© 2004 Mark Fell. All rights reserved.
nightwares Books eBook index: NWP-2004-0326
Published by nightwares LLC
This text may not be duplicated or distributed in whole or in part without prior written permission of the publisher or author, except in the case of text excerpts for the purposes of commentary or review.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues are products of the authors imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Ahh, shit! Worthless piece of kipple! I kicked the flitters side angrily as its coils rattled and clanked, the last of the superconductive coolant leaching into the scut of half-ash, half-sandy grit that passed for earth in the Western Zone. Kicked it again and again and again until my leg was sore. Shit shit shit shit shit!
Looking back along the fitful rut it had gouged into the clay in the last few moments of my flight, I considered, ironically, that perhaps I was a bit lucky a high range of basalt peaks stood not too far before me, where the flitter could have landed (actually impacted head-on at flight velocity), while a little farther back was a dense patch of cactus and scrub, some of which would have hurt to climb through and the rest surely begun to burn, had I landed there too.
That did not change the fact my ship was grounded, I was pretty much precisely in the geographical center of Buttfuck, Egypt, and I had no way to leave.
I slumped disconsolately in the shade of the cracked chassis, listening to the final powering-down of the EM inductors, feeling the hairs on my arms stand as the energy drained into electrostatic discharge, then looked up at the utterly cloudless sky, a sky that until ninety seconds ago I had been coasting through in the flitters cabin before every system had crashed and it had dropped on emergency thrusters, a victim of one of the new Asian Bloc viri they kept sending out into the grid. It was too hard to stay on top of them; they had something like two hundred fifty million crackers working on it all the time, dedicated to finding and exploiting new security holes every second, every day, never giving up. Many died as counterpulses and black ice took them out. More took their place. Plucky bastards. You just had to sort of hope, and gamble. And Id lost the draw this time.
I was at least five hundred kilometers away from any decent human population, had almost no water, was grounded in a zone where the daytime high easily topped over fifty degrees, and, with the passing of the flitters power systems, no way to contact anyone. They knew where I was going but didnt know where I was, and without comm it could take over a week to actually locate me.
I was beginning to feel seriously sodomized.
* * *
I looked up, startled, into a human face.
In the heat Id dozed, or become vague, or simply had lost awareness, and realized as I woke again that Id been spotted in my fall by scavengers. They had a ragged train of pack animals mules, I think and one of them was looking down on me. He stepped back in surprise. Youre not dead, he said in WBloc, something like English, Spanish and Portuguese combined. I knew the language but spoke it with an accent. It pegged me immediately as an outlander.
I shook my head. Just hit, I answered. Water?
He looked at me distrustfully, then gestured. A boy scuttled up, bearing a skin lovely and bulbous in its fulness. I slurped at it greedily, feeling its blood-hot warmth course over my lips and tongue, into my parched throat. Thank you, I said.
What are you doing here? He was still aloof.
I didnt mean to be. I was on my way to PacRim and I got hit by a virus. I gestured at the hulk of my ship, then scuffed one flat palm against the other, simulating the collision. Bam. I spread my hands helplessly.
Stared at a few moments more, I went on. Look, whatever you take from the flitter, whatever you want, you can have it. I just need to get to a city, get back to where I need to go.
He eyed me tersely and I recognized the absurdity of my offer. Of course he owned the flitter. He could easily kill me any time and just have everything. My offer was hollow. Oh shit.
Papa, the boy said the one who had watered me. He tugged at the mans arm. They went off together and conferred, the boy gesturing, the man arguing and then he came back.
Wiktur thinks you can teach him computers, the man said. Can you?
It was once my job. I can, I said certainly, realizing that for the next little while at least I wasnt going to die.
* * *
What I do is create datadimensional forms. Used to be called computer programming, but since implants and cybergoggles its lost its original, algebraic or logical structure. To do my thing I typically wire into a console, get my mind onto its blocks, and start building.
But to do that I need an infrastructure. A console, a link to the dev tools of the grid, connection.
What I saw before me in the little ragged settlement was nothing like any of that. It was a true antique. So old it even had an ethernet jack. I was supposed to work on that?
Ah hell. I tried to dredge my C++, thinking Id be doing a lot of hand coding. I wondered if a modern holograph publisher, suddenly confronted with a Gutenberg press, might have felt similar.
I was surrounded by pretty much everyone in the little caravan party, all waiting expectantly and skeptically to see what Id do next. I lifted the lid it was a white rectangular portable, the casing scuffed but in fairly good shape and read the machine name. iBook. The logo showed it to be a really ancient Apple unit. With luck that would mean at least it was a UNIX system. A small power lead ran to a solar accumulator outside, so I assumed it was getting juice at least. Whatever battery it might have had was long since gone.
After a few moments studying it I hit the power button and there was a melodic tone that emerged from the systems speakers. God, this thing actually did a POST instead of a simple vector checksum well, that was to be expected. Holographic storage was still largely a dream when this box was brand new.
The boot process seemed to be taking a long time, just a grey field with a slate apple cutout in the middle. I wondered if the machine had died, but then a little circle cursor appeared on the screen, showing some kind of activity. Regular tickings and whirs from inside the unit told me it was reading its hard drive. Reading its hard drive. What was next, gerbil power?
After the circular cursor the wait was even longer. Finally, though, I was presented with a loading screen that ran through the processes starting up and then nothing. For far too long, this time. System hang. Something was wrong somewhere and I had no way of knowing what or where. I might as well have been asked to repair an internal combustion engine.
I sat back. I dont suppose you have any system disks, do you? Blank stares, some hostile, answered me. I shrugged. Without that Im not sure I can get this thing to do anything at all except what it just did.
Then, the clan leader said, you are of no use to us. At his gesture two very large men, scarred and mean-looking, made as if to grab me.
Wait, I said, cold sweat all over me. I said Im not sure I can try.
Try then. You have until the power runs out.
He meant sunset, of course. By my best guess, about an hour.
* * *
Okay, I thought to myself. Think. This thing used a keyboard and some kind of pressure-based pointing input device; that much I knew just by looking at it. There were special keys, keys with no regular alpha or numeric purpose, so I began pressing them in different combinations to see what would happen, since those were often set aside for emergency purposes on these old machines. Gratefully I noticed the crowd around me thinning but two remained behind, guarding the exit. No escape.
And anyway, where would I escape to?
Wiktur was also there, looking over my shoulder. What are you doing? he asked.
Trying to see if I can get this thing to restart. Sometimes these systems had built-in recovery and diagnostic tools that could repair disk or system damage on boot, but you generally dont want to just cut the power and start all over or the damage could get worse.
I can make it do that, Wiktur said. You push these. And he pointed to a key labeled ctrl, a key with a weird black loopy thing on it that looked sort of like a hash mark with its ends connected, and the systems main power button.
I glanced over at him. You sure? He nodded certainly. All right, what the hell. And I pressed the key and button combination, then let them all go at once.
The screen went blank, and then I heard the POST chime again. He was right.
I looked him over appraisingly. Young, maybe ten, really scrawny, with large luminous eyes and tangled hair of indeterminate hue. Bright, attentive. Not bad, Wiktur.
Victor, he answered. They cant pronounce it right but the names Victor.
Okay, Victor. Sorry.
Its all right.
We waited as the system ran through its boot load again, only to hang as it had before. Shit, the damage is too extensive for the OS to really get going. But theres got to be another way in. Victor stared at me as I thought aloud. This thing must have had one of the transitional UNIX kernels, still with command line when the GUI crapped out. So theres got to be a way to bypass the GUI and get a prompt
Whats a gooey?
Graphical user interface. Gee You Eye. Everything has em now. Its how you do well, anything. Victor nodded thoughtfully. I barely remembered the 2D GUIs. He would have lived all his computing life in three dimensions, not even aware there was an interface between him and the machines he used. But before GUIs were built into the hardware like they are now, they had to load from storage into active memory. Make themselves available. And for that to happen a lower level OS operating system had to get the process going. That would have been a keyboard driven OS, something that was just words on the screen and a place for you to type things in. A command prompt.
I know what that is! Victor said excitedly. Ive seen it!
Where, on this hulk?
Yeah! When you start it up, push those. He pointed to the loopy pound sign and the s.
Well, he had been right before. I rebooted again, holding the keys, and lo and behold was presented with a command prompt. Hed been playing with the machine for a while, I realized. And was clever.
Okay. Now what? I leaned back and thought. Whats wrong?
I glanced over to Victor. Well, there are utility programs I can run to try to get this thing to work, but I dont really remember what theyre called.
How can you find out?
The programs should be stored in the system. I need to get a list of them. Umm, lets see. I typed dir and hit return. Command not found. Display. Same. List. Same. Show. Same. Catalog. Same. Cat. Aha!
No. Just a blank line. Cat that was an old input command. Some of my history was coming back. Concatenate. Okay, I didnt want to concatenate anything; I just wanted a list. I tried a few key combinations to cancel the cat input command, finally discovering ctrl and c did it.
I wanted a list of files. List. Why was that so familiar? Think. Suns heading for the mountains now. List. UNIX. UNIX systems were terse, minimal feedback platforms because they began in the day when it could take minutes for even a short piece of plain text to be transmitted, my grandfather remembered those days, so they had very brief commands, truncated like cat or
Abbreviated! I said aloud. Victor watched puzzledly as I tried lst. Command not found. ls.
And the screen flooded with text. That was it. ls was how to find out what files were where. But this system had a tree structure and the directory I was in did not happen to contain programs. I needed to get to the root directory and start probing from there.
On a hunch, playing a wild game, I tried help ls. Help: Command not found. Then I remembered RTFM from my school years: Read the fucking manual. Manual. Shrugging, I did man ls, and was gratified to see the console read Formatting page, please wait. Then the screen filled with text again, this time a manual page on the ls command. I was starting to get the hang of this, and began reading.
* * *
After taking careful notes and finally figuring out q quit the man page, I was ready to probe more. I entered ls -al and got a wide-format screen displaying the full contents of the current directory, including a ../ reference, and thats when I remembered how UNIX delimited directories. To get to the top level of the tree I had to find /, but I wasnt sure how I could get there. I sighed. I wanted to move from one directory to another. Change directories. Okay. I typed cd / and the machine just sat there. Was no news good news?
Feeling very nervous the suns disc was just beginning to touch the distant mountains peaks I did ls -al again. Success! I was at the root level of the drive and faced with some abbreviated directory names. Hmm.
Programs, in that day, were very different from what they are now. Rather than being dynamic, fluid, self-modifying structures that interact with user, data and hardware all at once, they had been cordoned into separate status. What were they called? They had to be made in machine code, which was basically binary, and
Aha, I murmured, typing in cd bin, followed by ls. I had moved into the binary program directory, but nothing there seemed right. It all looked like user level stuff, text editors and such. Cat was in there. Nothing to help with disk repair.
I went back up to / again and looked more closely at the directory listing. One I noted was sbin, which could just be system binaries including perhaps diagnostic tools. I quickly moved into it and my ls showed I was in the right place but which program to use?
SystemStarter fsck_msdos mount_cd9660 mount_webdav restore
autodiskmount halt mount_cddafs newfs route
badsect ifconfig mount_devfs newfs_hfs routed
clri init mount_fdesc newfs_msdos rrestore
dmesg ipfw mount_ftp nfsd rtsol
dump kextload mount_hfs nfsiod service
dumpfs kextunload mount_msdos nologin shutdown
dynamic_pager mach_init mount_nfs ping slattach
fastboot md5 mount_smbfs ping6 tunefs
fasthalt mknod mount_synthfs quotacheck umount
fsck mount mount_udf rdump
fsck_hfs mount_afp mount_volfs reboot
Some, I knew, wouldnt help much. Many were incomprehensible to me. A few I could guess at, such as reboot, shutdown and so on. Restore looked promising, and I almost entered it before I realized: Restore from what? Damn. Where was the repair system command?
I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples lightly, willing myself back in time twenty years, to another place, where I had been raised in Toronto. At my grandfathers house there. Sitting by him, almost as Victor was now, looking on as he hacked around on his ancient Linux installation, a machine he was proud of hed been running the same basic system since ten years before I was born, he told me. I was eight. Sometimes when it goes down I have to something it to get it going again. But mostly it works just like the day I installed it. Something. What was that something?
Okay, think a little more. It was a nice day, and we were going to go to the lake later. There were birds. Waft of honeysuckle? The clock on his bookshelves ticked mellowly. Rich scent of furniture polish and leather. House still filled with aromas from breakfast, the smell of my grandmothers biscuits and sausage gravy, homemade biscuits, not from a tin. My belly taut with them; they tasted so good. Creak in his chair as he talked. Mothball scent in the sheets theyd put on the daybed where I slept when I stayed there. Eighteen years that machine had been running an impossible length of time to my mind then. Clack of fingers on the keyboard. Popcorn at night watching old movies like War of the Worlds and ET. A quiet prod to the memory I wanted. Hearing it. His voice graveled with age and cigarettes. Sometimes when it goes down I have to effsick it to get it going again. Effsick. Effsick? Thats not a word. I remembered, now, thinking it then.
I looked the list over again, then typed man fsck. A few moments after I typed fsck -y. Then I waited. The system ground away.
* * *
Twelve minutes later there was just enough daylight left to show the working GUI, trackpad pointer and icons, and I sighed gratefully as Victor beamed. Wed won this round.
I shut the machine down, wondering at its engineering that it could still work at all after so long, let alone self-repair, was really amazing and was grudgingly invited to take supper with the rest of the small community. It looked like I was in, for now at least.
Victor kept close to me as we ate.