The Usual Suspects

It was a Tuesday afternoon in Cambridge, Mass., and Peter was thrashing. The earthy-crunchy café with free wireless where he often came to work had dwindled to a monochromatic blur around him. He had long ago stopped hearing the endlessly repeating Beatles CD one of the baristas had 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 e-mails he'd just received from the CEO of a small eastern European company with ambiguous ties to the Russian mafia.

Peter's current round of problems had 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 begun reverse-engineering 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 had started to see the lights of MIT at the end of this peculiar tunnel. But that was when he began getting the e-mails. Panic was making his circuit diagrams swim.

"Is that a single-board computer?" a voice behind him asked. 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. Having built 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 about four blocks away. Jim -- she knew the name from reading his outgoing e-mail -- was really lousy about security. Curling up with a cup of tea, Tess began snooping. She was amused to discover that Jim's latest e-mail revealed he had interests that went beyond finance.

At three in the morning, at the border between Somerville and Cambridge, Jim woke up in a sweat. 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 Cecilia 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 S.F. types who got together every year in the forest and ate strangely flavored ice cream.

Stricken by adoration, Jim had stopped going to his game theory seminars and had begun 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 e-mail 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 had sounded good. Greg was bored with Perl for once, and he'd decided to leave his work on yeast gene transcription for Saturday morning. He was sick of having to lie to his fiendishly stupid and patent-obsessed boss to use tools from the open source Bioperl group. Thinking vaguely about snipers and their place in evolutionary biology, Greg had 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 e-mail account. He had six frantic e-mails from his friend Peter. Scratching one of his elbows, Greg began to read.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who swears none of this is true. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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