Flash Fiction: The SysOp

Time to summon and conjure two random numbers and have a full head-on crash of two genres for this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge. Two lists, forty genres. I rolled a 7 and an 18, so I get “It’s just like ‘The Matrix’ meets ‘The Godfather’!”

Okey dokey. 142 minutes until midnight, I’m wearing sun glasses, I’ve got my alt music blaring, and I’m on the backup computer while the primary freaks out tonight. Let’s hit it — I’m on a mission from Chuck!

As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.

THE SysOp

The room was cold, air conditioned to the point where it could double as a meat locker. Steel book shelves lined one wall, some of the shelves sagging under the weight of binders full of esoteric hardware specifications and software manuals, others overflowing with stacks of printouts on reams of wide, greenbar paper. The sole window didn’t look outside at whatever natural setting or cityscape might be there, but faced inside, to row upon row of cabinets, some with blinking lights, some with spinning tape drives, all lit by banks of glaring greenish fluorescent overhead lights.

On the desk were four monitors, each displaying its information in twenty-five rows of eighty green characters. Some of the information changed from time to time, while one monitor seemed to have a cascading waterfall of data streaming past in an unending torrent, the green symbols blurring into one another as they fell. A web of data and power cables wound off the back of the desk and into a rat hole in the wall.

The only chair in the room was behind the desk, occupied by a portly young man wearing a Hawaiian shirt despite the room’s chill. His skin had a pale and pasty pall, the color and texture of a blind fish found in an underground cave. His long hair was greasy, tied back in a ponytail. Acne pockmarked his face like the surface of an alien planet. He was hunched over one of the monitors’ keyboard, typing furiously with two fingers.

The visitor was ushered in by a freshman computer science student. The visitor looked around briefly for a place to sit, but found only more stacks of printouts and computer hardware in various stages of disassembly. Trying to find something to do with his hands, he stuck them into his pockets, fidgeted, and waited to be noticed by the man behind the desk.

“What do you want?” the man behind the desk asked, without looking up or stopping his henpecking on the keyboard.

“Um, I guess… I want to… What I mean is, I was told to talk to you about getting my program to run.”

“I don’t fix code, that’s up to you. Bye.”

“No, I’m sorry, sir, that isn’t it, not at all,” the visitor stammered. “I’ll test the code and debug it. But the program is too big to load or compile or run on my account. I need more space.”

The man behind the desk stopped typing and looked up. “What kind of program?”

“It’s a game I’m writing, ‘Star Smasher.’ It’s a simulation program just like ‘Star Trek’ but with more realistic battle scenarios. You see, I figured out…”

“Shut up, kid.” The man behind the desk squinted through his thick glasses. “How old are you anyway and what are you doing here?”

“I’m sixteen, and like I said, I’m trying to get my program…”

“Shut up, kid. Not what are you doing here, but what are you doing here, like at this college? Are you a student?”

“Oh, no sir, I’m a high school student still. I just come up here on weekends to work on this project.”

“How did you get an account on our system?”

“I have an Advanced Student Enrichment Program account, from that program the governor started last year.”

“And I’m supposed to believe you’re writing a program on that account? Those accounts aren’t set up for that. They’re just to let you pretend you know what you’re doing and maybe learn some simple UNIX commands. ASEP’s a joke.”

“Right, I figured that out, sir. But I’ve been writing the program back at my school on our PDP-8, testing it in small segments. Now I want to compile all of the segments together and debug the whole thing. But I need more space on your system to do that.”

The man behind the desk sat back in his chair and examined the visitor. For many long seconds a battle played out across his brow, his contempt finally being overcome by his curiosity and greed.

“Okay, kid, here’s what you can get. First of all, don’t ever call me ‘sir’ again, got it?”

“Uh, yeah, okay.”

“How big is this program of yours, how many lines of code?”

“About nine thousand lines right now, but that includes a lot of duplication because I have segments of the same code in each module to make them run well enough to debug. Once I can combine them all that should compact to about six thousand lines.”

“Exactly how are you going to get all of that code into my system? Do you expect to sit here for the next two years and type it in?”

“Oh, no, of course not. I have it all on paper tape.”

The man behind the desk bit his lip and considered whether or not his leg was being pulled. “Paper tape. You don’t have anything on mag tape? IBM 727 or 729 format? Nine-track?”

The visitor looked down at his shoes, embarrassed. “We just have a small system at my high school, a teletype, paper tape reader, and the system box in an old storage closet. It’s the best we can do. That’s why I’m here for your help.”

“Don’t sweat it, kid. We’ve got paper tape readers, I just hope that they’re compatible.” He leaned forward onto the desk to get the visitor’s attention. “Here’s the deal. I’ll give you an account that can compile and run your program. You can have it for the next four weekends.”

The visitor looked up, startled by the possibility that he might have his request granted.

“But there needs to be something in it for me,” the man behind the desk said.

Just as fast as his hope has risen, the visitor’s expression crashed. “But I don’t have anything to trade or pay, I’m just a high school kid!”

“Relax, kid, it’s not that bad. Someone’s paying for gas to get you up here and back, right? That can’t be cheap, gas is pushing seventy cents a gallon.”

“Yeah, my parents are paying for some of that, and I have money from my paper routes.”

“I’m a reasonable man, with simple needs, kid. Here’s a deal that you can’t pass up, especially if you ever want to see your pretty little program run. For the next four weekends, at the beginning of the shifts, you bring in a pizza for me and a six-pack of Coke. Large pizza, thick crust, everything on it, but no anchovies. Make sure the Coke’s cold. I’m here every night on the swing shift, midnight  to eight. You keep me happy, I’ll keep you happy.”

The visitor thought about what his options might be. He was too young to have done much wheeling and dealing, especially with someone in such a position of power over him. But it was a deal that would let him see his creation come alive, and little else in his life mattered more at the moment.

“Okay, it’s a deal. Pizza and Coke at midnight, Friday and Saturday nights.”

The man behind the desk smiled in what was supposed to be a reassuring way. “Done. Give me about five minutes to set up your account. You’ll find a paper tape reader in room #319. One of my people in there can help you with that if you need it. Oh, and one more thing.”

The visitor stiffened, the grin celebrating his success frozen in place.

“If and when your program runs,” the man continued, “after you have it debugged, I’ll be the first one to play it. You need to make sure that it’s worth my time. Understood?”

The visitor relaxed a bit. “Yes, thank you, understood. You play it first and it will be great.” He paused, hesitant to proceed. “Anything else?”

“No, I think we’re good. I’ll see you tonight at midnight. On your way out, can you tell the next person to come in?” He returned his attention to the monitors on the desk, typing new commands in a rapid staccato.

The visitor thought about issuing another “thank you,” but decided instead to get out before the deal got changed any further. He left as instructed, pausing only to wave absently at the next person waiting in the line outside.

The older gentleman in the suit and bow tie walked timidly into the office and waited patiently for his audience to start. He didn’t fidget, having been here many times before, but he knew his place.

The man behind the desk finally turned to him. “Ah, Professor Wilson! So good to see you again. Congratulations on the Nobel Prize, I’m sure it’s well deserved. What can I do for you?”

“Thank you. I have a new project that I’m proposing to NASA and I need to know in advance that you will be able to provide the computing capacity that my department will need.”

The man behind the desk smiled thinly. “Of course, Professor, I’m sure that we can reach an agreement that’s mutually beneficial to the both of us. You should be able to get as much computing power as you need, within reason. And I’m sure that we can find a little something in it for me.”

1 Comment

Filed under Computers, Writing

One response to “Flash Fiction: The SysOp

  1. Jemima Pett

    Delightful, as always – and the wonderful nostalgia of paper tape took me back to punch cards as well 🙂
    I had to cross The Matrix off my list, since I couldnt remember it well enough, but that stirs recognition in me, so maybe I could have, after all – maybe next time!

    Liked by 1 person

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