by Grant Hutchison
Continued from TAC31, pp12-14:
Lachlan has invented an ingenious mountaineers' distress beacon. It consists of a Global Positioning System receiver, a notebook computer, a portable fax modem and a cellular telephone. The computer is attached to the user's forearm, while the rest of the apparatus packs away unobtrusively into the rucksack. If the user does not push a reset button once every thirty minutes, the computer assumes injury or incapacity, and faxes a distress message to the nearest Mountain Rescue service, giving the user's current grid reference.
Lachlan and his friend have set out to test the device on Lochnagar. All has gone well until a peculiarly adolescent argument on the summit of Cac Carn Beag prevents Lachlan from hitting the reset button at the appropriate time. The machine has now announced that a fax has been dispatched, and an undesired rescue operation seems imminent.
Now read on ...
IN RETROSPECT, of course, it is clear what we should have done: we should have tried to use Lachlan's cellular phone to call off the Mountain Rescue team before they set out. But at the time ... well, at the time we entertained the notion that we might get away with it - that we might sneak down off the hill without anyone finding out how stupid we had been. And so we crammed the remainder of our lunch into our pockets, and set off at a brisk walk back the way we had come. In fact, we jogged a little.
How long before a team arrived? Would a helicopter be sent out first? We had no idea, but we imagined that we would be well down into the glen, perhaps back to the car park, before we started to notice any major Search And Rescue activity.
We were psychologically unprepared, then, as we rounded the rim of the north-east corrie, to discover a team of burly men striding briskly towards us, equipped with a stretcher and a two-way radio.
"Now that," said Lachlan admiringly, "is fast!"
"Ohgodohgod," I said, never at my best in such circumstances.
"Cool, man. Play it cool." And then, raising his voice, "Hello there. How's it going, lads?"
The leader of the MR team was clearly in a foul mood. Six feet tall, broad in the shoulder, narrow in the hip and possessed of quite the steeliest grey eyes I have ever encountered, he loomed over me and growled, "Which way did you boys come up?"
"Down ... down there," I babbled, immediately unnerved, making vague gestures out over the glen in the hope that this might clarify our route.
"We came up from the Spittal by the Foxes' Well path," offered Lachlan smoothly, all round-eyed innocence. "Has there been an accident of some kind?"
"Did you meet anyone on the way up? Anyone injured?"
"Only a lad with a bit of a blister, on his way down," I provided, since this at least was the truth. "He looked fine. Why?"
"Some bugger's been sending half-hourly faxes since ten this morning, giving the grid for a party in distress - a different location every time, all the way up this bloody path and on to the top. We're thinking now that it's a hoax. The helicopter's been overflying since eleven, and we're just walking the route to be sure."
"Not half-hourly, surely?" said Lachlan, beginning to roll his eyes slightly.
"Aye, half-hourly. What's that you're fiddling with?"
Lachlan and I, as if sharing a single thought, turned our eyes to the little notebook computer still perched on his forearm. "This?" said Lachlan, a little hoarsely, and ran a hand nervously through his hair.
I realised that I had no idea if he had turned it off after the summit débâcle. Indeed, Lachlan was now giving every indication of being unable to remember this crucial piece of information himself. Surely more than half an hour had elapsed since our brisk departure from Cac Carn Beag? If not, then we might be very nearly due for another computer-voiced reminder that it was time to push the reset button.
"It's," said Lachlan, brightly. "It's." And then after a dry swallow, "It's a navigation computer. I thought you guys were issued with these, these days? GPS?"
"Ours don't look like that," said the leader, mellowing a little and sidling around to peer at Lachlan's forearm. He was clearly a Gadget Man.
"This one's new," said Lachlan, flipping open the screen. I could see that the program was still running. "See, here's our current grid reference, here, and our ground speed and heading, here."
"What's the little digital count-down for? The one that says twenty seconds?"
"Whoops, sorry, I've just deactivated it. Pushed the wrong button! Damn, I'm always doing that!" cried Lachlan, with a thin note of hysteria in his voice. And he struck his forehead with the palm of his hand in a rather poor simulation of regret. I let out a breath that hadn't seen daylight for a while.
At this point, we were spared demands for a further demonstration by a voice emanating from the leader's radio. "Hello, Derek, hello, Derek."
He stepped off to one side, pushed a button, and spoke in the obligatory sing-song voice: "Yah, Rodney. Derek here. Over."
"What's your twenty, Derek? Come on." (Lachlan made a brief choking sound at this point, nudged me and muttered something that sounded like, "Ten Four, good buddie." I have no idea what this might mean.)
"Rodney, we're about half-way round the north-east corrie. No sign of any injured party. I think it's a hoax. Have you tried ringing that number yet? Over."
"What number, Derek? Come on."
"The one at the head of the fax sheet, Rodney. The return number. Over."
"But it's a fax, Derek. What's the point in phoning it? Come on."
"It's a mobile number, for chrissakes. It's not like it's going to be permanently plugged into a fax machine, is it? Just ring the number and see what happens, will you? Over."
"Ah, OK, Derek. I'll do that now. Em, Rodney out."
There followed the briefest of pauses, lasting several eternities of subjective time, and then ... Ring, ring, went Lachlan's rucksack.
"What was that?" asked the MR leader, instantly suspicious.
"What was what?" we chorused.
Ring, ring, went Lachlan's rucksack again. Over his shoulder, I caught sight of the computer screen, which was flashing the words INCOMING MESSAGE.
"I heard a phone," said the leader.
Lachlan and I gazed around ourselves in simulated astonishment. "Did you?" asked Lachlan, in tones that doubted the man's hearing, if not his sanity.
Ring, ring, went the rucksack, and the message on the computer screen turned to RECEIVING CALL.
"One of you has a bloody cell-phone in his rucksack!" erupted the mountain rescue man, turning a little purple and wagging a finger at us. "Answer it! Answer it now! And if it's Rodney on the other end, you are ..." (his mouth worked silently as he sought some suitable fate for us) "... you are in bloody trouble!"
Silence ensued, and then, mercifully, continued. Lachlan went so far as to cup an ear, and strike a listening pose. No further telephonic sounds were heard. Meanwhile, the computer screen briefly displayed the words HAND SHAKING FAILED (curiously appropriate to our present position), before switching to HANGING UP.
We had been saved by some sort of automated answering facility. Rodney had no doubt just found himself listening to a high-pitched electronic yodel, before Lachlan's computer hung up in disgust after receiving no recognisable electronic message in reply.
After a while, Lachlan remarked, "The call of the snow bunting has on occasion been compared to the sound of a cellular phone, I understand," and he turned through a slow three hundred and sixty degrees, scanning the horizon keenly for birdish activity. "Perhaps that's what you heard?"
The mountain rescue man was by now a mottled crimson, vibrating visibly, and he clearly wished with all his heart that MR teams had been granted Stop and Search powers. But he was forced to let us continue on our way, which we did with some alacrity. I believe that we did not stop running until we had made it all the way back to the car park.
"The problem," said Lachlan later, tapping at the keyboard as we slumped in front of the television in his flat, "was just a wee thing. I'd programmed a conditional loop the wrong way round. So it sent out a fax every time I pushed the button, instead of only if I didn't. The only fax that didn't go out was the one on Cac Carn Beag, that we thought did. Easy fixed."
"Hang on," I said, catching sight of a familiar empurpled face on the TV screen. "Here's the MR man on Reporting Scotland. Turn up the sound."
But the picture changed at that moment, to one of Jackie Bird in the studio, looking grave. "And other reports, just in, suggest that this hoax has been the cause of the largest call-out since the inception of the rescue services," she said, disapprovingly.
"Oh lummee," said Lachlan.
"Up and down the country," continued Jackie, reading her autocue with mounting horror, "rescue services have received spurious faxes giving the grid references of supposedly injured parties. Rescuers have been combing the hills north of Spean Bridge, in the borders near Lockerbie, and in ..." (she frowned, before carrying on with a rolling Gaelic pronunciation) " ... The Deargs, by Ullapool. Elsewhere, teams have been deployed in the High Peak, the Lake District, to the north of Bodmin Moor, and at Offa's Dyke on the Welsh border. Police have also answered calls to areas of low-lying moorland in southern Strathclyde, the Yorkshire Moors, the Wolds and the Isle of Man."
"Oh ya bandit," said Lachlan, peering anxiously down at the computer on his lap.
"Ferries from Holyhead were disrupted for three hours after faxes were received suggesting that a boat might be adrift with injured crew in Holyhead Bay. And coastguard helicopters are also now returning from fruitless searches in the Pentland Firth, the Firth of Forth, and off Cape Wrath," finished Jackie, and then visibly brightening.
"And now, news of how two Dundee pensioners plan to hang-glide into the record books ... "
I switched off the TV. "Did you ever get around to putting grid letters into your map references?" I asked.
"Ah, no," said Lachlan.
"So your program would generate identical grid references at, what, hundred-kilometre intervals, all across the country?"
"It would," said Lachlan. "It would do that. Yes."
"So your idiot program, at a loss to know exactly where we were, sent out identical faxes to a variety of rescue posts, scattered all over Britain. Each of whom interpreted the grid reference as being in their own area, of course. And it continued to do this at half-hourly intervals for three hours?"
"I think that is, probably, what it did. Yes indeed."
And at that moment Lachlan's cellular telephone, lying on the table by his elbow, began to ring. Quite insistently.