Либрусек (книги fb2)
One day, I will reset the world… After being orphaned at a young age, Andrei, a teenage prodigy, falls in with an older pair of hackers. In spite of what they do for a living, he’s content with the surrogate family he creates for himself. However, this cozy arrangement is disrupted when the trio takes on a new assignment, one more dangerous than they expect. As the lies grow and tangle up their relationships, the naive assumptions Andrei has about life are upended. To survive Moscow and protect those he cares about, he has to grow up fast and learn to fight for himself.
In the Young Adult book Hack: Moscow (23,000 words), W. Len has created a coming of age cyber-thriller with a literary twist.
W. Len HACK:MOSCOW
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.
“Whatever. 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.”
Anna and I went to the same school when we were little. I still remember how she tugged my hand as we walked the two blocks to the bus stop. When she was young, she used to come to my place. We would sit on the floor, knees to our chins, as we set Father’s gramophone and let the composers regale us: Mussorgsky is a folklorist, Borodin’s a court gossip, while Chopin is a chatterbox accompanying us on a stately barge down the Vistula.
Anna and I seldom talk now because Grigory always shoos me; ever since Father passed away, he thinks I’m cursed.
The music stopped. “Andrei.” I heard Anna’s voice. I looked up. Her elbows were propped against the second-story window and her gray-white blouse blended in with the concrete windowsill. The red ribbons in her blonde hair flickered as her long fingers tapped nervously on the ledge. She can’t stop practicing even when she’s off the piano. When she leaned forward, her blouse cupped her curves. I felt heat on my face.
“Andrei, where are you going?” Her lips swelled like pixels, her shoulders rounded. “You don’t call, you don’t talk,” she said, smiling slightly, “have you forgotten me?”
She’s teasing me, but there’s a bass note of sadness she couldn’t quite conceal.
Before I could answer, another window opened. “Andryushka, you there?” Old Nelya’s shrunken head peered down from the fourth floor. “The cabbage soup will be in the fridge. Remember to finish it,” she shrilled.
The street wraps me in its powdery silence. Ribbons bounce on Anna’s hair. “Andryushka, my boy, my boy,” she sang, then stuck out her tongue.
The heat on my cheeks and the rushing in my ear faded when I saw Grigory staggering down the street, one hand groping the wall for balance. Drunk again. Anna saw him as well, and quickly ducked back in, sleek as a mink. As I walked on, the piano restarted, a dirge she played friskily, a joke only we understood. It felt good to make her laugh, hear her laugh, even for a minute. Then the melody slowed. The dirge was just a dirge again.
Two streets later, I remembered Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and a childish promise made. A long time ago, Anna and I had agreed we’d fly away to a palace of music, a place with an unending supply of ice cream and McDonalds. How easily children make promises! How easily children break promises!
Three streets later, there was a buzz on my phone. It’s Luka’s usual warning—Be careful.
Just another day in my life.
“Let’s not exchange names for now, eh?” Those were Luka’s first words when we first met two years ago.
“Why do we have to meet face to face?” I asked as he sat down. We had arranged to meet at The Mad Lark, a café near Patryarshy Ponds, the area where expatriates like to stay. Luka had a square hairline, which resembled the Kremlin parade ground. He kept his sunglasses on while we talked.
“I can’t do business with people I don’t know. Who are these anonymous people online? There are computers so smart they can hold a conversation. Am I talking to a God or a dog? Anyone can hide behind a nickname. Most importantly, I need to be sure you’re not with them.”
His voice dropped a register. “The F.S.B.” The government’s spy agency? My eyebrows shot up and he smiled knowingly. “You have to be careful if you want to do what I do. Last year, one of my acquaintances was caught.”
He threw a hand into the air as if to say, who knows? “Technically, there are few laws against what we do. But there are unofficial rules. Never touch Russian companies, that’s the big one. Also, I never destroy anything, I only copy stuff. You have to be careful, because if the F.S.B. catches you… See, they don’t care about the law. There’s irony for you, eh? If they catch you, they shoot first and ask questions later. Assuming you’re alive then.” His tone was light, but he looked serious.
I was hooked. “How do you know I’m not with them?”
“That’s what these are for.” He pushed his sunglasses up and tapped the corner of an eye. “I know their type. You’re too young. You’re what, fourteen? Fifteen?”
I was thirteen then—almost—and not about to admit my age, so I didn’t answer him. “Why should I trust you?”
“Excellent question.” Luka leaned forward, and I noticed his teeth—brown with addiction, coffee, cigarettes, or both. “You can’t trust anyone. Especially those who claim they can be trusted. I’m not trying to scare you.” He shifted his bulk. “If you work for me, I can teach you how to stay safe. Unless”—he raised an eyebrow—“there’s a reward on your head I don’t know about? No? There you go.” He spread his fleshy palms wide. “You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain. You need work. You need money, right?” Father’s insurance money was running out. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. The only people who should be ashamed are people who can’t earn their keep. Now, show me what you can do.”
From my backpack, I pulled out my laptop. Around me, people were on their computers, phones, or tablets. They looked dull, their eyes cast downwards.
Moscow is an urban sprawl girded by ring roads. The Third Rome, the White Throne—the city has many names and even more people, twelve million of them, breathing, walking, sitting, working, dreaming, dying. It’s the heart of a country that has been invaded from East to West: the Mongolian hordes, the Polish, the Swedish, Napoleon and his Grand Army, the Germans and their Panzers; all were defeated. We’re good at fighting the enemies outside yet we hide from the ones within, Father used to sigh. I’m one of the masses, people tell themselves, nobody cares what I do as long as I stay quiet and trouble-free. People become complacent in their anonymity, trusting the crowd to hide them.
Sometimes, they are wrong.
I spun up Crackjammer. 1 0wnz U, the splash screen of my favorite hacking tool declared as it loaded, its programmer’s ego writ in ghoulish-green pixels. It took less than a minute for my computer to slide between the café’s Wi-Fi router and its users. Streams of data started flowing through my computer.
“A man-in-the-middle attack,” Luka observed, leaning slightly to peer at my screen. “Or shall I say a boy-in-the-middle? Is that Crackjammer?” He was up to speed on the latest warez. “Not the best way. There are two viruses embedded in the code.”
“I found three.” Scrubbing the code line by line had taken me a week. The best hacking programs are booby-trapped—their creators aren’t charity types. Novices download them from pirate sites thinking they are hunters. They end up being hunted. Luka nodded as if I had passed the first test. Around us, coffee cups clinked.
“Keep going.” I loaded other apps to filter the incoming data. It takes the right tools and experience to decipher all the numbers swirling by.
The world dissolves around thirteen inches of glass, and I step through into another. Bits and bytes coalesce into meaning. A girl sends an email, a missive of love bundled with a picture, to someone in the United States. Her email promises undying love if he’d get her a green card. Someone is streaming porn, maybe the person squirming in the corner, his computer on his lap. A student is chatting online with his professor about a biology project. Another chat channel, this one with his girlfriend, reveals he thinks his professor a world-class idiot.
A stubby finger broke the reverie. Luka pointed to the student’s chats. “Can you find out who he is?” He waved his hand around the café at the people. Eavesdropping online is one thing; pinpointing the exact person is harder. I pulled up the chat file, copied what the man was typing to his girlfriend and sent it to his professor. Five seconds later, the man in the corner looks wildly around him. Luka’s chin wobbled as he covered his laugh with a fleshy hand. “I was thinking of a technical solution for triangulation, but elegance is what matters, eh?” Elegance—that’s what Father said about coding. I felt myself straighten.
“These little secrets and lies…” Luka nodded slightly, dismissively. “How about something more serious?”
Serious? How serious? For a while, my mind ran wild, straying to the rumors one always hears about on the underground bulletin boards. Programs that control powerful ion satellites orbiting the world; Artificial Intelligences that can, or have taken over the world already; master hacks that control anything—do you want to copy the world, delete, ignore? Vaporware is mostly smoke and myth. What’s serious enough for him?
“Well?” he asked mildly.
I had to come up with something fast, so I expanded my network scan. Corporate hacking is usually a team effort. Any decent hacker will tell you it’s easy to force your way around, to smash and break things—but to do it without getting caught, that’s the hard bit. Bayesian analyzers use heuristics to study your techniques; honey pot traps lure you with fake promises. Professional hackers work in teams. They plan ahead. Sniffing programs are used to understand a system’s maintenance schedules, find all the loopholes. They lurk in the system for months, before getting out. Then, they have ways to sell the data they grab. Most importantly, they do everything with style. I considered my alternatives as I pinged the world. Small businesses are easy targets. Even a newbie can take them down. A brute-force attack algorithm can hurl permutations of characters, trying one set, then another, against their digital locks. Chance and frequency work in cahoots until the right key is found. Simple yet inelegant.
So I do something different.
A few clicks later, my shadow slips under a virtual door crack. Tack, tack, tack, Luka’s wedding ring makes a heavy sound as his fingers drum the table. I’m in, but the challenge has grown. From Root, the sub-directories spiral out like mazes. It’d take forever to find my way around, so I seeded my favorite hack for subnets. I call it Silver Rose after the flower Old Nelya puts in the vase before my mother’s picture. A few seconds is all it takes to creep and twine and blossom. Almost there.
As I wait, I look up at Luka, then glance away as his shaded eyes study me. I feel like I want to prove myself. Tack, tack, tack, his fingers continue. Is this enough? Can I do more? I want to do more!
Down the road, a digit flips in the inventory system of a supermarket. Soon, the store assistants will think all their milk expired three days ago. Across the street, a digital billboard on a pink and white building blinks into a smiley. Hug me, it reads. Amused onlookers begin to gather and point. “That’s good.” Luka chuckles at a couple across the road hugging and taking a selfie. Fifteen seconds later, the sign changed back to its original message, informing people of the perks of being an American Express cardholder. “Very cute,” Luka says. Before he turns to me, I hit a final command.
“That’s it?” Luka seemed disappointed when I shut my laptop. “I expected more.” His phone vibrated. “Hold on.” He froze as others reached for their phones. The same ring tone was resonating across the café, a snippet of a Cossack lullaby I had taped Old Nelya humming while I was experimenting with the Knock-Knock virus a while back. I’d slapped the virus onto the music like a jet pack and aimed it carefully, an on-the-fly adaptation.
Luka stood up. “Let’s go.” Despite his bulk, he flowed from his chair. He kept toying with his phone as he headed out, pretending to be as puzzled as everyone else.
Outside, everyone stared at their phones. Old Nelya was the hottest singer around Patryarshy Ponds. “Shall we head that way?” He spoke conversationally as we walked, then leaned closer. “If you do stuff like that again, make sure you get sunglasses. Keep moving. Walk, don’t run.” After a block, his brisk pace slowed. “This hack, it’s a variant of that virus you posted. You ran it while I was looking at the billboard. I never gave you my number and everyone’s phone is affected, which means…” He looked around until he noticed the rooftop of a maize-colored building. “There.” He pointed at a stand of paneled antennae facing the junction. Moscow Telecom controls the network here, from cell phones to satellites.
I stared where his finger pointed, up high. Before today, I would never have dared to try a prank like this. A wall had crumbled.
“It’s high up, so the technicians update the software wirelessly. You used the Knock-Knock virus as a carrier and customized the music as its payload. That affected all the phones nearby.” As he spoke, a belated fear seized me. What have I done?
Then, I saw him smile. “Let’s go. It won’t be long before someone investigates a mad wireless cell site.” We walked to the entrance of the nearby Metro. “Elegance, misdirection, and still so young. We can work together.” His expression was reassuring as he stretched out his hand. “Call me Luka.”
His handshake had a weight that drew me close.
It’s been a while since that first time. Luka and I still meet up at cafés whenever we don’t have to be online and Anton’s not needed. Those days, I bring a duffel bag because Luka always insist on lending me a book or three. “You don’t need school. The great Russians explain everything. Stay with me, I’ll take care of you,” he said. Once, I told him I could download e-books and he’d glared as if I’d uttered heresy. He has a certain old-fashioned streak, I think. Or maybe the books have special meaning to him. There are always soft pencil marks in their margins. These are not written in his blocky handwriting; these are round, lilting strokes. A mystery.
Today, however, was another day in the warehouse.
When we met, Luka pulled up the website for a data protection company called Level 7. He has an archaic six-finger typing technique, like a stiff dance, a style more suited for a typewriter. “That’s our mark.” Luka tapped the screen of his laptop. It revealed little. A barebones website with a login portal. A clean interface. Monochrome colors. This website was so plain it begged to be hacked. I felt tempted to change their font to something bigger and brighter.
“Boring,” Anton judged, then he winked at me. “Hey Andrei, did you hear your President’s speech last night?” he said loudly. “He’s a popular one. Didn’t he win the last election with a hundred and two percent of the votes?”
People can be like computers: press X and you get Y. Anton knows Luka gets irate whenever politics is brought up. Last month, we’d watched online as the President stood before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The country must progress, he’d declared, then vowed to upgrade Russia’s infrastructure and military. Luka had turned livid as he accused the President of being a traitor.
Anton smirked, awaiting a reaction to his barb, but Luka ignored him this time. He was focused on the project. “Get to work now, both of you. What are you waiting for?”
After an hour, Luka came over. I smelled cigarettes on his breath as he leaned over my shoulder, its acrid smell more familiar than repulsive. “Any luck?”
“The first layer of security is based off Aegis, so we can get around it easily. The second layer though, it’s trouble and—”
“That’s all you can tell me after all that time?” Luka boomed. Why’s he so edgy?
“You think it’s easy?” Anton piped up, flipping his gamer goggles up. “The third layer is set up to shutdown once it detects any intrusion. Even if you disable that, the fourth is rigged to wipe everything on the server. It’s like hiring a suicide bomber for guard duty.” He paused. “I managed to tease out a folder title reference though. What’s this Project Silence shit? I don’t like the sound of it.” Anton’s eyes narrowed. “This work we’re doing, it better not be military-related, geezer. I’m not paid enough to mess around with something so dangerous.”
An unbidden thought struck me. I imagined jackboots kicking the warehouse door. Red gun sights flickered on our foreheads. I shook my head. Life isn’t some Hollywood show with blazing gunfire and girls with guns tucked in their stockings. There’s never been trouble, not even a peep.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Luka snapped. “We’ve barely begun and you two have given up. Get the administrator’s password and it’ll be easy.”
“Sure,” Anton said. “I’ll snap my fingers and Behemoth, the devil cat, will appear and grant all our wishes. Anyone else want anything? I’m taking orders. Pelmeni? Pizza, maybe?”
Luka rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. A call on his phone saved us from another argument. He stalked away.
“Work harder, work harder!” Anton mimed a whip, then flipped his laptop shut. “Screw that.” Turing Mk IV, a sticker was pasted over his laptop cover. He’s the only one I know who names his computer. Once, I’d asked Luka about the person Anton named his computer after. “It probably refers to Alan Turing. He’s nothing,” Luka was dismissive, “just some dead British computer scientist. He helped his country win World War 2 by breaking the Enigma code, then was betrayed by his own government decades later. What’s new? If Anton wants one of these tragic sorts, well, we have plenty of Russian role models for him. But no, of course that man had to pick some homosexual foreigner. No surprise there.” Unfortunately, Anton came back and overheard us. I don’t think Luka really thinks Anton is gay, but it’s another reason why they don’t get along.
“I hate this.” Anton stood up and stretched. “Who does Luka think he is?”
“He knows what he’s doing. Did I ever tell you I saw his gun?” Luka had fallen asleep in the warehouse and his jacket had slipped to reveal a walnut handle. Anton shot me a look of distilled doubt. “It’s true. I almost touched it.” Right before I could do so, Luka’s eyes had flicked opened and he grabbed my arm.
“Almost touched it? Give me a break.” Anton rolled into a handstand. The orange goggles dangled around his neck. “Even if he has a gun, what does it matter? You’re too easily impressed. Try this, Andrei. You’ll see the world from a different perspective.”
“What do you see?”
“I see we’re no better than serfs. I see we’re being exploited in a gulag.”
“It’s safer …” I began and Anton rolled his eyes. Luka had explained it all to me, how he’d bought a map from a contact in the municipal office. That’s how he picked this warehouse. Beneath Moscow, the new cables traced the pathways of the old sewer pipes. Luka had went down the sewer access in the warehouse and hacked the communications terminal. When he told me that, I’d imagined him inside the tunnels: a flashlight in his mouth, a sack of tools, and wires lassoed around a shoulder. Now, not even the service providers can trace us when we log in. This ‘gulag’ is safer than anywhere else. Anton’s biased. “I’m not going to argue with you, Anton.”
“Oh? Who do you want to argue with?” He walked over and began scratching the flaking paint on my pillar. “Why were you late this morning?”
I thought of Anna and blushed. “The bus.”
“That’s why you’re still a boy. That’s why you are Andrei 1.0. Grown ups, real men, take responsibility for all their actions, good or bad,” he said. Flecks of pastel blue paint drifted down as he scratched.
Andrei 1.0—it’s a running joke between us. I hate it, but it’s the one joke that both Anton and Luka will laugh over. “That has nothing to do with it. The bus was late,” I protested.
“The bus, the bus—why don’t you ever take the Metro? It’s faster. And prettier.”
Ever since Luka made me read the Underground Man, my chest hurts whenever I think of the escalators leading to the trains, sinking, sinking. The bowels of each station are full of statues and everyone looks lifelike, as if molten bronze had been poured over real people. Each time I’m on those escalators, I can’t stop counting, converting speed and time into depth, trying not to think of people buried underground or drowned.
“Say what you will about Stalin, he had some right ideas. The Metro, the Seven Sisters, the pogroms. Would have been a better if he killed more. Just kill all the Russians and be done with, right?” His laugh had a brutal edge and unnerved me.
“Aren’t you part-Russian too?”
“You know nothing.” He pulled out a switchblade to work the paint. “Have you ever been to a foreign country?”
Some day, I want to travel—but his question didn’t sound like a question.
He pulled the strap of his gaming goggles, and they made a loud, angry snap against his skin. “I live in one. Every day. People here look down on my kind. On the streets, the cops stop and shake me down. In bars, people mock me. They think we’re inferior because of our skin, we’re half the man they are. They call us bums, then they say we’re terrorists, or homosexuals, or rapists. We’re everything they hate. So be it.”
I’d heard rumors about the hate groups before, but… “Surely not everyone is like that. How do you know they’re talking about you?” I wonder what he sees when he wears his goggles. More enemies probably.
“You’re right, Andrei. They must be discussing their grandma’s jam recipe. My mistake.” He made a contemptuous sound. “That’s why I dyed my hair. If they want to stare, I’ll give them a reason.” My skin prickled as his blade scored a teasing, jagged line. “A while back, two of my people, us half-breeds, were attacked after a Spartak Moscow match. The skinheads thought it’d be fun to make his older one watch as they did a free kick with his brother’s head. No newspaper or website ever reported that incident. Nobody dared. This is the kind of city we live in, Andrei, make no mistake. There is no kindness or fairness or mercy here.”
“What happened after that?”
“What happens when a boot connects with a young boy’s head?” His lips puckered into white ridges like scars as he flayed a long strip of paint free.
“I’m not sure I like this story.”
“Oh? Here’s another one then. Once, God, for shits and giggles, went to a man who’d been beaten up by his neighbor. He healed the man and told him He’d grant a wish for all the wrong he’d suffered. Whatever he wished for, his neighbor would get twice as much. ‘Why, God?’ the man raged. ‘After all the injustice? Why does he get rewarded?’ The man raged. ‘My son,” God told him, “I love you. Let go of your hate. Let go of your pain. I will reward you. I will take care of you.” The man spent the night thinking it over and next morning, God appeared. ‘Child, what is your wish?’ The man had his answer. ‘I want you to blind one of my eyes.’ Everyone hates us so we hate them back. People like me, we never forgive, we never forget.”
“I like you, Anton.” Luka does too; he’d been delighted to find Anton. The F.S.B. doesn’t hire mixed-bloods, he said. But if I told Anton that, he’d probably misunderstand everything. Again.
“You?” He examined a square crust of paint he pried free, then showered me with crushed blue confetti. “That’s for liking me. Alright, alright.” He reached for my hair, and I batted his hand away. “Your birthday’s coming, isn’t it? I’ll give you a present.” He sat down and typed on his laptop. Seconds later, an attachment appeared in my inbox.
“What’s that?” I tried not to sound suspicious. Among the three of us, I prefer to confront a program head-on and pick it apart, while Luka’s a jack-of-all-tricks. Neither of us comes close to Anton when it comes to churning out Trojans and converting computers into serf-bots.
“What’s this? What’s that? Too many questions.” He pretended to sigh. “Since you’ve never travelled, let me show you a different world.” He tilted his laptop towards me. There’s a room with pink walls, trimmed with white crown molding. The polka-dot curtains were tucked beside the window frame, and the fabric swayed slightly. This wasn’t one of his virtual reality games. It’s too real. In the corner of the room, there was an empty bed. A rosy glaze over the window hinted at dusk. It’s early afternoon in Moscow. Where’s this?
“It’s my pet-bot. You can control everything. Press this button, and the webcam turns on without anyone knowing. This webcam is fancy. It even pans.” He pressed a button and the view shifted. I saw a wardrobe with carved knobs. Beside it, a mirror reflected the computer. How many layers of reality can a looking glass offer? “Don’t move the webcam when she’s around.”
“She?” I felt my pulse quicken. I thought of how my father made me close my room door whenever he brought one of his female students home. Once, I peeped and saw them on the couch, their limbs tangled. I’d closed the door softly, fearing that they, the world, would hear my heart thumping.
“I thought you hated porn.” I played it cool. “Didn’t you crash a porn site last month?”
“This? This is art,” he scoffed. “Don’t mistake this for your typical spyware, it’s undetectable, with built-in zoom and image optimization. And to clarify, I have nothing against porn, it’s exploitation I fight against. That, and oppression of all kinds. I’m a freedom fighter.”
Maybe I’m not that old after all because I don’t get it. His is a complicated morality.
“Here, you try, Andrei.”
Old Nelya told me temptation is a snake in Paradise. The warehouse is hardly Paradise but Temptation reared in my lap.
I wanted to look away. I edged closer to the screen instead.
Two weeks have passed and we’ve made little progress. Luka’s mood has steadily worsened. Until today.
“The system administrator’s name is Garrett O’Brien,” Luka trumpeted when we met up. “We’re back in business.” I knew he’d come up with something; he always does. Online, there are black market exchanges where you can buy information, from credit card numbers to personal secrets. It’s a fragmented and furtive market; the best exchanges are available only to a select few. I wondered whether Luka bought the information and how he knew to trust it. “Play the man, not the ball.” Luka instructed us to start prying into Garrett O’Brien’s life. Social networks, trade journals, blogs—we trawled the internet. “It’ll make sense once we have all the pieces.”
And he was right. O’Brien was cautious, but he made one mistake.
“Look,”—Anton sent the link around—“it’s a site for his wedding four years ago.” The website was updated with honeymoon pictures of a plain-looking couple travelling around. In one picture, they posed against a bridge. Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, the caption read, although I didn’t see any golden gates, only rust-colored girders. Another album had them posing against a starry night somewhere. In the next, they’re high up, pale flabby figures steeped in an infinity pool, which overlooked a deep blue sea wrapped around an island city like a scarf. “Sometimes when you travel around the world, it leads the world right back to you,” Anton said, as we flicked through the pictures.
The internal site counter revealed that few have visited this obscure and abandoned digital shrine. “Why do people create something like this?”
“Love,” Luka replied. “Idiocy,” Anton said at the same time.
Love and idiocy sounds about right. The way I see it, they’re a subset of each other. Each time I think of Anna, something gnaws my insides.
Luka ignored Anton. “Andrei, if you’re lucky enough to meet the right woman, make sure you never let her down.” He ran his hand through his hair, then it was back to work. “Keep digging.”
Apart from their travels, the O’Brien’s seemed like a solitary couple. No kids, few friends. Then, Anton found the wife’s Tumblr account. She used an anagram for her login, “As though that would hide her identity,” Anton sneered. One site led to the next and we discovered she belonged to a bird-watching society and maintained their official blog. On it, she posted pictures of sightings: birds singing, flying, posing with wings spread, mating, flapping. Kestrels, peregrines, blue-banded hawks, and ibises. Birds, birds everywhere.
“If we can get a key logger on the man’s computer, we can figure out his VPN setup,” Luka mused as he reviewed our findings.
“You think he’ll be that careless?”
“He isn’t. But Mrs Cuckoo Brain is,” Anton said. “I’m sure they share a home network. If we can get to her,”—he snapped his fingers—“that’s our way in. It’d be easy from there.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Luka said.
They exchanged the first smile in a long time. The sun and the moon were friends again.
“Would he log in to work from home?” I asked tentatively, afraid to break the peace.
“Does a mother suckle her child?” Luka retorted. I thought of my mother who had never suckled me. “He’s a system administrator, they’re slaves to their machines. Those birds will lead him to us, you’ll see.”
Once, Anton asked, Hey Andrei, what does it feel like to be an orphan?
I told him that everyone becomes an orphan eventually, what’s the big deal? He’d looked impressed by that, or pretended he was. I don’t know why but I couldn’t concentrate on work the whole day.
Maybe it’s the quiet in my bedroom that brought back that particular conversation.
It’s night now, the silent hours when every creak of the floorboards, the sound of people quarreling next door, even a random cough on the street, carried. Anna had been practicing the piano earlier, but she stopped over an hour ago. Old Nelya had left me too. During dinner, I’d wondered about the O’Brien’s and asked her what it felt like to be married. Her wrinkles had disappeared as she spoke about her husband, a pilot, who died decades before I was born. After a few sentences, her face fell, as if her memory had been gunned down somewhere, somehow. Her hand twisted the ocher-colored kerchief around her head, fumbling to keep one end tied to the other. Eventually, she pleaded a headache and left.
I wonder why Old Nelya comes over. Is it pity? Or loneliness? If so, does that make her care for me less real? More questions without answers.
I finished another blog post and reviewed my work. Two days ago, after finding out O’Brien’s wife loved birds, Luka instructed me to set up a bird-watching blog. “Don’t you like birds?” he asked.
“Well, you do now. Consider it part of your education.”
Before this assignment, I’d never blogged. After I got the task, on the bus ride back, I saw starlings flocking around like a fisherman’s net amidst the clouds, dancing over the cityscape. They had provided my first inspiration.
Cities like Moscow, also Rome, are famous for their starlings, I’d written. People love these gorgeous birds and enigmatic dance! The best way to recreate their flying patterns is to focus on a lead starling and map how others relate geo-spatially, linking their vectors to simulate a flock.
I’d created a sample animation before doubt crapped all over me. Writing a blog entry was more difficult than I thought. “Make her relate to you, want to know you better,” Luka instructed, but somehow what I wrote seemed wrong.
“Maybe I should include the Big-O calculation,” I’d told Anton yesterday. “In case, you know, she’s concerned about the efficiency of the algorithm. Or something.”
“What algorithm?” He looked startled. “What are you trying to do?” He reviewed my posts, then burst out laughing. “You!” He clapped my cheeks with his hands, and rocked my head from side to side. “You don’t have a lot of friends, do you?”
I don’t like it when people touch me, but the warmth of his hand on my cheeks mesmerized me. “Sometimes, you remind me of…someone,” he trailed off, his look odd.
He showed me other blogs to mimic. They seemed frivolous, posts about nothing much, just pictures, then a few lines of banal text. It felt lazy, so I resolved to do more research and make things convincing.
These last two nights, as I read up on birds, the girl on my laptop had appeared several times. She reminded me of an exotic creature, housed in a tiny box to one side of my screen, free to come and go. I’d traced her IP address, then looked up Tokyo on an online map. In real life, she’s four thousand seven hundred miles away. Her presence felt closer. A lot closer.
Watching her, I learned what it felt like to stalk an elusive bird in its native habitat. This one sported blueberry mascara and liked punk-black lipstick. Her raven hair was usually plaited over one ear, but when she wore it loose, she appeared young. Despite her bold makeup, she had a vulnerable smile that flitted on her lips when she read her emails or watched some online video. I’d been tempted to write to her before. Hello. I am Andrei Yaklova. I am watching over you. That would guarantee a beautiful friendship! No. Better to enjoy her company in silence, to pretend she was a friend hanging out with me. She was about the same age as Anna and looked totally different. Yet there was something about her expression that made me think the two were alike. Or maybe it’s me. I felt like I knew this girl from a long time ago.
I once read a website that said everyone came from an Oversoul, and we’re fragments blown apart during the Big Bang, so no one’s special or unique. I don’t believe in souls: dead is dead. I’m also not sure about the concept of unique. You’re unique, my father told me once, and it made me feel proud. I’d imagined myself as individual as a snowflake, or as special as that famous psychic, the one who claims Chernobyl changed him, or as unique as that moment when my father took my hand and patted it for no reason. Andryushka, you’re one in a billion, he said.
Later, I realized in a world with more than seven billion people, there are many others like me. Maybe they have different faces and similar worries, or vice versa. Maybe they’re orphans scattered in different corners of the world, all of us bit pieces in the giant computer that is the world, like recursive functions, each of us handing off a tiny part of the answer we’ve found to the question that is life to the next, then the next. Maybe we’re all working towards something bigger, something better, cycle after cycle, life after life, death after death. It’s a comforting idea.
Perhaps it’s the secret defiance lining her lips that reminds me of Anna.
A text message buzzed on my phone. Well??? It was Luka on edge.
I texted back. We agreed to meet at the Café Volga so he could see my progress.
Finish it by then!! His impatience punctuated everything he said ever since we took the job.
Which means more posts to be written up. I went back to my laptop and typed away. After I finished a dozen more entries, I saw the girl rolling back her chair. She stood and started peeling off her t-shirt.
I quickly slammed my laptop cover shut. I’m not like that, I reminded myself, but my fingers itched and rubbed themselves against the laptop’s hard edge. That was when I decided to go to sleep. Wake up earlier tomorrow, finish the blog.
That night, I dreamed of my other selves clustered around, holding me. One of them told me I’m better than I thought. I want to believe that.
I arrived at Café Volga before Luka. He’d called earlier to remind me of the time, yet he was late himself. It happens. Like me, he’s not good at keeping track of time.
The café was near G.U.M, the department store with fancy colonnades. Once upon a time, only the elite were allowed to shop there and skirt rationing. Now, anyone with more money than sense can. This café tried to be posh, what with its handwritten chalkboards and an exorbitant menu, but the faint smell of varnish made everything seem fake.
As I waited patiently for Luka, I reviewed my bird blog again and again. It’s official: I’m now a bird expert, especially those with long legs like egrets and herons.
Not that anyone cared. I glanced around. A group of foreigners entered, chatting aloud in English. An inferior language, I imagined Luka sniffing as he entered behind them. The door closed behind the noisy group. Still no Luka.
Phone check: my battery was almost flat. I must have forgotten to recharge it the night before. I tried texting Luka to let him know, but before the message was sent, it blinked out. Not good. For a moment, I considered connecting my laptop to the café’s WiFi, but Luka told us not to connect online needlessly. The N.S.A., the F.S.B.—apparently, a whole alphabet soup’s worth of agencies bug everything these days.
So I continued waiting. I pulled out the latest book Luka lent me. It’s a thick one, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Luka said his genius was indisputable: “Worth five, no, ten American authors any day.” When he said that, I’d imagined an equivalency table for people. What would the matrix be like: one Russian author equals X American authors equals Y Armenian authors? Can one weigh the worth of a life? The first time I tried reading the book, I fell asleep. War and Peace—the title promised, so I flipped to a random page hoping to find something exciting instead of the dull, lulling prose I read last time. A character leapt out at me this time. Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. Another Andrei just like me. I flipped a page, then paused when Elgar’s Enigma Variations began playing over the café speakers. Anna had liked it, I remembered, because each variation signified something different: a laugh remembered, a close friend, immortalized love, all the themes different yet alike. It reminded me of people. Of life. Almost all our genes are the same, yet everyone has a different fate. What would it be like if I’d been born royalty? An enigma.
“Anything else?” A uniformed crotch bumped against my table.
I gave the short waiter a royal wave and he lashed the table with a gray cloth in a condescending manner. Andrei equals two hundred-ruble coffee. In Moscow these days, that doesn’t buy you much nobility or time. The current joke is that even the policemen don’t accept bribes under a thousand rubles these days; it’s not worth the trouble. A strategic retreat then, Prince Bolkonsky, to the perimeter of the camp? Very good, Lieutenant, but not too far away. I still had to wait for Luka.
I exited the café and leaned against the window with its decals of fish leaping over the Volga, then opened the book. A rapping sound behind me caught my attention. The waiter inside made a shooing motion, and I thought of flipping him the finger.
When I turned back, someone bumped into me. I knew I was in trouble when the man lifted his gelled head, his rhinoceros hair threatening to impale me. He dusted off his leather jacket and called out to his friend. “You see that? He stuck his foot out to trip me.” A rough hand shoved me against the wall. His garlicky breath savaged me as his face pressed close, eyes tight like lizard’s. I considered my options quickly. Behind, I heard the waiter lock the café to prevent the fight from spilling in. “Hey, look at me when I’m talking.” The punk knuckled me in the rib and when I curled up, his mop-haired friend, who wore a t-shirt with a cross bone print, grabbed my bag. “Sasha, look at this.” He brandished my laptop.
I flailed for it. “Give it back!”
Sasha yanked my hair and shook me, pushing me down on my knees. “Who told you to trip me?” He placed a boot on the back of my thigh, and its chunky lugs pressed through my jeans. “Sasha,” Crossbones called out—A voice of mercy, I thought, until he said, “Don’t forget his wallet.” Rough hands seized my waist, grabbing at my pockets, and I spun like a top, trying to evade them. As I turned, I saw the people around us, looking on. A group of workers in hard hats ate lunch nearby; one of them gave me a thumbs-up as if to cheer me on. A middle-aged woman loaded with grocery bags made a wide berth of us. A girl with a balloon looked like she was about to be lifted from the grimy streets.
Finally, a boot jabbed the back of my leg. I recalled the half-breed boy who’d been kicked to death and felt a flash of anger. Be a man, I heard Father cry, but I huddled into a ball instead, lips pursed against the rough pavement. Why doesn’t someone help me? Why?
Sasha sat on me. “Yeah, yeah, there’s my bitch.” He bounced on my back. “Now, stop squirming.”
“Get off him.” I suddenly heard a cold voice. I felt Sasha’s weight lift and I looked up. Luka was here.
“Mind your own business, asshole.” The two advanced towards him, one on each flank, like hyenas. Luka drew his jacket aside and stroked his gun handle. “I’ll count to three,” he said. “Three.”
The punks scampered like they’d seen the devil.
“Luka. You’re here.” I staggered towards him.
“You idiot.” He cuffed me so hard I knelt again.
“Why wasn’t your cell phone on?” Luka asked again, even though I’d told him twice. “Do you know how worried I was?”
We were in Luka’s car, an old Lada, motoring down Kutuzovskiy Prospekt, away from the Red Square. Muscular foreign cars overtook us. Nowadays, you only see Russian cars outside the Garden Ring Road, because everyone near the center of Moscow is wealthy. Nobody drives Ladas. Except Luka.
In the distance, I saw Ostankino Tower, a half-kilometer spike beaming propaganda and brainwashing the birds around it. After the fight, Luka had made me follow him to his car. “Those punks would be waiting for you. That’s what I’d do,” he said grimly, before glancing at his watch. “Let’s talk and ride.”
As I updated him about what I had written, our car rumbled eastwards past the dumpling-like houses of Dorogomilovo District. “That’s everything?” he asked, when I finished.
“Yes. Unless you want to see the pictures.” I poked at a hole in my seat and felt the stuffing crumble when I pulled my finger out.
Luka frowned at me. “Don’t poke. This car looks old, but it’s solid Soviet engineering. The engine will run forever, unlike your American or Japanese or Korean tin cans. Money’s not for frivolous things. You save it and spend it on things you care about.”
I recalled the expensive Champagne he’d bought, the memory of it fizzing faintly on my tongue. I knew he had bought it for Anton and me to try. He’d spent all that money to treat us. He cared. The warmth bubbled inside until my ribs spasmed. I thought back to the teenagers who’d savaged me—why? Because you let them, I could hear Anton chiding me.
“I need to drop you soon,” Luka said. I suspected he was late for his next appointment. He horned more as he drove, and he gripped his wheel knuckle-white tight. He kept cursing as he cut other cars, and I wasn’t sure whether he was cursing himself or me or the world. Maybe all three.
“It’s ok. Just go where you need to be.” I enjoyed being in his car, watching him. “I’m in no hurry.”
He bit his lips, as if debating something. Finally, he nodded. “Just stay in the car when we get there.”
Twenty minutes later, we reached an industrial area. In the distance, a striped smokestack smogged like it was on fire. The stores here had posters posted, ripped, and reposted over the facade: Russia for Russians! Vote for Your Safety! A teenager in a hoody was spraying a line on the wall as he skateboarded down the street. It’s civic improvement: the dirt-washed walls looked better with that stripe of color. Our car stopped outside a bar called Kopecks and Rubles. I imagined Saint George riding from the bronze face of a kopeck and lancing the two ugly men guarding the entrance. The trolls gazed at Luka’s car in a surly manner.
Before he got out, Luka told me sternly, “Don’t talk to anyone. I’ll be back soon.”
When Luka opened the door, one of the men lumbered over. “You,” he said, as if expecting him.
“I have an appointment with Boris,” Luka said curtly.
The troll bent to look at me through the window, then rapped the car door. “Come out.”
“He’s waiting here.” Luka said. “He’s just a boy. He has no business inside.”
That made me open the door. “I’m not a boy.”
“I’m not babysitting anyone.” The troll grabbed me by the scruff of my t-jacket, then pulled me out the car. “Go in. Both of you.”
I glanced at Luka. His eyes were accusing. Look what you’ve done. Before he could say anything, the other man offered a mocking bow. “Go on, you two,” he said, as if curious to see what would befall us inside.
Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I should be here.
Inside, the bar was well-lit. A redhead bartender looked up, then looked away. None of his business. The trolls patted us down and found Luka’s gun. He whistled when he turned it over. “Now, this little friend stays.” He jerked his head towards a doorway. “Go in. Boris hates waiting. You know how short his temper is.” The two chuckled as if sharing some inside joke.
Luka and I walked past a curtain, a sheet of ball bearings, which rattled noisily. A narrow entrance opened into a labyrinth of stout doors. He led until we entered an office dominated by a work desk. To one side of it, a man wearing a muscle t-shirt sat on a gym stool lifting dumbbells. At the table, a man, inches shy of being a midget, ate pasta. He paused and stared at us when we entered, then a single strand of noodle slithered into his mouth. I noticed the wall on my right was filled with banks of televisions playing on mute.
The T-shirt ended his bicep curls. “Pyotr Abramovich,” he announced. Who was he talking about? “He’s here, Boris.”
“Tchut, tchut, he goes by Luka now, Milo.” Boris dabbed his mouth with the corner of a red-stained napkin.
Milo sniggered. “A man with two names is a man with two faces is a man—”
“Enough.” Boris pinched between his eyes, then addressed Luka. “I apologize. Apparently, Milo thinks he’s Pushkin. You’re late, Luka,” Boris said, then turned his head to one side, towards a half-played chessboard, and belched over it. “You don’t change, do you? You used to make me wait when I came to you for favors. I called you here today because I was hoping you’d have good news for me.”
“I told you it could take between a fortnight to month, Boris. We agreed. There’s still time.”
“Time, time, time…” Boris seemed to enjoy the sound of his reedy piper’s voice. “Boy,” he said, without looking at me, “do you know what’s the tallest building in the world?” I didn’t reply. I looked at Luka instead. Pyotr Abramovich, Boris had called him. Was that his real name?
Milo piped up. “It’s the building in Lubyanka Square. The F.S.B. building is so tall you can see Siberia from its basement.” He chortled. No one else did.
“That’s why I worry, Milo. Our friend, Luka, is dealing with dangerous people and I’m his intermediary. Who knows whether the F.S.B. will still want to deal if he keeps delaying? He has no sense of urgency. Tchut tchut. You were the one who came to me for help, Luka, this time, to strike a deal with your former employers. There’s not much the F.S.B. wants, you know, but I worked hard, Luka, just for you. I knocked on doors, hat in hand, and asked our friends what they’d want in exchange for your wife. And because I asked nicely, because I always deliver, they told me, Boris, if Luka can bring us that cutting edge, military virus those Americans are working on—that’s something. So I struck a deal. Then, what happens? No results.” Boris threw his hands in the air, like a circus juggler. “At this rate, I’ll get in trouble. This undue delay—did you change your mind, is that it? One thing always puzzled me. Why would someone like you, so high up the chain, marry a human rights lawyer?” His words rushed, tumbled, and rolled over each other. “Ingratiating yourself with the liberals, perhaps? Bad move.” Boris plowed half the chess pieces with a greasy fork to one side, until they piled up. “Her lining up those lawsuits against our esteemed leaders? Tchut, tchut, tchut.” His fork swept right this time, as he smiled brightly. “Come to think of it, we should call this deal off. All these years in a dark cell, that woman’s damaged goods. You can do better—”
“Boris, you said—”
“I’d appreciate it if you don’t interrupt me,” Boris’ voice became steely, then flexed. “I said? What did I say? Where was I? Ah.” He ran his hand lightly over the toppled over chess pieces, petting the kings and knights and pawns. “If I were you, Luka, I’d find someone new. Upgrade. See, I know computer terms too.”
“I’ll get what you want. In the agreed upon timeframe. I already told you that.”
“So you said. The world revolves around what you say. Or so you think.” As he spoke, Boris’ gaze swiveled to me. I glanced away, to avoid catching his eye. I focused on the wall of screens instead, and it was a mistake because there, I saw Death. In one screen, a man was flailing, his hands jerking, as a tank rolled over his legs. In another screen, a low-resolution black-and-white film ran, showing a cowering man being bayoneted, then another, then another, they were kneeling in a line. Each screen held a vignette of Death. I saw a mob drag a soldier out of a helicopter, then bludgeon him with pipes. I saw a man raise his hand beseeching the sky before sawing at a hooded man’s neck with a box knife. I saw a blank screen and I caught sight of myself in it. I felt my stomach churning, as if I were the one experiencing all those deaths.
“And who is this?” Boris continued. “We don’t know him, do we, Milo, so why is he here? Ah. Because Luka sees it fit to invite him along. Luka says whatever he wants, Luka does whatever he feels like. Next time, he will probably walk his dog here and let it crap on my carpet.” Boris pinned the air with his fork, its tines turned toward Luka. “No respect—that’s always been your problem. A professional failing, some would call it. You don’t respect me. I bet you don’t respect those who work for you as well.” The fork re-stabbed the air and pointed at me. “Does he know who you are? Who you were? Former Deputy Head of F.S.B.’s Division Six, Signal Intelligence. A man who turned his back on his country, tchut, tchut. Did you know that about him, boy?”
I stared at Luka. His lips were pursed, not protesting, not denying. What Boris said—it explained a lot. But if he thought it made a difference to me, that he could turn me against Luka, he was wrong. Names in our community mean nothing, Luka taught me that long ago. I trust numbers more: they’re cleaner, purer, more honest—they can be counted on. The length of time I’d known Luka could be measured. Each day, each hour, each minute, each job, each smile, each touch, each bit of advice. Luka was more than a name to me.
“I’ll get what you want, Boris,” Luka answered steadily, and it reassured me. “Andrei, we’ll go now.”
“Go? No.” Boris uttered the word slowly, savoring it. “We’re not done.” He leaned back and cradled his head, bouncing in his chair. “You don’t come late and leave early. You don’t order me around here, not like before.” He stood and circled the table, walking towards us. He was even shorter than I thought.
Milo followed him. Something in his hand clicked and cocked—a gun. He cocked it again like a threatening rhyme.
As Boris passed the screens, he waved at them. “There’s a connoisseur’s club for these. One man’s death, another man’s hobby. You’ll be surprised how much people will pay to watch these things. They say that man is the only animal that will sacrifice himself for others; I doubt that’s true, not for everyone. However, I’m certain we’re the only ones who’d pay to see another person die.” He cocked his head as if listening to a voice. “Tchut tchut, I’ve an entertaining idea.” He twirled his fork and pointed it at me.
“No.” Luka moved to cover me with a hand. “It was my mistake bringing him here. Don’t touch him. I need him.”
He needs me. What he said lodged inside me. Luka needs me.
“Milo, if he doesn’t drop his hand, shoot the boy.” A pleased look on his face.
Milo raised his gun and Luka’s hand sagged, helpless. I’d never seen him like this before. Quick washes of emotions ran over his face. Fear? Anger? Anguish? Rage? Resignation? I couldn’t tell. I looked at him, but he avoided my gaze, and it made me afraid.
I felt a numbness tingle up my toes. I’d felt the sensation before, long ago. I was drifting.
“Boy, put your thumb to your neck.” When I didn’t, he took my hand in a surprisingly strong grip and forced my thumb under my jaw. “There, there.”
“Boris—” Luka said, before Milo’s gun pecked his cheek like a kiss.
Boris bounced his fork against his hip. “Boy, if you disobey, I’ll kill Luka. Now, I want you do something simple. I want you to rub.” His smile spread like an oil slick. “I’ll tell you when to stop. Now, rub.”
I began rubbing my thumb slowly.
He grabbed my hand again and pushed it. “Harder. Remember what’s at stake.”
I rubbed harder.
“Rub. Don’t stop.”
I rubbed and felt bits of skin roll under my thumb.
As I rubbed, Boris kept drumming his fork on his hip, and there was something almost mesmerizing about its beat. As the pain grew, I focused inward. I thought of double-digit division to cool my fear when the swelling under my thumb grew hot, and when I felt a stinging sensation spread, I counted prime numbers to contain it, to ignore it. I rubbed. A long slice of skin rolled loose, and I restarted at three hundred and seventeen. My thumb became smeary with sap and I continued counting, retreating to a world where I’d been to before, back when the policeman told me a truck driver had plowed into Father’s car and I’d walked along the Moskva River counting out my steps, until I walked into a bright, sterile place in my head, a place where there’s no fear, no pain. Cocooned, I didn’t feel a thing. Not the gooey feel of my flesh. Not the blood making my thumb slick, or the pulsing in my veins. Not the rounded, contented humming Boris made as he studied me, a tuneless melody. I counted and the numbness wiped away the bits that hurt, zeroing out everything.
“Stop.” I didn’t feel Boris touching my neck. “You’re quite a boy.” He sniffed his fingers, then wiped his hand against Luka’s shirt. “Ten days. Get me what I want. Now, get out.”
Luka drove six blocks away before he slammed the brakes and pulled his gun out. “It’s your fault.” He shoved the muzzle into my ear. “Why did you get out of the car?” he shouted.
I felt nothing. Flat.
“You’re shivering,” he said, suddenly uncertain.
No, I’m not. I’m frozen. I can’t move, so how can I shiver?
Luka tucked his gun into his waistband and rubbed his face with his hands vigorously, as if he could awaken from a bad dream. When he lifted his hands from his eyes, nothing happened. “No, no,” he said. “It’s me. I was careless.” He touched my shoulder and I flinched. I don’t like it when people touch me. “Andrei, forget it. Forget it all happened?”
Forget. A command. I tried to empty myself out, flushing everything away like an unwanted cache. “I’m ok.” I heard the words come out funny, all echo-ey, like I was hearing myself from someplace else, a distant stereo.
Luka reached for my neck, then drew his hand back. The hazard lights ticked, a constant and comforting sound. His seat creaked like a rusty spring as he shifted uneasily.
I tried speaking again. This time, my voice sounded closer. “Is what he said true?”
Luka took a deep breath. “Half,” he said. “My wife—she never told me what she was up to. I’d have stopped her. Her friends got her into it. Those idiots.” I heard his teeth grit. “I’d have gotten rid of them, if I knew what they planned. She kept it from me. But none of that concerns you. You don’t have to get involved.”
The emotion in his voice filled the vacuum in me. I touched my neck and felt it ooze. “Do you have a plaster?”
He took out his wallet and fumbled inside for a crumpled plaster. He peeled it. He pressed the plaster to my wound. The fake skin felt warm from his body heat. Soothing.
“I’m ok,” I repeated like a mantra. I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok.
We drove until we reached a seemingly endless road. We were in the northeastern outskirts and we passed a lit sign for the metro station. On a side alley, people huddled around a smoking trashcan, basking their hands in its shimmery heat. One of them glanced over as we pulled over before them, then he nudged the trashcan with his foot, as if afraid we’d steal it. The hazard lights ticked on the car’s dashboard hypnotically.
Luka looked at me, as if wondering whether I’d get off. We never shared where we lived, and he didn’t know that my home was at least an hour away from here. That wasn’t why I felt reluctant to get out. “Who is Boris?” I asked.
“Andrei…” Luka said, as if warning me not to ask. I stared at him, until he spoke. “He’s a middleman. When he told me my wife was alive, I agreed to the deal. If anyone can arrange this, it’s him.”
I thought of the way Boris looked at me as I rubbed my neck, his eyes curious, yet bored. “Why?”
“Why,” Luka repeated, not understanding my question.
“Why is he like that?” Behind it was a hundred other questions crowding against it.
“Why? He just is. In this game we play, people climb to the top only if we can set aside bits of themselves. We have to, to justify the things we do.”
We, he said.
He continued, “Once they’re there though, they realize their lives haven’t changed. They feel resentful of all they’ve given up. Those bits and pieces of themselves they can never recover.”
They, he said this time. He didn’t notice the switch, a single word which divided his life into two halves for me, both at odds with each other. He gazed at the trashcan fire, as if he saw something in the haze of heat, a sign, an answer. “Boris probably thinks that what he does, who he is, is normal. That everyone is like him.”
“Are you?” I said. A memory nagged at me. Don’t trust anyone, Luka always told me. Half of what Boris said were lies, he said just now. Which half? Doubting Luka made me feel guilty, but I had to know. In the distant skies, a gray head of clouds roiled, a storm hammering into the western part of Moscow, pounding it free of dirt and grime.
Luka’s expression was inscrutable. “Those years I spent in the F.S.B.—tap this person’s phone call, read that person’s email—I believed in what I did. Until they took my wife. That was when I realized my life was a lie. I’ve been looking for her for a long time since. Now, I know she’s alive. I have the chance to do something for her.” His voice was thick with emotion. He pounded the steering wheel slowly as he spoke. The Matryoshka doll hanging on his rearview mirror wobbled, its smiling face swaying. “I should never have let you come along. Stupid. It was stupid. But…I need your help, Andrei.”
He needs me, he said. Something in me glowed bright and brighter. Pride. Belonging. How could I have doubted him? How could I have thought he was to blame? I was the one who insisted on going, I had jumped out of the car. I was to blame.
The hazard lights continued ticking.
Luka drew out a metal-capped flask from his jacket and offered it to me. “Drink,” he said. He tucked a cigarette into his mouth, then lit it. His lighter rasped like the schnick of knives. I pressed the flask to my lips. It’s my first time drinking vodka neat. After a few sips, the glow in me surged. It browned my insides and toasted my bones. It felt good. I eyed Luka as he leaned his head back and puffed out. He wagged the cigarette at me. “No, no, you’re too young for this.” He handed it to me anyway. I took a puff and held the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could.
I exhaled, then threw the dead cigarette out the window. I wasn’t certain I liked it.
“You didn’t cough,” he sounded approving. The old Luka was back, calm, reassuring. “Listen, Andrei. I’ll handle Boris. Do as I say and you’ll never see him again.” He squeezed my shoulders. “Your birthday’s coming.” He remembered. “Fifteen—that’s special. You become an adult. I’ll get you a present, a special book. Books are good teachers. They ask the right questions.”
“I don’t need anymore questions.”
“Of course you do.” The joviality strained his voice. “You need them to find the answers. Tomorrow, don’t go to the warehouse. Rest. Forget. And don’t tell Anton anything.” Luka leaned over to open my door. The last light of dusk cut into the car and I couldn’t see his face clearly. My hand clutched the car door handle.
“Everything will be fine, right, Luka?” I had to ask.
The Matryoshka doll wobbled slightly as he leaned over to look me in the eye. Behind his head, the tethered figurine spun like some truth hidden inside another truth and another truth.
When I got home, there was cabbage soup. I told Old Nelya I tripped and she changed my plaster. As we ate, she talked about how Alexei Vavilov, the painter, had impregnated the butcher’s daughter, how the Tajik construction workers were suspected of eating stray dogs so there’s talk of a neighborhood watch committee being formed although nobody wanted to lead, how the price of pork was up again, as if the pigs had learnt to fly.
The cabbage soup was reassuringly bland. She had forgotten to add salt.
Then, she mentioned that Grigory had taken a switch to Anna earlier in the day, and all the neighbors had cracked their windows open to hear the commotion.
“That drunkard accused her of being a shame to their family, a slut like her mother, oh, his mouth is as black as his heart, but that mother is just as bad as him. She said nothing when that man shamed her and her daughter, no one did. Only I stood up to him! I threatened to call the police, but I didn’t dare do it…Andryushka?”
I started tearing.
Old Nelya stood up hurriedly, bent and bewildered. “Is my Andryushka alright? Of course you’re alright. Whatever it is, I’m here.”
I’m not crying, I’m just tired.
She shuffled over and stroked my back. Her hand was bony and light, like a frail wing too small to cover me.
Later, after she went back downstairs, I hid in my room, on my bed, the sheets over my head. I pretended the room, Moscow, the world, didn’t exist, especially the events that happened today.
It didn’t work.
So I went online. I found the latest puzzle, a zero-day hack attempt others were collaborating on for lulz. I downloaded a piece and tackled it. As I worked, I felt like I was gradually regaining control. After I finished, I was about to upload the piece, when something made me delete it. Who are these faceless people to ask anything of me? Why should I give anything away? Who are they? Who am I? What did it matter? What did anything matter?
I looked at my laptop screen, seeking the girl who lived in one of the windows, wishing we could chat. A woman with an acid-etched frown stared at me. I had seen her before. She had a long thin nose and her cheekbones resembled the girl—her mother, I assumed. She was sifting through the latter’s emails again. I felt disgusted by her, then myself, because I was spying on the girl too. What is right? What is wrong? Does God ever wonder about that? Does He care, that Great Programmer upstairs?
I had a few of Luka’s books piled near my bed, so I picked through them until I found one I liked. Crime and Punishment, the embossed title promised, but a few pages later, I took a break by the window, wishing I had a cigarette. Something to burn. I thought of Anton. He had an elegant way of smoking, this trick he has of making the smoke curl around each finger. Nothing ever gets to him. Could I be like that some day? Or would I be like Luka? An unbidden thought of Boris. He was evil—which means we’re the good guys, Luka, Anton, and me. We’ll punish him some day, some way. It’s a comforting thought.
Below me, someone hummed, a muffled sound.
“Anna?” I whispered into the dry, still night. There was a tremulous pause. “Anna, is that you?”
“Andrei?” Her reply was tentative, mistrustful.
“You sound… Are you alright?” I began, then felt dizzy. I wasn’t sure what I’d do or say if she told me she told me she wasn’t alright. My hands tightened on the window sill and I wanted to rip it out. My knuckles cracked, I was squeezing so hard, but the wood didn’t yield. I felt helpless.
Then, she spoke. “I caught a cold. Don’t worry about me. I’m strong. I’m fine.” She laughed softly and the anger sieved through me. “I saw you coming back. You looked…in a bad way.”
“I’m alright too.” I didn’t want her to worry.
“Are you? I feel like we’re becoming strangers these days. What have you been up to?”
“Birds,” I said. “It’s something I do. It’s work.”
“You’ve never been the talkative kind. You’ve never told me where you work.”
I didn’t know how to explain my life—it was becoming something I barely comprehended myself. “I write about birds. I can tell you everything about them.”
“Birds,” she said. “Birds,” she repeated, then giggled. “Birds,” she repeated a third time, like some spell. “Have you ever dreamed of flying? Sometimes, I wish I had wings.”
“Where would you go?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.” I opened my mouth to tell her she could go anywhere, except I’d never been outside Moscow myself. It’s a city so big one can’t walk its length, nor breadth. A big cage. A boundless dungeon. She continued, “It doesn’t matter. I’m not a bird. I’ll never be one. I’m going to sleep now. May you have good dreams, Andrei.”
After she closed her window, I looked outside, feeling the breeze cool my thoughts. Outside, there was no moon, only a gray concrete wall, like an insurmountable bluff that would always be there. Below, the weak copper crown around the street lamps revealed layers of gray piled on black.
I went back to bed and picked up the book again. I didn’t want to sleep, not yet.
Whenever I need to think, I go to the park near the Moskva River. Father used to bring me here all the time. Today, by the river, I saw a family picnicking on a paisley blanket. Beside them, a woman sunbathed on the grass. It’s late Spring and the weather had turned warm. As I walked, the afternoon sun nuzzled against me like a cat. Last night, I dreamt I was atop Boris, my knees pinning his shrunken chest, sawing his throat with a bread knife. I’d thrown the blade away and woken up, but each time I went back to sleep, I held the knife again until Dostoyevsky walked by, in a studded leather jacket. “Get it over with,” he told me.
In the daytime, nightmares like that almost seem comical.
Don’t come in today. Luka messaged earlier. A few minutes later, he added, You ok???
I didn’t respond.
I walked by two grandfathers playing chess on a stone table, each move drawing the next, the yellow ivory pieces clacking on the board to some invisible shot-clock. I thought of another chess board, its pieces scattered.
“Check,” one of the clockwork chess players called out.
“You’re blind, Vladimir Bolshakov,” his partner grumbled, “That’s a rook, not a queen.”
“Eh? My bad, my bad.”
Father used to say his best ideas came when he walked. The botanical gardens outside Moscow State University in the evening hush, before the groundkeepers harry stragglers out. Izmailovsky Park where the city stopped, barred from the dark grove. His favorite was here, within sight of Novospassky Monastery. Decaying stone walls, seven blue and gold domes. He was the one who told me about the old tale, how a princess was trapped in one of the towers, waiting to be saved. It had amused me no end when I was young, to imagine that something like that was true.
Grow up, grow up, a flock of crows cawed overhead. They were looking for shelter. I looked at the birch beside my bench, as bald as it was in winter. Trees killed by frostbite take months to die as the decay hollows out the inside.
I remembered another day here, after the police brought news of Father’s accident. I’d came here, sat on a bench, and waited for him, thinking it was all a mistake, that he’d stroll over to me.
When he didn’t, I’d walked for hours, a countless number of steps, on and on. I wasn’t even aware my fists were clenched the whole time. The crescent marks on my palm are where my nails had bit into flesh.
I touched my neck. The scab begged me to peel it so I did. Anton said scars taught people lessons. The stinging pain promised strength and wisdom. Now, I just had to find it, so I kept walking and thinking.
Before I came to the park, earlier in the morning, I’d waited under Anna’s window. There was no sound, nothing, so I threw a pebble. Nothing. So I threw another and her window opened. She’d looked out, eyes rimmed red. She’d seemed surprised to see me, but her smile was genuine. We stood there for a quiet moment, a four-four beat. “Are you ok?” I spoke first, resuming the conversation from last night. Instead, she pointed at my neck, as if to point out a lie. She didn’t ask anything, so I didn’t need to answer anything. “Did you dream of a place to fly to?”
She nodded. “Are you going to work today? Stay, just a little while. I’ll play you something.” She disappeared inside and a stately, peaceful melody began, part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Largo. As she played, I leaned against the wall, feeling the music tunnel through its bones into mine. I wish I could have listened to that song forever.
But I couldn’t. No one can.
One of the chess players smacked the table. “This is it, Vladimir Bolshakov. Your center broke here.” He took a large bite of a pirozhki, the crust and stuffing dribbling all over as he spoke, “That move just now, right here—everything fell apart.”
In my dream, I had laughed as I slit Boris’ throat, and so had he, our bloody smiles stuffed with delight.
“I disagree. My mistake was this move here.”
They began playing the game backwards, just as two children raced past their table, ringing around another skeletal tree. I used to believe trees were replanted upside-down during winter and their branches were roots digging into the sky. If they climbed high enough, I’d fantasized, I could go up and save the princess in Novospassky Monastery.
“You always want to play again when you lose.”
“That’s life, no? That’s life.”
“You and your nonsense.”
The pieces reset. A veiny hand plucked a knight, circled it in the air like a hand bell before smacking it down. What role do you play, Andrei Yaklova? I’m not a prince, I know that. A knight? A rook? A pawn? Who says I have to be a chess piece?
I felt my nails against my palm, the hardened skin, willing them to be tougher.
The next morning, I went to the warehouse early. Everything looked the same, but it was a new beginning. The first thing Anton did when he came in was to make a big show of looking at his watch, as if shocked I was early. Then, he studied the plaster below my jaw. “Shaving accident? I can see one, two, three strands of hair still.”
“We have to make it work,” I said.
Anton scratched his ear. “What do we have to get to work?”
“Everything,” I said firmly. “Luka’s job.”
“Oh, that.” He sounded disinterested. “Someone’s determined today.”
We spent the morning weaving the key logger and the blog website together. When Luka arrived, he wrote the bait email with the help of an online translation program. After it was done, he read it aloud. It was a fawning email to O’Brien’s wife, one which invited her to visit our blog.
“She’ll fall for it,” Anton said when Luka finished. “It’ll work.”
“What do you think, Andrei?” Luka’s voice was taut like a plumb line weighed by guilt.
“There’s nothing to think,” Anton said, “Bird watchers like serendipity. She’ll go for it. My key logger is perfect. It’s art. It’ll work.” Click any link on the website, any picture, and the key logger would install, lurking like a silent betrayal. He flicked through the pictures on the blog I created. “I hate birds,” he said. “They shit everywhere.”
“You hate everything,” Luka said, “so shut up. I’m talking to Andrei.”
“True.” Anton’s voice became icy. “Some things I hate more than others.”
As they spoke, I pictured the woman wandering in a forest, lured by birdsong and whisked into a net. Would her husband blame her if he finds out? Would he love her still? Grow up, Andrei, I told myself. You can’t afford to care for strangers. Luka depends on you now. His wife is at stake. He needs you.
“Well, Andrei?” Luka asked. A touch of impatience in his voice. A hint of a plea in his eyes.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
“Good, good.” Luka closed his eyes for a second, as if praying. Then he clicked a button.
And we waited.
The bus is full of school children today. The teacher had led them onboard two stops after me, the group heading for an excursion. I’m on the way to meet Luka and Anton to discuss what to do. It’s been days, and we’re still waiting for Garret O’Brien’s wife to respond. We don’t know why she’s not responding. Anton said he had a Plan B, a worm he embedded into one of her club’s website’s host servers. “Assuming she logs on, it’d take a while to scrap together enough for me to customize something. Maybe a privilege escalation hack, or something. It’d depend.”
He doesn’t know Luka doesn’t have that time, and the latter won’t tell him. All he does is keep telling me not to worry.
In the front of the bus, the teacher looks harried. She keeps shouting: “Can everyone keep quiet!” Little children are terrors. Are grown-ups better? If so, maybe it’s because of the sense of guilt they develop.
I thought of last night. Before I slept, I peeped into the girl’s room. Her curtains were closed and she was napping. I’d enjoyed watching her sleep, her dim figure stirring occasionally under the duvet. It felt peaceful. Her breathing was even and calming. Soothing, like a lullaby.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself beside Anna’s bed. I stood close enough to touch her, to smell her golden hair, which spilled across the pillow. A piano stood in one corner, its cover scuffed. The pillow cover was pink—no, blue, like mine. I had stroked her hair as she slept. Even in repose, her lips smiled at me. Anna, Anna, Anna, I shook her, half-pleading, half-savage, uncertain what I wanted to do with her.
Then, I woke up for real. I’ve never had dreams like this before. I touched my underwear and my hand smelled of salt and sea. No matter how I cleaned myself, I felt dry. Dirty.
When I realized what had happened, I’d written to the girl I spied on. It was rash, but I needed to tell someone how I felt. I’m sorry, I typed. She wasn’t around to read my confession, writ in large font across her screen, but she would when she next logged on. After another moment’s thought, I deleted the spy program. No more temptation, Andrei! Do the right thing!
The sense of guilt-driven righteousness hadn’t lasted long. When I left my apartment, I saw Grigory seated on the stairwell steps, blocking me. He held a nail clipper, a thick, hairy foot crossed over his knee. A broom rested on his side. “You,” he barked. “Your eyes are swollen.” His were bloodshot with malice. He pointed his nail clipper at me, as if it were a mind-probe. “I know what it is.” His lips blubbered. “It’s Nelya’s clogs keeping you up. That dry-teated bitch.”
For a moment, I wanted to kill him. I imagined the broomstick thrust deep inside his piggish maw. So, I fled.
What is happening to me?
Around me, on the bus, the children chant doggerel, chaining random words together. One group is leaning over the seat rails, the children taking turns to smack each other’s hand. It’s a game with rules I can’t follow. One boy’s hand is red and puffy, yet he smiles as though he’s winning. The teacher stands up and begs, “Please, please keep quiet!” and no one heeds her. The children revel in innocent mischief, an innocence I struggle to remember.
By the time I got to the warehouse, Anton and Luka were already arguing.
“You think I’m holding out? Is that what this is about?” Luka thundered. “Is it?”
“I want to know who this customer is and how much he’s paying. That was our deal. You said you’ll share your contacts with me. When will that day come?”
I sat in my corner. As I watched them, I wondered whether anyone ever grew up.
“You think it’s easy to get work? Do you know how many hacker groups there are? Russians. Estonians. Romanians. Do you know how many there are in Ramnicu Valcea alone willing to work for peanuts? Or the Indonesian monkeys and the Ukrainian gear-heads? Or groups like Anonymous that meddle for free?”
“They’re less skilled.”
“If you’re better, go! Take your serf-bots and petty peep-cams! Go clone credit cards! Find your own secrets to sell! If you end up in prison, I’ll send you a postcard.”
I thought of the girl who lived inside my computer. She’d probably seen my apology by now. What would her reaction be? Shock? Suddenly, I’m not so sure I did the right thing. What seemed right, felt wrong now. Then, I thought of Anna’s father and the murderous instinct I felt. What had seemed wrong, seemed right now. What could I do to help her?
I curled up, my knees to my chest, boxing up the scream I felt.
“We have a right to know—”
“Right?” Derisive laughter exploded from Luka. “This is Russia, not a damned democracy, you punk. I’ve had it with your questions. Where are my answers? Why is your key logger not working? Is it defective? You half-breeds are the same. Useless mongrels.”
The warehouse suddenly felt like an echo chamber, Luka’s words ringing before they faded.
“What?” he asked aloud. “What?”
I knew he didn’t mean to insult Anton. Of course he didn’t. And Anton didn’t know the stress Luka was facing, what’s at stake. Suddenly, it was obvious how to make the two stop fighting. It’s simple. The lies had to stop.
Luka, I felt like shouting, tell Anton about Boris and your wife. Anton’s not stupid. Once he knows, we can work better. I looked at their faces, taut with anger and mistrust. “Luka—”
“Shut up, Andrei!” they both said.
Silence. The kind of silence things teeter on. Then, the moment passed.
Regret wrestled with pride on Luka’s face. “I…” His mouth opened and closed. His hand fumbled, patting the insides of his jacket. He pulled out his cigarette case. He stuck a stick in his mouth before extending the case to Anton. It’s the first time he’s offered any to him. “Take,” he commanded. “It’s been a long week.”
Seconds pass before Anton stretched a hand forward. After he took a cigarette, Luka nodded curtly. “Start on that backup plan.”
Luka retreated like a tired boxer to corner of the warehouse, where the restroom was.
Anton lit the cigarette. Then, he looked at me and puffed on his fist. His fingers uncurled to show an unlit stick. He had palmed a second cigarette. “For later.” He tucked it behind his ear. It disappeared into his silver hair. He turned to stare at Luka’s back. I didn’t like the crystallized anger on his face so I made up my mind. I had to act. To protect us from each other.
“Anton, you need to know something.”
Two days left. Things were finally going our way. The woman had replied and the key logger had installed itself flawlessly. Now, we’re sifting through all the data. My talk with Anton had worked too. He had become more civil to Luka since, and it made the latter calmer. When Anton left early today, Luka didn’t complain.
“You can take off,” Luka said to me as he motioned at the parsing program running on his laptop. It’s an easy, but time-consuming task. “This doesn’t require you here.” He began eating his takeaway salad and waved for me to go. Since the key logger was successfully installed, he’s been eating nothing but salad. I suspected he’s trying to lose weight before he reunites with his wife.
“But I want to help,” I told him. I was hoping to ask his advice about Anna when we were alone. I felt like I should do something. “Maybe—”
“Go home. I want to do this. I need to do this for her. Alone.”
Outside the warehouse, the ZiL still rusted away. I wondered how many birthdays it had encountered and how many more it’d see. A black-headed pigeon standing on the bonnet raised one foot, cocking its head, as if puzzled. In her reply, O’Brien’s wife had gushed. She wanted to know if I took the photos, if I had sighted this bird, or that. She said she was eagerly waiting for my response, and it made me feel bad. Thinking of Luka and his wife made it all worthwhile though. There is meaning to what I do. There is purpose.
I ducked through a hole in the car park’s fence and saw a soggy copy of Pravda—the Truth—steeped in a puddle. What would Luka’s wife read about this world when she comes out? Front page: will she feel pride at new Russia: more oil, more power, more everything? International News: American drones were dropping bombs in yet another Middle-Eastern country to threaten everyone who disagreed with their cowboy peace. Sports: Would she be able to figure out which oligarch owned which soccer club? Local: A polar bear at Moscow zoo was wounded with a Dragunov sniper rifle. It’s the second time someone has tried to kill it in five years. Our soldiers may be mad, everyone online joked, but you can’t doubt their tenacity. Politics: Protestors were marching at the Red Square again. Last month, I saw them, a small elderly group waving Soviet flags. A wiry old man passed me a leaflet. His one cataracted eye was cloudy and turned inwards, pining for the past. Mine is fixed on the future. When will Luka introduce his wife to me? Those were her scribbles in the books he lent me, I was certain. Her handwriting felt cozy, like a campfire. It’s a fantasy, maybe—but why shouldn’t it come true?
On the far end of the car park, I noticed a silver-haired man kneeling beside a patchwork dog. When Anton saw me, he flung a rock that bounced down a corridor of containers and the mutt streaked after it. Anton stood up and dusted his hands when I approached. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
I wasn’t expecting this.
“He won’t find us here,” Anton said. We had walked from the car park until we were halfway across the Novospassky Bridge. “Andrei, tell me something: why are you doing this?”
“Doing what?” I asked, trying to keep my mood from souring. His stern manner, the inquisition in his voice, dismissed everything I’d done.
His eyes narrowed. “Working for Luka. Why?”
“I don’t want to hear this,” I said, straining to keep my anger from my voice. What right did he have to ask me? “What’s it to you?” My voice wobbled as something ugly inside squirmed. It feasted on doubt, and I didn’t need Anton to feed it. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going.”
He grabbed my hand and jerked me back. “I’m serious.”
“So am I.” I snatched my hand back. “Let go.”
“This isn’t a normal life.”
Normal? An aged couple strolled by us as his question struck me. A normal life? The scab on my neck had crusted over. The scar, white and ugly, remained. Normal? What is normal? Family? Friends? The questions multiplied, asking more questions. Below the shadow of the bridge, I noticed a man paddling a boat, his girlfriend seated near the prow. I blinked and they disappeared. Was that normal? Did they really exist or had I imagined them? Maybe the river swallowed them. The Moskva’s edges curved around the banks like a mother’s embrace. Mother? Father? What do I have? Only whatever I can get, working alongside Luka and Anton. And now, the latter was poking holes into my life. Why?
“Andrei, think for yourself. You have to…”
“I don’t have to do anything. Leave me alone.”
Anton looked away. “My brother used to say that too. Shut up, Anton, shut up! He was your age when…” Pain cracked the sentence, made him fragile. For a moment, I saw through my fog of anger, as if his pain, mingled with mine, burned, lighting up parts of his shaded past. That story he told me before: the boy killed in the football attack—it was his brother, it had to be. “…when he…” he tried again. I didn’t feel pity. Instead, I felt my anger double, and double again. Not for myself; for his sake. Moscow—this city takes something precious from everyone. And the damn river kept flowing, on and on, nonchalantly. Are we cursed here? “This isn’t about me, Andrei,” Anton said. “Luka cannot be trusted.”
“He told me that too,” I stifled my anger, to convince Anton. “He’s not like you think. He told me not to trust anyone, including him. He’s alright, he really is, Anton. We have to—”
“You’re wrong, Andrei,” he spoke over me, his expression hard again. “It’s reverse psychology. Did he also tell you that he pays you more? Do you know what he told me? ‘Andrei’s a kid. Don’t tell him I’m paying you more. It’ll hurt his feelings.’ That’s Luka. Why do you think he hired a boy like you to work for him?”
“Don’t treat me like some kid. I’m not. I don’t need your concern or pity.”
“He’s exploiting you. The only person he cares about is himself.”
Past the overhead lamps flanking the bridge, the blue and gold spires of the Novospassky Monastery disappeared behind a fog. I saw the old couple on the far end of the bridge, holding hands. They reminded me of Luka and his wife. Anton’s wrong. Luka cares for others, and he cares for me. Even when he pulled the gun on me, it was because he was angry with himself.
“You can have a different life. Don’t do work anymore. Don’t come in tomorrow.”
“This isn’t for people like you.”
“Why?” A trolley trundled by, holding steady in its lane, ignoring us.
“Why what? It’s for your own good. Trust me.”
“Because I’m telling you not to!” He slapped the bridge railing and the metal rang, reverberating down the bridge’s span. “Stay home tomorrow, Andrei. I don’t want to see you there. I don’t want to see you again in that shitty place.”
His expression became threatening. Suddenly, his hand knived towards me.
“Don’t tell Luka about this.” He flicked my ear with his finger.
Someone’s banging on my room door. Waking up felt like a relief after being half asleep the whole night. Yet, it meant remembering. Memories rushed and laid siege to me.
I don’t want to see you, Anton had said. Everything will be fine, Luka had promised.
When I stumbled to the bedroom door, I saw Old Nelya holding up my jacket with two gnarled fingers. “It keeps ringing,” she said cautiously.
My new ringtone was Elgar’s Enigma Variation VII. Its laughing music sounded cheerful, promising. What is your heart’s delight? the melody asked.
If I have one wish, I want things to go back to what it was before between the three of us.
“Hello?” I answered the phone.
“It’s done,” Luka said.
Anton isn’t there when I arrive.
“Now, it’s his turn to be late. Come in, come in,” Luka waves. There’s something delirious about him, a joy thrumming through every line of his body. He didn’t insist on the password today, a lapse I didn’t call out. He’d stayed over last night. The alcohol on his breath held a sweet, lingering scent. “I’ve got it,” he says when I walk in. “All that’s left is the exchange. I need to figure out a safe way to arrange that.” He pauses. “That’s none of your business. I promised you’d never see Boris again.”
Before I can say anything, his phone rings. “Anton.” He walks to the door and unlocks it. Anton pauses when he sees me—no nod, no smile, not even a flicker of acknowledgement of our discussion. So I play it cool too. Why not? Everything is as it should be. We are all together. “What do we have left to do?” he asks as he draws a cigarette from the back of his ear.
“Nothing.” Luka chuckles. “Thanks to the two of you, everything’s set. I got what I need.”
“That’s it? Did you see what was in the data repository? So what’s this Project Silence about?”
It’s a military virus, I know, but Luka waves his hand in a vague manner. “I don’t want to know. I don’t poke around where I don’t have to. It doesn’t matter, Anton. It’s done.” A slight pause. “You did well this time.”
Anton blinks at the praise, then shrugs. “Why are we here then?” He has one hand inside his jacket pocket. The other taps embers from his cigarette, as if the world’s his ashtray.
“Do you have to be somewhere else?” Luka bristles. “Bah, I’m not arguing today.” He pulls a Champagne bottle and cups from his olive-green bag. “Andrei, I know you like this. I saw how you drank last time.” His fingers work the twist-cap and, pop! He pours a cup for Anton and me. “To success,” Luka exclaims and my mood gushes like foam. So what if I don’t know enough about Luka? So what if Anton gets paid more? Everything worked out and I helped. I play a role. I’m part of a team. This is what I’m good at; it may be the only thing I’m good at, but it’s something. “To us,” Luka continues.
“Drink, Anton! Laugh. Be happy. The job’s done. I’ve got your money ready. What else do you want?” Luka says.
“What I want…” Anton says, with a cool smile as he raises his cup. The smoke from his cigarette coils around his hand like a translucent snake. “What I want…is to piss.” He tosses the half-full cup aside.
After he’s gone, Luka hands me an envelope. There’s an unusual formality in the way he holds it out to me with both hands. Inside the envelope, there was money. A lot of money. I’ve never seen so much before. Half of it is in rubles, the other half, in U.S. dollars. I look at him, eager to hear our next step, for him to share the plan.
“I treated you well, didn’t I?” he asks, and I nod, waiting for more.
When he doesn’t continue, I press him. “What’s next? After this, what’s next?”
He finishes his cigarette and pulls out his cigarette case.
“This is difficult,” he says heavily. “I’m leaving Moscow once the exchange is done.”
I nod. Of course. It’s the smart thing to do. I don’t trust Boris as well. My thoughts run ahead, wondering what I’d be leaving behind when we go. Anna, Old Nelya—what will happen to them? “How long before we come back?” I ask. “Where are we going?”
He fumbles at the spark wheel, which keeps failing to catch.
Again, the fire doesn’t take. He seems fixated on his lighter.
“What about—” I bit off the foolish word before I could utter it. Because I finally understand what he’s not saying. His heavy silence is a cheap confession: he’s leaving without me. There is no “us.”
He swears and throws away the lighter. “Andrei, you understand…it’s for the best.” He reaches for my hair and I knock his hand hard. I can see it now, how this was supposed to be our last job all along. Of course he’d take off with his wife. Why stay in this cursed city? What did he owe me? “It’s safer for you,” he adds lamely. “That money will last a long time. Go treat yourself. Or go somewhere.” Alone, he means. Without him.
The lighter lies cracked on the floor, its fluid staining the concrete. That’s what happens to useless things; they’re tossed aside.
I don’t want to be safer, I want to be together, I want to be with you—I replace all those pathetic phrases with a lulling melody of zeroes, blanking out everything. I’m getting good at it; I’ve been practicing. “Ok,” I say. “Ok.”
“Andrei…” he trails off for there is nothing to say.
I snatch my bag from the floor. When I look up, Luka has turned from me. He’s heading towards his laptop. So be it.
My phone buzzes. It’s Anton. Come to the restroom.
A loud train rushing through the industrial district rattles the area as I near the restroom. The hollow metal door creaks open when I knock. It wasn’t latched. I push it wide open and Anton’s not inside. From the window, I can see the train, a blurry rush of colorful containers, darting from left to right like a flattened rainbow. The plywood tacked over the window is gone.
“Anton?” I call out. No response.
“Anton?” I try again, then look at my phone. He messaged me barely a minute ago. Something is wrong. I walk towards the window, and see the board on the ground outside. The hole is more than big enough for a person to squeeze through. What game is this? Is Anton outside? A chime cuts through the fading roar of the train. This time, it’s an email with an attachment from Luka. No title, only a link, as if it was sent in a hurry. What is going on?
Then, I hear shouting. Had Anton sneaked around me?
My neck starts tingling when I recognize a reedy voice. Boris. And this isn’t some dream. I feel my breath quickening. Oh, no. Oh, no.
But I need to know.
I creep out from the restroom and crouch behind a pile of boxes. Luka is in the clearing, sitting on the floor, his back against a pillar. And I see Milo placing a boot on Luka’s thigh. “I can shoot his knees, Boris. He can still type that way,” I hear him say, and a familiar detachment slides in to keep my dread at bay. I steady myself against the floor and the hard chill of the concrete soaks into my palms, up my spine, lending me strength. In the distance, I see the door wide open. Anton had been the last one in, and he didn’t lock it. Then, I remember his warning last night. I feel a stabbing sensation in my chest, before I realize it’s my heartbeat.
“Easy, Milo. Luka’s a sensible person.” I see Boris moving into view, dragging a few cardboard boxes into a makeshift seat. “Your pal didn’t ask for much to tell us where you’re hiding. Whatever did you do to him to make him hate you so?”
There is no mystery here. Anton betrayed us.
“No comeback?” Boris’ voice is gleeful. “Let me do the talking then. Here’s the revised deal—”
“My wife?” Luka cut him off. “Is she still alive?”
“Tchut, tchut. What is this seller’s remorse? It’s unseemly. You turned her in to save your own skin back then. Now you want her back? The F.S.B. is not a pawnshop. You should have known that. See, Milo, how people deceive themselves? The moment you turned her in, Luka, she was gone. Poof. I can’t resurrect her, but I do appreciate how she motivated you.”
Is it true? Did he betray his wife? I don’t want to believe it.
Luka says nothing to defend himself. Why is the truth always silent? Because the lies have chained them all and thrown them deep into the Moskva river. The truth is dead here. I realize that now.
“Here’s the new deal: the program for you and the boy. As a show of good faith, Milo took care of your traitor. He came out to meet us just now. You should have seen his stupid face when Milo plugged him.” Boris tapped his forehead. “Never liked those half-breeds. Never know where they stand. How dare he betray my friend, eh? Let that be a lesson to all.”
“I suppose I should thank you then,” Luka says.
Part of me doesn’t believe what I’m hearing. This can’t be happening. Another part of me is thinking of possibilities, ways to help Luka. I know I can do it, because I have to—that’s the logic of desperation. I cast my eyes around for something, a plan, a tool. Keep talking, Luka, I scream with my heart, I need more time.
“No need. All I want is the virus. Hand over your laptop, or whatever you kept it in. Then, we can all go for a drink, and talk about the other jobs we have for you and your sidekick.”
“Then what? I’ll get my wife back the next time?” Luka laughs. “You want the program? It’s not on my laptop. As for Andrei, he’s gone. I sent him away. Far away.”
He’s telling me to run. Oh, Luka!
“Tchut, tchut, a sad lie, that. One, two, three. I count three cups here. Moscow’s my playground. I have friends everywhere. I’ll find him. Last chance, Luka.”
“If my Masha’s gone, why should I care for my life?”
Boris leans in. “Because you’re an animal. There’s several millennia of self-preservation programmed into your genes. Unlike that boy, you’re not the self-sacrificial type. I know you. We’re alike.”
“You know me, Boris, we’re similar, eh?” Luka laughs again. Every instinct screams at me to run—towards him, away from him, somewhere—but the resignation, that finality, in his laugh roots me. “If I’m a fool, then so are you.”
Time slows. Luka reaches inside his jacket; Boris seems to float in the air as he dives; Milo’s grin widens; I start running.
Someone fires just as I run inside the restroom, scrabbling through the window.
A gun fires again. Then, again.
I’m running. That’s all I can do, all I can think of. I need to run.
Breathless. Don’t run, walk. There’s a bus stop nearby. Nobody cares about people on the buses. As I walk, the towering whiteness of the Moscow Swissotel looms beside me. On top, a glass eye is balanced on claws, as if it could see all. Luka—is he dead?
He can’t be. Because he can’t be.
There were gunshots. Too many of them.
Tears roll down my cheek. Anton had betrayed us, yet he saved me with his text message. I fumble for my phone to see if there are more messages. The inbox icon throbs. Luka has sent me a link? What good did it do? How useless!
No, I’m the one who’s useless. I betrayed Luka too: I was the one who’d told Anton about Boris. Everything collapsed back to my mistake. I’m as damned as this city.
Be careful, Luka’s voice reminds me. Keep going, don’t stop.
Further out, a boat chugs down the Moskva river, sparks of camera flashes flaring along its deck. I imagine pressing a button: the boat sinks while the audience, high up in the hotel’s viewing gallery, laughs at the people drowning.
I catch the first bus I can. Onboard, there’s only one passenger, a blonde. I sit behind her. She’s on the phone and pays no heed to me.
Think, Andrei! Boris may look for me, but he doesn’t know where I live. I’m safe—for now.
Think, Andrei, think hard! What can I do?
I blanked out. In the window beside me, I see a helpless-looking boy pretending to be all grown up. Why did everything happen the way they did?
“Don’t blame me, it’s the traffic,” the woman speaks into her phone, and I dimly register what she says.
Lies. The road we’re on is wide open.
“I love you,” she says as she stifles a yawn.
More lies. Maybe it’s not me. It’s them. Everyone had lied.
The bus enters the Garden Ring Road, turning into a busy junction. In its middle, there’s the statue of Mayakovsky. Luka had lent me one of his books before. He told me the poet had praised life here, had claimed everything was the best it could be, but that didn’t stop him from killing himself a few years later. His statue stood in the square, a bronzed spirit, waiting patiently for this world to end.
Don’t be dramatic, a cold wind flicked my ear, chiding me, teasing me. Just kill them all and be done with, it laughs.
I pulled out my laptop and opened Luka’s email. It led to a series of dead drops in the cloud we’d set up before, each link leading to the next to the next. Luka had spent a lot of time setting these up in case we got into trouble and needed to communicate anonymously. He had needed even more time convincing Anton and me to memorize the passwords. I secretly thought him paranoid. Anton openly mocked him. Now, only I was left.
I pieced together a dozen fragments of ASCII text into a long string. That was the key to the final cloud cache. I logged on, entered it, and something unexpected happened: What’s 2+2?, a last challenge popped out, as if Luka had sprung a last trick.
5, I entered. I knew the correct answer from long ago, but only now, did I appreciate its lesson: in a world that didn’t make sense, Luka had felt free to make up whatever answer he wanted.
Inside the drive, I found a folder. Project Silence. Whatever Boris wanted was here. All I had to do was access it…and do what?
The bus jerked to a stop as a police motorcade throttled by. They weren’t coming for me. The three policemen on the motorcycles were waving furiously, parting the traffic.
As the bus idled, I thought everything through, bit by bit. Luka’s wife is dead. Luka is dead. Anton’s dead. I could reboot my laptop and delete everything. I could throw my phone away, wipe the cloud drives. I could cancel all the credentials we used, the logins that represented two people who’d pretended to be my family. I could sever everything that bound us and forget the memories. Of us. Together.
There was nothing I could have done to save them. Nothing.
A loud roaring made me look up. A black limousine sped down the road at breakneck speed.
“Stupid official on a joy ride.” The bus driver made a rude sign.
Nobody answered him. Nobody cares here.
I should delete whatever Luka stole. Or send it to Boris so he’d stop hunting me. There’s no reason to hold on to something so dangerous. Trade it. Bargain for my life back.
The cursor blinked, biding my decision.
Be careful. No good would come of opening the folder, I imagined Luka telling me.
Then again, I didn’t feel like doing anything good. I’m done with that. I’m free to do whatever I want.
As the bus turns, I begin typing furiously.
In Yaroslavsky railway station, a dusty, ragged crowd mills under the beige vaulted-ceilings, waiting for their train. My nerves had been x-rayed into calm at the checkpoint scanner. I’m past that. A backpacker walks towards the exit leading to the yard outside, his ponderous backpack swinging like an elephant’s rear. I wait by a pillar, trying to see if anyone was looking for me. You are here, a map on the pillar informs me.
Every time someone comes close, I lower my cap. I gaze up at the train schedule in slow-flickering blocky red letters on the wall, then look down at the map again. X marks the spot. I am X, an unknown variable, a catalyst. I study the layout of the station, then take a deep breath.
Time to do this.
I join the queue for a ticket. As I do so, a group of slant-eyed Mongolian traders with colorful canvas bags swarm the middle of the station. Across them, a soldier turns, his hand patting his submachine gun like he’s bringing a dog to heel. His flinty eyes look through me. X is one-dimensional, almost invisible. He elbows his partner, and I see him grin. I don’t like the look.
“Hey,” he calls out, “you.”
My heart does a somersault.
“Papers,” the soldier calls out to the traders, who began buzzing like frenzied bees, their many hands reaching into this waist pouch or that bag for the required paper, maybe a bribe.
When I reach the counter, I see the attendant chewing gum in a slack-jawed way. “Ticket for one?” Her chewing slows when I lay out the cash. She blows a bubble, then pops it deliberately, as if she’s trying not to be impressed. “You never heard of a credit card? Where to?”
I want to go home, but I’ve no home now.
Earlier, in my apartment, I didn’t waste time. I had thrown clothes into my bag. My passport. I shoved half the money Luka gave me under Old Nelya’s door, along with a note, then ran down the stairwell. That was when I saw Anna sweeping the stairwell. When she saw my bag, she knew. “Where are you going? You’re leaving.” Her eyes suddenly became hopeful.
“I’m…” the lie began, and stopped. She’s the only one who’d never deceived me.
She grabbed my wrist. A strong grip, the callused finger tips of a pianist. “Wait for me.” She turned and headed back into her apartment.
I can’t even take care of myself, I wanted to cry while eyeing the stairs desperately. My plans wavered. It was safer for me to go alone. It’s best for her.
Then, I made up my mind.
At the ticket counter, I finger my destination on the printed train schedule.
“That’s a long ride.” The attendant eyes me, proffering an unusual look of concern. When I say nothing, her bureaucrat mask slips back on. “One ticket?”
“Two,” I answer, holding Anna’s hand in mine.
On the train, a middle-aged couple in matching t-shirts slowly set up their bags on the other side of the cabin. Anna’s head rests on my shoulder. The excitement has sapped both of us.
“Don’t worry, I’m strong,” she tells me, then her tone wavers. “Are you sure this is ok?” She presses my hand again, as if to ask whether we have permission to escape.
I squeeze her hand back. We don’t need permission for anything. Not anymore.
The woman who shares our cabin eyes us. She clears her throat as if about to try something. “We’ve always wanted to be here.” Her tone is halting, her accent all wrong. Their chunky camera announces they are tourists. “We are happy to visit. It is a nice city. A beautiful place.”
The man, her husband judging from their wedding bands, points at Anna. “Girlfriend?”
I shake my head.
He frowns, snaps his fingers while fumbling for another word. “Sister?”
I pretend not to understand. The two retreat to their translation book. Finally, the woman pulls out a large box of biscuits. She mimes an eating action. I take one for Anna and they relax, assured we’re harmless locals.
Outside, the afternoon wanes and the attendants at attention start harrying passengers to board. A flurry of hugs, waves, goodbyes. A woman is kissing a man as if she would never let go. A bearded man struggles with his luggage.
Suddenly, a wild-eyed man peers into our cabin from outside the porthole window. He looks at me, then the others, then at me again. I tense. Is he one of Boris’ men? Is he looking for me? I don’t know. I do know what he sees: four people sharing cream biscuits, my fake and happy family.
“Who do you think he was looking for?” Anna asked me after the man darts away.
“It doesn’t matter now.”
The whistle blows twice and the train kicks to a start. It curves on its tracks as it pulls out. As we slide beneath a bridge, gaining speed, the couple heads off with their camera to capture the last sights of Moscow. I take a deep breath and relax. Soon, we’ll be out of the city and done with it.
But not yet. I pull out my laptop and put the finishing touches on my last project.
Anna presses against me, and I feel the heat of her thigh against mine. Cozy. “Do you remember that promise we had long ago?”
“I do. We’ll find a place like that. I have money to get us there. We’ll do it.”
There’s doubt in her eyes, as if she doesn’t quite believe what’s happening. “We can celebrate your birthday there. It’s tomorrow isn’t it?” A slight pause. “You still haven’t told me why you’re—”
“Later,” I interrupt her. “Later, we tell each other everything.”
She rests her head against the window just as a pair of crows swoop low, then soar away. That’s the way to go, fast and far. “Do you think anyone will look for us?” Our lives and its troubles ran parallel to each other now, like the paired rails of the train track. “We are doing the right thing, aren’t we?” There’s a naivety in her doubt, and it feels precious, a fragile flower to be protected from the gale.
“It’s this place that’s messed up. That’s why we’re leaving it. We’re doing the right thing.”
I know because I grew up. Once, I thought I’d change the world, but Moscow remade me.
Anton and Luka used to tease me, calling me Andrei 1.0. I’m not that anymore. Anton, Luka, look at me! I’m a different version now, a 2.0!
But that joke died with them.
I open my laptop and begin programming a simple timer. Outside, the train clashes and screeches against the tracks. I set the timer forward, to the next scheduled stop outside Moscow. As I put the package together, I think back to the first time I met Luka, the childish prank I played then.
Knock knock, who’s there?
Hello, Moscow, it’s me again. Last time, I offered you music, I wanted everything to sing. Now, I have something else for you, a delivery on behalf of Luka. It’s not music this time. This will shut you up and shut you down.
“What if…” Anna begins again.
“Don’t worry. No one will follow us.” I try to smile at her, to reassure her. “I’m sure of it,” I repeat, my finger stroking the keyboard, I’m waiting for a sign.
Then, I see it.
In the distance, on the roof of a dinghy mid-rise, the emblem of Moscow Telecom gleams, a metallic array of panels angled towards the skies like heads turned up in prayer. The train barrels towards it, as if nothing can stop its momentum. My finger is poised, waiting for the building to come, closer and closer.
The book would not have been possible without the support of many. I am deeply grateful to the following for their help and support: Patrick McGrath, who gave me invaluable advice about writing; Susan Shapiro, who taught me perseverance; to those who spoke to me about the dark arts and allowed me glimpses into their community; and my many test readers (especially Maron Anrow.)
Above all, I am grateful to my readers and would love to hear from you. I value your feedback, and any online reviews would be much appreciated.
W. Len received a Masters in Fine Arts from the New School, and did his undergraduate studies at Brown University. There, he studied computer science, spent a long time dwelling in a computer lab, then switched courses after suffering from acute Vitamin D deficiency.
His works have appeared in Financial Times publications, New York Press, The Brooklyn Rail, and foreign newspapers, such as The Straits Times.
Besides writing, at various points of his life, he has worked on Wall Street; taught at Parsons, School of Design; served in the Navy; and sold candy on the streets.
He is currently working on a novel about misbehaving financiers.
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.