In the Fall (c) copr all rights reserved 1995 by T.J.Hardman, Jr. HTML version of In The Fall (c) copr all rights reserved 1996 by T.J.Hardman, Jr and TJH Internet SP. No part of this work may be reproduced, copied or distributed without the express handwritten permission of the author, with the exception of on-screen viewing.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to any persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Some use may be made herein of real locations or institutions, but such use is entirely fictional in intent. Any use of tradenames or trademarks is completely accidental, and is not to be interpreted as any attempt to disparage or recommend.
Many thanks are extended to those who have been trying to keep abreast of issues and technologies which will be examined in detail in this story.
All menuing systems described herein, especially motion-control menuing systems, where not already under patent or copyright protection, should be considered the intellectual property of T.J. Hardman, Jr and are not to be duplicated in any manner whatsoever without direct contractual consent. Insofar as it is implied, all due credit is to be given to the pioneers of voice-recognition systems, particularly International Business Machines (IBM). All described original inventions and modifications to extant simple technologies, or combinations of advanced extant technologies into new systems are to be considered the intellectual property of T.J. Hardman, Jr. and may not be marketed for profit without contractual arrangements.
Some of the predicted icon-based task-programming systems are conceptually similar to a display motif of a product of the University of New Mexico called 'khoros', although to my knowledge, their scientific dataprocessing and visualization system was developed completely independently of my own concepts.
The next day, right after breakfast, Wilson was paged for a phone call. He'd already heard the speech on how to do resumes about fifteen times. When he got the page, he waved to the guard, who nodded. Wilson walked to the wallcom, slotted OneCard, and the screen lit. There was an Admin person in one quadrant, and the man who had interviewed him for the job in another. Harry was there also, grinning mightily. The final quadrant of the screen was a dataview, with tiny type showing everyone's names and titles. Wilson was impressed. "Wilson Forbrush, sir. How can I help you?"
The interviewer spoke up. "You can start by reporting to work in two weeks."
Wilson's face creased into a smile. Harry's smile also grew, and then he spoke: "Sir, this man has some of the best uptake and assimilation rates on the telefactoring skills that I have ever seen. I realize that you'd probably rather have someone with more direct experience, but the whole field is still pretty new, and experienced people cost their weight in gold these days. Mr. Forbrush here has a good attitude, and willingness and ability to learn, and he's eminently available."
The Admin clerk was not about to let this slight conversational pause go unanswered, and he immediately butted in. "Sir, I might add here that given Mr. Forbrush's record, he would be one of the best possible choices from within our service. No criminal history other than peripateticism. From what we can gather (peripatetics, you know, don't usually have as comprehensive a record as regular people) he's been a solid worker even though peripatetic. We think that this job would be excellent rehabilitation for him." As the Admin clerk spoke, the interviewer scowled somewhat, and Harry rolled his eyes.
The interviewer spoke again: "Well, sir I don't really care all that much about rehabilitation, I just want a man who can and will do the job. Harry here assures me that Mr. Forbrush here has the aptitude for this position, and from what I have heard of your facilities, you've probably given him the motivation." Wilson opened his mouth as if to speak, and the interviewer noticed this, and said, "Well, what do you have to say about all of this?"
Wilson thought for just one second. "Sir, this is probably the best break that I've had, employment-wise, in about fifteen years. I've always worked with medium-to-heavy equipment, but I wasn't exactly getting paid very well, all under the table as you know. This is the most fascinating thing I've ever run across, in fact, if I can work with telefactor heavy equipment, I'd do it for room, board and beer money. If you let me have this job, you'll be getting a dedicated worker. For real, sir, just ask Harry. I'm already in love." On the other screen, Harry grinned again, and spoke up: "It's probably not going to be all that interesting, once you've learned the job, and taught it to the telefactors you'd be operating. Mr. Richards, I've rarely seen anyone so fascinated by telefactoring, in fact, Wilson here is just like a kid on Christmas morning, glued to the new toy. I think he might even be wasted as a Support Tech IV, you could probably have him running as a III or even a Two inside a month or two."
Mr. Richards considered this for a moment, and as he did, the Admin clerk spoke up. "Sir, under the provisions of our contract, you have to hire him as a Tech Four. You can direct-hire him after three months, but for the period that he's temping out through us, you'll have to keep him as a Four. We do have our policy that no inmate here can take a job that should be filled from the outside labor pool."
Mr. Richards had steepled his fingers, he unsteepled them now. "OK, I'll take him as a Tech Four. As soon as possible. In fact, I can take him earlier than I said I would, in fact, when can I have him?"
Wilson was to be, as they said inside, "sold up the river" the day after tomorrow.
"I'll be ready sir!" he said, grinning ear-to-ear. The Admin clerk gave him a sour look, and he and Mr. Richards separated their call to another conference. Harry told Wilson to report for more training.
Harry welcomed him warmly. The telefactor was humming in a corner of the room, sitting up like a hunting mantis, or perhaps more like a six-legged begging dog. It was holding a half-pint of cheap bourbon in its right front waldo. Wilson regarded it longingly, and said, "What's up?"
"Well, if you can get him to bring it to you without dropping it, you can have a drink. Simple, huh?"
"Hmm," Wilson said, "A toughie." He moved over to the workstation, where he seated himself. "Recognize voice, Forbrush, Wilson R."
"Recognized, voice mode enabled." The speech synthesizer was of pretty good quality. It sounded fairly human, if dead.
"Menu posture erect quad..." Wilson trailed off a bit as he examined the pulldowns that had appeared as he spoke. "...Maintain. Menu carry hold. Menu motion come-to control. Menu display dry-run finish." On the screen, the stylized telefactor icon moved across the floor to the control unit, walking on only the rear four legs, keeping the front legs immobile. Wilson grimaced, and said, "Menu display dry-run step step. Step, step step step step hold. Menu carry right carry plane horizontal carry extend point-five meter. Menu carry hold. Menu display dry-run finish." Satisfied, Wilson looked at Harry, and said, "Here goes." Harry shrugged. Wilson addressed the workstation again. "Menu move run."
The telefactor whirred a bit more loudly, and took five steps, stopping about three feet away from them, and held the bottle out to him. "You want a blast, Harry?"
"I think you've earned this one. You catch on pretty quickly, Wilson, you really do." Wilson placed his hand around the bottle, and ordered, "Menu carry right release," took the bottle, unscrewed the cap, and took a healthy belt. It was his first drink in about two months, and it burned like fire. He gasped for a moment, and then when his eyes stopped watering, he shook his head and passed it to Harry, who also took a splash. The telefactor remained where it was, immobile. "Menu motion return motion rest," said Wilson, and the telefactor backpedaled to the corner of the room, and folded its arms and itself. It crouched on the floor like a giant spider, and the humming of its compressors muted to near-inaudibility.
"So," said Harry, "Let's talk."
"Suits me, what about?"
"Heh," Wilson chuckled, "not even my first day and we're already talking shop."
Harry actually lost his grin. So he could look serious after all, thought Wilson. "Wilson, my man, you are one lucky bastard. You are getting in on the ground floor of an extremely big project. How's your history?"
"Not too bad, depends on what you're talking about. I got okay grades in highschool."
"Okay, ever hear of the CCC, the Civil Conservation Corps?"
"Well, let me refresh you in detail. It was established in 1933 by the Franklin Roosevelt administration, part of the New Deal, if I remember correctly. Great Depression era, anyway. The idea was to provide work and vocational training for large numbers of young men who couldn't find work, and also to conserve and develop the country's natural resources. They got food, housing, and a base pay of $30.00 a month, not too bad for pay in those days, when the alternative was begging or starvation. They employed some three million men in over four thousand camps, planted two billion trees, built one hundred thousand miles of minor roads, seventy- five thousand miles of telephone lines, and built six million erosion control dams. They also built hundreds of state parks, and fought forest fires, and received training in blacksmithing, heavy equipment operation, general mechanics, and so on. Sound familiar?"
"Uh, why yes, it does. I thought that they did a lot of other stuff too..."
"What's important here is the following concept... these guys built a significant portion of the infrastructure, the underpinnings, if you will, of the industrial might that allowed the United States to win the Second World War. Sure, there were lots of other factors, but let's just say that if these guys hadn't built, say, the Tennessee Valley dams, there might have been electrical power shortages, and communications failures,and other things that would have left the industries of the country at some risk of shortfall during the war. Another thing to consider is that most of this work couldn't possibly have been done, not affordably, outside of a Depression with the associated overflow of unemployed young men willing to work for food and housing. Things got done, people stayed healthy, and learned skills, and so on."
"Okay, but what's the point? I can see that running all of the illegals out made it possible for the government to put all of the Welfare people to work doing cheap labor, but I don't see anything getting built."
"That's about to change. You see, the CCC did all of that work nearly seventy-five years ago, and while they built well, they weren't putting quite as much effort into it as did, say, the Romans. The people who built the Interstates during the 1950s did a slightly less-good job, quality-wise, though they did a much bigger job. Sometimes, I am surprised that they got it done at all. Then later, as suburbs exploded everywhere, and county and municipal-level roads had to be slapped into place faster and faster simply to keep up with the population explosion, the quality of work and materials necessarily suffered."
"OK, so the world is going to hell in a handbasket. This is news?" Wilson still didn't quite get it.
"Here's the clincher. It seems that the later it was built, the less sturdily it was built. And if you take something built seventy-five years ago that has a life of eighty-five years, and something that was built fifty-five years ago that has a life of sixty years, and something that was built thirty years ago that has a life of forty years, and something that was built fifteen years ago that has a life of twenty years, what do you have?"
"Right. Oh. You have everything going to hell in a handbasket, all at the same time."
"And so the CCC is born again?"
Harry got even more serious for a second. "In spades. We have to literally rebuild the whole country, and do it staggering under a national debt that makes the Depression look like a spring holiday, and we have to do it all at once, and we have maybe ten years to get a decent start on it, before everything collapses around us. And you're going to be a part of it."
Harry escorted Wilson to the terminal, and saw him onto the bus. The bus driver occasionally looked up from his screen and regarded him throughout the drive. He also checked out other passengers. There had been quite a crowd at the gate, waiting for transportation, all dressed in the uniform of the Welfare inmate. Their OneCards had been their boarding passes, and once they were aboard, the driver spun the superflywheel up to speed, disconnected from the power grid, and they whirred away.
Wilson pondered the significance of the conversation he'd had with Harry two days before. There was inarguable deterioration all over the place. Throughout the Maryland section of the Sprawl, there was an odd contrast of hightech and lowtech, with the hightech represented by this week's silicon and superconductor, rapidly recycled when obsolete, intense concentrations of knowledge and industrial might bundled into the information/service economy's engines of production... but take away the electricity, and nothing worked, the computers would all be useless even for paperweights, since paper had been largely rendered obsolete, except for packaging and clothing.
The lowtech, on the other hand, was best represented by real- estate, the underpinnings, to use Harry's phrase. The lowtech world was visibly rotting. The hightech bus, powered by electricity stored inertially in the superflywheel, was in constant communication with its base, inboard logic ran constant safety and efficiency checks, and the various riders all had beltcoms, or even the occasional laptop... but the road the bus travelled was full of cracks and potholes that threatened to engulf even the huge bus tires, and the driver was constantly weaving from side to side to avoid the worst of them.
They passed under a bridge, and Wilson could see sky through a hole in the decking, and rusted reinforcement bars showed through spalled shoring. They crossed another bridge, crossing the Patapsco River, and Wilson noted the construction data on the bridge - 1936. It was still holding together fairly well, it seemed - probably due to the fact that it was nearly all steel. The surface was streaked heavily with old paint, oils, and the grit of the city, but Wilson could see beneath all of that, and he knew that this bridge could last a lot longer, if it was maintained properly... which probably meant it should be sandblasted and painted every few years. He sort of doubted that this happened that frequently.
They took I-70 to the west, and what should have been a one hour trip to Frederick took two and a half hours due to lanes closed for repair. Huge chunks of road were being ripped right out of the bedrock, and immense machines trundled back and forth. Wilson thought he recognized an RL-442, but it might have been simply an ordinary asphalt surfacer.
Once they got past Frederick, the road was narrower, only three lanes each way, but all of the lanes were open. Wilson wondered at this, until he saw, as they climbed a long-haul grade, a sign memorializing this route as the Cumberland Trail. The condition of this road suddenly made more sense to him... there might well be a good twenty-foot depth to this roadbed, over two hundred years of history as well. Roads laid upon roads, laid upon roads... and suddenly he had an inkling of what was to come.
Near Breezewood, Pennsylvania, is the beginning of the Pennsylvania Turnpike westward. This is considered by most as the first of the Interstates. It's certainly a well-made road, and it was built with state bonds and has paid for itself, both construction and maintenance. It has never received a cent of Federal money. Two lanes across from two lanes of rock, concrete, and occasional macadam, and later, other more durable surfaces.
Breezewood, once tiny, has turned into a 24-hour town, with many fast-food restaurants for the weary traveller, service stations, which used to sell gasoline and diesel fuel, but which now mostly swap batteries and offer hookups for superflywheel driven vehicles. It has its own powerstation for this last capability. The other end of the Turnpike, near Martinsburg, West Virginia, draws power from the grid in Wheeling.
A few miles outside of Breezewood, there was a camp, or rather a mid-sized tent city. There, the bus halted, and the driver ushered them out of the bus and into the parking lot in front of one of the few permanent buildings, evidently an old school or warehouse. A man was there to bid them follow, and follow they did.
Wilson waited in line like everyone else, and finally, was able to present his OneCard to an Admin clerk. The clerk, bored, swiped his card through the reader slot, and gave him a sticker to place on the back of it. "Through the double doors, get some coffee, you'll need it. Bulletin board in there will tell you where you need to go, what you'll need, all of that stuff."
Wonderful, thought Wilson, who had avoided the Army mostly to avoid this sort of treatment, but on reflection, he decided that this had to be better than the Welfare prison. He wandered through the double doors.
Surprisingly, the coffee was hot, black, and not decaffeinated. He felt a tiny kick after his first few sips, and the road-exhaustion fell away, as did the remnants of his interminable headache. He slotted his OneCard at a small bulletin board, the first one he came to, and it explained the way to go to his tent. It printed a folding wallet-sized card, and spat it at him. He took it and perused it as his coffee cooled. The writing began to make sense and he gulped the rest of the cup and set out for work, reading the printout. On one side was some camp rules, and on the other side was a map, with the route to his tent printed in bold. Fine. At the next bulletin board, he got another card, this one telling him where to find the quartermaster for the camp. Again, just fine.
It took him the rest of the day to get settled in. The four-man MILSPEC tent was actually pretty nice, made out of some extremely strong plastic, with an opaqueable layer of some ovonic crystalfilm. The crystalfilm evidently had photovoltaic properties as well; leads led from the peak of the tent to a small power converter on the slat floor. It was semi-inflatable, with flat air-filled panels along the surfaces, with only the corners being non-insulated. It did nothing to cut down the noise coming from the workyards and machine lots next to the residence camp, but it would certainly keep the rain off, and would probably keep the heat in, down to about fifty below. The doubled layers of crystalfilm and the dead airspace of the inflatable panels probably made excellent solar collectors. The flooring was simply lath palleting, perfect for the mud of spring and summer. Mud there was aplenty here in the camp. Wilson was evidently the first to arrive, and he settled into the far cot.
He'd been issued some durable plastic construction boots, and four pairs of paper/plastic fiber-composite overalls, which had practically no cost and would last for weeks under heavy use.
He'd been issued a beltcom, very standard and low-cost make, with a local-access account. He could make local calls, view locally- rebroadcast video and access the National Electronic Teledata System (NETS (tm), which was the American domain of the more global InterNet), and he could get local updates, which would of course be priority. He turned it on by sticking his OneCard into the slot and left it playing on the central table. A dead synthetic voice began to enumerate camp rules and etiquette blurbs.
He also had been issued a toiletries kit and underwear and socks and two pair of heavy workgloves. There was a small chest under the cot for all of these items, and he had his gear stowed in about twenty minutes.
The beltcom was going on and on about please make proper use of the toilet facilities, please conduct yourself in a courteous and responsible manner, etc, and Wilson was getting pretty tired of it when someone scratched politely at the entrance of the tent. "Come in!" he said, loudly.
A moment later, he was on his feet, giving Harry a warm handshake. Greetings were exchanged, and Harry asked him, "How ya like the new digs?"
"At least I have entertainment, even if it's not exactly the latest skin-flick," Wilson allowed. "Looks like it'll be warm and dry, too. So where is everyone? I thought this place would be packed!"
"It will be, before too long. Remember, the general project won't be going online for another two weeks. We're the shakedown crew. First thing tomorrow, you get to inspect the machinery, and see if you can get it to work, well, you and about twenty other techs. Anyways, we get to be roommates, for now, if we turn out to be compatible, that is. Oh, guess what I got? Housewarming, my man," he finished, dragging out a pint of Canadian blend.
Wilson grinned, "I think we're compatible already."
True to his word, Harry had them up the next day at first light, rising at the insistent beeping of the beltcoms. They dressed quickly, and Harry told Wilson to just head for the canteen, he was going to take a shower first, that being his assigned bathing slot. Wilson grunted, and groped his way towards the canteen and its steaming hot coffee. It was a bit crisp this fine late May day, and while the tent and sleeping bag were quite warm, still, some cold dew seemed to have gotten into his bones.
The coffee was as black as he'd imagined, and the breakfast was a hearty one of buttered grits, pancakes and eggs. The canteen was sparsely populated, with a few management types chowing down in one corner of the prefabricated structure, and a scattering of maybe forty other personnel at various tables, mostly stuffing their faces as they watched the morning news, or looking into their beltcoms, preparing for their day. Wilson saw no reason to be different, and besides... whoever was cooking here was good.
Harry dropped into position next to him after about fifteen minutes, dripping slightly. "Damn good coffee, huh?"
Wilson admitted that this was so. Through a long-missed buzzing of intense caffeination he asked, "Harry, what exactly is your position in the grand scheme of things?"
"Took you awhile to ask that, Wilson, can you wait until I at least get through my eggs?" Wilson took this as an excuse to go try for seconds on the sausage. He got it, and was just forking in the last of them when Harry wiped the last of his eggs from his new growth of future beard. Wilson cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Um, guess you'd have to call me a troubleshooter. Or systems integration. Or a headhunter. Or a corporate liaison. Whatever court I am in, I try to play ball. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to try so hard to get you into this deal was some remark you made in your first phone interview, something about a little experience (and some good lines) being all you needed to get enough experience to carry the next job off? Something that I took to mean that, anyways... well, that's my career in a nutshell, but I guess I had a more advantaged start than you did, and set my goals a little higher." Wilson started to come back with some remark about individual's goals being an individual's right, and Harry shushed him. "What I mean is that I had a degree, and was lucky enough to be working under some rather unstructured, unorthodox professors and department heads. Where you tinkered with farm equipment, I tinkered with tanks, sort of in the ROTC, and automatic navigation systems in classes and labs, and that got me into military applications of robotics, but my extra-curricular political activities at school (and my teen antics) kept me out of any real military specializations. Doubt I could ever be one of those top-secret insider types... but I got great grades, and lots of experience, and when some of the larger corporations like Caterpillar, GM, Mopar and Asplundh, to name a few, started pulling together military applications that had been released to the public under "spin-off" authorities - well, I had a varied enough experience to help them pull it all together. In short, I am a consultant."
"Hah," said Wilson. "Got any, um, what's the phrase? 'Significant accomplishments to date include:'... heh."
Harry slurped some coffee, swished it around in his mouth to remove egg fragments, gulped and grinned. "I had a great deal to do with the voice recognition menu control system for that telefactor that you were running the other day. I mean, I have been standing on the shoulders of giants like everyone else these days, but hell, I'm the one who actually made this one work. The RL-442 uses the exact same control modules as that telefactor. Caterpillar is paying me big bucks for this, especially since they got the go-ahead from InterSPACE for the manufacture of earthmovers for Martian use... and the less living beings they have to support on Mars, the better they like it, at least in these initial stages."
"You are the guy who wrote the 'warez for that telefactor? Damn!"
Harry blushed a little, and said, "Well, like I said, all of the pioneering work had been done by those who came before me, I just sort of slapped it together."
Wilson put some things together, and come to a conclusion. "You're one of the people who designed the Border Defenders." Harry looked a bit taken aback. He responded, "Actually, no, I wasn't. I was just a kid at the time, really, not even out of highschool. Okay, I was the world's biggest computer geek, graduated ahead of my class, practically lived in the computer lab, and ever since I was given a remote-control toy by Dad one year, and got a Newton (Wilson gave him a very quizzical look) - oh, one of the predecessors of all of our modern beltcoms... well, the idea of telefactors had obsessed me. So I spent eight hours a day writing control systems for various computers, interfaces between remotes and their control systems and computers. One day I uploaded some code to the InterNet, and it was nearly identical in algorithm to some of the terrain-contour following algorithms that cruise-missiles use. Classified stuff, heavy duty. The Air Force came to my house with the FBI, took me and all of my toys away. Guess they thought I had hacked into some system somewhere and stolen all of this, and their folks looked at it and said that I had simply duplicated their work by accident, but some of this stuff was very interesting, and I didn't see any of my stuff back for about a year. And these guys were following me everywhere. Then one day, they took me in again, showed me a room full of mainframes, and asked if I wanted to go to school, and gave me chunks of my own code back, and other people's code, and put me to work. By the time I came out, the Border Defenders had been created, and deployed... and the rest is history, murky history though it may be."
"Damn," breathed Wilson, "That's quite a tale. Can you tell me, exactly what the hell did happen in DC? I was down in Texas at the time, fixing tractors in Amarillo."
"Wilson, my friend, I don't really know. But I can tell you one thing I do know, and that's if I did know exactly what the hell happened in DC, I probably would wish I didn't. What I know is what you know... The District of Columbia was largely destroyed, and in their initial deployment, the Border Defenders managed to achieve something indistinguishable from true cybernetic consciousness. Maybe even true Artificial Intelligence, as opposed to true Functional Artificial Stupidity... I do know this. Whatever happened in DC, whoever was fighting whom, the city was mostly destroyed, rendered devoid of life at any rate, the museums are mothballed, the whole city was evacuated by the Border Defenders and the military, and they neutron-bombed the place. The Border Defenders mostly won't let anyone in, and the military seems to like it that way. Think of it as a non-event. That's the best thing. You can assume that it was some kind of revolution, and it was quashed, but had almost succeeded when it was stopped."
Harry paused and sipped at his coffee. Wilson didn't know what to say after that, and so remained silent. After a minute, Harry continued: "The Border Defenders are off defending the borders now. Their success at that task is partially responsible for the whole Welfare Laws revision that has you where you are now... Illegal aliens simply can't get past them. So you know, I've talked to the Border Defenders, I've helped them repair each other, I've salvaged three of them when they were decommissioned by the others. They maintain each other, you know... you give them a wrecked truck, and they salvage it, and you get favors from them, like they'll generate code for you, or debug code. If you can tell them exactly what you are trying to get code to do, they're incredibly fast and accurate in their debugs. That telefactor that you were working with, it's basically an unarmed, scaled-down version of a Border Defender, but it certainly doesn't have their... intelligence. They helped me with the code... they like me, if a machine can be said to like someone. I think a small portion of their original code may have been partly my doing, and considering the way they get around in the NETS, I'm sure they know that."
Wilson mulled this over for the better part of a minute, while Harry wolfed a biscuit. "But how intelligent are they? And what are their minds like?"
"Well, they certainly don't think like people do. They may not be particularly intelligent at all... but they have complete access to almost the entirety of online data. As you know, the amount of online data now exceeds, by orders of magnitude, the storage capacity of all of the brains of all of the hominids who have ever lived ... The ones that I helped salvage had vast arrays of RAM and flashROM, and their communications capabilities were military-class, of course. They were initially designed to solve strategic problems in situations where authority was unavailable for consultation. As individuals, they're probably not a whole lot smarter than that telefactor... but that telefactor has almost no data other than what we give it. No motivation, no goals, no strategy. The Border Defenders are first and foremost strategic machines. They have extremely comprehensive files in various sorts of ROM. They make - associations - between that data, in the same way that they make associations between situational data in their strategic problem-solving mode. I guess you could say that they think, but they don't have thoughts."
"That's really strange. I've seen tapes of people having conversations with them, and they say the strangest things now and then."
Harry gulped the last of his coffee. "That's because they aren't particularly selective about where they get their data. To them, it's all data. All data is considered initially true. Stupid, sort of... but that's the way they were programmed. I think that their initial leap to awareness was caused by some chip flaw or something... some error that allows them to write to files that should be read-only - those are the only data files that should be invariably operated upon with data initially accepted as true. They've learned that some data is, well... let's just say that they don't handle shades of truth very well. Diplomacy is a concept that I believe they'll never entertain. It's pretty miraculous that they aren't all dysfunctional. They may be totally insane, but they do their jobs, and do it well. Here's an example. They put in a request for munitions, and buried in the list was a request for several differing encyclopedias and thesauruses on Optical ROM. Unclassified information is munitions? They got it, and the next thing you know, one of them logs onto the InterNet, and literally doubles the traffic. Damn near broke the 'Net... and all it was doing was correcting people's grammar. It could have started questioning assumptions..." Harry rose, and Wilson followed suit.
"Was that the Sphinx?"
"Or one manifestation of it. Maybe. Tough call. Nobody's ever really been able to really follow them through the net, for one thing, the only computers large enough to handle such tracking are all riddled with them anyways. It's like trying get a doctor to do brain surgery on his own motor cortex. It's one of those basically un-do-able things. OK, here we go." They left the canteen, and went through the gate into the machinery yard, and threaded their way through rows of heavy equipment. Finally, they rounded a heavy earthmover, a massive thing the size of several houses, and there was the RL-442.
Wilson did not fall in love with this ungainly contraption. Actually, it was rather hideous even for heavy equipment. For one, it would stink mightily when in operation. The curable polyresins, the intricacies of which approached meta-organic nanotech, had very complex chemistries, and part of the curing process was an acidification of the base layers. The fumes were mostly gathered and scrubbed, returned to the process where possible, but no such system could be entirely sealed. He suspected the stink of operation would be awesome and revolting.
Wilson checked the widespread tracks, and then climbed aboard. In the controller compartment, he found several manuals, one of which contained the fluid specs he wanted. Harry leaned against the huge earthmover's fifteen-foot tire and watched Wilson clamber about, examining fluid levels. Wilson seemed satisfied, and then climbed into the controller compartment again. "Want me to start her up?"
"That's what you're here for!"
"Okay! Here goes..." Wilson went down a checklist, flipping switches. Several smallish lights came on as switches were engaged, and then there was a whining that changed into a roar as the ethanol turbines spooled up and ignited. Wilson went over another list, and then punched for the diagnostics. In about two minutes, the diagnostic routine had run itself, and was printing out a report. His beltcom bleeped as the results were printed; he'd slotted the manufacturer-supplied Optical-ROM. Wilson killed the turbines, and otherwise left it powered up, as recommended in the manual, and then climbed back to the ground.
"Well," he said, "It looks as if the factory people set everything right. All we need to do is load the tanks, and it's ready to go. So... now that you've got me out here, mind telling me exactly what we're going to use this thing for? I've only been asking you nonstop since training."
"Let's," said Harry, "take a ride."
They stood atop a small promontory, overlooking the entrance ramps of the Turnpike. One of the lanes of the Turnpike had been stripped down to the very foundations of the road, the underlying bedrock. This left a trench nearly ten feet deep, about a half a mile long. Earth movers and bulldozers trundled back and forth, and the sound of immense hammerings reached them from even this far remove. Somewhere, a concrete saw shrieked. "We begin our part of the operation in ten days," said Harry, "and what we will be doing is taking one of the best laid roads on this continent, and relaying it. We were lucky here, this is a best-case test of our plan, though it's across some of the more difficult terrain.
"At the bedrock, we look for cracks, and inject polyresin. This firms the foundation. We lay stone, where possible, along the base foundation, and we fix that with high-pressure injection of polyresin/concrete mixture. The whole thing gets sealed (and the sealing process is nearly nanotechnical), and we repeat as necessary. We get up near the top, and it's more concrete, but this is not standard concrete, we mix this in zones, with heavy rock at the bottom, and work up towards the top reducing concrete content and increasing polyresin content. Finally, we get our surface layer, which is very resilient as well as being durable as hell... and beneath it all, buried six inches down, superconductor."
"You're kidding. How much superconductor can there be in the world, anyways?"
"There's enough. It only has to be a single strand, you know. As long as there's no breaks, one strand of superconductor can carry near-limitless power. And it'll be sealed in organanotech polyresin, 'metaconscious' engineering constantly re-engineering itself within parameters. This is an experiment on a grand scale, remember? This particular instance, we're doing it right. Do you know what the estimated lifespan of a road built like this is?"
Wilson thought for a second and said, "Well, I know that the polyresin is damned durable, and if you sink the road's foundations all of the way to the bedrock, it's going to take an earthquake to knock it loose, especially if you seal it in polyresin to keep water out. That would prevent freezing damage. How long?"
"Well, the ancient Romans built roads that are still there, still carrying traffic. They have to resurface the Appian Way pretty regularly, but the road itself hasn't gone anywhere. The Romans used road building techniques that we're going to re-apply here. They didn't have the hightech polymer concretes, all they had was rock and gravel, and an admixture of extremely-fine volcanic ash which imparted extreme durability, but when they built, they didn't just slap down two feet of packed earth and top it with a six inches of gravel and eight inches of sandy concrete, no, they went to the bedrock where possible, and where that wasn't possible, they went down twenty feet or more. If the roads subsided, they didn't tear up the top eight inches, add more gravel and sand and then repave, they simply added more heavy rock, generally in slabs, and then repaved. They built roads across swamps that sank forty feet into the swamps, and they just kept throwing rock on top of any subsidences... eventually, the swamps were filled near the roads - and the network of fine roots that grew through the roads, like the meta-conscious nanotechnical polyresin, uses the roads as its skeleton and reinforces it."
"Hmm, I'm not much on ancient history. But Rome fell, didn't it?"
"Not because of the roads they built. In fact, if there was a single physical influence that Rome left behind it, it was the roads that they built. It was one of the primary reasons that they were such a military success. They built roads wherever they went, and all roads led to Rome. A retreating enemy would have to beat its way through the bush, and in skirmish actions, they could never bring up their rear to the front, because the first troops that passed through made a quagmire for following troops to cross. Usually, they'd get bogged down. But the Romans had a technique of putting up a fighting front, and laying roads right behind that... and thus they could bring up reinforcements and supplies with great speed. They could deploy in full force under the worst weather conditions, and nobody could match them. In peacetime, too, the roads made commerce much easier than, say, trying to drag carts full of produce down boggy trails. The whole point here is that without the infrastructure of freely-trafficked roads, society begins to grind to a halt... with our freeways in the condition they're in, the most basic need, transportation of produce, becomes less and less profitable... in fact, less do- able, even. And were there an actual military emergency, the bottlenecks in our transport system which are caused by this constant repair could be disastrous... not to mention the diversion of needed industrial resources. Look, there are points on this very road which could scarcely carry more than one tank every hundred feet... and that much weight in groceries needs to come across this road just to keep the shelves full in the cities. We have to at least triple the carrying capacity of this one highway... and when we do that, we have to ensure that the increased capacity won't be lost to incessant repairs that will be fixing things just a little slower than they break down."
"And that's what we'll be doing here." Wilson felt rather proud to be a part of such a grand scheme.
"You personally will be putting the icing on the cake. The RL-442 is the unit that will be sealing in the superconductor and curing the surface."
"Uh, yah, I had that figured out by now... what I am wondering is about the superconductor itself. I mean, the stuff's priceless."
Harry regarded him measuringly. "It's going to be well guarded. If you ever wanted to talk to a Border Defender, you'll probably have your chance. There'll be one riding herd on you all day every day."
Wilson spent the rest of the day in the tent poring over the manuals, which had also come in Optical ROM versions. He met the quartermaster, who was able to copy them to some O-ROM that he mounted to his beltcom. He was trying to work out a flowgram for automating the RL-442. It looked pretty straightforward. All he need do was to co-ordinate the loading of the various supplies, and monitor usage. It was not difficult, but time consuming. The metaconscious "wizard", an extremely minimalistic imitation of dedicated AI, was very helpful at first, if fairly stupid. Eventually, he became familiar with the configuration-file stratagem the "wizard" addressed and killed the "wizard" which was a boon to twits but an impediment to those who had more than a mere clue as to what they were trying to do. Wilson was nothing if not a quick learner. He was about finished when he heard the sound of heavy trucks whining up the grade to the camp. He closed his beltcom files, rose and stretched, yawning off his fatigue. He clipped the beltcom on, and headed out into the yard.
A row of trucks was skirting the camp along the road to the machine yard. Stacked to the top, the procession was inching along the dusty climb when the sound of motorcycles reached him.
The wolfgang crested the hill in full force. There were about fifty units, mostly motorcycles, but some drove triwheels, and a few four-wheel hummer-type vehicles led the pack. Wilson ducked around the side of the canteen as the lead vehicle opened fire.
The few guards who had been stationed around the facility hit the ground and began firing back at the wolfgang, who seemed to be pretty well-armed themselves. Wilson peeked around the side of the canteen to see sparks fly as ablative impact-armor deflected small-caliber projectiles. Troops erupted from the blockhouse in the center of the machine yard, and they dropped into position behind bulldozers' earthblades and began to return fire. The lead vehicles in the wolfpack shielded most of the riders from the heavier arms that were now beginning to add their voices to the roar of battle, and then a port opened in the side of one of the hummers and a rocket-propelled grenade arced into the blockhouse, shattering the night with its concussion. The blockhouse erupted into flame.
The wolfgang's blitzkrieg tactics had allowed them to surround the convoy, and they began to attack the heavy rigs themselves. Drivers were yanked out of vehicles, and thrown to the ground, clubbed, some shot. Wilson, from his relatively safe vantage point, had to admire the speed and organization that the wolfgang had showed so far... and he also had to wonder why the convoy seemed so defenseless.
Two of the trailers, seemingly no different from the rest, suddenly burst open, their back doors falling as ramps to the ground, and metal mantises strode forth, scrabbling for position, assessing the situation. The pinging of their high-intensity tactical radars was almost palpable. As they turned, coherent violet flashes stabbed among the wolfpack, and everywhere that one of the near-invisible lances touched, a wolfer bike fell riderless. The four mantises spread out in an encirclement, keeping the line of trucks at the center. The two on the blockhouse side moved to give supporting fire to the troops, and on the other side, they advanced against the scattering wolfpack. An RPG launched from one of the hummers was skewered in flight by an intense flare from one of the border defenders. The shell exploded, the blast travelling along its original trajectory as it expanded. By the time it reached the Border Defender, it was largely spent... and a minuscule flaring dot travelled lightning-fast to the hummer, which shattered into flaming components. The mantis shape scrabbled and ducked, and another hummer flared and vanished in a roil of flame and showering debris. A wheel, still inflated, slammed into the ground next to Wilson, bounced thirty feet into the air, and kept on travelling. Wilson decided he'd seen enough, and beat a very hasty retreat into the blockwork latrines adjacent to the canteen. He was followed by a line of automatic weapons fire from a wolfer, which was suddenly silenced by a clean shot from one of the troops who had circled around the canteen from the other side. Wilson slid facefirst into the door of the ladies'-room, and the trooper grabbed him by the collar and yanked him inside.
"Jesus Fuckin' Christ!" said Wilson. "Shaddup," the trooper told him, and Wilson shut. "Kinda hot out there for a civilian, huh?" said another voice. It was female, and sounded hard as nails nonetheless. Wilson's eyes adjusted to the dimness in the latrine, and he saw that there was another trooper holding a firing position aimed out the back window, which was now glassless. "Jeeze, you'd have thought that they'd know we'd know they were coming. Probably didn't even know what they were trying to hijack." She squeezed off a burst, and gave a short barking near- laugh. "Another one."
"Um, I don't even know what they're trying to hijack." Wilson was gasping slightly as adrenaline shock hit him. That bouncing wheel could have done for him, not to mention the guy who'd been shooting at him.
"Superconductor," said the female trooper. "Thought you'd know. You're the guy who's going to be laying it, right?"
"Uh, so they tell me... wish they'd told me this was coming, too. God damn!" Another hummer was blown to shreds. It had fired at a Border Defender and missed by quite a bit. Border Defenders were highly mobile, and dodged quickly. The blockhouse thumped as parts hit it.
"Yah, no shit, goddamn, canteen just got slagged. I hate MREs, goddamnit!" The male trooper fired three times, and blew the tires on a motorcycle. The motorcycle evidently had run-flat inserts, but didn't have very good traction with all of that tread flopping loose. It wrecked into a fence. The driver, pinned beneath, struggled for a moment, and then lay still, either fainted or dead. The man fired several rounds at the fallen wolfer, making sure. "MREs, fuck," he said.
"Cut the chatter, private," remarked the other trooper. "Yes Ma'am!" he said. The sounds of fighting from outside slowly diminished, and then ceased. The only crackling they heard now was that of flames, and that was covered by the rising sound of sirens. They emerged to assess the damage.
The private was correct about the canteen. The structure had been prefabricated anyways, and some sort of shaped-charge explosive had neatly blown down two of the walls, and they'd taken the roof and the rest of the building with them. Others had emerged from hiding and were beginning to gather around the carnage. The sirens were closer now, and as the troopers closed in on the fallen, firetrucks and ambulances began to edge around the tail end of the convoy, and these took up position about the camp and began hosing down piles of flaming rubble.
Troopers moved among the wreckage, checking bodies. When they found a live one or two, they dragged them to the side of the conflagration. The troopers' casualties had been very light indeed, protected as they were by ablative armor. A few had been cut by shrapnel, and one had been shot in the foot, but that was it. The wolfgang was decimated. All of the hummers had been obliterated, and most of the motorcycles. The wolfers who had managed to get into the cabins of the various big rigs were all captured alive; none had the nerve to try to shoot their way out of groups of three or four soldiers, backed by Border Defenders. These wolfers were hustled off to somewhere in the machine compound. Wilson never saw them again. He was too busy. The corporal and the private he'd been trapped with (or saved by) immediately put him to work with them, trying to clean up the mess in the canteen area. Fortunately, most of the food was untouched, as it was in cans where staples, and in a large walk-in refrigerator where perishable. The refrigerator, evidently, was about as durable as the blockhouse. It hadn't been budged, and though covered with debris, when they got things cleared up enough to run power to it, it started and ran just fine.
They worked through the night, repairing what they could and trying to remove all of the unrepairable stuff to a recycle pile. The job was easier than one might first think; they were, after all, at a yard full of heavy equipment.
When the canteen had been restored enough to produce fresh coffee, everyone took a much-deserved break. The coffee was an excellent antidote to fatigue and it gave them a chance to talk. Harry finally showed up. God knew where he'd been. Wilson assumed that he had been hobnobbing with the military. As they had cleaned up the camp and tried to get things in some semblance of order, ambulances had been shuttling back and forth, ferrying dead, dying, wounded and demolished people to the local hospital. From what Wilson had seen, most of them would simply wind up as parts in the organ bank, where salvageable. Harry talked to some of the military folks, and finally worked his way around to where Wilson and the troopers sat sipping their cups of black.
"Looks like you made it through, eh?"
"Yup," Wilson replied. "What's the damage report?"
"Well, I was going to ask you if you'd go check on the RL-442 and see for yourself, and report back to me. Jenkins, Steuben, would you escort Mr. Forbrush here to the RL-442 in the machine yard, and check out your own equipment?"
"Yessir, Mr Broder. Get right to it. C'mon, Wilson."
The RL-442 was in the exact same shape he'd left it in about sixteen hours before. The sky was getting a bit light to the east. Steuben, the male trooper, was a caterpillar operator, as was Jenkins. Once Wilson had finished checking out his own machine, he followed them to an area close to the fence, where they checked out their own equipment. Jenkins' machine had gotten a headlight broken, but seemed otherwise in order. Steuben, however, would have to replace a tread where a mis-aimed RPG had landed. Now that all action seemed past, Jenkins let him curse a blue streak, at which he was quite competent.
As they made their way back to the camp compound, skirting the edges of the machine yard, they were suddenly hailed by a dead voice, a machine voice. "Stand and be identified," said the Border Defender, whirring slightly as it rose from its crouch between two cranes. It took several steps towards them. "Please give me your OneCard."
"He means you," said Steuben. "It can read our stateside dogtags from a hundred yards away." Wilson pulled his OneCard from within his overalls, and held it out to the sentinel. The machine lifted one of its forelegs, and from a hatch on its wrist extended a small delicate handling-appendage. It took the card from him, surprisingly gently, and the appendage disappeared back inside the wrist hatch for a moment, and then re-emerged to return his card. He scowled as he felt the sting-of-entry of a compressed-air-propelled miniaturized VLSI tracking chip. "Thank you Support Tech IV Forbrush. That is all, have a good evening."
"You're welcome," he said, through a gathering scowl. He hated VLSI trackers; they were the ultimate extension of OneCard intrusion. "Thank you for being here and fighting those people."
The border defender merely paced backward to its former position and settled down into its resting position. The three continued slogging through the gravel of the machine yard. They were nearly to the gate when Steuben said, "Goddamned things give me the creeps." Wilson turned a rather astounded gaze on him and said, "You're not prejudiced, are you? Against a machine? It's just doing what it's told; rather hate the programmers."
"Um, well, yah, that's just it," Steuben said, "if it was just a machine, it'd be one thing. But those things have personality..."
"Not much that I could see," said Jenkins, and they laughed together. Steuben was not amused for long though, and mused aloud, "Well, the damned things think for themselves, they know everything about you including all onlined disinformation and bad reporting! - and - well, it's like they know so damned much about everything, but there's so damned much that they don't know. Like, if you needed to know page number, line and verse, just ask any of them, and they can tell you. Page after page after page. But if you try to ask them what any of that means, they just sort of sit there... and then they start asking you what it means. And when they ask you, they ask you weird. And don't even try to discuss philosophy or religion with them. They've got all of the philosophers lined up in memory, and you can't argue with their ability to do logic, but sometimes they get the weirdest ideas in their heads. You've got to be really careful what you say to them, too, 'cause if they've got some idea in their heads, and you tell them it's right, no telling what they could do. And that's the other thing... they might all be stone nuts, and look at the power they have!"
Jenkins broke in and said in a hard voice, "At least they always follow orders."
"So far as we know," Steuben rejoined. "But who's giving the orders?"
Cleanup was nearly completed, and the camp had been restored to some reasonable order when the time came to organize production in earnest. Wilson had worked out his end of the production schedule, and had left quite a few "tails" hanging out of his flowgrams. These would be necessary for interaction with the flowgrams others had produced in their own lines of attack on the problems inherent in any such monumental undertaking.
One morning, all were called to a meeting at the canteen, where a large projection screen had been set up. Wilson gave his OneCard to the clerk, who for once looked not-bored. He pointed out a corner of the canteen and directed him to seek out others in his area, to begin coordinating for a comm-conference.
Steuben and Jenkins were there, with a lot of faces that he knew in a nodding-acquaintance fashion. Jenkins greeted him with a squint of her widely-set blue eyes over her coffee-cup, which she was nursing attentively. Steuben patted a bench next to him, and Wilson sat. A clerk moved among the tables, passing out RAM. Wilson slotted his, and found that the capacity of his beltcom had increased by about fifty times. Steuben whistled. "Damn, I bet I could get a hundred applications running on this thing at once!"
"Yah, great," said Wilson, who was not very impressed by comtech. He basically wanted to get to work. People were filing into the canteen, which was getting pretty close to full. Wilson hadn't known that there were quite this many people in the camp. Harry came in, still somewhat wet from his shower, and helped himself to the coffee, working his way around the room from person to person. Finally he joined them, and asked if they were ready for the day before the big day. All admitted certain reservations, but allowed that they were adaptable. "We'll see," said Harry.
Several grey men in grey suits were the last to file in, attended by a retinue of clerks and techs who began to busy themselves in the background. One of the men clipped on a headset, picked up a laser pointer, and coughed for attention, and suddenly Wilson recognized him as Mr. Richards, the man who had conducted the interviews which had gotten him this job.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Roads Project. I am Bill Richards, liaison and head coordinator for this major rebuilding effort.
"In the grand tradition of empires past, and as a rather studied departure from the works policies of previous administrations, we are going to build some roads. The grand tradition part is this: all empires that were worth a damn have existed, some would say, primarily because of the roads that they built, from the armies and trade that they could move along those roads. This country experienced an unparalleled boom after the Second World War primarily because we were the only major participant in that war whose infrastructure remained intact, and we also were, I might add, able to sustain that boom through the mid-nineteen-sixties primarily because we greatly expanded that infrastructure through the construction of the interstate superhighway system. Unfortunately, anyone who has driven in the last quarter century knows what shape the interstates are in.
"Here's where we depart from the works policies of our political predecessors. Like the ancient Romans, and those who later built upon their foundations, we intend to build roads that last. This is not a pork project, we simply cannot afford to have any regional squabblings over benefits, nor can we allow cronyism or nepotism to detract from the efficient completion of this project. This project is not going to be rapidly or haphazardly built, it will not be built with substandard materials, nor with an eye to profitability. This nation is going into even greater debt on this project, and it would in any case not be affordable were it not for the simple fact that the United States has a lock on the process of superconductor production... even as it stands, this will not be affordable under any reasonable timescale for debt retirement. But we also cannot afford to not do it! This will be paid for by many generations... but, again as a departure from previous works policies, this will be a project that will not only be paid for by future generations, but will be used by future generations.
"The interstate system was designed with a half-life of fifty years. This system is designed with several components with varying half-lives. The base half-life is that of the foundation, which, where possible, will be the Earth itself. All fill will be as compacted and sealed as possible, and we conservatively estimate five hundred years as the minimum half-life for the fill, even under flood or sustained total-immersion conditions. Much of it is organo-nanotech, for instance the polyresins contain proteinaceous complexes which aggressively interface between the inorganic rock and the petroleum-based and organochemical polymers supplied by the DuPont processes. This Road will be to some degree self-repairing. We expect, and have made allowances for, such devastating natural disasters as the floods of 1993, or the heat-wave of 2002, or the Great Wet Freeze of 2005... We have "overdesigned" and "over-engineered" this road so that only the combination of earthquakes, floods and tsunami, or perhaps an asteroid impact, or direct nuclear hits will take these roads out of service for long, at least so far as self-powered surface travel is concerned.
"However, we do not intend that travel on these roads be self-powered! We will lay in enough superconductor to allow us to use linear-induction drives, the same drives that power the Magnetic Levitation bullet-trains. The half-life of the surface is, of course, the limiting factor here, and we will be using a cured polyresin-matrix coating atop polyresin-filled cement to cover the superconductor, the induction windings, and associated circuitry. The various plastic aggregates that comprise the finished polyresins that we'll be using have all been selected for various factors such as load-bearing, tensility, resiliency, and so on, with the final inch being a composite of plastics primarily designed for weather-resistance. We've been force-weathering some of these compounds for twenty-five years or more, and we have come up with some things that will last. We expect that these finish layers will have half-lives of perhaps two centuries.
"At any rate, let's just finish this preface with the remark that if you've ever been motivated by the thought of doing something material that will last, rest assured, you're only here to do just that. And now on to the details."
He manipulated the deskterm that had been set up on the lectern, and the projection screen glowed, and an image formed. It was an overview of the Turnpike, in one quadrant, and the other three quadrants, mostly blank organizational and project-planner charts. Richards brought up files, and the organizational charts filled in somewhat. He said, "Note that the details of the org-charts are not fully expanded, please don't post anything expanded beyond the second org-level yet. We'll get lost in details."
Everybody went to work. The tiny icon that represented Wilson's contribution to the flowgramming of the immense project sat somewhere near the end of the main flowgram, predictably under the subheading "surfacing". The "tails", or loose ends, that he'd left hanging out of the flowgram tied rather neatly to some of the other areas. In one case, in his flowgram, he'd simply left a blank icon dangling, labelled "suppliers". He'd had no idea where the material would originate, nor how it would get there. He assumed that someone else was attending to that detail, and indeed someone had. As he linked into the network formed of close to two hundred beltcoms that each had an eighth-gigabyte of RAM, he saw the icon develop a subsidiary set of icons, each with a set of "tails" of its own, and when he panned the view to see where the traces led, he saw names, addresses, and when he opened the subheadings, he saw their suppliers, and their addresses as well. Intrigued, he tried to follow the lead from the "superconductor" icon, and a dialog box popped onto his screen. It informed him that he had attempted to intrude into an access-denied area. So much for total access, he grumbled to himself. He had run out of things to do, and simply watched the big screen. It slowly filled up with text and colors, and waited for some conclusion.
Finally, Richards looked up, prompted by a voice through his headset, and said, "OK, everybody, hang on to your hats, it's getting close to debug time. Sphinx, please go ahead."
Things happened on the projection screen. Sections of planning charts opened up and then closed again, swaths of figures jumped, vanished and redisplayed, and in moments, it was over. Wilson's beltcom beeped, and all of the missing figures had been filled in. He now knew exactly when he would start, had an excellent idea when all of his reload times would occur, and when major holdups would be. It looked good to him, but then again, all of his input had been merely his statements of scheduled maintenance operations, and the probable operating rates of the various equipment he'd be using. There was one little problem, though, and that was that his estimated date for halting work was three weeks away. That couldn't be right, could it?
On the projection screen, the major headings in the first column of the project planner charts opened up to the last levels, and the text changed colors. Some of the headings flashed. The view changed to a flowgram view, and half of the chart was red. Mr. Richards spoke up. "Guess it was too much to hope for. Damned things never come out right the first time. Okay, if you've got mail, or you've got portions of your flowgrams flashing red, stay here."
Wilson had a red-flashing notation, his halt-work date. The beltcom beeped again, notifying him that he had mail. He opened the mailreader, and read his mail.
"You will be forced to halt work due to: Non-delivery of polyresin DuPont P-9924A, reason: Not deliverable as scheduled due to insufficient pre- ordering. Notify contact?"
Wilson touched Yes. The screen cleared, and filled again.
"You will be forced to halt work due to: Unavailability of RL-442 replacement part C-994-B, Tank II preheater rod, reason: Not ordered. Order now?"
Wilson touched Yes. He looked around him. All faces (except for those looking around them, as he was) were studies in concentration, occasionally reaching out to touch their screens. He glanced up at the projection display. Tiny patches were changing from red to green. He looked back at his screen. His start date had been pushed back three years, and his halt date had vanished. He gaped in dismay, and then everything was back the way it should have been, as someone on the other side of the room said, in a very subdued voice, "Oopsie..." Wilson returned his gaze to his comm and began to read and answer mail.
By dinner, nobody was in a mood to even speak. Mr. Richards and the rest of the head honchos were gulping antacids and analgesics like candy by the time they knocked off for the day. Wilson had spots before his eyes. Jenkins looked as it someone had slapped her with a dead rat, an odd expression of horror, dishevelment and resigned self-pity on her face. Steuben had been quietly cursing for the last hour, and nobody had tried to stop him. Several had joined him, in fact. Harry had nearly pulled his own new beard off. In line at the mess, they were served steak, potatoes, and ice-cold beer for anyyone who wanted it. Everyone wanted it. Mr. Richards had turned the projection display off, but hunched over his steak watching his beltcom, drinking iced tea. Occasionally, he conversed with parties unseen, and finally, he activated the projection display again, and this time, most of it was green. Wilson checked his own beltcom, as did many of the others, and he had a start date two days away, and no halt date, and everything on his screen was a clear steady green. He turned off his beltcom, and went to get another beer.