< SWITCH ME >

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Photo: Richard Browne (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It was 8 o’clock in the evening when they kicked the occupants of quadrant D318 out of their icy pods. It was cold outside, say – 41°C, but the supervisors did not seem to care. This great country was not short of key punchers, so if somebody dropped off that night a replacement would click into action so seamlessly that the incumbent’s body would still be visible under the ice. So, survival was up to the individual – the management would not be bothered with personal issues, such as declining vital functions or loss of life.

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Photo: Ryan A Neily (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

IvanD104 was not feeling very well that night. When he woke up he felt numbness in his lower limbs, which for the most part prevented him from walking. He thought he’d better make his way to the dispensary to report for sickness. The outcome of such a course of action, however, was not straightforward: the valenki they gave them were useless against the cold, but the cold kept systems fresh, so discussions about frostbite were often met with scorn. “You only need your fingers to punch the keys”, would be the most probable answer.

This brief episode of hesitation cost IvanD104 a very unpleasant unraveling in the next few hours - on rambling outside for his daily assignment he was declared three minutes late and sent to scrape IP addresses in Reconnaissance. As tedious as it was scanning was not completely irrelevant, but he risked being proclaimed a squealer. And squealers tended to have it hard in this establishment - their names might even end up on a list somewhere. Plus, any time spent outside the Core was time spent in extreme discomfort.

 

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Photo: Grant Hutchinson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The shebang

The Core was a huge underground hangar in Siberian territory that took some time to reach. It was the warm heart of the establishment, the only place in this frozen desert where a zeh  (from Zakliuchenii hakeri) could get respite from the elements. It was also where all phase 2 action was taking place. The whole place was bustling with energy, channelled in myriad operations per second - from planting malware and penetrating networks to fake news and anti-liberal propaganda. There was even a team responsible for transportation havoc and sorta hippie commune that would spread the “love” - by making the word appear on black screens across the globe. But of course the aces were in elections: that is what the Boss was mostly interested in.

The whole place was bustling with energy, channelled in myriad operations per second - from planting malware and penetrating networks to fake news and anti-liberal propaganda. There was even a team responsible for transportation havoc and sorta hippie commune that would spread the “love” - by making the word appear on black screens across the globe.

IvanD104 was relatively new to the establishment and needed to reach phase 2 if he was to stand any chance of survival. The path that all newcomers followed in this regard usually involved shadowing some of the seasoned zehs, snooping around for leftover cuspy bits. Among those was Igor B., a powerful wiz who cracked codes like nuts as if just by looking at the screen. Or Alyosha, a former hero of the perceptions revolution, decorated for his involvement in the 2016 netbot war that saw American cybersecurity reduced to rubbish.

Above all, however, was the squad leader, Teterin, an unkind man, whose sole function was to make sure numbers were bent incessantly by any means available. He would, nevertheless, go to some lengths to make sure the team had at least one good phishing attack per week. Some said Teterin even stashed away ransomware dough to give to charity.

 

Lunch and toil

It was well past lunch when IvanD104 was allowed to leave the muck room. As tradition had it food was not distributed that day – they would be thrown some stale chips and ice cream (mostly ice) once they hit the screens, but that would come at a time when they were in their phase and hence unable to chomp. Truth was hackers were not supposed to make it past the walls of the complex. That made many of them dream about the South in their spare time, about the lovely Irkutsk, where they were stationed before the project was moved to the North for unknown reasons. abilities.

That made many of them dream about the South in their spare time, about the lovely Irkutsk, where they were stationed before the project was moved to the North.. 

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Photo: Patrik Axelsson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

Eventually, IvanD104 and a couple of other zehs were transported to their daily workstations, where punching began instantly. First was a bank in Singapore, where they had to take down the wall brick by brick in order to gain control of a few sweet spots and make way for transactions by mules on the ground. The work was so exhausting, that some of the guys were completely fried. Then there were certain government screens in downtown Kiev that had to sing “Mama loves poor boy” in a meticulously synchronised choir. While others were given their daily five minutes of rest IvanD104 continued to generate zombie machines at the edge of his physical abilities.

 

An opportunity presents itself

Dawn was still a mirage when IvanD104 stumbled upon some strange operations at a server in Zurich, which hire boys were using to direct orders to a couple of infected machines in Europe, likely kept at bay for the upcoming German elections. However, something was off: the bug was too smooth, too refined to have been spawned by common diddlers, as were most externals. Something big was underway and IvanD104 pricked up his ears. He put two and two together and figured it was some of the in-house wiz kids. And nobody was more likely to be in it than Apolon, one of the few true malware professionals at the Core, who happened to have a good opinion of IvanD104.

One was unlikely to dig out a pot of gold in Siberia, not without going through a sinkhole first. But IvanD104 suspected he might have stumbled on an opportunity that could bring unexpected rewards. He entered com mode and found Apolon. “R u there?” did not yield any response, so he typed directly: “I can make it jump”. The silence was staggering, but eventually Apolon surfaced, denying any involvement. IvanD104, however, knew he was in and kept insisting: “I can make it disappear”.

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Photo: Brian Klug (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

“OK, you can name it”. “Name it?”. “Yes, name the little guy, christen it”. IvanD104 paused for a while, but not too much to risk losing the hot thread. Naming the prick was not much of a muchness but it cоuld bring on some Core time and munchies. “Well, my great grandfather was Nikolay, after the czar, so I would say Kolya”. “Kolya it is”.

This Tom-and-Jerry chase continued for well over an hour before Apolon finally budged. “OK, you can name it”. “Name it?”. “Yes, name the little guy, christen it”. IvanD104 paused for a while, but not too much to risk losing the hot thread. Naming the prick was not much of a muchness but it cоuld bring on some Core time and munchies. “Well, my great grandfather was Nikolay, after the czar, so I would say Kolya”. “Kolya it is”.

 

Rest. Kolya

IvanD104 was finally discharged of duty somewhere around 8am, just when the night was starting to get one notch brighter. He laid down in his frozen bed and massaged his numb limbs for a while, before taking his opiates. He had made it through another load of heavy screen time and he felt almost happy. He liked busting those accounts in Singapore. He liked the idea that somebody somewhere was brought down at least one bar down to his level. But that was not the main reason why he was mildly elated. One word was buzzing in his numb mind: Kolya. He did not have a child and never would, but he felt as if that was it. Go Kolya, enslave the week, make them learn their lesson.

Yes, it turned out a good night for IvanD104 after all. He had 86,319 such nights to go.

 

alex headshotABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Neofitov is Bulgarian and is currently stationed in Poland. He did Politics & Security at University College London and specialised at Charles University in Prague for a year.

He is a think-tank activist and a policy analyst with interests in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. A longtime fan of surrealist art, he tries hard to reveal the truly absurd aspects of everyday life in Europe.

Teaser photo: The Preiser Project (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

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