Singular: Chapter Four

From the comfortable quiet of his bedroom, Milo watched as the archaic computer proceeded to turn on and then boot up, that familiar resuscitation sequence that brought machines to life. An aberrant squelch emanated from the tiny speaker inside. There was a problem.

“Figures,” Milo said to Inu, as even his attempt to distract himself from the grief was unsuccessful. The computer must have been damaged in transport. Milo checked the time on his calculator watch — another reminder of Marvin — it was after nine o’clock.

He double checked his grounding, determined to not let the bracelet fall off again. This was LISA; random static discharge was not going to damage her. Opening the unusual chassis, he peered inside to see a computer from an earlier age, designed for people that really knew what they were doing, research scientists and the like. Even with all of his experience, this was a different beast entirely.

Milo searched through the refrigerator-sized cabinet, looking for anything out of the ordinary, signs of tampering, or a clue of some kind. It didn’t take long as Marvin had made it rather obvious.

Fanning out a bunch of cables, Milo found the first clue. There, between the power supply and the storage, was a deliberately snipped wire. A clean cut too, like someone had chopped it with wire clippers and didn’t bother to conceal it.

Marvin had done the same thing with an old 286, but at least that time he had finished it with some tape to make it look like the wire was still intact. This was almost too obvious. Why did Marvin bother?

Continuing his investigation, he disconnected the storage device from the chassis to get a better look. In machines like this, a crucial piece could easily be obscured by large boards. Digging out a flashlight from under his bed, he lit the cabinet and peered into the space previously hidden. Inu became quite alert at the appearance of the flashlight, though was disappointed when no game was played. She quickly fell asleep.

The snipped wire was actually a power line, he discovered. It looked like a standard data cable, but clearly Marvin had done that to be tricky. He was beginning to think that this was some of Marvin’s finer work. Milo stood up and took a step back. This was important so he needed to be careful.

Since Marvin had stoked his interest in vintage computers, Milo had managed to pull down a good number of digitized user manuals. He might not have the right one for a Lisp Machine, but he at least knew where to look. He dug around for a bit and found that he actually had a schematic for this computer next to the Timex Sinclair manual. The coincidence was not lost on him. Tricky Marvin.

The power was deliberately installed backwards. Had he simply repaired the snipped wire, he would have lost whatever was on the disk in a sizzle of burning electronics. He didn’t want to lose the data, and he certainly didn’t want to smell that acrid bluish smoke ever again.

Just then, he realized that the stakes were higher than a normal puzzle. Marvin was protecting something and willing to destroy it if necessary. His grandfather was enigmatic, certainly, but the games they played were always good natured. This felt different somehow.

Milo stepped away from LISA, set down his tools, and thought through his approach. Drying his palms on his pants, he stripped each end of the cut wire exposing their shimmering copper cores. He made a clean solder — pausing for his hands to stop trembling — covered it in shrink-fit tape, and gently heated it with a light duty blow dryer. It was perfect. He then re-assembled the computer, making sure to install the power cable backwards, even though it felt weird for the colors not to line up. Then, he closed the chassis and crossed his fingers.

He flipped the switch. Whirring, a few beeps, some sort of chugging sound and then the display burst into life. Inu looked over.

A slow prompt appeared on the screen, as if typed out by an invisible hand:

> PASSWORD:

This confirmed Milo’s suspicion about this being more serious than a typical game. Marvin rarely put passwords on his puzzles. He made them tricky in other ways, as hacking passwords was usually rather tedious. But here it was. Clearly Grandpa didn’t want someone else to get this computer. And if this was intended for Milo then he must be able to guess the password.

But if it was designed not to be intercepted by someone else, then he probably only had one chance to guess before it self-destructed or whatever. That made it much easier, even though on the surface it seemed a little bit like the reasoning of Vizzini in The Princess Bride: “You would know that I know that, so clearly I can’t drink the wine in front of you.” Milo smiled. They’d watched that movie earlier this summer.

It couldn’t be random, it had to be something Milo could guess on the first try, something like an inside joke. Typing deliberately so as to not mis-key something on this unusual keyboard he spelled out L-I-T-T-L-E-M-I-L-O and pressed Return.

> INCORRECT. ONE ATTEMPT REMAINING.

Dang it! He’d been a bit too cavalier and had almost blown it.

That was when he noticed something unusual. Something was wrong with the keys. In fact, there was something really weird about the whole keyboard. In his tunnel vision to fix the cable, he had missed it.

A while back, when Milo first got into vintage computing, he had read a bit about this era of computers. The mammoth beasts that filled rooms had crazy names like ENIAC and MANIAC and so forth. He remembered that computer operators had very different careers than the developers of his day. Anyway, there were some great stories of the eccentric pioneers building all sorts of fantastical objects in their pursuit to make the modern computer.

One of those legendary devices was sitting right in front of him: the “Space Cadet” keyboard. In addition to the usual alphanumeric keys, it had Hyper, Super, Macro, several different kinds of Shift, some Roman numerals, and even these weird emoji-like keys with thumbs on them. Every key of the alphabet also had Greek letters on the front side of the key, and the top of the key had another weird symbol, like infinity, arrows, or mathematical set notation. Milo was quite pleased that he remembered all of this.

But that was the problem: he expected the top of the keys to be heavily worn, as they were, but not the front of the keys. Yet the fronts of all the keys were suspiciously blank. No Greek letters at all. Marvin must have sanded them down to make the puzzle harder and he had almost missed it.

Carefully holding down the “Front” shift key, Milo typed the Greek letter mu — frequently used as an abbreviation for micro — which should have appeared on front of the “M” key. Then he keyed in his name, one character at a time. His hands were shaking but he made sure each was pressed only once. He held his breath and pressed Return.

The prompt vanished and seven dots appeared in the middle of the screen. They were arranged mostly in a line with two of the dots slightly above. They were still for a moment, and then they started to animate. First flopping to have three dots below the line, and then, in increasing speed, they expanded and multiplied, covering the screen like a swarm of bugs. The shapes were complicated and driven by some sort of rule, each seemingly with a life of their own. Little collections of dots were launched off the center mass to form new colonies of whatever this was. Milo was mesmerized. So was Inu.

Then, the screen went blank and the prompt appeared again:

> Hello, Milo. I’ve been waiting a long time for this, though I was hoping to make a different first impression.

Relieved that he hadn’t broken the computer, Milo sat down in front of it and rubbed his hands together. Hands hovering over the keyboard, he smiled and started typing, “Hello M—” but his typing was interrupted by words which appeared more quickly on the screen:

> Not Marvin, we can talk about that later. Plug me into the Game.

Milo immediately got up from the desk and, using the current master computer, adjusted the settings on his router to carve out a little network that no one on the other side could see. As he was doing this, he wondered why Marvin would care about the Game. Sure, he’d talked to him about it before, but Marvin had hardly been curious. He always asked some superficial question and then changed the subject. It was weird, now that Milo thought about it.

And why did the computer say “first impression”? This whole thing wasn’t making much sense to Milo.

Returning to the task at hand, he plugged the Lisp Machine in with the special cable left in the box. As soon as it was connected to the Game, the screen flashed a few words and then both his computer and calculator watch seemed to power off. For a few seconds, the fading glow of these words illuminated the screen.

> Can’t you read the side of the box?

Still puzzling over this, he heard the front door slam shut. Inu barked as Milo tried to shush her, but he was too startled to react in time. Within seconds, there was shouting downstairs. Something bad was about to happen. Milo’s pulse quickened as his fight or flight instinct kicked in.

Then he heard his mom scream as Inu, framed by the bedroom doorway, growled at something downstairs.

In a panic, he looked around the room to see if there was anything he could use to block the door. Or maybe he could jump out of the window? Hide under the bed? It was happening too fast. He was paralyzed processing the options.

More than anything right now, Milo just wanted to go to sleep and wake up to a new, normal day. Another halcyon day of summer playing with his computers and tinkering on an idea for a game.

Yet in through the open door to his room entered a menacing machine. Hundreds of pieces of smooth metal came together to form a lattice-work creature that looked like a cross between a very large dog and a bear. A sensor array projected off the front of its head and a series of spikes traced a line down its back. Red sensors which served as eyes scanned the room while Milo stood paralyzed with fear.

Inu jumped from the side and tried to surprise the machine, but made a pitiful whelp as the monstrosity knocked her aside. Inu flew across the room and smacked into the wall with a thud before falling to the ground motionless.

Then it came for Milo.

Eyes locked on him, the machine moved towards him with steady well-balanced steps. It made no noise. It was graceful.

Milo couldn’t comprehend it, his mind and body paralyzed with fear and confusion. He had never seen a robot capable of moving like this. Maybe I’m dreaming, he thought, fallen asleep while tinkering yet again.

Silently it moved to within a few feet of him, its deadly jaws opening to reveal row after row of flesh-rending metal teeth. Body shaking, Milo waited for the nightmare to end. Feeling a sense of detachment, Milo noticed that behind the teeth there were two sparkling points of blue light.

Immediately a lightning bolt jumped from these points and flooded Milo’s body with such a massive jolt of electric current that he was thrown across the room. As he passed into unconsciousness, the last thing he saw was the robot moving purposefully towards Lisa.

Published under projects, singular