From the author: The anticipated Y2K apocalypse never materialized. Or was is just late?
New Year's Eve, 2011.
I guess it's safe to talk about it now. The Securities Commission finally dropped the fraud case against us last year. My partner Denny passed away two weeks ago. His unopened letter lies on my desk like a paper time capsule. Our families celebrated every New Year's together until this year.
Denny had chosen the Grand Caymans for his retreat and I, Eire. Two years of product planning, marketing and then a decade of legal battles had united us. I was the idea guy and the promoter; Denny did the tech work.
I'd always believed that you could make a lot of money from the world believing it's going to hell. When the hype over Y2K stimulated anxiety, then outright fear, I wanted to make my fortune from the panic. Many beer and three napkins all drawn in a Seattle pub one afternoon in 1998 put our plan in motion. The Millenium Bug. The first napkin laid it out as a mere toy. An electronic pocket pet that started working at midnight, January 1, 2000.
Denny asked me, "What will it do?"
"I don't know yet. Something amusing. We're smart, we'll come up with an idea. More beer will help."
By the second napkin, we had at least picked an exterior design. The bug would be a smooth oval, comfortable in the palm of one's hand. At time zero, six insect legs, two antennae and a pair of mandibles would spring forth and away it would scuttle across a table top or come alive in your pocket.
By the third napkin, Denny's vision transformed it into more than amusement. "Let's make the Bug a back-up. A super-remote. But wireless communication is always changing." He doodled some more. "A magnetic pulse intense enough to bypass an operating system and hit the switches directly. It will override and restore lost functionality for everything from computers to phones until the programmers catch up."
I peered through the bottom of a glass. "How?"
"Don't know yet. Fool the clocks?"
"Skip 2000 altogether," I suggested.
"Or go back. Until the world figures out the next step." He clutched my wrist. "We could save the world, my friend."
"Save it? We'll be able to buy it."
A month later we had the shell. The ladybug graphics were cute. We had a more intimidating pincer beetle design for the teenage market. I'd laid out our marketing campaign, timelining maximum exposure and hype. I'd set up cross-promotion deals with hardware chains, water suppliers, firearm dealers and more. Every survivalist purchase would include a Bug.
While I wholesaled, Denny wrote code. He explained, "I trick the world's programs into thinking it's 1987/88."
"Lucky thirteen," I said, doing the math proudly in my head.
"Twelve. I chose 1987 to parallel 1999, leap year minus one. It will avoid any crashes caused by the year 2000."
"We launch in two weeks. Can you be ready?"
"They're being hard chipped as we speak. I've modified the solar battery to run off heat, not light. Store the Bug in a drawer and it will last a lifetime."
We realized a month after launch and our fourth complete sell-out, that 2000 was not a leap year. Bloody scientists, keep changing the rules.
No-one cared about missing February 29, they loved the Bug. Well, no-one cared except the Securities Exchange Commission. Denny offered to re-write his code for their software exclusively but they wanted blood, not solutions. That's when he retired to Grand Cayman and I sought shelter from tax and prosecution in lovely wet Ireland. The SEC let up when a bankloan scandal displaced us on their radar and our extradition efforts died.
A week after Y2K hit, the Millenium Bug was forgotten. The world continued. Planes didn't fall from the sky. Televisions brought the news that all was well. A few kids remained amused as our Millenium Bugs sprouted insect appendages and clicked about bedroom floors or drawers. When the little devils quit working on March 1st, Denny and I had cashed the last of our royalty checks and retreated.
Denny began writing me in longhand the last few months, eschewing tech reliance that had brought us fortune and infamy. I open his final one.
It begins, "Dear Oscar, It looks like I won't be coming for New Year's. Your friendship has been one of the most important things in my life. It doesn't matter that we screwed up. Well, I screwed up. You never blamed me. You shared your ideas with me and supported mine. I wish we could have made a more positive contribution in the long run but developing the Bug together was the time of my life. Speaking of time, the leap year confusion that ended our prodigy's life those many years ago was only half of my error. Funny, when you're writing thousands of lines of code plus and minus signs can get mixed. Turns out I didn't move the calendar back twelve years, but forward. I have a nagging sense of another reversal somewhere in the code but I lack the energy to search for it. I would suggest you lay in a stock of peat or firewood and plenty of canned food. How many of those Bugs did we sell? Three hundred million? Well, if the batteries held out on even a quarter of them, they should begin taking control this New Year's Day. Fill yer boots, Denny."
I wish he'd emailed me instead of relying on international post at Christmas, I would have laid in supplies. My watch says two minutes to twelve. 23:58 hours GMT. I hear a scratching in my desk drawer, like a large beetle. I look out my front window, across the manicured grounds, past the tennis courts and down the hill.
The lights in the village below have gone out.
This story originally appeared in The Speculative Edge.