Open Face

By Iris Wilde

My name is Lillian, but my Mom has always called me Lucky. When I won $2,500 in the lottery two months ago, Mom crowed. “It’s the magnetic waves – the same ones that polarize your brain – they cause the luck to pool around you.”

Dad said, “Your mom’s a free spirit, but maybe she’s on to something.”

Last week at Open Source World, I met a guy with better luck than me. His name was Kevin Deere. When Kevin won the floor prize, he leaned over and said to me, “I must be the Geek of the Week.”

“Is that a joke?” I asked, but the MC dragged Kevin away to have his picture taken. Why don’t people just say what they mean?

I was born a breech baby. Mom laboured for 37 hours before they took me by Caesarian section. When the doctor handed me to her, she held me up close, stared deep into my stone-cold blue eyes and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

Not that I blame her. Who understands babies? What’s the point of their pudgy thighs and startled expressions? Mom says she tried to get me to smile for four months before she decided to give us both a break.

As a toddler, I ate dirt. “There’s not enough minerals in her diet,” the doctor said.

Mom wasn’t fooled. “The girl’s got something.”

Dirt was one of the five foods that I would eat as a child. That and hot dogs, cheese pizza, white bread and vanilla pudding. Mom gave me a Flintstone’s vitamin every morning just in case the doctor was right.

When I was seven years old, I set my first fire. My parents didn’t stop me, just pointed me to a garbage can and the garden hose. Other kids would be dancing around their sprinklers on a summer’s day while I was out there sending tiny Origami houses up in smoke.

“If you love something, set it free.” Mom said, looking at Daddy.

Daddy smoked Players Extra Light and left matchbooks everywhere. He’d blow smoke rings and wink at me. “So what’s my cookie been crumbling today?” Sometimes he’d toss me a pack of Black Cat matches and wink. “Don’t burn the house down.”

My brother called me The Arsonist. My older brother. It gained me a certain measure of respect at school. That, and being suspended at age eight.

Mrs. Mooney, my grade three teacher, didn’t take kindly to me. I had to look out for myself. When Joey Stengler called me a crazy nerd I burnt his britches. Literally. Smoke came pouring out between his legs before he realized his pants were on fire. “Liar, liar,” I shouted. I may have been a nerd, but I knew I wasn’t crazy.

I was suspended for a week. Daddy took me to the Science Centre and the museum. When he brought me back to school, the vice-principal said, “Really, Mr. Foster, do you think putting matches in the hands of a child is a good idea?”

I stopped eating dirt in Grade Four – the year of my Identification and Placement review. Nancy, my education assistant, taught me about nutrition and how to use a computer. There were only five computers in the school back then. One in the office, three in the Science lab, and one for special needs.

I saw right away that computers had a lot to offer. It didn’t take me long to figure out the operating system. Nancy said it would be a good idea if I finished my lessons before reconfiguring the BIOS, so I studied facial expressions and learned to pin the right grimace on the faceless boy in the Appropriate Emotions scenarios.

By the time I was 12, I was writing open source code. I got hooked on free software, the whole ethos of it. It made sense. Anyone can copy and modify open source. It’s like language. Who owns the words we use?

I was 17 when I started university. It was during a rally for GNU at Waterloo that I met Ed. Ed said we’d write beautiful code together.

We’d lie awake at night, talking about the brilliance of GNU’s recursive name ‘GNU’s Not Unix’. We hated the idea of any proprietary software, but we loved recursion. We couldn’t understand why some languages imposed limits on it. “Fifteen levels deep,” Ed would cry, “Would you want to stop at fifteen orgasms?”

Some people don’t understand how geeks can have great sex. It’s more than technique, although we do read the manuals. The first time Ed and I slept together, I called him Special Ed. He thought I’d made a joke, but sex was pretty serious to me.

Mom calls it ‘being in the moment’. Daddy says she’d gotten into a lot of new age crap since I left home. Mom says, “Orgasms aren’t overrated.”

Ed and I made a pact with each other in first year: any software we wrote would be liberated. Some of our classmates thought you could put a price tag on freedom. They said it was okay to re-sell as long as the right to distribute was part of the package.

I developed a class of online routines to reorganize file structures and dynamically re-index them. Ed liked to test my programs. We’d stay up all night getting the bugs out, then fall into bed. Not too exhausted to screw though.

Good code energized us. Every synapse and dendrite fired. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and see it all before me like an electric storm.

We agreed that we’d never have children, that software would be our immortality. Our free code would form the basis of every new system out there. It would be copied and modified and ultimately become unrecognizable; better than DNA, our kernel would spread.

At the end of second year, I got interested in email interception – code that sits on the routers and reads outgoing and incoming mail. I was lucky. I got a project grant. They usually reserve those for graduate students. Ed took over the file utilities and I studied universal decryption. We knew this was tricky ground. Ed insisted that we keep my code under wraps. We wouldn’t release it until it was perfect. It was our secret.

In third year, we moved into a basement apartment together, about a mile from the university. I wasn’t quite finished the intercept software, but Ed wanted to network around it. Test out the waters. For my twentieth birthday, Daddy gave me the trip to Open Source World. Usually I try not to use my luck on material things, but I wanted to take Ed along. That’s why I bought the lottery ticket.

We checked into the Disney Swan hotel. Most of the gang could barely afford the Orlando campgrounds, but Daddy had been saving his Travel Points for years. The pictures of Mickey and Minnie made Ed and me horny. I loved washing with those little round-eared soaps. I never worried about the great swan crashing down on us.

“I could get used to this,” Ed said. He was right; it was pretty wonderful guzzling champagne in our room.

The first day in the Swan, my craving for dirt returned. After a second glass of champagne I couldn’t stop myself. It was weird, digging in the garden outside our hotel for a spoonful. A Disney gardener eyed me suspiciously. Dirt is harder to come by in Florida than you’d imagine. I was looking for something loamy, preferably with a hint of peat, but even in the luscious tropical gardens around the hotel, sand permeated the topsoil.

Something about the intensity of the craving made me curious. With all those late nights, it wasn’t unusual for me to miss a period, but it dawned on me that it had been a while. I picked up a home pregnancy test at the Disney dispensary.

The next morning I peed on the stick. I wasn’t all that surprised when the little blue plus sign appeared. It was logical, you see.

“This won’t change anything,” I told Ed. “I’ll take care of it as soon as we get home.”

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“Later,” I replied. “I’m late for my SIG.”

We had agreed that I’d attend the Utilities special interest group, while Ed would go to the email sessions. He said he’d get a better read on things, make sure of our ground. I figured he’d be there all day, so I was surprised to see Ed that afternoon at the Vendor Expo, talking to some guys in black polo shirts. Although wholesalers are frowned upon at free software conventions, part of the movement saw them as a necessary evil – another means to distribute.

“Ed,” I called. I was on my way over when Kevin Deere cornered me.

“Look what I won,” he said. He dug through his backpack, dropped a memory stick and an I-pod on the convention floor and unearthed an envelope that he waved at me. “Grand prize: an airline voucher to Big Money Soft HQ and a chance to meet their top brass. I’ll never use it. You interested?”

I shook my head. By the time I got rid of Kevin, Ed had disappeared.

When I asked him about it that evening, Ed shrugged. “Wasn’t me,” he said.  “I never left the email sessions.”

“It was you.” I stared right at him.

“A lot of guys look like me.” He banged the door behind him and disappeared into the bathroom.

We didn’t speak again that night. It was weird. I couldn’t figure out what we weren’t talking about.

On the plane trip home, Ed squeezed my hand and said, “I never thought you’d get pregnant.”

“It was a surprise for me too.”

“Let’s talk it through.” He rubbed my fingers between his, chafing my skin. “Examine our options.”

“What options? I don’t want a baby.”

“Don’t rush into anything.” He caught my other hand. “Give me time to convince you.”

I wasn’t sure what Ed was talking about until I unpacked the next day. I was looking for my headset in the pocket of his backpack; I found Kevin’s voucher.

“Ed,” I cried, waving the envelope. “What’s going on?”

Ed grabbed it out of my hand.

“Please,” I cried. “Not proprietary software. It’s anti-social. It’s unethical.”

Ed straightened his shoulders. “I’m thinking about the baby.”

There was no point in protesting. I didn’t pout or frown. The next day while Ed was at his Regular Expressions class, I called the clinic and made the appointment. Then I hacked into his computer. His presentation looked pretty slick. I scrolled through it, admiring all the features of my software. Ed’s pitch to the vendor wasn’t half bad. He must have been working on it for weeks.

I formatted his hard drive and overwrote it with binary zeroes. The voucher was in his desk. Underneath, I found a printout of the presentation.

I guess I was out of the habit of setting fires. I turned on the bathroom fan, stuffed the papers into the wastebasket and lit a match. The voucher flared and flew up to the ceiling. The next thing I knew, the bathroom was full of smoke.

Our landlord called the fire department. Ed and I had to move in with my parents for a few days.

“Please,” Ed begged. “They’ll reissue the voucher. I’ll fly out next week. This could be our big chance. Let’s see what they have to say.”

I didn’t answer him.

“I have a backup of everything at school. Your software, my presentation. It’s all ready to go.” I may be wrong, but I’d say his expression was a smirk.

I couldn’t speak. He probably thought I was choked up from the smoke.

The next morning Ed went back to our apartment to meet the insurance assessor. I watched him go, then took the bus to school. By mid-morning I’d packaged it up – all of our source code, binaries, property files and documents. It only took seconds to post. Open source. Freeware. Something no one had seen before. Within minutes, I could see the nibbles. The hit counters climbed as the community woke up to what I’d done.

Within an hour I saw the changes start. Other people would finish the code now. They would copy it and modify it, and merge it into their own projects. It was becoming something new, something other than what we’d intended, but it felt right.

I couldn’t imagine Ed’s face when he found out.

I called Daddy and he drove me to the clinic. Luckily, they had a cancellation. I was in and out by 4:00 that afternoon.

On the way home, I remembered the reflected glow on Mom’s face when she said, “If you love something, set it free.”

She had laughed at the time. I think I finally get the joke.




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