Eight Zeroes

Feb 9, 2017

Cadet Jonas Hahn despised the mandated rest hour before evening drills and class sessions.

The catnaps favored by his colleagues just left him tired; games bored him with their repetitive structures and childlike rules. The cadet briefly considered jogging around the perimeter of the base before dismissing the idea as ludicrous, given the army’s unnatural predilection towards such activity. He approached the exterior guardhouse, waved at the MP, and soon found himself outside of the base—technically against regulations, but the perimeter guards were lax enough in enforcement so long as the cadets didn’t cause any trouble during their walkabouts.

The army originally intended the fort as an isolated post, but time and human nature had birthed a small town, home to scores of exuberant capitalists hawking every imaginable service to the garrison. Hahn strode the narrow streets, browsing the shelves packed with cheap and exotic goods alike, some barely legal and others even less so. Other vendors practiced their arts here, as well: dancers cavorted and twirled, psychics entranced passersby below gaudy faded signs, and augurs entwined strands of entrails about their fingers and mumbled dire predictions. He shook his head and continued walking, muttering about the ceaseless gullibility of the soldier and civilian alike.

“Cadet Jonas Hahn!”

Jonas whirled around, expecting the stern face of an officer glaring at him. He found no reprimand waiting, but instead an old man waved at him from a nearby booth.

“Yes, you, Jonas! I have seen your fate written in the stars.” The cadet rolled his eyes and sauntered over to the man, who gestured emphatically to a small stool in front of his table.

“Give me your hand, lad, and I will read your future.” Jonas’s hands remained firmly crossed on his chest.

“You don’t see my fate any more than I can see yours. You’re just an amusing charlatan.” The man, strangely, wasn’t taken aback by this claim. 

“How did I know you by name, then, Cadet Hahn?” Hahn kicked the table lightly with his boot.

“You’ve probably got a card scanner under there, and you’re mining the data off my prox card. You do know that’s illegal—and an obvious trick?” The man smiled slightly, leaving Hahn dumbfounded.

“Of course it is—but you’re the first in a long time that’s called me on it.” The man brought a small pad into view, tapping rapidly on the screen with gnarled fingers. Hahn’s eyes widened, not at the use of the device, but the high quality of craftsmanship. Hahn couldn’t restrain his curiosity.

“How can you afford a pad like that?”

“Oh, this whole psychic thing is just for kicks. Quite a lark, altering a man’s entire life just by weaving some crock about the stars.” He cracked a toothy grin, and Hahn found himself speechless. The man suddenly laughed, tapped the screen a few times, and looked up again at the young cadet. “You want to see a taste of what I really do?”

Hahn’s face betrayed his answer before he found his voice. The man gave a little cackle, looked up and down the street quickly, and then settled back into his chair, fingers rapping on the pad. He spoke without raising his head. “You see the guard in the perimeter post yonder? By the main entrance?”

Hahn looked. “Yes, that’s Sergeant Lewis—”

“Lad, I didn’t ask for help, that’s cheating. And….” his fingers rained input into the device, “…we’re in the system.”

Jonas looked shocked. “That’s impossible. We all have codes—”

The old man interrupted with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Sure, ‘course you do. Lesson one: a castle is only as strong as its gates. You ever hear the story about the old American nuclear arsenal during the Cold War?”

Hahn wordlessly shook his head, and the man snorted, more to himself than to his young observer. “They had eight-digit numeric codes to prevent accidental thermonuclear war, but in drills the boys in the silos had a hell of a time entering them correctly. So, worried that they’d miss out on the Big One, Strategic Command changed all the arming codes to eight straight zeroes—speeds up response time, you see.”

Hahn looked horrified, which caused the man’s face to crack into a wide grin. “Lesson two, lad: humans are always the source of failure.”

The ersatz psychic handed the pad to Hahn. The cadet shook his head in wonder. “That’s the base’s net, sure. But our code’s not eight zeroes.”

The man winked at the young soldier. “Not exactly, but close enough. So much data flying around; after a time you learn to anticipate the patterns. Your Sergeant Lewis over there is a very bad boy, transmitting his codes in the clear like that. Why, he even had to key it in twice, mistyped his girlfriend’s name—unless ‘Tabitha’ is a cat.”

The man reclaimed the pad from Hahn’s hands and resumed tapping. His fingers stopped after several moments, and he looked up with a mischievous grin. “You like Bach?”

Hahn nodded, unsure of this fact’s relevance. Suddenly, the fort’s perimeter floodlights turned upwards and ignited, and the motive of a Bach fugue burst from the speakers in a deafening wave of sound. Several guards shouted as they ran from the barracks towards the perimeter, where Sergeant Lewis stood dumbfounded, impotently pressing every control he could find. Hahn looked back from the surreal scene to the old man, who was dancing gaily to the strains of Bach’s genius. Suddenly, the old man tapped once on the pad and the music and lights immediately shut down. He deposited the device in his pocket, recovered a metal box the size of an ammo can, and began to walk away. Hahn called after him.

“Wait! Where are you going?” The old man stopped and turned.

“I’ll be in touch.”

“But wait, what’s your name?”

The familiar grin returned. “Names are so…passé.”

Jonas stood alone as the unassuming old man scurried into the crowds and vanished.

1 Comment

  1. Great scene. I loved the old man’s subtlety. I really enjoyed your writing style.