I’m not from here, it’s true. I left my home town when I was nine. My father was a drunk. My mother, she was a real smart lady. She worked with brains. Neuro-Linguistics, that’s what they call it. But when I was a kid she called it brains.
I said my mum was smart. But she stuck with my father so I guess she wasn’t that smart. She made other mistakes as well. She took me to work once and I got to meet her boss. Mr Conway. He had eyes like rocks, smile like a shark. I’m old now, but when I close my eyes, when I dream, if I dream, I see those eyes, those teeth,
Conway was what they call a Project Manager. He didn’t talk to me but he let my Mum show me around. She showed me the server room and the metrics lab. Across from that there were some sun bed looking devices. Early versions of what we now call Immersers. There were some college looking kids in blue jumpsuits getting in and out of them and they had wild hair and diodes stuck to their foreheads.
“What’s that all about?” I asked.
“Soon, people will be able to transport themselves anywhere, any time,”
“Like a video game?”
Later, Mom bought a danish and we ate it together and drank hot chocolate in the pristine, walled off gardens of the Institute. The gardens were the only place that had solid walls. Everywhere else was glass, so you could see through.
I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I remember that day. I remember going to the bathroom on my own. I remember stopping off in the programmer’s pit on the way back.
“Who are you?” the guy was spotty faced. He had bleary eyes and a coffee mug that said Hail to the King, Baby. He was one of maybe forty people, all at workstations. Some were busy typing onto keyboards. Others were stretching their arms and backs or lying face first on their desks. I told him my name.
“Does Conway know your here?”
“Yeah,” I said. It wasn’t a lie, strictly speaking. I asked the guy what he was doing.
“Programming,” he said. “You know what that is?”
My father was a programmer, that’s how he met my Mother. But it had been a while since he last worked. “Something with computers,” I said. The guy looked around at the numerous banks of terminals. I doubt he thought I was particularly clever.
“Yeah kid. Something with computers.” He pulled an empty chair over and I got up on it. I remember I basically had to kneel on the seat to see what he was doing. “We type the code in here and it builds and builds until it takes on a life of it’s own.”
He showed me a few other things, but it was getting late, and I needed to get back. I found my Mother in her office with Mr Conway. Through the glass I could see he was talking to her. She was very still. On instinct, I didn’t go inside. When she came out, she looked strange, and faraway. On the way home, I told her about the programmers.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. She wanted the programmer’s name, but I said I didn’t know it.
After that, we drove in silence, past the strip malls and the housing estates and the bus stop where I would, six months later, make my escape with nothing more then a rucksack and my father’s old laptop. When we got home Dad was passed out on the couch so we ate dinner, just the two of us, and nothing was said.
Later, when I was in bed, I remember Mum came to tuck me in. I said I was sorry. It felt like the right thing to do.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “The Institute is no place for children.” She got up and went to the door, put her hand on the light switch. Something had been on my mind, so I said:
“What’s Mr Conway do.”
She seemed to think about that for a moment. Then she said, “You know what the programmers do?”
I nodded my head. She had a look in her eye now, same as Mr Conway. An insular, uncaring look.
“Well,” she said, unsmiling. “Who programs the programmers?”
She left me in the dark. I don’t think I slept a wink the whole night.