Chapter 20: Imagination Cake

An inquiry into the nature and causes of chocolate cakes and other software.

"I call it 'Imagination Cake' because it is more colorful inside than out. It is basically a mocha chocolate cake with bits of fruit jelly and sweet cookie crumbs inside, and..." Anne-Linn became aware that Jon was holding up his hand in an attempt to stop her explanation.

"My question may have been misleading. What I really want to know is what you and your imaginary cake are doing at the entrance of my domicile at 10:50 in the morning!"

That was indeed a good question, and not one easily answered. It started more than a day ago, when she woke up from that strange but vivid dream. This was the second time this spring that her subconscious had hit her over the head with a heavy clue stick -- more like a clue-by-four -- by showing an exaggerated image of Jon as some kind of supernatural being, or at least more than human. As a future psychologist she knew that you ignore your subconscious at your own peril. Clearly the meaning was that Jon was somehow important to her. There was also the connection to Joachim, as if Jon was somehow destined to surpass or replace her brother. That too was surely an exaggeration, because for most of their childhood Joachim and she had been not only siblings but also best friends. But she could not ignore her intuition; something had to be done.

That was where the chocolate cake came into the picture. She had after all seen his kitchen, and it was pretty obvious that he was not making any chocolate cakes there. She, on the other hand, was pretty good at baking. And this was how the chocolate cake came into being. It had seemed like a good idea at the time: When you want to get closer to a friend, you show them your appreciation in some small way that feels personal. And what could be more personal than her favorite chocolate cake? All the girls loved it, although only half of them could eat it at any given time... the rest were on a diet. She felt pretty sure Jon was not on a diet, at least. Apart from being a boy, his slender frame could use any fat she might be able to feed him!

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. But somehow, the goodness of that idea diminished with the square of the distance from home. The last hundred meters or so had been like struggling through deep snow. And now, confronted with the sheer outrageousness of her presumption, she faltered, unable even to find the words to defend herself. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. What was she doing? What had come over her?

"More to the point" Jon cut into her thoughts, "do you have a car?"

"No... not yet." Dog, that sounded so silly! "I am still in high school, last year, so I only work evenings and Saturdays. It keeps me with pocket money, but not enough for a car."

"Well, that explains why your legs are shaking. You can't be used to walking this far, right? Just wait a moment and I'll unlock the front door." In a few long steps he disappeared around the corner, and moments later there was the sound of a door being unlocked.

Was it really that visible? My knees are kind of wobbly, but he should not be able to see that in this skirt.

"Get in here and sit down before you collapse. We can't make a habit of me dragging you in every time."

His tone was rather gruff, but his words made her heart jump. 'Every time'? He was expecting her to return? She stumbled into the shadowy interior of the small house and let herself gratefully sink down in his sofa.

"I'll fetch a Jolt. Beeswax, girl! Couldn't you take a bus or something? You looked ready to topple over!" He went off to the kitchen.

She looked around. The living room was just as she remembered it. The number of empty Jolt bottles may have been slightly higher, she couldn't say for sure. His computer was on, but the pattern on the screen made no sense to her. It seemed to consist mostly of short lines of text, perhaps some kind of poem? Or was this programming? She had never tried, and had no plan to ever do so.

"Here, take this. It's time for me to have a Jolt anyway, so we may as well drink together. Cheers!"

"Uh, cheers!"

"Now tell me what in the world possessed you to come all the way out here with your chocolate cake. What if I didn't even like chocolate?"

"You don't?? I thought, since you liked sweet drinks, you would like chocolate too..."

"You know, that actually sounds logical. And you happen to be right. But that still doesn't explain why you suddenly pop up without even calling me first. What if I hadn't been home?"

"Then I would have left the cake at the door." Actually, that was what I hoped for. I thought you would be at work somewhere. All that work on the card, for nothing!

"I am sure the porcupines would thank you." But he didn't sound too convinced. There was after all the box.

Right! She had almost forgotten. She hurried to open the box and place it on the nearest table before she returned to the sofa. "Now you have something to eat for lunch!"

"Lunch? It's not even time for breakfast yet!"

She found herself giggling, most of all because of his absolute seriousness.

"You thought that was funny, huh?" But even he smiled, now.

"I am tempted to change career and become a programmer too!"

"Well, there aren't many girls in this business, but actually it was invented by one."


"Grace Hopper. She was the third programmer on the first computer in the United States. She discovered the first computer bug, which was a moth."

She giggled again. She had heard of computer bugs!

"Back then, people programmed computers with opcodes, one code for each instruction the computer was to perform. To create a program like the ones I make would take thousands of years that way, not to mention that it would be full of errors that no one could find. In 1952, Grace Hopper created the first compiler, a program that translates from a language humans can understand to opcodes that computers can understand. Without this invention, computers could never have developed from big calculators to the universal tool of the mind that they are today. It was possibly a greater invention than the printing press. Hopper was also leading the work on COBOL, Common Business-Oriented Language, which remained the standard of commercial programming up until my time. She held the title of Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, at the time and in a country where gender equality had not come very far."

Anne-Linn listened and watched in surprise. As Jon talked about his field of interest, he seemed to become more alive, glowing with energy. The mask that used to be his face melted, his hand moved, and even his voice became softer and filled with nuance. Was he always like that with his work, or only when he talked about someone he admired?

"Why was she in the military anyway?"

"The navy. The second world war was where computers were invented. They were necessary to crack coded messages and calculate artillery ranges and such, I believe. The machines back then were really just calculators, but around the end of the war the first real programmable computers were made. By then, Grace Hopper was already involved. She left the Navy later, but I think she was put back into it late in her life, as some kind of honor. The armed forces are held in high esteem over there, or at least they were in her generation."

"So she wasn't actually sailing around waging war?"

"In the last part of her career, she was sailing around talking to people, at conferences and such. But I believe that rear admirals are people who stay away from the front, hence the name."

"Or they could be people with a particularly admirable rear!"

He looked at her then, and her face suddenly grew boiling hot as she realized she had said something exceptionally stupid at the except wrong time. But he did not grow angry, at least. He just lifted his eyebrows and said: "Don't compare yourself to Grace Hopper yet, grasshopper."

Anne-Linn turned her head away. For a moment she wished that she carried her hair loose so she could have pulled it in front of her face. Getting to her feet, she muttered: "Well, I guess I should be going. I really just wanted to give you that cake."

"You have still not told me why. Except that I might like it, and there are 5 billion people who might like cake. Why me? Why now?"

"You were nice to me even though you didn't need to. So I wanted to do something nice for you too."

"Sorry. I'm not used to that, I guess. Wait, don't go yet."

He went to the kitchen again and returned with a couple plates and forks and a knife. She tried to hide a smile: Those where big dinner forks. He cut two pieces from the cake and gave one of them to her. Was he afraid that she was trying to poison him? Or was that just her imagination running wild again? But as they ate together in silence, she realized that this moment already went far beyond her imagination, into the realm of dreams.