Memento Mori

Part 13 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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For better or worse, we did have the largest social gathering outside the Fleetfoot that any of us remembered. It was not the romantic evening that either Billy or I was hoping for. It did not advance my cause. In fact, it made things worse. Alanna’s fan club grew, and I lost the ability to monopolize all the shifts in the lab that she was working.
As my junior year progressed, it felt like I was stuck in a painful stalemate. I spent at least a few wonderful minutes with her every day, in the full knowledge that in my absence she was having heart-to-heart talks with other members.

As a result, I was particularly broody one November day in 1995 when I was relegated to working alone in one of the smaller satellite labs, blocks away from where Alanna was. The students were all busy at work, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Eventually, I forced myself to read to make use of the time.

“Can I ask you a question?” a student asked. “I don’t get how you can just sit there. There aren’t enough computers. You see us waiting for seats. Yet that computer in the corner has been out of order all semester. Aren’t you guys supposed to fix it? Or replace it?”
“Well, that’s a different team,” I said, “but I’ll take a look.”

I walked over to it and sat down. The window behind afforded a lovely view of a Manhattan corner. Windblown pedestrians beneath. Remembering my purpose, I noted down the tower’s number. A yellowed and crinkled piece of looseleaf was taped to the front of the monitor. “Out of Order,” it read. In the corner of a sheet was the tiniest sketch of a hamster with massive headphones on. It really did look like the computer could have been like this for months. Then I checked the work orders. There was no ticket entered for it. In fact, the computer wasn’t even on the master list. Weird.

I turned it on, watching the green light pulse as the fan whirled and the hard drive chattered away. But the login screen never appeared. Someone had reconfigured the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. I only made it so far before I was prompted for a system administrator’s password. I had one of those, but it was rejected. Instead, I tried a few of the passwords that the BAC typically used. After a few tries, I was in. I wondered why one of us would have done this. Then I saw that the desktop was filled with documents, music, and pictures. Someone had made themselves quite comfortable here.
I clicked through one of the photos and Christopher Carpentieri’s face appeared before me. He was smiling, holding a fat hamster in his hands, his black baseball hat on crooked, a tattoo of a star adorned the side of his neck.

This was his computer. He had rigged it so the BAC could get into it. Did he want to hide these files? That made no sense. He could have locked these files away where no one would have ever been able to access them. Did he want these files to be found or did he just not realize that he wasn’t coming back for them? I wondered if any of the senior members knew this was here. There were still many people active in the BAC who would have known him. Did they leave this computer in a state of perpetual malfunction as a kind of monument to him? Or was it that they couldn’t bring themselves to clear off his files?

Well, I wasn’t going to leave it untouched. I made copies of every file on the desktop. And then I found something on the C drive—a folder entitled, “Memento Mori.” It was enormous, taking up a full third of the available space. The next day I came prepared and copied everything onto four zip drive discs. That night, as I took the ferry back to Staten Island, I cradled the discs in my hands. I felt like I was the bearer of something sacred.

When I got home I scanned the files for viruses and installed them.

“What a mess!” I said to the empty room. There were hundreds of files. School papers. Poetry. Logs of AOL instant messenger conversations. And programs—lots of programs! I tried to run them—eager to see what they would do. But they didn’t do very much. Many of them required the program to access another program—but the references all pointed to incorrect locations. Some of the programming was extremely complex stuff—more advanced than anything I had ever worked with. It irritated me how sloppy it all was. I don’t know what I was expecting—some great work of genius perhaps. But what I found was like a jigsaw puzzle, and I had no idea what the completed image was supposed to be.

“What were you trying to do Christopher? I don’t understand this!”
I had been nervously twisting the railroad spike I kept on my desk in anticipation. But the more of the files I read, the more confused I became. Sometime in the early morning, I thought to check the dates. Many of the files were created at the end of the Spring semester of 1993—just before the summer he died.

“Fuck!” I screamed. I threw the railroad spike across the room. It gouged a chunk of plaster out of the wall. The programs didn’t make any sense because his brain was failing him when he wrote them. Whatever he was trying to do…he had run out of time.
I leaped out of my seat, frustrated that I had wasted a whole night on what seemed a lost cause. I paced the room, unable to even try to sleep.

I opened up WebCrawler and searched for ‘Memento Mori’. Very quickly I found its meaning: “Remember—you are going to die.”

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The Signal and the Noise 

Part 12 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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“So when am I going to meet her?” Alanna asked.

“Meet who?”

“Your girlfriend. Billy said she’s gorgeous.”

Fucking Billy. What a mistake I had made ever bringing him out to meet my friends and Rally. Of course, this was before the coming of Alanna.

“I don’t know. She is very busy. She makes me book our dates three weeks in advance.”

“Oh, she does not. You see her all the time. So how did you meet her?”

The very last thing I wanted in all the world was to talk about Rally with Alanna. When I was with Alanna I wished I never met Rally. I had been keeping a quarter in my pocket to remind me that all it would take would be one phone call—one message on her dorm-room answering machine, and I could end my relationship with Rally.

‘You might want to stop sleeping with her too then.’ the moral voice reminded me, but I was getting very good at ignoring this distraction.

“We met at a pool hall. She had hustled a bunch of men and taken all their money. They were going to kill her. I stepped in and put a stop to it. She told me I was her hero and that we should go on a date. But then she stole my wallet. I’ve really just been trying to get my driver’s license back this whole time.”

“So she is a hustler and a thief.”

“Absolutely. A con-artist. The only reason I keep seeing her is that she knows where my family lives. Oh, did I mention she likes to start fires?” This, of course, was not entirely true. Well, the part about the pool hall was true. The rest was an utter fabrication.

Alanna laughed at this. Laughter was in no short supply when she and I worked the lab together—which, thanks to a bit of bribery, occurred much more often than it should have.

“Why do you have such terrible taste in women?”

“I don’t! I have excellent taste in women! I’m just stuck in a relationship with a car thief.”

“She steals cars now?”

“Only Lexuses. She sells them for drugs.”

“Now I have to meet her!”

“Ok.”

“Ok?”

“Sure. Let’s set it up. We’ll get dinner—just the three of us. How’s Saturday night? I’ll make a reservation. Do you like Italian?”

She smiled at me. Shaking her head slightly.

“Why do I have the feeling she is not going to show up?”

“She’ll come if I invite her.”

“MMm-hmm.”

“Well, I can’t absolutely guarantee that she’ll come. Sometimes she has trouble traveling—I mean there is a warrant out for her arrest and all.”

“You have a very strange way of asking a girl out.”

“Hey, this was your idea!”

“Oh and now you want to back out of it!”

“I never said that!”

“Billy!” She all but cheered when she saw him walk into the lab.

“Hello-hello!” Billy said with a mechanical wave.

“Christopher invited me out to dinner to meet his girlfriend.”

“Did he now?” Billy’s eyebrows knitted together as if he was trying to decipher what this meant. Billy was every bit as enamored with Alanna as I was. Probably more so since he otherwise seemed to be hopelessly frustrated in love.

“Hey, Billy, why don’t you come too?”

Great now it’s a double date. Fucking Billy.

“OK!” Billy agreed, his pale face starting to glow with excitement.

“Yeah. That’s a great idea!” I said. “You know what? We should invite the whole BAC. Let’s all go to dinner!” Then I yelled invitations to two nearby members. Billy’s smile flickered out like a fluorescent bulb.

The infuriating thing was that she liked me. I know she liked me! I made her laugh. She brightened up when I came into the room. She rejected almost every other guy who flirted with her. But yet, I wasn’t sure. And even though she was, as far as I could tell, the most amazing girl I would ever meet, I couldn’t ask her out. I was waiting for some clear signal—some strong indication that she wanted to date me. Then I would gladly have broken up with Rally. But I was having a hard time distinguishing the signal from the noise. And I certainly wasn’t going to part with Rally and not wind up with Alanna. This was a delicate operation and I needed a level of certainty.

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The Girl in the Nerd Cave

Part 11 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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I was shocked.  I had been so engrossed in my own work that it never occurred to me that there would be new members—and if it had, would I have wondered if one would be a woman? The BAC, as it existed when I joined, was clearly, thoroughly, shamefully, the exclusive province of the male gender. Was that based on some policy of exclusion? Was it because of the small proportion of women in the computer science classes to begin with? I don’t know. The truth is, I was so uncertain of my own standing that I didn’t even ask. But whatever the cause, Alanna had come to put an end to it.

“As a matter of fact, I do know something about that.” I held my hand out for the e-mail and she let me look it over. “I received a very similar e-mail last year around this time.”

“What’s it all about?”

“Oh, I don’t think I can tell you that. You’ve come so far on your own. You certainly don’t need a hint now.”

“I’m supposed to go into that bar in a few minutes.”

“And what are you expecting to find there?”

“I have no idea. I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I didn’t understand half of the stuff in those e-mails—all that about Master Woz and the promised land…”

“Did you try to figure out who wrote them?”

“Well I looked up—Wait—are you Christopher?”

“Yes,” I said reflexively.

“So you designed all those encryption challenges?”

“Oh,” I realized my error, “No. I’m not that Christopher. I’m Christopher Salvatore. What’s your name?”

“Alanna.”

I shook her hand. Her skin was so smooth it seemed to be composed only of air.

“Christopher Carpentieri wrote the original emails. But I can’t tell you much about him other than he was a student like us, and he died last year. If you are interested, maybe you could help me learn more about him.”

She agreed, and just like that, Alanna Bray was in my life and sharing my quest. Machinations and designs were already forming around her in the back of my—no, they were in the forefront of my mind. I intended to weave her so deeply into the fabric of my days that she would never be able to be untangled from me. I sensed that she and I had a great work to do together, but I didn’t know yet what that was. Marriage? Children? Co-domination of the globe? It all seemed possible. Next to the alliance I envisioned for us, my relationship with Rally seemed a small matter.

These thoughts struck me without irony or humility. It wasn’t that I was presuming that this would be an easy quest—I knew winning her love would be a great challenge. But even so, I was not prepared for the moment when I ushered her up to the second floor of the Fleetfoot and found 22 men looking at her like they had never seen a woman before in their life.

‘And unlike you,’  my ever-so-moral voice reminded me, “most of them are single.’

In time, Alanna would be counted among the greatest of us. She had been programming since she was a 9-year-old with a Commodore 64. She wrote her first game in Basic when she was 11. Before she got out of high school she had taught herself C+, Paradox, and Pascal. Her coder credentials put mine to shame. As if that wasn’t enough, she was a gamer as well. She played every single installment of Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic, and Ultima. And she had read just about every fantasy book that I had ever heard of.

She lived with her parents in their brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her father was a math teacher and her mother a medieval literature professor. They raised her to believe she could do whatever she put her mind to—and that was pretty much what she did.  She was the least pretentious genius I had ever met. She had a way of making everyone around her feel entirely comfortable.  She was the kind of person who could make you feel like your trip to New Jersey was fascinating when she had just got back from Africa.

But at that moment at the top of the stairs, nobody knew anything about her other than that she was a beautiful woman who had stumbled into our nerd cave. She stood before the smoldering eyes—an exquisite specimen. A prize to be won. Not since Fëarnor forged the Silmarils or Deagol fished the One Ring out of the riverbed, had such a prize carried such risk of inciting bitter rivalry. And she was standing at my side. A half-smile crept across my face as I mentally prepared for the contest that was to come.

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[Thanks for Reading!  I spent the weekend writing several pieces ahead–so I should be able to get the next few pieces out easily.  What do you think of Alanna?  Let me know! ]

The Elf Queen of Manhattan

Part 10 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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By the end of my sophomore year, I had just about completed my tenure as an Ap and was looking forward to being named a Lv1 (a third-year member).  The night before the end-of-the-year party I had slept over at my girlfriend’s Columbia dorm room. After a pleasant morning and a very late breakfast, I wandered downtown a bit earlier than I needed to and found myself with a healthy amount of time to kill. It was just dawning on me that once again I was free from all of my academic requirements.

After a few hours of exploring, I walked to a nearby park (really just some benches and bushes in between two merging avenues) and sat.  I looked across to a woman about my age, seated on a bench.  Her legs were stretched out before her. A flip flop dangled from her toe. My eyes were pulled to the green tattoo on her ankle, a swirling arrangements of leaves, grapes, and thorns, gave rise to a vine that traveled up her long cream-colored leg and disappeared under her acid-washed jean shorts, only to emerge again out of her green tank top, slipping over her shoulder and down her slender arm. The final bloom adorned her grateful hand, the fingers of which held a book.

It was the Silmarillion by J.R.R.Tolkien.

My heart beat erratically. She looked up from the book—her blue eyes sparkling luminously through her chunky eyeglasses. Her hair was a flame of orange, radiant in the sunlight.  It was a disordered mess of tight spirals, pulled back.  Her ears which protruded slightly were pierced with what seemed like a dozen small silver rings. She had a purple backpack that looked filthy. It was covered with small buttons.  I saw one that read, “We must be the change we would see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi.”  Another read, “Frodo Lives.”

I felt a sudden urge to plant my knees into the concrete and kneel before her. I wanted to know everything about her—to hear the stories behind each of those buttons on her bag. I wanted my fingers to get lost in the curls of her hair. I wanted to climb her beanstalk.

She looked at her Swatch wristwatch.  I realized she might jump up at any minute and go on with her life before I had time to fully integrate kissing her into my daily routine.

‘You’re not going to kiss her,’ some pedantic part of me corrected.

Dozens of haphazard instructions burst into my mind. I had very little experience at spontaneously communicating with women. In fact, I was usually only able to do so with the aid of a week’s worth of strategizing sessions or with the help of meddling best friends.

‘Will you get a hold of yourself man! You already have a girlfriend!’ my conscious was now screaming.

I reached for my backpack and pulled my own copy of the Silmarillion out of it.  I held it up like it was a piece of the sun that would send a shaft of light toward her. But her eyes had already resumed their reading and I was left holding the book aloft, looking like an idiot.

‘Rally,’ the annoying inner voice was persisting, ‘Your girlfriend’s name is Rally. Do you remember her? Naked? On top of you? About six hours ago?’ 

I began to panic, realizing that I had no choice but to verbally communicate with the Elf Queen of Manhattan.  I had to say something incredibly witty— something that would show her how sophisticated, intellectual, and eloquent I was.

“Oh my god you are so cool!” The words spilled out of me.

She lifted her eyebrow above the frame of her glasses.

“The Silmarillion.  I have never seen anyone reading that…let alone a girl.”

She laughed at this.  More likely she was laughing at me.

“Most people stop at the Hobbit,” she said.

“I know! I love that book.  I have read it so many times.

“This is my fifth time reading it.  I love elves.” The world seemed to only be a series of spinning lights swirling around her.

“Me too!” I said after a period of awe.

We launched into a conversation about elves in their many iterations—about our disdain for Christmas elves or our hatred for any blurring of the line between elves and fairies.  She had played Dungeon’s and Dragons and knew all the games I played with my friends.”

I wondered how quickly I could enlist her as my girlfriend.

‘Shit head you already have a girlfriend.’

“I’ve seen you in the lab haven’t I?” she said.

“You have?” How had this majestic woman who would be fair among the firstborn of the Eldar ever passed through my domain without my noticing her?

‘Probably because you were thinking about your girlfriend.’

“You wouldn’t know anything about this would you?” she said, unfolding a piece of paper. My mouth dropped open. It was a printed email asking her if she was “r34dy f0r 7h3 n3x7 l3v3l?”

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[Thanks for reading!  If you like what you’ve seen so far please let my know my commenting or liking. I am definitely eager for any feedback or questions.  I have to say I am very relieved to finally have a female character in this story!]

The Order and the Chaos

Part 9 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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But I am getting ahead of myself. Declaring my intention to help Zee create an AI was still two years into the future. But something else happened that first night at the Fleetfoot. After the throng had died down, I noticed that there was an undercurrent of sadness woven into this event. Small, quiet conversations broke off from larger tangents. Shared memories brought on laughter of the kind that covered up deep pain.
I realized that these men were still smarting from their loss. Christopher Carpentieri was still very much here. I could sense the fleeting references to the ubiquitous “he” that inhabited their stories. I tried to join the conversations, hoping to learn more about him. But his specter kept dancing away from every group that I joined, with some other topic rising to take its place.
The conversations I could join were all about some obscure bits of hacker trivia, comparisons of the different programming languages, or a theory about what was going to happen on X-files. Sometimes there was some speculation about Zee and his history. There were questions about where his money came from, rumors of his rivalry with the department chair, and reports that the reason he wore a wedding ring was that he had a wife that he left behind in Greece. It was all interesting enough, but I couldn’t help but feel excluded from the reminiscences of Christopher Carpentieri. Inwardly I scolded myself for this morbid fascination. To them, he was a lost brother, to me he was a curiosity. My interest was voyeuristic and base. I tried to push him out of my mind.
“This is all really weird,” Billy said, still holding his nearly full mug of beer. “Isn’t it?”
“Nah,” I said, holding my fifth empty mug, “This is the most normal thing that has ever happened to me.”

***

Over the following year, the BAC was everything I could have hoped it to be. I was put to work in the computer lab that first summer (no more tearing down drywall with my uncle every weekend!). In the Fall, I resumed taking classes and continued to spend most of my class-time “helping out.” I also graded projects and tests. It all felt like I was just hanging out with friends, laughing, making jokes, creating ridiculous acronyms, writing the most absurd programs we could think of, and, in general, making a sport out of trying to master our sacred machines.

But by far, the best part of those years took place at the Fleetfoot. I was fascinated with every word Zee said. The view of the world that unfolded through his lectures was a far broader vista than any academic discipline had ever provided me before. The whole world was an acceptable pallet for cognitive science—as if society was one massive program. Through studying its ebbs and flows we could understand why the world functioned or misfunctioned. We could learn how to see the world—fix the world—make the world over.

Once, Zee had forced us to analyze the functioning of a traffic signal outside the Fleetfoot and propose how we could improve upon it. Then he mercilessly pointed out the flaws in all of our solutions.

“Why does this matter?” Billy asked in frustration. “What could this possibly have to do with anything?”

“These are programmed devices. Stupid as they are, they are following a logic dictated by circuits. They and their kind are affecting millions of lives every day. Who can say what such small inefficiencies can do over billions of repetitions? How many lives needlessly end? Whose fortunes are lost? What fates are swayed? And all determined by these accursedly stupid contraptions—made by men like us. And men like us have the ability to make them better.

“Soon, all human matters will be mediated through the workings of programs. Computers will be involved in all of our interactions from the bank to the bedroom. And therefore it will be the programmers who will ultimately be responsible for the outcome. Men such as you will wield vast power and have profound responsibilities. You will crush human traditions that have endured for millennia and create new ways of living. You will shape the law. Shape the flow of information. Shape the sweep of commerce. Will you be part of the chaos that tears our society apart? Or you will be part of the order that holds it together?”

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When the Master is Ready, the Student Appears

Part 8 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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As the night unfolded I realized that this was not, in fact, a gathering to sell me on the BAC. It was a party for their entertainment—I was supposed to be grateful to be included. And for the most part I was. The beer was cold and pleasantly bitter. The conversations were lively. I enjoyed being the subject of curiosity and speculation.

It felt like a long time since I had been asked about my high school experiences, my favorite video games, and what role-playing games I had played. But wherever I could, I turned the conversation to the BAC itself. The Brown Ale Collective was apparently named in honor of the beverage I was at that moment liberally consuming. It was a small, local, secret society—a totally unauthorized organization that existed within the computer science community of the university.

The privileges alluded to were, in fact, many.  I would be given a job in the computer lab, preferential standing among computer science majors, first choice in getting seats in Dr. Z’s classes, and, in all likelihood, an eventual officer position in the Computer Science Club and internship placement.  If I continued in computer science as a graduate student, I would be granted a teaching assistantship and the associated tuition remission and stipend. Eventually, I could expect a job, assuming that their alumni had anything to say about it. All of these things would coalesce into a prosperous and rewarding career if only I would consent to be an electron orbiting the mighty nucleus that was Dr. Z.

Oh, and there was one more “benefit”—an unheard of boon to any college student—a tab.  Every weekday I could eat and drink whatever I wanted between 10 AM and Noon (when there was a convenient dearth of comp-sci classes offered).  The source of this fabulous bounty was not made clear, except for the fact that it was definitely, certainly, absolutely not originating from our professor, who would never debase himself by providing impressionable students with alcohol.  Nevertheless, most weekday mornings Dr. Z could be found right here imparting his real teachings to his inner circle. While the well-oiled machine of the BAC did most of his busy work for him, Zee was instructing his flock in the dark arts of manipulating computer systems.

I came to see the that my first impressions of Zee were all entirely wrong.  I thought he was lazy. I was wrong. He worked nearly all of his waking hours. I thought he was a drunk. But he was a tactical drinker who imbibed according to an algorithm of his own design which dictated when and how much he drank in order to maintain a perpetual blood alcohol content (that other BAC) of .05. This was the level precision he sought in all things: Maximize productivity while not neglecting a hedonistic preference.

Zee was a renegade in his college world for other reasons as well. He published in the as-of-yet barely respectable area of artificial intelligence. But his pedigree was impressive. He had studied under Marvin Minsky’s artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT, and fully subscribed to his theory of the “society of mind” which held that intelligence, and by extrapolation consciousness, could arise out of the working of non-intelligent components—that is, if our programs could mimic all the little things that happened in the brain, consciousness (the big thing) would just naturally follow.  But more than that, he believed it was humanity’s  destiny to create—no not just to create, but to become—artificial intelligence.

“Do you think it will happen in my lifetime?” I asked him one day.

“You’re lifetime? I have no idea. But it will happen in mine.”

“What makes you so sure?” I laughed.

“Because I am going to make it happen.”

In that moment, I believed him. I knew he would make it so.

“Well, I’ll just have to stick around and watch you do that.”

“Fuck that. If you’re going to standing around you better fucking help.”

“Deal.” I held out my hand to him. He shook it.

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Initiation by Ale

Part 7 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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The day after finals, with my curiosity fully engaged, I presented to the address provided, finding myself at a bar named, “The Fleetfoot.”

Inside, many mustachioed men with gold chains were waiting. I immediately assumed that this was some kind of prank. Had they sent me to a gay bar? But then I realized that the TV screens were broadcasting a soccer game in Spanish. All present were transfixed by the little speck of white that fluttered between the players’ feet. They were all oblivious to everything around them, all except for…

Billy Penchant was standing, awkwardly in the middle of the room, seemingly lost.  His face wore his usual expression of bemused detachment.

“You got the emails too huh?” I asked him.

“Yeah. I didn’t know if we were supposed to talk about it or not.”

“It said upstairs.” I reminded him.

Behind the sign that read, “Private Party” there was a stairway. We could hear the raucous laughter as we climbed.

Upstairs, I saw a host of familiar and unfamiliar faces: The lab techs, the TAs, and a number of graduate students—all men. They were talking, laughing, and drinking beer.  In the midst of it all was Zee himself. For a moment the two of us stood at the top of the stairs waiting to be noticed.

“Doctors!” they called out and cheered.  There were handshakes for us and slaps on the shoulder. It felt like we had won some kind of award.  They poured us each a beer.

“Um. I’m not twenty one…” Billy attempted (and failed) to wave the beer away.

“Drink!” ten voices commanded.

“And listen. And learn,” Nicholas said. “Gentlemen of the BAC. I present to you Drs. Penchant and Salvatore. They have both made it through their first year. Both of them, without having any idea why, have agreed to go above and beyond the duty of a student. They have, almost singlehandedly, instructed four classes between them.”

“Then what the fuck are they paying me for?” Zee asked, earning uproarious laughter.

“They have written their own decoding software,” Nicholas continued,  “and, most importantly, avoided pissing us off for an entire year.”

“To well-behaved noobs!” someone yelled. They cheered loudest for this last point.

“So doctors,” Nicholas was undeterred, “this is your graduation party!  This semester was your last as a mere sniveling, groveling, lowly college student.  If you accept, and you will accept if you are not complete idiots, you will be members of the Brown Ale Collective.”

Again they cheered.

“Is that what BAC stands for?” Billy asked.

I had, by this time, gathered that the BAC was some kind of secret club, and I even realized that I was being primed for membership. But I had no idea that there were so many of them.

“What does joining you entail?” Billy asked, sounding like he was on the phone with a telemarketer. Several people laughed at his directness. But I was glad that he had asked.

“If you join us, you will continue on as you have been doing.  You will go to classes—staying ahead. You will teach when called upon. You will grade projects. You will mark tests. You will design assignments and worksheets. You will, in short, do all the work of college professors other than to set the curriculum and assign final grades. And when the time comes you will do the real work.  You will never tell anyone else about this. In exchange—you will have privileges.

“Privileges?” Billy asked, “What kind of privileges?”

“That, you will be told, when you are ready.”

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Thanks for reading!!  New posts come out on Mondays and Fridays.  There are 25 sections in all.

A Quiver Full of Programs

Part 6 of The NetCromancer by M.J.Miello

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I asked every upperclassman I knew about Christopher Carpentieri. No one was eager to talk about him. The lab techs especially resented my asking. It was like I was reopening their wounds. But I did find out that he was an Italian kid from the Bronx. He was a poet and a programmer.

A lucky guess led me to his work in the school’s literary magazine. I hadn’t read much poetry before—but I loved what I read. Collectively the pieces were a love song, not for a person, but for a life— for his life.

Through his words, I could see the Bronx. It was his obsession. He was taken with it. Its soul. Its food. Its strife. Its churches. Its street names. Its history. One poem was seven sections of adoration for an indoor market on Arthur Avenue. His descriptions of the bread, the pastry, the balsamic vinegar, and the smell of freshly rolled cigars were almost erotic. His words were infectious, chaotically arranged. Manic in their devotion.
In my childhood, the Bronx seemed only a frightful wasteland that surrounded Yankee stadium like a moat. But he made me wish I knew the Bronx better. He seemed passionate in a way I had seldom had the occasion to feel.

I wanted to know more about this person who lost his life at such a young age. Each time one of the email’s came I felt as if the decoded message was intended for me alone. I felt a strange kinship for this other Christopher from the outer boroughs as if he was some newly discovered cousin or another version of myself from a parallel universe.

Then one day when I again needed to use my special lab privileges, I was seated behind the help desk. There, thumbtacked to a cork-board was a photograph of several students in the lab. Two were currently lab techs, but there, in the front, smiling widely was a face I instantly knew was Christopher Carpentieri. His dark hair was long. He wore a narrow mustache and goatee. He had multiple piercings in each ear. His fingers were held out in a sideways peace sign. His wide eyes were alight with a laugh frozen in time, a moment of reckless enthusiasm.

Through out that semester, the emails continued about one every two weeks. Each one required a more complex transformation, and each message could only be decrypted by passing it through each of the subsequent programs. With each challenge, his personal messages also grew in length, becoming more encouraging and more bizarre.

“Praise the almighty Woz! Wake Master Gates from his cybernetic sleep! The programmer has come that will lead the wayward flock out of the desert and into the electric promised land! Yes. Yes. Yes! You feel this glory, don’t you? It’s lingering just beneath the keys. Let it pass through your fingertips and slip silently into your blood. Remember that! Remember that with each line of code you write, you take an idea out of the mind of God and make it manifest on earth. The enemies are coming for us. They will swell before the wall. But every program you write is an arrow in your quiver. With them you will keep stagnation and mediocrity at bay. Remember that oh writers of the sacred glowing text! Think on this well when you craft your final challenge.”

One week later the last email came. This one was not forwarded from CCarpent but only from the M461@BAC address. There were no words of Christopher Carpentieri to congratulate me. This email promised something very different.

“4r3 y0u r34dy f0r 7h3 n3x7 l3v3l?”

This was followed by a date, a time and an address as well as the word, “up5741r5.” It was signed, “M461.” There were no more programs to write for CCarpent. Instead, it was an invitation. I was being summoned to meet the BAC.

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Thanks for reading!!  New posts come out on Mondays and Fridays.  There are 25 sections in all.

 

 

Email for the Beloved Noob

Part 5 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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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.”

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Privileges

Part 4 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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By the middle of my first semester, I knew the second level comp-sci curriculum backwards and forwards. I was also getting better at explaining it.  The class was keeping up with the work. There was some satisfaction to be found in that, even if my fellow students didn’t appreciate my labors. Most seemed to resent me.  The girls never flirted back.  The guys viewed my assistance as a degrading insult.  Some saw  me as the uber-nerdy teacher’s pet and others as a kind of servant at their beckon call.

“Hey it’s not like I’m getting paid for this!” I shot back at one classmate when she complained that I was taking too long to attend to her.

“You’re not? Aren’t you like the TA?”

“No!” I laughed.

“So you’re just a kid in this class?”

“That I am.”

“What the fuck?”

I shrugged.

Most students didn’t understand why I tolerated this. I didn’t understand why I was doing it either. As far as I knew all I would be getting out of it was an ‘A’ on my report card and (maybe) a letter of recommendation if I ever needed one.

There was, however, one additional benefit. During the week before finals, when every student in the school had a paper to finish, I made the mistake of counting on getting a computer in the lab so that I could finish and print out a paper two hours before it was due.  The lab was packed—every computer taken. I walked over to the clipboard to sign up to wait. There were already a dozen names ahead of me. I cursed at myself as I realized my paper grade was dropping with every minute I had to wait.

“You can use that one,” a tech said, pointing to a computer in the lab staff area.

“I can?” I asked.

“Yes. Dr. Salvatore, YOU can.”

I had no idea how this lab tech even knew who I was, or why he was calling me ‘Doctor’ for that matter, but I knew better than to question my good fortune. I logged in and immediately got to work.

From that day forward the lab was like my home on campus. I could count on never having to wait and I got to know all the techs. I began to see that there was a complex structure to their interactions.

“Dr. Salvatore,” was what they called me.  But this was a joke. By ‘doctor’, they meant something more like  “noob” or “peon” in their sarcastic parody treatment of academic culture.

“The students with the highest status among them—graduate students, who had previously worked in the lab were called, “the Magnus” or “Magi” for plural—a word I knew from the fantasy role-playing world to mean wizard.  Others who were not quite as high up were called “Ap” which I think was short for ‘apprentice’.”

“Doctor Penchant!” a lab tech, said one unusually busy day early into the Spring semester. I looked up, curious to see someone else who (apparently) had the same rank as me. He stood before the full lab, thoroughly confused.  Circular glasses adorned his good natured face. His hair was long and curly, and he wore a blue button-down shirt with a keyboard tie.

“You can use that one Doctor!” the lab tech said.

“I can?”

And then he took a seat next to me.

“You guys are friends now,” the tech said pointing to us.

“We are?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, “I think so. It’s a whole BAC thing.”

“What’s BAC?” he asked.

“I have no idea. Christopher Salvatore,” I shook his hand.

“Billy Penchant.”

And just like that we were friends and our friendship would last a long, long time, until he put a bullet in me. But that’s a story for another day.

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