writing chapter 6.1
Midafternoon in the secret foodcourt. With all the office droids back at work, the cavernous hall was empty and echoing as the vendors prepared to close up. Nathan was precleaning the surfaces of the B’stro D L’te with bleach water and a rag, wiping down things he might or might not have to clean again, like the counters, the sides of the drink machine, the front of the display case.
Caroline was leaning up against one of the spots he’d likely be recleaning, her hand way down the back of her shirt, scratching between her shoulder blades, grunting with every scrabble. “So,” she said, lowering her arm and looking under her fingernails, “I’ve been assigned to work Dragoncon this year, did I tell you?”
“That’ll be a trip,” Nathan said. He dipped his rag into the tub of bleach water and squeezed it out. The sharp smell of bleach made his nose sting. He knelt down and started wiping the back of the case.
“You ever work Dragoncon, kid?” she asked, peering over at the top of his head and eyeing the cookie case. She was feeling peckish.
“I don’t work on the weekends,” Nathan said. He was scrubbing something gooey off the door. “I’m actually going to Dragoncon. It’s my first year – I’ve already got my ticket.”
“Yeah, no,” she laughed. “Everybody works Dragoncon. Maybe you’ll have to work all four days.” She shook her finger at him in warning, then arched over to the cookie case and pried the door open.
Nathan stood up and dropped the rag into the tub. “Oh, right, I guess I should talk to my boss. I got my mom a ticket, too.” He grabbed the tongs and got Caroline a cookie. The cookie case needed recleaning now.
“I’ll have a word with him for you.” She leered at him and took a large bite.
“Um,” he tried to decline. “I’ll be okay.” He could just see Caroline bullying his boss. He’d be fired on the spot.
She shifted her weight to the other foot and crossed her arms on her chest. “I’ll tell you what, tho. Dragoncon is going to have to pay me extra this time.” She started rocking from side to side, favoring her aching feet. “I’m finally retiring, after decades of chasing bad guys. I’m too old to stand around watching dumpy men in bodysuits trying to shoplift.” She paused and ate another bite hungrily. “Tho I can always go for an endless stream of cute young thangs dressed up like superheroines.” She was almost drooling.
Nathan looked away, embarrassed. Caroline reminded him of his dad, always showing the worst side of himself to people and demanding praise for it. So he beamed approval at her and did his work while she showed her ass. She trailed off after a few obscenities and returned to fantasizing her coming retirement, and once again Nathan heard the bitter story of persecution and a stolen pension.
Down at the other end of the foodcourt, Anomia rounded the corner, walking swiftly, her curls bouncing and her shoes clacking against the marble floors. Kurt had called a meeting, and she had to sneak away from her work “for a bite to eat” in order to make it. Normally she never had time for lunch, so she never thought about eating. But now that she was down here, she was hungry.
Caroline watched her purposeful march. “Here comes a ballbreaker. She can crack mine anytime.” She grabbed her crotch and squeezed. Nathan rolled his eyes.
Anomia came up to the counter. “Hi,” she said to Nathan, who blushed. She scanned the salads in the display case. “Can I have the chicken penne pesto, please?”
“Sure thing. I’d have to waste it anyway because there’s not enough to save, so you get a discount.”
“Thanks,” she said brightly. “I’ll remember that.”
Caroline sniggered and elbowed Anomia. “Penne. That’s mexican for cock. Didja know that?” She pointed to Nathan spooning salad into a styrofoam box. “See, they look like little dicks, don’t they?”
Anomia smiled politely and turned back to Nathan. “Can I have a diet smartwater, too? Thanks.”
Fairy walked up as she was paying, and they blew air kisses at each other around the food container. Fairy turned to consider her lunch choices, ranting about parking lots and their attendants. She bustled around troubling Nathan for tastes of several salads, and finally just got a cookie.
Caroline caught Nathan’s eye and mimicked mounting Fairy from behind. She smiled at his grimace and moved off to keep her eye on two guys who’d just entered at the far end of the hall. “I’ll be back for dessert,” she called, and pumped her fist suggestively.
The boys came into the foodcourt together, ignoring the girls and heading for the coffee stand. At the milk and sugar counter snake whipped out a flask and spiked their coffee, winking at Caroline as she passed with a scowl on her face. “Let’s go off to the smoking balcony and burn one,” Snake suggested.
“Nah,” Josh said, resigned. “They’ve seen us.”
Snake looked around. “Yeah? Well, where’s the star of our show, then? Come on.” And they ducked out into the open air with their coffees. It was hot and humid as only Atlanta air can be, and noisy from the traffic below, and smelly from the exhaust, so they powered thru the joint and got back into the air conditioning. Joining the girls, they spent a few minutes watching them eat, then went and got their own STBXfood from the chinese express in the corner.
They sat at a table near the center aisle waiting for Kurt. Nathan could see them clearly and sometimes hear them as he started closing for real.
Anomia kept looking at her phone to see how much time she could allow herself to waste.
Fairy noticed, and said, “Got a date?”
“A deadline, of course,” she smiled grimly. “A vitally important deadline. And I’m risking my job to be here.”
“Poor you,” Fairy sympathized, checking her phone for messages. “As for myself, I’m waiting on a date.”
The boys were playing football with the garnish from their coffees, flicking roasted beans across the table thru goalpost fingers, their open food containers lining the field like stands.
“What’s all this bullshit about, anyway?” Snake grumbled, missing his shot. “Don’t we all have better things to do?”
“Something’s going to happen,” Fairy quoted. “Something wonderful.”
Snake gave her the finger. “I was not at all impressed with the quantum speck he showed us last time.”
“Well, he must have finished the game engine, or he’d never have called us,” Anomia reasoned as she scraped up the last of her pasta and closed her container.
“I’ve got to say I’m looking forward to moving on to the next phase,” Fairy confessed, eyeing Snake’s goopy chicken.
“I’m tired of boring fucking work,” he groused. “I’m not even sure what we’re doing. Planning to prepare to get ready to do something, real soon now.”
“Without a game engine, we’re just marching in place. I can’t lay anything out, and there’s nothing to animate,” Josh pointed out. “We can’t really do anything until Kurt gets off the pot.”
Fairy leaned over and used her manicured nails as chopsticks to pick a piece of chicken out of Snake’s container. “Nobody’s filling out their progress sheets, either,” she complained around a full mouth. “You have no idea how hard you’re making it for me.” She licked the sauce off her fingers and reached for another bite.
“Make something up if you want them filled out,” Snake suggested, moving the box out of her reach. She sulked.
“I wonder what’s keeping him,” Josh declared finally, breaking an extended silence.
“He’s acting very secretive,” Fairy observed.
“How do you know he’s not always like that?” Anomia asked. “He’s probably just really busy with what he’s doing.”
“Well, he hasn’t answered any of my emails.”
“I wouldn’t either,” Snake said. “I mean, it’s not like you ever get to the point. If I wanted missives I’d read a blog.”
“Wow, that’s really insensitive, Snake,” Anomia protested.
“Sorry,” he sneered.
“He talks to me,” Nathan said. He was sweeping out the front of the store, just a few yards from their table. They turned to him in surprise.
“So how’s he doing, then?” Snake asked, one side of his mouth curling up.
“Fine.” Nathan continued sweeping.
“With the project, I mean.” Snake made hurry-up motions with his hand.
“Well, he’s almost finished with the game engine.”
“That’s what I thought,” Josh said.
Snake spread his hands and looked incredulous.
“And he was talking about putting together a device…”
“Do you know why we’re here right now?” Snake snapped.
“Uh, no?” Nathan said, round eyed.
“But you do know what we’re working on, don’t you?” he demanded. Nathan nodded. “Isn’t this some sort of security breech?” Snake asked the others, the outrage showing on his face.
“Snake,” Anomia said reasonably.
But Nathan answered, wanting to be noticed. “I know you’re working on a game based on that vision you had that gives you special powers,” he said. Josh and Anomia nodded. Snake was still. “And Kurt made a quantum computer, and now he’s developing a suite of game creation apps for it. That’s about it, right?”
Snake slowly made a fist and then pounded the table. “He’s telling everybody. I thought he had some discretion. Lots of people would be very interested to know about our project, you know. And he’s blabbing to fucking kids.”
Nathan put his head down and went back to sweeping, moving away.
“Chill out, dude,” Josh said. “I just hope he’s not expecting us to work on that weak-ass phone he showed us last time. I’m thinking my eyes’ll go bad laying down static mesh.”
“I use a Wacom tablet and a 22″ monitor when I do graphic work.” Anomia pointed in the direction of her workstation upstairs.
“Hush up,” Fairy said. “Here comes Kurt.”
They turned, but it wasn’t Kurt. It was some corporate IT manager on his way to a meeting. He was Kurt’s build, but had more confidence and didn’t shamble as much. His glasses were unbroken, his hair was neatly pulled back.
“It’s not,” Josh said. “Kurt’s beard is never trimmed.”
“He’s wearing corporate casual.” Anomia laughed. “Those are pressed slacks.”
“And new shoes,” Fairy said. “Hey, I want a messenger bag like that.”
Snake asked, “Is that a phone velcroed to his wrist?”
The closer he got, the more confused they became. He never looked like Kurt, but he walked like him, and finally he veered right at them and slowed to a stop in front of their table, glancing at each of them in turn.
After weeks (subjective years) spent in Cocoon of Code(tm) programming headspace, Kurt had finally emerged onto his parking deck all sticky and his eyes gloppy and his clothes on wrong. He scratched, and his fingernails filled with black grime. He stood yawning in the sun, stretching and practicing modest bows. People avoided him, expecting him to hit them up for money. He reeked. He was grimy, with shards of ramen dusting his hair. His hands were black with graphite, several new (partial) tattoos peeking from the edges of his shirt. He’ was bemused to find the tattoos, and the puncture wounds itched. Whatever else had happened, he would thankfully never know, but he’d returned from his shamanic somnolence clutching a miracle that would save humanity from the great peril of the age, singlehandedly introducing the future with the new, groundbreaking, earthshaking, revolutionary mega-OS brand quantum computer strapped to his arm. Or so the ad in his head ran.
Kurt decided to go for a redneck spa day once his eyes got used to the light, cruising the forty miles (in any direction) to the big outlet mall. He showered at a truckstop, where he fumigated and washed the van, too. Then he got new clothes at the mall and stuffed himself at the buffet.
Back in town, he parked his gleaming van in a new yuppie apartment village, got his split ends trimmed at the gay barber shop, then went down the street and plopped himself in a massage chair for a mani-pedi while he had a beer and let the chair rub the kinks out. He joked about a happy ending and the girls got offended, so it cost him his last twenty to cover the embarrassment, and he spent time kicking himself for not having the courage to think of it back at the truckstop, which dampened his buzz.
Then, on the way back to his van, he scared himself with his reflection in a storefront. Jesus, I look like a narc, he realized. He noticed a tag dangling from his collar, and ripped the seam pulling it off. He was a little nervous, because the quantum computer was his baby and he was attached to even the trailing ends of tape on the customized tablets he was fixing to hand out to the Philistines. But by the time he spilled coffee on his pants, he was back to being proud of his invention, certain proof of his genius – to spite them all. Just because he didn’t have an office in a mighty corporation and didn’t make six figures and get great benefits and stock options and didn’t control an army of peons and droids and didn’t have to worry about deadlines and budget overruns and getting laid off. Here he was, fixing to show them all.
Snake was the first to recover as Kurt stood looking from one to the other. “Ah, that’s why he’s late – he was taking a bath.”
Kurt frowned and thumped his bag onto the table, flipping the lid over and rummaging thru the contents.
“Hey Kurt,” Snake started, pointing at Nathan behind the counter. “Who’s the inquisitive kid?”
Kurt straightened up. “He’s my apprentice.” That shut them up. He saw them exchanging looks. “What, you think I talk about this with everybody? I never talk to anybody.” He reached back into the bag. “I brought stuff.”
Kurt fetched out a tablet computer. “No iPad?” Snake asked sadly.
Kurt gave it to Anomia, who felt around for the on button. He explained the features. “It’s a ten-inch android tablet with some useful freeware I installed, a custom game engine I wrote, stickon solar batteries I printed, and this cool reactive touchscreen I hacked.” He took out another tablet and pointed at the screen area. “You’ll notice that I replaced the touchscreen with instabuttons that I developed myself, sort of. The touch screen is permeable, and it’s on a gel substrate that oozes up and makes keys, buttons, edges, even a 3D viewscreen. Tho I’m still working out some kinks.”
“Did you buy these tablets?” Snake asked.
“I acquired some spare ones,” he said, handing the tablet to Josh, who showed Anomia how to turn it on. She peered at the icons on her screen.
“They came off a truck, right? Did they bounce?” Snake nudged Josh. Fairy glared at them.
Kurt gave the third tablet to Fairy, who stroked its glass screen and fondled its round corners as it powered up. “Never mind the hardware,” he said. “The real difference is the quantum kernel and the interface that runs it, the features of which I’m only just discovering, to be honest. It’s pretty, um, intuitive.” The others didn’t understand him, so he let it pass.
He handed the last tablet to Snake, who turned it over in his hand, suspicious. “Tell me, was it new before you started ripping it apart, because, I mean – ductape? It didn’t break when it hit the ground, did it?”
“I guess you’d call it refurbished. I made a lot of special modifications myself.”
“You’ve been waiting since the seventies to use that line, haven’t you?” Snake muttered.
“They’re running linux for handhelds, in case you want to know,” Kurt finished. They sat staring at their tablets. “Maybe that’s too much information. It all runs a bit differently with the kernel, anyway. Oh yeah.” He fished into his bag and handed out diy stylus pens to everyone. “I knew you’d want one,” he said to Anomia.
“It’s got Photoshop?” she asked, looking up from a fruitless search thru the icons.
“I’m serious, why can’t we use Microsoft or Apple?” Snake whined. “Why can’t I run it on my laptop?”
“I use a Mac,” said Anomia.
“I’ve got a kickass Windows gaming desktop at home,” Snake said.
“I don’t know,” Josh said, strumming his tablet like a guitar, “I think this is pretty cool.”
“Microsoft and Apple are evil,” Fairy said. She beamed at Kurt. “I use linux at home.”
Kurt shrugged. “Android is open source, iOS is overrated, Windows sucks. It’s a no brainer.”
Nathan, looking on, had Windows on his school laptop but had installed a partition and was running Ubuntu on the other side. Caroline, lurking around the trash cans, didn’t even know how to open a laptop, and on the other side of the world, Radhu’s work computer was an ancient PC running all illegal software.
“I’ve been reading your emails,” Kurt continued. Fairy shot a victorious look at Snake – my emails. “You’re complaining about all the subplots and miniquests you have to write,” he said to Josh, “and the repetitive design process,” with a nod to Fairy. “But not any more.” He sounded like a salesman for a moment. “Because of the quantum kernel, the engine takes the most basic input – like a file from a library, or something from an image search, even a written description – intuits what you’re trying to build, and gives you a range of choices. And if you select one and send it back, it’ll return a bunch of permutations of that choice too. That’s the kernel at work – the intuition part.”
Kurt ignored him. “Now, this game engine I wrote,” he said. “I could have used any of a number of others, but I thought I’d start from scratch, to take advantage of the unique features of the quantum kernel.” It sounded good, but the truth was that he’d been sleep programming, and had the engine in the can – bug-free – before he woke the next morning with his face in a bowl of coffee ramen.
“I’d better read the manual, I guess,” Josh said dubiously.
“What manual? You’re just going to have to get in there and figure it out.”
“Sure,” Snake added, “You can do a tutorial for everybody. Make a wiki.”
“Good idea,” Kurt agreed. “Tho I’m not sure I’ll be making any more. It’s just something I whipped up for this project, you know.”
Snake looked at him. “Duh, you could license the operating system.”
Kurt shrugged. “I did a demo,” he continued. “Just to show it works, and kind of mess with the features a bit. I took one of your landscapes,” he nodded to Anomia, “and made a height map, and sculpted some terrain, and then applied a day and night cycle. Simple. I got the rock texture online, by the way.” He thumbed the demo onscreen and zoomed around it, a beautiful 3D rendering of a vast, cold, flat place fringed with mountains, the sky a blue not found in nature, the floor tiled with clumsy pixelated rocks.
Josh and Snake looked at each other with raised eyebrows. The demo was clunky. They were dubious.
“Now, I haven’t looked at the physics yet, or collision detection, or animation – any of the complicated stuff. And for now the AI is just a placeholder sprite. I’m having a little trouble branching it from the kernel,” he explained. “So I guess in general it’s pretty basic, but I’m happy with it.”
Josh and the girls made awed and grateful noises.
“Amateurs,” Snake muttered, lifting his tablet by a tail of ductape and letting it thump back onto the table.
“I’m not an artist, okay?” Kurt protested. “You’ve still got to do all the modeling and everything yourselves. I’ve just made it a million times easier and given you all the tools you need. So I’m done.” He flipped the bag shut.
“I’m curious,” Snake said suddenly. “Where’s the kernel? Is there only one?”
“It’s actually a meaningless question.” Kurt replied shortly. “Okay, yes and no. There’s kind of only one, because I only made one, and it’s a physical thing. You saw it.”
Snake shook his head. “We failed to see it, but that’s okay. Go on.”
“Well, two things about that. The first is that inside the kernel there are a million others, like seeds, or like a nut that contains a whole tree inside itself. And second, it’s been uploaded into your tablets now, so there are copies.”
“I guess that’s a no it’s not the only one,” Snake said impatiently. “Except for the actual chip, which is still taped to your phone, right?”
Kurt frowned. “No, that wasn’t a good idea. The tape came unstuck and I had a hard time telling the chip from all the other dust, so I put the whole thing somewhere safe.”
“I mean, because you’ll need a working prototype when you go for patenting and investors, right?” Snake reminded him.
Kurt chuckled dryly. “Yeah, like I could document any of it,” he said. “Anyway, I’d release it open source.”
“Um,” Anomia said as Kurt moved to go. “I don’t know Blender, I’m used to Photoshop, but it’s doing something strange. And the browser…”
“Hmm. That’s not my department. What’s going on?” He bent over to see her screen.
“It’s kind of anticipating what I want to do. Like, I’m thinking about selecting this image,” she hovered the mouse pointer over a random landscape, “and it opens up in the program as an unwrapped UV skymap, ready for editing.” She clicked the preview. “I did it once like that, and now the program goes through the steps as if I recorded a macro. Is it normal to autocomplete like this? It’s kind of spooky.”
Kurt watched the image rotating slowly in 3D. “Well, the program’s a little glitchy on this device, maybe, but,” he paused. “It could be the kernel, I suppose. I mean, it’s only a simple operating system. It’s not supposed to fuck around with other software. Let me know if you manage to break it.”
Kurt hoisted his empty messenger bag and said goodbye, then stopped to say hey to Nathan.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Nathan asked. He was hauling the trash to the elevator.
“Now that you’ve got a working game engine?”
Kurt shook his head. “I’m not done. I’ve only got the shell of a proper engine, even tho it’s pretty awesome just as it is. I’ve got to finish it, and undoubtedly spend way too much energy playing customer service. But at the moment,” he leaned forward and smiled slyly. “I’m working on a total immersion rig for the game.”
“Wow,” Nathan guessed. “3D headsets and haptic gloves.”
“Yeah, you’ll be able to make them yourself.” He paused. “Listen, I hope you realize that the important thing isn’t the silly software I wrote in my sleep one night, or the next generation quantum-powered gamegear that will totally change the industry. The important thing is the quantum kernel. None of them care anything about it because they’ve got a game to make. But the kernel’s really powerful. All the hype they’ve ever uttered about quantum computing is true – you can do anything you want with it. So far there’s just my game engine. And it’ll be awhile before I understand enough to release the operating system.”
“What exactly is the kernel? I know you explained it, but.”
“I’m fuzzy on the details, actually. Think of it as an operating system so elegant that it wraps itself around a tiny quantum kernel, and acts as the entrance to the largest computer in the universe. It’s…” alive, he almost said. He shrugged. “I’m not sure exactly what it is.”
“The fairies made it while you were sleeping, huh?”
Kurt thought of Tesla and Reich. “How did you know? he asked sharply.
“No, that’s a saying my mom uses, that’s all,” he said, flustered. “It just means you probably spaced out and don’t remember having done something.”
“Right, that’s the point. I don’t remember writing it. It was all finished and locked down when I woke up.”
“Yeah, and I don’t know the password, and because the encryption is way fucking quantum, I’ll never break it.”
“Oh. But there’s a physical interface, right?”
Kurt waggled his hands yes and no. “It kind of has a virtual step-down converter so you can to connect to silicon.” He scratched his head. Wisps of hair came loose from his ponytail and floated around him. “There’s so much to learn, I’ll never be able to document it, that’s my main problem. I don’t have a fucking clue how it works. And,” he leaned closer and sounded worried, “I’m not sure it isn’t changing.” He stopped and pursed his lips. “Getting smarter.”
“You mean, like Hal?”
Kurt waved the thought away. “Nah, I don’t mean to scare you.”
“Joshua in War Games?”
“No, stop. Not like that. More like the Oversoul in the Homecoming Saga. Maybe. Tho how I can possibly know at this point…” He trailed off. “Well, anyway, it’s locked, and there’s only one of them, so what harm can come?”