The Beginning Of Something Pure
Over a month had now passed and for Conor the day-to-day life of an Oxford student was starting to take shape. The first core module of his degree was well underway and his week-by-week schedule was all but memorised.
Outside of his lectures and seminars, Samuel and Conor had already achieved several nights out that were worthy of being reminisced. The coming years held great promise, giving Conor every reason to believe that he would look back on his days at University with fond memories.
It was 10.00AM and the Computer Science class were proving noisy and boisterous as they settled in for their morning seminar. Students had been trickling in to the classroom for the past fifteen minutes, a curious mix of lonely characters with inward personalities. There were nearly thirty in total, their heads always low, eyes ever focused on their smart phones or tablets. But gathered among their own they would open up, vocal and opinionated, conversation ranging from the latest films that had hit the cinema, to up and coming video games and the pending releases of long-awaited gadgets.
Professor George A. Miller sat on his desk at the front of the room. His short height and podgy stomach fed to the IT teacher stereotype. His feet dangled as he repeatedly threw his favourite baseball lightly in the air to catch it. Generally this was how most of his sessions began; the class wasn’t known to start until the professor’s feet had touched the floor.
Conor was still an absent member of the classroom long after Professor Miller’s soles had hit the ground. He stood at the front of the room, addressing his students.
‘Memory, in the form of computational data storage, has an interesting if not cryptic parallel with the way memories are stored in our brains. Random access memory, or RAM, allows your CPU to load pieces of information out of sequence from the way they have been stored on the disk, optimising the processing of data for efficiency, no different from you reciting your childhood without having to track back through puberty…’
Conor was louder than intended as he came through the main entrance, the door slamming shut behind him to amplify his lateness. He drew the eyes of his fellow students and prompted a few mumbles. He gestured an apology to Professor Miller as he made his way to an available seat, giving friendly nods to the people he knew or those that would offer eye contact. Miller paid no attention to Conor’s arrival, apart from a raised eyebrow and a brief look of disappointment.
Conor slumped into his chair and unpacked his things. It was a frustrating constant that he recently found himself running late wherever he went.
‘The first examples of random access memory date back to 1947,’ the professor continued. ‘Back then it was called the Williams tube. This worked by storing data with electrically charged points on the face of a cathode ray tube…’
Conor was barely comfortable when he overheard two students in front of him whispering.
‘I heard some guy at Merton broke it,’ one student said.
‘What? The code? Who?’
‘I can’t remember his name. Something Johnson or Jameson.’
‘What did his code mean?’
‘He wouldn’t say.’
‘You gullible muppet.’
‘Honestly, he was like sworn to secrecy or something.’
Conor moved to the edge of his seat and leaned in closer.
‘Perhaps Conor would be so kind as to take us through it?’ the professor announced, the sound of his voice pulling Conor’s focus back to the seminar. The class slowly turned to look at him, peering with anticipation. The professor allowed for several seconds of uncomfortable silence before he spoke.
‘Would you like to voice an opinion?’
‘An opinion?’ Conor asked, his heart thumping in his chest. ‘Of course, my opinion… Yes.’ He fidgeted in his seat.
‘On the advancement of Computer-Aided Verification,’ Professor Miller guided.
‘Yes, well… Who doesn’t have an opinion?’ Conor smiled.
‘Indeed,’ Professor Miller said, holding an expectant gaze with his arms folded.
Smiling awkwardly, Conor felt the burning stares of his classmates. He tried to speak but his mouth had turned dry. He had nothing, not even a witty retort to steal some points.
‘Another time, perhaps?’ Miller offered, satisfied that Conor had sunk low enough into his chair. ‘Or, even better, could I have a minute of your precious time after this session, please?’ he then asked.
Conor gave an affirming nod, encouraging his class to return their focus to the front. The moment passed with an embarrassment that would linger.
The hands of the main clock inched forward without urgency, it was painful. Seminars under Professor Miller had a tendency to defy the laws of time, to turn minutes into hours and the attendees from buzzing enthusiasts into lifeless drones.
Conor stayed with the session as long as he could, a concerted effort considering his usual attention span. It was well into the second hour when his eye line had drifted mischievously to his smart phone – social media was soon playing its part in distracting him.
The professor wrapped things up with a collection of playful threats on the agenda of next week’s seminar. He gave some suggested research and a reminder on the pending dissertation creeping up on them. Before long the class was on its feet.
Conor kept rooted to his chair, acknowledging the students as they bundled their way to the exit, shrugging off the occasional smirk and whisper. He listened to the rumbling sound of his classmates from behind the main doors until the room had softened into silence.
Lining up the excuses in his head, he rose from his chair and made his way to the front of the classroom. Professor Miller was packing away his things when he glanced up to observe Conor’s walk of shame.
‘Mr Martin,’ Miller said, ‘There’s something I need to ask you…’
He packed away his notes and closed his bag, turning to him with a curious expression on his face.
‘Are you my Woody?’
‘Sir?’ Conor approached, looking puzzled.
‘It’s a question I sometimes ask myself.’ Professor Miller finished shutting down his laptop and projector before walking round his desk to lean up against it.
‘In 1953 a student named Allan Stewart Konigsberg enrolled in the City College of New York under the University’s illustrious film program… From the outset he appeared a promising student. Young, perhaps. Presumptuous, maybe. Like so many his age, yet to appreciate the way of the world.’ He offered a nod to Conor.
‘It only lasted a short while before it became apparent that there was a problem. Whether it was the course or the work or the tutors, I don’t know. But what was clear was that something didn’t quite sit right with him. He was unsettled, the University didn’t seem to match his perspective on things.’ The professor held a long gaze at Conor.
‘Eventually, after a succession of poor grades, he was kicked out… Not that this was to be the measure of him. He went on to write, to direct, to inspire. By then he was known by his stage name, Woody Allen.’ The professor let his words sink in for a few seconds.
‘So, considering that the greatest teaching failure of all is to not recognise potential, when I have a student consistently going out of their way to try and fail in my class I always ask myself the same question: is this student my Woody?’
Conor stared at the floor.
‘Well? Are you?’ the professor pushed.
‘I don’t know,’ he answered softly, raising his head.
‘Of course not,’ the professor agreed. ‘Neither of us do. This is something we need to figure out together, you and I. But we need to do it quickly, Conor, and this starts with you arriving to my seminars on time and prepared. Understand?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Conor nodded.
‘Alright. Then I’ll see you next week. Now off you go,’ the professor gestured to the exit.
* * *
Thirty minutes later and Conor was opening the door to his bedroom at Tennyson House.
He threw his bag and jacket on the floor before collapsing on to his bed. His head heavy in thought, he stared at himself in the mirror across the room.
The professor’s words had carried weight this time, a warning he couldn’t ignore. How did he let it get to this? He needed to pull himself back, to bring himself closer to the rails. The risks he was taking were getting him in trouble. Just one more night, he told himself. Putting on the travel kettle, he set things up for a strong cup of coffee.
Landing on his desk chair, he ran his finger over the keyboard to his laptop, disabling the screensaver and dissolving the rotating images from the screen.
The progress bar of a decryption engine appeared in front of him.
It started as a myth, a whisper around campus. Conor first heard the rumours over a pint with Samuel and then again during a Digital Systems workshop a week later. Some were saying that it began in Cambridge, but no one truly knew. It was never first hand, always a friend of a friend or the roommate of a stranger.
There was no explanation given, nor did there appear to be any pattern or connection, but students at the University were being chosen, singled out. Those who were selected spoke little of it, only to say that they had been sent a mysterious message, an encrypted invitation that they found in their mailbox or slipped under their door.
The message would contain a code that was unique to each student; a series of numbers and letters which would appear at random, encrypted by an elusive cipher.
Quickly, gossip had speculated on its purpose, the prize of breaking the code ranging from University acknowledgement to the absurd, but from there the stories would differ. Some would attempt to break it and fail whilst others instantly discarded the code refusing to participate in whatever this was.
Even now he couldn’t believe it. It had been four days since Conor had found a mysterious code in his mailbox, sandwiched between a pile of takeaway menus and college leaflets.
Everyone was talking about it, but not once did he imagine being chosen. To him this represented one thing alone: a test. An opportunity to stand out among the elite. To rise above the cream of Oxford.
For every minute since that day his thoughts had rarely strayed from the task. Everything had changed. He rubbed his eyes and felt the stubble that was growing on his face. Was this a joke? If it was he had played the role of the fool convincingly.
Conor had spent the past three nights staying up until the early hours trying every decryption technique he could think of, endlessly searching for help from the internet. Nothing had worked. There was little to go on except to analyse the code against every encryption method known and the options seemed infinite.
He held up the card to the light, reading the code with pained frustration:
CICRX PRBDG BPCBZ
The deadline had brought with it stress that was proving difficult to mask. Conor’s vague lecture contributions had already got him noticed, for all the wrong reasons, but the late nights had now pushed him beyond his usual ‘just in time’ arrivals and into inexcusable lateness.
It was only a few minutes past 12:30PM and already Conor’s eyes were showing the bloodshot story of insomnia. When he looked in the mirror all he could see was his weathered face peering back at him, desperate for rest. His occasional yawns grew closer together. As the kettle boiled he reached for the caffeine.
The only truth he could console himself with was that this was his last night. Either he broke it tonight or he didn’t; either way tomorrow was the deadline and he craved the end one way or the other. Conor tried to focus, shaking off the morning and settled in for what was to be another long session in front of his computer.
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David P. Philip