02 August 2013

Head crash

Neal Stephenson's satirical first novel The Big U is rightly obscure. It's not very good. But there are moments where you can see the writer he will become.

The terminal went blank. From just behind them came a violent scream, like a buzzsaw wrenching to a stop in a concrete block. They knew it though they had never heard it before; it was the sound of a disc unit dying, the sound made when the power was cut off and the automatic readers (similar to the tone-arms of phonographs) sank into, and shredded, the hysterically spinning magnetic discs. It was to them what the snapping of a horse's leg is to a jockey, and when they spun around they were astonished and horrified to see a curtain of water pouring onto the floor from the circular walkway overhead. Not more than a dozen feet from the base of the Janus 64, the ring was spreading inward.

“Hey, Fred ’n’ Con!” someone yelled. At one end of the room, at the window that looked out into the Terminal Room, an overweight blond-bearded hacker squinted at them. “What's going on? System problems? Oh, Jeeeezus!”

He turned to his comrades in the Terminal Room, screaming, “Head crash! Head crash! Water on the brain!” Soon two dozen hackers had vaulted through the window into the Center and were sprinting down the aisles as fast as their atrophied legs could carry them, the men stripping off their shirts as they ran. Another disc drive shorted out and sizzled to destruction. Abruptly Fred Fine spun and grabbed the Operator's Key-chain, then ran through the circular waterfall toward another wall of the Center, shouting for people to follow him.

In seconds he had snapped open the door to the storage room, where tons of accordion-fold computer paper were stored in boxes. As some of the hackers did their best to sweep water away from the base of the Janus 64, the rest formed a line from the storage room to the central circle. The boxes were passed down the line as quickly as possible, slit open with Fred Fine's authentic Civil War bayonet and their contents dumped out as big green-and-white cubes inside the deadly water-ring. Though it did not entirely stem the flow, the paper absorbed what it did not dam. Soon all space between the waterfall and the CPU was covered with at least two feet of soggy computer paper. Meanwhile, Consuela had shut down all the disc drives.

The danger was past. Fred Fine, still palpitating, noticed a small waterfall in the corner of the storage room. Flicking on the lights for the first time, he clambered over the stacked boxes to check it out. In the corner, three pipes about ten inches in diameter ran from floor to ceiling. One was swathed in the insulation used for hot water pipes. Water was running down one of the bare pipes; higher up. above the ceiling, it must be leaking heavily. Fred Fine put his hand on the third pipe and found that it was neither hot nor cool, and did not seem to be carrying a current. A firehose supply pipe? No, they were supposed to be bright red. He puzzled over it, rubbing his hand over the long thin whiskers that straggled down his cheeks when he had been computing for a week or more.

As he watched, the hiss of running water lowered and died away and a few seconds later the leak from above was stemmed. There was the KLONK of an air hammer in a pipe. Fred Fine put his hand on the mystery pipe, and began to feel the gentle vibration of running water underneath, and a sensation of coolness spreading out from the interior.

The hackers saw him wandering slowly toward the Janus, which rose like an ancient glyph from the tumbled, sodden blocks of paper. He had a distant look, and was consumed in thought.

“These are the End Times,” he was heard to say. “The Age draws to a close.”

He was no weirder than they were, so they ignored him.

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