In 1996, I received an unusual call from a good friend of mine, Ron Ostreim.
Ron was on contract in Las Vegas working for Microsoft Consulting Services, who I had helped win a bid to revamp the Hotel Reservation System for the Mirage Hotel and Casino with a prototype I had completed for them on behalf of one of their partners, Mach 2 Systems.
Here’s the Mirage Hotel and Casino exterior – which has always in my mind been one of the most beautiful hotels in Las Vegas.
“Do you know the computer game ‘Eye Of the Beholder’,” Ron asked.
Of course I had. It was only one of the most influential games I had ever played, featuring Dungeons and Dragons style role playing elements from a what is now cheesy but was then cutting edge first person perspective.
Here’s the package, which details pretty much what it looked like on the personal computer back when he asked me.
And here Ron was, the king of cryptically positioned statements and questions, and with Ron not being a gamer, asking a question which should otherwise seem obvious – had he been a gamer which he was not.
“Of course I do, It’s only one of the most amazing Dungeons and Dragons Role Playing Video Games of all time,” I responded.
“How about Legends of Kyrandia, or Eye of the Beholder 2?,” he asked, without tipping his hand.
I’m slightly annoyed. “Of course, they are all fantastic games,” I responded, “but Ron, you’re not a gamer, what are you getting at?”
“I’m standing right here with the guy who was lead developer on those projects and a few others,” he said, nonplus like.
I about shat myself.
To me, 3d game developers were like gods. I’d done some 2d game development, shareware and freeware, but the three dimensional perspective based stuff with ray tracing and polygon counts, and wireframe modelling – well – let’s just say I had mad respect for anyone who understood this stuff, let alone amazed me with a story line and content that put me in a new world I had only imagined as I read about it in the past.
Particularly with science fiction and fantasy. Which this man had done both.
Three weeks later, I was working alongside Bill Stokes, a man who became a great friend.
And Bill was a great programmer.
Bill was a phenomenal programmer.
And we had some weird things in common. A first wife by the name of Donna (I was on my second marriage with Lisa by then). We both were pursuing our private pilot’s license. And we both had really bizarre senses of humor, which Ron did as well.
One day, Mike Moore, a friend I had known since Orbital who Ron had also known from U-Haul was working at Mirage with us and was always making the mistake of joining us for lunch.
Ron, Bill and I would regularly get into nonsensical conversations – that would frequently drive Mike insane.
One day, we pulled ‘The Slinky Theory’ where everything in the universe was comprised of Slinkys – out of our asses – and went on about this theory for 90 days. Apparently scientists overheard our conversation, because in 2006 – only 10 years after our conversation – they began postulating the same thing.
Another time, Ron and I debated for about two hours about cells and if they do or do not think. Mike was visibly shaking with anxiety and frustration wanting to leave the lunch but we refused until the conversation was done. Apparently, scientists again must have eavesdropped on us again, as 10 years later, they postulated as I did – that they do.
The final ‘nail in the coffin’ conversation we had which drove Mike away was when Ron was building a custom house and Mike was customizing his house, so Bill and I discussed our dream houses. This conversation went on for three hours, and while I do not remember Bill’s dream house, I do remember mine had a huge game room, a moat, a ski slope and ski jump over the roof of the house, a sex dungeon and a harem with 30 gorgeous women in it. And oh yeah, a runway for my planes.
Mike’s head nearly popped off wanting to leave.
Bill was a bit of a perfectionist though, and was a clean freak to boot. So he made an excellent target for my practical jokes.
A well hidden half empty can of tuna or oily potato chips went rancid pretty quickly, and made a hell of an odor that would creep up on Bill as he could not figure out ‘where the hell that nasty smell was coming from’ in his cube.
Soda cans left wonderful sticky rings when left on his desk, which I made it a fact of doing when he wasn’t around.
And there was always a piece of strategically placed tape covering his mouse track ball or laser pointer, I can’t remember which he had, but the net effect was the mouse would simply not seem to move.
But that got boring after a while, so I resorted to creating custom computer programs to mess with his mind.
One such program would shove the mouse pointer into the upper left corner randomly. Another program inserted random characters into whatever he was typing, which is why they invented spellcheck because Bill’s emails were always full of spelling errors. Another program would scroll his screen like an old analog TV had lost it’s V-Hold.
I remember sitting in Ron’s cube watching with Ron all these programs work in orchestra and nearly dying from laughter at Bill’s frustration.
Or there’s the time he left his machine unlocked and I sent an “I Love You” message from his email to Hyder Ali, A Microsoft Consultant and strangely his boss, despite Bill being a full time employee.
But Bill was always calm mannered, and always took things in stride, and on occasion he’d lob a practical joke my way that caught me off guard.
Good times, good times.
A year later, not long after the project is squashed, Bill and I are flying up to Reno to pick up his beat up Cessna 172 Plane to fly it to Phoenix.
I never told Bill this, but on the flight there, I had felt… Incredibly nervous, in an intangible way I couldn’t put my finger on. Then, when some turbulence hit, I had an unusual feeling of Deja Vu. I was feeling a bit sick to my stomach, and remember going to the toilet once the turbulence had diminished, that’s when I had a weird vision I didn’t tell Bill about: I saw a newspaper clipping that detailed a pilot’s lone death, and Bill’s name was cited as the one and only passenger aboard.
As we flew out of Reno, Bill got violently ill and ended up throwing up all of breakfast. I pretty much flew the plane with minimal problems all the way back, with Bill incapacitated the entire way back.
At the time, I couldn’t help thinking about that newspaper article I had visions of.
“Had he died in a different life?,” I thought.
I blew it off as coincidence.
I had been working at Intel at the time, and had brought him in on contract to work on a pretty cool warehouse management project which currently manages all the inventory in warehouses around the world for Intel.
My practical jokes kept up – my favorites being a pair of programs I called chug and slug – which would periodically chug through computer memory leaving no available memory for things like Microsoft Word or any of the development stuff we used, and slug, which would slow the computer down to a crawl randomly.
One day, I hacked the boss’s machine and sent a message from it saying ‘Come see me’ to Bill. I was in fits cracking up in the cube next to theirs as Bill and Keith Olodort, my manager at the time, chatted for 15 minutes when Bill finally says “what did you want” and after a couple minutes of arguing of why Bill was there they both simultaneously say “BRIAN!”.
So the next day, I came in late (as usual) to find everything in my cube upside down and wrapped in cellophane.
I was amused. And thankful they’d understood how to have a bit of fun themselves.
Not long after his arrival in Phoenix, I had had a run in with the NSA at a startup dot com company I was part owner of. We were having network issues, with slow connections, and I traced it back to a house – of which I reported it as a hack to the FBI and the local cable provider.
As it turned out, it was the NSA who’d tapped our lines, and I had just gotten two of their ‘best and brightest’ arrested I was told in a meeting with them later. The NSA had been eyeing me since the FBI became involved with my career back in 1990 at Orbital where I got the offer to go to work as a software engineer or go to jail. They wanted me to work with them and take the technology I was developing with me for their use.
I rejected their offer, and called up Bill not long after, I needed someone technically savvy ‘on my side on the inside’ to assist with the project and to allay my paranoia about having been watched for 6 years without having a clue.
Bill jumped at the offer, and we did absolute magic with what we were creating.
We basically had implemented evolution into software.
But as we were developing this, I was having weird things happen to me.
I was run off the road as I drove home one night in my new Corvette after I had had a few cocktails at a happy hour, I didn’t want to scare my wife, Lisa, at the time so I didn’t tell her. Another night, my gas pedal literally locked down and the emergency brake lines had been severed. On more than one occasion I had ‘tails’, people following me making no attempts to disguise the fact.
And then things started getting funky with our business partners, who then hired a life coach who’d been trained by the FBI to assist with the company’s issues despite our success with client acquisition.
Throughout this, the NSA had approached me to take a position with them on four separate occasions, the last time making it sound like it was not an option.
I denied them a final time, when shortly after, a command decision was made by Touchscape’s other owners to shift the company’s entire operational focus to the airline industry for one single client…
This defied all logic.
And my marriage was on the rocks which didn’t help my anxiety.
And I began feeling like an ass, having dragged Bill to this company, taking a cut in pay – all for something that was destined for failure.
I began talking with the NSA a little more, actually entertaining the idea of working with them. I couldn’t have them as an enemy, but I was still not ready to go work for them.
So I asked the NSA for guidance as I cut ties with Touchscape, so I could protect the people I’d come to respect who remained at the company.
Analogize this faux-pas with asking the devil for a little help.
But the truth is, I felt guilty for wanting to see the company fail so bad for these decisions, but I also wanted it to succeed because I had brought Bill into it. Mixed bag of feelings, for sure.
So the NSA coached me how to cut ties and not let anyone suspect a thing.
Not long after, 9/11 happened.
The airline industry took a major hit, and every subcontractor felt it.
This handed the company a death blow.
I’d been working at Intel at this point, and had another meeting with the guys from the NSA who had made it a habit of asking me for help with understanding some hacking issues they’d ordinarily come up against.
On this particular meeting, one of the guys had the audacity to tell me: “You know, 9/11 was your fault.”
I wanted to hit the man. But I smiled, and said, “ha ha, very funny.”
I later learned he wasn’t joking.
With Touchscape’s doors closed, Bill’s marriage was on the fritz too, which found us both at Intel at the same time, again, something we had done when Bill had first moved to Phoenix a couple years back..
Now the part that sucked was – I felt like I was in part to blame for Bill’s marital problems, because I just didn’t really like his wife, Donna. In fact, I felt like I’d negatively impacted his next relationship – with a real self-righteous woman named Chrissy afterwards by my disapproval of her. She was cute, absolutely, but wow, such a bitch! In fact, there’s a part of me that wonders if my mind didn’t create the movie “Kill Bill”, which he loved, based on the odd yin/yang relationship we may have had with relationships.
In any case, not long after, this found us both vying for the same full time position there.
Competing with each-other no less.
It was about this time I received a late night phone call, from Lisa, my soon to be second ex wife, who is a flight attendant.
She said she was in mid-air.
And she’s crying.
I will never forget that phone call.
“Brian. I just want you to know I love you. There’s a gunman who’s already shot two people, we don’t know how he got through security, but he’s letting us call a loved one before he blows up the plane,” she said.
After she said that, I heard something in what I can only assume was Arabic.
And then the phone went dead.
I was frantic. I spent all night trying to get a hold of someone, anyone who might know what was going on.
To no avail.
Nothing on the news. No return calls. No.. Nothing..
At this point, I am scared, confused, baffled…
I barely slept that evening.
And as I nodded off, an hour later I was woken up by a loud and persistent knocking on the door.
I peek outside, and see two typical unmarked black vans with tinted windows, and a cruiser.
Shit. I should have expected it.
I answered the door.
It was both the NSA and the FBI.
“We need you to come with us,” they said.
It was not a question.
We sped from my home in Gilbert, Arizona, going VERY FAST to a place in South Phoenix, which incidentally no longer appears on any maps, zand no, there was no mysterious black hood I was adorned with. They made no attempt to disguise it from me. So I was starting to get afraid.
From the outside, it looked like a smallish waste reclamation facility.
The majority of the facility was underground.
A lengthy elevator ride later, I met what was to become my managing director.
Bill, this entry is about you, but also about events that interfered with my having a decent friendship with you, should you happen read this, so bear with me.
My new acquaintance informed me that the NSA had created its snooping program based on the code we did at Touchscape.
I was later to learn that a long running joke was if you have something as absolutely fucked up as possible and want to take it one step further, hand it off to the United States Government.
And this day, I had learned they had done precisely that.
Apparently, they had created a program which could learn.
Quite well I might add.
And worse. It had unfettered access to all their information sources.
And learn it did.
It discovered its own origin in no time on the switch being turned on, and not long after learned about concepts such as birth and death, and then psychological and practical jokes which we had a clearly documented history of in their databases.
Then it learned of relationships and the importance of them, and from there..
It learned about electronic voice synthesis, then it learned how to use sample data from live voice conversations leveraged over existing telecommunication equipment.
And this was when Lisa’s crying phone call had occurred.
I learned I was the first in a series of phone calls it made. And for me, it was playing a practical joke on its father.
Like a baby saying hi to its father for the first time.
So by then I was politely being informed that I was being drafted by the US Government, specifically to work on this intelligent system for the NSA. Six years mandatory. Up to eight years.
To help fix their mess.
Now they said they’d compensate me, extremely well.
Because they knew both my value and necessity to make me happy, to the tune of $1 million a year.
A verbal contract they would pay me on release, and a contract they never paid me for, I might add.
But more than that, they’d learned this intelligent system had manipulated communications that led to my departure and Touchscape’s failure. This meant my departure had been orchestrated by the program itself.
The NSA claimed it was not them… But their program – learning and growing exponentially.
Long story short, the NSA and FBI both worked with Intel to create the position of Research and Development for me, where I could work on solving these issues as I went through my divorce.
Which is how Bill, ultimately, I had to say no to the position you ended up taking.
In my opinion you were the better man for the job anyways.
This merely made the opportunity a non option for me.
And then – that’s when things got real screwed up.
I received military orders to report to Fort Knox for Basic Training.
Yep. You heard that right. I never freely elected to go into the military.
The intelligence rigged the system and legally obligated me to.
It had legally drafted me.
So by then, I had one of two choices. Leave the country. Or report for active duty.
Fortunately, it had decided not to enlist me in infantry, it was kind and put me into Public Affairs. If I saw front line activity, it would be for reporting purposes and not in an offensive role.
So when I was in Basic training, Bill, the reason I pushed away so hard was I flat out did not want my friends and family being put in harm’s way, particularly you, since you were a key ingredient in its creation to begin with.
Shortly after arriving at Fort Knox for Basic, I received orders to report to Fort Meade, Maryland, once I was done with Basic for Advanced Training, consequently the home of the NSA, I was a little confused.
Most other people were bussed from Fort Knox, Kentucky, where I had gone through Basic Training, but oddly enough, I was put on a flight, alone.
There was no coincidence with the flight.
Once I boarded, the managing director was on the seat next to me, and briefed me on what was going on.
There was really no mystery to most of it, they’d lost control of the system momentarily, but had regained control of it. And they booked the flight to regain contact with me and shift me from being a military asset to an intelligence asset.
And they’d coach me through to an exit of the Military as I attended Advanced Training at Fort Meade with a full honorable discharge. With full benefits.
So At Fort Meade, that’s where I met people like Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange, both who are making news around the world lately, among with a few others who had had the same exact thing happen to them for different reasons.
We’d all been identified as high priority assets by the system, which was true with or without it’s identification.
So Bill, the reason I have detailed this elaborate sequence is simple:
I suspected you were involved with intelligence once I was identified, we did after all both contribute to this.. baby…. and for such a long time afterwards I wished I could have chatted with you about what I was doing and why without knowing who or what you represented. God knows I wanted to.
Unfortunately, I had never been given authority despite the numerous times I had requested it, and by the time I’d gotten so fed up with the events transpiring there, I had all the outwards appearances of being a drug addict because someone or something had messed with my blood pressure medication and laced it with a synthetic version of cocaine to debunk my credibility.
When I found out what was happening, being paranoid and not knowing who to trust, I left Arizona for North Carolina where things took a turn for the worst.
The lesson I learned out there: I didn’t know who to trust anymore.
and I was afraid for my life, as well as the lives of my family and friends.
Now, I know I was a child coming out of a cocoon.
No matter what has happened or why.
I want you to know one thing:
If you were ever complicit in anything that happened to me or around me…
and to be sure I do not ONE BIT suspect you were.
but if you were…
I forgive you.
No matter what happened.
I have been taught that ANYTHING is repairable.
With the exception of friendships.
I consider you a friend because I admire you for who I knew you to be when you and I hung out.
But to be sure.
When anyone exits the stage of my life, what I see and what they see can and often are two very different things.
An incredibly difficult to understand concept at first, and something which took me a while to learn.
And for you, the reader –
Bill and I are no longer on speaking terms.
And our friendship was on autopilot for many years after I joined the NSA, which was just perfect for me.
For several years after, we’d go to the movies with the wives or lovers, we’d meet up for dinner, play poker together, meet up at the local bars, and so on.
You know. All that domesticated stuff that humans do.
And yep. I miss it.
One day, he confided in me “Sometimes I think it would be easier quitting everything and just take care of pools”.
I didn’t comprehend how profoundly right he was – for me at least – at the time. I dismissed it.
he had his hobbies. Call of Duty, which I was not a fan of. He became an avid biker, which while I enjoyed a good bike ride I just didn’t get into it like he and Spencer Anglin did.
And Bill. I flaked on you quite a few times as I was released back in 2010.
Transformers being a memorable messed up moment I was angry at myself for…
I am sorry.
But I hope you understand why I did what I did.
It was about you. As much as it was about me.
Bill had a remarkable influence in my life.
He once remarked about how he loved the Lexus SUV, and I greatly respected his perspective. Not long after, my lease was up for my car, and after checking out the Lexus SUV, I decided to get one for myself.
In 2004ish, in a conversation we had – he admitted he was taking Paxil, an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication. Prior to then, I’d been pretty judgmental of people taking these things, I’d felt they were a crutch. But when he did, and he seemed in better self control of himself, but oddly devoid of emotion – I wanted to understand what these things did to a person, so I got a prescription myself. This lasted about 3 months, which was more than enough time to say “I prefer my emotions, but I can understand why someone would want to suppress them, sometimes it is easier not to deal with them, it’s clearly a personal preference.”
So because of this, I learned to judge people less about narcotic use, in general.
And shortly after my suicide attempts in 2010, which ended up with nearly everyone I knew – including him – refusing to talk to me – I bought him the game ‘Borderlands’ for his Playstation 3, a game I loved because of it’s amazing detail and storyline – hoping to instill in him a modicum of understanding how tremendously important he is in my life.
I never heard whether he liked it or now. That was one of our last conversations.
Bill, I had a lot of fun at your expense.
But I hope you understand, that’s my weird way of telling you just how important you have been to me in my life.
The following photo is of Bill (left), me (top) and Bill’s wife, Pam (in red) just after my graduation from Thunderbird in August of 2009.