Wednesday 26th March 1997

We meet at the office at 8am. We plan to pick up the stuff we need, and get on the road fairly early. We are driving to California; firstly to Sherman Oaks, a suburb of North L.A., to do some tech work, and then to San Diego, to officiate the Spring Quads (4-player teams) Tournament. We load the stuff in the Ultrazone truck. "Stuff" includes the truck's back seat. The truck is large and blocky, an overgrown station wagon; but the back seats are an engineer's joy. Like origami, they fold this way and that, forming a flat cargo bay or two rows of bench seating, or even coming out of the truck entirely, to be stored in the Cow Room.

Our plans for a quick getaway are foiled by Sam, the boss, who wants Mark to produce a three dimensional floor plan of the Alhambra arena for some nefarious scheme or other; and wants me to completely rearrange his email. Then we truck on back to my place and pick up my bag containing all my essentials for a three day trip. (Socks, toiletries, IR sniffer, T-shirts, spare laser gun, shorts, screwdrivers, Jolt cola, pliers, juggling balls; all the usual stuff.)

On to the west side of town, to drop the posters showing the tournament fixtures off at the laminators, pick up the trophies, put gas in the truck, pick up the posters, and go back to the site where we're meeting the freeloaders who are catching a lift with us. They cheer as we pull into the parking lot, a mere two hours behind schedule. We call Sherman Oaks' voice mail to let it know that we'll be late; and I do the quickest tech support of my life, with Gene, the manager of the Vegas site.

Gene: Doug, can you take a look at our printers? Me: Nope. Bye.

We set off into the desert. Inside the truck there is much discussion of Zone, paintball, and life in general. Outside the truck there is just desert.

The traffic on the road is a little different from what I might have expected. It contains a lot of cars, but also a large number of trucks, carrying all manner of things, including scrap paper, timber, pipes, cars, even entire houses, cut in half, loaded onto the truck, and just driven away. There are also a lot of RV's, "recreational vehicles" - a cross between a caravan and a bus, a complete lifestyle on wheels. Many of them come complete with garage: a towing hitch on the back to convert a car into a tender.

After an hour or so of driving, we come across a couple of casinos, just sitting, one either side of the road, in the middle of the desert. It is explained to me that this is because we have nearly reached the state line, and Californians driving into Nevada want to be able to gamble as soon as they enter the state, rather than having to drive all the way to Vegas. We cross the state line, containing the least effective border check I have ever seen: "Are you carrying any fresh produce? On you go." They don't even wait for you to answer the question; they just assume you're going to say no, whether you're actually carrying any fruit or not.

A couple more hours of driving, and we approach the important bits of California. You can tell you're getting closer to L.A., because (a) it's greener; (b) there are mountains; and (c) you can barely see them through the haze. Part of the haze is dust off the desert; much of it is probably smog.

California is, as seen from afar, almost a mythical land. It's where everyone who's anyone wants to be; it's what everyone wants to be. On TV and in literature, we see the world that is California, in a thousand tiny ways: palm trees, highways, convertibles, beautiful women. In soap operas and movies, Hollywood is telling us, this is where you want to be. This is who you want to be.

We drive past little bits of pop culture made real: U-Haul trailers, Macy's, Ventura Boulevard, El Camino Real. Towards the denser parts of L.A. on a variety of freeways, we pass by amusement parks, TV studios, four-level freeway interchanges, a graveyard complete with billboard advertising its services, and random clusterings of palm trees with thin, wavy trunks; that remind me of truffula trees. There are also many eucalyptus trees here, and this reminds me a little of home. I watch them through the window.

Eventually we reach the Sherman Oaks site. My job here is to fix the members' terminal, which has been down for weeks. It has evaded all our efforts at repair, including shipping the whole assemblage to Vegas, where it worked fine. I'm a little apprehensive, because I know that I've already tried everything I can think of to fix this thing, and it hasn't worked. All I can do is try the same stuff in person, instead of down the phone, and see what happens.

We go in, lugging boxes of equipment up the escalators, past the customers, into the office. I meet Duval, the technician who I've been working with on the phone to try and fix this thing.

Most of my work is done on the Zone PC, hidden in a cupboard under the front counter where the staff are working, and on the members' terminal itself, balanced atop a wall overlooking a table where a birthday is in progress. I must work on these computers while the centre is open and full of customers, and I have to work on the Zone PC while the staff are using it to sell and run games.

First, I try the second members' terminal, which we shipped here when the first one didn't work. I find it had a bad adapter, and get it working fairly easily. This gives me a lot of confidence for working on the real members' terminal, because I know I have a fall-back position. I mess around with the multimeter for a bit, and find some strange values on the DC plug pack driving the 232-to-422 converter. It turns out that this plug pack is plugged into a bad power outlet on a power board. Like every other component in the system, this plug pack had been tested twice; but each time it was plugged into a different, more accessible, power point. When I move the plug pack to a good outlet, the members' terminal comes up just fine.

Having proved my status as a master technician, I can relax, and play a game in the arena before we leave.

Then it's back in the truck, and on to San Diego.

The freeways continue, seemingly without end. As we travel south towards San D, near the Mexican border, we see a sign by the side of the road depicting a family: father, mother and daughter; running. The meaning of this iconic black-silhouette-on-yellow sign is clear: "Caution: illegal immigrants crossing freeway."

Eventually, we find our exit, curving away to the right. The San Diego site is only a hop, skip and jump from the end of the freeway: after all, in California, if you can't get there on the freeway, it's not worth going.

I've been to this site once before; Mark hasn't. We pull the truck up onto the sidewalk at the front of the site. There are a few dozen roleplayers slouching around the tables on the patio. We haul equipment into the site (spare PC's, tech tools, poster showing tournament fixtures, etc.).

There are twelve teams of four players each entered, with players from Las Vegas, Portland, San Diego and Sherman Oaks. Each game contains three teams.

The tournament runs 'til 5am or so. It then eventuates that Mark has forgotten which hotel he booked us into, when he called ahead from Vegas. We cruise around Hotel Circle for a while, fail to figure it out, and book into a "HoJo": a Howard Johnson.

Thursday 27th

Mark has an appointment at noon with TDI, the people who make the poster printer he uses to produce marketing material for sites; so that they can show him all their latest stuff. He drops me at the site, and I slouch around. I've got several tech things to do to the site while I'm here, but it's spring break, and customers are trickling in the door just fast enough that I can't do any of them. I mostly sit around dropping quarters in a Puzzle Bobble machine (except that it's called Bust-A- Move in the U.S., a name so unmemorable that people just call it "you know, the bubble game"), and reading. By the time Mark returns at 5pm, I have inhaled an entire computer manual, and read half an SF novel.

We go to eat at Denny's, a franchise restaurant. (Everything's a franchise in the U.S.) As we walk in the door there are a small number of people lined up, waiting to be seated. The last 24 hours' intense immersion in Zone and the lack of sleep conspire to force me to solve the shot; and as we step inside, my brain immediately tells me where I should aim my laser gun to deactivate the person at the head of the queue.

We go back to our hotel to get a bit more rest before tonight's tournament. We get lost on the way, and lose enough time that we only get to lie down for about an hour before we have to head back to the site.

Tonight instead of helping referee, I am actually competing. The turnout for the solos is considerably smaller than for last night's quads, and there are only fifteen contestants. The first round consists of four games each containing all fifteen players. I place twelfth overall, and am happy with that.

We get to bed at about 3am. I have to get up at 9am, so as to get to the site with time to do all the various technical things that need doing there before they open at noon. Mark gets to sleep in 'til noon; checkout time.

Friday 28th

We hang out at the site for a couple more hours, waiting for Slick, who we are giving a ride back to Vegas. We play a couple of "left shoulder" games, where all the rest of the players play normally, and those few of us who really know what we're doing compete to see who can shoot the most left shoulders. It's difficult: you have to stop and think about which shoulder is the left, and you have to aim a little high so that you don't accidentally get your target's chest with the same shot. It's also a lot of fun.

The drive back to Vegas takes eight hours. Mark, who has had more sleep than me, does the driving. We arrive back in Vegas, drop off Slick, go to Mark's place, where I drop him off, and I drive home.