Chapter 7

 

Ayda Khoury

Maryland City, Maryland

 

I personally think the cops would love to ticket a CIA officer, but Farah, SILVER, whatever her name is, throws the round SUV into sport mode and drives like she'll never be caught. She locks eyes with other drivers, telegraphs sudden dramatic turns for them by recurling her fingers around the wheel, gives them a conspiratorial smile that offers to let them in on whatever secret is hiding behind the blue badge, if they'll just change lanes and give her space to cut through. She's living in another world.

She accelerates into every curve, pulls a radar detector from the glovebox the second we're out of Virginia and lets gently off the accelerator when the detector beeps. She times speed changes through short-lived gaps to escape to free and open lanes on the other side.

Her soccer-mom car actually does have great suspension. Even with all the rocketing around, the ride is so smooth I can play with her phone and scroll through her playlists without being motionsick. There's a "Hawk and Dove" playlist, which appears to be all death metal and hard classic rock, no doves in sight; a "Road to Nowhere" featuring quiet ambient love-pop; and the chemical sign for cobalt, full of nostalgic old country, a little Lebanese pop by groups my mother listens to, and American 80's pop by Michael Jackson.

"Don't do that." She gently tries to pry it away without taking her eyes off the road.

"It broadcasts constantly. You're going around showing it to everyone anyway." I scroll through her home screen. There's a photography app and a flashlight and Yelp, but nothing else that didn't come with the phone. The mail app isn't connected to any accounts.

"There's an aluminum case in the glovebox." So she does know at least one way to silence the endless broadcast. She times a delicate change of speed for the slot slowly opening a car length ahead of us, and neatly trades places with a driver in the slow lane in time to make the exit into Maryland City. I wonder what it would have been like to be on the ride all the time. She's got heartless Jack Kolda wrapped around her finger, and I wonder if she could teach me to do that.

The car rolls to a smooth stop outside my apartment building, releasing me to race out the door and up the walkup stairs.

My studio apartment is tiny, full of particle board furniture and faux-granite veneer, but it's not central D.C. and it's away from my family.

I fling myself into the computer chair and log onto the Black Desert beta to see what became of our guild's castle. The beta test of this MMO is restricted to South Korea, and it takes me a couple extra seconds to join the virtual private network with a Korean exit node to fake my location. The ping is terrible, but Omar could not wait for the North American beta. The siege is still going on, thank God. By my powers of questionable Korean in the chat window, and the language cheat sheet taped to my desk, I see it's turned into potion attrition.

"Where were you?" Omar snaps in Arabic-accented English on the Ventrilo team chat.

"Witchhunt at work. You and me, sneak to town and buy potions?" Omar knows what I do, kind of, and I know what he does, kind of, and our acknowledgement of our professions is variable on the meeting venue.

We met at DEF CON, the time the Agency sent me, the first time I ever got to go, and Qatar State Security sent him. We played Eclipse Phase in his room the last night, after he'd beaten the convention's badge-hacking challenge and gotten his beautiful black Über badge as reward. I'm going to beat it this year, if I still have a job to pay for admission. And if I'm not in jail.

I turn up the music, the kind of punk exhortation to set the world on fire that Omar always makes fun of, and race away from the battle. Omar's giant follows, heading for a chokepoint we'll have to cross to resupply the guild. There's a small wall of warrior players blocking the narrow passage, but Omar seizes the nearest enemy and hurls him into the earth.

My valkyrie races after him, smashing the ground in an AOE around us and the wall of warriors. I hit the macro for the battle cry "Punish the deserving!" Our guildmates translated it to Korean for me, borrowed from the US army unit Omar and I claimed to be from. When we joined, we told the guild, through questionable translation software, that we were American troops stationed in South Korea. It excuses our spotty, textbook Korean, people are nice about it, there's a sizeable American minority here, and regardless of language of origin, a game's language is always a new creation of abbreviations, acronyms, and slang.

We buy potions in town in a hurry and race back through the chokepoint. It's better defended this time, but it's still the fastest route. The broadband lags out for a fraction of a second, and the sorceress now behind the wall of warriors burns me to a crisp with the power of the Black Stone before I ever get close.

At least the respawn point is closer to the castle, but the death penalty almost makes the whole run not worth it. There goes a rare socketed gem, too.

I race for the castle sewers, then crouch and hide until Omar makes it through to be a ladder. He crouches in front of the opening, lets me jump on his shoulders, and lifts me to jump into the sewer to carry potions inside.

It's a massacre. Control has changed hands to the offensive, our guild trying to take back the castle that used to be ours. Omar's giant is slaughtered outside what used to be our castle, not bothering to respawn because Omar is too busy raging and the battle is lost. A hundred odd hours of farming and building and grinding gold sunk into equipping the place that now belongs to someone else.

My Korean is really terrible and largely limited to the abbreviated language of calling incoming and sending people to defense points, but I recognize the words Omar uses to skirt the edges of the censorship rules, still civil by comparison to anything you get on WoW or DOTA.

I log onto Bittorrent alpha test of their new chat service and use Omar's public key to open a serverless chat. I was originally paranoid about the distributed hash table it uses to find IPs, but Omar points out on top of Bittorent's crypto being decent, private alphas have low user volume. Low user volume means low-value target for information thieves, means fewer people trying to crack the private keys you get for message encryption. The service generates a new private key for every chat anyway, so one conversation cracked doesn't compromise all of them.

We've got another layer of identity verification security between us, because we are our public keys, and anywhere else we are our usernames. Whoever logs off first gets to generate the identifier codephrase for next time, so this time he gets to make me type Recovering gifted kids of the world unite in questionable Fusha, what people call Modern Standard Arabic, to prove I'm not being impersonated by my bosses.

In his hotel room at DEF CON, I tried to explain the American gifted child industry, and being told that you're supposed to grow up to save the world until you really believe it and grow up not understanding why you're not good enough. He said, "World's bigger than that. Not solvable unless you posit the Singularity. Must be an American problem."

He types back: Introverts of the world unite! Separately. In your own homes. What witch-hunt? Are you a witch?

Someone leaked a big-time name at the Other Government Agency to Par:AnoIA, I type. Technically our own leak site, insofar as we've both operated under the Anonymous banner.

Oh that. Admit it, it was you.

Yes. I obviously got a big-time spy kidnapped by Hezb-al-Shaytan. For the lulz.

'For The Lulz.' The last lie of those who did it because they cared too much.

Or in this case lethal sarcasm.

It's weird, actually. It doesn't make any sense. Hezbollah hasn't attacked an American target in longer than I've been alive, and the embargo against Iran keeps their biggest sponsor broke and stingy. Why kidnap Hart now when it might wreck the Vienna talks and the chance of lifting the embargo?

Excuse me while I cheer, he writes, for the Party being their own executioners.

We're on the wrong sides from each other this time. Iran is an old enemy of our friends the Qataris, and Omar's service is rooting for our deal to fail. Preventing signals sabotage from our nominal friends the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Israelis was supposed to be one of my jobs in Vienna.

OGA made me an offer, I tell him.

OGA, the Other Government Agency, is a military euphemism for CIA that made its way into the language of the intelligence community. Its officers don't get to identify themselves at military bases, but everyone knows who the unlabeled agency is.

Cortex bombs, he says.

A couple of months ago I sent him CBZs of the Ostrander-era Suicide Squad comics. Supervillains get out of jail in exchange for running black ops, and their handler puts a bomb in their brain so they can kill them if they don't stay in line. Omar loved them and ordered all the trade paperback editions like a good ethical pirate.

They wanted me to go to Turkey. I have to be here for the custody crap. My brother messaged me. He's on my side :)

I type it easily, but I wonder if it's true or if it was just the most convenient excuse because I was scared to go to Turkey. Be bait for El-Shafei. I wonder if Farah ever did anything like that. I bet no one would ever ask Jack Kolda to do anything like that.

Say the word and I'll fill your dad's computer so full of kiddie porn he'll never see the light of day again. :) Then we'll doxx the vendors and clean up

Not even a little bit funny.

Tell OGA you'll do it if they'll kill him for you.

He's trolling. Omar's a humanist, a real one, an idolater, but he waves the Sunni flag enthusiastically, and he's got everyone fooled. I wish I had his humanism, if I can't have the faith I tried to hold onto, but either way, neither of us are killers.

Executive Order 12333.

The infamous Twelve Triple Three gave NSA our domestic spying powers, a generation before the Patriot Act. It also explicitly stated CIA can't kill anybody. Not since Reagan was President, back when Jack Kolda was working Beirut.

Not familiar, says Omar.

Thou shalt not kill.

I'm not like Dad and Samir, and I'm not capable of wishing death on anyone. That's why Samir's always on the winning side and I'm going to lose. Every time.

Do not take any human being's life—that God willed to be sacred—other than in the pursuit of justice, he types. Or you know, they can get the Air Force to use drones.

Koranic verses. We both have the education to pass for religious and stay on speaking terms with our families, and it left us the comfort of cultural Abrahamic solidarity. If we'd made out our character sheets, we would have both taken Faith as our dump stat and tried to pursue God with our Intelligence bonus.

What happened to my transhuman immortalist? I type.

Nobody can be an ideological avatar all the time, he says. Not without serious self-modification of a type we won't be ready for until...until we have drastically better knowledge of neurology, for one thing. And different incentive structures. In which case we're already talking about this posthuman society like—

That escalated quickly. I'm not going to Turkey. Help me find Hart? I'm off the books, the Agency suspended me in the witch-hunt. North Ridge has an IMSI but can't give it to me. Agency locked me out and took my list.

You should tell them yes and come to Turkey. I'm working Friends of Syria and I'm bored to death. You can stop me from poking Saudia's interrogator before I get myself killed.

Is he really at the Friends of Syria summit? Friends of Syria is a diplomatic group of European and Sunni-majority countries sponsoring terrorist groups in a proxy war against equally-terroristic Syrian President Assad. Officially, the US are members, but we weren't invited to the conference in Istanbul. It's where all the good friendly spying action is right now. If I had known Omar was in Turkey, would I have gone?

Life is a trolley problem, I type. Save anyone, lose the chance to save someone else.

Samir or the OGA agent? You're weighting them really weirdly. I'm telling you, come to Turkey and let me handle your dad. We have borek.

He's at least as good a hacker as you are. And it's still not funny. I get Samir and we get the officer. I just want you to get me somebody's password. I figure you have us as penetrated as we have you.

If I turn around and hack my own service while I'm under investigation, I'll go to federal. But I can expect Omar's service to be doing some friendly spying of its own, especially during the Iran deal. If he can give me Brooke's password, I can get my IMSI back.

Oh, you were serious. Warning: distorted thinking - depression. Reanalyze.

It's obvious and correct, but it makes me smile a little anyway.

For a second.

When I start thinking about the number of people who probably died mining tin for my motherboard, it's time to adjust the medication. Or see if the Effective Altruist movement has a favorite worker's rights charity. Probably not. EA at its worst is the cult of survival over quality of life—That's not even true. It's definitely the medication. Or the looming hearing.

Omar indulges me because he always does. The motherboard you used to shield protesters and journalists in OpIran? They forget to tell you that the life you can save is not singular and you'll watch all the good options pass you by wondering if any of them is The Single Most Optimal Option and you'll never get anything done. l2tag scrupulosity and pick an option. You picked one. It's a good one. Ofc, you want me to hax your service, so maybe not the best option. No wonder they think you did it. Whose password am I looking for?

Trolol, trolol. Working does not stop him from talking. I give him Brooke Kinman's name and department.

Who let an operative name go up under the Anon flag anyway? he asks. We're not killers.