By Colin Laurence
Click here to send comments
Please fill in my Survey after reading (click here). I'll be glad to return the favor. And you also get a discount on your own survey.Thanks!
I was high above the Rocky Mountains, gliding between the clouds. Mists of snow swept into view, like prism dust with no place to go, and no time to get there. I floated through the mountaintops, alive and exhilarated, trusting the sweeping winds to guide me on my way.
I was flying. Me. Ben Lemske. I was really flying.
Not caged in a metal chamber; not strapped to a rumbling engine; not dangling from a winged trapeze. FLYING! Like a bird, but better. Feeling the wind coursing across my body. Hearing the world whisper in my ears. Seeing the earth unfold before me. If ever there was a universal dream, common to all mankind, this was certainly it.
I glided to my left and sped towards a cluster of snowcapped peaks, standing in staggered columns as if posing for a portrait. I accelerated towards the nearest summit, gathering all the speed I could muster, then veered away at the very last moment. I taunted each approaching mammoth similarly, angling away an instant before I was flattened by it.
As I cleared the range, I was greeted by a flowing valley rimmed with majestic mountains, some crowned with snow and sunlight, others on their knees in reverence. A sudden crosswind caught my flank and I let it carry me, banking to my left as I hugged the craggy walls. I was alive with sensation --- the visual splendor, the roaring wind, and the thin edge of danger that I romanced with each increasingly aggressive maneuver.
I widened the arc of my downward spiral, careening so close to the whipping treetops that they almost grazed me. Then, as the mountainside met with the grassy plains, I leveled out, shooting across the flatlands like a bobsledder spinning out of a turn. I finally pulled up in deference to the approaching ridge, my decreasing speed supplanted by sprites of wind coursing upward, creating the sensation of floating instead of flying. I crested the ridge, glancing wistfully behind me, then turned back to behold the spectacle laid before me --- mountains, lakes, rivers and rocks, frosted with snow and painted in Western pastels, for miles in every direction. I hovered on a gust of air, and looked skyward in silent prayer.
Gazing towards the heavens, I spied a golden eagle soaring elegantly above me, inspecting its kingdom. I hovered towards it with arms outstretched, gliding and circling as I mimicked its flight pattern. Occasionally, our paths would intersect, and the regal bird would cock its heads and look at me derisively. But the eagle was too haughty to offer more than a passing glance, however disdainful.
Suddenly, it dove. The eagle had issued a challenge.
I hesitated, then followed suit, arms drawn tightly as I hurtled towards the densely packed forest below. I strained to maintain my composure as my sense of preservation begged for attention. My stomach churned as I swallowed, again and again, adjusting to the rapid changes in air pressure. Bile crept up my throat as I wrenched my eyes from the plummeting bird and glanced downward. Pine trees, close enough to smell, reached for me malevolently. I leveled out, heart pounding wildly as my feet grazed the treetops.
Regaining composure, I scanned the horizon in search of the allusive eagle. A brownish shape, gliding just above the treetops, flashed along the edge of my vision. I turned my head, and it was gone. Vectoring in on this last, uncertain sighting, I rushed forward at full throttle. Unexpectedly, an opening appeared in the forest canopy, and I angled towards it.
The opening revealed a rectangular pool, almost tropical in nature, framed by towering trees on three sides, with a solitary cliff on the fourth. A waterfall gushed forth from the cliff’s granite wall, arching gracefully into the water below. Diagonal rays of sunshine filtered through the trees. And there, standing proudly on a granite boulder, was the golden eagle, a wiggling brook trout clamped tightly in its beak.
The scene was so spectacular, so spiritual, so inviting, that it called for celebration. Gathering momentum, I launched myself beneath the waterfall, feeling the cool tingle of water spray across my back. Hands outstretched, I strained to touch the elusive rainbow, persistently keeping its distance. Ending the fruitless chase, I swept upward, refreshed and invigorated.
Cresting above the trees, I set my course for a distant mountain pass, looming miles off in the distance. Cruising peacefully, the unfolding splendor of my surroundings engulfed my senses, and I bathed in its glory. But underlying every moment, every spectacle, was that fact that I was experiencing something only the gods could relate to. I was flying, unassisted by any mechanical aid. Flying like Superman! If I wanted to go somewhere, I simply … went.
The mountain pass led towards the most tantalizing, treacherous terrain I had yet encountered. Jagged, ice-covered peaks spiked up wantonly, like the fangs of a carnivore. Sleet pelted the landscape, wrung from ominous clouds, permitting only glimpses of the canyon beneath. The setting sun receded beneath the horizon. All my senses implored me to turn back, but the rush of adrenaline beckoned me onward.
Hesitantly, I spiraled downward, buffeted by random wind sheers rising off the uneven terrain. An unexpected gust blew me sideways, and my back scraped against the rocky walls. Startled, I bolted away, reaching behind me to check my injury. No blood was apparent, but a tingling sensation radiated along my spine. Sobered, I floated cautiously downward.
Closer inspection of the canyon base revealed a shadowy pit lined with grinding boulders and solitary conifers, reaching upward like stalagmites in a torch lit cave. A wolf howled in the distance, sending a flock of skittish nighthawks off in search of friendlier quarters. Filled with foreboding, I commanded myself upwards as fast as I could fly.
Suddenly, the sky went dark.
I pawed at the air like a marionette, spastically searching for a handhold. My heart hammered against my chest in an attempt to escape its surroundings. As I plunged deeper into blackness, I began muttering the “Our Father,” marking a spontaneous return to Christianity, rapidly escalating into an evangelical plea for God to save me from my impending doom.
And she responded.
A woman came hazily into focus as she unzipped my Netwear mask and helped pull it off my head. “I … am … so …. sorry,” she said haltingly. “But,” she paused to catch her breath, ”that was the funniest thing I ever saw.”
“I almost died,” I said breathlessly.
A hand clamped over her mouth as she struggled to arrest the onslaught of open laughter. I stripped out of my Netwear “Smart Suit” --- a programmable fabric designed to send precise electrical impulses anywhere along its surface. As I did, her body began to shake, and she fell back onto the bed, pantomiming my flailing attempt to save myself.
Robin Corso was my soon-to-be ex-live-in girlfriend. We had met 4 years ago when she was an Assistant Marketing Manager Massachusetts Materials and Metals Corporation, and I Vice-President of Marketing at Techcentric Technology Corporation, or “TTC.” Jointly, we had developed the first commercial use of the ingenious bioelectrical fabric now known as “Netwear,” creating the EF (Ear Foam) Personal Home Theater System. The EF was essentially a moldable earpiece that fit into the user’s auditory canal. Nanostructures on the Netwear surface, combined with its unique microlocation technology, produced wavelength emissions targeted at specific receptors on the tympanic membrane, more commonly known as the eardrum. The result was a listening experience that “sounds so real it’s surreal.”
The EF system was light years beyond any audio product ever invented. Four years ago it was just a concept, hastily drawn up on a cocktail napkin. Three years ago, it was awarded the Most Innovative New Product award the by Consumer Technologies Magazine, and Robin and I began dating. Two years ago, TTC recorded $200 million in revenues, and Robin moved in with me. But 12 months ago, Castanet Incorporated, a start-up that had carefully skirted our patents and developed an EF “knock-off” at a fraction of our cost. Soon thereafter, our sales went down the tubes. TTC ended up desperately selling the remains of the company to Castanet for $32 million, leaving me with about $2,000,000 after taxes, and a bank vault full of disillusionment.
“I nearly had a heart attack!” I bellowed.
Robin laughter trailed off as she sensed my rising anger. It was unlike her to find humor in another person’s misfortune, but the scene that had played out before her had apparently overwhelmed even her rigid sensibilities.
“Why’d you disconnect me?” I growled.
Robin propped herself onto her elbows and looked at me with those piercing, Siberian Husky eyes of hers. “Because you never do it yourself,” she said flatly.
Here we go again. Robin was constantly nagging me that I spent too much time connected to my PC, and not enough time connected to reality. I knew there was an element of truth here. Since the buyout, I spent most of my time surfing the net, looking for new ideas for businesses to start. OK, I spend some of my time looking for businesses to start, and the rest of the time lost in the ether. But, really, how the hell was I supposed to find the next big thing? It was a mental scavenger hunt. And besides, I was actually performing a service for her employer. Sort of.
“Hey, I’m only trying to help your company here. Jack asked me to test his new application. It’s really quite amazing”
“Is that his silly Virtuality program?” she asked cynically. My girlfriend rolled her eyes, reflecting equally on my claim as well as on my best friend, Jack Wilming.
“Maybe,” I responded meekly.
Robin and I were having so many barbed exchanges lately that I wondered how we were still together. But it had not always been like this. Three short years ago, we changed the world by day, and shook its bedposts at night. We were inebriated by what we were doing --- pioneering the consumer biotechnology market --- and we were equally intoxicated with each other. Robin was beautiful, smart, high-minded and energetic. I was handsome, creative, inspirational, and driven. Techcentric allowed me to use my special gift for “connecting the dots,” taking unproven technologies and creatively bringing them to market, while simultaneously acquiring financial and personal gain. It was exhilarating. But that was then.
Since the sale of TTC, our trajectories have headed in entirely different directions. Under her new boss, Gene Hayashi, Robin is finally getting the one thing that has always eluded her --- recognition --- and she’s basking in it like an Eskimo on the beach. I, on the other hand, am deeply mired in loathing and self-pity. I long for the days when the world was my oyster. Lacking that, I’ve endeavored to maintain some common ground between us. I’ve tried to make her as miserable as I am. In my more encouraging moments, I offer up inspirational jewels like, “watch your back,” and, “they’re just using you.” Other times, I’m really negative. When Robin accepted Netwear’s offer to run their Medical Technologies Division in Chicago, it was unclear whether she was running to something, or from something. Frankly, either reason was valid.
"I swear, you nearly killed me," I said weakly.
"Well, let's just see about that," responded Robin, reaching across my chest to access my computer. Inches from her body, I was reminded of what had attracted me to her in the first place. Her understated make-up and conservative dress could never completely mask her delicate nose, her ice blue eyes, her over-sized smile, her wavy brown hair, or her svelte body. But beyond physical beauty, Robin's inner purity of purpose was both irresistible and maddening, all at once. I was inexplicably attracted to her righteous sense of duty, perhaps responding to some inner void of my own, but was often times repelled by her lack of spontaneity. In some respects, she was the perfect woman who I could never completely have … never totally meld with.
"Now here's a useful Netwear application," Robin said, as she switched applications on my PC. “Let’s pull up Net Vitals.”
Let’s pull on Ned’s vitals?”
The monitor displayed a complete map of my body, including the jelly role that had recently appeared above my hips. Funny, I had time to work out almost every morning during the hey-day of Techcentric but, lately, I couldn’t seem to fit it in. Next to the image of my degenerating body was a host of statistics, ranging from temperature, body fat percentage, pulse rate, blood pressure, oxygen intake efficiency, glucose level, and a host of other physiological metrics.
“So THIS is why you’re leaving me,” I lamented in jest.
Robin looked at me gravely, my humor evading her. “Ben,” she said menacingly, “let’s not get into this now.” Then she proceeded to get into it anyway.
“Net Vitals has the potential to change the entire medical industry. Patients can send real-time information to doctors across the globe, allowing them to make life-saving decisions without actually being present. Historical databases can be created based on the Netwear readouts, allowing users to proactively determine whether they are heading towards a threatening condition. And customized vitamins and medications can be forwarded to supply companies, creating supplements that are configured exactly for your specific body chemistry.”
“Yeah but, you gotta’ admit, the name sucks,” I said sarcastically as I headed towards the shower, unaware that I had gone one joke over the limit.
“It’s just like you to put down what I’m doing,” lectured Robin as she pounded after me. “This is important to me. I spent 6 years going to night school getting my MBA while performing menial tasks for a steady stream of fat, lazy, balding guys who sole skill in life was having lunch. They thought Netwear was a line of lingerie until I found a market for it. And now that I can do something truly useful with it, something larger than using it as part of some frivolous entertainment product, and you just put me down.”
Netwear. My boon and my bane. Sometimes I wish I had never heard of it. Five years ago, it was an experimental material developed by scientists at the Windham Institute of Technology on a grant from Massachusetts Materials and Metals Corporation, or “M-cubed” as the company now called “Netwear Incorporated” was then known. Forged by the marriage of bioengineering and nanotechnology, Netwear was a silk-like filament harvested from the fur of transgenic goats --- laboratory-bred animals whose atomic roadmap had been altered for the purpose of producing pseudo-organic substances.
Netwear not only possessed all the remarkable qualities of natural spider silk --- finer than human hair, softer than cotton, but stronger than steel --- it was genetically embedded with a matrix of microelectronic devices. Distributed throughout each and every Netwear thread was a network of micron scale biosensors, molecular transmitters, and DNA-based nanocomputers.
Initially, no one had a clue of what the applications might be for a low-cost, organically grown programmable fabric. Then a junior marketing associate named Robin Corso stumbled across a brilliant but eccentric engineer from the M-Cubed Advanced Development Group named Jack Wilming, who was charged with managing the Netwear project. Jack, seeing Robin as a ready audience for his latest obsession, invited her to lunch to explain the fundamentals of the Netwear packaging system. Knowing Jack as I do, I’m quite sure that he intended to examine Robin’s packaging as well. Despite his conflicted interests, Robin felt the embers of Jack’s excitement, and began quietly searching for real world uses for Netwear. Weeks later, Jack happened upon an old friend while attending a company beer-bonding event. Me. Idle chitchat turned to business, and Jack introduced me to the lovely Ms. Corso, and to Netwear. The rest, as they say, is history.
The rewards Robin personally reaped from the success of Netwear were in no way proportional to the success of her company. In three short years, Netwear sales grew from zero to over $2 billion annually. In those same 3 years, Ed Mickson, Netwear’s President, had repeatedly passed over Robin for promotion. Mickson was the embodiment of everything Robin despised in an old-boy businessman. One of the more eloquent things she ever said about him was, “… he’s an overweight, scum-sucking, mind-numbing putz.” Personally, I never looked at him that way. I just thought he was an asshole. My pet name for him was “Mr. Dicksin,” as in, “Who’s-Dicksin-got-his-dick-in-today?” Although Robin found my characterization amusing, she rarely stooped to that level of childishness despite my constant prodding. In our relationship, childishness was my department.
Irreverence aside, Robin was clearly dissatisfied with her status within the company. A good portion of our personal time was spent analyzing and re-analyzing why she was never invited to be “in the club.” Robin believed that Mickson was threatened by her, fearing any move which gave her access to senior management on the premise that it would highlight who was responsible for Netwear’s success, and who was not. I was more inclined to view my girlfriend’s black-and-white perspective on all earthly issues --- often times her greatest asset --- as her biggest roadblock to advancement. “Senior management lives in the gray zone,” I explained, “and you see gray as something to be plucked.” Invariably, my comments fell on deaf ears. Robin’s uncompromising approach to life was such an integral part of her being that she was incapable of change. So, like most people who accept the unenviable task of working for a large corporation, she simply kept her game face on in public while complaining about her treatment in private. Then along came the impenetrable Gene Hayashi who, as Robin tells it, “… can tell the steak from the sizzle.” In three short months, he promoted her to Division Vice President, effective tomorrow. And if that’s not bad enough, I have to attend her company going away party tonight, along with the largest collection of corporate drones in captivity.
I reflected on my situation as the spray of the shower drowned out Robin’s diatribe. I was 37 years old, out-of-shape, and jobless. My girlfriend was moving 2,500 miles away, and I was being forced to attend a party packed with people I despised. I was surrounded by despair and disappointment.
But all I could think about was flying.