Terminal Illness by D. F. Huettner

~3060 Words

 Jackson Keyes wiped the sweat from his face, once again cursing the heat of the southern California desert. He hummed one note, trying to concentrate on the road instead of the pain in his head. The car began to veer off the pavement raising clouds of dust, and Jackson lurched in the seat trying to pull the old auto from the soft shoulder.

Then he saw it, a small town, barely visible on the horizon. Probably no air conditioning, he thought, grabbing his soaked handkerchief to wipe away the sweat.

The town was tiny, a haphazard collection of one story cement block buildings with one central streetlight at the square. He sat through two cycles of red and yellow before a pickup truck behind him blasted its horn. The green signal lamp must have burned out.

“Yeah, all right,” Keyes grumbled and wiped his face again.

His stomach cramped and he coughed at the nausea. He had to get to that bank, he thought. The time was near. He pulled over to a young boy on the sidewalk and asked about the bank.

“Down there, mister” the youth said, pointing.

“You mean take a right at the square?” Keyes asked, but the boy was gone, walking, already halfway down the block. Keyes turned back to the wheel of his car. He had to get to that bank soon, or he never would — the time lag had already started to become noticeable.

Another cramp, and this one worse. Keyes had to wipe the spittle from the corner of his mouth. He started to wipe his face again, but thought better of it, looking at the damp handkerchief and tossing it across the seat.

He forced himself to put the car in gear and slowly drive down the street to the square. Halfway down the block to the right was the bank. Several people were loitering on the sidewalks of the street, and Keyes tried not to attract too much attention as he parked and clambered out of the car and opened the trunk to retrieve his tool case.

Walk a straight line, he thought, crossing the street toward the bank building. His stomach was in knots and sweat poured down his face despite the breeze blowing up the street. He slowed somewhat to step up onto the curb. He was almost there.

Keyes reached for the huge handle of the bank door and missed, losing his balance and falling backwards into a short elderly woman who sported a gigantic handbag and three leashed Pekingese.

“Well! My goodness!” the woman said, flustered, as her three miniature monsters yipped and guff-guffed, dancing around her feet. “Quiet Missy! Hush Sissy! Heel Prissy!” the old woman cried, trying to untangle her feet.

“I’m dreadfully sorry.” Keyes managed holding the door open for the woman and her entourage.

Inside the bank it was hot, no air conditioning.

The bank was small, the smallest bank office Keyes had ever seen. And yet there was an elegance that told of a past time in the small town when money flowed and lives were lived. The one teller stood behind an ornate brass grill set in carved walnut. The counter beneath the grill was worn into a trough that shined with the burnishing of age.

The woman and dogs hurried to the teller’s window as another cramp hit Keyes. From her handbag, the woman produced a large canvass money pouch and plopped it down before the teller.

Keyes groaned and slumped into the only chair to wait for the woman to complete her business. Sweat stung his eyes and he raised a sleeve to wipe his forehead.

“I demand satisfaction!” the woman said bringing forth a tattered passbook. The bewildered girl behind the window warily accepted the book.

“Mrs. Ploover, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?” she asked.

“It did it!” the elderly woman declared. “And I told you it would. I’ve been banking here for thirty years and never has there been a mistake in my account. Until now! You can talk all you want about machines handling the work, but really!” she huffed. “No machine can think, much less keep track of my money!”

“Calm yourself, Mrs. Ploover,” the teller said cautiously. “What exactly is the trouble?”

“This bank owes me ten cents!” the woman arrogantly said, producing a crumpled statement printout, waving it in the air. “Your counting machine made a mistake!”

“Now let me see that.” The teller reached under the bars for the document. “It’s highly unlikely that the computer would make a mistake.”

“Oh it is, eh?” Mrs. Ploover countered, again digging in her handbag. She produced an adding machine roll held by a rubber band. “I have my arithmetic right here,” she said, fumbling with the band. The roll got away from her and plopped onto the floor, unrolling across the floor toward the door. The three beasts at her feet erupted into a chorus of guff, guff, guffs.

An elderly gentleman in a sharp business suit entered the bank just in time to scoop up the runaway roll.

“My, my!” the man remarked. “We’re off to a running start this morning. Hello, Emma.”

“Mr. Ames!” The teller looked helplessly past the older woman. “Mrs. Ploover has a problem.”

“Thank you, Donna. I’ll take care of this.” Mr. Ames said as he rolled up the paper. “Lot o’ numbers here, Emma. What seems to be the trouble?”

“Bill, I’ve been banking here for thirty years,” Mrs. Ploover began.

“If I remember correctly, Emma,” the white haired gentleman interjected, “You were one of my first accounts when I opened the bank back in the corner of Quimby’s General Store. Yes, that was before I could even afford to buy a safe. Tom Quimby had the only one in the county.”

“But if you are going to continue this new trend of dropping pennies,” Mrs. Ploover continued her prepared speech undaunted. “Then I shall have to take my banking business elsewhere!”

At that Mr. Ames was visibly upset. Emma Ploover was a loaded old girl, and to lose her account would be a heavy blow.

“Now, Emma,” he said, trying to quiet her. “Just what is the problem? I’m sure we can work something out.”

“You can work ten cents into my account!” Mrs. Ploover waved the roll of paper in the man’s face. “The ten cents your machine stole from me!”

“Ten cents, Emma?” Mr. Ames took the roll from her and deposited it in her handbag.

“Yes. Your counting machine… your computer cheated me out of ten cents, penny at a time over the past ten months. I watched it on the statements. I’ve got them right here.” She began to dig in the handbag.

“Oh that!” Mr. Ames rubbed the sweat from the back of his neck. “Yes, Emma. No doubt you are right. We have been having some trouble with the computer. In fact…” he glanced at the bank’s great, round, wooden wall clock, “I’m expecting a repairman here to look at it today.”

At this Jackson jumped up, too quickly though, for his head throbbed. He hiccuped and set his jaw against another wave of nausea. He slowly made his way over to the couple at the counter.

“Excuse me, ah, Mr. Ames?”

“Yes?” The elderly man turned.

“My name is Jackson Keyes. I’m here to look at the computer.” He managed a half smile.

“Oh… Oh my! Well… See, Emma. No sooner said than done!”

“But what about my ten cents?”

“I think we can fix that right now. Just a second young man.” The bank president fished in his pocket and withdrew a shining Roosevelt dime. He handed it to Mrs. Ploover “There. How’s that? Now if you’ll just leave your passbook here, we’ll adjust the figures, and I’ll drop the book off on my way home this evening. Is that satisfactory?”

“Well… All right,” Mrs. Ploover said, relaxing a bit. She lectured Mr. Ames on the way to the door. “I still say, Bill, that machines will be the death of this country.”

“Oh, Emma! I remember you said that when Henry Ford came out with mass produced automobiles. Why, had it not been for the sudden increase in auto loans, this bank might still be back in Quimby’s Store.”

“Well, maybe,” she conceded. “But I still say we’re entirely too dependent on machines. We rely on them for everything. They have a way of creeping into your thinking until you honestly don’t think you can live without them! But not me! No sir! I’ve never owned a car and I never will. No sirree!”

“Good day, Emma,” Mr. Ames said holding the door for Mrs. Ploover and her bodyguards. When she had rounded the corner, the old man turned to address Keyes. He paused, studying the younger man, then remarked. “Young man, you don’t look at all well.”

“Ah… It’s just the heat.” Jackson began, hoping that Ames would drop the chatter and show him the computer. “I’m used to air conditioned buildings.”

“I see…” Mr. Ames eyed the bank’s door uncertainly as though Mrs. Ploover might come back. “Well, Mr. Ah…”

“Jackson Keyes,” He extended his hand. “Call me Jack.”

“The computer’s back here, Jack.” Mr. Ames led the way around the counter to a narrow hall that extended to the rear of the building. At the end of the hall was a door with a large wood plank across it held by metal straps. Above it a sign read ‘EXIT’. Along one wall were two narrow doors. The first had a sign saying ‘Gentlemen’, the second had a sign saying ‘Ladies’.

Mr. Ames opened the second door, reached up and pulled a string turning on a single light bulb on the ceiling.

Inside the tiny room sat a computer console on an old metal typewriter table. It was a small personal computer with a monochrome screen and a printer. The keyboard was perched precariously atop the monitor. Behind the computer on the wall were the marks where a sink had hung, and tarnished copper pipes protruded from the cracked plaster. At the far end of the room was a hole in the floor with a rag stuffed into it where a toilet used to sit.

“It isn’t much, but it’s all we’ve got,” Mr. Ames said stepping aside.

Keyes stepped into the room and began to power up the machine.

“We’re connected somehow to a big computer up in Bakersfield,” Mr. Ames said. “We put the access number there so we wouldn’t lose it,” he pointed. Keyes looked, and sure enough, written on the wall in bold magic marker was the central computer’s modem line number along with the bank’s file access code and pin number.

Jackson was shocked. “Mr. Ames, anybody with a computer, a modem and those codes could take this bank for every cent it’s got!”

This elicited a kindly smile from the whites haired gent. “This is a small town, Mr. Keyes. No one would do that.” Mr. Ames loudly exhaled, looking with suspicion at the ailing computer. “Well… You know more about this than I do. If you need me, I’ll be in my office up front.”

Keyes grimaced as the bank president turned and left, then he shut the door.

The waves of pain were coming quicker now. Jackson opened his tool case and dug for a patch cord. The cramping was constant, and his legs were growing weak. Tears were beginning to cloud his vision, yet he managed to type in his personal access codes to link the machine with his computer back at the shop.

Feverishly he grabbed at the computer turning it around to gain access to its input/output ports. He coughed and doubled over in pain. Moving over closer to the machine, Keyes plugged the patch cord into the machine’s serial port. He tried to screw in the holding screws, but his hands shook so that he dropped the screwdriver, watching it roll out of reach.

He sat back against the wall gasping for air. The screwdriver wouldn’t matter, not anymore. Grabbing the keyboard he slumped over on the floor and typed in his personal access code that would link the bank’s PC with the main frame back at the office in Pomona.

Pulling at his right sleeve he fumbled with the button on the cuff, then in desperation, tore the cuff open sending the button flying. The room was disappearing before him. His heart skipped a beat, threatening to fail altogether. He ran his hand along the patch cord until he reached the special connector at its end. Tugging at his sleeve, Keyes weakly plugged the cable into the I/O port embedded in his forearm, then reached up to press the key marked, ENTER.

— CONNECTION —

With the speed of light – light. Brilliance. His mind was flooded with irradiant, golden sheen. His heartbeat became strong and quick. Liquid electric strength flowed through the cord and into his muscles. He opened his eyes, staring at the incandescent sparkling walls.

A smile grew across his lips. Keyes loved to boot up. It was what kept him going now. And it was only a phone call away. With amusement he thought, reach out and touch someone.

The readout began to appear on the wall in gigantic computer letters, like some old movie from the seventies. The program was loaded and running its startup instructions; knowledge was flowing into Keyes memory. There was a job to do. The program needed input.

Sighing heavily, Jackson wiped his face and collected himself to stand. The cursor in his mind was waiting patiently, blinking at what appeared to be three feet before him in space. He focused on the wall, and the program responded.

— ILLEGAL INPUT – ENTER ALPHANUMERIC INFORMATION —

Booting was fun. Keyes needed it. Extended periods of time disconnected from the mainframe brought on the withdrawal symptoms. But there was work to do, the job he had come for. He stood and focused on the little metal plate on the front of the computer, mentally passing the cursor across the make and model. Then turning the machine around he ran the cursor across the numbers etched into the rear of the chassis.

— SEARCHING — RETRIEVING — LINKING —

He suddenly knew every atom of the machine before him, its language, its graphics capabilities, its accessory boards, the programs stored on its hard disk, even its power source. He was linked.

— PREPARE TO ENTER SEARCH/CORRECTION PROGRAM —

Okay, Jackson thought, no resting, ahead full at light speed. He sat down again and thought out the word, watching the letters appear on the computer’s screen and in the air between his face and the machine.

— ENGAGED —

Bracing himself, he reached over to the keyboard and hit ENTER.

It felt as though he were being deflated, sucked down inside himself, then he was in the cord, and then in the computer’s CPU board. The program guided him through the circuitry in a systematic search, looking up this avenue and across that bridge. The peripheral semiconductors and leads were all in good condition, but they had to be checked out. Finally Keyes approached the great plateau of the CPU chip. Its semiconducting molecules stretched out before him like a great layer cake of a thousand tiny trails snaking in and around, over and through each other. He started into the maze, running and climbing, sliding and swinging, all the while being urged on by the persistent program.

Then he saw it, a hot spot where the electron flow had begun to knock atoms from their molecular lattice. This small decay in the surface of the silica had the ability to bounce data carrying electrons up to a bridge above him. It probably wouldn’t happen often, but it could account for Mrs. Ploover’s dime, and it would get worse with time.

Keyes thought,

— PAUSE – SCAN —

The program loosened its grip on him and he passed his mental cursor over the hot spot.

— ANALYZE —

Keyes waited, and momentarily confirmation came from the mainframe in Pomona.

— ERROR LOCATED AND IDENTIFIED – CPU CHIP FAULTY —

— REPLACEMENT NECESSARY —

— WARRANTY COVERAGE ACCEPTED —

— SEARCH/CORRECTION PROGRAM TERMINATED —

Moments later, Jackson Keyes strode out into the bank lobby. Seeing him, Mr. Ames came from his office.

“Well, did you find the problem?”

“Nothing much,” Keyes smiled, holding up the faulty chip.

“You mean Emma Ploover’s dime got lost in that little thing?”

“Just over heating. You’ll have to get an air conditioner though.”

The bank president frowned.

“And you’ll have to leave that door open until you get one,” he continued, waving his tool case back at the rest room door which hung open. A machine’s got to breathe, you know. Machines have needs just like people. I suggest you move your computer into your office. In that way you can enjoy the air conditioning too.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” Mr. Ames said, walking Keyes to the door. “But I don’t know what Emma Ploover will say. This is a small town, and it’s people like her that we rely on. They resist progress and its technology, you know. That’s why we hid the computer back in the bathroom to begin with.”

“I’m sure,” Jackson said as he caught the last of what the man had said. He was listening to the humming electricity in his brain. “But you will need to cool that machine down if you don’t want to continue dropping those pennies.”

“Hmm, yes…” Mr. Ames raised his eyebrows at the allusion to Mrs. Ploover. “Well, thanks for everything, young man.” He extended his hand. You’re looking much better, too.”

“I do feel much better, thanks.” Keyes shook Mr. Ames hand and headed out of the bank and across the street to his car. The sun shone down on the small town, and a light, cooling breeze blew steadily at his back as he placed the tool case in the trunk.

Yeah, I feel better now, he thought, turning into the breeze and wiping the first bead of sweat from his forehead. I feel better now, but it’s a long ride till I get home to the Mainframe.


Author Bio: 

D.F. Huettner lives in rural Pennsylvania, USA. His stories have appeared in Planet Magazine, Nuketown News and Rogue Worlds online. He has published three novels and a collection of novellas, available on Amazon Kindle.

This story was first published in Planet Magazine #26  in June  2000.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s