They should have moved the camp, but all the roads were blocked by troops keeping a perimeter around the craters left by the fighting. But then, the troops meant Franklin could take a break, too.
He was sitting at a small folding table under the big tent with his netbook. Ostensibly it was because he was involved in a some kind of role-playing game with other players. However, this game was more turn-based instead of running full time online; there was no advantage offered to obsessive players who stayed connected. Instead, the game was incrementally updated by the participants as each interacted with the game offline, then uploaded their actions in the form of a compressed data file. Franklin had told the curious team members that it wasn’t much on simulated combat, but heavy on adventurous quests.
He didn’t mind when anyone watched, so when Joe sidled up with a folding chair and sat next to him, Franklin turned to glance at him with a faint half-smile.
“Can you take a moment to tell me a little more about your parallel society?” Joe had obviously been thinking hard about their last conversation in the cab of the truck.
Without turning from his game, Franklin answered in quiet tones. “It’s not an organization in any conventional sense. More like a family. There’s no name for it, but there are clusters associated with some major players. Some are elders, and I stick with one in particular. He calls his part of the family ‘The Shepherd’s Household.’ Most of us call ourselves the Shepherd Family.”
“Okay, so it’s not like his name,” Joe guessed.
“Nah. It’s a role, the quintessential image of mature adulthood in our society.”
“How did this whole thing get started? How do folks join?” Joe was deeply curious.
“Well, the official answer is that it never did start. Whatever it is that gives us our shared identity is as old as the human race. But in recent centuries the distribution of such folks really thinned out. Where whole nations and civilizations had this outlook in ancient times, it almost disappeared when Western Civilization came to dominate. Some years back a few folks bumped into each other on the Internet and their shared outlook became a sort of self-conscious identity. Once they started writing about it, other folks recognized themselves in the discussion. They were still geographically scattered, but began to constitute a virtual miniature civilization, a parallel society.” Franklin glanced up with that faint smile again.
“So you don’t join it, you just decide to hang out with folks who think alike.”
Franklin released a single puff of laughter through his nose. “You got it. I can give you a link to the website where I connect to the Shepherd Family. If that doesn’t seem like home to you, there are links to other elders and websites.” He scribbled something on a small notepad next to him, then passed it Joe and resumed his game.
Joe took the piece of paper. “What’s this? It doesn’t look like a URL to me.”
Franklin responded almost absently. “It’s an IP address; my elder controls the whole server there. It will give you a large menu of links. There’s a library, chat forum, a couple of old timey blogs, and some other stuff. There’s even some games like this one,” he said pointing to his netbook screen.
“Is that where you got that game?” Joe was almost laughing.
“Yep. But I’ll let you figure out what the connection is.” Franklin seemed to get more involved in the game and Joe took the hint. He stood and picked up his chair, walking away with his eyes on the slip of paper.
What Franklin kept to himself at this point was that the game was just another way for members of the virtual family to chat with each other. The conversations were couched in terms of the simulated adventures, which was a key to understanding their world. They insisted that the real truth of reality didn’t yield itself to objective and concrete descriptions. Rather, it could only be indicated and explored internally. It was beyond words and rational thought; it was all about a personal and living moral force. So the game chatter conveyed far more than a casual viewer could guess.
There was no real intent to keep secrets, but mere privacy. However, when something truly private between two individuals arose, the game offered an option. To the casual observer, the simulated characters all reported to some branch office where at least one person was always sitting at a keyboard in front of an ancient style computer console. When they checked in, their character name was displayed on the screen in line of sight. If the name was followed by a few lines of status data, followed by a block of numerical codes, it was about the game play. If there were no status lines, only codes, then it was a private message that was keyed to a code on the players own real-world computer. The player could trigger a decryption and the message would be a pop-over displaying on the screen in front of the game.
When Franklin noticed that he had such a message, that was when he subtly asked Joe to give him some privacy. The message wasn’t too alarming, but it was important.
We got wind of your near demise. Is this something we can help you with? If so, use a pad to respond.
Franklin knew that his virtual family were all over the place, but never expected something like this. Somebody knew he was nearly killed today, so that meant he had family in a position to know and offer help figuring out the puzzle. He couldn’t think of a reason to say “no.”
He saved his game, then moved his character up to the computer console and triggered the option to type on it inside the virtual world. He first selected the option to use an electronic one-time pad. It meant using a restricted vocabulary keyed to the codes that were randomized, but matched to another “pad” on the other end. Franklin had only ever used it once before back when he was getting help with his divorce. He decided to rely on the laborious process of picking one word at a time from the vocabulary list displayed in a pop-up. This kept him involved for quite a while, and he realized the rest of the team had retired for the night. Finally he saved the message, and then saved and closed the game. He took a moment to upload his game file before he quietly slipped off to his own tent for the night.