From my new book, Charlie Walks, the story of Charlie, a machine learning engineer who wants to be a writer, writing code during the day at the largest technology company in the world to writing words at night, letters to his nephew Pauly about what he's learned in his secret world-generating computer program, XK-1.
Water sprayed off the big letters every time the fountains came around, creating a small rainbow. The rainbow looked good but whoever designed the letters didn’t think about the people walking into the building. The barrier helped but mist still crept over. I walked around it.
A patch of grass sat out front of the building. Each week the gardeners would trim the shape of a brain into it. Inspiration for what we were trying to build or something. When the brain got too big, they’d come and give it a haircut.
I watched the fountains moving back and forth. Remembered the guy talking about getting his helicopter licence. How scary it was. When he’s flying it’s a joy for his passengers but he’s on high alert. Like a lion stalking the jungle for prey. No time to enjoy the scenery, only time to make sure he didn’t crash and burn. The human brain isn’t good at focusing on more than one thing at a time, he said.
I didn’t notice Sarah walking up behind me.
What are you doing? she asked.
When you’re up in the air you don’t realise how close things are. You see the city from a different viewpoint. Everything is smaller than you think. That place which seems forever away in a car is right there from the air. You realise how much traffic sucks man, really sucks.
Charlie? She leant in closer.
I stopped looking at the fountain and turned to Sarah.
Oh hey, what’s happening?
You were zoned out dude. She laughed.
I told her about the helicopters, how this guy was talking about how hard they are to fly and how everything looks different up in the air.
That’s cool. I like helicopters, she said.
I looked back at the fountains.
You’d think they’d turn down the pressure so people didn’t have to walk around the mist, I said.
I like pretending it’s dangerous and I have to run away from it, she said turning and running towards the entrance, then yelled out.
The fountains started coming around. I picked up my bag and chased after her. Sarah watched me walk in.
I’m getting breakfast, it’s bagels this morning, you coming? she asked.
I wanted to go. But I had work to do. I usually didn’t eat until lunchtime anyway and refined carbohydrates were a one day a week thing. Not today.
I’m not hungry, I’ll get something later, I said.
Suit yourself, I’m getting two then.
We got in the elevator and pressed the buttons. The kitchen was on Floor 34. Sarah got out.
Enjoy the double up. I put my hand up and waved.
Oh, I will, she said and walked out.
Floor 77 came up. Our building sat in the middle of the city. Looking out the windows felt like flying over a forest, except the trees were all made of concrete.
I sat down in front of my computer. Where I made my own world, where my craft lived. I typed in my username: the year I started, some letters of my first name and the initial of my last name. I typed in my password: Rainbowfoxflower77. The security IT guy would hate that I’m writing this down. It’ll be changed by the time you read this anyway.
Three words one capital two numbers. Easy to remember and as strong as some other unconventional combination. You ever tried typing JiKRL443!&kfnsme@p0 multiple times?
They gave us time for working on our own projects. Mine needed plenty of resources so I tapped into the company’s compute power, not that they knew.
I opened the XK-1 folder. That was its code name. No meaning at all. I told a friend if I was an alien my name would be XK-1. It had no meaning then either. A better name would be EnGen or Environment Generator.
I wanted my little program to be able to create any scenario you wanted or even didn’t know you wanted. A computer-generated world you’d be fully immersed in. The stuff you see in the movies. Bugs crawled all over it. But the prototype was promising. A full visual and feeling experience. Hijacking the visual and motor cortex turned out to be easier than you’d think. All from the comfort of an office chair. But the immune system? Now that was a challenge. Immunity lives deep in the reptilian section of the brain. Making someone feel cold is far more of a challenge than making them feel like they’re about to jump out of an aeroplane.
No one else knew about it. I hid the extra compute power I was using under a scheme of aliases. Something else the security IT guy wouldn’t be a fan of.
Steve, Floor 77 manager, walked past.
How’s last month's data harvesting going Charles? he asked.
You harvest crops not data, I said. Actually, no I didn’t. But I had that kind of wit.
We’ve got plenty to work with, I’ll send what I’ve found out to the team later today, I said.
Keep at it, Charles. This is why you’ve got a size 3 desk. Steve said as if he was making sure others could hear.
He walked off round the corner.
Our desks came in different sizes. If you did a good enough job for long enough, you got a bigger desk. Of course, no one actually said it that way but that’s how it worked. They were numbered too. I looked at mine. 171.
Looking for Charlie?
Floor number 77, desk number 171.
Watch the first 42 pages (16 chapters) being read out loud on YouTube.