Rodrigo Valdez couldn’t believe his luck when he got the call about the interview. For him, a lowlife Dreamer from Southside Chicago, to get a chance to meet and maybe even to work for the great Michael Caulfield? It was something off the silver screen, from a superhero movie.
In case you’re the kind of person who doesn’t know about important people like Michael Caulfield, this is the guy who basically designed the Internet. People had been trying to figure out how to work and manage the interface between different mainframes and when this guy got into the game, he not only figured out how to do that, he anticipated a lot of the difficulties of navigating a mainframe with multiple users, troubleshooting a lot of the problems before anyone else even knew they were there.
Rodrigo? He was just a low-level hacker by comparison. Not that he hadn’t pulled off some cool shit in his day—he managed to break into the Alchemyne mainframe and expose some wrongdoings on the local level, what his friends liked to call “real hero shit” (even it came at a great personal cost). It’s probably what brought him to the illustrious attention of this august figure in whose office he now stood. But to actually he here? Even heroes had to bow down in the face of gods, right?
“Mr. Caulfield will be with you in a moment,” said the pretty young secretary, or assistant, who had introduced herself as Claudia. You could really tell the generational divide just by looking around here at the furniture, at the feel of the place. It felt like an actual office, you know? Official. The receptionist was wearing a dress, had her hair done up real pretty. The guys here wearing suits. But what drew Rodrigo’s eye was the portrait in the corner. There weren’t a lot of pictures of Michael Caulfield out there for public consumption, but there were a couple. He had a face. Not much of one: white guy, nondescript. Not ugly, but like, you know, accountant. It was the same face that was on the portrait, but the portrait was in sepia, showed him sitting at a desk, not smiling. Look like it was taken in…
1887? That was the date at the bottom.
That must explain why the look on his face was so weird. It wasn’t actually him. Must be a great-great-grandfather or something. Or maybe closer—he reminded himself of the generation gap between Caulfield and himself. “Is this real?” Rodrigo asked Claudia.
She smiled. “Mr. Caulfield likes to keep things that aren’t real where they belong: on the Internet.”
“So the Internet’s fake, then?”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not exactly what I said.” A moment later, there was a beep. “Mr. Caulfield will see you now,” said Claudia. As Rodrigo passed into the other room, she added “Good luck,” with a smile that looked entirely too mischievous.
Before Rodrigo really had time to register what was going on, his idol was shaking his hand. They were exchanging pleasantries, he told brief jokes that Rodrigo forgot as soon as he’d chuckled at them indulgingly.
He didn’t seem as old as Rodrigo had figured he must be, but he soon forgot all about that.
Then they were sitting. “Well,” said the inventor of the internet, “I’m sure you know why I called you in today.”
“Is this about the Alchemyne hack?”
“There’s not a lot of people who could’ve done that. You’ve impressed a lot of people with your skills, your ability to navigate complex cyberspatial labyrinths. I was wondering if you’d be interested in taking the next step.”
“With my career, you mean?”
“Sure. Call it that.”
“Are you offering me a job?”
Caulfied took a short breath. “It might be better to think of it,” he said, “as an apprenticeship.”
Rodrigo wanted to like the sound of that, but… “This isn’t like an unpaid internship, is it?”
“Payment… is that important to you?”
“Well, I mean, yeah.”
“Why is money important?”
That did seem to be the question.
“I mean… I got bills to pay, you know? Gotta put food on the table.”
“Food?” Caulfield said the word like it was something he’d known as a child and hadn’t though much of since. So he said, “What if I told you, if you accept this position, you will never need to eat ever again?”
To be perfectly honest, that sounded to Rodrigo Valdez like some rich white-guy bullshit. But what he replied was, “I’d be… skeptical.”
“What you do on the Internet,” Caulfield explained, “is really just a matter of manipulating the rules of the systems that are in place. The need, the human need, to eat food on a daily basis—that, too, is a rule.”
“Yeah, but like… you can’t hack the world. You can’t hack the human body.”
At that, Caulfield raised an eyebrow.
That was when the world went a little bit wonky. At first, Rodrigo thought it was something in his drink, but then he remembered he hadn’t been holding a drink. Or had he? He was no longer sure.
And that was when Michael Caulfied, the Inventor of the Internet, took over the narrative myself. Now, Rodrigo, you will experience only what I allow you to. Because this is what can happen when you control a resource as vast and omniscient as the Internet. This is the kind of thing you can do with it: you can literally crawl inside a person’s mind and alter the information received by their senses.
So now, my dear Mr. Valdez, are you interested in my offer? Or should I just plug you into my systems here and put your impressive yet still malleable mind to work for me?