Adjudication

Conclusion of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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There was silence as I climbed the stairs of the Fleetfoot. I expected to find the place empty, but they were there. Zee. Alanna. Billy. All of them. Even members I had never met. Nicholas knocked an empty mug against the wood of the table. So there would be no small talk.

“Attention members of the collective, Christopher Salvatore comes before us.  Christopher, have you fulfilled your duties?”

“I have.” This was true. I accepted that I would be banished but I saw no reason to make this easy for them.

“Have you mastered the art of the code?”

“I have.”

“Have you learned the principles of the collective?”

“I have.”

“And to you my brothers and sister I ask now, has Christopher demonstrated the requisite hatred for inelegance?”

There was a pause.

“He has,” Zee said.

“Shall we consider Christopher for the exalted rank of Magnus?”

“We shall,” several of the Magi said tentatively, but this only opened the debate. “What is the consensus of the collective. Has Christopher served the Order or the Chaos?” Again there was silence.

“The Chaos,” Billy said.

“The Chaos,” others agreed.

No one had ever been said to serve the Chaos. The BAC as an organization was meant to serve the Order. We never called ourselves hackers. We were not black hats. We were computer scientists, servants to Zee’s vision of the future. I had broken the rules. I had created, and unleashed a virus. This, I knew, was immoral. It was forbidden.

“He should never be one of the Magi,” Nicholas said. This drew protests. Some were not happy about this proposal. Alanna’s eyes were fixed on me as if she was waiting for me to say something. Did she think I would defend myself?

“So be it,” Zee said, interrupting the debate. “Christopher is not to be a Magnus. His powers are greater than that. He has gone further than others have dared. And who is to say that the Order shall not benefit from his labors.”

“Benefit?” Billy asked, “He made a damned virus!”

“I finished his virus,” I said more to give credit where it was due than to defend myself.

“It was like he was back,” one of the graduate students said from the back of the room. “He was always tricking us into playing that damn song he wrote.”

“If you left your computer open for a second,” someone else added, “He would get into whatever you were working on and write a poem right in the middle of your code.”

“Now we know what he was working on at the end,” a recent graduate who I had never interacted with before said. I looked at him, he was African American and he wore a familiar earring and black hat. I recognized him. He, more than anyone else was in Christopher’s photographs.

“I thought,” he went on, “I thought his mind was gone and he was just filling his last hours with an empty task. He couldn’t speak in the last few months. And then yesterday he was there. His words were there. He called me his beloved noob again.” A tear fell down the man’s face. “I felt like you brought him back from the dead.”

“He did. He brought our brother back from the dead!” The sentiment echoed around the room.

Zee banged his mug on the wood table and lifted it out to me. “Then let it be known that henceforth Christopher is a master. He is adeptus. He is a re-worker. He is a worker of Chaos but a servant of the Great Order nonetheless. He is…”

“The Necromancer,” Alanna said, referring to the dark wizards that haunt the corners of fantasy novels—the ones with the power to summon the dead.

“Whoa!” several members yelled in approval. Others protested loudly, one decreeing that an undergraduate, of any skill, was unworthy of such a badass name.

“More like the Net-cromancer,” Billy said, earning something of a reluctant laugh. And this name, perhaps because it was sufficiently ridiculous, was acceptable.

“To the Netcromancer,” Zee said. They raised their cups and drank.

END

 

Hey there kindly reading person! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this story!

Special thanks to my awesome “beta readers” BWWB, FPM2 (AG?), and LMM/LMB!

 I am an aspiring author so at this stage every little bit of support and encouragement means a lot! Please share this site with anyone you think would like this story.  If you want to read more about Christopher Salvatore you are in luck!  Check out the stories on VanishingPlaces.com

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7h15 p463 h45 b33n h4ck3d by chr1570ph3r c4rp3n713r1.

m3m3n70 m0r1. 

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The Resignation

Part 21 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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My awareness of the outside world was limited to the possibility that it might have still been Spring Break. “Ruiner” by Nine Inch Nails had been playing on repeat for so long that I could no longer perceive it. My head ached, but the old welding goggles above my eyes seemed to put just the right amount of pressure on my forehead. It had been at least 24 hours since I had had any kind of sleep. In that time, I had delved into the depths of the internet to find the final answers, going places where the faint of heart do not tread.
Pulling back the curtains, I was surprised to find that it was a pleasant morning. I paced my floor, flipping my coin, searching for clarity. None came. I had not eaten in a long time. I walked down to Forest Avenue, amazed at the calm in the air. At the Bright Spot, a tiny breakfast counter, I order eggs and coffee. The proprietor stared at the imprint the goggles had left on my forehead while she took my order. Conversation filled the space around me, but I tuned it all out. I had a decision to make.

When I got back I found the draft email still waiting for me. I knew the ramifications of my choice would be far reaching. I might just be throwing away everything I had worked for over the past three years. I didn’t care. I may never have met him, but Christopher Carpentieri was still my friend, and death had taken him too early. This was his due.
I clicked ‘send’.

Anxiety surged within me—the kind of alarm that accompanied an action that once done could never be undone. And now my emails were racing through networks, being sliced up into digital packets and reassembled at their destinations. They were manifesting in the inboxes of the BAC. Many would have already seen the subject line, “My Resignation.” It was unheard of. No one had ever resigned from the BAC. They would find my vague statements in the body of the e-mail completely insufficient to understand my motives.

That is when they would open the attachment. Some would, wisely, scan it for security. That wouldn’t matter. Nothing resembling the Memento Mori Virus had ever existed before.

At that moment, it was already working its way deep into their systems while simultaneously sending out hundreds of e-mails to every recipient it could scour from their address books. Some of these would read, “Remembering Christopher Carpentieri.” Others would contain the subject lines, “An interesting thought,” or “A poem I wrote for you.” Christopher’s words, his images, his thoughts—his will—had escaped into the digital wild. He was multiplying, expanding, and invading. It was a quiet revolution. But soon, thousands of people would have the chance to know him. To curse him. To hate him. To love him.

***

I walked into the lab at 9:40 AM Sunday morning, the day before the first day back.
There was a sign on the door. “Lab Closed.”

I entered. All of the computers were turned on. I could hear the cacophony of several of them playing Christopher Carpentieri’s electronica. His face looked out from several of them, fading into a slide show of his favorite images. Some of them had his poetry slowly scrolling up the screen. They had all been infected. Every single one.

These were only the most obvious manifestations of the Memento Mori. For the user, it would be as if they had shared their computer with a friend who had moved away. Every so often, you would stumble onto some hint that he had been there—a random photo of him in a folder you rarely check, or a poem written into one of your documents. Or, it would send you an encouraging alert or e-mail. It was a virus that would never be vanquished because a small minority of those infected by it would welcome it, would support it, and would, ultimately, improve it.

But that morning standing in the lab, I felt a chill of fear for what I had done. And I was beaming with pride.

As the lab workers looked at me. I couldn’t read their faces.

“We’re going to have to take this thing off of them you know.”
I nodded.

“Any idea how we do that?”

“You might not need to get rid of it.”

“Why not?”

“He’s just showing off,” I said looking at my watch. “He’ll quiet down…just about…now.”
And all at once the computers rebooted themselves.

“They said that, if you showed up, to tell you to go to the Fleetfoot.”

I nodded. I had expected as much. It was time to present myself for excommunication.

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A Date With Destiny

Part 19 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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My nervousness surged as I walked into the crowded restaurant.  I had spent the previous 24 hours second-guessing myself. But I knew that I had to break up with Rally. I couldn’t go on with this charade anymore. I was fond of Rally. I was certainly attracted to her. I was proud of myself for “winning” her—whatever that meant. But now that I had seen that love could be a union of two minds with a common purpose, that all seemed so shallow.

Rally had said to meet her at the restaurant’s bar so I walked into the crowded space. And then, as the well-dressed people shifted around me, she came into view.

Alanna? Why was she here? Was this a coincidence? An accident? Certainly not—I was all the way uptown. It made no sense. But there she was, and she looked beautiful. She wore a green dress. Sparkling stones hung around her neck. Her hair was straightened and fell luxuriously over her shoulders. Rich brown leather boots had taken the place of old sneakers. Our eyes met and she smiled at me.

The fingerprints of Rally were on this. Alanna even looked like she had been dressed by Rally—was that Rally’s green dress she was wearing? That’s when it occurred to me—Rally knew. Of course, she knew. She knew me so well. She had seen the way I looked at Alanna. When they spoke on the phone, Rally must have realized that we were perfect for each other. Was this her way of ending things with me? Had she set me up on a date with Alanna as her way of stepping aside? That seemed insane. But was it?

“Hi!” Alanna said when she reached me. “Thank you so much for coming! Oh my god I am so nervous.” She was fanning herself with the small purse in her hand (also Rally’s).

“Me too,” I said.

“Rally is amazing. You have no idea. She is just…just fucking amazing!”

“She is,” I said, trying to hide my confusion. I felt a sickness in my stomach and a quiver at the base of my neck.

“I still don’t believe this is going to happen! I was shocked when she told me you thought of this. There is just no way it’s going to work. Do you think it’s going to work?”

“I…” It was too good to be true I realized. I felt Rally’s arm slide around my arm.

“Of course it’s going to work. Hi love,” Rally said to me and gave me a kiss.

“What’s going to…” I asked.

“He’s here!” Alanna said.

I turned and saw him coming through the door. His hair was down. His blue eyes were radiant. He looked young. Strong. Invincible. He was Odysseus emerging from the Trojan horse.

It was Zee.

I was falling. Falling deeper and deeper into myself. It was like I had built a great scaffolding around my life. And it was collapsing. The beams and girders were splintering as they fell. I was being buried—shattered beneath the rubble of my former self.

And yet, when the dust had settled, I was alive. My feet moved. My face smiled. Words were interpreted. Responses formulated. Drinks were ordered. Sips were taken. Ice felt cold against my lips. I wished for all the world that Billy was here. Or Nicholas. Or anyone. Literally anyone else. But no. It was Zee. I could sense fires burning in the depths of my mind. I feared I would be losing far more than a romantic contest. I was losing everything I had spent the last three years building.

My face was hurting from the forced laughter. The entrees had not even come yet. I didn’t know how much longer I could take this. I searched deep in my pockets. Beneath the wallet and the keys, there was something hidden. All I needed to do was touch it and I would remember who I was—and what I had wanted. The pain of remembering overcame me as the coin slid between my fingers. I knew I had been beaten. The pain was real. And in-between the cascade of false pleasantries, the defeat seared at my heart. It burned, but at least it was real.

“Thank you so much for a fabulous evening!” Rally said.

“Oh, this was really very entertaining. We should get together like this again,” Zee said. “Say, are you going downtown?”

“I am,” Alanna said.

“Not me. I live a few blocks over and I think Christopher’s coming back to my dorm with me.”

“Yes,” I said realizing that even these moves had already been put in place.

“Why don’t the two of you share a cab?” Rally said.

“Good idea, I’ll get one,” Zee said as he stepped away.

“Thank you both so much. I love you guys!” Alanna whispered.

When the cab door slammed shut I felt unsteady.

There was a moment of silence as Rally and I watched the cab sink into the collage of light and color.

Slowly I turned my head to look at her.

“Well, I’m glad that worked out.” She smiled slightly.

I said nothing; My face was a mask of blank expression.

“Oh, come now,” she said, “You didn’t really think I would let you break up with me for that girl. Did you see her shoes?”

“You can be so…” It was a whisper.

“Heartless? Yes, I am heartless not to let you have another girl.”

My head hurt. I had no idea if I was right or wrong. I felt guilt and rage. I had been caught, scolded, and punished.

“Come on,” she said and held her hand out to me.

“Come where?”

“Back to my dorm.”

“I think I’ll just go home.”

“Christopher I want you to come with me.”

“Why?”

“I just put a lot of work into saving our relationship. You might thank me you know.”

“What if I don’t want this relationship anymore?”

“We both know you aren’t going to do that. You had two semesters to break up with me for her and you didn’t. Why not?”

I let the question linger there for a moment. Why had I not?

“Because you always do what you are supposed to do. Whatever else you are, Christopher, you are a man of your word. You promised me that you would be my boyfriend and that we would love each other. So that is what we are doing. Now I need you to come back to my dorm and fuck me.”

She took me by the hand. At her touch, the tension in my muscles evaporated. We walked side-by-side.

I realized in that moment, that Rally, too, was a kind of programmer. She wrote no code. She obeyed no syntax. But all of her softly spoken words and gestures always added up the exact outcome she desired. She had edited my social life with ease, shifting people into places so that the exact outcome she desired would manifest. And here I was again, playing out exactly the part she had prepared for me.

My hand slipped from hers as I turned and walked away.  The silence behind me was strange and frightening. But I didn’t look back.

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A Magnus Earns His Keys

Part 18 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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10:00 AM Friday morning I was drinking my brown ale and eating Scotch eggs at the Fleetfoot.  There was an impressive number of members present.

“Hey Stranger,” Alanna said as she sat next to me. It was the last day of my agreement. The deadline seemed fast approaching. Again I felt the disorienting pull towards her. She was just inches away. There was nothing but vapors between her lips and mine.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I am so beat. I couldn’t sleep last night so I stayed up playing Menzoberranzan. It’s not even that good of a game.” She went on with her critique and her ideas about what made a game good or not.  I laughed and smiled at the appropriate times, but I couldn’t focus on anything but the way her pink lips moved when she spoke.

“We should make a game sometime,” she said to me.

“A game?” This captured my attention.

“Yeah. I bet you are a kick ass dungeon master. Why not combine our interest in fantasy with our programming skills? Can you imagine what games will be like in the future—when games start to actually be intelligent?”

It took all of my will power not to kiss her right then and there. But my curiosity was squirming inside me. Had Billy asked her out yet? How had he approached his task? I needed to know.

“So is anything else new?” I asked.

“Not much. I have a history test later. That’s what I should have been studying for last night.”

“Hey, where is Billy?” I asked, fishing for some hint about him. “He is usually here by now.”

“I don’t know.” I should have known that she was far too polite to tell me about any private conversation that they may or may not have had.

“Attention members of the collective.” Nicholas, now on the verge of defending his dissertation, called a formal meeting to order by knocking his mug against the wood of the table.  We all rose and held out our glasses.  A minute went by as our arms tired.

“Matthew step forward.” Matthew “Gleeok” Millich was a year ahead of me.  He rose.

“Matt, have you fulfilled your duties?”

“I have.”

“Have you mastered the art of the code?”

“I have.”

“Have you learned the principles of the collective?”

“I have.”

“And to you my brothers I ask now, has Matt demonstrated the requisite hatred for inelegance?”

“He has,” many said in unison.

“Shall we consider Matthew for the exalted rank of Magi?”

We cheered boisterously in the affirmative.

“What is the consensus of the collective. Has Matt served the Order or the Chaos.”

“The Order!” we screamed.

“Then let it be known that henceforth Matt is a master. He is an Adeptus. He is a re-worker. He is a servant of the Great Order. He is Magi.”

We applauded.

They handed Matt a small felt bag. Inside was the customary token, two keys ripped off of a keyboard. The keys varied, but they were commonly a “Shift” and a “Ctrl” key, references to what a good programmer could do—promote and control change. This part of the ceremony was referred to as earning your “keys,” “your beans,” or more frequently, “your sack.”

I liked these little rites. We were not yet so old that they had codified into anything formal.  They could still be customized to suit our personalities.

We took turns making toasts to Matt (really it was a sort of informal roast). I didn’t leave Alanna’s side the whole time. But I kept looking to the stairs, expecting to have to cede the ground if Billy showed up.  He never came.

Afterwards, as I walked to campus, Billy appeared next to me.

“She’s all yours.”

“What happened?” I asked. The pained look in his eyes told me all I needed to know. There was no celebration in my heart. Part of me (a very small part) was really rooting for him.

“She said no. There’s someone else. She wouldn’t say who it was. But she said she has been thinking about someone for a long time. Someone who has been hesitant to ask her out because of complications.”

“I’m sorry Billy.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I…” He walked away. “Billy!” I called after him. I wanted to comfort him. But I knew he didn’t want my comfort. I had no choice but to let him go.

My stomach churned. I had as close to an answer as I was ever going to get.

Later I walked through the hall, peering into the level three class through an open door.  Zee was working intently on a laptop while Alanna stood over a student, instructing.  I paused overlong watching her. She seemed so graceful and natural.

“Forgetting about something are we?”

I wasn’t forgetting. I had made up my mind. It was time to end things with Rally.

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Where to Plant Your Lever

Part 17 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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In the days that followed, I did what I promised. I stayed out of Billy’s way. It was easy. I had someone else to spend time with—Christopher Carpentieri.

I was soaking in his music. Surrounded by his poetry. Steeping in his code. Every night I spent hours on the Memento Mori programs.  His style was by now familiar. I understood all of his tiny little flourishes, unique as fingerprints. Even his programming seemed poetic to me. But after months of this, I was still like the proverbial blind man holding the elephant’s tail—trying to understand the nature of this thing before me.

I wondered if Billy was right. Maybe this was unhealthy. Perhaps that’s why I stopped telling people (even Alanna) what I was working on. Maybe I was the only one who could understand it. Maybe he and I shared some unique essence that would let me glimpse his purpose and complete his work. Yes, that was what I was trying to do—complete his work. I can’t tell you what a relief it was when I realized that.  Before that it seemed that I needed to understand him. But how would I ever know that I understood…enough? That goal was a vortex that could swallow me forever. But, complete it—yes, I could complete it. And when it worked–when I ran the program at it did what it was designed to do—then I would know that I had not failed him.

I had, by this point, mastered all the commands and concepts that he was using. I had learned much from him, techniques that I might never have thought useful had I not seen how he employed them. Slowly, pieces of the pattern began to emerge. I found clues to how some of the programs were supposed to link together. These formed larger islands in a sea of separate fragments. It could access. It could look up. It could insert. It was a kind of a repository of his poetry and his thoughts. It could display images. It could even create documents. And so much more. But why? To what end? Why would anyone need all of these programs that replicated what the user could do anyway? It reminded me of one of those comical machines that employed belts and tracks, electric fans, pool cues, and rolling balls all to accomplish a simple task, like making toast. An interesting spectacle perhaps, but ever so inefficient.

“So are you free?” Rally’s voice rang in my ear. I realized I was holding the phone against my shoulder.

“For what?”

“For dinner silly. It’s important. We haven’t seen each other all week. I need to see you. We need to talk.”

“Of course. When?”

“Saturday,” she sighed. Obviously she had already said this.

“Let me check.” I opened up my desktop calendar. There was an item listed for Saturday. I looked at it. It said, “Memento Mori et Carpe Diem.” I flipped rapidly through the days and found that every so often there was an event in my calendar that I had not put there.

“Today,” one read, “remember that you are the product of billions of years of evolution. Try to fucking act like it!”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“What?” Rally asked concerned.

“Christopher is writing in my calendar.”

“Are you talking about yourself in the third person again?”

“No. Not me—long story. I’ll tell you about it later. But, yes. I’m free.”

She provided me with the time and place of our date.  And then the dial tone was poking me in the ear.  I wondered if I had said a proper goodbye. Then I felt a stab of anxiety. I could, if I chose, use this meeting to  break up with her. But I didn’t care about that now. I had stumbled onto something more important.

I was going through my calendar looking for more notes. There weren’t many but they were there. When I had run one of his programs it wrote the notes in my calendar.

“Today, my beloved Christopher” another note read, “You are going to have some difficulties. That is to be expected. Life is rarely kind. But rather than wilt and wander, focus on what you do have control over—what you can change. That is where you need to direct your attention. That is where you need to plant your lever and exert your will. Invadoria.”

I looked up Invadoria.  It meant ‘invade’.

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Obsessions and Confessions

Part 16 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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Rather than leaving Billy to make the return trip, I offered to let him crash at my place. I was feeling strangely close to him and more than a little guilty for my behavior. I tried to let myself feel relief.  Maybe I would just continue dating Rally. But when I tried to open myself to the possibility of not having Alanna as my next girlfriend, I felt queasy.

“Sorry about the stairs,” I said as we climbed the third flight to my attic apartment.

“I have to walk up six flights to live with three other dudes. This is huge. You have this all to yourself?”

I looked around the two-room apartment, trying to see it as spacious.

Billy looked over my belongings, complimenting my PC and stereo arrangement.

“You play?” he asked excitedly. For many years I kept a bass guitar in the corner of my room. But it had been a long time since I entertained any intention of playing it. As far as I have ever been able to tell, I have zero musical talent. Billy immediately began plucking the strings and tuning it.  “No amp?” he frowned.

“Sorry. You can have that thing if you want it.”

“Yeah?” He slapped the bass strings eagerly. “Thanks!”

He continued to wander around my room, commenting on my stuff.

“You have a lot of games,” he said looking over my collection of role playing materials. “You really like Lord of the Rings, huh?” he asked after inspecting my James Cauty poster. “Never read that.”

“And you were giving me shit for not knowing about the Star Trek Bong people?”

“The Borg. They’re the Borg.”

“You better get fucking reading now if you plan to date Alanna.  She’s practically an actual elf.”

He found a framed picture of Rally and stared at it.  “What on earth leaves you wanting more than this?”

“Hard to say. In some ways, I don’t want anything more than her. I’m not sure there could ever be ‘more’ than her. But sometimes I wonder if she really gets me.”

“Seems like a bright girl.”

“Oh, she has the capacity to understand me. And maybe she does. But whether she does or doesn’t, I’m not sure she wants to.”

“How did you meet her?”

“Her best friend set us up,” I said, drastically simplifying the story.

“Haven’t had a girlfriend since high school. I dated a few girls here and there.  Wasted years devoted to someone who didn’t really love me back. She always seemed to be on the verge of leaving her boyfriend. But she never did.”

“You must have liked her a lot,” I said after a moment’s silence. He shrugged.

I realized he was trying to say that, for him, this situation held some painful parallels. He had been the one waiting in the wings before.

“Hey, let me show you something.” I called him over to my IBM.

“Why do you have those there?” he asked, looking at the grainy pictures of Christopher Carpentieri that I had taped up around my work station, along with several of his poems.

“I’m trying to figure the kid out. I have some of his programs and I am trying to piece together what he was trying to do.”

I showed him some the Memento Mori code, particularly the bits I couldn’t understand at all. “What do you think he was up to?”

“Hell if I know. That looks like some high-level kung fu. Do you want my advice Chris?”

“Yes.”

“Stop.”

“Stop?”

“Stop. Stop this whole thing. Nothing good can come of it. I know he was a good coder and a BAC superstar, but he’s gone. That’s really sad. But you have your own life—your own mind. Write your own damn programs. He probably wasn’t in his right mind at the end. This might all be gibberish—the output of a very sick mind descending into some final madness, and now you’re going to follow him down into it.”

“I don’t think it’s like that. I think this was all meant to do something. Maybe something important.”

“Coders are prone to obsessiveness. You know that.”

“I do. But you just talked me into giving up my other obsession for a week. So this one is all I have left.”

He laughed.

I offered Billy my bed, but he insisted on staying on sleeping on the floor.

“Are you sure?” But in an instant he was asleep.

I sat down at my desk, put my headphones on. I opened up Windows Media Player and began to play the three songs I had gotten from Christopher Carpentieri’s computer. The electronica music was not my style, but there was something almost hypnotic about them.

“You’re still working on that?” he asked me.

“Huh?” I took off my headphones.

I looked at Billy. His face looked strange in the brightness of the early morning.

“Did you not sleep?” he asked.

“I slept.” I think I slept. I seemed to remember stepping over him at some point to get to the bed.

He looked at me strangely. “How much sleep did you get?”

“A few hours. I don’t sleep much these days.”

“Wow. You’re absolutely obsessed aren’t you?”

“Maybe.”

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[NOTE: The awesome J. Cauty LOTR Poster is still available!  http://www.allposters.com/-st/J-Cauty-Posters_c23206_.htm  ]

On The Late Boat

Part 15 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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That night I felt incredibly confused. Seeing both the women in my life together left me very unsettled.  Rally was the prize of my past, and Alanna was the beacon of my future. It seemed to defy the laws of physics that the two of them could be in the same place at the same time, let alone leave with a promise of meeting again.

Rally and I had parted with a kiss. I couldn’t tell how much she had guessed about Alanna. If she was angry at me, she hid it well. But she hadn’t invited me back to her dorm room either. And so I made the journey back to Staten Island, thankfully arriving at Whitehall station just before the 1:30 AM boat.

I made my way with the crowd through the overly-familiar corridor that led to the Ferry. I mulled the problem over in my head as my feet mindlessly shuffled.  I could still sense Rally’s fingers tracing over my arm as she sat next to me. I could still smell her perfume, and feel the static of her kiss.

I took a seat in the outdoor section of the upper deck and gazed out at the mirk beyond the pylons. I promised myself I would make a decision before I got off this boat about what I was going to do.  Someone obstructed my view. I slid my bag closer to me, thinking perhaps another passenger was waiting for me to make room.  But the person held fast. I looked up to find Billy Penchant glowering at me.

“Billy? What the fuck are you doing here?” Billy had an apartment on the Upper East Side.  Taking the ferry was an incredibly inconvenient thing for him to do.

“I have to talk to you.” There was no joy in his eyes. That little smirk that made it seem like the world was laughably droll to him was gone. “I can never talk to you lately. You’re with her every moment she is available. And you’re constantly blocking my access to her.”

“How exactly am I doing that?” I asked crossing my legs and interlocking my fingers, ready to listen to him attempt to spin some absurd narrative where he was the victim.

He provided one—and a convincing one at that. He described, in the meticulous detail that only a programmer could, how I had specifically engineered conversations to exclude him, ridicule him, and humiliate him. Listening to him, I realized he was right. Every time he tried to draw her attention to one of his accomplishments I somehow found a way to make a joke out of it.

“She’s not yours! You can’t monopolize her you arrogant asshole.” He was stiff. I felt a chill climb up my spine and the hair on my arms rise.  I stood up but he didn’t move back.  We were inches apart.  I felt a sudden urge to punch him in his self-righteous face.

“Why don’t you guys calm down,” someone said.

“Well, if I monopolize her it’s because she lets me. She’s a big girl. If she wanted to grant you more access she would.”

“She won’t as long as you’re pursuing her. Admit it. You are pursuing her.” My anger swelled and I had an image of Billy swimming back to shore.

“Of course I’m fucking pursuing her. The whole goddamn BAC is pursuing her!”

“No! Not like you are. And there was your girlfriend tonight. Beautiful and glowing. Does she know you are pursuing Alanna? Cause, you know, to  me it didn’t look like you had any intentions of ending things with Rally.”

“Why is that any of your business?”

“You can’t monopolize access to Alanna and keep your girlfriend. It’s immoral. It’s not fair. And I’m not going to let you do it.”

“And just how are you going to stop me?” I half expected him to punch me. I think I wanted him to punch me.

“I love her.”

I just stared at him.

“Chris, I think she might like me. There are signs. Nothing convincing, but enough that it needs to be investigated. Give me a chance. Move out of the damn way. Either that or break up with Rally and put me out of my misery.”

I tried to utter the words, “Maybe I will.” But even that was beyond me in that moment. Seeing Rally had had the usual effect on me. It was like when I saw her I was under a spell, and it took several hours for the spell to wear off.

“I’m not leaving without an answer, Chris. Either you agree to back off, or you call Rally tonight and break up with her. One or the other.”

I sat down. My fingers unconsciously finding the gold cross that hung around my neck. I knew I was beaten.

“I’ll give you a week,” I said. I won’t interfere. I won’t block you. I’ll make sure you have time to talk to her. But you need to get a definitive yes or no—you need her to agree to go on a date with you alone. If you can get that, I won’t interfere.” I hated myself for saying all of this. But I comforted myself with the thought that I estimated his chances to be nil.

“If she turns me down, I’ll ask her if it’s because she wants to be with you. Maybe if you hear that, you would be able to decide what you want to do.”

“Deal.”

I held out my hand and he shook it.

Fucking Billy.

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The Shoe Shopper’s Infiltration 

Part 14 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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In the weeks that followed, BAC social outings (organized by Alanna) became a regular occurrence. We were a veritable social club. I can’t say I minded. I liked suddenly having a second social life. And then, to everyone’s excitement, Zee began to make an occasional appearance at our gatherings.

“For the record, AI is a bad idea,” Billy Penchant introjected into one conversation held at a long table in a beer hall.

“What? Why?” we all were taken aback.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Billy said, “The Borg.”

“The what?” I asked.

I looked around. Everyone was staring at me with mild revulsion. OK. It’s true. In 1995 I had not yet watched Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“One,” Billy said, taking center stage, “You should be completely and utterly ashamed of yourself. And two, obviously computer technology will continue to advance and we as a species become totally dependent on it. Then one of two things will happen. Either we will create machines that ultimately compete with us, and eventually displace us.  Or we will merge so completely with the technology that we will cease to be human.”

The entire BAC exploded into argument. Zee smiled through the whole thing, not weighing in, but seeming very curious about the arguments being used on both sides.

I argued against Billy. AI was not a bad idea—it was an inevitable idea. It was evolution finding another way forward.

“When we do merge with the AI,” I said, “we will be more human—more civilized—more virtuous and all the more so because we will be more rational.”

“I don’t see how that…” Billy’s thought drifted off.  He was staring at something over my shoulder, his eyes twinkling with approval.  Everyone else on his side of the table looked up with curiosity.

I felt a stirring inside me and then a hand on my shoulder.

“Hello, Christobal,” a very familiar voice said from just behind me.

I felt a strange mixture of my heart fluttering even as it dropped into my stomach.  It was our custom to always tell each other where we were going to be, but I never thought she would ever come.

“Everyone,” I said, “this is my girlfriend, Rally.” She looked gorgeous as usual. Her hair flowed smoothly like a dark liquid. Jewelry sparkled on her wrist, ears, and around her neck. Her pastel sweater was tastefully coordinated with her loose scarf. Her skin tight-jeans disappeared into her riding boots.

“My god—she does exist!” Alanna exclaimed. “Everyone, pay up!” They all laughed.

Before I knew it, Rally was sitting next to me, and rapidly getting to know my companions.

“So, Christopher tells me you steal cars to support your drug habit,” Alanna said. That was the first hint that this was not going to be an easy night for me.

“Christopher has a very active imagination.  That’s why I was sure he made up his top secret computer club. But here you all are.”

Rally looked at me and smiled. Her eyes seemed to be asking why I never mentioned that there was a girl in the group.

“So what do you call yourselves again?” Rally asked.

“It’s…um,” Zee answered, “The Top Secret Computer Club.” Everyone laughed.

“To the Top Secret Computer Club,” Rally raised her glass. They lifted their glasses and drank. As seemed to happen everywhere she went, Rally was instantly accepted.

“So tell me,” Rally said to Alanna, “How do you tolerate being the only woman in the group?”

“It’s not a problem at all. I’ve always gotten along better with men anyway. Women tend to get very competitive with me.”

“Men are good for some things. But come on—it must get tiring not to have anyone to go shoe shopping with?” Rally’s intuitions about people were sometimes scary. Alanna often complained about never having any good girlfriends.

Alanna leaned back, pulled up the frayed hem of her overalls and displayed a well-worn pair of ratty Nikes.  “Yeah, I might be lacking in that department. So you buy a lot of shoes? Is that what the non-coder females do these days for fun?”

“I do enjoy buying a good shoe. But I wouldn’t say that that is the primary source of fun. I don’t get to have as much fun as I would like. I have to study a lot…Hard Sciences and all.”

“Rally plays the violin,” I interjected before Rally insulted the whole table with one of her ‘pre-med students are the only ones doing real work’ rants.

“Fascinating. I don’t really have an artistic side myself unless you count writing games. I read a lot of books though.”

“Tell me about the last book you read!” Rally asked.

The two of them were locked in conversation for the rest of the night. It was like watching a chess match between two masters, their moves subtle and calculated. I couldn’t tell if they hated each other, or if they were enjoying this contest. Maybe both were true.

“We have to hang out again!” Alanna said to her at the end of the night.

“We do! Absolutely we do!” Rally said. I still had no idea if they were lying. I half expected them to pull out each other’s hair as soon as we walked out of the bar. Instead, they exchanged phone numbers.

My world was suddenly a lot more complicated.

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[Thanks for reading!! If you think you know someone who would like this story please share it with them–and let me know what you think.  For most people reading this, this is the first time they are meeting Rally.  I would love to know what you think about her.  Feel free to comment below or on the MJMiello Facebook page. ]

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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