Alif the Unseen

By G. WILLOW WILSON  |  August 14, 2012

Back in his room, he examined himself in the mirror. Indian and Arab blood had merged pleasantly on his face, at least. His skin was an even bronze color. His eyes took after the Bedouin side of his family, his mouth the Dravidian; all in all he was at peace with his chin. Yes, pleasant enough, but he would never pass for a full-blooded Arab. Nothing less than full-blood, inherited from a millennium of sheikhs and emirs, was enough for Intisar.

"A real career," Alif said to his reflection, echoing his mother. In the mirror he saw his computer monitor flicker to life. He frowned, watching as a readout began to scroll up the screen, tracking the IP address and usage statistics of whoever was attempting to break through his encryption software. "Who's come poking around my house? Naughty naughty." He sat at his desk and studied the flat screen — almost new, flawless aside from a tiny crack he had repaired himself; bought for cheap from Abdullah at Radio Sheikh. The intruder's IP address came from a server in Winnipeg and this was his first attempt to break into Alif 's operating system. Curiosity, then. In all likelihood the prowler was a gray hat like himself. After testing Alif 's defenses for two minutes he gave up, but not before executing Pony Express, a trojan Alif had hidden in what looked like an encryption glitch. If he was half good, the intruder likely ran specialized anti-malware programs several times a day, but with any luck Alif would have a few hours to track his Internet browsing habits.

Alif turned on a small electric fan near his foot and aimed it at the computer tower. The CPU had been running hot; last week he'd come close to melting the motherboard. He could not afford to be lax. Even a day offline might endanger his more notorious clients. The Saudis had been after Jahil69 for years, furious that his amateur erotica site was impossible to block and had more daily visitors than any other Web service in the Kingdom. In Turkey, TrueMartyr and Umar_Online fomented Islamic revolution from a location the authorities in Ankara found difficult to pinpoint. Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it.

It was the censors who made him grind his teeth as he slept, the censors who smothered all enterprise, whether saintly or cynical. Half the world lived under their digital cloud of ones and zeroes, denied free access to the economy of information. Alif and his friends read the complaints of their coddled American and British counterparts — activists, all talk, irritated by some new piece of digital monitoring legislation or another — and laughed. Ignorant monoglots, Abdullah called them when he was in the mood to speak English. They had no idea what it was like to operate in the City, or any city that did not come prewrapped in sanitary postal codes and tidy laws. They had no idea what it was like to live in a place that boasted one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world, but no proper mail service. Emirates with princes in silver-plated cars and districts with no running water. An Internet where every blog, every chat room, every forum is monitored for illegal expressions of distress and discontent.

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