Green flash – nine dash – dark green in dark room, four flash – minus dash – three flash – six dash – eight then tight then eight. The operator shoves his chair back in fear, things happen too quickly to be surprised. Red left light followed by yellow left light glow beside the numbers, reflect the band of a wristwatch. Eight flash two race one plus one point – decimal moving across the board, hunting.
Fingers, hand, wristwatch reach for the never used phone.
Second and third red left lights glow off the face of the Operator as his lips open before the mouthpiece.
“Get the General and the Director down here fast.”
“But they’re both asleep.” A thin voice in his ear.
“No time – no time. Hurry.”
His hand replaces the phone, but his eyes never leave the wild numbers, doubling and now tripling. Four two flash seven one three dash six six six pause blank plus plus racing decimal three three three three. He takes a fast look around the dim room to see yellow and red lights glimmering from every corner, and the flashing green of disappearing numbers.
His eyes return to his own board. There is a constant series of tiny clicks as the green numbers race from right to left, bottom to top. He moves a sweaty palm across his leg and gapes. Minus minus minus eight zero four three eight zero four three pause eight pause plus pause zero four three three click click click click.
Quadrupoling now, simultaneous right to left and bottom to top, green numbers racing click click click click. The sound of the flicking numbers makes him think of chicken claws scratching in gravel. He notices his hands shaking.
He dimly remembers one lecture where the odds were given of such a thing happening, the smug humour of his instructor. Six six 44 flash two seven 55 click nine two 77 plus 333 point 2864 flash minus flash minus eight seven three three zero.
“My God, they’re in fives now.”
He swivels around with a start, and sees the Director peering over one shoulder, the General standing behind him.
“How long has this been happening?”
“I … I don’t know.” He is frightened and confused. “Five or six minutes – no more than ten. I called you as soon as – ”
“It’s happening with all of them,” said the General. “It’s not a mistake.” As he speaks he looks at the screen, fumbles to straighten his tie. Nine one four two four flash nine one four two 5 pause nine one four two 6 minus flash click click click.
They move like green waves across a dark sea, sextupleting in a rush from the base of the screen. Seven two 2941 flash four one 3384 pause nine zero 7766 click click minus three four 0827.
“More warning lights are on now, Sir.”
“It’s the same with every terminal,” said the Director as he looks over to the General.
“I presume you activated the breaking system.”
“Yes, Sir.” The operator does not look behind him as he answers. “When the triples started. All it did was blow out the switch lights.” His face – like the others – is bathed in a confused glow of green, yellow and red.
“The last warning lights just came on.”
“We can see that!” snapped the Director.
The room has never had so much light in it, yet the green numbers do not seem subdued. Four two 8601, nine five 7350, one one 4499 plus flash four eight 1632 click click.
Green flash, red light and yellow, number after number, 472210 flash 992136 pause 886221 race pause flash green 220011 flash click click click.
“Sounds like hens scratching,” says the General.
The Director took in his breath with a groan. “They’re turning octal,” he said.
The green numbers moved constantly now, covering the whole face of the screen. Click click flash plus 12345678 flash 87654321 pause 20199465 click minus flash 22446688 race click 11335577 green 88990011 click.
“They’re grouping,” said the Operator. “They’re forming patterns.” His voice was no longer scared, but resigned.
The red and yellow warning lights began to shatter, small pops of sound followed by falling glass. Green flickers raced 11223344 slight pause 55667788 flash green wave 99001122 minus flash 33445566 click click
“It’s turning cyclical,” said the Director.
click flash green rush 77889900 pause plus click 00000000 minus flash flash click 00000000 click click 00000000
“What a way to end,” mumbled the General.