Dominic Bell - Runner up

Competition: Three Words Competition 2017

Dominic Bell is an oil rig worker from Hull, East Yorkshire, and writes as a break from staring at the sea. His main writing project is endlessly rewriting a series of First World War novels. He tries to enter almost all the WM short story competitions to diversify his writing and to actually finish something. He has now won twice and been placed three times, which has greatly encouraged him.

Dominic Bell

The Anniversary

It was easier with the Apples, he thought, glancing round the café. Their owners were always making their iPhones a hotspot for their own or their kids’ iPads to use. So many people put in only a token password. MumsiPhone or something like that...
Paul did not do much, he never did, just inserted a little remote access routine, and had a look to see if there was anything interesting. Sometimes he took over the camera, but that was hit and miss and usually took too long to get results. It was easier to find pictures they had already taken, to look for the ones that did not fit, for the man not on the pictures with the children, for the younger woman with a sultry look in her eyes.
Then it would be time for more detective work, finding passwords, addresses, phone numbers, looking at their email, at their Facebook, watching for proposed assignations. Usually, if they looked well off enough he would do a bit of shadowing, get a photo or two of the two lovers meeting. That was what he was doing now, staking out an assignation. He had already identified the man, furtive in a corner, an obvious straying husband. Good. There would be two sources of income from this operation, he thought.
The woman came in, paused uncertainly at the door, looking round, then her face lit up as she saw the man. She hurried over to him, and he stood and gave her a kiss, smiling deep into her eyes, their faces illuminated with passion, ignoring everything but each other. He watched, apparently busy on his own phone and casually lined up the picture.
‘Say cheese...’ he said to himself.
The couple kissed again, even more passionately and he took another. One more in the bag. A true picture of a loving couple. Exactly what he needed. Enough. He drank the last of his coffee and left, en route for the next café, looking for the next opportunity.
He never asked for much, just dropped round an envelope to their address with a spiel in about a picture randomly taken in a café, and an appeal to buy the picture and start a direct debit to a charity website. Only five pounds a month usually. It was a perfectly genuine charity, a Christian relief organisation based in the Middle East, for whom he ran a website fund raising site on a results based basis. Under a false identity of course, an identity with its own bitcoin account to which the money went. He got twenty per cent of each donation. Just taking his cut, like the chuggers with their clipboards in the town centre. The charity were delighted at his success, at the money that flowed in to fund their initiatives.
Otherwise, he would say in the letter, the picture would be posted online to see if anyone else was interested in buying it. The vague threat was enough to make sure most people paid up, and if they learned their lesson, if as he shadowed their lives, he saw that they had returned to a purer path then he would leave it at that. He was never too greedy. To his mind it was no different to the old days when people had expunged their sins with cash given to the church. But if something annoyed him about the couple he might monitor them, just to make sure that they ended their sinning, and if they did not he would he would end it for them with a post or text from another woman or man that ‘accidentally’ ended up going to the wrong destination.
Of course if they did not pay he would upload the picture to both their Facebook accounts, apparently put on by themselves and with the names of both participants, and appropriate messages and comment. To ensure it stayed visible as long as possible he would open their access to the anyone can see, change their status to ‘its complicated’, make sure that all their friends could look, let everyone could gaze into the minutiae of their lives, give them a twenty-first century pillorying.
That was only incidental though. The money from the site was saved to finance a rather bigger game. He had watched and learned from the mistakes of others, and he had devised a way to get a true vengeance, a way of mounting a double pronged attack that would blaze headlines across the world. It had taken time, learning from friends from university who now ran the great databases and networks that kept Britain going – and managed their security. Not that they had known what he was after of course, not at all. They had thought he had just wanted a few tips for his mundane day job, running the network services for a small company.
The phones he used for the photos were pay as you go, of course, bought with cash when he was last in London, as were collection of little laptops that he used in cafés to access the net. He enjoyed it, the planning, the anonymity, the spurious legality of it all, twisting the privacy laws to violate the privacy of others. And with the bitcoin he had accreted, the bitcoin that had swelled in value to far beyond his expectations, he searched for what he needed. It had worked once for someone else, but had been stopped by a simple flaw. He had improved it. It was a simple change that did not take him long, and when it was done he released it onto his test network at work. It did what it was supposed to, but he was not still not satisfied. He researched further in dark corners of the internet and made a couple more purchases, extending its scope, its power, its potential. He tested it again and again until he was satisfied. Then he reimaged the test network, clearing all traces of his experimenting from it and waited for the day.
And now it the day had come. He wondered about the collateral damage as he waited for noon. The time had been chosen to give him time for the papers to watch the growing problem, to ready their screaming headlines and demands. He thought about this day ten years ago and he felt the anger come, the resentment swell.
It was time. He went out to pick up a coffee. He switched on the phone and sent out a single message. Then he reset it to factory settings, switched it off, stuffed it in a bag, dropped it in a bin. And a thousand compromised devices awoke and obeyed its dying command, transmitting their payload onwards.
He returned to his work, wondering when it would affect his companies network. It took three hours before the first phone call. Another came and another and, seemingly baffled, he cut the companies access to the internet and apparently worked feverishly to restore the problem, looking appropriately worried. No one would blame him for his failure to deal with the problem. It was already all over the news. Airports locking up, hospitals in chaos, even supermarket tills stopping working as the worm, his worm, speared through their networks, seeking data avariciously. Seeking passwords.
They found them by their thousands and started to send them to his second larger botnet. It took over as administrators started to target his first bot network, a network that was still releasing thousands of copies of the worm into the world, a worm that reproduced, that evolved and altered at a speed they had never seen before.
He wished he could watch the war that was being fought online, the computers of the first botnet being one by one isolated by network administrators, and then their frustration as his second wave came into action and apparently entirely valid users started to post picture after picture, randomly chosen from their computers or phones on Facebook, on Twitter, to Snapchat, to Appletalk, and all the rest, so that their great farms of servers slowed inexorably to a halt. A massive denial of service attack. The internet itself hesitated, fragmented as more and more servers were isolated in an attempt to stop the damage. In the media pressure was building nicely, getting people ready for what was to come. Speculation abounded as to the motive, money, terrorism, the Russians, the Koreans. He smiled as he listened to the radio. For the news sites were almost unreachable.
He glanced at his watch. The demand should be released by now. Yes, there it was, the announcer talking excitedly. People talking about a temporary shut down to alleviate the situation, others talking about not giving into web terrorists. The phrase gave him pleasure. But it was wrong, he thought, He was not a terrorist but a freedom fighter, he thought, fighting for those who had been faithful against those who tempted those into straying.
A feeling of exultation filled him as the first site on the list went down, a press release saying that for the common good they were temporarily suspending their service. The big ones held on a little longer, but pressure from their own customers forced them down one by one, emails and texts streaming in with threats that they would never use them again if they stayed up, that how could they be so selfish, to think of the hospitals. Plenty More Fish. Match.com. Cupid.com. One by one they went offline, until finally, last of all, went Tinder, and slowly, cautiously, still infected as it would be for days, for weeks, the web slowly returned to normal. One of the sites went back online and instantly the worm started to propagate again. Five minutes later they shut down again.
And he leaned back in his chair, suddenly hollow, drained, for it was over, and he had had his revenge, had made the dating sites pay for luring his wife away, but it had not brought her back and she would never know what he had done, on this day that would have been their fifteenth wedding anniversary.

 

Judges Comments

Plot is everything in Dominic Bell's rollercoaster cyber thriller The Anniversary, the runner up in our Three Words Short Story Competition.
Dominic also proves that when it comes to storytelling, you can break whatever 'rules' you like as long as you do with flair and panache, and you keep your reader on the edge of their seat. There's an awful lot of 'telling' rather than 'showing' as Dominic piles on details of the snowballing of his hacker's act of revenge – and he gets away with it. The tension ratchets up as Dominic lays out the domino effect on the world wide web, with sites and systems irretrievably crashing.

The best genre writing illuminates aspects of what we fear in the culture surrounding us, and Dominic has brilliantly tapped into our fear of what could happen if the technology we now rely on so heavily were to fail - we were given a collective foreshadowing of this in the cyber-attack in May that temporarily disabled systems including the NHS. Dominic has taken this scenario and very convincingly amplified it, creating a panic-inducing picture of a world in which all the online platforms and communities we rely on malfunction, bringing everyday existence as we now live it to a halt.

Dominic creates a motive for his character's actions that reminds us that rejection and hurt can turn to corrosive anger. His narrator has suffered a very personal loss and, lashing out on a large scale, enacted a devastating global revenge. It's not beyond the realms of possibility – which again taps into contemporary fears. The Anniversary is a taut white-knuckle thriller and that a dark tale that mirrors our times – an excellent, and timely, piece of storytelling.

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