Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



by Allen Varney

We chuckle now, but I tell you true that when I went back to hotshotting for MacroBot in 2031, a Bolland 1X vactor with 2,048 massively parallel Hitachi-Intel Decium 500Ghz chaotic processors in twin kilomapp towers on a 4/16K multi-bandwidth bus, 128Tb cross-dovetailed smart-refresh ASHRAM, 2.8Pb-optimized-capacity 120mcs holographic storage, SLR video fed through my collar-clip Eyeminder 30-gig amacronic bitmap/vector-combo cache interpreter, four T4.Plus high-gain dataports of varying brands, US Dynamix military-spec remote telemetry, assorted peripherals, 4BRAIN kernel beta 0.9, and not one but two backup power supplies was not to be sneezed at. My old friend Swami and his System Engineering team needed that power during crunch on the first Project Hamster.

This cube is datestamped April 19th, three days after I turned 21. Under California law of the time, my juvenile records had been sealed. So I walked with jaunty step to MacroBot’s new campus in eastern Sunnyvale, on the site of a derelict theme park.

On the way from the bus stop I phoned Swami, whom I’d known from my teens through our old hacking group, Burn If Caught. Now just starting his long failure upward at MacroBot, Swami still looked thin and hungry, a Bangalore street urchin inserted into a white shirt lengthwise. In the tiny window on my freeline’s overloaded service his image stuttered and jumped.

“It’s different from when you were here, Jeremy,” Swami said. “We are growing so fast…”

But why repeat everything? I’m already using this recorder, so I’ll just pipe in the video….

Swami: We are growing so fast, management can’t get enough machines. I think they are cleaning out pawnshops and Everything-a-Newbuck sites. They gave me this 200GHz gallium arsenide antique. I booted Handy Randy, which even that took about ten minutes, and when I said “Hi,” I thought I’d have a birthday before he answered.

Me: Randy leans too hard on multiple reads. You could have loaded Ramses, he’s much less demanding on storage throughput.

Swami: I don’t like Ramses. He's too stuck up.

Me: You can configure that. Wow, look. [Focus on MacroBot building, with ancient rollercoaster towering behind.] Bollix, our future home!

Bollix [over my earplug radio]: I need a verb.

Those were 4BRAIN’s early days. The new kernel wasn’t backward-compatible with BRAIN 3 speech parsers, and the first beta parser spewed.

I’d de-bused at the wrong stop, so I had a long walk to the entrance. On that crystalline spring afternoon in the world’s best climate, I had Bollix improvise a waltz a la Johann Strauss. Grand empty streets like ruined Roman aqueducts; majestic oak trees tearing up the asphalt; squirrels racing through the branches with – how do I put it? – desperate freedom. Squirrels: the freelancer’s totem.

Me: Cheese, Swami, this place is huge. Why does everyone work onsite?

Swami: Management says it works better. After all, what is the fun of being an executive if you can’t make everyone sit where you can see them?

Me: Speaking of executives, is that….?

You didn’t see many cars on the streets in those gas-rationing days, and certainly not a prismatic teal limo with frosted windows and Ben-Hur hubs. I fingered the car but got no data except the license: MBOSS.

The limousine picked its way around potholes. Some way ahead of me its side window slid down, revealing a man. The man: MacroBot founder and president Gregory Bittlebrun.

Thin face, hawk nose, blue eyes, short black hair – Bittlebrun looked like me, except handsome. Even in his early thirties he seemed, not exactly old, but magisterial. Like a judge who brings rope to court and means to see it used.

For no good reason I decided to eavesdrop. I guess even 30 years ago privacy was dead. My display headband had a directional pencil mike camouflaged as, imagine that, a pencil.

Me: Bollix, tune in that car about 20 meters ahead.

Bittlebrun: – squirrels getting at the birdfeeders. Should bring in some falcons. Keep ’em under control.

Me: Whaddya say I take over his car netlink and introduce myself? “Hi, Mr. Bittlebrun, I’m your future Chief Technology Officer.”

Swami: Bad, multiple-bad idea. He hates jokers.

Girl’s voice: Daddy, look at that geek with the crewcut back there. He looks like someone subtracted his chin and pushed it up his nose.

Bittlebrun: Don’t make fun of the programmers, Tandy. Not good business.

I didn’t remember that until I played it just now. Funny.

Me: Uh, well, maybe I’ll hold off. But when I show Bittlebrun what Bollix can do, he’ll flip. [Limo enters MacroBot campus. I arrive at entrance as gate closes.] Okay, the Eagle has landed. What’s with this gate? Afraid of terrorists?

Swami: Competitors. Wait there, I will come down.

Me: Admin systems still run on the Xerxes server, right?

Swami: Don’t even think it! Darby doesn’t know about your juvenile record, so please don’t start a new one.

Me: Prob nil. When I interned at the old building I hacked a revolving root account, changed every two minutes. Bollix, run Black Box.

Bollix: Ready.

Swami: No, Jeremy! The company has changed. The suits hate that stuff now.

Me: Zzt-brrzzt! Connection is crapping out. Shrrrk-zzzat! I can hardly hear you. Screeeeeee! I’ll find your office, ’bye!

While Bollix opened the gate, I saw a woman sitting just inside, eating lunch on a shaded bench. I tell you, my processes crashed. Oh, oh, let me freeze-frame.

Green anime eyes lined in black shadow, sharp face like a vulpine elf, full auburn ringlets disciplined to a roll, leaf-green sheath dress, lime vest and matching espadrille shoes, and – oh – that pearl choker, white foam atop a rising wave. Once I caught my breath I fingered her: Darby Ilchester, Systems Engineering project coordinator, Public Outreach – which is to say, Marketing.

Me: That’s Swami’s boss! Oh no, I should, I should introduce myself. What do I say? Uh. Okay, okay, I can do this. Bollix, run Social Lion.

Bollix: Ready.

Me: Okay. I want to introduce myself to a beautiful woman who’s Swami’s boss. I want her to give me a job. But I shouldn’t mention my past record. Okay, go.

Bollix: First line: “Hi. I’m Jeremy Kidwell. I’m a friend of your employee Khalid Narayanaswami.” Remember to breathe.

Me: [Shrill indrawn breath.] Okay. Right. Here I go. [Walking forthrightly up to Darby.] Hi! I’m Germy! I’m an employee of your friend Khalid Nyara, Narya, Swami!

Darby: Oh. Hello. Um, won’t you sit down? I didn’t know Swami had a business of his own.

Bollix: “Thank you.”

Me: Thank you! [I sit at extreme far end of the bench.] Actually, I meant I’m his friend, and you’re his employee. I mean, he’s yours! I mean – I’m supposed to help him on your project!

Darby: Oh, Jeremy Kidwell. He said you’d be coming in. You’re the new hotshot.

Gadflyer [vactor in Darby’s lapel brooch]: What does that mean?

Darby: [Absently.] Ignore.

Bollix: “Yes, that’s right. I’ve been an independent contractor for several years.”

Me: Yes. Yes. I’ve been independent hotshot, years now. Years.

Bollix: “Recently I worked with Tom Bolland at Bolland Robotics, unfortunately now defunct.”

Me: I was working with Tom Bolland, he used to work here. I used to work here too. Before!

Bollix: Warning. Don’t mention past record. Breathe.

Darby: Tom Bolland? How interesting. That’s a sad story, isn’t it?

Bollix: “Why do you say that’s a sad story?”

Darby: I heard that before he went under, he was redesigning his Bolland 1 virtual actor. He said the prototype would revolutionize the industry. When he fled the country, I guess it just vanished into the ether.

Gadflyer: What does that –?

Darby: Ignore!

Me: I see you haven’t – I don’t mean to, none of my business, but you haven’t quite actually quite trained your vactor quite yet, have you?

Darby: I know, it never shuts up. I just don’t have time to sit down and teach it every word it wants.

Me: Ah! Well! Actually, I could, if you want, I could fix that for you, if that’s okay.

Darby: Oh, no, that’s kind of you, but really –

Me: Prob nil! Bollix, run Monocle.

At that time I used a Monovix AllColor III transparent flipdown display on a square of polarized plexiglass over my left eye. Its resolution wasn’t exactly breathtaking, but I knew every line of the reference drivers and it worked great with 4BRAIN. It mapped input through eight white finger rings, like brass knuckles, that glowed in UV light from my Eyeminder diode. Flipping down that display and raising those rings, I embraced my Core Dork – but a respectable, scary dork, like a surgeon with a forehead reflector. No one made fun of that look, because they knew. When a hotshot flipped, anything could happen.

In this case not much did. I just hit the ever-reliable Robotramp freeware site and marked the largest MBoss-format dictionary Gadflyer could hold. To Darby my file grab must have looked like mystic gestures. I wish I found it odd that MacroBot’s big projects were supervised by marketers who couldn’t even program their vactors, but such is a consumer-driven business.

I’d like to think, now, that I never considered cracking her security.

Darby: Look, I really don’t want to put you to the trouble, and anyway –

Gadflyer: Incoming priority system-level dispatch from Jeremy Kidwell. Do you authorize it?

Me: Could you thumb your vactor, please?

Darby: What? Oh. Wait, listen, is this going to mess up this thing? Because I only barely understand –

Me: Nothing will go wrong. Trust me. Thumbprint.

Darby: Oh dear. [Thumbs vactor’s authorization plate.]

Gadflyer: There’s a program attached called “MegaWhopper Dictionary.” What should I do with it? Warning: This executable file may –

Me: Say “Run it.”

Darby: Ohhh…. Run it.

Gadflyer: Upgrading. [Beeps and squeaks.] Dictionary upgrade complete.

Me: There you go. Try it.

Darby: Hotshot. Ether. [Waits. Brightens.] Sententious. Newel post. Erythrophobia! Wow, this wins! Thank you.

Me: [Could listen to this charming conversation all day.] Sure.

Gadflyer: [Chimes.] The lunch interval has indubitably expired. Please resume your quotidian endeavors.

Darby: Uh….

She led me to System Engineering, then the only building on campus. The later ghastly procession of Executive Marketing Directors had not yet mutated MacroBot architecture. SysEn was a brown sandstone Yale Box in the accepted Ministry-of-Love style. A few construction workers lazed on the unfinished pavilion, bouncing ping-pong balls against the Accounting department.

Darby: Has Swami told you what we’re working on?

Me: [Nervous again now that display is flipped back.] No.

Darby: Good. Have you followed what the press calls the Protocol Wars?

Me: Sure, sure.

Darby: It’s all about making vactors work better over the net. The problem is bandwidth. The Bluetooth frequency –

Me: 2.4GHz. The 3.1a spec has a maximum throughput of –

Bollix: Warning: jargon.

Darby: …Right. That isn’t wide enough for today’s vactor, so it has to divide its signal packets across cellphone and even satellite bands. The FCC is starting to make trouble about this, but worse, all these different packets get routed to the target at different speeds.

Me: Don’t I know it! My apartment in Cupertino, where I keep Bollix, has this antique Category-6 twisted-pair copper wiring. Do you know how slow he gets when –?

Bollix: Possible rant: twisted-pair copper.

Me: Well, anyway, don’t get me started.

Darby: The market has told us that vactors should use the free Internet1 instead of premium Internet2 pay networks. Greg Bittlebrun was right about that; it’s why we’re outpacing our competition. But Internet1 transmissions use 30-year-old TCP/IP, an outmoded 80-character protocol.

Me: Uh, I think you mean just the IP layer, IPv6 – Internet Protocol version 6. And the network still has isolated clouds on IPv4, old corporate intranets. Actually v6 is extensible beyond 80, though you don’t see that much nowadays.

Darby: If you say so. The SysEngineers want to speed up signaling with a new protocol they worked up, IPv7, that specifies geographic location. Their 256-character protocol can specify within a centimeter any location from here to Saturn. Packets could bypass central processors and go straight to the target. We can nail cyberspace onto the real world. We’d need new routers, but those old petaplex routers on the legacy backbone have been decaying since the recession began. With the economy finally recovering, governments and universities are hot to upgrade. We’re positioning to push IPv7. This could be big leverage toward dominance in the vactor space.

I won’t say talk of vactor space dominance was the way to my heart, but my low sigh as we entered the building shows I was already smitten.

We passed a bank of elevators and walked down a long hall toward the cafeteria. Dozens of employees walked by. With intraspecies instinct I recognized the programmers and engineers.

It amazed me how few I knew. Sure, I can list them now, names or nicknames: Stanislaus Zingelowicz (Zing), Jerry Joe Boonyamanonukul (Jawbone), Ahmed Sakakini (Slack), Wiranto Wirahadikusumah (Rahrah) – a geek United Nations. But they had all come aboard since my time.

Still, I saw a kinship, a phenotype. Blimps or skeletons, sloppy or precise, born rich or not, they all landed about three standard deviations off anybody’s norm. They had engineered a life where nobody cared what they wore, or when they shaved, or if they walked with a lurch. They never met your gaze, or else they stared like a golem. They wouldn’t talk or they wouldn’t stop. With every product cycle these System Engineers made vactors smarter, more responsive, more uncannily human; yet there never was a rattier lot of alienated antisocial lonely mouth-breathers.

I felt instantly at home.

Darby: The issues with the new protocol are performance and security. And, more abstractly, how much autonomy to give a vactor. Inside the company two development teams are fighting it out. [Reaches cafeteria, a big bright turquoise room. Looks across rows of tables to vending machines on far wall.] Hmmm. I guess he’s running behind.

Me: Who?

Darby: You’ll see. Come on, I’ll take you upstairs to Swami. Where was I?

Me: Two teams fighting over how to implement the new protocol.

Darby: Right. One, the Thunder Team, works under Dennis Goldenhair. Do you know him?

Me: Ho boy! Goldenhair. “The Profile.”

Bollix: Warning! Rant: Dennis Goldenhair!

Me: – Uh, yes, I know Dennis. I worked with him after my internship here, just starting as a contractor.

Darby: Good. He does have a nice profile.

Me: [Muttering.] Nice psychiatric profile….

Darby: What?

Me: Nothing.

I didn’t tell Darby about The Profile’s earlier blatant Kidwell-cheesing-off, but across the decades it still rankles. A MacroBot localization team under Goldenhair was crunching on the French version of Handy Randy, Pierre Mon Frere. Pierre understood English fine but translated it to pure gibber. With the go-gold deadline looming, I asked for 1500 newbucks to fix it, and Goldenhair shook on it.

Now, I happened to have read a bug report from the Bangalore office. Handy Randy’s latest vocabulary compiler made Unicode nulls in the lookup table 8-bit, when as we all know they’re 16 bits. So Pierre had French syntax, but he was taking words from the language before French in his table, Finnish. Simple when you understand, right?

When I fixed the problem in two minutes, Goldenhair got snippy. I told him the story about the plumber: “Hitting the pipe once: one quarter. Knowing where to hit the pipe: 50 newbucks.” No luck. I got nothing but one quarter and a 30-year grudge. What a chipset!

Darby: You’ll be working with Swami in my group. We’re currently locked in bitter struggle with Dennis’s Thunder Team. We need help!

Me: What’s your group’s name?

Darby: [Hesitates.] Pooky Team.

Me: “Pooky”? Thunder and Pooky? What kind of names are those?

Bollix: Urgent message from Dennis Goldenhair.

Gadflyer: Insuperably exigent communique from Dennis Goldenhair. What disposition does it merit?

Darby, me: Play it.

Dennis Goldenhair’s voice:  Please clear the way for Thunder. Thanks so much.

We had returned to the bank of elevators. A chime sounded; a door opened. No one was inside.

Then I heard a high chirping. I looked down.

Out rolled a little plastic ball containing, and propelled by, one energetic Golden-variety hamster. As hamsters go it looked large, healthy, sleek of coat and clearly up on its vitamins, but not in any way brainy. Not the sort of rodent, if there is such, to say, “I’ll just grab an elevator and pop down to the cafeteria.”

And yet! As we watched, the hamster in its ventilated ball rolled past us down the hall, chirping merrily. Here, I thought, is a hamster on a mission. Without a word, Darby and I followed.

I saw that the chirps came from different vactor sound-chips glued inside the ball. The hamster followed the chirps. No land speed records were being set, but the little guy was clearly cafeteria-bound.

A second elevator opened and a brace of programmers ran out. They barged in front of us like we weren’t there.

Behind came Swami. We nodded greetings, then watched the bunch as they followed the hamster’s movements on handheld displays.

Harrison Byron Skidmore Jr. (Skids): He’s good, he’s good….

Wu-Wei Yee (One-Way): Starting the cash transfer….

Hamster ball: Chirp! Chir-r-rup! Chir-REEEEEEE—!

Skids: Cheese! Exception 1292 this time. Turn off the sound.

Alexis Nakoneknis (No-Neck): He tried to withdraw 5,555 newbucks!

Skids: Misplaced decimal. Just like a hamster to take enough cash to buy a trip back home to Syria and spend it on peanuts.

One-Way: No financial savvy. But the time trial looks good. [They all retreat to the elevator, hamster in hand. Swami remains behind with me and Darby.]

Me: Don’t tell me. Thunder?

Swami: And my hamster is Pooky.

Me: You’re testing a new Internet protocol with hamsters?

Darby: Swami and the team will brief you upstairs.

Dennis Goldenhair: [Ambling down the hall.] What’s this? A hotshot?

Me: [Cold.] Dennis.

The Profile held a nebulous status in the unspoken MacroBot caste system. He came from Aoteoroa, which with colonial stubbornness he still called New Zealand. Though he was an okay programmer, he wore tailored jackets, styled his long blond hair, and could talk to normal people. Some baffled veep made him a project manager, so everyone could distrust him equally.

Once in an Auckland bar Dennis won some beauty contest – Handsomest Demigod, maybe. Julius Caesar must have wished for that nose, and look at the chin! Dennis entered a room chin first. When he turned to you, Battleship Chin brought its forward guns to bear.

Goldenhair: So, the embattled Pooky is bringing in backup.

Swami: He might not need Jeremy’s help if Thunder keeps spending 5,000 newbucks on a bag of peanuts.

Goldenhair: [Looks blithely in random directions.] Nits. A routine bug fix. You should worry that Thunder is processing faster than your put-upon dwarf.

Darby: I’m sure Pooky would prefer the term “differently sized.”

Gadflyer: Imperative beckoning to teleconference with Executive Marketing Director “Red” Windsor!

Darby: [Rolls eyes.] Excuse me, I’m being beckoned. [Moves aside.]

Goldenhair: So, Kidwell, out early for good behavior?

Swami: Listen, Dennis, Darby and Pooky Team are not intended to learn about Jeremy’s history. Clear?

Goldenhair: Hey, I don’t report to Darby. She’s my competition. If she finds anything from me, it’ll be – not intended.

Darby: Red wants a progress report. Swami, can you take Jeremy from here?

Swami: Sure.

Goldenhair: Jeremy’s in your custody, you might say.

Swami and I froze, while Darby looked at Goldenhair curiously. He seemed about to say more, but just turned the battleship and set course away.


Five minutes later Pooky Team took over a System Engineering conference room on the third floor.

Gregory Bittlebrun must have sold scads of Handy Randys to buy that huge wood table with inlaid three-meter Trucolor monitor. The chairs – excuse me, “customizable seating products” – had so many levers, and buttons, and aerodynamically cunning flanges, and frictionless casters, I wanted to roll out to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The team namesake shuffled back and forth across the tabletop, following the clatter of a cowbell between four speakers. Looking at Pooky, I shivered. Swami (my closest friend, but incontestably Wisdom 3) had somehow convinced MacroBot to pin a world-changing technological decision on his dark brown Russian dwarf hamster. Pooky looked good-for-game, full of wheel-rotating vim, but if he crawled inside your burger you could accidentally swallow him.

Three others on Swami’s team, all new hires, gave me the abstract.

Geoff Didjeridong (Sydney Darwin): It’s a multi-platform compatibility test for IPv7. Swami and Goldenhair have each trained their hamster to run toward a given sound.

Swami: They love running. Better than going around a wheel all day.

Syd: The vactors in the hamster balls broadcast positional data via IPv7. Each ball uses one team’s version of the protocol.

Wilton Brininstool (Toad-in-Hole): Both versions build on the existing IPv6’s authentication header. Under the Thunder protocol, packets are authenticated on the nearest network node, using MBoss executables sent on the fly from MacroBot’s own Xerxes server or other authorized servers. The packet header may call such an executable itself, permitting active-network processing.

Me: Thunder protocol caches the vactor code directly on the router?

Toad: Indeed. The node determines where the ball should roll next, then hands off the codec to the next node. Throw in possible compression and decompression, and it gets a bit processor-intensive.

Me: No lie!

Hans Schlumprecht (Clever Hans): Our Pooky protocol loads off –

Libra [Hans’s vactor]: “Offloads.”

Hans: – offloads the work from the router onto the virtual actors involved. With the positional headers, they determine together which way the hamster ball should roll next. It is powerful, but some people worry it is – is – Libra, verwundbar?

Libra: “Vulnerable.”

Syd: We think we’ve taken care of security issues. But with so little processor load on the routers, we expected our transmission throughput to rip past Thunder Team’s benchmarks. Instead, they’ve been handing us our heads, and we can’t figure why. That’s why Swami asked for you.

My heart rose to this challenge. It went without saying that everyone there wanted, badly, to win. For Pooky Team it meant personal glory and maybe a raise or bonus. But to me the contest stood for freedom vs. authority, the liberty of vactors from some inscrutable corporate approval industry. Best of all, victory would rescue Darby! I’d be her shining knight.

Toad: MacroBot has paid three outside companies to work with us. Each has a new router that accepts both versions of the protocol. Ramses, show the test overview diagram on the table monitor.

Hans: The test has four steps. [Points.] The hamster starts in the Product Development cubicles outside this conference room. We lure him down this aisle to the bank of elevators. This is a routine baseline test with our own server, Xerxes.

Syd: Next the vactor calls an elevator and rides it down. Modern elevators use a legacy X-10 home-automation standard that is apparently today’s Elevator Esperanto. We show that a 256-character packet header won’t break its limited brain.

Toad: Down to the ground floor and out the lift. While the hamster is guided down this long hall toward the cafeteria, the vactor contacts an affirmative-action microbank just down the peninsula. From an account we set up, the vactor withdraws five newbucks. That tests our speed, security features, and compatibility with a government-issue accounting system.

Syd: This is where Goldenhair has had some grief.

Swami: Finally the hamster runs across the cafeteria to the first vending machine. The vactor buys a bag of peanuts for one newbuck. This tests the interface with a vendor’s proprietary credit transaction system.

Me: An Iron Rodent tetrathlon. How far have you got?

Syd: Our Pooky has done all this in previous tests. Goldenhair’s Thunder has managed everything except the bank withdrawal. Everything else, Thunder is doing much faster. Any ideas?

I copied all the trial logs to Bollix’s system, and we buckled down. For hours we made no more progress than Pooky, who had settled into the deep sleep of the athlete. Then:

Me: Well, let’s review the protocol again, start to finish – maybe fifth time’s the charm. First we ping the server to find bottlenecks to bandwidth. That’s straight from IPv6, we’re fine. Next, the initial “7” for IPv7. That calls NewPookyRouter, which we just plumbed to its depths. Then the three-digit traffic class, 12-digit flow label…. Hmm. When we leave the elevator, could the router at EndCondition still be using v6’s two-digit traffic class?

Toad: Possible. The lift does seem to take a bit long.

Me: Like your third trial yesterday, when it took Pooky – what was that benchmark? Bollix, what was the time on Trial P0418c Leg 2?

Bollix: 18 seconds.

Me: 18 seconds. Now –

Hans: No, that is wrong. It is 22 seconds.

Me: [Checking both logs.] That’s funny. Bollix shows a different timecode for this leg of the trial. What do the rest of you show?

[All Pooky Team logs agree with Hans, not Bollix. Other time trials show the same disagreement.]

Me: I think we’re on to something.

Syd: Nah, your system clock is screwed. Swami told us Bollix runs on chaotic processors. Don’t they emulate quantum computers, so they don’t always give the same answer?

Me: That’s not it. Two thousand parallel processors arrive at the right answer by voting, if nothing else. Bollix uses chaotic processes to find innovative solutions [also to break encryption and firewalls], not to track time.

Toad: Wait. MBoss doesn’t handle chaotic processes. You need a FreeBase OS like BRAIN 3.

Me: I’m emulating MBoss under the new 4BRAIN beta.

Syd, Toad, Hans: Ah! – There’s your problem! – That’s it. – etc.

Me: No, look. A state-of-the-art Freely Extensible Exception-Based operating system does not fumble trivia like system timers. I think The Profile has pulled some kind of sabotage.

Syd: Clue-enable, hotshot! Goldenhair never got anywhere near our code.

Me: Are you sure? I’m grabbing the logs for Thunder’s trials off Xerxes –

Swami: [Clears throat.]

Me: – uh, as soon as someone sets up the permissions. Or gets the logs for me. Please.

Swami: [Nods approvingly.]

We tried to download Thunder Team’s logs, but they were all protected. I found this skunky. I recommended Pooky Team change their passwords, change their encryption keys, and reinstall their code. While they were responding with passionate assessments of my vactor, skills, attitude, appearance, and ancestry, Dennis Goldenhair entered, suddenly and short of breath.

Goldenhair: Why did you just try to access Thunder Team’s logs?

Syd: Sorry, is that a problem?

Me: Interesting that you had that flagged, Dennis.

Goldenhair: Of course it’s a problem. It’s, it’s a breach of etiquette. And don’t impute sinister behavior to me, Kidwell. You of all people.

Toad: Meaning what?

Swami: He means Jeremy knows Dennis is above such behavior.

I didn’t know any such thing about Dennis. In fact, his current actions smelled even skunkier.

Me: Bollix, update your virus definitions.

Bollix: Done.

Me: Scan all files in the Pooky folder.

Goldenhair: [Conspicuously casual.] Anyway, you fellows should understand – [Looks sidelong at me, looks away.] Thunder Team’s logs fall under the category of – [Side glance 2.] – Of confidential business information. [Glance 3.]

Toad: We’re all new here, we didn’t know. No offense meant.

Bollix: Done. No viruses found.

Me: Bollix says the files are clean.

Goldenhair: [Relieved? Impressed?] Bollix checked all those files? That fast?

Me: He’s the fastest.

Goldenhair: Fast isn’t everything. If you like speed, then race cars.

Syd: Bollix is so fast he’s stripped his gears. His clock is off.

Me: No! All of yours are, and if you just let me investigate –!

Goldenhair: That’s easy enough to check. Handy Randy, put up the US Naval Observatory’s Master Clock on this table’s display.

[National reference clock appears on tabletop. We all check it.]

Toad: Well, that’s that. You’re spewing, Jeremy.

Me: But – I just know – I –

Goldenhair: [Chuckles. Under his breath, so only I can hear:] Fast isn’t everything.

Right there I knew that Goldenhair, with glinting eye, was boasting sabotage.

Was he stupid? I don’t know. Not many programmers who pull a clever trick can hold back from bragging, if only a glancing undercover brag. Hubris is our vibe.

Trouble was, I myself knew hubris like a Greek hero on amphetamines.

Me: You know, Dennis, I do like speed. Let’s race. Hamster to hamster, head to head.

Goldenhair: Uhh. No! Wait, hold on – no. Thunder hates Pooky. They won’t race, they’ll fight.

Me: I think four or five of us could pull them apart. Head to head, whaddya say?

Goldenhair: [Long pause.] All right. But let’s raise the interest level. Right after the race, the loser duckwalks around the cafeteria shouting, “I’m a loser.”

Me: What is this, summer camp?

Goldenhair: It’s a fraternity initiation. You want work at MacroBot, Jeremy? If Pooky wins, maybe. [Chin forward.] But I say you’re lame, I say Bollix is lame, and when everyone in the company hears you say that, your career here is over.

Me: [Gulping.] You’re on. When?

Goldenhair: Half an hour. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to fix that banking bug. [Leaves, walking fast.]

Syd: I can’t believe you did that, you maniac. A head-on match will humiliate us. Management will close us down on the spot. [To Swami:] This is your hotshot, a jacko who can’t even fix his system clock?

Swami: [Uncomfortable.] He’s – he is good. Really.

Toad: There’s a warm endorsement. I’d better go revise my CV.

[Toad, Syd, and Hans leave. Chill air remains.]

Swami: I hope you know what you’re doing.

Me: [Pause.] He’s not so smart. [Pause.] Okay, one more time. After the ping to Xerxes, we call NewPookyRouter, then the traffic class….


I’d forgotten that MacroBot’s first hamster race, that inspired them all, was sort of my idea. Not that I’m proud.

This floor of SysEn was a maze of cubicles in the usual shades of charcoal, taupe, every kind of almost-color that couldn’t clash even if you painted it on cymbals. Word had mysteriously spread, like telepathy, and now an eager audience lined both sides of the aisle. Some were giggling, others adjusting video pickups, but I overheard much serious discussion of the protocol debate. I liked that about MacroBot. Some employees wanted excitement, many hoped for stock-option luxury, but everyone worked with the idea that this company could change the world.

In search of dividers to separate the combative hamsters, someone had infiltrated a campus construction site and brought back a bundle of black plastic tiles. These proved to be restroom signs. Along the aisle to the elevators stretched Men-Women-Men-Men-Women, a Morse Code line falsely promising relief. Hidden from one another, Pooky and Thunder waited restlessly in their balls at the starting line, each with his team clustering behind.

In this moment of suspense I casually made my biggest mistake.

Darby: Do the hamsters seem awfully nervous to you?

Swami: Maybe the bright lights upset them. Hamsters are nocturnal.

Me: Good point. Bollix, kill the lights.

As the floor plunged into darkness, I knew I’d fumbled. Yellow emergency panels clicked on, revealing Darby’s suspicious stare.

Darby: I didn’t know contractors could access the lighting system.

Me: Oh. Uh – well, that dates back to when I interned here. I guess the codes were never changed.

Darby: That was in another building, years ago. We change them all the time.

Me: No, no, lights are different. Nobody changes light codes. Right, guys?

Swami: Yes, who bothers with lights? Heh, heh! Heh?

Syd, Toad, Hans: [Dead silence. Though they will not insert the knife, they will watch me bleed.]

Dennis Goldenhair: He’s right.

Me and Pooky Team, but especially me: Huh?

Goldenhair: The company rotates a small set of lighting access codes. They’re considered low-threat. I imagine we’ve gone back to the same code we had when Jeremy was here last.

Darby: Oh. Okay. Sorry, Jeremy. [Goes to quiet the crowd.]

Goldenhair: [Quietly.] This is you and me, Kidwell. Your vactor. My protocol.

Everyone’s vactor: Hamsters are our friends, and in this case our fellow workers. The race is about to begin. Please watch your step.

Darby: Annnd…. Go!

Goldenhair: Run it!

Swami: Go, Pooky, go!

The Thunder chirp and Pooky cowbell started, without immediate result. While dozens watched, the competitors shuffled here, there, scratched a bit, and yawned.

Then Pooky nosed ahead ten fitful centimeters, and the crowd cheered as for a champion sprinter. At the noise, both hamsters floundered. In a carrying voice Darby said “Quiet!” and all fell silent. Chirp and cowbell are as nothing compared to reprimand and termination.

At last Thunder hearkened to the clarion chirp and rolled to an early one-meter lead. Now, though, Pooky revealed he had only been marshalling inner reserves. The brown dwarf rocketed forward faster than a wind-up toy racecar, paused at the turn for a moment of introspection, circled briefly, then ambled along the wall to the elevator.

Syd: All systems nominal.

Swami: Go, Pooky, go!

A baseboard vent opened just ahead of Pooky. Out zipped a cleaning bot, one of those old squat mouse-shaped things with the electrostatic underbelly. It pulled slowly toward Pooky and nudged him gently back, back. Pooky, keeping his balance with effortless hamsterian grace, sniffed in fascination.

Pooky Team was scandalized.

Swami: That – you – you are a bad sportsman!

Goldenhair: Did I do that? Where’s your proof?

Toad: Quick, check the log! There’ll be messages from the cleanerbot.

Hans: …Nothing.

Me: Check the cleanerbot log!

Pooky Team: [Baffled.] Do cleaners have logs? – Where would it be? – Does Xerxes track maintenance bots? – etc.

Darby: Thunder has taken the lead. He’s at the elevator!

Goldenhair: [To me, quietly.] Repeat after me: “I’m a looooo–”

Me: Argh! Bollix, check the third-floor maintenance log on Xerxes and find the most recent time a cleanerbot port opened up. Then check which files Xerxes called in the previous two – no, three seconds.

Goldenhair: Oh right, like a vactor can figure out where to look for cleaner ports….

Bollix: Filename BeatDown1. Created today, 22 minutes ago. No author listed.

Me: Bollix, cancel BeatDown1!

Toad: The cleaner’s stopped. It’s heading back to its port.

Goldenhair: [Consternation.] How did you –?

Swami: Go, Pooky, go!

Thunder, perhaps knowing the ennui familiar to all who wait for elevators, had delayed entering the first available car. Pooky Team’s vactor had ordered a second elevator, which opened as Pooky approached. But – follow me closely here – Thunder now fixated on this second car’s opening door, so he surged forward onto the elevator meant for Pooky.

The elevator’s motion sensor detected Thunder and closed the door just as Pooky arrived. The first elevator, meant for Thunder, still waited – but Pooky’s cowbell fell silent.

Syd: Uh-oh. That elevator is expecting Thunder protocol. We can’t talk to it.

Toad: But that means Thunder has bungled it too.

Hans: No. We already told the second lift to head down when the door closed. When Thunder reaches the ground floor, the door will open automatically. He can go on. But we are spewed.

Me: Bollix, cancel NewPookyRouter and restart.

Pooky Team: Huh? Wait, stop!

Me: Gotta reinitialize the elevator.

Bollix: Restarted. Awaiting ping.

Swami: Look! He’s getting on the elevator! Go, Pooky, go!

We were witnessing greatness. Our man had reached deep in his memory and recalled past trips through open elevator doors. Alone, before a breathless crowd, without a cowbell to guide him, Pooky rolled gently, unerringly onto Thunder’s elevator. The door closed.

We stood a moment in reverence.

Toad: Jeremy, get Bollix to send the lift down.

Goldenhair: No! It has to be Pooky’s vactor, or you lose!

Syd: No worries. Just have to reconnect.

Me: [Flipping down.] Wait, I’ve got a hunch. Swami, let me see your display. Bollix, run Monocle.

Syd: Crunch time, not hunch time, Jeremy….

Me: There, I thought so! Your timecodes and mine match exactly.

Toad: That means you fixed your clock. Hurrah.

Me: No, it means your data is finally clean. Talk to the elevator, get it going.

Swami: Go, Poo –!

Goldenhair: Oh, give it a rest.

The closing of Pooky’s door triggered a new race. As one, Thunder Team, Pooky Team, and six dozen programmers, engineers, supervisors, interns, and maintenance-bot repair crew stampeded for the stairs. One second, people; ten seconds, vacuum.

From then on, that floor of System Engineering was known as the Hamster Run.


Leaping stairs three by three, I looked back and saw Goldenhair strolling down smooth as a mortician. He said, “Limber up for a nice duckwalk.” He didn’t seem to be calling up new mischief. Still, I got nervous again.

The elevator crisis cost us a frightening 50 seconds. But the fable of Tortoise & Hare still rings true down the ages. Lulled into complacency, possibly thinking of interviews and endorsement contracts, Thunder had rolled down the first-floor hallway and then, mere meters short of the cafeteria, stopped to wash. Thunder Team was in agony.

Meanwhile, Pooky, though much delayed, found new fighting spirit when his cowbell resumed. Once in a generation a hamster like this comes along. No sooner did the door open than he rolled forth like a seasoned warhamster, his clarion bell sounding the charge to battle.

Pooky Team and I shouldered through the crowd, with Goldenhair right behind me. I checked Pooky’s log. The online bank withdrawal went fine – he was closing on Thunder –

Suddenly Pooky’s ball went quiet. The whole audience, except Goldenhair, raised a collective “uh-oh.” Then, startling us, the cowbell erupted again – from the speakers behind us, far down the opposite hall!

Pooky stopped, circled briefly, then retreated toward us, leaving the cafeteria behind. The astonished crowd swept apart to let him pass, geeks crashing over each other like bergs under an icebreaker’s prow.

Me: Bollix, check Xerxes for all calls to the first-floor public address system in the last 15 seconds.

Goldenhair: Won’t work this time….

Bollix: No files found.

Me: [Infuriated.] I was watching you and your team every second! How did you do it?

Goldenhair: Maybe I made Pooky a better offer.

While the crowd laughed, I checked Pooky’s log. Against all reason, Pooky’s own vactor had moved the cowbell sound from the hamster ball to the far hallway speakers. And I felt a cold conviction that if I checked Swami’s log now, our timecodes would once more disagree.

How was Goldenhair using our own vactor to trigger his rogue code? I mentally retraced the process: ping the online bank, get the funds….

The idea hit like a dumptruck. I shouted at Goldenhair, “Ping!”

His eyes widened. Of course, well might one expect the most innocent person to widen his eyes when one screams in his face, “Ping!” But when he looked away, I knew I had it.

There was no time to fix his treachery. Thunder, richer by five newbucks, was finally barrelling toward the cafeteria. So – in good conscience, trying only to sound the cowbell in the correct direction – I said the words:

Me: Bollix, ring the bell on the cafeteria speakers!

Bollix asked for a confirmation. But when Thunder reached the entrance, the crowd could not be repressed. I couldn’t hear for the roar. I said, “Do it! Ring the bell!”

I checked the network setup later. Any vactor talking to the cafeteria’s network was sent first, as is standard in smart-building parsers, to the emergency keywords. And yes, a sysadmin had indeed attached the emergency search keyword “bell” to the cafeteria’s fire alarm. Maybe some survey showed that 24.7% of panicked eaters, beating back gouts of flame, coughing clouds of toxic smoke, groping for words, would in fact tell their vactors, as I told Bollix: Ring. The. Bell.

System Engineering, a new building, explored the shrill frontiers of fire-alarm technology. I don’t know what it was – well, yes I do: loud.


This sonic lobotomy cut straight through the forebrain to the lizard medulla. I’m talking audio tear gas. You heard it and, without cognition or internal debate, you moved. Supposing you happened to be near the entrance with your teenage daughter, you would throw back your chair, grab her arm, and run full-tilt for the doorway. You first looked forward to evade other patrons; then back to ensure the girl was intact; then up in search of smoke and flames. The logic of the situation dictated that at no point would you look down to see if you were about to stomp a hamster in an unbreakable plastic ball.

The video I got would not have led the newscasts. I was too far back; my cube shows only a single right foot, rising above the crowd for an instant in a sort of chorus-girl kick, its shoe spinning away. I don’t definitely know which anonymous hero shot the clip that made the headlines, and the animated T-shirts and coffee mugs, and the get-well cards (“Hope you’re on your feet soon!”), and the poster for the 2035 documentary expose Corporate Pratfalls.

Given that perfect angle – the scissoring legs flanking the head, left knee thrust dramatically forward, extended right leg just starting to part company with its associated shoe – the arms, spreading with unexpected grace – and, crucially, the upper half of the head, with the puzzled eyes that seem to say, What is this? My belly is higher than my neck; how unorthodox! – given this vantage, the likely photographer is Radim “Stuffy” Stefan, a Czech test engineer visiting on a temporary work visa. The Stuffy Shooter Theory has many proponents. They observe that management ended Stuffy’s contract soon afterward on some trumped-up pretext, whereupon he retired to Barbados.

I missed it all, because something shot past my ear like a clay pigeon. The Thunderball struck Dennis Goldenhair squarely on his most prominent target. He fell. The ball landed lightly on his chest and split open. Thunder shook his head twice, then covered his ears. After I called off the alarm, he shuffled calmly back toward the cafeteria.

I looked at the figure splayed in the doorway. A thin blonde girl stood over him with a look of moody thought. Somehow every employee had vanished, just evaporated.

As before, I decided the time was not right for introductions.


It was hard to find Swami in the cafeteria crowd around Dennis Goldenhair, and harder to talk over Dennis’s shouting.

Me: I just sent a rundown of EvilPingScheme to the Task Force. Did you recover Pooky all right? Is he fighting Thunder?

Swami: Huh? No, no. Just the opposite. It seems Pooky is female. I should ask Dennis if they can move in together. But I hate to interrupt him. [Listening as if to Mozart.] Beautiful, isn’t it?

Darby sat alone at a corner table, glumly eating Pooky’s peanuts.

Me: Congratulations. What’s the matter?

Darby: I’m all right, thanks.

Me: You need to know about Dennis’s insidious scheme. His protocol was just a diversion. When the Pooky protocol sent Xerxes the initial ping, a signal that determines available bandwidth, it triggered an active-network program Dennis had cached. It couldn’t read our encrypted Pooky packets, but it revised their time-stamps.

Darby: Mmm.

Me: Dennis had previously written a new, unreported MBoss virus specifically targeting Pooky Team’s vactors. It synchronized the infected vactors’ system clocks to match the altered packets. The virus had no other effect, so the change was undetectable – except by vactors that don’t run MBoss, like Bollix. To fool me, he set up a fake timer and passed it off as the US Naval Observatory clock. That Dennis: what a chipset!

Darby: Really.

Me: If the plan had worked, MacroBot programmers could have basically taken over the Internet. I took the liberty of warning a friend I have on the Internet Engineering Task Force, because I know from Swami that you and the MacroBot management disapprove of that stuff.

Darby: Right. I’ll see that you get credit.

She lacked enthusiasm for her shining knight. I retreated to another table and wondered who rusted my armor.

Dennis finished his penance and went to sit beside her. He looked at me and set his bruised jaw in anger. Oh no, I thought, he spilled it.

Me: Bollix, tune in the voices about 12 meters north-northeast.

Goldenhair: – I’ll live it down. Eventually. My chin still hurts. [Pause.] I can’t believe he didn’t watch. One small mercy.

Darby: He says he told the IETF.

Goldenhair: Oh.

Darby: He didn’t try to blackmail you?

Goldenhair: Kidwell? Hah.

Darby: Why not? You said he was a juvenile delinquent, sentenced for hacking.

Goldenhair: He was framed. They say he took the rap for someone else – I’d guess Swami. [Looking at me with loathing.] Kidwell’s probably the most honest person in this building.

Darby: Oh, great. Well, next time I’ll know not to let him near anything important. It’s getting late, sweetie. Let’s go.

And with horrible clarity, I saw the truth.

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