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Things were okay for about two weeks after The Rain, which is what the day of meteors had become known as on the Framework, but then came the horrible hypercanes, which as the guy on The Weather Channel explained were super-duper hurricanes. The country-sized storms were spawned off from the meteor impacts. One storm the size of Brazil pounded the south Pacific and stalled in the ocean, churning it up and making it impassible by air or sea for more than a month. The mega storm eventually turned and wreaked havoc on Australia and New Zealand. The other major hypercane system spun up below the equator just above South America. It plowed through Buenos Aires and bounced along the coastline moving southward. It churned across the Atlantic and cut a path across the Congo, then on to India before it died out. That storm killed hundreds of thousands. A couple of large hurricanes and hundreds of tornados had plagued North America and Russia since The Rain, but after about a month the weather began to settle down.

It took about all of that month for me to get over my depressed funk or state of disrepair or whatever it was. I would get so depressed that I would block out hours of time where I had just sat there and cried. And sometimes, I didn't even remember the hours-at-a-time depression when it would pass. I went to several different shrinks for help. They ran tests on me and did brain scans and everything came out normal. It was odd to me that the rest of the world went on about its business and was only fazed slightly by The Rain. After The Rain our society didn't fall apart at all, but for some reason I seemed to have. People in general went on about their business while I fell down into a pit of something akin to despair.

"Buy a bunch of these expensive drugs," the shrinks tell me. "They're the only cure." Damned headshrinkers!

So I take the drugs, but the only way I seem to survive within my depression and get my mind into some sort of useful mode is to replay the Sequence against JackieZZ and attempt to reverse engineer her mini black hole. You see, the Internet II, or the Framework as Realm Citizens call it, enabled RealmSoft to develop a virtual world with real laws of physics and nature and real ups and downs. Of course, the developers of The Realm wouldn't tell anybody what the laws were, which is part of what makes it so interesting. Part of the fun of The Realm adventure is to try and discover its laws. This is done by creating a virtual persona, such as mine, StevieM09, and living and having adventures in the various worlds of The Realm. As you learn more and more about The Realm you become more powerful and can manipulate things within it more readily. The real wizards in there play the Gladiator Sequence and try to show off their power. If you kill a Sequencer, you get the secrets of The Realm that that Sequencer has discovered. If you are lucky enough, and you stumble across a Node, you can upload your own code into the virtual reality and get a royalty for it any time it is used. I had done this with my code for the EnergyBeingSM09 just as JackieZZ had obviously done with ZZ's Hole. These were two subroutines that "were not of The Realm." The problem is that if you didn't know where the secret code was hidden, and the secret button sequence to activate it, you couldn't use it. JackieZZ had died before ever selling the button sequence to any other Sequencers. So I thought I could recreate it now that I had seen it.

Me, I am a code writer by choice and had been completing my bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of Dayton in Ohio when the meteors fell. How'd I get to Ohio from California you ask? Well, when I was in high school back in Bakersfield, before it was . . . destroyed . . . I wrote my own operating system. I was trying to get my own game designs into the mainstream but thought that the code requirements were clunky. So, I created an operating system that was much more stable and more precisely efficient than any other codes I knew of at the time. At the request of my science teacher I entered it into the school's science fair. I won at school level, then at state, and then won my division at the International Science and Engineering Fair, or ISEF as we called it, plus I got an honorable mention overall. I lost to a particle accelerator, an optical computer, some bioluminescence thing, and a wrong solution to Fermat's Last Theorem.

As a special award I received a full tuition scholarship for both the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Dayton. Of course, as a California state citizen I could have gone to school in California for free, but my parents were way overprotective and I was afraid if I stayed in-state that they would continuously be checking in on me. What college kid wants that? So I didn't want to stay home, and I sure didn't want to live in a hick town in Alabama, so I chose Dayton; at least they have cool air shows there.

My freshman year I got a cooperative education job working for a local company that made wireless data routers and switching hubs. I learned a lot about hardware, encryption, and code writing to drive hardware back then. Then the Framework opened up and not long after that The Realm was invented. Right off the bat I found a small Node and uploaded some tidbits that earned me a little extra cash to help pay for my apartment, food, and beer, and when I didn't earn enough from my job, The Realm, and my scholarship, I just took out a student loan. Oh, did I forget to explain that the harder to find a Node is, the more bandwidth you are allowed to upload with? You can use a Node as often as you like once you know how to find and access it, but it costs about fifteen bucks per second to upload data. I think this was RealmSoft's way of encouraging code writers to write efficient code and to spend hours in there looking for bigger Nodes. It's a great racket. A monthly subscription to The Realm costs about fifty bucks for forty hours, or seventy-five for unlimited access.

What about viruses? There is rumored to be a World where all the viruses get stored and mutated, but it makes no sense to me why they would keep them. My guess is they use some sort of anti-virus Agent to take care of the problem.

So, anyway, I had tried to Sequence a few times since The Rain, but knowing I would never see anyone I cared about took the real life out of me, and knowing that I would never get the chance to play ZZ again just took the wind from my virtual sails. On the other hand, I did need money to live on, since I dropped out of school, or I should say "took a break," lest the student loan collectors come calling, and the money I make at the video game rental and repair store that I work at now just doesn't pay the bills. My thinking was that if I spent all my time trying to reverse engineer ZZ's Hole, I could input it into The Realm through the secret Node I found on Planet Xios and win a few Sequences with it. Then I could sell it for big bucks to the other Sequencers. My EnergyBeingSM09 was bringing me about twenty-three thousand dollars a year (after taxes) on royalties, so I figured ZZ's Hole would make much more than that. Then, I could quit that damn video store.


I was having no luck at all with it. Two years passed, and I still was getting nowhere. I replayed the recording of the video Sequence over and over and over to no avail. I tried testing in my own Test Realm the mini black hole codes I developed but test pilot Sequencer StM987 had failed and StM988 was about to give it a try, if I could figure out why StM987 didn't work that is. That JackieZZ, whoever she was, must've been a coding genius. Either that or she had some insight from her father at RealmSoft Europe. Make a short story long; I was having no luck and it was time to go to work.

"Lazarus, buddy," I stroked his chin. "I gotta go pay the bills," I told him. He had grown into quite the companion. As a bonus, I didn't have to vacuum anymore—since Lazarus was a vacuum himself. If it could be swallowed, he would eat it. I tossed him a smelly doggy bacon treat and made my way out the door.

The weather was a bit crummy, even for summer in Dayton. The sky was hazy and grayer than blue and the sun was very red, not yellowish orange like it used to be, and it was only about ninety degrees and muggy as hell. We were supposed to have bad storms later, the kind that used to only occur in tornado alley; now they happened everywhere. The word inside The Realm was that the dust and excess thermal energy that was thrown into the atmosphere from The Rain was the culprit. Makes sense to me, but I'm no atmospheric scientist.

Just as I pulled into the parking lot of VR's V.R. World it started raining, hard. "Good thing I didn't bring an umbrella. Shit!" I told my 2011 Cutlass, which in just two weeks would have its tenth birthday. The Cutlass didn't seem to care, although it choked and tried not to cease combustion when I turned off the ignition switch. I rushed to the door of VR's, getting soaked from head to toe since rushing isn't really my forte.

"You're right on time, Mr. Montana! Good for you," the eighteen-year-old blue-haired punk who was my boss pointed out as he looked up from the television. He had threatened to fire me if I was late one more time, but it was just a hollow threat, since he knew that nobody could repair the game systems or draw the Sequencers into the shop like me. Besides he seemed enthralled by what was on the flat screen.

"Hi, Robert." I cursed other things under my breath at him, but smiled on the surface. I was seven years his senior for damn's sake. "Anything new this morning?" I settled in to my morning caffeine and sugar fix and surveyed my workbench.

"Yeah, have you seen this yet?" he asked.

"Seen what?"

"A huge meteor has impacted Neptune and astronomers had no idea that it was coming." He pointed to the screen and there was a James Webb Space Telescope image of the planet Neptune with a huge impact plume flowing upward from the planet.

"Do they think we're in any danger?" I was beginning to feel nervous.

"Nah, don't worry about it. They're saying that it's way out of our orbit and we have nothing to fear." Robert turned back to the television, "It looks neat though."

"I guess. Good thing we're safe. So, anything new with work stuff?"

"Oh, yeah, this guy came in last night just before closing with this ancient console game. He said it wouldn't work and that he needed it fixed by three weeks from tomorrow, oh, I guess that would be three weeks from today. He also said to call him if it was going to cost more than three hundred dollars." Robert pointed at a box full of console, controllers, cables, and a few compact disks. "It's in that box. I've never seen one of those things before, it must be thirty years old."

I looked into the box and saw a game system that they quit making in the late nineties. That's right, last millennium. I whistled. "Man, they sure don't make 'em like this anymore." I swiped off a space on my workbench, scratched my stomach reflexively, and then emptied the box out onto the bench in front of me. "First things first," I said to it. "Let's plug you up and see what happens."

After fiddling with the ancient video game console for about fifteen minutes it was obvious that no power was getting to any of the output cables. No video signal was produced, no voltages on the controller ports, and no signals at the memory card slot. The disk didn't spin and the light wouldn't come on either. The thing was as old as I was; I laughed about that. Laughing was good. I didn't do enough of it, anymore.

"The power supply is bad, at least," I said. You have to talk to yourself when you are working on stuff.

I started with the basic six steps for repair of a game console power supply. Even ancient ones must abide by the repair rules. Simple electronics basics:


1) Open up the game console (this may require a screwdriver, star wrench, or allen wrench).

2) Get out your multimeter (make sure you have good batteries in it) and check all fuses. Replace any bad ones.

3) Plug in your game console, being careful not to touch any open component connections.

4) Check the voltages everywhere first to see where it stops. If there is no power leaving the power supply then that's a good sign the power supply unit is bad.

5) Search through the Framework for hours to find the voltage test points and proper voltages for the particular game system.

6) Since you've proven that the power supply unit is bad, you have to measure the test point voltages to see where there is something wrong in the power supply.


There it was on about the third or fourth point I tested. I got the wrong voltage. Instead of forty-five volts A.C., I got thirteen, so I backed up from that point and found a shorted capacitor. I de-soldered it and replaced it. Then the test voltage read twenty-three volts A.C., so something was still not right. After further inspection I realized that I had read the capacitor wrong and put the wrong-sized capacitor back into the board. So, I de-soldered that cap and replaced it. Bingo, forty-five volts!

Excitement. There's another emotion I hadn't had much of lately.

I repeated the six steps again and found that I now had a good and working power supply unit in the game console. Now the little green light came on and the compact disk began to spin up, but for some reason the system wouldn't read a disk. My guess was that the laser was either out of alignment or the voltage to it was low. I adjusted the alignment screws and had no luck with that. So I checked the voltage trim pots on the motherboard by the laser's ribbon cable. I tested both pots, the FBIAS and the FGAIN and neither one of them were where they should be. I monkeyed around with them for a bit and then, bang! I had a video game playing. Before I closed it back up I dusted it off with an airbrush and also used some Isopropyl alcohol and a cotton swab to clean the lens. All in all, it was a pretty easy fix. Then, just to be safe, I decided to play the games for a bit to make sure the system would be stable over time.

After a while of shooting zombies, the game froze up, a common symptom. The zombies had nothing to do with it; it was the cooling fan not working properly. Without the fan blowing right, the chips on the motherboard were overheating. The fan was getting power, so it was just an old or bad fan. My money was on old. "The fan was lucky; how many people didn't get to grow old," I muttered to myself.

I rummaged around in my junk piles until I found a fan that would suffice. It wasn't exactly the same size and needed half the voltage, which was nothing a little silicone rubber sealant and a twice voltage divider wouldn't fix. This time I killed zombies for two hours and never had a problem.

Then I decided to play all the games that were brought in with the system. They were the old standard compact disks and all of them were scratched and dirty. I cleaned them and resurfaced them and most of them worked. One of them, on the other hand, wouldn't. The disk for a killer zombie game had a crack all the way through in three places. I gently cleaned it, dried it, and then resurfaced it hoping that the clearcoat would seal off the crack enough for the game to work. It didn't. Again back to the Framework, surfing for a few hours for a replacement. Unfortunately, there were none left out there anywhere in the world. The game must have been unpopular and not sold many or very popular and nobody was giving it up.

I had other things to do at work that day so I took a break from the game repair until later that evening. I decided to take the thing home with me and play around with it for a few nights on my own time. I had more resources at home than at the rental and repair store.

After work I packed up the console, the games, and all the myriad cabling and controllers and threw them in the back seat of the classic Cutlass. Fortunately, the rain had stopped and the weather had cleared up to something similar to pre-Rain weather, at least for now. On the way home I stopped by the grocery store; Lazarus was out of beer and I was out of dog food. He shouldn't drink so much. I also grabbed some more chips, cereal, ramen noodles, frozen pizzas, and toilet paper. You can never have too much toilet paper. The young girl at the checkout counter never looked up at me during the entire checkout process. She was cute; I guess I displayed no aspects or traits that attracted her attention. I brushed my bangs off my forehead, scratched my posterior, and proceeded to collect my bags.

I stopped and grabbed a bagful of tacos for dinner; Lazarus likes them about as much as he likes beer. It took three trips getting the video game stuff, the groceries, and the tacos up the stairs to my loft apartment. Laz ran up and down the stairs wagging his tail, panting, and jumping up to my eye level the whole way each time. Well, except for once when he stopped to go on the tree outside the apartment.

"Good boy, Laz. You been bored all day?" I set the bag of tacos down and plopped into my sofa. Lazarus was immediately in my lap and licking my face. I returned the sentiment, "I know, fella, and it's a tough life being a dog ain't it?" I scratched his neck and tugged his ears. "You're my buddy. That's right, boy." Tears welled up and filled my eyes. I was crying again, although Lazarus made me happy. I pulled him to me and hugged him with all my heart and flat-out bawled for a good ten minutes. As the sadness eased slightly—it never seems to go away—I pulled the dog off me and went to the kitchen counter where I found Laz a bacon treat, a peanut butter cookie, and me a couple of Zoloft capsules. I cracked open a forty of Laz's favorite cheap beer and chased down the Zoloft. Likewise, I put some fresh water in Lazarus's bowl and tapped my bottle against it

"Cheers, buddy." I wiped the tears from my face and returned to the sofa with a bag of tacos, my beer, and Laz in my lap. I remained there for a couple of hours until Laz nudged me, explaining that he wanted to go for a walk. So we did.

The next night, after basically the same ritual as the previous night, the previous three years worth of nights, I set the disk up on my Framework/Sequencing computer system at home and played around with it. One of my game copiers was able to read it. Then I burned it on a new disk and tried it. The game got stuck after a few layers. This time I used my copy routine to store the machine code as a text file. Of course, the machine code was encrypted so as to keep hackers from pirating the games, which was exactly what I was doing. But I considered this more of an archaeological project, rather than an illegal copyright infringement. It wasn't hard to break the code; after all, it was nearly thirty years old. One of my simpler decryption Sequences worked fine and gave me the actual code as an output file.

Once I had the decrypted machine code, I translated it over into my operating system. Then I could play with it all I wanted to. I didn't know how the game was supposed to flow, but there were obvious routines and subroutines and alternate pathways. I just took out the code that looked like gibberish and replaced it with a GOTO- or a LOOP-type routine or I just transplanted duplicate code from elsewhere in the game. My guess was that after so long, nobody would be able to tell the difference. I played the game on my system a few minutes and it worked great.

Now I had to reverse the decryption process and resave the game code in the original encryption. Backtracking is a lot easier than exploring, so this didn't take long. I burned a new disk, scanned the game picture off the old disk, printed out a new label, and presto, good as new. Now, I know what you are thinking: this sure was above and beyond the call on this repair job. Yes, it was; normally I would have fixed the system and not worried about the game disks. But, it was a fun project for me and I just wanted to know if I could do it. Most importantly though, the coding kept my mind off my shitty lifeless life for a while and I was nearly happy. The Zoloft didn't seem to help as much as it used to.

Good ol' Lazarus sat at my feet the entire time chewing his squeaky toy. He was patient and never bothered me, since he had swallowed the squeaker when he was about nine months old.

That bit of code breaking and writing on the game console I had completed was good stuff and I would get paid about twice minimum for it. There are some folks out there getting big bucks for that kind of work and the best job I found was working for a blue-haired eighteen-year-old punk with a spike through his bottom lip. I laughed at that thought for a few seconds and then the thought just depressed me. Then I started crying. Once I realized I was crying, I laughed at myself for being so damned nuts.

I tugged on Lazarus's ear. "Laughing one minute, crying one minute, and then laughing the next—I think the Zoloft ain't working anymore, buddy." Lazarus rolled over on his back wanting me to rub his belly.

I didn't realize it but I had been working on this code for hours at a time nearly every night for two weeks solid. This particular night about three in the morning Lazarus nuzzled up to me and gave me that, "I gotta go!" look. So I shut down, took him outside for a short walk, then we both crawled in the bed and I cried myself to sleep.


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