I’ve decided to start posting chapters of the novel I’ve been working on. I’m eager hear what you think of Chapter One.
You probably don’t know me, but my name is Mikhail Benson, and I’m a genius. Now, I don’t mean I’m a genius like when someone does something really smart and you say, “dude, you’re a genius!” As a matter of fact, I can’t really think of a single smart thing I’ve done in my whole life. No, what I mean when I say I’m a genius is that when most eighteen year-olds were getting ready to graduate from high school, I was defending my thesis for my first Phd. in computer science. And they pretty much had to give it to me too, because I don’t think the professors had a clue what I was talking about.
See what I did there? I said, “my first Phd.” That’s supposed to make you assume I got at least one more. The thing is, I never did…
Getting my Phd. at 18 got me a fair bit of press coverage, and it wasn’t long after that I was approached by a BIG software company. I kinda can’t name names, for legal reasons, but let’s just say it was a company you’ve heard of. They offered me a lot of money and had a very beautiful woman present the contract. I don’t remember which one was actually more important to me at the time; regardless, I signed with them that day.
I didn’t get to sleep with that woman – though it wasn’t for lack of trying. The fact is though, I’m not really that good with women. Let me give you example:
This whole thing happened maybe fifteen years after getting my Phd. Well, maybe more like twenty. Anyway, I wasn’t with that big company anymore. (Things kinda didn’t work out with them, but that’s another story). My contract with this new company was not quite as good as my first one. It included humiliating things like mandatory conference attendance so they could show off their “former child prodigy”. It also included a lot less money. On the plus side, they sent me out to Vancouver, which is about as nice a city as you’ll ever find.
But enough with the setup, on to the example. You might say it all started in the ballroom of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. I was at a banquet function during one of those mandatory conferences I was talking about and I had taken a little chemical insulation to help me deal with it. My usual strategy at these things is to just find a patch of wall near the bar and try to avoid eye contact. In this particular case, however, the insulation was a little thick, if you know what I mean. The ballroom there has this amazing chandelier and let me tell ya, when you’re starting to peak, 2,000 sparkly glass shards are incredibly fascinating.
Before I knew it, I was standing in the middle of the room staring up at that chandelier. It is pretty amazing (insert stats here). I only stopped staring when I heard someone giggle and I realized what a dork I must look like. I looked away from the couple who were laughing at me and searched for an easy exit. Instead of that, I found the love of my life.
This woman was a 10; perfect in every way. Shoulder-length blonde hair, nice curves and exactly the right dress. Even better, she didn’t seem to be aware of how incredible she was. Now, I’m used to a certain range of reactions from women – it’s usually somewhere between pity and disgust, depending on the woman and the exact circumstance. Carly was different. She noticed that I was staring at her and, instead of turning away, she smiled and took a few steps to close the gap between us. She extended her hand and said, “you’re Mikhail Benson. It’s so nice to meet you, I’m a big fan of your early work. I’m Carly Giancotti.”
So, to review, the most beautiful woman in the world walked up to me, paid me a compliment and introduced herself. Deep down in my addled nerd-brain I knew there was an appropriate response to this situation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it. Instead, I stood there for a second with my mouth hanging open and then said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
I’m not kidding. That’s what I said. And I followed it up by spinning around and smacking into a fat old woman who spilled her drink all over herself. I made it to the nearest exit and headed for the washroom at a near run.
The Waterfront has some great washrooms. I love places that have real terry-cloth hand towels instead of paper ones. Although those new Dyson Airblades are pretty damn cool too. But back to my story. I hussled into one of the bathroom stalls, put down the seat and sat with my feet tucked up so no one would be able to tell I was there. You know – pretty standard flight response. I was fully prepared to sit there for another three hours until the banquet ended, but it wasn’t meant to be.
I hadn’t even been sitting for a full minute when I heard a familiar voice. “Mikhail, you in here?” It was Scott. His cubicle was near my office, we were in the same World of Warcraft guild and he was the closest thing I had to a friend. “I saw you run in here. What’s going on?”
Scott wasn’t going to leave so I got down off the toilet and opened the stall. “Nature calls man. Leave me alone.”
He laughed. “The fat lady you dumped wine on is married to the CFO.”
So, great. Not only did I make a complete ass of myself in front of the sexiest woman in the universe, but I was probably going to get fired. I staggered over to the sink and turned on the water. “You chased after me to tell me that? You’re an asshole.”
“Guilty as charged. I might be able to make it up to you though.”
I was about to splash some water on my face but I froze, mid-gesture. Scott’s brother works for a major pharmaceutical company and he gets his hands on some amazing product. “What have you got?”
“Dylan says this shit is going to make Tuinal feel like a kick in the nuts.” Scott took a small pill-container out of his tux jacket and shook out four small, pale-blue pills.
I said something along the lines of, “bullshit,” and grabbed all four pills.
“Woah, dude, you can’t take four of them. One is definitely gonna do you.”
I grinned and popped all four into my mouth.
Scott just shook his head. “You are gonna be so completely fucked up in a little while.”
At the time, that sounded great. I mean sure, barbiturate hangovers are nasty, but in the moment it seemed like a small price to pay if it let me get through the rest of the night without having to remember anything…
Now, in case you didn’t catch it, that was foreshadowing. I’m not really good at the whole “subtle” thing so I like to point it out when I do clever things. It’s probably one of the reasons most people don’t like talking to me…
Have you ever been really drunk and got to the point where you sort of want to pass out but every time you close your eyes your head starts to spin but eventually you just have to ride it out, and when you do, the spins are so intense that it feels like your spine is extending and your back is going to arch like you’re having an orgasm? Yeah, me neither… but that’s kinda what it felt like when those wonderful little pills started coming on.
Suitably fortified, I walked out of the washroom with the intent to get back to the banquet. I found that if I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other I could pretty much… walk. But that was about it. I was pretty sure people were staring at me, but I didn’t have enough spare concentration to care. I made my way carefully down the broad hallway and met with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle between me and the ballroom: a closed door.
Now, in daily life, a closed door is not considered much of an obstacle. However, when it requires such intense concentration to just walk, things are very different. I stared at that door for a while – it’s impossible to know exactly how long – before I managed to fire the correct synapses for extending my arm, grabbing the handle and pulling. I made sure to capitalize on that triumph of coordination by slipping into the room as quickly as possible.
I was expecting dimmed lights and the white noise of conversation; I was instead greeted by blazing fluorescent lighting, clanging of pots and pans, and a deep burbling noise. I gotta tell ya, that was almost the end of me.
As it turns out, I had just taken the wrong door and was standing in a hotel service area. The burbling noise was coming from a pair of enormous coffee machines and the smell of expensive coffee filled the area like fog. I stood there for a minute and tried to get my heart to slow down a little.
While I was standing there, a server came down the hall toward me with a large cart covered in coffee urns. She gave me a great big smile and asked if I could possibly move a little to the side so she could get to the coffee machines. I guess Fairmont customer service training is so intense that she couldn’t imagine being so rude as to ask me to leave an area I was obviously not supposed to be in. It’s also quite possible she knew instinctively that I was absolutely no threat.
Regardless of the reason, she let me stand there and watch her pour coffee from the gargantuan beasts that brewed it into the smaller urns for distribution to people who didn’t have plans to sleep any time soon. I’m not sure what it was about that server (Grace, according to her name tag), but her quiet competence and happy demeanor were exactly what I needed to get a handle on myself. I’m sure I must have looked pretty creepy, standing there watching her pour coffee with a huge shit-eating grin on my face. I would have been content to stay there for hours if her supervisor hadn’t shown up and kicked me out.
Feeling grounded, I left the service area and continued down the hall into the ballroom. The dim lights and white noise were exactly where I left them. And so was the bar – which was my top priority. I didn’t get that far though.
“Dr. Benson!” I heard someone call from behind me. Now, there’s only one person who calls me Dr. Benson and that’s my boss, Brad. And he only calls me that when he’s about to do the whole “former child prodigy” routine for some corporate bigwig or potential investor. As you can imagine, those words were like a death knell in my current state.
Sure enough, there was Brad, and he was with a man I didn’t recognize. I think I got introduced, but I don’t remember the guy’s name. He reminded me of the fat bald guy who played the private detective in The Big Lebowski. Who knows, maybe that’s who it was.
Now, what should I say about Brad? I don’t really want to say anything mean about him, because we’ll be getting back to him later… Let’s just say he did his undergrad in psych and then got an MBA with a focus on corporate management. What he lacked in personality he made up for in enthusiasm and self-help techniques.
Despite a desperate urge to run, I stood my ground while Brad and the fat guy (hmmm… that might actually be a good name for a band) approached. Brad started introductions, and that’s when things got weird.
His first few words were legible (at least I think they were, I don’t actually remember them). After that, though, everything he said came out as a series of beeps, like Morse code. His mouth was moving in time with the beeps – all the way open, completely closed, all the way open again. It was fascinating for a second, but then I realized that all of the conversational white noise in the room also sounded like beeping, which made it more disturbing than fascinating. After a quick glance around the room, I looked back to Brad, whose beeps were starting to get louder and angrier.
You know you’re a complete nerd when your drug trips are in binary.
I don’t have many clear memories of the next few hours. I obviously left the ballroom, and the hotel, because the next thing I do remember is walking down a sidewalk waving my arms to try and keep my balance. (Another one of those things that doesn’t pose such a challenge in daily life). That short segment of clarity ended with me tripping on a crack in the sidewalk and almost doing a face-plant. The resulting adrenaline surge sent another of those spine-arching charges through me and the next few hours are blank.
I woke up in sitting position with my chin resting on my chest and a god-awful ache in my upper back, so I guess I had been that way for a while. I was in the chair in my office and pieces of my tuxedo were scattered around the room.
I bumped the mouse sitting on my desk to clear the screen saver and forced my brutally hungover eyes to focus on the computer screen in front of me. 11:00. I assumed that was a.m. but it was hard to be sure.
Aside from the clock and my extremely clever and subversive desktop wallpaper, I also saw that there were hundreds of lines of code on my screen. I recognized some chunks from stuff I’d written in the past, but most of it was new. And I had no recollection of writing it. Before I could ponder it too long, I got interrupted by Karl, the weekend security guy. He reminded me that I wasn’t actually supposed to be here and I reassured him that I’d be done soon. Programmers were always coming in on weekends to catch up, so I think he was actually just concerned about the scattered clothing as opposed to me being in my office when I wasn’t technically allowed to be there.
Karl waddled off and I got up from my desk to collect my clothes. Well, I mean, I wasn’t naked or anything. I still had my shirt, pants and socks on. It was just my jacket, tie, cummerbund and shoes that were scattered around. I think I mentioned that barbiturate hangovers are a bitch, and this one was no exception. I got as far as the second shoe before the whole bending over thing was a little to painful.
Now, one of things I actually liked about the place I work is the fact that they’ve got one of those new Starbucks Office Coffee machines. Fresh-ground, fresh-brewed coffee in seconds – a saving grace on a hungover morning. I made it down the hall to the machine and put it in gear. Since there was no one to restock the cream on the weekend, I had to go with black. The caffeine was going to help, but I could feel the burning acid reflux after a single sip. Did I mention barb hangovers suck? Cause they do.
I brought the coffee back to my office and sat down. My eyes went back to the code. I wondered what it did, if anything? A glance at the top of the screen told me I had saved it as “Fishmouths”. Curiouser and curiouser. I minimized the window and tried to sort out what other kinds of mischief I had been up to. There were a couple more command-line windows open as well as a spreadsheet and some file directories. I really wanted to know what this was all about, but my throbbing head was urging me to wait ‘til Monday. I was about to turn off the screen when my eye caught on a column of numbers on the spreadsheet. Large numbers, all of which ended with two decimal points. It doesn’t take a drug-addled genius to figure out the spreadsheet was about money. (Or maybe it does, I forget how that works).
I scanned back through the open file directories and figured out that the spreadsheet was from a secure drive – a drive I should not have had access to. So what was it doing on my screen?
I took a sip of coffee, burned my tongue, cursed, then maximized the window with the code that had originally been on my screen. That’s where I had recognized some of the chunks from. This was stuff I had written ages ago when I was experimenting with cracking software. But none of this had ever been on my work computer; I must have written it last night. I scrolled through, trying to get a sense of what I had done. This was some wacky stuff; not my usual style at all… but at the same time, it was also pretty elegant. I was just starting to get into it when someone nearby cleared their throat loudly. I looked up to see Karl standing in the doorway to my office.
“Sorry, Karl. I’ll be done in a minute.” I dug through my desk, found a stick-drive and copied the program and spreadsheet onto it. Before I left, I deleted both files and closed up all the open windows. No need to leave footprints.