I am crouching at the foot of Jess's sleeping mat drinking green tea from a tall and thin plastic cup listening to the hot pot hiss and pop two mats over. There a backpacker, Mitsuteru (the guy who gave me the tea) is playing touch screen plat-formers on his phone. He has bright red DJ-style headphones emblazoned with spiral shrimp, and the light of his square screen illuminates his face blue, and I can hear his game's music, the sound of electronic coins dinging and power-ups crackling. He mumbles in Japanese and squints his eyes. I can only assume he’s cursing.
He notices me watching him. He slides the headphones down, lets them rest around his neck, sets aside his game, looks at me, and holds out a square of cigarettes, one butt extended: "Want a cigarette?" I wave him away. "You shouldn't smoke, man," I say, blowing on the tea he gave me, the steam, rippling the surface of the liquid. “You’ll get cancer, man," I say, sipping.
He smirks, puts his headphones back on.
Jess stirs in her sleep, throws off her covers and furrows her brow for the sleep fear. I re-cover her.
Outside, the lightning flashes and the purring thunder shortly follows.
I lost more than just my tower in the hurricane, and the proverbial "helm" of Sanctum XLite, perhaps the most highly respected guild in the Northeastern Coastal Server of Optima Online. My dad and I also lost our home, and the things that were inside it: clothing, pictures of mom, CDs, VHS, old long plays and cassettes. Our little slice of the technoscape of the 80s and 90s died in that flood. True.
One of the worst images branded in my mind's retina, to this day (and I have seen some screwed up stuff since, mind you) is that of my poor dad in the roofless frame of our demolished house after the storm, shirtless, spine curled over a soaked cardboard box of my deceased kid brother's grade school projects--crafty sort of things like pan-o-ramas, all crayon, glitter, construction paper, unicorns and dragons, stickers and beads of glue—crying to the rhythm of the mourning surf like a baby, for the mementos had been ruined by the flooding.
I already mentioned my dad was a computer technician. And I already told you my grandfather was one as well. Well, I need to revise this now, and the history of technology is to blame (And I have to remind you, dear reader, this is going to explain how I ended up with the Red Queen, information that may even be strategically useful for you in the years to come. We have a saying in Spiral Heyeros, a place where everyone suspects everyone else: azerox at lat, which means, "everything is strategic," which means, "don't trust anyone, and get what you can out of them while you can," which may sound cynical (it is cynical) but you'd understand this cynicism if you ever spent a night huddled for fear in a chamber in Spiral Heyeros)).
O.k. By 1998, the normal consumer in my neck of the woods had come to realize that they did not need to call a technician (or visit a technician's creepy basement shop) every time their home computer crashed. This was the year of the ascendency of the box store, the computer, electronics, and office store, of quick-fix tech-centers, and of lowering computer prices (why not just replace the thing, ma?). Suffice it to say, the loss my dad and I sustained from the tornado flung inland by the hurricane pretty much nullified his technician and repair business prospects (which were steadily declining anyway, to be honest) and thereby put us on the doorstep of my grandfather.
My grandfather, a former army engineer, was much better at reading the stars and winds than my dad, thank the stars. He had gotten out of the "home-call” “frontier doctor" computer tech business by '92, and had opened a used computer junk store.
He never called his store a junk store. But it was junk. It was a dumping ground for the detritus and technological froth sliming the wake of 1980s and early '90s technological advancement (progress always has had an underbelly. Just ask the Dodo).
Stranger still, his computer junk store and home were one and the same. So, after the hurricane, after I lost my tower, I found myself living with my dad, and my grandfather, in a three story house in an urban wasteland filled to the veritable rim with circuits, memory, processors, and old software, sometimes piled to the ceiling of both basement and attic.
And towers everywhere! Ruined towers, mind you, but towers as far as the eye could see. I had stumbled upon my own little version of Babylon in ruin.
I had been living there for a couple of weeks, in the computer graveyard (bored out of my mind), when finally my grandfather finally asked me why I was so apparently depressed and aimless:
“You mourning’ for some girl, boy?” he asked.
“Don’t you like girls, boy?”
“Why do you care?”
“When I was your age, all I thought ‘bout was girls.”
“I feel bad for them.”
“Danny-boy?” he yelled into the other room (my dad’s name is Daniel.) “Danny-boy! What the hell’s wrong with your boy? He got hisself a broken heart?”
“No, dad, he’s mad he can’t play a computer game,” my dad scoffed amidst the soldering.
"Computer game?" he snarled. “What computer game?”
“You wouldn’t know about it.”
“Well, it better be a good one to ruin this beautiful summer.”
“No, the hurricane ruined this summer, Montgomery,” I said. My grandfather hated being called grandfather. He said it made him feel old. The only problem was, he was old! He was 76.
“What computer game?” he insisted, taking his pipe out of his mouth and pointing it at me.
“Optima! Optima!” I said. “Why does it matter?”
My grandfather puffed his pipe. Looked up, rubbed his hands over his shaved scalp, and said something I could never have expected:
“Optima! Great game!”