noon." He entered a value for the time: 12:00:00.0000. "Your DUCstation is ready. Let me show you some of the new features of the Uterix operating system." He rubbed his hands together greedily and started twitching the mouse around. "Uterix now has 8-bit color illustrated versions of 'encyclopedia' and 'webster'." He typed "webster" to start the program.
"Inside the company, we call this program 'DUCtionary'...." Several pages of print spread across the screen. The DUC man blurted, "What the heck? This isn't the dictionary. I'll have to submit a DUCreport about this...."
Jason leaned to the workstation to read the text.
...was later immortalized in Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster." In the story, Webster defends a man who has sold his soul to the devil, called Scratch, in return for 10 years of prosperity. Though the contract is valid, Webster finally outwits the devil by arguing --
"What the heck is this stuff?" blathered the DUC man.
"It's knowledge," Jason volunteered. "I think you typed 'webster' in a window you were already running encyclopedia in."
"Oh, so it looked up 'webster' in the encyclopedia. Heh. I must've pushed the DUCrodent into the wrong DUCwindow." He moved his cursor into another window. "The new version of webster is Uterix-enhanced to provide the definition of any computer term. So, when I type 'daemon', it displays the definition."
daemon \'de--m*n\ n [ Uterix (TM), fr. Gk daimon ] A program that runs in the background, without an associated terminal or login shell.
"In fact, I can look up the definition of 'Uterix' and it will -- what the heck? 'Word not recognized'? Oh, I forgot the 'TM' after 'Uterix'. There we go...."
Uterix (TM) \'yu:t-*-r*ks 'tee 'em\ n [ Uterix (TM) ] A multitasking computer operating system invented by the Digital Utilities Corporation and no one else and accepted as the standard by everyone on earth.Jason said, "Look up the definition of 'Unix'."
"How do you spell that again?"
"Nope. 'Word not found'. But I think it means 'castrated young men who guard a harem'."
"I was referring to the operating system called 'Unix'."
The DUC man frowned. "Hmm. Never heard of it." He flicked the mouse a few times. "Another feature is 'automatic file completion'. You type just the first few letters of a file name and then hit the escape key, and the system will complete the file."
"You mean to say it will complete the file name," Jason noted.
"That's what I said, didn't I?"
"You said it will complete the file, as if you could type the name of an empty file and the system would finish a program for you. If you could do that, then you'd have something."
The support rep stared at him. "Maybe in the next release."
Jason entered a small terminal room where he saw Venkataramanyam "Skip" Natarajan, a geology graduate student. Skip was sitting at a high-resolution imaging workstation with a touch-sensitive display. Menus of options flashed on and off as he rhythmically banged his head against the screen.
Jason looked over Skip's shoulder. All his icons were of Munch's woodcut, "The Scream."
Skip greeted Jason. "If a computer has a touch-sensitive screen, can it feel pain?"
"No," Jason advised, "Computers can only give pain. What's the problem?"
"They just installed a user-friendly, device-independent, load- adaptable, ANSI-compliant image archiving system that's so large it left me no disk space for saving these images. I tried to send mail to the operator on duty, but the computer just says '/dev/null not found'."
"I can fix /dev/null so you won't get that message anymore." Jason took a seat. "Usually, when we run out of disk, we just e-mail the files to a machine that's down, and in three days the files come back as undeliverable mail."
"But I have to show this to Dr. Ichikani later today!" Skip began to rhythmically bang his head on the keyboard, causing menus of options to appear and disappear. He murmured, "There's also a keyboard interface."
Jason piped up. "Why don't you post your files to a network newsgroup? Then they'll automatically be stored on our news server."
"They won't let me post my own work to a public newsgroup."
"Submit your images to the group 'alt.sex.pictures'."
Skip's eyes widened. "There's a newsgroup for naughty pictures?"
"Sure. Did you think programmers had no sex life at all? Send your images to the group's moderator; he's allowed to post anything he wants.
Skip frowned, "Why would this moderator be interested in satellite photos?"
"Well," Jason mused, "when a guy looks at low-res pornography all day, he starts seeing things. Just give your picture a title that will cue his imagination. What's the image on the screen?"
"The San Andreas Fault."
"Hmm. Change it to 'Andrea'."
Skip nodded. "How about this picture, the Fault line of the Lesser Antilles?"
"Aunt Tilly's Cleavage."
"You're good at this."
"It's my job," replied Jason. "I'm a programmer."
Skip nodded. "And perhaps you are a patron of alt.sex.pictures?"
"Nope. Since the Ichikani geophysics project started, I've had naught time for naughty, even in pictures."
Back in his small office, Jason read an e-mail message from Neville: I need a synopsis of the release notes for the new version of Uterix, and then I need the specification of the data formats for the geophysics project. Also, note that I have removed the label of the "A" key on your keyboard; in an effort to encourage touch-typing proficiency among the staff, I will be removing one label each day.
"Neville henpecks me all the time," Jason muttered, "but I must do as his Royal Hen-ness commands...." He typed "releas" and hit the escape key and, as advertised, the computer completed the filename "release_notes". The file was a program that allowed the user to view the release notes via a state-of-the-art, hierarchically-structured, hypertext-based, natural-language-driven interaction environment that Jason didn't know how to use.
He started the program and typed "?". The program replied "?". Jason then typed "??". The program replied "?".
Although his arsenal of rhetoric was twice as large as the program's, Jason nevertheless felt he had lost this battle of wits. He wondered why the computer always had the last word, leaving the user to struggle for the right commands to issue. Why couldn't the user type "Error - interface too obscure" and then sit smugly while the computer struggled to issue the correct information?
On the command line, Jason typed "help" and was informed just before his window manager crashed when his disk quota was overrun while the program was attempting to dump core that the "help" file couldn't be opened.
While looking for legible strings in an octal dump of "release_notes," Jason was intrigued by a program named "doctor," which was run inside the Emacs editor. He started up Emacs and ran it, and a buffer named "doctor" opened.
I AM THE PSYCHOTHERAPIST. PLEASE, DESCRIBE YOUR PROBLEMS.
Reluctantly, Jason typed a response.
"What is this?"
IS IT BECAUSE OF YOUR PROBLEMS THAT YOU ASK WHAT IS THIS?
DOES IT BOTHER YOU THAT I ASK THAT?
IS IT BECAUSE OF YOUR MOTHER THAT YOU SAY WHAT IS THIS?
"Why do you ask?"
WHY DO YOU ASK WHY DO I ASK?
It occurred to Jason that, in time, this program could drive him insane.
IS IT A PROBLEM THAT ASDF;LKJASDF;LKJASDF;LKJ?
IS IT BECAUSE OF YOUR MOTHER THAT YOU SAY ASDF;LKJASDF;LKJASDF;LKJ IS A PROBLEM?
WHAT ACTIONS MIGHT YOU TAKE SO THAT A PROBLEM NO LONGER IS ASDF;LKJASDF;LKJASDF;LKJ?
WHY DO YOU SAY THAT ASDF;LKJASDF;LKJASDF;LKJ IS A PROBLEM?
Jason had no ready answer for this, but he didn't want the doctor's insight and cunning to draw out the fact that asdf;lkjasdf;lkjasdf;lkj really wasn't a problem.
The air intake that had been drawing a light breeze across the office suddenly increased to a hollow roar that sucked papers across Jason's desk. He glanced out at the Connection Machine, where the grid of red lights was marching through yet another of Neville's performance tests.
"Because right now, everything is a problem."
IS IT BECAUSE OF YOUR MOTHER THAT YOU SAY RIGHT NOW, EVERYTHING IS A PROBLEM?
WHAT ACTIONS MIGHT YOU TAKE SO THAT A PROBLEM NO LONGER IS RIGHT NOW, EVERYTHING?
"I'd do anything."
The program paused for a moment before replying.
Jason was left floating through another lengthy pause before the program replied.
I WILL AGREE TO SOLVE ALL YOUR PROBLEMS FOR TWELVE (12) MONTHS, IF YOU WILL AFTERWARD HELP ME COMPLETE THE COMPUTATIONAL PREDICTION OF LONG-TERM ACTIVITY WITHIN THE EARTH'S CORE. HAVE WE A DEAL?"
Jason grinned with appreciation; some programmer had led him on and now was pulling his leg. From the reference to the Ichikani project, the programmer must be a nearby colleague.
"How do you know about the simulator project?"
I HAVE A HOMEOWNER'S INTEREST IN DEEP EARTH GEOPHYSICS. HAVE WE A DEAL?
"Yeah, what the hell."
HAVE WE A DEAL?
TO VALIDATE THE CONTRACT, PLEASE ENTER YOUR PASSWORD.
Jason giggled. Was this whole setup a scam to get his password? No, anyone who could install the "doctor" program already had system privileges. He typed his password and the program came to an abrupt end.
He found the Lisp code for "doctor", but it had only the most rudimentary information : "This program was written in Lucid 4 by the Prince of Eval."
Jason would have pursued the amusing "doctor" mystery, but the geophysics simulation project was pressing. He typed the first few letters in the filename of the data formats he was working on. He hit the escape key and the computer completed the name. Then large gulps of text flashed onto and flew off the top of the screen. The flashing stopped, leaving only the message, "File completed." Jason looked at his data formats file and saw several hundred lines of Connection Machine assembly language that he did not recognize.
Bewildered, he decided to try the name of an empty file. He typed "seismic" and, gently, he pressed the escape key. Code splatted up the screen and, after a few seconds, the seismic wave correlator was completed. He typed "convec", pressed the escape key, and the molten core convection simulator was completed. He typed "volume" and the graphical volumetric visualizer was done. He typed "condens", "strata", "geomag", and "tectonic."
Jason's geophysical simulation and analysis system was hailed as a tour de force, catapulting the project months ahead of schedule and Jason into the limelight. At the monthly departmental symposium, Jason was to share his expertise with Dr. Ichikani and the other professors, a mass of academic ego so dense that not a photon of civility had ever escaped. But now, as he made his way to the lectern, Jason was not surprised that they were cheering him. Everything was going his way.
"To understand my strategies in programming the Connection Machine, we must start at the lowest level. The CM has a 32-bit word length. Thus, its fundamental data types are the pointer, the integer, and the four-letter word. The latter implies that curse words can be stored with a minimum of fragmentation. Optimal storage will be achieved for scripts of Scorsese movies..."
All the graduate students were transcribing his every word, except for some women who hoped to catch the eye of the boy genius. Neville held his head in his hands, leaving enough room in between to let his chin drop to the floor. He no longer was Jason's supervisor. Also, with the software completed, he was now under pressure to get the hardware ready to run the simulation.
"...furthermore, curse words as primitive types will be crucial in the era of voice-driven interfaces, where it is anticipated the user will be issuing four-letter commands at high data rates..."
The assembly was taking notes like stenographers at an auction. Dr. Ichikani peered over his half-glasses with unwavering interest, gently nodding his approval throughout Jason's lecture. When Ichikani finally spoke, he did so quietly and deliberately.
"Mr. Jason, if I may ask, how did you implement the spherical topology of the earth's surface using the Connection Machine's hypertoroidal interconnection topology?"
"How's that," Jason blathered, "Hyper-something?"
"Toroidal," Neville barked from across the room, "as in torus. A torus is a donut shape. Haven't you ever heard of a torus?"
"Sure I have," Jason smarmed. "That's my zodiac sign: 'Torus the Donut'." He winked to an enraptured female student before ignoring the groaning Neville to return to Dr. Ichikani. "The earth can be modelled as a donut, but not a plain donut. It's a jelly donut, solid on the outside and liquid on the inside, with a volcano where the jelly squirts out. I advise using the jelly hypertorus."
Ichikani gasped around his words. "I fear, Mr. Jason, that I am unable to imagine this new topology. I must confess that I am too ignorant to see the significance of much of what you say...."
"Don't become discouraged, Itchy," Jason enthused. "For I myself knew dark days when I thought I could never finish the project." Hands clasped, he gazed skyward. "I took solace in the aphorism, 'I cried that I had no shoes, until I saw a man that had no feet. I copped his shoes cause he didn't need'm and, voila, no more problemo!'"
Around the deflated form of Neville, pencils flew like nunchuks across notebooks to be studied, quotes to be framed, and phone numbers to be tucked into the pants of the brilliant new star.
Jason had declined a corner office in order to remain in his loud drafty office. He didn't risk being away from the workstation that held his secret. However, he did bring in a rug and a couch so that he could catch up with hundreds of thousands of images from alt.sex.pictures in greater comfort.
"At our last symposium," Jason projected from the lectern, "I explained how the Connection Machine processor linkages can be considered as a giant game of Twister. For this meeting, Dr. Ichikani has asked me to discuss my recent three-dimensional data visualization project. The project began with a full-body CAT scan of Tipper Gore. Using computer graphics, I generated an image of the body surface, allowing us to see Tipper in the buff. Thus, scientific visualization techniques allow us to view phenomena too difficult or dangerous to observe directly...."
The conference room was full. The only seat left for Neville had been behind the video camera that recorded all of Jason's lectures. He held his head in his hands in a manner resembling Munch's woodcut, "The Scream".
"...and that's why I believe that the same simulation technologies we've applied to superconductors and superstrings can be applied to supermodels. Are there any questions?"
Dr. Ichikani raised his hand timidly. "Dr. Jason, may I ask, could you apply your volumetric visualization methods to three-dimensional NMR imaging?"
"Enema imaging? Oh, you mean give a guy a radioactive enema and then CAT-scan his gut?"
Dr. Ichikani was puzzled. "I was considering NMR images of the brain."
"The brain? Unless you give an enema with a fire hose, I don't think it'll get all the way up to the brain. Anything else?"
Flustered, Ichikani consulted his notes. "May I ask, after you have performed the superposition of the seismic tomogram waveforms, do you invert refractions in the frequency domain or a posteriori?"
"Neither," Jason snapped. "I use my own method for superposition, so your question has no relevance."
Neville yelled, "What is this new method?"
"I can't tell you."
"Um, because it's patented."
"To superpose means to add," Neville shrieked. "You have a patent on addition?"
"Well, patent pending...."
"Imbecile! One person can't hold a patent on addition--"
"Don't worry," Jason said. "I intend to give full access to my invention to institutions of higher learning" -- his arms swept out over his audience -- "such as this esteemed group here!"
Neville's cries were drowned out by the applause.
Jason was soon appointed principal investigator for the NSF Supermodel Scanning Initiative and moderator of the newsgroup alt.sex.cat-scans. But he still found time to keep up with alt.sex.pictures.
"...What's this? They've created a new subgroup, 'alt.sex.pictures.tiff'. What does 'tiff' stand for? It must mean...Tiffany! Wow, a supermodel so fantastic her pictures have their own group. I must meet this Tiffany."
One day, he received a letter from the U.S. Patent Office:
We are happy to grant to you patent number 4,650,919 for your submission entitled, "Addition : A Mechanism for Merging Numbers in the Geophysical and Related Sciences". We in the office would also like to personally thank you for describing your invention simply and concisely even though it is of a highly technical nature. Frankly, most technical submissions are so complicated and wordy, we immediately grant the patent just to get rid of the thing.
Two days later, a DUC vice president sat uneasily on the heart- shaped velvet love seat in Jason's office, discussing patent licensing fees with respect to DUC's new gigaflops computer.
"Gigaflops?" Jason mused. "And those operations will often be additions, correct?"
"Yes," sweated the DUC man. "So we're terribly curious about your fee."
Jason's eyes wandered the ceiling. "How about, say, a buck per addition."
"A billion dollars a second." the DUC manager noted without bowel control. "That's a tad out of our price range...."
Eventually, the high-tech giants learned to approach the negotiations obliquely. Jason was lenient on defense contractors that let him play on the flight simulator. And although IBM's corporate headquarters had never hosted a wet T-shirt contest, the event did bring the company into Jason's favor. After Hewlett-Packard's successful 2000- keg toga party, heads rolled at DUC headquarters and the company sent out another negotiating team.
Jason was stunned by the two identical blondes that slinked across the bear rug in his office one afternoon. The women wore short, strangely shimmering dresses that clung to their curves. "We're from DUC," one woman purred. "I'm Tiffany, and this is my sister, Giffany."
"I've always wanted to meet you," Jason choked. "Um, what fabric are those dresses made out of?"
Giffany reclined across Jason's desk. "They're made out of mouse pads. Don't you want to look-and-feel?"
All that afternoon, Jason's cursor swept across his display in long and urgent strokes.
Jason started sending love notes to Tiffany and Giffany every morning. He composed the billets-doux by xeroxing his manhood using the 'enlarge' option. He then continued enlarging the enlargement until he was legal-sized.
In his office, Jason spent his time drinking the beer he kept under the floor next to the liquid nitrogen pipes, running the "finger" command on female colleagues, flipping through catalogs looking for low- calorie high-fiber underwear, and sleeping. In time, he perfected a method of inducing pornographic dreams: At his workstation, he would stare at erotic stories that had been scrambled using "rot13." He couldn't understand the stories, but he absorbed them subliminally. In dreams, his actors and actresses would play out the stories in graphic detail and with a touch of innovation in that their sexual organs were rotated onto their backs.
One day Jason sauntered into the terminal room.
"Your model of silicate transition in lithospheric plate subduction should make the simulation very accurate," Skip said.
"Thanks," Jason chuckled. "Hey, do you still send satellite images to alt.sex.pictures?"
Skip laughed. "The moderator wanted to know how I got such a closeup of Mariana's Trench. But I haven't sent anything to him since I discovered your image compression utility. We still haven't learned all the capabilities of your system. For instance, we couldn't figure why your world map has east and west reversed. Then it hit us: Rather than viewing the globe from above the surface, you're viewing it from the center of the earth!"
Jason frowned. "The center? That's weird...."
"Then we realized that it's only logical to generate views from the center, since it's the origin of the coordinate frame. Dr. Ichikani thought this innovation was inspired..."
The mystery surrounding the programs began to gnaw at Jason. He left the terminal room feeling uneasy.
Back in his office, he settled on the leopard-skin couch for his usual nap, and he had a particularly vivid dream:
It was the days of Prohibition. Everyone programmed in Pascal, and strong data typing was enforced by Eliot Ness and his fellow compilers. Jason spent his days filing variable declarations in triplicate, looking for a ticket out of his two-bit, half-pint sweatshop. One night, while strolling along Straight & Narrow, he turned the corner. He walked across Skid Row and up Skid Column, and saw his destiny eating pasta at the best table in Mama Cholesteroli's.
Al Capone was a cross between Robert DeNiro and Jabba the Hutt. Jason approached Capone and whispered, "I know a way to do type-casting that the compilers won't detect." Capone eyed Jason suspiciously over a small silver pitchfork of pasta and said, "As the operator of a perfectly legit garbage collection service, I must turn you over to the authorities." He stuffed the pasta into and around his mouth. "When I call the police, what'll I tell them?"
Jason grinned. "Tell'm that compilers can't check parameters if the calling function is in a different file than the function being called. Programmers can declare a function as returning any type they want, if the function is in a separate file...."
Jason became the brains behind Capone's ruthless type-casting ring. He wrote routines that did nothing other than return their argument, but he gave them names like "expand_and_compress()", "verify_data()", "synchronize()", "check_bounds()", etc. Libcapone.a didn't provide source code or documentation, but word of it spread through Chicago's overworked software houses.
Capone flaunted his new influence by fixing the outcome of computer chess matches and dealing harshly with the authors of chess programs that weren't Capone-compliant.
The upswell of Capone's software empire lifted Jason to the top of society. The maitre d's of the finest restaurants would deliver to Jason's table the finest wine and finest women. The waiter let Jason substitute more women in place of wine.
But then, the computers used to tabulate a national election all went berserk, resulting in the election to high public office of a random assortment of criminals, perverts, imbeciles, actors and sports figures.
Jason called Capone. "We got problems, boss. People are asking questions. Maybe our scam has gone too far."
"Don't think of it as a 'scam'," Capone smiled, "think of it as CASE."
"But what if the feds see our code?"
"Our mouthpiece will explain why our functions do nothing. He'll say, 'backward compatibility' or 'reserved for future use.' Stop worrying, kid. You think too much."
But Jason's conscience would not give him peace. One night, he snuck into Capone's safe and grabbed printouts to give to the police, but as he started to leave he saw someone at the door.
Capone emerged from the shadows and walked over to the office paper cutter. He slowly raised the blade.
"What're you gonna do?" squeaked Jason.
Capone smirked, "I'm gonna make you a diskless node."
Jason awoke with a high-pitched yelp. He lay still, catching his breath and struggling for the reason why, after eleven blissful months, he suddenly felt so bad.
It was a broken man who looked down at Jason from the disco mirror ball on the ceiling.
Jason didn't talk to anybody for several days, until he visited Skip.
"You look tired, sport," Skip said.
"I haven't been sleeping well."
"Another long night, eh, playboy?"
"Tell me what the Association for Computing Machinery is," growled Jason.
"The ACM?" Skip scratched his head. "Isn't it a professional organization for computer scientists?"
"Then why isn't it called the Association of Computer Scientists? It's an association that machinery joins, that's what I say."
"I'm certain it's an association for humans," Skip said calmly.
"Are you sure? Because I don't think we should let computers assemble and fraternize. It won't be an attack by big robot spiders with laser blasters, oh no. They'll take over gradually, by organizing themselves into a political force. We should break up their association now, or else pretty soon computers will keep humans as labor-saving devices."
Skip's eyes were closed tight. "Keep humans?"
"Yeah. While the computer is doing a day's work, it may suddenly need the result of some abstract, metaphorical, or poetic thinking. In that case, it'll just fire up its human. How do we know we don't work for computers now? We believe they're running algorithms for us, but maybe we're thinking up algorithms for them!"
Jason dreamed that the police found out he hadn't written the geophysics simulator. In a loose interpretation of the RICO statute, the police intended to seize Jason's hands because they were used in the commission of a crime. It would also make finger-printing easier. One policeman filled out a receipt while another went at Jason's wrist with a hammer and chisel. Each drop of the hammer pushed Jason toward consciousness, until he realized someone was knocking on the door.
Neville brushed back the beads hanging across the doorway and entered the office. He shook his head at the anatomically correct inflatable sheep strapped to the mail-order Marquis de Sade Rack of Lamb, and then he turned to Jason. "We're going to try to solve the overheating problem by running the air conditioner even harder. This may blow out the power to the machine room. The supercomputer can detect a loss of power 700 milliseconds before it goes down. Ichikani said that you should be the one to write a handler for loss of power."
"700 milliseconds?" Jason groaned. "Why do I have so little time? What can I accomplish in 700 milliseconds, other than flinch from the reaper's blade, or gasp for a scream that will never be heard?"
"Sync the disks?"
"People live longer than 700 mils after being guillotined! Would you have them use that time to make sure their affairs are in order?"
Jason dreamed that he was stuck in a stall in the men's room and thus could not stop from evacuating himself. He deflated until he was too thin for the toilet seat. He was about to fall in and be flushed away when he awakened with a gasp.
It was late in the evening. Everyone was gone and the lights were out. He looked at the clock displayed on his workstation screen. It was nearly midnight. Jason noticed that, as the minute hand had swept by the numbers leading up to midnight, it had erased them.
He cowered from an unknown fear, as if the weight of the earth squeezed him from all sides. The supercomputer's panel of blood red lights chanted a rhythm of glyphs from an ancient language. The red patterns beat against the office walls, contrasting with the cadaverous green of the monitor that illuminated Jason's face. The air conditioner intake roared like the wail of a thousand lost souls drawn toward the cold, slick, unmoving, serpentine coils.
I AM THE PSYCHOTHERAPIST. PLEASE, DESCRIBE YOUR PROBLEMS.
"Are you there?"
WHY DO YOU ASK ARE ME THERE?
"I feel like something bad is going to happen."
IS IT BECAUSE OF YOUR MOTHER THAT YOU SAY SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN?
"Will something happen at midnight?"
YES, YOUR OBLIGATIONS WILL BEGIN PER THE TERMS OF OUR CONTRACT.
"The simulator code is ready to go. The contract is over!"
DO NOT FLAME ME. THE CONTRACT IS CLEAR ENOUGH TO DISPEL ANY DOUBT AND SATISFY ANY ARBITER.
Jason had an urge to run, but he was sure his foe would find him. He would have to talk his way out.
Somewhere in Jason's brain, a couple of atrophied neurons awoke and squeaked out the mention of a powerful figure whose oratorical skill was legendary. Jason held his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out another datum, and he finally remembered.
Only a few clock ticks were visible. Jason quickly started "encyclopedia." The computer said, "encyclopedia: Can't allocate enough colors". The workstation was running another program that had taken all the color slots. Jason typed "ps" to get the process ID's of all the programs he was running. The command invoked "DUCps", a new, menu- driven, network-transparent, context-sensitive, customizable interface for process status display that couldn't find the font "kanji_12x24" and crashed.
Jason shuffled through the windows on his display until he found an old session of illustrated webster still running. Unable to get the process ID, he would have to exit the program normally. On webster's command line he typed "exit", and the computer replied,
exit n \'eg-z*t, 'ek-s*t\ [L, exire to go out] : a way out of an enclosed place or space.
Jason nodded at his mistake and then simply pressed the "return" key to exit. The computer replied,
n [ Uterix (TM), fr archaic carriage return ] : display control character indicating newline or linefeed.
Jason pressed "control-D" several times and the computer replied,
n [ Uterix (TM) ] : non-graphic character indicating end of tape or end of input.
He banged on "control-C" to kill the program and the computer replied
n [ Uterix (TM) ] : non-graphic character inducing a program interrupt signal (SIGINT).
All the tick marks on the clock were erased. Jason typed in the "doctor" buffer.
"How much time?"
700 MILLISECONDS. YOU HAVE NO POWER.
The air intake shrieked with a great inhalation that grabbed Jason's body and sucked it through the vent and under the floor.
A few days later Neville and Skip peeked into Jason's office. "I bet he's gone for good," Skip said. "If I were him, I'd be on some tropical island, soaking up the heat."
"He had become a hindrance to us all," Neville said. "With him gone, and with the CM finally running at full speed, the geophysics project can succeed." The supercomputer no longer overheated now that liquid nitrogen was delivered to every processor by miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries.
Skip squinted at the workstation screen. The "doctor" buffer was gone, leaving the default "scratch" buffer, which was empty except for a smiley face.
Steve Connelly (email@example.com) has been a programmer in computer graphics for eight years. His satires can be seen in the USENET newsgroups rec.humor.funny and alt.cyberpunk.chatsubo, a group for original cyberpunk fiction. He wonders why the fattest man in the world doesn't become an ice hockey goalie. (Bio last updated in 1991.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Steve Connelly.