The Wegner

There’s decent money to be made in storage auctions. At least, there used to be, before the reality TV shows made everyone think they could get rich quick. The unit was crammed with old boxes and some furniture. The furniture caught my eye — a refinished vintage desk from the fifties or sixties could sell for quite a bit. The crowd was sparse, and I won the auction for a steal. After the auction, I drove the box truck back to my warehouse, and began unloading it. My warehouse was a small prefab metal building with a roll-up garage door that my father had used, when he was alive, to store junk in, and to dream about building race cars. To my knowledge, no car had ever graced the concrete floor of that building.

I lived with my roommate Randall. When we met in eighth grade, I hated his guts. He was fat, shy, weird, and worst of all, he was really smart. I soon came to appreciate Randall’s intelligence when that mean old bitch Mrs. Catlett assigned me to be his lab partner. I got an A for the first time in years. My parents were killed by a drunk driver midway through my freshman year at the local community college. They left me their big old sprawling farmhouse, money to bury them, and not much else. Randall suggested I rent out some of the rooms, specifically to him. I understood that he meant it as a favor to me, and at the time, I needed both the money and the company.

At fifteen, Randall started making money building websites. He told me once, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog — or that you’re fifteen.” I learned a lot from him by pure osmosis, particularly in research. Being able to track down both prior sales and potential buyers is a valuable skill in my line of work. Randall, however, moved on from building simple websites to programming full web-based applications. By the time he moved in, he was earning enough that he could pay all of his bills, and have plenty of money left over for his many hobbies.

When I first visited Randall’s house, in eighth grade, I was astonished by his baseball card collection. He had thousands, meticulously arranged and cataloged, and it seemed that he had every stat memorized. As the years passed, he moved from collection to collection. About a year after he moved in, Randall stumbled across what was soon to be his new obsession: mechanical keyboards. He bought us both Corsair gaming boards, then promptly threw them in the trash and replaced them with boards from a Taiwanese outfit named Ducky, complete with fancy LED lighting patterns. I was happy with my Ducky Shine board; the keys felt great, though the clicks were a little annoying. When Randall wasn’t coding, he was shopping for increasingly rare keyboards. He had taken over the dining room as his work area. He set up tall shelves that he filled with boards, each labeled and cleaned, and, in some cases, meticulously wrapped in protective plastic. Randall claimed that he had purchased his “endgame” board, a strangely shaped aluminum beast he purchased from someone in Korea, after a month of tedious and sometimes heated negotiation. When it arrived, I was astonished to see it wasn’t even finished.

“You spent how much on that?” I asked.

“Eight hundred,” he replied.

“Eight hundred, for some metal plates and a bunch of parts.”

“Yea, plus I had to buy the keycaps. So, maybe a grand total.”

“Two hundred for some plastic keycaps? I’m definitely not charging you enough for rent.”

When I loaded the box truck at the storage auction, I knew I had hit paydirt with the furniture. The unit had contained a beautiful oak desk, a padded oak and leather rolling office chair, and some desk lamps. There were also quite a few cardboard boxes of papers, books, and various other junk. In the back corner of the unit, covered in cloth, was a heavy wooden crate, its lid nailed shut. The crate was what interested me most; the file cabinets had papers and files, but I couldn’t open the crate without a crowbar. The furniture alone would double my investment in the unit, but sealed wooden crates typically meant something important. Something of value.

Lifting with my legs, and not with my back, with liberal use of my hand truck, I leveraged the boxes and the furniture out of the truck and into my warehouse. Randall had spray-painted that hand truck hot pink one weekend. “I thought your dolly needed a new dress,” he said, and laughed until his glasses fogged up. The jerk. Finally, I was alone with my prize. I carefully slotted the crowbar, and pried the lid off the wooden crate. Inside lay a large chunk of foam packing material, around a dark piece of equipment. I removed packing material, carefully pulled the device from its crate, and placed it on the desk. The device appeared to be quite possibly the world’s ugliest computer. Its case was a dark reddish brown, with thick angles of metal bent over and around a tiny glass tube screen. The screen shared the front of the case with a floppy bay, along with several other odd ports. Just below the monitor was a label, white letters stark against black Dymo embossing tape: WEGNER-1. The keyboard, packed in its own wrapping of foam, was also red-brown, in a tall case nearly three inches thick. It felt as if it might be made of steel, and had a heft like a murder weapon.

I texted Randall that I had found an old computer, and he came to the warehouse at a run. His jaw dropped when he saw the ugly old thing, and he spent the next ten minutes caressing it and cooing at it like I’d brought him a kitten.

“Gonna turn it on?” I asked. Randall looked at me in horror.

“Are you nuts? The capacitors in this thing have to be over thirty years old! I’ll have to test every single one with a meter, and even then I don’t know if I’d dare trying it. The keyboard, though, has an RJ-11 connector. I have a USB adapter for that,” he said, and got the faraway look in his eye that nerds get when they’re solving nerd problems.

“I’ll leave you alone with your new girlfriend,” I said. “I’m starved, and I have dust all up my sinuses.”

While I showered, Randall carted the Wegner, as he started calling it, into the house, and set it up on the dining room table. Realizing we had no food in the house, and we were critically low on beer, I went to a market to pick up deli sandwiches and beverages. It was late when I got back. Randall was still at the table, looking at the Wegner keyboard through magnifying lenses strapped to his forehead. He looked up at me and sighed. “I can’t figure out how these switches work, man. I thought they might be Hall Effect at first, but they’ve got this weird chip next to each of them. They feel great, though. Like a Topre board with tight buckling springs.” He began reassembling the board. “I got it to work with that USB adapter too. Wanna try it?” Randall flipped the board back onto its base, and connected it to his PC. I leaned over the board, the angle awkward, and started touched the keys.

“Ow!” I said, as a short static shock jolted my fingers. I recoiled, and looked at Randall. “The damn thing has a short.”

“Yeah, it did that to me once too. No idea why. Should be grounded over USB. Come on, don’t be a sissy, try it out,” Randall said. I lay my fingers on the board again. The Wegner’s keys were weirdly slick, and the caps felt slightly oily to my touch.

“Is this thing buzzing when I hit a key?” I asked.

“That’s what I can’t figure out, dude! I looked all over the top of the board and there’s nothing that might make it buzz like that. The case is welded together at the bottom, so I can’t get to the underside of the board, without breaking it. I kinda like it, though,” Randall said. “It’s like a mini-massage for my fingers.”

I settled down at my own computer, cracked a beer and started hunting down the provenance for our ugly new friend. I sent a few emails to some friends in the business, and posted some questions on some “vintage computing” message boards. My first search results for Wegner returned Wikipedia articles about Dr. Meinrad Wegner. He was a German rocket scientist who came to America, perhaps unwillingly, at the end of WWII. A footnote led me to his son, a polymath who graduated from MIT with four degrees at twenty years old, then disappeared from the public eye for a decade. In 1982, at COMDEX in Atlantic City, Wegner unveiled the Wegner-1, a PC clone that he claimed would “change the world”. Wegner’s announcement was met with some skepticism, but mostly apathy. After COMDEX, the trail went cold, with no other articles about Wegner, or his computer.

The next day, I sorted through the furniture and boxes that came from Wegner’s office. The drawers in the oak desk were locked, but the lock didn’t stand up to a screwdriver and a hammer. The first drawer shrieked horribly when I pulled it open. Inside lay an assortment of decades-old office supplies. With the first drawer opened, I could then pull out the larger bottom drawer. “Bingo,” I said to myself. A dozen black paperback notebooks lay inside, each dated and labeled “E. Wegner, Laboratory Notes.” I pulled out the notebooks, and started flipping through them.

At first, it was hard to read Wegner’s spidery, cramped handwriting. In the first notebook, which appeared to be the earliest, dated “1968,” was filled with terse, almost grudging notes about Wegner’s daily work. He had been recruited straight out of college to work at a small, independent laboratory in the outskirts of Massachusetts. At first, he was given menial fact-checking assignments, long and tedious mathematical calculations performed by hand and slide-rule. Wegner’s frustration with these assignments were apparent in his notes. In the margins, though, he had drawn several sketches of electrical circuits. Wegner appeared to have a breakthrough midway through 1969. His cramped handwriting became more expansive, and his ideas more fluid as written on the page. He began to receive greater access to the projects upon which he had been working, and by the end of the notebook, so did I. The small, independent laboratory was in truth a government operation, requiring both Top Secret and an extremely prejudiced “need to know” clearance, operating at arm’s length to provide plausible deniability.

The height of Cold War paranoia had combined with the heady days of the Summer of Love to produce strange fruit, indeed. By 1970, Wegner was involved in dozens of projects, each more bizarre than the last. Remote sensing, life extension, astral projection. Wegner devoured every subject before him, and combined them in ways that were the true manifestation of his genius. Tantric meditation based upon quantum physics, mathematical formulae derived during deeply ritualized seances while megadosing on lysergic acid derivatives he developed during sensory deprivation. In one of these fugue states, he wrote, he became convinced of the possibility of “imprinting” — copying thoughts from one person to another. The military, of course, latched onto the idea as a perfect interrogation method: what better way to question an enemy combatant than to read that enemy’s thoughts?

By this point, I was hooked. I had settled on a creaking wooden office chair, likely Wegner’s, with a beer, two ham sandwiches, and a stack of notebooks. I went to the kitchen for more beer, and a bag of chips. Randall was banging away at his weird old keyboard, headphones on, monitor glare whiting out his glasses. As I passed, I asked if he wanted a beer. He said nothing, lost in whatever code he was working on. I shrugged, and went back to the notebooks.

Somewhere between 1974 and 1978, Wegner had made a major breakthrough. He was still devouring wildly disparate fields of both science and mythology with equal gusto, incorporating Voudon ceremonies with computer science. He wrote that he felt all knowledge in the universe was already known to the universe, and so could be divined, or teased out of the Mind of God. He theorized that ritual and supplication to higher powers were equally valid to proper scientific experimentation, and by 1975 had formalized divination rituals designed to find specific answers to extremely difficult logical calculations. Wegner became convinced that he was contacting entities that existed outside the universe, and these hyperdimensional entities had access to all knowledge, both past and future. Whether Wegner was actually contacting the spirit world, or was simply insane, was irrelevant: his efforts paid off. Double-blind trials proved imprinting worked for moods in 1980, and by the following year, he had a functional device that could reliably transfer clear thoughts from one person to another — if both were concentrating very hard.

The notebook for 1982 was the last, and started with great success: Wegner’s lab assistant, Anne Bowdon, successfully received an “imprint” from a test subject. She was able to document details about the test subject’s life and personal history that the test subject had revealed to no one else, including recent memories that the test subject had attempted to suppress while being “recorded”. Anne, who Wegner had not mentioned in his journals before, soon became prominent in his journals. Wegner noted that after imprinting, Anne seemed more intelligent, often solving difficult problems that had previously been far beyond her skills very quickly. Wegner thought that, perhaps, imprinting added the “recorded” subject’s intellect to the “imprinted” subject. It was Anne who persuaded Wegner to leave the lab, and to take his invention to the public. Anne told him that imprinting technology would “remake the world.”

Wegner wrote that Anne developed the WEGNER-1 PC almost entirely on her own, hand-assembling the case and keyboard in a locked room by herself over a weekend. In an entry dated June of 1982, Wegner wrote that Anne had been trying to convince him that they should leave the laboratory, that the WEGNER-1 would “change the world”. He worried that the government would object — strongly — to their breach of security. Anne suggested they demonstrate the WEGNER-1 at COMDEX, an upcoming trade show in Atlantic City. The government wouldn’t be able to keep their project secret, then. On June 27, 1982, Wegner wrote that he planned to propose marriage to Anne. “This will be the happiest day of my life!”

The notebook was blank after that entry, or so I thought. I flipped through the remaining pages, and saw something written on the back of the notebook. “Anne is not Anne. Something else came through. I have to stop them.” I should have been worried then. I should have felt the cold tendrils of panic crawling up the base of my neck. Instead, I chuckled at Wegner’s madness, and went back to the house.

I am so sorry. For all of you.

When I returned to the house, Randall was still working. He didn’t acknowledge me as I walked past, the loud, clacking keystrokes echoing off the ceilings and floorboards of the old farm house. The original WEGNER-1 now sat on the table, amidst a tangle of network cables. “Decided to hook it anyway?” I said, walking past. No response. I stopped, and nudged Randall’s chair with my foot. “I’m running out for some dinner. Want anything?” Randall’s fingers scrabbled across the board, clicking and tapping, illuminated by the blue glow of the screens like pale spiders. I grabbed him by the shoulder, and gently shook. “Wake up, man. Dinner?” The clicking stopped, and his hand shot up to grasp mine at the wrist. For an instant, I felt overwhelming, disorienting revulsion. I recoiled slightly, pulling my hand away from his shoulder. He released his grip on my arm. His head slowly swiveled towards me, eyes hidden behind twin reflecting lenses.

“No,” he said, voice clicking in his throat. He turned back to the screens, hands again a flurry of motion.

“Jesus, dude, whatever,” I said, rubbing my wrist. He had really squeezed hard. Randall could be single-minded when he was deep in code, but I had never seen him like that. I shook my head, still rubbing my arm, and left. I checked emails while waiting for my food, and saw my message board posts had received quite a bit of attention. The busy geeks on the vintage computing forum had found more information about Ernst Wegner.

“Wegner didn’t just have a nervous breakdown,” the commenter wrote. “He went absolutely bonkers crazy. It was all over the local news. The neighbors heard shouting and called the cops. When the cops broke down the door, they found his girlfriend dead on the floor. He’d stabbed her a dozen times with a butcher knife, doused her in kerosene, then bashed her head in with the jug. In the police report, one of the cops stated Wegner was trying to do some ‘Satanic’ ritual with her body. He had her inside some circle he’d painted in blood, with markings all around it, and just before the cops tackled him, threw a match. Took firefighters hours to put out the blaze. Wegner was only in his cell for a few hours. A bunch of spooks showed up in black panel vans at the county jail. They shoved papers — and guns — in the cops’ faces and had Wegner bundled up and gone before anyone could say no.” Other commenters went on to claim this was proof of a government coverup, then the thread devolved into name-calling and political rants.

The rapid-fire clacking was audible from outside the house, old movie-monster skeletons rattling their bones as I walked into the front door. There was a smell in the house then, an acrid scent of ozone and burned hair. The WEGNER-1 buzzed angrily on the table, deep orange light flickering from inside its case. Randall was a darker shape in the dim dining room, face a smear with twin sparks for eyes. That was the first time I felt the fear that I have become so familiar with. My hand trembled slightly as I fumbled the light switch on. Randall had always been a little overweight, even though he was tall, topping out at two hundred and sixty pounds. The thing at the keyboard, still hammering away at the keys, could not have weighed more than one hundred pounds. Even from the doorway, I could feel an awful, burning heat radiating from him. Skin hung in folds from scrawny, emaciated arms sticking out of a shirt a half-dozen sizes too large. And his hands, his fingers were black and red, shot through with white that I realized might have been bone.

Without thinking, I ran forward to push him away from the keyboard. “Randall!” I shouted. As I grabbed his shoulder, I could feel the bones churning beneath my grip, and some dim part of my mind noted that long drifts of his hair had fallen all around him. The typing stopped. Randall’s head turned to me, mouth working as if it had forgotten how to shape words.

“Do… Not. Interfere,” he said. Those awful hands came up, so fast, I had never seen Randall move that fast, their heat burning my skin through my shirt. Randall was standing somehow, and I was lifted up, and for a moment I could only think how his hands smelled like the meat department at the grocery store. Then he shoved, and I flew across the room to slam into the display case. Pain exploded through my shoulder and arm, and the world blurred for a moment.

Randall was standing over me. I could smell the stink of him, and hear his fingers clicking together, even without a keyboard. “The path is now open,” he said. “We arrive. Rejoice.”

The box truck was gone when I woke. Randall was gone. The Wegner was gone, save for a charred spot on the table, and some melted ethernet cables. The rest of the computers in the house, all gone. Wegner’s notebooks and filing cabinets were missing. My phone was broken, crushed against the corner of the display case. When I returned from the hospital, arm in a sling, I borrowed a friend’s laptop, and checked my email. All of the message board emails were missing. I checked the boards, and my posts were also missing. I checked Wikipedia, only to find entries for both Wegners, junior and senior, missing. Two weeks later, I received a letter from my cable internet provider. My account had been suspended for sending large amounts of ‘suspicious’ data to millions of hosts on the Internet.

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