I met my guide, Don, a middle-aged systems administrator with dad jeans and a friendly mustache in an unknown wing of the Clearihue basement. I walked over to shake his hand and felt my feet melt into the floor from that dank kush I bought from my roommate. He opened the first door and walked past a wall of respirators and big white suits like in the Intel commercials. I stripped down to my underwear and squinted at the masks. Don told me I didn’t have to strip down or wear the suit, but I didn’t care. This was too important to fuck up. He opened the second door and we stepped into the grey unknown. Through a cloud of dust and the unrelenting hum, I saw the light from one Bondi blue iMac from 1997 behind a cage of chain link fence. There it was: UVic’s email server.
Since time immemorial, new UVic students have had to navigate the shitty interface of UVic’s webmail system in order to forward their university email to Gmail, never to look at it again. But from time to time, the forwarding would fail, usually when that student needed discounted software but had to enter a school email address. That student would refresh and refresh, only to find it buried in some spam folder days after the verification link expired. I told Don this and he put his hand on my shoulder, saying how sorry he was. I asked him why it hadn’t been updated since Lifehouse’s “Hanging On By A Moment” topped the charts, and I saw a single tear roll down his cheek.
“We can’t. It’s impossible.”
Don explained that in the mid-1990s, email was done through a Telnet client where you’d dial into a modem pool before navigating a screen that looked like MS-DOS. I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, but I nodded along, head fuzzy all the while. As more and more luddites wanted to use email, the system had to look friendlier, so it was upgraded sometime in 2001. Fifteen years later, it’s been integrated into so many other systems that replacing it would cost millions. I asked if I could go inside and touch it. He said if I broke it, it would take months to procure and prepare another Britney Spears-era iMac, so only one person holds the key: the UVic president.
I blinked at him and said nothing. I’d seen all I’d needed to see. I stripped off the suit and laid naked on the dusty floor, struggling to understand the magnitude of what I had just witnessed.
“Take me home,” I said.
Don pulled me out of the server room, called security, and waited with me as I vaped. Before they hauled me away, I asked which computer controlled course registration. Don pointed to a blank wall. “It was accidentally sealed behind that wall, but we won’t move it. It hasn’t failed yet.”