The Early Worm Catches The Bird


The Early Worm Catches The 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 memory sticks 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 data 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 tell 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. In fact, 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 at a government base. There are it seems 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 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 Sparklehorse 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 makes reference 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 be 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. ‘Its 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 Brendan Rogue?’

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 got 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 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 twenty-four in all to carry out the cyber attack, 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. These I am told have been selected to cause maximum disruption. Others will be delivering the same message elsewhere round about now.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved




The knock on the door at 3 am comes as a shock. This is the type of thing I associate with Soviet Russia. Unlike Dmitri Shostakovich, who famously kept a suitcase and a toothbrush beside him ready for the knock, in case he should be whisked off at a moment’s notice and interrogated, I am unprepared for such an eventuality. So far as I know, I have done nothing seditious or subversive. I am an English teacher, for Heaven’s sake. Teaching teenagers how to get the best out of D. H. Lawrence and Julian Barnes. Introducing them to the use of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. In a Community College. In a small town in the south west of England.

I am not given time to put shoes on, let alone think about a suitcase and needless to say, I don’t know where I’m going.

‘What’s this all about?’ I keep asking, as stifling my partner, Hannah’s protests, two thugs in dark fatigues bundle me roughly into the back of a waiting black van.

‘We can’t tell you that, fella,’ says the tall one with the neck tattoos and the bad breath. ‘So just shut the fuck up.’

‘We are just here to deliver you safely to the interrogation centre,’ says the blubbery one with the cropped hair and the facial scar. ‘Now keep still, while I put this blindfold on.’

Bound, blindfolded and gagged, I am bumped around in the back of the van for about an hour before we arrive at our destination, which, from the acoustics, I take to be a large concrete building, perhaps a disused warehouse or something. Here I am tied to a steel chair and left on my own to contemplate my fate. I am subjected to a dissonant recording of trombone playing, which runs for about and hour then plays all over again. Popular songs like Fly Me to the Moon and What a Wonderful World are murdered over and over by a tone deaf trombone player with, to maintain the Soviet comparisons, the disdain you might expect from a dispossessed Menshevik. At first, I feel this is a strange way for security service professionals to behave if indeed they are security professionals and not just common or garden kidnappers. There again, why would anyone kidnap me? An English teacher with a twenty five year mortgage and a maxed-out Barclaycard. The idea is absurd.

As the hours pass by, I begin to see the wisdom of spooks using such a method. It is, in all probability, a tried and tested technique to break down a suspect’s resolve. It is far less labour intensive than the strenuous forms of interrogation you see in films. Clearly, after a few hours of this, if I did have anything to talk about, I would be likely to spill the beans. If they left it long enough, I would be ready to confess to anything, however outrageous the allegation, when my interrogators finally arrived. And more besides. If I thought it would get me out of there, I would probably invent some malefaction. But I keep coming back to the question, why me? Why have I been brought here? Who are they? What have I done?

It is difficult to see outside of my own desperate situation but in a few calmer, more lucid moments when I am able to shut the musical torment out, I wonder what is happening outside of my confines. What have they done with Hannah? Surely if she has been free to do so, she will have gone to the police or taken some appropriate action on my behalf and they will eventually find me.

It is in such a moment of contemplation that my interrogators arrive. Once again there are two of them. They turn off the recording and take off my blindfold. This pair are better turned out than the two thugs from earlier, if not any the less threatening. The dark uniform and dark glasses they are both wearing, though, make it difficult to tell them apart. They are both built like shot putters.

It is the one with the fuller figure and the tighter skirt who speaks first. Something about her reminds me of my old Economics teacher, Miss Stover. Miss Stover didn’t usually carry a gun, though.

‘You know why you are here,’ she barks. It is both a question and a statement.

‘I am briefly tempted to say, ‘Well, it probably isn’t speed dating.’ But, my bravado deserts me.’ Instead, I manage a non-committal guttural sound.

The one who has not spoken yet takes off her sunglasses to reveal a stare like barbed wire. ‘We have your laptop here, Mr Exe,’ she spits, taking a device out of the large shoulder bag she is carrying. ‘Perhaps you would like to comment on a few things that we have found.’

As she places the laptop on the table where both of then can see it, I recognise the scuff mark on the lid where the Dell logo has rubbed off at the bottom of the D. It is indeed my laptop. It occurs to me now what might be happening. In which case, what is playing out here is probably down to a huge misunderstanding.

A week or two ago, Hannah’s son, Geoff was writing an assignment on the Dark Internet for his Criminology course and she asked me if I would look it over. Not that I knew anything about the Dark Internet but being and English teacher, I was good at grammar and punctuation. It was Geoff’s first year at Coventry so it seemed only right that I give him a helping hand to set him on his way. I realised how difficult those initial assignments could be when all you really wanted to do was enjoy the social life and the wild entertainment on offer in a new city.

As a precaution, I saved Geoff’s attachment as dae5h.docx. In retrospect, perhaps this was injudicious but it was meant as a joke. It was an old personalised number plate I used to have, my name being Douglas Alan Exe.

Geoff’s essay introduced me to the workings of the Dark Web, The Onion Router, Bitcoin and the like. A clandestine new world had apparently opened up without me being aware of it. I was shocked by some of the things that went on in cyberspace, the drug dealing, the child pornography, the terrorist recruitment, the people trafficking. It seemed there was a web of corruption available with just a few keystrokes. The essay also suggested that the Dark Web was difficult to police with law enforcement agencies and security services always being one step behind.

Academic essays in the social sciences can be a bit verbose, weighed down by interminable sentences with successions of long words. Each field of study introduces a staggering lexicon of new terminology to obfuscate the lay-reader. Readability can be further hampered by having to accommodate quotes by international academics with a poor command of English. To help make Geoff’s essay more readable, I shortened some of the sentences, made a few changes to the wording and tidied up the grammar a bit. I suggested he reworked the conclusion to make it a little stronger.

‘Are you having trouble with the question?’ says Miss Stover. ‘Perhaps we’d better do something to help you remember.’

All I have to do is to find a way to explain to this pair of titans that my intentions were good. But how? I remember back then a little nagging thought coming into my head about the security services. I was aware that under monitoring by organisations like GCHQ and NSA, certain keywords and expressions used on social media could trigger an algorithm that rendered you a suspect to be investigated. I had also read that security services checked up to three hops from anyone who became a target of interest, one hop being Facebook friends, two hops being friends of friends, with the third hop dragging in their friends too. If GCHQ or NSA decided I was a target of interest, for example, that could drag in 240 Facebook friends, 43,120 friends of friends, and 6.6 million of their friends. Geoff’s profile might well generate similarly humongous numbers.

I had reasoned that security services would need thousands of employees to go through that lot and anyway, we were not even talking about an inflammatory social media post. We were talking about an attachment to an email. However, for my own peace of mind, I had taken the precaution to save the file again under a different name before I emailed it to Geoff. Thinking back now, the original file, the dae5h one had somehow mysteriously disappeared from the computer but I had decided to think no more of it. These things sometimes happened.

I am still trying to think of a response to Miss Stover’s remark that might settle it, when I remember Geoff and I had had a brief exchange of private messaging about the essay, more specifically I had commented that our government was probably secretly selling weapons to DAESH over the dark web. This might not sit so well with them. But, private messaging was private, wasn’t it? The idea of an investigation by listening centres on such a flimsy premise was preposterous. Unless of course, Geoff was already under investigation. This seemed even more unlikely. Perhaps then, someone else on his Criminology course was up to something nefarious and had drawn Geoff in. When on home visits, Geoff had spoken about his friend, Tariq, he had sounded like a suspicious character, someone who could conceivably have underworld connections. But I reassured myself that it was being fanciful to think that anything subversive was going on at a respectable institution like Coventry University. Nothing untoward could possibly happen under the noses of qualified criminologists.

Have the spooks taken Geoff in for interrogation too, I’m wondering? Are they now treating him to the same regime of torture in another location? Geoff would find it much harder than me to cope with hours of tuneless trombone playing. He only listens to dance music and dubstep.

‘I am beginning to lose patience, Mr Exe?’ says Miss Stover, now taking out a sinister looking electrical device. ‘Perhaps your memory needs a jolt.’

She is coming towards me. Where is she planning on putting those electrodes?

‘OK. I’ll co-operate,’ I say, my natural cowardice coming to my rescue. I begin to tell her about the Dark Internet essay and explain that she has got the wrong end of the stick. That it was all a huge misunderstanding.

‘Is that really why you think we have brought you here?’ Miss Barbed Wire says, interrupting me before I have finished. ‘You cannot be serious. We don’t care about any of that stuff.’

I struggle to think of another reason why they might go to so much trouble. Whatever it is, it seems to revolve around my laptop, but what else could be there?

‘Tell us about your emails, SMS’s and Skype calls to Yulia Kuznetsova, Mr Exe,’ Miss Stover says.

‘You mean Julie. ….. Julie is an admin assistant at the school,’ I say.

‘That’s as maybe. But, she is more than that, isn’t she?’ Miss Barbed Wire says. ‘You have been sleeping with Yulia Kuznetsova and making dissident plans.’

I had not thought this brief extra-marital fling would come to light or be of any interest to anyone other than the two of us. Well, of course, there was Hannah. It might have been of interest to Hannah. But, Hannah had not found out and this was the main thing. Dissident plans, though. What are they talking about?

‘We want to know what you mean by, I think I have a way to get rid of Putin,‘ Miss Stover says. Meanwhile, she appears to be adjusting some controls on the electronic device.

‘Putin. ……. That’s our nickname for the head,’ I say. ‘We call him that because of his dictatorial style. …… Plus, his name is Puttman. Quite similar, I think you’ll agree. Julie started using the name as a joke and I just went along with it.’

‘A likely story.’

‘And, he does look a little like the Russian President.’

‘What about the trip to Moscow, you mention?’

‘This was just a fantasy we had. We both like Russian music, you see. Julie said that although her family came from the land of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, she’d never been there. It was a spur of the moment comment. I wasn’t serious.’

‘That’s not how it sounds here. It says ‘We’ll have Putin at close range in Moscow. This time for real. Real, Mr Exe. You are the English teacher. Tell me what does real mean?’

‘You’ve got this all wrong.’

‘What about, I’ll fire the first shot if you like?

‘Sometimes Julie’s English is not so good. What she means is ……..’

‘What about your English, Mr Exe? We have here, Putin will be dead in the water.

‘It’s just an expression. It means …..’

‘I know what it means, Mr Exe.

‘And here you have, We could finish him off next month, we’ll have more ammunition by then,Miss Barbed Wire says. Perhaps you could try and explain that.’

‘I didn’t mean literally and anyway ….’

‘But, there’s more, Mr Exe. You are not going to get out of this one, so you may as well come clean.’

The English language, it seems, is littered with pitfalls, made up as it is by expressions with multiple meanings. Metaphors, puns and double-entendres are so much a part of our everyday parlance. You have to be really careful with your language, especially on the Internet where there is a record of everything, endlessly scrutinised by listening centres the world over. Clearly the Onion Router and the Dark Internet have been set up so you can evade this scrutiny. By not using TOR, Julie and I were remiss. It occurs to me that Julie might be undergoing a similarly vigorous interrogation somewhere.

Perhaps things would not have been so dire had the attempt on the Russian president’s life last week not come to light. A case of bad timing, really. I imagine this is what it must have been like all the time for Dmitri Shostakovich. Under Stalin, he must have constantly lived with the threat of the knock at 3 am and the subsequent interrogation in a remote location regarding something he knew nothing about. Attempts on Stalin’s life were weekly. But who would have expected the knock at 3 am here in the south west of England? Oh well! There’s probably no point in holding out. If I manage to survive the electric shocks and the kneecapping, they probably have plans to subject me to songs from the shows on the euphonium or the tuba. I might as well own up now, tell them it was me. I was plotting to kill Putin. In this post-truth climate, where black is white and right and wrong are interchangeable, my confession will seem no more unlikely than the other improbable things that are happening in the world.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved