“It’s definitely broken,” Milo said as he pushed his glasses back into place. Having suffered through another week of school, it was finally Saturday and he was back to more enjoyable pursuits.
“But I know I can fix it,” Milo said to Nate. “Computers are easy like that. This one just had a bad CPU, which we can easily pull and replace. Anyway, let’s get it fixed and into the cluster.”
Huddled around the table in Milo’s basement, the two boys looked like surgeons in an operating room. A lone lightbulb illuminated their patient while the rest of the ‘70s-inspired room — orange shag carpet included — retreated into darkness. Two friends sharing a common bond, a welcome relief from school.
“Do you mind pulling it?” Milo said, realizing that his static discharge bracelet had fallen off again. Nate pulled the CPU, set it carefully on the operating table, and then walked over to the spares box to look for something that might work in its place.
“Would you like to see the game I’ve been working on?” Milo asked out of nowhere, clearly nervous.
“You made a game, that’s awesome! Of course I’d like to see it,” Nate said, forgetting that he was supposed to be looking for a CPU.
“It’s not much right now, I’ve mostly been working on getting the world to work right. The environment, physics, all that stuff. All you can really do is wander around and build stuff, but I figure later on I can add more game elements.”
Although he didn’t tell Nate this, Milo had been working on this game since he was six. Back then he sat down with a book on C — a difficult programming language for first-timers — and had the rudiments of the Game in a few months. Milo had taken to programming like it was his native tongue and he’d never looked back, though he had switched to C++ fairly recently.
“Milo, that’s incredible! I can’t believe you made a game. You’re like a genius or something. So, where is it?” Nate asked.
“Well, you’re kind of encircled by it right now,” Milo said as he pointed to the computers all around the room. Nate had helped him take them out of boxes last week as a part of getting ready for their first LAN party. “It takes quite a few computers to run even now, so I’ve connected them all together. It’s like a supercomputer. Well, a really small one, anyway.”
He pointed over to one of the screens and said, “That one is currently running a window into the Game. Take a look.”
On the screen was a brilliantly colored virtual world, with all sorts of flora and fauna enlivening the scene. Nate ran over to the screen, dragging a chair, and quickly sat down. Assuming the position of an avid gamer — left hand hovering over the keyboard and right hand on the mouse — Nate fiddled with the controls. Once he figured out how to move, Nate looked overhead and noticed a flock of birds in formation.
“Whoa, what’s that?” he said.
“Just something from last night. I added migratory patterns so they’d be pointing in the right direction for this time of year.”
Almost immediately Nate sprayed Dr. Pepper all over the screen, as his uncontrolled laughter caused it to shoot out of his nose.
Nate, wiped his nose off and said, “So what are you going to build next?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking. I have all these different parts of the Game world that I can’t seem to get to work together. If I turn too many features on, the whole world quickly falls apart and then crashes,” Milo said.
“That sucks,” Nate replied and then quickly interjected, “I mean that they don’t play well together.”
Not noticing the gaffe, Milo continued, “I’ve been thinking, what if I let the Game bootstrap itself? Use its ability to score games to play games. Basically it’d simulate alternate worlds until it finds one that works. Genetic algorithm type stuff with a fitness function and millions, maybe billions of candidate solutions.”
It was at that moment that Milo’s mom came down the stairs. A slender woman with thoughtful features and blonde hair, Mary wore a plain yellow dress that hadn’t been ironed in some time. No makeup or jewelry of any kind, she seemed to only have space in her life for work and her son.
Hearing Milo’s last sentence, she smiled and wryly said, “Oh no! My son is speaking gibberish!”
Milo smiled while Nate burst into a giggle, threatening another explosion of Dr. Pepper. Even working two jobs, she always managed to have enough energy to feign interest in his more esoteric pursuits.
But Milo was still thinking about the idea. A genetic algorithm was only modeled on the physical concept. It was, in fact, a way to solve difficult problems through a computer simulation of multi-generational evolution. He laughed at that last thought. He knew how his mom would have reacted had he actually said that aloud.
“We’re just screwing around, Mom,” Milo said, noting how different his internal monologue was from the words he often said.
“Of course you are,” she said, turning around to head back up. “Dinner will be ready soon, you’re welcome to stay if you’re hungry, Nate.” But that last part was rhetorical. Teenage boys are always hungry.
The boys hurried upstairs and took their seats at the worn oak table, barely missing a beat. Milo noticed that she had neatly arranged each table setting and had even set out cloth napkins. From the kitchen, the rich smell of a “home-made pizza” — composed of store-bought sauce and crust — filled the house.
“You made pizza?” Milo exclaimed.
“Don’t sound too surprised, sometimes a little home-made pizza is just what the doctor ordered,” she replied.
Milo couldn’t make sense of what she meant, but quickly moved on, after all, there was pizza. Though he was a bit suspicious that something might be wrong. She was acting a little weird.
“You’ll never guess what we did today,” Milo said.
“I’ll give you a hint,” Nate chimed in, “it rhymes with ‘computers’,” and then started laughing. Mary laughed too and they even managed to get Milo to smile.
The conversation continued as Milo talked about his idea, but Mary couldn’t concentrate. She caught snippets, but they’d float away again as she struggled with what she was about to say. When she managed to collect her thoughts, she noticed that the pizza was gone and the boys were talking about their project.
“Hey, Nate, how about you head home. It’s been a long day and I’d like Milo to myself tonight.”
“Sure thing Mrs—” he started to say.
“You know you don’t need to keep calling me that. Really,” she interrupted.
Getting up from the table, Nate walked past Milo and, belting him hard on the shoulder, said, “Until tomorrow, hombre.” Then with a wink and in a sing song voice, “Good night, Mrs. Bell.”
“Good night, Nate,” Mary and Milo said, almost in unison.
Nate grabbed his backpack, slung it over one shoulder and left them at the table.
Milo became suspicious of this change. Something weird was clearly about to happen.
“Milo, I have some bad news. I didn’t want to throw off your time with Nate, but it’s really important that we talk about it. You can say anything about your feelings, remember? I’m here to listen.” She then paused and took a deep breath. “Marvin passed away in his sleep last night, Milo. I’m really sorry.” She was barely holding back tears.
Milo tried to process the words but he couldn’t make sense of them. Marvin had left for a trip and was supposed to get back tonight. They were going to work on that computer. He couldn’t be dead.
Just then Milo noticed that she was still speaking, but he wasn’t able to hear her over the thudding of his heartbeat. He felt a rising sense of panic, a feeling of being stranded in the middle of a large ocean.
She could see that he was having difficulty, so she rested her hand on his shoulder and said, “It’s okay to cry, Milo.”
Rather than crying, Milo said, “I don’t know what to do, mom.”
She held him in her arms for a few minutes. Then, after wiping her eyes with the edge of her dress, she said, “I don’t know either, Milo. Some things take time to process, especially when it comes to our emotions.”
Milo thought he heard something upstairs.
She paused and then said, “I know this probably isn’t the right time for it, but there’s a chance it may help. Marvin wanted you to have something. Why don’t you go upstairs and take a look?”
With the mention of Marvin’s name, Milo’s eyes brightened.
“What is it?” Milo asked rhetorically, as he made his way for the stairs, trying not to look anxious. He looked back at her, but a shooing motion sent him up the stairs. Waiting patiently for him at the top was Inu, paw extended and happy to see him like every other day.
As Milo approached, Inu frenetically wagged her tail and nudged Milo’s leg with her nose. When Milo got down on the ground to pet her, he noticed that there was something else in his room.
Milo’s room was almost as chaotic as Marvin’s office, but instead of books and journals lining the walls, Milo had posters with Einstein quotations and comic book heroes. Computers from several decades covered tables and hid in cabinets as a tangled mess of cables connected them all together. His twin bed was covered with sheets depicting rockets and far off planets all against a field of blue, which always bugged Milo as space clearly wasn’t blue.
But in the midst of all which was familiar, there was a large box dominating the center of his room. The movers must have hauled it on hand trucks like a refrigerator, as it clearly couldn’t have been shipped here normally. There was a little envelope dangling off the edge of the familiar shape. He grabbed it and read the note inside:
It’s going to be okay. - Grandpa
Milo missed him more than his brain could process and didn’t even register how unusual it was to receive a gift from beyond the grave like this.
It was the Lisp Machine, of course. The familiar LISA stenciled on the side. Grandpa’s cherished possession for all these years. His research.
There were a few parts included in a separate box, as well as important peripherals like a somewhat bizarre keyboard and old monitor. There was also an adapter that looked like it could plug this ancient computer into the rest of his network, which Milo found quite unusual.
Time to put the pieces together. Compared to the modular computers he was used to playing with, it could really only be put together one way.
He turned it on.