“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, games will eventually be indistinguishable from reality. We’re most likely in a simulation.” Elon Musk October 3rd, 2018.
Dean awoke to that familiar sound. Thunder, lightning, a clanging of the chimes as the winds of the east drove past those of the west, making funnels drop from the sky.
It’s getting worse, he thought in fear. He counted down from ten, hoping for silence as he clung to his stuffed sheep, Chingoo, begging for it all to stop.
Something is coming, he cowered, reaching out another hand for Hamster Jack. That little guy, though, was nowhere to be found.
Away away away away away the boy screamed in mental anguish, squeezing Chingoo tight. Then the headache came, and everything became numbers.
Dean Kim Hanson was a cute kid, rambunctious and smart, athletic and kind, the type of child that is referred to as the apple of one’s eye. He walked around here and there with his Daddy and everyone knew them, the foreigner and his child, so beautiful that they called him Doll. He winked his long lashes and sang and danced, laughed and smiled. “Oh what a beautiful child! He is perfect!” they’d say. Then they’d give him money or candy.
And he was a boy in two worlds. His father was an ex-military man, an American Expat, tired, a bit fat, but hard-working and magnanimous. The kind of guy who made friends all over but made sure to have time first for his son and wife. They played and had so many adventures and spent so much time together. His mother was a Korean genius, a business academic and scholarship collegiate who couldn’t help but drop the books when that cute toddler came a toddling, then later when the boy who came after came a hopping and running.
But things changed. Things got weird. First there was the party. Easter. Skipping and laughing, screaming with joy. The kids held hands as they scrambled over pillar after pillar. Can’t get caught. Don’t wanna be it!
Then came the fall. A second of off-kilter movement. His head against the wood, his ears ringing. He had cried, he knew, though the memory was vague.
Appa! Appa! I falled down!
Worried fathers scrambled over, checking for bumps and bruises. All was good. But inside, that was when the first number came. ‘1’ it flashed, crimson and fading. ‘1’
“It’s no biggy Dean. No lumps, no bruises, no foul. Suck it up. Drive on. You have to be careful.”
The ‘1’ faded.
“Daddy can I go play?”
“Yes, of course,” his dad said, fat cheeks plump with smile. “Yes, you can go on and play.”
‘010001010’ a series of numbers flashed. They broke away into a wild series of letters and numbers, columns and rows. Dean couldn’t understand them, but he clung to them as if they were a teddy friend named Chingoo in a rainy tempestuous storm. The thunder had grown stronger. Rain splashed down and lightning streaked the sky.
“Mom? Dad? Where are you?” Dean screamed, tears on his face.
In the distance a voice read to him.
“The Faun saved Lucy,” the voice gently told. It was hard to hear through the thunder and the wind. “He said he did. But how do we know?” the voice continued.
“Appa!” Dean screamed, though far away his eyes had closed and he was resting.
This was important, he knew. He had to make sense of it.
“0+1+0+0+1+0+1+0” he screamed. “That’s three you knuckleheads!”
The wind tore and swore, his house shaking in the wind. And then it broke.
System error. Reboot system Y/N?
“Nope. Not on your life.”
Dean awoke in the second floor of a house he never knew, the same one in fact that he had ridden out the storm in. He looked about himself, noticing that the colors of the place were pastel, though he didn’t know the meaning of the word. Above him flickered a semi-transparent LVL 1.
Well that is different, he thought.
Next to him stood his faithful teddy sheep, a LVL 1 above his head as well.
“Chingoo chingoo! Ching!” his friend said.
That is more different!, he thought.
“Chingoo you are not real. I mean, you are real but you are just a teddy sheep. A toy.”
“Ching ching! Are you real, Deanie?” the sheep asked. He didn’t baa, but spoke it in a young and curious tone, high pitched and merry.
Dean picked at his shirt. It had changed since he last saw it. In place of a teddy bear waving there were now English letters and numbers, all placed in rows like a character sheet.
“Can you read this Chingoo? Or do you just read Korean?”
“I read English, Korean and Sheepish, buddy boy. Chingoo Ching!”
Dean smiled and then pulled off his shirt. Chingoo had to help him when it got to the armpits, but those limp little teddy arms were surprisingly agile once animated.
They both stood over it, scanning its contents.
‘Dean Kim Hanson Age 7
Common Sense 1
“What does all of that mean, Chingoo?” Dean asked, hugging the teddy sheep close and sniffing him.
“Chingoo! Chingoo! I don’t know, Dean. I think it means we are stuck in an adventure. Do you remember when we played Dragonfire?”
He did. He could remember the clatter of dice, the prowl through the dungeon, the battles with orcs, trolls, and even dark wizards! His appa had been so proud. He bragged to his friends. “My son, the gamer. 5 years old and he already has a character.”
“Yeah. I remember. A troll almost killed me. But I got him good.”
Dean frowned. Where is Appa? Where is Oma? Where is Harmony?
“Chingoo!” Chingoo exclaimed. “I think this is like that, but I don’t know the rules. Ching! Ching! Maybe we need to find a dungeon, like in that game?”
Dean looked about the room. There was a bookcase, but all of the books were written for grown-ups. A dusty dresser stood on one side, a drawer peeking open. The bed was huge, and there was stuff under it too, but it was dark so he wasn’t sure he wanted to reach under. There was a door out in the corner too, but what else might be in this scary house?
I need to look out the window, he thought. His arms shook a little and he squeezed Chingoo a little tighter. Wide-eyed, he slipped his t-shirt back over his body and crept on over to the frame.
‘Clung clung clung!’ Something metallic and evil sounded from the way. He froze.
“Chingoo!” Chingoo moaned, shivering.
Think think think! When Omma and Appa were gone and I was two years old I left the house and found them. It was scary but I found them and then they weren’t gone. I have to go look!
‘Clung clung clung!’
The sound reverberated through the house, making it quake a little beneath his feet. The carpet was thin, a little dusty, and small clouds rose up to his face. The little boy sneezed.
“Bless you!” Chingoo responded.
“Thanks,” Dean replied, screwing up his face. “Whatever you are, I’m not afraid of you!” he called. He squeezed his hands into fists.
‘CLUNG! CLUNG! CLUNG!’ the sound responded.
Dean dropped Chingoo, who landed with a yelp and scurried over to the bed. Stomping forward, his arms out and ready to punch, Dean went to the window and peered outward.
It was a country scene, something fantastic and without the towered living that dominates Korea. Here the sky was open, beset only by hills and trees as far as the eye could see. The house sat in the circle of a clearing, the grass cut and tended, a lake full of jumping fish in its corner. Plip plop they seemed to call to him, their bodies glinting all over as they frolicked through the air.
There’s nothing scary here, Dean thought. He smiled and turned his head to tell Chingoo. Then a giant robotic fist punched through the wall and Dean was falling.
“Wake up!” Teacher said. “ Dean, if you can’t stay awake in class you are going to have to go home.”
Everything was so strange and fuzzy. The numbers were there, and so too were the letters and rows and columns. He kept slumping and now everyone was angry with him.
I wish I could just be a good kid, he thought sadly. He felt displaced, as if he were in three places at once. Something big was happening. He was here in Korea, and then he was stuck in a storm and also he was with Chingoo in a house being attacked by a robot.
What if life is a video game? he thought, watching the 0’s and 1’s scroll on by. His dad would sometimes crack open games and change their numbers and letters so that it could be more fun. He even sometimes took pictures of Dean and made characters of him in the games he played.
What if I am one of those characters? Is there really a me?
He was home now. He grabbed a glass of juice from the fridge. Green grape, extra delicious. Then his arm stopped working, and it fell though his hands to crash and splash against the hard, maybe digital, floor.
“Dean! What’s wrong?!” Harmony cried, her Korean twang diffused with scared grief.
Crash! The room cracked and broke about him as he fell. Chingoo howled in terror.
“Chingooooooo!! Ching! CHING!!”
I have to think fast. If I am in a Dragonfire thingy like Chingoo said and I’m level one then I don’t have much power. If I hit the ground I might die!
Dean looked around desperately, things moving slowly as his intelligent mind scrambled for solutions. His eyes alit upon his plump, soft, and screaming friend. Chingoo!! That ball of fluff would cushion the hardest of landings!
“Hey fuzzball!” Dean yelled out.
“Chingoo?” his friend questioned back.
A small and determined hand snapped out, grabbing the teddy friend with dextrous haste. Then Dean gaped, wind whistling by, as a message flared into his vision.
CRITICAL SUCCESS! AGILITY LEVELED UP TO THREE.
Okay, Dean thought. That was weird.
“Chingoo! Chingoo!” his friend brought him back to their danger as he bellowed in fear.
“Right! Chingoo, you are going to be my landing pad,” Dean informed him, pushing him underneath him.
“Chingoo!!!! No!!!!” his friend protested.
“You are a soft ball of fuzz. You can take it,” Dean assured him.
The ground flew up fast and then they bounced and stopped, Chingoo’s soft fluff well protecting the both of them.
“Ching. Ching. You are hurt!” Chingoo told him, pointed his large sheepish snozz at the boy’s shirt.
Dean looked down.
‘Dean Kim Hanson Age 7
Common Sense 1
“I don’t feel hurt,” he noted with surprise in his voice. “Huh. Well I guess that’s good. Not feeling hurt will make fighting that robot a lot easier. Hey, Chingoo, where did the robot go?”
“I don’t know Dean. But maybe we should look around for a weapon or something to fight with.”
Back when he’d played Dragonfire with Daddy, Dean was always finding treasures hanging around the dungeon. Or as Daddy liked to jokingly call it, the Deangeon.
Daddy’s jokes are stupid, the boy thought. Chingoo has the right idea, though. In Dragonfire there was the magic ring, and armor, and swords and even potions for doing the band-aid stuff. I better start looking. It’s like those games on Roblox, too, where they have the treasure and the loot. If I can get good loot I can fight the robot and maybe find out what is happening.
“I love you, Chingoo. You are my best friend,” the boy chirped, grabbing a hold of the teddy friend and squeezing him close. Chingoo sighed.
“Okay, well then,” Dean said, looking around.
They were in a living room. Shaggy, unkempt carpeting covered the floor with balls of dust in the corners. Surprisingly the debris of the robot smash was absent, and the ceiling was again fully formed. A long couch dominated one corner, pinching over at a ninety degree angle to fit the contours of the room. A TV set, very big and old, sat against the opposite wall, something called a VCR displayed underneath it. It had a digital clock that flashed on and off. The clock said it was 12:00.
There were cabinets, and a beaded curtain between here and another room. From where he and Chingoo were standing he could see an old and faded kitchen, its sink full of dishes, its floor splattered with dried sauces and juices.
“Why does this place have to be so dirty?” Dean asked Chingoo. His friend gave no response.
Alright. Well, kitchens have knives, so I can do that. But I don’t want to accidentally cut myself. And a knife against a robot? Who am I, a ninja? Well, in Dragonfire I was a knight but then I had knight stuff. I don’t have ninja stuff so I don’t think that is right. Think, Dean, think.
There. On the couch. His eyes saw the perfect weapon. A long rectangle with rounded edges, its creases dusty. A remote control!
Clung. Clung! CLUNG! A fist punched through the wall again, showering them both with wooden debris. Dean fell backwards.
DAMAGE PHASE – 3 10-sided dice clattered. ENEMY ROLL 12. SAVE PHASE – Constitution 1. A single 10-sided die rolled to a halt. CON SAVE 7, YOU HAVE TAKEN 5% DAMAGE a scrolling log informed him. Why didn’t I see this before he thought in dazed wonder. Maybe I have to turn it on like in Roblox, he surmised, thinking about how he once accidentally turned a log on and couldn’t get it to turn back off. He’d gotten so angry!
The robot got 3 dice so he must have a strength of 3. If this works I hope I can make him my friend.
Dean tucked in his body and rolled, watching his three agility dice dance across his vision as he bounded up at the end and leapt for the control.
I better remember to thank my ballet teacher when I get back to Korea, he thought, his hand snaking forward in slow motion. Behind him the robot’s fist traveled forward again, this time its hand opened to grasp and maybe even crush him.
Yes! he cried mentally as his hand grabbed the control.
“Yes!” he yelled out loud as he turned the control to face the robot.
“Chingoo!” Chingoo exclaimed as he clicked the on/off button. But the robot did not power down.
Dean looked down at the power LED on the control and saw that the light was dead.
Oh no! he panicked. No batteries!
The stretcher rolled through the hospital, its wheels squeaking a bit as the doctors and nurses turned it this way and that, turning and running.
Omma was there, tears running down her face. The doors flung open and he was put into his bed.
“Stay awake Dean! Do you know who you are?” one voice asked. There were 1’s and 0’s everywhere.
“I wanna go home,” he moaned, his voice low and tired, his eyes mostly shut.
Harmony was crying as well. She sat, unable to stand any longer.
“Mom,” Dean asked, his voice defeated, “what is happening to me?!”
Omma cried, shaking her head.
“You are dying Dean. Oh my god, you are dying! Don’t leave me. Dean, if you die, I can’t live. Don’t die!”
The fist smashed down again and again. Dean dodged as well as he could, but things were getting desperate.
“Chingoo Chingoo! 27% Health Dean! You have to do something!”
He’d punched it and kicked it, but he couldn’t tell if it did any good. It only had 3 strength so probably it had a lot of constitution.
SMASH – he rolled again, an indent in the lawn where he had been before. The thing hit hard for a strength of 3.
“Chingoo, do you have any ideas?” Dean asked, running around the yard. Now that he was out here he could see the place had a barn, a shed, a garage, and even an outhouse. No use hiding from something that could squash all of those things though.
Chingoo was chasing him around the place. The robot didn’t seem to have any interest in the fuzzy lump as he bounded about.
“Maybe I could try to jump on him and attack him like a crazy idiot? Chingoo Ching!” the fuzzy teddy sheep yelled.
“Will you get hurt?” Dean asked him, panting as he rolled yet again.
“Maybe. But maybe if I attack the robot’s eyes then he won’t be able to see and you can find something else in the house to fight him with.”
A plan. It’s good to have a plan.
“Yeah! Good thinking. I’ll run back into the house and dig through the drawers. But run away if you get too hurt!” Dean cautioned him.
The sheep nodded and then bounded up one blocky metallic leg.
“Chingoo!!” he cried, flying up it fast as if he were made of clouds and faerie dust.
Dean stopped evading the minute he saw that Chingoo was in front of the robot’s blue electric eyes. Turning on a divot, he sprinted for the house and threw open the door.
This better be good, he thought as he looked back and forth, choosing something to search first. The kitchen! Might as well grab a knife since things were already too dangerous, and maybe see if I can’t find anything better besides.
He ran forward and to the right, through the empty wooden frame that marked the transition from wood to tiles, living to cooking. He glanced at the stove top and saw that it was splattered in thick layers of grease.
Yuck he thought, looking to the opposite side of the room.
There were lots of cabinets and drawers here, and a nice train-like row of them right to left passed the refrigerator.
Okay, drawers are good.
Dean threw open the first one. Soft packs of cigarettes slid and crinkled, the stale smell of year old tobacco filling the room.
He pulled the next one, but it was stuck. He pulled again and a screen appeared before his eyes.
THIS LOOT RECEPTACLE HAS A DIFFICULTY RATING OF 7. FAILURE TO SCORE A SUCCESS WILL CAUSE DAMAGE. CONTINUE? Y/N
Great more game guck, Dean thought. With a strength of 1 I almost certainly will hurt myself opening it. There has to be another way.
“Chingoo!!” his friend yelled from the outside. His soft teddy body bounced off of a kitchen window. He looked worn and some fluff poked out of a hole. Chingoo wasn’t done, though, and he got up to fight the robot again.
“Move it along, Dean,” Dean said aloud, snatching the next drawer and pulling it open. Nails and screws clattered from its bottom as they rolled and jostled. But there, at the back of the drawer, lay the rusty head and claws of a hammer. The word ACE was burned into the wood of its handle.
“Yes! Yes yes yes!” Dean yelled, pulling it out in glee. He’d never pried anything open with a hammer before but he saw people do it on Youtube and he figured he could do it too. Five dice clattered in his head.
PROFICIENCY RETRIEVED – HAMMER
“Thank you!” Dean chimed, digging the claws into the drawer face as a single dice rolled 10. He torqued it out and off with a wild squark.
CRITICAL SUCCESS! STRENGTH LEVELED UP TO TWO.
The rest of the drawer box did not come out with the head but he rolled his hands through the gap and felt something unbelievable. Something very special.
“Batteries!” he yelled out in wonder.
He was awake. The coma had lasted just a few days and then he had woken back up. He was supposed to be resting. But he wouldn’t stop hitting his hand.
“Why are you doing that Dean? Why are you hitting your hand and your arm?”
He glared. “Because it’s not working. It’s supposed to work and it doesn’t.”
The doctor came in. “I’ve never seen such will and such strength in such a little boy. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to use that side of his body ever again, but if anyone can, he can.”
“I’m not that little,” Dean joked, looking back at his hand and seeing the 0’s and 1’s. He’d figure it out. I can crack this open and change the numbers so they are all right again, he thought.
“Dean’s back,” Harmony, Korean Grandma, smiled from the corner as he made a goofy face at her. He yawned too and laid back down in his hospital bed. It was nearing time to finish this all.
Dean clicked the batteries into place, one by one, walking to the door as he did so. He had to be careful not to drop them so he couldn’t run.
Click click click click
Eight triple A batteries the thing needed. Jeebus, he thought, copying his father’s copy of Homer Simpson. The LED flickered and turned red as he slotted the last one into place.
It’s go time.
Dean opened the door. In the yard the robot stomped about and Chingoo flapped at its face with stuffed sheep arms.
“Chingoo Ching!” his friend cried out. “Did you find what you needed Dean?”
“I think so, Chingoo. Let’s find out!”
He pushed his thumb down hard on the on/off switch of the remote control. The LED flickered pale then back to red as he did so, letting him know that the transmission had been sent.
The robot paused and shuddered. With one hand it finally caught the hopping and flailing Chingoo and flung him off his face onto the tarred tiles of the roof.
It shuddered again, then began to stomp toward Dean, its electric eyes baleful and oh so terrible.
Dean pushed the button again. Behind him the TV turned on to static. In front of him the robot shuddered again but kept coming.
Something is happening here. This remote control has to be the answer. What else can I do?! he asked in despair.
Staring down at the remote, he willed it to work.
MAGICKING THIS ITEM HAS A DIFFICULTY RATING OF 9. FAILURE TO SCORE A SUCCESS WILL CAUSE MAJOR DAMAGE. CONTINUE? Y/N
“But what skill will I roll?!” Dean cried out loud. The robot was stumbling closer. It’s hands were moving forward to break him. “What skill?!!!!”
Yes, he chose, his body shaking as he did so. Five 10-sided dice rolled along, every one of them a 10.
CRITICAL SUCCESS! INTELLIGENCE LEVELED UP TO SIX
“In your face, robot!” Dean screamed as he clicked the button, the LED now blazing with the light of a thousand suns. It powered down with a loud crackle and sizzle, its left side falling limp. The robot tipped and fell into the dirt, plowing forward a tremendous trench through the previously well-kept terrain.
“Chingoo chingoo ching,” his friend called to him, dropping down from the roof with a light plop. Overhead a chime sounded.
WELCOME TO LEVEL 3
Dean smiled, gathering up his injured friend and heading back into the home, going back up the stairs to the bed that had spawned him. He had won, and now he was pretty sure he knew what had to happen next.
“I found you,” Dean said, his eyes gleaming. He looked around. There stood his Appa, his bearing stiff and his face haggard and worried. Next to him stood Omma, her face worn and red, dark pouches under her eyes. Harmony sat on the bench, a tower of sweet snack foods leaning precariously at her hip.
“You sure did, Dean,” Dad said, his eyes streaming tears even as he laughed. “I didn’t know we were missing.”
“You weren’t but I was. It was a heck of a fight but I won, didn’t I?” he said proudly.
“Absolutely, Dean. You absolutely did.”
On April 7th, 2018, Dean Kim Hanson, age 7, grade 1, had a stroke. A few days later we knew. It crept up on him. Nobody had known it had happened until suddenly he started to lose all function. And then he was in a coma. He suffered significant damage to his brain and his prognosis was grim. Everyone expected the worst.
But he made it. He woke up from his coma, paralyzed on his left side. And he kept fighting it, trying again and again to make it work. He would not give up. He demanded that his body do what it was supposed to.
My MC fought a battle that he had no knowledge of in a system he had no chance to beat. And he won. He saw the ones and zeroes around him and he hacked them into his favor.
Elon Musk once said that it is most likely that we are in a simulation. And Elon Musk might be right. It is possible that we do live in a simulation. And maybe, just maybe, my son Dean knows the cheat code.
For, you see, at the end of his quest, at the end of the coma, and even before the two brain surgeries to fix his moyamoya, he got back his left side. He was so hurt, so damaged, that he spent months in the hospital. And he got back everything.
Since that time, Dean has gone on to relearn the class material he lost in the stroke and moved to excel in different areas in life. He is no longer the avid biker and hiker that I used to travel the country with, but he rides his scooter and has gotten into swimming, a sport that he does well in. At home he reads two books every morning, plays the piano and loves to play games with his old man on the computer, especially Roblox. When he isn’t doing any of that he is creating. He wrote a book in the hopes of getting in-game money, but his priorities have changed and now he invests his earnings into stocks and hopes to make enough to join Mark Rober’s online engineering class.
The world threw everything it had at my little man and took away so much, and he went ahead and took it all back and then some.
Well done, Dean. Well done.
You can read articles by Dean Kim Hanson at
Also think about supporting Make A Wish in your area. Make A Wish made a tremendous difference in Dean’s life. They reached out to try and make him feel better and a group of volunteers from all walks of life talked with him and played games with him via video chat, then threw him an amazing party and got him his wish – a high-end computer gaming rig! Dean was extremely happy. If you would like to help other children with incurable diseases to have their dreams come true, donate to https://www.worldwish.org/ or if you’d like to help out the group that specifically helped Dean see the Korean Chapter page at https://www.wish.or.kr/html/sub04/sub04_0401.php
The specific disease that Dean and other children have, MoyaMoya, is a nefarious genetic bug that causes the vascular system of the brain to form incorrectly and to mostly be composed of capillaries. Because it is a DNA disease it is not curable, but it can be circumvented in many cases by extensive brain surgery during which a top level surgeon overlays a series of new veins and arteries taken from elsewhere in the body. The surgeries are long, difficult and expensive. In the US alone a single surgery is estimated to cost $99,500, with another $106,500 in other non-surgery fees. If you would like to help surgeons and doctors offset these costs so that patients of every income level might have it, check out https://moyamoya-foundation.org/ and donate. Every little bit helps!
I wrote this story so long ago and it still brings tears to my eyes. I spent months watching helplessly as the world tried to take my son away from me. It was a moment in my life where I saw the entirety of his life flash before my eyes. Writing this story helped me a lot with my own feelings and though I suffer post traumatic stress from the event, Dean has helped a lot with that. He is a warrior in more ways than I can count! I appreciate you reading this all. Thank you and may fortune smile upon you.
One thought on “A Puff of Brain Smoke – the Terrible True Tale of MoyaMoya”
My heart was filled with sorrow all the way through until Dean made it .You described everything so vividly.
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