The morning after contractors installed Wi-Fi service for Piedmont Park, dozens of squirrels emerged from Elmer’s tool shed. A thick carpet of fuzz surged past his feet and scattered outside when he opened the door, each squirrel with a tiny blinking circuit board embedded in their fur.
After a few minutes their frolicking slowed to a crawl. Soon their only movements were spasmodic shudders occurring every four seconds. The squirrels were broken.
Elmer took one inside his shed to examine more closely. Its eyes were dilated and the lights on the circuit board had turned red.
As the landscaper for the park, Elmer knew a heck of a lot about cutting grass and planting flowers. But not so much about computers. All he could figure was that somehow the electronics were making the squirrels wonky.
The contractors had left an incomprehensible phonebook of a manual on his desk. Inside its cover was a number for their main office. He called it.
“Thank you for calling Georgia Biorobotics Incorporated,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
“Listen,” Elmer said. “You folks need to…”
“Your call is very important to us. Please hold.”
Elmer watched the squirrels twitch and flop outside while he waited. The scratchy jazz music played for nearly an hour before he gave up. There had to be someone else he could call. Someone technical.
He could only think of one person: his daughter. Elmer’s fingers hesitated as he dialed her number and it took several rings before she picked up.
“I have squirrel problems,” he said.
Soon he heard timid knocking on the wooden door of the shed. Clair had pale arms and was wearing the Atlanta Technical Institute sweatshirt he had bought her for her high school graduation.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Elmer said.
“Not since you left mom.”
He coughed. “How have you been?”
“Let’s just focus on the squirrels,” Clair said. “Did they leave a manual? Or anything like that?”
“There’s a book over there. I can’t make much sense of it.”
Clair scanned through the pages of the book and glanced over sketches of squirrel physiology and network diagrams.
“Did you try calling their help desk?”
“Nobody picked up. I figured it was urgent enough to call you.”
“Find the adapter,” Clair said. “Someone loaded a program onto the squirrels somehow to cause them to freak out. So there has to be a piece of hardware to connect them to a computer. I might be able to hack in a fix.”
They found a narrow tube in the corner filled with gray wires and stuck with stickers from Georgia Biorobotics Incorporated. Clair plugged her laptop into the adapter.
Elmer handed her a shoebox with the still-convulsing squirrel inside of it. She opened the box and slid the catatonic mammal into the tube. Once the squirrel was inside, the wires glowed neon green and the tube closed.
Clair typed on her console and a bunch of words Elmer didn’t recognize scrolled across the screen.
“Well,” Clair said. “It’s the Wi-Fi alright. This squirrel is set to act as a repeater. It can relay wireless signals from other nodes.”
“What’s interesting is that nothing seems to be wrong with the squirrel if network traffic is light,” she said. “But if you connect a bunch of computers everything goes bad.”
He had never watched her use the computer before. It had seemed like a waste of time. But seeing her like this made him prideful. As if she was fixing a busted mower.
“How’s college, by the way?”
Clair ignored him. “I found a way to replace the firmware of the squirrels. Lots of sloppy programming by these Biorobotics guys. But I’ve got a workaround.”
He brought out a warm can of Mountain Dew. Elmer thought she liked that drink in high school — or was it Pepsi?
“The squirrels only have so much memory. And when there is too much traffic they get overloaded with messages. Buffer overflow. And when that happens…”
“The squirrels break?”
“Yeah. Thanks for the soda.”
Squeaking noises from the tube made them both pause and check out the squirrel.
“My firmware upload is complete,” she said. “Because of the way they structured their network, if this works it will ping out to all the other critters.”
“And everything will be okay?”
“It wasn’t such a bad idea to use squirrels — they just needed to be more careful with their implementation. Clean up some fragmentation, free their mallocs, that sort of thing.”
The squirrel looked up at them from the tube. Elmer lured it in a shoebox and they walked to the park’s lake to set it loose.
On the way Clair gestured to some daisies Elmer had struggled to keep alive amidst Atlanta’s steady stream of garbage and sludge.
“You really did all this?” she asked.
“I just planted them. The flowers did the rest.”
“I guess I can see why you like working here so much. It’s beautiful.”
The other squirrels were still twitching in unison every four seconds. Elmer handed Clair the box and she set their reconfigured squirrel free. It ran out into the grass.
When it got near another squirrel both animals immediately flopped on their backs. Their whiskers moved in a fluid counterclockwise motion.
“They’re synching,” Clair said.
Updating took about two minutes. After the transfer the patched squirrels bounded off in opposite directions.
“It won’t take long to reset the park,” Clair said. “Two squirrels, then four, then eight. It’s exponential.”
“Exponential,” Elmer said.
As they walked, he noticed she wasn’t checking her cell phone like usual. Instead she looked at the lake and the birds. He told her the names of the trees and how it was important to pick the right plants for the ducks to make their nests in. All the while she smiled as her software spread to each of the squirrels in Piedmont Park.
James Reinebold is a video game developer who lives near San Diego.