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!

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No 1995 Windows-based computers were harmed in the making of this story. 

 

7h15 p463 h45 b33n h4ck3d by chr1570ph3r c4rp3n713r1.

m3m3n70 m0r1. 

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The Purgatory of Tardy Islanders

Part 20 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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Never had Staten Island seemed so bitterly distant from Manhattan. The sluggish train seemed to be sliding backward in time. In such circumstances, all rules of subway decorum were nullified and I shared panic-stricken gazes with the other Island-bound passengers.

When the doors finally opened the sprint began.  I darted around the slow moving pedestrians and took the stairs three at a time.  I could hear the sneakers slapping behind me. I squeezed around the woman pulling the baby carriage up the stairs and nearly collided with a young man who had stopped to tie his shoe. The cool air flooded over me as I escaped the subterranean realm and closed the breach between the subway and the ferry terminal. From the top of the stairs, I could see the doors close in the distance.

Sweat poured from my face as I fought to catch my breath. There was no fate crueler than missing the 1:30 AM boat.

My pain was echoed in the curses of the other runners coming to the same sad realization. An entire hour of our lives gone, offered up in sacrifice to this purgatory for tardy Islanders. Why tonight of all nights? I could sense the tormenting thoughts gathering ominously at the edges of my mind.

I moved reluctantly towards the paltry seating area. The drunks seemed unconcerned that they had missed the boat.  One kid my age, seated at the end of a bench, was unabashedly crying. Someone nearby was screaming into a payphone. I felt utterly defeated. Maybe I deserved this. No. That was not true. This was far more rejection than I could possibly deserve.

In one fell swoop, I had lost everything. It was checkmate. I had lost Rally—how could I ever trust her again? I had lost Alanna. But those were losses I had prepared for. After all, I had been willing to part with Rally just hours before, and Alanna was never a certainty. But Zee? I worshiped him. He was everything I hoped to be. He was the center of the BAC and by extension of my whole world. I was trying desperately not to imagine what he and Alanna were doing at this very moment. For years, the existential dread that came with being a college student had been dulled.  Zee would shepherd me into my future. But how would that work if the very thought of him made me want to beat myself senseless with the receiver of a pay phone?

“Isn’t he fucking married?” I said aloud.

‘Even if he’s not,’ the moral voice responded, ‘She’s his student.’  I could craft a fairly damning case against him.  No sooner than he lets a woman into his kingdom than he takes her for his prize. How could he do this? How could he endanger his career—and by extension the whole existence of the BAC?

As righteous as my anger was, I knew that wasn’t the true source of my distress. I was the one who created this with my cowardice—my need to ensure that Alanna would be my safe harbor if I broke up with Rally.

When it seemed an hour had passed I looked at the clock and it was only 1:47 AM. I walked out of the terminal to the ramp beside it. It was a cold March night. I leaned against the barricade and looked out over the Manhattan scene before me. The lights of two police cars were spinning on State Street.  I watched a girl with blue hair roller-blading under the street lamps of Battery Park.

Back inside, I looked around hoping to see anyone I knew—desperate to pass the time. But no familiar faces appeared.

But there was someone. I pulled a folded stack of paper from the inside of my coat. It was Christopher Carpentieri’s poetry. These were recent discoveries. One of his programs could access an encrypted on-line database. There, even more resources were waiting: poems, songs, and images. I had printed all the new poems and stowed them in my coat’s inner pocket. Now they seemed a godsend. I leaned against a bare patch of wall and unfolded them.

Christopher Carpentieri was walking down Arthur Avenue, his favorite songs alive in his step. He was shaking the familiar hands of his neighborhood. He was happy, and well, and looking forward to a bright future.

His words held my splintering pieces together as the hour waned. They kept me sane as the floating orange dump truck carried me across the harbor. His words were with me as I waited in line for the bus. He sat next to me as the S48 rattled up Victory Boulevard.

As I walked up City Boulevard I was never so grateful to have known anyone as I was to have known Christopher Carpentieri.

“But you’ve never even met him.”

What did that matter? If I had his words, his notes in my calendar, his music in my ears, and his face on my screen, he was alive. Yes.

And then I understood what he had been trying to do.

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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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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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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 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!]

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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