13 Jun 65%
I looked around, squinting, trying to clear my vision. My ears were still ringing. But I was alive, and in one piece, and that counted for something. Alas, you could not say the same about my poor car, still coughing up smoke in the bushes behind me.
A GO bus was standing at the bus stop on my side of the intersection. Despite all the ruckus – the disciplined autonomous bus was diligently waiting for its scheduled departure time. It would probably leave soon as the road in front of it was clear. I didn’t have a plan yet, and hadn’t realized all of the consequences of what was happening to me, but my legs started walking seemingly of their own volition, and I climbed up the stairs into the bus. My phone beeped in my pocket, acknowledging a ticket purchase.
I went to the back of the bus and crumbled into an empty seat. It wasn’t as comfortable as my car’s, and the vague smell of plastic and disinfectant was barely masking a tinge of stale body odor, if not something even less pleasant. But the lack of an acrid poisonous smoke of burning car was a definite improvement, and so was not sitting on a baking battery pack, ready to explode at any moment.
I was desperately trying to come to terms with the new reality. Just minutes ago I was in control, chasing the black truck (now hopelessly gone), feeling excited. Now the roles had reversed: I was the one being chased, running for my life. In a matter of minutes my whole world had collapsed and instead of well-mapped and routinely predictable order had revealed its chaotic underbelly. I could not predict what happens a moment from now. Well, maybe that was not entirely true – I could still predict that the bus would leave in a few seconds.
Seconds passed. The bus was not moving. I felt the tension inside ratcheting up a couple of notches. I felt trapped. They were coming to get me. That thought reminded me of something… If only I could remember… It took me about half a minute to realize what it was.
I fished my phone out of the jeans pocket, opened a window and threw it out. It flew tumbling in the air and catching the summer sun’s glare. Shit, I liked my phone. But It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, because that is how they must have been tracking me. It could have just been my car, but I could not rely on that. As soon as I arrived at the farm, if my adversaries were waiting for me, they would spot my car immediately. They could get my phone number in seconds, via car registration lookup (same as I wanted to do with the black truck driver’s license plate), or via my car’s network. If they had the same level of access to cellular networks – they could easily triangulate my location via my phone’s connection to the towers. I could have just turned it off, but of course the battery was not removable and I knew that government agencies were using a special tracking trojan for ages that would simulate the appearance of your phone being turned off as it should, while it would remain on and actively broadcasting your location, and everything its microphone and camera would pick up. If it was a government agency that is trying to take me out – ours or from south of the border, I had to assume they had got to my phone within minutes of figuring out who I am.
Come to think of my car – if they hacked the autopilot’s network, how come they didn’t just take over my autopilot, slammed the accelerator and smashed me against the nearest tree? Hmm… Possibly because I had an older model with a limited autopilot, and its computer was too dumb to be completely taken over? So they could not engage it remotely, while I was driving in manual mode? Who knows. Doesn’t matter now anyway…
The doors closed with a whoosh, electric motors whined pathetically (the way all electric motors do, as if expressing an existential tragedy of converting electrical energy into mechanical one), and the bus rolled off the stop. So. Let’s evaluate my situation. Swept by the GO bus, direction unknown. No money (which I just threw out the window – and who carries cash anymore?). No plan of action. Nice little paranoia flourishing in my head, so at least I’ve got that going for me. Then again, as they say, it isn’t paranoia when they really are out to get you. The fact that I had no idea who “they” were and why exactly they were out to “get me” and how they were able to, didn’t help.
I glanced at the only nearby passenger, who turned out to be a rather nice looking girl. Late twenties, neo-emo makeup, shape-shifting earrings and matching black top and pants with black-on-black swirly patterns. Designed to be depressing, but not without a certain flair. “Err… Could you tell me where this bus is going?” I said, fully realizing how massively stupid I must have sounded. Judging by her eyes that had slightly widened in a surprised expression, followed by a suspicious stare, she must have concluded that it was the best pick-up line I managed to think of, which probably said a lot about me. Still, she answered: “Square One hub. Were you expecting somewhere else? It says so right there…” – She pointed to the personal display at the headrest right in front of me, stating the same thing. “Right… Thanks.” I said, and withdrew to my seat, feeling as stupid as I must have seemed to her. Or more.
“Smooth talking, Art!” I thought. Why do I manage to make a fool out of myself every time I talk to a girl? I’m not a teenager anymore, but as I grew older I started to suspect that we are all the same scared and clueless kids inside, all our lives – we just manage not to show it to others, more or less efficiently. I was definitely not good at that. I guess that’s why I wasn’t lucky in love. My insecurity made me seem dumber than I was because of the inability to speak in a clear, confident and relaxed manner. And on top of that I always had very high standards regarding girls I wanted to date. Looks, smarts, personality – well, let’s just say that a girl that I would deem suitable wouldn’t usually want to go out with me. I was merely “smart” and “interesting” at best, but realistically speaking not scoring much in the “cute” and “handsome” categories. Just a guy. I always dreamt that one day some girl would stick with me long enough to know me better and appreciate my great and profound personality but so far that didn’t happen. And I started to doubt lately that it ever will. Perhaps my amazing personality is not as great and profound as I imagined it to be.
It has been a while since I took a bus, so I studied the personal display in front of me, trying to figure out what I can do with it, considering that I now didn’t have a phone. I could access a moving map with search, refer to connecting bus, train and subway schedules, set it to wake me up when the bus approaches my stop. It also had an ad-infested news and entertainment section. As if people didn’t carry their phones for that. Unfortunately I could not see any communications accessible from there, except for an emergency stop and a 911 call. I thought about calling the Police, but although all my (fortunately very rare) encounters with local law enforcement were overall positive, I sincerely doubted their ability to protect me from something like that. Frustrated, I leaned back and closed my eyes in despair.
So, again: no plan, no money, nowhere to go… That’s not good. “Calm down and think!” – I silently screamed to myself, trying to overpower the wave of panic rising in my head. That didn’t help much. Then out of nowhere an image of a white fluffy towel appeared in my head, with “Don’t panic!” lovingly embroidered in a shiny golden thread. Strangely, a classically absurd sci-fi reference helped much better than cold reason. I could think again. Not very efficiently, but still the panicked shreds of thoughts in my head finally started forming somewhat coherent patterns, instead of running in circles like headless chickens. I have always tried to address the problems in my life logically. First, define the problem, then divide it into manageable chunks, prioritize them, and concentrate on finding the optimal solution for the first sub-problem.
Well, looks like I just bought myself a bit of a reprieve from running for my life, so I could finally try to think now – instead of just reacting to inanimate objects trying to kill me. Leaving the huge clustershmuck aside, the first sub-problem is where do I go, and how do I get there with no money and no phone, without exposing myself to whatever tracking techniques my mysterious enemies so clearly had access to. I needed cash, food and shelter. And more time to figure it all out.
I had to assume that my phone and car were both compromised. And considering the fact that my life was on the line, I couldn’t risk going to any of my close friends, because their names and addresses were in my phone, and in my car too. If I were looking for me, that’s where I would check first – with the people I talk to most often. Going to the homeless shelter didn’t appeal much to me, and seemed like a dead end: I may escape detection, but won’t gain any means to figure out what was happening. The only other thing I could think of is crashing at Marc’s place in Toronto, and think about what to do next. He was a real old-school hacker and loved cheap theatrics. He made a point of being fashionably disconnected from all social media, and insisted on everyone contacting him via secure messaging app only. The app encrypted everything three times over, didn’t keep logs, and erased all traces of chats and calls right after they ended. I always made fun of his “big brother is watching” paranoia. Now it suddenly didn’t seem so funny anymore. But because of that he is not in my call log. So whoever was forensically dissecting my phone and analyzing call records would not know that he is a close friend. He was just one of many hundreds of contacts in my address book – friends, clients, random people that I have no idea who they are or how they even got there, drug dealers (just kidding)… They could not possibly check everyone, or could they? In any case, Marc was definitely my best bet.
OK, that was not exactly a plan, but it was better than nothing. He could loan me some dough to buy a new phone anonymously, set up a VPN, and help gain access to my money and accounts again, hopefully without giving away my location. Being a web designer I’m not much of a security expert outside of website building. But Marc is a hacker, or at least he likes to call himself that. I bet he knows enough to help me set everything up, while avoiding stupid rookie mistakes.
Now, that was a goal within my reach. I had only one issue: transferring from the bus to the subway line without any means to pay. It was a problem, but compared to the wild SkyNet inspired hunt for my humble self, this problem seemed trivial.