On the Internet, no one knows you are dead
Set in an eerily probable 2016, Anil Goel's Exit Point shows us the dark, mysterious side of the online world... where everything is possible.
We bring you an exclusive extract!
The first time, author Anil Goel saw a computer, it was at a supermarket in South Mumbai.
It was the '80s and computers were a luxury.
Goel, however, was drawn in by the new technology and before long he graduated in computer engineering.
It would be another decade or so before Goel would write his first novel -- Release 2.0: The Bangalore Imperative -- that would be hailed as 'India's first IT thriller'.
Anil Goel is now out with his second book, Exit Point, in which seemingly unconnected incidents -- the death of a super-intelligent teenage girl, burn marks on sharks in Australia and a young reclusive tech genius' suicide pact -- are all connected.
We bring you an exclusive excerpt from the book with kind permission from the publisher, Frog Books.
She kicked off her shoes and casually hopped onto the sofa.
She had amazing legs and her short business skirt rode above her knees giving him a flattering view. He stared a second too long and she caught his look but she didn't change her posture. Alok looked down quickly to untie his shoes and became conscious that his face felt flushed.
"How much do you pay? Must be over a grand?" she asked. The London Eye looked like it was parked in his compound. South Bank was a beehive. Even a small flat would cost almost £1000 a month in rent.
"Nah, I bought it."
"Wow! Lucky you!"
He just smiled and walked to the bar. She joined him there.
"You were asking about Ishshah," Alok came back to the topic after they returned with their glasses of wine. "Yeah, she's not active on X-Net now. But she was active for a very long time after she died."
"Deleted," he said. "Her profile is deleted. In fact, so are all traces all over the internet. I went to forums where I know she had posted. Her posts are also gone -– purged."
"And that's why you have come here?" she asked. "you want us to look into X-Net and tell you how the profile was active. Maybe who was operating it? Things like that?"
He kept quiet. She took that to mean she was right. "That's not possible Alok."
"What's not possible? Tracking her? Finding her in your system?"
"Why? You can't possibly mean it's a technology issue, right? It's all your software, your data."
She didn't know a lot about the technology but she was not talking about a technology limitation. She shook her head, but she didn't answer for a minute. She was thinking. She was choosing her words.
"There are a lot of such profiles," she said at last. She was being very measured. She paused again. "We are under the scanner, Alok. Plus we are dealing with a lot of legal stuff."
It was not just the investigation. People were suing X-Net. Other parents like Mrs Vargas who had lost a loved one and then learned his or her profile was still active. People like that had taken X-Net to court. X-Net was facing a lot of lawsuits.
"Maybe..." Alok said thoughtfully. "Maybe that explains why he hired you, Lucy."
She didn't understand.
He didn't elaborate. He let her think about it.
"Bugger!" she exclaimed when it came together in her mind. "You think?"
He nodded, without even waiting for her to complete. He could tell from her eyes she understood exactly what he was getting at.
"Good Lord! You think he saw it coming? All this legal stuff? And that's why he hired me?"
"I understood why you took the job, Lucy," Alok said. "But I've been wondering why Mark would hire someone like you just to be his secretary. The question has been running in my mind over and over again ever since you told me about it."
Her surprise was already gone. It had been replaced with something else.
He thought he saw her eyes light up a bit.
She was almost smiling now.
In all the confusion, in the middle of the stress of talking about such a subject and fielding Alok's questions, amidst all of that, Lucy Reed had got something back after a long time.
Self esteem. Dignity.
The fact that she had been hired for her legal skills was something that made her feel much better about herself.
She was quite happy to believe in this theory.
"See? He smiled. "I know it's a strange way to find out. But it's good to know how valuable you are, no?"
She didn't agree or nod, but she was almost beaming.
"All the more reason, why I need to meet Mark," Alok said, driving home the opportunity he had right now to get her cooperation. "Only he can help, Lucy. I need his support."
'Even if I do talk to him, what do I tell him?" Lucy asked. 'What should I tell him is so special about you? Why am I asking him to do it for you? Why not for the other people?"
"Good question Lucy. Why are you doing this for me?"
Was he flirting? She ignored the thought, and his remark. "Even if I ask him, he's not going to agree Alok, He won't even reply." She stopped, thinking again.
"He is always in a hurry. Only comes on and off for very specific things. And he's gone in no time." It sounded like she was describing an online interaction. "And if I ask him something, or say something, that he is not interested in, he ignores it."
"And all this is... online you mean? You guys discuss all this on chat?" he asked.
"Yeah. On X-Net in fact," she replied.
"And you have no idea where he is at any time?"
She had no idea where in the world Mark was at any point of time. "I don't even know what he looks like, Alok," she reminded him.
"Would anyone else in the company know how to reach Mark?"
Her expression answered his question.
"No number? Nothing at all? Doesn't he email you?"
She could not understand why he was asking all this.
"You don't have any email from him?" Alok asked again. He saw the look of perplexity on her face. "Sorry. I should explain. X-Net, the software, will not reveal a user's IP address." He paused. "You know what an IP address is right?"
"Yeah I do."
He was just checking but he realised that most people nowadays would know what an IP address was because they invariably had to make a note of some settings -- DNS or proxy server, etc. -- and apply it every time there was a new security patch for a software, or they switched an internet provider at home.
"Cool. I can get a person's physical location from his IP address, Lucy." Alok explained. "But I can't get a user's IP address on X-NET. That's why I am asking about email. Emails have IP addresses."
Even as she nodded, digesting what he explained, he had a flash of insight. "Hey. Do you have a fixed time at which you meet him?"
"Mark? On X-Net?" she asked.
"Yes..." Alok said. He wanted to know if they had some schedule. At least he could see her chatting with Mark online. Get a glimpse of the man's thoughts in real time. If not the man.
"No, not really... he pings me when he needs something," Lucy said.
"Can I sit in with you when he's online next? Do you use a webcam?"
"You think he would USE ONE?" She shot back.
"Oh, of course not!" Alok realised how stupid his question must have sounded.
Mark was not going to suddenly appear on a webcam.
In fact, it was a good thing about there not being a webcam.
It meant he could safely sit with Lucy, if she allowed him, and Mark would not have any chance of guessing Lucy was not alone during a chat session. Mark would not be visible, but he would not be able to see Alok either.
"So... could I sit in?"
On the Internet, no one knows you are dead
St Paul's Cathedral, London
He pulled up his cycle near the gate and leaned against it with one hand. With the other he reached for his sipper.
It was warm... and dry. Very strange weather for London. Almost like Delhi. He gulped thirstily.
He wanted to check out the King's Wardrobe.
He was leaning against one of the most important Cathedrals in Christian history, the Lord Mayor's parade ended here with blessings for the city; all of Europe thronged to it at this time of the year, and he had not as much as bothered to look up to admire the magnificence looming over him.
He was more interested in the modest door opposite that he knew opened into a small compound with two storey buildings that used to actually house the royal garments.
His phone buzzed.
"WRU?" It was a text message from Lucy!
"St Paul's. Are you in office?" Alok typed back quickly. "On Sunday morning?"
"No, not yet. But I 'll be there soon."
"Is he on?"
"No. Not yet." Alok took a deep breath as he read the next line. "But he's going to be."
Mark was coming online!
"Call me when you reach..." she typed.
"I'll be there before u!" He typed back, his thumbs flying over the keypad.
"Okay... yeah... I'll call u..."
"Why X-Net by the Way?" Alok asked.
Alok was wondering if Mark had perhaps designed a secure channel within X-Net.
Some special utilities, which he could use without showing up on any public network. A private territory in the most public platform on the planet.
Alok had looked up Mark Eisenberg on X-Net.
He had found about fifteen profile pages. All fake.
They even had profile pictures. Sometimes it was a picture of Tom Cruise.
Someone else used a regular photograph.
There were two profile pages with just a devil's skull.
Most of the pages were public pages. Hardly updated.
Alok felt excited at the thought of seeing the real Mark.
Even if seeing him meant seeing text he typed.
"What profile name does he use?"
"None," she said simply. "We don't use the regular X-Net messenger."
"Oh!" Was he right about a private utility? "Then how..."
"We just use X-Net's message box. The inbox. We use an admin account."
"Ah... admin account?" this was intriguing. This kind of communication style was tradecraft for spies. Not for a Chief Executive chatting with his EA.
"Yeah, at first I didn't even realise it was him. I get a lot of admin trash so I never bothered to respond," she said. "Then one day, Alice comes over and she is bent... like mad..." Alice was a colleague.
She had come over to tell Lucy that Mark had been trying to reach her and she was not responding.
"And I'm like -- what the hell?" Lucy threw up her hands in exasperation. "Am I supposed to be looking at admin messages and know the big guy is pinging me?"
He smiled at how animated she was getting.
"That's when I first chatted with him. Chatted, more like email-chatted. Whatever."
"Hmmm..." It was definitely interesting. This style of communication using email type X-Net messages instead of a regular messenger. "And how do you know it's him and not a regular message?"
"No sexy codes or anything. I just know."
"It looks like a plain regular X-Net admin system email," she continued. "You can just tell. Now don't ask me how!"
"Ha!" he let out a laugh. He looked up at the grandfather clock above. It was almost noon now.
"How do you know when the next message comes in? Do you have to keep hitting 'Refresh'?"
"I get an admin alert."
"The spanner, you know?" she asked, somewhat cockily he thought. Was she teasing him? Enjoying talking about technology with a techie?
"What spanner?" He asked, genuinely unsure, and saw her smile spreading. He was probably right. She was getting an opportunity to show off and was loving it.
"The admin spanner? Next to your name?"
She saw his expression. He was smirking. She suddenly realised why. "You mean... that's not a feature of regular X-Net? You don't see it when you login to your X-Net account?"
He didn't want to burst her bubble. He wanted to let her continue telling him stuff he didn't know because it was making her feel good. But he couldn't help it. His smirk widened into a grin. "Big Brother wants you in his room, Lucy!"
"Huh? She followed his eyes. A small grey spanner symbol had appeared on the top of her page, next to her name. Mark was pinging her right now!
"It's just him and you Lucy. And maybe your charming workmates," Alok said, rolling his eyes.
This was not a feature that was publicly available on X-Net. Lucy was clearly using private features of X-Net.
"No one else in the world gets X-Net admin spanners."
She opened her inbox. It had only one message.
An admin message!
"No other messages?" Alok noticed her inbox was empty except for this one, new message.
"I don't know why it didn't occur to me this is not regular X-Net behaviour." She sounded embarrassed now.
"All our other inbox messages disappear when we chat with him. And then when he is done chatting, all the messages from this chat conversation disappear from our inbox and the old ones come back."
Mark had probably tweaked the X-Net messenger application to take over the inbox when he chatted with his employees.
'Was it peer-to-peer?' Alok wondered.
Messengers often used peer-to-peer technology where the two users did not have to go through a central server to exchange messages with each other. Their computers automatically routed data packets to each other.
Alok racked his brains.
No, he was sure -- the X-Net messenger was not peer-to-peer.
"May I see your laptop?" He reached forward.
"Hey, hold on!" She almost pushed him back.
"Sorry, sorry," Alok apologised for the intrusion. I...I just want to see what Mark is saying!"
Alok seemed childishly excited at seeing Mark -- at least on X-NET, though his messages.