What lies beyond the Internet?

A high-school computer club gets dangerously close to the truth.

*

Sam was a loser.

He knew he was a loser.

He reveled in being a loser.

His e-mail address was 'loser@holy3hs.edu'.

He had five computers at home because every time he upgraded to a new system he
kept the old one.

Sam was the president of the computer club and a founding member of the
Dungeons and Dragons club at Holy Trinity High School. He didn't go there
because it was a Catholic school, or because it had a good reputation, or because
it would help him get into a good college. He went there because it was called
Holy Trinity High School, which reminded him of the hacker Trinity who cracked
the IRS d-Base years ago.

Eddie was a dork.

He knew he was a dork.

He reveled in being a dork.

His e-mail address was 'dork@holy3hs.edu'.

He had three computers at home, one Windows, one Mac, and one Linux, because he
was an "equal opportunity nerd", to use his own words. They were all networked
and they all shared data so seamlessly you'd think they were all running the
same OS.

Eddie was Sam's best friend, vice president of the computer club, and founding
member of the Dungeons and Dragons club. He came to Holy Trinity High School
because Sam did.

Sam's primary duty as president of the computer club was to find, recruit, and
initiate new members. "Welcome to the 473rd weekly meeting of the Holy Trinity
High School computer club." His voice was high pitched and nasal, the kind of
voice that gave you a headache. He knew it. He accepted it. He went on with
his life. "Our continuing mission: to advance the understanding of basic
computer operation among the general public without promoting or engaging in
illegal activities." The school's administration made him put the second part
of that in, and they made him recite it at the beginning of each meeting. He
liked it, it meant they were scared of this club. Scared because they didn't
understand what the club could do. But there was no way they could prevent the
club from forming without generating a ton of bad PR for the school, so they
just tried to control it as much as they could.

Today he was recruiting a new student.

Josh was Korean.

He knew he was Korean.

He reveled in being Korean.

His e-mail address was 'korean@holy3hs.edu'.

His parents were born in Korea and he was conceived in Korea, but he was born
in the United States. He always ate with chop sticks and he had been taking
martial arts classes since he was old enough to walk. He could speak and read
Korean and English equally well. Two things Josh was not was a loser or a dork.
But when he wanted to learn something, he went all the way and didn't stop until
he mastered it. That was why he joined the computer club, they could teach him
things. After a year or two, after sufficiently proving to himself that he had
mastered this area, he would quit and move on to something else, because that
was how he did things.

"I'd like you all to meet Josh, our new recruit. Josh, there is just one
formality before we admit you to the club. You must promise never to reveal the
secrets of the computer club to anyone, especially the faculty at the school.
Do you agree to this?"

"What's with the secrecy? This is just a computer club. I came here to learn
how to network and program."

"You must agree to this one and only stipulation before you can become an
official member."

"All right, I agree." Josh thought this had to be one of the dumbest things he
had ever agreed to, but if it would shut Sam up he'd do it. His voice was
already giving him a headache. He made a mental note to bring aspirin to every
meeting.

"Wonderful! You're in. You're rank is 'initiate'."

"What do I do to advance ranks?" Josh asked.

"Depends on the rank." Sam answered. "For this rank, you must learn the
basics of our most guarded secret. The computer club's ultimate goal, Josh, is
to unravel a mystery within a riddle wrapped in an enigma."

"Who shot JFK?"

"Close. What is The Matrix?"

"Okay, so what is The Matrix?"

"We don't know. All we know is rumors that fly around on the Internet news
groups and what we've uncovered ourselves. And I can tell you we're closer to
the truth than any of those other morons out there. Eddie, tell him what we've
got so far."

Eddie finally stood up. Eddie was in high school and already over six feet
tall. He would have probably also made an imposing figure if he wasn't the
flabbiest person anyone had ever seen. He began to read from a sheet of paper.
"We have discovered these truths about The Matrix, about which we can be
reasonably certain. One: The Matrix is the world's largest computer network,
so large that the Internet is only a small part of it. Two: The Matrix is a
secret project run by either the government or the military of at least four
countries, three of which are the United States, Australia, and Japan. Three:
Anyone who gets too close to the truth behind The Matrix is contacted by either
the FBI or one of a select group of outlaw computer hackers who have recently
disappeared, and they are never heard from again. Four: The Matrix has it's
own secret operating system and programming language more advanced than anything
we know about, focusing on artificial intelligence."

"That's it? That's all you know about it?" Josh asked.

"That's all we know for certain. We each have a number of individual theories
about it. Personally, I think it's a project to develop an operating system
that writes and upgrades its own software." Sam responded.

Eddie added "And I think it's a project to identify and control computer
hackers, and keep the general population in line when it comes to network
security."

Another of the club's eight members added "Well I think it's a project to take
virtual reality to the next level, where you can actually touch and experience
things instead of just seeing them. The ultimate goal would therefore be to get
the holograms out of the VR chamber and create an artificially intelligent law
enforcement agency completely loyal to the government, one that won't get lazy,
can't be bribed, and can't be killed."

"That's Chuck." Sam told Josh. "He watches too much Star Trek, even by our
standards."

"Yeah, you just wait until holographic FBI agents bust down your door and take
you in for questioning. Then you'll see who's right."

"Okay Chuck." Sam brushed him off. "Remember, what was said here, does not
leave this room. Do not spread our theories over the newsgroups, do not tell
the administration what we're doing. And if somehow you get contacted by one of
the hackers who have disappeared, don't agree to anything until we discuss it at
our next meeting."

"Right. Okay enough of the conspiracy theories. I came here to learn how to
program."


******** Flash Forward Two Weeks ********


"Welcome to the 475th weekly meeting of the Holy Trinity High School computer
club. Our continuing mission: to advance the understanding of basic computer
operation among the general public without promoting or engaging in illegal
activities."

"Sam, I have an announcement for the club." Eddie interjected.

"Go ahead, Eddie."

"I'm sure many of you know by now, it's been flying around all the newsgroups
lately. Neo has vanished without a trace. His customers have no idea where he
went."

"Was it the FBI, or the hackers who contacted him?" Sam asked.

"Nobody knows... that's the eerie part. All we know is he's gone, just like all
the others." Eddie replied, trying to sound spooky but failing miserably.

Josh finally had to speak up. "Are you sure he didn't just decide to stop
hacking? Or maybe he's laying low because he's afraid he's going to get
caught?"

"Definitely not. Hackers are motivated like serial killers. They deliberately
try to get as close a possible to getting caught without actually getting
caught." Sam told him. "Why are you so skeptical about all this?"

"Because I don't believe in conspiracies." Josh answered. "A conspiracy
requires at least five people, and you can't get five people to keep their
mouths shut."

Sam didn't have an answer to that. Essentially, it was true.


******** Flash forward One Month ********


Eddie reached over and answered the phone without getting out of bed.

"Eddie, come over to my house. You have to see this."

"What?" He groaned, whined, and complained in the same drawn out word. "It's
Saturday morning. I'm tired. I was up late last night finishing my Star Wars
versus Star Trek fan fiction. It took me two hours to calculate how much damage
the Enterprise and the Executor could do to each other. I had to buy another
technical manual because I couldn't find the info I needed on the Web."

"Okay great. I can't wait to read it. But You Have To Come Over And See
This." He carefully over-pronounced each word.

Eddie finally got the message. That was their secret code. Something happened
that he couldn't reveal over the phone in case the FBI tapped their lines. He
rolled out of bed, got dressed, and rode his bike over. He always wanted to
save up for a car but he spent all his money on his computers.

"What the hell is all that?" Eddie asked, looking at the green cascading
symbols flowing down Sam's computer screen.

"I finally did it, Eddie. It took me all night, but I finally broke out of the
Internet. There really is something beyond it." Sam's voice betrayed no hint
of excitement, just mild shock that he was actually able to do it.

"Then that means this is..."

"The Matrix." They said together.

"So..." Eddie asked. "What's it mean?"

"I have no freaking clue." Sam answered. "It's just a bunch of green junk
from what I can tell."

"It looks Japanese."

"No, it's not Japanese."

"How do you know?"

"Because, Eddie..." Sam opened a drawer in his desk, revealing a pile of DVDs.
"I have every japanimation DVD that has ever been released in the United States
and several that weren't. I have watched each of them between 5 and 25 times in
English, Japanese, English with Japanese subtitles, and Japanese with English
subtitles. I know enough Japanese to say 'I want to tentacle rape your mother'.
This is not Japanese."

"Well okay, but it still looks Chinese or something."

"Well then there's only one person to call." Sam said.

"Josh." They said together. It was a habit they had which really annoyed
people.

*

"Josh, you have to come over." The voice on the phone said.

"What? Who is this? I'm in the middle of breakfast."

"This is Sam. You've got to come by, we need some help."

"Talk to me about it Wednesday at the club."

"Wednesday will be too late."

"What's so important? More Matrix crap?"

"Ssshhh!! Josh, not over the phone! The FBI might have the line tapped."

"Sam, you are without a doubt the biggest nerd I have ever met." Josh told him
flatly.

"Thank you." Sam said proudly. "Now come over!"

"All right, I'll come over. But only because I know you'll call me every ten
minutes until I do. I may as well save myself the time. How do I get there?"

"Josh, what did we tell you? Everything you will ever need to know is on the
Internet. Get my address out of the Holy Trinity on-line phone directory and
get the driving directions off Yahoo Maps."


"So what's so important I had to come over at 9 AM on a Saturday morning?"
Josh asked as he pulled up in his Dodge Neon.

"You have a car?" Sam asked.

"Um, yeah. I saved up for it one summer, got it used."

"Okay anyway come on inside, I want you to tell me what you think of this, then
I'll tell you what it is."

"It's a bunch of cascading green symbols on your computer monitor." Josh told
him as soon as he saw it. "What's the big deal?"

"Um... is it Korean?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"No... me stupid oriental. Can't recognize own fucking language." Josh
answered with a sarcastic mock accent.

"Sorry, jeez. Do you think it's like Chinese or something?"

"No."

"Sanskrit?"

"How the hell would I know if it's Sanskrit?"

"Just making sure you're paying attention." Sam answered. "Here's the deal, I
was up hacking all night last night. I finally broke out of the Internet.
This, my friend, is what lies beyond the Internet."

"Cascading green symbols. How exciting."

"Josh, this may very well be The Matrix."

"And it may very well be your computer's interpretation of a random string of
ones and zeros that mean absolutely nothing because there is nothing 'beyond'
the Internet."

Eddie looked at Josh, then looked at Sam. "He's got a point."

"Okay, I'll prove it. Eddie, we're going to your place."

"What for?"

"You have three different computers. If the same crap shows up on all of them,
then it's real. A Mac should interpret a random string of bytes differently
from a Linux box differently from a Windows box."

"Okay, let's go."

*

"Where's your telnet program?" Sam asked. Sitting before a Mac was like
attending a different religious service. You still had to do the same basic
things, but everything was moved around and in a different language.

"Move over."

"You move over. Just tell me where it is."

"Apple menu."

"What about on your Linux box?"

"Type 'telnet', stupid. Don't type 'telnet stupid'."

"I can't believe I'm actually a part of this." Josh commented in the
background.

"You're too deep in it now to back out." Sam said. "Okay, Windows box first."
He started typing frantically away, jumping from server to server, hacking
through firewalls he remembered from the night before.

"How long is this gunna take?" Josh asked.

"I don't know... it took me all night last night, but now I know what I have to
do. An hour?"

"For each system?"

"Yeah."

"Call me in three hours." He turned to leave.

"No, wait, hold on Josh." Eddie stopped him. "Okay, three hours, that's two
movies. We can watch a couple movies."

"What do you have?"

"Um... a bunch of sci-fi, some horror, some fantasy. Ever seen the Mad Max
movies? Terminator 1 and 2? Cyborg?"

"I'm not really into post apocalyptic future movies."

"Don't think of them as movies, think of them as survival training videos in
case war wipes out most of the human race and we must unite to battle the
soulless robot armies that want to exterminate the rest of us."

"I'm going home."

"Wait... okay, name a movie you wanted to see but missed in the theatres."

"Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan."

"One of my personal favorites. I have it on DVD."

"All right. You got me. One more."

"Okay, sticking with the martial arts comedy theme..." Eddie flipped through
the movies with practiced speed. "Got it. Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li. This one's
on VHS."

"Close enough. Throw in some popcorn and you've got a deal."

*

"Done."

"Sssshhhh!"

"But, I'm..."

"Movie's not over."

"Then gimme some popcorn."

It was another fifteen minutes before the three of them got up from Lethal
Weapon 4. "Okay, NOW, let's see." One must have one's priorities.

"There, happy? Three identical screens with the same funky symbols." Sam
beamed.

"Okay, there's something there." Josh admitted. "But it still doesn't mean
anything to any of us. Do you even know what server it's on?"

"Well, no."

"Do you even know what part of the country you're connected to?"

"No. All the ping and trace route programs are designed for use on the
Internet. I wouldn't know where to begin with whatever this is."

"Well then Wednesday we get the whole club on it. Between the nine of us we
should be able to come up with something." Eddie suggested.

"No, Monday. Emergency meeting, mandatory attendance." Sam declared. "I'm
getting to the bottom of this."


******** Monday ********


"Dudes, this is seriously wrong." Chuck looked up from his computer. "I just
made a breakthrough."

The rest of the club piled around Chuck's computer. "First of all, this is
definitely NOT in compliance with any ASCII or ISO standard. I translated some
of it into hexadecimal. Each one of these little symbols represents an entire
megabyte of information. And look, there's virtually no repetition of the code.
This is the tightest, most efficient programming language that can possibly
exist."

"Well, that supports my theory." Sam said.

"How so?"

"Well human-designed programming languages are inefficient. They have lots of
redundancy to make them easy to remember, they're based on spoken language and
standard ways of doing math. Something this efficient is obviously a
programming language designed by a machine; which, I believe, would be the first
step in creating an OS that writes its own software."

"Can't argue with you there." Chuck said, translating another of the green
symbols.

"Well I still can't understand any of this." Sam said. "So we've got hex code
now, yeah, that's a step, but what does it mean?"

"I think..." another club member started.

"What, Barry?" Eddie asked.

"No. Never mind."

"Too late. What is it?"

"Go back to that last symbol. Okay now switch back to the first one. Hey... I
think it is. Look at that, everything's in groups of threes."

"How did you even notice that?" Sam asked. "There must be a thousand and
twenty-four characters on the screen."

"What?" Josh asked.

"Oh, sorry. Inside club humor. You know how people say 'a thousand' when they
don't know how many, but there's a lot?"

"Yeah."

"We say a thousand and twenty-four to make it an even 10-bit number."

"This is what passes for humor with you guys?" Josh asked.

Sam ignored him. "Go ahead, Barry."

"Well you know how I've been writing my own 3D game engine? I've had to deal
with a lot of 3D modeling and stuff, and this looks really similar when you get
down to the machine code level."

"So you're saying there's some kind of 3D aspect to this whole thing?" Chuck
asked.

"I'm pretty sure. I mean, it's all in hex, but it looks pretty similar."
Barry said.

"So... that supports MY theory." Chuck started. "About the virtual reality."

"I'm not going to believe that until your 'holographic FBI agent' shows up at
my door with a warrant for my arrest." Sam rolled his eyes.


******** Later that day ********


"Mrs. Jenkins?"

"Yes?"

"I have a warrant for the arrest of your son, Samuel Jenkins." The dark suited
man said through the screen door.

"Oh my God. What did he do?"

"He broke into a classified government computer system and may possess highly
sensitive information."

"Oh no, Sam? He just plays computer games with his friends from school. You
must be mistaken."

"I assure you, ma'am, we have looked into every detail of this investigation.
May I come inside?"

"Of course. Can I get you some coffee?"

"Thank you, no. Where is your son?"

"Sam! Come downstairs!" His mother yelled from the kitchen.

"What is it?" Sam yelled back down.

"There's someone here to see you." She yelled back.

"Who?" He yelled back.

"Samuel K. Jenkins get your butt down those stairs before I throw it down!"

"Okay Mom."

"Is this normal operating procedure at your house?" He asked.

"No, sometimes he doesn't listen to me. You came on a good day."

"Holy shit!" Sam froze as soon as he got to the bottom of the stairs. There,
sitting at the kitchen table, was the very stereotype of an FBI agent, dark
suit, sunglasses, earpiece.

"Sam! Watch your language."

"Sorry Mom. It's just, something that happened today."

"Mr. Jenkins, I'm sorry to tell you that I have a warrant for your arrest."
The man said.

"Oh crap." Sam said, watching his mouth this time. "Is it because..."

The man cut him off "Yes it is. Come with me."


******** Five minutes later ********


"Come on, where is it? You said you had it."

"Just a minute, maybe my little sister took it."

"Why would your little sister want to watch Fist of Legend?" Josh asked.

"I dunno, oh here it is." Eddie pulled the DVD out of the cabinet.

"Eddie, I need to talk to you." Eddie's Mom walked into the room.

"Yeah?"

"No, alone."

"Okay. Go ahead and pop it in, Josh. I'll be right back."

"Eddie, I don't know what you and that computer club at school are up to, but I
want you to get out of it first thing tomorrow, do you understand me?"

"What? What did I do?"

"Sam's mother just called. Sam's been arrested for some kind of government
computer thing. You drop that club first thing tomorrow do you understand?"

"Arrested?" Eddie couldn't believe his ears.

"Yes, arrested. Don't act so shocked, whatever Sam does, you do. I don't want
you hanging around him anymore either. Is that understood?"

"Mom!"

"Is that understood?"

"Okay."

"What was that all about?" Josh asked as Eddie came back in the room.

"Sam's been arrested. His mom just called."

"What?" Josh balked.

"Yeah. Now my mom wants me to drop the computer club."

"Well obviously we can't do that. We're on to something here." Josh said.

"What? Since when were you all interested in The Matrix?"

"About 30 seconds ago."


******** Two days later, weekly computer club meeting ********


"Guys, we have problems." Eddie started. "Sam's been arrested. This is no
joke, his mom called my mom and told her. Now my mom wants me out of the club.
As soon as word spreads, the rest of you are probably going to follow."

"Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit..." Chuck started.

"So there's only one thing to do. We make like this scared us. Half of us
drop the club. Chuck, Barry, Josh, Adam, you stay in it. We put up a
convincing front that we're just working on making our own games and teaching
HTML for free once a month. Nobody is ever to network out of this room again,
except to access the Web.

"We meet at my house on Saturdays. Most of us are in both this club and the
Dungeons and Dragons club, so we'll work with that. Officially, we'll be
meeting for gaming sessions. I have three computers to work with in my room.
I'll work off the Mac, who's comfortable with Linux?"

"Eddie!!" Chuck nearly yelled. "What the hell do you think you're doing?
This isn't a game anymore, this is police, guns, squad cars, getting arrested!"

"No, look, Sam didn't bother to hide his tracks. He must have been traced.
When he did it from my house he disguised the whole thing as if he was working
from his own house. We just have to cover our butts, we'll be okay."

"And if we get traced?" Chuck asked.

"We won't. Sam proved we could hide. Look, we're so close to the truth here
somebody got nervous. We made somebody nervous, guys. Can you just stop like
that? Look at everything we did, can you honestly say you can just stop now and
give up? Can you live with not knowing?"

Chuck paused. "I guess not. This is the single most important thing that has
ever happened to me in my whole life. The curiosity will probably kill me by
the time I'm 30. I'm in."

"Anybody else?" Eddie asked.

Everybody else.


******** That weekend ********


"Hey Mom, my gaming friends are here." Eddie called.

"Who?"

"You remember, I told you some friends were coming by to play AD&D?"

"What?"

"Dungeons and Dragons, Mom."

"Oh, right. I'll make sandwiches."

"Um... thanks, Mom." He opened the door. "Come on in guys. I hope you like
pimento loaf."

*

"Look at this, I think you're right, Barry. This does look a lot like 3D
coordinates." Chuck finished analyzing a chunk of decoded symbols. "But the
numbers are huge... look at this. There's enough bits here to, I dunno... map
out the whole planet or something."

"Well that can't be right." Eddie leaned over Chuck's shoulder. "Let me run
that through a spreadsheet." A few minutes later he had an answer. "Hey, what
do you know, there's enough bits here to map out the whole planet or something."

"While you were screwing around over there," Chuck started, "I found out
something else. Each coordinate point is sectioned off into its own sub group,
with another sub group under that. Not only would this map out the planet, but
in amazing detail and resolution. There's no way any computer in existence
today would have this kind of processing power. Maybe in 200 years, MAYBE. But
not today." Chuck added.

"This has to be military intelligence. It has to be. They're probably mapping
out military targets and keeping track of things." Barry suggested.

Eddie finished something else at his spreadsheet. "Not unless the military is
interested in keeping track of each grain of sand in the Sahara Desert. That's
how detailed this would be, IF we're right that is."

"What do you mean, IF?" Barry asked. "Look at your own calculations, Eddie.
There are exactly enough bits here to map out the entire planet out to the edge
of the stratosphere. Is that coincidence?"

"Look, we're taking some big leaps of logic here. First of all, this whole
thing is based off an assumption, that these are three dimensional coordinate
points. Secondly, why the stratosphere? Why not the ionosphere? Why up in the
air at all?"

"Okay, okay you're right." Barry backed down. "Let's start from there. We'll
try to confirm or deny that assumption before we wander too far down that path."

"Hey guys... brought sandwiches. What in the name of heaven is on that
computer screen?" Eddie's mom barged in without knocking.

"Uhh... random dot stereogram?" Eddie thought fast.

"Oh, I could never see those. I'll leave you to your game."

As soon as she was gone Chuck cocked his head at Eddie. "Random dot
stereogram?"

"Well, it worked." Eddie shrugged.

They worked for hours. Developing theories, testing them, running more tests,
running calculations. If any of them had lives they might have given up before.
But now they were engrossed, and no matter how hard it got they kept at it.

"Okay, what have we got so far?" Chuck asked, cracking his back and yawning.

Eddie pulled up a file in another window. "Okay, they're definitely three
dimensional coordinate points. It's big enough to map the planet, detailed
enough to generate grains of sand, and it's running on the concept of
distributed computing. There is evidence of AI here, but we don't have anything
solid yet. This is all pointing to creating a complete, three dimensional,
virtual reality replica of the entire planet Earth. Maybe, MAYBE, even with
artificially intelligent people living in it. Guys, we are seriously on to
something here." He hit SAVE.

All three computer monitors suddenly went blank. "What the hell? Did they all
crash?"

The Linux computer screen flickered and powered back up, with a dark green
background. Slowly, one bright green letter at a time, three words appeared on
the screen.

Tell no one.


******** Monday ********


"Disbanded?" Eddie couldn't believe it. "How could the computer club get
disbanded?"

"Your club president was arrested for computer related crimes, Edward." The
principal told him. "That's not good PR for the school. We had to disband the
club or some of the alumni would have pulled their contributions to the school."

"Isn't there anything I can do about it?" Eddie asked, desperate.

"Sure." The principal tossed a short stack of paper to him. "Call the alumni
and ask them to reconsider. I'm sure they'll listen to a reasonable, well
thought out, convincing appeal to ignore the legal ramifications of what your
president has done."

*

"So what happened, Eddie?" Josh asked.

"We got disbanded." Eddie said. "Here's a list of everyone who doesn't like
us."

"Like it matters. We've still got the meetings at your place."

"Oh nonononono... that's over. We got traced or something. I don't know what
that message was, but it was clear and direct. Somebody knows what we're doing,
and they're not happy about it. Oh, and get this. All the files on all three
of my computers that had anything to do with our little project were deleted.
Wiped completely out, I couldn't even scan the drives to recover them. Somebody
out there wants us to stop, and he's better than us."

"Okay, look. I have an idea. Get the club together this Saturday. We'll have
all our answers then."

"What if we get arrested, like Sam?"

"Eddie, if that were going to happen, it would have already. Somebody thought
they could scare us by arresting him, but whoever it is can't just arrest all of
us. It would be too big a step, somebody would notice and start asking
questions all over again. Eddie, we are now morally obligated to keep going.
We're going to blow the doors wide open on this thing."

"I think you're right, Josh. Okay, next time we keep paper records. We can do
this again, the hard part is done, we can run the calculations again no problem.
I'll bring my camera, we'll take pictures of the green symbols. You can erase a
drive over a network. You'd need to physically get into my house to ruin the
pictures or burn the paper."


******** Wednesday ********


"Sam? Sam is that you?" Eddie had to do a double take. He looked like Sam,
superficially. But his hair was no longer the greasy, unkempt mess it usually
was. His scrawny physique was slightly built up. His plastic rimmed coke
bottle glasses were gone. His shirt was actually ironed and his pants went all
the way down to the bottoms of his ankles.

"Hey Eddie!" Sam greeted his old friend. "How's everything going?"

"Sam, the club got disbanded."

"Oh well. Life goes on."

"Sam? You helped start that club. Remember all the fighting you had to do
just to reserve the computer room on Wednesday nights? And the argument with
the faculty until they finally settled for making you say that stupid, modified
mission statement every meeting?"

"I'm not really interested in that anymore." Sam said. "I'm going out for the
lacrosse team tomorrow, wanna come?"

"Lacrosse? Sam, you always said you wouldn't be caught dead playing that
preppy waste of time that barely qualified as a sport."

"It was in the conditions of my release. I had to give up programming of any
kind and take up lacrosse. They specifically said lacrosse, I don't know why.
And I'll tell you what Eddie, I've never felt better in my life. I've got more
energy, and I think people are actually starting to talk to me now... I mean
talk to me, like conversations and stuff."

That was when Justin, the captain of the lacrosse team, happened down the hall.
"Hey Sam, see you on the field tomorrow. Good luck!"

"Yeah, thanks!"

"Since when has Justin started talking to you?" Eddie asked.

"Today. I didn't get back to school until today. He said he heard I was going
to try out for the team, he's been giving me pointers."

"Sam, what pod person has taken over your body?" Eddie asked him.

"Look, I'd love to stay and discuss all the changes I've been through, but I
have to get to class. I missed two weeks here, I have a lot to catch up on.
I'll talk to you later, okay?"

"Yeah, okay Sam. Hey I'll see you tomorrow at AD&D."

"Oh shoot, I forgot... lacrosse runs over AD&D's time slot. Sorry!"


******** Saturday ********


"Did you guys see Sam?" Eddie asked the club when they gathered at his house.
"He's changed, guys. They either scared the crap out of him, or they
brainwashed him. Either way, that's not the Sam we all used to know."

"Yeah, I saw him." Barry said. "He's acting all weird, didn't he say he'd
never play lacrosse?"

"That's what I asked him." Eddie answered. "He said it was in the conditions
of his release, whatever that means."

"Well look, we'll worry about it later. Right now, let's get back into The
Matrix. Josh wants to see if our mystery guest drops by again."

They followed their plan to the letter. They scribbled notes on paper and took
pictures of the computer screen. This time they had a permanent record of what
they were doing. Eddie's mother barged in without knocking again, gave everyone
sandwiches, and tried the "random dot stereogram." She thought she saw a horse.

"Dude, your mom freaks me out." Chuck told Eddie after she left.

"Shut up."

"No, I mean really, is she psychotic? How did she see a horse?"

"Shut up!"

The computer screens blacking out again quickly silenced their argument. The
Linux box flickered on again, with the dark green background and bright green
letters. The message was just one word this time.

Stop.

Who are you? Josh typed out.

A friend. Came the reply.

"Well that's a relief." Josh told everyone. "At least he's on our side." He
resumed typing. "What is The Matrix?"

You don't want to know.

What happened to Sam?

There was a long pause this time. "Aha! We have him."

The Matrix.

We want to meet you.

That

There was another long pause. "We're making him think too hard. He's on the
ropes."

would not be advisable. Finally came the rest.

We meet you or we keep going.

You do so at your own risk. Remember Sam.

At that the computer screen blacked out again.

"Yeah we'll remember Sam you sorry bastard." Chuck spat at the screen. "We're
doing this for him now."


******** Two days later, Monday ********


"I made the team! Eddie, look at this, I got it in homeroom, I made the
lacrosse team!"

"Sam, I never thought I'd see the day you'd be excited about this. It's kind
of like hearing you say 'Sam, look! I'm about to be drawn and quartered!'"

"Fine, don't be happy for me. But my life is finally going the way I want it
to. I've got an actual shot at being happy here. And if you can't accept that,
then maybe it's time for me to look for a new friend."

"Sam, please don't say that." Genuine fear crossed his face. "How long have
we known each other? I lost you for two weeks. It was Hell. Through
everything we've stuck together. Did you know my Mom doesn't want me to hang
out with you anymore? I'm not about to give up on you that easily, and the Sam
I know wouldn't give up on me."

"Maybe I'm not the Sam you knew." He turned and started to walk away.

"Sam..." He had trouble getting the words out. "We're close Sam. We've got a
lot of the mystery solved."

"I have a life now, Eddie. You should get one too. How much time have you
blown on that damn thing?" He never even turned around. He just kept walking.


******** Thursday, after school, AD&D club ********


"Has anybody seen Sam all week?" Chuck asked. "I don't have any classes with
him but I usually see him around somewhere. Where'd he go?"

"He's probably out with his new lacrosse friends." Eddie managed to stammer
out. "He doesn't seem to think he needs us anymore."

"Something changed. You were right, Eddie. Somebody either scared the hell
out of him or brainwashed him." Josh said. "People don't change like that
without a good reason."

"Well I don't think we'll see him tomorrow. We need to talk to him Monday.
Get him to see what he's leaving behind and what he's headed into." Eddie said.

"You mean leaving behind a bunch of losers, wasting his time with computers all
week, and being largely ignored by everyone in the school and heading into
sports fame and popularity?" Chuck asked. "Sorry dude, you're going to have to
come up with something better that that."


******** Saturday, Eddie's house ********


"Okay Josh, it's your time to shine." Eddie plopped him in front of the
computer.

"What do you mean?"

"All of us know how to program already. We have preconceived notions of what a
programming language should look like and how it should behave. This is a new
and completely different programming language written in an alien dialect."
Eddie backed off a bit and dropped his voice an octave, trying to add drama
"You alone have the power of the Dark Side. You alone, unhindered by knowledge
of the past, can lead us into the future."

"So you want me to learn how to program in this language, with no teacher and
no programming experience whatsoever?" Josh asked.

"That's exactly what makes you the only man capable of the job." Chuck
answered. "We'll be playing AD&D."


******** Five hours later ********


"Hey guys, I think I got it to do something." Josh turned around in his chair.
He was genuinely impressed by what he did, and at this point he didn't care how
nerdy that sounded.

"Let's see what you did." Chuck sighed. He was almost at the 12th experience
level with his thief.

"Okay, look. If I do this, the screen goes over this way. And if I do this,
the screen goes over that way. And if I do this..."

"Whoa." Everyone gasped at once.

"From what you guys were saying about the numbers and bits, I think I'm moving
the view around in the virtual world. And this zooms in and out. I can get the
big picture, like this... or I can zoom in close like this."

"Zoom out again." Chuck requested. "Yep, the numbers are bigger. That's
definitely a zoom out. Holy Mother of God... look at that."

"What what?" Eddie asked.

"I think that's a low pressure front moving in to Montana. No seriously, I
think there are weather patterns on this thing."

"What makes you say that?" Josh asked.

"I'm not sure... it's just an idea I had I guess... I mean, the way
everything's arranged."

"No, wait, here it is." Eddie picked up the newspaper he had on the floor of
his room. "Look, Chuck, you probably saw the newspaper and it slipped into your
subconscious mind. Right here, the weather map, it has a low pressure front
moving into Montana. You probably saw something that vaguely looked like the
little markers and made a subconscious connection."

"Yeah, I guess. But it's an interesting idea, isn't it? I mean, if we're
zoomed all the way out, maybe we can decipher the weather patterns. It would be
a good next step."

"You're right, it would." Chuck agreed. "Although, it's kind of funny when
you stop to think about it. I mean, look at this, it's just a bunch of green
symbols on the screen. It could mean anything. Maybe its just been a series of
coincidences that things have been working out so far. We could be completely
off track here."

"We could." Barry agreed. "But that would be one hell of a series of
coincidences."

"Come on guys, focus. We need attention span here. Does anything look like a
cloud to anyone?" Josh asked.

Everyone turned to Barry. "What? Why me?"

"You're the 3D guy."

"Chuck's the guy who deciphered it into hex."

"And Sam's the guy who found the symbols in the first damn place." Eddie
added. "He deserves to be here."

"Well he's not. Now start looking for a tornado or something." Chuck scolded
him.

It was a long while. "Okay, wait... see how the symbols are changing?" Josh
asked.

"Yeah." Eddie answered.

"Well, some are changing faster than others."

"Yeah."

"Well, I dunno, you said start looking for a tornado or something. There's a
lot of symbols changing really fast over here." He pointed at the screen.

"Hey you're right, and that's been the pattern for a while. More symbols are
changing faster there than over on this side. And there's a whole bunch that
are... no... yeah... no... no it is... I think I found the jet stream!" Barry
could barely contain himself.

Based on that assumption, they dove deeper into the green symbols. The math
was almost starting to make sense. "So... you think this is supposed to be
North America?" Eddie asked.

"Absolutely." Chuck answered.

"And this bunch of chaotic symbols over here... that's a thunderstorm, right?"

"As far as we can tell."

"And we live... right next to it!?" Eddie asked, almost in shock.

"Yep." Chuck answered.

"So that means we should be getting a thunderstorm any minute now!" Josh
joked.

Everyone laughed until they heard the thunder.

"Guys... this isn't funny anymore."

The downpour started.


******** Monday ********


Sam was about to walk back out of the bathroom when Eddie pushed him back in,
followed by the entirety of the computer club (except Josh, who didn't think he
knew Sam well enough to confront him in a High School bathroom).

"Okay Sam, enough is enough. What's going on?" Eddie asked.

"What are you talking about?" Sam demanded.

"Ever since you got arrested you've been different. You're not interested in
things you used to be, and you're suddenly enthralled with things you never
thought twice about before. What did they do to you?"

"What did they do to me?" Sam was pissed. "What did you do to me!?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Eddie cut back.

"All my life you've been pressuring me to do things the way you want to. And
it suffocated me socially. I never hung out with anyone but you. It nearly
killed my ability to interact with real people. Real people, Eddie. Not people
like I was and you are. People who do things besides play 'games' that involve
sitting around barely moving, besides watch bad imported movies and besides
waste time playing with computers. I'm living now for the first time. They
showed me the truth, Eddie. They showed me what I was and what I could be if I
just stopped to realize that I could. So I did. I'm not looking back and I'm
not going to regret any of it."

"You used to like what you were." Eddie said, softly.

"Used to." Sam shoved his way past Eddie and left.


******** Wednesday ********


They weren't kidding around anymore. The group met at Eddie's house again on
Wednesday. They were going to meet twice this week.

Chuck arrived late. "Sorry guys, dinner ran long. What did you find out while
I was gone?"

"Oh not much." Barry answered. "We just learned how to recognize countries,
states, and cities, that's all."

"Oh crap." Chuck swallowed hard. "Show me."


******** Two hours later ********


"This is too cool." Chuck finally said. "It's like an interactive map, only
it has weather patterns."

"You know, I've been thinking about that last week." Barry said. "It might
not have been coincidence that we got that thunderstorm."

"I'm going to give you just one minute to come up with a plausible explanation,
Barry." Eddie told him, warning in his voice. "Because we've all thought what
I hope you're not going to say, and so far nobody's said it, so don't say it."

"I know, I wasn't going to say that. But look, if this program is running in
real time, then it might be tracking real weather patterns and simulating them.
So it wasn't coincidence, we just maybe unlocked one of the purposes of the
program. To model, simulate, and ultimately understand how weather works."

"I like it." Eddie said. "It makes sense."

"Yeah, a lot more than what we were all thinking." Chuck added.

"Okay well we can stop thinking it now. I like Barry's explanation." Eddie
said.


******** Saturday ********


"Okay, today's the day. We zoom in and see what we can see." Chuck cracked
his knuckles and zoomed in. They studied the picture for a long, long time.
More cascading green symbols. The same as it always was. But to them, they
were starting to make sense.

"Got it!' Josh called out. "It's traffic."

"Really?" Eddie asked. "It might be... or no, wait... maybe it's water.
Rivers."

"Yeah, maybe." Josh reconsidered. "Except rivers don't flow in two directions
at once..."

"He's got you there, dude." Chuck agreed. "This program simulates everything.
Maybe it's model for a utopia. You know, somebody's trying to design a
kick-ass version of Sim City, only with a whole planet."

The screen went blank. "What?"

Stop now or your lives will never be the same.

"Um... isn't that the point?" Josh asked out loud.

We're really close. We're not stopping now."

I think you should. You will not like what you find.

"Like that matters." Eddie said.

We want the truth.

You can't handle the truth.

The screen went blank, then popped the green symbols back up. "Well at least
he's not erasing our data anymore." Eddie commented after a quick search of the
drive.

"If he thinks lame one-liners from A Few Good Men are going to stop us, he's
got another thing coming." Chuck grumbled.

"Okay, keep pushing. These green symbols are making sense. Let's keep going.
Zoom in. I want to find where my house should be on this thing."

They found the city. They found the neighborhood. They found the block. They
found the house. "Holy shit, this thing has details!" Eddie's foot was tapping
with excitement. "Let's take a look at this. Maybe it was put together from an
aerial photograph. If we can make out some details on it, I might be able to
figure out how long ago they took the pictures based on how the house changed.
You know, what car we had, what's in the garden, what color the siding was."

"Dude." Chuck said finally. "This picture looks like it was taken this year.
Everything's right." All eight of the club members were fixated on the screen,
quickly mentally deciphering the green symbols that had become almost familiar
to them.

"I'm going to the store, lock the door if you leave!" Eddie's mom called from
the kitchen.

"Okay mom!" Eddie yelled back.

"Eddie! Fucking fucking fuck fuck fuck fucking fuck look at this fucking
fuck!" Barry was really excited about something.

"What!?' Eddie snapped.

Eddie just pointed at the screen. The symbols were changing. Someone was
leaving the house. More symbols were changing. They heard Eddie's mom's car
leave the driveway at the same time they saw something move away from the house.

"Holy fucking shit!" Eddie jumped out of his chair. "Holy fucking fucking
fucking shit!"

"Guys... this can only mean one of two things. The first one we've already
thought about so let's not say it. Okay? The second is that we're tapped into
a really, really powerful spy satellite. Who's with me on that one?"

"Me."

"Me too."

"Yeah, me too." Everyone agreed, one at a time.

"Guys." Josh said. "Guys I have to try something. Don't kill me. I have to
try it." Josh started typing. The view zoomed in. Inside the house. In their
room. "Guys... that's us. Look, you can see me typing." He kept going.
"Guys, I'm going to do something now, so nobody freak." He selected a block of
symbols he thought might represent the lamp on the other side of the room. He
hit the 'delete' key.

The lamp vanished.

"HOLY SHIT!" Everyone practically said at once.

"I told you not to freak!"

"We didn't think it would work!"

"Dude, Zoom out! Zoom out! Fucking zoom out I don't want to watch myself
watching myself anymore fucking zoom out." Chuck was nearly hysterical.

Josh zoomed out. All they saw was the house again.

Everyone was quiet.

Very quiet.

For a very long time.

"Eddie..."

Eddie didn't answer.

"Eddie!"

"What!?" he snapped.

"Were you expecting company?"

"Why?"

"There are three men walking up your driveway, Eddie."

The doorbell rang.