Origin of a Character: Nathan Hempstead

Nathan Hempstead is The Directorate’s long-standing computer genius, and he’s based on a former student of mine from the mid-1970s who was into computers before computers were a thing. The character, however, is different from that long-ago high-schooler in other ways. For one, he’s African-American, and I did that on purpose. Because…I wanted my canon of characters to fit the demographics of the world we live in.

Mai Fisher’s First Recruit

Early in her career in The Directorate, Assistant Director Nelson gives Mai the assignment of finding and recruiting a “computer genius” for The Directorate. Nelson has plans for this global espionage organization that seems to lag behind in modernization because for its then Director, the old ways were the best ways.

Mai’s cover as a grad student at American University offers her a number of possibilities, but she has a gut feeling about an undergraduate scholarship student who considers himself a student radical. In his wide-leg bell-bottoms, high platform shoes, Bob Marley tee-shirts, and voluminous Afro, he stands out in the mostly white student body. In my mind, he’s Clarence Williams III as Linc from The Mod Squad, though more loquacious and constantly smiling. Nathan, however, deliberately dresses as a stereotype as a way to “shove it in the face of the man.”

Mai befriends him and conducts an extensive look into his background and into his mathematics studies at American. A big chunk of his backstory is in the short story, “Best Served Cold,” in my story collection Spy Flash II.

Who is Nathan?

He became a father at 16, and his mother raised the baby Nathan’s girlfriend gave up as Nathan’s brother. Nathan thinks no one knows this except him and his mother. Nathan’s mother owned a small motel in rural Virginia she inherited from her parents. Whey they ran it, the motel was a “coloreds only” establishment, but her parents worked to give it a solid reputation. Nathan’s mother continued that, and under her management, it became integrated.

Nathan’s mathematics prowess earned him a four-year scholarship at American University, which was seeking to diversify its student body. His mathematics abilities and his understanding of game theory got him into American’s fledgling computer science program. While working on coding, Nathan also discovered something else: hacking.

First, it was changing other students’ grades, for a fee, but he quickly graduated to financial institutions as they began to computerize. In his senior year he got into the system for the bank holding his mother’s mortgage on her motel. Over the years, she’d borrowed heavily against it to make improvements to the facility, and she was deeply in debt. He made it “go away.”

And that’s what Mai Fisher discovered because Nathan was also a bit of a braggart. He told her in confidence that he’d not only hacked the bank but he’d used American’s computers to do so. Mai had all she needed.

Blackmail is Tradecraft, After All

Mai made Nathan an offer he’d have been foolish to ignore. Come to work for The Directorate, collaborate with Nelson to set The Directorate up as a modern espionage organization using computers and information technology in its operations, or Mai would alert the administration at American University about his activities and tell the bank what he’d done for his mother. Nathan stood to lose the remainder of his scholarship and would have to repay the university for three years’ worth–and he’d face prosecution for essentially stealing from the bank.

Nathan was, of course, furious with someone he’d come to think of as a friend, but once Mai explained Nathan would get paid to continue hacking–but only for The Directorate and not himself–and that he’d get to experiment with computer science, he eased off the anger. He realized he’d be getting paid well to push the limits of that science and to develop systems and programs that bordered on science fiction. As a lifelong Star Trek fan, or Trekkie, that appealed to him.

Mai’s recruitment of him, specifically, the way she’d gone about it, never set well with him, though they did maintain a begrudging friendship and professional relationship. Mai even takes him on a little field work in my novel A War of Deception. However, once Mai becomes the director, Nathan chafes under her management style and has no issue in demonstrating that, usually at the least appropriate moment.

A Geek or a Nerd or a Nerdish Geek?

Which is he? As I said, Nathan loves Star Trek, and once he had a paying job, covert as it was, he indulged himself in collecting Star Trek memorabilia. As we see in the short story, “Best Served Cold,” he has a tribute wall for Star Trek in his apartment. Nathan was into cosplaying before it was cosplay, and his favorite collectors item is a photo of him with Leonard Nimoy (aka Spock) with Nathan dressed up as Spock, ears and all.

He does geek out on the advancements in computer technology, some of which he developed before they became available to the public. Though he started out as a one-person staff, he and his assistant now run two departments within The Directorate: Cyber Security/Data Forensics and Information Technology. He oversees the development of programs and apps to assist operatives in the field, and if there’s a hacking job stymying one of his employees, he generally steps in and overcomes the problem–and he likes to take on the most interesting hacks himself.

He is a nerd and a geek, and he’s proud of it.

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