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A Maze of Twisting Passageways, All Different

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Donald made maps. He used graph paper to plot out underground mazes, rolled dice to place trapdoors and treasure caches. It was something he'd always be up to in the dining hall, at one end of the long table where their semi-interdisciplinary cluster of students tended to eat, but Joseph only registered it as a blur of some kind of repetitive activity at the edge of his mental picture of the dinner table; until they became friends he didn't quite realize it wasn't school work. The engineering department was like that.

Carrington probably introduced them--memories varied, as they do--at the cast party on closing night of his remarkable production of The Chairs, where Donald showed up as he seemed to at every cast party, even though no one could remember him ever doing anything in the theater department. Sometimes he did bring a six-pack, though, and once he showed up with a couple big bottles of good backyard hooch.

"Margaret has so much subtlety in her face," Donald said to Joseph, one arm up on the back of the old sofa where they sat amid a sea of people and conversation. "A lot of people don't appreciate that you need so much total commitment and detail to make surrealism work in practice."

"I'd call it absurdism," Joseph demurred. "But I do agree."

"Of course all of the cast were great, I just think Margaret was a revelation. Everything she does with her eyes, you know?"

That must have been the first night they really talked, because Joseph realized Donald hadn't actually noticed he was blind.

"I'm sure you're right, but I have to take your word for it, man," Joseph said. He held his fingers out in front of the beastly thick pair of lenses that helped him navigate the world of blobs and made it possible for him to read things that were big enough, in good light, if he put it right up to his face. "Past about here it's all just shapes to me."

"--Well, shapes are my special passion, as it happens," Donald said.

"Is that so," Joseph said.

"Very much so. Shapes, and how we communicate them to machines. How they communicate them back to us. Did you hear, we're supposed to get an Imlac for the lab in the fall! I got to mess around with one in Pittsburgh last year. Very neat little machine, opens up a lot of possibilities for work I didn't think we'd be able to do here."

"Joseph!" Carrington said from over his shoulder. He put a hand on Joseph's back after he turned his head. "I'm making the rounds. Thank you again for joining me on this fantastic journey."

"Please," Joseph said, waving a hand. "Thank you for thinking of me, it's been a real treat. We have to work together again."

"We absolutely must. --Don, thanks for coming," he added.

"Shit, you worked on the show? I didn't know that."

"Yeah, James brought me in as dramaturg, and I wound up taking over sound design too. Which I'd never done before, so, Randall's sophomore crisis was really my gain."

"Mine too if we're to be perfectly candid," Carrington stage-whispered.

"I've been talking this guy's ear off about the new Imlac," Donald said aside to Carrington. "--And you're a theater major all along! I could've sworn you were in the engineering department."

"Oh, I am," Joseph assured him. "I'm looking forward to the Imlac too."

"The only Imlac I know is the king's advisor from Johnson's Rasselas," Carrington said. "Any relation?"

"Probably named after him," Joseph said. "Did he have a continually refreshing vector display?"

"I think, my friends," Carrington said, clapping them both gently on the shoulder, "that I will leave you to it."

 

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They played correspondence chess, or they aspired to. They lived in the same dorm on the same floor, had breakfast and dinner in the dining hall at the same time most days, and so could have played chess on a single board in person anytime they liked. But they were determined to play correspondence chess, because they were in love with each other, and they didn't know how else to say it.

The thing about the campus mail system was, it was too quick. One of them could drop a note at the mail room and someone in the mail room staff might have it in the other's cubby within a minute or two. With a system like that you might as well just be playing on the table. So there had to be more barriers between the transmission of the move and its reception. Joseph was the one who started making puzzles.

He got the idea listening to Donald go on about the riddles below the surface in Through the Looking Glass one night in the dorm. "Haven't read that since I was a kid," Joseph said. "Matter of fact, maybe I only read the first one. Think I could borrow yours sometime?"

"Sure," Donald said. He got up from his desk and knelt up on the bed next to Joseph, the mattress shifting under his weight as he reached up to get a book from his wall-mounted shelf. "It's my dad's old copy from sometime around World War One, though. I'm sure you could get one out of the campus library that'd be easier to read."

"That's why I've got all my big-city magnifying gadgets, man," Joseph answered. He took the book from Donald's hand. It was a hardback with the softness of age, a slipcover that felt fragile, worn but well-made pages. By the one ceiling light of Donald's dorm room, he couldn't get much of a sense of what it looked like inside. Probably going to be a pain in the ass, for sure.

Puzzles were Donald's forte more than his anyhow; pure-math guys always seemed to love that stuff. Joseph had to hit up the library just to figure out what he wanted to do. He made sure to get Donald his book back before popping the coded letter into the mail slot, so he'd be able to decode from it once he figured out what the cipher was. (Of course he was giving a pretty big hint by actually returning a borrowed book, spontaneously and unprompted, and it clearly raised Don's suspicions, but that couldn't be helped.)

At dinner, Don showed up to their habitual table with an armload of mail--all his catalogs and play-by-mail wargame zines tended to arrive in clusters, and god help you if you needed his attention for anything else in the next day or two. He sat in his usual seat beside Joseph, sorting his sheaf of papers from the outside world into piles by urgency.

"Invade anywhere good this month?" Margaret asked from across the table. After a few moments Don's activity paused, but he didn't answer Margaret. Joseph heard him open an envelope, pull the paper out of it, and then click his teeth.

Joseph actually felt a little embarrassed that Margaret was watching this. She might even have sensed it, because she turned to her left and started talking to Carrington about something else.

"All right, then," Don said. He pulled one of his graph-paper notebooks out of his bag, cleared everything else to one side, and started scribbling. He gnawed at his eraser for a second, then turned to Joseph and said in a Bugs Bunny voice, "Of course you know this means war."

The next morning Joseph checked his mail and found one plain unmarked envelope; inside it a couple of double-spaced computer-printed paragraphs that he had to get under his magnifier to read properly. It was a continuation of a conversation they'd been having the other night, on the political ramifications of getting the university lab onto the ARPANET. Only the syntactical quirks might have tipped off an observer that there was a secondary level of meaning. It took Joseph a week to pull the chess move out of it. The worst part was, it was a pretty good move.

 

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There wasn't much that could put a damper on their escalating correspondence ("it's like an art prank," Margaret said; "these two are an art prank," Katherine said) but there was one demon that everyone in the engineering department had to do battle with at least once, and Donald and Joseph both faced him in the same semester. When someone at the dinner table asked Joseph, "Where have you been, anyway?" he only had to mutter "Becket" and the chorus of groans and sighs around him affirmed that there was no need to elaborate.

Dr. Becket had no tolerance for half measures; you had to present him with a fully realized draft at each interim project deadline, which seemed only fair the first time but tended to grind away at your edges after you'd worked with him once and realized that he would also require you, at each draft, to tear the whole thing apart and start over regardless of what you presented him with.

("He is a genius," someone would invariably mention when one of his classes came up, and everyone around would grumble agreement.)

So for a time they both sank eyebrow-deep in work, and each of their chess sets collected dust. Sometimes they crossed paths in the dining hall or the common room, Donald would grumble about how much he hated hypertext, Joseph would talk about how much he hated FORTRAN. Mostly, though, they tried by mutual consent to avoid distracting each other.

Joseph didn't even check his mail for about a week in a row at one point--it wasn't like people sent him anything anyhow, except the records his sister sent him now and then, lectures and speeches from the great thinkers. Those were precious but far between, and at her salary she probably shouldn't have been sending him even as many as she did, but she wouldn't be dissuaded.

Today the only thing in his mail slot was the familiar long slip of paper that meant a package waiting for him. He took it to the window, expecting the bulky square of a new record album, but the package was a smaller cube. He took it with him to the quad and opened it while eating his lunch. There was one of those funny little European puzzle boxes in it. He turned it over in his hands, eventually worked out its trick and got it open. Inside it felt at first like there was a smaller box, but it was one big sheet of paper folded intricately; he unfolded it carefully and flattened it out on the table.

It was a crossword puzzle, made with the graph paper Donald used to map out his dungeon mazes and battlefields. Those were always crammed with arcane detail, annotated in Donald's chicken-scratch that Joseph could guess, from context, was some kind of writing in some human language. But this was laid out differently. Four squares of graph paper per box, with thick, crisp borders defining the space. A set of clues that Donald had written out in block caps two squares tall with a black felt pen. It looked like a six-year-old had made it, and in the noontime sun out in the quad Joseph could do the whole crossword with just his regular glasses.

a crossword puzzle

ACROSS

1. Gathered together and summed up

2. Let the berry ferment to make a fine drink for summer nights

3. KY shares a portmanteau, but not a border, w/ this Commw.

4. We put all our money into it, but no one really wants to see it (1, 4)

5. Abbrev. for, e.g., our introduction to Joe Gillis

6. Never odd

7. The launch is imminent; all _______ go (7, 3)

 

DOWN

1. A great dynasty ended in its jaws

2. It's made of molten rocks and it's before your eyes at this very moment

3. Eastern game of territorial strategy

4. The eye commonly does it, but the hand may too under the right circumstances

5. You can only know this stone by smashing it open

6. 5,200 of them get you a UNIVAC

7. He or she goes to the lower depths

8. The multiplicative identity for the set of real numbers

 

There was a chess move encoded in the finished puzzle, naturally. Joseph took it to his next class and worked it out sitting in the back, half-aware of the lecture. After he got the chess move out of it, there was a second message too.

Joseph had two more classes in the afternoon, and then he walked back to his dorm room and moved Don's piece on his board. He worked out his corresponding move and wrote it down in his notebook. Then he lay on his back in bed, his cat resting on his chest, thinking about the other message in the code. It took him a long time to fall asleep.

 

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The truck driver from the antique store came back through the gas station again, third time that night. His retinue seemed to keep growing as the night wore on. A couple of his friends sounded like they might be robots, not that Joseph minded.

Soon enough they all got back on the highway, anyhow, and Joseph and Carrington were left alone again under the buzzing lights to keep watch for Carrington's troupe.

"Say, James," Joseph said after a minute. "While you're waiting, think you can do me a favor?"

"My dear old friend," Carrington said with characteristic warmth. "Of course. Just say the word."

"I was just wondering if you'd head on inside the gas station with me for a minute and read me my email."

"I'm happy to. But...don't you have a— program? Have you been out here with your speakers broken? I hate to think of you cut off like that."

"Nah, the hardware's fine, and my screen reader's running on full steam too. But, you know, it doesn't have the same nuance. And besides, sometimes...I dunno, sometimes it says things I just don't think can be right."

They went inside and Joseph logged himself in. "Skip the one from the power company," Joseph said. "I'm assuming there'll be one from the power company, anyhow, and I'm sure I don't want to know what it says."

"This one's from Donald," Carrington said, with a little hesitation. "...It looks personal."

"Now, James. How long have we known each other?"

Carrington made a thoughtful humming noise. "I am reluctant to attempt the math."

"So."

"The subject's 'fragments dim of lovely forms' -- all lowercase, no punctuation, though the body of the message is capitalized and punctuated normally." Carrington read out all of Donald's letter, his reading voice taking Joseph back in the slipstream of the years, to the read-through of Lem Doolittle's elusive stage directions, to the way Carrington's voice would resonate out of the dark at the back of the theater with some probing question ("in France, you know, rehearsal is repétition while in Germany, it is probe"), to the night everyone got together in the chapel to read Under Milk Wood and they got the rare treat of Carrington's performing voice.

Joseph felt pretty sure he got it all, but he made Carrington repeat the email in full to make sure, which he did without a hint of impatience.

"Hmmmm. That was 'know' twice in the first sentence?"

Carrington paused to check. "Yes, there's a...parallel construction there."

"Have I still got a chess game set up in the back office?"

"I don't— oh," Carrington said with surprise, "yes, back there. You want a hand?"

Joseph made his way back, touched the metal desk, the edge of the plastic travel chess set, ran his hands atop each piece to check that everything was as he remembered it.

"Well, you can't castle," he muttered.

"Hm?"

Joseph turned to Carrington over his shoulder. "He doesn't seem to actually know where we left the board," he said. "Maybe the game's gone a different way in that other world of his." Joseph sighed and shook his head to himself. "That's Donald. Always had a problem telling the map from the territory. He does need my help."

"--Is there anything that I can do?" 

"Oh, don't worry about me, you head back on out and do whatever you need to set up here. Holler if I can help with anything." Joseph sat back down at the computer and listened to the door swing open and shut again with the ring of an artificial bell. He tapped out a rhythm on the hard edge of the keyboard for a minute, thinking, before he started to write.

 

Subject: Ihr Zug ist unmöglich.

It's time you came back to the surface, Don. Let the shadows fall unobserved in your cave for the time being.

"Whatever is beautiful and whatever is dreadful must be familiar to his imagination: he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little. The plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the earth, and meteors of the sky, must all concur to store his mind."

I run the old Equus Oils off I-65 now. You know the way. You can still do most of it underground if you think you really need to. Carrington's here tonight too, as it happens.

If it's dark when you get here, just hit the breaker before you come upstairs.

 

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