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The Usual Suspects

By Annalee Newitz

IT WAS A TUESDAY afternoon in Cambridge, Mass., and Peter was thrashing. The earthy-crunchy cafe with free wireless where he often did work had dwindled to a monochromatic blur around him. He had long ago stopped hearing the endlessly repeating Beatles CD that one of the barristas sadistically decided to play at a volume that stopped just short of obliterating conversation. Peter had attention only for what was on his laptop: the code, the diagrams and the six threatening emails he'd just received from the CEO of a small Central Asian company with ambiguous ties to the Russian mafia.

Peter's current round of problems started when he decided that he wanted to be an academic. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. His professors all agreed that he was brilliant, but MIT wouldn't cough up a fellowship. And Peter couldn't afford to swing the master's program without some financial help. So he'd decided to reverse-engineer some popular single boards for what his buddy Greg called "a gray market concern" in one of those formerly Soviet countries with "stan" at the end of it. The money was good, and Peter was starting to see the lights of MIT at the end of this peculiar tunnel. But that was when he got the emails. Panic was making his circuit diagrams swim.

"Is that a single-board computer?" asked a voice behind him. Slitting his eyes to the left, Peter saw the edge of a small wireless device with a hand attached to it.

"Yeah," he mumbled to the hand, which was also apparently connected to an arm that led in the general direction of a mouth that introduced the hand as Tess.

Later that night, Tess was at home in Somerville looking for wireless networks she could break into for fun. She didn't steal or hurt anyone, but once in a while she did do a little spying. After building an antenna out of a baby-food can, she spent a few hours each night scanning the neighborhood for networks. She could even pick up packets from MIT. Currently, her favorite network belonged to some business student whose house she estimated was probably about four blocks away. Jim--she knew the name from reading his outgoing email--was really lousy with security. Curling up with a cup of tea, Tess began snooping. She was amused to discover that Jim's latest email revealed he had interests that went beyond finance.

At three in the morning, Jim woke up in a sweat at the border between Somerville and Cambridge. He was dreaming about the con again. Last year, he'd fallen in love with a mysterious woman at Arisia, a science fiction convention whose organizers were rumored to be the most literate and discerning in fandom. The woman called herself Baphomet and had eyes that H.P. Lovecraft would have described as the color out of space. Baphomet and Jim had sat next to each other at Cecelia Tan's late-night reading and spent the next two days in Jim's hotel room. But it turned out that Baphomet only had long-term relationships with writers. All her boyfriends were part of some weird elite group of SF types who got together every year in the forest and ate strange-flavored ice cream.

Stricken by adoration, Jim stopped going to his game theory seminars and began downloading pirated copies of the latest science fiction and fantasy novels. He read these books the way he used to read the Wall Street Journal, and for the same reasons: he wanted to learn what was required to win at this new game called writing. By next year, Jim told himself, he would do a reading at Arisia. He'd write a story so good that Baphomet would make the drive up from her flat in Providence just for him. The email from one of Arisia's organizers was due to arrive any day now. Soon he'd know whether he could win Baphomet's heart.

Three days later, somewhere in Providence, Greg was lying in bed with a girl named Baphomet whom he'd met through the Davis Square LiveJournal group. "I'm going to Hell Night at Man Ray," she'd written aimlessly on Friday afternoon. "Anyone want to go with me?" The offer sounded good. Greg was bored with Perl for once and decided to leave his latest work on yeast-gene transcription for Saturday morning. He was sick of having to go behind his fiendishly stupid and patent-obsessed boss's back to use tools from the open-source Bioperl group. Thinking vaguely about snipers and their place in evolutionary biology, Greg pulled on his gothy boots. Now it was early Saturday morning, and his boots were wilting on the floor next to Baphomet's red corset.

"Can I use your computer?" he whispered into the pale shell of Baphomet's ear. She mumbled something that didn't sound like no, so he used ssh to log into his work email account. He had six frantic emails from his friend Peter. Scratching one of his elbows, Greg began to read.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who swears none of this is true.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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