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Short story: The Duty

by Gavin Davies

Fourteen thousand, six hundred, and ten days. That’s how long I’ve been alone down here, doing the duty. Here’s how I know; a few days ago, I totted up the tally chart that I’ve been keeping on the kitchen wall. I did it after I did the duty that day. It took me about 15 hours; I lost count of the number of times I lost track and started again…

If I were to estimate how much of the duty is done, I’d say perhaps 75%. Most of the registers are gone. The vacuum tubes are almost all gone. The pinwheels were a problem, but I got through them. To be honest, I would be astonished if the enemy could recover any data or algorithms from the system whatsoever now. Generally, I do about four hours of the duty each day. I can’t really physically do any more than that. Maybe when I was younger, I could, but these days, four hours of the duty is a big ask.

When I wake up, I pray, and do some light exercise. I shave every day and I press my trousers before wearing them; it simply wouldn’t do to let standards slip. Once you stop washing yourself, that’s the end, that’s when you’ve gone a bit cuckoo… I know that I have to keep myself moving; I try to stay active. It can be hard to start the duty every day, and I often put it off, but I get going about 10am. By 2pm, I’m usually drinking water and having a quiet lie down.

There are sleeping quarters here, it’s comfortable enough, and there’s a water source that I assume comes from an underground spring. I sometimes wash my clothes and bedding in the water in the afternoons, after I’m done with the Duty for the day. There’s a small library as well, mostly poetry and a Bible, I know a lot of it by heart now; that’s how I pass my afternoons and evenings. I don’t really need regular food; I’ve kind of adapted over the last four decades of doing the duty. I wouldn’t say I was healthy but thank the Lord, I’ve been able to keep going with the duty. It’s hard to sleep at night, though. There are mice down here, they make quite a rumpus, and the duty leaves me in pain a lot of the time.

I’m definitely not as fit and strong as I used to be, and I get ill a lot. I have learned plenty, though. For example, with the vacuum tubes, you really have to crunch the glass down to tiny chunks. Thankfully, over the 40 years I’ve been alone down here, I have become very efficient; especially now that my teeth aren’t in great shape. These days, I use tools to crush things instead of chomping from the get-go. I used to just pop those things right on in my mouth and crunch down but these days I know much better.

I seem to have forgotten a lot of things, but I remember that first day so clearly. The first day I started to do what had to be done. I remember the bombs going off around the campus, and everyone running and shouting and there were soldiers, and they were shouting in foreign. I was only 21, it was my first week as an assistant engineer, I didn’t know what to do! This mainframe was the largest of it’s kind in the UK and was running some pretty important stuff apparently. Professor Charles yelled at me “don’t let the mainframe fall into enemy hands!” and then seemed to fall down dead, I don’t know exactly what happened… I remember sprinting to the secret hatch and heading underground to the mainframe compound, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. The mainframe was running a program, I didn’t know anything about the program and I still don’t, but I know enough about computation to know that the enemy might have been able to recover information from the memory, the punchcards – anything really! I knew I needed to destroy it, but I just didn’t know how… Then I remembered how spies in war had to eat documents if they thought they were going to be captured.

So, I got started with the punchcards, they were easy enough. The rest of the machinery? My goodness, that’s been a chore… I ate the tubes, the circuits, the wheels, the pins, the cables… Everything but the framework that held it all up. After all, I’m not crazy! My days pass quietly and a little bit painfully but I think I’ve probably put this compututational engine beyond the enemy’s grasp now.

Eating over half of the world’s largest mainframe computer may seem to some to be a strange life’s work. Sometimes, I do think of the life that I could have had. I often think of sweet Evangeline; to me she will forever be 22 and as beautiful as a…. Well, I don’t know. I’m an engineer, not a poet, I never was good with words. All I know is that whenever I think of her, I grow angry that I wasn’t a better man. I hope she went on to get married to somebody kind, who could love her… Perhaps we could have had a life together, but, still, for all I know, out there Britain could be a smoking wasteland. Perhaps everyone’s dead. Perhaps the enemy has overrun the country. Perhaps there’s peace out there and everyone’s living together happily. I can’t know. I can only assume that nobody knows that I’m down here. Perhaps I’m forgotten? I can’t give away my position without being certain. No, the only honourable path is to proceed with the duty.

I suppose it may be futile, the duty. It may all be in vain. Perhaps I’ve made this sacrifice for nothing, but you know what, I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is this; I’ve done my best and when I go, and it won’t be long, I believe that the Good Lord will understand.

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