January of 1975
Nothing can describe the feeling of teaching in an amphitheater. It can be like a gigantic pit that you somehow found yourself in the bottom of it or the arena of an alternative colosseum where people pay to watch you fighting ideas.
There is no other place where the commentator stands so far below everyone else. Actors in a theater are always located higher, in the particular pedestal that places them above the audience. And teachers usually assert their dominance by being just a bit taller than students, like leaders are in a parliament, or kings, or the victorious athletes that take the top spot in the triad matrix.
But not in an amphitheater. Here the natural rules of physics subside like a Dahli painting of melting objects and everything is to remind you how lower you are standing from everyone else. A servant of the books and their undying principles that endured through the centuries of amendments and modifications for them to be impressed in the form they stand today. And not that anyone would ever be terribly enthralled by the fact anyway as the students mostly force their lifeless corpses into the class wearing the dress of indifference as they blatantly stand with placid face and semi-closed eyes, looking into the infinite vacuum.
There are not many of them across me of course. Most of the steep, uncomfortable chairs are standing empty and hollow and the few people who decided to participate are scarce all around as if they decided to stand as far apart from each other as possible.
This is the Informatics course, and I have been appointed by my professor, Mr. Stephen Owen to cover the initial classes that are supposed to be served as an introductory step in the later journey. The one question that arises after having been picked out of almost two hundred other students is though, why me? Why choosing the most indifferent and apathetic student out of every other person out there who could easily perform equally well if not better than my abrupt and careless manners for that matter.
Not to fill myself with the pleasure of smugness and self-indulgence, it so happened that my particular interest in engineering and computers has completely engulfed every area of my life and has become my main focus for the last few years, to say the least. From the moment Joshua and Axel – the two childhood friends I still hang around with- came up with the idea of building a software company, this is pretty much all we do every day of the week, throughout the whole year. At around 6 o’clock every afternoon we are going to gather in my place, and hang around till the early morning hours where we get to work on pieces of materials we try to somehow program. The problem is though, there are not many companies in existence that are doing anything similar to what we are doing, and no one that is leading the way educationally speaking either. It so happened that we are pretty much the first to ever attempt something like that and the resource materials in the field are so scarce as looking for water in the Sahara desert, which means that every bit of progress comes out of dreadful, painstaking work and trial-and-error before being embedded in the overall work.
My place is not much of a working space but is good enough for our current needs till the first wave of earnings allow us to move somewhere better at least. It is a semi-basement apartment in the far end of town that I somehow managed to get my hands on at a very cheap price after a harsh negotiation with Mr. Jones, a close friend of my father with an extremely prolonged face and scrawny characteristics who was surely convinced that a small apartment like that wouldn’t be in a condition to be occupied by a living person, and it was mostly destined to be a storage room. Standing in the center sofa, glued upon the empty white wall you can see the jerking calves as they are clunking right above you and is as enticing on its own as an underground shelter that you would use only in times of war or a nuclear explosion maybe, but overall it is exactly what we need at the moment where we can continue our secretive work unbothered by indiscrete eyes.
The whole last hour I have been rambling about machine language and all its particular instructions that can be as indifferent to a young student as algebra is to a 5 years old. There is a huge list of instructions that a computer can understand and someone has to be very assiduous in his work as a programmer if he is to have any chance of writing something meaningful. You could spend your whole afternoon juggling down a full set of algorithms that achieve the most elegant solution to mathematical operations and one single mistake could take your whole piece down and drive you mad while trying to defer the ineligible feedback from the computer that doesn’t know what to do with it. Something this same narrator has been a victim of, numerous times before learning the hard way the extreme care and diligence this kind of work takes to be done correctly.
Alas, all the experiences in the world can go so unappreciated and ignored that one can only wonder why one should bother with in the first place. The majority of the eyes across me have been dozed off, dimmed in a haze, focused on the cracked texture of the ground, the wobbly counters with the half-eaten wood, or the random political pamphlet they happened to get on their way in, selling them the glorious dream of a political revolution. And I can’t blame them really. You see both parties in a class have signed an invisible contract with unfading ink that says, you can do whatever you want during semesters as long you don’t infringe on each other’s road and everybody seems to be happy with that. At least that’s a rule I aspire to every time I pass the door here anyway.
This university is one of the oldest facilities still standing in the country. It has large vaulted halls made in a romanesque structure and high rooftops that are curved inwards like the church domes that were meant to symbolize heaven. Not that this building had any particular ornaments on its walls or any sort of drawings of any kind other than its warm-white blaze coating and the occasional poster you might find glued on a pillar here or there, for the number one principle of its design was always to be as plain and mundane as possible alluring for that sense of austere pompousness.
I’m passing through the shiny emerald floors with the creased lines on top as I make my way towards the office of my professor, Stephen, which is located to the uppermost side of the building right at the edge border of the university with the outer world. The green meadow is still faintly visible through the arc windows and my steps are echoing through the vast hall as if the sound propagates through the walls and strengthens as it flows through the corridor.
Stephen is a much more minuscule guy than what his voice would betray which if you were to listen to it alone without having any visual clue you would imagine some sturdy individual or the evil villain in a drug-film. In reality, he is not more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, with skittish arms that resemble bare bones and limp eyes and skin that bulges right off his face. I always found this to be the indicative sign of his overall cynical demeanor that refuses to believe in any deeper meaning behind what he does or the fact that he has somehow lost hope and descended into a compromise on a virtueless life that he follows behind his will.
I never really understood why he showed such interest in me right from the get-go. Most people would say that it was my sheer interest in computers and machines and everything that relates to programmable silicon. But my take is that he found in it what was lurking a long time ago behind this despondent and dejected cover of his that took over on the dreamy juvenile that never got the opportunity he was seeking to realize his potential.
On one side I could devote an innumerable amount of time fiddling my hands-on electronics and computer parts that I would try to yield through a programmable interface. But at the same time, most of the university classes had this theoretical focus with the standard abstract reasoning that I always found discouraging to deal with and it blocked me from engaging with them any further.
Independently of it, Stephen’s classes were the only subjects in the whole sector with some substantial, practical side in them and they were quite close in nature to the work I was so used in doing on my own. During the first lab of the class, Stephen happened to pass by while we were half-way through, and once he realized that I had completed the whole material in less than half the time that was devoted to it he suggested that I should go and find him and join him in his work.
What does this work entail exactly? Basically its the full set of the most mundane tasks ever imaginable where one has to go through the innumerable writings of the callow students, proofread boring scientific documents, create class material for people that are mostly gonna skim through it and throw it away in some basket-can eventually and finally manage the accompanying labs that from time to time can be ruthlessly torturing with their neverending havoc.
And of course, I would never have accepted such a proposal because as you see my plan would never be to follow the standard mundane academic career besides the ample promptings of Stephen who never misses the chance to instruct me on how I am going to waste my talent in the business world. But you see Stephen has something that I am highly dependent on and I couldn’t abandon my position just for the fear of losing it. That is the university’s access to some of the most expensive and rare super-computers that is patched with the most advanced hardware in the market and been crafted in a way that someone could never get his hands on without spending thousands of dollars on it.
The facility contains one of the first fully transistorized computers with the ability to operate multiple commands per second, setting it among the fastest of its kind that has ever been created. Using this medium and as a dedicated member that actively helps for its sustainability, I have the luck to enjoy full access to it which many times I do get my hands on in the spare hours where I can move on with my work much faster than what I would have otherwise. It’s a convenient arrangement that helps both parties and Stephen is good enough to sly his eyes away while I prepare the ground for my future product.
“Ethan you are killing yourself with these ambitious plans of yours.” he begins with his usual acridity. “And for what exactly? You think someone will take notice eventually but you don’t know who exactly. You only assume that someone will approach you someday and tap your back for a job well done. That’s what everybody thinks, at least in the beginning.”
It’s not rare of him to begin our session with some of his standard disparagement on my ‘irrational’ decisions and all the risk my “inexperience” brings forward. As usual, I allow the rage to take its turn and dissipate on its own as it invariably happens after a few minutes. His slow resonating voice has a hypnotizing effect besides its poisonous content, that lures you into listening no matter how much you want to intervene and oppose his admonition.
His white scare hair spur upwards like the carefree attitude of scientists that never pay any attention in sprucing up for the world and his head is leaning backwards in the high-back chair that exceeds beyond him like a mechanical extension. His office is small and cramped with papers scattered on all surfaces and there is the stagnant smell of the old rusty books that have been stack in piles and left untouched for long periods of time.
“When I was your age, there was nothing like the current multinational enterprises, and the megacorps you see around you. Businesses back then were only making their baby steps into the world and when I finished my studies here around your age, a few of them came and offered me a good heft of money to join them. Now be careful because where you see free money you can only anticipate one thing. You are selling yourself somehow in ways you cannot anticipate. Most people scolded me for not taking the chance but it was only a few years later that I saw most of these companies getting bankrupt or even worse, selling themselves to bigger companies where most people would get stuck working like ants for the big heads who could enjoy quite a good margin out of their work”. “Point being my dear Ethan, there is no such thing as free money. There is always a price to pay for everything even when the price tag is not overtly visible.”
Through all these emerging monologues of course I would keep my mouth shut to the best of my abilities mostly for two reasons. One was that any response on my part would trigger the discussion to bigger heights like throwing tinder in the fire. I had known better through the never-ending discussions that even the most minimal of provocation could lead into a passionate response where it would be almost impossible to wipe out later on as if this was the only outlet to some otherwise secretly urging beliefs.
The other reason was that his harangue had simply a mesmerizing element of its own and it was hard to interrupt as if you were watching a spectacle you were not supposed to join yourself but rather observe like an auditor in a show.
For the next few minutes, he kept his subtle work of persuading me why a career in university would be the best option for a young man and how much more fulfilling academic work is to the barbarous, vicious companies that capitalize on people to make a profit for themselves. It was only at the end of the session that he revealed the ultimate cause behind his superfluous talk that caught me by surprise as he passed his point with a facile indifference.
“There is a new course embedded in the program,” he said rather casually. “It starts the next semester and I would like you to take full charge of it”.
Although I tried to decline with an elegant maneuver by the means of the extra busy schedule of mine that was only leaving little time available to me and the overwhelming work I was doing the last few months that was eliciting most of my energy, he seemed to be indomitable in his position that I should accept the chance that was offered to me as it was a rare occasion that something like that happened and it would be like turning my back away from a gift. Knowing Stephen and how proud he is of his work and all that this represents it was like I was walking through a minefield where each step was critical and could blow everything up at any moment. His insisting in his point of view and overall persistence was remarkable and was swelling the more he was realizing that the position was of no real interest to me. In the end, I did the one thing that I should never have done given the circumstances and in the heat of the moment, I succumbed under the pressure. With a revolting haze, I stood up and got out of the office declaring my unwillingness to participate in any of it. And with that little move, the whole work that depended so heavily on the facility’s equipment got in jeopardy and the fear of losing access to the only thing that made everything possible came and knocked right at my door.
It is a common arrangement we have that at least two or three times per week I will still join my family on some afternoons for dinner or spend some time with them here or there when the situation arises for it. It was sort of a rule, a contract term that I had to accept if I was willing to move over to my own place without alerting everybody about the move or cause any suspicion on my doings. A little bit of submission if you will from my part to gain the much more crucial freedom to work on what really mattered.
My parents are some of the most traditional folks in existance and one could imagine how painfully oblivious they are to all the “childish adventures” that they always seem to dismiss as a flinch that is going to pass, or how dedicated they are in preserving certain occasions like sunday tables or visiting relatives every now and then. Even though they were both very attentive as parents and I grew up in an ample envirnment, their attitude was always somewhat restrictive and ascetic and everything related to technological gadgets -something I was always keen to acquire in the first chance possible, and I loved to fiddle my hands with- was often a subject of dispute with them.
My brother Ian on the other hand is the most carefree and nonchalant guy one can meet. Ussually you will find him hanging with a book in his hands, slopping over a sofa or playing video games with his girlfriend Lizzy that they can spend an insumerable amount of time together sometimes with the most minimal of input from the outer world.
When I met him on my way back from university he was dangling right next to her, with his rich burnished hair and long limbs that made him look more like a spider rather than a human being and he immediately set off to entice me with a suprising proposition that I would have never anticipate of him. He suggessted that the two of them together with me and my girlfriend Mia -whom they had only meet frivolously a few times besides our attempts to hang out together more- could go for a weekend gateway in a roustic south town over a wooden cabin that was located in some place outside the city, far away from it to be secluded from the noise but close enough to visit in the night if we really cared to do so. Lizzy in particular, was quite warm about the prospects of this trip and it seemed to me that it was actually her idea to embark on it cause I could discern the concealed hesitation from my brother who wouldn’t mind to stay with his video games for months on end if he really had the ability to do so.
Lizzy was always the one that would come up with the most intruiging ideas and in many ways, she was the total opposite of Ian with her extrovert, warmhearted attitude, and a never-ending source of energy. She analyzed for me the full plan of the trip from the moment we would set foot to the place, to the random unorganized campings of same-minded people, all the way to the natural elements around it that were all very enticing and described in full detail the graphical, two store cabin with the handmade tree-trunks that were all customly tied together by one person, and the incredible hike paths through the forests that would pass right from the edge of the near by mountain where you could see the whole dell unfolding on your feet. She was suretly quite passionate about the trip and she seemed quite intereted in getting to know Mia better, who in reality was the total opposite of her and would never agree to give all her urban comfort for such a challenging trip.
Alas I would never had the time for an adventure like that, for weekends were devoted almost totally to the project that I would spend exlusively with the guys tweaking hardware materials and writting software. The work was demanding and would require lots of time even to make the smallest amount of progress and when I declined the invitation both of them looked at each other in sheer bewilderement and stood in awe as if they had received the most shocking news.
Ian gulped my shoulder with his octupous hand that glued around my back and lead me to the next room for a private chat where he probed to make sure that I didn’t have any particular reason for my denial and that there was no specific cause for my avertion. It felt that Lizzy would have taken it quite personally and he wanted to make sure my desicion had no personal element in it. It took a good few minutes of explaining the urgency of the task and how important it was that we would be the first to generate the platform or all our work would go to waste for the first team that would manage to get its hands on the market.
You see this sort of software which was meant to be the operating system that could control all the upcoming evolution of hardware devices belonged to the “winner takes it all” pattern in which whatever platform would get established in the market first it was bound to rule for a long time to come.
Ian was still quite skeptical about my explanation that seemed to him like an alien language that made no sense whatsoever. With curved eyebrows and a blaze attitude he stood across me as he watched me elaborating on the harsh work we were doing for the last few months and in the end even though his overall disbelief was quite evident he dismissed everything I had said with one simple phrase.
“Why are you even wasting your time with all that jibberish? There are so much better things you can do with your time than spending it in a basement with other geeks.”
This comment -even though it was just perceived with the slightest of nods from my part and was ignored for its excessive viciousness- was the sign I needed that my work was quite irrelevant to most people that would go by about their days never thinking about stuff like that. I decided then that I would try to keep my work as secret as possible from everyone else and from then on I would always make sure to devise some exceptional excuse to cover for the work I was to embark on.
Basements are most often poorly insulated and humidity is one of the first things you need to deal with if you are to keep the conditions at livable levels. Because of its natural position and tendency to be cooler than higher stores while standing below grade, the earth moisture can migrate through the walls, penetrate the building’s deeper foundation and create the right conditions for mold and bacteria to rise. Basements need a very active attitude to keep in proper conditions and we have all set the rule that we are going to circulate the responsibility of cleaning it every once in a while when the need arises, where each person needs to make sure to swipe out any excess moisture and even paint over the subtle spots of mold.
This time Axel was the responsible one and it so happened that the whole side wall right next to the front door was filled with small crevices that spanned from the very top of it right through the center and he needed to cover it while I and Joshua were working diligently over the software. Not a fair deal by any means. He was standing with the dripping roller over the corner, embarking into his complaining, constant blabber to cover for his boring work while we were sitting cozily on our puffy armchairs snapping strokes over the keyboards.
Axel is, as a matter of fact, the most talkative and communicative of all three of us. He is six point three inches tall – a height which makes him seem like a giant in front of us- and he has rich, semi-long hair that fall on the side of his face right at the level of his cheekbones that look like they are constantly bothering him as he constantly has to tingle them off from his eyes. With sheer excruciating detail, Axel can elaborate over every new technology that comes out and he is ridiculously obsessed with the most obscure details of every little product in existence. He knows about modems, VCR’s, gaming consoles and he can elaborate over their mechanisms with an easiness that makes you think that he could reconstruct everything by heart if he was given the raw materials for it.
Joshua on the other hand is the total opposite of Axel, standing mostly silent with a strong aversion towards small talk or any kind of casual chit-chat that is not relevant to computers, he is skittish, triangled faced with thick round glasses fogging over his eyes, and short hair that gives the idea that he just got out of the military facilities.
Joshua rarely laughs about anything. As a matter of fact, he is supremely difficult to even smile when he is the recipient of a joke. But if there is something that can tantalize him it is when there is a dispute with Axel and there always seems to be a subject that they both feel overwhelmingly strong and they will talk about for hours with no end before giving up and forgetting all about it as nothing happened.
Not that the subject of their discords had any particular importance anyhow. Most of the time it could be completely irrelevant spanning from how intel’s chips were made, when there was going to be the first robot nurse available lurking its way alongside the doctors in hospitals, or whether PC’s are going to be self-conscious in the future and have the ability to expand their capacities on their own. Not that they were affected byt it in any way or that it made any difference weather the answer was one or the other but it so happened that most often than not they would give in into these frivolous battles for no particular reason and I would have no other way but to stand back and wait till the whole case would come to an end.
The room we were working on was a homogeneous maze where all the accompanying spaces blended in with each other with imperceptible borders. Kitchen, main hall, and bedroom all existed within the same vast area and it’s not clear where one began or where it ended. There were two main offices that we were working on and they were both fully white giving the impression that they were made fully out of plastic and they were located right opposite to each other in the main area of the room. Although they were wide enough to accommodate a few people each, they were always cramped with various PC elements and equipment like chips and transistors that were scattered around and we were constantly fiddling our hands with.
A big screen was located on the top corner always on and muted, the walls were highly bombarded with posters of androids and comical characters and there was electronic music that was vaguely buzzing in the background after the careful arrangement of Axel who seemed overly thrilled with his choices of songs.
We had made quite good progress already in managing the most common set cases of commands and abstractions and we were working our way fastidiously towards developing the whole range of possibilities. Our target was to create the first fully-fledged software that would be capable to control all the hardware subparts through a common interface which we called “the nucleus” and based on this component a whole new platform would emerge where other developers would be able to patch their products on and use this platform to run their software.
It was quite an ambitious project for sure and given the fact that computers had not made their way anywhere near people’s homes at that point in time we knew fairly well it could take a long time to see any profit from our work if we ever manage to complete in due time.
And it was that very day that Axel came in with his usual overwhelming excitement holding a crumpled newspaper in his right hand as if suffocating it out of air, that he spread the news about the upcoming disaster. Intel had already seen the need for a common platform and had commissioned the work to be created by another company that had the resources available to employ numerous people in comparison to the three of us who were working mostly in our spare time. It was a strong blow and it meant that we had a short window of time to fulfill the job if we were to have any chance in getting our product to the world.
“What if we strike first instead?” asked Joshua. “What if we make a deal with them and offer our own once we finish it?”
“But that would mean that we would have to give away the full rights to them to do what they pleased with it,” replied Axel who was particularly determined to never sell out. “We will only get a fraction of the profit and they will get all the earnings for free.”
And to that Joshua would object that it would be our only choice moving forward and we had to take measures if we were to keep afloat. Of course, the quarrel continued for the whole night and there was merely any moment where they would stop and listen to what the other had said before erupting again and throwing themselves right into the battle.
They both seemed so engrossed in the news that they would pump up like madmen and waddle around fidgeting with crazy eyes while mulling over what we should do next. It was a blow out of clear sky for sure, but I never visualized us the sole heroes in a run that had no other participants, and neither would I expect that bigger corporations wouldn’t find a way to jump in eventually and create their own product at some point or another. All we could hope for was to get enough attention to partner with them and if you asked me, we should be happy if we managed to persuade them to take the product seriously.
There had been a time that getting the appropriate access to the university’s super-computer got quite challenging. There were multiple professors that took great pride in having their hands-on projects related to the latest technology that was available to them and they had employed a number of offbeat, specialized classes just to get their name next inline with “progressive” and “innovative”. Not that they really cared about the actual technology or that they knew anything about how it really worked apart from the very basic components that you could find in the random pamphlet about PCs or the standard nomenclature that was circulating the halls. It was all a theatrical play and unfortunately, it collided exactly with our plan in using the PC resources to get ahead with our project.
Labs were only open till late afternoon till the latest session which would end at 9:00 pm and it was available only after special permission by the University’s technical department who would allocate time and resources to the various classes according to the needs. That meant that even though I could still sneak in as a lab instructor, assuming the role that I was working on the teaching material, the actual slots that this was accessible shrank eventually to very rare occasions and even when that happened it would be quite probable that they would use the time for maintenance or random visitors.
Within a few months, we had lost almost all of our precious access and we had stagnated basically like blindfold men circulating in a room with the hands out in the open, having only some of the pieces available but not the one component that was tieing the whole thing together.
“Why can’t we just enter the lab in after-hours” uttered Axel with a childish attitude. “We would have all the time available and we wouldn’t have to worry about the time”.
“And you think they would leave the door open for us, you smartass?” replied Joshua. “The lab is locked throughout the day not to mention the security cameras that probably monitor the room 24/7.”
“That may be true but there is still a way to enjoy full access to the PC without anyone batting an eye.”
At this point, both Joshua and I glanced at each other in a momentarily hit of wonder as we both got quite surprised by this bold approach of Axel who seemed quite decisive for no apparent reason. He continued to explain that there was a way to intrude the lab without suspicion and all it would entail was me doing some sort of patch job to make it all possible.
“Locks are quite easy to replicate if you manage to get your hands in the key even for a few moments,” he explained. “With just some wax mold you can create a prototype of the key just by pushing it into it. It would only take a few seconds really.”
“A wax mold?” questioned Joshua in disbelief. “You mean like in the movies?”
Axel went on to explain his whole plan which was basically the following. I would sneak out a copy of the key for the lab. Axel would make sure to get into the university one afternoon and together with me we would infiltrate into some obscure study hall where we would remain hidden till later hours while everybody else would be gone. Then we would have the whole field available to do as we pleased and as long as we didn’t break anything nobody would bat an eye to check anything.
It wasn’t an unreasonable plan really but at the same time I had more in line to lose in this out of everyone else and it was quite evident that Axel wouldn’t share the same kind of punishment in case we were caught. Apart from losing my job and whatever credibility I had in my name I would be naturally tagged the mastermind of the operation just for the fact that I was the one that had the initial access to university and I would even face the risk of jail if they cared to move the issue down this path. The only extenuation on me would be the fact that I was merely using the machine as I had access to it anyway and possibly with the help of Stephen I could manage to get some exemption or reduction on the measures against me.
In the next few days the issue kept swirling in my mind and in the end after the sheer pressure of both Axel and Joshua who seemed overly vigorous to move on with the idea, we set out a plan and decided to act on it without losing any more time.
A few days later, while being in the lab, I made sure to keep an eye on Levi who was the person responsible for the maintenance of it and had the actual keys attached right to his side pocket beside the second keys he kept in his desk. His office was located right in the side room of the lab, and it contained nothing but a wooden table and a little bathroom that was attached just for him. I had visited the office a few times when I needed access to the lab besides normal working hours and I knew quite well that Levi was keeping all of his second keys cramped together like a bunch of mass metal in his desk-draw that nobody could really discern what was the difference between them apart from him.
Even if I did manage to get my hands on it it could take a while to defer which one was the right key for the door and it was rarely the case that he was away for more than a few seconds without locking the door or standing rigtht outside of it. Levi was the sort of person that although there was hardly any case of transgression for a long time in the university -it was a matter of fact one of the most secure and renowned facilities for their extreme measures in terms of organization- he was always suspicious of everyone and he would carry himself around with the reluctant expression of a mouse that is constantly afraid of predators lurking around to get it.
I knew fairly well that he wouldn’t be an easy task to handle but on the other, he had a strong weakness that I could exploit and it wasn’t too hard to put my finger on how to best tackle the situation.
Levi had a strong attachment to everything related to food. He would take multiple breaks throughout the day where he would spin off to refill his empty desk with a box of bonbons or doughnuts that would offer to us as well as a treat from time to time. He could be the diligent and conscientious guard in terms of his work, and I doubt I could ever outplay him if I was to find a straightforward way to bypass his watch, but given his extreme cravenness for food and his inability to refuse the temptation to it I knew I had a good shot in making it work and I had already a plan that I put to the test that very day.
Right at the end of my class and just before I was to dismiss the students I reciprocated the move and I revealed a spontaneous gift that I made sure to invite everyone from around the floor to participate in. A marvelous, immense box of chocolate truffles carefully chosen for their high content in smooth cream and quality were left open in the right place enticing everyone to get a taste. It took only a few moments for people to gather around the counter and start jabbering around it at the end of this long day.
Levi joined the group just a few minutes later carrying his big fat belly that was hanging in front of him like an attached over-body and I got the chance to sneak into his office and get a small window of time to create the replica. The only problem was that I was confronted with approximately 20 different keys that all looked quite similar and they all had a character stuck on top of them, relating to one letter of the alphabet that I had no idea how to decode. Clearly, Levi had created his own labeling system to keep the keys in order but it was quite impossible to really get to know which was the one I was looking for and I only had a few moments left to just choose two of them to imprint in the two sides of the wax that I was carrying with me in my pocket.
The lab was located at the center of the floor in the side building of the campus and it had well more than 20 rooms to make any sense of it. Counting them from the start of either side alone would entail more rooms than the actual key and it made little sense to really know in which order this had been located. Levi could very well be supervising the university equipment all along with the university and there was little clue to decipher which one it was.
The only clue I could make any use of was the fact that there was only one key that was duplicated and tagged with the same letter which made it more prominent in relation to the rest. Many other rooms were important security wise like the offices of professors or the special storages they kept to preserve certain important writings, but I was quite sure that nothing would come anywhere near the importance of the super-computer that was adding so much weight and fame to the brand of the university.
I took the key together and plunged inside the wax mold carefully to keep the shape as intact as I could and I put everything back together as I made my way back out of the office. Fortunately, nobody had suspected anything as I found them back in the lab immersed in their noisy laughs showing signs of complete credulity as they accepted me back with a joyful greeting. It would take a couple of days till the actually was to come back and be tested for the work and I couldn’t wait to get a hang of my decision.
When I inserted the replica key three days later and listened to the clanking adjusting of the inner lock binding together it was like hitting jackpot at random after just one wild guess. My pretentious wonder around the door in an unsuspecting time and my potent oscilation of it examining its function was comparable to a theatrical play that meant to drag the eyes away while I check over the door lock and see weather there was a match and nobody seemed to notice anything of what I was doing.
The field was all set and when we got back together over my place with the guys we set out the concrete plan that made me shudder a bit when I was confronted with it as if an elusive thought that was distant and abstract finally materialized before my eyes and now I had to make sure it would actually work.
The plan was all set by Axel who seemed eager enough to ignore any sort of feedback from us and he presented his idea with one swipe that left no room for a reaction while he used our little whiteboard to draw his detailed plan.
“We are heading there on Friday that everyone is keen to leave as fast as possible and we don’t have to worry about next day’s work”. “We can stay over the lecture theatre that stands at the end of the hall that is barely used and we can get by unnoticed till eveyone leaves”. “Once the field is clear, the whole lab is ours for the taking” he finished with a slight bowing that depicted his unbearable trust in his plan.
“And how do you know the theater is not used?” asked Joshua. “Maybe you need a back up plan in case something goes wrong”. “And wouldn’t be good if there was a third person to cover your tracks?”
His excitement to join us on the mission was cut short immediately by Axel who didn’t want to take any extra risks or creating any more suspicion by having more people to it. But he also seemed quite knowledgable about the personnel and their schedule surpassed even my information about it and he seemed to have done a good study about the whole thing on his own.
We procedded as planed, on the coming Friday and we waiting strenously on the afternnon till everyone was gone which incliding the cleaning personel and security guards that were always checking every room before closing it down took another two hours on its own. During the whole time we stayed over a little side room in the hall before the theater that was used as storage and it was evident that nobody had checked for a long time.
When we entered the lab it was like a person that is given his freedom after long torturous imprisonment under the worst conditions or having a great meal with a lavish table that has a bit of everything where he can cover his hunger.
The lab had a completely different character without all the noise and the people that usually were swooping around. There was an cofounding silence so much so that even the slightest movement or rustle of our clothes was easily distinguishable within the total serenity of the place. Plus there was a simmering guilt from my part at least that made me over conscious of the lightest sound, or cue that made me jittering like I had received an overwhelming amount of caffeine in my veins all at once.
We decided to keep the lights closed just in case the shine was visible through the windows. The lab was located at the west side of the building and it was facing the side street right after the perimeterical fence, through which any passer-by could detect the gleam if he cared enough to pay attention to it.
So we used a dim flashlight that we planted over the desk and the glorious machine that was sleeping under the deem light went only partially visible as it was occuping the whole back wall and seemed like another regular piece of furniture in an ordinary room. In reality, it was a beast of electrodes and cables that were yielding through its surface and had numerous controls and buttons that were handling every aspect of it. At the side of it there was standing the corresponding monitor that I and Axel used for our work and it snapped out into life immediately once we pressed over the power button that grilled with a vibrational wave as it turned up and loaded its internal function.
Once we loaded our software on top of the existing kernel, a journey began that took us the whole night and we dived right into it without wasting any second of time. That was the one opportunity we had to actually test our creation in a real-working full-fledged computer and we could twitch and work on it in ways that would impossible to do without it. ‘The nucleous’ was like a good parasite that was living on a bigger host and was directing it as it pleased by controlling its mind. Only in that case this parasite was much friendlier to the user than the actual machine and it would act like an intermediary translator that could handle commands on behalf of it as if it could speak both languages. Or so was our aspiration at least cause there were multiple errors in processes that we didn’t fathom and the time it would take to solve them would far exceed the limited window we had that night.
“Why don’t we get one of the backup units with us as we leave,” suggested Axel, “I doubt anyone would even notice”.
It was true that right beside the actual machine there was standing inside a wooden shelf another unit of the same core CPU that actually the had the exact equal capabilities and speed as the real one. It was a back up that was supposed to keep the system running in case the actual one got some sort of damage and acted like a treasured super-expensive piece of hardware that besides its amazing quality and material was sitting in the dust doing nothing for a long time now.
But unfortunately, there was no way to actually take out something without raising huge suspicion and intensifying the level of security in the university in general so it was clear that this plan was not a real option for us but we both knew quite well that this wouldn’t be the last time we would penetrate the facility and that it was necesary to repeat it multiple times till the end of the cycle.
And as it turned out we ended up infiltrating the lab every Friday for the next six months and we would always use a little slump in the fence on the other side of the building to get out of the campous when the time had come for it and forunately for us, no one really took any notice of our doings during the whole duration of it other than a stray dog that was usually asleep in the far end corner.
The next period passed like a haze in a dream for I really don’t remember much out of it other than the excruciating work we were doing trying to finish the product. It was incredible how many details were lurking behind every corner and every time we thought we had finally covered a case another angle would present itself that would require us to get back into the guts of it and had to change it to accomodate the new scenario as well.
The delay got so bad that we got quite anxious about the advancement of Intel’s team that we knew they were working with the exact same goal with us and we had to overcome -in both speed and quality- if we were to have any hope.
The feeling got so much out of hand that Axel suggested once again the most unfathomable and aggressive plan we could anticipate. Counterspy on the enemy field as if there was a cold wat going and we had to deploy some sort of intelligence to gain the advantage.
Now it is important to note that Axel was never such a forthcoming, belligerent person to ever employ such tactics in the past. He was actually the most jovial and easy-going character of all three of us. He would always allow others to have their go with things and would go the extra mile at times just to avoid conflicts so much so that in one case I remember he would even ask me about Joshua’s preferences so that he could chose the best video-game gift he could.
Had you asked me back then whether there was a different Axel lurking behind his shy, and polite demenour I would never believe it but it so happened that this new Axel that was standing across us had developed a strong appetite for all things illegal and he was willing to do anything just to win this battle.
In that particular case he even knew about the bar that Intel’s employees would frequent at. He knew some of the important people involved in the project, -both by names and roles in the company- he knew the scedule they had in Thirsdays that they would all gather up in the corner bar right after work for a few drinks and he had even learned a few things about where the project was at the moment and how much progress they had done in general although it was still quite vague and uncertain in terms of being ehlpful because even when things move at a fast pace it can still take a long time for a company to deliver a product like that especially if it has so much at stake with its name.
And in that case what was the actual super-villain master plan exactly? We would head over to this bar like normal customers and pretend we all had a good time while luring the prey right into our net and approaching them like team-spirited friends from which we would extract some sort of vital clue about where they are at.
Did anyone really believe that such a wild plan had a real chance of success? Not really, not by a long shot, but at the same time the cost of actually trying it was minimal and Axel insisted so decisively on it that we had no choice but to follow along with his plan not so much out of sharing his idea but just to appease his fury. Plus a little bit of break time after so many days of hard work felt quite deserving in some way and a casual night out even under these circumstances was something we all secretly dreaded without ever admitting it.
“Bar one” was an excurtingly bigger lounge than what its small door would indicate from the outside and the hall would extend underground in a little turn as if it was occupying two or three times the normal size. It was characterized by jagged, rough walls that were purposefully left naked in the ruggedness and the light would shine its dimmed ambiance in the warm, yellow light that was pouring out of small candle like lambs in the side.
The place was half full already besides the early time and the customers seemed as if they were attached there forever, having passed already to the last stage of the night.
But even so, it wasn’t hard to depict the actual people we were looking for as they were quite a prominent place at the end corner of the shop wearing mostly white professional shirts and having the fog, eyeglasses that would always denote the computer employee like a standard stereotype that comes true.
They must have been close to ten people that all seemed to belong to the same overal group although they were broken down into smaller teams and they seemed quite elegant in their manners and attentive in a way that it would stand out in realtion to the rest in the bar.
We approached the same dedicated area and we assumed the role of the carefree, blithe customers making sure that we keep a low profile till we find a way to penetrate their shield. Our clothes were already matching their style as well as Axel had made sure to enforce ‘good shirt’ rules on us in the way a professional would be dressed and we actually made it so that there was no much difference perceived between them and us in matters of appearance.
I was quite sure that we had little chances of getting any real information we could use about this even if we did manage to open up their group but within just a few minutes Axel once again took the initiatives and spoke to a couple of guys that were standing at the edge the group and were closer to us in proximity.
“Have you guys ever seen a real-time super-computer? My friend over here actully works on one of the best in existence at the moment that they have in University.”
The remark by Axel was quite abrupt and blunt to utter to someone you never met before and for a moment I thought they would just turn their back to us and leave for our rude intrusion, but after a small pause -that spanned for a few minutes in my mind- one of the guys put out a big grin in his face as he glanced back at me as he reassessed his status by affirming that his position was in one of the most technologically advanced companies in existence and he described how he was working constantly on big computers that were not even available in the market.
Maybe it was the innate charisma of Axel who always seems to make his way around people or maybe it was pure luck and the guys would be open to anyone for some mild chit char in a situation like this. Either way Axel achieved the first step of the process and not only we opened a discussion with them at the bar but we also introduced the subject of computers in general which placed the base for us to continue to the second step.
“Even if computers become cheaper evetually” declared Axel at a later stage, “it would be still quite hard to catch up with the world simply because of the difficulty to use them,”
The guy stumbed back at the comment and with a big arrogant snarl, he once again asserted his superior knowledge for a second time.
“That’s the situation now, pal but give it a few months and things are going to be quite different. We are currently working on a system that once it comes its gonna take the world by the masses.”
At that point, Axel kept his cool preserving his ignorant smile as if he had listened to nothing particularly interesting, and when he casually asked when the system was to come out the guy responded that it shouldn’t take more than 3 to 4 months which was much less than the time we had in mind for them.
Based on our estimation we always thought it would take at least 8 months for it to be finished and based on the distribution and marketing parameters it would well go around a year or so we had calculated at least. Based on the revelations the situation was quite different and even though we continued our chat for a while like normal we all three knew quite well that this information would change much of the existing plans we had made.
Right after the unanticipated news that came that day it was a fury battle between us and the software that was fueling harsher and harsher the closer we were getting in the deadline. We had canceled pretty much anything else from our lives and I had abandoned pretty much all other areas just for the sake of it.
I hadn’t seen Mia for more than two weeks and at that point I didn’t realize that this obsession of mine would lead to the end of our relationship later on – it was actually not much long after that Mia came one afternoon and ended things between us not withstanding the constant absence, the unresponded messages and the huge vancancy I was creating in her life.
Out of the four months, we had available in general the first two passed like a sweep of air that we were so focused that nothing else mattered on what happened in the world. It wouldn’t be an overexaggeration to say that some of us would constantly hanging our in an armchair sleeping of exhaustion at all times, day or night, or that the coffee machine would work so hard during that time that we had to change it twice.
The jittering, skittish, battered version of me only got awakened reluctuntly by the coming of a new misfortune that found me out of the blue, two months in the process and one month before we were to publish the product. Mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she was scheduled to undergo mastectomy within only weeks or she run the danger of it expanding throughout.
It was a very critical situation and one of those that unless luck put its finger in the situation it was to take very dismal proportions. But what we never anticipated was the fact that the actual procedure of it that was meant to be handled by health insurance denied to cover for the whole amount – leaving a huge amount of money to be given that would be very hard to find.
On top of it all the company my mother was working on, a big marketing firm that was at the forefront of many of the top advertising campaigns, denied any mix on the issue and refused to give any hand of help in us as if they had no direct implication with the issue. How could it be exactly that affluent cooperation with so much money at hand that it wouldn’t know how to spend it, wouldn’t give a helping hand to one of its own employees its beyond anyone’s imagination. But I can say for sure that it was that incident that fueled a big part of my upcoming revulsion for these big businesses and it was right then that my idea of them changed radically to utter disgust.
We finally did manage to get funding out of the state after a period of prolonged bureaucracy and paperwork but we managed to get the process rolling in time and get her under the procedure that she handled in a truly gracious manner. There are truly no words to describe how painful this process can be both physically and mentally and I still believe that mother was never the same person after it. Like something had deeply changed in her even though she never admitted it.
It was during this whole process that I couldn’t be fully present with the work the guys were doing. And I swear that one day as it happened to pay an unexpected visit to Joshua’s house -where they used to occupy the garaze for their work now that I wasn’t always available, I found them both missing and his father to whom I happpened to speak to revealed that they were already speaking with some bysness middlemen that were supposed to help us promote our work.
In his innocent blabber, of course, he thought that I knew all about this and when he asked me why I wasn’t there with them I answered that it was merely a miscommunication and that I mistakenly thought we would meet there initially.
Why hadn’t they notify me about their upcoming meeting at all during this time? One thought would be that they didn’t want to bother me with such issues during this hard time for me but the truth was that this was a very improbable scenario. Knowing their cynical nature they would most definitely have found a way to message me about the event, give me some subtle hint about the progress, or let me know how well they are advancing in general.
What was the most plausible scenario was that they were simply testing the waters in the market beside my back and they wouldn’t shy away from striking a deal if the opportunity was to come to them. No matter what I did, I had to make sure from then on to always keep an eye on them and never let them work seperately on their own like the had done for the last few weeks.
“Ethan you are wasting your time. How many times do I have to tell you that?” would ask Stepehn with an unusual potency. “A person with your talent cannot be squanderring on dreams or blowing his time away with wastrels. You think a bunch of kids can put up a fight with the big organizations that can throw millions without batting an eye? They will eat you alive Ethan..”
This day he had been almost uncontrolable in his decry and no matter what I tried to appease his speach he would just ignore it and continue on like a train with no breaks.
He had just revealed to me a whole new opportunity that was informed to him explicitly to offer to a student he would judge most appropriate. Intel would acquire every now and then the top of the crop out of the university with the help of some dedicated professor that would assume the role -Stephen had been doing this for at least the last 5 years for all I knew- and he would promote to them the CVs of the most capable students they had available. This year they had a position available and Stephen made the best he could to conivce me that it would the best path possible for me to take.
“Opportunities do not come often Ethan. You need to take them when they appear to you or the window will close without having the chance of redemption.”
He would always make things as dramatic as possible, but I did consider it to be a safe way out without the drag that our project would entail which once again had to be prolonged for it to be finalized. We had already reached out on our deadline and we had completely missed the mark once again having at least a few more weeks before actually releasing it.
In the meantime, although things with the guys had been stabilized between us in terms of our work together, there was a huge mistrust lurking among us and any mention of this new opportunity by me could be lethal for our partnership.
In the end I agreed to meet the guys for an interview as long as I would have a couple of months to finish the project I had at hand. No matter what I did though I knew I had to share nothing of this with the guys who would immediately object to me if I was to reveal any of it to them.
Ian’s studio was a colorful amalgamation of pictures and design patterns that he meticulously had gathered over the years and hanged over the walls as an inspiring display. He was a dedicated, full-time designer that would always make sure to sarround himself with aesthetic visual that would “sprinkle your imagination” as he used to say or dress in tantalizing clothes that he would combine in strange ways many times with annoying effects for those around him. Were you to open his gardraobe at any time and you would find the most intricate, diverting, extravagant clothes you would expect to find on a man and he usually he would occupy himself with some drawing or artistic photography he used to tangle with as a hobby at least when he wasn’t spending any time with Lizzy.
When I visited him a few days later after a long time of seclusion from anything related to the outer world, I learned that he was let go by his company and he was already in the search for something new although in the first look of him he seemed quite despondent.
His usual enthusiastic furrows in his face made of the strong expressions he used to take had given place to a blazing look and his eyes had this glassy expression as if he wasn’t interested in anything in particular. Crumpled drawings were hurled in his room -as if he had made multiple attempts to find an outlet through art but with no result- and Lizzy was nowhere to be found as it was usually the case and it all pointed out that they had some strong fight that left him even more bedridden than he was before.
“It’s all gone” he uttered with a joker smile and a beer in his hand as if nothing mattered to him anymore. “There is nothing to do about it”.
To which I joined him as we both leaned backwards in the wall and I let him expand over his feelings. It turned out that after the news on his company he had returned home to have a huge fight with Lizzy who was quite irritable lately and they ended up splitting up on the spur of the moment. He didn’t want to expand into too many details that day but we kept on drinking and drinking till night and I can remember that there was a feeling of utter despair in the air but also the liberating freedom that can only be found after great tragedies
When we actually finished the product we immediately struck a deal with a prominent distributor to release it starting with a smaller circle initially and growing on later in time as it was necessary to get some sort of feedback before moving further with the campaign. It didn’t take long for bigger organizations and facilities to use the platform and give a positive review and we actually had a new offer at hand by one of the biggest computer manufacturers in place. IBM itself.
They offer to meet with us and they made an offer that was crafted in a way that would give them full rights in the software and they would get away with our hard work for crumbs in return.
“5 percent commision out of every sell plus an intial fee that will be delivered to us equivalent to a few months of work for each person,” stated Axel with the paper in hand. “That is pure bullshit.”
His pride would never allow him to submit to such an exploiting deal and knowing the revolting character that always pushed him against the big guns I could trust that no matter how big the name was he would never give up the “rights” to his own “creation” and he would fight for it with teeth and nails like a mother deer that would throw itself to the vultures if it was to save its babies.
Joshua on the other hand took once again the total opposite side of things and adopting the posture of the hands steepling together and forming a little brige where he declared that we should consider the suggestion as quiite legitimate and we shouldn’t turn our back on it so fast cause we could be losing a great opportunity.
“What does it matter if they keep so much? They hold the whole market already”. “If we don’t get this opportunity then someone else will and we will lose all access to the customers altogether.”
His objections kept going ceaselessly and one could feel how utterly scared he was about taking any kind of risk in the situation. After all the work we put into this project and all the heinous handling the big companies had employed both to my mother and to my brother I, personally, had no inclination in striking any deal with them at all and in a gracious message that we sent over to them we declare our disobedience with a high note.
“We are extremely grateful for the generous offer, but we decided to take a different course” the letter said and with that, we embarked into the unknown fully on our own with all the possibilities for success and disaster compounded together in one place.
When I entered the offices of Intel’s main division two weeks later it was like finding the place you always belonged to but never knew existed to seek out for it. There was a strenouous amount of detail characterized onto everthing from the way they had formulated the offices and desks and plants in the little halls in between the desks. David, the guy that guided me through their work and the position at hand was actually a close friend of Stephen and familiar with the work I had been doing in the last few months with the guys so much so that he could even tell me intricate details about it and ask me specific questions that only a person closely related to the subject could make.
How many compoenents did the system had? How did we handled threads, power or cases of failure? It would seem to someone that he was testing me with all these questions but I could see that he was actually more interesting about it himself that he was about checking my knowledge in general.
And what a splendid thing it is to find people that resonate with you on such a level. We spend the whole day from early in the morning all the way to the end of their shift as if I was one of the employees myself -arranged so that I could get a sense of the environment myself and see how well it fitted with me. He showed me some of their work in their main division, their core CPU compponents and their plans for the future, some of which was to be released no sonner than many years later and there was not a single moment that I didn’t wondered and awed in the amazing things I saw.
Oh dear reader, you can judge my descion all you want but there is nothing like finding that place you were always looking for and I knew from the first moment I got there this was meant for me.
When the papers were passed over the table there was a moment that time stopped and everything slowed down for a while. And I knew that I had no other way to go but to sign them and open up this door that siddenly openeed for me.
The following few weeks seemed so overly surreal that there is nothing that I can that to describe the innumerable irony and joke the Gods played on us over a series of overlapping realities that felt like a wellcrafted prank more than anything else.
For one thing our product seemed to be doing fine overall, getting the necessary good critics here or there as we were hoping to and it all seemed that our choice to not sign the contract with IBM was the correct one for they would have strangled all life out of our creation for their own benefit.
But then it wasn’t long before the situation changed radically and we learned the news that delivered a strong blow in all of our hopes. IBM had actually approached Intel right at the same time they had approached us and they had agreed in a deal to get out their product and ship with their hardwatre right at the moment it would be available.
Now it would be nice to say that both products could have coexisted in an harmonious union where people could happily use both according to their subtle differences. But what happened was beyond anyone’s imagination and shattered any sort of dream we hold of it for good as if all hopw waas lost. Their operating system occupied all the shelves in the tech-stores, filled all the existing computers with its software and even made all of our existing to drop immediately and lose every little client we had available. Not only we lost all of our customers but we saw the same competitor we were so obssesed against and thought we had under control, make its way into the market and dominating every little niche making apparent the wrong way we handled everything.
We saw our product diminishing into ashes while they made millions on end and they monopolized the whole industry making everybody talk about their amazing achievemnt.
Did they actually approach me just to get a better view of our work? Probably. But judge me not because the situation wouldn’t have changed at all no matter what I would have decided on and I would have lost the chance to find this job alongside losing everything else. Of course, it took a long time before tellingthe guys about the deal and when I actually did it our friendhship was already well beyond repair for somehow they would accuse each other decisions of what happened.
Joshua ended up getting back to his father’s business in selling raw material all around the US and Axel got his dream job as a marketing associate which he triumphed in and was much more suitable than anything else he could take.
As for me I may not realize this fanciful dream but I still got to revamp my relationship with Mia together with the job I so enjoyed doing. And this proved to be much more fulfilling than anything else.0