From: email@example.com (Jon Konrath) Subject: Virtually Alone [long] Date: Wed Feb 15 02:57:21 MET 1995 Virtually Alone Jon Konrath 11/1/94 Copyright (c) 1994, Jon Konrath. All rights reserved. It's day 37, or at least I think it is. As I write this, I have found no way to tell how time passes, except for the period between when I fall asleep and wake up again. Even that might be extended because of the lack of windows, doors or other portals to the real world. It feels like I stay awake for about 15 hours and then slumber for 9 hours, but keep half-waking in a jumble of tossing and turning. The damp stone walls and single wooden bed have been the only other inhabitants of the cold cell, along with the weathered cast-iron work sink and ancient porcelain toilet in the corner of the room, huddling against each other like a pair of criminals in captivity. Every time I wake up, another metal tray of bland, cold food and a wooden cup of lukewarm water appear at the foot of the bed, brought in from some external source I haven't been able to see yet. I just finished eating today's meal except for some of the round, crusty loaf of tough, dark bread. I usually ration out the filling, porous bread and eat it throughout my day. As I write, I occasionally shove my fingers through the almond brown crust and tear away a small mouthful of the wheat interior, the moist inner sponge and crunchy outside filling my stomach like mud. Along with the wheel of bread the meal usually consists of a chunk of some sort of salted meat, two small, lukewarm baked potatoes, a handful of long-grained rice, a small block of bland cheese and a medium-sized orange. The meals seldom vary much, but because there's only one a day, and I don't have much choice in the matter, it doesn't bother me that much. Any port in a storm, I guess. I still don't know why I'm here, or even what here is. I don't remember why I was put in captivity or what events surrounded all of this. I'm hoping if I write enough, something will come back to me, or someone will show up and tell me what the hell's going on. Who knows. Jia spent most of his life infatuated with computers. His calling came in elementary school, when he first saw an Apple II computer. The scrawny, nearsighted child who spent most of his time holed up with a book never made many friends in the neighborhood, and the platinum-tinted plastic box became a new comrade to him. After he learned the machine would listen to his commands and crudely follow instructions pounded into the plastic keyboard, he realized computers were a hobby more interactive and lifelike than books or writing. With hours invested programming in assembly language and memorizing every instruction of 6502 code he became fluent with every detail of the machine, and created a miniature reality of rough simulations and simple games. This eventually branched to hacking with phones, connecting to random numbers until one howled the telltale squeal of a modem and computer waiting at the other end. Jia begged, borrowed or stole as many logins and long distance toll codes as he could get and used the time on remote systems to read every byte of data he could find about more complex technologies. By the time he was a teen, he totally immersed himself in the counterculture of the computer world. Evenings spent working at a department store saved money to buy used hardware and junk food for the frequent all-night binges of hacking in the basement room of his parents' house. The room became a mecca of broken computer equipment, dirty laundry and reams of printouts. Through high school, he didn't go to the dances, football games or pep rallies at his upper middle-class high school, and he didn't spend time in the huge clique of teens more commonly known as the 'in' crowd. His time, spent with the mass of electronics which formed his home base, furthered his knowledge in the field of computers. By then, his empire was succeeding. Day 38. It feels strange to be away from a computer for so long. I've been jotting all of these notes down on the pad that I included in my small sidebag, and I'm almost used to writing by hand instead of typing. At first, it hurt my hands considerably, and the dim light makes it difficult to read my scrawling handwriting, but since I have nothing else to do, I'm becoming more proficient at transferring my thoughts to paper. I think I've always relied on electronic communications to express my emotions and run my life, and the adjustment feels like when you lose a limb, and you always reach down and think you feel the missing leg, but really there's just a stump. Whenever my daydreams or thought patterns falls idle, I would think to reach over and log onto a computer to check my incoming mail. Losing all ties from the world massively distorts my view of communication as a whole. I guess I'm just now realizing what losing something so vital is like. I still don't know who I'm writing this for. Part of me wants to keep a record of my captivity, like all of those diaries you read about POW's who were in Vietnam for five years, keeping a mental record of the details of their torture and interrogation. Of course, I don't have any details here, nobody has ever come in here to talk to me at all. There is the person who leaves the food every night when I'm asleep and takes away the dirty tray, but I haven't even caught a glance of them yet. I guess there probably could be people watching through some viewing window or camera in the ceiling, watching me like I'm an animal in a zoo, or a drunk in some alcohol study. Maybe this is some sort of dry tank at some institution, maybe I went nuts and they put me here. One time I dated a psych major who used to work at a state ward. She had a preoccupation about mentioning people who were perfectly normal for years and then saw their brother die or took some bad acid or something and then just went full tilt schizophrenic. Maybe I went nuts and didn't even know it and did something awful and now they're watching me. Maybe they are waiting to see if I start talking like Napoleon or to see if I rip out my eyes or start thinking I'm on Mars. I don't know though, if I was in a mental ward they'd probably have me in a padded room, or tied down to a bed, and they'd be shooting me up with Thorazine every hour. This can't be an insane asylum. I don't know what it could be. The start of Jia's college career transformed him into a total cyberhead, and his social withdrawal was complete. The state university offered a cache of high-speed research computers that any student could log into, and once he explored the environment within, he learned how to really tax out the bleeding-edge machinery and play with real toys. He no longer needed to phreak long-distance phone connections to tap into small, unreliable bulletin boards; he could just find a quiet, secluded computer cluster, log into a mainframe and chat with hundreds of people, 24 hours a day, for free. His reality became the groups of 'usuals' that frequented the computers, and he spent most of his time either socializing online, or hacking with the system, trying to learn new details about the OS or struggling to learn the programming languages of the monolithic machines. As the state school upgraded and added newer machines, he fought to stay ahead and master programming them, even if it meant spending 20 hour sessions at a terminal and then sleeping through morning classes. He optimized his schedule, learning to program at night when load averages were low and clusters weren't full of regular students typing papers, and he pulled off sleeping in dual two-hour shifts between classes and hacking. When he did sleep, his dreams were simply full of hexadecimal code and debugging status. He passively or actively devoted every moment of his life to the drunken pursuit of technology. Day 42. I had dreams last night that made me think that I was in some sort of labyrinth, a stone maze from some B-movie about swords and sorcerers. The giant trap had walls just like this room, tall dark rock with a smooth face. The floor looked exactly like the one I'm staring at, cold and well worn, like a thousand years of traffic had scuffed against it. As I stumbled through the maze, trying to navigate by drawing a mental picture by following one wall, I felt the cold presence of someone else in the large stone corridors. Suddenly, in the distance, I could hear a deep combination of breathing, a rasp that was a combination of a large dog with the snorting of a pig. I was startled from my sleep with the final image of an eight foot high minotaur, half man half bull, rushing me in a cornered off passage. I've been trying to do some physical exercises lately. A few sit-ups, some side bends and jumping jacks so my body won't totally go to hell here. With the small amount of food I get a day though, I can't do too much. I think I'm falling into the fold a little more. I feel like I'm hearing things when I lay in bed. Of course, I always hear myself. My heart pounds away, my breath whistles through my skull as I just lie in bed every night. My feet shuffle against the floor, and I clank around my plate and splash in the water of the sink when I wash myself off. I even talk sometimes, but my voice sounds surreal. Its a cross between the unexpected echo of human speech and the stupid feeling of talking to myself when I know nobody has probably heard me for months. That isn't the sound I hear though. Sometimes I feel like I'm hearing voices in the distance, like I'm hearing people talking to each other. And like when you're a kid underneath the covers in the next room, and the grown ups are talking back and forth to each other, I feel like the voices are talking about me. I know they are. Shit, I don't even know if I hear voices. I think I'm just getting ready to snap. The challenge of graduating with a Bachelor of Science almost destroyed Jia's mind. Cramming the last few math and humanities classes while seriously researching for an operating systems development sequence stripped his social life and caused major burnout. The race to actually finish on time and get grades high enough to get out warped his sleep schedule, and he frequently crashed in the OS lab under a table, napping for an hour or two before psychology class or Spanish. Grades held in, but poor diet, lack of sleep and programming in 30 hour days weakened his body and appearance. Wearing the same shirt and jeans for days and surviving on only pizzas from the student union made him a cross between a hobo and a slob. However, his enthusiasm for research and the availability of hard-core projects kept him going. Aside from the OpSys work for his sequence, some of his professors started to pull him aside for other projects. By his last semester, he was spending some time doing theoretical research for a professor named Doctor Raymond J. Miller, who worked mostly with artificial intelligence projects. Miller was a distinguished scholar, who wrote many esteemed books, pulled in a good deal of the department's research dollars, and was even famed with working in MIT's AI lab back in the sixties, when tech square was rampant with the first hard-core mainframe hackers. RJM pushed him and became his mentor, forced him to think about grad school and continuing a career in applied computing research, and pulled strings to see that the young man would be accepted at a larger state school. By the time the debris had cleared that May, Jia had landed in a grad program at an extremely reputable school, with good financial backing and a spot on a team working on a very large government project. Starting at the school relaxed him and made him fit the mold of a research scientist. Grad classes were more informal and directly up his alley, and his research on neural interfaces for virtual reality was like getting paid to screw around. Doctor Miller was still his boss, emailing specs and teleconferencing his work duties to him. The lax atmosphere let him finally relax for the first time in a while, before work on his project started to build again. Day 43. I've been preparing for the fact that I might be here for a while. I'm devising little mental games that I can play to keep my level of activity up and to keep me from wondering what is really going on. The massive amount of internal questioning, prying at what I can't remember has been destroying my morale. I don't sleep well, I feel more fatigued and get plagued with the hopelessness of the situation. But, an imaginary set of exercises tend to make me forget about the situation and preoccupy me. I try to think about projects that would take a good deal of time and effort, so it feels like I'm actually doing something for hours. I plan and replan what it would be like to overhaul an imaginary house in the country. I gut the inside, tear out the rotting panels and strip back the yellowed, crusty wallpaper. Tiles are peeled back from floors and wood trim is carefully pried loose, to be refitted after a clean sanding and a few careful coats of Minwax walnut stain with a soft rag. The spinning, grinding wheels of a floor finisher turns back the aging of the floors by chewing away the top dark layer of the fine wood floor with its millions of tiny teeth. Yards of wallpaper and gallons of paint hide and cover the old walls to brighten the rooms. Finally, I refit all of the old lighting and plumbing with new fixtures, populate the house with fancy furniture and clutter the shelves with art-deco trash. I build and rebuild this house in my mind, as I lie with eyes closed on the wooden cot. I've also been trying to go back and remember as much stuff from my classes and childhood. I remember in that book about the Vietnam POW that he did this to try to keep his mental activity up, tried to figure out how to do calculus and economics and tried to write papers and poems in his head. I'm getting to the point where I've remembered how to program in C in my head, I can see lines of a program and manipulate them around and see how they should work. I think I have also memorized most of the syntax of the scheme interpreter I wrote in my junior year. I think I try to devise these little games to take away the fact that I keep hearing things. The voices are there, they seem to show up when I'm just drifting to sleep, in the ethereal state between this world and the next. The sounds of people walking around me start to come through, and the rise of mumbling. The voices sound so familiar, but I can't place them. Like they were a professor I listened to for five hours a week, but years and years ago. Sometimes I can almost recognize what they are talking about, but when I jar back awake, I forget. And last night, I could swear I heard the sound of some kind of machinery, like an air conditioner kicking in, or a humidifier or something. No clues to the climate control of this complex have been apparent during my stay, so it would make sense to hear something like this. But it was so close, so surreal that I couldn't believe it was anything but my own insanity. After close to a semester, Jia completed his neural interface. It consisted of a complex network of sensors that were used to transmit and receive impulses from the neural cortex and process them on a massively parallel computer. He worked from project specifications and standards that other groups gave him, forming the input based on the test data one group wanted and the output on the expectations of the next group. Because of this, he never even got a chance to truly envision what was going on. His computer would actually take incredibly complicated streams of data from the sensors and interpret them, hashing them into logical sets of instructions that another computer could smoothly listen to an act with. A medical team actually designed the hardware, a sophisticated harness that could be attached to a person with dozens of pads that could read neural transmission through bare skin. Jia first had to develop a complicated operating system that replaced the traditional unix kernel with an elisp-based operating system to handle the irregular transmission records. Then, a lisp parser and interpreter was interfaced with this, a project that grew more twisted and obscure each day. Toward the end, the small cube of research space Jia inhabited grew with markerboards of scrawled data records unreadable to any other human, and mountains of printouts and sketches. But in the end, the parser slowly started to read the test data the neurological scientists gave him, and the interpreter would pass one test condition after another, with some tweaking. Finally, three weeks ahead of time, his system was online and in Dr. Miller's hands. After his project plugged in, RJM let him take a look at it the rest of the project. The sensors did indeed go to a human, but the other end of the package astounded him. They had linked his computer to a cluster of massively parallel computers and another cluster of high-end graphics workstations. The result, several million mainframes of computing power, were linked to provide an incredibly detailed virtual reality environment. This was the largest cluster of computing organized in the world to date, and Jia's project was the keystone of the entire system. "Jia, you've completed your part of the deal ahead of schedule, which is going to allow a lot of fine tuning before we even reach deadline", Miller said. "Yeah, I've been struggling with it, but everything you taught me about scheme interpreters fit in when I wrote the elisp OS", Jia answered. "That's good. Very good," he continued. "We are going online in two weeks, and I wanted to give you a special opportunity," Miller said. "What's that, sir?" Jia asked. "I want you to be the first to try this out. I know how much you've explored computers, I want you to be the first to get the chance to go inside one like this. Are you up for it?" he asked him. "Yes! Definitely!" he answered. Little did he know, but this project would be the biggest of Jia's life. Day 44. I'm feeling really lonely. Not the kind of loneliness that you feel when you can't get laid on a Friday night and end up just watching MTV and camping out on a computer playing tetris for eight hours straight. I feel like there are no other human beings on the face of the planet, and I'm the last one left. I am that guy in that one Twilight Zone episode that was reading in the bank vault when the a-bomb hit, when he was the only one alive and then he broke his glasses and couldn't even read anymore. That alone. I think I have always been alone in a sense. I mean, I kept to myself and always worked on computers. They can be a trap, they lure you in by giving you a false sense of esteem, making you think you are good at something. But without the computer as your shield, you fail. I guess that's what's happening now. I can't find any way out of here, and I can't do the only thing I have been trained. I don't miss anyone because I never missed anyone. I just miss having something as my shield. I heard them again last night. They were talking about me, about how long I have been hear. I heard them using some sort of machinery, it sounded like construction machinery. And right after I fell asleep, I had a big long sequence of nightmares. I couldn't remember any of them, but I could feel that I was having them all night long, and waking up suddenly after each one. I don't know what is going on outside here, but I know its getting weirder. Jia entered the lab room, dressed in a loose-fitting blue hospital robe. They made him take off everything except his briefs to insure the harness would have plenty of room for all of its mounting points. He entered mission control, the sterile white room filled with technicians and medical personnel, ready to fit him with wiring and the necessary IV tubing for the three day trip into the unknown. He wasn't too keen on the needles, or the catheter, but was willing to make sacrifices to be the first to link into this computer. As he rested on a gurney in the middle of the room, the technicians pressed the pads of the sensors on his arms and chest, and ran the wires next to his body on the sterile white sheet. While they dressed his body, other techies loaded up the massive computers and ran through checklists for startup. In a few moments, a human would be exchanging electrons with the biggest neural network ever. Day 45. My dreams got pretty bizarre last night. I was looking over a person in a totally surreal, sterile white hospital room. The room was completely empty, heavenly, and giant, the walls were cycloramatic and distant. After hovering closer to the person, the body looks sickly, gnarled and dehydrated. The skin hangs limp over the bony cage and the chest barely rises and gasps back down at a disturbingly slow rate. More of the surroundings focus as I move closer. A compact high-tech respirator pulses and forces the breath of its mechanical cylinder through a tube to the patient. A rack of IV bottles of various prismatic clears, reds and blues drip and ebb into a veiny network of plastic tubes and fittings, and connect neatly next to and around a harness of wires and sensors. Men in blue surgical scrub suits converged, an army of specialists deploying sortie after sortie of experts in fields of bionics, artificial neurology, precision surgery and high-tech medicine. My point of view closes in and as I am almost over the face, I look closely. The thin hair is matted and stuck close to the skull, riddled with sensors and links, and the eyes are wide open, unblinking. But, past the respirator mask and sensors, one detail sticks out. The person on the table is me. I see my mother in the sea of technicians and mechanics, dressed in her suede coat, with a fake leather purse on her side and tears streaming from her eyes. My nineteen year old sister Lara stands next to her, wearing all black in an almost stereotypical, mournful way. Her weight is leaning on Mom's shoulder, and her beautiful face weeps tears onto the brown suede. A trio of orderlies are trying to calm down the women and push them back, as a partition is wheeled in the way of their view. Suddenly, a man watching a terminal at the side starts to shout out, about something going wrong. The Doctors and engineers are screaming in slurred, jumbled voices and grabbing wires and conduit. Two men are tearing back the thin blue-green robe over the body and trying to tape down an additional harness over the chest as an orderly wheels in another cart of computer equipment. Two technicians wielding soldering irons and penlights tear open the doors of the first computer and start yanking boards from the metal rack, throwing the green rectangles covered with chips and copper on the floor as they swapped in other pieces. They frantically yell and try to enact some sort of emergency plan, and were failing. Within the chaos, doctors are frantically wrestling with vital signs, jabbing needles into chest cavities and arms, plunging synthetic adrenalin and saline, shining flashlights into pupils and feeling for a pulse in various veins. The computer is chiming its own death toll, as noxious ozone smoke bellows from the cabinet's power supply and a technician tries to isolate it from the filtered wall socket. As I closed in on the monitor, just before I woke up, I looked at the graphics of the desktop on the Trinitron screen, and read the familiar dialogue box in the center. A small icon of a cherry bomb with a burning fuse squatted next to the simple words on the warning box. "The Application <Unknown> has unexpectedly quit. [System Error -321] Please reboot." "Miller! Miller! We're getting heap overflows on the init process! What the fuck is going on?" screamed a technician at the system console. RJM ran to the row of seventeen inch monitors, flashing columns and graphs of status on the project. He saw that the system that controlled body systems while the person was harnessed was dumping core, running out of memory and spawning off child processes out of control. The program that was supposed to be running the incredible simulation was now having all of its memory sucked away, and kept crashing out modules. In only a matter of time, the simulation would stop, and Jia's vitals would flatline. Day 46. I can't eat. I can hear them talking now as I write, their voices sound closer. My head rings with the sound of their machinery, but it keeps slowing down. I feel more fatigued, and faint, like the air is getting thinner here. I just don't want to do anything except keep on the wooden cot and feel my arms and legs go numb. I don't know what has happened, I feel dizzy and sick. I just want to lay down. I just want to stop writing and go to sleep. I wish I could figure out how to get out, or what's happening to me. But I just want to close my eyes and have a nice dream of being away from here. Just a nice dream. I think I'm going to just go to sleep, and try to dream. -- Jon Konrath | firstname.lastname@example.org | email@example.com | DoD #1296 http://bronze.ucs.indiana.edu/~jkonrath/ | Email for PGP 2.6.1 key. Don't confuse lack of talent with genius.