Monday, April 4, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 11 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

“James, how would you like to use my pickup for a few weeks?”
He held out his hand to his father,  “Where’s the keys?”
“Whoa, not until tomorrow.  I’ve got a new assignment and you’ve got to take me to the airport.”
Diana came into the room.  “What new assignment?”
Bob looked at the calendar.  “About two weeks, maybe more in Seattle.”
“Oh, my.  That long?”
“It’s necessary.  And the pay is twice what I got for the last one.  We need the money.”
She nodded.  But she wasn’t pleased.
James asked, “What’ll you be doing?”
His father shook his head.  “Confidential.”
James said, “I’ll go call Larry and tell him I won’t need a ride Monday.”
Oh it will be good to drive again!  But I wish Dad could talk about it.  There are too many secrets.
By the time he’d chatted with Larry, and admitted that maybe dedicated game boxes were faster, his parents had gone to the kitchen table and begun covering it with bills.
“They will be mailing checks on the first and fifteenth.  You’ll need to handle the deposits.”  Dad was giving her the same run-down he had last time.
James retreated to his bedroom.
Dad’s going to be busy for a while.
He connected to local area network and took another look at ‘Bail’.
I’ve got to find the sphere library.
It didn’t take long.  There was an extensive set of scripts that made up the bulk of the library.  He pulled up an editor.
That’s Dad’s code all right, but what a mess.  The modules called other modules in the library, by the time he had five editor windows open, trying to trace what the code did, he knew he was out of his league.
Dad has programmed since punch-card days, I’d bet.  He calls himself a physicist, but he’s always at the computer.
He closed the editors, careful to leave the modules untouched.
‘GUI’.  That’s a stupid name for a program.  But maybe it was just temporary.  GUI meant graphical user interface.
It’s worth a try.  He activated it.
A window popped up with buttons and sliders and a control widget that looked a lot like some of his video games.  Plain black and white, but it was instantly familiar.
Is that the secret?  Is he working for a video game company?  There are some in the Seattle area.
He experimented with the controls.  ‘Create Sphere’ was interesting.  He tried it, and an options widget appeared. 
Options, options, options.  He clicked at random; ‘Monitor’, ‘Entangle’, and ‘Watch’.
“Choose initial location.”   He scrolled through the list and selected Paris.
Another window appeared, and it showed Paris at night.
Ooh.  Great graphics.  He could see the Eiffel tower and a blaze of other city lights.  
An alert box appeared. “Navigate to Watch.”   What does that mean?  He moved the mouse to the navigation controls.
Flying above the city, he marveled at the lifelike images.  Elevation control.  Down went the image to street level, dodging just above the cars.  There was even sound coming from the computer’s speakers.  He could overhear snatches of conversation.
This is just what I need for French class.  He never liked the language lab.  The stilted actors on the tapes talking through the headphones had never worked for him.
The people of this Paris sounded like real people.  He could catch a word or two, but they were all talking too fast.
He wandered through the streets of Paris for several minutes, with nothing much happening.
Am I doing this right?  There were no gunshots, no car chases, no narration to tell him what the game play was all about.  There was just that command “Navigate to Watch”.
What does that mean?  It’s a puzzle.  Maybe nothing happens until I find the ‘Watch’, whatever that is.
Across the street, there was a store.  Smoothly, he moved the view towards it and through the glass window.
There are some watches.  Could the GUI mean a real watch, like those?  There were over a hundred wrist-watches in the display cases.   Choosing one at random, he zoomed close enough to touch.  Abruptly, the window closed and another opened.
More ‘Options’.  He chose a few options at random, and then clicked ‘DONE’.
Up popped a little widget, “Name location:”.  He typed ‘ParisWatch’.  And ‘DONE’.
With not even a sound, all the windows vanished.
Game over I guess.  Interesting, but I wouldn’t pay to play it.
Still, this was what his father was working on.  Maybe it was just one module as part of a more complex and interesting game.
He ran ‘GUI’ again.  This time he avoided the Watch option.  When he chose location, ParisWatch had been added to the list.  I should delete that, but how?
Another location caught his eye—‘Home’.  Click.
The monitor screen appeared.  At first it was dark, so he moved up.
There’s my house!  The scene was too real to be believed.  There were the trees, the fence line, and the neighbor’s houses.  Even the time of night looked perfectly correct. 
He looked at the house again.  Everything was perfect, down to the satellite tv dish clamped to the chimney.  That is unreal.   He navigated down towards the house.   The detail had his heart racing.  The pattern of limestone bricks on the wall looked perfect.  This can’t be stock images.  Was Paris this detailed? 
Abruptly he pulled to a stop.  On his computer screen, the window showed the kitchen table where his parents were talking.
“There is another bill from Diagnostic Labs.”  His mother unfolded the paper.  “I think it’s the same one they sent us the first month.  How long will they wait for payment?”   The sound of her voice through the computer speaker was a little tinny.
With nervous fingers James moved the viewpoint down the hall towards his room.  He moved through the door like it was vapor.  There he sat, peering over the computer monitor.
He looked at the door, but there didn’t appear to be anything.  He wiggled the controls.  The motion caught his eye.  There was a ghostly image of a marble-sized ball, in real life, there in the room with him.  Slowly, cautiously, he edged it closer.  The ball hovered, right in front of his face.  It was transparent.  He could see the faint shine of a camera lens behind it.
James clicked ‘QUIT.’  The program vanished from his screen, and instantly the ghostly marble vanished.
He was shaking.
What is Dad up to?
James drove his father to the airport.  Bob Hill was talkative.
“You need to be patient, and don’t overwork yourself.  The doctors said that until your blood count is back up to normal all on its own, you can’t count on being able to do all the activities you did before.”
“I know Dad.  But I have a doctor’s appointment Tuesday, and I’d bet they find everything perfect.”
“Well, let’s hope so.”
He frowned.  “James, I’ll be gone longer than before, and your mother will be trying to handle everything on her own.  Would you be on the lookout and find ways to help her out?  Wash the dishes, do your laundry...that sort of thing?
“And when she looks tired after a long day, go talk to her.  Sometimes her job irritates her and letting her blow off some steam does her a world of good.”
James nodded.  “Okay.  But you take care of yourself too.  We need you.”
“I will.”
James followed his father’s directions and they unloaded at the Terminal level.  He took his travel bag and waved James off.
Bob rolled his bag inside and went straight to the men’s restroom.  Hauling his bag inside a stall with him, he pressed a button on his new wristwatch.
James hurried home, pushing past the speed limit by five or ten.  His father’s flight wasn’t due to take off for another hour and he had to keep an eye on him.  
Reaching home, he raced up to his room, activated the link and fired up the ‘GUI’.  
Monitor view.  Location: Home.  The window opened and he flew it high and fast across the landscape towards the airport.  Once inside he kept the view near the ceiling and out of sight.  Cautiously, he located the gate where his father’s plane was loading.  Bob Hill was not in the crowd.  
He flew his viewpoint out the glass windows and inside the 737 nosed up to the gate.  From a position near the television screen, he peered at each of the passengers as they entered, jostling for position and loading their carry-on luggage.
He’s not here.
James kept watch all throughout the rest of the loading.  By the time the plane took to the air, he was sure his father had missed the plane.

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