Geoff Nelder escaped from his roots in the south of England and now lives in the north. He would do most things for a laugh but had to pay the mortgage so he taught I.T. and Geography in the local High school. After thirty years in the education business, he nearly became good at it. A post-war baby boomer, he has post-grad researched and written about climatic change, ran computer clubs and was editor of a Computer User Group magazine for eleven years. Geoff lives in Chester with his long-suffering wife and has two grown-up children whose sense and high intelligence persist in being a mystery to him. Visit Geoff’s website or his blog to learn more about him.
A power surge epiphany hit me while cycling up a steep Welsh hill five years ago. An original idea: infectious amnesia. Not mass amnesia but one you catch from being near someone else who also has it. Infectious amnesia doesn’t exist. Thank goodness, but imagine the ramifications if it did. You are on a bus when a man gets on with a new virus, one that loses memory backwards at the rate of a year per week. By the time the bus stops, all the passengers, including you, have ARIA (Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia). The driver has it too, and all her passengers until the end of her shift. You go shopping on the way home. Your spouse works in the power plant, your kids go to school. How long before industry stops, society breaks down, and your kids forget how to read, write and talk?
That’s why Mike Resnick, Robert J Sawyer, Jon C Grimwood, Brad Lineweaver and Charles Stross says ARIA is a fascinating idea, and makes us think of what is the most important things we need to remember in our lives.
Friday 1 May 2015 Uxbridge Power Station, London Two weeks since amnesia started spreading. Most people in cities have lost up to two years of their memory.
Dermot had enjoyed an exhilarating vacation where he’d wandered around the northern Pennines. He’d been deafened, gazing in awe at High Force, where the River Tees couldn’t defy gravity and crashed over hard rock into a bottomless pool below. Promising he’d always treasure the memory of his dampened clothes and skin, Dermot dragged himself away.
While driving through amazingly quiet streets, he focussed more on the memory of green bilberry leaves than the occasional bus, which wandered from one lane to another as if unsure of the route.
In the deserted car park at the power station entrance, Dermot shook his head, then ran to the staffroom. Empty.
His ears should have throbbed to the sound of gas turbines generating electricity. No noise, no juice, no underground trains running. Perspiration oozed out of Dermot’s face as he wondered whether under his feet, long snakes of steel tubing held worrying passengers.
It wouldn’t have been his fault. Although his job as chief engineer made it his responsibility to ensure the wires buzzed, a replacement should have turned up a week ago. Failing that, he had other engineers. All they had to do was to watch sensors and fill up lubrication points, balancing energy levels in accordance with the National Grid directions. Perhaps that was it. In his absence the NG co-ordinator pulled the plug because of some technical problem up the line and his staff shifted to another station. Even so, there should have been security at the entrance.
His anger made him nervous as he made his way down a gleaming-white corridor to the control room. He’d see from the log when the shutdown occurred. He hadn’t noticed the corridor had echoed before his holiday. The Marie Celeste of Power Stations.
In the control room he studied a wall panel. Indicators glowed green. The systems were all go, but not activated. In which case he’d expect the users to be screaming and maybe they were. At the distribution panel red lights blinked and might have been blinking for hours or days. Tempted just to throw a switch to reactivate the station to normal running, he fell back on his training. He threw a blue switch to put reactivation on stand-by, forcing an automated checking process. Dermot, just a trifle more consoled, walked round to the recording station.
Slumped in his seat with his head on his folded arms on the long white PVC bench slept a control engineer.
“Hey,” Dermot yelled. He recognised the man as one who had recently started. Humphry Davy. The staff changed it to Humping Davy when he pulled the canteen lady on his first day.
“Humphry, wake up. I want to know what the hell’s happening.”
Davy raised a sleepy head. Exasperated, Dermot ran to the canteen and made a couple of instant coffees to take back. Five minutes later, he managed to get Davy into a sitting position with his eyes open yet not properly focussed.
“God, Humphry, you’re having a hell of a hangover, what’s going on?”
“Sorry, who are you?”
“What? I’m the chief engineer. Now what’s happening?”
“Sorry, chief. I had to stop the night. I can’t remember where I live. I’m new to London, aren’t I? Couldn’t nip home to Liverpool, could I?”
“Why is the station on hold and where is everybody?”
“No idea, chief. Beats me. Mystery, ain’t it? God, my head’s buzzing and I feel like scoffing poached eggs on toast. Want some?”
Tapping at the electronic log, Dermot found that the de-activation occurred yesterday as an automatic response to no supervisor logging on that day. He pushed a button to bring view screens to life. He should see controllers at their stations at London Underground, Uxbridge General Hospital as well as the National Grid. Nothing. The hospital had its own emergency diesel generators but they’d only last a week. He picked up a mike to make a direct connect to the National Grid control room. No human answered but an automated reply gave him some instructions after making him punch in a couple of security codes.
“The grid is operating on automatic VER 677. Safety code EEE94231 is in operation. Your station is verified at code 6 for a GO to send. Please keep checking for interaction.”
After checking his codes, Dermot pressed the switch to start the gas turbines going and within three seconds electricity zapped along heavy duty cables to the National Grid. It would automatically take what it needed, reacting to demand and projections such that the Uxbridge generators would be computer controlled. He withheld reactivating power to the Underground until he had confirmation they could receive it safely.
He couldn’t understand why the crew hadn’t turned in. It must’ve been his replacement while he holidayed. Too soft with them. They always exploited weakness and the actual number needed to keep the electricity flowing amounted to only half a dozen. So one engineer here, besides himself, meant only four to come back to work to maintain the flow. He wouldn’t be at all surprised to find they’d gone to a club. He started ringing their homes.
“Colin? Uxbridge Power Station here, where are you?”
“I’m on holiday in Brighton. Who did you say you were?”
“Colin, you transferred from Lea Valley to Uxbridge along with Rob Wilson a few weeks ago. You are supposed to be at work now.”
“Hey, that could explain a lot. Great, thanks. I’m writing it in my NoteCom.”
“Are you coming back to work then?”
“I’m on holiday, Mr–”
“Maffey, your chief. No, Colin, you and Rob had a week’s holiday before the transfer, you should be here now.”
“That could explain the landlady being a bit huffy here. I’ll be there tomorrow, chief.”
“Thank you, Colin. Is there anyone from the power station on holiday with you?”
“Hardly. No, I picked up a girl down here. I might see if she’ll come back with me, she’s kinda fun if you know what I mean. Hey, Mr Maffey, you don’t know where my stuff is, do you?”
“You’re lodging with Rob Wilson. Do you want his address?”
“I’ll write it down. It helps, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Colin. I don’t suppose you have any idea where Sandra Trewbitt is, have you?”
“Given you a runner too, chief? Something you said?”
“God’s sake, man. Do you know if she is at home or on holiday too? Oh, forget it.”
“I think I already have, chief. See you later.”
Dermot tried Sandra Trewbitt’s number. He really needed her and always considered himself lucky to have such a first class honours graduate in Electronic Engineering working there.
“Hello, Sandra Trewbitt speaking.”
“Is that really you, Sandra, or a recording?”
“It is me, just a moment please while my system verifies who you are.”
“Sandra, we’ve worked together for two years and–”
“Sorry, Dermot, of course. You must know there’s been an amnesia epidemic and I too am forgetting—.”
“What? I knew something was wrong, but I’d no idea about an amnesia epidemic. How much memory have you lost? Childhood or recent events?”
“The most recent events fade away frighteningly quickly. They reckon at the rate of a year’s worth per week.”
“I must have just missed it. Is it just local?”
“Poor Dermot. No, in fact I haven’t been to work because I’ve been trying to contact my family in the States. There’s pandemonium over there. Everyone who can is trying to leave but international migration and health bodies are doing their best to stop them.”
“Actually, there are many private boats and planes leaving the States, if you have money. It’s worse than just losing your memory, Dermot: I have an aunt in a Maryland senior citizens home. Two patients died there because they didn’t take essential medicine.”
“I’m sorry, Sandra. No wonder people aren’t going to work, even those who remember where to go have too many problems.”
“They’re calling it ARIA. It stands for Alien Retroactive Infectious Amnesia. Yes, Alien. It came in a container from the Space Station. I’m keeping notes as memory aids. ARIA spreads like a virus. If I were you, Dermot, I’d go back to Northumbria until the infection wears off.”
“But, somebody has to keep the infrastructure going. We couldn’t make this call if there was no electricity at–”
“Dermot, get real. It’s too late for me but not for you. Put damn Uxbridge on full auto and get going. Oh, I know it won’t run for long on its own, but go, man. Tell you what, I’ll come in later and tend to anything crucial so it carries on until I forget what electricity is.”
“Maybe you’re right, Sandra,” he said, fingering his car keys in his pocket.
“Did you want another coffee, chief?” shouted Davy.
“Oh, sugar. I’ve been with Humphry this morning. I might as well keep this place ticking over without you, unless you want a familiar face for as long as it takes.”
“I’ll see how it goes. Take care, Dermot, and get some extra vitamin E and C down you. Bye.”
A klaxon clamoured. A red light told him the lubricant in number three turbine was getting low and needed refilling or it would shut down in thirty minutes. This was why humans were needed: to back up the auto backup systems when they ran out of things they couldn’t reach. After knocking off the noise he jogged to the lubricant store. Jumped into a forklift truck and after loading the barrel, drove along the smooth floor to turbine three. Really a two-man job but he had manipulators on the specially adapted forklift to pour the oil. On his way back another klaxon went.