Advent Stories #1

Every day during the run-up to Christmas I’ll be posting one of my short stories on the website. I hope you see something you like.

INSECURITY

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We are only human. People make mistakes. These words swung around and around in Hugh Raikes’ head as he set about making his work area secure. It was as much about a state of mind, an attitude, as it was keeping a watchful eye on procedures and protocols. It didn’t matter how diligent you were. If you were tired or hungover or grouchy because of a row, if you were having any kind of bad day, then the slip could be made. Add the malicious intent of some outside forces and the rare case of insider treachery and it was a wonder that people didn’t drop from exhaustion just making sure that their own flies were zipped up. Raikes prided himself on his attention to detail and his immaculate service record, despite his being in this job for just five years. There had been no system failures on his watch. No breaches. No assault on the rockface of security that had not been repelled at base camp. His boss, a tuck-the-shirt in kind of guy in his late fifties was openly dismissive of the new technology. He thought ‘digital age’ meant liver spots on your fingers. He didn’t agree with computers and their streams of zeros and ones. What was wrong with a filing cabinet and a ream of paper and a good old-fashioned lock?

Paper gets lost, Raikes wanted to scream at him. Paper gets torn. Paper gets stolen. The best place for paper, Raikes had decided, many years ago, was first the shredder, then a hamster’s cage. People make mistakes. Raikes thought: Not on my watch. He’d not be caught out. The secret was to be as unblemished as the software you created. How could anybody touch you if you had no secrets to divulge? Squeaky. Clean. No flies on me, buster.

Now Raikes entered a code into the core computer that would initiate a sweep of the email system across the suite of machines in the building. Any spam would be gathered and filtered and cross-referenced to see if patterns were emerging. He was responsible for these networked machines, their firewalls, their ability to resist hackers and viruses while at the same time ensuring that any and all packets of date leaving HQ were beautifully and brilliantly encrypted. It had been hard work, but he was proud of this set-up, as if he himself had designed and fashioned the computers himself. Indeed, it was his only regret, though he never aired it for fear of ridicule. You could only ever be truly certain of maximum security if you had crafted the doors and locks, fitted the bullet-proof windows, erected the building and oversaw every single job that was undertaken within it.

The program running, Raikes used his passkey to exit the room, ensuring that he activated the CCTV camera over the door first. Only he and two trusted deputies were allowed access to the security offices, but he kept that electronic eye running anyway. If he could have installed a moat and a portcullis, he would have done so. He strolled along the corridor to the staff room where he made coffee and chatted with a couple of data inputters.

He checked his watch. The programme took twenty minutes to run. After lunch he was due to attend a seminar on biotechnological advances in the threat to risk management. There were rumours of rogue criminal outfits kidnapping members of staff from banks and removing faces and fingertips to transplant on to the heads and hands of desperate villains looking for new ways to access vaults. Nonsense, of course, but such urban legends served their purpose. It reminded one to always be looking forward, to be anticipating where the next threat might originate. It kept people alert.

He strolled back to the room and readmitted himself. Raikes punched in his password and perused the onscreen report. Everything was good. There were a few spam alerts that he had not seen before, but a quick run through showed that they were not malicious. The barricades were holding.

He turned to go and saw the writing on the wall.

Home, for Raikes, was an end-of-terrace house in a non-descript avenue at the foot of a phalanx of streets that all looked the same, right on the edge of town. It resembled him, in many ways: minimalist, clean, ordered, almost anonymous. There was a TV, a few pieces of sleek furniture; little else. No drawers. No clutter. His clothes were beautifully folded, hidden away in recessed cabinets. There were no photographs, no love letters, no mementoes whatsoever. If he wanted to wallow in the past, he had a filing cabinet of images he could riffle through in his mind.

He sat in his study now, the smell of chemicals on his fingers from rubbing away the marker pen: PEEK-A-BOO, HUGH. I SEE YOU.

Immediately, he had called his deputies, Norton and Bull, to establish where they had been that morning. Neither of them had been in the IT suite, and discreet checks with other colleagues provided an alibi for them. So who would have broken into a secure room to leave a message for him? He’d re-checked the terminals but none had been compromised. Nothing had been taken. The visitor had wanted to deface the wall, but to what end?

Raikes tried to push the uncomfortable thoughts from his mind, turning instead to his desk and that afternoon’s post. The feel of paper beneath his fingers irritated him. He loved his paperless office. He didn’t understand why these objects couldn’t land in his inbox as a sequence of PDFs: industry magazines, invitations to speak at security conventions, overtures from software companies eager to be associated with his organisation. And the last: an envelope bearing his name and address in cursive script. He stared at the handwriting for a long time. It had been an age since he saw his own name penned in such a way. Emails and printouts were all he focused upon these days.

One word in the centre of a piece of paper: v@ncOuver1979

He dropped it immediately, as if the paper were burning.

Vancouver, 1979. The place and year, according to his mother, where he had been conceived. But that wasn’t what had quickened his heart, drawn cold sweat to his forehead. v@nc0uver1979 was his password. Nobody else knew it. He was staring into impossibility.

He plucked the envelope from the bin and turned it over in trembling hands. He didn’t recognise the handwriting. He sniffed it. Utterly neutral. He sat dumbly in his chair for five minutes and knew that his mouth was open only when a thread of drool spun out on to his lap. He was the kingpin of a national company’s security system – a man of action – but here he was, made impotent on the back of a couple of inexplicable incidents.

Raikes roused himself from torpor: he shredded the page and the envelope. He switched on his PC and fired up his own security software. He changed his master password and checked the sites that it allowed entry to, but no money had been stolen, no information rifled. According to the datestamps, his own footprint was the last to tread these pages.

He shut down and rubbed his face with his hands. His skin felt dry, papery. On legs foal-weak, he moved to the bathroom and showered until the steam had reduced visibility to centimetres. As he dried himself, and the steam began to disperse, he became aware of two things. That he could see something dark on his skin in the mirror, and that there was something at his shoudler. He was not alone. He flinched from it, smacking his hip against the edge of the sink. His foot became caught in the bathmat and he almost went over, managing to put out a hand to halt himself. He tried to ignore the conviction that his fingers had sunk into something like flesh, but greasy, cold and yielding. Upright once more, he saw that he was alone. His breath came fast and shallow in the confined space. He held on to his own hand, that was all. Yet this was warm and firm where the other had been more like setting wax. He peered into the mirror, still befogged though the room had cleared around him. He thought, maybe, the dark patch was his heart, visible through his skin, like a watermark on paper. He staggered into his bedroom and fell asleep for fourteen hours.

He woke up and it was still dark. He checked his watch. Eight o’clock in the morning. He would be late – first time ever – if he didn’t shake himself. He had fallen asleep naked, on top of the bed. This he never did – even on the rare occasions he drank too much Guinness on a Friday after down tools. He dressed quickly, feeling awkward, embarrassed, mindful of the soft, bruised area in his chest, but unwilling to turn on the light to allow himself a more intimate inspection. His health could wait. There had been a breach at the office and that must be his priority; he felt well enough.

He made the journey to work without realising it. By the time he arrived, sweat was wicking off him. He bypassed the hellos and coffee offers that usually came his way first thing, and ensconsced himself at his workstation where he checked his digital inboxes and memos for any news on the previous day’s attack. Nothing. He created a dummy data packet and launched it into the security system, then tracked its every move through the various pathways and junctions to a variety of predetermined destinations. No open loops. No malware. No diversionary or blinding techniques. Everything was as clean as the gleaming granite worktop in his kitchen at home.

He sat back, stymied, stifled, unsure as to how to proceed. The technology was secure; it was via other means that they were being invaded. Mentally he cursed Pace for his slovenly, paper-based systems. It was a habit that most of his co-workers clung to despite the no-brainer lure of the paperless office. They worried about system failures and drives burning out. They didn’t seem to want to hear his lectures about failsafe back-ups, or streamlining, or efficiency. Backing up paper meant copying it or scanning it, which doubled the amount, which reduced space. Raikes rubbed his head, and made a mental note to buy moisturiser; his skin was making awful, dry, shushing noises.

When he opened his eyes there was a tablet of paper lying on his intray. It was a running joke at the company that a spayed puppy saw more action than Raikes’ intray. Raikes himself castigated anybody who dared to drop anything into it; it remained on his desk only because it was bolted there. He snatched the paper up and unfolded it, hating its arid flatness, its angularity. The message read: All of your walls will not keep you safe.

He barely suppressed an urge to go stalking around the office, waving the paper in his colleagues’ faces and demanding to know who was harassing him. He suspected Pace only because the man was seldom without a pen and some scrap of A4 in his mouse-shy fist. But Pace wore a genuinely puzzled expression when Raikes stormed in to demand an explanation. Placatory tones: ‘Hugh… Hugh…’

He was talked down, asked to refrain from rash action, advised to see it as a poor attempt at humour; Pace would circulate a memo that day, warning against pranks in the office. A critical security hub – the gleaming cog in the system – was no place for practical jokes. Almost as an afterthought, Pace asked him how he was feeling. ‘It’s just that you look… pale, like something that’s been… I don’t know… bleached.’

Raikes ignored his suggestions to take off the rest of the day, went back to his desk, switched on his shredder and destroyed the paper. Later that morning he received the memo from Pace, who had been true to his word. Ready to leave work that evening, after a long day, he let himself into the secure suite of computers in order to monitor the resistance of the anti-virus software program.

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Every machine was running a screensaver. Red text streaming across black screens: Hi, Hugh… Ghosts in the machine

Raikes shut down the entire system. Warning lights began flashing across the control panels. It was cool in the room, but sweat was breaking out on Raikes’ forehead like bubblewrap. He exited, and passed along the corridor to the main nexus of offices; empty now. Everything was still and silent, but for the soft, persistent alarm. The police would be here soon.

There was only one failsafe way of ensuring that the network you had set up was totally clean of bugs and viruses. And that was to destroy it all and start again. Purge, cleanse, deconstruct. Year dot. Raikes went to his workstation and folded himself into his chair. He entered codes until he was granted access to the inner sanctum of the system he had created. He regarded it for a while – this soft miasma of blue energy, a swarm of data sparking and trembling, numbers tumbling across the screen in regular pulses, almost like the heart in a foetus at the magical moment that it begins to beat. And it was a little like staring at his child, his baby. The lights on the hard drives flashed softly against the glass walls of the office and after a while, they were augmented by the red and blue stutter of lights arriving down in the street.

He breathed, and the sound was thin.

He pressed a hand to his chest and it felt as though his skin creased under the attention of his fingers. He was diminishing. There would be no place in the new security regime for him. How he had become a liability, he had no clue. You could be too careful, he thought. You could erect walls around you and not let anyone through. You could erase the memory banks to the extent that you had no reference points to who you were any more. At the last, he saw how Pace was right. The paperless office could never happen. You needed tangible proofs; you needed that undeniable link to other things, other people. Everybody needed a secret.

He heard the bell of the lift at the ground floor.

He stood up and took off his clothes, wincing at the dry scraping sound they made against his skin. He felt so tired, so flimsy, so unlike what he was meant or expected to be. He gazed at his flesh in the uncertain light: puckered and cockled like the pages of a cheaply-produced book. He breathed at the ghostly plane of his hand and his body trembled, threatening to be borne away on its own gusts.

As the lift doors opened on the landing, and shadows began piling along the corridor towards him, Raikes reached down and switched on the shredder.

We are only human, he thought, and stepped into the churning, silver teeth, trying to remember… anything. But some of us are barely even that.

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