Jimmy, the young manager of the pizza restaurant, shouts an order across the counter, clapping his hands and yelling at Pepe to hurry. Tom enters the restaurant and takes an orange soda from a refrigerator as he passes. A young waitress stops and tells him he'd better put on his hat. Tom tells her he can't find it and she holds up a finger and lowers her voice as she says "Hats cost $3.00. You make $6.50 an hour, so maybe next time you'll hold on to yours!" She smiles and says she'll call in the troops if he's not out in 10 minutes. Jimmy turns from shouting at Pepe and hollers at Tom that they have orders going out. Tom wearily responds "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Jimmy asks where Tom's hat is. Tom says he doesn't know-- it might be in the car. Jimmy hands him a new one, sounding just like the waitress' mimicry when he asserts "Hats cost $3.00! You make $6.50 an hour! Maybe next time you'll hang on to yours!" He says that it's the fifth night in a row. He hands Tom a pizza wrapped in an insulated bag and comments that Tom has Joel's old run on South Ardmore, adding that the guy's a weirdo. Tom says he's never seen him, so he wouldn't know. Jimmy says that's what he means-- nobody's ever seen him. Tom argues that he keeps to himself; he's not hurting anybody. Jimmy states superciliously "Not anybody we know about." As Tom leaves with the pizza, he yells after him that he'd better find his hat because he wants the new one back, and that Tom shouldn't think he didn't see him take that soda. He turns back to berating Pepe.
Tom gets out of the car in front of the house on South Ardmore and tosses the paper hat back on the seat. This time the red light stays lit after he presses the doorbell. The door pushes in slightly when he rings again. He opens the door a few inches, calling "Hello. Pizza's here" and asks if everything's OK. When no one answers, he enters the house and finds himself in a disordered room, with jumbles of computer paper and old pizza boxes strewn about. A recorded voice continually repeats "You have accessed Supernet. User ID required." As he passes though the first floor and climbs the stairs, the voice grows louder. He finds himself looking down into a hopelessly messy room with three computer monitors glowing in proximity. He searches for the source of the moaning he hears, looking past a piano and sundry computer equipment, cluttered with old fast food containers and open manuals. He spots running-shoe clad feet flailing weakly beneath a computer desk and reaches though coils of electrical wire to touch the shoulder of a young man, who cries "Don't touch me!" and holds his hand in front of his face, trembling with fear.
The camera moves past a picture of a young boy and framed magazine covers and newspaper clippings about Scott Jordan. Tom holds a small drink carton as the pale, emaciated young man slurps the beverage though a straw. Scott explains that he gets dehydrated because he forgets to drink. Tom hands him the carton to hold himself, then touches his hand as he straightens the straw. Scott jumps and the carton falls to the floor, beverage flowing unto the floor. He says he doesn't like to be touched. Tom picks up the carton and tells Scott he'll put it there on the table. Scott asks if he's the pizza guy and takes money from a metal box, holding it over his shoulder without looking at Tom. Tom says it's on him and tells him to forget it. Scott agitatedly asks him to take the money and Tom repeats "Forget it!" Scott says he doesn't have to shout. He flinches as Tom unfastens the velcro on the pizza bag and removes the box. Tom looks about him at the disordered room and asks when was the last time that somebody else was in the house and when was the last time Scott was out of the house. Scott thanks him for the pizza and tells him he can go now, please.
Tom tells Scott he needs a doctor, but he insists he's fine, that he just got a little dehydrated. Tom picks up a copy of Big Byte Magazine from the top of a machine. "Scott Jordan. Where did he go?" appears in bold letters above the picture of a younger Scott. Below that in smaller letters is "The story of the 18-year-old computer genius." He observes Scott, who taps away at a keyboard with his back to Tom, and says "You're pretty good at this stuff, huh?" Scott ignores him, absorbed in his work. Tom asks what one of the machines is and Scott glances over briefly and tells him it's a router. Tom says drolly that he guesses it comes in handy when you have some major routing to do. Scott explains that it's a high band-width connection to the network, then asks "Don't you know anything about computers?" Tom says they're confusing and impersonal and when he's near one, it doesn't work. Scott says "You don't get it at all, do you?" He describes it as beautiful, pure poetry-- logical and orderly. "On, off, zero, one. The power to recreate intelligence, maybe even better it. Click, click, on, off. It's beautiful." Tom says he guesses he's more the beer, babes and baseball type. Scott types commands into the keyboard, moving from site to site, and asks Tom what he wants to know-- major league scores from the US or Tokyo, batting averages from 1960, team earnings, league profits, ballpark dimensions, architect names, Koufax's ERA. Tom asks "How about just a bag of peanuts?" Scott brings up the screen for a market that has a fax machine and delivers. He asks Tom what he wants, salted or unsalted, in the shell or out? Tom says that he gets his point, but there's more to life than just "Click, click, zero, one." Scott turns away and says "Oh, yeah. You're out there delivering pizzas in a paper hat. You having fun?" Tom says he's flesh-and-blood--he's out there. He hasn't been computerized. Scott asserts that Tom is in there, that everyone is in there. "Like it or not, this is one big cyberspace gang bang and we're all invited." Tom tells him he won't find him in there. Scott runs his hands though his hair and asks what he's talking about. He says it's not the dark ages of the 70s. If he gets a paycheck, rents an apartment or buys something in a discount store, he's in there. Scott declares he can get Tom's whole life up in one second. Tom tosses the insulated bag aside and tells Scott to go ahead and show him what he can find.
Scott enters in the information Tom gives him: Thomas J. Veil, social security number 549-24-1889. Scott watches data scroll down the screen and pronounces it totally amazing. Tom asks if he's found him. Scott says he did and he didn't. He tells him he's been deleted big time, that he's never seen anything like it. His search for T*Veil in f/gov. and f/gov.org ends with the result "No match found." Tom asks how Scott can find him if he's been deleted. Scott says he found him because he knows what he's doing. He explains that deleted files only look deleted to the system until they're wiped out. If you know what you're doing, you can find them. Tom asks if they haven't all been wiped, and Scott says most of them are, then abruptly asks "What is this?" He asks if Tom realizes the access required to accomplish something like this. Tom asks weakly "You couldn't do it?" Scott tells him the president of the United States couldn't do it, that it's "big-time, big brother freaky stuff." He says it's almost impossible. Tom says morosely "Obviously, not entirely." The distress on Tom's face grows as Scott tries to figure out how they could have done it, saying computers aren't centrally linked, so it would have taken years, and even then, he can't see how they could have gotten into every computer, every data base, accessed secure lines and totally eradicated every trace of a person's life. Tom leans against the router, his shoulders slumped. The screen in front of Scott reads "Unsuccessful attempt to access confidential file." He asks "Who the hell are you?"
Scott studies a photograph of Alyson and says she's pretty. As the two men sit eating the pizza, he asks Tom if he has any idea how she got into this. Tom says that part of him needs to believe that she was pressured, that somehow she did what she did because she was trying to protect him, but sighs and lets his voice trail off without voicing the alternative. Scott says that it's hard with people; you can't always be sure like you can with computers. Tom argues that computers don't light you up with a look of recognition--they don't brighten when you come into a room. Scott hits a few keys and a bright red mouth appears on the screen accompanied by the sound of an electronic wolf whistle; with the press of another key, the teeth show in a wide smile. Tom laughs, but says it's not quite the same. Scott scans the photo of Alyson and selects the morph command, causing the corners of her mouth to turn up in a smile. Tom gravely studies her image on the screen and says that's closer. Scott smiles and says "But no cigar." When Tom looks at him sharply, Scott explains that it's just a phrase: "Close but no cigar." Tom stands up, saying sheepishly that he knows. He strides to the window, saying they need a little light in here. When he pulls back the curtain, Scott throws his arm up to shield his face from the dazzling light and yells for him to close it, that it's too bright in here. He explains that it's always twilight in here-- always the same. He doesn't have to worry about what the outside world is doing right now, because right now never changes.
Tom turns a chair around and straddles it with his arms over the back. He asks if Scott went out before his parents died. When Scott shakes his head and waves his hand, Tom says he must have had friends from school. Scott tells him that he got his first computer when he was thirteen and it was the first time he ever remembers feeling happy. Tom asks whether he felt happy or just safe. Scott argues that they're the same, that safe is happy. Tom says there's more to it than that. Searching for the right words, he says it's the feel of fall on your face, the pain in your stomach after one chili dog too many, something lost, something gained, somebody's touch on the side of your face. He says it's being afraid and (glancing at Alyson on the screen) loving someone and being loved. Scott angrily calls it a poem, something you read in a book and look at over and over again, wanting it to be real but it never is. Tom tells him he can't live without other people. He says, "Believe me, I know. You can't live without human contact." Scott says he doesn't live without human contact--he just makes it the way he needs it to be.
Scott slides back a wooden door and they enter a room illuminated with a blue light. As he starts to type at a computer on the table, Tom asks what this room is. Scott asks if he knows what virtual reality is. He says he can create any environment he wants and it's as good as the real thing. He excitedly motions with both hands for Tom to sit down and lowers a VR helmet over his face. A lake verdant with lily pads appears in the soft twilight, Scott standing on its shore wearing a white dinner jacket. Tom moves into view similarly attired, throwing his arms out for balance as he walks awkwardly towards Scott. Scott tells him he'll get a feel for it; he should just move his legs like he's walking. Tom calls it incredible. He touches his own face, then looks at his hands. Scott reminds him of his words before: "the feel of fall on your face." Tom says it's not real and Scott replies that it's virtually real. "You feel it, you taste it, you believe it. It's real." An attractive woman dressed in a white flowing dress walks out of the mist, flowers entwined in her brunette hair. She kisses Scott and says she missed him. Scott smiles and tells Tom "She always says the right thing." Scott introduces his friend Tom, and when he fails to reply to her "Hi, Tom", chides him, saying he had no trouble talking when he was giving him advice. Tom apologizes and says "Hi." Scott asks her "Didn't we make arrangements for you to bring a friend?" She calls playfully to someone hidden in the mist, "If you're going to play hard-to-get, then it just means I get to keep both of them for myself." Alyson appears from the haze, moving in slow motion towards the stricken Tom, the breeze rippling her flower-adorned hair.
Scott's date introduces Tom. Alyson says "It's a pleasure to meet you, Tom." She reaches out her hand and their fingers meet in a handshake. As Tom gazes longingly at her face, her own look is filled with compassion and tenderness. A cellist begins to play, his image reflected on the surface of the lake. Scott asks his young lady if she would dance and she obligingly answers "Most certainly." Alyson tells Tom he's staring at her and he says that she's just so beautiful. She tells him he's very handsome and asks if he would dance with her. He's unable to move and she asks if he's expecting someone. His voice breaks as he says "No one, no one at all." The two couples waltz on the shores of the mystical lake, accompanied by the slow, romantic strains of the cello. Tom leans his forehead against hers and begins to weep. Alyson studies his face with concern and asks if anything's wrong. He says brokenly that he loves her, then kisses her passionately and yearningly. He opens his eyes and Alyson begins to pull away from him, diminishing in size as she moves back into the trees. Tom cries "No, Alyson, no!" then pleads with Scott not to take her away. He reaches his hand out towards Alyson, calling her name.
Scott wheels his chair from one computer to another, using a portable shaver with one hand as he works at the keyboards. Tom stirs on the settee on which he was sleeping and asks what time it is. Scott says it's about two hours after he passed out. He tells Tom he thinks he's found a way to get to whoever's doing this to him. He says they're not better at this than he is. He explains he had to stop relying on the domain servers and plug in some IP addresses, but now he's getting through some major doors. He notices Tom's bleariness and says he must have really freaked him out with the VR. Tom tells him it just felt so real. Scott says it is real, that your head believes it and everything else goes along for the ride. A computer buzzes softly and he checks the screen, then tells him that he thinks he's found something. Six digits appear on the screen, the two left digits rapidly changing in sequence. He explains that it's a government computer at MIT. A graphic of a globe shifts in the bottom left-hand corner and he says they were tricky, that they routed Tom through a weather server in Reykjavik. The last digit falls into place. "Oakpark.mi.org" appears in a band across the screen, "Sequence complete" flashing below. With a shattering sound, "File: Thomas Veil" appears on the screen.
When the word "Opening" continues to flash, Scott becomes agitated, saying he doesn't know why it's taking so long. The shattering sound is heard again and the image on the screen breaks up into moving squares. Scott runs his hand through his hair and exclaims "This can't be happening!" As he furiously types at the keyboard, he says they've tunneled into his system. Tom searches for the cable, calling "Turn the power off!" Scott cries that he can't while they're in there; he has to get them out. His fingers race over the keys and a siren is heard as the text flashes: "Security violation. Countermeasure sequence in final phase." Sparks fly from a circuit board as Tom hollers that they have to get out of here. Scott protests that this is his whole life--it's everything he's got. He yells frantically, "Get out of my system!" Sparks and flames shoot from the equipment as Tom drags Scott from the room. When they reach the outside door, Scott grabs the doorjamb, begging Tom to close the door. Black cars topped with flashing blue lights speed up to the house. Men wearing suits and dark glasses run up to the house with guns drawn. They batter in the door and search the house.
Tom helps Scott along the busy street, supporting his weight with Scott's arm around his shoulder. Scott is shattered by the melange of noises: a baby crying, a yipping dog, the bell of a man sporting a signboard reading "Doomsday is near", a bus braking to a halt, a woman laughing on a telephone, a fire truck's siren. Each one seems amplified to him and an assault on his nerves. Scott begs Tom to take him inside, moaning that he's tired and it's too bright. Tom helps him into a cluttered alley and sits him down. Scott whimpers that he can't do this, that he can't stay out here. He asks why they're doing this to them. Tom says he's not sure, but suggests that maybe they got too close or maybe they wandered into something that they didn't want them to see. He says they're not safe here and asks if Scott knows anybody who lives around here, saying they have to get off the street. Scott rocks with his arms around his knees, crying. Tom sharply urges him to think and Scott sobs that he has no friends. Tom says there has to be somebody, someplace. Scott says "Only Pam." He says she's his high-school computer teacher. Tom tells him that was ten years ago, and Scott wails that it's the only one he can think of. Tom softens his tone and says "That's good." He finds out her last name (Peters) and tells Scott that he has to leave him for five minutes to find a pay phone. Terrified, Scott begs Tom not to leave him. He sobs that they took everything, repeating several times "They took my whole life." He wraps his arms around Tom, who helps him to his feet.
They get out of a taxi in front of a modern ranch house, a sprinkler watering the green expanse of lawn. Tom helps Scott to the door, the young man fretting that he needs to get inside, that it's too bright. Tom recognizes the woman who opens the door as Scott's virtual reality companion. When Scott says "Hi, Miss Peters", she looks closely and asks in surprise "Scott?" Tom says Scott's not doing too well and explains that she was the only person he could think of. He asks if she minds if they come in.
Tom and Pam stand by the doorway of a room, watching Scott work at a computer. Pam says he was always the best, that when anybody else saw a dead end, he saw open doorways. When he was 18, he designed a significant piece of software for a venture capital firm and she heard that he made a good deal of money off it. Tom says Scott told him he's been living off the profits and bonuses for the last ten years. Pam says she had heard he had some problems after his parents died, but she had no idea. She looks at Scott and murmurs "A rough whimper of insanity." Tom asks "What's that?" She says it's an anagram Scott discovered for "information superhighway." She says it seems to fit in a sad way. Tom says Scott seems to find more comfort and solace in front of a computer monitor than he does in the real world. She says the world's been pretty cruel to him and wishes she had known how far it had gone so maybe she could have been there for him. Tom tells her that in some ways, she was.
Scott calls out "Damn it!" and pushes his chair back in frustration, complaining "The permissions on this file are locked." Pam walks over and asks what he was trying to do. He tells her he was trying to locate a file. She asks why he can't just circumvent the permissions and access it directly. He says he can't access it without initiating defense sequences. Tom tells him to forget it, that they've already been there. Pam says she thinks there's a way to do it. She makes sure she understands the problem: he has been trying to access a highly-secured file that's surrounded by firewalls. She bends down to Scott's level and once the answer becomes clear to her, she asks him how he gets the file. She tells him that the answer's in the question: "How do you look at a file that you can't open and you can't fetch?" He smiles and says "You don't try." Baffled, Tom asks what they're talking about. Scott explains that they don't try to get the file; they'll go to the file in Oak Park, Michigan. They can go there and look at the file; they just can't take it with them. Pam says that essentially they'll be making a one-way connection--no one will even know the file's been read. They wait for Tom's decision and when he asks "How do we go there?" they spring into action. Pam hands them each a VR helmet and plugs Tom's in for him.
After Scott enters in the commands, the screen reads "Adjusting VR vectors" and the lines of a grid flatten, then spread out to rotate in a circle. Scott steadies Tom when the images spinning around them come to an abrupt stop. They are in a room glowing with red, decorated with paintings on the walls and busts on pedestals. Tom asks where they are. Scott says it's discarded heat memory: random data they use to fill the space between files. He says the door to Tom's file should be somewhere around here. They search the room for some clue until Tom spots Hidden Agenda. He explains that it's a painting of the photograph he told him about. Tom walks toward the picture, putting his hands in front of his face as his head fills with the remembered sound of a woman screaming and weeping. He unsuccessfully tries to pry the painting from the wall. Scott tells him to stand back, then heaves a chunk of artwork through the glass painting. As they look down a chute revealed behind the shattered glass, Scott yells "This is it!", shouting to be heard above a fierce wind. They slide down the slick surface and follow a narrow corridor uphill and around a corner.
A metal door slides upward and they enter a room filled with tiers of file boxes reaching high above them. Scott tells Tom one of them is his. Seeing that Tom is overwhelmed by the task of finding one particular file in the enormous room, he tells him not to worry. The numbers on the boxes are sequential; they just have to find the right sort key. The numbers have eight digits, so Scott rules out driver's license and social security numbers. He suggests it might be a birth date. They open the box numbered 01201985. The photograph of a woman appears on the cover page of a file, clearly not that of a 10-year-old girl. They continue to ponder what the numbers might mean, and Scott says he bets that it was the date that the file got copied to the disk. Tom says August 28, 1995 was the day it happened, the day he lost everything. The 1970s and 1980s are near floor level. Tom says his file has to be up above. Scott asks how he is at virtual climbing. They begin to climb parallel ladders, Tom trying to imitate Scott's technique and follow his advice to take it nice and slow. Tom's foot slips off a rung and he hangs from the ladder, trying to regain his footing. As Scott reaches the top level, Tom falls off his ladder, landing hard on the surface below. He painfully pulls himself to his feet, but Scott tells him it's OK, that he'll get the file. He announces triumphantly that he found it: 08281995. He takes a file from the box and says this is really it. Tom asks what it says. There is a photograph of Tom on the right side of the page. To the left of the photo in large letters is "CONFIDENTIAL". The text underneath includes: "Thomas is a third generation..." At the top of the page is his name: Thomas J. Veil, status: Citizen of United States and place of birth: Council Bluffs, Iowa, and other information including marital status and physical description. Scott scans the text and cries "Oh my God! It's not what you thought!" Tom shouts that he should bring it down.
The room begins to shake as Scott starts down the ladder. The vibrations become violent and they're pelted by falling tiles. Tom asks what the hell is happening and Scott says he thinks they're deleting the system. He yells that they have to get out of there. Lighter-colored patches grow behind him as the walls begin to be eaten away. Tom hollers at him to get down the ladder, and Scott tells Tom to go for the door before they finish. Tom struggles to move across the rocking floor and is nearly to the door as Scott reaches the floor, the room disintegrating around him. He cries that he dropped the file. Tom shouts that he should forget the file and come on. Scott stands still and says he can't. Nearly swallowed up by the disintegrating room, he urges Tom to go now. Tom is prevented from going back for him by a shower of cascading tiles. Scott disappears from sight. Tom runs through the door and back down the corridor, slipping and falling as he is pursued by the disintegration. He scrambles up the chute and finds himself back in Pam's house. She has been typing at the keyboard and calling for them to get back there.
She asks Tom what happened. He snatches the helmet off Scott, who sits staring straight ahead with no recognition of anything around him. Tom says frantically that something went wrong. Pam hits Scott and shakes him by the shoulders, pleading with him to come back to them. She asks Tom to tell her everything that happened. Tom tells her they were trying to get out and the walls were disintegrating; Scott said it was because they were deleting the system. Grief- stricken, he says Scott could have made it but he stopped intentionally. Pam says she thinks Scott's still in there, that when the system went down he went with it. Tom protests vehemently that it wasn't real, that they weren't really there, but she says if your mind believes it, it's real. Tom says "This is insane!" and shakes Scott, weeping as he tries to convince him it wasn't real and that it didn't happen. Anguished, he says it was only two more feet--he could have made it. Pam tells him it was what Scott wanted, that he made a choice. She strokes Scott's hair and says she doesn't think he thought there was anything out here for him. She says there's a chance that he can still find his way back. He could if he wants to, but she's not sure that he ever will. Tom sobs and turns away from the sight of Scott's lifeless face. "Deleted" flashes all over the monitor screen behind them, partially covering the words "Mainframe Oak.Park.Mi." With a buzz, a red band with the word "Terminated" crosses the screen.
Scott stands motionless in the window of Pam's house as she straightens his jacket and tidies his hair. Tom walks on the patio, thinking that "Those of us who live in fear keep our secrets hidden, protected from prying eyes." Only Scott knows what drove him to make the decision he made and only Scott knows the answer to the question that Tom's been searching so hard to find. Tom reflects that "There are more of us in that darkness than most people imagine. I know this. It's where I live."
Synopsis © 1996 Marge Brashier
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Used by permission.
January 22, 1996