State information, like waves in the ocean, tumbled and fell across the screen. Each mystical swell, full of arcane symbols, was more torpid than the last. The overall screen carried a weight of deep weather.

Just like when I had first started working for McRaven’s Crew, I was manning the bilge pumps. It was something of a bitch position within the group. Someone had to do it, but no one ever really felt like volunteering for it. I was doing it that day because I was the only one skilled in it enough to keep things from going all cross-eyed. It was a big day, and a big job, and each of us was pulling as much weight as we could.

Bilge pumping is, like other things piratical within these walls, a metaphor for a modern necessity of any large network job. The internet’s waters over the years have become incredibly choppy with junk and malicious traffic. For most people, their firewalls and other automatons are often more than adequate. But for those of us who need to work at lower levels, doing larger tasks, and with more powerful tools, it becomes necessary to have some sort of traffic control system and a real person with a strong mind in charge of that system. In the Captain’s Ship, this important, but dirty, job fell upon the day’s Bilge Rat, usually some new recruit. It’s hard to describe bilge pumping to someone who’s never done it before. It’s also a hard thing to learn, but it provides some great insight into the skills that the Captain calls The High Art. If a kid can’t handle the bilge, he isn’t fit to even clean our chum bucket.

When you are bilge pumping, you have a screen full of information about local network traffic, general network trends, estimated future network states, and enough glimpses of global network weather conditions to fill a library, compressed into what looks like an alchemist’s nightmare. You could think of it as a weather map, with an emphasis on our local info-streams, or “hold”. Both the hold and the weather move so fast, change so quickly, and have so much information that details become hard to grasp, and time becomes a huge hindrance. The job is to make use of the information to provide minor tweaks to the shielding, or “hull”, and major actions of traffic rerouting, “pumping”, which is much easier said than done.

The magic trick, the brilliant key that requires a keen, if not sharp, mind, is in the recognition of the weather patterns. The thing you learn is that the job requires something of a zen-like gestalt of the whole. The human mind has an incredible ability for pattern matching and recognition, and so tapping into it becomes a large amount of the skill. The outcome of this lesson is that you begin to understand the power of metaphor. Very early on, thanks to the tough lessons of bilge pumping, you start to see emerge the patterns of the Captain’s own metaphors, why they work, and how they help get you thinking in the ways you need to get the work done…

So there I was staring down one of the worst storms I had ever seen, putting all of the skill I had to the test. The newbie I had relieved stared at the storm as well. I could swear he was whimpering slightly under his breath, but I didn’t have time to care. I had precious few seconds to patch the large leak that had just been cleaved into our hull by a particularly nasty looking shark because a large wave loomed right outside on the horizon, ready to push large amounts of dirty bilge water through the leak.

It was one of those moments of near perfect clarity, where time flowed to nearly a stand still. I could almost swear that I saw things nearly in the milliseconds of computer time. A nagging feeling crept into my mind. The storm pattern was trying to tell me something and somewhere subconsciously I was struggling to decode it and pass it along to my more conscious processes. With time running at almost a standstill, I could imagine that while my subconscious chugged along, my neurons were firing at the fastest rate the chemical and electrical processes would allow. I felt like I just about had something when…

The newbie Rat shrieked beside me and I jumped five feet as time came crashing down like one of the waves I had been observing. I felt literally nauseous as my brain tried to readjust, my subconscious fought to remember what it had just figured out and how to message it, while my conscious mind was trying to assess the situation and re-establish where I was, and perhaps figure out what was going on. Adrenaline, that chemical of last resort, had already been called in for a series of reinforcements.

The Rat was pale as a ghost, the rest of the crew had stopped what they were doing, and as I was able to settle my eyes on the hold again, and I felt fear wash over me.