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by Ernest B. Cohen

Does anybody want a top of the line PC? Free, no strings attached? Well, only one problem: I can’t turn the machine off. Or maybe I can, but I’m afraid to.

“Have you tried rebooting?”

“Of course, but nothing happens!”

Someone suggests, “Turn off the power? Pull the plug?”

I tried that, but it still keeps running. It’s not a notebook computer; it doesn’t have batteries, and it just keeps on going regardless of how I twiddle the on/off switch whether or not it’s plugged in.

The display constantly changes, so I know the program is alive and running. What is worse, the monitor stays on even when I disconnect it from the PC. I’ve thought of trying my professional software skills, only I’m afraid to touch the keyboard, because I THINK I know what my computer now controls!

For years, I’ve been into computers and software. I never could decide whether this is a job I enjoy or I’m just lucky enough to get paid for my hobby. In either case, there are many others like me in various computer consulting shops around the city. Weekends and after work, we get together and continue our work — or our hobby, as the case may be — over a six-pack or a plate of munchies.

And we all dream of the great program we’ll write someday, the one that sells for a million dollars, the next ‘BredSpredSheet’ or ‘ALLang’ compiler, or perhaps ‘WriteThink’ for word processing. Me? My pet project was ‘SYSMAN’, the ultimate in system management software. But my friend Jacob was the one who found the ultimate “Systems Operation Management” program.

It’s really odd how it all started. On our lunch break, Jake and I stepped out to the pizzeria around the corner. Feeling well-stuffed with half of a mushroom pizza apiece, we strolled around the block, in no hurry to get back to programming.

Jacob, as usual, had his eyes looking down. For him, looking down wasn’t odd, it was usual. My friend Jacob was always looking for things on the ground. Once, when he was five, he found a toy car in the playground. It was a wonderful racing car with shiny wheels and red paint, only a little rusty and scratched.

When he was eight years old, he found a quarter lying in the gutter. At thirteen, a five-dollar bill blew across a shopping mall parking lot. Like Skinner’s pigeons, people learn fast. Jacob became an inveterate ground-watcher. Something lucky was going to pop up in front of his eyes some day; and HE wasn’t going to miss it.

And of course good surprises still appeared on the ground for Jacob. He spied a folder with class notes lying near a water cooler at New York University. This was even better than the five-dollar bill, because it belonged to Rachel.

Jacob went over to her dorm to return the notes and was rewarded with a date for the next Saturday night. One thing led to another, and they were married right after graduation. As he said, “I always look down to see what I can find, and I found Rachel.”

He also found a software job when he graduated, but not by keeping his eyes on the ground. That’s where we met, at the Successful Scientific Systems Company (S3C); he picked up a pencil I had dropped. Our mutual interest, however, was kabbalah, not computers.

So Jacob soon had a good job at S3C, and a baby daughter, and a town house in a new development on Long Island. With all those things, Jacob still keeps alert to anything that might be lying around on the ground. After all, one never can tell what lucky find might come next!

That’s why Jacob spotted it: an ordinary CD lying on the pavement, in a paper envelope. It was half out of a bubble mailer, as if someone had accidentally dropped it when getting his keys or some change from an inside pocket.

Jacob wasn’t really surprised when a bubble mailer with a CD suddenly appeared on the ground in front of him on the corner of Third Avenue and 45th Street. It appeared so suddenly that Jacob almost stepped on the envelope. He jumped back, reached over, and put the mailer, CD and all, in his pocket.

Then we both went back to work. I knew he would tell me about it when he was ready, and not before. This CD was sort of like those marvelous notes which had brought him Rachel; it begged to be examined at leisure to see what it might contain. Each plastic disk could hold 700 million bytes of mystery, or nothing at all. An adventure, any adventure, was better than just money!

Jake told me about it the next morning at S3C. “After dinner and putting the baby to bed, I finally had time to examine my find. I was disappointed not to see any address labels on the mailer. No idea where it came from or where it should be going.

“Probably a blank recordable disk,” I thought, and a blank disk was worth only a few cents at an office supply store. On removing the CD from the mailer, I was pleased to see a neatly printed label on an inner sleeve. It said, ‘Warning: Abuse of this software may be hazardous to your soul.’ A strange label, indeed!

“At first the disk didn’t seem to have any writing, but when I tilted it to see by reflected light, it said, in large capital letters: ‘REMOTE SYSTEM SUPERVISORY PROGRAM’. Under that, in smaller letters, it said: ‘Hardware/OS Independent, Release 5756.’ There were also some Hebrew letters, which I couldn’t make out.

“What should I do with the disk? I could look at it forever, and never know what’s inside, I thought. Well, I was lucky to find it; and maybe I’ll be doubly lucky if it is compatible with my PC.

“No sooner thought than done: I booted up my machine, turned off ‘auto insert notification’, clicked on ‘File Manager’ from the desktop and popped my new find into the CD drawer. The machine took quite a time, going ‘brrrk-brrrk’ as it seemed to read the disk track by track.

“After five minutes, the Windows display finally came on. The file manager said” — Jacob swears to this — “‘4000 Giga-Bytes used on Disk’. At that point, I feared that the mysterious disk contained a virus. But it was probably too late to do much about that, although merely reading the disk should not introduce any problems. I certainly was not going to RUN any programs from that disk!

“But did it contain any programs? Two million files was a bit too much to display on any directory screen; so it must have already corrupted my file management software or screwed up my hardware. Particularly weird was the way my old amber monochrome screen now glowed with color.”

Jacob enjoys the challenge of running modern software on old hardware.

“What else could it possibly have done to my machine? But I am a software geek, and not a hardware expert. Somebody else would have to check my monitor’s strange behavior.

“Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to recheck everything before continuing to examine that mysterious CD. So, I pressed the button on the CD drive to remove it, and the CD drawer was empty!

“Then I tried to reboot: first Ctrl-Alt-Del, then the little ‘reset’ button on the front, then the power switch, and finally pulling the plug! Nothing happened. The PC still kept running with its weird color display.

“I felt I was going mad, having a nightmare, or maybe I was dead already? What kind of mushrooms did we have on that pizza? I closed my eyes, and said the Sh’mah out loud. When I opened my eyes again, everything seemed almost back to normal: except the Windows desktop glowed in color from my usual amber monochrome screen, but the mysterious CD was lying in the drawer.

“Feeling slightly woozy, I went to bed at once. So, here’s the disk. Since you were with me, it’s half yours, and you may try your hand at decoding it.”

I took the strange disk home, and left it by the side of my own PC. I was tied up for several weeks with massive overtime and a tight project deadline, so pleasurable little mysteries had to be put aside.

My old college roommate, Jonathan, came by that evening. I mentioned the odd CD to him, and actually took it out of the sleeve. Then the phone rang, and I left him with the computer. When my girlfriend finally hung up, my computer was turned on and Jonathan was pocketing something, which looked like a CD.

Of course a man’s home is his castle and his computer is the inner sanctum, or something like that. But, I had enough protection on all the personal files to foil any but the most skilled hacker, and what harm is there in copying, or in this case ‘copping’ a disk anyway? So that’s the way the matter stood.

Word went around that Jonathan must have hit the New Jersey lottery. He bought a new computer with a quad Maxalon processor and 512 gigabytes of RAM, and a multi-vector display card. He also bought a car — a Ferrari Roma Racing Machine — which is sheer madness in New York. Then he moved to a penthouse apartment on Central Park South, which is ridiculously extravagant.

I will ignore the stories about his wild shopping binges for clothes, because if anyone knew Jon they know that he never cared for fancy clothes. But rumors are rumors, and some of them also included a tall blonde woman to share the apartment. This was attested by mutual friends, who saw him shopping for jewelry and furniture.

All these stories drifted back to me from various people in the computer world. The only story I can vouch for is that he quit his job the next morning, because I tried to email him there. It was a small software consultant, and the owner asked if I could fill in on an emergency basis since their best programmer had departed after cursing out the entire world of bosses and business owners.

I never did see Jonathan alive again, but I did hear from his lawyer. It seemed that Jonathan had died a few weeks later and named me sole heir and executor in a brand-new will. That brought me four million dollars, and a lot of headaches. If he hadn’t hit the lottery, he must have robbed a bank, since as a grad from City College and the son of poor candy-store-owning immigrant Jewish grandparents, he certainly didn’t earn much from computer programming.

But he was found dead, of “geriatric natural causes” on the floor of his nice new penthouse apartment. It is strange to die of old age at 27. I went to his funeral and back to his parents’ house where they sat shiva. His lawyer was there and told me the astonishing news.

I offered to give the estate to his parents, but the lawyer said, “Why bother? He already bought them a 25-million dollar annuity. So what’s another few million to them now? He had the most fantastic lucky streak on Wall Street the world has ever seen, and he said all his luck was due to you. So enjoy your inheritance. As long as you pay me a 5% share for legal fees, being the executor won’t be much of a bother to either of us.”

So that’s how I got the strange CD back, along with a 10-gigahertz quad Maxalon PC on which to run the programs it contained. And that is when I did the rash thing: I popped the CD in and booted up the computer.

After about two minutes of loading programs, the Screen title appeared: ‘Systems Management Program for Home Galaxy, subsystem of Universe’. It was a gorgeous screen, actually three-dimensional. The letters appeared to stand out in front of the background: the familiar NASA color photo of earth from high orbit with the wonderful swirls of lacy clouds above blue oceans, and brown and green continents.

I swear that as I moved my head from side to side, the letters shifted in relation to the background. Perhaps the clouds moved too, but I wasn’t sure of that detail. I never knew that any company had perfected a true 3-D display! At the bottom was a familiar instruction, “Press any key to proceed.”

Well, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” I pressed the space bar, and the dialog box came up, with a bunch of unfathomable icons, with the following legends under them:

Probability control
Physical constants
Solar activity
Weather control
Core and Seismic activity
Discord & Disaster alarms
Free will level
Monitor Earth System
eXistence (ctrl X)
Return control and exit (ctrl E)

I wondered, did this Control Screen have ability to create disasters? I picked what I thought was the safest choice, “Physical constants.” This lead to another menu display:

  1. Speed of light = 1.00 Grgs/Prp
  2. Expansion of Universe = 1.00 Trps/Prp
  3. Electron Charge = 1.00 Prbls
  4. Gravity = 1.00 Hdgst

And lots more incomprehensible units, all set to exactly one.

Without knowing what any of these physical units meant or the results of changing them, I dared not explore any of these further. I had absolutely no idea how changing the speed of light might impinge upon my personal life. Luckily, there was another familiar instruction at the bottom of the screen, “Click on Exit to return to Previous Menu.” I did that without any hesitation. And then I tried to turn the computer off.

After the first futile round of trying — as I said before, everything including pulling the power cord and disconnecting all the components — I went to bed. I think I went to bed, because maybe I was already in bed and having the nightmare of my life. When a person gets into mysticism, one is never sure of reality again. Perhaps I didn’t even exist but was only a character within a humongous computer simulation?

On the other hand, as in the Star Trek television series, perhaps an artifact of a computer program can somehow reprogram the computer that has created it. This stuff can get pretty confusing.

Somehow, I awoke the next morning and rushed off to work without inspecting my computer. By evening, it was time to look at the monitor again. The screen saver was whirling some planets with moons around a star. It probably wasn’t our solar system, since the planets were the wrong relative sizes, and the number of moons seemed strange.

Of course, everything from that program was strange. I pushed the space bar because it seemed the safest thing, although I now wonder if the implied pun impelled me to do that. The same menu of icons appeared as before, so I tried ‘ctrl E’ to exit. Unfortunately it also meant ‘Error’.

The screen lit up with a multi-color legend, “Software problem in exit routine. Impossible to return control to Systems Control Center.”

I then went through another round of trying to turn off the computer, with the same futility as the night before. The nightmare possibility became a stronger hypothesis. If so, this was the first nightmare I ever had in which I became hungry and ate; sleepy, and went to bed. I ate and went to bed.

The next morning, the PC was still running, with a host of beautiful, three-D displays. I clicked on “Existence,” figuring that couldn’t be too dangerous. Then, not understanding a very confusing display, I clicked on “HELP,” which didn’t seem to help me very much. It explained that the sub-program controlled the existence of everything in the universe. Things could be added or deleted from this screen.

I exited help and typed my own name. The computer responded, “Enter Planet System Name,” with a drop-down list. I clicked on “Earth.” I saw my face staring back at me from the monitor. A row of icons on the bottom gave me a choice of where to drag myself:

Permanently Delete Entity
Postpone Existence
Create Entity Now
Create Entity Later
Accelerate Existence
Move to Other Planet

The familiar “waste basket” icon, and...

Copyright © 2004 by Ernest B. Cohen

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