Off the Grid



The present day, somewhere else.

The basement’s dark. The hot chocolate’s cold. The only sound is her hands tapping away at the keyboard. She’s nearly solved the last problem, and if this works, we’re 15 minutes tops from go. She’s 12 years old and knows she can change the world.

Videogames aren’t reality – they’re a reality construction kit. It took her way too long to understand that. She used to love playing her old titles, sinking into the glorious solitude of Blockfall and Witchwizard for hours until her dreams filled up with falling shapes and pixelated monsters, but now it’s different. Now awake and asleep are damn near the same thing, and reality’s a whole new beast.

Dad’s gonna love his birthday present.

She’s been more worried about him than ever recently. He does his meditation and his chants, then wanders the farmhouse for hours. She’s heard him going out to the paddocks late at night, where she knows he’ll talk to the cows and stare up at the sky. He hardly ever uses the computer anymore, and never for games; she misses their Offroad Racer challenges. Some part of his mood is seasonal, but there’s more to it and it’s getting worse.

She might just know how to change that, finally.

[One of the missing PATH statements falls into place. Nearly there. She can work the keyboard and think about Dad at the same time, now, which is good, ’cause otherwise she’d never get anything done.]

On one level, the Dad Issue is simple: the Network. It was such a long time ago, well before she was born, but it’s never left him. The picture’s emerged slowly over the years, always from other sources and never from him directly: Dad working like a maniac on that vast project, putting his blood into it, arguing and fighting for his vision of the world, then watching as they discarded his ideas, his dignity and, finally, his job. The Network, at least the Network he believed in, never saw the light of day.

He doesn’t talk about it, ever, except the one time last year when they had a picnic down in the back field and shared lemon-lolly cupcakes with the cows. Halfway through a jellybean he’d stopped, stared at the grass, and said:

“It wouldn’t have just been for the universities and the rich kids, hon. Imagine if everyone had their own little computer connection and could do whatever the hell they liked with it. Imagine the possibilities.”

“But that’d take hundreds of thousands of machines,” she pointed out. “Millions, even, and they’d overload the phone company. That’s just not possible.”

“Maybe not in this reality,” he replied, his eyes gleaming.

She sat there not knowing what to say, feeling unseen ghosts around them both. They finished the cupcakes and headed back up to the farmhouse

Over the next few months, Dad started wandering the house again, doing meditations, stargazing and going into town even less than usual until he was a virtual recluse. The last time she tried telling him she was worried, he picked her up, gave her a hug, and whispered gently:

“I’m ok, hon. It’s just about getting old and having regrets instead of dreams, which is one of the silly things old people do. Now, you’re still enjoying your games?”

“Of course. It’s like they open up other worlds.”

“Wonderful. Never lose that feeling, hon. One of these evenings I’ll come down and thrash you again at Offroad Racer …”


But he never came down, and she had played through all six games they owned dozens of times, everything from Adventure Kingdom to Xanadu, until the computer started to feel like a used-up heap of possibilities. She was so bored and frustrated she even started looking forward to school just for the change in routine, which was both amazing and worrying. School was the stupidest, most half-witted place in the entire universe, holding as it always did the prospect of Michael Holroyd and his nastiness about computer games, Dad, and everything else she cared about.

[She taps a final command and the texture problem’s fixed. One last compile and we are go …]

Michael Holroyd had an Apple V, by far the best of anyone in school. (Only a few people had computers, and there were none in the classrooms.) He also had more than 15 games all mail-ordered from overseas. He liked to laugh at her Commodore 1000, with its old processor and small screen, and he made a point of talking very loudly about the international data calls he could make using the Apple’s modem, which let him play games against university students in far-off places like Oxford and Berkeley.

“But your Dad would know all about that, wouldn’t he?” Michael would jeer. “Shame his Network turned out to be a crock, shame you’ve got no money for toll-gaming or a decent computer or even proper clothes …”

Michael’s father had a senior position at the phone company and even owned a portable handset. She knew he had worked with Dad years ago as one of the managers who decided to scrap the Network, turning its funding back over to the military and ending the hope of open access. Michael was desperately proud of his father – which, she quietly admitted to herself, she could understand – but he showed it by attacking her at every opportunity.

“He got run off from his dumb ideas and went and hid on that pokey little farm! He’s out there now being a loony magician shaman … he goes down to the back fields and asks the cows to get him his job back!”

She was quite sure Michael didn’t know what a shaman was, but it didn’t matter: His constant harassment made school miserable. It got worse and worse, until one day on the steps he said it:

“He deserved to lose his job. Data calls have turned out much better under the army and the phone company. He deserves to end up all alone with one crappy computer and a daughter with no ideas and no friends just like him.”

Part of her had wanted to scream, Of course I’ve got friends, I’ve got pen-pals in 13 countries and I write them all at least once every two months, but another part of her took control and hit him very hard in the mouth, over and over, until it bled. Michael screamed and cried, and the teachers pulled them apart and called a parent conference. Dad came into school the next afternoon – his first time in town for over a month – and she was terrified he’d be disappointed in her.

[The compile is nearly finished. This game she can’t wait to play.]

The conference was nasty. Michael’s Father stared horribly and made veiled insults – she gradually realized that Michael’s behavior towards her was just an imitation – but Dad ignored them all, listened to the principal with a half smile on his face, then drove her home. On the way back they stopped at BurgerShack and got two MegaDoubleDeckers, and he gave her another hug.

“Dad, honestly, I don’t care that we don’t have as many games as Michael, or that we don’t make silly international datacalls. I just get so angry when I think about things sometimes-“

“I know you do, missy. And I don’t think you should ever stop thinking or dreaming or even getting angry, ’cause that’s how we change the world. People like Michael and his Father – screw ’em … ‘scuse my honesty.”


Back home he went up to the attic and came down with a tiny parcel wrapped in paper. She unwrapped it to find a box of Commodore disks, some pages of scribbled instructions and a printed title:

SHAMAN – The Mirror Dream Construction Kit.

“I wrote it,” he said. “After the Network shut down but before you came along. I wanted … well, I don’t quite know what I wanted.”

“Is it a game?” she asked, inspecting the disks.

“In a manner of speaking. A different kind of game. I built it using the things I learned outside computers, all the magic and other crazy ideas … the next stage of programming, if you will. That’s the only copy in the world, and I never used it beyond testing. It’s all yours, hon.”

As she hurried down to the basement, shouting thanks over her shoulder, it was as though the universe had cracked open a new door. She knew exactly what she was going to do with this.

SHAMAN was crude, difficult and much more complex than anything she’d ever tinkered with … and it was brilliant. It didn’t work like software should; using it was like trying to twist water, or ride some kind of reluctant animal. There were indeed echoes of magic in it, of the meditations and stargazing and midnight wanderings of Dad’s inner life. She dove in, figured out the basic building blocks, then set to work on the project that had flowered into her mind when she opened the box.

She combed through some of Dad’s old magazines and photos for details, but part of the idea had been that the details weren’t important. If she got this right – if it worked the way it should – there would be all the details in the world.

She sets the final compile running, goes upstairs for an orange juice and feels her heart pounding. Dad’s still around – she can hear him scraping his gumboots off after a wander in the fields – but she doesn’t go and say hi. She wants the next time she sees him to be the big surprise.

She heads down quickly to the basement. It’s finished. She types “run” – her hands are shaking. Will it work? Then the Commodore responds and the title screen appears:


She sees a man, 30 years ago, walking in a white coat down a corridor. She sees the tiny pixelated letter in his hand. She knows what he’s decided to do.

Let’s go back and see, Dad. Let’s find that other world.

With a keystroke she changes his mind, gives him his job back, lets his vision of the Network unchain itself and grow –

It develops quite differently, even near the start, with words like ARPANET and FIDO and MUD and TCP/IP gathering speed. There’s a buzzing roar in her head as she’s pushed forward several impossible decades into another universe.

It hits. Hard. In the shutterbug explosion of a single eye-blink she downloads more information than her brain has ever conceived. She’s swimming and tumbling and drowning in it; she feels a billion data calls extending from her like a supernova.

There are connections everywhere, entwined with information and driving it, and games so complex and fantastic and powerful they’re on the verge of displacing reality itself.

She tries to find herself but can’t. In her place is an older girl, quite different, with strange clothes and thousands of virtual friends, with something eerie and alien about the relationships and structure of her life, and she can’t find Dad among it all.

The Network’s growing and mating with itself at an exponential rate, hurtling forwards as it becomes a single billion player ultrareality entertainment environment. It’s overload, sickly and blinding and intoxicating.

The Singularity envelopes her and bites.

The world breaks above her like a warning bell and she’s back, herself, whole, in the basement. She touches her arm and she can feel it. She shuts the Commodore off and sits there in the dark, trying to breathe, trying to think.

What the hell was that?


The next decision comes slowly. She pushes her chair back, climbs the stairs and heads up to find Dad. Hot chocolate and a hug sounds pretty good right now – there’s only one connection that matters in this reality.

She’s not going to show him his present just yet. A thought follows her out of the dark, a swirling realization: Maybe another game would be better, something simple, with falling shapes and monsters and just one player. A game you know isn’t real.

She’s not sure if she just witnessed something or created it.

Colin Rowsell is a New Zealand-based writer. Talk to him on [email protected], and follow him (and Orpheus Corpse) on

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