He is born in Wolverhampton at dawn on August 15, 1970. His mother is a ground staff coordinator at Birmingham Airport, nine months pregnant but in excellent health. According to calculations, there are still two weeks to go, so, with the agreement of her supervisor and the doctor's approval, she continues to work half-days, avoiding any strenuous tasks. At 4:42 PM the day before, Susan checks a British Overseas passenger's ticket: he is headed to Heathrow, with a final destination of Chicago. She feels another pang: there is no doubt anymore.
"Have a good flight," she mechanically repeats, handing the ticket to the traveler. She feels a bit disoriented.
She waits for the passenger to leave. She turns to her colleague at the next counter.
"Julie, I'm having contractions."
"Oh, my goodness! It's happening."
Julie closes the counters, hers and her friend's. She asks the remaining passengers to line up at the still-open counters, then escorts Susan to the telephone. Thirteen hours later, the midwife holds a nearly eight-pound baby in her arms. Susan looks at the baby, overwhelmed by an inexplicable sense of well-being. Without any anxiety, she examines the baby's features, wondering which of the two is the father.
When Richard looks back on the circumstances of his birth, starting with the rush from the airport, he will see the premonition of his future career: he will never go to Silicon Valley to claim his place in the software realm that matters, and he will never evade the circle of skilled programmers, even brilliant ones, capable of making a significant contribution to other systems but never designing their own.
May 14, 1983, seems like any other Saturday. He has been awake since nine. By eleven, he is still lying in bed, where he has spent the morning immersed in reading. The phone rings, and he tosses the comic book at his feet, jumps out of bed barefoot, and runs down the hallway to the telephone cabinet: a console with a mirror and two drawers placed at the entrance, on which rests the black receiver. He unhooks the handset and answers.
"Who is it?" his mother calls from the bedroom. She shouts to make herself heard over the noise of the vacuum cleaner, which, for some reason, refuses to turn off.
"It's Dad," Richard shouts back.
"At this hour? What does he want?"
"He says he'll be back for lunch."
Finally, the vacuum cleaner turns off. His mother reaches her son and takes the receiver.
"George, what's going on?"
"I took the day off."
"Just like that, without a reason?"
"I hope you don't mind."
"See you later."
She hangs up. She returns to the vacuum cleaner, huffing: the news raises the problem of preparing an acceptable lunch.
Two hours later, George is home. He hangs his coat on the coat rack, lifts the cardboard box that was resting briefly on the chair. With the care of an antique dealer, he extracts its contents: a prototype of the headlamp for the future Land Rover Discovery. He designed it entirely, including the optics, and hopes it will be produced in tens of thousands of units to be mounted on the most rugged vehicles manufactured in the United Kingdom, elegantly illuminating the country's roads. He proudly shows it to his son, making a detailed list of the technical solutions used in his design. He concludes by adopting a phrase from a colleague, certain it will have a decisive effect, just as it did on him when he heard it at a production meeting.
"This headlamp didn't exist before I designed it. Not as an idea, and certainly not as a physical object. Now it's here, and in a few years, it will be everywhere."
"It's a headlamp, George, not an airplane!" Susan snaps caustically as she turns the roast and puts it back in the oven.
George Fox tightens his grip on the chrome of the headlamp. He puts the object back into the box from which he took it, again with excessive care. He starts to leave the living room, then reconsiders and turns back.
"I know, you're more interested in airplanes. Especially pilots."
She freezes him with her gaze.
"Not..." she whispers contemptuously, gesturing towards the boy.
Twenty minutes later, they sit down at the table. BBC1 is showing Gandstand. Susan serves the roast amid the sound of racing cars overtaking each other on the screen. She hands the first plate to Richard. She returns to the stove and prepares a plate for her husband, adding potatoes and plenty of Yorkshire pudding. She heads toward the table but suddenly has a burst of anger and slams the roast under George's chin. The sauce stains George's shirt, but he remains impassive; the only reaction is to clean himself, as best he can, with a napkin. Susan covers her face with her hands and goes to the bedroom. "You're such a jerk!" she repeats, "A jerk." Father and son hear the door slam, followed shortly by the sound of muffled crying. George knows from experience that intervening at this stage, instead of helping, will only make things worse. So he does the only sensible thing: absolutely nothing.
Now they sit there, eating in silence. A faucet drips into a pot of water. Occasionally, muffled sounds come from the bedroom; each of them wishes they could get up and leave.
Instead, after lunch, they watch TV on the couch. Susan is with them again. She tidies up the kitchen, moves in jerky motions, and does not participate in the sporadic comments that father and son make about the program on air. George looks at Richard apprehensively: in fact, he only has him. Out of the blue, with the tone of someone who has regained his mood, reassured by the production bonus he received for the headlamp project, he makes a desperate attempt.
"It's Saturday. The electronics stores are open, and I have the afternoon off. It's time to buy that Spectrum."
The boy looks at his father, astonished. He rushes to get his jacket from the coat rack. In an instant, the anguish seems to have dissipated.
In 1983, the ZX Spectrum is the most coveted gift among young English males. Richard has desired it to such an extent that even before owning it, he has revered its programming manual, borrowed from the public library, like a mystic with a relic. With the knowledge he acquired, in the absence of the actual computer, he didn't do much, but at school, he managed to occupy the boring hours by writing lengthy programs in BASIC on his geography notebook, never being able to test them practically but often convincing himself, wrongly most of the time, that they would work flawlessly. Later, he will learn that programming practice is both abstract and empirical, and the empirical part, the craftsmanship, as he will tell his students with a kind demeanor he will use almost always with others, is carried forward through the file of trials and errors, adjustments made on the go, and exhausting hours spent searching for errors within the intricacies of logic. Now, finally, in addition to the manual, he has in his hands that small black box of dreams. It has charcoal-gray rubber keys; on the casing, the same rainbow of colors that the computer is capable of reproducing on the home TV screen. He feels like a sorcerer who has finally rediscovered his grimoire, during long solitary afternoons, in the flickering glow emitted by the TV, accompanied by the discreet hum of the Spectrum's power supply.
The Wolverhampton Spectrum Computer Club holds its meetings weekly, almost always at six o'clock, almost always on Saturday evenings. For a while, the club's meeting place keeps changing: they will meet twice in the back room of Dixons, the next time at the home of one of the club members, and the following time, an hour earlier due to the premature closing of public offices, in a room at the public library. The meeting at the library marks the record low attendance. Eventually, the stable venue becomes a sparsely populated pub on Queen Street, which reserves a long table near a power outlet for the members. It is the perfect synthesis of two needs: to drink and eat during the gatherings and to stay out late since some of the participants finish work in the late afternoon.
William Owen never misses a meeting. Each time he arrives, leaning to one side, dragging a black-and-white television with him—those sold as portable, which, in practice, are still quite heavy. Most of the time, there are two televisions, powered by extension cords brought by the participants. There is always at least one Spectrum, complete with cassette player and joystick. Sometimes, in addition to the Spectrum, on the table that creaks with crumbs, among half-empty plates of french fries, there is also its more powerful and expensive rival: the Commodore 64. But ultimately, the rivalry between the supporters of the two systems is only a jovial attitude, providing a backdrop for a couple of jokes that are lazily laughed at. Sometimes, Eliot Mitchell also attends the meetings. Eliot is an engineering student who perpetually smells of tobacco. The gleam in Eliot's round glasses, which reflect the neon lights of the pub, is often accompanied by ideas that are radically new to Richard. Eliot speaks; Richard listens, absorbs, and remains open-mouthed. The horizon of possibility expands. One Saturday evening, Eliot is at the Spectrum keyboard. The meeting has just started, and they haven't had time to get drinks—Eliot's beer, Richard's Coca-Cola, or anything else. Eliot takes out a cassette from the pocket of his suede jacket. On the cassette label, written in barely legible block letters, there is one word: ZEUS Z80 assembler.
Sitting on the bench against the wall, under the circular Guinness logo, Eliot inserts the cassette into the tape recorder, presses the play button, and starts loading the software. While waiting, he explains. He explains that with ZEUS, it's possible to write programs in the machine's own language, assembly, without the slowness and limitations of BASIC—the language used by all the club participants. But in reality, only a few are actually programming; most of them limit themselves to playing games or using ready-made applications. Still, Eliot continues to explain, without giving false hope, that along with the limitations of BASIC—which, not coincidentally, means basic, he adds with a smile— assembly programming also loses the ease of use. The machine's native language is brutally complex, both to write and to control. Perhaps he exaggerates, but he captivates their attention. He admits that he is not even a great expert himself, but he knows enough to show others a small program. The program draws a square on the screen—nothing significant, but it does so by directly writing to the computer's video memory at a speed unimaginable for a BASIC program. Richard and the others have seen that speed before, and they know exactly where: in the best games whose programming was archived in the realms of the incomprehensible and the magical, just a few minutes earlier. Eliot explains the meaning of each instruction in the program—the loading of the video memory address into the register, and then the loop that directly writes bytes to memory. The climax of admiration fades with William's words:
"Nice, but complicated."
"I don't think so," disagrees Richard, who has already memorized the meaning of about ten instructions.
He returns home with assembly language on his mind and a ravenous hunger. When his father is already outside the pub waiting for him, his sandwich has yet to arrive.
Four months later, past midnight, he is still at the computer. For his fourteenth birthday, he received a small color television, and now he can use the Spectrum in his own room whenever he wants, without the need to transport the computer to the kitchen every single time, along with the power supply, tape recorder, and video cable. He is often drowsy at school, and every night he promises himself that the next one he will go to bed early, only to renew the promise with the fervor of repentance each morning. That night, he is too absorbed in what he is doing to think about the next day. He has corrected the final routine of the program he has been working on for weeks. The screen displays a fragment of the assembly code:
He runs the program once again. The hot air balloon flies smoothly across the screen; that strange jerk it made halfway through is gone. He can't believe his own achievement. The idea for the hot air balloon came to him while flipping through the Commodore manual; at first, the goal seemed ambitious, but now his program has surpassed it in every measure. He goes back to reading the program's code. At school, he studies epic poems. He believes he has written a poem himself, part of a literature that hasn't been formulated yet. That night, with an effort that exhausts him, he accepts the fact that he is not an ordinary English boy. He collapses onto his bed with an ambiguous sense of maturity, very similar to what he will feel years later when he makes love for the first time—he feels both corrupted and powerful at the same time.
Richard's hot air balloon, gliding smoothly on the screen, will eventually become a complete and functional game with the hours of lost sleep and free time. The little characters will jump out of the gondola, plummet into the void, only to be saved at the end—if the player is skilled enough—by other characters carrying a stretcher, tirelessly running left and right at the bottom of the screen, responding to the user's keystrokes. The game will be exchanged and duplicated from one Spectrum owner to another. It will end up being played first all over Britain, then in a large part of Europe, and even in Russia. The author's identity will be discovered fifteen years later. Already known for other merits, someone will finally connect his name to the message that appears at the end of the game, once the final level is passed: Created by Rfox. Later, in a couple of interviews, when asked about the urgency of the characters leaving the gondola without an apparent reason, he will always reply with the same joke:
"I was in a hurry to release the game. Popping the balloons would have been better."
From the age of fourteen until entering university, he becomes a regular member of the archery association in his city, developing a passion for the specialty of shooting at live targets—a new variant coming from the United States that, despite the name, doesn't involve using live prey. He shoots at wooden deer, wild boars, bears, and smaller animals from a distance, with the target attached to the prey where the shot earns the highest score. He demonstrates great concentration skills, and his color blindness, which he has had since birth and diagnosed himself during a science lesson on visual organs—later, he will recount with amusement his teacher's surprise at his choice of pink as the color for a tree's foliage—proves to be an unexpected advantage: the prey, partially hidden by foliage, appears clearer to his eyes.
Fellow members appreciate his sportsmanship and generosity towards newcomers, and everyone recognizes the significant detachment he displays on the field, even during the most important competitions. He participates in the National Nottingham Championships in 1986, finishing third. Upon his return to the city, during his first visit to the association, his warm companions express sincere praise.
"You could have come in first," many of them will say.
"I don't think so; otherwise, I would have come in first," he replies without irony.
The summer of 1987 arrives suddenly at the end of June, with temperatures exceeding 27 degrees. Richard is almost seventeen years old. He stands shirtless in front of the mirror in the master bedroom—the only mirror in the house that offers a complete view. He conducts an investigation into his outward appearance, aiming to find his place in the male taxonomy and determine, once and for all, his belongingness. There are two subgroups under examination: that of his father, the engineer engrossed in his work, a man of concepts and minutiae, and that of the airline pilots whom his mother seems to prefer. He is as tall as the latter, but already overweight; the soft lines of his face do not reflect the firmness he hopes to see in the mirrored image. Although he bears little physical resemblance to him, he undoubtedly belongs to his father's ranks, alongside the many men who go unnoticed by the girls he dreams about. He lacks the physical prowess required and, furthermore—which Richard is certain of—the audacity to replace it. From that moment on, he no longer takes care of his physical appearance, which will appear neglected until the end.
In July 1988, he enrolls in the computer science courses at the University College of Cardiff in Wales, handing in the registration forms to a disinterested secretary under a white lacquered metal clock. He moves to the outskirts of Roath, where he shares a room with Stephen Kincaid, a lively Scottish economics student. The two will never become close, but they will maintain a civil coexistence, and each will give statements of complete satisfaction when speaking of the other to friends, emphasizing the precision and cleanliness of their roommate—the only traits they have in common. During the second trimester, he attends computer architecture lectures. On a Tuesday morning, it is pouring rain. Verity Whitby arrives fifteen minutes late due to the rain; the front rows are already full. She finds a seat next to Richard, who sits in the less desirable rows. She asks to borrow a pen. Richard opens his notebook and hands her his, specifying that he usually doesn't take notes, so the pen is useless to him. She lazily protests, but he insists.
With their arrangement settled, Verity hopes for a summary of what was said during the fifteen minutes of the missed lecture. A slightly lost expression is enough. Richard only recounts what matters and does so in terms she finds clearer than those used by the professor. They become study partners: during the day, they attend architecture and programming classes, and in the afternoons, they study in the university's halls. They often take short breaks at the bar, where they discover they get along beyond studying together. They never see each other in the evenings. Verity often goes out, frequents nightclubs, and occasionally attends rock concerts. Richard, when it happens, goes for a beer with the usual group of computer science and engineering students, all men. He considers some of them brilliant, but he invariably finds them all boring, so he often avoids going out and stays home to program instead. But every now and then, he gives in, and one of those evenings, at a pub on the corner of City Road, Andrew asks about the blonde girl he spends almost every afternoon with.
"She's a friend," Richard simplifies.
"One who realized how talented you are."
"Damn right, you're talented. I wish I could take advantage of you like she does," Leopold chimes in, somewhat tipsy, from the other side of the table, his back against the wallpaper lifting at the edges, and he playfully laments not being as attractive as the girl.
"I don't think I'm being taken advantage of," he states. The others are embarrassed by his candor, and that's enough to change the subject.
Three days later, Richard waits for Verity in his room. Stephen is in Scotland for the entire week, so for the second day in a row, they try to use Richard's Amiga 500 and put into practice the theory they learned in programming classes. Verity arrives with a pack of apple cookies. She wears an animal-print hair clip, made of plastic with fake rhinestones. They eat a couple of cookies. At the end of the second cookie, Richard shows polite impatience, gesturing toward the chairs that wait side by side in front of the scratch-resistant desk that houses the Amiga—he has no desire to get to work. It's a gesture of hypocritical courtesy to distance himself from any doubt about his behavior. Verity isn't hungry; she leaves the half-eaten cookie on the plate. She approaches Richard and kisses him on the right side of his mouth. She places a hand on his member. Richard moans at the touch, feels a dizziness, and a warmth rising from his legs. His member swells. Verity unbuttons his pants and begins to touch him. He enjoys it. They lie down on the bed. Richard is overwhelmed as he watches the swaying of the clip amidst her blonde locks.
He will understand what happened three days later, at their usual bar, wounded by a sudden return to the normalcy of their past relationship. He will attempt a vague allusion that she will strive not to grasp, forcing him to be more explicit.
"The other day, I didn't expect it. Not with me," he says.
She replies after taking the final sips of her coffee, during which she searches for a motive for her actions that afternoon, something she hadn't thought about anymore.
"Why not? When you speak, you say things I like, and you're tall. I felt like doing it."
"I already have a boyfriend, you know."
You had one three days ago, Richard thinks, but he says nothing. They return to the study room to analyze sorting algorithms.
After finishing the semester, Verity enrolls in law school. Richard protests, arguing that he has more programming talent than many others, but Verity is firm in her decision. "I want to feel among the top," she says, "and no one will understand law better than me to the extent that you understand programming." They stop seeing each other. Occasionally, Richard will see her at the study hall bar. She will never fail to smile at him, while her hand will wave with the fingers wide apart, showing at the same time a warm greeting and an insurmountable barrier. In his future approaches to women, Richard will carry with him the awareness of his calmness and his size, and although autoeroticism will be the norm of his university years — and Verity a star of his youthful fantasies —, he will make sporadic but honorable conquests, a couple of which will give life to relationships that will last several months.
In 1990, he effectively directs the computing center at Cardiff, even though on paper, he is just another graduating student. There are others with better grades, yet no one doubts that Richard Fox is the best programmer in the entire department. He graduates a year later with a thesis titled "An analysis of trade-offs between time and space complexity in kernel schedulers." He remains at Cardiff for the next three years, becoming an associate professor of programming from the second year onwards. His students will discover that sometimes an introvert communicates better than others, employing the reluctance for words he has practiced in his daily life for teaching. When he explains, Richard only says what matters, avoiding unnecessary additions and never speaking about himself. During his lessons, the classrooms will be animated by genuine interest, and he won't need to call for silence, which will fall in the room immediately, when he, motionless, silent, standing with his protruding belly, will fix his gaze on the audience of students.
As one of the earliest users of the Internet, he is a frequent visitor of the comp.os.unix newsgroup, where discussions on the Unix operating system and its derivatives take place. The group includes the world's experts on the subject, often hiding behind silly pseudonyms. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lineage of those who participate in the discussions, Richard often finds them more animated than necessary, to the point where he sometimes feels embarrassed to see them slide into mockery. In some cases, he interrupts reading messages that he still considers highly interesting. And it is precisely there, in that group, that he learns about the existence of NewBSD: the embodiment of Swedish programmer Axel Lundberg's technological and political vision. Lundberg has made good use of his free time as a university researcher, as well as his leadership and design skills. His ambitious plan for a modern operating system, practically usable, developed by a collective of programmers collaborating through the Internet, is very close to seeing realization.
On the night of March 9, 1992, he submits his first modification to the NewBSD code. Axel integrates it with a delay of twelve minutes. One of the files that make up the NewBSD code bears the inscription at the top, listed after the other names: Copyright (C) 1992 Richard Fox, All Rights Reserved. In a short time, he becomes the undisputed number two in the project, focusing his efforts on enhancing the networking capabilities of the operating system, writing device drivers for a wide range of peripherals, and fixing dozens, sometimes hundreds of bugs per month. In addition to the code he writes, which is no small feat, he multiplies his impact by reviewing and incorporating contributions from other developers. The intricate machine forming around NewBSD has him as an essential lever.
Within the inner circles of the project, as well as among computer experts attentive to the international scene, as months and years pass, Richard Fox gains the respect of a titan. His name evokes the idea of brute force resulting from the most skillful technique among programmers. He is imagined with his hands inside the machine, at the lowest level of programming, close to the hardware and interrupts, where every clock cycle truly matters. He has left his university position. He is now generously paid by a software giant as long as he continues his NewBSD development work. However, outside that circle, his merits collapse onto the figure of Axel Lundberg, who, without even intending to, like a dying star, attracts all the credit to himself. But Lundberg, as Richard sometimes daydreams, deeply ashamed of himself, does not retreat into a black hole. On the contrary, he thrives, and so does NewBSD. Richard remains doubtful about his own more hidden nature: he has never wished harm upon anyone. Many years later, Electra Greenfield will offer a solution to the problem.
He has already fed the dog when on the evening of December 2, 1995, after a quick shower, with tea brewing and the last emails checked, he realizes two seemingly contradictory facts: 1. the day went smoothly, and 2. he feels rather depressed. He deceives his sadness on IRC, in the #newbsd-uk channel, where he chats with about a hundred other users and a few developers. In reality, most of the names on the right side of the terminal are silent ghosts; the active ones, only about ten. There is also a user with the eclectic nickname "electra," whom he has never seen before, complaining about a system crash every time she connects the mouse to her computer. The issue cannot be dismissed with the standard solution of directing the user to read the documentation more carefully—Please, RTFM, they curtly repeat, and when the unfortunate one doesn't understand, they sadistically spell out the acronym in full: Read The Fucking Manual. So, as not to interfere with other ongoing conversations, Electra and Richard switch to a private chat. Two hours later, they haven't made any progress, but they discover the fortunate coincidence of living quite close to each other: from Richard's house in West Cross, a half-hour drive is enough. They arrange to meet the following afternoon at Electra's house. It turns out that she is indeed truly named Electra, two years older than him, living with her widowed mother, with a degree in classical literature, a passion for medieval literature, and a strange and equally ancient interest in computer science for an English girl.
They meet the next day; the problem is solved in less than an hour, followed by two additional hours of small talk, conversations, and coffee served in the garden, along with raisin and nutmeg biscuits. Richard returns to his car with a floppy disk in his pocket. Inside are the necessary modifications to the mouse driver. He also carries a 3-pound cake with him, sponge cake with white cream and powdered sugar, gifted to him by Electra, which he carefully places in the trunk. At home, after crossing the threshold, he places the cake on the dining table. He turns on the computer, taking off his shoes and pants during the system startup. He drinks a glass of water, takes a plate, fills it with a quarter of the cake, and returns to the computer. Between bites, he integrates the modifications to the NewBSD driver while battling the crumbs that get stuck between the keys.
Electra's mouse now works properly, but that evening, they continue to chat online.
<Electra> Thank you again, it was cool to see a real hacker hacking :D
<Rfox> Thanks for the pie! (already half-finished, by the way)
<Electra> Wow, that was fast. But then, this means it was kinda edible.
<Rfox> More than edible: quite good.
<Electra> We should do it again.
<Rfox> Fixing your mouse? I think it should work now.
<Electra> -.- I'm not talking about the mouse.
<Rfox> Uh. A beer, Friday night?
<Electra> Fuck, that's gross.
<Rfox> Let me try again: dinner at Piazza.
<Electra> Much better.
On the hill overlooking the valley all the way to the ocean, under the arch of the Norman ruins of Pennard, in the presence of only their closest friends and relatives, they get married with a civil ceremony on October 15, 1996.
They experience days of ordinary happiness. A communion of souls based on mutual gentleness, the sharing of surreal humor that makes them genuinely laugh at the silliest things, and the fulfillment of a life with less loneliness. Long walks on Rhossili Bay beach. Enjoyable and recurring evenings at the cinema, preferably for the late-night showings: no disagreements about movie choices. The equal certainty of not desiring children, not in a world like this. Increasingly fraternal affections, sporadic sex, compensated by Richard during his nights of work when Electra's breathing from the bedroom becomes slower, in front of the monitor with its bluish reflections, while he masturbates to the images the modem loads at the slow pace of a striptease. Even though he loves her, he prefers the pixels of voluptuous redheads in stockings. He performs meticulous searches to find those with curly hair and a shade of red akin to the hue his mother used in her youth, women adorned with pearl necklaces and blue eyeshadows, willing to engage in any degrading performance. He does not conceal from his wife the final outcome of his repeated nightly orgasms when she, in the morning, seeks a more carnal union than the affectionate forehead kiss he customarily reserves for her, and his response too often is: 'I'm tired.'
On September 11, 2001, they watch images of devastation on TV. The towers crumble, and people choose their own death by jumping out of windows, in a final act of will.
"Can you wish for others to suffer?"
It's not just a rhetorical question. Electra genuinely asks Richard as he returns from the kitchen with two Pimm's in his hands. He hands her one, and in the exchange, he notices her trembling hands.
He sits on the other Eames Lounge.
"I've never hated anyone," Electra says while searching for an explanation for the horror. But the sentence feels false to her.
"I have," Richard confesses, with years of delay.
"What do you mean?" she startles. She stares at him and places her drink on the coffee table.
"Sometimes I wished Axel would disappear from the world entirely."
"Is that all?"
He, thinking he has made a decisive confession, is disappointed. Before moving forward, she takes a sip from her glass.
"You genuinely don't know?"
"The reason for this hatred."
"But you do?"
"Axel abuses everyone. Anyone would hate him."
Richard gets up with the glass in his hand. He takes long strides towards the kitchen, across the creaking rosewood parquet floor, through the room with the Murano glass chandelier. He returns defeated.
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
"He abuses everyone. But he made your fortune."
Three weeks later, Axel Lundberg expresses dissatisfaction on the project's coordination mailing list. He doesn't like Richard's approach, as for weeks, Richard has put in efforts, analysis, and radical modifications to increase the security of NewBSD's TCP/IP stack. The dissatisfaction must be acute because it spills over unfiltered in the email content: Richard's work is the subject of criticism bordering on ridicule; the shortcomings, errors—according to Axel, a result of too much methodological carelessness—are emphasized with asterisks and underscores, loading words like *never*, _bullshit_, and **fucking** with weight. The email has the same tone as those that have occurred during the most tense moments over the years, but what is unprecedented is the effect that tone has on Richard. He tries to explain twice, relying on his composed demeanor, why he did things the way he did. He checks his email again and reads another unyielding attack. He feels a spike in blood pressure. His cheeks burn, his nose pulsates. It's better to respond later, at the end of a walk.
On his return, he regains control of himself. He composes his response. "I've had enough," he writes, typing on the keyboard that doesn't click, with short strokes, as he has always preferred. "Do it yourselves, the way you think is best. There will be someone who can replace me. I've given it my all, but now it's enough: I'm leaving the project."
The decision proves final, despite pacifying attempts coming from all sides except the necessary one—Axel. And from his position, earned over the years, with the respect he deserves, Richard has no trouble finding a new job at an equally prestigious company that has decided to entrust him with the optimization department of their C language compiler. The financial reward surpasses his previous one.
The change of employment involves a two-month break. Electra wears a wide-brimmed straw hat that droops near its extreme edge. Under the July sun in Greece, in Santorini, Richard returns from the drenched shore, euphoric, trembling, brimming with proposals for the evening. As the sun collapses behind the mass of water, reclining on canvas loungers, the aftertaste of Assyrtiko on their tongues, concluding the triumph of the senses—salty, tangy, mineral: they admired the trailing vines on the fertile ground, always thirsty for savory moisture as they cycled through the dark fields— Electra asks if he's happy.
"I thought it showed," he replies.
"And about changing jobs?"
"Give me some time."
It only takes him three months to realize that he isn't. Outside of NewBSD, he is no longer the same Richard Fox as before, or at least not the Richard Fox perceived by others as a leader in the world of computer science. He realizes this in the autumn of 2002, at Cardiff University, visiting a colleague with whom he had transformed the university's computing center into a true British excellence years ago. The now-professor congratulates him throughout their time together, magnifying his successes, trying to convince their creator of the goodness of certain approaches and algorithms. But he does so by speaking of his work in the past tense, as if he were dead.
In the waves of Culver Hole, a surfer cuts through the windblown sea. As they descend the trail in hiking shoes, sweaty and damp from both rain and perspiration, it is April 16, 2005. Electra, somewhat emaciated in recent times, finally slimmer, tackles the path with unexpected agility. The three openings of the building nestled in the rocks—a circle and two rectangles—remind her of the first video game in history: Atari's Pong. Richard sees a skeleton's face in them.
They sit on the sparse grass in the saturated air. Richard quenches his thirst and hands her the water bottle.
"You're acting strange for now."
"What do you mean?" she asks.
"You go out without explanations. Sometimes you don't talk to me. It's not like you."
The wind blows from the sea towards the mainland, permeating the grasses and seashore rocks, carrying the saturated scent of salt. She remains silent.
"You're betraying me," he concludes, without resentment.
She smiles slightly, shakes her head, and becomes serious.
"I have a tumor," she calmly clarifies, avoiding his gaze as her eyes wander towards the depths of the sea.
Dr. Nutter, from the Windsor Health Center, the third doctor to be consulted on the case in just ten days, after a few dry questions, an analysis of the papers in a peculiar manner, of someone who can't find what they are looking for — to the point that Richard, impatient, asks if something is missing, and is hushed by a finger pointing to the ceiling —, suggests a treatment as vigorous as the disease is, at opposite poles — so he says —, at the fourth stage. After a description of the procedures to which Electra should undergo, without ever glossing over the gloomiest details, with feigned detachment — one must know what they are up against in order to choose, he justifies himself with unassailable words —, she, distraught, nauseous, asks him if he would recommend a similar path to his daughter. Protected by glasses with brown-tinted lenses, he looks at her surprised. He reopens the papers, stares at them for a few seconds, lifts a sheet, lets it fall down, lays his palms on the desk and admits no, he wouldn't recommend it. And so, she asks, resentful, deceived, why do you suggest I do it? Because medicine primarily aims at survival. However, there are other choices, he concludes.
They return home with more serenity. After all, she summarizes with inadvertent lyricism on the journey back, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, death is easier. And besides, she logically adds, the alternatives will have the same effect. Maybe a few months later, amidst hospitalizations, debilitating procedures, and no hope of normal days. If things go wrong even sooner due to complications.
Nine weeks later, on her deathbed, irreversibly worsened in the last two, weak, confused, she is no longer certain that she made the right choice.
When on August 4, 2005, at 3:03 PM, she stops breathing, Richard, grateful, repentant as well, finally succumbs to despair.
The eleventh edition of the Open Software Conference is held in September 2015 in Portland. The average age of the attendees is twenty years younger than his, yet many recognize him, and some approach with a copy of Programming Alchemists—already in its fourth reprint—hoping for an autograph, perhaps with a dedication. Series of souvenir photos are taken: he stands still in a pose while others take turns—one stands next to him while the other takes the photo, then they switch, and the cycle continues. They record his words during coffee breaks as he talks about the chaotic early years of NewBSD's development, the tensions of certain technical choices, the bugs that proved so resistant, engaging him and others for months, the lack of perception, while they were in progress, of the importance of those efforts. But then, what drove them? asks a girl with violet hair. The game, he replies. Fully satisfied with the answer, as if it were the only acceptable one—and asking the question was just a ritual to hear it repeated—she confesses that he is a reference, a distant point to aspire to for her: essentially, she concludes with teary eyes, a lighthouse. Richard, who never had role models and doesn't feel like illuminating or directing anything, cannot explain it.
In the afternoon of the second day, in a crowded secondary room where half the audience remains standing—months earlier, when contacted by the organizers, he declined the opening talk in favor of a more discreet technical intervention—he speaks to the audience about his new project. A graphical system for the 6502 CPU, over thirty years old. There's no practical outcome, he clarifies; just pure delight and the desire to return to the origin of modern computing, to the root of his programming journey. And if that's the goal, the operation is a success; he spends months enjoying himself without fearing irrelevance, which is an integral part of the specification, and therefore blameless. However, during an experiment that he initially considered somewhat daring, at Mubles High School, where he has been volunteering to teach programming to children for two years—assisted by Irma Zephyr, a teacher at the same school and his life partner for three years—he discovers that the young students grasp 6502 programming better than modern graphical environments. When Irma questions him about the cause of such a paradox, he pragmatically responds with clarity, "It worked for us, and it still works for them."
In Portland, he meets Axel Lundberg for the last time. He shakes his hand with respect, happy to see him again, he expresses it—though he finds Axel considerably aged, he keeps that to himself. The other seems pleased with the encounter too, but unfortunately, two minutes later, he has to run off. This time, Richard doesn't take it personally.
On February 25, 2018, he stands in line at the supermarket checkout. Through the partially covered glass windows, he sees heavy rain pouring outside. He exits with two shopping bags in his hands, his hair soaked and the bag mouths tightly sealed to prevent water from entering. Standing at the pedestrian crossing, he ponders the most efficient way to calculate the cosine using only binary sums and shifts. Lost in the set of instructions, longing to return home, feeling cold, he follows the trail of a boy sprinting across the street. A Mercedes turns from the perpendicular road, and he finds himself in the middle of the lane. It hits him head-on. He somersaults onto the hood as clouds, then the ground, then clouds again alternate in his sight. He lands under the right door, palms facing the gray sky. The driver exits the car in a confused state, not watching where he steps and accidentally crushing a coconut-flavored yogurt jar produced by Onken. A swarm of bystanders rushes to help, but there is nothing more that can be done.