1821 words, 14 minutes
Short story, initially written in 2019 for an anthology of writing by women in Crypto. Thanks to Leigh Cuen and some others for a first pass of editing.
I’m sitting in the Berlin airbnb alone listening to Fugazi. On the morning of the first eviction / They carried out the wishes of the landlord and his son / Furniture’s out on the sidewalk next to the family … My airbnb host is a techno dj who left me a satchel of rolling tobacco and a bag of weed and told me not to smoke them inside. I’m ignoring him.
My second phone is sitting on the table also ignored. At least, I’m trying to ignore it. My first phone is in a lost and found depot deep in the London Underground, along with all my 2fa keys, and the homeless objects of some other 8 million people.
Do you know what 2fa is? Most people pick weak and shitty passwords. 2fa, or two-factor authentication, adds another layer – a second factor. Something you know Something you have Something you are. Usually people use their phone numbers, which are also weak and shitty. I use an app. If I were more hardcore, I’d use a piece of custom hardware, maybe a yubikey.
I’m a cryptocurrency developer, and have been for years. I’m not rich but that’s relative. I know a lot of a lot of baristas and I know a lot of millionaires. I work at what is probably the biggest cryptocurrency company in the world. Some people call it the Google of crypto, but don’t let them hear you say that at work. It’s important to play underdog. Before this, I made minimum wage. Now? I write software and shadowalk between the worlds. This story might make you hate me, if it hasn’t already. Money is awkward, but stay with the discomfort. It’s the awkwardass engine of the world and the only way to throw sand into the gears is to get close to them.
So I’m in an airbnb listening to a song about gentrification and no the irony of this is not lost on me. Why am I ignoring my phone. U.S. Regulators Subpoena Crypto Exchange Bitfinex, Tether. My boyfriend just texted me the headlines from back home in Canada. Bitfinex is one of the biggest crypto exchanges in the world, and I have money in there. Stupid of me, I should know better. If the feds take the exchange down I lose it all. Now I’m sitting here in the airbnb smoking, it’s my own personal war room. Wtf am I going to do.
I lost the first phone a month ago in the underground, my first night in London. (Let’s not talk about why I have two phones). I was on my way to another airbnb. That time I was staying with an author of children’s books, talk about trying on identities. She was so normal she had a keurig. I made coffee with it. It was the first time I’d ever used one before. You might hate me for this story, but coffee pods are some real banality of evil shit.
I’m weighing the potentials, doing technical analysis. My life is a price chart. How bad is the crash going to be when this news hits the market? People have been posting fud about bitfinex for a long time, seems like it’s been getting worse every day. The price is dropping but it has to sometimes. Drops can be healthy. I can’t tell whether this is just another “correction” or the kinda news that black swan dives us back to double digits.
Here I am plotting the curve, peering into the bird entrails. What if it’s not just a price crash, and they straight up raid bitfinex. How much money do I have locked up? About 70K. In one of my past lives that was an inconceivable amount of money. How long have I been sitting here? If I’m gonna do something I have to do it soon.
I’ve been burned before, and it went down a lot like this. I used to trade on an exchange called Btc-e until the FBI seized its servers one day. Like most of you I found out when they posted the takedown notice on the domain name. The guy who ran the exchange had been linked to the mt gox theft. Maybe you don’t even know what mt gox is but these are our myths ok, we have origin stories. Magic the gathering online exchange may be an unlikely titan in the hacker pantheon, but the supposed criminals of btc-e gave some of my money back. The us government never did. Honour among thieves amirite.
You need to go get the phone. My boyfriend is texting me again. He’s right and my next 24 hours are coming into shape in front of me. I have to leave Berlin the day after tomorrow, I’m heading to my company all-hands retreat at a 5 star hotel in Portugal and yes, this complicates the story. We work remotely from all over the world, and we meet up once a year in person, which means I’ll be cooped up with all my 2fa and private keys in a remote beautiful location with a bunch of people who I don’t trust.
At least, in some ways, the safest place for that phone might be the London underground lost and found. We canceled our last company all hands because we were worried about getting raided by Mexican drug lords. No I’m not kidding. The whole staff was warned not to leak the location this time, but I know it’s already out. I start thinking about where I’ll hide the phone in the hotel room. Everyone knows those rfid keys aren’t safe.
There’s not a lot of time. I see a flight leaving the next day at 6:00 am heading into London city airport and one heading back to Berlin about 6 hours later. I buy them. The price is obscene but it’s a helluva lot less than 70K. Buy it and start packing. Do I sleep that night? No I do not.
I’m sitting on the plane the next morning - take a Xanax. Ah fuck it take two. The plane is taking off and I’m tired af and I cannot chill out because I’m wondering how I’m gonna explain to British customs why I’m heading to their country for exactly 6 hours. If they stop me not only will I miss the window to get the phone, they might ask me awkward questions .. like what I do for work, or how much money I’m transporting, or whether I have a prescription for that Xanax I just took.
I leave all my stuff except my backpack in a storage locker in the Berlin airport, which is to say if I don’t get back to Berlin soon I have even more problems.
Let me give you a tip: At customs, you have to picture the richest whitest woman you can in your mind and become her. Extrude her out through your pores, imagine you are literally sweating restylane as you approach the border guard. Don’t let them sense fear.
Yes, you have your husband’s credit card. Yes, you are ready to speak to the manager. No officer, you had no idea. You don’t have any ideas officer. You have never had unauthorized access to a server and you don’t even know what that means officer. No, you’ve never been broke officer. You’ve never stood on the side of the road asking people for money. Criptowhat?
The border guard looks my passport up and down, “How long are you planning to stay in the country?”
“A couple hours”
She looks up more sharply, “Can I see your return ticket?”
“Yeah” I pass it to her. “I’m just coming to get my phone”
“I was here a couple weeks ago and I lost my phone in the underground. I got an email that they found it and I thought I’d come pick it up”
“Can’t they just mail it to you?”
“Ya … you know, I just didn’t want to risk it getting lost in the mail” If the phone got lost in the mail the money might stay locked forever.
She’s laughing a little. She’s not suspicious, she thinks I’m an idiot. “Wow” laugh laugh “Must be a really expensive phone then”
Haha ha You have no idea
“Yeah, it’s important to me. All my photos and stuff ..” I laugh too sooo funny. I take my passport back and walk out of the room at the fastest slow speed I can.
I’m careful on the London subway, going to the underground lost and found depot. I don’t have time to take a wrong turn, if I fuck up I miss the chance, and everyone knows the London underground is a maze, infernal. My ears pop as I zoom around in the city’s digestive tract, hoping not to get eaten.
By the time I make it to the lost and found depot my body has been holding so much stress for so long that I’ve passed into a state of ecstasy. Transcendentally stressed out, where you feel at peace but on a cellular level you’re aging 10x with each passing second. Act normal in the line at the counter this is not the time to fuck up.
And there it is, there’s my phone. A shitty iphone 5 in a pink silicone bear case. I’m holding it and the battery’s dead. A small dead brick. Precious, a key, a portal, a talisman that lets you pass safely through your own locks. It looks so stupid. I look so normal, getting back into the subway and heading to the airport.
And underneath everything, the strangeness of it all. Zoning out on the plane back to Berlin imagining telling myself even two years ago that I would do this, that the leylines of my life would align such that this is actually the best possible path before me. That I would become accustomed to doing this demented security calculus while hopping around the world. I used to want to be the heroine in a cyberpunk larp and now I actually am and I don’t know how to go back. Most of my past selves would think I’m the bad guy now. Sometimes you play the larp sometimes the larp plays you.
What do you become when you stop being yourself. What stays constant underneath the skin. Does the shapeshifter ever start to forget their own form? How far can the skin stretch before it bounces back like an elastic. Or does it snap. When we crash how far down do we go. Do we go down like a price ticker? Did you see that sell wall. Down like a plane. That’s a buy signal. Down like a datacenter? The self is a shifting bit. Red green red green. The self is always both ahead and behind, somewhere in between the candlesticks.