The Signal and the Noise 

Part 12 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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

“Meet who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So she is a hustler and a thief.”

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

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

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

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

“She steals cars now?”

“Only Lexuses. She sells them for drugs.”

“Now I have to meet her!”

“Ok.”

“Ok?”

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

She smiled at me. Shaking her head slightly.

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

“She’ll come if I invite her.”

“MMm-hmm.”

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

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

“Hey, this was your idea!”

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

“I never said that!”

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Billy, why don’t you come too?”

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

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

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

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

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The Girl in the Nerd Cave

Part 11 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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

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

“What’s it all about?”

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

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

“And what are you expecting to find there?”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said reflexively.

“So you designed all those encryption challenges?”

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

“Alanna.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elf Queen of Manhattan

Part 10 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She lifted her eyebrow above the frame of her glasses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Shit head you already have a girlfriend.’

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

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

‘Probably because you were thinking about your girlfriend.’

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

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

The Order and the Chaos

Part 9 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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