Unixed

 


Anna:

 

I had no trouble getting out of Silver Spring or Maryland or Delaware. The roads were perfectly marked, I was making good time, and I was mapping out what I would do for the rest of my sabbatical. Five miles into New Jersey, the sun began to set across the miles and miles of undulating scrub pine forest. Traffic got thicker and dusk approached; headlights and taillights flickered on down the black ribbon of I-94, splitting the dark green forest like a laser. Ahead of me, the blurring taillights looked like a ribbon of fire; but in the other lane, it seemed as if all the godforsaken bureaucrats in Washington were rushing back from their weekend affairs on a ribbon of blinding white light. Bumper to bumper at 75 miles an hour - no exits, no small towns, no gas stations - Ye Gods, I thought, I must be back in Iowa, traveling across the vast and endless eternal flat inland ocean of cornfield monotony. I had never driven this stretch of New Jersey before and had no idea it would be this flat or this desolate. Finally, the signs announced a rest stop, so I pulled off, filled my new Lynx with diesel, and then went into HoJo's.

I was hungry, so I sat at the counter, ordered coffee, a cheeseburger, and fries, took my notebook out of my backpack, and started to list future projects. What we had talked about over brunch and the New York Times - our own stories of sexual loss and triumph mixed up with theoretical discussions of robot immortality and programmable souls -- the conversations we had about AI and expert systems and formulaic fiction still reverberated in memory.

I kept having the same thought: "If fiction is so formulaic, why not just boilerplate every possible genre and mode in something like dBASE II?" Of course it was a rhetorical question. For the 13th time in the last 9 days, I changed my sabbatical plans. I had the topic sentence dbase already done, which meant that a simple twenty questions program could tease me through free association on any particular topic and generate some kind of coherent outline of a story, speech, or technical paper. All I needed now was a dbase of rhetorical forms that would allow me to develop simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex discourse around each simple noun phrase + verb phrase topic sentence. I figured that the elaboration dbase would take some tinkering, but I could get it to work in a dumb hillbilly kind of way by modifying some of Chomsky's transformations. What really bothered me was how to write the program linkage so that the twenty questions inference program would produce, not just a vaguely intelligent outline, but full-blown discourse. In other words, I was trying to figure out how to hide the massive boiler-plating tricks so that the program, like most humans, would give the illusion of intelligence.

The image of you in your red T-shirt nightgown hovered on the edge of these machine dreams, acting as a shaping model. Until I fell into exhausted sleep on the floor mat, I had been trying to figure out how to get into the pullout bed with you: should it be cool, witty, whimp-intellectual top-down programming, or passionate, impulsive, lusty, macho bottom-up hacking? Should the twenty questions program determine the linkage, or should the linkage determine the twenty questions? I was determined not to fall asleep on this one, so I started to hack bottom up.

I should have ordered spagetti.

So there I was, coding a module in dBASE II that would allow a topic sentence dbase to interweave with a sentence elaboration dbase when a voice behind my right shoulder said, "You forgot the ENDIF in your third loop." I turned around.

There were three of them. I guess they were ordering ice cream or else waiting for an order to go, but I'd been so wrapped up in what I was doing that I failed to notice them. One of them was a female Mr. T, complete with jewelry; the other one was a tall, icy, aristocratic blonde in a business suit and tie; the one who had spoken was a short, lean, vivacious brunette with a smile that reminded me of yours. She pointed down at the page. "Here." Sure enough. She was right.

I asked her if she programmed in dBASE, she said "Yeah," and off we went into a conversation about languages and machines. When she told me she worked for AT&T, I was suitably impressed; she introduced me to the other two women, both of whom also worked for AT&T in Murray Hill. The brunette wondered what I was working on, so I babbled very briefly about my tale-telling Propp dbase, my elaboration dbase, and plans for linking them into a narrative machine. Then I mentioned the AT&T 3B2 computer and a program called Writer's Workbench which I'd sell my soul to work with. The blonde got real interested, suddenly, and the black woman stopped frowning for the first time. The brunette suggested that we find a table and talk. I had no idea anything sexual was going on. From the looks of them, they were a classic trio of female Yuppies who each had money, power, and males like clothes hanging in their sumptuous closets for any occasion: executives for high society parties, junior executives for weekday affairs, a few starving artists, three young boys, a couple of well-hung studs for holiday variety, and a bulldyke and fem for Sunday. What I mean is, I was hopelessly outclassed.

So we got a table. This was around 7:30, about three hours after I left you standing on your outside patio, contemplating the parking lot through your new Pentax. I had no idea what was going on, although I must confess I was flattered by their interest and wanted to make a favorable impression. The waitress, who was quite disgruntled by the seat switching, brought me my cheeseburger and fries and the three of them all ordered fried chicken. Had I lived on the East Coast and known street jargon, I would have recognized this head-hunter setup; but I didn't know. I was on the inside, the brunette sitting next to me; the blonde and the black woman sat across the table, the black woman opposite me. "So what do you know about Writer's Workbench?" she wondered, her eyes narrowed, her wonderfully white teeth set in a sardonic grin.

I told them as much as I knew: that it was a series of 36 programs running under UNIX, that legend had it that it was entirely written by women, that it had two built-in editors, that it had a dictionary building program, a grammatical checking program, a spelling checker, a parser.... The blonde woman interrupted my recitation.

"We wrote it."

Her eyes flashed, I swear, like flashbulbs, literally blinding me in mid-phrase. Her sense of power, dominance, and triumph were overwhelming; but even more overpowering was the brunette. An instant after the blonde dropped her bombshell, I felt a small hand touch and then squeeze the giraffe. Not a hand on my hand, not a hand on my knee, not even a hand on the inside of my thigh; right to the point, assertive and positive. I swear, this actually happened. I know it sounds like some cheap softcore fantasy in a woman's romance novel, but I swear, too many woman have been reading those damn things. She actually did it.

I do a lot of smiling and listening as the blonde tells me about her work on the grammar checking program and the brunette fondles me beneath the table with her right hand and eats fried chicken with her left and the black woman talks about her work on the editor.

As the black woman finished her explanation of 'vi' with the promise that I would find it three times more powerful than Wordstar, the brunette pulled her hand away.

"I did 'lex,' the parser," she said. "I'm good at splitting hairs... you like doing that kind of thing?"

I nodded.

This time I knew what she was talking about.

We kept on about the Writer's Workbench, UNIX, the C programming language, and "pipes"; this time I recognized the sexual innuendoes. Finally, the brunette said they had a 3B2 back home in the apartment they shared in Cherry Hill, and I was welcome to try it out anytime I felt like it -- in fact, why not stop by for a few hours tonight, I was heading north, wasn't I? and I could just follow them -- in fact, it would even be smarter for one of them to ride with me, just in case we got lost in traffic....

The brunette's name was Lisa Beth Morgan, the blonde's name was Sarah Orne Cartwright, and the black woman's name was Cassie Russell. Cassie had gone to Howard and Yale, Sarah had gone to Vassar and Harvard, and Lisa had gone to Lewis and Clarke and Stanford. They all had Ph.d's. Cassie was the linguist, Sarah the rhetorician, and Lisa the programmer. All three of them had been divorced, Sarah twice, but none of them had children... yet. Lisa had those intense brown eyes of yours.

Sarah and Cassie were in the Audi, cruising ahead of us at 78 miles an hour. I slowed down to 70, and they gradually pulled ahead; but Lisa was all business as long as we were driving. So we talked about data base management and intelligent top ends until the signs for Cherry Hill started to appear. Five minutes later we were locked in a passionate embrace in the parking lot of Cherry Hill Lane Estates. I give you my word. The place actually exists. Four hours after leaving you, I was sitting in the parking lot making out with the Writer's Workbench programmer.

Apparently, Sarah and Cassie had gotten lost for a while, according to plan; eventually, we went up to her place. I was in such a state of sexual heat that I could see nothing except the swing of her hips as she walked ahead of me. I still can't visualize what the outside of the building looked like -- whether it was square or round, whether it had windows or not, whether we passed through a foyer like the one at your place or whether we immediately stepped into the elevator.

Above the peephole was a bumper sticker that read, "Live Free or Die," and below it was a gothic typeset laser printout with the legend: "Beware UNIX bearing gifts." The apartment number was 3B2.

"Clever," I observed, watching Lisa punch an eight digit code into the four recessed buttons above the knob.

"Check the number," she said, pushing the door open.

"I have."

"Sarah has 3B1 and Cassie's in 3B3. All three apartments connect."

"Nice."

I was in over my head and knew it. As we walked into the living room, I looked through a door and saw a computer in a room lined with manuals; but Lisa led me into her bedroom. I won't describe what happened next, and I certainly won't describe what happened an hour later when both Cassie and Sarah joined us. Much later Sarah finally coaxed me into my clothes and led me to a door. She wrote Lisa's number and address on a sheet of paper, gave me one last shuddering kiss, and pushed me through the door, into utter darkness. The click of the lock convinced me. I waited for my eyes to adjust.

Funny thing, though.

This wasn't the hallway. I turned around, my hands in front of me, searching for the door. Found it, but couldn't find a door knob. Then I remembered my cigarette lighter, found it in my shirt pocked, flicked it, and immediately realized I was in the computer room. Saw a light switch on the wall near the door and flipped it on. On my left was a small kitchenette - a stove, a small refrigerator, and a sink. On the floor against the back wall was a mat like the one I slept on at your place, complete with sheets, blankets, and a pillow. Across the room was an open door that led to an adjoining bathroom which, unfortunately, had no other exit. And at the front of the room was the 3B2, an HP laser printer, a telephone, and everything I had brought out from Iowa: my Osborne, C Itoh printer, all of my floppies, three boxes of my files, the box of books on expert systems, and my clothes. Apparently, while Lisa and I had been occupied, Sarah and Cassie had unloaded the Lynx and brought all my stuff up here.

So I figured, what the hell, might as well crash here for the night and worry about what was going on in the morning. So I got undressed, flicked off the lights, crawled under the covers, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

That was two weeks ago.

Listen, Anna. I'm still here. When I first started this letter to you, I was having fun. Went hog-wild. Learned UNIX in three days, figured out 'vi,' worked the parser, started programming in C and built a dbase managing system ten times better than dBASE II or Lotus 1-2-3. Managed to transfer all of my files from the Osborne to the 3B2 and figured out the modem transfer system so well that I can access any on-line database on the planet. I've got shadow accounts on Source, CompuServe, and Arpanet. For the past three days, I've been breaking into military, medical, and governmental computer systems with an elegant little program I wrote after I managed to break into AT&T's secret dbase number code account system in Morristown. If this letter ever reaches you, it will have been routed through several computers. What the program does is look for a job where a computer is hard at work sending out a long form letter to a mass mailing list. What I needed to find was a system that automatically typed the letter and envelope, automatically folded it, stamped it, and mailed it without human eyes seeing it. Hope it works. (If you're wondering why I just didn't pick up the phone and call you, it's because the phone line will only hook up with other machines.)

Yesterday, I finally cracked the security code of the building. Somehow, they figured out that all I needed was an infinite supply of Carletons, Cheez-its, coffee, and a 3B2 with manuals to keep me happy.

Cracking the eight digit code of the doorlocks was much easier than cracking the Source. Took me three hours. But when I finally got out of the room, they were nowhere to be found. I had spent a few days screaming myself hoarse and pounding my fists on the walls; I expected their absence, but it was still a surprise not to find a sign of their presence. Nothing in the refrigerator, no garbage, not a single dirty dish, not even a stay bobby pin -- nothing until I opened the closet in Lisa's bedroom.

The three of them were hanging there like carcasses in a meat locker, two RS232 cables plugged into their arm pits, IEEE cables snaking out of their anuses, all three of them frozen with their mouths wide open, index fingers pressed deep into their throats as if they were trying to retch. When I pulled Lisa's finger out of her mouth, her skin felt like polyester. I stuck my own index finger into her mouth; where the glottis was supposed to be was a switch, like a light switch.

I decided not to flip the switch. I was able to get out into the hallway, get into the elevator, and go up and down. There were 28 floors, but each floor was exactly identical to the other floors. Finally, I traced my way back to 3B2 and got on-line again.

Listen, Anna. I've been up all night, searching through AT&T's corporate architecture files. Think I've found the one that corresponds to the building I'm in. I'm going to zap this letter off to you just before I leave, but I won't be coming back here and I don't know where I'll wind up. From the diagrams I've studied, it looks like there's an underground subway system that connects this building with the secret underground tunnels in Washington. Apparently, the system runs all the way up to Boston and all the way down to Atlanta. There's a secret exit in the basement of the Washington Monument. My watch says that today is the 28th of September. Meet me in front of the monument on October 2. Hope this gets through to you in three days.

giraffe