Going to California

Confusion — 2

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My first year at college was different than most, I think. Living in a dorm with a cafeteria attached meant that I was not going to die on a budget of $20 each week, though it severely limited my options, especially since part of that $20 had to cover Sunday dinner, the only break in service taken by the cafeteria. I’m sure this was good in terms of drinking and what-not, though I happily had never been a drinker, and college was unlikely to make me one. I think I drank four times my freshman year, and one time I got so hammered that I threw up, a first-time for me with alcohol, which put me off drinking entirely for many years.

Of the 20,000 or so college students at my university, only seven incoming freshmen went to my high school, and none of them had been close friends. I was always a friendly person, though I also always seemed to have a hard time making good friends. The kids on the guys’ side of my floor in the dorm — in our enormous, fourteen-story co-ed dorm — were good enough guys, though a lot of them were already pretty tight with each other from high school, and I’m not sure they knew what to do with a dancer programmer.

This would not be an uncommon reaction.

But before I could begin dorm life, I had to actually enter the dorms. This presented some unexpected challenges, largely because I hadn’t yet let a perfectly rational resistance to doing something stupid get in the way of trying to prove to myself that I was cool.

For example, it had been more than a year since I’d personally engaged in the dark art of not paying for long-distance phone calls. Today I live in world where a phone call to a record store in my town — to one of the few record stores still in business, I know — costs the same as a call to a record store in another state or on another coast. But back then, and until pretty recently, most calls outside your phone’s area code were charged per-minute for the service, and a dollar per minute was not always outrageous. International calls were always outrageous.

Even worse, the phone system was changing faster than the hackers were able to find new loopholes. The old forms of Cap’n Crunch-style whistling and other hacks relying on tone-generation were made obsolete once modern digital trunks made their way into the updated phone system. Even on the old analog systems, the rumor was spreading that they were monitoring for exactly the sort of play we used to enjoy. It was the end of an era. You were no longer gracefully exploiting the architecture of the system to explore and have fun. If you wanted to make long-distance calls without paying for them, you had to bill them to someone else’s account. When you billed calls to someone else’s account, you were making someone pay for something that they never offered to cover for you. You were stealing a service, and someone else was paying for it.

Only a special deal from the phone company would let you call another area code without it being charged as long distance. For example, Dallas was one area code, and Fort Worth was another area code, and if you were sandwiched in a suburb between the two then it was more the luck of the draw which area code you called your home, so for something like an extra $7 a month you could make your phone a “metro line,” able to call 817 and 214 without paying for individual calls.

One day, late in my senior year of high school, my mom came to me with a phone bill and some questions. My throat tightened, but looking at the bill it seemed to have nothing to do with me. They were all calls from one 817 number, in Fort Worth, to a 214 number, in Dallas, that someone else had charged to our account. I called the Ft. Worth number, which sounded familiar, only to find that it was the home number for a buddy of mine from junior high, who I sadly hadn’t kept in touch with.

“I’m sorry,” he kept saying, “I’m so sorry.” He’d called the operator and asked that his long-distance call be billed to my family’s home number, which he remembered being a metro line. He thought it would give him free calls to Dallas, but instead of leveraging the “metro”-edness of the line the phone company instead dutifully billed the call to us.

“Who were you calling?” I asked.

“A girl, you know. A girl. I’m really sorry, man — I did not know that was going to happen.”

“Don’t worry about it, really,” I said. “Believe me, I understand. If I tell my parents it was a mistake and that it won’t happen again, they won’t care. If they push hard, I’ll tell them what happened. They love you, they’ll understand.”

“Oh, please don’t tell them! Aw, man. I really liked your mom, I’d hate for her to be disappointed in me. I guess you have to tell her, really. Look, man, let me pay for it: you have to let me pay for it.”

He was really sorry, and I don’t remember it being a lot of money so we really didn’t care, but his embarrassment was great enough that we never spoke again. I do remember getting a letter in the mail from him: check, no note.

For my own part, I’d thrown away any remaining long distance codes I still had once I’d turned seventeen, nearly a year earlier. Seventeen seemed close enough to eighteen that I didn’t think I could realistically say I was just a kid playing around, anymore. Having someone else’s long distance billed to my account was a reminder that I was supposed to act mature, even if I knew I wasn’t.

At the same time, seventeen is still old enough to harbor resentments against big, wasteful businesses, and at the time the phone company felt like about the biggest and most wasteful business I could imagine. I had a limited imagination, I know. That summer, I went down to Austin for Freshman orientation, a three-day preview of dorm life. I had spent the previous month working a terrible job at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park, and I was extremely relieved to have quit it, even though it meant I had to go out of my way to see the cute girl who’d been flirting with me instead of seeing her every day at work. Since I wasn’t seeing her at work anymore, and I knew exactly what kind of sharks my former co-workers were, I knew I’d have to keep in pretty good touch before some other guy made a better impression.

The dorm did not have working telephones in their rooms over the summer, and you couldn’t make long-distance calls anyway, not without a private service. The thought of cops busting into my dorm room because I’d been stealing long distance did not sit well with me. And the dorm-room phones would take incoming calls, though not like a normal, stand-alone phone line — in fact, the way that they answered would prevent my computer from answering the phone, even if I could’ve convinced my roommate to let me take over our line to run my bulletin-board system out of our room. So that dream was definitely dead.

But the dorm had pay phones. Sadly, I had almost no money. So I did something with one of the pay phones that let me make a long-distance call from Austin back to that girl, who was happy that I’d called and excited to hear I was exploiting a loophole in the system to call her.

I don’t remember what I did, but I wasn’t billing the call to a stranger through a long-distance service. It must have been a straight hack of the phone system, based on what happened next.

We talked for maybe half an hour, and set a date for when we would see each other after I returned. Not half-a-minute after hanging up, as I was walking off to check out the campus, the pay phone began to ring behind me. I made a quick and quiet dance step sideways, out of the main hall and into a side-nook. The phone rang a few more times before a passer-by picked it up.

“Uh, hello? Mmm, no, not me. No, I don’t see anyone else here. Why would I do that? Hey, I was just walking by and the phone was ringing.” Then a click of a handset being slammed int. The guy who’d picked up the phone snorted and strolled back toward the elevators.

Oh, hell. I spent the rest of orientation keeping to myself. A few days later, when I got home and had my date with that girl, I got the other half of the story.

 

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Going to California

Confusion

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When I wasn’t working on the board or playing Photon — or school; I always forgot about school — I did a lot of dancing.

Dance was just as much an escape as typing at strangers through a computer, or running around in a foggy dimness shooting science-fiction strangers for imaginary points. The thing they all had in common was that they were highly interactive, but required no talking. Perfect. Dancing was the best of the three for that because it wasn’t that it strictly required no talking. More like it was an entirely different kind of communication, subtle and raw.

In my kindergarten, they offered basic ballet classes to anyone who wanted them. I knew enough at the time, of course, to understand that what they meant when they said “anybody” was “any girl”. One boy signed up, but they made him wear a leotard and tights and little pink shoes, and it looked like the most horrible thing I could ever imagine. This is coming from me, who as a kid never one time ever worked to create or defend any illusion of being macho.

I arrived at dancing honestly, at least. I had a much older cousin who had first encouraged me to audition for plays and musicals — and, later, for print ads, television shows, and national commercial campaigns. After she got a job at my high school teaching drama and dance, she convinced me that it was possible for boys to be boys and still be dancers, even good ones. I had spent years worth of long afternoons watching my younger sister attend tap and ballet classes in her early years, as was common for girls in Fort Worth and Dallas at the time, though I’d never one time seen a boy at any of those classes. Again, this was Texas in the last decade of the Cold War, when for one dark moment there was a best-selling book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Even as a kid who didn’t like quiche, this whole movement sounded asinine to me.

(It has been pointed out to me that this was meant to be a satirical book. Yes, I saw a lot of men chuckling along as they read over how silly it was, but the truth is that it was funny because it was in fact true.)

But I liked acting, even if by the time I was fifteen no one was willing to risk my speech impediment by casting me any longer, and dance seemed like the closest thing to it: jazz and tap and ballet and Texas waltz and whatever else our teacher could get us to do. Two years into it, our small group of dancers weren’t half bad. At our height, we opened for Roy Orbison in Fort Worth. So we were at least okay. I was definitely still a boy. Three other guys had joined me, to my terrific relief.

Back in the digital world, buying a hard drive let me play with the RAM drive in new and interesting ways. Sure, I still ran the core of the board off of it, keeping everything on there that had to be super-fast, but I was interested in what else I could do with something that was crazy quick.

My favorite TV show at the time, even though it was also often crap, and even though I only ever saw maybe six of the small number of episodes they made in the first place, was Max Headroom. I thought it was fiendishly brilliant, the best that science-fiction had to offer in those dark days. Based on what I saw there, I insisted that soon, two people could have a phone conversation completely wirelessly and across great distances. They would even be able to send live video to one another. One person could look up directions on a computer — there’d be detailed maps of everywhere, on computers! — with which they could then direct another person. You could even have video, on a computer! It didn’t seem that far away, and this is all super commonplace today, though I was called crazy for talking about it at length back then.

“Crazy” wasn’t really the right word for me, that one time. “Nerdy” was probably the right word. A geek is someone who is super into something, whether it’s Star Wars or sports, and nerds are geeks who don’t know when to stop talking about the thing that they’re into.

After having downloading a bunch of Max Headroom images from a couple of systems that had been sharing them — what we today would find to be the most laughable of crudely down-sampled images — I wondered what would happen if I loaded up my RAM card with those images, and then wrote a program to cycle through them as quickly as possible. The results genuinely freaked me out: it didn’t look like a video game or like computer animation, it looked like actual video. I dropped a couple of images that were too great a jump from the others, but it was astonishing to see something on my screen moving with that fluidity. Adding some simple key controls would toggle the direction of the animated display, making it interactive in a perfectly stuttering Max Headroom style. Most people I showed it to freaked out, too. One of my parents’ friends hauled his video camera into our house to tape it.

The most interesting thing was watching how people reacted who’d had zero experience with computers up to that point. They took it as granted that, well, the computer is doing that so it must be possible. They’d never stopped to think that the Max Headroom character that they saw on TV was not computer-generated — computers were nowhere close to being able to produce those kinds of images, as near-impossible as that might be to imagine today. The Max Headroom character was originally made by sitting an actor in a chair for hours worth of make-up, and then painstakingly producing frame after frame of hand-painted cells. I was doing this live, on a computer, and that was cool — it was more than cool: it was magic.

I was beginning to dream much larger dreams for my system. I’d begun partnering with several other decent pirates and hackers, and began to wonder what might happen if I did something like what that chat board had done, to allow several users to interact all at once, but instead of many phone lines and one Apple, prices had been dropping on Apple II-type machines so I figured I could get as many as four computers and dedicated phone lines, since I’d discovered a way to chain them together through the hard drive that Frank had kindly sold to me. Expand the game to let users interact with each other in my crude, text-based fantasy world, and I bet that enough people would be willing to pay $10 a month that I could stay stocked in Coke and Tostitos until I could figure out what I should actually do for real with my life. I bought a second hard drive, to begin the chaining.  (Thirteen years later, Sony’s fantastically popular Everquest launched at this same price point.)

Through all of this, though — driving to Dallas to play Photon, hammering away on my system code, dancing — I failed to pay attention in high school, even though I was startled in the final days of my Senior year to be called out as one of seven students who were awarded a certificate for having never once in four years ever missed a single day of school. I walked up to the podium in front of the entire school in a state of shock. How did that happen? I was furthest from a good student, which was made the most clear to me when I nearly failed a crucial class, which would’ve kept me from graduating.

The class was Religion — I was at a Catholic school — and I’d simply stopped turning in the homework or the reading assignments months before. I’d read the textbook countless times, since I had to do something with all those otherwise wasted hours in that classroom, so it’s not like I hadn’t absorbed everything they’d wanted us to take from it. I simply hated the class.

Still, I’d gotten an unsettling sense that things weren’t going to end up sitting well in the class, and in an impromptu chat with the instructor I used my reading-upside-down skills to see that, yes, I was going to get a D in the class, which would have kept me from graduating with my class. Two other students seemed to be in the same boat. I told my teacher that I’d developed a sense that I wasn’t doing well, and asked if there was anything I could do to make it up to her, anything at all. She seemed to enjoy having me on the sharp end of the stick, instead of blowing her off as I had apparently and immaturely spent a year doing, and she quickly set about burdening me with a series of assignments that might have taken a normal student half a day. I hunkered down with the textbook and some paper, answering all the essay questions on the pages she’d noted, and was out of there in less than 90 minutes.

We ran into each other in the hallway later that afternoon. She smiled like someone in shock. “Aren’t you working on something?” she asked.

“I was,” I confessed. “It’s all done.”

Her smile grew. “Okay,” she said, implying that it had better all be done, and done well.

“It wasn’t hard,” I added. “I knew the material.” I simply didn’t care. Though I saw one of the other troubled students in the hall and told her what to do.

Less than a week later, the new hard drive died. Then the older drive died, and the money it would have taken to get a larger system started was further and further out of reach. I knew that an interactive system where people could play fantasy games with one another would be a hit. But I didn’t have the cash to get it started, and going off to college seemed much more important. I spent a long time staring off into space, wondering what I was going to do next. Something had to give. I turned the board off and I never looked back, though I’d struggle for some time with what to do with my life.

My dad was especially concerned about me going to college for computer science. One time, he left a magazine article chart clipping which showed average salaries for computer programmers as being only marginally above that of school teachers. My mom was a school teacher, and she knew how hard it was to live that way. This was in an age where if you had a computer on your desk, you were nobody. If you could not get an underling to use a computer for you, it was because you were the lowest-level person in your chain of command. But I refused any interest in business proper, and I wasn’t going to get a degree in English or History or something like that, as my parents didn’t have enough money and I didn’t have enough scholarships to wait that long before getting a real job. Even if all I could do was teach crude forms of ballet and tap and jazz to the next generation of pre-teen girls in a Dallas suburb, my father reasoned, at least it wouldn’t be a computer job and I could make decent money somewhere down the line. And what the heck, maybe I’d even be an okay dancer.

The only solution was to double-major. I made myself happy by signing up for a normal computer science curriculum, but I gave my parents hope for my future for formally registering with the university’s College of Fine Arts and all the classes that required.

And that’s how a young hacker kid went to college to major in modern dance.

What no one knew was that I had a plan — and what I didn’t know was how awful a plan it really was, or how far and for how long my failure and confusion would set me back.

Here’s what happened.

 

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 4

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Days later I was chatting — typing — with one of the guys, War Wager. I had maybe 40 friends in my extended series of underground circles, out of several hundred in and around the greater group at any time, but there were only maybe ten or twelve who I’d met in person. Maybe two of them knew my real name. War Wager was not one of them, though I’d met him, and I liked him.

“How was the party the other day?” I typed.

“Can you talk?” he asked. We got on the phone.

“Crazy,” he said. “It was crazy. Hulk’s sister, man, you wouldn’t believe it. You really should’ve been there.” Wendy’s brother, Mark, called himself Hulk.

“What happened? Was she horrible?”

“Kinda.”

“So…is she really big?” I thought back to the girl down the street. “Or—”

“No, no, no, not that kind of bad. Just…almost gross. She was all over X-Man, and I know you haven’t met him but he’s thin, nerdy, nothing special. I mean, I’m basically just some dude, and if it was me she was hanging on to I wouldn’t have complained, but all this guy’s got going for him—”

“What are you talking about?”

“Dude. Listen to me. She was hot, dude. Like, fifteen with a whisper, and crazy, crazy hot — she could’ve said she was nineteen and I’d have believed it. And not slutty hot, even with how she was acting. Just crazy hot. That smile, man — I ain’t seen nothing like it. Her parents keep her under lock and key, but she seems to find a way, man.”

“You must be kidding me. X-Man?!” I had no respect for the guy because of his handle. He always said it had nothing to do with The X-Men, the comic book, but they’d been putting them out for twenty years at that point, so come on. If he’d used the name of one of the characters — like Wolverine or Cyclops — then fine, it’s uncreative, though we were pirating software and not filing for trademarks. But there was never even an X-Man in The X-Men. It made him sound like an idiot.

“He’s 21, you know, right?” he said.

“Oh, shit, of course.” That was the new drinking age in Texas at the time. I didn’t like the idea of drinking, so it never figured into my equations, even though Frank had offered to buy me beer on numerous occasions, to the point of being disappointed when I didn’t take him up on it. One time, we stopped by the grocery store and I had him buy me some wine coolers. He seriously questioned whether I knew what I was doing, and I explained that I’d be seeing some girls that night and that as an older guy maybe he didn’t know that girls dug wine coolers. His eyes got wide and he nodded, slowly, understanding. I drank one that evening and tossed the rest.

“So he gets a pitcher of beer — Avatar was there, too; he’s also 21 — and we sat in the back where they show movies and stuff, and everybody gets all chatty. X-Man especially cannot stop talking about how cool his car is, so after we finish the pitcher we go check it out.” He laughed. “Dude fires up his car, and it dies right there: the radiator empties out into the parking lot, and something about a belt, I don’t know car stuff, and we had to help him push his piece of crap car around the corner and wait with him for a tow truck. Hulk was really unhappy about how his sister was saying all kinds of sexy shit to X-Man. It was nuts.” He lowered his voice. “There’s something really hot about that girl, man, I’m serious.”

I knew what it was. She was has-sex hot. I opted not to tell him that, which was fine because it turned out he knew already.

“So Hulk was unhappy, but everybody finally went home, right?”

“Mmm, yeah, yeah.”

“What’re you not telling me?”

He made a sound like a balloon being inflated near its breaking point. Then he said, “Okay. But you can’t tell anybody.” To my credit, I didn’t say a word about it to anyone for almost thirty years, until writing this right now. I’m even mixing up names and handles a bit, just in case.

“Sure,” I said. “I can keep a secret.”

“You gotta swear, okay? Okay. Yesterday, X-Man calls, asks me for a lift. I say sure. We stop on a street with a bunch of houses. He tells me to wait. I’m like, okay, shit, I should have known, but fine, I wasn’t doing anything anyway.”

He squeezes back a laugh. “I’m parked on the street; all I know is he was doing something. I’m high, I don’t care.” He paused, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have said that last part. “Twenty minutes later, X-Man is scrambling out of Hulk’s sister’s bathroom window, with Hulk chasing after his ass! I didn’t even know where Hulk lived! Dude jumps in the car and he’s like, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ So I punched it. Totally Blues Brothers. X-Man’s talking non-stop about, well, you know what he’s talking about.”

“Sure,” I said, heart crashing. “And this was just yesterday?”

“Yep. After school, before dinner.” I didn’t offer that I might have been on the phone with her, right before the Great Escape. “X-Man is in so much trouble,” he said. “Hulk is gonna kill him.”

“Hulk smash,” I agreed.

Wendy never called me again, and I hardly ever thought of her after that — maybe once or twice, here and there. When I did think of her, all I could see was dorky-assed X-Man squeezing his pitiable way out a  bathroom window, and how she was no longer some random, irredeemably hot hacker girl, she was someone’s little sister. After that, I only went out with girls who were older than me or who were older sisters, with one big, ill-fated and hard exception.

I had moved on. I was dancing.

Literally, actually. Between running the system and playing Photon — and school; I always forgot about school — I had become a dancer. I know it sounds strange, but trust me: this is the only way to explain what happened next.

 

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 2

Previously, on “Going to California”

I’d never even heard of a girl hacker. “What are you?” I sputtered. “Some kind of crasher?” I had no idea what I was saying.

“I only wanted to get your attention. I’m bored.” She explained, as she would countless times in the months to come, how she had to go straight home from school, and how she wasn’t allowed to leave her house or have anyone come over outside of a couple of girlfriends. And that was all she got to do, ever.

“Why?” I asked, more than one time.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I get in trouble. Look, I can’t talk long. My brother’s going to be back in here in a minute. He lets me use his computer when he wants me to leave him alone for a while.” She snorted. “He’s an ass.”

“Who’s your brother?” She told me his handle, the name he went by on the board. He was one of the mid-tier hackers, in the game enough that he was fun and a little dangerous — and probably the source of her crash codes — but not so in the game that he had his own board. A cool enough guy, all things considered.

“Huh,” I said. “I thought he was okay.”

“He’s not okay. I mean, I guess he is. I don’t know. Are you gonna validate my account or what?”

“I guess.” I logged into the system and checked the new user list. “You’re . . . Shadow Lord?”

“Are you gonna validate me or not?”

“What’s your real name?”

There was a decent pause. “Wendy,” she said.

“Okay, Wendy. I get a lot of people signing up who don’t call back. Are you gonna call back?”

“Yes! Yes, I’ll call back. I’ll ring the bell and interrupt you making out with models or whatever.”

I’d not by that point, at fifteen years old, ever kissed a girl in my house, much less in my bedroom.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“My brother said you were a model or something.”

I didn’t remember telling him that, though my basic patter about how I got my computer involved the money I made from modeling. I didn’t want anyone thinking my family was rich, which we weren’t, or that I could afford to lose my computer, which I couldn’t. It was a gift of fate, and I didn’t want to set myself up as a target for anybody.

“I do modeling,” I said. Which was true, though I hadn’t had a real job in months. That had been a Diet Dr. Pepper commercial. It sucked.

“How are you a model?” she asked. I started telling her the story, and she interrupted. “I believe you, I believe you. I gotta go.”

“Sure,” I said.

She said, “You really are a cool guy, Patrick.”

But I wasn’t. I mean, I knew I was cool to myself. I often took time after lunch to hack the phone outside my high school’s cafeteria so I could connect with other computer-obsessives in other area codes — even if I was only popping in and out, just to say hello to people, anything to stay far enough in the loop to make it more likely that once a decent new underground board came up I’d be likely to hear about it, or even better to get an account on it early on before it got shut down. Five minutes at a time, about the most I’d let myself stay on an open conference line when I was making a long-distance call without paying for it, I got a trickle of information that sometimes, occasionally, in rare bursts, let me do things that were about as cool as you got, as a teenager growing up in suburban Texas in the later half of the Twentieth Century.

The other kids at school, though, they didn’t know that I was cool, and I didn’t help my case. Even as late as my senior year in high school, I remember wrangling to volunteer alongside a girl on whom I’d developed a serious crush. I don’t remember where we volunteered — it was off-campus somewhere, which was exciting.

Now this girl, she was drippingly cool. Our first day, we were told to sit in a room for half-an-hour and wait for someone to tell us what to do. I was thrilled. I got her talking about spring break, which we’d all just come back from. She and some friends had ended up at Padre Island, aka party central.

“Oh,” she said, “and there was this guy, in these shorts — you know those late-‘70s jogging shorts, white with the blue piping or whatever?”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Sure, I got a pair like that.” Her expression fell visibly. “For sleeping in,” I quickly added, which was true. “Just, you know, not for going out in or anything.”

“He, uh, he was in a phone booth, trying to make a call, and he had on these shorts.” She looked me up and down, suddenly and visibly off-put. “They look terrible.”

“I know. That’s why—”

“We made fun of that guy for days.” She crinkled her nose, as if she were about to sneeze. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she said, her finger pointing down where shorts would be if I’d been wearing them, “about that.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said, and she turned her attention to a stack of magazines in the waiting room. There was four-month-old news to catch up on. She had no idea how cool I was, and I had no idea how to tell her.

Wendy, though, she thought I was cool. I fed her little hacker tricks that her brother didn’t know. She said it pissed him off, which — even though I thought he was an okay guy — I admit I found pretty funny. And there were other things, too. Like, I never asked her how old she was. Instead, I asked her how old her brother was.

“Fifteen,” she said, “almost sixteen.” So just a few months older than me. “And he’s my big brother, but not by much. I’m fourteen. You never asked, which means you either don’t care, or it doesn’t matter, or you really badly wanted to know but you didn’t want to come right out and ask because you knew I’d think you were uncool.”

“I’m fifteen,” I said.

“Well, la-dee-dah.”

“I’ve got a little sister, but she’s four years younger than I am.”

“So, am I just a little sister?”

“No,” I blurted. “You’re a really cool girl, did you know that?”

“We should hang out,” was what she said. It was both what I wanted to hear and what I was afraid of hearing. I was afraid that when we met I’d find her unattractive. You see, a few months earlier some people had moved into a house down the street, and I’d heard there was a girl my age in the family. I probably dropped by five times over the course of a month, and never got to meet her. All I knew was her name was Chris. I knew an unfeasibly hot girl named Chris, so because I was stupid and shallow I kept dropping by, because who knows? When we finally met, she turned out to be horrible — not because she was very overweight, which she was, or because she had terrible skin and hair and even smelled a little bit, which she did, but because most of the time I spent trying to talk to her she just sat there, swollen arms pulled tightly to her body, welling up with hate for her very existence. I spent maybe ten minutes trying to get her to say something interesting then I left. I never dropped by again. They moved away less than a year later.

All this to say that I liked the idea of an impressively cute-sounding crash girl who liked to call me, which happened about once a week in a narrow window of time after school, while her brother was busy with something else, but before her parents got home — yet I didn’t want my illusions shattered.

“That sounds cool,” I said, “but what about the no-people-over thing?”

“Well,” she said, “that is a problem. Gotta go.” It was common for her to hang up suddenly — often just as things were getting interesting. A few weeks later, she asked me if I’d ever had phone sex.

“No,” I said, though I was anxious to know more.

“It’s when you take the phone away from your ear,” she said, “and you put it up your butt.” She laughed. “And then you sorta . . . spin it around.” She hung up.

Okay, I thought, she’s not actually cool. That’s actually weird. Oh man, I thought — what if she’s twelve or something? I thought about my own sister. I thought I was only talking to a girl who was one year younger than me, but I was very protective of my sister, and any closer to her age was too close for comfort. I got unnerved about Wendy several times, but she’d always call back, and I only wanted to talk to her more.

One time, I didn’t hear from her for some months. Then she called. I knew it was her because we had this signal worked out: she’d call and let it ring one time, then she’d hang up, then she’d call back. So if I heard the phone ring once and then nothing, if it rang again seconds later I’d pick it up before the computer answered.

“What are doing?” I asked.

“Just waiting for my friend, Jenny. She’s coming over, so Mark let me use the phone.” That was her brother.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Mostly with Jenny, though I got into a little trouble that way.”

“How’s that?”

Jenny had met a couple of guys out somewhere — older guys, nineteen or twenty — and late one night the three of them talked her into sneaking out of her house. They’d walked, in the night, two blocks over to explore some unfinished North Arlington homes in the new subdivision under construction. That told me where she lived, within about four blocks. They got separated from each other, she and Jenny, and she and one of the guys got caught by cops while Jenny and the other guy escaped somehow.

“Why’d you get separated?” I asked.

“Well,” she said quietly, “you know, sometimes you don’t always want to fool around with your best friend right there. Sometimes you want a little privacy, but I guess the cops don’t understand that when they come at you, all flashlights and questions and ‘Do your parents know where you are’ and everything.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. And that was basically our relationship. I let her talk, and I listened, and I gave her advice, and she told me I was cool. A lot of times, she let me talk about my life, too. Talking to her was the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes we were typing but most of the time I actually spoke to her, through a handset. When I felt the stutter coming on, I’d start singing David Bowie songs or whatever came to mind.

A few months later, that summer, she idly asked me what I was doing.

“Getting ready to go to an audition,” I told her, which was true. I’d been asked to show up at a cattle call for a Frito-Lay print ad. Nothing magical, but $175 still sounded like a lot of money to me. “Then tomorrow I’m going to Wet ’n Wild with a friend of mine.”

“Really? Hey, no kidding: my friend Jenny is going to Wet ’n Wild tomorrow.” It was the local water park, with slides and an enormous wave pool and all that crap. “We should meet up some time, you and me. But I think I’d like her to meet you first. Tell you what: do you know when you’re going to be there?”

We arranged that I’d meet Jenny a little after 3 PM, in the fake creek that circled most of the park, around its northwest entrance. I remember actively pushing the thought of her out of my mind as my mom drove me to the audition — really more of a “walk in here and let us take a look at you” sort of call. Then the next day I went to the water park, and I kept my eye on the time. It was a nightmarishly hot day, and all I could do was think about making it to the mid-afternoon. About a quarter ’till three, I ditched my friend for a bit and began circumnavigating the creek, timing it to arrive at the right position at nearly the right time.

I’d spent many, many years around strikingly pretty girls, models and dancers and actresses. I always had a lot of female friends because I found them super-easy to talk to, and because if they didn’t hit me over the head with a baseball bat to tell me that they liked me then I presumed they were so far out of my league that I wasn’t losing anything simply by being friendly. It also meant that I had a decently high bar for what made a beautiful girl, in no small part because I knew that the head of a beautiful girl had no reason to hold a mind that was any more secure or interesting than that of a less-beautiful girl.

Jenny and I recognized each other immediately. She was an irredeemably gorgeous blond in a mostly white bikini, thin stripes of pink and blue shining through. She had a look about her that held me in place like a butterfly pinned to velvet. It wasn’t just that she was hot, which she was. She was, I realized by the way she looked me up and down, very familiar with sex. She was has-sex hot.

And as a fifteen-year-old, nearly sixteen, has-sex hot was the hottest kind of hot there was. She was all the more hot for so obviously liking what she saw in me.

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “I think we can work with this. I’ll let Wendy know. You’ll hear from us.”

I liked the way she said that. I said something like, “Sure,” and strode out of the creek, away from her, knowing when my interview was over, not wanting to flub any improvised lines.

An hour or so later, when my mom picked us up from the park, she was delighted.

“You got the job!” she said, then in the rear-view mirror I could see her face fall. “Oh, dear, I think you might have gotten a little sunburned.”

“Really?” I said, touching my shoulders. They didn’t look that bad. I’d lived in Texas more than ten years, and I’d almost never had a problem.

“Your face,” she said. I touched my nose, and suddenly it was on fire. We called my agent, who stayed very calm but explained that after an audition, before finding out whether or not I got the part, the plan was supposed to be to lay low and not to do anything stupid. They passed the news along to the crew, who told me to show up anyway.

I did. It was a disaster.

“We’d heard you were sunburned,” said the director, taking a step back and tilting his head to one side. “We didn’t know you were like this.” The skin was bubbling up off my cheeks and my nose. Skin had begun peeling off my back in long strips earlier that morning. I was a mess.

“Tell you what,” he said, pointing behind me at the set. We were in a Dallas high school classroom, empty for the summer session. There were maybe eight kids, all intended to depict a different archetype of school life in a kind of pop-culture tableau. “You were gonna be one of the popular kids, but tell you what: let’s see if the make-up people can work with what you’ve got. How about you’ll be the nerdy kid in the back, looking up from a beaker that’s exploded into your face?” He motioned over a make-up lady, and she got to work.

“Ooch,” she said, daubing foundation on with a sponge. “I hope this doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m fine,” I said, wincing.

“So you’re the nerd then?” she asked.

I nodded. I knew my part well. It was the last call I ever got, and the end of my modeling career.

I didn’t hear from Wendy the next day, or the day after that. I called the number I had for her, and it was disconnected. I spent the rest of the summer feeling hollow inside. She hadn’t crashed my board — she’d crashed me.

Then a few months later the phone rang one time, paused, then it rang again. Before my computer could pick up, I answered it.

Standard
Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 3

Table of Contents

“Hey, Patrick,” she said.

“Hey.”

“It’s been a while,” she said. I said nothing.

“Jen really enjoyed meeting you,” she added.

“Yeah,” I said, “same here. She seemed cool.”

In a series of short bursts, each one word long, she said, “Jen . . . has . . . been . . . bugging . . . me . . . to . . . call . . . you. So I am. She thinks we should get together some time.”

“What do you think?”

“I think she needs to keep her hands to herself.”

Okay.

“What have you been doing?” she asked.

“Busy,” I said. “I’ve been pretty busy.”

And unlike most of the rest of the times in my life when I would say that to a girl who I’d been desperate to hear from but who had failed to call me, I was sadly telling the truth.

I’d filled most of my free time with hour-long drives to the far side of Dallas, where some guy with a couple of Apple II computers and a bunch of little radios and a blackened warehouse appropriately fog-lit and a really good idea for making money from all of that stuff put together in exactly the right way was making a total crap-ton of money.

It was called Photon. You probably know it today, if you know it at all, as Laser Tag — but Photon was the first, as far as I know. You have two teams, each team has a base, you get points for shooting the enemy’s base and for shooting enemies. When you get shot, your gun goes dead for something like five seconds. That’s it. You have a helmet and a chest-plate with sensors, and a gun, and a gigantic load of batteries strapped around your waist. Also, it was crazy air-conditioned in there, and this was Texas.

You could not have designed a better trap for my spare attention. I started going there as often as I could. I had to borrow my mom’s mini-van — I think I already mentioned being on the near-side of the cool-kid bell curve — and I did so, regularly. Even the much older boys down the street, who’d originally introduced me to the world of geekery, were excited to hitch a ride with me to run around shooting at live bad-guys in a science-fiction set.

This will be important next time; it’s simply too much to get into this time.

My board had been expanding. I got a great deal on a hard drive from Frank, my first and best grown-up friend in that extended social circle; he brought his wife over and she marveled at me and my room, “It’s like, left-brain and right-brain, all together.” That gave me a colossal 15 megabytes online, all the time. My dad called it the Battlestar Galactica, it was so loud.

The thrum of life in my bedroom was fine. It was the code that was driving me nuts. The game kept crashing, so I had to pull features back until I got them working together again. I couldn’t imagine today a more insane way to develop software. Here’s what I did: code like a crazy person, reworking small feature by small feature. I could never have anything in the code be totally broken for very long, because the moment the phone would start ringing I would type RUN BBS and let someone explore the system in whatever state I’d left it in. The maniacally twisted part — or the lovely and delicious part, if you’re a modern user-experience designer with few scruples — was that I would then watch people interact with the game, taking notes so that I could make things easier next time, or at least less broken.

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would still be doing very much the same thing, only larger. Also, I exited my teenage years having grown a pair of scruples, though that was later.

And there was more competition in town. Specifically, also over in Dallas, there was a totally new kind of system. Get this: you call a number, and you get switched between one of six or seven lines, all of which ran into a single computer. The computer had six or seven modems running, jacked into six or seven phone lines — meaning that six or seven people could all be online, on the same system, at the same time.

There was nothing to do there but to chat with the other people. That was novelty enough, believe me, even if it seemed like a low ambition for my taste.

After declining to help Wendy sneak out her window late at night, not even considering what I’d have to say to get my parents to let me take the car out at a late enough hour that her parents would be asleep, we talked on the phone a few more times. I once asked her about Jen, and she said she’d hang up if I mentioned her again. But then the next time crash girl called, she brought Jen up herself, sort of.

“I was thinking we should meet,” she said.

“Yeah, we talked about that.”

“There’s this thing. My brother’s doing it. I think you should come.”

“What thing? Where?”

“Pfft. Just this thing. He and a bunch of people — War Wager, X-Man, and like three other guys — are gonna meet at Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

“Are you kidding me?” I was actually a little hurt. I mean, I knew all those guys. I hadn’t met a lot of them in person, but that was uncool.

“They don’t invite you to those things because they’re afraid you’d think they were uncool.”

“Well it is kinda uncool for them to—”

“I told Mark I was inviting you, and he was like, ‘Sure.’ And…there’s this friend of mine, been saying we oughta meet. So you’d better come. You can come, right?”

Could and would but did not. It was Halloween, and of all early evenings, my sister had a rehearsal or a recital or some such business that an older high-school kid did not care about in the absolute least, and my mom needed the car. We actually passed the Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza and video-game parlor on the way there and on the way back. But mom didn’t want to be bothered with dropping me off and picking me up and it was a school night and she’d had a hard day and damn it, damn it, damn it.

I told myself: If the streetlight turns red at the intersection, I am going for it, I am running. The light was green, smooth sailing through the intersection. It was red on the way back, so I had a full minute to stare at the illuminated pizza and video-game parlor logo, seeming only slightly diminished beside the red, glowing K-Mart with which it shared a strip-mall storefront.

It had been months since I’d stolen long-distance. I’d been trying to stay in the lighter-side of the computer underground gray area, but that night I took the board down and kept the line busy calling a bunch of pirate boards in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, downloading the most terrible information I could touch. Car hot-wiring instructions. Explosives recipes. Most of it was bullshit, but I kept going. I was angry at no one in particular. I was angry with everyone. All this to say I was sixteen.

She called the next day, after school. I explained what happened in a way that made me sound less like the twelve-year-old I felt like I’d been reduced to — and when you’re sixteen, in case you’ve forgotten, the difference between you and a twelve-year-old is not four years, it’s a lifetime. She was sympathetic enough.

“That’s awful. Aw, that really sucks. I mean, I missed seeing you.”

“How was it?”

“Oh, you know, no good. Bunch of uncool guys and some pizza, right? X-Man was there, though, so it wasn’t too bad. I mean, he’s a total loser. He’s like twenty-one — did you know that? twenty-one? I mean, wow! — and he was all excited about showing us his totally cool car. Ha. It was so cool that when he started it to give us a lift, it broke down and died right there, totally died. The radiator fell out or something right there. Shitty piece of shit.”

“Wow. That sucks.”

“Oh, no — it was funny. He’s a jerk, that guy. A real asshole.” She made a kind of purring noise, took a deep breath, and then made no sound whatsoever.

Finally, I said, “What?”

“Gotta go,” she said.

I glared at the handset, the one I’d fallen in love with at four years old when we’d first moved in, so delighted by all the tones its little buttons made. Even better, I remembered when a phone repairman had come to the green phone company switch box in our backyard and let me look at the tool he used. It looked like a kind of funky phone, but it had an extra row of buttons along the outside, which did different special things to the phone system. I’d always wanted one of those set so badly. But right then, I stared out along the far edge of the touch-tone pad, begging for a button that would end my misery.

My misery would only last another couple of days longer, and it would end with a phone call.

 

Table of Contents

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?”

Previously, on “Going to California”

Before I can begin to explain my life in California, there’s something else you need to know.

The summer between high school and college, after I’d turned off my board, I went to one last pirate meet-up. We would pick a day, some combination of three or four or sometimes five of us would get together at someone’s house to copy the hell out of whatever software other people had and talk about all the things we’d learned about they types of systems we’d variously been able to access.

I never one time saw anyone exchanging credit cards. I saw files discussing the security features of credit cards, but that was only interesting and not incriminatory. The only people in that extended series of circles who I ever heard of committing credit card fraud ended up getting something like what they probably deserved.

But we would copy files, and get in line to be next to copy something, and show the new kid that you could cut a notch along the plastic edge on the other side of the disk and then you can flip it over and write onto its backside. A fun few seconds with a hole punch and you’ve doubled your storage!

And before I went off to college, I figured I’d better make one last round. In a quieter moment, when the conversation had died down and the background whirring of disks being read and written had drifted into the foreground, one guy — we didn’t know each others’ real names, no joke — said, “I been meaning to ask you guys something. Why do you think we do this?”

“Because it’s cool,” I said.

He smiled. The other guy did, too. “It is cool,” he said, nodding. We were actually cool. It’s just that almost no one else knew it.

The lie that the movie War Games sold me was that if I dove deep, deep into what you could do with a computer, an alarmingly attractive girl would come along and she would think that this whole thing was really cool, and she would want to know more about it.

And okay, let’s be honest, you would show her how you’d been able to access the school’s computers and change her grade to an A in some class. She would be horrified, begging you to change it back. Certainly the girl’s existence was basically a lie, I can tell you from my first couple of years of diving way, way further into the computer than I probably should have, and if there were a girl there she would much more likely be shaking your chair and directing you to add a couple of classes to her record that she had never even taken, as long as you were at it, but change it all back to how it had been after a couple of weeks, once the college transcripts go out. Because this would have to be our secret.

There are things you can do that will crash systems. We learned this early on. It’s not pretty, and it’s not that useful unless you’re a very malicious person, but some people delight simply in being able to do it. It’s very rarely helpful in any way. But still people try, for a lot of reasons. One reason, of course, is that some systems, if you can crash them in a very specific way, you can gain some control over them. Sometimes you can gain complete control of them.

Back when I was running my board, I was never surprised when I saw someone trying to crash it. With some systems, it could be something as dumb as crashing if a user hit too many keys at the main menu, or typed some specific pattern of characters.

Most of the time I kept my computer screen off. The current session was being echoed to my monitor, and I didn’t need to see people doing things like writing email. But people could page me, and if I was around I’d type to them.

One time, one mid-afternoon, I got a long series of page requests, like ten or fifteen, startling me on my bed where I would have been reading over something like the Arduin Grimoire, a role-playing game book, for the eleven-thousandth time. I turned on my monitor. Looking at the user’s recent history, and what they were typing while I watched, it looked like someone was trying to crash my board. Line after line, someone was trying an impressively extensive list of all the crash-inducing command combinations I’d ever come across.

And now the user was pinging me. Glancing at the top couple of lines of the screen — which always reported the name of the currently logged-in user and some interesting stats about the system at large as well as the current user — I could see that it wasn’t a verified user. I asked that in order to sign up, people create an account and feel free to look around. If they actually wanted to be a user, leave me your phone number and I’ll call you back to verify that you’re a real human being. Or something. I’m not sure what I was thinking, I’m both afraid and not surprised.

So someone who’d never called in before was trying every kill command they could think of — and they had a perfectly respectible list to work with — and then tried a few more for good measure after quick-firing a bunch of chat requests at me. I didn’t give a shit about the crash commands. They could try whatever the hell they wanted to try and they would never crash my board. I was confident because I constantly beat the hell out of it, and every time I heard of a new exploit somewhere else I would check my code for the same sort of mistake. I thought it was kinda pathetic that someone would try so many dumb things. Maybe a twelve-year-old, or something.

Then the feed from the other end went silent. The cursor blinked a number of times in front of the prompt, and then the person on the other end of the line rapidly typed out, “I KNOW YOURE WATCHING”.

That stopped me.

“I KNOW YOU ARE,” it said.

“TALK,” it said.

I dropped into chat mode.

“About what?” I typed.

“CALLING BACK. PICK UP.” Then the line went dead.

Holy crap, I thought. The phone started ringing, and I pulled the receiver off the hook just after the first ring finished washing over my body, before the computer picked up.

“Hello?” I said. “This is Patrick.”

“Hey,” she said. “Hello — oh, wow. I’m really glad you picked up. This is totally great.”

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Going to California

True Names — 3

It was a game, definitely, though because I was an otherwise quiet boy and those rebellious streaks had to get out somehow, it was also something more. But before anyone had a chance of getting that far, the first thing people noticed was the system felt eerily smooth to use. Here’s why.

Let me start with a little background. Thirty years ago, after your computer made a connection to another, text slipped across the wire to you one line at a time, each new line appearing across the bottom of the screen, pushing the previous lines up. It could not scroll back up to show you something you’d previously seen, and the spewing of text could not reliably jump backwards at all without deleting everything that it had fed to you previously. It could clear your screen and start over again at the top, but that was it. To make things even more tedious, you were fed each row of text only a little bit more slowly than most people could read.

When this is your only interface to a remote machine, certain delays became really, really annoying. Over time, system operators came up with all kinds of little tricks to help reduce these terrific irritations, and these modifications would eventually get shared with or copied by others.

I used to spend a lot of time being very concerned about how to make my board the best possible experience, given the constraints. One of my favorite tricks was the spinner. It was so successful, that one way or another it’s still leveraged in modern apps, even if it’s slightly different now than it was then.

Here’s how it worked. When you, as a user, asked for some information from the remote system, and the system had reason to believe that it might take a couple of seconds — such as checking to see which of a system’s boards have how many new messages since the last time you logged in — then while waiting for the information to load from a slow-ass floppy disk, the system would loop what it was sending across the wire between a series of characters, like this:

– / ! \ – / ! \ – / ! \

… but the trick was that it would send a backspace after each character, giving the impression of a line spinning in place. Crazy. In case that’s not super-clear — and I remember people freaking out the first time they saw it: “How do you do that?!” — here’s the breakdown. First you would see the hyphen, then it would be replaced by the forward-slash, then the forward-slash would quickly be replaced by the exclamation point, then the backslash, then the hyphen again. And this was cool because it was one of the rare times you ever got feedback from a remote system while it was in the process of doing something for you. You could be sure that your call had not accidentally been dropped, maybe because you forgot to disable call-waiting before you dialed out with your modem, since the system was clearly telling you that it was doing something. It was genius.

The only thing smarter than that, I figured, was not having to show a spinner at all because your system was faster than anything anyone could imagine at the time. Through my RAM disk, I had found a way to avoid having to reach out to a floppy drive and start it spinning, and then move the head to the right track and read the right sectors off the disk as it spun around beneath a tiny magnetic head. Instead, after I added the first chunk of memory to the card, I began running the entire system in the RAM drive, and it was insanely fast because it never had to hit the disk.

You had to be careful, though. I had to copy the contents of the RAM disk to one or more floppy disks before restarting the computer, because when power was interrupted, anything in its electronic memory would be lost forever. Still, it was worth it. Soon I had the equivalent of several disks worth of space to spread out around into. Most boards had two floppy drives, some had three or four, but I soon had nearly ten disks worth of unreasonably fast space. It was so fast, in fact, that people thought it was faked, that they were having a text file streamed to them, until they started interacting with it.

I promise this is going somewhere.

Some people told me that my system’s speed genuinely freaked them out, and that made me feel good. I began to get more users. The line started staying busy outside of work and school hours. As on most systems, users were limited to thirty minutes a day, though people more and more often rang the chat bell on my end, wanting to ask me some question or other, or just to catch up. With all that typing, I did more talking in those evening and weekend hours than I did in most of the rest of any given day, and by that point I had begun to get better at acting more normally chatty. It all came back to the acting, I think, in the end. When I was playing a role, I could stick to my lines and things very often came out okay. Typing, I could get out nearly anything and it didn’t seem to matter one way or another how I tried to say something, I never got stuck. It was as close to a pure expression of my thoughts that I could imagine.

There was always that moment, after you had gotten to know someone fairly well on a system, when it’s proposed that you meet up in real life. And at this meeting, if not a little bit before, maybe while talking on the phone, you shared your real names. My name was Patrick Dennis, because in a stage production four years earlier I had played a character named Patrick Dennis, and I knew who he was, and I knew my lines, and I could play his part. And luckily, my mother was relieved to know that I was not selling drugs, and she believed me when I explained how I was doing something with my computer that had inspired these people, mostly adults, to give me money. Not a ton of money, but slowly more and more. She saw the hand-colored maps of the fantasy game world that I had created, which I would mail off to those who had donated at least $10 so that they didn’t have to keep track of where everything was on their own, and so she believed me, even if she didn’t understand me. If she didn’t think it was an especially great use of time, to her credit she didn’t lecture me about it.

I installed another expansion card in my system, one that essentially replaced the Apple processor with one that was nearly four times as fast. After filling up all the memory sockets on the original memory expansion card, I expanded the card itself. I’ll say that again another way: They let you hang a memory expansion card from the memory expansion card. Soon I had filled that one, too, with what I had made, and I thanked the guys who wore brown ties with blue, short-sleeve shirts.

What I made was a game, basically, something that played a bit like Wizardry and a bit like Ultima III, but entirely text-based, fed to you one line at a time. After logging into the system you could read the message boards, check your email, browse the limited text file directory, ask to chat with the system operator, or you could play the game. Once in the game, you could not return to the rest of the board in the phone call. In the game, you were either exploring the terrain or you were walking through a city. In either of these places, you could fight things when they were there to be fought.

By exploring the terrain, you moved north, south, east, or west through different types of landscape, from deserts and ice and grasslands and forests, to hills, which meant you were coming close to some mountains, and mountains, which you couldn’t move through. There were a few secret paths that cut through some shallow mountain ranges, which might be more obvious if you bought a map, but in general you had to do a bit of walking around to get from place to place.

This really is going somewhere.

While exploring, you could randomly have an encounter with a kind of monster native to that terrain type. So, you might fight a polar bear if you were in an square on the map marked as being ice. The monster would be about as big and as tough as you were, so in your first random forest encounter you might find a goblin, but later on you might be surprised by a bugbear.

By walking through a city, you moved essentially from room to room, one stretch of street or hallway at a time. Each room had a paragraph’s description, and some rooms had people or monsters in them. I only ever completed one big city, and I never fully got it the way that I had it drawn out on the square meter of cardboard that I kept tucked behind my bed. Before my grand plans eventually hit a wall, though, the city you could explore had a decently large number of houses and avenues and markets and apartments — and people, their names all butcheries of characters I loved most from whatever I was reading at the time.

When you got killed, or your daily time limit ran out, my computer would drop the connection and you’d have to call back and start over. At first, yes, I didn’t keep your character once you died. It was easy to make a new one, though yes, eventually I saved people’s characters.

As you killed more things, your character became harder to kill, giving you access to and a chance at surviving an encounter with higher-level monsters. You also collected more and more powerful swords and armors, all of which I spent way too much time naming. I used to work on the lists and the names of the items over the long drives out to the country those Sundays when we went to visit my father’s parents.

Similarly, each bad guy, from a random bugbear in the forest to a giant worm in the desert to the evil priest at one of the temples in the city, had a custom “death” message. As with the weapons and the armor, I spent time making list after list of different messages — I got there while saving money for my modem, thinking how boring it would be to see the same “You killed a (monster’s name)” over and over again, and decided to show a special message for each monster. So to my table of monsters, which I’d written out in rows and columns to make sure that the less powerful monsters remained easier to kill than the more powerful monsters, I added a “death message” column and filled them in so that I wasn’t repeating myself.

I don’t now remember exactly when I first hit upon the completely insane idea, it was so long ago. However, I do clearly remember reflecting on that moment, a year or so afterwards, wondering if in my madness I hadn’t maybe pushed things more than a little bit too far.

I didn’t have that many monsters, really, but I had to have an equal number of different monsters for each terrain type, so that different levels of characters would always have something to fight wherever they were. And I wanted all the “You killed it!” messages to be different, though I felt like making the messages consistent somehow for monsters within any one type of terrain. At some point I must have run out of different ways to declare the death of a monster — like, by the time I got to deciding what to say about monsters killed in the hills, for example — and instead I started putting in phone numbers of less common but interesting underground hacker boards.

Clearly, it was unexpected for each monster to give up a different piece of information once slain, but I figured that I’d already done it so I guess I felt I had to keep doing it.

I mean, I know that there were a lot of people who didn’t realize — and I’ll make something up to give you an idea — that when you killed, for example, a bugbear, you got the number for a phone company test line, where two or more phone company employees could attempt to call into in order to troubleshoot network problems as a group, from different parts of the network. There were a bunch of these numbers, and hackers shared them, both locally and across area codes, we would hijack them as little chat rooms where we’d hang out for hours shooting the shit and maybe bragging a little and trading other interesting numbers. Then maybe when you killed a sandworm, you’d get the death cry of the creature followed by a username and password and phone number for some system.

People kept calling, more to explore the game than for any information they might have been getting out of it. Like I said, I don’t think most people knew what I was showing them. I kept it going for years, and I loved it, I loved every hour of it: the yawning sense of my social life outside of my electric community shutting down, then the weeks and even months that I would let the system run without hardly paying it any attention, and all the people I met and the dramas I ran through. It was a crazy time, but I made something for myself. Within a year of getting that first copy of bulletin board software I’d completely re-written it, and it was tight, and I’d written a game from scratch, and it wasn’t great and it was breaking a lot and I would go a while without updating the content because I had to get a job and do other things at some point — but eventually something happened and I outgrew it and I couldn’t stand it any more, and I was very relieved, somehow, that as myself, as Derek, my true name, I never had to say goodbye to any of those people. I’m sure they simply wondered whatever happened to Patrick.

I will have to write about them someday.

The week after I graduated from high school, my parents took me and my sister to Hawaii for a week. It was our first time off together as a family in years, and the day before I left I turned my computer off and I sat in my room and I listened to the tiny noises in the silence. I left it off the whole week we were gone, and when I got back I didn’t turn it back on. I plugged the phone in when I wanted to make a call, which wasn’t often, and otherwise I left it unplugged. That summer my parents moved houses, and I didn’t move my line with it. A few weeks later I went away to college to take my first real computer science classes and I never looked back.

Twelve years later, when my boss’s boss asked me if I was a hacker, I knew enough to deny it. But I couldn’t say what the truth was, not without stuttering — which I refused to do in front of other people, not anymore, not if I could help it. I knew my lines, I had them down. The stage had been set, the curtains drawn. I was ready, I thought.

I had no idea how little I still knew.

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