The customer service call center for Consolidated Securitrox Inc. was an easy job, the easiest even. The company made control mechanisms for large-scale security systems. Anyone who actually had reason to but even the Securitrox-1000 was already expert enough in its operation that tech support was a bit superfluous. When a customer did have a reason to call, they were inevitably at least better informed than the large binders that were the operator’s only source of information.
It was a great job, especially for someone like myself with a litany of other, better things to do. Just last Monday, I read most of From Russia With Love. By the time I went home on Thursday evening, I had finished The Hunt for Red October. By lunchtime Friday, I had made a good start on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, although that one is a little denser than the run-of-the-mill entries in the genre. It was destined to dominate most of my weekend, and that was just fine by me. One of these days, I may try to write one of those kind of books on my own. Something told me that I'd be able to find the time, if only I could stumble upon the willpower.
Right about the time old George Smiley was brought back to the Circus, the phone on my desk announced an incoming call. A wave of irritation crashed over me as I folded the hardcover jacket in as a makeshift bookmark. I hit the button on my phone headset. “Thank you for calling Consolidated Securitrox, my name is Maurice. Before I try to resolve any issues you may have with your equipment, could I please have your name and the model number of your unit—”
A series of sharp “BA-RANG” sounds answered me, while at the same time threatening to blow out both my headset and eardrums. I clutched at the receiver instinctively and only lowered my hand when the ringing in my ear subsided.
“Sir? Sir, are you still there?” I asked. I’m not entirely sure why I assumed the caller was a man. I’d probably been reading too much Fleming, if I were being honest with myself.
“Yes,” the caller finally responded. Whatever was happening over the line didn’t seem to faze him. “I got this number off the paneling of one of your machines, and I have a hypothetical question for you.”
“Yes, if I could get your name and the model number for our records.” It didn’t feel like I actually said the words, they more just leaked out of my mouth.
“I’d rather not give my name, if it’s all the same to you. National security and all that, my good man…” The man trailed off. “I… Well, I’m afraid I don’t quite know what model of machine this is…”
While he contemplated the machine in front of him, I thought I heard the distinct sound of an explosion in the background, but had to assume that Tom Clancy and company were starting to get to me. I might need to break up my spy reading with something a little less aggressive and with a little less machismo. Maybe Hemingway…
“Is there a computer screen on it, or just a series of red lights?” I asked.
More silence passed. Eventually, the mystery caller came back on the line. “Sorry, it’s been absolute murder here at work. It’s got the blinking lights you mentioned.”
“Okay, you’ve got one of the 1000 series. What can I do for you?”
“Again, hypothetically, if one of your machines were used as a controlling unit for a thirty-megaton thermonuclear weapon…”
“Sir,” I interjected. “It really isn’t rated for… that.”
“Indulge me. I’m… I’m doing research for a… novel.”
“Oh, really? I’ve been thinking about writing a book—”
Another “BA-RANG” echoed out. “I really don’t have time to talk about that right now,” the caller admonished me. He was right. These calls were periodically recorded to ensure accurate and courteous service, and me talking about my downtime was probably not going to look good on my next performance review. “If one of your rigs was hooked up to a nuke, how would somebody deactivate it?”
More silence passed, but this time it was due to me doing a quick, futile search of our service manual’s index. “Weapons, Nuclear” was not an entry that our managers decided to include.
“If I don’t have an answer in the next thirty seconds, it’s… well, it’s not going to be good.”
I scrambled. “Try inputing the shutdown code. One-Zero-Two-Nine.”
I heard him input the code, but neglected to ask about just how hypothetical this question was anymore. “The timer is moving faster now.” An inch of panic was creeping into his voice.
“Try pulling the power supply, but be sure to hold the reset button while you’re doing it.”
He struggled with the suggestion, and I knew why. The design of the 1000 series put the power plug in on the exact opposite panel as the reset button. It was a bit of a stretch.
Then I heard a sigh. “That…” the caller said. “That worked. Thank you. You have no idea how helpful you’ve been in my moment of need.”
Could this have all been real? It was almost too preposterous to contemplate. I was just about to ask the mystery caller to confirm what had just happened. But then, my supervisor walked by and I thought better of it.
Abandoning the new world of possibilities this call had opened up to me, I re-focused on the call. “I’m thrilled we were able to help you today, sir. Would you be willing to answer a brief questionnaire about your experience?”
But he had already hung up.