Part 5 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello
Shortly after I met Billy, the emails started showing up in my inbox. They were forwarded to me from M461@BAC—clearly one of the senior lab techs or someone else associated with Dr. Zee. But the interesting thing was that the emails originated from a student account: “CCarpent.” This was not a name I knew. But the date of the original email was four years earlier, so he or she was likely to have graduated anyway. The email started out with the greeting:
My b3l0v3d n00b,
50 y0u w@n7 t0 b3 l33t?
l37’5 533 wh47 y0u 607?
This was my first encounter with the whimsical form of communication known as Leet or, more properly, l33t. But I didn’t know what it was called at the time. Thankfully the word “b3l0v3d” clued me into the idea that all that was required was for the numbers to be swapped with the letters that (sort-of) resembled them.
After this was a challenge to write a program that served a very specific purpose. The program needed to read a large array of letters and numbers and apply several rules, transforming the data into a different array of letters and numbers—most likely decoding it.
I was not happy about this. The challenge was, essentially, homework—homework that wasn’t for any class—as if I had nothing better to do than cryptic assignments. So, of course, I did it. Mostly, I think, I just wanted to see if I could.
Finishing the challenge was anti-climactic. There was no one to show it to. No way to have it graded. I didn’t even have a dataset to use it with. So I sent the file back to both the M461@BAC email address and to CCarpent—whoever the hell that was.
CCarpent, however, no longer had a valid student email address and that email bounced back. A week later M461 forwarded another CCarpent email. This one consisted simply of a long string of letters and numbers.
“What the hell are we supposed to do with this?” Billy said from a nearby workstation. I gathered that he was receiving the same set of instructions, but I decided that if I was going to play this game it was not going to be as a team. I fed the array into the program that the first email had instructed me to write.
The resulting message provided the parameters for a new, even more complicated, program for me to write. I realized that this sort of thing could go on forever. It could eat up hours and hours of my life that would be better spent doing something else. I knew myself well enough to know that there was a risk that I would become hopelessly obsessed with an ever-more complicated set of problems. The best thing I could probably do was to close down the window and delete the email.
I wrote the second program anyway.
“w0w. y0u k1ck 455!” The rest of the message, (translated from the L337) read “If you are reading this you have the makings of an amazing programmer. Keep going. It will be worth it. I promise. You will take your place among the BAC and together we will take our art form to the next level. And there is always another level.”
“Who the hell is C. Carpent?” I asked Nicholas in the lab one day. He didn’t reply. Instead, he kept typing. I stood behind him for a moment feeling quite foolish. I was about to leave when he responded.
“Christopher Carpentieri.” His voice was uncharacteristically monotone.
“Does he go to school here?”
“He’s, ah, no longer with us.” He just kept typing. I knew he didn’t want to answer my questions but I didn’t care.
“Did he graduate?”
“Brilliant kid. One of the first Magi. Mad skills. Unstoppable. Almost unstoppable anyway. He died last summer. Brain tumor. Fucked up shit.”