Techno Fail

Eric Cooper is about to discover something that will set in motion events he cannot predict, with the stakes being incredibly high...

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1. The Discovery

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What was the saying about greatness? That it was thrust upon those who didn't want it? Did anyone also say that sometimes, problems - big problems - were thrust upon people who didn't want them? That was the case for Eric, as he shuffled down the corridor of his workplace, past the cork boards with their cheesy motivational slogans and workplace info. He headed for the stairwell, down the end of the corridor, through the thick fire doors. He wasn't about to trust the lifts, not now. Dark blue carpet was thankfully muffling the sound of his footsteps, but he dared not breathe too much, in case, somehow, someone would hear him, find him, and...

You're being paranoid. Or are you? You have reason to be after all...

Maybe no one would suspect a thing. There were thousands of employees working for One Touch Security, including hundreds in their London office. Would they know without any doubt that his computer was the one that had accessed the data now stored on the USB stick in his coat pocket? Even if they knew it was his computer, everyone knew old Eric was terrible for letting others use it...

No one was calling for him from the main office, and none of the bigwigs had stepped out of their private offices to call him in, so maybe he was safe. He strode by banks of partitioned desks, each one stationed by either men in black suits or women in grey suits. None of them paid him any mind. The only conversation he could hear from his colleages concerned football scores, who was secretly shagging who, and plans for Christmas. He reached the stairwell, pushed open the big heavy safety doors and started his descend down three flights to the ground floor. He'd have a short walk to Canary Wharf tube station, and from there, he could get himself well away from any possible harm.

Assuming there's anything actually wrong, and you're not being a stupid old man...

The young woman, Sally, Sarah? She was coming up the stairs and Eric had to try very hard not to appear worried as she flashed him a warm smile as she tucked a loose strand of blonde hair behind her. He politely smiled back and carried on walking, hoping it didn't look like he was rushing. There didn't appear to be another soul on the stairs, a small mercy. Angelo was behind the arching security desk as Eric stepped out of the door. He looked up briefly in Eric's direction and then turned his attention back to his monitors, and the cup of tea on the black marble surface. Visitors and employees were always coming and going, so it probably wasn't that unusual to see someone leaving the building. Trying to look cool calm and collected, Eric walked out onto Bank Street and into the crisp December air, over the zebra crossing, and toward the glass construct that marked the entrance to Canary Wharf's expensive little shopping centre.

His long woollen coat kept the cold out of him, and he was grateful that his role in IT meant he was wearing a thick blue jumper and blue jeans. Comfortable black trainers meant he could move just that little bit quicker too. Once into the throngs of Christmas shoppers, Eric began to feel more uncomfortable. The sheer weight of bodies around him was raising the temperature, but more importantly, it would both help and hinder him now. There still appeared to be no sign of anyone coming after him, in any way shape or form. Still, Eric couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. Years of training and experience had taught him to trust his instincts and they were telling him to be careful now. Entering the station frontage, Eric already had his ticket in his hand, keen to save every possible second (besides, he hated people who faffed about at ticket gates), and became one with the swarm of Londoners and tourists traversing the Underground as he headed down the escalators and toward the platforms.

In the end, the crowds were probably a benefit, though as he stood, impatiently awaiting the next train, Eric took off his coat, but not before he pocketed the USB drive. It would be all too easy for someone to pickpocket his coat, and he wasn't going to make things that easy. Glancing along the platform, he took note of all the faces, many of which here staring at their phones. The row of glowing screens gave Eric a pang of regret. Society is becoming obsessed with those things...

A female voice announced the impending arrival of a north-bound train. It would take Eric away from where he wanted to go, but he couldn't go home, not right away. The Jubilee Line would take him as far as Stratford, and from there, he could connect to the Central Line. He wasn't at all sure if what he was planning was fair, but he couldn't trust official channels, not after what he'd seen. The changeover to the Central Line went without incident, and from there Eric kept scanning the carriage for any faces that were familiar. No one leapt out at him, figuratively or otherwise, and after a couple of stops Eric allowed himself to relax, just a little. He also paused to think a little about what he'd seen, and the data that was now safely stored on the USB drive. Every so often his hand went into his pocket, feeling for the little plastic box, gripping it tightly, to assure himself it was still there.

"The next station is Gants Hill." Came the voiceover. By now the carriage had started to thin out a little, and Eric stood to leave as the train pulled into the platform. He did his best to look calm and casual as he walked along the magnificent Moscow subway-inspired curved ceiling, lit by broad black-iron lamps that sprung from the tiled floor. The busy nature of the station kept Eric nicely concealed, and before long he had emerged from the underground station to the rapidly cooling December night. Other commuters bustled around and kept their heads down as they rushed past one another, whilst Eric got his bearings. After a brief pause, he started walking west, down the A12. To his left were the embryonic beginnings of new buildings; big diggers and bulldozers were at work, preparing the ground for foundations and workmen in high-vis jackets were barking at each other. Eric ignored them and carried on down the road. As he passed a Burger King his stomach growled - he had skipped lunch, as he often did, and now his hunger irritated him.

From memory, his friend had lived around the area. He took a right at a junction, doing his best to not look suspicious or nervous, and entered into the rabbit warren of London's streets. Street lamps had switched on and cars would provide semi-consistent illumination as they sped up and down the streets, paying no mind to the aging man with a thick head of silver hair. The sound of traffic grew fainter as Eric took a right turn down another street. His eyes scanned the rows of faded white-wall houses, some of which had wild and overgrown gardens, with weeds sprouting from seemingly everywhere. Others were well-maintained, with hedges trimmed back, and rows of Cowslip and Bluebell plants were controlled, waiting for spring to return so they could delight passers-by with their colours. Several homes had no front gardens at all - they had been paved over to make way for cars, something that disappointed Eric. He valued nature.

It was that appreciation of nature that helped Eric recall the house he wanted to find. The lawn at the front was nigh-impeccable, along with turned-up soil prepared at the front of the garden for future plants to thrive in. Another bank of soil was directly under the front three-piece window; here, several little green shoots were poking out of the earth, waiting for the return of the sun. To the left was a red-painted wooden door with a thick red panel at the bottom, and two thing glass panels divided by a strip of red wood above. Eric felt a momentary stab of guilt - was it fair to draw his old friend into this? I don't have a choice... He walked up the stone path, took a deep breath, and pressed the door bell.

There were sounds of movement from inside the house, and through the glass Eric could see a light come on. Another door opened, creaking as it did, and then the front door opened, revealing the face of a wizened old man.

"Bloody hell, Corporal Cooper!" The man exclaimed. "What in God's name are you doing here?"

Eric smiled, despite the situation. "Captain Harper, good to see you sir."

"It's just Andrew now." Replied Harper, offering a hand, which Eric took and shook. The old boy still had a strong grip. "Don't just stand there in the cold man, come in, come in! Take off your shoes first though..."

Eric kicked off his shoes and also took off his coat at Andrew's insistence, though he was careful to take the USB drive and slip it into his trouser pocket. He couldn't help but notice only one pair of black shoes in the porch, and only a single, grey sheepskin coat. Faded maroon carpet looked worn and just slightly threadbare, suggesting that Andrew did a lot of walking - but mostly in the house. To the left was a staircase supported with an old oak bannister, and the maroon carpet stretched toward the kitchen, where it met with gloss-beige tiles. To the right stood the entrance to the living room, and in the door way stood Andrew.

His old friend was, well, old. Eric couldn't remember his age, but the eyes were sunken into a wrinkled face and only a few tufts of grey hair remained. A scowl seemed to live permanently upon his jowly cheeks, and Eric couldn't help but notice he had put on weight underneath the dark green cardigan he wore.

"Come on, follow me, sit down!" Andrew steered Eric toward a brown fabric one-piece with big arms, facing away from the window and toward the small LED TV that was secured to the external wall. The walls were a reasonably dark shade of red that gave the room a warm appearance, especially with the trio of lamps being the only source of light, that turned the faux-glass shades into architects of pretty patterns. Next to the TV was a large walnut-coloured cabinet with several bottles behind the glass doors that stood above the cluttered worktop. As Eric scanned the room, he took note of several framed photos of Andrew and his wife, with different venues on show in the background. He couldn't help but notice the silver urn behind one of the glass doors.

Andrew caught the look. "Caroline passed a couple of years ago."

"I'm so sorry." Replied Eric. He couldn't think of much more to say.

"She led a full life, despite being married to a grumpy git like me. Come on, I'll get you a drink, what do you want, tea, or something stronger?" The voice was as gruff and commanding as Eric remembered, even when asking such a simple question. Eric smiled. "I'll have whatever you're having."

"Whisky it is then. You didn't drive here did you?" Eric shook his head. "Good. Not that I'd have given you a choice anyway."

A chuckle escaped Eric's lips. "I'm not surprised."

"I keep my emergency heating..." Andrew knelt down and opened one of the bottom doors on the lovely walnut-coloured cabinet, pulling out a decanter of amber liquid. "In here, in case you're likely to drop by again and I'm out. Don't drink it all."

Eric laughed again. "I was never much of a drinker sir... I mean Andrew."

The older man scooped two small glasses, placed them on coasters on the small glass table in front of the sofa, and sat down beside Eric, before pouring a generous sum of whisky into each glass. "No, you weren't. I vividly remember that mission in... north Africa, you know, where we had to drag your unconscious arse out of that bar..."

"Funnily enough, I don't remember that one at all."

"Ha! I suppose you wouldn't. To absent friends..." Andrew held his glass aloft, and Eric held his up as well. There was pain in Andrew's eyes, and not only for Caroline. Eric knew he meant fallen comrades as well.

They both took a swig of the liquid, which always had a powerful kick as it went down. Silence briefly followed, before Andrew piped up.

"So you didn't come here, out of the blue, just for a chat. What's wrong?"

Eric opened his mouth to start speaking, then closed it again. Had he made the wise decision in coming here? Did the old man he had looked up have the contacts he needed? No sense in doubts now you're here Eric.

"I... I found something at work. Some information, and it scares the hell out of me. I don't know who I can give it to."

Andrew leaned forward, perceptive blue eyes narrowing slightly as he studied Eric. The face was worn now, cragged, but the eyes reminded Eric that age had done nothing to dampen Andrew's mind. "Something that scares Eric Cooper. Sounds interesting."

"Yes. Look, Andrew, I'm sor..."

"Shut it. You're about to apologise for dragging me into some sort of shit. Don't. I could do with an excuse to be awkward."

"You never needed an excuse before." Eric said, grinning.

"Yes well, marriage calmed me down. Most of the time anyway. Caroline would probably tell me to not be a fool. I'd usually listen, but this time... well, I suppose it depends on how juicy this is."

Eric took another sip of his drink. There was no doubting Andrew's taste in whisky, and Eric watched the stuff swirl around in the glass as he spoke. "It's juicy alright. I work for a computer place, One Touch Security."

"Never heard of 'em." Remarked Andrew.

"Not surprised. They're one of these 'behind the scenes' companies. They make a lot of stuff for mobile phones, smartphones actually, tablet PCs, laptops - wireless security stuff."

"Boring shit."

Eric laughed. "Yeah, it can be. I took it on when I left the forces, to stay busy. Would have driven Mary mad otherwise. A lot of what I do is about checking and testing the anti-virus stuff. To do that, I have certain access rights to bits of the code, but the company doesn't let everyone see all the code. That way no one can sell it off to a rival."

"Sounds like strategic division of labour to me." Replied Andrew. "Clever."

"Their projects are worth billions. In fact, the company is about to be worth a load more money, because they've just got contracts for big public sector stuff. Water works, power grids, local councils, education and healthcare, things like that. That's what I was working on..." Eric pulled the USB drive out of his pocket. "When I noticed something. I'm not sure how it ended up on my computer, but it was a line of 'back door' code."

"Ah." Andrew sat back. "Even I know what that means. A way into a system that shouldn't be there."

"Exactly. It's everywhere, and when I checked, it turns out this code is in smartphones too. OTS sells their hardware and software to manufacturers of them all over the world. This code lets them into any device, any time, and I have no idea what it will let them do."

"You could just go to the spooks you know."

"I thought about it, but... Andrew, some of this code is military grade. Stuff that no private company would ever been given access to."

Andrew's eyes sparkled. "Ah, you think they have an inside man?"

"I think so. Andrew, I don't know what this code does, but something that could get into more or less any device, any major system, all over the world, and it's military, and this company shouldn't even know it exists, much less be using it... I don't know who to trust. Someone sent me this, someone on the inside."

"This is juicy. Alright, so I'm still welcome down at the barracks, and I bet you would be too. You drive here?"

"No, got the Tube."

"Bugger." Andrew stood up, stretching. "Not allowed to drive at my age. Fuckin' stupid if you ask me. I'll call a taxi..." Eric grinned to himself as Andrew picked up the old-fashioned green telephone, complete with rotary dial. Despite the twenty or so years of age difference, Eric had often seen Andrew as a kindred spirit, and his utter disdain of modern technology was but one way that was true.

After a few moments, the taxi was booked. Andrew sat back down and poured himself another whisky, insisting on refilling Eric's glass too. "To adventure!" He boldly declared, before knocking back the glass in one gulp. Eric raised his glass and did likewise. Andrew wasn't wrong about that.

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