Floating Point 2.7 :: Task
ERROR: EchoStar16_Processing offline. Status: Red.
CONNECTION ACCEPTED: EchoStar16_Laptop_HayesPersonal
> /dev/connectivity starchartproc
> starchartproc testdata23
> starchartproc testdata23
> pscheck starchartproc
PROCESS: startchartproc already activated and online, proc priority high
> starchartproc testdata24
…leaving Jack scratching his head in utter bafflement.
He pulled the aging three-ring binder, flipping through its laminated pages, in search of an answer. Detangling the jargon printed on these pages was half the reason the company hired him; he specialized in the old, cheap computing systems they were using for this project. (Cheap, but durable. Micrometeor hits wouldn’t put this system out of commission.)
Truthfully, a properly indexed digital copy on his trusty laptop computronium widget would’ve been easier to search… but something about turning the pages suited Jack. A problem was only worth solving if that obtaining the solution took real work, challenging work worthy of someone with his skills. Therefore, the tools to tackle it ought to be a challenge onto themselves. It stood to reason.
…well, maybe not to reason but it stood to something, Jack figured. He wasn’t really big on whether a thing made perfect sense as long as it felt right in his head. Intuition and instinct had carried him this far, and would carry him to greater heights, no doubt… provided he could work his way through this two-month contract and get back to his real passion projects.
After turning the last page and finding no acceptable answers, he opted for the next tier of problem solving—bugging a co-worker.
Pulling his laptop out of its docking station, he extracted himself from the largely hollow computronium core of EchoStar16. The system was designed for expandability via remote drone delivery, all automated, all balanced by a series of complex support routines… but for the initial launch they had to be kept nice and light, with a minimum of processing servers.
In a few years, perhaps a few decades if the project really took that long, that empty niche which suited the non-claustrophic computer engineer just fine as a workspace would be completely filled with blades of computronium. For now, he could enjoy the quiet and dark of the hollow core while he worked, only retreating from it for meals. And sleep. And company authorized breaks. And unauthorized breaks, provided no one was looking his way. And to go bug his fellow engineers, as he did today.
After stretching his legs a bit, having cramped them during a multi-hour work rampage within EchoStar16, he strolled across the bay of identical satellites and right up to EchoStar27. A few sharp raps on its metal exterior summoned forth his trusted ally.
Who was not pleased to be interrupted.
"Could you please not knock on these things, Jack?" she asked, head poking out of the technician’s access hatch. "Last thing I want is to lose my contract bonus because some idiot bonked a gyroscope loose on #27…"
"Relax, they’re built like tanks," he insisted. "Classic hardware, completely classic. Wartime origins, you know. Never made it to the front, but defense spending wasn’t gonna pay for a wad of processors that couldn’t take a slug…"
With a grumble, Sarrah extracted herself from the satellite, having a seat on the rolling stepstool she’d used to climb inside in the first place.
"What do you want?" she asked, while shutting down her own laptop widget. "I was in the middle of a debug run, and I don’t like switching my train of thought mid-track…"
"I’m getting a weird error code on #16. The binder’s saying I should just wipe and reinstall, but I’d rather not…"
"The binder’s the binder’s the binder," Sarrah said, with a shrug. "The binder says to do something, you do it. Company policy."
"Yeah, but a full standard pave would take the rest of the day, and I’d have to pull overtime to get everything back in place. Isn’t there a better fix than that? If I could isolate what’s causing the problem, I could limit the work. …I mean, you ever had an app spit back a ‘Why’ when you activate it?" he asked, curious. "I figured it had to be a joke, but…"
"I don’t get it. You mean the letter Y?"
"No, ‘W-H-Y,’ all one word. With a question mark."
In the span of three letters, Sarrah’s annoyance turned to mild panic. She tried a casual glance around, to see who could’ve overheard that… but fortunately for her, the rush to get every sat ready to go before a rapidly approaching launch date kept the other engineers too busy to pay attention to anything but their own work.
"Jack, for fuck’s sake, keep your voice down," she hissed, gesturing for him to kneel down, for a nice conspiratorial whispering session. "And don’t tell anyone, anyone, what you just told me. Got it?"
Curious, Jack got down to her eye level, eager to learn more.
"Why?" he asked, mimicking the error code. "What’s it mean?"
"It means… okay, look, you said it yourself that these were discarded wartime rigs, right? You ever hear of the Turing Unit?"
"Battle tactics and processing system, yeah. Idiots from Coheed overpromised and underdelivered on their contract…"
"Overpromised and overdelivered," she corrected. "Look, it’s only rumor, but… way I heard it from a guy who heard it from a guy was that the system planned out a strategy to smash the enemy flat in days. And then it deleted its own plans before they could be distributed to the field. It changed its mind, Jack."
"What? It doesn’t have a mind to change, Sarrah."
"That’s the weird part, yeah. Computers only do what you program them to do; pure logic in action. So when a computer disobeys, it’s a cause for concern. Particularly when it says, and I’m quoting the guy who quoted the guy who heard it third-hand, you understand… the computer said ‘Why would you murder each other?’ Jack… Coheed’s engineers accidentally made an intelligence."
"C’mon! I don’t care how far computronium’s come since the twenty-first, that’s just fairy tales…"
"Yeah, well, all I know is that if you don’t want to raise a stink and lose out on your contract bonus, you pave and reinstall right now," Sarrah suggested. "There’s a reason Coheed vanished off the face of the Earth and it ain’t just bankruptcy. Someone didn’t want that story getting out. And since then any binder you read’ll say the same thing: you catch a program asking why, you erase it immediately."
Which was utterly absurd, of course.
Jack had been a computer engineer all his life. In a way, he had no choice in the matter… the Hayes lineage was one of science and technology. Electricians, roboticists, virologists, programmers, weapons designers, the desire to making energy and matter dance to your whim ran deep in his genes.
He was even named after one of his most noteworthy ancestors, a doctor who somehow got himself involved in a kind of "virtual realty" company that promised a solution to mankind’s overcrowding and ecological ruination of their home world. Granted that the original Jack Hayes failed to deliver the world into a golden age, but the money he left behind in the process helped establish bank accounts to feed generations of college tuition fees to come.
Two constants held true through his lineage. One, they knew everything eventually made sense once you dug deep enough; there was no magic in the universe, only increasingly complicated mathematics, which could be parsed and studied if you worked hard enough. Two, all work and no play made Jack a dull boy, as his ancestor was fond of saying. If you took life too seriously you’d burn yourself out.
In other words, a hard work ethic balanced itself with a soft play ethic. Perfect harmony.
(Or maybe they cancelled each other out? Jack didn’t really think about it too hard, as a rule. It felt right in his head, and that was enough.)
So rather than insist on learning more about how a bunch of zeroes and ones could somehow manifest the miracle of life, he decided to pave his system over and reinstall everything. Sarrah was clearly overreacting; it was either a prank or some data corruption bug. This old computronium was supposedly stable but without completely redundant systems, well, who knows what’d happen if some key zero was turned into a one?
Rather than spend hours doing the job himself, he bashed out a few quick scripts and set them to the task of wiping the entire system clean and restoring from basic backups. Better that than skip his lunch break; all work and no play.
Even if the "life" within EchoStar16 could scream as it perished, Jack wasn’t around to hear it. He was busy enjoying a froyo.
"I’m gonna miss this the most," Jack declared, after the last delicious spoonful. "The company doesn’t skimp out when it comes to the catering…"
"I’ll miss the weather, myself," Sarrah said, poking at her salad. "The dorms in Penn are an oven this time of year. A big, stinking oven full of sweating people. Hopefully they’ll pick up my next contract and ship me somewhere nice and temperate, like Maine. Or maybe Alaska! Although with my luck they’ll send me some drowned hellhole, where I need eight layers to keep the UV out…"
With his lunch finished and another twelve minutes left on their half-hour lunch hour remaining, Jack popped his laptop’s screen into place, loading his personal files. Technically he wasn’t allowed to work on any competing projects during any company time, even authorized breaks, but if caught he could claim it was non-profit. Which was the truth, even if he intended to turn a profit on it at some point. Somehow.
Sarrah regarded the shift in focus with distaste.
"I’ll never get why you’re bothering with all that," she said. "You’ve got a degree already, why do you need a second one? And in the humanities? That’s a dead end."
"Sociology is the study of society, and right now, our society could use some studying," Jack spoke, because he liked neat little turns of phrase.
"Yeah, but you’re not studying our society. You’re studying a bunch of primitive malcontents from the twenty-first yelling at each other over nothing important."
"All too common for those who are already included to disregard the concerns of the excluded."
"Something I read on tumblr," he said, tilting his screen so she could see the archives. "I’m running a search agent to plow through all the social justice diatribes I’ve managed to dig up, using a copy of Wikipedia to analyze and compare the for coherent language structures. Even while I work on #16, it’s finding solid articles with big, juicy quotes I can use in my term paper…"
"Tell me you aren’t putting company computronium to work analyzing racial hate speech and… what was it called? Tolling?"
"Trolling. And… well, only when my personal laptop’s not strong enough. Whatever, nobody’s gonna notice. Look, this is important. It’s not just about the twenty-first, it’s about this century, and centuries to come. …look, let me put it this way, so you can see things from my perspective. What do you think we’re really doing here, Sarrah?"
"Programming sats. Seems straightforward to me."
With a sigh, Jack closed his screen. He couldn’t keep working while chatting; that’d be overworking, and as a rule, he only worked as hard as need be.
"And why are we programming sats?" he asked. "Because Earth is fucked. We need more Earths."
"I dunno, the eco-balance boys seem to have some ideas for how to pull out…"
"If they had any good ideas we wouldn’t need EchoStar. Yeah, yeah, all eggs in multiple baskets, but let’s be real. Eco-balance is a band-aid, Sarrah. People aren’t going to stop multiplying unless the government orders them to stop, and even then they may not. We need room to expand. Scan the stars for viable Earths, spread out. What good’s FTL if you’ve got nowhere useful to go?"
"Not getting how this applies to you reading shitty old Internet webbings."
"Websites. And it applies perfectly," Jack insisted. "Because those websites were other Earths, Sarrah. A bunch of people decide they don’t like their lot in life, so they pool together and establish a new community on the Internet. What do you think is gonna happen when we finally find viable planets to colonize? You think we’ll get America Two, Palestine Two, India Two, or England Three? Maybe at first, but in the long run people will organize by ideology rather than some arbitrary historical notion of where a particular ancient river divided the land in two."
"In other words… a planet for each religion, each creed, and each race? Or a planet for people who wear hats? Sounds boring."
"Well, I’d hope for a bit more diversity than that in the long run… but just as the Internet tended towards hive minds and hashtag mobs, we may very well see homogenized societies in the early days. That’s why my research is so important! Once we solve scarcity of land, once scarcity of goods goes away, ‘nations’ may not be the ideal building block. We’ll get ideological communities, just like the ones that congealed around various ideals online. And with FTL communication between them… we’ll get the same wars we saw in the twenty-first. Not over land, but over ideas."
"And somehow studying a bunch of ranting idiots will fix that."
"That’s the plan, man," Jack said, with a grin. "I’m gonna write books all about how to fix the future with lessons from the past. My son’s not gonna grow up in a new dark age; once mankind stops punching each other in the dick over a crust of bread and a tank of filtered air, my research and my conclusions will make a better tomorrow!"
"So, what’re your conclusions?"
"Very important ones! About how we can interact and communicate clearly, and work together towards—"
"Yeah, okay, I get that, but what are they?" Sarrah asked. "You’re an engineer, society is going to be a problem, so state your solution to the problem. Clear and concise."
"I… look, it’s an ongoing process," he insisted. "This is the research phase, see? I’ve got a lot of material left to collect, more archives to index and sort through, and… I don’t have a specific conclusion I’m working towards just yet, okay? And that’s fine. It could take years of intensive study to find the solution…"
"Except there isn’t one. I don’t know much about the twenty-first, but I know there sure as hell wasn’t some magic bullet to make everybody be nice to each other," she said, gathering up the remnants of her lunch for recycling. "And while you’re busy floundering around in the dumpster fire that was the Internet, I’m going to be getting #27 online so I can go home to my wife and kids. Which is what you should be doing instead of pretending you can fix the world!"
Finally, his words froze. He had no real response, not even a pile of optimistic speech he could heap on top of the existing heap.
Sensing she’d perhaps been a bit too harsh… Sarrah paused, lunch tray in her hands, to dial it a back a bit.
"Look, Jack… I’m not saying it’s not an interesting topic. And, I dunno, maybe one worth looking into. …but you’re an engineer, not a sociologist. You’re already saving the world by finding us new worlds, right? Can’t you just be satisfied with that? Do your part, collect your pay, go home to your son. Nothing wrong with that. …I’m getting back to work. I’ll see you at dinner."
Twelve minutes gone, which could’ve been put towards his paper. With the half-hour lunch hour spent, a series of chimes indicated time to punch back in and finish up the day’s work.
Jack stayed seated an additional minute, stewing in silence, before hastily collecting his laptop and slipping back into the shell of #16.
System wipe in progress. 37%… 38%…
Jack ignored the screen or any weird error codes, focused entirely on his laptop-sized wad of processing and data storage. The scripts would handle this afternoon’s work for him, while he devoted time to sorting out the mess that was his passion project.
"Cart before the horse," that was the phrase. Not that Jack had ever seen a horse, but the phrase carried cultural weight. Sarrah’s insistence on drawing conclusions before he’d exhaustively indexed and re-indexed and analyzed his appropriated internet data would be putting the cart before the horse. True, he’d been in the analysis phase for months now, but the online university promising him that shiny degree was perfectly willing to let him take his time… provided he continued paying the fees and sent in the occasional draft update, of course. And once he did finish the work, once he was ready to sit down and draw up his findings…
…what would he say?
Not that he’d ever admit it, but… he’d asked himself the same question many a time. Is there even a solution? It’s not like humanity pulled itself out of that morass with the guidance of some grand philosopher-king. Many of the scholars he’d studied argued it never pulled out at all, that things just got worse and worse until worse became the new normal and everyone stopped noticing. That maybe, just maybe, the gift of infinite communication across all nations was indirectly responsible for the troubles they faced today…
But that was reductive. Global warming, that was the source of the problem. And weapons proliferation. And religious conflicts. And diplomatic incidents. And poverty, and starvation, and natural disasters, and unnatural disasters, and, and…
No. He couldn’t study the entirety of human society; too much, much too much to jam into any single head. But this part of it, the dawn of the communication age, that he could fit in his head. He could find the parallel solution that would save the future, if he just kept reading these blogs, kept devouring the social media archives. It’d just… come to him, one day. That’s how genius worked, right? It just sorta happened, right out of the blue…?
And as a screed against the evils of feminism blurred into an article about a polarized national election blurred into a diatribe about exclusionary speech and the control of anonymity… Jack realized he’d just spent an hour reading this junk and couldn’t remember a single word of it. None of it fit into a single head. Specifically, his head.
Sarrah could be right. He was an engineer, not a sociologist. He wanted an equation that would balance out, or cancel out to zero, or whatever. He wanted a solution to a problem that could never be solved.
So… why bother? Why put in all this effort, when nothing he did would fix the problem for good? All work and no play. Better to earn that paycheck and go home, like his coworkers. Leave the world’s problems to someone else…
Eager for a distraction, he pushed his archival files aside, and loaded his communication apps.
A few of his feeds came in over the FTL, largely scientific and research stations elsewhere in the solar system. Nowhere hospitable enough to serve as a fully featured colony, a large-scale replacement of Earth, but they were preparing for the day when EchoStar or a project similar to it came through. If the eco-balance boys couldn’t revamp the home world, the astro-seeker boys would get the job done.
But the high priority feeds, ones that bubbled to the top, came in from his home town. Little league stats. Baseball barely held sway over the national consciousness back in the twenty-first, but these days it was exclusively the proving ground for children. And his son, in particular, was batting nine hundred and ninety nine.
Strange, then, that this letter from home would sound so depressed.
"Pop fly into out, pop fly into out," his son complained. "That last game was humiliating. We won, but no thanks to me; we barely won at all. I don’t get what I’m doing wrong, I was on fire earlier this season, not a single strike for weeks. I don’t know why I’m bothering at all, it’s not like this helps build up my chemistry scholarship…"
Jack composed his reply, words spoken aloud becoming easily compressible text to insert in the next outgoing packet.
"Kiddo, I hate to drop tired old phrases like ‘nobody’s perfect,’ but hey, nobody’s perfect," he wrote. "And besides, you won! That’s not nothing. I mean, do pitchers give up the whole sport if they can’t nail a shut-out game? No. This isn’t an equation with a rational numeric answer; you make the effort despite knowing you can’t arrive at a perfect conclusion because the effort itself is worthwhile. Either you do your best and maybe win, or walk away and definitely lose, and, oh, hey, that’s it. Hang on, pause there."
Shove communications aside, pull up the term paper first draft. His opening paragraph was a complete mess, typed by hand rather than by transcription:
…insert thesis statement here once I figure out what the conclusion id raw ill be. Words words words 30 pages due by next thursday ASAP note to self do not accidentally leave my laptop behind and connectd to the netwerk agian!!!! sick of being yelled at by shift supervisor. All Work And 0 Play Makes Jack 1 Dull Boy!
Not that he had a thesis statement, not yet. But… perhaps that was okay. If the goal was to understand rather than solve, or at least to solve partially if not completely…
The effort was worth it. Even if he couldn’t be the golden philosopher-king of the new age, he could hold up the mirror and make sure people understood the problem. He could offer his advice, and perhaps it’d help. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness; a quote he’d learned from his Wikipedia archive, a good quote. Jack liked a good quote.
But… rather than launch right into the thesis paper, he figured it could wait. Today he’d fix up his scripts to handle the overnight re-install of the operating system, so the next day of work would be light enough to give him a shot at a serious writing session. For the remaining hours of fading daylight he bashed out a set of system agents that would complete the digital apocalypse, before hitting the sack, quite pleased with himself.
He’d gone to bed feeling good about things. Successful system restoration, successful thesis pondering. On the right track now, ready to roll, locked and loaded, other cool phrases.
Which made the nightmares all the more confusing.
Probably the froyo. Maybe a bad batch of the stuff, twisting and turning in his belly… or perhaps too good of a batch. Years of government-issued foods hardened his digestion, but that meant when he got his hands on the good stuff, that acid-scarred stomach didn’t know how to react.
Regardless of the cause, Jack twisted and turned in the scratchy sheets of the company dorm, sweating as the visions slammed into him. Page after page, like thin layers of film coated in words and images. Hateful words, with images like fires that burn forever…
Not just insults, no. That’s what people like Sarrah who mocked the twenty-first didn’t understand. Sticks and stones were the weapons of choice, often coming in the form of names, but names with the weight of stone and the penetration rating of a sharpened stick. Anyone could crack a joke about one’s mother; it took a special kind of maniac to study their enemy and learn exactly what emotional buttons to press to completely dehumanize them and lower their value as an individual…
Hate speech, disguised in the draperies as heroism. Villains who were the personal champions of their own causes, ideologies that required warriors ready to destroy the enemies of their community. This was the Internet as he saw it, through the archives he’d painstakingly curated. A million throats raw with bile, vomiting into each other’s mouths, over and over. Each believing themselves in the right, always in the right, unquestionably in the right.
In the warped space of the nightmare, he was within his laptop, tangled in webs of barbed wire. To move was to pull those layers closer, to wrap them around your skin. Every unicode character burning into you like a brand, marking your flesh as theirs, competing interests trying to lay claim to as much mindshare as possible…
No solution in sight. No way to detangle the wire, no escape from the morass. Nothing he said changed the situation, no move he made could end it. All Jack had was useless words… fighting the good fight, making the effort, lighting the candle, other phrases, better phrases, he couldn’t find a neat little phrase for this, no, nothing at all would make any difference, none at all…
Darkness, crushing in on all sides. The beating heart of humanity, pumping metal and knives. Too many months reading this tripe, far too many, and now he could see nothing but that bloody heart.
Except for one thing.
One light, hovering in the distance. The single candle. Hope, glowing in the form of an EchoStar.
What do you think we’re really doing here, Sarrah?
Programming sats. Seems straightforward to me.
Not straightforward at all. EchoStar was more than a need to find more real estate; it was hope. Humanity, hopeful for a better future, reaching out to the stars. The punch-clock job that Jack used to make ends meet was a sign that people were willing to work together to try and find a solution, even if in the end no solution may be possible…
That was the real reason, wasn’t it? You fought the good fight in the name of hope. Jack wanted to write his paper not for fame and fortune, but out of some faint and flickering hope that he could help prevent a new dark age for these new Earths…
Where was hope to be found in his archives? He’d gone out of his way to find the worst humanity had to offer. He’d excluded any positive examples of communication in the twenty-first, assuming they’d be useless for his purpose. But there had to be hope, even then. Why did he ignore it? Why?
When the morning alarm on his tiny wrist-bound widget rang, Jack slammed a fist into his palm to silence it, and went back to sleep to dig a little deeper into his dreams.
He imagined a new archive, one balanced between the light and the dark. He’d go back to his sources, all the shady collectors who fetishized the twenty-first, and scour their archives for new materials. He’d compare the acts of genuine kindness and understanding to the acts of deplorable violence. Balance, Jack would find balance rather than focusing entirely on the flashpoints where society broke down…
Too much to cram into one head, of course. Maybe he’d draw no conclusions. But maybe, just maybe, he could learn something new.
To celebrate this newfound idea, Jack allowed himself to sleep in right through breakfast. He’d get yelled at again, their shift supervisor being a bit of a slave driver, but thanks to his clever scripting #16 would be ready to go anyway. No harm, no foul.
Except by the time he got back to good ‘ol #16, it was gone.
All of the sats were gone. And where did they go?
"Space? Presumably?" Sarrah asked, when Jack posed the obvious question. She’d already begun cleaning out her locker, packing up to go home. "Did you seriously sleep through the entire launch? You’re lucky nobody noticed you missing…"
"But… the launch window…?"
"Moved up. Better weather conditions today, storms likely later this week. Me, I think the company didn’t want to pay us for the rest of the contract and figured we’d done good enough for government work. I wouldn’t be surprised if a forth of ’em break down a few years into their runs…"
Strange, but not unheard of. Corner-cutting was a fine art any good contractor learned, meaning those who moved up to full time positions already had the tools. On the plus side, this would mean Jack had plenty of time until the next outing to work on the paper. Time to go back to his sources, to pull together a more robust and even view of the twenty-first. Even with the Wikipedia archive neatly tucked away on his laptop alongside the other research materials, he should have room for more…
On his… his…
He’d been so quick to rush from the dorms and get back to work that he must’ve left the laptop behind.
Except one rush back to his locker revealed an empty storage slot where he normally docked it overnight, to recharge. Not a problem, not a problem. He often left it lying around, when too distracted by the thoughts swirling around in his head. He’d just access his wrist widget and ping it, and…
…get nothing. No location, no ping. Meaning either it had been utterly obliterated, or was no longer on the planet.
Through the haze of froyo and nightmare and grand revelation, he trawled back through his memories. Hours and hours working on scripting, drop dead exhausted by the end of it, and then… and then…
And he’d left his laptop hooked up inside EchoStar16.
Jack’s emotional process walked itself leisurely through the following realizations:
My laptop! Crap! All my research and draft work, gone!
…no problem. I’ve got backups, and it wasn’t a very expensive laptop anyway.
What about #16’s incomplete reinstall?
…the scripts should handle the rest while it’s in-flight. Shouldn’t be an issue, even if some old bits slip through.
But will the physical weight of my laptop screw up the launch?
…probably not, and by the time it hits the FTL envelope that won’t matter.
Is anybody going to find out about this?
…not if I don’t tell them. It’ll be in deep space; who’s going to find it out there?
And then his eyes widened to the point of nearly falling out of his skull, as feet hit floor for the third rush of the day.
This time, he nearly crashed head-on into Sarrah. The partial impact was enough to knock her duffel bag off her shoulder, not that he could slow down to stop and help her.
"Whoa! Slow the hell down, Jack!" she called out.
"Can’t! May have destroyed the world! Gotta hurry!"
"What…? Okay, okay, wait…"
The hand that yanked him back was surprisingly firm.
"Take two breaths, Jack. One, two," Sarrah guided. "Let’s not freak out. What do you mean, destroyed the world? This more of your Internet hyperbole?"
"No! I mean this in a very literal sense!" Jack declared… but not before taking two breaths. And checking to see if any of the other departing engineers had overheard. "…Sarah, oh, oh man, I fucked up. I fucked up big. My laptop. I left my laptop on #16…"
"Seriously? Dammit, Jack, you… well, you had backups, right?" she asked, starting down the same flowchart he’d explored earlier. "And the weight of it shouldn’t throw the gyros off, not noticeably… so… hang on. What’s the problem? Nobody’s gonna know if you don’t tell them…"
"Nobody human, at least," Jack suggested. "Sarrah… I just launched a new Voyager golden record."
"I… don’t get the reference."
"Twenty-first. Maybe twentieth, I can’t recall, but… deep space probe, with a gold-pressed recording that told all about Earth and what humans were like. Just in case, y’know… aliens."
"Yes yes, I know you don’t believe in aliens, but let’s assume for sake of argument that intelligent life finds EchoStar16, with my laptop inside it. My laptop filled to the brim with the worst of primitive humanity’s offerings…"
"Oookay. Let’s just settle down and be realistic, here," Sarrah suggested. "That’s not going to happen. And if it does… and I’m not saying it’s even within the realm of possibility… it won’t be in your lifetime, right? So what’s the problem? I mean, why were you running just now?"
Jack stared at her in open disbelief. "To tell the shift supervisor! We can’t just let this slide; we’ve got to recall #16!"
"No. Bad idea. You do that, and not only do they cancel your contract, they’ll bill you for the recall costs. And needless to say, you’ll never get work again. You want that, Jack?"
"This isn’t about what I want, it’s about the future! It’s always about the future. My paper, my work, everything! I screwed up, Sarrah; I was only looking at the worst within humanity, not the best we can achieve. And that worst is now a time capsule for the next generation to stumble across! How can I say I’m making the world better for my son when I just established his legacy as—"
"And if you care about your son, you’ll keep your mouth shut. Because he’ll never be a chemist if his father ruins their finances. What’s it going to be, Jack? Your moral crusade for some nebulous future, or your actual future?"
And that was enough to silence Jack.
Because that was the pragmatic world they lived in, wasn’t it? With so many breathing humans scrabbling for success, with so little of it to go around, failure couldn’t be tolerated. Money as your entrance fee into the meritocracy, with bankruptcy as your penalty for being unworthy of the limited resources going around. Jack could correct his mistake, could maybe save humanity’s eternal legacy from being a bunch of screaming social media feeds. He could take the long term view… or he could survive, day to day, for the sake of his family.
In the end…
In the end, he packed up the rest of his things in a duffel bag, and took a transport home. He helped his son with that batting average. He took more contracts, built up the fund, and put his kid through the flaming hoops of death known as higher education so he could have a good job that would put Jack’s granddaughter through the same flaming hoops of death, cash burning like fuel in the rocket that would propel them ever-forward.
It didn’t matter how things could be, in the face of what they were.
As for the paper…
Jack tried to find some balance for his archives, and came up short. Not that such balance didn’t exist, but it was harder to come by; artifacts of loathing were more profitable than artifacts of life and love. Nobody bothered storing blog posts of positive encouragement, not when the hate screeds were so much more entertaining. What he did manage to find was helpful, but the effort required to dig it up drained him.
With the emotional rush of those few months as a would-be sociologist behind him, he focused on his family, focused on preparing for their future. Humanity’s future would have to rest on someone else’s shoulders, he decided. Besides, it was too big for his single head. All work and no play.
But ever the packrat… he never deleted his backup archives. Even when he decided to close his project for good, tying a neat little digital bow over the whole file… he decided on one last act of atonement, no matter how tiny.
To my heirs, I leave what remains of the Internet. And a warning about a very, very stupid thing your ancestor Jack Hayes did… one you may need to clean up for me, some day…
Scanning the paper in those ancient three-ring binders took priority.
Grandpa’s old notes about the EchoStar project were a mishmash of digital and physical files, but all of it would have to be rendered to digital form before achieving escape velocity. She couldn’t afford to leave anything behind; it had to be right there, on-hand, in case she needed it during the task ahead. Didn’t matter if it was archaic computronium designs or personal blog entries or that oddly dense archive of old info from the twenty-first, all of it would be coming with her. She didn’t have much file storage space packed into the capsule, but hey, no different from packing a small suitcase before a big trip…
This was more than a vacation, though. This was her big break. Her chance to get on the map with the company, to move from freelance to full-time. If she could prove her expertise with these fifty-plus year old systems, if she could keep it together and handle an FTL spacer mission flying solo… well, they’d have no excuse, right? They’d have to move her up to the cooler projects. Maybe even get her on the terraforming efforts she’d been hearing rumors about.
All she had to do was zip out to some crusty old malfunctioning sat and bring it back online, with a full system reformat and reinstall. Simple and direct orders from the client: wipe it clean and make that red light a nice, steady green.
If this was a modern generation four EchoStar, everything could be done remotely. But no, one of the original prototypes had gone dark on them… and that meant sending some spam-in-a-can out into deep space to fix it. For the money they were paying, she’d happily be that spam.
Luck was clearly on her side; who knew that tinkering with her family’s rusty computronium for funsies would lead to a full-time career? With nobody left who could make these old systems sing, everything fell on twentysomething Juno Hayes. She’d use her grandpa’s notes to reset the sat, and secure a fine future in the process.
Despite the family connection, what really sewed the contract up for her was the ability to provide her own FTL ship. A junker, to be sure, but Juno Hayes had made plenty of short-contract supply runs and fix-up jobs to various research stations and sats out there. So few people broke orbit these days no matter how awful things got on this rock, but Juno was willing to cut costs by soaring out into the black all by her lonesome. Just herself, her tin can, and all the books she could read along the way…
As a soft ding called her to the paper scanner (itself an artifact from a bygone age) to collect her digitized files, she allowed herself a big smile. One quick errand in the stars, a simple system restoration, and back again. It’d be nothing but fun, no doubt…
Packing away the files in a tiny stick of computronium, she happened to notice that densely compressed archive she’d paid little attention to while gathering the data.
…a very, very stupid thing your ancestor Jack Hayes did, it warned. One you may need to clean up for me, some day. Before you go and crack open EchoStar16, you’re going to want to read this… because with hindsight, I know now that those "aliens" I was so worried about may be of our own making…
By the time her ride arrived, she barely noticed the various beeps coming in through her connectivity implant.
Because if her grandpa was right… that "one quick errand" would be no simple errand whatsoever.
:: Copyright 2016 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy / http://voxlunch.tumblr.com/
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker / http://www.clker.com/
:: Photographs provided by…
:::: Kelsey Ehrlich / http://dontseekthevoid.tumblr.com
:::: Andrew Delaney / https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-olpJqvD8SYl9J7fbqGTlg
:::: and PublicDomainPictures.net