PLAYING GAMES

by

Terran Boylan

 

-1-

***

"The thing you need to realize, Jack, is that most of our candidates are not walking in here with Ph.D.ís. Many of the people weíre interviewing right now are coming to us from a 2-year junior college program. Iím not saying youíre overqualified. Itís just that when interviewing someone with your level of education, itís important to consider the fit especially carefully."

I didnít really know what to make of the patter. Phil seemed like an okay guy. I knew I was good and was certain Mighty Games would make me an offer. So why was he talking about "fit?" Maybe it was just all a part of the interviewer-interviewee dance. In other words: a game. I decided to stay strong and stick to the script.

"I appreciate your candor, Mr. Simons," I said. "I feel my knowledge and expertise will make me a real asset to your company."

Phil turned his eyes back to my resume and nodded his head. "What do you think, Mr. Williams?" he said, not looking me in the eye. "Do you think you and Mighty Games would be a good fit?"

"From what Iíve seen today -- or perhaps I should say based on what Iíve been allowed to see Ė I think so. Your company has a reputation for making successful, quality computer games. As long as itís been in business, Mighty Games has pushing the envelope in terms of what can be delivered to the consumer. Iíve just devoted the last eight years of my life to research in cutting-edge 3-D computer graphics techniques. Iím very excited the opportunities at Mighty Games and think I could have a good future here."

-2-

***

Back in the hotel room after the interview I gave Pat a call. My wife is a librarian at the university and I met her while I was working on my Masterís thesis. One day I was trying to find a somewhat esoteric technical journal and she helped me locate it at one of the sister universities. There was something about Patís acerbic sense of humor, long dark hair, and green eyes that made an indelible impression on me. I found myself making excuses for spending more and more time at the library. Eventually she asked me to either ask her out or stop bothering her. That Friday night we went to dinner and a movie. Six months later we were married.

"You know how I feel about computer games," Pat said, after I described my interview. "I think theyíre a complete waste of time."

"I know, honey. I feel that way too. But thereís a lot of really interesting graphics work being done in games right now. This is an A-level company. Iím sure theyíre going to make me an offer and I think I can get a good one."

"You impressed their socks off that much, did you?" she said with more than a little sarcasm in her voice. Pat always had a way of taking my ego down a few notches when it needed it.

"Yeah, I think I did," I said.

"Whatís your gut instinct about the company?" she asked. "Do you think you really want to work there? Moving all our stuff is going to be a real pain, honey."

"Iím sure theyíre going to help with moving expenses Ė thatís usually standard. The cost of living out here is fairly low. I donít know what theyíll be offering, but itíll sure be a hell of a lot better than what Iíve been making as an assistant professor."

It was still early and my flight didnít leave until the next morning, so I thought Iíd drive around and check out the town. Mighty Games is located on the northern edge of Rockdale, Illinois, a small town in the geographic region commonly known as the middle of nowhere. It was a very strange place for a gaming company to start, thought. Rockdale had a population of only about thirty thousand. Most of the residents in the town worked at either the meat-packing plant, John Deere, or at Mighty Games.

Driving through the town I wondered if Pat and I would fit in. We had grown used to living in Philidelphia. I had grown up in a small town in Nebraska and knew what living in the midwest was like, but Pat had lived in the city of brotherly love her entire life. Would she miss it? It might be nice to have the change of lifestyle. Not having to deal with crime might be nice. Driving through some of the residential neighborhoods I thought about how nice it would be to be able to afford a house.

The next day I flew back home and the following week I got a call from the head of recruiting at Mighty Games, who made me a firm offer. I didnít accept their first offer, of course. I knew enough not to do that. I talked it over with Pat and after negotiating the salary up about fifteen percent we decided to accept.

-3-

***

On my first day on the job I was assigned to a cubicle, a phone, and a computer. The latter didnít seem to have been configured properly. Almost at once I noticed a strange system of intercom paging the company used. The phones were all pager-enabled, so that anyone could page if they needed to. I guess people spent a lot of time away from their desks and the paging system was a good way to track people down. Most of the pages were of the form, "XXX, please dial extension YYY" or "XXX, please call your desk." But occasionally the pages were a little more specific. I was there for about an hour when I heard a deep male voice say, "Leslie, please make ten copies of the MacEnzie proposal and deliver them to conference room B." It made me wonder if any of my tasks would ever be assigned via pager.

I had lunch with the man I would be reporting to. His name was Dwayne Bradford and he was a short out of shape man, about fifty. It turned out he went to school back in the days when they still used punch cards and you could still get a PhD with a dissertation on hidden line removal. He seemed like a nice guy but there was something a little nervous about his personality. I got the impression he acted tougher and more self-assured than he actually was. It was hard for me to picture Dwayne as leadership material. One weird thing: Dwayne didnít seem to know a lot about my background. I felt a little like I was being interviewed all over again, even though I had the job. I assumed there had been some kind of breakdown in communication somewhere along the way.

-4-

***

By Thursday Iíd completed most of my H.R. paperwork and my computer was finally operational. I got an e-mail informing me that the weekly staff meeting had been postponed to 3:30 and would be held in conference room "D." This was news to me. I asked around and found out where the room was. I got there promptly at 3:30 (at least according to my watch) but nobody else showed up until 3:40.

There were ten people in Dwayneís supervisory group, including myself. Iíd been told the company enforced a strict "ten supervisees per manager" policy, and that when people left a group their slot was to be filled as soon as was practical. It seemed a little strange to me, but Mighty Games had been in the business for thirteen years, making it one of the oldest gaming companies in the industry. Surely they knew what they were doing.

Dwayne started the meeting by introducing me to the rest of the group. I got a lukewarm reception at best. One of the guys, a wiry-looking young man with red hair and a black T-Shirt that read "Question Authority" eyed me strangely, as if sizing me up.

The format of the meeting was readily apparent: Dwayne would talk about what was going on in upper management and then he would go around the room and everybody would give a status report, a short description of what theyíd been working on recently. When it came time for "Mr. Question Authority" to speak, I sensed a sudden tension in the room.

He leaned forward and cracked his knuckles loudly. "This past week I rewrote the rendering module to make better use of the new T-18 processor op codes."

"Thank you, Kevin," Dwayne said, "and nowÖ" but he was cut off in mid-sentence.

"Iíll tell you what, Dwayne," Kevin interrupted, "Now that Iíve told you what Iíve been working on, how about if youíll tell us what youíve been up to?"

Dwayneís face went pale and said -- rather weakly I thought -- "Uh, Kevin, I donít think thatís really what we should be talking about right now."

Kevin grinned. "Oh, no, Dwayne, I think your activities would really be of interest to the rest of the group, donít you think? After all, youíre our manager. Shouldnít we know how our manager spends his time?"

Everyone turned to see how Dwayne would react. It was like watching a tennis match.

"Kevin, this is simply not appropriate. Perhaps we should talk later, after the meetingÖ in my office."

"Oh, so you donít think itís appropriate, do you? What are you going to do about it, fire me?" Kevin sneered, then stood up so quickly his chair flew backwards.

Next, Kevin did something that surprised everyone, especially me: He placed one sandal-covered foot on the conference table. Then he climbed up. He had to duck his head so he wouldnít crash into the acoustical tile on the ceiling. The table wasnít designed to hold his weight and began to tilt. For a moment I thought he might topple off. Recovering his balance, he slowly walked down the length of the table toward Dwayne. I could see a hint of fear in Dwayneís eyes as Kevin got closer. I looked around, wondering if anyone was going to make a move to do anything to stop this madman. It was obvious no one was going to.

"Kevin," Dwayne said, his voice attempting to be forceful, but faltering hopelessly. "YouÖ getÖ down!!"

Kevin stopped suddenly in his tracks. His demeanor changed from that of a predatory jungle cat to that of a kid whoíd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Oh, okay, boss," Kevin said. Then he jumped down from the table, walked past his stunned coworkers, and, picking up his chair, took his place at the table. He turned to the person to his left and said, "Your turn."

-5-

***

Friday morning I logged on and was greeted with the following email from Mighty Games president, Earl Snyder:

Dear Jack,

Welcome to the Mighty Games family. Weíre glad to have you aboard.

This year marks Mighty Games thirteenth year in the consumer computer games business and its eighth year as a publicly-traded company.

Many people have wondered: What is the secret of Mighty Games success? Itís really very simple: we hire the best people in the industry and once theyíre aboard we take good care of them, treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve. Mighty Gamesí management philosophy is really very simple: Synergy, Empowerment, Initiative.

We expect a lot from our employees, and although our expectations are high, they are also fair. Weíre always on the lookout for new talent and here at Mighty Games thereís no "glass ceiling" to stop individuals with drive and determination from rising in the ranks.

Always remember, Jack, at Mighty Games our employees are now and have always been our most treasured resource!

Welcome aboard, Jack!

Sincerely,

Earl Snyder

President and CEO

Mighty Games, Inc.

 

The letter was, of course, as a form letter of some sort. I was sure Mr. Snyderís secretary must sent it out to all the new-hires on the Friday of their first week.

-6-

***

"The game is called Oh, Hell" I told Pat, handing her the binder.

On the cover was an early version of the logo, which had been rendered in a kind of twisted metal with reflected flames and red stalactites. "Delightful, Iím sure." she said.

"Itís pretty typical shoot-em-up adventure game stuff, but thereís a twist. When you start out the game your character is this little baby demon. The design is akin to one of those Mario Brothers Nintendo games. You know, the emphasis being on cute and adorable."

"A cute and adorable demon?"

"Then as you descend through each level of hell, your character matures ever so slightly. At one point the demon gets wings and can fly, stuff like that. As the player progresses, the character also matures stylistically. This is the gimmick. By the final level, your character has become this horrific beast, something out of your worst nightmare."

"Wonderful."

"Oh, it gets better. You want to hear what the Ďlog lineí is?"

"Whatís a Ďlog line?í"

"Thatís industry jargon for the little phrase that goes on the box. Itís like with movies. You know, ĎYou will believe a man can fly?í That kind of thing."

Pat just looked at me with one eyebrow arched. "Okay, so tell me, whatís the log line?"

I cleared my throat dramatically. "íOh no! Someone just lost their immortal soul! Could it be you?í Catchy, huh?" I sat back and waited for Patís reaction.

She shook her head from side to side and said, "Honey, I am so happy you got this job."

-7-

***

One morning there was a strange package propped on the chair of my cubicle. When I opened it up I discovered a framed poster. The poster had a photograph of race horses crossing the finish line. Underneath was a caption which read:

Motivation. It makes all the difference in the world.

I have to admit that I didnít understand exactly what the poster meant. Any connection between the text and the image was tenuous at best. It was clearly one of those motivational posters one finds in the advertisements in in-flight magazines or at one of those specialty stores at the mall. Thinking of the poster hanging in my cubicle didnít make me feel especially motivated.

I decided to go talk to Dwayne and find out if I was required to hang this thing in my personal workspace or not. Walking toward his office, I heard the following page come over the intercom system: "Gloria, would you please gather all the paper plates you can find and bring them to conference room K?"

When I got to Dwayneís office, the door was shut. Through the glass window I saw he was already busy with one the other people in my group, an man in early twenties named George, who had just started working at Mighty Games a few months before.

"Would you like to schedule an appointment with Mr. Bradford?" a voice said.

I spun around and saw a short mousy-looking woman with light brown hair and glasses. She was sitting in a cubicle opposite Dwayneís office.

"Are you Dwayneís secretary?" I asked. From the pained expression on her face I knew I had made a mistake.

"I am Rosaline OíConnell, the administrative assistant for Mr. Bradford and four other production managers. You must be new here."

"YesÖ HiÖ Iím Jack Williams. I just started last week. Dwayne is my supervisor."

"You mean heís your manager." She said, correcting me.

I was a little puzzled. "Yes, thatís rightÖ"

"Do you know the difference between a supervisor and a manager, Mr. Williams?"

"No, I guess not."

"Does Mr. Bradford sign your timesheet?"

"Yes," I said.

"Then heís your manager, not your supervisor. I know itís hard, but do try not to get the two confused." Rosaline turned and went back to something at her computer more important than me.

Dwayneís door opened and he and George stepped out. "Weíll continue this conversation later," Dwayne said, patting him on the back. He turned to Rosaline and said, "Would you please schedule a follow-up appointment for next Monday. Same time." She nodded. Then Dwayne turned to me and said, "Jack, howís it going, buddy? Come on in."

I walked into Dwayneís small office and he closed the door. It was possibly the messiest office Iíd ever seen in my life. There were stacks of multi-colored file folders on every possible surface.

"What did you want to talk to me about?"

"I found thisÖ posterÖ in my cube this morning."

"Oh, yes. All the new hires get them. Itís a part of a new company-wide Ďmotivationí initiative that started last quarter. Youíre the first one in my group to get one."

"Uh, thatís great. The thing is, itís not really my style. I was hoping to bring in a Picasso print I have at home." I was lying about the Picasso, but I needed some leverage.

"Gee, I donít know," Dwayne said. "Youíre really supposed to hang up your poster. Iím afraid it wouldnít look good if you didnít. And it would be a terrible waste of company money."

I thought the real waste was buying the damn thing in the first place. "Couldnít they just give it to the next new person they hire?" I asked, hopefully.

Dwayne smiled. "Donít worry about it. Iíll tell you what, why donít you go on and hang it upÖ for the time being. If it doesnít grow on you after a couple of weeks or so Iíll take it off your hands."

I knew it was never going to grow on me. Not in two weeks, not in a thousand. I thanked Dwayne and headed back to my cubicle. When I got there, the poster sat in my chair, worse than I remembered it.

-8-

***

After awhile I settled into my new role as R&D specialist on Oh, Hell. I was able to utilize some of the real-time deformation techniques Iíd developed during my graduate research. Deformation was becoming increasingly important in computer games and it was in fact the topic of my thesis dissertation. It was gratifying to be able to see some of my ideas come to fruition. A lot of the techniques were very cutting edge and I worked with the R&D group to integrate what I was developing with their existing technology base. I was occasionally surprised by the lack of software engineering principles at use, but figured Mighty Games was in the business of producing games, not manufacturing commercial aircraft. A certain relaxed approach to coding was to be accepted, I supposed.

One day I was working on some code that I felt was particularly innovative. I wondered if it was patent-worthy Ė I had three different patents in my name from work Iíd done as a graduate student. Suddenly the possibility of someone stealing the code popped into my head. I realized I had no idea what sort of security measures were being taken, if any.

"Donít worry about it," said Dwayne. "Intellectual property is a major concern here, as it is in all the major gaming companies. Mighty Games spent top dollar for a very elaborate security system."

"Whatís the nature of the system?" I asked.

"A lot of it is kept a secret from the general rank and file. We donít want the specifics getting out. That would compromise the system itself."

"Is there anything you can tell me about it? I mean, without getting into details."

Dwayne paused, then spilled his guts. "To begin with," he began, "all the electronic correspondence is screened. Nothing goes in or out of Mighty Gamesí network without the contents being reviewed by the security software. For example, anything that looks like computer code is immediately red-flagged and eyeballed by an individual in the security group. Obviously the employees send and receive a lot of email over the course of the day thatís not business-related. You know, people e-mailing their loved ones and whatnot. Itís a practical impossibility that all of it be read, and we donít want to violate our employeesí privacy. This isnít ĎBig Brother Games,í after all. But certain keywords are screened for and if they pop up individual e-mails are reviewed."

"What keywords?"

"Words like Ďjobí and phrases like Ďcareer opportunities.í Also the names of our major competitors. Itís actually a pretty standard business practice, especially with companies as large as this one. We donít want our employees spending company time searching for other jobs."

"I guess that makes sense."

"But of course there are other methods of smuggling data out. Every time someone makes a CD-ROM, the material is tracked. Thatís part of the reason we donít have CD-ROM burners on all the desk-tops, even though it would make things a bit more convenient, production-wise."

-9-

***

Now is probably a good point to state for the record that I love my wife and Iím basically a good person, but Iím no saint. There are only a few times in my life Iíve slipped, and one of those times happened four years ago. I had been teaching an advanced graphics seminar that was primarily a graduate-level class but was open to seniors. One of my students was named Rhea. To make a long story short, I had a brief affair. At the time things with Pat werenít so good. But thatís no excuse. I found in Rhea a shoulder to cry on, so to speak. One night things became physical. It was probably the worst thing I ever did and broke it off with her immediately and vowed to myself never to do it again. I never told Pat. Why hurt her?

Imagine how I felt when, after two months at Mighty Games, I received an email from Rhea:

Jack,

I know this is probably quite a surprise. I found out through the grapevine that you landed a job at Mighty Games. Iíve been working for the last three years as a production coordinator for a printing company in Chicago, but Iíve been thinking about making a career move. Iíd love to get in with a great company like Mighty Games and I was wondering if there were any job openings you think I might be qualified for.

Love,

Rhea

I replied to Rheaís email and told her I didnít think there were currently any jobs available but hoped she was doing well. The way I wrote the letter implied Ė I hoped Ė that I wasnít expecting a reply.

-10-

***

At the beginning of each quarter thereís a get-together party thrown for new employees of Mighty Games. Itís an opportunity for the president and his wife to meet the new employees and their spouses or significant others. At least thatís what the invitation said.

Pat wasnít crazy about going to the party in the first place. She gets kind of funny about social things like that. I didnít really want to go either, but not going would be rude and I was curious about what type of man the Earl Snyder was. I had heard a couple of strange rumors about Melinda, Earlís wife, and was interested in meeting her too.

There were thirty to forty people at the little soirée. This was one of those events where thereís an hour set aside for drinks and mingling, followed by dinner. We arrived a few minutes after drinks had been flowing and found ourselves in a small group of strangers. Melinda Snyder was the topic of conversation. A young blonde woman from marketing named Marty was speaking, filling us all in on Mrs. Snyderís odd eccentricities.

"My manager told me the project schedules for all the games in production are based on Melindaís astrological charts," Marty said. She took another sip of white wine and looked around to make sure no one was listening in. "Itís like some kind of weird Nancy Reagan thing. Each project has a day on which itís Ďborn,í and therefore has an astrological sign."

Pat shook her head. "Thatís positively bizarre."

"It plays havoc with product roll-outs, as you might imagine," Marty continued. "But so far things have been going pretty well, so no one is about to tell them to stop doing something thatís working."

Later in the evening we got a chance to meet Mr. and Mrs. Snyder personally. The president struck me as a man who was probably very good at attending important high-level financial meetings. He had a certain charisma that was hard to deny. But he also struck me as somebody who was somewhat deficient in the sincerity department.

Melinda, on the other hand, appeared to be a truly warm person who seemed genuinely interested in us. Pat liked her, which is saying a lot. I donít know if the rumors were true or not, but it didnít much matter. I liked Melinda, and if her astrological charts were shaping our destinies, I didnít mind too much.

-11-

***

"Hey, Jack, You wanna see something cool?"

Kevin surprised me. I was in the middle of working on some code and his head had popped over the top of my cubicle wall.

"Sure, I guess." I followed Kevin over to his cube. The first thing I noticed was a large poster of a woman wearing a grass skirt and holding her hands over her bare breasts. I didnít think it was particularly appropriate for the workplace and wondered how heíd gotten away with it without anyone taking offense. The rest of his cubicle was decorated in a tropical motif, with about a dozen different little statuettes of dancing girls wearing hula skirts. One of them had a clock in her belly button. Maybe he got them in a junk shop in Hawaii or something. More likely heíd bought it on some on-line auction.

As interesting as Kevinís decorating tastes were, it wasnít what he wanted to show me. On his computer monitor was an image of "Dammit," the cute little demon from level one.

"Check out the texture map on the face, man."

I looked and the face had a kind of blotchy, red texture.

"Okay, what am I looking at?"

Kevin laughed. "I talked one of the artists into doing this. Nobody else knows about it. This is so cool!"

"Whatís so cool?"

"Itís my left butt-cheek, man! My girlfriend took a picture of my ass with her digital camera. Six months from now little Tommy and little Becky are going to be playing this game and theyíre going to be looking at my ass the whole time and not realizing what theyíre looking at! What a fucking kill!"

I didnít know what to say. I just nodded and said, "Yeah, thatís really funny."

Kevin suddenly became very serious. "Look, Jack. The reason Iím showing you this is I figured you of all people would appreciate it. You seeÖ I want you to know that I see us as kind like equalsÖ on the same level, you know? I mean, most of the guys here are pretty clueless. I mean, they wouldnít know how to do anything really cool unless they bought a copy of Creativity for Complete Idiots, you know? I really admire the work youíre doing with the new deformation system. It really rocks. I just wanted you to know that."

"Thanks, Kevin. Iím just using a few things I developed in graduate school."

"Yeah, grad school. I couldíve gone to grad school and got a PhD, but I figured why waste time on swimming lessons? Why not just jump in the pool? I know Iíve got the brains, but I donít know if I could have put up with all the bullshit."

"How long have you been working here, Kevin?"

"Iíve been here eight years."

I was shocked. Kevin looked pretty young. "How old were you when you started?" I asked.

"I was sixteen. I started out as a part-time programmer, but after about six months I dropped out of high school and went full time. There were only about thirty people here when I started. It was a much smaller company then."

-12-

***

It was a Saturday. I found myself really looking forward to the weekends. I generally worked about fifty hours a week on average. At Mighty Games there was no such thing as overtime pay. A lot of people worked weekends, but the time I spent with Pat was important to me, so I just worked a couple of hours extra every day. Iíd heard horror stories about "crunch" times and people working eighty or even a hundred hours a week when the deadline for a game was coming up.

Pat and I were washing our cars. It was a clear day and the warm midwestern sun felt good.

"I have this theory," I began. Pat just looked at me, waiting for me to continue. "My theory is the management methods at Mighty Games actually reinforce a certain level of immaturity and irresponsibility among the staff."

"Do you think itís by design?" Pat asked.

"Iím not sure. I know it doesnít make sense. But I look at most of the people Iím working with, and with only a few exceptions, I have to wonder how these people are capable of buying houses or doing their taxes or getting the oil changed in their cars."

"Thatís pretty harsh. Are they really that bad?"

"From what I can see, the managers spend most of their days baby-sitting. They donít encourage any real responsibility at all. Theyíre just dealing with bruised egos and hurt feelings. It drives me crazy. It shouldnít have to be like that. I feel like Iím working with a bunch of thirty-year-old children."

"So whatís the solution?" Pat asked.

"Mostly just expecting them to behave like adults, is all. Expecting them to take personal responsibility for the work they do. They just do these half-assed jobs and then management has to slap them on the wrist and give them probationary warnings and ask them to try to be more productive. I see so many people wasting so much time. I feel like they could get more work Ė better work Ė done with half the staff if only they were a little more selective."

"You mean everything would be much better if they just hired more people like you?" Pat asked, shooting me a look.

"WellÖ"

-13-

***

One day Dwayne explained the story behind the paging system at Mighty Games.

"You see, Jack, about five years ago all the managers went on a retreat. The goal was to discuss how they could improve morale and productivity. Gary Windstrom Ė who was senior vice president in charge of production at the time Ė suggested a lot of employee grumbling was a result of an Ďus versus themí mentality in production. The problem was that the supervisees saw management as a bunch of uncaring brutes that sat around in their offices all day and handed out work assignments."

"I see," I said.

"Hell, nobody I know likes having to actually work, right? I mean if we all had our druthers weíd stay at home and sleep in and watch movies on cable. No, nobody likes to work. And over time they come to resent the people who are giving them more work to do. But thatís an important part of what managers and supervisors do. A company is not a democracy and itís not an organization of volunteers."

Dwayne paused for a moment. Looking at me he said, "Youíre aÖ an oddity, Jack."

"Whyís that?"

"Because you work on something until itís done and then you come to me and ask me for more to do. Hell, I donít even get a chance to use the pager system with you."

I shrugged. "I like to keep busy. I donít like to get bored."

"I suppose notÖ but most employees arenít like that. They finish whatever theyíre working on Ė usually putting it off until the last minute Ė and then they hide out in their cubes and surf the net and basically keep a low profile until theyíre assigned a new task."

Dwayne looked at me in a funny way that made me a little nervous -- I didnít know why. "You were going to tell me about the paging system," I prompted.

"Anyhow, during the retreat, somebody came up with the idea of assigning the tasks anonymously. That way nobody really knew where their workload was coming from, and they didnít have a face to put with it. They couldnít blame their managers, because they were no longer the ones handing out the tasks. And so, the system of using the pager to assign work was created."

"So who is the man who reads those pages? Itís always the same guy, right? But nobody seems to know who it is."

"That, Jack, is a management secret. If his identity was revealed, people would have somebody to blame for their workload."

"Do you know who it is?"

"Well, officially I canít comment. But unofficially, all the managers are part of the system and know the details of how it works. Maybe someday youíll be promoted to management level and youíll find out for yourself. Are you interested?"

"No, I donít think so. I think Iím pretty content doing what Iím doing right now."

-14-

***

One Monday morning I came in a little early. I liked coming in and getting a few hours or work done in the morning. Working hours were flexible, a system that many people abused, but I liked getting started between seven and seven-thirty. I could fix myself a cup of coffee and get a lot done without anyone around. Many people didnít roll in until nine-thirty or ten. Afternoons were often taken up with meetings, many of which were a complete waste of time and were Ė in my opinion -- only held to give the managers something to do.

I logged in and checked my e-mail. There was a message from Earl Snyder that had a time-stamp of 3:30am. It was addressed to Ďall_employees@mightygames.com.í

Dear Mighty Games Employee,

Effective immediately, Leanne Reynolds has been promoted to the newly created position of Director of New Product Development. As most of you know, Leanne has been Assistant Director of Sales and Marketing for the past four years.

Leanne has been charged with the mission of fostering creative development within Mighty Games. As a result, a new committee has been formed, made up of representatives from Sales and Marketing as well as several product Creative Directors. Their mission is to review in-house product concepts.

All employees are invited to submit ideas for games or other interactive products. A special meeting will be held on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 17 at which time ideas will be "pitched" to the Concept Review Group (CRG).

Sincerely,

Earl Snyder

President and CEO

Mighty Games, Inc.

 

-15-

***

"So what do you have there?" Pat asked as I walked in.

"Itís called Diabloís Revenge. I picked it up on the way home. Itís a three disc game, one of the competitorís top products. When our game comes out the comparison will be inevitable."

"Is this game also set in hell?"

"Yeah, actually."

After dinner I installed the game on Patís computer. The graphics were very well done. The lighting effects were quite a bit better than ours. There was probably something we could do to bring ours up to the mark, I thought. As good as the lighting was, I was gratified to see my deformation system was superior. The one in Diabloís Revenge was very limited in what it could do.

I thought Pat would get bored with the game after a few minutes and Iíd be left alone, but she wasnít. We found ourselves engrossed in the game. It was a combination of action-oriented and puzzle based, and Pat seemed to get into solving the puzzles. At first she just sat by my side as I played, but eventually took over the controls herself.

When eleven oíclock rolled around I suggested it was time to call it quits for the night, but Pat wanted to keep playing. "Iíll come to bed in a little while, honey," she said. "I just want to play for a few more minutes."

When the alarm went off at six the next morning, Pat was still playing. Sheíd been up all night and had gotten as far as the seventh level Ė about halfway through the second disc. She told me she was going to call in sick and "figure this thing out." This, from a woman who so recently told me games were a waste of time.

-16-

***

One night at nine oíclock the phone rang. It was Dwayne and he had an emergency.

A demo version of Oh, Hell was due to ship the next morning and there was a problem. The game kept crashing. They had managed to trace it to some of Kevinís code. Kevin -- of course -- was nowhere to be found. I told Dwayne Iíd come in and see what I could do.

I was able to get logged into Kevinís machine, but Iíd never seen a more disorganized system of organization. Kevinís code base was a real mess. I ran a search and managed to isolate the problem code fairly quickly. It was buried five levels deep in directories with very misleading names like "cherry," "bulls-eye," and "pop-tart." It was almost as if it had been intentionally hidden.

Looking through the code itself I was in for a real shock. Kevin had a very creative method of naming functions and variables. Many of them were very obscene. Of course functionally it made no difference to how the code ran. It was probably just Kevinís idea of a joke. Perhaps it was something he did to make his work more interesting. After another few hours I managed to debug the problem and get the offending library recompiled. I left the build for the deliverable to George and Jim. By this time it was three in the morning and my second wind was starting to run down. I was feeling a little punchy.

Just for kicks I decided to do a search on Kevinís code base for the word "fuck," which was one of the least offensive of the words he used. Hereís a small fraction of what I got back:

/* Why doesnít this fucking work? */

#define FUCKING_HIGH_NUMBER 666

for (k=0; k<FUCKING_HIGH_NUMBER; k++) {

int motherfucker = -1;

ival = (int)do_not_fuck_it_up(motherfucker);

/* Donít fuck with me, bitch! */

/* Donít fuck with me, bitch! */

float fuck_me = 27.0;

f = fuck_me/(float)n_vals;

time_val = fucking_clock(tval);

/* Fucking time of day shit */

/* What the fuck is this for? */

fuck_flag = 1;

while (j==fuck_flag) {

fuck_flag = 0;

/* Fucking piece of shit math library */

Ö

As I looked at the output, which was several pages long, I wondered who, if anyone, I should talk to about it. It was obvious once again the software engineering principles in practice at Mighty Games were nonexistent. It was clear no one was checking Kevinís work. Should I talk to Dwayne or should I talk to Kevin? Was it my place? I did know one thing: I worried about the type of person who would do this. What was going on in Kevinís mind? How had he managed to stay employed for so long?

-17-

***

Several days later, Kevin sent me a picture of a black and white spotted cat. It was the last thing I would have expected from him. The picture itself was of the terminally cutesy variety. The only thing missing was a caption that read, "Hang in there, baby!"

I asked him about it and at first he got really quiet. Then he laughed.

"I must have sent it to you by accident. Iím sorry about that, man."

"Forgive me for saying so, but it doesnít seem like the kind of thing youíd be into."

"No, man. I was sending it to my girlfriend. She really likes that cute shit. Sometimes I like to remind her that Iím thinking about her, especially if Iím in the dog-house, you know? I pull the pictures off the internet and send them to her at work. She thinks itís sweet."

I thought this was a pretty strange explanation, but I just nodded.

"Itís just one of those things guys have to do to get laid, right?"

Again, all I could do was nod. Kevin was one strange and apparently very disturbed guy. I suddenly felt very sorry for his girlfriend.

-18-

***

By now, Pat was a full-fledged game addict. I thought about enrolling her in one of those twelve-step programs, but then I realized I was Ė in the parlance Ė "enabling" her. At Mighty Games I had access to copies of many different games and I brought them home and she played them. She seemed to enjoy the puzzle games the most.

One night we were eating dinner and she asked, "You know what would make a great game?"

"No, what?" I asked.

"What youíd do is take the interactive paint technology from the Mighty Games ĎZany Paintí series and youíd combine it with an adventure game. You could call it, Ďcolor as you go.í Each room youíd step into would start out as a Ďpaint-by-numbersí picture and the things you were looking for would be hidden. Youíd have to paint the objects that make up the hotspots before you could click on them. It would be a really different experience!"

I agreed. It would certainly be a novel approach. I didnít think anyone had ever combined an adventure game with a coloring book before. There were issues of target market, of course, but the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me. We stayed up half the night talking about different unique puzzles you could create using the Ďcolor as you goí approach. Yes, it was really a marvelously original idea. I told her about the Concept Review Group and how the July 17th meeting was coming up in a couple of weeks. I told her that if she wanted to she should write up her idea and Iíd present it at the meeting.

-19-

***

One day I was walking down the corridor of cubicles and I heard a familiar voice, one I never thought Iíd hear again.

"Hi, sweetie," the voice said.

I turned around and there was Rhea. She hadnít changed much in the past four years. If anything sheíd gotten more attractive, more womanly. She was wearing a smart business suit that perfectly complemented her dark brown hair and green eyes. Without warning she ran up to me and gave me a hug. The embrace lasted a little longer than was appropriate and when she finished she grabbed my hand and held. It was a little embarrassing, actually.

"Are you visiting someone?" I asked weakly.

"No, silly! I just got a job here. Isnít that great? At first I was discouraged by your little Ďthere are no jobs currently availableí e-mail, but figured Iíd try the company website anyway and they had an opening for a project coordinator. It was right up my alley. Arenít you glad to see me?"

I managed to pull my hand free from her grip and said, in a voice I hoped everyone who was listening in would hear, "Sure, Rhea. Itís always good to see an old friend from the university. You look like youíre doing well."

"Jack, I am so glad to see you. Imagine, us working at the same company together. Wonít we have fun?"

I didnít like the way she said that.

-20-

***

"Greetings, you ass-licking zebra fucker! You have mail!"

All Dwayne had done was hit the "Enter" key on the keyboard. "Itís always different," he said. "The first time this morning it was something about a Ďbutt-ramming antelope-poker.í As far as I can tell itís based on some sort of random insult generation program."

"For what itís worth, itís actually pretty clever," I said.

"Who would want to do a thing like that? I canít get any work done. Every time I type a line it goes off. If I donít touch the keyboard it still goes off every five minutes."

"Couldnít you just turn the sound off? Or unplug the speakers?" I asked.

Dwayne shook his head. Whoever did this has it set up to use the small built-in speaker in the computer. Thereís no volume control or way to disable it without opening up the PC and disconnecting the speaker. Iíve got a call into systems to come try to figure out how to disable the damn thing. I knew I never should have opened that attachment."

"Are you saying this is some kind of virus?"

"Yeah. Thereís no telling who sent this to me. According to the e-mail header it came from Earl Snyder. Thatís why I thought it would be okay to open it up. Later, after my computer started insulting me, I checked the header and it came from Mr. Snyder, alright, but it originated somewhere in the Netherlands."

"Donít let this bother you too much, Dwayne," I said. "I wouldnít take this as a personal attack."

"Hi, you dick-kissing giraffe fondler," Dwayneís computer chirped in a tinny voice.

-21-

***

On the whole, things were going pretty smoothly at work. Version one of my deformation library was in use in production. There were still a few features that needed to be implemented, however. I was doing some research on one of the 3-D graphics newsgroups when I ran across a post from Kevin. In the post, he was replying to an article someone had posted about non-photorealistic lighting techniques.

When writing shaders for image-based rendering systems, itís important to take monitor frequency settings and color space response into account. Otherwise you run the risk of crossing the "Felcher Frequency," and youíll be sorry.

In the 1950ís, Professor Ivan Felcher at the Ohio State CRT Experimental Research Laboratory discovered that the combination of certain patterns of colors when displayed on CRTs running between 60 and 72 Hertz refresh cycles would cause nausea and epileptic seizures in test subjects. At the time it was considered as a method of psychological warfare, but was later discarded by the government as impractical.

Itís relatively easy to safeguard against this dangerous effect. Code fragments can be downloaded from the web address listed below. This will have a substantial impact on performance, but in the interest of public safety it must be done, especially considering the recent widespread availability of computer monitors which fall into this "danger zone."

At the university I had studied color spaces and display characteristics and had never heard of the "Felcher Frequency Effect." After a few searches on the internet I found no credible evidence that such a phenomenon existed. However, I did learn the definition of the word "felching," which was actually pretty disgusting.

Taking a chance, I went to the web address at the bottom of the post. There I found a page devoted to the "Felcher Frequency Effect," which included a bibliography that was in all likelihood a total work of fiction. The image filter code provided appeared valid. Out of curiosity I wrote a simple image-processing program, one that read in a test image and applied the filter. There was no visible difference that I could see. However, when I did a difference comparison -- in which any small changes in pixel value would be highlighted -- between the original and the filtered image, the result was very interesting. The sole function of the code was to randomly embed, very lightly, the words "FUCK YOU!" over the original image.

Once again I had further reason to worry about Kevinís mental state. His reach, it appeared, was not limited to Mighty Games, Inc.

-22-

***

My first impression of Leanne Reynolds, newly appointed Director of New Product Development, was that she was a woman who had not risen to the top based on her innate intelligence or knowledge of computer graphics. She had clearly come from sales and marketing. There is, of course, nothing wrong with sales, and it plays an important part in any productís success, but Iíve always felt it was important to have a good understanding of whatever it is youíre selling, whether itís computer games or canned beets.

The process of the Concept Review Committee presentations was interesting. There were only fourteen employees (including myself) who had taken the time to commit their ideas to paper. I was disappointed by the overall lack of professionalism that had gone into the "pitches." We were scheduled for ten-minute presentations, so the whole thing took half the day. According to the agenda, I was scheduled for the 2:30-2:40 slot, but things ran long and I didnít get to give my presentation until after four oíclock. By that time I had seen enough of the other presentations to feel very confident about the one I was about to give. I donít want to say the other ideas were weak, but I wasnít being biased in feeling that Patís was better than any Iíd heard so far.

When my time came I took my place at the small podium and went through the "ActionPoint" slides Pat and I had worked on over the weekend. When I got to the end of my presentation, I was expecting to see some kind of positive reaction. There was none. In fact, many of the other presenters glared at me. I walked past their stony faces and took my seat.

When the last presenter sat down, Leanne Reynolds said a few glowing words about how grateful Mighty Games was to its employees for contributing such wonderful ideas. She assured the group that all the ideas would be given further consideration and that everyone should "stay tuned" to see what ideas were selected to be made into products.

After the meeting was over, Leanneís assistant came over to me and asked me to stick around for a few minutes. When the conference room had cleared out, Leanne and I were alone in the room.

"I was very impressed by your presentation, Jack. Your idea wasÖ very interesting."

"It was my wifeís idea, actually," I said.

"You and your wife obviously put a lot of effort into your pitch. In fact, Iím afraid you may have done too much."

"What do you mean?"
"Listen, Jack, youíre obviously a pretty smart guy. What do you think the purpose of this little meeting was, anyhow?"

"To generate concepts for future projects?" I asked innocently.

"No, the primary purpose was to boost morale. Jesus, Jack. Itís pretty fucking unlikely that a bunch of employees are going to come in here with any developable projects. There might be a hint of an idea here or there, but fully-developed concepts take a lot of work. A hell of a lot more than any individual can devote to it and still do their jobs."

I was amazed by Leanneís cynicism. I felt like I was being taken behind the curtain at the freak show and shown how the Fiji Mermaid had really been assembled.

"So you come in here," she continued, "with a polished presentation and your little bullet-point slide showÖ Itís a slap in the face to all the others who came in here with a few notes written on the back of an index card. You made them all realize how pathetic their presentations were. You made them look like fools. Believe me, theyíre not going to forget you anytime soon. Think about how that poor schmuck who followed your act felt."

"Look, Iím sorry about that. I really am. I didnít want to hurt anybodyís feelings. I just thought this was a business meeting and if I held back it wouldnít have been very professional."

"All right. Now you know better. You know, that idea you and your wife had wasnít half bad. I donít think thereís any market for an adventure game thatís also a coloring book, though. People donít want original. They want identifiable. But thatís just the consumers, and theyíre just a bunch of idiots anyway. Me, I like original. So if youÖ or your wifeÖ come up with any more ideas like that one, bring them to me directly and you donít need to go through all the pain and agony of a full presentation. All you have to do is write it on a piece of paper and make an appointment with my assistant."

Walking out of the building to my car I was furious. I generally do a good job of keeping my anger in check, but Leanne Reynolds was such an impossible fool I couldnít help myself. One thing I knew for sure was that there was no way I was ever going to take any of my ideas or my wifeís ideas into that office.

Pat was disappointed when I told her about the lukewarm reception her idea had gotten. But she also wasnít terribly surprised.

-23-

***

I was having lunch at a sandwich shop a few blocks from the company. I found it was good to get away in the middle of the day for an hour or so. It gave me a chance to recharge my batteries and I was able to get more done in the afternoons. During the meetings I had taken to bringing along a notebook. After some practice I found I was able to pretend to be interested in what was going on but use the time to develop a few ideas of my own.

"Hi, Jack. Howís it going?" Kevin sat down in the booth with a meatball sub.

"Itís going pretty well. How are things with you?"

"Not bad. Not bad at all. So, I heard you got a chance to see my little present for Dwayne."

"What present?"

Kevin cocked his head to one side and said, "Hi, you goat-fondling monkey lover! Youíve got mail!"

I was stunned. I should have figured it out before, but maybe working at Mighty Games had dulled my brain. "What was the point in doing that?" I asked him. "Dwayne was really upset."

"Whatís the point? Fuck, I donít know. Hell, I have to do something to keep my brain from turning to mush. Torturing Dwayne keeps me from going out of my fucking mind."

"Thatís really no excuse. Actually, I found it to be a rather sick joke."

"Well, maybe Iím just a rather sick kind of individual. Iíve been working on Dwayne a long time Ė a whole fucking campaign of terror. And Iíve got him right where I want him. Thereís nothing heís going to do about it."

"What if someone were to tell him it was you?" I asked.

"Someone like you? Hah! I donít think youíve got the balls to go through with it." He took another bite of his sandwich.

Kevin was pushing my buttons. Was it on purpose? I stared him right in the eye and said, "I wonít go through with it? That shows you how much you know. Iím going to tell him as soon as I get back to the office."

"Go ahead, see if I care." He smiled. He actually smiled.

"Listen, Kevin. I think youíre a very smart guy. Why waste your talents on crap like this?"

His smile vanished and he said, "Who the fuck are you to tell me Iím wasting my talents? What are you doing working here anyway, Doctor Williams? If youíre such hot shit, why arenít you wearing a lab coat at NASA or something?"

"Iím not going to have this conversation with you," I said as I gathered up my tray. "Youíre obviously a disturbed individual and maybe you should think about getting some professional help."

Kevin laughed again.

-24-

***

"Kevin is one of the best programmers weíve got. We canít let him go."

Dwayne was shocked at first when I told him Kevin had sent him the virus, but then he seemed to accept it.

"I just donít get it. The guy is a menace. As far as his programming skills are concerned, Iíve seen his code. Itís terrible."

"But it works. Itís not pretty, but it gets the job done. As much as I hate to say it, the guy has a gift."

I didnít want to admit it, but losing Kevin would put a dent in the programming team. But no one was irreplaceable. And how much was his presence costing the company in other ways, ones that couldnít be measured so easily? "Isnít there anything you can do?" I asked Dwayne.

"I guess Iíll have to talk to him again," Dwayne said. From the pained expression on his face I could see he didnít want to.

"I hesitate to say this, Dwayne, but I donít think thatís going to do any good. The problem is Kevin seems to enjoyÖ messingÖ with you. I think he actually wanted to get caught and thatís why he told me he was the one responsible for the insult virus."

"So what am I supposed to do, then?" Dwayne asked, a pathetic look on his face.

"I donít know," I replied, "I wish I did."

-25-

***

Judy, Leanneís assistant, found me in the break room. I was running a test on my computer and was taking an opportunity to look through the paper while it was running.

"I know this is short notice, Jack, but Leanne was hoping you could come to a meeting."

I was leery. "What kind of meeting?"

Although Mighty Games published as well as produced their own games, many of the properties developed were for larger client companies. These client companies provided additional funds, helping to reduce the financial risk of some of the larger products. Leanne had managed to talk Roger Herlihy, senior vice president of Magic Boy Toys to come to Mighty Games to talk about several possible products that we might develop based on Magic Boyís popular toy lines. Mr. Herlihy had arrived that morning and expressed an interest in meeting some of the development staff. Leanne had given Judy a list of names of people to "round up," my name being somewhere near the top of the list.

"Doctor Williams," Leanne began, "Iíd like you to meet Roger Herlihy."

We shook hands. Mr. Herlihy was a very overweight man with thinning red hair and a beard. He wore an expensive suit with a colorful patterned vest and a bow tie. He looked like quite a character, the kind of man who probably enjoyed getting drunk and smoking cigars and telling off-color jokes.

Looking around the room I saw some of the others Leanne had invited in on the meeting. They were the few people I had met at the company who were capable of having an intelligent conversation. Leanne had brought us in to dazzle her client with our brilliance. I suddenly felt a little resentful. I didnít much like Leanne, and now I felt like a trained monkey who was supposed to sit at her table and do a few tricks for the amusement of her guest.

I had just managed to take my seat and calm down when -- much to my surprise -- the door opened and Kevin walked in. He smiled and shook hands with Mr. Herlihy, then sat down across the table from me. Kevinís whole appearance and demeanor was radically different. Instead of his usual T-shirt and ragged jeans, he was wearing a "UCLA" pullover and a pair of khaki pants. Instead of slouching he sat up straight. There was a look of casual assuredness on his face. He looked more mature somehow. What the hell was going on?

"Kevin is one of Mighty Brains first employees," Leanne said proudly. "Heís one of our most creative developers here and is responsible for the core technologies in many of our best-selling products. Kevin, why donít you tell Roger what youíve been working on lately. Donít worry, heís signed a non-disclosure. You can talk openly."

"Well, Iíve been working on a new game engine based on multi-resolution representations of 3-D character models," he said smugly.

I knew with absolute certainty Kevin was working on no such thing.

"Of course these methods have been in use for the last few years," Kevin continued, "but we have a few proprietary techniques weíre using that I think is going to blow the competition away. In fact, weíve been talking to our patent attorneys about several of them."

Looking over at Roger Herlihy, it looked like he was swallowing Kevinís bundle of lies like it was the blue plate special. It infuriated me to sit there and watch Kevin lie to a potential client and not be able to do anything about it.

"Of course there is still a lot of research to be done in the field of multi-resolution meshes," Kevin continued. "For instance, memory limitations are still an issue."

"Actually, I donít think thatís the case," I said, turning to face Mr. Herlihy. Kevin had given me my opportunity and I was taking it. "In fact, there has been a lot of work done in the last couple of years on data compression methods developed especially for multi-res geometries. I believe a paper was published just this spring in Advanced Topologies. It describes a compression scheme that has already been used in the visualization of large mechanical models over the internet."

"Sure it works for mechanical CAD models," Kevin interjected. "But weíre talking about surface meshes. For games."

"That doesnít matter," I countered. "The topologies are identical. The problem isnít with the nature of the meshes, but with streaming large quantities of connected 3-D data."

Kevin was suddenly speechless. He knew I was right and he was wrong. The look on Kevinís face was priceless. The meeting continued and over the course of the next few hours I saw Kevinís look of shock turn into something else, something darker. And that something made me wonder if I hadnít made a big mistake.

-26-

***

The Mighty Games Halloween party was an annual tradition. For the month of October it was the main topic of conversation. For one night every year the company cafeteria was turned into a haunted house.

The night of the party, Pat decided at the last minute that she didnít want to go. She was still sore about what had happened (or didnít happen) with her game idea, about which I couldnít blame her much. We had a bit of an argument, actually. She was angry because Iíd been spending more and more time at work. The deadline for Oh, Hell was coming up and there was still a lot to be done. She resented the fact I was spending so much time away from home. I told her it was important to me to see the project through. She couldnít see why it mattered so much to me. Was my job more important than she was? Of course not, but in my mind it wasnít about loyalty to the company. It was about my principles, my own personal work ethic. And so I put on my costume Ė I was dressed as Superman Ė and went to the partyÖ alone.

When I walked into the cafeteria I was amazed. The decorations committee had really outdone themselves this year. Everyone was in costume and the drinks were flowing pretty freely. I guess itís important for people who work so hard to be able to blow off a little steam, and the party was just the ticket.

After a few drinks I began to loosen up. I had made a few friends at the company and it was good to see them outside of work. It turned out that George Ė who had come dressed as "Dammit, Level 1" (complete with diapers) Ė actually had a pretty good sense of humor.

Kevin was there with his girlfriend, Olivia. Kevin appeared to be dressed as the Marque de Sade, which was appropriate, I thought. His girlfriend was dressed (or undressed, depending on your point of view) in black lingerie which left little to the imagination. Remembering the image Kevin had accidently e-mailed to me, I had a hard time imagining Olivia had a soft spot for pictures of kittensÖ or anything else.

"So what do you think of our handiwork?" Kevin asked, gesturing to the decorations.

"Kevin, I have to say you may have found your calling. Itís really terrific." I said. Maybe it was time to bury the hatchet.

"You know what your problem is, Clark?" he asked, poking me in the chest just a little too hard.

"No, Kevin. Whatís my problem?"

"Your problem is that youíre nothing but a damned software engineer."

I wondered if I was supposed to take that as an insult.

"And IÖ" he began, "I am a programmer!"

I could see his point. It was true that Kevin was a gifted programmer. He had demonstrated an ability to write complex systems relatively quickly. His work was occasionally brilliant, although it was the complete antithesis of structured software engineering principles.

Kevin continued. "When the shit hits the fan, who are they going to call, Jack-O? You? Fuck no! Theyíre going to call me. I can go in and hack and get the shit to work, pal. I donít waste time with all your Ďstructured programming methods.í This is a fucking game company, man. Donít you get it? You donít belong here. Why donít you go back and work with all your other fucking PhDís?"

Kevin was even less pleasant drunk than he was sober. Why was I not surprised? It looked like he was trying to provoke me into a fight. I was tempted, but it wasnít really what I wanted. I tried to change the subject.

"Yes," I said, "I think you and the rest of the decorating committee did a wonderful job, Kev. Now if youíll excuse me, I think Iím going to go enjoy myself. It was nice meeting you, Olivia. Thatís quite a costume."

Walking away, I heard Olivia say, purposely loud enough for me to hear, "Youíre right. Heís just as big a prick as you told me he was."

Off to one side I saw the presidentís wife, Melinda. She was dressed as a gypsy and was giving Tarot card readings. I went over to say hello.

"Jack Williams, right? Whereís your wife Pat?" she asked with a smile. I was a little surprised she remembered our names.

"She couldnít make it tonight. I think she might be coming down with something," I lied.

"How about a quick reading? Itíll only take about five minutes."

I sat down at the table and she began to shuffle the cards.

"Tell me, Jack, is there anything in particular youíd like to ask the cards?"

"I donít know. I guess Iíd just like to know what the next few months will bring," I said.

She had me cut the deck and then she began to lay the cards out one at a time. "This is very interesting," she began. "It appears youíre going to take a trip of some sort. Do you have any vacation plans by any chance?"

"No, not really. Right now weíre trying to save our money to buy a house. We donít have any plans to travel anytime in the near future."

"Hmm. Well, perhaps itís not trip in the literal sense. Perhaps itís more of a journey of the spirit."

"I see," I said seriously, although I didnít take any stock in this kind of thing. For some reason the phrase "for entertainment purposes only" kept going through my head.

She dealt another card. It appeared to a priest. "This is very exciting. On this journey you will have the opportunity to save someoneís life! Someone very close to you will find themselves in grave danger and you will be instrumental in their rescue."

-27-

***

After Melindaís reading I decided I definitely needed another drink. Two of the cafeteria tables had been pushed together and there was a long line. I took my place at the end of the line behind a man I didnít recognize who was dressed as the Pillsbury Dough Boy. After a couple of minutes I felt a hand tap my shoulder. It was Rhea. She was dressed as Wonder Woman, which was a little embarrassing, considering my own costume. The joke was a little too obvious, but that didnít stop her from pointing it out and laughing at it. I was suddenly very sorry Pat hadnít come to the party. If nothing else, she would have provided a good excuse to tear myself away from Rhea.

We took our drinks and then she asked me if Iíd seen what the decorating committee had done to the board room. I admitted I hadnít. She took my hand Ė almost spilling my drink Ė and led me down the hall.

The room was devoid of partygoers when we got there. It had been elaborately decorated as a mummyís tomb. At the head of the marble slab table stood a huge sarcophagus. I walked over to examine it and found it to be made of paper macheí. It really was amazing how much time and preparation had gone into the decorations.

"Who would have thought a guy like Kevin was capable of all this?" I asked.

"Thatís really interesting," Rhea said. "Did you know the board room door has a lock on it?" I heard the click and knew instantly I shouldnít have followed Rhea anywhere. She walked slowly toward me and I saw her hands reach behind her back. In the direction of her zipper.

"Now wait a minute, Rhea. I know it sounds like a tired old cliché, but Iím a married man."

With a quick move, the top came off.

Itís funny the way things go through your mind at the oddest times. I suddenly thought about how when I was thirteen I spent a lot of time imagining what Wonder Woman looked like without her top, with just the little star-spangled bottoms. Now I knew.

Rhea continued to advance. "Do you know why the board room has a lock on the door?" she asked.

I shook my head.

"Itís so the president and his mistress could come in here and use the roomÖ for immoral purposes." Her voice was a soft, low purr. She stood between me and the door. The large paper macheí sarcophagus blocked my only exit.

Then she reached down with her hands and slipped out of the rest of her costume. She lunged forward and put her arms around me. I was panicked. Naked now except for her boots, she kissed me, hard. I tried my best not to return the kiss. Her breath smelled like the whisky sours sheíd been drinking. A million impure thoughts raced through my head. My heart pounded. Her body was every bit as good as Iíd remembered. Better.

Quickly enough, the pangs of guilt came and I knew there was really only one thing I could do. It would be hard to explain to Pat how this woman Ė one I outweighed by a good forty or fifty pounds Ė had physically overpowered me.

I took Rheaís hand and then Ė in a quick move Iíd seen in some movie Ė I twisted her arm around her back and spun her around. She lost her balance and fell Ė rather indecently Ė on the floor. I jumped over her and made it to the door. My hand was sweaty as I unlatched it and fled.

A small group of partygoers had gathered in the hall. I suddenly imagined Rhea running naked after me. Witnesses. Rumors.

Afraid to turn around and look back, I ran to my car and drove home to the security and sanity of my wife.

-27.5-

***

Monday morning I wanted to call in sick, but I knew I couldnít. The deadline for the game was looming on the horizon. I knew my code was fine but worried about everyone elseís.

It was seven-thirty when I got to work. The office was deserted. At my cube I looked at that damn motivational poster hanging on the wall. Dwayne had ignored my e-mails regarding it. I could wait no longer. But what to do? I wanted to take it out back to the dumpster and chuck it in, but I couldnít. I simply could not bring myself to destroy company property. Then an idea hatched in my brain. I went to the mailroom and found some brown wrapping paper. When I got back to my cube I took the cursed thing off my wall, wrapped it up, and abandoned it in an empty cubicle.

Later that day Dwayne stopped by to ask how things were going. He immediately noticed my poster was missing. When he asked me what had happened to it I told him that someone must have taken it during the party. "Itís actually too bad," I said. "It had finally started to grow on me."

-28-

***

One night I found myself working until three oíclock in the morning. I realized Iíd been sitting in the same place for the last two hours. My back was killing me. I needed to take a break for a little while, so I walked down to the main cafeteria. The building was virtually deserted. I could hear the humming of the vacuum cleaners of the cleaning crew somewhere over in accounting. In the cafeteria, I scrounged around and found a package of strawberry pop-tarts. I put them in the little toaster oven and started them heating.

Then suddenly I wasnít alone. A tall, thin man walked in and poured himself a cup of coffee. He had white hair and was wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt. He didnít look like he was part of the cleaning crew. "Working late, are you?" he asked. I nodded. "Thatís good," he said. "Sometimes it just has to be done." He opened a packet of sugar and stirred it into his cup. "Project deadline coming up?" he asked. Again I nodded. There was something about his voice that was familiar.

"How about you?" I asked. "What has you working so late?"

"Oh, heavens. Iím not working. Oh, no. I just came in to get some exercise. Thereís never anyone in the work-out room this time of the morning."

I looked at him strangely. I knew I had heard his voice before, but I couldnít quite place it.

"Insomnia. I suffer from insomnia," he said, by means of explanation. "Itís the damnedest thing. Thereís not much I can do about it."

"Have we met?" I asked.

He smiled. "Whatís your name, son?" I told him. "No," he said, an odd smile on his face, "We havenít met."

He was a truly curious man. Was he being deliberately mysterious? If so, to what purpose? Maybe he was just a crackpot. Hell, despite appearances, he might be a member of the cleaning crew after all. But why did I recognize his voice? In what context had I heard it before? Then suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks. My eyes went wide with recognition.

"Youíre the voice from the pages," I said.

The old man smiled again. "Looks like your pop-tarts are done," he said, pointing to the toaster oven.

We sat down at one of the tables and the old man introduced himself as Guy Richards, former V.P. of sales and marketing.

"And now Iím the voice of doom," he said. "Sometimes I feel a little like the Wizard of Oz. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, Dorothy!" He chuckled. It was a sad little kind of chuckle, I thought.

"The company was a lot different in the early days. Everybody knew everyone else. There was a real sense that we were a family. Now itís just a place people go to work. Thereís no real loyalty, no real appreciation for what it took to get this company going. Only a few people know the old stories. Like how there used to be beer in the fridge every Friday. But then that jackass Greg Bannister Ė he was an attorney the company was working with at the time Ė brought up the fact that having alcohol in the workplace during regular hours opened the company up to serious liability issues. One of the employees could get drunk and rape one of the secretaries and the company would be liable because it had provided the beer." Guy suddenly looked very sad. "Anyhow, so that was the end of that. You know, thereís actually an interesting story about the pop-tarts. Would you like to hear it?" he asked.

"Sure," I said.

"In the very, very first days of the company, back when there were only about ten people working in a little rented office space, the secretary Ė who only worked half time Ė would make a grocery run every week. One week she picked up a package of pop-tarts. Well, wouldnít you know it, but suddenly she was bombarded with requests for a variety of flavors. One guy liked blueberry. Another wanted brown sugar cinnamon. So the pop-tarts became kind of a staple around here."

It was an interesting story, but I wondered where it was going.

"Okay, flash forward about five years. The company now has a hundred and fifty people working. Theyíre gearing up to try to go public. All of a sudden, expenses become a big deal. Thereís a lot of belt-tightening that goes on. The company canít afford to cater to its employees the way it has in the past. So one day the facilities director decides not to order any more pop-tarts. The breakfast cereals, which they buy in bulk and are a lot less expensive, should suffice. You can see whatís coming next, canít you?"

I shook my head.

"Rebellion. It was like a holy war. The company-wide e-mails that were fired back and forth were like cannonballs being shot over the bow of the company ship. Suddenly everybody wanted to know what was going on with the pop-tarts. Even the people who didnít eat them on a regular basis sensed something fundamental had shifted. But the facilities director stuck it out. He had a chart in the office that showed how much the pop-tarts were costing the company. He toed the line and eventually things calmed down. But nobody forgot. Youíd hear it sometimes. New employees would be regaled with stories about the old days when they used to have pop-tarts."

"All right. Now go forward another five years, about two years ago. The company now has five hundred employees. Itís gone public. The facilities director retires and gets replaced by a young woman named Nancy Curtis. One of the first things she does is send out a questionnaire asking all the employees how they feel about various snacks the company is buying. She wants to make sure the stuff thatís being bought is the most effective in terms of meeting the needs of the employees, right? At the bottom of the questionnaire, she asked if thereís anything else people would like to see stocked in the kitchen. Then the replies start rolling in and Nancy is startled when eighty percent of the people polled want pop-tarts. She doesnít know what to make of it, but, by God, if the employees of Mighty Games were so desperately starved for toaster pastries, she was going to give Ďem what they wanted!"

For me, Guyís story was just further evidence that the employees had been treated like children and were encouraged to act like children.

"So what happened?" I asked him, "How did you wind up as the voice of doom?"

"Itís embarrassing to admit it, but I suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown. The pressures of my work had just gotten to be more than I could handle. I was in the psychiatric ward of the hospital Ė Ďunder observationí Ė for three months. When I tried to come back to my old job, I hated seeing the looks on everyoneís faces. Thereís nothing quite like being an admitted failure. That and Iíd completely lost my tolerance for stress of any kind. I was a broken man. It was Earl who came up with the idea. My new position would be an important, albeit secret one. I took a major cut in pay, of course, but that didnít matter much to me. At least I still had a job."

I didnít know what to make of Guyís tale, or of the man himself, for that matter. I was obviously looking at the fading ghost of a once great man. He had cracked under pressure. Every man has his limits, I guess. I suddenly realized I had never really failed in anything Iíve ever done professionally. I wondered what that would feel like.

-29-

***

A few weeks later the Oh, Hell team was all down to the wire. The game was shipping in three days and there were still eighty-seven outstanding bugs, nine of them severe enough to cause the game to crash.

I had been living on about three hours of sleep a night for the last week and I was feeling it. Somehow I had ended up as a kind of informal liaison between the testers and the programming team, focusing on the really serious bugs. I would sit with the testers and theyíd describe the crashing behavior as best they could. Then Iíd work with the developers and try to troubleshoot the problem. Time was running out and we all knew it. The deadline had been pushed back as far as it could go.

Helen Magneson, the producer, seemed to take it all in stride. An energetic black woman in her late thirties, sheíd been through it all before. That didnít mean she took a cavalier attitude toward things. Her attention to detail was amazing. I met with her on an ongoing basis, giving her status reports every hour or two. Iím a worrier by nature and asked her if everything was set up for burning the gold master discs, the discs that were actually going to be sent to the manufacturer.

"Donít worry, Jack. Kevinís going to take care of it."

"Kevin?" I asked. I was frankly surprised that such an important task was being left to a man who was to me the personification of slip-shod work and irresponsibility.

"I know Kevin comes off as being a loose cannon, but heís done this for me on my last three games. And we havenít had a serious problem yet. Heís become kind of my good luck charm."

I had a hard time picturing Kevin as somebodyís lucky rabbitís foot. "You donít strike me as the superstitious type," I said.

"Well, usually Iím not," she said. "But itís times like this when itís important to take a leap of faith and believe that itís all going to come together. Because it always does. It just takes belief and superstition and an occasional prayer."

I saw her point, and the evidence was that we were making progress. The bug list was dwindling, slowly but steadily. Still, the thought of Kevin volunteering for such an important job made me nervous.

-30-

***

After Oh, Hell shipped, there was a period of "down-time" for the team. Many people shifted onto other projects, but in general the pressure was off. Several people took their vacations. I took the opportunity to go through my deformation libraries and formalize a lot of the code. I created a web page for the company intranet which described the work Iíd done and to provide a level of technical documentation. It was written to allow other developers to use the library more effectively on other projects.

I was in the process of doing this when Leanne Reynolds called me.

"I understand youíve got a little bandwidth these days," she said. Then she went on to ask me if I was up to writing the technical section of a game proposal sheíd been working on for Magic Boy Toys. It was based on one of their most popular toys, a little character named "Jet Boy" who was going to have his own animated TV show starting in the summer.

I told her I was definitely up to the challenge. She said she would e-mail the document to me and would send her assistant over with a hard-copy of another game proposal I could use as reference for writing the technical overview.

"Remember, Jack, youíre not writing it for a technical audience, per se," she said. "The idea is to impress Roger and his staff with Mighty Gamesí technical expertise." There was something about the way she said it that bothered me a bit.

That afternoon I read through the proposal. The game concept was very derivative. I couldnít imagine anyone really wanting to play it. It just plain sounded boring. I thought again about the Concept Review Group and wondered where the idea had come from.

In addition, Leanne had obviously promised something that was technically impossible. Specifically, a large portion of the game takes place in a turbulent water environment which would have to be simulated in real-time. In order to fulfill the basic requirements of game-play as it was described in the proposal, it would be necessary to perform massive fluid dynamics calculations on-the-fly that were on par with what was currently the state-of-the art in animated feature films. I didnít see how it could be done while running on the minimum computer platform she had specified.

"So weíll have to build in an R&D phase into the schedule," was her response when I called her to ask her about it. "Iím not asking you for a feasibility analysis, Jack. Iím just asking you to write a simple technical overview."

"But youíre talking about a technology that doesnít exist. At least not yet."

Leanne exploded with an intensity that surprised me. "Itís not your job to tell me what can and canít be done!" she screamed. "If youíre not able to write the damn thing, Iíll find somebody else who can."

I told her that perhaps it would be for the best if somebody else wrote it. Hanging up the phone, I had a sick feeling in my gut. I didnít like turning her down, but I didnít see that I had any choice. If I had done what sheíd requested, I would have been writing a lie. And I wasnít comfortable doing that. The only problem was I knew she would be able to find someone else in the company that was willing to lie to the client. It made me sick.

-31-

***

Dwayne was very supportive of my plan to turn the custom code that had been developed for Oh, Hell into a set of usable libraries. Unfortunately, much of the code had been written by Kevin and he had gone on vacation for two weeks.

Cleaning up Kevinís code Ė no pun intended Ė was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but I knew it had to be done. I tried to turn it into as methodical approach as possible, but it was still a challenge. I was occasionally frustrated by the fact that I had to try to come up with variable names that werenít so offensive. In order to avoid having to be bombarded with Kevinís vulgarity the first thing I did was to perform global "search and replace" operations for the offending words. "Fuck" became "FFF." Next I went through the code and tried to make the names somewhat more meaningful. It was grueling work, but after a week and a half Iíd managed to turn it into something resembling a library.

As I was going through the code I occasionally ran across functions that didnít seem to make any sense. They didnít seem to be related to the rest of the code. I also ran across several directories that were filled with pictures. When I opened them up I found a lot of them were pornographic, which didnít surprise me much. But I also found two different folders which contained about a hundred pictures which were similar to the one Kevin had e-mailed me by mistake many months before. The funny thing was that there were two directories in different locations and they appeared to contain the same set of images. At first I thought Kevin had just made a backup of the directory, as strange as that seemed, but then I noticed the file sizes were different.

Recalling the "Felcher" filter Kevin had posted to the newsgroup, I tried the image difference program Iíd run at the time. It would be an understatement to say I made a very interesting discovery.

Embedded in the second set of images were fragments of computer code. But it wasnít just any code. It was my code. Kevin had embedded my deformation system, as it was written shortly before shipping, across twenty-two pictures of kittens, Dalmatian puppies, and cute little babies.

It was obvious why heíd done this. He did this to smuggle the code out of the Mighty Games network. He sent both sets of pictures to his girlfriend and then on the other end he extracted the code. It was a very clever system.

-32-

***

"I canít believe you figured this out, Jack!" Kevin said. "Holy shit, dude! Youíre a lot smarter than I thought!"

I decided to confront Kevin before turning the evidence over to Dwayne and the Mighty Games management. In a way I wanted to see his reaction when I told him.

"So what are you going to do now?" he asked. "I assume you made copies of all these images, right?"

I nodded my head. "I just want to know what you hoped to gain from this, Kevin."

"Money, shit-head! What did you think? Fuck, when Oh, Hell comes out everybody in the industry is going to want to get their hands on the Mighty Games deformation system. Theyíll be Ė whatís the expression Ė Ďrushing out in a buying frenzy!í I figured, why not sell it to one of our competitors while itís still hot?"

"And you really thought youíd get away with it? Whereís your sense of loyalty?"

Kevin laughed. "What fucking planet are you from, anyhow? Fuck, yeah I figured Iíd get away with it. The funny thing is, Iím still going to and youíre not going to stop me."

"Are you threatening me?" I asked.

Kevin smirked. It was the same expression I saw on his face the first day I saw him. It was the smirk he had on his face right before he jumped up on the conference room table.

Kevin reached into his jacket. I backed away quickly. "What? You think Iím going to go psycho-killer on your ass, Jackie boy?" he asked. He pulled out a jewel case, containing a CD-ROM. I recognized it as one of the Oh, Hell discs. Kevin put the game in his computer drive and started the game. "Do you know what an ĎEaster eggí is?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "Itís a secret piece of code. Developers put hidden Ďtreatsí in their code so when the user types in a certain key combination they get something extra, like infinite lives or a special credits sequence."

"Exactly," he said. He typed a few keystrokes on his keyboard Ė I didnít see what they were Ė and then the game paused for a moment as some data was read from the disc. Then the computer screen was filled with a photograph. I recognized it immediately. I was in it and so was Rhea, who was totally naked except for her Wonder Woman boots.

"Digital camera in the paper macheí sarcophagus, my friend, set on time lapse mode. Much better than a camcorder Ė just look at that resolution!"

It all came together. Kevin and Olivia on the decoration committee. Kevin volunteering to burn the gold master. My life flashed before my eyes: Disgrace. Divorce. Despair.

"Oh, by the way," Kevin said, "Youíre not the only one I caught that nightÖ" The implied threat was clear and it was obvious his job security was assured. "But you know what, Jack? I think you and Rhea were my favorite." His grin stretched from ear to ear.

-33-

***

Blackmail is the gift that just keeps on giving. I think thatís a line I heard in a movie once. Thereís no way to describe the feeling of knowing somebody has something on you. It does something to your spirit. In the days that followed I felt like I was a hollow shell of my former self.

At some point Rhea left the company without even sending me a goodbye e-mail. I had been torn about whether to tell her about Kevinís blackmail scheme or not. Part of me wondered if Kevin had told her, although I couldnít see what he would have to gain by blackmailing her.

There was another big blowout when Oh, Hell was released. I decided not to go. Somehow I just couldnít bring myself to do it. One Sunday afternoon I was in a local department store and saw the familiar logo on a box on the shelves and felt like Iíd been cheated. Instead of feeling the pride of seeing something I had contributed to reach the public, I just kept thinking about the games secret content.

One morning an anonymous company-wide e-mail Ė from the Netherlands Ė was sent out which contained juicy excerpts between Dwayne and his wife. It included a lot of mushy pet names and some unusual euphemisms for sex. It was embarrassing, obviously, and everyone looked at Dwayne a little differently after that. Strangely, I found myself with a newfound respect for him, but he didnít see it that way. Unfortunately it was the final straw in a haystack that had been building for awhile. Dwayne snapped. One day he just wasnít there and when I asked Rosaline what happened she said heíd left the company. That night I called his wife and she said Dwayne had tried to take his own life and was in a hospital and wasnít allowed any visitors.

Kevinís "campaign of terror" had proved successful. I wished there was something I could do, but I couldnít think of any way out of the mess I was in.

-34-

***

With Dwayne gone there was a production manager position open. Helen Magneson, the producer of Oh, Hell, told me I should apply for it, but I felt strange about using what had happened to Dwayne to advance my own professional career. Besides, did I really want to become a manager? Iíd seen what managers did and it really didnít seem like the best use of my talents.

I found myself working nights more. I did it mostly so Iíd be able to minimize the amount of contact Iíd be forced to have with Kevin, who had become insufferable. He never missed an opportunity to remind me of the damning evidence he had on me.

One night I was fixing myself a strawberry pop-tart when I heard a familiar voice.

"Hi, Jack. I was sorry to hear about Dwayne."

I looked over and saw Guy standing in the cafeteria doorway. Somehow I just had to tell him what was going on.

"Damn that kid," he said after Iíd told him about Kevin. "Heís got to be stopped."

"But how? The only way I see out of this mess is to get something even worse on Kevin, some secret that would shut him up."

"Secret, huh?" A twinkle came into Guyís eyes. "When I was V.P. I heard a rumor once. Itís not much, but it might help you."

"What is it?" I asked. I was willing to grasp at any straw, no matter how flimsy.

"I once heard one of the H.R. managers refer to ĎKevinís secret.í Itís something in his personnel file. What it is, I donít know."

"Is it something you could get your hands on?" I asked.

"Not anymore. At least I couldnít do it without arousing a great deal of suspicion. But you could."

"How?" I asked.

"Take the managerís position. Hell, Iím sure all you have to do is apply and itís yours. Become Kevinís manager. Then you can walk down to the personnel office anytime you want and ask to see Kevinís file. Itís as simple as that."

-35-

***

And so I became Kevinís manager. Kevin took great delight in my promotion. To him I was stepping into Dwayneís role in more ways than one.

I did as Guy had suggested. I made an appointment with the human resources office and told them I wanted to review all the files for all the employees I would be managing. They took it as a sign I was taking my new responsibilities seriously. Of course they did. That was the impression I wanted to give. But I only really cared about one file.

Reviewing Kevinís thick personnel file, I couldnít help but wonder how heíd managed to stay employed for so long. There were several insertions which were essentially warnings that Kevinís performance had been good in several areas but that he had been causing a number of problems as well. (GIVE EXAMPLES) But something just didnít make any sense. He had been placed on probation a number of times, but there were no follow-ups. What usually happened was his manager had either left or promoted or Kevin had been transferred into another group. On top of all that, he had received raises that were generally above the raises given to the best employees.

After an hour of going through his file, I was stumped. I hadnít run across any evidence of the "secret" Guy had alluded to. Maybe it had just been another baseless rumor in a company that had so many. Finally I decided I would go through it all again, very thoroughly, in the hopes I would find what I had been missing.

One of the first pieces of paperwork had been Kevinís original application at the company, back when he was a sophomore in high school. I had glanced at the fairly lengthy form, but hadnít read it item by item. This time I did. And then I found it, Kevinís secret.

Under "next of kin," Kevin had written "Earl W. Snyder Ė father."

-36-

***

The earliest appointment I could get with Earl Snyder was for the following Friday afternoon, late in the day. Earl was a very busy man and I was lucky to get the time with him. In a way, the delay was good. It gave me plenty of time to think about what I was going to say to him and, more importantly, how I was going to say it.

"Congratulations on your recent promotion, Jack," he said as I sat down in his office.

"Thank you, sir," I said.

"What was it you wanted to talk about? The entry in the calendar says Ďpersonnel issues.í Are you sure this isnít something that could be handled by one of the production directors?"

"No, sir, Iím afraid itís not. I wanted to talk to you about Kevin Murphy."

I watched Earlís face, wondering if he would try to play dumb. He didnít, not exactly.

"So what kind of trouble has Kevin gotten into this time? Has he been messing around with the e-mail system again?"

"Iím afraid itís fairly serious sir. Kevin has been blackmailing an employee of this company. This employee has told me heís planning on going to the police with physical evidence of this blackmail as well as proof that Kevin has been involved in corporate espionage activities."

"I see," Earl said. The expression on his face revealed nothing.

"You can see why I was reluctant to take this to anyone other than you."

"I think you made the right call there, son. So what would you like me to do?" Earl asked.

I had rehearsed this part very carefully. Each word had to have its proper impact. "Well," I said, "I was hoping you could give me some advice as to how I should handle this matter. As you know Iím very new to management and this isnít something Iíve ever had to deal with before. It would obviously be very embarrassing to the company if the police became involved. It might get unnecessarily complicated. The end of the quarter is coming up and I understand the financials arenít quite up to street expectations. If word of a scandal got out, something like this could cause a lot of problems for Mighty Games."

"What do you want, Jack?" Earl asked.

-37-

***

The severance I received from Mighty Games was quite generous: a yearís salary. But that wasnít what was most important to me. In addition, I also had in my possession a letter from the legal department that granted me full rights to the "color as you go" adventure game concept and related Mighty Games technologies. I also had been granted a license to use the deformation libraries I had developed at Mighty Games which I had acquired at the low, low rate of one dollar per year. It was a real bargain, but all in all, I felt very little guilt about it.

Pat quit her job at the library and she and I started our own "mom and pop" company. We bought a house in the country and devoted the next six months to developing a working prototype of the game. Pat wrote the interactive script and I did the coding. I hired Ė on a part time basis Ė two of the Mighty Games artists Iíd worked with to create the models and artwork. Our demo received a lot of positive interest when we took it to "Gameshow," the International Computer Gaming Exhibition in Los Angeles.

There was one thing that remained. Should I tell Pat what had happened with Rhea? They say that adultery is the "forgiveable sin," but I wasnít so sure Pat would forgive me. I hadnít told her up to this point because I didnít want to hurt her. I was afraid of hurting her. What had happened was in my past and Pat was my future. Did Pat really need to know? I didnít want to tell her if it was only about unloading my guilt. I could live with the guilt. What I didnít want to live with was knowing there was a secret between us.

The night I told her she became very quiet and then she began to cry. She told me she just couldnít stand to see my face for awhile and I offered to leave. She told me that would probably be a very good idea. I spent an unhappy, sleepless night in the local hotel, the same one Iíd stayed in the night I interviewed.

The next morning I showed up on the front doorstep with a single red rose. Standing there I wondered if she would ever forgive me. But then she opened the door, kissed me, and let me inside.

-END-