A Yule Tale

On Christmas Eve, I went to bed near midnight - after getting caught up on my www-vrml reading and majordomo list APPROVEs - tucked myself under the covers, and settled down for a deep winter snooze.

It was not to be. I drifted off for a little while, but I gradually came awake again, hearing a tapping at my front door; someone was playing with my mail slot, too. It shut suddenly, with a steely click, every few minutes.

Rather angrily, I got out of bed, to answer my door - and to give a piece of my "goodwill toward men" to whomever it was who vexed me so. I threw open the front door, to find a ghostly looking SparcStation 1 sitting on my doorstep. On close examination, I recognized it as fool, the SparcStation Iíd recently "retired" - after several years of faithful service - to the dustbin of Jurassic technology.

"May I come in?" it chirped. "Itís rather cold out here."

"If you must," I replied, doing my best to sound disinterested.

It rose and half-floated through my house, dragging keyboard and mouse behind it like some nearly- forgotten tail. Through foyer and bedroom it gently cruised, on some astral equivalent of anti-gravity, finally settling in my living room, on the coffee table.

"We should talk," it suggested.

"What is there to say?" I replied. "Are you upset that I junked you?"

It shrugged - the monitor made a tiny leap - and began, "Upset? Not really. I mean, Iím a computer, and I get junked. Youíre a human, and you die. Same thing, I guess. Maybe next time I can come back as something thatíll last more than five years -"

"Six," I corrected, "and you wouldnít have had that if I hadnít come to rescue you. You were on your way out, and quick. I picked you up just before they threw you out."

"True enough; you paid very little, given what I was worth. But I proved myself. You never had a more reliable computer..."

"Or one that I was more creative upon. Cyberspace Protocol, the beginnings of VRML - I coded it all on you. You could handle it. UNIX, X Windows, Motif - heck, anything I wanted, I could do."

There was a brief, bittersweet silence, then it spoke again. "Nice as it was, itís over. Time to move on, and to that end Iíve been sent as a messenger..."

"And whatís the message?"

"Prepare yourself. Youíll receive three more visitors tonight - the first will arrive after the clock has called the first hour; the second will arrive at the second hour; the third -"

"Let me guess - the third hour?"

"- will arrive at the fourth hour. Itís binary, you see."

I could only nod, awestruck.

"Listen to them," the ghostly workstation implored, "for there is grave danger..."

My awe boiled over into panic. "What do you mean, Ďgrave dangerí? Iím sitting on my sofa, having a seance with a beloved but junked computer. You mean some grave danger other than losing my mind?"

"SILENCE!" It bellowed, rising up to float at eye level. "You must receive these spirits; heed well what they have to say. Youíre awfully thick-headed, but, if you open your heart, you might learn how to avoid what is seen as inevitable fate. So be quiet, and open, and listen..." It made a move toward the glass door set into the living roomís south wall. "Listen..." it said again, as the door flung open. "Listen..." it cried, and then it was gone, into the skies.

I looked out, and saw a legion of old machines - IBM PC/XTs, Apple Macintosh 512Ks, and even a few Amiga 1000s - floating on the eveningís winds, my SparcStation among them. Bardos of the obsolete.

I closed the door and went back to bed. 12:33 AM, by my alarm clock.

*

I suppose I must have drifted off to sleep, however briefly, because when I awoke the room was filled with a bright, red light. It came from a cube, perhaps a meter across, floating at the foot of my bed.

"I am the spirit whose coming was foretold to you," it began. "I am the ghost of the Past."

It came at me - I screamed - and suddenly the room was gone. Now I flew beside the cube through a dark night sky. No sooner did I cry, "Where are you taking me?", and suddenly we had arrived. I recognized the place immediately; The Inn San Francisco, floating just a few feet above their outdoor redwood hot tub.

"These are shadows of what has been," the cube replied. Out of a doorway came Marina, Tony and myself, all in swimwear, walking toward the tub.

"I remember this.," I started, "it was the week Tony and Marina moved to San Francisco. Yuletide - thatís right, it was the week of Yule." I laughed. "Wow. I hardly knew either of them; didnít know Tony was such a hacker. Hadnít really talked shop."

"But," the cube supplied, "tonight you do."

"Yep, thatís right. I get blabbering about NCSA Mosaic and the web and all that stuff..."

"Which led to?"

"It led to talk about this three-dimensional interface for the Web Iíd been dreaming up. And then to VRML." I paused for a moment. "I guess you could say it all began here."

"What was it like to work with Tony?"

"He was great - brilliant. Incredible. Really pulled some tricks. Thatís why this all happened so quickly."

"So you work with him now?"

I was silent for a long time, and finally answered, "No. Not as much. Weíve diverged; heís got his own thing, and Iíve got mine."

"And whatís that?" asked the cube.

"That what?"

"Your thing? What is your thing?" It looked a little frustrated, for a cube.

"I donít know," I replied. "I donít know."

The cube spun, then took another dive at me. This time I didnít scream quite as long, but the night air was just as black as before.

We came to rest in a small room with a tightly sloping roof that came to several points. It felt like a garret - or perhaps someoneís attic office. In one corner a large desk, littered with books and papers - and a half- eaten slice of pizza. A monitor, keyboard and mouse. I could read the screen; an early version of Netscape displayed http://vrml.wired.com/. But that was the old page, the one I rewrote many months ago! This might be last year - last Yule.

"Whatís this?" I asked.

"The home of a coder. Heís no one youíve heard of."

"Heís going to do some VRML coding by the look of it."

"Perhaps heís waiting for a VRML browser."

Cheap shot. "Yeah, well."

"Or perhaps heís writing one. Many will be written."

"Ainít it great? Work their butts off, then give it away."

"Why is that?" asked the cube.

"Well," I answered, "I guess itís because they believe that they need to create a market before they can expect to generate money in the market. Itís enlightened self-interest; Ďif we collaborate on creating viewers for platform-independent cyberspace, we can spend forever making money from tools and applicationsí."

"Will that happen?" All these questions!

"I donít know. I really donít. Things are changing. Lots."

"You sound unhappy about it."

"Iím unsure. Everythingís happening so quickly. I donít know."

And suddenly I was in my own bed again.

**

We must have been gone for almost an hour, for no sooner did I recover from my fright than I became aware that the room had gone green, and a sphere, perhaps three feet wide, descended slowly from the ceiling. It came to rest at eye level, slowly bobbing.

"I am the spirit whose coming was foretold to you," it stated. "I am the ghost of the Present."

I half-crouched, expecting the sphere to make a run at me. Instead, it said, "Hop on!" and I scrambled out of the bedsheets and onto its smooth surface. I kept slipping down its sides; finally, I just threw myself over the top, face down, spread my arms, and gripped the sides. It was certainly a comfortable ride - but it felt as if I was falling down through the Earth, into the dark heart of the planet. As we fell, it spoke. "These are shadows of happenings in the present, but you can not act to influence them." Slowing, and then full stop.

A well-appointed corporate boardroom, with Ricaro chairs and a videoconferencing system built into one wall. Thick walnut conference table, twenty feet of oblong beauty, dominating the room. Two figures - both in plain blue business suits, white shirts and red ties, engaged in conversation at roomís far corner.

"Do we own it?" one asked.

"No," replied the other.

"Then letís buy it. Weíve got to have it. Itís too important for a competitor. Itíd be the ruin of us."

"Impossible."

"Why? Whoís got it? How much do they want? Pay it. Get it. Now."

"Itís not that simple. No one owns it."

"What do you mean, ĎNo one owns ití? How can no one own it? Someone had to invent it, develop it, release it. They didnít just give it away."

"But they did."

"WHAT?" the first man shrieked. "Are they out of their minds? The biggest thing since Windows and they gave it away?"

"They did it," the second replied, "to generate support for their proposal."

"Iíd say that worked," concluded the first. "But whereís the payoff?" A long silence.

"Listen," began the second, "it might be possible to take things as they are, and...play with them...just a little bit."

"Meaning?"

"Create a product thatís not quite so standard. Itíd conform to the standard, mostly, but itíd be just a little bit better, a little more useful."

"So everyone would come to us, because we do it better."

"Thatís the idea."

A laugh. "I like it. I like it a lot. But how can we make it stick? Why would anyone believe that weíd do it better?"

"Weíll make some announcements. Tell everyone weíre committed to an open process - then move in our own directions. Get the press, then the market, and the spec will come along. Then weíll be calling the shots."

The sphere began to dive; we fell through the floor, back into the dark. This time it wasnít a fall as much as a long, slow spin. I began to get dizzy, losing any sense of orientation - up, down, left, right - I felt as though I was sliding in every direction, always sliding off the sphere, then scrambling to get back on top. But, every time I thought myself on top, my sense of direction would evade me, and Iíd find myself sliding down. Down and under.

I was lying on a floor, face up, arms and legs straddled about the sphere. Weíd stopped. At least, thatís what it looked like; inside my head, I was still spinning round and round...

When things cleared, I could see where weíd landed. A tiny, cramped office, crowded from floor to ceiling with computers, books, wiring, telephones, printers, modems, disk drives, keyboards and mice. It seemed that every inch of desk space lay under inches of documentation; Warnekeís "The Inventor Mentor" lay open, beside a monitor. Next to it - a copy of my book!

"Hey," I offered, "these folks have great taste."

"And they have a great product," the sphere concurred. "And a business plan, and a brand new office - which weíre in - and some good hopes at getting funded."

"Cool. Another VRML startup..."

"One among many - but with some troubles."

The phone rang - actually, several of them - sounding an alarm from all directions. After two more rings, a man entered the room, and answered the phone nearest the books. "New World Engineering," he spoke into the receiver, "this is Kev." Young and bearded and rather hackerly looking, in the Californian style of tie- die and Tevas, he looked like heíd been awake for days; deep circles rimmed each of his eyes, framed by small wrinkles. "Hey, Sue," he began, upbeat.

I couldnít hear the voice on the phone, but, as the call went on, I saw Kevís shoulders sag, bit by bit. Every once and a while heíd say, "uh-huh," or, "but...", never getting a chance to answer.

I turned to the sphere. "Bad news?"

"A contract theyíve lost. Client wants the whole ball of wax - avatars, interactivity, multi-user spaces - everything."

"And they canít do it," I concluded.

"Thatís right. Not with what theyíve got now."

"But if they extend VRML..." I suggested.

"Out of the question. Theyíre too small - developers wonít care. Whatís cyberspace without tools? By the time theyíd finished, itíd be obsolete, overrun by another release of VRML."

"So theyíre out of a deal."

Kev concluded the call. "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I understand. Itís just business. Well...thanks. Thanks. Be seeiní ya." He sat down, in front of the monitor, staring through it, at some world beyond. Everything went very quiet.

"Is that it?" I asked. Making me nervous.

"Heíll go back to work in a while, and code away the night."

"Wow." I reflected for a moment. "I guess he believes."

"He does; thatís why heís willing to put up with these kinds of calls."

"He gets them a lot?" I asked.

"Theyíre coming in frequently, now."

"Yeah, well, everyone wants cyberspace these days."

"How are they going to get it?" the sphere shot back.

"I donít know."

"You say that a lot."

Everything went dark, and I found myself buried under the blankets atop my bed.

***

I tried to hide, to stay absolutely still beneath my bedcovers. Iíd had enough, seen too much, but the final act still lay before me. I grew very cold, even imagined I could see my blue breath in the dark. Finally, on the verge of frostbite, I gathered myself into a ball and shivered, dragging the covers along, pulling them tight across my body. After a moment of warming up, stuffed with the close air under the blankets, I popped my head out, only to encounter a blue glowing cone. It waited at the edge of my bed, slowly pitching around its axis, looking very much like a top, as it slows down. It said nothing.

"Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold?"

It nodded.

"The ghost of Things to Come?"

Another nod.

"Then take me and be done with it!" This time I felt nothing; no motion, no wind, just the steady silence of a place utterly dark and soulless. Forward across the river of time. Arriving felt like stepping into sunshine after a long spell indoors. My flesh welcomed the real - even if it was still in the future - and I tried to forget the appalling darkness from which weíd come.

A corner office. Two walls window, looking out onto a garden and fountain. An executive desk straddled one side of the room; a couch, chair and table, the other. In the chair, a man who - by dress, bearing and gesture - gave off the air of authority. He seemed somber, speaking quietly, thoughtfully. I had to strain to hear his voice clearly. Addressing someone on the couch, a man in a suit, with his back toward me.

"...want to know that youíve always had the full support of the organization. But itís not working out. Youíve spent big money...I mean, Iím just as guilty, because I gave the green light to your budget...but a hundred million dollars and itís all gone down the drain. No market. I mean, sure, it was a solid plan. If theyíd all bought the story. But they didnít. And now weíre behind. Maybe even locked out. A year makes a lot of difference these days. Two years," he paused and looked into the other manís eyes, "thatís pretty much forever."

"So thatís it?" the man on the couch asked. A familiar voice.

"Thatís it. The projectís shut down - the entire divisionís getting laid off. Weíre going to write down the loss in this quarter - Iíll catch hell from the board about this." He paused for a moment, and moved in a bit closer, lowering his voice. "One more thing," he began, in very measured words. "Iíd like you to tender your resignation. Youíve got to take the fall on this one."

The figure on the couch slumped a bit, and said, "I...I see." Then he turned, and I got a good look at him. One of the blue suits in the boardroom. I barely had a moment to register surprise before it all evaporated into that unfathomable black.

It went on until it seemed Iíd never know light again. Then, dimly, I could see my body, against a pale wall. No light fixtures, and night outside; but some light leaked in from the street. I could make out a medium- sized room, almost empty, except for some wiring stapled to the walls, and a few small papers tossed about on the floor. It seemed vacant, more than it felt empty; as if this room had been a hive of activity, some time ago.

The cone wobbled, and then lowered itself to toward the floor, its point gently pushing a slip of paper across the floor, toward me.

"You want me to look at that?" I guessed. "What is it?"

The cone backed away, and I bent over to pick it up. Some sort of business card, but I couldnít read it - not enough light to make out the embossed lettering at the top of the card. "I canít see it," I announced. "Itís too dark."

As if by command, a car passed by, outside, headlights shining into the room for quick, bright, moment. I thrust the card into the light. New World Engineering. Then dark again.

"Iíve been in this room before, havenít I?"

The cone showed no reaction.

"I know it, I can feel it - maybe a year ago, maybe more. These are the folks with a plan. Or were."

Nothing.

"But theyíre gone - they didnít make it, did they? Wiped out because they couldnít get customers our couldnít ship product on time or couldnít get decent funding or any of a thousand other reasons. Or maybe because VRML didnít make it, and they couldnít adapt to a brand-new world. Is that what this is all about?"

Then I was outside. No travel, no dark, just - pop! - and Iím standing in a vast field, surrounded by great, old trees. The wind blew a deep, creaky whistle through them, and scattered their leaves around me in a whirlwind, above me, underneath me. Unnatural leaves; more like shredded paper, cut into a thousand different dimensions. Another gust of wind came up and slapped me in the face; this time the papers stuck to me, with a hair-tingling static charge.

I pulled them off of me, one after another, and built up a sheaf in my hand. I raised one, to read it. Only the corner of a page, the upper right hand of a document. "ML Specification" Spelled out in bold letters.

"Is this what you wanted me to know?" I cried. "Is this it? Our spec gets ripped up? So what happens? Do we fail? Or are we torn up in the billion-dollar battle?"

Then I realized that I was alone; the cone had not followed me here.

Thatís all right, I thought, I know how it would have answered. It would have said, "I donít know."

****

It was left to me to find my own way home. When I did - and woke up exhausted and depressed - I drew myself up into a ball, and shook all over. Iíd been to Hell and back, then woke to a lazy solstice sun, puddling in the living room. Gently reminding me that itís never black-and-white, but always and everywhere darkness and scattered light.

Mark