*This is part 4 of a 5 part series.
I came back to my apartment with the same nervous feeling that had come over me when I’d arrived from Caroline’s earlier in the day. When I walked down the hallway to my door, I got the sudden impulse to not open it. I had to fight my own cowardly thoughts to bring myself to put the keys in and turn the knob. When I walked into my apartment I immediately noticed a letter that had been slipped underneath the crack in my door. For a moment my stomach sank, and I was convinced it would be another sign of my impending doom, but upon examining it I quickly saw the official seal of my building’s security unit. I ripped the envelope open and read the letter inside. It informed me that some workers had come to my door while I was out and wanted to schedule a meeting to follow up on my claims of being broken into.
I threw the letter away shortly after considering my options. Any digging from an outside party into matters concerning the virus ran too close of a risk of me being outed for my less than legal hobbies and passions. It wasn’t just the legal angle that motivated me either; I knew that I couldn’t take anyone’s help that I couldn’t trust. It wouldn’t be help, it would just make matters worse.
I found myself walking up the staircase of one of those restored pre-war apartments on the Upper West Side. It was the glittery marbled steps that signified the dying glory of the old place. The space wasn’t as refinished as most buildings of its quality, but it still held together a sort of stoic character that can’t be found in the spineless post-modern architecture of today’s interior spaces. The bold bronzes and deep greens contrasted the usual muted, unfamiliar tones of contemporary luxury apartments. The more I examined the surroundings, the more intimidated I became. I felt like this was the kind of place where people who actually did things lived.
Zizek had informed me that the darksurfer I was meeting was one of the most skilled security specialists he’d known. Since her price tag for consultations was so high, I decided that I’d see if she was actually worth the money. I wanted to know just how skilled she really was. After all, Zizek was good, he was certainly more well-read than me, but he hadn’t put the kind of time I’d put into the darknets. He hadn’t gone into the darkest, most isolated caverns of human interaction like I had. He didn’t revel in it.
When I arrived on her floor, the door was already open. Since she’d buzzed me in moments earlier, she must’ve waited for me to walk up.
I walked up to her and stuck out my hand. “Aquinas,” I said as we shook hands.
“Azar,” she replied. “Come,” she said and motioned for me to enter her apartment. Her accent was peculiar. It was some brand of middle eastern, I thought perhaps Arabic or Persian.
When I walked in I immediately noticed the temperature. The cool air was coming from external air conditioners that were set up on special anchors bolted to the ceiling. The furniture was the kind of immovable oak and cherry wood that you’d normally find at an antique show. The entirety of the space seemed too old for her. She was perhaps a bit older than me, somewhere around thirty, but the decorum looked like it was the home of an aging Hollywood heiress. The living room furniture was overly decadent and lined with sparkling fabric and baroque-style stitch patterning. The only thing that brought it out of the nineteenth century were the array of servers in a far off room at the end of the open living area. A long succession of extension cables and blue Ethernet wires ran from the living room to a server room in the back area. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of her.
“The consulting fee is five thousand dollars. That is for your specific case.” she said.
“Zizek mentioned that,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the server room in the back. “I want to know how you’ve diagnosed me so quickly. He told you about this over a messenger app, right? How could you know what the specifics are?”
“All he had to tell me was the name of the program.” She replied.
“Are you familiar with it?”
“I’ve done work on it before. I know it quite intimately.” She said. “So, cash or card?”
“What do you know about it?” I tried her.
“That question requires my consulting services,” she smiled. “Which means that an answer will be five thousand dollars.”
I began to understand. “Do you take American Express?”
She smiled and nodded. She used a special credit card swiper to charge me from her iPad. I felt my cell phone buzz in my jeans a few moments later, informing me of the purchase I’d just made.
“Would you like tea? Coffee maybe?” she asked.
“Ice water would be nice.”
“Of course,” she walked over to the kitchen, which was just as decadent and baroque as the rest of the apartment, and poured some water out of a purifier. The plastic water container was the only non-metal or wooden instrument I could see on the kitchen counter.
She walked over and handed me the crystalline glass of cold water. “Should I tell you about my credentials first? Before I give you answers?” she asked.
“Maybe we’ll start with the answers.” I replied, sipping the water.
We walked over and sat on the long couch that was the centerpiece of the furniture in her living space. “I spent some time in Shanghai, working for a security firm there,” she began as she took a cigarette from the carton that was on the coffee table in front of us, “that was the first time I’d seen the virus. It was much less effective back then, it didn’t progress as quickly and could be quarantined quite easily.” She lit the cigarette and put the carton down on the table.
“How long ago was that?”
“Maybe five years ago. I saw it once again in London, just before I came here, about eight months ago, and it wasn’t nearly as aggressive as what Zizek had described to me.”
“It’s gotten better in just eight months?”
“It seems that way,” she shrugged. “No one knows who is on the other end of this.”
“What do you think? If you had to guess?”
“There is a possibility that there is no one on the other end. A self-updating software is common coding in these days, and if someone wanted to make the perfect Trojan they would eventually need it to correct itself as security software progressed.” She spoke rather quickly, maintaining her accent, although I noticed certain words sounded more British-English than anything else. “There are plenty of Trojans that are perfectly capable of stealing your information without the extra collateral damage. What I do not understand is why would someone take the time to create something so dangerous?”
“Maybe it’s just to torture the infected.” I suggested.
She looked at me and smiled. “You spend a lot of time on the darknets, right? You are one of Zizek’s people, so I assume you’re also a darksurfer.”
I knew how to respond. “I do some surfing, but mostly for the markets.”
“I figured, that’s who I normally see anyways.” She picked up her iPad and quickly unlocked it. “You should be aware of the risk of addiction, you know. Not to the substances you buy, that’s obvious, but you know the darknets themselves have the capacity to get users hooked.”
“How do you mean?” I played dumb.
“A lot of people don’t realize what they’re capable of seeing or buying when they learn to navigate the darknets. It can be a source of overstimulation, if you can understand.” She warned.
“I think I know what you mean,” I pretended to have to ponder her words. What I was actually wondering, unbeknownst to her, was whether or not my act was convincing. It became important for me to pull off my charade of being the non-assuming darknet newbie. Even though I didn’t know her, I wanted her to believe she could understand me easily.
“You should be careful is all that I am saying.” She started typing something on her iPad. “So, I was told you want to get back on the surface web safely?”
“That’s understandable. I’m sure it’s been quiet stressful not even being able to check your email.” She smiled.
“Yes it’s been something of an adjustment.”
“I can get you back to the surface easily, I’ll give you a few procedures and troubleshooting tools. This iPad is yours once I’m done. It will have everything you need on it. Do you have Apple products?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“Good, then this should be fairly easy.”
She explained to me the more technical steps of the process and then instructed that I wait at least six hours before accessing any online accounts to insure that the virus wasn’t still latently active. When she’d assured me that her methods were flawless, she went to another room to give me a USB jump drive of some backup encryptions. When she came back, she asked if I’d had to deal with any breaches of security before.
“Never,” I replied. “I try to be as careful as possible.”
“I’m sure you thought you had to be, given your reasons for accessing the darknets.” she said as she sat back down next to me.
The display of the iPad sitting on the coffee table showed a security software maintenance dashboard. I noticed her internet connection was listed as “ultra fucking secure”.
“What program is that?” I asked.
“Mine,” she picked up the iPad in front of us, “I can send you an instillation key if you’d like.”
I nodded and then asked, “Where did you get your skills? Where you legit once?”
“Legit?” she scoffed. “I am legit. If you mean did I learn it conventionally or work for someone else, then no. I did get my masters in software engineering. But I learned what I know now from a very influential software developer in Taiwan.” she explained. I understood her need for vagueness. At the very least, I was a degenerate darksufer, so she had at least one reason to distrust me. I observed her as she put out her cigarette. She had the kind of smile that seemed unnatural to her normal disposition. She was pretty enough, and to my surprise, I could tell we had some things in common. The dark circles around her eyes indicated she was as sleep-deprived as I was. And small clues around her apartment hinted that she didn’t necessarily leave regularly.
One glaring indication of her agoraphobia was the stacks of empty shipping boxes near her door. I didn’t have the keenness to check the labels, but I could guess from the various sizes that they were boxes of everything from toilet paper to new LED screens. Her setup was another thing; it made me wonder if I had being living the darksurfer life erroneously. When I asked her about the servers and she simply took another cigarette without turning to me and said, “They’re for backup.”
I wanted more than just limited access on the surface web. Hiding behind proxies and special security software was never meant to restrict me. In fact, quite the opposite; I used it to extend my reach, not retract it. I felt as if solving the Baphomet crisis would force me to digress into a state too vulnerable for my ego to handle. I’d spent too much fucking time on the darknet for it be over without my control.
“What do you know about the virus specifically?” I asked.
“Specially, it is the end of your days as a darksurfer.” she replied, reading my mind.
“There’s really no way back?”
“It can’t be that dramatic.” I said. Her expression of plain cynicism didn’t change. “Can it?”
“I feel that you may have your priorities in the wrong order.” she said. “You should focus on figuring out what made you a target. It may help you be more secure in the future.”
Security in the future wasn’t as important to me as freedom in the present. Unfortunately, there was no way to explain this to her without revealing that I was a depraved darknet junkie, so I decided to go forward with her suggestion. I remembered that both Terrence and Zizek had alluded to the deliberate nature of my infection, and I decided to ask her if she could give me more information.
“The virus is not self aware or any of that nonsense that I’m sure you’ve heard,” she answered, “it’s a program, sophisticated, yes, but still only a software that has its boundaries. It can attempt to be passed on through spam and malware that can only infect users that frequent certain darkmarkets.”
“Which is why I can’t go back?”
“Risking another infection at this point would make all the security measures you’ve put in place pointless.” she said.
“Will I ever be able to go back?”
“That’s not really something I would count on in the foreseeable future.” she replied.
I had another question that I’d been putting off asking, “what do you know about the black hallway?” I said after a few moments of silence.
“I suppose you’ve seen the signoff poem. It’s just a myth, don’t worry about it.”
“Yes, but what’s the myth?”
“I’m not sure of the details, but I’ve read that the ‘black hallway’ refers to the place where the server that hosts the virus is kept. That’s really all I know about it.”
I had to pretend as though it didn’t matter to me, “I see.” I put my empty glass down. “Is this everything I need?”
“Yes, from here all you must do is run the program I’ve put on the jump drives and connect that Ipad to your wifi and run the anti-virus program. Wait twelve hours and then resume surface web use.” she said all this to me while typing something on her smartphone. She finally looked up and smiled, “Thank you for using my services. You should feel free to refer me to anyone having similar problems.”
“If I have any questions, or if something else happens, how can I reach you?”
“My emergency contact information is also on that iPad on the notes app.” She began to walk back into her living room as I made my way to her door. “If you can, make sure you lock the door .”
“Of course.” I noticed she had become transfixed on something on her smartphone. “Another client?” I asked.
She turned to me with a slight look of annoyance. “Yes, actually. Tuesday’s are quite busy for me.” She turned her attention back to her phone.
I thanked her again and quietly exited her building.
Adam Albaari is a writer, originally hailing from Columbia, Maryland. He attended Loyola University New Orleans, graduating with a BA in English with a Writing Concentration. He resides in the Uptown area and has spent over five years writing both journalism and serial fiction for local publications. Adam co-hosts NolaFilmCast with Mike Hogan, a weekly program featuring interviews and film-talk with natives working in New Orleans booming film industry. Be sure you read Part 1., Part 2 and Part 3 of the No Daylight series!