Pay no attention to that nerd behind the curtain, Nick thought. This was Monty Meekman, the great and terrible? This nonentity? Talk about anticlimax.
Carl was right: Monty’s Mercedes was a ratty little rattletrap. Before Nick could even get into it he had to wrestle with the stubborn passenger door, then toss books and papers from the front seat into the back. It was bad enough that the car was so gross; what was worse was that it was unsafe. It had started to shimmy as soon as they hit twenty, and now that they were approaching highway speed a mass of empty coffee cups jostled about Nick’s feet like a sea of writhing snakes. It was hard to believe that this was it—the first face-to-face encounter of the mysterious billionaire genius and his reluctant protege: Monty had simply driven this pig-stye on wheels to the hot-dog stand where Nick was waiting for him and tooted his horn. He hadn’t even said hello yet.
Monty Meekman might be one of the richest people in the world, but clearly it wasn’t a passion for fine automobiles that had driven him to amass his wealth. For that matter, Nick couldn’t think of any material goods that attracted Monty’s interest, much less passion. Monty was not a person who wanted wealth for the usual reasons that people wanted wealth. Which raised the question: what did Monty want?
That’s what Carl Swirsing wanted to know, and it was a question that had intrigued Nick, too, for half a decade. Today would present Nick with his best chance to find out, but he had somehow lost all interest in the question. Screw Meekman, Nick thought. Who cared what that weirdo wanted out of life? Today Nick was interested in discovering what Nicholas Aubrey wanted out of life. And the sad fact was that he hadn’t a clue.
Once upon a time Nick thought he knew what mattered to him. He would have said that the meaning in his life came from taking part in the redefinition of human nature. The technology that Nick and a few dozen engineers at Digital MicroSystems designed would have thousandfold bigger impact on the human prospect than Aristotle, Shakespeare, Gutenberg and Henry Ford put together. The Information Revolution was bigger than the invention of agriculture, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution added and cubed who wouldn’t leap at the chance to be at its forefront? Moreover, it was fun. The bozos leading this insurrection were a crazy fruit salad; oddballs, free-thinkers, and geniuses. And although Digital MicroSystems was only one banana in the bunch, it was undoubtably the Top Banana. The hottest box was always the Dijjy-Mike box; the coolest code was Dijjy-Mike code. Check out the Internet—developed on Dijjy-Mike machines— a distributed egalitarian thinking engine. Check out chips that helped the crippled to walk, the deaf to hear: if Jesus were alive today he’d be a VLSI designer at Digital MicroSystems. Power to the people, baby: technopotheosis. Nick’s business card said Director of Software Engineering, but it should have said Spiritual Alchemist.
He lived on the ramparts. With one office in Newcastle, Massachusetts and another Mountain View, California, Nick Aubrey had spent so much time on the Boston to San Francisco run that he knew the TWA flight crews better than he knew the people who lived next door to him, knew the regular business-class upgraders better than he knew the volunteers at The Magic Box. For years he had spent twenty hours and more each month lashed to an uncomfortable seat inside a smelly contrivance ping-ponging between Logan and SFO, assaulted by white noise as his feet swelled. He had spent endless hours swapping UNIX-wars gossip with the marketing dweeb from the Open Software Foundation whose cologne stuck to Nick’s clothes through three washings, or chatting with the stalking-horse delegates to the IEEE Floating Point Standards Committee about how underflow exception handling differed from straight divide-by-zero. This was the thing: even the boring parts were interesting.
There was a down side to his cyberlife: as it flourished, his meat life evanesced. His involvement with the Magic Box children’s co-op switched from volunteer work to financial backing; his involvement in his own house switched from volunteer work to financial backing. He worried that Bartlett grew colder. . . He worried that his life was slipping away from him. But he never dreamed of stopping. He rather too much dug the buzz from the Juice.
The Juice, man. Residual perfume, fat feet and yuppie marriage angst were the price you paid to be plugged into it. The Juice was the adolescent Net, the nascent Web; it was intelligent agents, distributed objects, the Human Interface to cyberwhatever. You could pick it up by induction just walking down any street in Mountain View; it was so strong every where in the Silicon Valley that it messed up radio signals from unhip stations. They even used it to heat burritos at the Dos Hermanos trailer in the Longs Drugs parking lot on Rengsdorff Avenue and to recharge the leaf-blowers of the landscapers who ate there. It was intoxicating. The gizmos that would turn the world on its head in 1999 were dreamed up by Dijjy-Mike microkids in the eighties and prototyped by them in ’90, ’91, ’92. To be a bi-coastal manager of software engineering for Digital MicroSystems during those years was truly to have your finger in the socket.
So yes: present at the creation, check. Consequently today Nick’s finger was charred black all the way to his shoulder. He had sacrificed his life to his addiction to the Juice. Sometime in the next hour or so Monty Meekman would either fulfill or belie Carl’s prediction, and either way Nick would know that he had wasted the last five years in pursuit of that buzz. For if Monty did do the utterly fantastic, if he did offer Nick ten million dollars to become a Corporate Fellow, that could only mean that Nick had been played like a marionette. But if, on the other hand, Monty did not offer Nick a fortune; if, indeed, he wanted nothing more from Nick today than he had wanted on other occasions— somebody to talk to, somebody to listen in awed silence to Monty’s self-absorbed explanations of Life, the Universe, and Everything—then what was the point of that? Was that all Nick had accomplished in his career? To have become an unpaid word-sink for a wealthy old crank?
Nick’s high-tech life was a high-tech grind. Juice? Nonsense. Let Wired keep all that technohip bullshit. Information technology was an economic centrifuge, a wealth-and-power concentrator. This was the reality of the Information Revolution: efficiency, productivity, and downsizing; NAFTA, and the Walmartification of once-beautiful downtowns like Newcastle’s; the strengthening of multinational conglomerates relative to poor people, human rights workers and small countries; the end of privacy, the eclipse of democracy, and realistic mayhem in video games.
From the front seat of Monty’s Mercedes rattling down the frontage road Nick gazed out to the east over a sea of tall marsh grass that extended from the macadam all the way to the edge of San Francisco Bay. Amid square miles of vegetation he could see tiny figures jogging—distant people taking toy-scale exercise in the bright winter sun. It almost looked as if they were floating atop the cattails, but Nick knew they were walking on earthen levees that snaked through the estuary. He himself had just returned from a long walk on those dikes in a desultory effort to sober up. The sound of an unmuffled down-shifting tractor-trailer brought his attention around to the left side of the Mercedes, where, beyond a chain-link fence, four lanes of traffic on Highway 101 North paralleled the path of Monty’s car at twice its speed. Nick turned his gaze forward, and, out of the left corner of his eye, regarded Monty Meekman.
Monty was a perfectly ordinary-looking white person, Nick thought—with the qualifying words ‘whatever that means’ forming themselves as a detached commentary on his own half-inebriated observation. Monty was perhaps fifty-five years old, with dark wavy hair and a three-o’clock shadow that was somewhere between Lieutenant Colombo’s and Fred Flintstone’s. He was a slightly-built, unathletic man who had developed the small paunch typical of slightly-built unathletic men at middle age. He was wearing a nondescript dark suit that had probably fit him better at one time than it did today. Leaning forward as he drove, grasping the steering wheel with both hands, smiling the smile of the self-satisfied—he rather resembled the engineer in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, Nick thought, nonchalantly sailing his locomotive through the air. At the traffic light where Frontage Road met Oregon Way, Monty pulled to a stop.
“Do you know what those buildings are over there, Nick?” he chirped.
Duh, Nick thought. Everybody knew that those perfectly anonymous two-storey brick-and- glass office buildings in the little office park across the street had once housed the Mountain View Research Center, MVRC. During the late 1960’s, Duplicon—the giant photocopying company—had operated an R&D lab there. The free-thinkers of Duplicon MVRC, “Emverk”, most of whom had some prior association with Thomas Engleton and the Santa Clara Research Institute, developed the Duplicon DataStar, the precursor by two decades of the modern personal computer. Meanwhile, back in Syracuse, Duplicon’s incredibly dim corporate management somehow didn’t notice that Emverk had just laid a golden egg, and they shut the place down. Emverk’s engineers scattered—to Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and of course, Digital MicroSystems. Nick had heard this legend a hundred times before, ninety times from the lips of Monty Meekman, who, at the age of 25, had been Emverk’s Director of Research.
“Was that the garage where Steve and Curt started Apple?” Nick deadpanned.
“No, actually, heh heh . . .” And so began the hundred-and-first telling of the Emverk legend.
It was inescapable: like a captive altar boy to an ancient priest saying a Latin mass, Nick’s role would be to mutter responses at lulls in the sacred text as the liturgist and acolyte transversed Palo Alto. Nick knew that it didn’t matter if he said inappropriate things in the wrong language at the wrong time: Monty was ordained, Monty was conducting the rite, and nothing Nick did could fuck it up. Nick was superfluous. “Introibo ad altari Dei,” he said.
The Old Testament readings came first: Monty began today with the chronicle of Alan Turing, who wrestled angels of improbability up and down a ladder-like virtual machine in his mind. Then came the story of John Von Neumann, who had led the chosen people from the captivity of analog to the heights above a land flowing with digital bits. This part of the oratory took them down Oregon Expressway to Alma Street, where they turned right, north, along the Cal Trans tracks.
Monty’s virtual tape droned on. Now it was at the ‘sh’-boys: Shannon of information theory, Shockly of the transistor. These two proto-hackers went together in Nick’s mind like prophets from the late-middle Bible: Ezekial and Ezekiah, or Zephaniah and Zechariah.
A quick left jog on University Avenue took them under the railroad tracks and across El Camino Real, as Nick mouthed random responses to Monty’s monologue. “Oh yes, entropy,” Nick said, or “the transmission of any message is necessarily accompanied by a certain diminution of the information it contains,” or “surprise equals the negative logarithm of probability.” If he had had a hand bell he would have rung it.
They cut through the Stanford campus, skirting the Packard Children’s Hospital, until they came to Sand Hill Road, where they turned west, left, towards the rolling dry hills. Quarks and leptons drag-raced alongside them underground in the Stanford Linear Accelerator, “SLAC,” as Monty picked up the pace of his recitation, getting to the early part of the New Testament— which was conventionally said to begin on the day that Thomas Engleton appeared at the Santa Clara Research Institute, SCRI, wearing sackcloth, eating locusts and wild honey, preaching Usability. From his earliest days at the Rengsdorff creek he foretold the kingdom of Emverk, making smooth the way for Monty. Nick gazed at the familiar sights did his best to tune out.
The rolling hills became the steep wooded hills of the Santa Cruz ridge, and still Monty chirped on, coming, inevitably, to the story of Engleton’s famous 1966 broadcast from SCRI to the Association for Computing Machinery assembled in San Francisco. Monty had been Engleton’s chief assistant at that epochal event; it had been his baptism. But Nick didn’t need to hear this part again, not now.
“Where are you taking us?” Nick asked, as a sudden dread of Pajarro Dunes came over him. The Dunes were over the mountains, an hour south of Santa Cruz. Nick’s flight didn’t leave until ten o’clock tonight, but there still wasn’t time to get down there and then back to the airport before the red-eye left. “I’m flying back east tonight,” Nick added, to make sure Monty understood the constraints on his liberty.
“Flights can be changed.”
Nick didn’t suppose he would ever get used to this billionaire’s presumption.
“I change my flights when I have a good reason to,” Nick said. ” I don’t have any reason.”
Monty didn’t seem concerned about Nick’s travel plans.
“What do you like about selling toys?” he said.
“I don’t do too much of that any more.”
“That wasn’t the question.”
“I like children.”
“That wasn’t the question either.”
Until today Nick had never really thought about why he put up with Monty’s breaches of common etiquette, but since his conversation in Mad Antonio’s, Nick knew the truth: he sucked up to Monty because Monty had money and power. Well, screw that. It was time to change the terms of their relationship by the simple expedient of acting like a man instead of a doormat.
“I don’t like selling toys,” Nick said, resuming the conversation. “I like watching children play with toys, and I like the toys themselves.”
“You don’t have any children of your own.”
“Your wife left you. Why was that?”
“Keep your nose out of my personal business, Monty.”
“Her company works with recombinant DNA to research the human genome. Is that her way of sublimating your refusal to have children with her?”
“How many children do you have, Monty? I’ve never heard you mention any.”
“Oh, I have many. Many. You’ll see.”
“Bartlett’s company needs another infusion of cash,” Monty changed the subject.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“She wants to retain control, but control is the one thing capital never relinquishes. She doesn’t understand capitalists.”
“You don’t have any children,” Nick said.
Monty slid a cassette into the player, and presently piano, bass, drums and trumpet sounded, barely audible over the squeaks, rattles, and road noise.
“The best way to understand Miles Davis’s music is as a pentatonic stochastic process, with each instrument a simple Markov chain. . .”
“You still haven’t said where we’re going.”
“People are generally stupid, Nick. That’s the important thing to remember if you want to have fun.”
“Baloney,” Nick said. The snakes at his feet were writhing again.
In Portola Valley Monty picked up Skyline Drive and headed south on the San Francisco peninsula along ridge of the mountains that separate the Silicon Valley from the Pacific coast. Although Nick had been down Skyline Drive several times before he had never gotten used to its drama. Up and up the road rose until eventually they were at almost three thousand feet, amid sequoias ten yards thick and a thousand years old, a forest primeval. There were places where he could see the San Andreas Fault, like a hiccough in the terrain; had he gotten out of the car he could have touched it. The Mercedes rounded a turn, the forest gave way, and a spectacular view opened up to them. There was a little parking area with a sign stating the obvious. Monty left the road and pulled to a stop at the edge of the scenic overlook.
As they were getting out of the car Monty said, “Sometime in the next half hour.”
They walked to a guardrail at the edge of a cliff. The Silicon Valley lay beneath them, flush against the shallow waters of the South Bay: Sunnyvale. Cupertino. Palo Alto. Mountain View. Menlo Park. Santa Clara. Los Gatos. Los Altos. And at the south tip of the bay, to the right, San Jose.
There wasn’t much smog that day. Looking north Nick could see the Dumbarton Bridge over the bay, and seven miles north of that he could faintly make out the San Mateo bridge. Across the water lay the towns of the East Bay and the hills behind them—Mission Peak, and way off in the distance, high on a mountaintop in the southeast, those two white domes of the Lick Observatory, with their two giant telescopes pointed up to the heavens: the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, the Milky Way, Castor, Pollux, the Horsehead Nebula; pulsars, quasars, galaxies upon galaxies, dark matter hiding the uncomputed mass of the unseen infinitude, neutron stars, black holes, the end of time. Somewhere to the east of the observatory lay Massachusetts.
“Knowledge is power, Nick,” Monty said.
“A commonplace,” Nick answered. “You’re boring me. Power bores me.”
“Of course it doesn’t. You love power. That’s why you’re no longer living in Fanaye, a mud-hut village on the edge of the desert, with Ousmane Diop and Amadou N’Diaye and Sediou Tall and Ama’sy N’Dongo. They may be nice people; I don’t know and I don’t care to know. You seem to believe that they are nice people. But you are a sentimentalist— a great failing. The point is that you left the powerless peasants behind. You found your way to Digital MicroSystems, the forge of human destiny. Would you like to know why?”
Nick’s breath was taken away. How would Monty have learned the name of a small African village Nick and Todd had visited nearly twenty years ago, much less the names of its inhabitants?
“Why?” The word came out involuntarily.
“You love knowledge, power. That’s why I’ve taken you here—to give you more of it.”
“I never told you about Fanaye,” Nick said. “I never told you their names.”
“I notice that you recently filed a bug report on the mail program,” Monty said. The conversation was back to normal—random comments apropos of nothing at all.
“I file bugs when I discover them,” Nick answered.
“You fixed the bug yourself and then you filed the report about the fix.”
“Nothing unusual in engineers fixing bugs, is there?”
“It wasn’t your code.”
“The guy who owned the code couldn’t see the problem. I fixed if for him.”
“The bugtrack protocol is that he who owns the code files the fix.”
Monty Meekman, primordial codeslinger, knew damn good and well that the bugtrack protocol was honored in the breach. The bugtrack protocol was about as sacrosanct as the admonition on a box of Q-Tips to only use them to clean the outside of your ears.
“I’m surprised that the Vice Chairman of the corporation is reading bug reports,” Nick said.
“Do you think it’s possible that someone might have sown bugs throughout the system, like bread crumbs in the forest, to see who would come to eat them?”
“You tell me,” Nick said.
Monty wouldn’t tell him, of course. Monty rarely answered a direct question. But there must have been a reason that he brought the subject up.
©1999-2010 John Sundman.