The Info Coup

‘The Info Coup”

by W. B. J. Williams

The night air was cool as I stepped onto the tarmac. A long dark limousine pulled up, the only noise that of the tires on the pavement. One of the soldiers held up traditional green robes for me, which I eagerly stepped into. The paper clothing they forced people to fly in offered no protection from the cool air. Another soldier opened a door and gestured for me to get in. Realizing I didn’t have much choice, I stepped into the warm oval chamber of the limo. A white leather bench circled the perimeter around an ornate prayer rug, and what I assumed was traditional Turkish music was playing softly. Two veiled women moved aside, insisting I sit between them. The door closed as one handed me what smelled like rich coffee and the other placed a ring on my right hand. It was a little loose on my finger, and heavy. At a quick glance, it looked to be gold with a large ruby. Apparently they were serious about honoring me. It was too warm in that car, so I opened my robe.

Not knowing any Turkish, I tried to remember the Arabic word for thank you. Wistfully, I looked out of the window, and lifted my cup in salute to the airplane which was lifting off on its way to Kabul without me.

“You’re welcome, honored one,” said one of the women in good English.

“Did they get my bags off the plane?” They were my last link to the past, and there might be something of use on the laptops, even after all these years, if I could get them to boot.

“Most honored guest, your luggage is on the luggage plane to Kabul. As that plane is a pilotless aircraft, the Sheik was unable to divert its flight path. He offered his sincere regrets, and has promised to repay you for your loss.”

“Thank you. Is there any way to lower the heat in here?”

The car cooled and I sank into silence, sipping my coffee instead of indulging in conversation. I was not used to company, especially female company. I took the opportunity to gaze out the windows which wrapped around the perimeter of the limo. Not having a driver had some advantages, as I was able to see in all directions, but it was too dark to make out more than lights in passing. Tall buildings and other driverless cars sped by too quickly to discern much.

The car didn’t go far before it slowed and came to a halt. Once again the door was opened for me. I stepped out and looked around. I could barely make out tall trees in the faint light that filtered through the latticed windows of the surrounding buildings. The two women who had sat next to me were at my side, each taking an arm. Had there been a gate on the entry arch, I’d have panicked—thinking I was being escorted to a new prison. As it was, I jumped when the yard lightened from a door that someone opened, also illuminating stairs I’d not seen before leading up to the door

A tall, dark bearded man in richly embroidered robes stepped out onto the landing. “Welcome and salaam, Burhanuddin Karzai, hero to Islam and all good Muslims.”

That couldn’t be the Sheik, but best to be careful. I bowed to him. “Salaam. Have I the honor of greeting my benefactor, Sheik Mahmut himself?”

“No, I am Ali, his most trusted slave. Please do me the honor of following me. I will bring you to my master.”

Slave? That’d better be just the typical false humility of the culture.

I followed him up the ornate tiled steps into a long hall, lit by real torches. Whoever this Sheik was, he certainly was odd. Light bulbs could have lit the hall just as well without the smell or expense of the oil. At the end of the hall stood two well muscled men with actual scimitars in their belts to either side of a large double-wooden door.

They pushed open the door as I neared. I had to fight to keep my face from betraying an ironic grin as the room beyond was right out of a Hollywood vision of an Arabian Nights movie complete with pillows, water pipes and dancing girls in diaphanous veils. Centered in all of this was a man I was surprised to recognize. Sheik Mahmut had been a fellow prisoner some ten years prior. One of the few prisoners I’d met face to face, although he’d had another name then.

When I stepped into the room, Mahmut sat up, clapped once and the two dancing girls rushed out of the room. Confident, I strode forward and extended my hand with real pleasure and a singular doubt. “Mahmut, you old dog. Don’t tell me you’re for real with me as the savior of Islam.”

“Burhanuddin, you rascal! Come and sit with me! How can you forget what you upheld in that hell on earth?”

I joined him on the cushions, though caution kept me from softening my posture. I didn’t want to get too comfortable, and let down my guard. “Let us say then that I forgot, what did I uphold?”

Mahmut put down a glass and leaned forward. “That Islam needs to get back to the days when it was self-critical, when it was the jewel of scholarship and the center of scientific advance within the world. I need your help, if you’re willing.”

“How so? Looks like you’ve got a good thing going to me.” The dancing girls were still visible in the shadows, as were others who I took to be servants of one kind or another. I wish the room had modern lighting, it was too hard to make out details in the soft light of the torches.

He leaned forward to whisper in English, “I’m working on subverting the New Ottoman movement from within. I need you to help me steer this movement away from a focus on literalism. Your tech skills will –“

I kept my voice low and replied in English, wishing I could tell if the figures in the shadows were trying to listen. “Wait one minute, what tech skills? What are you expecting from me–I’ve not touched a computer in 20 years.” I looked at the ornate rug on the floor and muttered. “I’m a fucking dinosaur.”

“My most humble and sincere apologies. I misspoke. It’s not your skills: it’s your outlook, your perspective we need.” He lifted my face with his hands, forcing me to look at him. “You’re still a hacker, still look at things for how they can be used, not what they were designed for. You’ll learn the tech fast enough. We need you.”

“You’re gonna pay me to hack minds?”

“Yes. And to hack systems once you learn the modern tech. If we own the computers, we can own the message.” Mahmut took a long sip from his cup.” “Coffee?”

“No, thank you.” I didn’t trust that my cup wouldn’t be drugged. Still, it was time to be bold. “And what’s in it for me?”

“What do you want? If I can do it, it’s yours.” Mahmut’s arms spread out, as if to say all this and more is mine to give. As far as I could tell in the dark, he was offering me shadows.

I only wanted one thing, its name was sweet to me. I was not afraid to ask for it. “Revenge. Revenge on those who sent me to that place.”

“It shall be yours, Burhanuddin my friend.” He put down his cup on the table and offered me his hand, which I took.

“I ask one more thing, let the name Burhanuddin die here and now. I will be known by a new name as I begin again to live.”

“It shall be done. How shall we call you?”

“Sihirbaz.” I straightened. I would be known as Sihirbaz from that day forward.

“Sihirbaz, it is Arabic, no?”

“Yes, Arabic for Sorcerer.” My old hacker handle, and a warning for my former friends.

Later, after a meal and memories exchanged about the prison where Mahmut and I had met, he summoned a young man and instructed him to take me to my chambers. Realizing I’d been yawning, I thanked my host and followed the young man to a large wooden door. I pushed the door open to see a dark chamber that smelled of the cool night air. The young man offered to go in and turn on the lights, but wished to be alone, and doubted I’d need the light after my eyes got used to the shadows. After all, they used to keep my cell dark for days on end. I stepped into the dark room they’d assigned me and closed the door. My eyes adjusted quickly to the dark, so it was easy to find the bed. I pulled off my robes, and then the paper clothing which I rolled into a ball and tossed. I put back on the robes, not knowing how cold the room would get over night. I stretched, yawned and lay down on a bed for the first time in twenty years. If nothing else, I owed the Sheik for this.

I woke while it was still dark. What was it that was on top of me? I flailed my arms trying to get free desperately trying to understand—what torment was this?

Then I remembered and forced myself still. It was a blanket. I’d forgotten what it was like to sleep covered with a blanket. Heart racing, I focused on my breathing, deliberately slowing it to calm body and mind. If I believed in Allah, I’d be praying that nothing worse happened to me than to be woken by the unfamiliar everyday. I seemed remarkably unprepared for that. Eventually, in the stillness of my meditations, I fell back asleep.

There was a soft rustle and I blinked my eyes. Sunlight peered through curtained windows I hadn’t known were there. Next to the now-open drapes was a woman with her head bowed. Unlike the two women yesterday, she wore no veil. I forced my panic aside and propped myself up on my elbow. “Who are you and what do you want?”

She winced. My voice must have betrayed my fear, my anger. “Pardon, master, I am your slave, and will have no name until you give me one.”

I couldn’t find words. I had a slave? What game was Mahmut playing at? No matter, this was a game that I had learned well in twenty years of prison: make them think they’re getting what they want. However, Mahmut no longer had my loyalty nor gratitude. If I could, I’d destroy Mahmut and anyone associated with him voluntarily. I would not put any human into bondage of any kind.

“What name did your mother give you?”

“I have no mother, I am an orphan.”

They make a fucking orphan into a slave? “Then what did they call you in the orphanage?”

“Lalehan, my master.”

“Then Lalehan you remain. Do not call me master. Call me Sihirbaz.”

“If master is hungry, food has been prepared. I was sent to bring you to table.”

I ignored the use of the title. She’d learn. I quickly scanned the room. The balled up paper clothing was gone. There were no guards, just the girl, and she didn’t seem armed. I’d follow her, but not too closely. I pushed aside the blanket and swung my legs to the edge of the bed.

“Master sleeps clad in his clothing? I’d wondered why I’d not found master’s robes, and worried I’d be punished for not being able to dress you properly.”

“Please do not question my actions.” I had no desire to tell her why I slept in the only things I could call my own, having lost all else. “However, I will never beat you. Look, Lalehan, you are not my slave.”

“Master rejects me?”

“No, I reject your bondage. I’ve a feeling if I were to send you back to the Sheik, you’d be punished for your inadequacy. Is this true?”

“Yes, master.”

“Damnation. This is wrong. Look, I’m going to make countless mistakes, you can really help me by teaching me what is expected of me here.”

“I will be happy to, but it is my duty to remind you that the Sheik awaits you in his chamber for breakfast.”

“Yes, I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Please take me to him.”

“As master wishes.”

The palace, for that is what it seemed to be, was draped with bold mono-colored silks, bright fabric hung from the ceiling which willowed gently in the breeze of Lalehan’s passage. Every ten feet or so a torch hung on a sconce. No longer lit, the black wood was the only thing dark about the place. Bone white walls with quotes from the Prophet pressed in brilliant blue tiles along every arch. I clenched my fists, longing for a sledge hammer with which to destroy those beautiful lies. There was no Allah. It was easier to reject Allah than to believe a good Allah permitted what I had endured.

The large carved doors in front of us opened as we approached. When I saw Mahmut reclining on a pile of cushions, with some women clad the same as Lalehan feeding him, I unclenched and forced a smile. At least some of my fears were not justified.

“Come in dear friend, and break your fast with me!”

I swallowed the bile and forced a gracious voice. “Thank you, both for the breakfast and for Lalehan, but I don’t want a slave.” It was worth the attempt. I did owe the man, and might be able to set things right.

“I understand, and I quite concur. However with politics as they are, I’m required to keep up appearances, as will you. All my slaves are paid a good wage, know that they can leave my service for whatever reason without prejudice and I will help them settle. I recommend you treat yours the same and you’ll find them loyal and trustworthy.”

I slid onto a pile of cushions and reached for an orange. So, perhaps I too was a slave.

“When do I begin to earn my keep?”

“First, you must have time to become acquainted with your lens. Gone are the days of personal devices, all we need now is an interface into the global cloud, and these lens provide that through a holographic display.” Mahmut clapped his hands twice and a young man approached holding a small black box. “There are two components needed, the lens and an audible. While the fashion in the west is to wear your audible as an earring, here in the civilized east one does not pierce one’s flesh. Clip-ons are too painful, so the audibles go around your ear this way.”

I took the small black box he handed me, opened it, and took out what looked like a small black hearing aid. “How do you activate it?”

“Once it is in on the ear, it will turn itself on and key itself to your DNA, so it is incredibly secure. It gets its power from your body. I figured you preferred an open source lens, so I got you an Oracle. Put them on and let me know how they feel.”

I took the second box and opened it. Eye glasses. That was why everyone I’d seen since I’d been freed was wearing glasses, everyone except the folks on the plane. But then again, they wouldn’t even let folks wear proper clothing anymore when they flew. What had happened in those twenty years?

The ear hooks were a little thicker than what I remembered, and there were metal contacts on the inside where they would touch the scalp. The frames were flexible, the glass had no prescription. “Do you mind if I give them a try?”

“No, by all means, jack in.”

I put the earpiece in, and then slid the glasses onto my face. Suddenly the room was filled with art I’d not seen before, three dimensional figures who were not there wandered along the edges of the wall, the clothing everyone wore except myself had vivid shifting colors. It would appear that I saw an enhanced reality, or at least a well crafted illusion.

Also, at the top, almost invisible, were what appeared to be menus. There was a small voice, not in my ear but somehow as if it were one of my thoughts, almost an unthought. I heard, “Welcome to the Oracle lens into cyberspace. What would you like to accomplish today?”

I muttered in English “Where is the God-damned command prompt,” and a terminal window opened, cursor flashing patiently in the upper left corner.

“Neat.”

The word appeared in the window, and the people in the background faded, the art disappeared and the colors of the garments returned to normal. This was fantastic, and obviously I had a lot to learn. Neat must be a way to remove customizations and artificial enhancements to the view of reality. It was as if I’d never worked with a computer before. Realizing I was being rude, I removed the devices, placing them on a table next to me.

“That was incredible. Thank you.”

“Think of it as your first pay check. Now, sit and eat.”

We ate and chatted, all the while questions swirled in my mind. Who were those people that disappeared, where was the computer I was accessing, what language was behind it all?

Mahmut clapped his hands, and his slaves (as I now understood them) snapped to attention. “Clear all this and then leave us. Sihirbaz and I have things to discuss that are not for your ears.”

I forced a poker face as the men and women who’d been waiting in the shadows before his clap whisked away the platters, baskets and bottles.

Once the last of our breakfast was gone, and the door to the room shut behind the staff, Mahmut said, “Most adults take a month to master the nuances of the lens. I expect you to be fluent in a week. After that week, you are to look into using its potential to manipulate the lens. Your lens is unique in Turkey. You have unfettered access to the degenerate west. In a week’s time, I’ll expect daily demonstrations from you regarding your ability to hack the system. You will be my most important soldier, a sword for the glory of a rational Islamic republic.”

“You honor me, but I fear you over estimate my capabilities. Even if I was an expert in the lens, it might take weeks to gather the necessary data to begin trying to hack a system.” I glanced down at the lens on the table. While I longed to put it back on and start experimenting, I was used to waiting.

“You are too modest, Sihirbaz. I’ve seen what hackers can do, the western films are full of their exploits.”

Not having seen any movies in decades, I ventured a guess. “Do not those same films also show a man being shot multiple times, and rising to fight? These films regarding hackers are just fantasies.”

Mahmut picked up my lens from the table. “Yet, in the daily news reports I learn of the exploits which match or exceed what Hollywood shows. With this, you’ll do wonders.”

“This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t weeks if not months of preparation and research involved. I will attempt what your eminence asks of me, but I fear to be a disappointment. May I be excused so that I may begin?” I reached to him, and he handed me my lens.

“Go. I will summon you back to my presence in two weeks’ time.”

The next few days were a geek’s wet dream. I explored the interface to the lens. It turned out that the people in the background were the daemons, or servants as they were now called. Each had names and specializations, whose aim was to please whatever whim one had. The computer itself was in what folks were calling a cloud city. There were a number of these throughout the physical world. With the lens I could enter the virtual worlds that many had built, much like an avatar in Snowcrash. I’d even run into one egotist who took the name ‘Hiro Protagonist’, but whoever was behind the pseudonym was far from brilliant with a sword.

During those first days, I’d deliberately focused my curiosity into above-board activities. One thing that had changed was that these cloud cities had active patrols by folks looking for anyone breaking any of the numerous laws of the many nations who tried to extend their control over their citizens even into the cloud. Before I would break a single rule, I’d understand what lay beneath it all.

Besides, Mahmut wanted me focused on manipulating ideas. I found it odd that the old Cult of the Dead Cow had been right, hacking the message was much more important than hacking systems. Now what was Mahmut selling? If I was going to get an honest understanding of Mahmut, I would need to get behind the facade he was showing me. The easiest way to do that would be to hack his system. In order to do that, I needed to understand the nuts and bolts of how the system worked.

The first thing I learned was that modern assembly was no longer in hexadecimal, but in nychthemeron. This was only used for the most part when programing the hardware that underlay the cloud. Much of the cloud was written in a language called Steam, which had been derived from the Java I remembered from back in the day. In reading through the tutorials for Steam to force feed myself this more advanced language, I was horrified by the level of abstraction. While it would be useful to be able to read Steam, if I was going to get any hacking done, it would likely be in assembly.

Trouble was that none of my searches were turning up any tutorials on writing assembly. Classes in assembly required government background checks, and were only offered in certain countries, and because my system was located in the Neo-Ottoman Empire, I was automatically forbidden. I’d have to fool the network so that it would think I was not in Turkey before I’d be able to get the access I’d need.

Thankfully, information on the networking protocols was not forbidden to the Neo Ottomans. Unfortunately, this appeared to also be a dead end. The internet had completed its transition to IPv6, and one of the things that made IPv6 work ensured that you could not pretend your computer was in any location other than where it came from. My only hope was if the onion network was still running, and if you could access it from Ottoman Turkey.

Finding a distribution site wasn’t easy, but I found one. The site alerted me that downloading the TOR client would place me at risk of arrest within the Neo Ottoman Empire, as they’d automatically assume I was working for the resistance. I’d not known there was a resistance. I’d have to learn a lot more about them, in my official capacity, of course.

First, I had to get on the TOR network.

Getting the TOR client working on my lens turned out to be a non-trivial task, thankfully made easier because Mahmut had given me an Oracle lens. Since I’d had no training in modern assembly, I had to work with code in a language I didn’t understand. Not only would this make troubleshooting harder, it also meant a level of trust in the authors of that code I wasn’t comfortable with.

Initially, the client wouldn’t install. I’d found the debugger, and tried to make heads or tails of the errors I was seeing in hacker friendly nychthemeron. I pushed aside a rush of insecurity and feelings of being an antiquated incompetent and forced myself to step through the code.

I read through the database structure and chuckled. The more things change the more they stayed the same. It was almost as if the engineers who implement each new technology failed to learn from the mistakes of the last generation. The brilliant Oracle lensmen had forgotten to protect the DNA fields within the database. I had full access to Mahmut’s information. If I could figure out how, I would be able to use this to clone Mahmut’s access to every system that he used his lens to access, unless he’d placed some secondary credential. The trick would be to do so without breaking my own lens and access.

The easiest thing would be to replace Mahmut’s DNA with my own, making myself Mahmut within the system for all intents and purposes. Trouble is that Mahmut would notice this, which must be what the Oracle idiots were expecting.

If I could know for certain that Mahmut was offline and not likely to come back online for a defined time frame, I could replace the proper DNA before anyone would notice, but how to know for certain? Mahmut was properly paranoid, and had a slave test all his food and drink for poisons, so there was no easy way to drug him. Idiot. I reminded myself that, sometimes, a simple question sufficed.

I summoned one of the daemons that the lens system had assigned to me. “Please provide me with an activity and availability report of Sheik Mahmut’s lens to all systems over the past 90 days, with pattern of inactivity highlighted. I wish to know all times when it is best not to disturb his eminence.”

“It shall be done.”

The best hacking was done by using information and tools in unexpected ways. I spent a week analyzing the patterns of Mahmut’s activity and the guy was a regular machine. He always took a two hour nap at noon after sex with one of his slaves and a massage. This gave me all the time I needed, but I’d have to be careful to always put Mahmut’s DNA back before the end of those naps.

I spent weeks pouring through Mahmut’s files. The man documented everything, and everything was on the up and up. The more I read, the more I became convinced that Mahmut was a loyal servant to the Sultan. Knowing this was not the case, I came to the conclusion that the real data I was looking for was either hidden steganographicly, or encrypted. It might take me years to find it, as I’d have to evaluate each and every file in byte code. At least reading through the data was providing me with an excellent understanding of how someone at Mahmut’s level within the empire functioned. One never knew when information might be of use.

I had just about finished going through Mahmut’s files when I found a folder filled with images of race cars. On a whim, as images were often used to hide information in plain sight, I opened the first image using a byte code reader.

It had taken me a while to understand nychthemeron, but the memory registers of the modern systems really benefited from using base-24 numbering, which could still easily be converted into binary when needed. While modern compression routines had eliminated all the white space found in older image files which had made them ideal for hiding text, the base 24 numbering system provided a native method of obscuring more of the information, as more of the letters were part of the code. Finding character sequences that turned into text was much harder.

I spent hours over many days scanning through image files looking for a single word before I had my epiphany: Mahmut would likely be using Arabic characters, which would be represented in the nych as unicode. While there was no way a human could find unicode characters in the nych in any meaningful way, a script could. I initiated the routine to put Mahmut’s DNA signature back and began work to create a script which would locate unicode characters in nych files and extract them as Arabic into a file.

That following day, I ran my script against each image in date of creation sequence. What emerged was a comprehensive diary that Mahmut had been keeping of his subversive activities. I moved that output into a location I could read without the time constraints of Mahmut’s naps and went off to read them at leisure.

Turned out that Mahmut was not looking to restore the republic, which is the bill of goods he’d sold to me. Mahmut styled himself the next Sultan and was five years into a ten year plan to take over the government. That gave me five years to derail both his plan, and the NeoOttomans. With Mahmut’s access, I could both keep track of Mahmut’s actions, and slowly take control over much of the country’s information systems. He would never know me to be a wolf among his sheep.

It had taken some searching, but I’d had been able to locate the database of political prisoners. The password had been typically easy to break, once I’d figured out who was behind it. People really shouldn’t use their pet’s names for passwords. Getting clearance to visit them was a bit harder, but as always it was the human link that provided the weakest. Mahmut, I’d discovered, signed documents without reading them while eating his rather large lunch. I simply slipped some authorization forms into the pile, and handed the slave a rather large tip. The signed authorization forms were soon in my hands, delivered with a smile. Slaves were not used to bribes instead of beatings, and I was fast becoming a favorite.

Now it was a simple matter of walking into a high security prison, gain the trust of the enemy, and walking out again.

The hard part was preventing the audio of our conversation from being recorded. It had taken me weeks of failing to hack into the prison networks before I came up with the solution I was going to stake my neck on: redirection. I would simply play a loud false interview and hope.

With all that preparation, I now had to be cool. If I didn’t act the part, I was as good as dead. While I might welcome that on many levels, then the people who had sent me to rot in jail would get away with all they did to me.

I straightened my turban and stepped out of the state car they’d issued me. Badge prominently displayed, I approached the first guard, and handed him the signed orders.

A moment later the guard handed me back the paperwork. “This is all in order. Follow me.”

I followed him into the prison, trying hard not to notice all the cameras, all the hidden eyes upon me as the guard brought me through check points, down twelve levels until I stood before a steel door with a small slot at the bottom. When the guard slid the door open and gestured for me to enter, I started to panic. Heart pounding, mind racing, I wanted to run. I fought against shitting in my pants. What had I been thinking, that I could voluntarily step into a high security prison cell?

“How long will I have with the prisoner?” I stalled, trying to center without letting them hear the edge in my voice.

“Fifteen minutes.”

“That will be sufficient.”

I held my breath and reentered hell of my own accord. The man I hoped would help sat calmly on the floor. Focusing on what I was doing, not what I was feeling, I waited until the door closed behind me before addressing the prisoner, clicking the recording on at the same time.

I had to admire the man’s composure, his face displayed nothing more than raised eyebrows as the recording began. I whispered, “Nod slightly if you can hear me.”

He nodded and I continued. “I am a hacker that the Ottomans have brought into their midst under the delusion that my gratitude for my freedom and my position within their regime will have me overlook their criminal abuse of power. I’ve reasons of my own for wanting to overthrow their regime, and am quite willing to work with people within your organization to subvert the information systems used by the Sultanate. If you trust me with a contact within your organization, I can guarantee them unprecedented access and my full cooperation.”

“You think I’m a fool?”

I had to keep myself from reacting to his breath, even within the stench of the prison, his breath was rotten. “No. I think you’ll come up with a name, someone expendable, that I can build trust with and become a go between.”

“And if I refuse?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Then I’ll reach out to the next prisoner on my list. I’m quite prepared to talk to them all if need be. However, I think your organization has the best hope of restoring a viable secular democracy within Turkey. Your call. Do you have a name for me?”

“Rasim Hasamoğlu in Ankara. He works for the ministry of Agriculture.”

I nodded my thanks. “And is there anything I can tell him that will help him know that you and I spoke?”

He shook his head. “You will have to convince him yourself.”

“Fine. I understand. My recording is almost done. Thank you for the name.”

He looked me in the eyes for the first time, a smile briefly visible on his face. “I wish you well. Remember me, should you succeed.”

“Should we succeed, you’ll have your freedom again.” I sighed, hoping I could honor my promise.

I waited a few minutes before the recorded dialog finished and then rose. If they watched their prisoners with cameras that I couldn’t see and hadn’t learned about in my research, then I was sunk. If I was lucky they’d simply kill me, but much more likely I’d have a room like this for my own to become again the fucktoy of some power-happy guard. Milliseconds pulled my blood pressure into hyperdrive, but long practice kept me still and silent. My lost twenty years had taught me how to pretend to be immune to it all.

Metal grated on metal and the door opened. It could still be a feint; they could be leading me from cell to cell. Wordlessly, my brain ran on worry through an infinite loop while my poker-faced demeanor thanked the guard and followed him out of the cell, up the levels and through the checkpoints until sunlight and fresh air surrounded me as I walked to the car. Worry replaced by elation, a gamble won. As my lens activated the car’s drive mechanism and it drove me away towards the prison that was Mahmut’s home, I realized that this had been the easy part.

Now I needed to contact Rasim, and discretely. It would not do to hack his account and approach him through his lens, and I could not just contact Rasim, that would be suspicious. No, I’d have to use my position to reach out and contact all ministers at his level in all cities, but under what pretense? I’d have to come up with some message wrapped in another lie that I could pretend to be refining.

I pushed aside the long strand of a beaded door right out of a b-rated Hollywood movie and stepped into the almost empty coffee shop. Rasim sat at the counter sipping from a cup, a man I didn’t know stood behind it. That man frowned deeply as I walked over to the counter and sat next to Rasim, but he placed a cup of coffee in front of me, shook his head, and left me alone with Rasim.

“Rasim, it is good to see you again. Thank you for meeting me here.”

Rasim never took his eyes from his cup. “Karzai, why are we here?”

I offered my hand, which he ignored. “Sihirbaz, if you please. Karzai no longer exists.”

“What does an internationally wanted criminal want from me?”

“I see you’ve checked my background. Those charges were never even brought to trial to allow me to prove the innocence they admitted to when they freed me.”

“So you say.” Rasim took a long sip from his cup. “They claim that you are in violation of your parole and the reward for your return is remarkably large. Please tell me, Karzai, why I should not collect it?”

“Because I’ve discovered that my patron, Sheik Mahmut, is attempting a coup, and I intend to leverage this to restore the democracy.”

“So, now you are discussing treason against the Sultanate? No surprise, considering the charges against you.” He drained the cup and wiped his lips with a napkin.

I wanted to force the man to look at me so I could read his eyes, but I was quite familiar with burying my impulses. Instead I drank from my cup to gain a moment to think.

“If disposing an illegitimate government and restoring power to the people of Turkey is treason, then yes, that is what I am discussing. I have access to key systems, and am in a position to gain control over the information network of much of the Sultanate, including the military. I would like to place this in the hands of the resistance, which I know you to be a member.”

“So you claim.” He rose to leave.

I also rose. “You do not deny it, and I trust my sources, which I will not reveal.”

“Presuming that I do represent the resistance, they’ll want to know the reward you expect for your, ah cooperation.”

“The only thing I want in the world is to take revenge on those Americans who had me imprisoned under false pretenses. I’ll want to be out of the country, with funds sufficient to provide me with the means to enact this revenge. We can negotiate how much that is once you agree to work with me.”

“Presuming I am with the resistance, you understand that this will take time.”

“You don’t have long. Mahmut is planning his coup later this year. You will want to time your actions to his, as his attempt will be sufficient distraction for an attempt to restore the power to the people of Turkey.” I finished my coffee.  “I presume you know how to reach me if you choose.”

“You presume much, Karzai.”

“Yes, I suppose I do. Good day Rasim.”

“Good day, Sihirbaz.”

I walked out of the empty coffee shop with a spring in my step. Unless I was mistaken, that acknowledgment of name was the signal that they’d work with me.

About a month after my conversation with Rasim, a man sat next to me in an otherwise empty cafe where I slowly sipped my coffee. “You are Sihirbaz, no?”

“I am, and you are?”

“A friend of Rasim’s. Come, finish your coffee and let’s walk.”

I emptied the cup, slid a bill under it, and followed the stranger out of the cafe. “Forgive us for taking as long as we’ve taken before reaching out, Rasim’s story, was, a bit hard to believe. There are many in our organization who think you’re a spy who is trying to infiltrate our ranks.”

“Of course, I fully understand.”

“This is why I’m not going to give you my name, and I will find you when we need you.”

“You could just as easily be intelligence trying to trap me and arrest me. I think we both have reasons to be suspicious, and hopeful.”

“Yes, it is good that you understand the situation.”

“What you need to understand is that if you don’t act soon, Mahmut will. He’s got all his ducks lined up for a coup.”

“What is your suggestion?”

“I feed your organization the information on the troops loyal to Mahmut, and their positions, as well as the locations of those loyal to the sultan. When Mahmut strikes, your organization strikes at both.”

“That will simply unite them against a common enemy, us. Do you have sufficient access to their systems to alter their records?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“We’d rather you work to alter coordinates so that when they think they’re striking us, they’re striking their own troops.”

“Yes, I should be able to do that with Mahmut’s access.”

“If you can, then a week before we attack, we’ll get you out of country so that you’re safe even if we lose.”

“And if you win?”

“Are you looking for some sort of reward?”

“Are you offering one?”

“Ah, we remain mutually suspicious. This is good. I will look for you in that cafe in a month’s time. You will have some sort of proof that you can alter their targeting software. I will have a passport, tickets, and exit visa for a vacation for you and any you wish to take with you. Is there anyone?”

“Lalehan, a woman who was given to me by Mahmut. I’d like to free her. I’d be expected to take her out of country in any event.”

“Yes, it will be done.”

Sihirbaz had never been summoned to Mahmut at this hour of the night, and had never been kept waiting. Both were probably meant to teach him a lesson about who was the boss and remind him of his place, but there was nothing Mahmut could do to Sihirbaz that frightened him. He’d rather deliberately left his lens behind, pretending to have hurried, but he didn’t rush, and let his mind wander while he waited like he used to when his imagination was all he had while still a prisoner.

“Kharzai!” bellowed Mahmut, “come here.”

Sihirbaz stood his ground. That was no longer his name, and he would not answer to it.

“Do I have to call the guards and have you dragged here?”

As he walked to Mahmut, Sihirbaz said, “I’m sorry, most gracious one, were you talking to me? I trust that your most illustrious self would remember that I no longer answer to that hateful name, and so I presumed that there must be someone else you were addressing.”

“My secret police inform me that you met with Pompiliu yesterday afternoon. Why are you meeting with known members of an Italian crime syndicate?”

Either he doesn’t know what we discussed, or he’s looking to trap me in a lie. Time for a half truth. If this didn’t work, I was dead or worse. “I was asking him what kind of reward would be offered by his organization should he be freed.”

“Before I have you flayed, why would you presume to offer his release?”

“You need financial backing for the coup you are planning next month. I thought this might be a good way to secure untraceable funding.”

“How did you learn about this?”

“Let’s just say that I found the flaw in the len’s security.” Or your organization’s implementation of it. He’d know the truth of that flaw once he was away from the Sultanate. With any luck, all the security databases stored their DNA with no encryption. Idiots.

“And you think we’re under funded? There are things yet hidden from you my friend.”

No, jackass, I found your hidden accounts too. “Not if you succeed, no you are very well funded for success. The Pompiliu discussion was to setup a fund off shore for you in case the coup fails and you have to get out of the country, fast.”

“I just spent the past two hours being grilled by the secret police about your little rendezvous. What story should I spin to keep you out of their torture chamber?”

“Simple. I promised release in exchange for information that would allow us to eradicate more of the crime syndicate from the glorious Sultanate.”

“Sihirbaz, I am sorry I mistrusted you. But the evidence suggested your guilt.”

“I am used to evidence suggesting the wrong things about me.” And all examination of evidence is biased. When you look at me, you see what you expect to see, not who I am. What was that ancient hacker manifesto: my only crime is curiosity?

Lost in the code, I jumped when Lalehan tapped me on my shoulder. “Excuse me, Sihirbaz, there is an urgent message from Mahmut.” I smiled, expectantly. “I’ll talk to him, send it through my lens.”

The code wisped away to a corner of my lens. A Virtidoor opened and Mahmut strode in. Unlike everything else I had ever seen, Mahmut was a bit blurry – indicating there was a problem with the signal. “Sihirbaz, I’m glad you’re safe.”

Safe indeed, poolside at my villa hundreds of miles away in Romania where the local syndicate paid me well for services rendered. Using a lens allowed me to work anywhere. “What gives?”

“You were right, though I still can’t figure out how you knew. There are riots in the streets, and I’m not certain the government is going to survive.”

I tried not to smile. “Is what you wanted, no?”

“Not like this. I wanted a peaceful transition.”

Time to gloat a little. “Yes, to you as the new sultan. Do you really think I was going to permit that?”

Even with a blurry image, I could see the disbelief and betrayal on Mahmut’s face. He had believed me to be on his side. “You’re with the rebels?”

“Actually, they’re with me,” I lied.

“You betrayed us? Why? I got you out of prison; I gave you a job, bought you slaves, a house, your own system.”

Slaves, yes, women to do my wish when all I wanted was to rake their flesh in pain, break them so they begged, like I begged when the women prison guards raped me. Somehow, my anger about those rapes had stuck with me more than all the times I’d been raped by men. I knew I was sick with anger, with pain, and hoped I could find health in revenge. I would not own slaves. No, I’d never willingly work for a man who made people into things. Not after having been a thing for 20 years.

“In the ten years I worked for you, you kept promising that the work I was doing would result in a removal of the Neoottomans and replace it with a government built on rational principles. Yet every time you praised my reports of the work I’d done in the underground, the repression and Islamization got worse. It became obvious to me that you were using me to provide the government with the required enemy to shore up their tyranny.”

“You’re too smart for your own good, Burhanuddin. The Neoottomans will prevail and then we’ll hunt you down like the dog you are.”

“All your systems belong to me, your networks, your clouds. You’ll find that your grand army is being provided with the wrong instructions, the wrong targets, and is fighting itself. Your fucking empire will not last the week.” I took a long sip from the iced tea that Lalehan had put next to me.

“Fuck you, Burhanuddin!”

I laughed so hard I choked on my tea. “I told you ten years ago that that name was dead. I’m Sihirbaz. Oh, and by the way, when they do the research, they’ll find it was your account that made all the changes. Daemon, activate the infocoup.” It was a pleasure to see the shock on Mahmut’s face as the avatar became acquainted with the truth for the first time on his personal lens. I watched just long enough to be satisfied, and then gave the command to disconnect. Mahmut’s image disappeared. I got off my lounge chair and dove into the pool to cool my thoughts. After a brief swim, I toweled off, put on my lens and I went back to analyzing code.

I looked across the black sea from my bedroom in my villa. Turkey lay far on the horizon, the civil war almost over. Once the army had realized that all of its intelligence was compromised, and that it was bombarding and blasting its own defenses, the neojanisaries had surrendered. The infocoup had succeeded.

It was a good thing to help bring down an irrational tyranny. I now had something more important to do. I summoned Lalehan to my office and took off my lens. I wanted to see her face when I gave her the news.

She knocked before entering, as she always did, bowed her head and said, “Master called for me?” All this time and she still would not call me by name.

“Lalehan, the NeoOttoman Empire is no more. You are free.”

She started to cry and pleaded, “Please don’t dismiss me! I’ve been good and I have nothing of my own.”

Well, at least she didn’t call me master, but I expected joy not despair. “I know you’ve refused to take any money from me, so I’ve been depositing your wages into an account I setup in your name. You’re actually rather well off, with ten years wages in the bank.”

She took her hands from her face and stared me down. “I never took the money because I kept hoping you’d see it was you I wanted.”

“Before I came to Turkey, I was a prisoner, a suspected terrorist because I hacked the wrong computer while being a citizen of the wrong country. While in prison, I was beaten, tortured, and raped. Some of the guards who raped me were women. It’s not that I don’t want you; I don’t want anyone.”

“Don’t you think I don’t know this? I’ve sat by your bed for ten years listening to you in your dreams. Let me stay with you, take care of you. This way, perhaps, one day, when you’re ready, I’ll be there.”

How long was I going to be the cowering fuck toy of those guards? I rose and walked to her, offered her my hands. She clasped them, sniffled and said, “Was that so hard?”

My own words were muddled in tears I had no wish to cry. I simply couldn’t stop myself. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but yes, please, stay with me. Perhaps, now, we can both learn how to be free.”

______________

W. B. J. Williams is the author of The Garden at the Roof of the World ( Dragonwell Publishing), and Security for Service Oriented Architecture  (Auerbach). He holds an advanced degree in Anthropology and manages an Information Security program by day, so he has an intimate knowledge of hackers.

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