Two stone-faced Secret Service agents stand there with wires leading from their ears into their shirts, looking at me suspiciously from behind dark sunglasses. They ask me about the robot ball in my back pocket.
I pull out my Sphero and hand it over for inspection. They want me to open it, to make sure nothing destructive lives inside. “You can’t open it, it’s just a ball,” I say.
“It’s just a ball?” asks one of the agents.
Just a ball. Right. They let me through. My friend Damon, too.
It is more than a ball, of course. It’s an app-enabled robot ball, a Sphero original. Damon and I work for the same small startup here in Boulder, Colorado. He is my partner in this mad attempt to get the most powerful person in the world to play with our product.
We told everyone at the company our plan.
Wouldn’t it be cool if Obama drove a Sphero?
Not a chance in the world, said the marketing guy.
I’m not going to bail you out of jail if you get arrested, said a firmware engineer.
Everyone thought we were crazy. Maybe we were. But what did we have to lose?
I’m going to steal a computer. What do I have to lose?
I am in a basement in Brighton, Colorado. My friends are playing Defense of the Ancients, our favorite mod of the popular game Warcraft 3. One friend is on his laptop and the other on his desktop. The computers are arranged side by side, and I sit in the middle, looking over their shoulders as they play.
I don’t mind waiting. Watching them lets me examine how they level up their hero and build their army of elven archers. After a few games, one friend takes a break, leaving his computer open to play.
Playing Warcraft 3 is jacking into a universe full of fantasy and magic. In a world of chaos, it is up to you, the hero, to end the struggle between good and evil. I play the Demon Hunter Illidan “The Betrayer” Stormrage, who is in love with Tyrande Whisperwind. It feels good to be someone else. Someone who has a story, powerful abilities, an exciting life.
On the other hand, high school is boring. It’s my third year, but I’m considered a sophomore because I’m behind in credit hours. I’m a “problem child” and don’t get the point. Plus, I’m well aware that no one has high expectations of me.
I have dreams, sure, but the reality of my family’s economic situation, and the lack of direction in my life, keeps them at bay. I’ll end up as a truck driver like my stepdad. He wakes up at 3 am six days a week to drive milk from farm to bottling plant, clocking 15, sometimes 17 hour days to make ends meet.
But it’s never enough. We aren’t poor, but personal computers and cable TV are luxuries we can’t afford. In the moments between work and sleep he recites his words of wisdom, “Work hard now and you can play later, Ross.”
But I want to play now.
I stay late at school the day of the heist. I’m feeling confident because there isn’t much to it. This isn’t a vault job. I don’t have to scale the fortress walls or suspend myself from the ceiling. I simply stroll into the computer lab.
But I’m not as calm as I thought I’d be. My heart races at the thought of getting caught. I finish detaching the tower and position it under my arm. Just before leaving the classroom I pause again, considering the outcome. Is this who I want to become?
But the Dell is getting heavy and my feet make the decision for me. I exit the classroom, slip outside, and hop into my friend’s getaway car.
He drops me off at home. We agree to never mention this, to anyone, ever. I feel good. Ecstatic, even: I’m finally able to finish the Warcraft 3 campaign. Finally able to explore this love of gaming, to escape from my ordinary world and into the paradise of Blizzard lore. I’ll get to travel to the Protoss world of Aiur and build my Zealot armies inside the StarCraft universe. And I’ll get to face the demons of the burning hell in Diablo 2, battling my way through countless hordes of the undead, even Diablo himself, and his brothers Mephisto and Baal.
My family lives in a three-bedroom apartment. I have my own room but it is tight living for a family of five. I speed into my room, close the door, and hook up the contraband. I did it. I power on, reformat the hard disk, and install a new operating system. Then I load my games.
My parents ask about my new computer, and I shrug it off and say a friend loaned it to me. I don’t feel any guilt; in fact, I feel more clever than ever. I spend the rest of the weekend engrossed in my fantasy world.
The next week is parent-teacher conferences. My parents know that most of my grades aren’t passing and want to visit with my teachers to see what they can do to straighten me out. They are invested in my future even when I’m not. And often, I’m not. In the classes I enjoy I charm my way to a C or D+. Classes I dislike, I skip altogether.
At the meeting, my parents learn of the recent computer theft. They put two and two together and charge home to confront me. I’m busted.
Not only am I caught in a lie, but I stole a few hundred dollars worth of school property. Yet I don’t feel bad for what I did; I feel stupid for getting caught. My parents yell at me, and I yell louder. The argument goes on into the night and ends with doors slamming.
I lie in bed, stewing. They’ll do the same thing they always do; tell me I need to do better. I’m not defeated, I can talk my way out of this. But as I drift off to sleep, fear begins to circle me like a shark.
And I have no idea how serious things are about to get.