"...a date that ought to be among the most famous in history - September 11, 1683..."
-- H. Belloc, The Great Heresies
"...part of what historians call 'the specious present' for Muslims."
-- in an essay by W. Cinfici in The Annotated Lepanto
It was a Tuesday in the fall of 2001, 08:01 by the big red master clock in the corner of the Control Room of a cable TV company somewhere in the greater suburbs of southeastern Pennsylvania. Joe checked over the four big display screens which showed the status of the hundreds of computers in the Field - computers which played the commercials on some 40-odd cable TV networks. Normally scheduled for nights, Joe had the day shift today, having swapped with Al, who was home with his wife and new daughter. All the displays showed normal status - all the telltales were green, so things were running fine. The ever shifting eyes of CUSTOS the system guardian were placid. In a long row of equipment racks below the four big screens, 48 black-and-white monitors showed the various cable networks, a random flashing collage of entertainment and information. Nothing abnormal there. Joe nodded to Jeff, his supervisor, who was talking on the phone, then he went out to the lunchroom to get some coffee.
Joe nodded to co-workers he passed - some in the halls discussing current projects, some sitting in their cubicles talking to customers.
"Ain't seen you for a while, Joe - on days now?" someone asked.
"Just while Al's out this week," he explained. He got some donuts from the vending machine, helped himself to the coffee, and headed back to the Control Room.
Joe was looking over the displays again when Bill from Traffic came in pushing a cart loaded with dozens of video tapes. "Whole lot of spots today, Joe," he said.
"A little early in the week, aren't they?" Joe asked. Bill only shrugged and left the room without a word. Joe shrugged too, then pushed the cart over to an encoder, and began the boring task of converting the tapes into the electronic form for satellite distribution to all the remote locations where they were needed.
He had just put in the first tape when Jeff came over. "Hey, Joe - I have a meeting with my boss, so it'll just be you in here for a while. Everything looks fine right now, but 'Doc' said to let him know if PUMP goes down - he's back in the lab if you need him."
Joe nodded and Jeff left for his meeting. It sure was great to have someone around who took care of the machinery. Joe had talked to "Doc" several times, day or night - he was the developer of the company software, and PUMP was the main satellite transport program, so named because it was the "heart" of their system. Joe didn't even have to watch anything; the CUSTOS monitor had a special audio alert to warn him if something failed. He sat back and began the encoding.
Tape followed tape as Joe worked. Then a woman's voice stated: "Attention: Pump is not running." Joe got up and looked at the big screens - sure enough, the CUSTOS eyes were red, as was the little telltale for PUMP. He took a quick scan over the rest of the displays - everything else looked as it should - then grabbed the cell phone and headed back to the lab.
Joe went into the lab - it was kept colder than the Control Room because of all the racks of test equipment. The Doctor, in a white lab coat, stood by one of the racks, talking with Ian his boss - they were looking at a new piece of equipment, connected to a row of 16 tiny tv monitors.
"Hey, Joe," Ian said. "What's up?"
"Pump just went down, and Jeff said to let Doc know."
The Doctor nodded. "Thanks Joe - yeah, I had to fix something, and I expected this. Just hold on while I..." He turned to a keyboard and typed furiously.
"Hey, what's that?" Ian asked. "Looks like a plane just hit one of the world Trade Towers."
Joe peered intently at the little screen.
"Some kind of disaster flick? the Doctor commented, busy with the machinery.
"Nah - it's one of the news networks," Ian said, switching the machinery to bring that network to the lab monitor. He turned up the volume and an announcer was talking about the strange event which had just occurred.
"This is strange," Ian said. "How's that PUMP situation?"
"Just ready now," the Doctor said. "It's already corrected and running fine."
"C'mon Joe, Doc; let's get over to the Control Room," Ian said. "Something's going on.
The three went back into the Control Room. As he glanced at the 48 little monitors, Joe knew something was going on. The same strange shot - a glimpse of a plane, then smoke billowing - was appearing on several different networks.
"Put it up on the big screen," Ian ordered. Joe sat down at the main console and pressed buttons, then adjusted the volume. On the big screen the horrible view was even more intense and nearby - it was strange to think that they were only a couple of hours drive away from it.
Then the view changed - another plane had hit the other tower. The reporter said something about a third plane hitting the Pentagon, and there was some report of yet another plane crashing somewhere in Pennsylvania.
Joe shivered slightly, not just from the cold of the Control Room. He looked up at the Doctor, who had made the sign of the cross. He's Catholic, Joe thought to himself. He heard the main door click open, and Jeff came in, followed by several members of higher management. No one said anything - all eyes were intent on the strange view being shown on the big screen.
But duty calls, Joe thought to himself. On one of the desk computers, he flipped through the various monitoring displays. Everything seemed to be running normally, except that there hadn't been any cues for some time. Joe understood - when the networks go to live coverage, they do not send the "cue" signals to indicate a time when a commercial could be played - and the machinery was dutifully reporting this unusual state. There was nothing to be done - something historic was occurring, and lesser matters were of no importance. Looking over the 48 monitors, Joe was surprised to see even the music-video networks were showing live coverage from New York - he had never seen so many networks all showing the same thing.
From among the higher management came a whiney pompous voice - "What a terrible thing. I am surprised that such things occur."
The room was silent for a moment, then Joe heard the Doctor's voice. "As Chesterton once said, 'I am never surprised at any work of hell." [GKC, "The God of the Gongs" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]
But he did not stop there. "Ian, I'm going home. I'll be at church - if you need me, I have my cell. God bless us all, and protect us."
"Amen," Joe murmured.
* * *
The next day, Joe was in the Control Room when the Doctor wandered in and sat down at a computer. He seemed to be mumbling to himself, though Joe knew that was normal behavior. He started some program running and began typing.
"Let's see... barry of 13 gules and argent..."
"How's everything, Doc?"
"Fine, fine. Everything OK here?"
"Good," the doctor replied. "A canton azure..."
Joe shrugged. "Real strange not seeing any planes flying..."
"Sure is. Yesterday coming home from church I heard some Air Force jets scream over our city. OK, now, I need a mullet - ah, that's just a pentagon..." Joe shivered at the word, "... but visiting alternating vertices..."
Joe asked "What's going on, Doc?"
"Oh, nothing... just a little addition I thought of last night... You have a piece of scrap paper around?"
"Sure." Joe handed him a piece of paper and a pencil.
"Six by five, five by four..." the Doctor chanted. "How nice. That's why God made DO-loops... er, I mean FOR loops," he corrected himself, somewhat embarrassed. "I guess my age is showing," he chuckled.
Joe sat back, watching the code that seemed to pour out of the fat man's fingers. "How the heck do you know what you're typing? I can't even see the cursor."
"Oh, you get used to it. And anyway, this sort of thing practically writes itself..." he murmured. "They assign this in first-semester ... oh, I guess not. People don't have enough geometry any more. Or trig," he shrugged. "There. All done. Now let's try it."
He pressed a key, and the usual WATCHER screen appeared, which Joe knew was the main monitoring program which "watched" all the hundreds of field machines.
But the screen was different. Instead of a quippy Latin quote appearing in the upper right hand corner (Joe had the translations somewhere, he was always losing it) there was an American flag!
WATCHER, after September 11 2001
"Just for the next 10 seconds or so; the flag alternates with the Latin. I thought it was a good idea to have an American flag in here somewhere." The Doctor looked over at Joe with a certain meditative look in his eye.
(Yes, that's really how the flag got into WATCHER. See here for the actual code.)
Note: this story will eventually appear in a collection of short stories about Joe...
And don't forget what Mark Weaver said:
Somebody has to do the hard jobs.