Authors: Tracy Alexander
Ruby had Duke of Edinburgh expedition training, leaving Saturday morning and getting back late Sunday. (I wished I’d signed up. Knowing she’d be with Ty made me feel left out – very childish.) She couldn’t even come over on Friday night because she was having a takeaway with her mum, so after school I sat in the kitchen for a bit, eating Wagon Wheels – El’s favourite – a bit aimless.
‘Will you help me build a Tudor house?’ she said to Mum.
‘I’m on lates tonight and tomorrow, and look at all this.’ Mum spread her arms out to imply mess. ‘Maybe Dan could help?’
Out of character, but I said, ‘All right.’
I made El sketch her ideal Tudor residence while I rummaged through the recycling. An hour later we had a house-shaped black and grey model made from inside-out cereal boxes, electrical tape, kindling and toothpicks.
It was 5.32 p.m. and I had nothing to do all weekend, unless I went volunteering without Ruby on Sunday, which I thought I might. Could talk about her even if
I couldn’t talk to her. (Meet Dan, the lovesick puppy.)
I don’t do boredom, so no surprise that my thoughts wandered in a particular direction.
Hacking a drone – was it possible?
I tidied the crap off my desk, in preparation.
As I’d already breached the US Military’s network to hack the spy satellite, an American drone was the obvious target. I had the first, and maybe most difficult, step in my pocket. The question was whether a camera with wings was any more complicated to access and hijack than a satellite camera?
I settled down to some research.
Drones (flying robots, pilotless planes, UAVs) are everywhere. The army has them, Japanese farmers have them (for crop-spraying) and so do wildlife enthusiasts (to track endangered species like cheetahs). They’re used to hunt hurricanes and to find people that have fallen off mountains in the Rockies. Drones are cool. Low-level flying, eyes, ears, weapons – what’s not to like? The US has Predator drones that fly over Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia – places like that – looking for terrorists they can lob a missile at. They get it wrong quite a lot of the time and kill random locals, but as the controllers flying the drones are safely on US soil, in the desert in Nevada, nothing happens. The UK has Reapers doing something similar but evidently we only hit terrorists (either that or we’re better at lying).
I got inside the US Military network through the base station in Afghanistan, like before, and poked around.
You’ll probably be able to sleep easier at night when I tell you that, despite my expertise, accessing a drone wasn’t as simple as finding the video feeds. I couldn’t tell which servers might be responsible, and there were plenty of them. All very time-consuming. There was nothing to report for thirty-six hours except that I ate spaghetti Bolognese, Shreddies, a ham sandwich, fish pie and chocolate fudge cake and slept twice for short periods. At various times I tracked Ruby. Before you jump to conclusions,
by hacking, but by using Find My Friends on my iPhone – a clever little app that she had accepted my request to join.
Early Sunday morning, Reuters reported that the Americans were flying surveillance drones out of a base in Djibouti to spy on the Somalis. I found a busy server with lots of repeats of activity where the drones were supposed to be in operation. It felt right, and was begging to be breached. I got inside, tried a few things and, without too much trouble, took charge of a surveillance drone. My screen showed a head-up display – data superimposed on a grainy aerial image of a building, co-ordinates, headers, stuff – not wildly different from the screens you get on Xbox, which seemed wrong on some level. I checked to see if my controls worked – they did … and gave the drone straight back, but for those few seconds the pilot on the ground lost the upper hand. It was a rush. You don’t need to take drugs to get one. Hijacking part of the world’s greatest power’s defence system works just as well.
I woke up way too late (noon) to go volunteering. Not that it mattered. I was more interested in hooking up with Angel and ‘mentioning’ the fact that KP had successfully hacked a drone. It was funny how he was as much one of my friends as Joe and Ty, even though we’d never eyeballed each other.
Sadly, the cheery parents upset my plan.
‘Up you get, Dan. We’re going out for Sunday lunch.’
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and other occasions are celebrated in The Cambridge Arms – end of our road, turn right, which is handy if the parents have one too many!
I dragged myself out of bed, showered (which was overdue – there’s something about the adrenalin involved in coding that makes you smell bad), ate a banana, found time (before the hollering started) to locate Angel in the worldwide wilderness and send him the lines of code to prove my superiority. I was already looking forward to being a fully qualified member of whatever ‘gang’ it was he was head of.
Off we went.
It was quite bright outside and I made the mistake of squinting to limit the amount of Vitamin D I got in one shot.
‘You need to get out at least once a day, Dan,’ said Dad, helpfully.
I nodded. Usual strategy.
‘Have you started revising yet?’ asked Mum, a little wary. She tries not to put any pressure on. Children are sensitive souls, evidently.
‘They’ve said Easter will be soon enough.’
‘That’s only two weeks away,’ said Dad, King of the Calendar. I resisted the urge to clarify that the Easter holidays were two weeks away but the Christian festival known as Easter was four weeks away.
‘What are you going to have?’ said El.
‘Gammon, egg and chips,’ I said. ‘And I’m not sharing.’
El always has a roast but her greed for chips overcomes her.
‘Ten is a lot of subjects to get through,’ said Mum. ‘Maybe you should start doing a bit after school …’
I went along with the parents’ advice and pretended to be considering which AS-levels to take. At some point in the meal they dared to say the word ‘university’ – hoping I was going to be the first one in the family to go.
‘That’s the plan,’ I said.
‘You come out with a big loan, so it’s best to choose a subject with a chance of a job,’ said Dad.
‘Or I could never work and never pay it back,’ I said.
I scraped the last bit of sticky toffee pudding off my plate, took a tiny bit of El’s and told them I was off to see Joe, leaving her with her tongue stuck out and Dad telling her to behave.
Joe was in, which was good. Joe’s parents were out – even better. Joe was playing a shoot-’em-up I didn’t recognise – interesting. On his ceiling – awesome.
‘When did this happen?’
‘Set it up yesterday. It’s heaven.’
The room was dark but Joe’s smile beamed through regardless, powered by happiness. He was reclining on a beanbag, using the whole ceiling as his screen. Further inspection revealed a projector balancing on its end, supported by cushions.
‘Where did this come from?’
‘School. I borrowed it for the weekend.’
I didn’t interrogate the legitimacy of the ‘borrowing’.
‘Not mine. I saw it on YouTube.’
I took up my position on the second beanbag and started annihilating anything that moved. In between the sort of shouting you can only enjoy when you have the house – and ideally street – to yourself, we talked about Ty’s occasional memory problems (that seemed to occur at handy moments), and the climbing centre (Joe had entered a bouldering competition), and exams (Joe said his parents hadn’t realised when they were yet), and Ruby (not a patch on Soraya to look at, according to Joe). And then the conversation turned again.
‘Did you ever manage to see what happened to that van that hit Ty?’
I told him about the graveyard of white vans.
‘Took me ages,’ I said. ‘Couldn’t believe it when I saw him park …’ I shook my head, still angry that I’d wasted so much time chasing a loser that randomly ran over cyclists.
can’t believe you know how to do that stuff,’ said Joe.
‘I don’t “know”, I work it out. Like you work out how to scramble up a wall defying gravity, gecko-boy.’
He put his legs in the air, which looked pretty funny, like a baby having its nappy changed.
‘Hacked anything else, then?’
I should have kept schtum. But how was I to know that the friend who had bought stolen credit and applauded my attempt to track the van would freak out at a drone?
‘You’re kidding, right?’ He put his legs down and sat up, missed three easy targets that I got in three shots. Then got himself killed.
While I waited for him to respawn, he said it again.
‘You’re kidding, Dan?’
‘No,’ I said, concentrating on the action. ‘It was a bet, that’s all.’
Next thing I knew he’d grabbed my controller but I didn’t let go, so we had a kind of scuffle. Dim I might be, but I really thought we were messing, till he put his foot on where my six-pack would be if I had one.
‘What the hell?’
‘Look at me,’ he said, which immediately tripled my annoyance because when I was in my ADHD period Mum and Dad were forever taking my face in their hands to make sure I was listening.
‘It’s no big deal. It’s just typing,’ I said, still flat on the floor, which is a bad position if you’re trying to defend yourself.
‘Tell me you didn’t hack a drone, Dan!’
‘Can you lay off the high and mighty, Joe? And get your foot off.’ I pushed him off and sat up.
‘You need to get rid of it, the code or whatever it is.’
’ I said, keen for him to calm down. ‘Can we carry on now?’
He didn’t answer so I lay back down and carried on shooting but with eagle eyes staring at me with no intention of playing, it was no fun. It took him a few minutes but when he finally spoke he’d thought of some tricky questions.
‘Whose bet was it?’
‘Someone I know.’
‘What have you done with it?’
‘What?’ Pretend innocence.
‘The code. Did you give it to someone?’
If I’d used the tactic I employ with Dad I’d have carried on denying any guilt, and waited for him to get over himself, but he wasn’t my dad. He was
to be my friend. And I didn’t like the way he was looking at me.
‘What if I did?’
Ballistic – that’s the word. He got up and pulled the plug out of the wall. Turned on the light. Shut the door. And stood in front of it, arms folded. The climbing had changed the shape of him – he looked strong, dark brown biceps bulging out of the sleeves of his white T-shirt.
He shouted, ‘You gave someone you don’t know —’
‘I know Angel —’
‘You gave someone you couldn’t recognise in the street the controls of a US drone. A lethal weapon that could strike anyone … anywhere …’
‘You can make it sound that way if you want, but it was just an initiation. A test. And no one’s going to bomb anything, because it was a
‘You’ve been played, Dan.’
Ten minutes after Joe gave his verdict on my spectacular hack, I was on my way home. There was no telling how long it would take him to calm down.
I let myself in. The rest of them were back from the pub, but I shot straight upstairs and went online to try and find Angel. There was no sign of him. It didn’t mean anything. He
allowed another life away from the keyboard.
I tried on and off all through the rest of the day. There’d been whole days, and longer, between meets before. It didn’t mean anything. But in the back of my head (and quite often right in the front) there was doubt. Doubt wasn’t something I’d had a lot of experience of – and I didn’t like it. Apart from anything else, it made me have conversations with myself, which was pointless – and mad.
| ||Dan:|| ||It was a random decision to ask me to hack a drone, because we were talking about spying.|
| ||Dan:|| ||I agree, it was a challenge based on the fact that I’d already hacked the spy satellite.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Unless Angel saw an opportunity in between the chat to slide it in?|
| ||Dan:|| ||Or did Angel get the idea there and then?|
| ||Dan:|| ||Is Angel a kid, or an adult?|
| ||Dan:|| ||He talked like a kid, no punctuation.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Surely this whole thing can’t hang on full stops.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Obviously not.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Stop stressing about it.|
| ||Dan:|| ||I will, as soon as Angel’s back online.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Joe could have a point – I have no idea who Angel really is, he could be a psycho.|
| ||Dan:|| ||If you want to fly a drone it’s a bit random to roam around the internet, stumbling upon people that you hope might help.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Angel could do it himself – he’s elite in his own right.|
| ||Dan:|| ||Exactly.|
| ||That shut all the Dans up for a bit.|
But no matter how much I wanted to dismiss Joe’s fears, I was spooked. So spooked I didn’t even go and meet Ruby off the bus which I intended to do. If she saw my face, I was sure she’d know I’d lied. I wanted to eat Victoria sponge with her and not be a hacker. That was the first time I ever felt a second of guilt, regret, conscience. Seriously, it was the first time.
Angel had disappeared. There were various Angels bobbing about in the cloud but not the Angel I knew.
Life tick-tocked on. All our lessons were about preparing for GCSEs. Every night I went somewhere with Ruby after school and pretended to be normal (and occasionally forgot I wasn’t) and then went home and searched for Angel. The IRC channel where his cronies hung out was vacant, hollow, abandoned. There had to be a reason – one that wasn’t to do with my few little lines of passably clever (but possibly utterly irresponsible) code.
The explanations I came up with for his vanishing act were:
– his parents had caught him and banned him from using the computer
– he was dead.
Other less likely scenarios were:
– he’d got a paralysing disease (a variation on dead)
– he’d won the Lottery and gone to that hotel in Dubai with the huge water park
– he’d respawned under another handle … like Devil or Phoenix or (please no) Predator.
* * *
‘You all right?’ said Ruby, after school in the café.
‘Fine,’ I answered, taking a glug of hot chocolate before it was cool enough and grimacing. ‘Burned my tongue.’
‘I might have a cure for that,’ she said, leaning over and kissing me.
It was exactly a month since we’d first gone there for me to confess about my evil past and convince her it was all behind me. And five days since I’d last heard from Angel. And five days since Joe had spoken to me. (At least he hadn’t told Ty.) (Or maybe he had and Ty’d forgotten – sick joke.)
‘Are you worried about the exams?’ she asked me.
‘No, I’m worried about the party. I don’t know what to wear.’
She laughed. I banished Angel from my mind and concentrated on being a witty and interesting boyfriend.
‘You don’t have to come,’ she said.
Amelia’s sixteenth. At her house in Cotham.
‘I want to. We can smoke weed and do shots.’ I was winding her up. The aftermath of Pay As You Go was the only glitch in our relationship. Ruby’s friends disapproved of me. Full stop.
‘I don’t care what everyone else thinks,’ she said, soft voice, beautiful eyes, a little clump of spots that just made her more real.
I wear?’ I asked. Earnest face. Frowny forehead.
‘Are you serious?’
I hesitated long enough for her to be completely taken in, then flashed her a (hopefully) brilliant smile.
‘Stop teasing,’ she said, giving me a pretend thump.
There was no more teasing. Instead I walked her home – it took a long time.
‘See you tomorrow,’ she said, round the corner from her house.
I was looking forward to it, mostly because it was a big chunk of time to be with Ruby. Shame it didn’t work out that well.