Neal Stephenson

The Big U



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I am indebted to the following people for the following things:

My parents for providing several kinds of support.

Edward Gibbon, for writing _The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire_.

Julian Jaynes, for writing _The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind_.

William Blake and William Butler Yeats, for providing Pertinax with inspiration.

Kathrin Day Lassila, for numerous and thoughtful disagreements.

Gordon Lish, for the most productive rejection slip of all time.

Gary Fisketjon, for buying me a beer in Top Hat in Missoula, Montana, on July 1, 1983, and other services beyond the call of editorial duty.



------------------ The Go Big Red Fan ----------------------

The Go Big Red Fan was John Wesley Fenrick's, and when ventilating his System it throbbed and crept along the floor with a rhythmic chunka-chunka-chunk. Fenrick was a Business major and a senior. From the talk of my wingmates I gathered that he was smart, yet crazy, which helped. The description weird was also used, but admiringly. His roomie, Ephraim Klein of New Jersey, was in Philosophy. Worse, he was found to be smart and weird and crazy, intolerably so on all these counts and several others besides.

As for the Fan, it was old and square, with a heavy rounded design suitable for the Tulsa duplex window that had been its station before John Wesley Fenrick had brought It out to the Big U with him. Running up one sky-blue side was a Go Big Red bumper sticker. When Fenrick ran his System-- that is, bludgeoned the rest of the wing with a record or tape-- he used the Fan to blow air over the back of the component rack to prevent the electronics from melting down. Fenrick was tall and spindly, with a turkey-like head and neck, and all of us in the east corridor of the south wing of the seventh floor of E Tower knew him for three things: his seventies rock-'n'-roll souvenir collection, his trove of preposterous electrical appliances, and his laugh-- a screaming hysterical cackle that would ricochet down the long shiny cinderblock corridor whenever something grotesque flashed across the 45-Inch screen of his Video System or he did something especially humiliating to Ephraim Klein.

Klein was a subdued, intellectual type. He reacted to his victories with a contented smirk, and this quietness gave some residents of EO7S East the impression that Fenrick, a roomie-buster with many a notch on his keychain, had already cornered the young sage. In fact, Klein beat Fenrick at a rate of perhaps sixty percent, or whenever he could reduce the conflict to a rational discussion. He felt that he should be capable of better against a power-punker Business major, but he was not taking into account the animal shrewdness that enabled Fenrick to land lucrative oil-company internships to pay for the modernization of his System.

Inveterate and cynical audio nuts, common at the Big U, would walk into their room and freeze solid, such was Fenrick's System, its skyscraping rack of obscure black slabs with no lights, knobs or switches, the 600-watt Black Hole Hyperspace Energy Nexus Field Amp that sat alone like the Kaaba, the shielded coaxial cables thrown out across the room to the six speaker stacks that made it look like an enormous sonic slime mold in spawn. Klein himself knew a few things about stereos, having a system that could reproduce Bach about as well as the American Megaversity Chamber Orchestra, and it galled him.

To begin with there was the music. That was bad enough, but Klein had associated with musical Mau Maus since junior high, and could inure himself to it in the same way that he kept himself from jumping up and shouting back at television commercials. It was the Go Big Red Fan that really got to him. "Okay, okay, let's just accept as a given that your music is worth playing. Now, even assuming that, why spend six thousand dollars on a perfect system with no extraneous noises in it, and then, then, cool it with a noisy fan that couldn't fetch six bucks at a fire sale?" Still, Fenrick would ignore him. "I mean, you amaze me sometimes. You can't think at all, can you? I mean, you're not even a sentient being, if you look at it strictly."

When Klein said something like this (I heard the above one night when going down to the bathroom), Fenrick would look up at him from his Business textbook, peering over the wall of bright, sto record-store displays he had erected along the room's centerline; because his glasses had slipped down his long thin nose, he would wrinkle it, forcing the lenses toward the desired altitude, involuntarily baring his canine teeth in the process and causing the stiff spiky hair atop his head to shift around as though inhabited by a band of panicked rats.

"You don't understand real meaning," he'd say. "You don't have a monopsony on meaning. I don't get meaning from books. My meaning means what it means to me." He would say this, or something equally twisted, and watch Klein for a reaction. After he had done it a few times, though, Klein figured out that his roomie was merely trying to get him all bent out of shape-- to freak his brain, as it were-- and so he would drop it, denying Fenrick the chance to shriek his vicious laugh and tell the wing that he had scored again.

Klein was also annoyed by the fact that Fenrick, smoking loads of parsley-spiked dope while playing his bad music, would forget to keep an eye on the Go Big Red Fan. Klein, sitting with his back to the stereo, wads of foam packed in his ears, would abruptly feel the Fan chunk into the back of his chair, and as he spazzed out in hysterical surprise it would sit there maliciously grinding away and transmitting chunka-chunka-chunks into his pelvis like muffled laughs.

If it was not clear which of them had air rights, they would wage sonic wars.

They both got out of class at 3:30. Each would spend twenty minutes dashing through the labyrinthine ways of the Monoplex, pounding fruitlessly on elevator buttons and bounding up steps three at a time, palpitating at the thought of having to listen to his roommate's music until at least midnight. Often as not, one would explode from the elevator on EO7S, veer around to the corridor, and with disgust feel the other's tunes pulsing victoriously through the floor. Sometimes, though, they would arrive simultaneously and power up their Systems together. The first time they tried this, about halfway through September, the room's circuit breaker shut down. They sat in darkness and silence for above half an hour, each knowing that if he left his stereo to turn the power back on, the other would have his going full blast by the time he returned. This impasse was concluded by a simultaneous two-tower fire drill that kept both out of the room for three hours.

Subsequently John Wesley Fenrick ran a fifty-foot tin-lead extension cord down the hallway and into the Social Lounge, and plugged his System into that. This meant that he could now shut down Klein's stereo simply by turning on his burger-maker, donut-maker, blow-dryer and bun-warmer simultaneously, shutting off the room's circuit breaker. But Klein was only three feet from the extension cord and thus could easily shut Fenrick down with a tug. So these tactics were not resorted to; the duelists preferred, against all reason, to wait each other out.

Klein used organ music, usually lush garbled Romantic masterpieces or what he called Atomic Bach. Fenrick had the edge in system power, but most of that year's music was not as dense as, say, Heavy Metal had been in its prime, and so this difference was usually erased by the thinness of his ammunition. This did not mean, however, that we had any trouble hearing him.

The Systems would trade salvos as the volume controls were brought up as high as they could go, the screaming-guitars-from-Hell power chords on one side matched by the subterranean grease-gun blasts of the 32-foot reed stops on the other. As both recordings piled into the thick of things, the combatants would turn to their long thin frequency equalizers and shove all channels up to full blast like Mr. Spock beaming a live antimatter bomb into Deep Space. Finally the filters would be thrown off and the loudness switches on, and the speakers would distort and crackle with strain as huge wattages pulsed through their magnet coils. Sometimes Klein would use Bach's "Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor," and at the end of each phrase the bass line would plunge back down home to that old low C, and Klein's sub-woofers would pick up the temblor of the 64-foot pipes and magnify it until he could watch the naked speaker cones thrash away at in the air. This particular note happened to be the natural resonating frequency of the main hallways, which were cut into 64-foot, 3-inch halves by the fire doors (Klein and I measured one while drunk), and therefore the resonant frequency of every other hall in every other wing of all the towers of the Plex, and so at these moments everything in the world would vibrate at sixteen cycles per second; beds would tremble, large objects would float off the edges of tables, and tables and chairs themselves would buzz around the rooms of their own volition. The occasional wandering bat who might be in the hall would take off in random flight, his sensors jammed by the noise, beating his wings against the standing waves in the corridor in an effort to escape.

The Resident Assistant, or RA, was a reclusive Social Work major who, intuitively knowing she was never going to get a job, spent her time locked in her little room testing perfumes and watching MTV under a set of headphones. She could not possibly help.

That made it my responsibility. I lived on EO7S that year as faculty-in-residence. I had just obtained my Ph.D. from Ohio State in an interdisciplinary field called Remote Sensing, and was a brand-shiny-new associate professor at the Big U.

Now, at the little southern black college where I went to school, we had no megadorms. We were cool at the right times and academic at the right times and we had neither Kleins nor Fenricks. Boston University, where I did my Master's, had pulled through its crisis when I got there; most students had no time for sonic war, and the rest vented their humors in the city, not in the dorms. Ohio State was nicely spread out, and I lived in an apartment complex where noisy shit-for-brains undergrads were even less welcome than tweedy black bachelors. I just did not know what to make of Klein and Fenrick; I did not handle them well at all. As a matter of fact, most of my time at the Big U was spent observing and talking, and very little doing, and I may bear some of the blame.

This is a history, in that it intends to describe what happened and suggest why. It is a work of the imagination in that by writing it I hope to purge the Big U from my system, and with it all my bitterness and contempt. I may have fooled around with a few facts. But I served as witness until as close to the end as anyone could have, and I knew enough of the major actors to learn about what I didn't witness, and so there is not so much art in this as to make it irrelevant. What you are about to read is not an aberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest.

---------------------- First Semester ----------------------


On back-to-school day, Sarah Jane Johnson and Casimir Radon waited, for a while, in line together. At the time they did not know each other. Sarah had just found that she had no place to live, and was suffering that tense and lonely feeling that sets in when you have no place to hide. Casimir was just discovering that American Megaversity was a terrible place, and was not happy either.

After they had worked their way down the hail and into the office of the Dean of the College of Sciences and Humanities, they sat down next to each other on the scratchy Dayglo orange chairs below the Julian Didius III Memorial Window. The sunlight strained in greyly over their shoulders, and occasionally they turned to look at the scene outside.

Below them on one of the Parkway off-ramps a rented truck from Maryland had tried to pass under a low bridge, its student driver forgetting that he was in a truck and not his Trans-Am. Upon impact, the steel molding that fastened the truck's top to its sides had wrapped itself around the frame of a green highway sign bolted to the bridge. Now the sign, which read:





was suspended in the air at the end of a long strip of truck that had been peeled up and aside.

A small crowd students, apparently finished with all their line-waiting, stood on the bridge and beside the ramp, throwing Frisbees and debris into the torn-open back of the truck, where its renters lounged in sofas and recliners and drank beer, and threw the projectiles back. Sarah thought it was idiotic, and Casimir couldn't understand it at all.

Out in the hallway, people behind them in the line were being verbally abused by an old derelict who had penetrated the Plex security system. "The only degree you kids deserve is the third degree!" he shouted, waving his arms and staggering in place. He wore a ratty tweed jacket whose elbow patches flapped like vestigial wings, and he drank in turns from a bottle of Happy's vodka and a Schlitz tall-boy which he kept holstered in his pockets. He had the full attention of the students, who were understandably bored, and most of them laughed and tried to think of provocative remarks.

As the drunk was wading toward them, one asked another how her summer had been. "What about it?" asked the derelict. "Fiscal conservatism? Fine in theory! Tough, though! You have to be tough and humane together, you see, the two opposites must unite in one great leader! Can't be a damn dictator like S. S. Krupp!" This brought cheers and laughter from the upperclassmen, who had just decided the drunk was a cool guy. Septimius Severus Krupp, the President of American Megaversity, was not popular. "Jesus Christ!" he continued through the laughter, "What the hell are they teaching you savages these days? You need a spanking! No more circuses. Maybe a dictator is just what you need! Alcibiades! Pompilius Numa! They'd straighten things out good and fast."

Sarah knew the man. He liked to break into classes at the Big U and lecture the professors, who usually were at a loss as to how to deal with him. His name was Bert Nix. He had taken quite a shine to Sarah: for her part, she did not know whether or not to be scared of him. During the preceding spring's student government campaign, Bert Nix had posed with Sarah for a campaign photo which had then appeared on posters all over the Plex. This was just the kind of thing that Megaversity students regarded as a sign of greatness, so she had won, despite progressive political ideas which, as it turned out, nobody was even aware of. This was all hard for Sarah to believe. She felt that Bert Nix had been elected President, not the woman he had appeared with on the campaign poster, and she felt obliged to listen to him even when he simply jabbered for hours on end. He was a nice lunatic, but he was adrift in the Bert Nix universe, and that stirred deep fears in Sarah's soul.

Casimir paid little attention to the drunk and a great deal to Sarah. He could not help it, because she was the first nice-seeming person, concept or thing he had found in his six hours at the Big U. During the ten years he had spent saving up money to attend this school, Casimir had kept himself sane by imagining it. Unfortunately, he had imagined quiet talks over brunch with old professors, profound discussions in the bathrooms, and dazzling, sensitive people everywhere just waiting to make new friends. What he had found, of course, was American Megaversity. There was only one explanation for this atmosphere that he was willing to believe: that these people were civilized, and that for amusement they were acting out a parody of the squalor of high school life, which parody Casimir had been too slow to get so far. The obvious explanation-- that it was really this way-- was so horrible that it had not even entered his mind.

When he saw the photo of her on the back page of the back-to-school edition of the Monoplex Monitor, and read the caption identifying her as Sarah Jane Johnson, Student Government President, he made the most loutish double take between her and the photograph. He knew that she knew that he now knew who she was, and that was no way to start a passionate love affair. All he could do was to make a big show of reading about her in the Monitor, and wait for her to make the first move. He nodded thoughtfully at the botched quotations and oversimplifications in the article.

Sarah was aware of this; she had watched him page slowly and intensely through the paper, waiting with mild dread for him to get to the back page, see the picture and say something embarrassing. Instead-- even more embarrassing -- he actually read the article, and before he reached the bottom of the page, the student ahead of Sarah stomped out and she found herself impaled on the azure gaze of the chief bureaucrat of the College of Sciences and Humanities. "How," said Mrs. Santucci crisply, "may I help you?"

Mrs. Santucci was polite. Her determination to be decent, and to make all things decent, was like that of all the Iranian Revolutionary Guards combined. Her policy of no-first-use meant that as long as we were objective and polite, any conversation would slide pleasantly down greased iron rails into a pit of despair. Any first strike by us, any remarks deemed improper by this grandmother of twenty-six and player of two dozen simultaneous bingo cards, would bring down massive retaliation. Sarah knew her. She arose primly and moved to the front chair of the line to look across a barren desk at Mrs. Santucci.

"I'm a senior in this college. I was lucky enough to get an out-of-Plex apartment for this fall. When I got there today I found that the entire block of buildings had been shut down for eight months by the Board of Health. I went to Housing. Upon reaching the head of that line, I was told that it was being handled by Student Affairs. Upon reaching the head of the line there, I was given this form and told to get signatures at Housing and right here.

Mrs. Santucci reached out with the briskness that only old secretaries can approach and seized the papers. "This form is already signed," she informed Sarah.

"Right. I got that done at about one o'clock. But when I got to my new temporary room assignment it turned out to be the B-men's coffee lounge and storeroom for the northeast quad of the first sublevel. It is full of B-men all the time. You know how they are-- they don't speak much English, and you know what kinds of things they decorate their walls with"-- this attempt to get Mrs. Santucci's sympathy by being prissy was not obviously successful--"and I can't possibly live there. I returned to Housing. To change my room assignment is a whole new procedure, and I need a form from you which says I'm in good academic standing so far this semester."

"That form," Mrs. Santucci noted, "will require signatures from all your instructors."

"I know," said Sarah. All was going according to plan and she was approaching the center of her pitch. "But the semester hasn't started yet! And half my courses don't even have teachers assigned! So, since I'm a senior and my GPA is good, could the Dean okay my room change without the form? Doesn't that make sense? Sort of?" Sarah sighed. She had broken at the end, her confidence destroyed by Mrs. Santucci's total impassivity, by those arms folded across a navy-blue bosom like the Hoover Dam, by a stare like the headlights of an oncoming streetsweeper.

"I'm sure this is all unnecessary. Perhaps they don't know that their lounge has been reassigned. If you can just explain matters to them, I'm sure that Building Maintenance will be happy to accommodate you."

Sarah felt defeated. It had been a nice summer, and while away she had forgotten how it was. She had forgotten that the people who ran this place didn't have a clue as to how reality worked, that in their way they were all as crazy as Bert Nix. She closed her eyes and tilted her tense head back, and the man in the chair behind her intervened.

"Wait a minute," he said righteously. His voice was high, but carried conviction and reasonable sensitivity. "She can't be expected to do that. Those guys don't even speak English. All they speak is Bosnian or Moldavian or something."

"Moravian," said Mrs. Santucci in her Distant Early Warning voice, which was rumored to set off burglar alarms Within a quarter-mile radius.

"The language is Crotobaltislavonian, a modern dialect of Old Scythian," announced Sarah, hoping to end the conflict. The B-Men are refugees from Crotobaltislavonia."

"Listen, I talk to Magrov all the time, and I say it's Moravian." Sarah felt her body temperature begin to drop as she chanced a direct look at Mrs. Santucci.

Trying to sound prim, Sarah said, "Have you ever considered the possibility that you are confusing Magrov with Moravian?" Seeing the look on Mrs. Santucci's face, she then inhaled sharply and shifted away. Just as the old bureaucrat's jaw was starting to yawn, her chest rising like the return of Atlantis, Casimir Radon leaned way across and yanked something out of Sarah's lap and-- in a tone so arresting that it was answered by Bert Nix outside--exclaimed, "Wait a minute!"

Casimir was meek and looked like a nerd and a wimp, but he was great in a crisis. The lost continent subsided and Mrs. Santucci leaned forward with a dangerous frown. Out in the hallway the exasperated Bert Nix cried, "But there's no more minutes to wait! To save the Big U we've got to start now!"

Casimir had taken Sarah's room assignment card from the stack of ammunition on her lap, and was peering at it like a scientific specimen. It was an IBM card, golden yellow, with a form printed on it in yellow-orange ink. In the center of the form was a vague illustration of the Monoplex, looking decrepit and ruined because of the many rectangular holes punched through it. Along the top was a row of boxes labeled with tiny blurred yellow-orange abbreviations that were further abbreviated by rectangular holes. Numbers and letters were printed in black ink in the vicinity of each box.

Bert Nix was still carrying on outside. "Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud & shrill Sound of loud Trumpet thundering along from heaven to heaven, A mighty sound articulate Awake ye dead & come To Judgment from the four winds Awake & Come away Folding like scrolls of the Enormous volume of Heaven & Earth With thunderous noises & dreadful shakings rocking to & fro: The heavens are shaken & the Earth removed from its place; the foundations of the eternal Hills discovered; The thrones of Kings are shaken they have lost their robes and crowns ... and that's what poetry is! Not the caterwaulings of the Unwise!"

Finally, Casimir looked relieved. "Yeah, I thought that might be it. You were reading this number here. Right?" He got up and stood beside Sarah and pointed to her temporary room number. "Sure," said Sarah, suddenly feeling dreadful.

"Well," said Casimir, sounding apologetic, "that's not what you want. Your room is not identified by room number, because some rooms repeat. It's identified by door number, which is unique for all doors. This number you were looking at isn't either of those, it's your room ID number, which has to do with data processing. That ID number refers to your actual door number, incorrectly called room number. It is the middle six digits of this character string here. See?" He masked the string of figures between the dirty backward parenthesis of his thumbnails. "In your case we have E12S, giving tower, floor and wing, and then 49, your actual room number."

Sarah did not know whether to scream, apologize or drop dead. She shoved her forms into her knapsack and stood. "Thank you for your trouble, Mrs. Santucci," she said quickly. "Thank you," she said to Casimir, then snapped around and headed for the door, though not fast enough to escape a withering harrrumph from Mrs. Santucci. But as she stepped into the hallway, which in order to hold down utility costs was dimly lit, she saw a dark and ragged figure out of the corner of her eye. She looked behind to see Bert Nix grab the doorframe and swing around until he was leaning into the office.

"Listen, Genevieve," he said, "she doesn't need any of your phlegm! She's President! She's my friend! You're just a doorstop!" As much as Sarah wanted to hear the rest of this, she didn't have the energy.

Casimir was left inside, his last view of Sarah interrupted by the dangling figure of the loony, caught in a crossfire he wanted no part of.

"I'll call the guards," said Mrs. Santucci, who for the first time was showing uneasiness.

"Today?" Bert Nix found this a merry idea. "You think you can get a guard today?"

"You'd better stop coming or we'll keep you from coming back."

His eyes widened in mock, crimson-rimmed awe, "Ooh," he sighed, "that were terrible. I'd have no reason to live." He pulled himself erect, walked in and climbed from the arm of Casimir's chair to the broad slate sill of the window. As Mrs. Santucci watched with more terror than seemed warranted, the derelict swung one window open like a door, letting in a gust of polluted steam.

By the time he was leaning far outside and grinning down the seventy-foot drop to the Parkway and the interchange. she had resolved to try diplomacy-- though she motioned that Casimir should try to grab his legs. Casimir ignored this; it was obvious that the man was just trying to scare her. Casimir was from Chicago and found that these Easterners had no sense of humor.

"Now, Bert," said Mrs. Santucci, "don't give an old lady a hard time."

Bert Nix dropped back to the sill. "Hard time! What do you know about hard times?" He thrust his hand through a hole in his jacket, wiggling his long fingers at her, and wagging his out-of-control tongue for a few seconds. Finally he added, "Hard times make you strong."

"I've got work to do, Pert."

This seemed to remind him of something. He closed the window and cascaded to the floor. "So do I," he said, then turned to Casimir and whispered, "That's the Julian Didius III Memorial Window. That's what I call it, anyway. Like the view?"

"Yeah, it's nice," said Casimir, hoping that this would not become a conversation.

"Good," said the derelict, "so did J. D. It's the last view he ever saw. Couldn't handle the job. That's why I call it that." The giggling Bert Nix ambled back into the hail, satisfied, pausing only to steal the contents of the office wastebasket. Through most of this Casimir sat still and stared at the faded German ti 1 poster on the wall. Now he was really in the talons of Mrs. Santucci, who had probably shifted into adrenaline overdrive and was likely to fling her desk through the wall. Instead, she was perfectly calm and professional. Casimir disliked her for it.

"I'm a junior physics major and I transferred in from a community college in Illinois. I know the first two years of physics inside and out, but there's a problem. The rules here say physics courses must include 'socioeconomic contexts backgrounding,' which I guess means it has to explain how it fits in with today's something or other.

"In order to context the learning experience with the real world," said Mrs. Santucci gravely, "we must include socioeconomic backgrounding integral with the foregrounded material." "Right. Anyway, my problem is that I don't think I need it. I'm not here to give you my memoirs or anything, but my parents were immigrants, I came from a slum, got started in electronics, sort of made my own way, saw a lot of things, and so I don't think I really need this. It'd be a shame if I had to start all over, learning, uh, foregrounded material I already know."

Mrs. Santucci rolled her eyes so that the metal-flake blue eyeshadow on her lids flashed intermittently like fishing lures drawn through a murky sea. "Well, it has been done. It must be arranged with the curriculum chair of your department."

"Who is that for physics?"

"Distinguished Professor Sharon," she said. Bulging her eyeballs at Casimir, she made a respectful silence at the Professor's name, daring him to break it.

When Casimir returned to consciousness he was drifting down a hallway, still mumbling to himself in astonishment. He had an appointment to meet the Professor Sharon. He would have been ecstatic just to have sat in on one of the man's lectures!

Casimir Radon was an odd one, as American Megaversity students went. This was a good thing for him, as the Housing people simply couldn't match him up with a reasonable roommate; he was assigned a rare single. It was in D Tower, close to the sciences bloc where he would spend most of his time, on a floor of single rooms filled by the old, the weird and the asinine who simply could not live in pairs.

In order to find his room he would have to trace a mind-twisting path through the lower floors until he found the elevators of D Tower. So before he got himself lost, he went to the nearest flat surface, which was the top of a large covered wastebasket. From it he cleared away a few Dorito bags and a half-drained carton of FarmSun SweetFresh brand HomeLivin' Artificial Chocolate-Flavored Dairy Beverage and forced them into the overflowing maw below. He then removed his warped and sweat-soaked Plex map (the Plexus) from his pocket and unfolded it on the woodtoned Fiberglass surface.

As was noted at the base of the Plexus, it had been developed by the AM Advanced Graphics Workshop. Rather than presenting maps of each floor of the Plex, they had used an Integrated Projection to show the entire Plex as a network of brightly colored paths and intersections. The resulting tangle was so convoluted and yet so clean and spare as to be essentially without meaning. Casimir, however, could read it, because he was not like us. After applying his large intelligence to the problem for several minutes he was able to find the most efficient route, and following it with care, he quickly became lost.

The mistake was a natural one. The elevators, which were busy even in the dead of night, were today clogged with catatonic parents from New Jersey clutching beanbag chairs and giant stuffed animals. Fortunately (he thought), adjacent to each elevator was an entirely unused stairwell.

Casimir discovered shortly afterward that in the lower floors of the Plex all stairwell doors locked automatically from the outside. I discovered it myself at about the same time. Unlike Casimir I had been a the Plex for ten days, but I had spent them typing up notes for my classes, It is unwise to prepare two courses in ten days, and I knew it. I hadn't gotten to it until the last minute, for various reasons, and so I'd spent ten days sitting there in my bicycling shorts, drinking beer, typing, and sweating monumentally in the fetid Plex air. So my first exposure to the Plex and its people really came that afternoon, when I wandered out into the elevator lobby and punched the buttons. The desperate Tylenol-charged throngs in the elevators did not budge when the doors opened, because they couldn't. They stared at me as though I were Son of Godzilla, which I was used to, and I stared at them and tried to figure out how they got that way, and the doors clunked shut. I discovered the stairways, and once I got below the bottom of the tower and into the lower levels, I also found that I was locked in.

For fifteen minutes I followed dimly lit stairs and corridors smelling of graffiti solvent and superfluous floor wax, helplessly following the paths that students would take if the Plex ever had to be evacuated. Through little windows in the locked doors I peered out of this twilight zone and into the different zones of the Plex-- Cafeteria, Union, gymnasia, offices-- but my only choice was to follow the corridors, knowing they would dump me into the ghetto outside. At last I turned a corner and saw the wall glistening with noisy grey outside light. At the end of the line, a metal door swung silently in the breeze, emblazoned thus: FIRE ESCAPE ONLY. WARNING-- ALARM WILL SOUND.

I stepped out the door and looked down along, steep slope into the canyon of the Turnpike.

The American Megaversity Campustructure was three blocks on a side, and squatted between the Megalopolitan Turnpike on the north and the Ronald Reagan Parkway on the south. Megaversity Stadium, the only campus building not inside the Plex proper, was to the west, and on the east was an elaborate multilevel interchange interconnecting the Pike, the Parkway, the Plex and University Avenue. The Pike ran well below the base of the Plex, and so as I emerged from the north wall of the building I found myself atop a high embankment. Below me the semis and the Audis shot past through the layered blue monoxide, and their noises blended into a waterfall against the unyielding Plex wall. Aside from a few wretched weeds growing from cracks in the embankment, no life was to be seen, except for Casimir Radon.

He had just emerged from another emergency exit. We saw each other from a hundred feet apart, waved and walked toward each other. As we converged, I regarded a tall and very thin man with an angular face and a dense five-o'clock shadow. He wore round rimless glasses. His black hair was in disarray as usual; during the year it was to vary almost randomly between close-cropped and shoulder-length. I soon observed that Casimir could grow a shadow before lunch, and a beard in three days. He and I were the same age, though I was a recent Ph.D. and he a junior.

Later I was to think it remarkable that Casimir and I should emerge from those fire doors at nearly the same moment, and meet. On reflection I have changed my mind. The Big U was an unnatural environment, a work of the human mind, not of God or plate tectonics. If two strangers met in the rarely used stairways, it was not unreasonable that they should turn out to be similar, and become friends. I thought of it as an immense vending machine, cautiously crafted so that any denomination too ancient or foreign or irregular would rattle about randomly for a while, find its way into the stairway system, and inevitably be deposited in the reject tray on the barren back side. Meanwhile, brightly colored graduates with attractively packaged degrees were dispensed out front every June, swept up by traffic on the Parkway and carried away for leisurely consumption. Had I understood this earlier I might have come to my senses and immediately resigned, but on that hot September day, with the exhaust abrading our lungs and the noise squashing our conversation, it seemed worthwhile to circle around to the Main Entrance and give it another try.

We headed east to avoid the stadium. On our right the wall stretched and away for acres in a perfect cinderblock grid. After passing dozens of fire doors we came to the corner and turned into the access lot that stretched along the east wall. Above, at many altitudes, cars and trucks screeched and blasted through the tight curves of the interchange. People called it the Death Vortex, and some claimed that parts of it extended into the fourth dimension. As soon as it had been planned, the fine old brownstone neighborhood that was its site plummeted into slumhood; Haitians and Vietnamese filled the place up, and the feds airproofed the buildings and installed giant electric air filters before proceeding.

Here on the access lot we could look down a long line of loading docks, the orifices of the Plex where food and supplies were ingested and trash discharged, serviced by an endless queue of trucks. The first of these docks, by the northern corner, was specially designed for the discharge of hazardous wastes produced in Plex labs and was impressively surrounded by fences, red lights and threatening signs. The next six loading docks were for garbage trucks, and the rest, all the way down to the Parkway, for deliveries. We swung way out from the Plex to avoid all this, and followed the fence at the border of the lot, gazing into the no-man's-land of lost mufflers and shredded fanbelts beyond, and sometimes staring up into the Plex itself.

The three-by-three block base had six stories above ground and three below. Atop it sat eight 25-story towers where lived the 40,000 students of the university. Each tower had four wings 160 feet long, thrown out at right angles to make a Swiss cross. These towers sat at the four corners and four sides of the base. The open space between them was a huge expanse of roof called Tar City, inhabited by great machines, crushed furniture thrown from above, rats, roaches, students out on dares, and the decaying corpses of various things that had ventured out on hot summer days and become mired in the tar. All we could see were the neutral light brown towers and their thousands and thousands of identical windows reaching into the heavens. Even for a city person, it was awesome. Compared to the dignified architecture of the old brownstones, though, it caused me a nagging sense of embarrassment.

The Vortex whose coils were twined around those brown-stones threw out two ramps which served as entrance and exit for the Plex parking ramp. These ran into the side of the building at about third-story level. To us they were useless, so we continued around toward the south side.

Here was actually some green: a strip of grass between the walk and the Parkway. On this side the Plex was faced with darker brown brick and had many picture windows and signs for the businesses of the built-in mall on the first floor. The Main Entrance itself was merely eight revolving doors in a row, and having swished through them we were drowned in conditioned air, Muzak, the smell of Karmel Korn and the idiotic babble of penny-choked indoor fountains. We passed through this as quickly as possible and rode the long escalators ("This must be what a ski lift is like," said Casimir) to the third floor, where a rampart of security booths stretched across our path like a thruway toll station. Several of the glass cages were occupied by ancient guards in blue uniforms, who waved us wearily through the turnstiles as we waved our ID cards at them. Casimir stopped on the other side, frowning.

"They shouldn't have let me in," he said.

"Why?" I asked. "Isn't that your ID?"

"Of course it is," said Casimir Radon, "but the photo is so bad they had no way of telling." He was serious. We surveyed the rounded blue back of the guard. Most of them had been recruited out of Korea or the Big One. The glass cages of the Plex had ruined their bodies. Now they had become totally passive in their outlook; but, by the same token, they had become impossible to faze or surprise.

We stepped through more glass doors and were in the Main Lobby.

The Plex's environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years there wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit. Many spent their careers there without noticing this. Casimir Radon took less than a day to notice the pitiless fluorescent light. Acres of light glanced off the Lobby's polished floor like sun off the Antarctic ice, and a wave of pain now rolled toward Casimir from near the broad vinyl information desk and washed over him, draining through a small hole in the center of his skull and pooling coldly behind his eyes. Great patches of yellow blindness appeared in the center of his vision and he coasted to a stop, hands on eyes, mouth open. I knew enough to know it was migraine, so I held his skinny arm and led him, blind, to his room in D Tower. He lay cautiously down on the naked plastic mattress, put a sock over his eyes and thanked me. I drew the blinds, sat there helplessly for a while, then left him to finish his adjustment to the Big U.

After that he wore a uniform of sorts: old T-shirt, cutoffs or gym shorts, hightop tennis shoes ("to keep the rats off my ankles") and round purple mountain-climbing goggles with leather bellows on the sides to block out peripheral light. He was planning such a costume as I left his room. More painfully, he was beginning to question whether he could live in such a place for even one semester, let alone four. He did not know that the question would be decided for him, and so he felt the same edgy uncertainty that nagged at me.

Some people, however, were quite at home in the Flex. At about this time, below D Tower in the bottom sublevel, not far from the Computing Center, several of them were crossing paths in a dusty little dead end of a hallway. To begin with, three young men were standing by the only door in the area, taking turns peering into the room beyond. The pen lights from their shirt pockets illuminated a small windowless room containing a desk, a chair and a computer terminal. The men stared wistfully at the latter, and had piled their math and computer textbooks on the floor like sandbags, as though they planned a siege. They had been discussing their tactical alternatives for getting past the door, and had run the gamut from picking the lock to blowing it open with automatic-weapon bursts, but so far none had made any positive moves.

"If we could remove that window," said one, a mole-faced individual smelling of Brut and sweat and glowing in a light blue iridescent synthetic shirt and hi-gloss dark blue loafers, "we could reach in and unlock it from inside."

"Some guy tried to get into my grandma's house that way one time," recalled another, a skinny, long-haired, furtive fellow who was having trouble tracking the conversation, "but she took a sixteen-ounce ball-peen hammer and smashed his hand with it. He never came back." He delivered the last sentence like the punchline to a Reader's Digest true anecdote, convulsing his pals with laughter.

The third, a disturbingly 35-ish looking computer science major with tightly permed blond hair, eventually calmed down enough to ask, "Hey, Gary, Gary! Did she use the ball end or the peen end?" Gary was irked and confused, He had hoped to impress them by specifying the weight of the hammer, but he was stumped by this piece of one-upsmanship; he didn't know which end was which. He radiated embarrassment for several seconds before saying, "Oh, gee, I don't know, I think she probably used both of 'em before she was done with the guy. But that guy never came back."

Their fun was cut short by a commanding voice. "A sixteen-ounce ball-peen hammer isn't much good against a firearm. If I were a woman living alone I'd carry a point thirty-eight revolver, minimum. Double action. Effective enough for most purposes." The startling newcomer had their surprised attention. He had stopped quite close to them and was surveying the door, and they instinctively stepped out of his way. He was tall, thin and pale, with thin brown Bryicreemed hair and dark red lips. The calculator on his hip was the finest personal computing machine, and on the other hip, from a loop of leather, hung a fencing foil, balanced so that its red plastic tip hung an inch above the floor. It was Fred Fine.

"You're the guy who runs the Wargames Club, aren't you," asked the blond student.

"I am Games Marshall, if that's the intent of your question. Administrative and financial authority are distributed among the leadership cadre according to the Constitution."

"The Wargames Club?" asked Gary, his voice suffused with hope. "What, is there one?"

"The correct title is the Megaversity Association for Reenactments and Simulations, or MARS," snapped Fred Fine. Still almost breathless, Gary said, "Say. Do you guys ever play 'Tactical Nuclear War in Greenland?'"

Fred Fine stared just over Gary's head, screwing up his face tremendously and humming. "Is that the earlier version of 'Martians in Godthaab,' "he finally asked, though his tone indicated that he already knew the answer.

Gary was hopelessly taken aback, and looked around a bit before allowing his gaze to rest on Fred Fine's calculator. "Oh, yeah, I guess. I guess 'Martians in Godthaab' must be new." "No," said Fred Fine clearly, "it came out six months ago." To soften the humiliation he chucked Gary on the shoulder. "But to answer your question. Some of our plebes-- our novice wargamers-- do enjoy that game. It's interesting in its own way, I suppose, though I've only played it a dozen times. Of course, it's a Simuconflict product, and their games have left a lot to be desired since they lost their Pentagon connections, but there's nothing really wrong with it."

The trio stared at him. How could he know so much? "Uh, do you guys," ventured the blue one, "ever get into role-playing games? Like Dungeons and Dragons?"

"Those of us high in the experiential hierarchy find conventional D and D stultifying and repetitive. We prefer to stage live-action role-playing scenarios. But that's not for just anyone." They looked timidly at Fred Fine's fencing foil and wondered if he were on his way to a live-action wargame at this very moment. For an instant, as he stood in the dim recess of the corridor, light flickering through a shattered panel above and playing on his head like distant lightning, his feet spread apart, hand on sword pommel, it seemed to them that they beheld some legendary hero of ancient times, returned from Valhalla to try his steel against modern foes.

The mood was broken as another man suddenly came around the corner. He brushed silently past Fred Fine and nearly impaled Gary on a key, but Gary moved just in time and the new arrival shoved the key home and shot back the deadbolt. He was tall, with nearly white blond hair, pale blue eyes and a lean but cherubic face, dressed in cutoffs and a white dress shirt. Shouldering through them, he entered the little room.

Fred Fine reacted with uncharacteristic warmth. "Well, well, well," he said, starting in a high whine and dropping in pitch from there. I had Fred Fine in one of my classes and when in a good mood he really did talk like Colonel Klink; it took some getting used to. "So they haven't caught up with you and your master key yet, eh, Virgil? Very interesting."

Virgil Gabrielsen turned smoothly while stepping through the doorway, and stared transparently through Fred Fine's head. "No," he said, "but I have plenty of copies anyway. They aren't about to change every lock in the Plex on my account. The only doors this won't open are in the hazardous waste area, the Administration Bloc, Doors 1253 through 1778 and 7899 to 8100, which obviously no one cares about, and Doors 753, 10100 and the high 12,500's, and I'm obviously not going to go ripping off vending-machine receipts, am I?" At this the three friends frowned and looked back and forth. Virgil entered the room and switched on the awesomely powerful battery of overhead fluorescent lights. Everything was somewhat dusty inside.

"No rat poison on the floor," observed Fred Fine. "Dusty. Still keeping the B-men out, eh?"

"Yeah," said Virgil, barely aware of them, and began to pull things from his knapsack. "I told them I was doing werewolf experiments in here."

Fred Fine nodded soberly at this. Meanwhile, the three younger students had invited themselves in and were gathered around the 'terminal, staring raptly into its printing mechanism. "It's just an antique Teletype," said the blue one. He had already said this once, but repeated it now for Fred Fine. "However, I really like these. Real dependable, and lots of old-fashioned class despite an inferior character menu." Fred Fine nodded approvingly. Virgil shouldered through them, sat before the terminal and, without looking up, announced, "I didn't invite any of you in, so you can all leave NOW.' They did not quite understand.

"Catch my drift? I dislike audiences."

Fred Fine avoided this by shaking his head, smiling a red smile and chuckling. The others were unmanned and stood still, waiting to be told that Virgil was kidding.

"Couldn't we just sit in?" one finally asked. "I've just got to XEQ one routine. It's debugged and bad data tested. It's fast, it outputs on batch. I can wait till you're done."

"Forget it," said Virgil airily, scooting back and nudging him away. "I won't be done for hours. It's all secret Science Shop data. Okay?"

"But turnover for terminals at CC is two hours to the minus one!"

"Try it at four in the morning. You know? Four in the morning is a great time at American Megaversity. Everything is quiet, there are no lines even at the laundry, you can do whatever you want without fucking with a mob of freshmen. Put yourselves on second shift and you'll be fine. Okay?"

They left, sheeshing. Fred Fine stopped in the doorway, still grinning broadly and shaking his head, as though leaving just for the hell of it.

"You're still the same old guy, Virgil. You still program in raw machine code, still have that master key. Don't know where science at AM would be without you. What a wiz."

Virgil stared patiently at the wall. "Fred. I told you I'd fix your MCA and I will. Don't you believe me?"

"Sure I do. Say! That invitation I made you, to join MARS anytime you want, is still open. You'll be a Sergeant right away, and we'll probably commission you after your first night of gaming, from what I know of you."

"Thanks. I won't forget. Goodbye."

"Ciao." Fred Fine bowed his thin frame low and strode off. "What a creep," said Virgil, and ferociously snapped the deadbolt as soon as Fred Fine was almost out of earshot. Removing supplies from the desk drawer, he stuffed a towel under the door and taped black paper over the window. By the terminal he set up a small lamp with gel over its mouth, which cast a dim pool of red once he had shut off the room lights. He activated the terminal, and the computer asked him for the number of his account, Instead of typing in an account number, though, Virgil typed: FIAT LUX.

Later, Virgil and I got to know each other. I had problems with the computer only he could deal with, and after our first contacts he seemed to find me interesting enough to stay in touch, He began to show me parts of his secret world, and eventually allowed me to sit in on one of these computer sessions. Nothing at all made sense until he explained the Worm to me, and the story of Paul Bennett.

"Paul Bennett was one of these computer geniuses. When he was a sophomore here he waltzed through most of the secret codes and keys the Computing Center uses to protect valuable data. Well, he really had the University by the short hairs then. At any time he could have erased everything in the computer--financial records, scientific data, expensive software, you name it. He could have devastated this university just sitting there at his computer terminal--that's how vulnerable computers are. Eventually the Center found out who he was, and reprimanded him. Bennett was obviously a genius, and he wasn't malicious, so the Center then went ahead and hired him to design better security locks. That happens fairly often-- the best lock-designers are people who have a talent for picking locks."

"They hired him right out of his sophomore year?" I asked. "Why not? He had nothing more to learn. The people who were teaching his classes were the same ones whose security programs he was defeating! What's the point of keeping someone like that in school? Anyway, Bennett did very well at the Center, but he was still a kid with some big problems, and no one got along with him. Finally they fired him.

"When they fire a major Computing Center employee, they have to be sneaky. If they give him two weeks' notice he might play havoc with the computer during those two weeks, out of spite. So when they fire these people, it happens overnight. They show up at work and all the locks have been changed, and they have to empty out their desks while the senior staff watch them. That's what they did to Paul Bennett, because they knew he was just screwed up enough to frag the System for revenge."

"So much for his career, then."

"No. He was immediately hired by a firm in Massachusetts for four times his old salary. And CC was happy, because they'd gotten good work out of him and thought they were safe from reprisals. About a week later, though, the Worm showed up."