The glass cube of the computer lab glowed at the end of the hall, bathing the floor in a sickly yellow light. At the end of the hall, a lonely strip of light shone beneath a door - Professor Ferguson’s office. The old man was burning the midnight oil, though God only knew on what; he had not published a paper in decades. Nor, really, did he need to. He was a permanent feature of the institute, as inextricable as the ivy that crusted the the stone walls. If anyone dared disturb this ancient creature in his natural habitat, the environmentalists would picket in the quad.
I cursed under my breath. Ferguson was the last man I wished to see, for it was for his course that I made this eleventh-hour expedition. Alas, there were no other routes to the lab, so I pulled off my shoes and crept as quietly as I could down the corridor, ears pricked to catch the slightest sound. Nothing stirred; Ferguson had probably nodded off - or, just as likely, shuffled off. Not wishing to find out which, I cleared the glowing threshold and padded silently onwards.
Then, triggered by that inscrutable sixth sense that seems only to come with old age, a wheezing brogue shattered the silence.
“And just where’re you off to, Mister Atkinson?”
I winced and turned slowly round as the door creaked open. Ferguson, seated at his desk, had not raised his eyes from his papers.
How did he...?
“Just...going to the lab,” I stammered, flashing an awkward smile.
“Didn’t know it was mosque as well,” said Ferguson, glancing at my bare feet.
“Sore feet,” I lied.
Ferguson made a deep rumbling sound, like an engine filled with gravel turning over.
“Well,” he muttered, shuffling his papers. “If I see any sloppy work on that assignment tomorrow, I guarantee more than your feet will hurt.”
I stood in the doorway for several long moments, stunned.
How did he...?
The scratching of Ferguson’s pen suddenly stopped. His cold grey eyes flicked up, boring into me from behind half-moon spectacles.
“Well, get on with it then,” he snapped.
“Yes, sir,” I sighed, defeated, before loping off towards the lab.
But as I turned, something flickered across the craggy moonscape of Ferguson’s face.
Suddenly emboldened, I returned to the doorway.
“Don’t tell me you never pulled a last-minute all-nighter,” I said, rather smugly. I don’t quite know what possessed me to say it; sleep deprivation, more than drink, can make you do strange things. Ferguson, however, merely furrowed his brow.
“Never,” he grunted, still staring at his papers. He could not, however, hide a faint smirk.
“Get to it,” he repeated. “And next time, make sure you take someone with you.”
“What?” I said, rather confused by this apparent non-sequitur.
“For safety,” mumbled Ferguson.
“I’m sure I’ll be alright, Professor,” I scoffed. “It’s not like a computer can hurt me.”
“Oh really?” said Ferguson, haughtily planting his hands on his hips. “Well, Mr. Atkinson, I have it on good authority that they can.”
“Really? And whose authority is that?”
“Mine,” said Ferguson.
I could scarcely believe what was happening. Among the faculty, Ferguson was a legend. Rumors abounded about his life, said to be colorful enough to fill several novels. But of this storied past he spoke not a word; to all around him he remained inscrutable as a sphinx - a cantankerous sphinx every student knew well to avoid. Yet now, with this playful banter, I was being inducting into what must have been a rarefied circle of confidants. I couldn’t imagine why; perhaps the late hour - or that bottle of 50-year-old scotch he was rumored to keep in his desk - had softened him up. Whatever the reason, I knew an opportunity when I saw it.
“Do tell,” I said.
That was all it took. With a hearty chuckle, Ferguson set his papers aside and beckoned me to sit down. Before my eyes, the crusty curmudgeon was transformed into a jovial old man, brimming with life. Leaning back in his chair, he folded his hands behind his head and stared wistfully at the ceiling. There was a long pause; I could almost hear the dusty relays and valves humming to life as old memories long filed away trickled to the surface.
“Now,” he began at last. “You students have some notion that I’m some sort of dinosaur who hobnobbed with the likes of Watt and Brunel, but I’ll have you know I only started at the University of Glasgow in seventy-three! We were a fresh-faced, bright-eyed lot back then, I can tell you. We’d all seen Apollo come and go, and were rearing to get a piece of the action. But even back then you had to start with the basics. I remember in sophomore year we had this infamous Structural Analysis course. Fiendishly difficult course, that was; they said if you could pass that, you could damn well take anything University could throw at you!
That course was taught by one Professor McRae, and he had a reputation that would put the fear of God into you. I’d seen students coming out of his final examinations looking so pale you’d think they’d seen the Devil himself. I’d like to tell you that everyone tried to avoid that course, but only McRae ever taught it. He was old guard; he’d worked on the Blue Streak missile back in the 50’s, and was an undisputed guru of aero structures.
I’ll always remember the first day of Structures, waiting in the lecture hall for the professor to arrive. Those of us lucky enough to have been warned about McRae didn’t chat or smoke; we just sat in our seats, hands folded, eyes forward. We tried to pass the warning on to the others, but they didn’t believe us and kept fooling around like they always did. At precisely one o’clock to the second - I remember timing it on my watch - McRae came storming in. I can still see him now: he was a small, nasty-looking man, with a scraggly little beard and these watery red eyes like he’d never gotten a wink of sleep in his life. Despite the warnings, the other lads kept fooling around as McRae came in, and I braced myself for fire and brimstone. Strangely, though, McRae didn’t say anything; in fact, he barely seemed bothered at all. He just started up and down the aisles, handing out photocopied pages. I remember thinking maybe he wasn’t as bad as everyone said, and that the upper years must have been pulling our legs.
But you see, those papers were those blue Banda copies - the ones that smelled of alcohol - and a few of the lads couldn’t resist having a good, long sniff. As soon as they did, quick as a flash McRae wheeled around and just opened up on them like an artillery barrage.
“You, you, you, you,” he barked, eyes blazing and mouth foaming. “Out! Now!” Good God did they ever run for the hills! But that was his system - his test. Naturally I assumed those lads would be back next lecture, but it turned out that McRae had kicked them out for good. Since you couldn’t pass engineering without Structures, they ended up going all the way up to the Dean to appeal the decision. McRae did eventually let them back in - the following year. If there were any doubts about McRae before, I can guarantee you there were none after that day!
“As for the rest of you,” he finally said, scowling like we were the foulest muck he’d ever scraped off his wellies. “This is your first assignment. You are to produce a complete stress vector field of this structure under the indicated loading, at millimeter precision.”
I remember looking down at that paper and feeling my blood run cold. It was a fiendishly complicated section of missile fuselage - Blue Streak, most likely - and just looking at it, you knew it would be a nasty bit of calculation. A month’s work, at the very least.
“You are only permitted to use this,” he said, holding up his slide rule. “When we built Blue Steak and TSR-2, we didn’t have any of the fancy gadgets you all seem so fond of. This is the tool of the true engineer; it was good enough for us, and it’s sure as hell good enough for the likes of you. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
At that point, none of us were overly concerned; all we ever used anyway were our trusty slide rules. Digital calculators were brand new and damned expensive. I remember there were a few rich kids who had the first Texas Instruments SR-10s, and they used to strut around campus like cowboys with these bulky things strapped to their hips. Anyway, the assignment was tedious, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Then McRae dropped a bombshell.
“The assignment will be due one week from today,” he said. Then he turned to the blackboard and launched right into his lecture.
I don’t think any of us caught a single word of that lecture; we were all in a daze, positively shellshocked. To look at us you would have thought we’d all been condemned to death. They say engineers can do the impossible, but this assignment from the depths of hell itself; even a quick estimate told us it was nigh undoable, even if our schedules had been clear. But of course we all had a half-dozen other courses and assignments to contend with. I’m sure every man there wanted to protest, of course, but you learned quickly that in McRae’s class, there were no excuses. He’d have gone to your deathbed to pry an assignment out of you before you clocked out. One time, some poor bastard came to the lecture late, hobbling in on crutches.
“Pity you’re not a horse, Mr. Bell,” said McRae. “I’d have had you shot!” Then he kicked him out.
When we finally staggered out of that lecture hall, we all looked like the walking wounded - all except this one mate of mine, Chad Maxwell, who wore this huge schoolboy grin.
“What the hell do you have to smile about?” I asked him.
“Well, Der Kommandant might be able to scare the rest of those sorry lads,” he said. “But just between me and you, I’ve got him licked.”
“What the hell are you on about?”
Maxwell said one word: “Computers.”
“You see, Maxwell was something of a rebel; he kept up with all the technology and trade journals and was always onto the next best thing. As it turned out, just the year before, the University had gotten its first computer, a top-of-the-line IBM 360 mainframe. Now this thing was nothing like the computers you’re used to; it was a real behemoth, a mass of huge metal cabinets that filled an entire room! When they first installed it, there were no keyboards or screens; just a massive switchboard, a long row of reel-to-reel magnetic tape racks, and a teleprinter for the output. It reminded me of what I imagined the inside of a nuclear submarine to look like. To program it, you had to write your instructions line by line in FORTRAN on a stack of punched cards, and feed those into a card reader. Then you prayed to God that your program would compile - because if it didn’t, the computer would spit out your cards and you had to go through them one by one to find your mistake. The computer science students were a rare breed back then, but you could spot them a mile away, scurrying between the buildings like rats clutching their precious boxes of cards. They all had long beards and looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in months; I reckon they were the only students who got less sleep than us engineers. At one point some of them had gotten the bright idea to take these old metal-framed army backpacks, cut the cloth off, and strap on their card boxes with bungee cords. Once in a while you would see one huffing along like some army signalman with his radio. Of course this was all science fiction to me at the time, but somehow Maxwell had learned all the necessary witchcraft to operate this newfangled device. He figured he could just write a program, feed it in, and get all the stress vectors in a mere matter of hours.
“I’ll bet you twenty quid,” he said, bold and cocky as usual. “That I can get this thing done in three days. Two to write the cards, one to run the program. Easy!”
“You’re mad!” I said. “You heard him: slide rules only! And anyways, he’s going to want to see all the hand calculations; he won’t accept a computer printout.”
“Four days, then,” said Maxwell. “One to transcribe the results. Tell you what, Fergie: give me that twenty quid now, and I’ll let you copy my results. No slide rules, no calculating marathon. Just a day of jotting down the results, and you’re done. What do you say to that?”
I considered myself pretty brave back then, but even I wasn’t about to court McRae’s wrath. I told Maxwell I wanted no part of his scheme, and we went our separate ways.
“Have it your way, then,” he said, swaggering off. “You’re only making life difficult.’”
Ferguson paused. Leaning forward, he reached under his desk and, to my surprise, produced his mythical bottle. Without a word, he poured two glasses and savored a long, soothing draught - memory lubricant, I suppose. I sat, stunned, contemplating the rare liquid in my hand - and the rarer sentiment behind it - as Ferguson leaned back and resumed his tale.
“After just two days, I seriously began to reconsider his offer. That was one of the most grueling weeks of my life; every spare moment was spent camped in a corner of the library, furiously churning our stress vectors on my slide rule. I don’t think I have ever drunk that much coffee, or smoked that many cigarettes, or popped that much benzedrex - all to squeeze in just a few more minutes of consciousness. I remember blacking out from time to time, only to wake up an hour or two later and go right back to calculating. At one point I even nailed my slide rule to the table so I could operate it with one hand while I wrote or ate with the other. Nobody batted an eye, of course; they’d all ceased to be surprised by anything we engineers did.
“Meanwhile, Maxwell sat across the library, calmly puffing on his pipe as he punched out his program card by card. On the third day, as promised, he set of for the computer lab. I nearly chased after him, having finally accepted that the task was hopeless. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day. Plus, running on virtually no sleep, I found myself stuck on even the most basic arithmetic, or going over the same line twenty times. Soon enough, twenty quid and risking expulsion seemed infinitely better than an ulcer.
But then, less than an hour later, Maxwell returned. I knew his program would take at least a few hours to run, so I found it odd for him to be back so soon. He looked calm as always, though, so I didn’t think much of it. Then the same thing happened the next day, and the next: he would leave the library four or five times a day, only to return thirty minutes later. Each time, he looked ever more worried and nervous. He grew pale, fidgety; he ditched his pipe and started chain-smoking cigarettes. One day, I finally took a break and walked over to see him.
“So, Captain Kirk, what says the ship’s computer?” I said.
“Oh, nothing at the moment,” said Maxwell dismissively, flashing a hasty smile.
“Oh, no?” I said. “Any why is that?”
“It’s uncanny,” said Maxwell. “Three days, three different times I go to the lab, and who’s there waiting for me?”
“Unbelievable,” said Maxwell, shaking his head. “He damn well can’t spend all day waiting there, can he? He must have other things to do. The man must have a sixth sense!”
He was trying his best to look cool and collected, but he could’t hide his trembling hands.
“Well,” I said. “It was a good try, anyway, but tell you what: what’s say you give me that twenty quid, and you can use my answers?” “Not on your life!” said Maxwell, leaping to his feet. He wasn’t the sort to back down. “Trust me, Fergie: the man thinks he’s got me beat, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat!”
I left it at that; I hadn’t a moment to lose if I was to finish my own calculations. Maxwell redoubled his efforts, but McRae was always waiting for him. Eventually, Maxwell took to sneaking in late at night, long after McRae had gone home. The trouble was, the lab was locked after seven o’clock, and none of the computer scientists would let him in. They were a suspicious lot that way. Day after day I watched him pace nervously about the library, trailing a great cloud of smoke. I kept offering him my notes - at ever-increasing prices, of course - but he refused.
“Just watch,” he said. “Soon as I get in, I’ll do a week’s work in just a few hours!”
But the week slipped past, and his luck didn’t change. When at last the final day was upon us, I was certain he would crack. He had to: there was no way on God’s green earth he could complete that assignment in time. So when he came to the library that day, I expected him to drop to his knees and beg forgiveness. But instead, wearing that Cheshire Cat grin, he plunked himself down across from me and pulled something from his pocket: a key.
“Look here what I found!” he said, proud as a peacock.
“Is that...?” I asked. He nodded.
“Courtesy of one Thomas Burns, department of computer science,” he explained. “Good billiards player, but not as good enough!”
“But the assignment’s due tomorrow!” I said. “What if your program doesn’t run?”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” he said, rolling his eyes. The he swaggered away.
“To this day, I still don’t know how I managed it - I must have had a guardian angel watching over me - but somehow I finished that assignment with hours to spare. It was two in the morning, and I should have passed out right there and then. But sleep deprivation is a funny thing, and I chose instead to see how Maxwell was doing. The computer lab was in the sub-basement of the electronics building, a real labyrinth. I got lost a few times before I finally found the place. The lab, a big modern glass cube, had been built specifically for the computer; the floor was even raised for all the air conditioning ducts they needed to cool the damn thing.
When I arrived, Maxwell was still there, hunched over the punch card reader. He looked positively dreadful, his hair a right mess and his shirt covered in sweat stains. I called out to him, but the air conditioner was so loud I had to go up and pound on the glass to get his attention.
It all happened in the blink of an eye. You see, back then there was none of this jeans-and-t-shirt nonsense; we all wore proper shirts and ties to campus, and when Maxwell glanced up to see me, I saw his tie flop down into the card reader. It yanked him down instantly, slamming him face-first into the machine. His eyes bulged grotesquely as he gasped and choked, his arms and legs flailing all over the place. Before I knew it, I was in a dead sprint to reach the door on the other end of the cube. Thank God he’d left the key in the lock, otherwise he’d have met his end right then and there. Anyway, I managed to get inside and throw the master cutoff switch just in time. Then I cut him free with my penknife and opened his collar to let him breathe. He lay on that floor for a long time, coughing and sputtering; it took an hour for the color to return to his face. When he could finally breathe properly, I offered to drive him to the hospital.
“I’m alright,” he said, in a horrible raspy voice. Then he staggered to his feet, yanked his tie out of the card reader, and went straight back to running his damned program! Complete and utter insanity! But there was no arguing with the stubborn bastard, so I stayed with him all night in case his throat closed up. And what do you know - the damn program ran on the first try! At 5 o’clock, printouts in hand, I walked him back to his dormitory. As I staggered back to my room, I could heard him banging away at his typewriter. Then I finally passed out.
“I half expected Maxwell to skip that afternoon’s lecture, but of course that wasn’t an option. He’d tried to cover his neck as best he could with his collar, but that hideous purple bruise had spread all the way up to his jaw. As we filed past the front desk to hand in our assignments, Maxwell kept his eyes down, hoping to avoid McRae’s piercing gaze. Miraculously, McRae seemed not to have noticed; the submission proceeded without incident.
“Good,” said McRae as the last assignment was handed in. “I’m sure you all now appreciate how lucky you all are to have modern technology at your disposal. It is no substitute for hard work and an engineer’s intuition, but it can be useful from time to time.”
Beside me, Maxwell breathed the greatest - and raspiest - sigh of relief.
But then, McRae snapped his eyes right on Maxwell, drilling right into him. I will never, as long as I live, forget what he said next.
“For example,” he said, quite calmly. “I was about to hang a man today, but as you can see, I got a machine to do it for me.”