It was seven-thirty on a Monday morning, and the clock towerís piercing siren woke up Molly and John Wickerman along with everybody else in Hotswap City. It wasnít that anybody had anywhere to go or anything important to do. The collective duty of Partners In Shared Processing, as benefactors to the Common Good were called, was to keep their share of computing power in service to the Central Processing Unit. There were no jobs for them. The only reason the siren always went off at seven-thirty was so that people wouldnít slip into discordant sleep patterns.
John was a sixty-five terahertz PISP, which entitled him to a single-room apartment on the fourteenth floor of Barbauld Manor, the third-nicest dwelling structure in Hotswap City; an unlimited-use pass for the Electric Monorail; a Level 5 Luxury Budget; and a wife. John was a happy man and could hardly have hoped to ask for greater blessings. John had sixty-five terahertz cycles to donate to the Common Good because he was fortunate enough to have inherited a Corsair 500 minicomputer from his father.
John got up and stretched while Molly turned on her side and pulled the bedcovers over her head. He walked across the room to the food processor, which spat out a cup of Oraphresh, which he rinsed his mouth with and spat onto the self-cleaning carpet. Next came a cup of black coffee. John took a sip and noticed that it had picked up the taste of the Oraphresh. He wanted to get a newer, more advanced food processor, like a state-of-the-art Epicurion X2, but on a Level 5 Luxury Budget that wasnít likely to happen anytime soon. He winced and forced the acrid brew down in two swallows. Finally, the food processor produced a bowl of oatmeal that, mercifully, tasted of coffee but not Oraphresh.
John stripped naked in the middle of the room and bathed himself with a disposable towlette. There was no bathroom in Johnís apartment, nor any bathroom in all of Barbauld Manor. Everything that came out of the food processor was jam-packed with special enzymes that allowed the human digestive system to completely break down and absorb everything, so that no waste matter was produced. Plumbing was very messy and very expensive, and thanks to Shared Processing, the Common Good had devised a way to do without it. John hadnít had a bowel movement since he was four years old.
After dressing, John sat down to use his computer. The Corsairís keyboard and monitor were on the dining table. The hulking box that contained the guts of the machine was in the far corner of the room, away from the bed, the food processor, and the door. John turned on the monitor and logged in to his account on the Unified Network, typing in his name, his date of birth, his Social Security number, his Global Citizen ID number, and his secret password. A message on the screen verified that Johnís access had been granted.
It was an old machine -- the last Corsair models were manufactured in the year 2170 -- but it still worked fine, and even after donating more than ninety percent of its processing power, there were five terahertz left for personal and household computing needs: running the automatic food processor, regulating energy consumption, operating the 3-D Entertainment Pavilion, managing the air filters, and so on. Every day, John thanked Fate and Fortune for granting him such a fine and useful machine, even if the four-foot tall box was a bit of an eyesore. It took up a lot of space in his tiny dwelling, and one needed to be at least a three-hundred terahertz PISP to be put on the waiting list for one of those swank three-room apartments on the top floors of Hemholtz Manor, uptown.
If Johnís wife owned a minicomputer, their shared donation might have been enough to bump them up to a two-room apartment, or maybe even a Level 6 Luxury Budget, but she didnít. Molly was a Freeloader.
Nobody in Johnís family would have much to do with him since the day he announced he was engaged to a Freeloader. They didnít even want to turn the Corsair over to him when his father died, but the law was clear and incontestable: as his fatherís eldest son, John was the rightful owner of the computer and nothing could change that. He did get e-mail from his mother and sister on his birthday, and on major holidays like Christmas and Sharing Day, but that was about it. His marrying a Freeloader was generally considered to be a thoughtless act of shooting himself -- and by extension, the rest of his family -- in the foot, when he could have easily hooked up with a thirty or forty terahertz PISP, many of whom were desperate to find a nice propertied guy like John.
Since Molly didnít own a minicomputer, she had no processing power to share, and so wasnít able to be a PISP and receive any of the benefits that entailed. She had worked odd jobs for a while. When John met her, she was making only eight thousand dollars a week as a test subject for the big pharmaceutical plant down in East Checksum, and she lost that job only a few months later after the International League of Clones successfully lobbied to have Freeloaders banned from holding jobs that paid money. Luckily for her, she was already engaged to John by that time.
The benefits of a sixty-five terahertz PISP werenít much to split between two people, but it was enough for both of them to live comfortably. John spent a lot of time fussing over the Corsair, keeping it free of dust and making sure it was running smoothly, but he kept busy most of the time with his collection of animal bones. He had a lovely cat skull, with all of its teeth intact, that he kept in a glass case on the dining table, and a few lesser pieces as well. He also kept up a subscription to the bone collectorís e-newsletter, Charnel House News, and sometimes took the Monorail out to Windmill Country with his shovel to try and see if he could dig up anything interesting. There were plenty of live animals to be seen in the Hotswap City Eco-Dome, but they didnít interest John in the least. Animals, unlike humans, could legally be kept alive indefinitely through the use of stem-cell therapy. John didnít care about observing the two-hundred year-old giraffes or watching the immortal chimpanzees play. He liked to roam around the hills beneath the giant wind-spun turbines that supplied the West Coast with electricity, digging random holes with his rusty shovel, looking for the places where living creatures had once walked the earth, rested, and expired. Molly thought it was morbid, but cute in an eccentric way, and entirely tolerable. Collecting animal bones was a popular hobby.
Molly liked to stay indoors, though she would sometimes accompany John on his digs in an attempt to be sociable. Usually she was glued to the Entertainment Pavilion, watching shows like Colony Eighteen, Cyborg or Not?, All My Children, or Sordid Tales of Ancient History. But her favorite thing to do, whenever there were processing cycles to spare, was to run landscape and architectural modeling software and spend hours designing intricate, painstakingly-crafted gardens and parks and courtyards and palaces, only to delete all her work at the touch of a button when she was finally finished and had set every flower and column and cobblestone in its perfect place.
It was sort of a decadent thing for which to use the minicomputer, since it ate up large amounts of the machineís spare cycles -- cycles that would otherwise be diverted to the Common Good when not in use, along with the regular sixty-five cycle tribute -- for no meaningful purpose. But it was her favorite way to pass the time. Whenever she sat down and began designing, Molly would enter a trance-like state from which she would only emerge once the Ďdeleteí key had been pressed. John never complained or objected.
John picked up a plastic swab from an open carton on the table, stuck it in his mouth, scraped the inside of his cheek, and dipped the wet end into a little hole on top of the keyboard. He waited while the computer evaluated his health for the day. Sometimes, it would be able to detect from the swab that John was coming down with a cold, or the flu, or bronchitis, or whatever, and would instruct the food processor to add the appropriate antibiotics to his meals. Other times, it would recommend that he get more exercise, or rinse his mouth with Oraphresh for at least forty-five seconds every morning, or something like that. Sometimes John followed the computerís suggestions, and sometimes he didnít. But he always liked to know.
"You are in fine health today, Mr. Wickerman," said the computer. Molly sat up in bed and yawned. "Youíve got mail," it added. John checked his list of new e-mail messages and saw nothing but advertisements. As John got up and vacated his seat at the table, Molly tripped out of bed and sat down in his place.
"Good morning," said John, before giving her a quick kiss. "You look lovely today."
"Morning," she said, tying her own name and numbers into the computer. "I do not. Liar." Though it was true she was a disheveled, half-asleep mess at the moment, John hadnít intended any irony to be read into his comment. Since there was very little for people to discuss with one another -- John could only get into conversations about bone collecting or shows on the Entertainment Pavilion, and most people were really only comfortable with the latter -- he would have to admit that his primary attraction to Molly was physical. She had a face that looked pretty enough without the daily ministrations of the Maybelline Cosmeticizer (though she submitted to them anyway, for customís sake); and she had what were colloquially known as "Freeloaderís Curves" -- good PISPs were expected to maintain a slender, athletic build, and most usually did, thanks to biochemical help from their food processors. When Molly moved into Johnís apartment, he had to plead tearfully with her for two weeks to convince her not to allow his food processor to put her on a diet of special proteins and hormones that would shrink her breasts and hips down to a more uniform size. She desperately wanted to rid herself of the physical characteristics of a Freeloader, but finally relented, despite the pangs of embarrassment she would feel whenever she had to be seen in public.
Molly swabbed her mouth and dipped her sample into the keyboard. Her eyes darted over the readout. "Iím ovulating today," she said. "We canít have sex."
They did not plan on having any children. Contributing to the overpopulation of the West Coast was considered a grave transgression against the Common Good and would cause a person to immediately and permanently lose their status as a PISP. Still, neither Molly nor John wanted to be sterilized, because there was always the possibility that the Common Good would figure out a way for couples everywhere to be able to have children without decreasing the sustainability of life on the planet. Thatís what the Common Good did, every hour of every day, without rest: use the combined thinking power of millions and millions of superfast minicomputers all linked up to one Central Processing Unit that harnessed the limitless potential of their pooled resources to figure out solutions to all of lifeís problems.
Every year on the 19th of September, PISPs from all over the world would celebrate Sharing Day, the anniversary of the day the Common Good was first activated. On Sharing Day, the Common Good would reveal the answers to the questions it had been mulling over during the past year. Usually these only concerned heavy mathematical problems that only physicists cared about, or new strains of antibiotics devised to counter the new diseases that had evolved immunity to the previous yearís batch of antibiotics, or discoveries of new planets or galaxies or microorganisms in outer space, but every few years the Common Good would come up with a real whopper, something that changed life for everybody forever. The last time that happened was when the Common Good developed a formula for "safe, non-addictive" morphine. That gave the Freeloaders something to do with themselves; coming on the heels of the law banning Freeloaders from holding paying jobs, this discovery was hailed as a timely and vitally necessary advance -- the Freeloaders had been starting to get restless. PISPs were discouraged from taking the calmative drug, but their doing so was grudgingly tolerated -- after all, the Entertainment Pavilion could get tiresome after a while, and some people didnít have any hobbies. Before that, there was the Sharing Day where the Common Good cracked the puzzle of eternal life. "We have determined," the brief official statement read, "that non-existence is incapable of occurring where existence prevails; therefore, anything that presently exists can be assumed to exist permanently, though possibly in altered forms through time." That was pretty big-deal news when it came out, even though nobody was quite sure what it meant.
John dusted the Corsair, checked its vents and cables, and scrutinized every inch of its frame for signs of wear while Molly read her e-mail.
"Hey, John," she said. "Look at this. This guyís got a Hewlett-Packard MindTower for only six million dollars."
John glanced at the screen. The advertisement was junk mail from a disreputable merchant in East Checksum. He shook his head. "Iíll believe it when I see it," he said. "Besides, how are we supposed to get our hands on any cash money?" PISPs had been forbidden to hold paying jobs long before Freeloaders were. Money was strictly for clones and foreigners.
"I know a guy," said Molly, "whoíll exchange cash for Luxury Credits."
John blinked, startled. "We canít do that. Thatís illegal. Iíd lose my benefits."
"People do it all the time," Molly said. "Nobody really cares if you pick up a few million bucks somewhere. Itís not all that much money. No-one would notice."
"Donít give me that Ďother people do ití rationale. Iím not going to break the law, Molly! I canít believe youíd have us deal with a cash-trader. Whereíd you meet an unsavory character like that, anyway?"
"I donít know. I just thought--"
"I know. I know. You want to donate. You want a bigger apartment. You want nicer things. I understand, honey. Itís just...we canít go buying things with cash. You know that. Someday, thereíll be a way, a legal way, for us to get you your own minicomputer. The Common Good will find a way. Just...not yet. Donít worry."
Molly sighed deeply, bitterly, as if exhaling a heavy gray raincloud into the middle of the room.
"Besides," said John, "if that thingís really only six million dollars, itís got to be stolen property. You just canít pick up minicomputers on the black market -- youíve got to buy them from licensed dealers."
"Nobody can afford those," she muttered.
"Donít be a pessimist."
"Too late," she said, getting up and walking over to slump into the bean-bag chair in front of the Entertainment Pavilion. She picked the remote control up off the floor and turned on the morning news.
"--And in entertainment news, Margo Khan, award-winning star of Colony Eighteen, had her petition to procreate approved by the Joint Assembly today. Producers of her long-running hit show have not yet decided whether or not to script her upcoming pregnancy into the storyline--" Molly switched to the sports channel.
"Hey, look," she said. "Moon Tennis."
John wasnít paying attention. He had logged back into the computer and was about to write an angry letter to the local Civic Authority to complain about the black marketeers hawking their ill-gotten goods through unsolicited e-mail. He cracked his knuckles and tried to craft some fiery rhetoric in his head, something that would motivate action. He tapped the button that said, Ďcompose new message.í The screen went black. John frowned. It wasnít supposed to do that. A message in white letters appeared at the top of the screen:
Fatal error: stack overflow at 0xFFFF 0xE166 0x0000 0xFFFF
Abort, Retry, Fail?
John pressed the ĎRí key, and when that did nothing he pressed it again, and then pressed the ĎAí key, and then the ĎFí key, and then he pressed each button in succession once again, and then he pressed the Ďrestart systemí button. The screen went black again. The Corsair began to reboot. John breathed a sigh of relief. He could be penalized for taking his minicomputer offline, but what else can one do when the system decides to crash?
And then, in the middle of rebooting, the screen went black once more, and again produced the message about the fatal stack overflow. John stared at the screen with dread and confusion.
Molly turned to see what was going on. "John? Whatís the matter? The Entertainment Pavilion just went dark."
"The computer," said John, numb. "It crashed. It wonít start up again."
"So? You can fix it, canít you?" she asked. When no reply came, she added: "Somebody can fix it, right?"
"Yes," said John, momentarily relieved by her suggestion. "Yes. Of course. Weíll get it fixed. Iíll just call up a repair shop." His hands instinctively fluttered to the keyboard before he realized that with the computer down, his means to communicate with the outside world was out of commission as well. "Iíll have to make a visit in person. Do you want to come with me?"
"No, Iíll stay here," she said, staring at the Corsair sitting idle in the corner.
"Are you sure?" said John. "Thereís not much to do here without the computer working. You canít watch Pavilion shows, you canít use your landscaping software, you canít run the food processor."
"Iíll be fine," she said. "Iíll read a book. Iíll admire your cat skull."
"Okay," he said, pocketing one of a pair of electronic smart-cards that allowed them to access their Luxury Credit account. He knew how expensive minicomputer repairs could be, even for minor software problems. "Iíll be back as soon as I can."
John found the addresses of some local repair shops in the public directory down in the lobby of Barbauld Manor. He wrote down all the places within walking distance and headed straight for the nearest one.
The first shop, located in a rusty Quonset hut on the edge of the Hotswap City industrial district, identified itself by a painted wooden sign posted out front that read, "Goodtime Minicomp Repair - est. 2164." With trepidations, John stepped inside.
The proprietor was a fat, gray-headed man with a thick mustache. He was wearing grimy overalls and sorting out computer parts on a wooden butcher-block table. He lifted his head when John came inside. "íLo," he said.
"Hi," said John. "Listen, Iíve got a Corsair 500 -- beautiful condition, never had any trouble with it before -- and I need somebody to take a look at it. Do you make housecalls? I donít want to risk damage by moving it in and out of my apartment."
"Whoa -- slow down," the shop owner said. "Thatís a Corsair 500, you said?"
"Yes. Itís a seventy-terahertz Corsair 500."
"It just stopped working all of a sudden, and it gives me this message: Ďfatal error...overflowing stack atí...uh..."
"Fatal error, stack overflow at oh-ex-eff-eff-blah blah blah?"
"Yes, thatís it! You can fix it, then?"
"Well," said the shop owner, "yes and no."
John leaned in closer. "What do you mean?"
"See, the Corsair 500 is built around the Omega-Twelve lithium battery," the shop owner explained. "And over time, those lithium batteries run out of juice and die. So you need to replace Ďem."
John took the smart-card out of his pocket. "How much for a new battery, and can you come install it right now?" he asked.
"No, cause they donít make those batteries no more, cause we ran out of lithium fifty years ago, and now there ainít nobody with lithium but the Turks, and thatís why the newer minicomputers donít use lithium batteries."
John held his card out, trembling, in the air. "What exactly are you telling me?"
"Iím telling you that unless youíre buddies with the Premier of Turkey, you can pretty much forget about finding a fresh lithium battery anytime soon."
"You canít be serious," John said in a small voice.
"You know, I keep writing letters to the Joint Assembly, telling Ďem theyíve got to get Common Good to think up a way for us to mine the Asteroid Belt before the damn Chinese or the Turks get there. Thatís where youíll find your lithium, kid. Itís the biggest pile of mineral wealth there is, and itís just floating out there in space."
John began to back away, thinking that he would get a second opinion, that this man was surely no expert, that there had to be a simple way to fix the Corsair. A bigger, better repair shop could handle it, he told himself.
"But are we moving on it? Are we doing anything about it? Hell no. Itís just out there, waiting for the first son of a bitch to grab it..."
John was out the door, practically running to the next shop.
The word at the second shop was the same. And at the third, and the fourth. A few of the technicians tried to explain things to John, how the whole system of the Corsair 500 was built around the Omega-Twelve battery, how it would be cheaper to get a new minicomputer than to reconfigure the Corsair to accommodate a newer battery, how lithium was now as scarce as diamonds or tungsten. All a lot of words to say one simple thing: his Corsair 500 was now useful only as a doorstop.
John was shattered. His livelihood was gone. He and his wife would become Freeloaders, doing meaningless, trivial busywork in the Labor Camps for food, shelter, and morphine. All of his hopes for the future were gone in a puff of obsolescence.
As he staggered home, he glanced at his watch. It was two oíclock in the afternoon. He had been out for more than six hours. He knew that once his minicomputer had been disconnected from the Common Good for more than eight hours, his benefits would be suspended and an agent would be dispatched to his apartment to see what was going on. He had only two hours to get home before his world would begin to disintegrate. He felt like crying, but as he walked past a convenience store, he stopped.
"Iíd like a pack of cigarettes, please," he said to the robot behind the counter. It was a dirty habit, one he had sworn off years ago, and yet it seemed at the moment to be the only thing that could console him during the long march home, as if it were his right as a condemned prisoner to have one last smoke before going in front of the firing squad. "Lucky Strikes," he added.
The robot handed him a pack of Lucky Strikes and took his smart-card, scanning it with its electronic eye.
"Iím sorry, Mr. Wickerman," said the robot, "but your card has been declined."
"What?" John was alarmed. The grace period for processor downtime was supposed to be eight hours -- they always said eight hours, it was in the Constitution of the Joint Assembly, for Godís sake -- had they found him out already? Was he already cut off? "Try it again," John said, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt.
The robot scanned the card again. "Iím sorry, but your card has been declined a second time. The number is valid, but this purchase was not approved. Perhaps you have reached your Luxury Credit limit for this month, Mr. Wickerman."
"Impossible. Itís only the ninth, and I havenít used my card in a week." But he took back the card and left the store without his cigarettes, defeated at every turn.
John spent the long elevator ride up to the fourteenth floor trying to come up with a decent way to break the news to Molly. He wasnít sure how sheíd take it. Sheíd been a Freeloader for most of her life, but how would she feel about reverting back to that status? And what did he have to offer her now that he wasnít going to be a PISP anymore? What made him better than any other Freeloader?
He nearly choked when he stepped inside his room. An obscene sight greeted him: the Corsair 500 was now draped with a piece of muslin, upon which rested a small glass vase with four plastic roses sticking out of it. His Corsair had been made into an end table.
He felt betrayed. His wife had chosen to add bitter insult to his injury. This was an attempt to humiliate him. He looked at Molly, who hadnít even turned her head or lifted her eyes from the Entertainment Pavilion to greet him when he came in the door; she was too busy watching her 3-D soap operas, indolently reclining on the beanbag with a milkshake from the food processor in one hand...
Without a word, without looking at John, she extended one arm and pointed to the foot of the bed, where John saw, for the first time, a sleek black rectangular box standing lengthwise on the floor like a little skyscraper, emitting the gentle hum and warm glow of electrical energy.
It was a two-hundred terahertz Hewlett-Packard MindTower.
"Maxed out the card," she said. "Hope you donít mind."
John stared at the new minicomputer, realizing that he hadnít even found it unusual, when he came in, that the Entertainment Pavilion and the food processor were working again. She had gone and bought the damn thing behind his back. A six million-dollar black market minicomputer.
"I had some cash left over, so I hired a couple Freeloaders to haul it from the Monorail Station up to here. Again, I hope you donít mind." She glanced at a weathered old paperback volume that was laying open on the dining table. "See, I had a look through that while you were gone
-- itís the original userís manual for your dadís old Corsair. The expiration date for the lithium battery was printed in bold red ink right on the back cover. You know, it was supposed to fizz out two years ago -- must be some kind of miracle it lasted as long as it did."
John was speechless.
"And of course, you canít get lithium anymore -- I saw a report on all the minerals weíve run out of on the afternoon news a couple weeks ago. So I figured Iíd better get out and take care of our problem before the eight hours were up."
John looked the MindTower up and down, over and over again, studying the shadowy black monolith that now occupied his little room. She just went out and got the damn thing, just like that. As if it was as simple a matter as buying a birthday cake.
"Oh, and you havenít thanked me for the plastic flowers, yet. Theyíre for you, you know. Like I said, I had a little extra cash left over."
"Thank you," said John.
"Youíre welcome," she said, then turned to stare at the MindTower with John. "You know, next Thursday is Sharing Day. Maybe our new computer will be what makes the difference this year. Maybe theyíll finally figure out something really great."
John hadnít thought of that. He realized that the MindTower, illegal or not, would benefit the Common Good. Maybe it would make a difference. It would certainly make a difference for them, anyway. John reflected on all the ways that two hundred terahertz could improve their life: A new apartment. A higher Luxury Budget. Maybe even a passport.
"So, anyway," said Molly, "do you like it?"
John smiled. Suddenly, he couldnít remember why heíd been so worried about breaking the law. After all, they were only helping the Common Good. Who could possibly fault them for that?
"I love it," he answered.
Brian Pacula is a 24-year-old native of Northern California and works for a furniture importer.
Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.
Return to the Aphelion main page.