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Authors: Tracy Alexander

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BOOK: Hacked
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News is everywhere. I searched online sources from the BBC to Reuters, from India Today to World of Warcraft forums. I found tons of Angels, but not
the
Angel. I found people taking responsibility for the drone. I found pornography. I found lunatics demanding death to Americans, Muslims, Jews and Justin Bieber. What I didn’t find was anything that shed any light on whether I was involved or not. I supposed that was a good thing. No one was shouting, ‘That kid KP did it. Don’t you remember? It was his challenge.’ Actually, that was odd. All the other members of Angel’s gang who were on IRC #angeldust knew what I knew, so where were they? The channel had disappeared, like its originator, but why weren’t they roaming around trying to find me? I couldn’t remember any of the handles any of them used except Expendable (because of the films) and one that was a snake like Viper or something. And, like Angel, they were nowhere to be seen. I went to look on /digi/. It’s anonymous, and the content is dumped every twenty-four hours. I went fishing in the hope that someone might leak something knowing it wouldn’t come back on them.

anyone seen Angel?
   – I typed.

I bring you news of great joy
   – someone called Dogbreath (why???).

jesus is coming

And so it went on …

a star in the sky

a dark star
   – DarkStar (one of the many).

 

‘We need to go,’ said El, pushing my door open but staying on the landing.

‘What are you talking about?’ I said as I swivelled my computer chair.

She was wearing what ten-year-olds wear to parties – sparkly tights, clip-on earrings and something purple in between. A memory forced its way to the front of my brain. Mum was working because someone had called in sick, Dad had just gone to the football – I’d heard the door slam and the BMW drive away – and I was on sister duty. Today of all days.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Maeve’s.’ She read the whole invitation aloud, including the address and telephone number for RSVPs.

‘OK. Give me five minutes, El.’

‘I don’t want to be late.’

‘I don’t care what you want.’

She hovered her foot, but I wasn’t in the mood. I got up and slammed the door. Not shut, slammed. Babysitting! When I was on the verge of …

What was I on the verge of? Damn!

I scanned all the open tabs on my screen to see if there was more news, then logged out – because it’s a habit. Got my Gap hoodie and opened my door, stage face on.

‘OK, El. Party time!’

She didn’t answer. Standard behaviour if your brother’s nearly amputated your foot. I leapt down the stairs, as though being pretend-lively could help me get through my shift as ‘responsible adult’.

I wasted at least five minutes looking under her bed and behind the curtains, calling, ‘Come on, El. I’m sorry I was mean.’

She was nowhere to be seen, and her coat wasn’t hanging by the front door. What the hell?

The level of panic was almost paralysing. Ty’s accident … El’s lack of right and left … the fact I was about to be held on terrorism charges. I ran. She’d never gone anywhere on her own. No way to get to Bishop Road without crossing Coldharbour Road, which is busy. Would she know to wait, or step out?

Lorries. Motorbikes. White vans …

It’s about a mile to Bishop Road. I kept expecting to see her. How far ahead could she be? I’ve got long legs (but no lungs) and made it in ten minutes. I didn’t know what number the party was at, because I hadn’t listened properly when she said, so couldn’t tell if she was already there, or already dead. It was hard to breathe, or think. Why was Bishop Road so long?

And then I saw balloons.

I rang the bell and a man came to the door. Checked shirt, monkey mask.

‘I just wanted to check that El … Elena Langley is here.’

The monkey face laughed (clearly not reading my body language). Turned and shouted, ‘There’s no Elena expected, is there?’

Three boys with painted faces (tiger, zebra, orange sick) ran to the door to see what was happening. Took a look and scarpered back to the animal party.

‘Sorry, wrong house,’ I said.

Demented, with no idea what to do, I rang Ruby. I’d repeat what I said, except it was gibberish. Luckily her answer wasn’t.

‘Isn’t El friends with Grace? Will she be going?’

Good thinking. Grace is Amelia’s little sister. Amelia is Ruby’s BFF. ‘Can you ring Amelia for me?’

I got off the phone and stood halfway down Bishop Road. Waiting. There was no way El could have been as quick as me. So where was she? My phone shuddered. It was Ruby … and she had the house number.

‘Thank you.’

I raced back up one block and rang the bell.

Another dad answered the door.

‘I’m Elena’s brother. Is she here? Only I —’

‘She’s not here yet,’ said a girl in roughly the same clothes as El but with blonde hair, not brown. Presumably Maeve.

The mum appeared. Mums have radars that pick up distress signals.

‘Is there a problem?’

I told her what had happened. (The door slamming, not the impending drone strike.)

‘We should call your mum,’ she said.

I shook my head. ‘She’s at work so she won’t answer.’ Not strictly true but I was still hoping for a happy, parent-free ending.

‘Fair enough. Are you sure Elena knows the way?’

Stupid question. Or was it? If you’re walked like a dog, or taxied about, do you take any notice of where you go?

‘Actually, she might not.’

The search party consisted of me, the dad and another mum, recruited when she came to drop off. Having swapped mobile numbers, we all took different routes back to St Albans Road.

‘Don’t worry, lad. We’ll find her,’ said Maeve’s dad.

I retraced my steps, which was pointless, but the party-mum had dished out the orders and mums know best. My phone went. For the first time ever, I was disappointed it was Ruby.

‘Was she there?’

‘No. We’re out looking for her.’

‘I’ll come over.’

Time really did slow down. I’m serious – it wasn’t my perception that was skewed, seconds dragged. I checked my phone at every other front door or shop
window or driveway. A siren wailed in the distance, coming my way.

Please let it be an old man with a dodgy heart, or a baby coming out too quickly. Please let it not be a little girl, unsure of the way to a party.

The shrillness made me want to cover my ears.

The cars pulled over to let the nee-naw pass. I don’t know what part of my body made the decision but I started to run, following the paramedics. The ambulance slowed at the junction and then turned left onto Coldharbour Road. I cut across the road and got honked. I turned to make an angry gesture (because I wasn’t close enough to kick the bodywork) and when I turned back there was El, coming out of the corner shop.

‘Where have you been?’ I said, in a pretty steady voice, given that I wanted to yell
and
weep at the same time.

She held out her hand to show me the bar of Cadbury’s Caramel.

‘I was worried, El.’

She shrugged, and tried to walk past me.

‘I’m coming too,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry.’

The good thing about being ten is that moods don’t last long, not like teenage ones – all rage and brooding.

‘There’s going to be nail-painting,’ she said.

‘You don’t have any,’ I said.

‘I do, I’ve been growing them.’

She showed me her fingers, splayed like a frog’s.
There was a tiny strip of white on the tip of each nail.

‘So I see.’

I kept up the jollity all the way back to Bishop Road.

‘Here she is,’ I said, as the party-mum opened the door.

‘Thank heavens, we thought you’d gone astray. Come on in, Elena.’

El disappeared.

‘I’ll pick you up,’ I shouted to the space she’d vacated.

‘Five o’clock,’ said the mum, looking behind me as though expecting to see …

Damn! I hadn’t told the others.

‘Thank you,’ I said, hurrying off to text the parents still roaming the streets.

 

The drama had completely taken my mind off the tiny issue of a wayward drone circling above who-
knew-where
with a missile or two. But alone again, with nothing to do for two hours, it came back bigger and badder. I had no idea what to do. Go home and try and fix things? Bury my head in the sand pit at the park?

‘Dan!’ It was Ruby, striding towards me, face flushed, hair hidden in a beanie. Seeing her made it all even more desperate. She’d never forgive me if it all came out. If I
was
responsible.

‘El was buying sweets,’ I said.

Ruby laughed. ‘Good girl,’ she said.

I was torn between wanting to be left to think, and making the most of my time alone with the lovely
redheaded girl standing in front of me.

‘I miss you,’ I said.

‘Let’s go and get a cake.’

We walked arm in arm down to the Gloucester Road. She’d been working all day so was keen to chat, which was good because it prevented me from blurting it all out like Confessional Tourette’s – a little-known condition in which the sufferer cannot commit a misdemeanour without leaking it.

‘I’m sorry about last week,’ she said, as we reached the shop. ‘I didn’t really mean it – it’s just that Mum was so cross. She worries …’

‘It’s OK. I get it,’ I said, taking a rogue piece of hair and putting it behind her ear. I leant across and kissed her – not a peck, a proper going-out kiss. A random passer-by clapped.

‘You’re not the bad guy people think you are,’ she said. ‘I know that.’

‘Chocolate brownie or tiffin?’ I asked.

It took all my willpower to park the problem and stay with Ruby, eating cake, kissing, laughing. It was nice, but a dark shadow was creeping over. I wasn’t sad when it was time to get El. Ruby said she’d better get going as she was babysitting.

‘Coming volunteering, Fella?’

‘Try and stop me,’ I said, but tomorrow seemed a long way away. I watched her walk off, battered satchel over her shoulder, before I hurried back to admire El’s black fingernails, complete with white skull and crossbones.
(They’re ten! What was party-mum thinking of?)

‘Awesome. So how was the party?’

‘Good,’ said El. She was holding a party bag of monster proportions.

‘What’s in there?’

‘A pencil with a fairy on top, a notebook, a …’

The list went on, in between mouthfuls of miniature Curly Wurly and Cadbury’s Fudge. She offered me the Crunchie.

I listened to a review of the whole party – sandwiches with crusts, not enough layers on the pass-the-parcel, scrummy cake, and made all the right noises but, inside, my mind was trying to make order out of the mess. I couldn’t let the fact that I had a gift for code ruin everything.

There was nothing new online, or rather there was plenty of new content but it said all the same things that were already there. It didn’t matter, because I’d made a decision. I could either wait and see what happened with the missing drone – that would be passive and the anticipation might kill me. Or I could find out for myself whether my little contribution to Angel’s virtual toolbox in the sky was any use. I’d managed to get hold of a drone, but not one with a payload. With any luck there would be more security on something that could annihilate people praying in mosques and playing in parks. My code was probably n00b level compared to what you need to swipe the controls of a combat drone – in which case I was in the clear. Time to find out.

I went back to the base station in Afghanistan. As usual, I routed through six servers to cover my tracks – El Savador, the Maldives, Brazil, Port Talbot, and so on. There was good news and bad. The good news was that there didn’t seem to be any Predators being controlled from the server I’d used to hack the spy drone. The bad
news was that, without too much difficulty, I stumbled upon a parallel server, where everything looked very similar. I studied the patterns of activity over Kandahar. The chances were, based on media coverage, these drones had weapons. I chose one.

The Dan that enjoyed happy endings was hoping his way would be barred by a concept of cleverness he couldn’t even recognise, yet alone sidestep. But it wasn’t.

For the second time in my life I took control of a drone, except this time it was a Predator. I held in my hands the ability to target and destroy. And all Angel had to do was follow the same logic as me and he could do the same. It was terrible, like holding someone’s bloody limb. I gave the control straight back, put my hands in the air and briefly considered having my first OCD hand-washing episode. I felt dirty, like I’d shown too much of myself, the hacker’s equivalent of tweeting a selfie.

I went volunteering with Ruby. She convinced me that revision worked better if you had time away from it. I didn’t take much persuading, desperate to get away from the voices in my head.

Is it Angel? Or isn’t it? If it is, is he planning annihilation or having a laugh? Or is it all a coincidence, nothing to do with me or Angel? There are seven billion people on the planet. More than one must have hacked a drone …

I was in limbo, as Gran would say, like when she was waiting for Grandad’s test results to see if she should book a cruise or pick hymns for the funeral. (It was time to pick hymns.)

I met Ruby at the courtyard. It was sunny. Proper blue sky. And warm for the first time in forever. She was chatting with her geriatric fan club.

‘We missed you last week, Fella,’ said Ted.

‘I got in a fight,’ I said, because my brain was too clogged to process anything but the truth.

‘Protecting your girl, were you?’ he said.

‘I was protecting him,’ said Ruby, pretending to kick box.

‘You ever get in trouble, Ruby, and you can call on me. I was trained to kill, you know.’ Ted flexed his non-existent biceps.

The group all laughed. I almost did too. Being with normal (in the widest sense) people was a good idea – chase away the demons. We went in the minibus to somewhere near Chew Valley to do hedgerow management along the footpath. There were only twelve of us, much fewer than usual.

‘You’re quiet,’ said Ruby.

‘I’m at one with nature,’ I said.

She nipped my arm. I feigned pain.

‘What was that for?’

‘Just showing how much I like you.’

‘What’s the next level? A slap round the face?’

‘There’s a willow warbler,’ said Isaac, pointing.

My phone rang, sending the bird away, and probably annoying everyone. It was Joe. This was rare. FaceTime, text, Snapchat, but real-life talking – not often. I picked up.

‘Have you heard?’ he said.

There was a long sarcastic answer to this on the tip of my tongue. It stayed there.

‘What?’

‘He’s threatened to bomb London.’

It’s not the sort of sentence you hear every day. You’d think that would make it sink in fast, but the opposite happened with my brain. (Call it denial, I’m just telling it how it was.)

‘Say again?’ I said.

‘The nutter that stole the drone says he’s heading for London, armed and ready to fire.’

‘And I’m the Green Goblin. Good one, Joe.’ As I said it, I already knew it wasn’t a wind-up. I made a conscious effort to stop my face acknowledging the disembowelment of my body … kept my voice steady.

‘I’m out with Ruby, so I’ll see you later.’

‘You better have a good excuse, Dan, when the men in suits come. It’s —’

I disconnected.

Surreal. So surreal it was film-like. There we were, a boy and his girl, with two old men, enjoying the sun on our backs as we worked to keep part of the English countryside beautiful for future generations of both people and wildlife, while far away in the capital, the population was at the mercy of a nameless evil. Surely time for Superman? The idea that I had to somehow be Superman made me catch my breath.

‘What did he want?’ asked Ruby, possibly not for the first time, judging by her expression.

‘Wanted to know if I was going round later,’ I said. In order to smile I had to jumpstart a few muscles.

‘What was that thing about the Green Goblin?’

‘He was in a little-known film with a spidery character —’

‘OK. Don’t tell me,’ she said, carrying on with the hedge tidying.

I wanted to tell her. If I could have conjured a spell that guaranteed she’d stick by me …

‘Do you think you can reach the top?’ asked Isaac, as I was the only one under sixty and grazing six foot.

‘I’ll have a go,’ I said. He passed me his long-handled shears and I trimmed the hedge all the way along, leaving Ruby to work with Ted. I was glad to be away from her all-knowing eye. It gave me a chance to get myself together.

The afternoon dragged, even the bit with cake. They all talked, and I nodded and grinned at what seemed appropriate moments. Ruby didn’t press me for details until we were on the bus, homeward bound (Simon and Garfunkel – one of Dad’s choices for when he’s on
Desert Island Discs
).

‘What did Joe say?’

No way could I tell the truth. What was the truth, anyway?

‘He’s worried about Ty. Says he’s not getting any better. You know … his memory and stuff?’

‘I haven’t noticed.’

‘Yes, but you didn’t really know him before.’

‘I expect his mum and dad are making sure he’s all right.’

It was the opening I needed. I proceeded to tell Ruby all about the rag-and-bone front garden and general lack of organisation in Ty’s house.

‘Shall I come to yours for a bit?’ she said, as we got off the bus.

‘I need to get round to Joe’s. He was a bit worked up.’ I sighed, as though I believed my own lie. ‘When he
mentioned the bouldering competition, Ty asked how long he’d been climbing.’

‘That doesn’t sound good.’ A little frown froze on Ruby’s forehead.

It felt bad, trying to get away from my best person, but I was all acted out.

‘Bye.’

I kissed her, got the usual whistles from the silver-haired volunteers and ran home.

BOOK: Hacked
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ads

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