Flash Fiction - 5 Minutes
The wind had been whistling through the cracks in the ancient shutters and the grey, blustery clouds had gradually disappeared as day slowly evolved into night. Downstairs, a door had been creaking, unnoticed by Paul as he poured over the papers that were scattered on the desk in front of him. When eventually, a particularly loud gust of wind dragged his attention back to the here and now, he stretched, leaned back in his chair and made two observations. First of all he speculated whether the papers, the desk and the creaking shutters were of the same age and secondly, more importantly, did he want even more coffee or was it too early for a glass of wine.
The cottage through which the wind was whistling was made of stone and was at least three hundred years old. It was part of a hamlet of similar buildings located in deepest rural France and apart from the super fast broadband connection, little had changed since the place had been built. The nearest village of any size was several kilometers away if you chose to walk across the muddy fields but significantly further if you travelled by road. Not that we had an option and not that we had seen it. Groceries and other supplies were delivered once per week but we were not allowed to venture further afield than the gardens and orchards that surrounded the buildings.
A geolocation chip that had been embedded in my upper arm gave my position away 24/7 and it seems that the others had also agreed to be tagged in the same way. In effect we were prisoners, trapped by our own greed and stupidity. There were four of us, each with our own cottage and an extra building in which we met daily to discuss our work. I say work, but that was an incredibly loose description of what we actually did. Soon after we arrived here, I moved in with Paul and so my building had been freed up. They had agreed to install some rudimentary exercise equipment in there and so large chunks of our days were spent on the running machine or trying to cycle across an electronic visualization of the alps. I’m not sure about the others, but I certainly was fitter than I can ever remember.
Twelve months ago, I had been a hacker, probably one of the best in Europe. I was making a nice living from breaking into systems that were badly protected with the owners being too stupid or too lazy to install patches and updates. As we all know, this makes them vulnerable to people like me who can exploit those weaknesses and squeeze them a little. The trick was to only extract small amounts of money on a regular basis so that the owners, if they ever noticed, a rare occurrence in itself, assumed that it was a standing order for something that they had forgotten about. At worst, it was then cancelled but more usually allowed to continue. As I said, lazy or stupid.
But stupid is as stupid does and I became sloppy. That is maybe a little harsh for one little mistake that I made but the result was that I then became vulnerable myself, coerced into working for these people, stuck in this cyber village, surrounded by beautiful countryside but with the same freedom that a dog chained in a kennel might enjoy. The mistake that I had made had been that I had been caught. Not only that, I had left an electronic trail that had been too easy to follow and of course they did. The result was an offer - exposure to the electronic fraud squad and probably a five year prison sentence or to work for them for eighteen months and then be allowed to go my own way.
Of course there is no guarantee that they would let me go at the end of this but I fancied my chances this way rather than in some grotty prison cell, And so here I am, exploiting my skill set but not seeing the profit for my efforts. That, of course, went to them. I use the description ‘them’ because I have no idea who they are. I just became aware of the consequences of cause and effect. I have no idea of the back story of the others here but judging by what we do, I would guess that their story is similar to mine. Paul is really the only one that I talk to and even he drives me mad at times. I’m normally used to my own company but the benefits of cohabiting outweigh the disadvantages. Maybe I should have stayed in my own house and just come over here when the need arose but it’s a little late to change my mind now.
The other problem that we have is a bit of a difference of opinion. OK, a slight understatement - it's a massive difference. Paul is actually happy being here. He gets fed, an interesting job and he genuinely likes the countryside. You know, that place with flies and animals and mud. I, on the other hand, detest being told what to do and I really hate not being buried back in the city.
Don’t get me wrong. Paul is a super nice guy and is thoughtful and caring which is why I started spending my spare time around here. It was even my suggestion that I moved in permanently so, as it says in Hamlet, I was hoisted by my own petard. I guess that’s life though; you suffer the consequences of your own decisions.
Apart from the enforced incarceration away from the city, this could be pretty idyllic for most people with my skill set. As I said, exercise, entertainment and food and drink are on tap and I spend much of the day doing what I do best. Perhaps that needs a little more explanation. Back at the start of the twenty-first century, Formula 1 Grand Prix racing was a big thing. The problem though was that races were won time and time again by the same team; the one that had the best technology and the best driver. Eventually, this became tedious and the ‘sport’ lost its popularity. This coincided with a general move away from petrol engines towards electric cars as global warming began to bite. Eventually electric motors replaced petrol across the globe although there are still a few countries that have been slow to react and smog and fumes still pollute their skies.
The racing fraternity eventually made its comeback with the advent of e-racing which is a combination of track cars but controlled by drivers on a games console. It was much more egalitarian as anyone could take part initially starting their potential career with virtual cars before the better drivers moved up to controlling actual e-cars. It was also much more exciting because the best drivers are handicapped by means of an electronic damper system, remotely applied of course. The net result is a televised spectacle that has developed its own betting industry. Millions are won and lost on a single race,
And that’s where we come in.
The software that controls the e-cars and allows the remote drivers to operate them is held on large server banks. They are carefully policed to ensure fair play - as you can imagine, access through the firewalls would mean control of a race and megabucks in winnings. You might think that we had been coerced to hack these systems but believe it or not, we are the good guys. We are the ones that maintain the integrity of these systems - mostly. If that were all, it would have been easier just to employ us to sit and repel all the pirates that try to infiltrate the systems. I puzzled over that until after a few weeks, I was instructed to make a tiny tweak to the system. It was almost insignificant and not enough to predict the winner of that particular race but a placing in the first three would be guaranteed. Yes indeed, it was the owners of the racing group that were creaming off illegal winnings. Over a period of time, and by carefully selecting races at random, it would be undetectable but it would net them an awful lot of money.
I must admit that I have racked my brains to enable me to turn this situation to my advantage. The trouble is that every time I moved away from my designated tasks, someone, somewhere started to pick up on me. I backed out quickly enough to remain undetected - I had learned my lesson after being caught the first time - but the fact remained that I was stuck here. I eventually decided to do something about it by going old school. The geolocation chip was only just below the skin surface with the idea that it would eventually be ejected by the body in much the same way that a wood splinter would be pushed out. I was told that it had been calculated very carefully that this would happen when my so called time was up. I decided to speed up the process. I decided that if I gauged the bloody thing out myself, at the right moment, I could buy myself up to eight hours of free, undetected time.
I spent two days preparing the groundwork. I obviously had to get out of Paul’s bed and with the ongoing niggles between us, it wasn’t difficult to contrive a proper argument that culminated in me screaming that I was going to sleep on the sofa and didn’t want to see him until the morning. It was a slightly gory business using a kitchen knife to prod into my own shoulder but it didn’t take long to ease the device out. Leaving it in the kitchen bin should fool them into thinking that I was fast asleep and maybe a little extra time as they searched for it in the morning. With a plaster stemming the blood seepage from the cut I quietly opened the door and started to make my escape. My plan was simple. A few kilometers away in the distance I had noticed lights, presumably a local village. Once there, I would work out the next stage. At best, steal a vehicle to get away or at worst get someone to ring the police. Yes - I was getting that desperate.
My problem is that I am a city girl. In my natural environment, I can find my way around blindfolded. Here in the woods I was hopeless. It was dank, wet, slimy and buzzing with insects. However, I stumbled on loathing every second of it, swearing to myself that I would never leave the shelter of concrete ever again. I had been walking in what I thought was the general direction of what passed for civilization in that area for about an hour when it happened. A bloody drone buzzed into life and rose from the leaf mold into the air directly in front of me.
“You cannot escape now. You agreed to the conditions that were set and you must return.”
The voice was deeper and more resonant than I would have expected from such a small device. However, it was quick and as I tried to brush it aside, it simply darted away from my arm then repositioned itself in front of me. The same message was repeated several times but after a few minutes of this irritation, things became more serious.
“If you continue, the consequences will be more critical. You will not be allowed to escape.”
As it boomed the words at me, the thing dived at my face and if I hadn’t stepped back, the rotors would have clipped me hard. Again, I tried to step around it but again, it was my face that it aimed for. I’d had enough. The dead branch lying on the ground was just the right size. I pretended to stumble, waited until the device paused in its flight then grabbed the piece of wood and swung it hard. It was a fluke but I couldn’t have timed it better. The drone crumpled under my improvised bat and then smashed into a large tree for good measure.
It was now critical that I got away. I guessed that my mini insurrection wouldn’t go down well and I was afraid that they might even use me as an example to my coworkers. This is what happens if you try to escape. I redoubled my efforts and soon afterwards came across a muddy track. This led to a road - a real road - and taking a blind guess I turned right. I had hoped to hitch a ride with someone but it was quite bizarre - I didn’t see a single vehicle.
It was getting dark when I saw the lights ahead. It turned out to be a large village - certainly much larger than the cyber farm that I had just left. Civilization at last I was thinking as I strode down the Main Street. It even had street lights for god’s sake. I sat down on a bench that was sited in front of the old Gothic church and tried to figure out my next move. Trying to explain my plight to an old country dweller in a language that wasn’t my own didn’t really seem like an option. Perhaps I could ‘borrow’ a vehicle and get to a town that had a gendarmerie where I could explain what was happening. I might even be able to slip away before the cyber police got involved. I was certainly way out of my depth now and desperately needed help.
It was help that I got but not in the form that I expected. I had actually dozed off whilst sitting upright when I was woken by a voice that I recognized. We had never actually met face to face but @1ph@ and I had occasionally collaborated online when we needed a second identity for a scam. Not only had we never met but I had never actually seen his real face. It had always been voice only for security reasons but his voice was so distinctive that I instantly recognized him. It was weird because the deep rich voice that I knew had given me a picture that was in strict contrast to the person that was sat next to me. This person with @1ph@‘s voice was thin, white faced and in fact quite weedy.
‘So you got out huh?’
‘Alpha?’ I had converted his online identity to something that I could pronounce on day one and as he never objected, it stuck.
‘That’s me Babe - in the flesh.’ He had once directed me to an ancient 2D movie starring an actor amazingly called Samuel L Jackson and had confessed that this character was a hero and role model for him. As such, Alpha became the only person in the world that got away with referring to me as ‘Babe’.
‘But how the hell did you know that it’s me before I had even spoken?’
He looked sheepish as he told me that he had actually tracked me down when we collaborated the first time -‘ Just to make sure that you were kosher’ he apologetically explained. He looked even more sheepish as he went on to describe how he had been caught and how then they had used him to trace me as well.
More cattle for the cyber farm and of course more profits.
I was furious and yet relieved. It was one thing that Alpha could trace me but I felt better that they hadn’t done it. It taught me two things. First that I was good enough online unless a temporary partner back-traced me and secondly never to work with anyone ever again.
All of that was six weeks ago. To his credit, Alpha felt that he owed me big time and after explaining that the village that he was in and the next one after that were all still cyber farms he gave me a chance to escape. There was no chance of getting away on the road but a river ran through the village and the old leaking boat on the river bank offered a chance of floating with the current. It led all the way to a large city down on the coast.
It was too low tech for them to consider it as an escape possibility but it worked. After two days, I was exhausted and sodden wet but with my biometric password, I was able to get myself sorted out with dry clothes and an anonymous hotel room. It wasn’t untraceable but finding me would take time and pull workers on the cyber farms away from their prime objective of making money. This really left me with two choices. First option was to go to the authorities and hope that I could do a deal of some kind. The trouble was that all the others would be caught in the net and most of them were just like me. Mainly harmless.
Choice two was to go on the run.
As I look up from my computer at the blue sky and warm sea, I decide that I made the right choice. Living the life of a digital nomad, I can’t stay in one place for more than a few weeks but Europe is a big place and the E-camper that I now call home is comfortable enough to let me follow the sun north in summer and south in winter.
And there are still plenty of people who are gullible or stupid enough to let me cream a few euros from one account here and a few more from another account there.
Yes. I made the right choice.