The Angry Corrie 31: Mar-Apr97

TAC 31 Index

Lachlan and the Distress Beacon

by Grant Hutchison

THAT SUMMER EVENING I had dined outdoors, on a jalapeño-hot twelve-inch pizza, complemented with a rather fine chilled Californian rosé (a "blush", if you will allow me the charming Americanism). It had been, then, a meal of great delight, if perhaps a trifle déclassé, and I was now sitting in the waning warmth, contentedly watching a male chaffinch that was taking a keen interest in my pizza crumbs.

There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their oblivious business, especially when the experience is linked to the consumption of cool wine on a warm evening, and I was therefore disinclined to rise and answer the telephone when it began to ring. But it rang and kept on ringing, until I arose with a sigh and carried my drink indoors resignedly.

"Hello?"

"Emergency. Emergency," replied the telephone, in a curiously mechanical variant of Lachlan's voice - Lachlan after Assimilation by the Borg, perhaps. "Lachlan. Is injured. His location is. Grid reference. Three. Eight. Six. Three. Zero. Three." This last was uttered in the staccato manner of the Directory Enquiries computer. And then, with the mysterious final words "This is not a drill", my electronic caller disconnected.

How very odd. I meditatively carried the bottle, still containing the dregs of Robert Mondavi's finest work, over to my bookshelves. No grid letters had been given so I could, perhaps, assume that the reference was local - in the same grid square as Dundee. It was the work of a moment to pull out the necessary map sheet, unfold it, and run a finger along the eastings and up the northings. My index finger came to rest in the west end of Dundee - suspiciously close to the location of Lachlan's flat, in fact.

I returned to the phone to give him a call, and it rang beneath my hand.

"Hello?"

"Hey, man, what d'you think? Good, eh?"

"Do I take it that you are responsible for the alarming tape-recording that just told me the coordinates of your flat?"

"I am indeedy. Sorry about the grid reference, but it's the only one that I can get off my GPS when it's dangling out the flat window, you see."

"No."

"So do you ... What?"

"No I don't see. You are babbling."

"No I'm not. This is good, man. You'll like it. Can you come round on Saturday? For a walk? I'll give you the big demo then. OK?"

Like a fool, I said yes. It was the Mondavi blush talking; I know that now.

I presented myself at Lachlan's flat on the appointed morning to find him rummaging through a tangle of electronic gear, loading fresh batteries.

"Right man. Here's the kit," he said, brandishing something that resembled a portable telephone at me. "This here's a GPS receiver. Picks up latitude and longitude information off the Global Positioning System satellites, when it's out of doors with a clear view of the sky. And this bit of wire, here, plugs the serial port on the GPS into the back of this." He held up a notebook computer, familiar to me from a previous, ill-fated, adventure. *

"So. I've written a wee program that reads the GPS data into the notebook. But the data comes out the back of the GPS in a proprietary format, so ..."

"Come," I said.

"What?"

"Come."

"I'm not your bloody dog, man."

"No no. The data come out the back. It's a plural noun. Datum, data."

Lachlan glowered at me briefly, before continuing: "So. Anyway. I phoned up the people who wrote the format to ask them for a copy, and they said it'd cost me a hundred dollars! Now that's a great scam - make up a data exchange standard, then charge people to use it. So I thought bugger that for a game of soldiers, and just compared what was coming out of the GPS with what it said on the screen at the same time, and sort of retro-engineered the data format. Well, actually, it was so simple it was more retro-joinery than retro-engineering. Are you with me so far?"

"I have your gist, I believe. The GPS talks to the computer."

"Right. And the computer converts lat and long into OS grid, which is a story in itself, although the Ordnance Survey at least doesn't charge you for the formulas you need. And then the notebook talks to this, through another cable." He held up another slim black box, which he plugged into the cat's cradle of cabling on his lap. "A portable fax modem. It lets the computer talk to a telephone - dial up, send messages, faxes, e-mail, so on. And this, which plugs in here, is the portable phone it talks to. Ta-ra! The whole caboodle'll run for eight hours off ten double-A alkaline batteries."

"And this is what phoned me? This ... arrangement?"

"Aye. Though I've ditched the recorded voice now, because it doesn't produce any hard copy. Now it'll fax you instead."

"But I don't have a fax machine."

"No. True. But the Mountain Rescue have."

"And how does that help me?"

"No. No. You're not following this. Here's how it works. You're on the hill. The GPS knows your position, and sends it to the wee computer. Every half hour, the computer rings a bell, and you push a reset button. If you don't push the button, then the computer rings up the Mountain Rescue, and faxes them a note of your present position! Because it knows you're unconscious or incapacitated in some way. See? It's like a dead-man switch on a train." He paused, alarmed by his own choice of simile: "Except you're hoping it's an injured-man switch, in this case."

"Good heavens."

"Clever, eh? I'll make my millions off this one, and no mistake. It's got a list of the grid refs and phone numbers of every MR post in Britain, so it automatically finds one within a fifty-mile radius of your position, and sends them the fax."

I was impressed, despite myself. "And we are to be testing this today, on the hill?"

"Aye. I want to make sure the wiring holds up and the alarm's audible, stuff like that."

"But we won't be calling out the Mountain Rescue, I take it?"

"Ha! No way, man. Ho ho ho."

"Ho ho ho," I agreed.

It had been many years since we had last climbed Lochnagar together, and so we decided to drive the tedious long way through Braemar and Ballater, with the plan of ascending this old favourite via the Foxes' Well path.

Once we had arrived at Spittal of Glenmuick, I examined the map while Lachlan crammed most of the electronics into his rucksack. Eventually, the only overt sign of his direct link to cyberspace was the little notebook computer strapped to his left forearm, with its wires disappearing up his sleeve. A little key-tapping ensued, and then Lachlan read out our grid reference from the tiny screen on his arm: "Three-oh-nine, eight-five-two. Am I right?"

"You are correct."

"OK! We have lift-off!" And, so saying, he strode off towards the loch and our route to the summit.

I must confess that I did not feel the slightest foreboding.

We were well up the track beneath Conachcraig when the computer on Lachlan's wrist first remarked, in a clear feminine voice: "Warning! Warning! Thirty seconds!" Lachlan checked the screen for a moment, pressed the spacebar on the keyboard, and then nodded happily.

"All working fine, man."

"Who was that?" I asked.

"Who was what?" he said, with a transparent affectation of innocence.

"The voice. It was a woman's voice."

"Oh, just someone."

"Who?"

"No-one you know. Really. I don't think you've ever met her."

"Is she a friend of yours, then?"

He considered this for a moment. "I wouldn't say friend, no." And he beamed smugly.

"More than a friend! She's more than a friend!" I yelped.

"I think I've said enough, actually."

And he would tell me no more. But the voice had seemed naggingly familiar, and seemed even more so when it spoke again thirty minutes later, and again, as we sat on the col below Meikle Pap, admiring the sweep of the crags and the loch below.

"I know that woman," I said.

"In your dreams," remarked Lachlan cheerfully, and waved to a yellow helicopter that was circling slowly inside the corrie rim, apparently on some sort of exercise.

The computer performed flawlessly all across Cuidhe Crom and Cac Carn Mor, and by the time we sat down for sandwiches on Cac Carn Beag, I had reached a fevered state of impending recall. The oft-repeated sound of that half-familiar voice had built up in me a sensation like an aborted sneeze, made all the worse by Lachlan's constant airy insistence that it was no-one I'd met - someone, he said, who didn't move in my circles.

And so, when the machine spoke again, I gripped Lachlan's wrist before he could push the spacebar. "Does she say anything else?" I asked.

"Just some more warnings. Let me hit the button, man."

"Twenty seconds!" said the recorded voice. A little husky. A little distant. Vaguely erotic. And I knew this woman! Her name seemed to be on the tip of my tongue, her face hovering on the verge of memory. I tightened my grip on Lachlan's wrist.

"Let me hear some more!"

"Ten," she said. And: "Nine, eight ..."

"I've gotta hit the button, man!"

"No, wait a second ..."

"Seven, six, five ..."

Despairingly, still mentally blank, I released Lachlan's arm, but he was already attempting to push the button with his nose, instead. His forehead struck the edge of the clamshell screen, and the computer flipped around his arm until it hung inverted.

"Four, three, two ..."

Hauling the thing back up to an accessible position, Lachlan contrived to close the screen over the keyboard in his fumbling haste.

"One. Zero!" announced the machine, before he could reopen it. And then, bizarrely: "Autodestruct sequence enabled!"

"Oh man," moaned Lachlan, "that's the fax dialling!" He began to perform a strange writhing motion with his left hand, and a moment or two elapsed before I realised his predicament. The notebook computer was equipped with two Off buttons, one at each end of the casing. To turn the machine off they had to be pushed simultaneously, as a safeguard against accidental shut-down. But this was not an easy task with the machine strapped to one forearm. Lachlan soon abandoned the attempt and began feverishly tugging at the rear connectors, but these were firmly screwed into place. "Buggerbuggerbugger," he uttered, "C'mere and help me turn this thing off, will you? Come on, man, before it starts sending!"

But I was suddenly transfixed by a revelation. The last strange words spoken by the machine had opened the flood-gate of memory: "Star Trek!" I said. "That was the computer from Star Trek!"

"Aye, aye. Will you help me, here, or do you really want an MR call-out?"

"You recorded the voice from one of your videos, didn't you?"

Lachlan was by now trying to get his rucksack off, presumably so that he could disconnect some of the electronics that could be reached with both hands, but he had become inextricably tangled in wire, Goretex, and rucksack straps. "Yes, yes!" he cried. "I admit it! Now will you help me here?"

"You were deliberately taunting me with some imaginary girl-friend!"

"Yes, yes! Please, man!" And then, all urgency suddenly gone: "Oh bugger it. It's sent. We're in trouble now."

"Photon torpedoes launched!" announced the computer, with a note of inappropriate pride.

To be continued ...

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