1980s Vintage Computers
Son of Hexadecimal Kid
A parable in eight virtual pages by Richard Forsyth
Page 1 - front page news
From PRACTICAL COMPUTING, October 1980
When the System died, all the computers and robots which constituted its active elements ceased to function. A very few androids - computerised humans, like Hex - who had, for some reason, been cut off from data communication during the critical period, survived. They soon found that the electrodes implanted inside their skulls, the communications equipment, the auxiliary memories, the on-board brain accelerators and all the paraphernalia of the cybernated man were no longer a boon but a crippling handicap. Nevertheless, some of them kept up the struggle for existence, especially the more unsystematic ones - as Cleo and her friends are about to discover.
The first tinges of dawn had begun to lighten the sky, and they were able to see the strange figure quite plainly. They gazed fascinated as he staggered uphill towards them. He was wearing a trapper's leather jacket which looked as though he had just rolled through two briar bushes. Every so often, he paused and put his hands to his head; it seemed as if he were trying to wrench it from his shoulders.
None of them moved. The stranger was obviously unaware of their presence. He drew closer and closer until, when he was less than three metres away, Piltdown 2 took a pace forward into his path and held up a hand.
The stranger lifted his eyes. Seeing the apeman's shaggy bulk, he fell to his knees.
"Help me", he implored. "Data, please - input - "
In a flash, Cleo recognised not only the symptoms, but who he was. It was wild Bill Bootstrap, clearly far into the delirium induced by advanced data deprivation.
"My head hurts", wailed the android. "Please, here - just a byte". He pointed feebly to the parallel I/O port fitted just behind his left ear, then, as if the effort was all he could muster, keeled over and lay still.
Quick and businesslike, Cleo knelt over his fallen body and rolled him on to his back, propping up his head against a boulder. Though she had no reason to be grateful to Bootstrap, her former jailer, his suffering touched her.
It was clear that, by some minor miracle, he had avoided gigosis but was now experiencing withdrawal symptoms of the severest kind in the absence of the all-embracing Network.
She beckoned to McNull.
"Now the error of his ways is revealed unto him and he sees the evil thereof. So be it", pronounced McNull without sympathy.
Cleo ignored his remark. She knew that McNull had applied for cybernation of his own accord as a young man but had failed the aptitude test. Since then he had nurtured a bitter resentment for all things cybernetic; but, more useful in the present context, his envy had led to a morbid fascination with electronic gadgetry.
Even now, just after escaping by a hair's breadth from the collapsing cavern, his pockets were bulging with LED displays, assorted chips and fragments of discarded circuit board, while the return key from a VDU keyboard he had found somewhere on his travels hung round his neck on string like a lucky charm. These baubles he collected totally haphazardly - without regard to their function or value.
"Hand me that", she said, pointing to a video games paddle that was protruding from his vest pocket.
Reluctantly, McNull obeyed. She took it and pressed it into Bootstrap's hand. His fingers closed about it. It had a warm amber handle and it seemed to comfort the android. At any rate his breathing steadied and he fell into a deep sleep.
She stood up. She knew that Mike Rose had commanded Piltdown 2 to obey her orders with his dying breath, and she wanted him to carry Bootstrap. Unfortunately, she could not speak predicate calculus, nor even Esperanto which was the least logical language the Sasquatch could understand. Eventually, by mime, she conveyed her intentions to him, and he humped the motionless body over his broad back.
"Salvation should be denied those that merit it or not", muttered McNull grumpily as they set off. To tell the truth he was very attached to his electronic trinkets and was far from pleased to have one requisitioned to relieve an android who, in his opinion, richly deserved his fate.
As they walked on, he furtively removed his prize possession, a flat-screen micro-television, from an outer pocket and secreted it about his person. That, for sure, was not going to be taken from him - it didn't work, of course, but it shone beautifully in the morning sunshine.
Cleo thus emerged as the natural leader. Although still 16, and a female to boot, she was the only one who could make decisions on the spot and the only one with an idea of where to go. Piltdown 2 was bred for service and so shambled along happily behind her. McNull, when he was not lost in a transcendental reverie, was putty in her hands.
He had inadvertently burnt out that part of his brain which dealt with forward planning in a misguided attempt to fill his head with hobbyist computer kit after the cybernation college turned him down.
Cleo's purpose, which the other two fell in with by default, was to return to Sprocket's Hole as soon as possible. That was where she had last seen her elder sister Lambda, and that was almost certainly where Bootstrap was from. If he could survive the plague of gigosis then perhaps Lambda too - who, unlike Cleo, had been cybernated - was still alive.
The sun hoisted itself above the horizon and suddenly it was a bright desert morning. They trudged on as the day grew hotter, Piltdown 2 apparently untroubled by his load, McNull perspiring but uncomplaining, stopping occasionally to shake the sand from their shoes.
Soon after midday, they crested a ridge from which they could look down into Sprocket's Hole. There in the haze lay the two log cabins. Nothing stirred. Cleo galloped down the slope, sliding and slithering on the loose stones, while McNull and the apeman followed at a more sedate pace. As soon as she reached the door of the larger hut, she flung it open.
Lambda she saw almost at once, splayed out half across a bench and half on the floor. Panting, she dragged her into the open air.
"Lambda, Lambda", she called, shaking her sister bodily. "What happened"?
Lambda's eyes did not open but Cleo could hear the whir of her disc drive motors as the read/write head searched fruitlessly for track zero. Clearly, she had received a massive unregulated surge of power which had wiped clean her PROM loader and possibly corrupted her system diskette.
Cleo dashed back inside to look for a ROM-pack with a fresh copy of the brain-bug loader on it. After a few moments scrabbling around, she found one and emerged just in time to see McNull peering down over her sister.
McNull's well-meaning but electronically incompetent hand strayed towards the re-start button at the back of her neck.
"No", shouted Cleo - but it was too late.
Lambda sat up, opened her eyes and started to sing Land of Hope and Glory.
"Fool", Cleo snarled at McNull. "Don't you realise how dangerous it is to try a warm-start on an android who hasn't been powered down properly"?
McNull looked crestfallen. He had only been trying to help.
She switched off Lambda, inserted the new ROM-pack and initiated the cold-start procedure.
"This had better work, for your sake", she said, glaring at McNull.
She began counting under her breath. She knew the start-up routine by heart. First there was the memory diagnostic - that took about 10 seconds. Then, the processor would exercise every opcode in combination with every possible operand which took another 30 seconds.
Finally, there was the disc-verification test which wrote, and read-back, every track on both discs twice - first filling it with zeros, then ones. That took slightly over a minute. If that failed, Lambda's brain, which was alive but which could not communicate with the outside world through the apparatus that encased it, would be trapped for ever inside a coffin of defunct electronic accessories.
After 10 seconds, then 40, still nothing had gone wrong. Cleo's heart pounded, making regular counting difficult - 99, 100, 101 - Surely it was time for Lambda to wake up. Next month; a rude awakening.
This page was last revised on: 24/11/10