Bird by Chris Green
‘You’re telling me you found it in the car park and you thought you’d just plug it into your workstation,’ says Frank Flint. ‘It’s a fucking data stick. What did you suppose it might be doing lying there in the car park of a high-security organisation like this?’
I had an idea that this was coming. Sir Frank Flint, MBE does not call you into his office for a chat about the weather.
‘You’ve heard of Stuxnet, right?’ he continues.
‘I haven’t,’ I tell him. Should I ask him if it is an internet service provider? Perhaps not.
‘The CIA or Israeli Intelligence left random flash drives with logos in Iranian script printed on them outside their nuclear compound at Parachin. One of the operatives working on the Uranium Enrichment Programme there apparently expressed the same kind of curiosity that you have shown. He picked one of them up and plugged it in.’
I’m tempted to ask whose side we are supposed to be on at this point, but I don’t.
‘The Stuxnet worm that was on the stick got to work on the programmable logic controller,’ he continues. ‘And destroyed a large chunk of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The rootkit the stick contained rendered it undetectable to Windows.’
I’m not sure whether it’s in my best interests to express admiration. Surprise or shock horror might be better.
‘So why do you think that our network might have suddenly crashed?’ he says.
‘Stuxnet?’ I ask.
‘No, it is not fucking Stuxnet. If it were Stuxnet, we might be able to do something about it. We don’t know yet what it is, but Mr Kusnetsov is coming in later to help us find out. Tech support tells me with some degree of certainty that whatever it is originated on this stick.’
I know exactly what’s coming. Sir Frank just wants to humiliate me a little more first. Were the positions reversed, I would probably do the same.
Summarily dismissed, I gather up a few belongings from my desk and make my way home. Over the next couple of hours, as I listen to the news on the car radio, similar glitches are reported at telecoms firms and a government base. It seems there are a number of people losing their jobs because they were curious about flash drives they found in works canteens, car parks or railway carriages.
Maria may view it a little differently, but I am not bothered by the prospect of having time on my hands. I am not one of these career-minded people who are always looking for new openings, which is probably just as well as my CV will have been dealt a blow by my dismissal. I can use the time to brush up on my saxophone playing while Maria is at work. She does not like me running through my Charlie Parker tutorial in the evenings. But for me, Bird is the greatest.
Maria is not overjoyed by the news of my dismissal but she says it will give me the chance to do the jobs around the house that I’ve been promising to do, like clear out the attic and mend the garden fence. In no time at all, she has written a list. I didn’t realise so many things were broken and nearly everything we have needs repainting. There are curtain rails to be fixed, light fittings that need replacing, paving slabs that need laying, the old harmonium needs to go to the tip and the dead cat needs burying. The conservatory too features quite heavily. It’s a wonder that it’s still standing. Perhaps Maria is over-reacting. I can always tell when she has the hump though because she slinks off to the art room and puts her Lorde CD on. It calms her down, she says.
Next morning, after Maria has gone off to work, I bury the cat at the bottom of the garden. This is probably the most urgent task on the list. The rest can wait until later. Then, I watch the news while I assemble and polish my instrument. It is a Selmer Prelude alto, which while it is not a professional sax, does give a lovely rich sound. The celebrity newsreader who has just married the celebrity chef refers briefly to yesterday’s computer glitches but quickly moves back to their main story, the child abuse scandal that is rocking the political world. I turn it off and get started on the intro to Cool Blues. This is one of my favourite of Bird’s tunes and I am anxious to get the embouchure right.
After several attempts, I feel that I have got the feel of the first few bars, perhaps not with the panache of the master, but the tune is recognisable. I make myself a cup of tea. After lunch, I move some furniture around, line up some cans of paint in the spare room and hide the harmonium behind some dust sheets in the shed. I am then able to make some progress on the solo of Bird of Paradise before Maria gets home. Maria is pleased with my day’s work. After dinner, she lights the scented candles in the bedroom. I make a mental note to go on to the Agent Provocateur website.
The following day I manage to get the first wall of the spare room painted. There is no sense in hurrying these things. I then have time for a good run-through of Night in Tunisia. It is quite a complex tune, one that is going to take a lot of practice. I’ve read that Bird used to practice up to fifteen hours a day, not on this one tune of course. I turn next to Lover Man. The slow tempo of this makes its fingering easier to master. It sounds good.
I would have liked to have lived in the 1950s, with the slower pace of life. Things must have been much simpler before digital technology took over our lives. There were no needy netbooks and tablets and no attention-seeking smartphones. People talked to each other, face to face. You probably even had proper friends and not just Facebook friends. You would not have had to press 1, 2, 3,4 and 5 on your keypads every time you made a phonecall and then be put on hold listening to Orinocco Flow over and over again for twenty minutes before you were put through to the wrong department. Or be called day and night by robotic machines wanting to handle your mis-sold insurance claim.
Most of all, though, in the 1950s everyone would have listened to jazz. Swing, Bebop, Hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, there was a type to suit every mood. Even on the estate where I grew up, they would have been listening to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Stan Getz. You would have gone down to the Palais on a Saturday night and danced to a jazz band. You would have met your partner there. The music was special which is why it is so enduring.
I am just putting the instrument away when I hear Maria’s car pull up. I quickly open the paper at the jobs pages. Maria storms in. She appears to be a little flustered.
‘The roads are gridlocked,’ she says, throwing her heavy bag down. ‘And those traffic lights at the Longditch roundabout were completely crazy.’
‘They are always bad there,’ I say, giving her a hug. ‘It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents.’
‘They were going off and on like a strobe light,’ she says, pushing me away. ‘There was just this endless chorus of car horns and drivers getting out of their cars and shouting at other drivers. I was there for ten minutes, too frightened to move.’
‘Probably water has got into the works or something,’ I say.
She breezes through to the kitchen. There is a clatter of dishes and I hear the microwave go on.
‘You could be doing this,’ she calls through to me.
‘I’ll do dinner tomorrow,’ I say.
‘And, when I was in the hairdressers,’ she says, her voice raised above the rumble of the microwave. ‘Louise was saying that the bloody trains have stopped running, something to do with signalling failure.’
‘There’s always something, isn’t there?’ I say. ‘I expect they will sort it out.’
She huffs loudly and goes on upstairs to change. She puts her head around the door of the spare room. She doesn’t comment on my progress. I see little prospect of a scented candle after dinner tonight.
It is 10 am and I am in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird when the phone rings. At first, I leave it, but it carries on ringing. On the basis it might be important I answer it, the saxophone still around my neck.
‘Hello. I’m Brice Cromer from the Gazette,’ says the voice. ‘Am I speaking to Damien Red?’
‘Yes, you are,’ I say. Instantly I have reservations about acknowledging my identity, but what’s done is done. I swing the instrument behind my back.
‘And until two days ago you were working for the security organisation who don’t like to be named,’ he says. I imagine he thinks the description is humorous. The joke, however, is a little stale.
‘What is this about?’ I say in as challenging a manner as a mellow musician can muster.
‘It’s being reported that you are responsible for their little computer problem,’ Brice says.
He is referring to the data stick episode. How would he have gotten hold of the information and connected it back to me? It seems unlikely that any of my colleagues would have offered it voluntarily. They are a tight-lipped bunch and everyone is as straight as a die. I can’t imagine how I got the job there in the first place with my record. They must have had a work experience student working in HR that day. I put the phone down. In case Brice calls again, I leave the receiver off.
I can’t concentrate on Bye Bye Blackbird any longer. I need a quiet place to think. I get the roller and brushes and resume painting the spare room. I seem to have a talent for digging myself into a hole. Ever since I was a boy I have landed myself in trouble by doing a succession of remarkably injudicious things while at the same time drawing attention to them. The expression hiding in the light comes to mind, not a great idea. Why did I get thrown out of school for smoking dope when none of my contemporaries did? How did I get into stealing cars before I was old enough to drive? Why did I always get arrested on protest marches? Did I even know what I was protesting about back then? Was it the need to be noticed? Perhaps I would never change. Perhaps I was born for trouble.
Before I know it, I have finished two more walls in blue planet. I am going to use Tibetan gold as an accent colour on the fourth wall, a combination I have seen on a design programme on television. I am planning now on finishing the room today. When Maria comes home she will be impressed by my achievement. After dinner, she might even light the scented candles again.
Maria arrives home unexpectedly at lunchtime. Is she checking on me, I wonder? Have I broken my word so many times that she feels she needs to monitor my progress? She clumps up the stairs. She has not even taken her boots off. Something is amiss.
‘Why are all those reporters outside?’ she demands.
‘W’what!’ I splutter. I had not imagined that this would happen so soon.
I go to the master bedroom to take a look. There are about a dozen of them on the driveway, big burly bastards with microphones and notebooks at the ready. There is also a TV camera crew, jostling for position. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with my musings to have heard the disturbance. But how could I have possibly missed them? Admittedly, getting the bell to work is one of the jobs on Maria’s list that I’ve not got round to yet, but, surely one of the hacks would have worked out that the bell wasn’t working and hammered on the door. Perhaps I was away with the fairies.
To my surprise, Maria agrees to go to the front door and keep the press busy while I dart out the back. She cannot know what I am up to. Can she? I grab my canvas messenger bag and make a run for it. Fortunately, my Jeep is parked in the back lane. I hadn’t planned it this way, but now time is probably short. I check my texts. ‘Guinness tastes better in the afternoon,’ says the one I am looking for. It is time to get started.
My next step is to find the locations where I am to deposit the rest of the flash drives. There are nineteen in all, each bearing the deadly DuneWorm which regardless of platform will burrow into your system like an Alaskan mining drill. I have the map here showing the favoured targets. I am told these have been carefully selected to cause maximum disruption. Others will be delivering the same message elsewhere round about now.
Once I’ve received my fee, I will be able to buy that Selmer Paris Supreme I’ve had my eye on, and then I can get back to my Bird session with a professional instrument.
Copyright © Chris Green 2022: All rights reserved
An early version of this story was posted s The Early Worm Catches the BIrd