Hack moscow, p.1

Hack:Moscow, page 1



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  By W. Len

  Hack:Moscow is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters, with the exception of some well-known historical figures, are products of the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real. Where real-life historical figures appear, the situations, incidents, and dialogues concerning those persons are entirely fictional and are not intended to depict actual events or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


  Copyright @ 2014 by W. Len

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.


  Dedicated to |01001100|01111001|01101110|01101110|00001101.

  You helped me count my blessings.
























  One day, I’ll reset the world. A few typed commands and it’ll be a better place. People will be nicer, and the buses will run on time. Today, the bus was fifteen minutes late. At my stop, the driver was in such a hurry he didn’t wait for me to alight before he revved off. I tripped on the last step and almost kissed the cracked tar road. The laughter from the passengers inside—I’d have muted them if I could.

  As I headed into the industrial district, a heavy bank of clouds rolled over Moscow, rumbling south from Paveletsky railway station, chasing me. April’s almost over, but the weather’s heading in the other direction. Outside the warehouse, near the deserted parking lot, I stopped and dialed Luka.

  “Luka, I’m here,” I said when he picked up.

  His breathing rasped on the phone. “Were you followed?”

  Only by the entire Russian army, I wanted to say, but you can’t be glib when you’re late. I looked around just in case. The only car in the lot was a beaten up ZiL truck, its green skin mottled by rust. It looked like it’s been to the end of the world and back. On the warehouse wall, a spray-painted Stalin hailed me: Happiness is mandatory for the greater good! According to Luka, times have changed. Nowadays, people buy more goods to be happy.

  “No,” I answered.

  “What’s two times two?” he asked, still suspicious.

  “Five.” Any other answer would mean I wasn’t alone. Our code word is supposed to be some philosophical reference from some book about the randomness of life. It’s so random I don’t get it, which I suppose is a good thing because outsiders would be even more confused. “Hurry, it’s raining!” I said as fat raindrops plopped around like God’s own teardrops.

  I heard a dead click on my phone, then the tinkle of a heavy chain behind the door. Three locks snapped open like gunshots, tack, tack, tack.

  As the door opened, the musty air inside the warehouse escaped. Inside, wooden slats boarded up broken windows and the uneven swathes of light transformed the floor into a piano keyboard.

  “You took your time.” Luka’s jowls wobbled. Up close, the broken red veins on his nose look almost artistic. He claims his nose, ruined by years of pollution and vodka, is evidence he’s a true Muscovite.

  “I tripped,” I answered.

  He gave me a look, as if it were my fault. “Boys your age shouldn’t be so tall.” The locks echoed again as he locked up. “Anton’s inside,” he said with a touch of a frown. The older I grow, the more I don’t understand. Why do dogs pee on lamp posts? Why does mold grow on cheese and turn it blue? Why do people eat it? And why does Anton and Luka needle each other all the time? Some questions have no answers.

  “Hold on, Andrei.” Luka pulled an envelope from his heather-brown jacket. “This is for the last job.” We’d recently broken into the servers of Aegis, a software security company and copied their latest source code. It took longer than expected, mainly because we underestimated how dumb their network security setup was. We tried this and we tried that, before we realized their servers, with the updated code for the state-of-the-art security system they created, was defended by an outdated firewall—and this was a cyber-security company! Error, error: working in a corporation makes their employees stupid. Or maybe they just don’t care.

  I moved to pocket the money.

  “Aren’t you going to count it?”

  “I trust you.” I said.

  Luka looked disgusted. “What do I always say? Don’t trust me. Count it.” He ruffled my hair as I did so. “I’m paying you more than Anton since you’re better. It’s our secret.” He winked. “The new Aegis security software is being deployed—guess what our next job is?”

  “To crack a system that’s using it?”

  “That mind of yours is a national treasure.” Luka looked smug. “One day, they’ll embalm it and display it at the Heritage.” He held out another envelope. “A down-payment. For the next job.”

  “A down-payment?” We always get paid afterward. This was unusual—and I don’t like unusual. “Is this new job dangerous?”

  Luka smacked his forehead with the back of his hand, palm open to fend off dumb questions. His smooth face makes it hard to pinpoint his age—late forties, early fifties? “You’re safe when you’re dead. If you prefer less, you can give that back to me.” I pocketed the money quickly, before he could reach for it. “You’re only fourteen—”

  “Fifteen,” I said quickly. My birthday’s in a month so I’m allowed to round up.

  “A good age. When opportunity calls, don’t hang up. You thank the Great Programmer above. One day, I’ll teach you the business…” I thought I sensed a moment’s hesitation as he said that, but I was probably being too jumpy. Luka worries enough for everyone, and when I’m with him, I relax.

  We walked deep into the warehouse together. In a narrow clearing, Anton sat cross-legged on a pile of cardboard boxes, his laptop balanced on skinny knees. From the collar of his t-shirt, a vine-like tattoo crept up his neck, twining into his silver-dyed hair. Flattened cardboard boxes were piled everywhere around us. This used to be a packaging warehouse and it had an elaborate sorting system based on the color of the pillars. Once, I’d tried to figure out the logic. I even worked out a flowchart, before I realized nobody else was interested. Nobody cares about abandoned things. “Anton, are you meditating?”

  His fingers cupped into a placid lotus. “I see the mysteries of the universe,” he said mockingly. Underfoot, cables ran like roots, sprouting from a partially covered manhole. In summer, sewage gas rises from it, but the weather’s too cool for that now. As I walked over, he seized my hand. “Where did you get these?” He examined the fresh scratches, as if reading them.

  “That’s a mystery of the universe.”

  He didn’t let go. His fingers traced a series of crescent scars on my palm. “These are older.”

  I snatched my hand back and shrugged. It’s an old story I didn’t feel like telling.

  “You grow when you confront pain.” He tutted. “Scars make a man.”

  “Where are yours?”

  “Hidden. They’re the kind that hold the hardest lessons.” Anton flashed that fox’s smile of his, the one that lights up his Baltic gray eyes. An eagle nose, tanned skin—his features don’t fit, because he’s half Russian and half something else: Chechen, or Ukrainian, or something, I’m not sure. And he doesn’t tell.

I’m grown up.”

  “As old as sand.” There’s no time to argue because he had a forefinger curled under the thumb of his right hand. It’s the usual game, duck-the-finger. “Ready?” Flick! He thwacked my right ear before I could move. “Anton: two hundred and fifty-seven, Andrei: zero. As old as the sand,” he repeated and laughed.

  But age has nothing to do with it; I never win because he has a gamer’s hands. Whenever we take a break, he straps on these chunky gaming goggles of his, which teleport him into an alternate reality. He had raved to me about pro gamers in other countries before, men who lived and trained together for years so they could battle each other online. “Imagine the luxury,” he said. But that kind of life hadn’t sounded appealing to me; it seemed odd to spend your time doing something meaningless. Then again, I assume the gamers’ house doesn’t smell of sewage in summer. As I grow up, I’m learning that normality, like many other things, is a relative concept. Father once told me people’s lives are determined by genetics. My green eyes, my height, are proof, except Father was much smarter than me. He enrolled in Moscow State University when he was sixteen. I? I have problems getting to a warehouse without my feet trying to trip me. Is that normal?

  “Today, we celebrate.” Luka swaggered over, holding a bottle. “See this? Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne blanc de blanc. This is real shit.” He tapped the label, and the bottle chimed like crystal. “Cups, Anton.” He pointed at the box we used to keep supplies. “Don’t stand there being useless.”

  As Anton took out two plastic cups, Luka beckoned for another. The former paused. “Andrei’s too young to drink.”

  “Nonsense! He’s Russian.” Luka protested on my behalf and handed me a cup. He opened the bottle. Pop! We’d never celebrated a project before, not like this. He was in an unusual mood, the smile of someone who’d received good news. “French kings used to drink this.”

  I examined the fizzy cup. “I’m not sure I want to be French,” I said, which made Luka beam.

  “What did I say? A proper Russian. He has the soul of a bear! A tall, skinny one, perhaps, but still, a bear.”

  Anton downed his cup. “Odd. I don’t feel like a king, not when we’re here in this dump.” He crumpled the cup and tossed it. “What’s next, Luka?”

  “Shut up, Anton. Can’t you see I’m enjoying the moment? Questions. Always I get questions from you.”

  “Because,” Anton said unhelpfully, “I never get any answers.”

  “Am I your toll-free helpline? I pay you to work for me!”

  The two started arguing. The Champagne tasted better with each sip, nectarine and delight thrilling my tongue. I guess this is normal too.


  Cannons woke me up. The sunlight invaded my bedroom through wooden shutters and the music paraded around me. Cymbals, timpanis, the trumpets blazed—it’s the 1812 Overture. Only a madman like Tchaikovsky would use real cannon fire in music. A sweep around the bed for my phone sent a half-read book skittering. There’s a stack of them piled near my bed, a reading list courtesy of Luka, my self-styled tutor. Yesterday’s Champagne hazed my memory. I remembered missing the bus stop on the way back home. Then what? After I stumbled into bed, I had placed a pillow over my head to snuff out my headache. People drink for fun?

  The music stopped abruptly before I found my phone and in the aftermath, the silence echoed. Father once brought me to the Moscow Conservatory. I was eleven then; this was a year before he died in the car crash. “Listen to the music,” he said during the interlude, “the orchestra interprets the maestro’s intent. Beautiful code is like that. Crisp. Elegant.” Outside the Conservatory, I had rubbed the bronze foot of Tchaikovsky for luck. The statue of the composer had one hand cupped to his ear, listening to the wind’s symphony. Whenever I see Luka’s bulbous forehead, it reminds me of the statue.

  The cannons boomed again. This time, I found my phone and answered in time.

  “What are you, Andrei, a sloth?” Luka asked, as if he knew I was still in bed. “Come over NOW. We’ve got work.”

  Yes, comrade. Right away, comrade.

  I dragged myself out of bed, opened the window, and stuck a hand out to check the weather. It’s a balmy Saturday. Not that it makes a difference to me whether it’s a weekday or a weekend. When I was younger, Father fell out with my school principal. “You waste their time on useless knowledge! How’s Andrei to realize his genius? He needs special attention!” he’d stormed at Mr Kolynschnecki. “Genius?” the school principal replied in his even manner. “You’re lucky your son’s only mildly autistic...” As I listened to them argue, I didn’t feel special or different. In fact, I didn’t feel a thing.

  After that, Father started home-schooling me. I was twelve when he died in the car crash. I missed the problem sets he made me do, so I began going online. There, I found forums where people challenged each other to dissect the latest coding puzzles. No fuss, no drama, no emotions, only logic. Then, one April Fool’s Day, the Knock-Knock virus was released, and I spent hours figuring out how it worked. It was a prank that dialed the phonebook of those it infected like a game of Pass-The-Message. I even found the hidden website where its creator tracked his creation as it circled the world. On the forums, there was a lot of interest in the virus because it was packed dense, like an exquisite gem, and I got a lot of attention when I answered the questions people posted. That night, someone messaged me. Have you thought of getting paid for your skills?

  That’s how everything started. Simple logic.

  “Andryushka, you’re awake.” When I opened my bedroom door, Old Nelya looked up from the mound of laundry on the suede couch.

  “You make it sound like a miracle.”

  “At my age, every day is a miracle. Come here.” She opened her arms. I hung loose when she embraced me against her bony breast. It’s embarrassing, but rituals are hard to break. Old Nelya lives downstairs and knew my mother well. That makes one of us. My mother died when I was born. After my father’s accident, Old Nelya started coming around every day. I told Luka about her before, and he’d said that free labor should never be turned away. Then, he reminded me not to tell anybody about my work.

  “Come fold the clothes, Andryushka.” She’s the only one who uses my diminutive now. I guess everyone is young to her. When she was young, did people use to call her Young Nelya? Her backbone is hardened by more than seventy winters. When she’s here, knives chop, folk songs hum, wooden clogs shuffle and clack. It’s a comforting magic. I never tell that to Old Nelya because I’m afraid the spell would break. I don’t tell Luka or Anton this either, in case they call me a kid. There’s only one person I talk to about these things, and we don’t talk as much as I’d like to.

  I saw Old Nelya pick up a denim jacket and took it from her. “Father’s traveling trunk is in my closet. Just shove all the laundry inside.”

  “You cannot live like a dog.”

  “Dogs don’t have suitcases.”

  She blinked her rheumy eyes. She didn’t get it. “Are you heading out?” She eyed me as I shouldered into the jacket. “Where are you going?”

  I answered her by picking up my laptop and shoving it into my bag. She shrank back slightly. She grew up in a small village near Staraya Russa, near Lake Ilmen, and belongs to a different era. Her mother told her that reading books was the same as communing with the dead. If so, computers would be possessed machines. Once, when she thought I wasn’t watching, I saw her press her crucifix to the refrigerator, then draw it back quickly, as if waiting for a reaction.

  Her clogs click-clacked towards her threadbare cardigan, which was draped over a wooden chair. “Remember to come back for dinner! You must eat more. You look like a bean pole.” She drew out a note from her pocket. It was filled with her chicken scratching. “That’s this month’s bill. Do you have enough? If not, I’ll talk to Grigory. I swear that grocer rigs the scales…”

  Grigory lives below Old Nelya on the second floor. He complains about the sound of her clogs and
she complains that he complains. They’ve been neighbors for thirty years.

  After I handed her some money, her frown eased. “Good, that’s good,” she murmured. “Someday, you’ll have to explain what you do.” We never talk about the extra money I always give her. She glanced at my bag apprehensively before heading into the kitchen. “I’m cooking cabbage soup. You like that. I’ll…”

  Her words faded as I escaped down the stairwell of the building, all four flights.


  Outside, the sun’s a bright balloon. No matter the weather though, this street is always gray. Six-story apartment buildings loom on each side, darkening the pavement between. In my reprogrammed world, I’d brighten the street’s palette.

  The Stalin-era apartments have blocky and concrete facades. Prospect Mira, the main street here, is a fifteen minute stroll from the Metro Alexeyevskay and its green-striped marble pylons. On this lane, each block is numbered, and so is each unit. Comrades, stand up and be counted!, someone had sprayed on the sidewall in a thick, cheerful font. Inside the blocks, the walls are thin. I heard that people were encouraged to snitch on each other in the bad old days. Now, in the bad new days, when the toilet’s flush croaks down the pipes, people ignore the sounds. That is, unless you’re Grigory, who pounds the ceiling with a broomstick. There’s a popular song that goes, Knock once to let me know you’re there. I’ll knock back so you know I’m listening. The composer must have lived here before.

  On the street, a massive pit bull dragged a man behind him. A few windows forward, a babushka fluttered her carpet out, beating a counterpoint to a tinkled melody. Anna, Grigory’s daughter, was on the piano again. For a moment, the dust motes danced like scattered tinsel. Rumor has it Grigory is shopping his daughter around to the conservatories. He thinks he’d get paid if she’s accepted. “I told him the system is different now.” Old Nelya had sniffed when she brought it up. “The way he forces her to train. And that mother of hers does nothing for her. Nothing.”

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