Aaron and Alice and Jaime, from the beginning, or very near it. Jaime, affable, always, had shown up at the dining hall one day with Alice, like she was a stray.
“This is Alice,” he told Aaron. “She reads tarot cards.”
Jaime could reduce everyone he met to their most positive or interesting trait. More importantly, he had the ability to elicit that trait from them, to find out what one thing about themselves they most wished the world knew. Freshman year, when most boys were still leading with lines like “What’s your major?” Jaime was assessing people, boys and girls, as if he were about to elevator pitch their life stories to a movie exec. Aaron wondered how Jaime might pitch him, but the only introduction Jaime ever gave him was, “This is my friend Aaron.”
Which was no minor thing. To Jaime, the most important thing about Aaron was their friendship, and, having few friends himself, Aaron didn’t take this lightly. When Jaime brought people to Aaron to be introduced, he was seeking Aaron’s approval. Jaime thought of Aaron not as cool, but as an arbiter of cool. He was in awe of the things Aaron could make a computer do. First semester, Aaron had built a backdoor into the meal card account system, which was laughably easy, but impressed Jaime to no end. Before spring break, Aaron could eavesdrop on the email conversations of everyone on campus, but rarely bothered, having found them to be an endless accounting of how drunk people had gotten the night before, who had fucked whom and what pieces of academic work were being neglected as a result. Aaron felt if he couldn’t participate in any of the actual fucking, it didn’t do him much good to read about it.
More than that, being able to glance into the sphere of active college social life depressed him. As much as he might disdain this kind of chatter, he understood its function and the cost of not being a part of it. In books and movies, lifelong friendships were cemented by sharing some great hardship or witnessing some rare wonder. At the University of Chicago, light on legitimate hardships and barren entirely of wonder, friendships were patchworked out of a dozen tiny interactions. Microhardships. Nanowonders. Within his sight but outside his reach was a world held together by a web of a million filaments. Aaron dangled from the bottom of it, suspended on a thread by his friendship with Jaime.
Alice Who Read Tarot Cards was shy at first, and Aaron spent much of that first lunch stealing looks at her, at the embers of red at the roots of her dyed black hair, at green eyes that rested long on objects and faces, taking in the shapes and sizes of them as if she’d need them later.
“So you read tarot cards?” he ventured. She nodded. “You know tarot has roots in Kaballah?” he asked, trying to work a Jewish mysticism angle that, as far as he knew, had never in history been successfully used to pick up a girl. She nodded. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“No,” she said, and took another bite of her ham and cheese.
Alice became a fixture in their lives. Aaron interrogated Jaime to discern whether his intentions towards Alice were romantic. Determining they were not changed nothing in the dynamics among the three of them, as Aaron’s feelings remained unexpressed. To Aaron’s chagrin, they had become an inseparable triad, and spent most of their time in the small common area of the dorm room he and Jaime shared. Alice and Jaime were both from large families, she from a brood of Irish Catholics and he one of the middle scions in a Chilean dynasty. They took to each other as surrogate siblings, exactly the way Aaron feared Alice saw him.
The day Jaime brought in Eric, Aaron and Alice were spending a rare afternoon alone on the couch, her head resting casually on his thigh. For Aaron, there was nothing casual about her hair spilling across his lap like cornsilk. She’d stopped dying it black, although the ends were still a faded purple. She was reading a book on Edward Hopper and urbanism. He was staring blankly at a copy of Eight Theories of Religious Experience, occasionally looking down at her, at the way her eyebrows pushed in towards each other as she concentrated on the book, at the rise and fall of her chest and the way her right foot played with her left on the arm of the couch.
There was a soft knock on the door that could only have been Jaime’s, who seemed to have more faith than Aaron that if Aaron and Alice were left alone together, sparks would at some point fly. Alice called for him to come in and Jaime opened the door a crack to peer in.
“Hey guys,” he said. Convinced no sparks were at the moment flying, he let himself in, leaving the door open to show someone standing in the doorway behind him.
“This is Eric,” Jaime said. “He has an idea.”
Eric wore a pale blue button down shirt and and khakis, the uniform of the business major. Sleeves rolled up, indicating a readiness to get his hands dirty as long as there was no possibility of actual dirt-to-hand contact. Straight blonde hair parted to the left in a haircut Aaron couldn’t help thinking of as the Hitler Youth look, but slightly mussed. Aaron suspected it had been mussed on purpose, a bit of costuming to come here slumming with the nerd set. Aaron imagined Eric’s parents had weighed a dozen recommendations before deciding on an orthodontist.
“Hi there,” Eric said. “It’s great to meet you.”
“Is it now?” Aaron said skeptically.
“You’re the guy who hacked into the grading database, right?”
“You’re not him? Jaime said — ”
“I showed them it could be done, I didn’t do it. If I’d done it and someone like you knew about it, I’d’ve been expelled.”
“Someone like me,” Eric said, deflating a bit.
“Besides which, I didn’t hack into it. I’m a programmer, not a fucking hacker.”
“I’m not sure I know the difference.”
“The difference is a hacker would’ve gotten caught,” Aaron explained. Alice snorted.
“Why is that?” Eric asked innocently.
“A hacker,” Aaron continued as if he’d been waiting for this question all his life, “would have sat down at his computer, with its IP address like a fucking fingerprint and weaseled his way into the database, then rattled around in there, knocking over lamps, leaving footprints on the rug and generally making a big noise to get one little thing done. And the next time someone checked the database, they’d see a trail leading right out the back door and right to the hacker’s personal computer.”
“So what did you do?”
“I built a program that could be untraceably sent from anywhere, bounced through a dozen servers, routed through dummy email accounts, whatever. The program, which was sleek, small and elegant, went into the database, changed the things I’d told it to in advance and then disappeared.”
“I heard you did it in the middle of a comp sci class.”
“I had a friend who was in the class. He saw it.”
“It was a timed program,” Aaron said. “It went off in the middle of class because I told it to, is all.”
“Well, thank you nameless person I don’t know.”
“Eric. Eric Hardy.”
“Well, thank you, Eric Eric Hardy I don’t know.”
“And you’re also behind the celebrity death emails, aren’t you?”
Aaron winced. The celebrity death notification emails had been something he’d thrown together one night when he was drunk and had turned out to be the kind of joke that was only funny after a night of drinking. “Fuck, I need to shut that program down. How did you know about that?”
“I got one when Alec Guinness died.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Good guess,” Aaron admitted.
“Tell me how it works.”
“It doesn’t work, it’s pointless,” said Alice from behind her book. Aaron looked over at her, surprised she’d given any thought at all to one of his programs and hurt she’d judged it pointless.
“There’s the Mavet program,” Aaron said, “which has a list of celebrity names. Not a long list. People off the top of my head I thought might die soon. Or should. Mavet’s out there searching for death notices on these hundred or so people all the time, and if it finds one, it notifies the Yophiel program that sends out an email to everyone on campus.”
“How’d you get the emails?”
“The notification program is on an administration computer. It accesses the full student email list from there.”
“How did it get there?”
“I put it there. That’s where it lives.”
“So the emails come from the dean?”
“The emails come from a dean. It’s randomized. Sometimes the dean of students, sometimes academic honesty, sometimes athletics.”
“But whose computer is the program on?”
“It’s on all of them.”
“Totally. Fucking. Pointless,” Alice said with a smile.
“No, no it’s funny,” Eric said, putting his grin on full display. Aaron didn’t want Eric defending him, didn’t want Eric in the middle of he and Alice.
“So what is it you want?” Aaron asked.
“Jaime mentioned you guys had beer,” he said, flashing his grin at each of them in turn. Aaron imagined Eric counting the seconds in his head so they each got equal servings of grin. Jaime snapped to attention. He’d been buying for them regularly with his older brother’s ID.
“Anyone else?” asked Jaime, who left quickly and came back with four Goose Islands already opened. Aaron felt something shifting away from him. A year’s efforts to excise Jaime from the situation with Alice were collapsing. Or expanding. Instead of paring down to two, he could feel the population of Planet Platonic swelling to four as Alice pulled her feet up to make room for Eric on the couch. It was like an Edgar Rice Burroughs story where the handsome earthman lands on a savage planet. And the handsome earthman always got the girl.
“I want to start a dating site,” Eric said after his first swig of beer. “The University at first, but eventually all the other colleges around Chicago too. But college specific. To start, at least.”
“Like a chat room?” Jaime asked.
“Chat rooms are lame and desperate. I want people to be able to scope out people who like the same things they like. Like if you’re into Coen Brothers movies or — ” Eric looked around and spotted one of Aaron’s posters on the wall, a blurry photo of four sixties moptops “ — or the Left Banke.”
“No one’s into the Left Banke,” Aaron said. Eric smiled at him, something Aaron realized was of a different species than Eric’s forced grin. It was a good smile. It said you caught me sucking up.
“Okay then, if you’re into Radiohead. You could find other people who were into Radiohead and see what else they were into. Or if you saw some girl on the quad, you could find her picture on there and find out about her.”
“Sounds stalky,” Alice said.
“All dating is either stalking or drunken hook-ups,” Eric said. It sounded like a line he’d delivered before, polished till it shined.
“It wouldn’t work,” Aaron said.
“Just like that?” said Eric. He smiled at Aaron again and Aaron wondered what it was Eric knew that Aaron didn’t.
“Look, you and I are in a network, right?” said Aaron. “We are the network. There’s one connection to build. Now we add Alice. Three of us, three links: Me to Alice, you to Alice, me to you. Add Jaime. Now there are six links. The earlier three, then Jaime to each of us. Add one more person, you’re at ten. At six people, fifteen. At ten members, forty-five links. At fifteen, a hundred five. And that’s with only one search field per member. The complexity of a group grows exponentially faster than its size. By the time you’re talking about enough people to make a dating site viable, you’re talking about thousands of thousands of links. The data entry alone would take a fleet.”
“So it can’t be done, you’re saying.”
But Aaron’s wheels were turning and he knew Eric had him. He was pretty sure Eric knew it too.
“I’m saying that’s why it hasn’t been done. That kind of networking, unless it was centralized, it’d never work.”
“But if it was centralized?”
“If people had profiles that were held on a centralized server, it’d be possible to create a program that would create those kinds of links. If you entered Radiohead as one of your favorite bands, instead of being text like it is on the residence hall Who’s Who pages, it’d be a link. The link would sort everyone else on the server who had Radiohead as one of their favorite bands. Build a page. It could do that for anything, if it was programmed right.”
“Could you program that?” Eric asked.
Aaron waved the question away. “But it’d take up a lot of space. You’d need a big server. High bandwidth in and out. Because there’d need to be a critical mass of people.” He thought on it for a second, an idea took a shape in his head and then collapsed. “No, it wouldn’t work.”
“Why wouldn’t it work now?”
“Critical mass. Let’s say it starts with us four, we all go through the trouble of building these profiles for ourselves. Listing our favorite things, uploading pictures. First of all, who’s going to do that? It’s a hassle. And second, who’s going to do that to look at pictures of the four of us? You’d need a critical mass at start up and you’d have to make people’s buy-in cost low.”
“I wasn’t going to charge.”
“The time-cost. No one’s going to spend time setting up a profile to participate in this, not at the start. You’d want it to be super easy.”
“It would only be successful if it were successful.”
“Nobody wants to come to a party if there’s nobody there, especially not if they have to get all dressed up.”
“Let’s back up. How much are we talking in terms of cost, for server space?”
Aaron did quick calculations in his head. “Five grand.”
Eric exhaled and rolled his eyes back. “Out of my budget.”
“Let’s say I could get you the server space,” said Jaime, who’d been following the conversation avidly.
“How would you do that?” Eric asked.
“A friend of my dad’s owns the Chicago Data Center,” Jaime said, somewhat sheepishly. The Chicago Data Center was a hideously modern building on the west side of the city that Aaron had been hearing more and more about recently. It housed huge amounts of data in an attempt to help establish Chicago as, if not a Silicon Valley for the Midwest, at least a viable storage option between the massive server farms in Ashburn, North Carolina and the thousands of smaller boutique server camps that peppered the Bay Area. No one had a clear picture on how much had been spent on the building, with its fail safes, surge protection and innovative sprinkler system that used a fine, non-damaging mist to douse flames, but estimates approached a billion dollars poured in. It was one of only a handful to times Aaron had heard Jaime mention the kind of resources he and his family had access to. Jaime was being sold on this idea.
“So we need critical mass and low-effort entry,” continued Eric.
“Those would be key,” Aaron said.
“But if we had those, you could build a program like what we’re talking about?”
“Might take a couple weeks, but I probably could.”
“Do you think you could have it by the start of next semester?”
“Over break? Definitely.”
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you do it by the start of next semester.”
“How much of your budget is that?”
“The whole thing,” Eric said.
“And the other stuff?”
“Tell you what, you work on that. Jaime, you get us the server space and I’ll come up with something for critical mass and a low-effort entry.”
“What should I work on?” asked Alice coyly.
“You work on staying beautiful,” Eric told her and winked. There at the beginning of their friendship was the first moment Aaron hated him.