Code the Obscure

A Parody

by Andy Oram
Copyright © 1998

Table of Contents

An Innocence That Could Not Endure

Julian is Tossed On a Storm of Electrical Forces

What Happens to All Who Trust

About Thomas Hardy

An Innocence That Could Not Endure

A misty Autumn dawn unveiled the sky’s aspect to the Sun, which rural folk have always acknowledged their master and sustainer despite the urgings of latter-day religionists to sway their benedictions toward other gods. Its rays glinted through the branches of an old fir copse to a meadow near the Turnstile Farm, where they illuminated the slender figure of a labourer making his way among the cattle.

Julian Fairley was the best farmhand in the district, which lay near the Channel. He was a handsome young man whose dark beard covered delicate cheeks. At this moment he ministered to the cows in the manner of Heracles to those of Augeus; using means that remained, despite the mechanical improvements of this century, essentially the same as in all generations since beasts were domesticated. But an uncommon light in his deep-set eyes indicated that his lot was to be more than a cattleman. Indeed, he wanted to be a computer programmer.

Each day after his duties were met, Julian strode the path to the farm’s office to watch the data processing staff, and often to venture a suggestion when they avowed frustration. The programmers began their convocation by opening a pine cabinet and extracting one of several carefully preserved tapes woven from tough fibers of yellow paper, wrapped around an empty core to a diameter of several inches. The width of the paper, about an inch, was enough to hold a row of eight spaces that could be selectively punched out to represent characters in a computer programme.

After removing the elastic that held the tape in a spiral, these questers after knowledge fed the end into a large teletype machine, from which emerged like a shoot from a large tree trunk a cable attached to a modem. After dialing up the timesharing center, they loaded a complete programme from the tape, compiled it, and ran it, all the while examining the messages that clattered across a wide page that grew in spurts from the machine’s head.

As results poured forth, a race against time began. Unacceptable output cried out for a diagnosis, and the enumeration of sufficient errors required a rerun. Yet every hundredth of a second of CPU time was counted and charged to the farm, so the most creative care was required to keep run time to a minimum. Haggard, with neckties loosely flying about, programmers pounded out upon the keyboard the print statements that would uncover the cause of each disturbance. Certain errors showed such taunting persistence that the staff, despite their claims to pure rationality, would swear that a gnome had entered the programme.

The mechanical activities were entirely pedestrian, yet Julian felt seized by a spirit of mystery that lay therein. As often as not, it was he that discovered the most difficult solutions. His zeal at learning the trade was unmatched. Despite the requirements of his job on the farm, for which he often rose from his bed at three o’clock in the morning, he would spend hours after supper studying computer architectures and learning new languages.

But for the moment, today, he was still at his milking. The sound of an automobile came over the hill that divided his station from the office, which stood among mists that made it seem distant and inaccessible; one of the cows turned.

‘What can you hear, Baleful?’ he asked it. ‘Telling me something is amiss at the farm?’

Keeping its counsel, the cow turned back placidly to the trough, but when Julian came later to the office, he noticed parked by the door a Morris Mini-Cooper that he had never seen before. The office was an unassuming wooden structure with a slate roof and wide eaves, shaded by two sycamores. The outer hall shook with the relentless ratamacues being tapped out by the teletype as he entered, his face still flushed from his exertions and his breeches presenting bits of clinging straw.

‘Your arrival’s well-fortuned, Julian,’ said a tall programmer with lean fingers who went by the name of Diggor Vizzen. ‘The missus wants to see you.’

‘But bide here yet a spell, nonetheless,’ said his cheerful and more rotund partner, Johnny Coghand. ‘Try to smoke out the culprit behind this overflow we’ve found—we’ve been eyeballing the code till we’re leery and we ha’n’t yet caught the bug.’

Julian leaned over the teletype and examined the columns of output while Diggor offered a brief recital of events up to that moment. ‘We’ve checked the records and they’re all declared with ample digits. It can’t be an off-by-one problem either; we’ve traced where all the loops fall through.’

‘Let me check the procedure that updates the column,’ declared Julian, and rifled through the paper plisséed on the floor to pull out the leaf under suspicion. Only a few seconds passed as he scanned the page for an answer. ‘Just what I thought! The error is not with your programming logic, Diggor, but with your characterisation of the problem. You add to the feed column when we buy some, but have forgotten to subtract the feed when the cattle eat it.’

Diggor slapped his knee. ‘It’s true, I swear! You’ve saved us again from a nasty bug.’

Julian was moved to expound a bit more upon his discovery. ‘We should be thankful for this overflow, Diggor! Without it, we could well have depleted our liquid assets over the next few months and come up with no feed in the middle of the winter.’

‘That’s what marks you off from the common run o’ programmers, Julian,’ exclaimed Coghand. ‘You don’t think just like a hacker, but also like a farmer, and you mingle the best of both of ’en.’

‘Hurry to the office, now,’ said Diggor. ‘Miss Endoline is talking to some computer expert about changing our responsibilities. She took a brain dump off o’ me this morning, and I recommended to her that you be consulted too.’

‘Take cheer, heart!’ said Coghand. ‘You med get a new job out o’ her inquiry.’

His spirits quite excited by these intelligences, Julian brushed himself off and headed for the office.

Betraysha Endoline sat before her oak desk on a folding chair in order to be closer to her visitor. Though she dressed in an unadorned wool-jersey suit that made a strong contrast to the wild female fashion of the day, no amount of receding modesty could hide her fresh beauty. What impressed the inhabitants of the region, besides her large eyes and full, lively cheeks, was her determination to be sole owner and manager of a dairy farm in competition with a host of local proprietors who were entirely of the male sex and generally more advanced in years. These farmers impatiently anticipated the disaster that would cause her, having inherited the farm from her uncle, to declare it beyond her abilities and to hire a bailiff, but instead it thrived under her shrewd bargaining and audacious management. They tended to see her prosperity in this rare woman’s venture as a form of teasing. Julian held a silent appreciation both for her success in the oft-bloodied field of commerce and for those qualities appertaining only to her being a woman.

‘I am glad you came, Fairley,’ she began, as it was her prerogative to open the conversation. ‘Do you remember the lecture that I mentioned attending last month at the Agriculture Association, where they discussed improvements in computer productivity?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ replied Julian. ‘You said at the time that too many runs were lost to programming errors, and the staff here have redoubled their efforts to search for them since that time.’

‘I greatly appreciate their efforts, Julian, and I understand your help has also been valuable. But,’ exclaimed Betraysha, ‘We can do still better! There is now a totally new way to produce error-free programmes.’

The shining trust on her young face made Julian somehow uneasy. ‘I would be glad to hear of such a breakthrough,’ he said, while his gaze strayed to the visitor in the corner, as if he sensed that the clue to his employer’s newfound zeal could be retrieved from that locale. This young man, dressed in an unassuming suit and holding his briefcase in front of him, broadcast the air of philosophical fixity that tends to be bolstered by both prodigious mental competence and backing from the highest social institutions. His sureness was expressed not in solidity or restfulness, but in an incisive agitation visible through the keen eyes in his otherwise emotionless visage. Intellectually a bastion of his doctrine, the guest was socially uncertain and awkward, a quality made more dominant in the presence of a woman.

‘Excuse me for my rudeness, Fairley,’ said Betraysha. ‘Let me introduce you to Douglas Falforr, who is about to earn his doctorate in mathematics from Highbraugh University and is focusing his research on software development.’

Fairley was utterly amazed. He knew the world-wide renown of the mathematics department at Highbraugh, but had no inkling that a member of that lofty profession would invest effort in an activity that Julian regarded as the plaything of tinkerers like himself.

‘I’ve heard of your skills with both the cattle and the computer, Fairley, and am pleased to talk to such a man of such talents,’ said Falforr in a distinct Scottish accent. Fairley merely bobbed his head in acknowledgement of the praise, and Falforr moved without pause to the focus of his interests. ‘Testing can never produce correct software—iterative airror-fixing will merely ensure that the programme contains more airrors. Formal proofs are the only way to produce correctness, and will eventually make testing obsolete.’

Laying his briefcase upon an end-table, he now withdrew a heavy notebook and opened it to reveal a sheet on which Julian saw dozens of lines connecting diamonds, parallelograms, and circles, marked with brief phrases like this:

[Piece of a typical flowchart]

‘That is pretty indeed,’ he murmured with some appreciation. ‘If we could load a picture such as this and execute it on the computer, life would be quite easy.’

‘It cannet run on the computer, although advances in artificial intelligence will enable us within a decade to address the system in natural language,’ said Falforr. ‘The role of the flowchart is to show us every detail of an algorithm’s control flow so that no branch is left uncoded and no eventuality can be forgotten. Refining this into a correctly executing programme is a simple task of implementing each condition and node in the chosen programming language.’

‘There is soon not to be much independence left to the programmer, then.’

‘O, there is still a call for independence,’ put in Betraysha quickly.

‘The critical thinking in a programming team will lie all with the system designer,’ explained Falforr. ‘Before a line of code is written, he is responsible for the requirements definition, the software design document, the functional specification, and the test plan. Others are responsible for meeting each of the delivairrables in the plans.’

Though Betraysha’s office was so familiar and dear to him, Fairley felt eerily out of place at this moment; it was suffused with a wholly alien air. He was not discomforted by Falforr’s expression, so earnest and demanding yet so distracted from the ordinary concerns of society and nature; it was the softer and attentive regard of Betraysha that hampered his attempts to register his dissent.

Falforr, neither heartless nor insensate, was perplexed by Julian’s gentle style of resistance, and suggested with a surprising show of sympathy, ‘Perhaps you should tell us what you believe the job of the programmer to be.’

‘I believe,’ said Fairley with a ponderous self-consciousness, for he had never before attempted to voice a credo, ‘I believe that the first responsibility of a computer programmer is to understand his users, their responsibilities, and their goals—even their motivations and their passions. He must thoroughly understand the domain of the problem to be addressed in real life, and represent the interests of the user at all points during programme development.’ His bass voice filled out and strengthened. ‘Errors will indeed be introduced into every programme, but since the world is always in flux, so are the users and their tasks, so we will be able to fix errors as we upgrade the application.’

The sheer novelty of this viewpoint seemed to pierce into an unguarded region of Falforr’s cortex, and for a brief period the mathematician was visibly engaged in calculating its implications. But the moment passed; the thought was instantiated in his mind; and it rested with finality in the vise of some powerful schema. Were Falforr a musician, his style would be the strict serialism in vogue among academics at the time, while Julian’s would be the traditional reels and ballads that had been heard in local hills from preliterate times.

‘You hold on to a marrvelous ideal,’ Falforr said. ‘But the foundation of programme design will always be requirements and proofs. Formal training in programme verification is becoming the baseline sought in all programming shops. I advise you to fall in with the standard thinking that is pervasive in the software field.’

Betraysha took up the thread. ‘So do you think you could work under Diggor as a programmer using this system, Fairley?’

Julian looked down at the floor. The words of the Prophet, ‘for I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction,’ came to his mind, but he kept them to himself. Instead he spoke yet more slowly and deliberately, though it seemed all the while that his heart was being shred to tatters. ‘I cannot accept a programming position under such conditions. Even were I the designer, and my colleagues the ones to pursue the trails laid down by my thinking, I could not work in an environment where people’s instinctual mode of collaboration is encumbered by such a constraining ideology.’

Falforr turned his head aside, pinching his lips in disappointment. Betraysha showed even more distress, but kept cool. ‘I appreciate your candour, Fairley,’ she said. ‘We shall not urge you further to take the position. You may return to your duties on the farm.’

The rest of the day passed dolorously for Julian. In his torpor he hardly noticed what he was doing or when his duties had come to an end. While walking home he stopped at one of the many fallen rock structures that dotted the countryside since its occupation by the Romans, and lying flat upon a stone, surveyed the ruins in which his own life lay. A flock of starlings pecked busily around the site, oblivious to the history of defeats and human deterioration scattered around them.

Betraysha’s character remained unblemished in his estimation, for he was unwilling to admit that she had been anything worse than a little gullible and hasty. The fault truly lay with Falforr. Had Fairley complete trust in his philosophy, he might have been able to go back and face his adversary. But shall he say the law is sin? He pined pitiably for the respectability of the Highbraugh scholar.

Impulsively, he stopped at a resthouse in the local village. The pub in those days was still independently owned and possessed some local character. He ordered one brimful mug after another, and becoming soon quite besotted, addressed the other occupants.

‘I can code with the best of ’en,’ he declared. ‘Ask me for a sine function—I’ll do one in 122 instructions, using shifts! Give me an unbalanced B-tree—I’ll have it balanced before the college lads have got their pencils sharpened.’

‘He’s all there!’ chimed in a grizzled customer, who couldn’t tell a B-tree from a bonsai but knew Fairley from childhood. ‘I’ll lay you a hundred to one he can beat ’em all.’ The other topers joined in the merry accolade. They hailed Fairley, talked of better days they had seen, and sang some old ballads, a custom that had passed long out of date and could be commenced only after engulfing the bartender with earnest admonishments to turn off the television set.

Fairley eventually bade his companions farewell and made his way home. One of the fogs that commonly rolled in from the coast in the Autumn was bathing the town in wet. The effluvial mists laid a celestial blessing upon all objects on his path, to which his binge lent him a corresponding temper. The world he saw before him granted no distinction between those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads. He mused upon how wonderful it would be if each such person were appreciated for his contribution and consecrated his knowledge on the altar of the common good.

Around dawn he awoke quite groggy. When he surveyed the actual world about him, and the status that he had to look forward to on the Turnstile farm, comparing them to his fantasies of the night before, he realised he could not return. Instead he packed his belongings and posted them to the nearby city of Wadhustle, saving a few items in a leather satchel with which he departed that morning.

Julian is Tossed On a Storm of Electrical Forces

Wadhustle, where Julian had decided to try his luck, was at this time a regional industrial centre gradually on its way to becoming a national one. Foundries clanged away on one side of town, fed by financial firms that pumped in a continuous monetary stimulation from the other. As business managers, in their long and enforced bondage to that arithmetical demon Profit-and-Loss, realised that computers played a critical role in managing their growing engagements, work became plentiful for programmers like Fairley.

All over the city, aging structures were torn apart inside to make passage for wires, and stately halls cleared out to encompass enormous whirring machinery, a tectonic shift that has spurred the publicists of our time to speak of the Information Age. To the purchasers of calculating equipment, of course, the end was not so much information as

to let the Ghost of Gold
Take from Toil a thousandfold
More than e’er its substance could
in the tyrannies of old.

Fairley was quickly hired. But even though impassioned by Athena to conquer, he found his victory snatched away by Aphrodite. His jobs would start off well enough, but eventually some degreed consultant would take over Information Systems management and impose the demeaning ritual that Falforr had correctly predicted would spread throughout the field, dividing the programmers into categories: ‘Ephraim to ride, Judah shall plow, Jacob shall break his clods.’

Fairley found that his ready rapport with users was ignored; his frustration with the increasing hierarchy among staff resented. An inevitable decline took place, although it would be impossible to say whether it was rendered by his employers’ appraisal of him or by his own repulsion from the changes entering his trade. But in the growing stratification among programmers, he found himself increasingly relegated to the lower levels. At one wretched company, he was almost put on technical documentation.

In his disappointment at seeing his career come to a halt, he turned to the one human being who could appreciate him. As he had run into a cousin named Sharon since his arrival, he found that she shared every one of his beliefs and torments. One day as they spent a few minutes after work in a dank restaurant, his hand resting gently on hers, she spoke with unusual animation.

‘Julian, I must tell you that I am leaving my husband,’ she said. He had known for a long time from her manner that she was unhappy. ‘We have never behaved like man and wife, and I cannot abide him, though I respect him as a friend.’

‘Sharon, nothing could make me happier than to have you move in with me.’

‘I would do that, Julian, but we must remain chaste!’ she insisted. ‘While I could not bear to live without your presence, I cannot go beyond that point with you.’

Julian, disappointed as he was by her decision, could do nothing but assent; their love was such an all-consuming obsession that the physical manifestation seemed to him almost as superfluous as she herself believed it to be. As the months went on, they became so close that each nuance of thought was known to the other without being uttered aloud.

In Sharon’s fluttering energy Julian found the perfect reflection of his own aspiring soul. A vegetarian who refused to wear leather, she led a campaign against steel traps and joined the National Anti-Vivisection Society. She was as impulsive in speech as he could be in his actions. And to Sharon, he appeared beautiful in his somberness, though for her he would attempt a smile. Together they moved into a flat in a modular concrete high-rise located in a neighbourhood without redeeming features, where the city fathers relegated utility companies and other functions that upperclass city residents depend on but would rather not see in operation.

The grinding stone of cruel Fate finally brought Julian round to clerical labour—that of typing other programmer’s statements onto punch cards. Once when he reported an error in the job control language he was given, hoping to save a wasted night’s run and thereby help the poor programmer responsible for the lapse, he was curtly informed to submit the job as written or (in his supervisor’s words) to accept payment and take his leave.

As he worked one day he felt the presence of another person at the machine next to him; looking up he was surprised to see Diggor Vizzen. ‘I come to protest against your working like this,’ said the tight-lipped visitor.

‘How did you find me here?’

‘O, I like to keep track of the doings of various members of my profession—call it networking. Julian, I know of a new opening at the Turnstile, and I encourage you to apply.’

‘I left suddenly without notice; I can’t imagine Miss Endoline would have me back.’

‘Don’t be despondent. You have a long history there and I can attest that you are still well-respected. You owe yourself at least an interview with us.’

‘I must consider this news, and call you.’

Julian turned back and hunched tensely over his work. But he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. Diggor, never a good dissembler, ventured an admission. ‘I’m afraid Miss Endoline is embarking on a bad course that may be risky for us all. I wish that a level-headed advisor like you were present.’

The serious lines on Diggor’s face transmitted evidence that his time was not spent in general pursuit of programming staff, but that in fact it was Julian alone he had sought out at that particular moment. The lanky programmer turned to go, but glanced back one more time to gaze with a tragic brow on Julian, who stood holding his stack of punched cards before a glass wall stationed by metal beams that formed a cross behind him.

Julian arrived home that night in an agitated state. ‘I’ve had an offer to return to the farm,’ he told Sharon.

‘But you were so conflicted about it when you left!’ she said.

‘I cannot stop worrying about it for some reason.’

‘And I know why,’ she answered, her eyes flashing. ‘It is Miss Endoline herself that holds your attention—I know she depended heavily on your judgement during your tenure there.’

‘You take me wrong, Sharon,’ said Julian hastily. ‘I care nothing for her, and her station is too far above me for her to notice me.’ But if the first half of his disclaimer had been true, the second would have been unnecessary, and they both knew it. With a brave stab at showing resolve, he announced, ‘I will not go to the Turnstile; let Diggor address his own problems there as best he can.’

‘O, you will never get the matter out of your mind until you have been there,’ said Sharon. ‘Take the train out as soon as they will have you.’

Julian confirmed his appointment by telephone, and set out on a wintry morning the following week. He disembarked the train at a village nestling in the valley and treaded a mile up to the farm. The boughs of the oaks by the side of the road bowed down under the snow, while the hedges were rigidified in icy prisons.

The morning was silent, only an occasional lorry passing and causing the snow to crack in protest. All the rest of the land held its breath in breezeless stillness, as if waiting for some grand cataclysm to transform it. But no such upheaval was nigh, for truly lasting changes never come thus; instead they creep undiscovered at a pace even slower than the shifting of the banks at the sides of the road.

Some such metamorphosis was evident to Julian’s keen eye. The signs were so minute as to be totally invisible to someone who had not flattened that ground weekly for many years. But he could tell that the ruts in the road were a bit wider and deeper, the paint more frayed on properties bordering the route, and fields bare and untended that had previously been filled with sheep or cattle.

The Turnstile had its old healthy look, and the slats of the office were freshly painted. An MG roadster was parked in front. Julian entered and greeted Vizzen and Coghand.

‘Fairley! It’s well to be you,’ exclaimed Coghand. ‘I’m glad you traypsed up to rejoin us. Things haven’t been going right here since your departure. Diggor has seen the worst of it: he’s on the critical path for normalising our data.’

‘Normalising? Tell me, could Douglas Falforr have a hand in these developments?’ asked Fairley, trembling with a strange alternation between distaste and awe. ‘Does he still comes down from Highbraugh to offer his advice?’

‘He haled from there, to be sure, but now he’s quite the big wig. Always crossing the Channel or the Atlantic for some conference or other—when he’s not molly-horning wi’ the Minister of Trade or the Minister of Science.’

‘Miss Endoline considers herself lucky that Falforr still takes time to come here as a consultant,’ said Vizzen. ‘He’ll drag her to the dogs. He has convinced her ’tis information processing that makes this enterprise a success.’

‘It is not that!’ exclaimed Julian hotly. ‘It is that she is up and about before her staff every morning, and that she checks the health of every cow daily, and manages the enterprise frugally, yet honestly and with compassion.’ He still could not locate in Betraysha any blame for the loss of his hopes, and could touch on the possibility only in abstract terms, by noting the injustice of a mercantilism in which the owners have all the say and the staff none.

‘Diggor, dos’t you mind the time ’a tried to make us rewrite all our applications in Pascal?’ asked Johnny.

‘Indeed,’ said Diggor grimly.

‘ ’Twas fortunate for us the plan fell to the budget ax,’ continued his more voluble partner. Falforr apparently espoused a fundamentalist doctrine of software development; any syncretism admitting elements of a more pluralist age was not tolerated. ‘And now he’s on that relaysh’null kick. No, Julian, the job is not the same as it was before. I would as lief have gone long ago, but the work at other sites come off no better than this. An’ the hacking seems to be in my blood. I just thank God it’s not worse,’ he finished achingly.

At this point Betraysha came and gaily offered to take Julian on a tour of the new computer facilities. She threw open a door to an old storage room and revealed rows of new tables, each bearing several terminals lined up like blank tombstones. Cables writhed across the floor in tangles of riotous colour, as if they took part in a composition by Stella or Pollock.

‘Julian, I wish to hire a number of girls to enter orders,’ she said. ‘Do you think this space will be well-used?’

Julian was never reticent with an opinion. ‘Given employment patterns around these parts, I have no doubt you can find those who accept such soulless toil. But is it the kind of farm you wish to run?’

‘I expect to greatly increase our income through improvements we are making.’

‘And do you think you can get away without spending considerable sums on the care-taking of these systems?’

‘The costs are burdensome—rest assured I have reviewed the figures in the matter.’

‘Then why do you institute such major changes all at once, instead of proceeding at a cautious pace?’

‘It is Falforr’s doing. O, Julian,’ she exclaimed, dropping all reserve, ‘you may as well be told, as it is now common knowledge—I have made a public offering on the farm.’

Julian’s stiffened shoulders spoke of his alarm, though his voice remained quiet. ‘This farm has had a single owner for untold generations. It is not the custom of the local land owners to accept shareholders who understand little of the trade.’

‘O yes, but Julian, I needed the money—to put through the information system improvements that Falforr required!’

‘I wish you had consulted with me before embarking on this course.’

‘You were not present to be consulted,’ said Betraysha with dignity.

Julian inwardly acknowledged the wound from these cutting words. Feeling that he was in retreat, he countered, ‘Well, you could have confided in some other sober member of the community who could offer advice to balance such a flirtation with technology.’

‘How do you know I did not?’ she replied with flaring eyes, but leaving no doubt by the generality of her retort that in fact she could not testify to any such counsel. ‘I know I have been bad, and I am willing to pay to the uttermost farthing. But these improvements had to be made. Modern times are different from those of my uncle’s. There is global competition you know nothing about,’ she said casually, as something she had oft heard repeated.

‘ “And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise,” ’ quoted Julian. ‘But since I am no longer an employee and have no savings to invest as a shareholder, I suppose that I have no reason to concern myself.’

Strangely, after all his painfully forthright declarations, it was this feigned lack of interest that overstepped an invisible boundary. Betraysha pulled herself together and restored her customary aplomb. ‘The matter is settled and cannot be reopened. I am going to call in Falforr to discuss our job offer; he knows better than I the requirements of the position.’

They found Falforr, whose added years and somber grey suit accentuated his aspect of inviolable correctness. He presented himself generously, being delighted to have won Julian back again.

‘Fairley! I want to offer you a job as an operator for our systems.’

Julian drooped. Even though he had just been alerted by his former comrades to the downward vector taken by the work environment, he said with an obstinacy that came from being shut out for so long, ‘I was hoping to stay in a programming way, and eventually to move up in that field.’

‘I recommend the operator career path,’ replied Falforr. ‘We find more and more years of formal schooling required to be a good programmer. Why, the time is not far off when one will apply for certification to be a software engineer, just as one needs it now to build a bridge or design an aeroplane!’

Though aired with the same tone of inevitable rationality as everything Falforr said, this utterance stuck like a dagger into Fairley and made shipwreck of his faith. How could he ever hope to reach the level of professional programmer! To enter their ranks was a glory unattainable by him. He glanced one more time at Betraysha before making his pact.

‘Very well, I will take the position as operator, but only until May when you can choose a new one from the crop of college graduates. I feel I do not have a continuing affinity for that type of work.’ He knew that such staff were despised by the users, who assailed them for the tyranny exercised by the computer even though the operators were no less its victims; and commensurately deprecated by the programmers, who regarded operators as belonging on a lower intellectual plane even though their knowledge of the code was equally great, as they were required to fine-tune the system to support each application’s runs.

Fairley entered his abode drained and wrung-out from his interview. He told Sharon that he had taken the job. Her response was modulated and merely embodied satisfaction that their financial viability was assured for several months. But later that evening, she approached him, placing her arms lightly on his, and said, ‘Julian, I want you to kiss me, as a lover, incorporeally.’

He was so taken by surprise that he did not see her meaning. She buried her face in his chest, saying in her silvery voice, ‘I have been so unfair to withhold myself from you—please forgive me!’

‘What is the meaning of this sudden change?’ asked Fairley with wonder.

‘I want to keep you forever!’ she answered, and embraced him. By the time his tenure at the farm was finished, Sharon was pregnant.

What Happens to All Who Trust

Despite Julian’s imprecations about his newest stay at the Turnstile, he found that it unexpectedly rejuvenated his prospects. Falforr was on the ‘cutting edge’ as usual; the technology that made it possible to tie together computers generated a whole new array of rising ventures to which Fairley could minister as he had done the cattle in his first career. The skills he learned among the patch panels and datascopes were part of a discipline in the ascent, soon to become known as network management and imminently found to be a central function of every modern firm. And so Julian vaulted from one high-paid consulting position to another. While his inward man perished, the outward man was renewed day by day.

The funds pouring into their savings account allowed him and Sharon to upgrade their status, moving from their unprepossessing flat to a timber-frame house with a shingled roof and concrete chimney. As his income grew, so did the dimensionality of his expenditures. Three children were born to them over the years and thrived in bourgeois acceptance.

‘The neighbours have never learned that I remain officially married to another man,’ Sharon laughed. ‘I feel like quite an imposter carrying all the trappings of conventionality in this respectable district.’

Julian shared Sharon’s sense of being an intruder, accentuated by a conflict that mingled his dissatisfaction at work with a tug back to the countryside, motivated by a conviction that ‘the upright shall dwell in the land, and the perfect shall remain in it.’ But Julian’s and Sharon’s unassailable love kept them conformed to this world in the circle they had chosen for themselves.

When announcements first reached certain trade journals that personal computers could be bought for home use, Julian disparaged them. ‘The practice that I once scrambled to enter, any schoolchild can now play with,’ he said in a manner suggesting that scorn was the only possible response to these new instruments. It came as a surprise to him several weeks later when Sharon purchased one and set it up in a small room that took on the aspect of a shrine.

‘Why did you buy this?’ he asked.

‘I was hoping to brighten your gloom,’ she answered, ‘but if you don’t fancy it, our children can learn to programme.’ Upon several occasions she would summon him to the keyboard, and he would actually practice a laying-on of hands, but in his flying digits his spirit resided not. After a few weeks of the ritual he admitted he no longer possessed the drive to attempt the craft, whereupon Sharon herself began to adopt the discipline of programmer. She explored the system with almost compulsive fascination, learning all about hidden protocols, lock files, and background jobs.

So life proceeded until one delightful Spring morning, when Julian glanced at the newspaper and saw the headline:

Dunharm Industries To Swallow Wessex Dairy

‘See, Sharon, this is astounding!’ he called out. ‘The Turnstile has been bought out! I can’t imagine that Miss Endoline or her staff are going to be happy over that change.’

‘You have never forsaken that farm in your heart,’ remarked Sharon, with a flouncy quiver suggesting that she possessed quite unneutral feelings about his reference to Betraysha.

‘Trust me, dearest!’ he exclaimed. ‘The only farm I require is the bit of garden between our south wall and the fence.’

‘The larger fish are finding small prey everywhere these days,’ continued Sharon. ‘British firms are buying up many concerns, both here and abroad.’

‘But in this part of the country, the sale of a farm to a conglomerate is a harbinger of something new,’ insisted Julian. ‘Excuse me, I have no more time for discussion. A critical installation is taking place today, and I must get to work.’

After leaving Sharon and passing through his gate, Fairley turned from side to side on the pavement, aimlessly watching the traffic. Then he took off, but not for his employer, a mutual fund portfolio manager; instead he headed for the train station. The moment he disappeared around a corner, a furtive graying figure emerged from behind a tree and entered the gate. The appearance presented by this person suggested that his presence was not only unexpected but perhaps unwelcome; yet he walked up to Fairley’s door and knocked.

As for Julian, he entered the familiar railway station shaking with considerable anxiety. He purchased the same ticket as he had so often in times past, the only difference now being that he owned a credit card with which to consummate the exchange. During the ride he thought of all the work he had invested on the farm, and Betraysha’s also. He was terrified of the effect the merger would have on her.

On his walk through the season’s youthful country air from the station to the farm, the degeneration of the neighbourhood was now inescapable. Many farmhouses and barns teetered, their roofs caved in. He turned up the path to the Turnstile office, and realised right away who was inside when he saw a Mercedes-Benz in front.

He came upon Falforr in the office, and immediately asked, ‘Did you broker this take-over?’

‘I simply informed Dunharm Industries that the Turnstile was an exceptionally well-run enterprise with excellent prospects. The purchase offers a perfect opportunity to rationalise the information process.’

‘Don’t you know what it will do to Miss Endoline, and to her workers?’

Falforr was taut with energy. He had a way of not acknowledging the feelings expressed by those he is talking to; not that he was unaffected by them, but that they worked upon him at a level below consciousness and increased his level of argumentativeness. ‘I can recognise that emotionally the arrangement will be hard to take at first. Hopefully they will come to respond to this splendid opportunity with the same excitement I feel—and that you could share too. I need you, Fairley, and I can offer you a prime programming position!’

‘I no longer have an inclination toward that field; the urge has left me.’

When Falforr entered upon a train of thought it was as if the objections of the people around him were trifles not destined to overturn the impulse of his thinking. ‘I want a data warehouse uplinked to others throughout the conglomerate. I plan to mine the data using a multithreaded search engine and write a servlet that pushes continuously-updated results to the user. With the resources from the larger organisation, we can institute a six sigma process and fix our Y2K problem.’ He showed a pallor so pronounced that one imagined breath would soon leave him altogether.

‘You had better ask the cows whether they like the change, and whether it will cause them to give more milk,’ said Julian.

‘It will indeed; do not jest!’ cried Falforr. ‘Each animal will have an attached monitor. We will scan and record information on its weight, food intake, milk output, and fat content. Improved yields have already been demonstrated on farms in the States. Join us, Fairley! You will get to travel regularly to Bangalore and Kuala Lumpur and be in charge of defining our information quality requirements.’

Julian paused to think of a reply, but was distracted by an alarm from the computer on Betraysha’s desk. Glancing at the screen, he was surprised to see a message posted there from the address of his own home computer system.

O Julian, why did you choose to leave me at this moment? With the reluctant help of Diggor Vizzen, I have discovered that security in the railway’s computer system is quite feeble and that your trail to the Turnstile is clearly marked. Did you think like Aeneas that you could slip away in silence? My husband has just returned and has agreed to take me back, raising my children as his own. Farewell, my old love—do not try to win me to you again.

Words could not convey the confusion of guilt and pain that passed through Fairley at reading these words. He was filled equally with chastisement for his mistreatment of Sharon, and sorrow at the loss of his children. But at the same time he experienced a wondrous sense of freedom such as he had never felt before. Shouting at Falforr, ‘You have never understood a thing about the human heart—or about systems, for that matter!’ he stormed out of the office.

He could not find Betraysha in any of the normal checkpoints on the farm, but he did run into Vizzen and Coghand. Diggor said nothing about Sharon’s network break-in, and Julian had put it behind him in his anxiety over Betraysha. Conferring briefly, they found that they were all searching for her. ‘The last time I saw her she was carrying a beam-hook, and her face seemed like death itself,’ said Vizzen. They all realised how grave the moment was. Returning to the office, they were rewarded by the odd sight of Miss Endoline herself emerging in a most unladylike escape from a back window.

Rushing in, they found Falforr lying back in a chair, one tong of the beam-hook buried in his chest. ‘There’s naught one could do for un physically, save for the services an undertaker could render, and even less, I fear, one could do for his soul!’ cried Coghand.

Diggor, however, phoned an emergency service, and Fairley jumped from the window to search for Betraysha. He found her prostrate on the ground at the top of the hill.

‘I cannot go further!’ cried Betraysha. ‘I have committed a horrible crime!’

‘But he was not free of blame either!’ stammered Julian helplessly.

‘O Julian, my life is over—but what have I done to you? I withheld from you the only career you ever wanted. And yet you have returned in my most terrible hour to try to save me from my own overreaching folly. Have you recovered your destiny and made a new life for yourself?’

‘All has been taken from me—my job, my family, and my ties to the place where I have settled. When my companion found out that I could not abandon thoughts of you, she took my children and left. My job means nothing to me; so I have no prospects—only my will to continue.’

‘Julian, that hurts me so—that I have been the reason you lost your family as well! What will you do now?’

‘I have the funds to purchase a small farm,’ answered Julian. ‘Microenterprises are the going thing these days. I will keep in close contact with customers and will evolve to meet their needs. My only computing needs will be an off-the-shelf spreadsheet and a Web browser with which to keep up with markets.’

Betraysha shook her head. ‘You are too good, Julian, and too honest. This venture cannot succeed; you are better off returning to town.’

He did not reply further, because he too harbored doubts about his own ambition. The siren of a police car came through the firs and over the same hill, but in the opposite direction, from where the sound of Falforr’s automobile had first reached Julian’s ears so many years before.

Betraysha sighed, ‘I must go to face my accusers. Good luck, Julian!’ With dignity she descended the hill to the office. Julian waited a moment to watch her, then went down the other side.


Disclaimer: the people, companies, and events in this story are completely fictional and are not meant to represent any real-life counterparts.

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The Bug in the Seven Modules

One cannot gain from sin while hiding it forever in one’s heart.

The Disconnected

A tiny group of well-meaning people strive to correct an injustice enforced by generations of hatred.

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Validators
Other fiction by Andy Oram