Saturday Morning Post #81: Between Zero and One (Part 1)

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I flash back to my own life around the time I wrote this, in 2000 or 2001. This was pretty much the state of the internet at the time, and I was working from home as a graphic designer, little suspecting that I would be doing something very similar 20 years later but enjoying it a lot more. Like the lead character, I’m also very big on doing my own hardware and software upgrades, and get easily frustrated when tech fails.

Unable to locate host.

“Piece of shit.” Tyler banged his mouse against the desk in his usual litany of frustration, clicked reload. He waited two seconds, the limit of his patience, clicked reload again. Nothing, and then the error box of death popped up again with its annoying reminder noise. Unable to locate host.

“My ass,” Tyler shouted at his monitor. Still, he couldn’t help but always titter at that error message. It sounded like something an addled priest would say during Mass. Oops, I seem to have misplaced Jesus today… Of course, it had been a long, long time since Tyler had set foot in a church. Or anywhere, for that matter.

He let go of the mouse, went to the keyboard and hit control “R,” holding the keys down as the screen flickered. “Reload this,” he muttered, waiting.

Infinite seconds of nothing, annoying sound, error message the same again.

“Fuck.” Tyler spat. Okay, fine, maybe somebody had hacked the site — although he would hope that a major bank, his bank, was fairly hack-proof. No, it was some transitory problem, something stupid and mechanical, a broken switch or system traffic. Everything would be back up soon. Well, what the hell, in the meantime he could check out his favorite group look at some porn.

He went to his favorites, the folder named “Babes,” scrolled down to “Lusty Busty Beauties” and clicked. This was always good for a few minutes of amusement, any time of day.

Why was everything taking so long? He wasn’t connected by modem. That was so 1998. He was jacked in direct on a T-3 line, forty-five million bits a second. The first naked babe should have popped up on his screen instantly, if not faster.

UNABLE TO LOCATE HOST.

Tyler stared at the screen, frustration mounting. What was going on here? The problem must be on his end. He exited his browser, checked to make sure the operating system didn’t still think it was running (he was going to have to email a nasty note to the browser people over that recurring problem) then ran the program again, waiting.

The error came back, hovering over the empty gray screen of an unconnected browser. “Oh, fuck you,” Tyler grunted. He exited the browser, then rebooted the system. Billions of dollars spent on developing and marketing software and operating systems every year, and they still couldn’t get them right.

While his computer died and came back to life, he padded out to the kitchen, stepping around knee-high stacks of magazines and personal papers, grabbed a cup of coffee from the pot, took a sip. He glanced at the clock. It was four-thirty. Good, so it was just past noon in England and only about ten‑thirty tomorrow night in Sydney. He felt like chatting with some of his friends, maybe he’d do that when he was done with the banking.

He wandered back to the second bedroom he used as an office, where his computer was just finishing up the ever so long process of restarting. He sat down, ready to go back online when another error message popped up. “Unable to establish connection.”

He let out a frustrated shriek, then reminded himself of rule number one in the computer business — check for low density, high impedance connections. To the non-geek world, that was better known as a pulled-out plug. Sure, that must be it, simplest thing in the world to fix. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head far under the desk and peered around the back of his computer case as best he could.

He banged his head on the desk when he started to emerge for the flashlight. What idiot had ever decided that all the connections should be on the back of the computer, anyway? Even with the radio linked keyboard, mouse, printer and webcam, there was still an octopus of cords back there. Tyler grabbed the flashlight and turned it on. Then, he stared at the thing, which refused to illuminate. He flung it across the room, then turned on the overhead light, got back down under the desk and moved the computer to the side, tilting it and squinting.

Everything was plugged in where it was supposed to be. The thick blue wire was firmly in its socket. He jiggled it just to make sure. Yep. Connected. He traced the wire to the wall, where, likewise, it was firmly connected. He unplugged it, put it back in place until it clicked, just to make sure.

This was disconcerting. He heaved himself back into his chair, stared at the screen, then started checking out the settings for his network card. Nothing had changed, everything was correct. He knew these settings by heart, and they were fine. He tried connecting again. Nothing.

If Tyler designed operating systems, these error messages would be the first thing to go, replaced by a graphic of a hand giving the finger. That’s all they were anyway, the computer’s way of saying, “I know there’s a problem, but I’m not going to tell you what, exactly, it is. Nyah, nyah, human.” Was it too much to ask a three thousand dollar piece of plastic and metal with a three hundred dollar operating system to be a little more forthcoming when it failed? Shit, doctors wouldn’t make very much money if they worked that way. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, you’re dying. We don’t know what of, and we can’t stop it, but you’re done for.”

“Motherfucker…” Tyler shouted, banging the desk. He sat there, nostrils flaring for a moment, then shut down the computer and grabbed the screwdriver. “Prep the patient,” he said to himself. “We’re going in.”

* * *

Several hours, five cups of coffee, many reboots and an assload of frustration later, Tyler threw down his screwdriver and fell into a kitchen chair, wanting to cry. He’d taken the network card in and out five times, trying it in different slots, playing with the switches on it, flipping back and forth through the manual, which was about as informative as those error messages. Nothing worked. Every time he tried, every time that he knew this would be the time, it was the same thing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The sun had come up and he could hear neighbor’s cars starting, people heading off for their day. The poor, deluded fools, hurrying off to the rat race which would always begin with some hellishly slow commute, racing the clock and always losing, to go sit in someone else’s place and do someone else’s business and give up every bit of freedom. Tyler had gotten out of that game a long time ago, discovering the joys of telecommuting and Internet consulting, and he didn’t miss any of it.

Except, right now, he could be working and he wasn’t, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. He put the computer back in place, turned it back on, knowing it would be no different this time, and sat there, fuming. He grabbed his Rolodex, flipped through it and found the card for his service provider. He’d listed their customer service hours from eight a.m. to five p.m..

Great, so he’d have to wait two and a half hours? He was about to start cursing all over again when he remembered that the company’s offices were in New Jersey. Maybe that meant eastern time. Maybe he was in luck…

He dialed and waited, listening to the Muzak and the “Someone will be with you shortly” message. He put the phone on speaker and popped up his graphics program, idly flipping through the many photos of women he’d collected, scantily clad and less so, a gallery of objects that were all his any time he wanted them.

He was staring at the unblemished, golden round ass of a girl identified as Tracy (although he’d also run across her as Donna, Eileen and Kitten) when a voice intruded on the speaker. Tyler snatched up the phone. “Yeah, something’s wrong with my connection…” he said, voice cracking and gravelly this early in the morning.

“Let me check that for you, sir,” the chipper voice on the other end said. Tyler hated being called sir on the phone. He was only twenty-six, although he always sounded older. After the usual interminable business of giving his information and proving who he was, the Muzak was back and he waited again. He looked at the girl on the screen, wondered if the girl on the phone looked anything like her. Probably not. But he could pretend.

It seemed like hours but was really only two songs later that someone came back on the phone, but it wasn’t the girl. It was a man, who identified himself as a supervisor. Tyler’s heart fell. Now what? He’d paid his bill. At least, his bank did, automatically, every month. Unless they’d fucked that up.

“Mr. Allen, sorry to inconvenience you, but we’ve had a problem in your area,” the supervisor explained, trying to sound jovial.

“What kind of problem?” Tyler demanded.

“A construction crew — the electric company, actually — well, they cut right through our main fiber-optic line with a backhoe. Our entire system is down on the west coast because of it, but we are taking steps to get it back up.”

“They backhoed your backbone?”

The man laughed. “You could put it that way.”

“So, it’s not my computer?”

“No, no. It’s us. I’m real sorry about this. We will be offering a free month’s service to all of our customers, once things are resolved.”

“How long’s it going to be out, then, a couple of hours?”

“Well, Mr. Allen, I’m afraid not. It’s going to take a little bit longer than — “

“How long?”

“At least until Friday,” the supervisor said quietly, his jovial tone gone.

“Friday!” Tyler screamed. “Fucking Friday?”

“At the earliest, yes.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do until then?”

There was a pause on the other end, then the supervisor went on. “We are doing everything we can to restore your service as quickly as possible, Mr. Allen. We did explain all of this as soon as we knew about it, we sent an email to all of our customers.”

“You sent an email?”

“Yes, it explains everything.”

“An email?”

“Yes, did you get it?”

Tyler wanted to bite the phone in half. As it was, his left hand was practically splintering the plastic. He stood, breathing heavily. “Of course I didn’t fucking get it, you goddamned asshole. How the fuck can I get a fucking email if your fucking system is blown all to fuck for fuck’s sake?”

“Mr. Allen, there’s really no need for such language.”

“Fuck… you!” he screamed, then he slammed the phone down. Friday. Friday at the earliest. No, that couldn’t be. It was a bad dream, that’s what it was. He had work to do, clients to satisfy, people to chat with, things to… look up. Friday may have been their answer, but Friday was no good. To hell with Friday, he needed to be connected right now.

He was about to go online to look up other service providers when he realized that was a stupid idea, then went all around the house looking for the phone book. He finally found it under the bed and, even though the “Use Until” date on the cover was over a year ago, he flipped through it, found Internet Service Providers and started calling… and then realized that, while it may have been well into that supervisor’s work day, things still hadn’t really started out here and this was the local phone book.

Jesus, was that an archaic idea. Just local numbers? When would the phone company figure out that business had gone global? If he could look it up online, he’d find a company on the east coast that was ready to deal in five minutes.

But if he could look it up online…

Tyler slammed the phone book, stared at the clock, then stomped out to the kitchen. He’d have to wait two or three hours. Two or three hours, or wait until Friday. At the earliest.

Life sucked.

* * *

“Sure, we can get you T-3 service, you say you have all the hardware set up?”

“Yes,” Tyler said hopefully.

“And I’ve checked your location, we do service that area.”

“Great, great,” Tyler said. “So, how soon can you do it?”

“Let me check…” the woman paused, consulting something. “I can have a technician out there in… three weeks.”

“But I don’t need a technician, everything is set up, just turn it on.”

“That would be our self-service option — “

“Yeah, yeah, self-service, whatever. How long does that take?”

“We can have your service activated by… a week from Thursday. And right now, we have a special promotion — ”

“A week from fucking Thursday?” Tyler said.

“Y-yes. And our promotion — ”

“No sooner?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

“All right. It’s a very good promotion  — ”

“Ram your fucking promotion up your ass, bitch.”

And he slammed down the phone for the seventh or eighth time that morning. He’d lost count. What was the problem with people? In theory, it would take all of five seconds to reroute his hook-up.

He had a DNS, his computer was a server, just send someone out to swap the wiring from the old company to the new one’s cables, change a little designation in a database somewhere, let it propagate, and bang, he’d be back in business.

The whole point of humans creating the internet in the first place was so that the entire system of military and university computers would stay connected, and no information would be lost in the case of all-out nuclear war.

Somebody had explained it once as the difference between good Christmas tree lights and shitting ones. If you bought shitty lights, where everything was wired in series, if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. But if you bought the good lights, where everything was wired in parallel, if one bulb burned out, none of the others would even notice.

In theory. The weak link was the human link, as in it would take some poor lazy asshole to get up out of a chair and go do something, and that was what took all the time, all the waste, all the frustration. That was the real reason computers sucked when they failed. They were designed by humans. Machines should have been superior to their creators, but they were not.

Of course, if that was the case, the human condition really did not bode well for the creative abilities of god.

It was noon by the time he finished with the last company, heard the same refrain. The earliest anyone could hook him up was a week and a day. The real world operated at a snail’s pace. He hung up with a quiet, “No, thank you.” He’d long since used up all the good profanity he knew, getting pretty creative around the twentieth call, pretty resigned by the thirtieth.

Of course, there was always the annoying fallback of using a dial-up service, even if it did mean switching temporarily to a regular modem. He went to the linen closet, opened it and surveyed the graveyard of abandoned peripherals. There were CD‑ROMs, floppy drives, old keyboards, two printers, a trackball, half a dozen joysticks, an ancient black and white webcam, a newer but just as outdated color one, and a stack of cards with uses that Tyler had practically forgotten. He pulled down the cards, flipped through the stack looking for that familiar UART chip.

Nope, nope, not that one, no, no… none of them were modems. None of them. That was unbelievable. He’d been through a dozen modems in the last five years, he had to have one sitting around.

Then he remembered. The day he’d gotten his T-3, he’d burned all the modems, actually put them in a metal bucket, doused them with lighter fluid and gleefully torched them. Sure, it had set off the smoke alarm in the living room, but it had been worth it. Ancient history, consigned to the fate it deserved.

In retrospect, it had been a really bad idea. But it was the thought that counted, and Tyler knew what he had to do now. Go out, buy a modem, and deal with it until Friday. At the earliest.

He started for the door, then realized he was wearing his robe and pajamas. Oops. Change first, then go out. He went to the bedroom, dug through the mound of laundry, found some clothes that didn’t smell too bad and changed. Okay, that was done with, now… wallet and keys, that was it. Wallet and keys, where were they? He hunted around the house for a good fifteen minutes before he found them, dusty and forgotten under a stack of magazines.

He also found his watch, which was actually still working. He looked at the date on it. September 10th. That sounded familiar. It took him a minute to remember, then he realized it had been just over a year since he’d last gone out this door. He hadn’t had to. He did all his business online, got paid by his clients through direct deposit, ordered everything from the Internet, even his groceries, had it all delivered.

He never went out to the movies but consumed a steady stream of DVDs by mail rental, ordered his stamps, his books and his CDs, got his news of the world, had all his friends, online. He knew people all over the world, chatted with them incessantly. He had sex with a lot of them, in the safest way possible, sometimes with the webcam, sometimes just with words.

He’d probably gotten off a lot of middle-aged businessmen who pretended to be teenage girls that way, but as long as Tyler didn’t know, he didn’t care. And if that method failed, there was always Kitten or Donna or Eileen, or whoever they really were, just an assortment of glowing dots writhing all over his great, big twenty-one inch monitor, beckoning him in the dark.

It was like somebody had cut both his legs off with that random backhoe. He wondered if the company had been lying to him. Was it really the power company? Blaming the power company in California was like blaming Palestinians in the Knesset. Was his service provider lying to cover up an inevitable act of human negligence and laziness?

That still didn’t change the length of time he’d have to wait, and he couldn’t wait. He put on his watch, pocketed his wallet and keys, went to the front door and grabbed the knob. He took a deep breath, then pulled the door open and stepped outside.

* * *

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.