From PC Techniques #5, December/January 1991
Swap Meet, 2047 A.D.
Excerpted from The Lotus Machine, an unfinished SF novel by Jeff Duntemann. This fragment dates from 1985.
Hamfests, cheap beer, and the Illinois plains in late August. Corum felt the clutter and commotion around him as he wended his way down the crooked flea market row, sun on his neck. He bent to run his fingers over a gutted quantum spectrometer lying on the grass between two ragged card tables, with both single-atom Feynman modules removed and what looked like dried spaghetti sauce spilled here and there in the works. Make a good lamp base, fersure.
"Hey, Ragswonder if I could find a 6SN7," Corum chuckled to himself and his jiminy.
Ragpicker, as always, took him at his word. "I saw a table with boxes of octal tubes two rows south." The little coffin-shaped computer velcroed to Corum's lapel missed nothing. "Shall I ask around?" The two garnet "eyes" on Ragpicker's coffin were always ready to pass infrared data with other eyes pinned to other lapels.
Asking other people's jiminiesthe poor man's LANwould net him bags full of antique tubes he didn't need, plus offers to repair antique radios he didn't have, offers to retile his kitchen floor, proposals of marriage, land deals in the Yukon... "No thanks, Rags. You know what we're looking for."
But over therenow that was something you didn't see every day!
"An honest-to-God IBM PC!"
"Sure is!" said the gaffer behind the table. "Got it at an estate sale, some old guy used to run a magazine. An heirloom, betcha!"
The old tawny box had seen some use, and there were rust spots on the rear panel, as well as some non-standard connector holes. It was plugged into the H2Van's solar panel. "What's it got inside?"
The old man beamed above his treasure. "886 upgrade from Hauppage; ought-one or ought-two, I think. Full two gigs RAM, six ters NVS. Old, old V7XGA; voicebox from Elocution, looks like 2010 or so. DOS 11.3/Windows 7; last one they ever did. Lots of old programming stuff in NVS. Wanna try it?"
"Sure!" Corum had had a DOS machine in his childhood, though he had never been able to afford the vast NVS crystal disks. He reached around the side and flipped the red lever. Memories of his nerdish 14's flooded back as the windowed environment appeared on the flat panel screen.
"To thy strong bidding task Ariel, and all his quality!" the machine sang, as a pewkishly cute fairy-type took a bow in the logon window.
"Launch Turbo Pascal," Corum ordered, on a hunch.
"As you wish!" the fairy said, and poofed.
A new window opened, and zoomed to the full screen. In the dialog pane a fair cartoon of a seventeenth-century philosopher with aviator glasses sat at a desk, beside a beeswax taper in a bronze candlestick. Just as he remembered it! Corum shook his head as the sad smile came back. 14 had not been a good year.
"Turbo Pascal 17.5 here," the philosopher said. "What problem can we solve today?"
Ah, what a question! Corum leaned down to meet the eyes of the animated mannikin, remembering the many dark nights when Turbo Pascal had provided his only companionship.
"I don't have a girlfriend," Corum said softly, as he had said then, not once but countless times.
"We can fix that," the faux philosopher said brightly. "Let's build a Girlfriend! Will object Girlfriend be a standalone program or part of a library?"
"Very good. In object design you always begin by defining data fields, which are the attributes an object should contain. Now, have you thought about what attributes type Girlfriend should have?"
"Lots. All the time." Corum was blinking the mist away from his eyes.
"Good! Give me the name of the first."
Green eyes? Red hair? A pretty smile? Corum remembered lining up the facets of his fantasy as though they were Boolean variables, assisted by the idiot cartoon that spoke so well while understanding so little. A moment more, and remembered tears would be real.
"No. Cancel. Cancel project. Exit."
"As you wish," The philosopher said, blew out the candle on his desk, and vanished.
"Something wrong, son?" asked the gaffer, as Corum flipped the power switch off.
"No, no. Just nostalgia tripping." Corum walked down the row again, hands in pockets. "Corum, I don't understand," said Ragpicker from his lapel.
Corum sighed uneasily. "I was a lonely kid, scrawny and tongue-tied and funny-looking. I didn't have any friends. I'd spend all night talking to that silly compiler. It was like my teddy bear. I guess it was better than nothing."
"I wish I'd been there for you, Corum."
Corum touched the slightly warm coffin-shape with the tips of two fingers. By shouldering the pain and building those inner mechanisms young nerds seemed born without, he had managed to grow up, be loved, marry. Each stage had to happen, in sequence, without external interference. Most of all, those painful discoveries of self had had to come from within. A teddy bear that truly understood would have been unbearable...
"No, Rags. Thanks. It's probably just as well that you weren't."