Saturday Morning Post #83: Between Zero and One (Part 3)

In the third and final part of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem — but he’s finding the real world to be just as frustrating a place.

The cabbie, who was wearing a gigantic blue turban, didn’t speak much English and he really couldn’t drive that well, but Tyler didn’t care. At least he was getting somewhere, heading toward his target. The meter ticked away faster than they seemed to be moving, but whatever. It would be worth every penny once he was back home, back online, back in business.

It was three o’clock already, most of the day wasted. Naturally, the advertised air conditioning in this taxi wasn’t working, so it was very warm, and the back windows only went down halfway. It was hot and stuffy and Tyler dozed off — he’d been awake for at least twenty-four hours straight now. He woke up to a rapping on the window. The cabbie, opening the door, gibbering at him, a stream of incoherent words, then the absolutely intelligible “Twelve-fifty, you pay.”

“Right,” Tyler scraped the gunk from his eyes, got out of the cab and gave the driver twelve-fifty, starting away, then noticing the man staring at him with evil intent.

“What?” he asked. The driver glared at him, eyes narrowing. Tyler thought about it a moment, then remembered vaguely. Taxis were not exact change only and certain people expected a gratuity for doing the job they were getting paid for without screwing up too badly. “Oh, yeah,” he said, looking in his wallet. The smallest he had was a five, which was way too much, right? He tried to calculate fifteen per cent in his head, got as close as somewhere around two dollars. He handed the five to the cabbie, said, “Give me three back,” but the cabbie nodded and smiled, hopped in the car and drove away.

“Hey!” Tyler shouted, but it was no use. The little thief. And it really couldn’t have been a twelve dollar trip. He was only five miles away from home, tops.

Five miles from home, but half a block from his goal. That was good. Anyway, he could write this whole trip off, it was a business expense. He walked to the mall, in through one of the anchor stores, dodging his way through the endless racks of women’s clothes and around the perfume counters. Nothing to see here, nothing of interest, but it was like running a maze to get to the mall proper. How could people shop like this? It was chaos, dashing around, picking through shit, lugging it around, taking forever to check out. Having to repeat the process anew at each store. And why was it that ninety percent of most malls sold nothing but women’s clothing and shoes? Where were the guy stores? Damn few and far between and, even then, half of those only sold men’s clothing and shoes.

Tyler finally made it into the mall, which was eerily quiet and empty at this hour on a weekday. Encouraging Muzak tinkled through the air. It felt safe here. Serene, like a vision of some science fiction utopia from a bad seventies TV movie. Of course, it was a given that, in utopia, something always went wrong. Tyler should know. He’d been there, and now he wasn’t.

He walked down the wide, bright, tiled pathway, remembering a long unused route to the computer store. Halfway down, on the right, just past the Hotdog on a Stick place. And, sure enough, that strangest of food emporia was there, complete with some unfortunate teenage girl in the ridiculous multi-colored outfit, tank top and hot pants, steroidified gob hat rising high above her head, as she bounced up and down on a wooden oar, perpetually making lemonade.

He couldn’t help but stare for a moment. Whoever had come up with that outfit and that preparation method had pulled the perfect scam. “Let’s see. How can we get teenage girls to jiggle their titties around in public in a tight outfit? Aaaah, I know.”

The girl gave Tyler a dirty look, finished up with the oar and vanished into some hidden back room. Tyler let out a single snorted guffaw, then went on past the place, around the corner to where —

“Oh, shit,” he said out loud, getting a nasty look from a passing old woman. The computer store was gone, replaced by a goddamn Starbuck’s. He stood there for a long moment, then looked around. Now what? He wandered back to the center court, bumped into a mall map, an elaborate lit-from-behind thing on an angled pedestal. It looked like prop from Star Trek.

Tyler stood over it, looking for the “search” button, finally remembering he was only looking at dead, non-interactive Plexiglas. So he’d have to do this the old-fashioned way. He scanned the index, down an endless list of “Women’s Clothing” and “Shoes” and “Home Furnishings.” The damn thing wasn’t even alphabetical. “Gifts and Cards,” “Food,” “Entertainment.” Finally, “Specialty Shops,” all three of them — but one of them was called “Nerd Up!” He knew that name. High tech gadgets and gizmos, software, hardware. Perfect. He looked at the map, found the place — naturally, it was as far as possible from here — and started walking.

The dweeb behind the counter laughed at his request. “A modem? A modem… you mean like, the plug into the phone and wait forever at fifty-six modem, that?” he giggled. Tyler nodded. “Yeah, you know, my grandfather used to have one of those.”

“Stuff the ‘tude, it’s temporary,” Tyler answered. “My T-3 is down.”

“Ah. So you’re a victim of the great fiber-optic fuck up.”

“You heard about that?”

“Who hasn’t? The power company and the ISP have been all over the news, pointing at each other. The network is going to be down a month, at least.”

“Where can I get a modem?” Tyler practically begged.

“I don’t know, maybe I can pull one out of my ass,” the clerk shot back.

Tyler grabbed the kid by his lapels, got in his face. “Good, let’s try that,” he said.

“Hey, easy,” the kid answered, giving a weak smile. “We really don’t have anything that low tech here. Did you try Computer Avenue?”

“You mean the Starbucks?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Forgot.”

Tyler let the kid go. There had to be a modem in this store somewhere, but the kid wasn’t even going to go out of his way to look for it. “You’re sure there’s nothing in the back room?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the kid sneered. “Sorry. Have a nice day.”

Tyler wanted to punch him. Instead, he stormed out of the store, sat on the nearest bench, tense, trying to figure out what to do. This whole process would have been so simple online. Of course, if he were still online…

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the ointment,” he remembered from somewhere. That was always the problem. Not the machines, not the technology, but the people behind it. They either designed it to be as fallible and stupid as they all were, or let it run afoul through negligence. It took a bad driver to make a car crash, a careless mechanic to let a plane fall out of the sky.

Human error. That was the bugaboo, the fly in the ointment, the serpent in Eden. Back home, online, everything was fine. Seek anything and ye shall find, and comparison shop and buy and never even have to put your pants on.

Humans are flawed and, though it had been years since he’d been to church, ever since his mother’s funeral mass, he couldn’t help but think of original sin. He’d believed all that hoo-hah once, sincerely. But the more he saw of this imperfect world, the more he doubted that there could be any intelligence behind it. The more he’d gone into his online world, the more he became convinced that everything that mattered was all just a series of zeroes and ones. On and off, good and bad, something and nothing. In this equation, the machines were the ones. The people were all just zeroes.

He noticed a sign in a clothing store window, hanging between two male mannequins, beckoning the gullible. It read “All two suit’s, $199.95.”

“Jesus,” he whispered. “All two?” And what the hell was up with apostrophes, anyway? Had everyone forgotten the difference between plural and possessive? He had bitched on that topic in chat once with a friend in London, who typed back, “You Americans love to stick them where they don’t belong, but over here, we have the nasty habit of leaving them out.”

Add, subtract. One and zero. Something and… nothing.

He stared at the sign and it made him angry. Stupidity and negligence. Laziness. Original sin.

The phrase “all two” is wrong, but the phrase “all three” is correct. Why? Because English has a word for “both.” And Tyler knew enough Spanish to remember the words “ambos,” which meant the same thing. It was probably true in dozens of languages, one of those hard-wired realities that couldn’t be avoided. But why? What was the big deal with two, anyway?

Monogamy, Tyler realized. That had to be it. Humans were monogamous, or tried very hard to be, and so the basic unit of happiness was two. Sure, add a baby and you got the happy family of three, but having a kid wouldn’t get you laid. Since humans loved to cater to their own most base instincts, that was the search that mattered. It wasn’t about fight or flight. It was all about feed or fuck.

And hence, a different word for two, because two really was another kind of one all by itself. So what was this whole religious obsession with three? It didn’t fit the basic design of things. Zero, one, both. No, maybe that was the problem. In trying to push threes, religion had moved out of sync with nature, and so split up to provide coherent views for separate societies. Gods are always the color of their people, after all.

And the religions of the Gods Who Do Not Fuck were the judgemental ones. Especially the big two (that number again) of pushy proselytizers, Christianity and Islam, one born of the other after the mother was stolen from a third religion. And it was Tyler’s mother’s religion that had the big “virgin” fetish.

But where did they find all the big virgins?

And zero and one lead inexorably to two, but you could only get both with a pair of ones, never with a zero involved. What had stuck him in this hellish place right now, thwarted and alone? People.

He stood and wandered the mall, finally reaching a far corner where, improbably, they had planted a carousel in a huge, round atrium. It revolved to a happy calliope tune, all white paint and gold gilt, pastel colored horses leaping up and down as it revolved. Mirrors around the central core made the whole thing seem vertiginously deeper than it was, and round white bulbs flickered on and off, chasing themselves along the edges and lines of the thing.

It was a beautiful, flawless machine. Tyler just stared at it, feeling the small rush of air as it turned past, watching the murals above the mirrors, which revolved with the canopy, their blurring motion giving them a strange sort of life-like hue that was not in the original painting.

The carousel was almost empty, a few kids scattered here and there on the great leaping beasts, animals frozen in time, painted shades of lavender and pink and yellow, manes gilded in gold trim, black-iron bridles in their mouths. A sign proclaimed that this Merry-Go-Round had originally been built in 1920. Imagine that. Back when people still cared, didn’t make stupid mistakes. And that was why this machine, so improbably anachronistic, had survived into another century.

The atrium stretched to a dome a good fifty feet up. Tyler went to the escalator, wound his way to the top, a fourth level food court with a big hole in the center, a vantage point to watch the carousel from above. The carousel was even more amazing from this point of view, a giant circle turning steadily counter-clockwise, white painted square-tube spokes radiating from the center, the secret rods that made the horses leap visible, all the pretty lights strung out, cheerful.

It was the simplest of machines, really. A wheel with a few fancy gewgaws. A gigantic zero, but in turning, it became something. It made people happy, however briefly.

Tyler watched it, hypnotized by the motion, leaning on the railing and staring down. Then he noticed the pentagon in the center, anchor-point for the light strands on top. That was an interesting choice. Then he realized that these lights were strung out to form a five-pointed star, inside a circle. That was kind of spooky. He was looking at a huge pentagram, hidden on top of this kiddie ride, turning to the left, alternately one point up and two points up, from white magic to black magic, good and evil, off and on. And five was just two plus three, both plus all, the collision of nature and belief, reality and illusion.

Tyler had been riding his own carousel, blithely thinking the horse would take him where he wanted to go, but he’d been spinning in the same circle for more than a year. Sure, it kept him fed, made the house payments, afforded him all kinds of toys. But he was the only one in that house, the only one enjoying it. He had friends all over the country, all over the world, but all of them were just words onscreen, maybe the occasional blurry, jerky video feed, reduced to binary bits and pieces, digital information, all just so many zeroes and ones.

It took losing that connection to make him realize he wasn’t even connected at all.

It was nice standing here, actually. And maybe that design on the carousel really wasn’t some sigil of evil. After all, it was a star, a guiding light, pointing the way. It was completely out of his control, but that was how Tyler had landed here in the first place, losing control of his world. Maybe he had to give it up completely to get it back.

He watched the thing turn, big wooden circle sweeping over a gray and white checkerboard floor. From here, he could see that the murals were pastoral, green and blue scenes of idyllic countrysides from never-never picture books. Each one was the size of one of the mirror frames, which made perfect sense. As above, so below. Symmetry, order, rational thought.

And this would be how he decided what to do next. Of course. It was staring him in the face. The wheel of fortune, the answer to his dilemma. When it stopped, if the murals lined up with the mirrors, he would live with his current problem, explain to his clients that he was taking time off, try to get the car started, go out and do… something. If they did not line up, he’d find that modem, somewhere, anywhere.

The carousel was so perfect, perfect because of its simplicity and its beauty, its having a place in the world and a function.

It was slowing down. Tyler watched, a little dizzy as he tried to follow the spokes. Yes, it was slowing down, ever so gradually, losing speed. He would have his answer soon.

He glanced at his watch, not out of urgency, but rather curiosity over how long this process would take. There didn’t seem to be any brakes on the thing. They were just letting it wind down at its own good pace, the master of its fate, uninfluenced by anybody, yet influenced by everything — the people on it, air resistance, gravity, probably the rotation of the earth itself. Everything in the universe was focused on that spot, on that wheel.

One minute. It was still turning.

It was going half the speed now, and slowing down less quickly. After another minute, it hadn’t seemed to have gotten much slower at all. Tyler leaned his elbows on the railing, looked straight down. He could see people on the ride going through the ready to get off motions. So it must have been slowing perceptibly. But it had been three minutes by now and it was still turning, the star still spinning.

Molasses time. At four minutes, the carousel looked like it was going to halt at any second, and yet it kept going, creeping, murals turning above mirrors, star ever-pointing in a different direction. Momentum and inertia. He thought of a roulette wheel, decision actually made long before it came to a standstill, and yet invisible until just before it stopped. It was like that now, the edges of the murals lining up with the mirrors and then moving out of sync, but oh-so-slowly, teasingly. Tyler held his breath, watching.

The murals aligned with the mirrors as the thing seemed to have exhausted all its energy, hesitated. Yes, of course, it was a big, perfect machine, everything had to line up, everything had to fit, his decision had to be escape to the real world. Tyler smiled, then his expression changed to blank disappointment as the murals crept ahead a few inches and the whole thing stopped, out of alignment, imperfect, flawed.

“Damn,” he said, smacking the railing with both hands. And obviously, somebody hadn’t done their job right at some point, something he realized as the railing pitched forward, broke free with his full weight on it, tumbling him over and headlong, great white motionless star below growing rapidly closer to his face.

He did notice on the way down, though, that those lights were so very pretty as they blinked, on and off, bright and dark, one and —

Zero.

* * *

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