Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Prologue: Herman

Herman stared at his test booklet and wondered who was Melissa.

He laid his pencil down on the desk and clenched his bony fist. He squeezed hard and then spread his hands wide to study the pale fingers that trembled ever so slightly. Herman hated his hands. The hair on the back of his fingers was fine and white. His palms were soft and prone to excessive sweating. And now his hand had seemed to develop a mind all its own.

"Melissa," he wondered again, "who the hell is Melissa?"

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A disheveled student two seats to Herman's left leaned over and shushed him, and Herman realized he must have asked the question out loud. Fifteen minutes into his American History midterm, after scribbling two solid pages in response to a question about the impact of the industrial revolution on workplace conditions, Herman's hand had written “I love you Melissa.”

Besides the fact that he had mindlessly appended the words to an essay test, why hadn't he declared his love to Lisa, or Jen, or Paula, or Becky, or any of the other girls he'd actually met at one time or another? He couldn't recall even having known someone named Melissa. Which is not to say that he'd truly known any of the other girls he'd ever been in love with, at least not in the formal sense of having spoken to them for any real length of time.

Herman glanced down at the proctor, who was chewing his nails at the podium at the foot of the steeply raked lecture hall, turned his pencil around and erased the amorous non sequitur. Except for the kid two seats down, no one else in the sea of students that packed the hall's soaring tiers acknowledged his outburst. That was a relief. Herman dreaded drawing attention to himself during tests. He knew that some of the other students suspected that he downloaded answers in class. But he, like all the participants in the Continuously Connected Human project, was required to use his equipment everywhere on campus, at all times.

The wearable-computer incorporated into his heavy denim vest, the hand-held controller, and L C D glasses likely would have had some serious drawbacks in the many social situations Herman never got invited to. The gear might look like nothing more than outdated clothing from a distance (no one wears denim vests these days), but anyone within ten yards could hardly fail to notice the telltale LED and connectors that peppered the front of the vest, or the stereoscopic web cam that perched like a goggle-eyed parakeet on Herman's left shoulder, and the pig-tail antenna that sprouted from the right.

It wasn't as if shedding the vest, the controller, the glasses, and the sundry cables that tied them all together would have added much to Herman's coolness factor. He had the gawky, bony physique of an adolescent boy, despite the fact that he was a few years older than most seniors. Thanks to his nervous habit of running his sweaty hands through his hair and across his face, his thin, blond locks and translucently pale skin were perpetually greasy, regardless of how often he showered - which, in truth, wasn't very often. Herman had long ago realized that he looked the part of a stereotypical computer science student, and he figured might as well play the role fate had handed him. Two more years. He could take it. Just two more years and he would leave this nonsense behind him.

Screw the jocks, and the goths, and the punks, and the preps. He didn't need them any more than they needed him. If it weren't for shitty courses like American History, he could probably have made it through college without dealing with them at all. All science and math students were required to take history, art, and literature courses, in addition to core courses in their majors. It was an administrative attempt to ensure that they received the stimulating and broadening education most of them had hoped they could avoid by attending a state school. All Herman could do in self defense was strive to pass the classes while learning as little as possible along the way, and struggle to forget even the tiny bit that slipped through his intellectual barricade as soon as final grades were posted.

Herman smiled grimly to himself as he put the thoughts of the mysterious Melissa out of his head. He was, in fact, downloading test answers. Rote regurgitation was so archaic. As far as he was concerned, it didn't matter whether you knew the answers, particularly to history exam questions, so long as you knew where to find them and you were clever enough at rewriting to make them sound like your own. The majority of college term papers these days were nothing but clips cobbled together from the web anyway. So what if he did the same thing during history tests? He was just ahead of the curve. Besides, he figured, who cares about steam engines and assembly lines anymore?

He turned his attention to the page projected in his eyeglass display. He rolled the wheel on the controller with his left thumb and scrolled down the page. The response time was unusually sluggish and the screen had picked up an annoying flicker that was giving him a headache. He jogged the connector where the fiber-optic cable entered his glasses, and noted that the CPU usage meter was higher than it should have been for a simple page download. It was probably just a memory leak, but this was not the time to reboot. He only had forty more minutes to answer all three essay questions. Herman continued transcribing from Wikipedia.

“In 1917,” he wrote, “the strike organized by the Industrial Workers of the World in the Bisbee, Arizona copper mines ended with the deportation of 1200 miners to the desert by the local sheriff. I love you Melissa. I love you Melissa. I love you, Melis”

“Dammit!”

He crossed out the declarations of love, and began writing again. “I love you Melissa. I love .”

“God dammit,” he blurted, this time loud enough to attract the distant proctor's attention.

“No talking during the test,” called out the proctor.

“Yes, sorry.” His arms quivered as he shielded his test booklet from the neighboring students. Copper mines, he thought, Arizona copper mines, and slowly wrote “I love you, Melissa.” Then he wrote it again, faster this time. I love you, Melissa. And again. And again. Herman's hand was flying across the paper. I love you, Melissa. I love you Melissa. IloveyouMelissa. IloveyouMelissa. IloveyouMelissa IloveyouMelissa IloveyouMel .

He continued writing on the desk when he reached the bottom of the page and ran out off the paper. His flailing arm struck the student to his right, a brute who'd have had no trouble wrapping Herman into a pretzel. The brute cursed and gave Herman a whack across the shoulder that nearly lifted him out of his seat. Herman tried to apologize as best he could, his eyes wide in terror. But all that came out was “I love you, Melissa.” The brute raised his arm again, to make his point more clearly.

Herman lurched from his seat in a desperate attempt to dodge the physical repartee, and staggered along the row of seats to the steep stairway that led down to the lecture hall floor. His hand moved still faster, endlessly declaring his love for Melissa in letters written in the air. He dropped the controller from his left hand and grabbed at his wrist. It was useless. The pencil tip was little more than a crumpled stub, but his hand continued its maniacal dance. The LCD screen in his glasses flashed and flickered. Someone shouted, “Down in front,” and Herman turned toward the tiers of students above him. His hand wrote at them “I love you Melissa.” As he dotted Melissa's “eye”, he stepped backward and tumbled down the long stairway toward the podium, writing as he went.

Herman's face bounced off the edge of a step somewhere near the bottom of the stairs, shattering the bridge of his nose with a crunch that sent shards of bone into his brain. His body went limp and his hand at last ceased writing.

He rolled the rest of the way down, flopped onto his face, and lay motionless. A crimson stream flowed along the splintered end of the pencil protruding from his eye, and the proctor screamed for help as Herman's life leaked onto the floor.

The screen of the LCD glasses lying in the bloody puddle growing next to his head turned brilliant blue and displayed a short message. It read. “An error has occurred. The system has been shut down to prevent further damage.”

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