Story Title: Startup Companies are Time-Consuming and Risky

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Ten of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 11, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 11, 2019


Seated at a VT-100 terminal next to me, Albert Rose told me, "My roommate Mark is going away to visit his parents this weekend."

I asked, "I haven't seen Mark Ronson on any of these terminals lately. When we had Computer Programming for Engineers last year, we were often here, or in the next room on the punchcard machines. He has that class, so why isn't he here?"

Albert typed some commands to start his program, then remarked, "Hardly anybody uses the punchcard machines after the upgrading of the PDP. You don't see Mark because he dropped his course. He decided not to continue with engineering."

I did some more typing on my own terminal, then remarked, "I hadn't known until now."

Albert said, "Mark hates using a computer more than any other engineering student I met. I don't see how you can be any flavor of engineer these days without using computers."

I asked, "Can I assume Mark didn't switch from engineering to Computer Science like you did?"

Albert chuckled and said, "CS would be a hard major for somebody who hates touching a computer! I've barely gotten him to try a videogame on my Commodore 64. He certainly won't do any academic work on it. I showed him how I can modem in to the PDP when the computer center is closed after nine pm back when he was still in his programming course, but he refused to try it."

I sent my file to the printer, then told Albert, "I'm done here, so heading out. Anything happening in your room now that you are alone this weekend?"

Albert responded, "Sure is! I learned from Robert Knot at the frat house that Josh has gotten a ride down here for the weekend. Josh is busy on Friday and Saturday night and will be sleeping on a couch at the frat house, but on Saturday afternoon, he's coming to my room to exchange software. Why don't you come and bring your Vic-20? You can skip the monitor and printer. We can hook your Vic-20 to my large TV while leaving my Commodore 64 hooked to the regular monitor. I'm sure Josh has some Vic-20 software to show us, and I want to show him the PET software that works well on my Commodore 64."

On Saturday afternoon, I went to Albert's dorm room. Besides Albert Rose and Josh Cistern, I found Tom Anderson and Bruce Brown were there. Tom owned a Vic-20 computer himself, so it made sense for him to show up to exchange Vic-20 software. While Bruce did not own a microcomputer, he had been hired last semester to write some BASIC programs on Dr. Domain's Commodore PET microcomputer, which was an earlier computer that has many similarities to the Commodore Vic-20 and Commodore 64.

I asked, "Is Robert coming over? He's got a Vic-20 computer as well."

Josh replied, "No, he's still at the frat house. He's getting his D&D game ready for tonight. I gave him cassette copies of my new games before coming here, and he said that's all he wants."

Tom said, "Joel and I both got to bring our Vic-20 computers to Dr. Silver's Electric Circuits course to solve Linear Equations on a test. That worked great. It has me interested in software that will really help with classes, not just games."

Josh told Tom, "I wish I could have done that in my Electric Circuits class at Bill-of-Rights University! It would have helped!"

I observed, "What really makes a difference for classes to me is the word processor and my printer. I have a history class this semester, and writing papers for that is so trivial now! Unlike Dr. Buck last semester in my Freshman Composition courses, my history professor considers dot matrix printouts the same as a typewritten report. Dr. Silver also gives extra points for neatness, and likes my word-processed printouts."

Josh informed us, "I have a dot matrix printer myself now. On this cassette, I have my latest word processor program. It is rewritten and improved. I'll show the changes."

Even though Tom did not have a printer, he also wanted a copy, so Josh gave us both copies and demonstrations. Yesterday after class, I had gone out to the drug store in Cornfield City and bought about five dollars worth of cassettes at three-for-a-dollar, so that was no limitation for software exchange.

After we were done with the word processor, Josh got out another cassette and said, "This is a database I wrote that I call Vic File Case. It works even on an unexpanded Vic-20."

Albert protested, "There's not enough memory on a Vic-20 for a database unless you get a big memory expansion like Joel has."

Josh countered, "You can set the limit for the number of records higher if you have more memory. Even having a three-kilobyte expansion is a great improvement over no extra memory, but the program does work without any. Joel, take out that memory expansion on your Vic-20 so I can show you."

Josh demonstrated the program. It had a list of items in pages. Certain items would be in reverse font, so act as headers. Thus, one could make a database with something like a header in reverse font of "Asimov" and then records under it in non-reversed font of "Caves of Steel" and "I, Robot." Then, one could make another header like "Clarke" and the records under it in non-reversed font of "Childhoods End" and "Rendezvous with Rama."

Albert complained, "That acts as having only has two fields per record. That's not much use as a database."

I wondered, "What does fields mean?"

Albert elaborated, "In a database, you have each record broken into fields. One field would be something like your last name, another for you first name, another for your phone number, another for your city, another for your state, and so on. I think a minimum of three fields is needed to be useful.

Josh shot back, "My Vic File Case program works on an unexpanded Vic-20. It is even more useful on a Vic-20 with as little as a three-kilobyte memory expansion. For a Vic-20, most people have no memory expansion. For those that do have an expansion, the most common type is three kilobytes."

Tom said, "I can think of uses for Josh's Vic File Case despite the limitations."

Albert noted, "Josh, you're not making your word processor work with just a three-kilobyte memory expansion...or with none. Thus, you're not allergic to writing software that needs more memory"

Josh responded, "My word processor needs at least an eight-kilobyte expansion, but better to have sixteen or twenty-four. Otherwise, it won't hold much text."

Before Josh went on, Tom said, "Joel will have a bunch of circuits and math programs to give you, but I don't want to hang around when Joel shows you all that. Josh, what I want to see next is games! You had some great Vic-20 games that you wrote yourself last semester. You've had the whole summer and a few weeks this semester. What games did you bring?"

Josh switched cassettes, then explained, "I modified my maze game. Now, a robot chases you. You have a gun and can shoot it. You also can shoot a wall in your way. However, you only have one shot."

Tom eagerly tried the game. He seemed to get lost in a maze. Forbidding music came out, which Josh explained the robot was getting close. In desperation, Tom shot a wall to escape. A message on the screen notified him of his death.

Tom asked, "What happened?"

Josh, "You shot an outside wall. I forgot to tell you that this maze is on the moon. If you shoot an outside wall, you die."

Bruce tried next. He was making his way quickly through the maze. Again, the forbidding music came on as warning.

Josh declared, "That sound indicates robot is only three rooms away."

Bruce announced, "If this were the 2D view, the ending point in the far-right corner is just behind this wall. I'll use my one shot on it."

He shot a wall and behind it was a wall with the word, "Finish."

He took a step to that finish position before the robot to him. He had won the game.

Bruce declared, "Pretty good. It's more exciting than just roaming a maze on your own."

I tried next. I was halfway through the maze when the sound indicated the robot was approaching. It came in two slideshow shots where I could see the robot first very small, then very large. I pounded away at the expected key to shoot it, but the gun did not fire. The robot killed me.

Albert observed, "Joel was shooting in what should have been plenty of time. I believe coding in interpreted BASIC is simply too slow for a fast-arcade-action game of this style."

Josh did not appear to like this criticism, and said, "I've got some ideas to speed up the code."

Albert predicted, "The one way to get it fast enough is machine code or assembler."

Josh switched to a different cassette, "This is a strategy game like you like, Albert. It is turned based, so not fast-arcade-action."

Josh explained this was based on a common game played with a wood block with holes drilled in it. Golf pegs were put in all the holes but one. Pegs jumped over another peg, with the jumped peg removed, similar to jumping a piece in checkers.

Bruce declared, "That animation looks great! These aren't PETSCII characters, but high res graphics!"

Tom looked closely at the screen and chimed in, "The graphics are amazing."

Albert wondered, "How can you redefine the characters on a Vic-20 without a memory expansion? The mapping of the character set two kilobytes for one of the PETSCII sets, and four kilobytes for both. Even for just one PETSCII set at two kilobytes, this is running in an unexpanded Vic-20 so there is only 3.5 kilobytes available."

Josh proudly explained, "I only redefine a few characters. I don't care about mapping the other characters since I don't use them in this game. I move the memory limit down to have space for the characters that I change."

Albert pointed at his machine, "With a Commodore 64, you can redefine the entire character set however you want without losing any memory at all from BASIC."

Josh agreed, "I know that. I'd love to get a machine like your Commodore 64. I have a printer now, but I am still saving up for a C-64 and a disk drive. Still, there are lots of Vic-20 computers out there so this software will work on. Most Vic-20 owners only have tape recorders. This game should sell."

Tom noted, "You mentioned selling software. This game looks as good as some commercial games. Are you going to try to find a company to manufacture and distribute it?"

Bruce put in, "Good as commercial games? It's better than most."

Tom nodded and said, "It's so good you could create your own company to sell it and your other programs."

I put in my own support, "I keep seeing things in the type-in magazines that claim to be word processors for the Vic-20, but end up only being simple line editors. Your word processor truly has full-screen editing, so is better than those."

Josh grinned and said, "Tom, you guessed my plan!"

Bruce queried, "What is the name of the new company?"

Josh said, "I wanted to call it Sirius Software, with Sirius spelled like the name of the star."

Albert said, "That seems like you got it from the name Sirius Cybernetics in the radio show Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy."

Josh stated, "Unfortunately, it seems others thought of the Sirius name before my group did. So, now we're consider Slan Shack as a company name."

I asked, "What's Slan mean or an acronym for?"

Josh replied, "Slan is the title of a science fiction novel by A.E. Vogt. I'm working with three guys who live in an apartment that they call the Slan Shack."

Albert groaned.

I asked Albert, "You know them the people living in Slan Shack?"

Albert replied discouragingly, "Yes."

Tom put forth, "Despite Joel's ignorance, it is not that original to call an apartment or house a Slan Shack. The first place called a Slan Shack was way back in 1943! I know people calling their apartment the Slan Shack in Minneapolis, and I doubt connected to anybody in Irate City."

Josh shrugged and said, "The names Slan and Slan Shack may be taken. The company name is still in flux. Two of the guys I am working with are in Computer Science, and the last in Business."

Albert warned, "Most start-ups fail, Josh. I wouldn't endanger or slow getting your degree over this. Also, if the guy with the Business major is who I think it is, I would be cautious working with him."

Josh bravely tossed back, "Hey, Albert, I'm still surviving in EE. I'm smart and hard-working enough to both create this company and be a full-time EE student. It'll be fine!"

I put in, "I'm working six hours a week as a tutor. That combined with being a full-time EE student is about as much as I can handle."

Josh noted, "I'm a lot better at programming than you, Joel. I can handle it."

Bruce gently said, "You're the most productive programmer of all of us, Josh. Still, even you have limits."

I liked the diplomatic wording Bruce had used. I felt Albert was the most technically proficient programmer, Darnell Priest who lived on the first floor of this building was the most up-to-date, but neither of them cranked out software at that rate that Josh did.

On that grumpy note, the whole group of us left Albert's room to head over to the frat house.

When the weekend drew to a close, Josh returned to Irate City to continue on at Bill-of-Rights University. I wondered if his software company under whatever name they chose would succeed. I did not know the other guys that lived at Slan Shack, but Josh himself seemed to have a combination of programming skills with entertainment skills and finger on the pulse of the latest trends. I thought I might have just seen the beginning of something big for his start-up company.

However, as the days and then weeks passed, I had little time to think about what was going on in Josh's life up there in Bill-of-Rights University. Here at Cornfield University, Dr. Silver had us students swamped with impulse and step functions, convolutions, using a negative complex number to represent a capacitor, a positive complex number to represent an inductor, exponential rise and fall formulas, and other aspects of electronics. While we did a good amount of FORTRAN programming for Dr. Silver's class, we did much more circuit building on breadboards. We had to buy our own electronic parts, and that got quite expensive.

It was only through money from my MSLC tutoring job that I was hanging on. One day when I was over looking at his latest effort so on his Commodore 64 microcomputer, Albert Rose asked about what electronics parts I needed. I told him, remembering he had started out as an EE major himself. After I told him, he got one of his many briefcases out of the closet. He took out some electronics parts and told me I could have them.

I said, "This would help a lot. Don't you want some cash for them?"

He replied, "Just take them. I don't need them anymore now that I am in Computer Science."

That was very helpful to me, probably more helpful than Albert ever knew.

While Bruce Brown and I were doing reasonably well in Dr. Silver's course, Tom Anderson began really struggling. Some of the mathematical ideas confused Tom. By getting help from both Bruce and me, Tom was getting by.

As midterms approached, I gave up on playing in Robert Knot's D&D games. I just could not spare that kind of time. I sometimes would play for a few hours on a weekend in Simon William's D&D games. Simon was much more tolerant of sporadic appearances by players than Robert was. Bruce soon followed my example. However, Tom kept going to both Robert's and Simon's D&D games. Simon regularly played in Robert's games, so they were not on the same night. Robert eventually stopped returning the favor of playing in Simon's games, but I do not know why.

In the same Computer Science major as Albert Rose, the students Darnell Priest and Jared Jacobson kept playing in both Robert Knot's and Simon William's D&D games. Yet, Albert Rose himself began playing in less of both. Albert still played in D&D games more than Bruce and me, but much less than he had before.

Getting close to Halloween, Bruce Brown showed up at my dorm room. I let him mess around on my Vic-20 computer as I worked on homework. After playing some games, Bruce noted that I had the November issue of "Compute!" magazine. Magazines tend to be marked a month ahead to increase their shelf life. He flipped through this.

Bruce said, "This game called 'U.X.B.' looks nice. The screenshot shows it uses redefined graphics, like Josh talked about."

I replied, "I already typed it in. I can't get it to work. Here, I'll load the code. See if you can find a mistake."

I went back to homework while Bruce searched the code. In the end, he said he could find nothing wrong.

I suggested, "Go ahead and try it."

He did, and it failed.

I explained, "Sometimes, the magazine's programs have an error. Usually in two months, there will be corrections in a column called 'Capute!' Thus, there will probably be new lines showing up in the January issue."

Bruce suggested, "Let's not wait. I want to learn more about how Josh did those redefined characters on a Vic-20. We'll learn a lot figuring this out."

I sighed, noticing how it had turned into "we". Still, Bruce had a valid point. I got out the Vic-20 Programmer's Reference Guide. We dug into the code hard.

A couple days later, we had some eight-by-eight grids drawn on engineering paper. We now knew the pattern was to have a 1 in a column meant multiply it by 2 to the power. The exponents went 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and 0. What had thrown me was I had started at 8 and finished at 1, but that wasn't how it worked. Knowing that, we figured the code out, wrote some new lines, and corrected it.

The U.X.B. game worked!

I really didn't think much of the game itself, but I had fun and learned much making it work. That may sound weird, but I heard from many others who did type-in BASIC code back in that era that getting the program to work was often more fun and certainly more educational than playing the game itself.

Bruce and I proudly gave a copy of the game "U.X.B." to Tom, who pronounced it, "Okay."

We gave another copy to Robert Knot. He was not as impressed, saying the animation was too jerky. He said the redefined characters helped a little over using PETSCII characters. I wasn't sure how much Robert was grumpy about the game itself versus grumpy whenever Bruce and I were around since we had abandoned his D&D games. No matter how often Bruce and I explained about our workload, Robert seemed to take it personally that we had quit his game. It did not help that sometimes Bruce and I would play in Simon's game. Yet, Simon made it much easier for those who could only occasionally find time to join in.

On a weekend in November, but before Thanksgiving break, Albert told me that Josh Cistern was coming down to Cornfield University once again. As Josh had earlier in the semester, he was going to stay at the frat house. On Saturday night, Robert Knot had a big D&D game planned, designed around the triumphant return of Josh's character.

Albert said, "Josh is going to come by my room on Saturday afternoon to discuss computers, similar to last time."

I asked, "Will your roommate Mark be around?"

Albert stated, "No. Mark now goes back home to see his parents almost every weekend. I don't think he likes being a Cornfield University student, but whenever I tried to include him in activities, he refuses to join in."

I said, "I've seen you try. There's only so much anybody can be expected to do. Should I tell Bruce and Tom to come by on Saturday afternoon? They both loved the software exchange last time Josh was down here."

Albert shook his head and said, "I phoned Josh last night. We didn't talk long because it was long-distance, and we can talk on Saturday for free. On Saturday afternoon, he wants to meet here with just you and me. Nobody else, not even his frat brother, Robert Knot."

I replied, "Strange, but I'll be here. I'll bring my Vic-20 just like last time."

Saturday afternoon arrived, and I was with Albert when Josh showed up. He was alone, explaining he had walked over from the frat house. It was about a mile away. Josh looked weary, but not from the relatively short walk.

Josh explained, "I was offered a ride by Robert, but I wanted to walk and think."

I asked, "Is being at Bill-of-Rights University working out?"

Josh said, "Sort of. It's different up there."

Albert put in, "Some things have really changed here as well after you left."

I remarked, "Having my Vic-20 and the printer is still almost an unfair academic advantage. Those are big improvements you made in your word processing program that you gave me when you were last here. Thanks for letting me have a copy."

Josh said, "I bought a 1541 disk drive like Albert's since I was last here. Using a word processor while having random access to files on a disk rather than stored one after the other on a cassette tape makes the word processor much more useful. I'd like to get my word processor modified and working on a Commodore 64, but I don't have time for that this weekend. I'm saving up for my own Commodore 64, but don't have it yet. I've made too many other big purchases."

I asked, "What other purchases?"

Josh informed us, "Anticipating success with the startup software company after I left you guys last time, I bought the 1541 disk drive. Clearly, our company would have to offer software on both cassette and disk. Disk drives are starting to take over. I also got an autodial, auto-answer modem. My idea was to set up a computer BBS as part of the company."

Albert said, "I like the idea of a BBS. I was thinking of getting an auto-answer modem and setting one up in my dorm room, but I don't like the idea of the phone line being tied up."

Josh said, "Dad told me that I could not run a BBS on our home phone line. I would have to get a dedicated phone line of my own. If the company had been even moderately successful, then that would have been a small expense. I also bought my own printer. Joel, having a printer, maxed out memory, and a disk drive greatly improves the word processing experience. I see what you've been getting at with it being an unfair academic advantage in any class that requires typed reports. I think I could even quickly crank out a whole novel on it."

I confessed, "It'll be a long time before I can afford a disk drive. Those of us in Electric Circuits have to buy our own electronics parts, and what I earn as a math tutor barely covers it."

Josh said, "The parts and breadboards are included in the labs at Bill-of-Rights University."

I replied, "That sounds like a nice cost savings."

"I am not sure the cost savings is worth it. Students are scared of getting charged for a burned out part, so often put bad parts away in the parts bin as if good. I've had that happen three times already," Josh noted.

With my red toolbox filled with tools and electronic parts that either I bought myself or were donated by Albert, I certainly kept no parts known to be destroyed! I had never considered this difficulty of school-owned parts before.

Albert asked, "You indicate the software company is a flop, but you bought some new computer gear. What's your revenue stream?"

Josh smiled at the fancy wording, then answered, "At the start of the semester, I got a job at a video arcade. It only pays minimum wage, and the hours aren't great. There are plenty of other minimum wage jobs available in Irate City with better hours and better working conditions."

Albert suggested, "I'll bet your intention was to keep a finger on the pulse of what was popular in video games."

Josh grinned and said, "As my former roommate, you know me well. Although not a great job, I earned enough to buy a printer, auto-answer modem, and largest size memory expansion for my Vic-20. That takes combining a sixteen-kilobyte and an eight-kilobyte expansion. I soldered up a breakout board with switches so I can quickly change my Vic-20 between various memory configurations."

I mentioned, "Last time you were here, one of your Vic-20 games looked very professional because it used redefined characters. Last week, Bruce and I typed in a game that uses redefined characters. It's called 'U.X.B.' and is from November 1982 issue of 'Compute!'. It didn't work."

Josh admitted, "That's not uncommon. In two months, a correction likely in the 'Capute!' column."

I replied, "I know, and I suggested we wait. Bruce insisted we could figure out how to fix it ourselves. He kept hounding me, and we did it. So, Bruce and I now know how to do redefined characters on the Vic-20."

Josh asked, "Can I see the magazine?"

I had it. I flipped to the correct article, then handed it over.

Josh skimmed through it and declared, "Yes, that's how to do redefined characters. This article may be unfortunate for me because now more type-in programs will have redefined characters by following the example in this program. It stiffens the competition."

I took out a cassette, "I made a copy of the game on this cassette. You can have it."

Josh took it, but did not genuinely seem interested.

Albert asked, "Did you learn anything looking over the coin-op videogames at the arcade you work at?"

Josh replied, "A fair amount, but I am not really sure how much good it will do me. Most of the current games use hardware sprites. So, Albert, now I finally understand what you mean by the value of hardware sprites on the Commodore 64 rather than just redefined character graphics to do high res graphics."

I realized the technology was changing so fast that what Bruce and I had just learned to do last week with redefined graphics on a Vic-20, which I had been so proud about and eager to show Josh what we had done, was already obsolete. I could now see what he was not really interested in checking out the game, just in knowing that type-in games now did reveal how to do redefined characters.

Albert asked, "What went wrong with the software company?"

Josh took a deep breath, and said, "What went wrong is not the software. I wrote it, so I still own it. None of it belongs to the unnamed company. The problem was my three partners. The Business major guy was the worst. When I asked him to go do what he promised, he responded by making much more elaborate promises, yet still not complete even the initial task of the first promise."

Albert seemed to be biting his tongue to avoid saying that he had told him so.

Josh glanced at Albert, and correctly mind-read what Albert was thinking but not saying, "I know, Albert. You tried to warn me about him."

I asked, "Were all three of your partners full-time students?"

Josh answered, "Yes. For the two Computer Science guys, what happened is not that they are lazy. In the Computer Science building, the computer terminal rooms have had keypad locks put in at the start of the semester. Everybody in the Computer Science courses that use those UNIX mainframe computers got a keypad code. With those codes, these terminal rooms are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."

I whistled and said, "The sounds wonderful. The PDP-11 got major upgrades this semester, so is far more usable in the daytime. Still, it doesn't really shine until after nine pm when accessed with Albert's modem. It would be better to just go to a terminal room to use it as, say, eleven pm rather than the bottleneck of a 300 baud modem!"

Josh countered, "The 24/7 terminal room access may sound wonderful, but it's not. The professors know about the 24/7 keypad locks. Knowing about it, they gave about three or four times the programing work as the last time the same courses were run. My Computer Science partners were run ragged."

Albert thoughtfully commented, "I heard of those 24/7 terminal rooms, and the resultant issues. Darnell Priest still has friends in Computer Science up at Bill-of-Rights University from before he transferred down here. In way, it seems a good thing since students learn and implement more in less calendar time, but the vastly increased workload seems likely to burn students out fast."

Josh said, "Both Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Bill-of-Rights University seem designed to burn out students fast."

I suggested, "Don't think it would be easy if you stayed here, Josh. You're missing out on the experience of having Dr. Silver as a teacher!"

Albert added, "I've seen of Joel's homework, circuits, and computer programs for Dr. Silver. The same concepts can be covered with much easier tasks. It makes me glad that I switched from EE to Computer Science."

I wondered, "Josh, you indicated that unlike here, CS students and EE students have different terminal rooms. What are the access times for the EE terminal room?"

Josh sighed heaving and said, "You hit the nail on the head, Joel. The computer terminal room in the EE building had 24/7 keypad locks put in halfway through the semester, following the CS terminal room example at the start of the semester. I think if I hadn't been so busy working on the software start-up, then I would have been fine. As busy as I was, I ended up having to drop an EE class after the midterm results came back. I'm down to thirteen credits like you had last semester, Albert. That will slow my planned graduation by one semester, but I'm still in EE. I've been working hard since then, and got my grades back up in my remaining courses to being reasonable as final exams get close."

I asked, "Why did you take a weekend off if you're so overwhelmed with work?"

Josh replied, "I had to get away from that pressure grinder, even if just for a weekend. After this weekend, I'll push hard all the way through finals week. I won't even get a D in anything. In the long run, everything will work out. I still own all that software that I wrote, so I've decided to send it out to the type-in magazines. I already mailed out Vic File Case to 'Compute!' magazine."

Albert said, "As a database, it still doesn't have enough fields."

Josh countered, "Because it works on an unexpanded Vic-20 and the type-in magazines love that, I think it has a good shot. If it sells, then I'll start trying to sell my games, utilities, and even my word processor as type-in magazine articles."

I said, "It would be fun to know a published author. I hope it sells."

Josh said, "What I'm in the mood for after supper is a solid D&D game run by Robert Knot! I've really missed those games. What's going on in his 'world'?"

By 'world,' Josh meant the fictional world with details that related to the lives of the player-characters.

I admitted, "I don't really know. About once every two weeks, I play in a game run by Simon William, usually leaving early...well, about midnight. However, I gave up on Robert's games well before midterms. His group plays too often and keep going until about three in the morning. The player-characters in Robert's games advance too fast for my character to fit in."

Albert added, "I only play in Robert's games occasionally myself now. Darnell, Gerald, Simon, and Tom still regularly play in Robert's games, so could tell you much more about his 'world.'"

Josh asked, "Is Robert still coding to improve his Dungeon Masters Assistant program on his Vic-20?"

Albert regretfully answered, "He stopped doing that at the end of last semester. He doesn't even use that program when running his games anymore."

Josh said, "That's too bad. Robert was showing real talent in programming."

I felt Josh had lead Robert through the difficult programing last semester. In my humble opinion, Robert was nowhere close to the programming level of Albert, Bruce, Tom, or even myself.

Josh asked us, "Any idea how Robert is doing in his courses?"

I suddenly suspected this was the real reason Josh had wanted to talk to Albert and I without the customary crew hanging around, but I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, "I have no classes with him."

Albert had a more forthright answer, "From what I heard, Robert might not be back next semester."

Josh looked troubled and remarked, "If I had still been around, then he might have kept going with his coding and studying."

Albert stated, "To me, it seems Robert is far more interested in running his D&D games and playing computer games then attending classes. Robert's now owns even more Vic-20 game cartridges than Tom does. Robert skips classes to play videogame cartridges and to play D&D and sometimes skips them for what to me seems no reason at all."

After supper, the three of us went to the frat house, grabbing Bruce Brown, Tom Anderson, Darnell Priest, and Gerald Jacobson along the way. Our whole merry group walked the mile to the frat house. In the parking lot was a pickup, so Albert said, "Simon William is already here. He usually brings his girlfriend Lori."

Reversing his previous position of banning us for playing too seldom to keep up, Robert agreed to let Bruce and me back into his D&D game after our long absences. After all, Josh's absence had been even longer, almost a full semester.

We had several fold-up tables out to hold Robert, Josh, Albert, Bruce, myself, Tom, Darnell, Gerald, Simon, and Lori.

As the game progressed, only partial attention was paid to the mechanics of the game itself. There kept being extended interruptions to tell the visiting Josh of amazing things that happened in previous games run by Robert. Seldom did Bruce or I know any more about these missed grand adventures than Josh did.

Around midnight, the D&D game devolved into just sitting around with the large group telling stories. Since this game took place at the frat house, the large fridge was well-stocked with adult beverages. Nobody seemed to mind that the late evening turned into a storytelling session rather than a game.

Darnell sniffed, sipped some whiskey that Robert had handed him, approved of it, then said, "Josh, what I really miss from when I was at Bill-of-Rights University are the D&D games at the Dungeon Masters Association that meets in the student union. Have you played in any good games there?"

Josh replied, "I've not really played D&D since I left Cornfield University. Oh, I've been to the group you mentioned, but only to exchange software with some guys there."

Robert looked shocked as he asked for clarification, "You haven't played D&D since my last game in May?"

Josh affirmed, "That's correct. I've been writing lots of software, working at the video-arcade, and trying to start a software company, while also being a full-time EE student. That simply did not leave time for D&D."

Darnell suggested, "You might be doing the right thing avoiding D&D up there, Josh. If I had spent less time playing D&D games there, then I might not have bothered to transfer down here. Those were some great D&D games that I didn't want to miss. Playing in those games can be addictive."

Robert frowned as if Darnell's praise of the addictiveness of those D&D games in Irate City was an insult to the quality of his games down here in Cornfield City.

Josh remarked, "I'll be heading back to Irate City tomorrow."

Robert asked, "Are you coming back here before this semester is over?"

Josh answered, "No, finals are coming up. I'll be putting all my time and energy into that. Relax, I'll be sure to visit Cornfield University again next semester."

I knew that I would pay for this night off by having to work hard to get all I needed done for Dr. Silver with an intense Sunday. This was the last D&D game for me this semester as much as it was for Josh.

Robert downed a drink and then confessed, "I might not be back next semester, Josh."

Josh said, "Robert, you've been on Academic Probation before, yet end up back as a student next semester despite it."

Bruce remarked encouraging, "I was on Academic Probation at the start of last semester, but I'm in Good Standing now."

Robert got another drink and admitted, "Bruce, you aced everything last semester. I'm not sure what I'll pass this semester, if anything."

Darnell proclaimed, "Robert, if you could get credit for DM-ing Dungeons and Dragons game, then you'd be getting a solid A! You and your games would fit right in at the Dungeon Masters Association if you lived in Irate City!"

Robert Knot smiled at that praise of his D&D games from Darnell, who Robert seemed to consider a valid judge of such things. If Robert was not back in college next semester, then I hoped being praised by Darnell for DM-ing excellent Dungeons and Dragons games would be a consolation to him.

Others joined in with praising Robert's D&D games over the past year and a half.

Encouraged by this, Robert told what days he would run his D&D games all the way through and including Finals Week.

Personally, I thought given what Robert himself had admitted about fearing not passing classes that he should spend all his time up through the time of his final exams studying instead. Perhaps for him, it was already too late. That Bruce and I would miss all these later games seemed a given for all in the room. Bruce and I just being allowed in this one last D&D game by Robert was a one-time exception done to honor Josh Cistern, who seemed to want us included in the group.


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