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Shocking Hacker Plot Risks Lives of Balkan Subversives

Column by Anders Hove

It's a rare event that I spend time on the MIT campus. But I had been told that my old friend Ratko was holed up in a safehouse of his own creation somewhere within the bowels of MIT and that I should be on the lookout in the event that he contacted me there. For this reason, each time I set foot in Cambridge my blood rose in anticipation of some brief and secretive encounter.

At the beginning of the term, however, my habits changed. Someone had placed the collected works of Milovan Djilas on reserve just when I was ready for the last volume. Thus I spent several evenings alone in the library, checking out and returning that one book until my MIT Card was scratched nearly beyond recognition.

One evening, returning to my carrol from the reserve desk, I detected a faint but familiar smell wafting through the aisles of books. The more I tried to ignore it, the more it began to resemble some gigantic Eastern European coal plant or the smoke of burning villages.

"What is that you're wearing - Mostar Noire?" I quipped to the hunched figure on the opposite side of the carrol.

"You wouldn't find it so funny if you lived in a ventilation shaft, Hove." The man lifted his head briefly over the top of the carrol, his uniquely furry eyebrows folding low over his darting eyes.

"Ratko," I said, looking around in embarrassment. "What are you doing here? Why don't you return home?"

"I would like nothing better," said Ratko, once again concealed behind his desk. "The company here is horrendous."

"The company?"

"Hackers. They found me on my second night in the shaft. At first they said they'd protect me. But later they returned, threatening to soak my worldly possessions with human sweat if I didn't meet their demands."

"What could hackers want from you, Ratko?" I asked.

"First they wanted me to use my connections to procure a complete set of Yugoslavian ŒMagic, the Gathering' cards. When I refused, they said they would put up with my presence only if I agreed to lead Œspelunking tours' through my shaft two nights a week."

"Doesn't sound too bad, if you were already living there," I said.

"You obviously don't know these people, Hove. They're animals. They sweat like beasts, and their speech is not like ours. They communicate in a feverish, high-pitch wail, and their language is packed with primitive code-words. And yet, in spite of its barbaric sound and content, the dialect's clipped cadence gives it a strangely authoritative quality.

"At first I only had to listen to them talk a couple evenings per week. But now the imagined sound of their voices fills my head when I sleep, and sometimes during the night I think I hear its ghastly echoes issuing from the pipes and shafts near my bed."

"That's absurd, Ratko," I said. "These are the symptoms of paranoia, not rational observations. But if your life is so hard, why not leave it?"

"I am being hunted," said Ratko, "and neither of us is safe. I believe the hunter is none other than that Sloan student who follows you around. Do you know him?"

I glanced nervously around the room, remembering my friendly meeting with Colonel Sebastian Moran, the Sloan student who had seemed so eager to learn all I knew about Ratko.

"But Moran wants to help you," I said, trying to overcome my own earlier suspicions. "Why do you have to be so difficult?"

"On the contrary," said a new, lower voice from Ratko's side of the carrol, "I don't think Ratko has been difficult at all. Mr. Hove, please be so good as to remain where you are."

Ratko's sullen head emerged from behind the carrol, followed by the elegant, bronzed features of Colonel Sebastian Moran. Moran's black overcoat was pressed awkwardly against the back of Ratko's wool sweater, their two figures turning in tandem and disappearing into an aisle. No sooner had they gone, however, than a sharp wooden thump sounded from the stacks of books.

"Ratko!" I shouted, rushing into the aisle. But it was a black overcoat that lay sprawled across the floor, not Ratko's bent body. A thick volume of The Brothers Karamazov was pressed firmly against Moran's head, inches from where Ratko stood over him, smirking.

"You'll identify Colonel Moran to the police," said Ratko. "He's a bounty hunter, hired by terrorists. He was thrown out of the British foreign ministry after they linked him to the assassinations of seven separate Serbian emigres. But before they could bring him in, he escaped here, where he set up shop as a Œconsultant' for some powerful Balkan interests. His capture will end my life as a hacker, at least in the near term."

"I don't understand," I said. "Who was the one with the book?"

From an adjacent aisle a second man emerged and stood beside Ratko. His shock of white hair nearly concealed two piercing blue eyes and a furrowed brow; his face was ashen and wrinkled like a withered oak, but he wore a meek smile as an answer to my gaping jaw and shocked stare. The last thing I heard as I fainted was the loud, high-pitched cackle of my old friend Radovan Icic.