Social Code, Chapter 2 — Provi

I spent weeks in cheap hotels, and twice, when I was low on cash, I slept in a maintenance area under a bridge. I had to assume the Addetti had seen me from the security camera at my friend’s building. It could have been fatal for me not to. I changed my appearance: I shaved my scrappy beard, cropped my hair, bought all new clothes and a new knapsack. I threw my cell phone in the East River. I pulled all the cash out of my bank accounts. I cut up my credit cards. I did my best not to freak out until I reached safety, whatever that meant for me now. And eventually, I accepted paranoia as a natural survival mechanism.

I read the news reports of my friend’s murder suicide and wasn’t surprised by how they made it sound both realistic and unsensational, or by how quickly the story disappeared. It was swept away in a single news cycle with other seemingly unrelated debris from that time.

I stayed in the city. I would work from the epicenter out. On what, I wasn’t sure, but something this big had to have many points of vulnerability. And my expertise is finding vulnerabilities.

I was legit before all this. I’m a computer security and cybersecurity “expert”. (“Expert” is not my term; I prefer “geek”.) Growing up, I was one of those kids who learned how to sneak into systems and poke around. And, of course, I got caught several times. My mom, may she rest in peace, had the good sense to encourage me on this path, and so I became white hat. I won contests in the classroom and at conferences, which led to contracts in the real world, and I built a decent name for myself. Most of my clients used me defensively for things like penetration testing or using digital forensics to track down criminals. Others used me for offensive activities. Those contracts were always sketchy, and they usually involved governments in some way. And they paid gobs of cash.

I never go anywhere without my knapsack, and I had with me the night I disappeared. It’s how I make a living, and it became how I stayed alive. I parsed it down to the essentials — minimum tech, maximum torque. Two laptops, portable power banks and hard drives, a modem, a 433mhz transmitter/receiver, several SD cards, memory card readers, adapters, a universal converter, ethernet and HDMI cables, charging cables, cleaning wipes, noise-cancelling headphones, earbuds, a fake passport, a multitool, and an extra pair of underwear.

In less than a month, I was off the grid. But I had to make money, and so I chose to operate like the Addetti does, living by my own rules based on information I have that others don’t. I became a black hat hacker — a petty thief, essentially, which I know would be problematic for Mom. But I haven’t spent one second feeling guilty about it. The only difference between me and the Addetti is they control the laws by which money can be taken from others.

The only person who could reach me was Provi. We’d never met, but I trusted him because we’d done a lot of work together. He lives in the city, too, and he keeps a low profile. Over the years, we had attacked several systems together — banks, government portals, utilities. Some for our clients, some for ourselves. But we never thieved together, we just looked around, played with data, learned things, and got out.

Cryptically, I told Provi of my new precarious situation, and cryptically, he asked what the hell happened. I had a hard time finding the right phrases to describe what was going on because, even though I always cloak my location, I was concerned about being pegged by whomever might be scanning the dark web looking for me. Eventually, Provi understood what I was trying to tell him.

“Got lots on that one,” he wrote back. “But not here.”

We decided to meet, which got me really excited because I was dying for someone to talk to about all this. I arranged a location by making him use encryption software, and of course he razzed me about my paranoia.

Provi got his start in the late 90s coding a website for a music-entertainment company located at 55 Broad Street, the heart of New York’s Silicon Alley. He’s a good hacker, probably as good as I am, though sometimes he’s lazy. He’ll use time-consuming brute force attacks to break into systems that are much easier to get into, and so I’ll show him up by quickly finding a back door. And every time I do this, he responds by taking over my screen with a huge cartoon of a veined erect penis.

We agreed to meet at Mayrose in the Flatiron District.

“I’ll be wearing a quilted orange flight jacket,” he told me. I couldn’t miss him.

When I got to Mayrose, the only orange flight jacket I saw was worn by a young woman who wouldn’t stop smiling at me.

Provi!

“You might not have taken me as seriously all this time,” she said, almost laughing.

I was speechless.

“I shortened it from Provixen,” she said of her screen name. “Too much flaming. And a lot of really classy offers for sex.”

She was barely five feet tall. She was compact, had dark hair in a short pixie cut, and round facial features that framed a perpetual smile. As we sat down on padded stools at the counter, I thought back to all the jobs we had done together, breaking into things, lighting shit on fire, teaming up and picking fights. We had gotten some good blows in together — and he was a girl.

“A woman,” she corrected me, kindly.

“A woman,” I said.

She wasted no time diving into my situation. “The truthers are like a bunch of caged crazies,” she said matter-of-factly. “They play into the official narrative exactly the way the Addetti wants them to. Truthers sound desperate. They’re like a bunch of starving animals who can’t find anything to sink their teeth into. And the Addetti love it because they know they’ll eventually tire out and lay down to die.”

“So you don’t buy it?”

“Buy what?”

“What the truthers are saying? You don’t believe it was a conspiracy?”

“I’m way past you, little buddy.” She took a sip of her latte, casting a glance at a waiter who had accidentally paused behind the counter. He moved on quickly, embarrassed by her attention. “First, any version of this is a conspiracy. The official version is an Arab conspiracy, the truthers’ is an Addetti conspiracy.”

“But what about my friend? Doesn’t that point to Addetti?”

“Okay, let’s talk about your friend,” she said. “I think you were trying to say his dad worked for the Addetti? When he was wiring the towers for the demolition. Who’s to say he wasn’t doing it for some other group?”

“Well of course ‘who’s to say.’ But you said you know a lot about this.”

She smiled at me and looked down at her coffee cup. Her eye lashes hovered over her cheeks.

“Okay,” she said, slowly looking back up at me and smiling. She shifted in her seat. “Get ready.”

I felt the click click click of a chain lifting a roller coaster.

“I’m going to give you two search terms that will change your life forever. And then I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to tell you exactly what your mind will go through as you fall hopelessly down this rabbit hole.”

I looked at her eagerly.

 

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