Chapter 2 — PCI Bus
Elira briskly closed the 600 meters to the S-Bahn station in her Hamburg neighborhood of Harburg, a blue collar district of Germany’s second largest city. She found her way there some fifteen years prior in search of cheap rent. She spent her days working as a tattoo artist and filled the gaps in her bookings by running card skimmers around the Binnenalster. After settling down she twice tried opening tattoo studios. Her first attempt she flew solo, failing when German bureaucracy became too overwhelming for her to manage alone. She opened her second studio with a business partner who was also a romantic partner. When the romance failed, so did the studio. She realized her mistake in hindsight, but she was young and young people learn by failing.
Elira’s extracurriculars gave her a more stable, if not riskier, source of income. She moved on from just running card skimmers to building her own. This became a gateway into the local hardware hacker scene after a few years, and eventually she realized that while computer people didn’t hit on her any less than her tattoo clients, at least she didn’t have to touch the digital creeps. Through the hacker community, Elira stumbled her way into security freelancing, and before long this proved to be more lucrative and less time consuming than tattooing. The freelance lifestyle suited her well: she worked only as many hours as she needed to pay her bills and she didn’t have any bosses telling her what she could and could not do with her time.
Sitting on the train into the city center, she opened her PGP app and typed out a message to Martin, a fellow hacker and freelancer. He was sometimes more of a colleague than a friend, but they’d known each other for a decade and she knew he’d have her back. Some of their work together had been above board, some not; Martin had made some strange friends and enemies over the years. About 18 months ago, the two of them decided to put some resources together to set up a safehouse. They secured a flat in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district, and had spent the last year working hard to ensure it had state of the art security while still looking incredibly shitty to the passing eye.
martin, i might need you to get jax and bring her to the safehouse. im heading to tirana. something weird. my sister messaged me, sounded worried. i need to see whats up. check back in 48
The app quickly encrypted the message into an indecipherable random jumble of characters. She copied this and pasted it into her email client, addressing it to Martin’s secure Protonmail address. Fifteen minutes later her phone vibrated with a Signal notification.
what the fuck pgp
what year is this fucking 1998
it took me ten fucking minutes just to remember how to use this shit
The messages from Martin appeared in plain text. The app encrypted them end-to-end, but Elira was feeling especially paranoid. She slinked lower into her seat. Her phone vibrated again.
i’ll be there, you know that. just lmk wtf is going on. breaking glass in 49
She did the math in her head. By land, Tiranë was about 24 hours away. With delays, mandatory rest breaks, and transfers, closer to 30. Not much error budget, she thought. She’d have around half a day to figure out what was up with her sister. Maybe less. She tapped at her phone and looked for the best route to Albania. After fiddling with a few filters, she found a reasonable route through Kosovo via Berlin with Pristina Coaches International. She declined to buy a ticket online, figuring that there was little chance that a bus to Kosovo would be sold out.
Elira and her sister had grown apart in recent years. Like Elira, Sihana worked in technology, but unlike Elira, she had a “proper” job. She worked as a graphic designer and later a project manager, eventually making her way into the NGO space. Sihana’s work brought her into contact with activist groups and charities and she was passionate about Albania’s economic modernization and eventual EU ascension. Elira, by contrast, didn’t take a stand. Sihana couldn’t understand that. It used to cause frequent arguments between them. It wasn’t that Elira didn’t care. It was more that she felt like Albania’s problems weren’t hers to solve. Sihana was fiery and political. Elira saw in her line of work that fiery and political people often become targets. More than once she told her sister to keep her head down. This only made Sihana more indignant.
“Just tell me if you get in any trouble,” Elira begged.
“I will, you know I will,” her sister told her.
Arguments gave way to silence, and silence gave way to bitterness. Over the last few years, the two sisters spoke infrequently. Check-ins on birthdays and holidays, the periodic text to inform about a breakup or a new job. In their middle age, each believed her sister was long past the point of listening.
Elira sighed and looked at the message again. It was now 10 hours old. What trouble did you get yourself into last night?
Elira disembarked from the S-Bahn onto a narrow, crowded platform at Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. She elbowed her way through the mass of people and grumbled her way up a broken escalator. Outside, she frowned when she saw that it had started raining. She covered the distance between the city’s outdated and overused train station to its surprisingly modern bus station in less than the five minutes it usually took.
Elira’s hunch about the bus ticket was correct. Flights in Europe had become frighteningly cheap: a one-way ticket from Hamburg to Tiranë only cost about twice what Elira would pay to travel by land. Elira had the money and needed the time, but she chose the bus for one simple reason: you could still buy a bus ticket with beautiful, untraceable cash. She walked past a new-ish, bright green Flixbus and then past a much older motorcoach with an A4 paper taped inside its windshield that read “PRISTINA ПРИШТИНА PRISHTINË'' in large block letters. Pristina Coaches International, I guess that’s my bus, she mused. Elira entered the station and walked to the ticket desk. She plopped a 50 euro note on the counter in exchange for a one-way ticket to Pristina via Berlin and Budapest.
Boarding the bus she noticed the faint smell of cigarette smoke and beer. Smoking on buses had been banned in the European Union long ago, but the EU could hardly force the thirty-year-old upholstery to give up its legacy so easily. She tried for a window seat, found the cushion too springy and the footrest too broken, and skipped back a few rows to choose another. “Not like I’m hurting for choice,” she said aloud to the empty bus. She tucked her duffel bag in the overhead storage, slid her backpack under her seat, and put on a pair of noise-canceling, over-ear headphones.
The first leg to Berlin only took a couple of hours. Elira used the time to reclaim the sleep that the hammer drill had denied. She woke up as the bus was pulling into the bus station across the street from Berlin’s once-futuristic Internationales Congress Centrum, a building that bears more of a resemblance to a crashed spaceship than a convention center. Elira’s stomach growled. Fuck, I need to eat.
A thirty minute layover in the itinerary gave her the good news. The bad news was that the only available food was a cheap döner and pizzeria and a kiosk. She bought a halloumi dürüm, some snacks and a couple liters of water. Eating healthy today I guess. She headed back to the bus, thought better of it, and turned back and bought a trashy German-language romance novel from the kiosk’s sparse book selection.
Back on the bus, Elira settled in for the long journey. She pulled out her laptop and configured her mobile hotspot. Once connected to her VPN, she opened up her web browser and searched in both English and Albanian for any news or events that might give her a clue about why her sister would leave a cryptic, late-night message. Finding nothing, she opened her IRC client and logged into the server for Proiectul, an international hacker collective she worked with periodically. Maybe there’s something not public yet, she considered.
--> empty_radix has joined #chatter
<empty_radix> noise check
<heavy_water_buffalo> no pleasantries today then
<heavy_water_buffalo> you can fuck right off then this isn’t twitter
<empty_radix> on the move, sorry since when are we being all formal with each other
<@can0li> no dick behavior buf
<heavy_water_buffalo> just messin with you
<heavy_water_buffalo> mostly quiet. mysphere has a product launch next week. vr shit.
ethics report on tigray genocide due from ngospace next month. hiring and firing normal.
btc down then up again this week. only anomaly is rainforest bought a security firm
<empty_radix> dont they do that like all the time
<heavy_water_buffalo> no like dudes with guns security
<heavy_water_buffalo> hard to say if its weird
<heavy_water_buffalo> motherfuckers bought my fucking doctor last month
<empty_radix> i might need a hand this week can i call one in
<@can0li> tight this week, megadox dropping on pv
<empty_radix> . . . penis vagina?
<heavy_water_buffalo> patriot's vanguard
<empty_radix> have fun with that
<@can0li> we’ll see what we can do from here, you good?
<empty_radix> not sure, let you know
<-- empty_radix has left #chatter
Frustrated, she shoved her laptop into her seat pocket and unwrapped the dürüm. She ate half of the halloumi wrap, the salty cheese squeaking with every bite, and set the other half aside for later. Watching the German countryside roll by, she started workshopping her plan in her mind. Sihana wouldn’t have sent that message for nothing, she thought. She wouldn’t have mentioned that place if whatever she was into wasn’t serious. Where would Sihana have been? What was she doing? Who do I still know in Tiranë? Where am I going to sleep? For every question she had, she made a mental note of the top 5 things she would need to do to answer it, and then she replayed these lists over again in her mind. The introspection conspired with the dull scenery to lull her to sleep. She leaned her head against the headrest and dozed off.
A few hours later Elira jerked awake. Out of instinct more than fear, she bolted upright and looked to her side. A young German man had come aboard in Dresden, settled in across the aisle from Elira, and was now talking to her.
“Dein Laptop,” he said.
“Huh?” asked Elira, pulling off her headphones.
“Your laptop,” he said, now in English.
“What about it?”
“i9. SSD. 64 gigabytes of ram, or is it 32?”
“Sorry, I was asking what you do,” he said. “Your laptop is really nice.”
“Thanks, I guess.” Jesus is this guy flirting with me over my laptop? Elira looked him over. He was 24, 25 at most. A scraggly blonde goatee did a poor job of covering what remained of the teenage acne that took up residence on his chin. He wore a branded hoodie for some tech company she’d never heard of. She decided he was more of a nerd than a threat. “Um, infosec. I work in infosec.”
“Ah, the people who slow us down.”
“Only if you’re doing it wrong,” Elira retorted.
“Touché. Here, try this.” Her seatmate held out a pair of VR goggles.
“No thanks. I’d rather not.”
“You’ll like it.”
“No, I’m good. I don’t really fuck with all that. You know, Mysphere and shit.” Elira’s disdain for the mega social network was evident from her tone. She had managed to resist creating an account for herself for years, but was dismayed when she found out a few years ago that the company had a profile on her anyways, probably from friends who had given the company access to their contacts. She was pretty sure that was against the law, and she was also pretty sure that the law had no power to stop Mysphere from acting like this.
“Ah, no. This is not the Opticus. This is different. I made this myself. Humor me. We have another 6 hours before we get to Budapest. My name is Matthias.”
“Fine.” She relented and took the headset but carefully declined to reciprocate in the name exchange. The headset was heavy. “Budapest?”
“The Metaverse Festival and Congress! Don’t you know it?”
“No, I don’t… I don’t really follow that,” Elira said, distracted. Why the fuck wasn’t that in the noise check, or… was it? Elira second-guessed herself. She filed this away in the back of her mind.
“You should! There are a thousand booths! All the big players are there, startups, too. That’s why I’m—”
Elira interrupted him. “So you have a startup?”
“I figured you’d be flying first class,” she joked, immediately regretting becoming too overly familiar with someone she’d met two minutes ago.
“No stress. We’re on the same bus.” For different reasons, she didn’t mention.
“Let me explain,” her seatmate said. He altered his intonation noticeably, it became a little more polished but at the same time more forced. “FOR users who want a more realistic virtual reality experience, our headset, the SpectraLens is—”
Elira laughed. “Jesus christ, are you giving me an elevator pitch right now?”
Matthias deflated. “Sorry, I want to practice.”
Elira started to feel a little bad for him. “Ok, go ahead. But how about you just tell me what it is. No pitch. Talk to me like a normal person.”
“So, we trained a neural network for object detection. Everyone does that. What we did was figure out how to encode that into an FPGA. It’s faster and uses less power. That means we can create more realistic scenery. The way it works is—”
“I know what an FPGA is. Infosec, remember? Why would I want to wear a headset just to see the real world?” Elira interjected.
He ignored this second interruption, speaking excitedly. “The FPGA is like programmable hardware. You can make a chip that does anything. That means it’s faster than if software was running your algorithms. Everyone else has to do all their computing on the CPU. But we can have custom chips do that faster and cheaper, and that means we free up the CPU for processing other information. We can do five times the processing for the same energy cost. Try it on. I’ll show you what I mean.”
Elira put on the headset. Ok, I’m kind of impressed, she admitted to herself. She looked around the bus. The interior of the bus was rendered in computer imagery, but not as an exact copy of itself. Rather, she could see the edges of the seats and the windows highlighted by a soft pale-yellow outline. There was no visible lag as she moved her head. Matthias tapped a couple keystrokes into his computer. A sleek UI appeared in the periphery of the display.
“Look out the window,” Matthias said. Elira turned to her side, looking out where the window would be. Suddenly, an array of information appeared on her display. She could see the outside temperature, the speed the bus was traveling. “The UI works with your eyes, just look at one of the labels,” Matthias said. Elira made a couple of glances at the interface with her eyes and she was able to open a map with information about where she was. She could pull up the Wikipedia pages of the nearest cities, compute the distance to the next stop, and view traffic forecasts. She was genuinely impressed by the technology, but she didn’t find it overwhelmingly revolutionary. She could do all of this on her phone. She took off the headset.
Matthias seemingly read her mind. “You can do all of this on your Handy, of course, but this is just the beginning. We are mapping everything about the world into digital space. Did you know that Berlin has numbered every tree in the city?” She did not know that. “Before you’d have to log online and search for the tree. Now you can just look at a tree through the headset and learn everything about it if you want!” Matthias’s voice pitched up. He was evidently very excited about this prospect.
Elira was nonplussed. “Or I could look at a tree and enjoy the tree.”
“True, but what if the tree was sick?”
“Sometimes trees get sick. That’s what life is. Things get sick and sometimes they die.”
“They don’t have to. They don’t in here,” he said, taking back his headset. “Nothing in here gets sick.”