From: (Jon Konrath)
Subject: Virtually Alone [long]
Date: Wed Feb 15 02:57:21 MET 1995

Virtually Alone
Jon Konrath
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

	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
	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
	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
	"That's good.  Very good," he continued.  "We are going online
in two weeks, and I wanted to give you a special opportunity," Miller
	"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
	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 | | jkonrath@iubacs.bitnet | DoD #1296 | Email for PGP 2.6.1 key.
Don't confuse lack of talent with genius.

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