by Pamela Rice Hahn
I imagine this is the first book you’ve read that’s written by somebody who’s inside of a computer, instead of just seated at one typing in his story. In fact, now might be a good time for you to boot up that CD that came with this book. You’ll need it later in the journey anyhow, and for now it’ll give you a chance to see what I look like and allow me to officially introduce myself.
I know. That still doesn’t answer how I got inside of here in the first place. Be patient. We’ll get to that. First, in order to understand how that happened, you need to know about Dr. F.
His full name is Dr. Mortimer Franklin.
While we’re on the subject of names: you’ll recall from that CD intro that mine is Albert. My friends call me Bert; however, Dr. F. usually just calls me “BT” That’s short for Beta Test. Sometimes he calls me Beta, or just “B” When I first met him and he’d get really impatient, he’d mutter “baloneyforbrains” under his breath, like it was all one word, while his eyes rolled so far back in his head you’d think he could see behind him. Of course, with all that Dr. F. can do, maybe he can do that, too. But I digress….
Dr. F. is well known throughout our town as being a bit eccentric. His tinkering with his latest invention often subjects the local townspeople to what he called “beta tests.” People still talk about the time he outfitted his dog, Data, with The Ultra Animal Translator. Equipped with the UAT, Data could fetch your morning newspaper and read you the front page!
As with many of his inventions, Dr. Franklin was soon asked to dismantle the device when Data began telling humans how dogs really felt about them. The final straw was when Data got really upset when one of the neighbors tried to feed him steak that was well done.
“You obviously don’t know the first thing about gratitude,” Mr. Gordan, the well-meaning neighbor, said to Data when he complained about the steak.
“And you know even less about canine cuisine,” Data reportedly retorted.
Things went downhill after that and got downright ugly, with Mr. Gordan doing lots of growling, and not in the least amused when Data tried switching to witty repartee in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
Being his neighbor, my family and I constantly heard strange noises from Dr. Franklin’s lab.
Before I actually met him, I would often sneak towards his workshop, careful to avoid the various outdated circuit boards, motors, antennae, and scrap metal that littered his lawn. I’d get up on the tips of my feet and peek through a hole in the wall at Dr. F’s latest creation.
They were almost always too abstract to identify. So, I would usually only be treated to a glimpse of patchwork metal humming away in the corner and would have to guess at its intended purpose.
One day I noticed that Dr. F’s car wasn’t around, so I figured he wasn’t home and that I could finally be assured some privacy while I checked things out. I mean, who would have guessed that there was a mechanic in town who could work on his car? It’s a cross between a Model T and a spaceship, and it’s a wonder that it works at all. It has running boards and one of those old flip-up seats in back with headlights that resemble infrared heat-seeking missiles. One minute the car’s a convertible and the next minute, before you’ve even had a chance to see anything happen, the car has a top. So, I’m almost afraid to speculate what it has under the hood. Choreographed lemurs, for all I know. Anyway, when I didn’t see the lemurmobile burrowed in its rightful place among what I’ve come to think of as Dr. F’s lawn ornaments, I got a bit more bold about looking around. In fact, I was leaning against a pink flamingo that I figured Dr. F. had put next to some artistically arranged copper tubing to add a bit of contrasting color and was about to venture in closer for my latest look inside of his lab, when I felt something that I can only describe as “squishy.”
I never have found out for sure what it was. You can bet I didn’t stick around at that moment to find out. I just knew that there was no physical reason why my left shoulder and then other parts of my body, from my right elbow to my earlobes, should be getting that strange, prickly sensation. It was kind of like how your foot feels when it falls asleep. After the first squish, I knew my body was on full alert and totally awake. After I’d felt a few of those squishes, anybody watching me run from Dr. F’s lab window would have thought I was a member of the Olympic track team instead of a World Class Marathon Sit-On-My-Behind Computer Whiz.
Can you believe that there are actually people out there who make fun of others just because they’re smart? I, for one, find learning new stuff to be one of the greatest adventures there is. But, I guess I digress again….
In my opinion, curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it’s how she gained the knowledge to become aloof and confident enough not to care about what other people think. Curiosity is one of the things that leads to learning. I become curious about how something works and I want to take it apart to find out.
Maybe that’s why Dr. F’s lab beckoned to me like a Christmas gift box hidden in the closet. I just couldn’t wait to get a chance to look inside. My compulsion was enough to drag me away from my computer for hours at a time. I gained a renewed affinity for my tree house. It became my lookout post from which I waited to see what exactly Dr. F. was up to in his lab.
One day I climbed the ladder, took a look around, and found my reward! The lemurmobile was back in its rightful place among the lawn art. Now all I had to do was watch and wait. I knew it was just a matter of time. Someday I’d catch a glimpse of Dr. F. driving away in that strange car of his. I could be patient, knowing that I’d soon get my chance to do some first-class, uninterrupted exploring again. I didn’t figure the guy could stay at home all of the time! Nobody lives on delivery pizza and Chinese food forever. At the very least, I figured he’d have to go out and buy toothpaste or something.
Within a few days I got my wish. From my perch inside the tree house, I saw Dr. F. exit the lab. His lab coat trailed behind him, caught up just as much from the momentum of his step as from the wind that had just started to whip the limbs of the trees. With Data yapping at his heels, he pulled what I imagined was a beeper from his pocket, and from where I stood, crouched in the tree house, it looked like he pressed a button. The next thing you know, Dr. F. and Data have disappeared from next to the car, which is suddenly speeding down the driveway, Data sitting almost cross-legged in the rumble seat, his head hanging out the back window.
I waited for what I thought was a respectable (and safe) length of time and then climbed down from the tree house. Once I hit the ground, there was a sense of urgency in my step. The wind was picking up and the sky seemed to be darkening as well. Had I known at the time that I’d eventually be telling you about what happened, I wouldn’t have picked a time as clichéd as “a dark and stormy night” to do my exploring.
That night, I feared we must be in for a monster of a storm because not only was the sky growing dark at an amazing pace, but the blue roses that surround Dr. F’s house were already hunkered down for the night … literally. The stems holding the buds seemed to shrink almost to the ground and, while I watched, the leaves began forming umbrella-like canopies above the tender blue blooms.
As fascinating as it was looking at Dr. F’s strange flowers, I didn’t have time to spend that night watching them. I began to weave my way among and between the flotsam and jetsam that littered–or decorated, depending on your perspective–the yard, working my way toward the lowest lab window, all the while glad it was apparent that Dr. F. had left the lights on inside. Otherwise, on a night like this, I knew I wouldn’t have been able to see a thing.
Like an old school teacher who refuses to forego the chalkboard and embrace the overhead projector or other new gadgets, I saw that Dr. Franklin had found a way to reach a compromise in his lab. Before that night, I’d seen blackboards. I’d also seen the kind of boards that are green. But, I’d never seen a blueboard. Must be his favorite color, I thought, the rain-sensitive roses still fresh in my mind. Lining all the bare walls in the lab, and suspended from chains like some sort of psychedelic, descending movie screen in front of the dozens of filled bookcases, I saw boards of every shade of blue one can imagine. Gone were the misshapen chunks of metal whirring away that had once filled every available space in the lab. In their place was board after board after board. Light blue ones with navy lettering and vice versa. Others had an almost eerie metallic glow reminiscent of those holograms I’d once thought I’d find in the lab. And covering every surface on every one of the boards were formulae I couldn’t begin to decipher. The only similarities I was able to discern in the short time I had to look around was that somewhere on each board were the letters “J-T-C-I” with arrows and icons and numbers leading to and away from the letters. “JTCI,” I heard myself mutter aloud, as a gust of wind blew the hairs on the back of my head so they tickled my neck and another cloud rolled in to further mask the sun. Then I felt something else. And this time, it was definitely squishy!
“A bit jumpy tonight, aren’t you?”
The reality of a voice behind me made me jump again.
“Whoa there, boy. Calm down.”
Who can be calm at a time like this? I thought as I tried to coordinate my jumping with my efforts to discern what had caused the squish.
“Get a grip, Bert,” I said out loud.
The sound of my voice brought me back to reality, if not to earth. Other than the jumping, I’d only seemed to be running in place anyhow. In a voice that sounded like chalk scraping across one of those boards in the lab, I heard myself ask, “Who’s there?”
“Shouldn’t I be the one asking the questions, young man? After all, you’re the one trespassing on my property.” That said, I felt a hand on my shoulder as he turned me around to face him.
“Dr. Franklin?” I asked.
“Up close and in person,” he answered. Before he could say anything else, I had a flashback remembrance of something decidedly squishy and started looking back and forth over my shoulders, trying to find what had caused that eerie sensation.
Dr. F. harrumphed as only an impatient adult can harrumph, and grabbed hold of my nose this time, turning me toward him. “I’m over here, son. Stay focused.”
“Perhaps you’re looking for this?” he asked, as he opened his palm to reveal what I’d likened to a beeper earlier. As I watched, he pressed a button and I felt that weird squishy sensation move through my fingers and then simultaneously tickle my thumbs. This time he chuckled. “Gets your attention, doesn’t it?”
“What…?” I managed to stammer.
“We don’t have time for trivia tonight,” he said, with another one of his distinctive harrumphs. “You need to get home before the storm hits, and I have work to do.”
Dr. F. punched another button on the tiny control panel he held in his hand and I watched as his strange car pulled up alongside him. With another press of a button, the engine shut down, the lights went out, and Data jumped out of the backseat just as the roof appeared over the car. The only thing that surprised me was that a garage didn’t suddenly appear around the car. I guess even Dr. F. can only take technology so far.
A few days later, I was up in my tree house again when I heard voices in the yard. Some people may think I’m getting a little old to be spending so much time up there, but it’s a peaceful place. I like spending time alone. It’s easier to think without having others around to distract me. So even though I’d decided there probably wasn’t a foolproof way to spy on Dr. F’s lab, I still spent time there. Who knows? Maybe deep down I thought that in a moment of solitary contemplation the perfect plan would occur to me. As it turned out, I didn’t need a plan. I was about to gain carte blanche access to the lab. Yes! To the inside of the lab.
Anyhow, that night I happened to be gazing up at the stars through this set of binoculars my granddad had given me. Dad told me later that Dr. F. wandered into our yard and asked if it was okay if he joined me in the tree house. Dad said he’d wondered how the “old guy” was going to handle the rickety steps, but he told him if he was up to the climbing, he was welcome to join me.
I didn’t hear him approach, so I almost jumped out of my shoes when he tapped me on the shoulder. I guess I can be thankful he didn’t do that squish thing to announce his arrival. Dr. F. shrugged when I realized who he was, and without saying a word, reached into his pocket protector and pulled out what I thought was a laser pointer like the one I carry with me (I mostly use it to give my dog Broccoli Spears something to chase when I’m busy trying to read or do other stuff). Anyhow, I heard some clicks and, before I knew what was happening, he’d unfolded the device into something that looked like a miniature telescope. I got a closer look at the planets that night than I ever did at the local university planetarium. I got my first up close look at a lone neutron star. I saw the black hole in the spiral galaxy M87 in greater detail than I’d ever seen on the NASA Web site. Literally seeing for myself that Dr. F. has something that powerful in his tech arsenal was enough to make me believe the rumors that he communicates with aliens, even though I’ve still never seen him do that.
I lost track of how much time we spent stargazing. Dr. F. would give me what he obviously thought was time enough to stare in appreciation at something before he’d take the telescope away from me, make a few adjustments, hand it back to me, and point me in another direction. I could have spent the entire night gaping at the skies, but without any indication that I was handing the telescope back to him for the final time, I sadly watched as Dr. F. folded it up and put it back in his pocket protector.
“You still curious about what I’ve got in my lab?” he asked me.
“I guess so.” I wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. I didn’t want to risk sounding too eager or anything.
“Your dad says it’s okay if you come over to help me out occasionally. Think you’d like that?”
Think? “That wouldn’t be too bad, I guess.”
We shook hands and the deal was struck. We climbed down out of the tree house, and after I’d hung around long enough to eat some of the pizza mom had brought out to the patio, I went upstairs to my room and settled back down in front of my computer.
After that night, I frequently visited Dr. F’s workshop. One night, however, I noticed something familiar to me, but new to the lab. Dr. Franklin had set up a computer in his workshop. There was a hard drive, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. All the usual stuff. Which was actually unusual for something normally found in his lab. Just as I made this discovery, Data came bounding up from behind where I was examining the computer and unleashed a flurry of barks. Dr. F. burst through the front door and found me cowering beneath Data’s mercifully untranslatable outbursts.
In hindsight, Dr. Franklin did seem a little too glad to show me his latest creation. He fixed me a cup of herbal tea in a glass beaker held over a Bunsen burner. He was always telling me that “kids these days drink too much of that sugary soda pop,” so I soon learned it was easier to just drink the tea, rather than hope to find something else in one of those coolers or refrigerators he kept here and there throughout the lab. (Now I’m actually starting to like the stuff, but I don’t let on.) Anyhow, he began to introduce the computer that sat upon his desk like it was an actual person or something.
“This, my young man, is a computer…” he began , as if I didn’t already know that. “I affectionately call her Preemptive Portal Packet,” he continued. I decided right then and there that this guy really needed to get out more. Find somebody to date. Something. “Through 3P and the use of the Internet, I will be able to bring the people of the world a wealth of knowledge that they have only dreamed about.”
Of course, I knew all about the computer and the Internet. “Doctor,” I said gently, so as not to hurt his feelings, “the computer and the Internet have been around for awhile.”
Sometimes, as I think I’ve already mentioned, Dr. F. isn’t known for his patience. “I know that, Beta,” he retorted, rather forcefully. “But, do they know how it works?”
It suddenly dawned on me why lately Dr. F. had seemed emphatic that I understand some stuff that he referred to as Time Division Multiplexing and Modified Real/Time Theory of Relativity.
However, like he so often does with my nickname, once he tells you a term, he resorts to the acronym, so it’s been TDM this and MRTTR that in a lot of his recent conversations with me, although perhaps conversation is the wrong word, as I barely get to say anything.
Although I sometimes find my self doing it in class, I don’t dare zone out while Dr. F. is talking. He really hates to repeat stuff. Little did I know how risky it would be to have missed one of his earlier explanations. It wasn’t until later that I knew understanding what he was talking about was easier when I could associate the words with the acronyms. I’d spent the past few weeks pondering just what exactly he meant every time he talked about “JTCI.” I didn’t plan to repeat that mistake! Or maybe I just assumed I’d missed it. Knowing Dr. F., he might have kept that one on a need-to-know basis. After all, it was the acronym I’d seen written repeatedly on all of those mysterious blueboards, so I’d think that no matter where my mind was at the moment, hearing the doctor mention those letters should have gotten my attention. Doesn’t matter now, I guess. Besides, I’m digressing again.
Getting back on topic: TDM and MRTTR are the terms that Dr. Franklin uses to explain the ability to observe nanosecond operations using one’s real time senses.
Dr. F. is also a firm believer in immersing oneself in study in order to comprehend a subject. I never dreamt he meant that literally when he was telling me about how, much like when an adrenaline rush brought on by a crisis can make things seem to happen in slow motion, TDM and MRTTR technology takes the brain’s subconscious ability to comprehend data quickly and translates it to real-time, conscious observation.
Aside from that, I couldn’t help wondering what TDM and MRTTR were going to have to do with the Internet. Everybody knows things are transmitted quickly over the Internet. I couldn’t understand why Dr. F. felt they needed something as esoteric sounding as TDM and MRTTR technology to comprehend that.
“Most people don’t really care how the Internet works, do they?” I asked. “Beyond learning how to turn on the computer and click the mouse, that is. Once they learn how to log on, what else do they need to know?”
“Do you want to settle for being like most people? Don’t answer that, B. It was a rhetorical question.” Even though he’d called me “B” again, I could tell he was over his impatience. He was now into one of his preoccupied modes. Or so I thought.
“Now sit here, my young Beta Testee,” he continued.
His modification of the name he used to address me did concern me a bit, but I did as I was told. I sat down.
“Allow me to demonstrate my latest invention.”
As he spoke these words, I was suddenly aware of what the eccentric doctor had in mind. He muttered something about “Inverse Particle Projection — IPP, if you will” while he adjusted the Web cam that until that moment had been walking back and forth across the top of the monitor on tiny little legs. I began to think about whether or not I should panic.
Before I could react further, he pointed the Web cam directly at me and pushed a large blue button.
“JTCI, BT,” I heard him say, almost as if he were speaking through a megaphone held backwards. “Now you begin your Journey to the Center of the Internet!”
I was suddenly drawn into what should have seemed like a series of tiny cables but actually became these huge circular walls on all sides. Lights flashed about me as I beheld the digital scenery rushing past me. Or was I rushing past it? While I tried to push my stomach back down to its proper place and get a grip about what was going on, Dr. F’s workshop became a chaotic stew of swirling images from my past and my mind became a firing range for random synapses. I was soon overcome and fell into an almost semi-conscious state. Actually, it felt more like what I imagined somebody undergoing hypnosis might feel like as everything around me seemed to slow down and the lights about me seemed to pulse less frequently than my racing heart beat.
I closed my eyes for a bit in order to steady my breathing. When I opened them again, I found myself in what almost looked like a large, well-ordered city. Networkopolis or something, I thought to myself.
Okay, I told myself. Things are now under control.
“How are you doing in there, Beta?”
Okay. Maybe not so good. Either I’m hallucinating or that hub just talked to me!
Copyright © 2002 Pamela Rice Hahn
Used by permission.
All rights reserved
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