Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


19th in Love
by Gerard Mulligan

Nelay and the Blunt
by Clint Spivey

Fletcher’s Mountains
by Michael Hodges

Robert and Sarah, Across the Multiverse
by Matthew S. Dent

Boccaccio in Outer Space
by Chet Gottfried

Invoking Fire
by Guy Stewart

Seven Seconds
by Charles Payseur

by Simon Kewin

Coming of AGE
by Bob Sojka

A Journey Through the Wormhole
by Brian Biswas


A Taste for Physics
by John McCormick

Scale of the Problem by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips





By Simon Kewin


Jay sat back from his screen, fingers paused over his keyboard. A window with the words Unknown Process Detected overlaid his screen. Details filled the window: memory usage, I/O, CPU load. The numbers blurred as they counted up.

So much for his new algorithms. This wasn’t supposed to be possible.

His fingers rattled over the keyboard, bringing up new windows, drilling down into details. He tried to kill the virus. No good; some controlling process he wasn’t seeing resurrected it immediately.

“Damn,” he said again.

“What you got, Jay?”

Maddy, his line-manager, spoke without looking up from her own screen. She sat on the other side of the office. It was late. Everyone else had left hours ago. The office blocks of Canary Wharf outside the window were just grids of square lights against the orange glow of the London night. The reflection in the window showed the two of them clearly, surrounded by all the clutter and disembowelled hardware of any serious techie office.

“Rootkit maybe,” said Jay. “It’s infected the tethered goat machine in Hong Kong.”

“What version of Exorcist is installed?”

“5.65, latest and greatest. And with my experimental routines plugged in. And today’s virus signatures. None of them stopped it for a second.”

Maddy—Madeleine—stood from her own machine and threaded her way through the PC graveyard to look over Jay’s shoulder. She was OK, Maddy. Most turned instant fascist when they became team-leader. He couldn’t help being conscious of how close her breasts were to his ear as she bent to examine his screen.

“Any of the others affected?”

They had machines set up the world over waiting to be infected. Isolated from their internal network of course: you could never be 100 percent sure some chunk of malware wasn’t going to tunnel through the firewalls. The tethered goats were only visible to Jay and his co-workers at XOr Antivirus from isolated machines of their own. Nothing was allowed to endanger the company’s internal network.

Jay flicked to the other machines they had out there. Prague, Boston, Sydney, Jo’burg, Buenos Aries.

“Damn,” said Maddy this time. “Why do these things always happen at one in the morning?”

The outbreak was global. Admittedly the browsing scripts they ran did some pretty stupid things, visiting sites where drive-by infections were likely. Still, this was big.

Maddy pulled her iPhone from the pocket of her jeans to start rousing backup. Jay drained his cup of black coffee and plugged a thumb drive into the isolated machine to upload the apps he would need. When he’d finished he tossed the memory stick into the Incinerate bin. Company rules. Maddy flashed a grin at him as she talked, raising an amused eyebrow as the employee on the other end of her phone complained audibly.

“So, where are we at, Jay?”

Karl, Maddy’s boss, definitely was of the instant fascist variety. The sort who went on People Skills courses and came back even worse. Even at five in the morning he was immaculately dressed, every inch the professional. Karl was a schemer, an empire-builder, and he didn’t like Jay. Probably imagined he secretly worked for the dark side, infiltrating XOr.

“It’s good and bad,” said Jay, swivelling his chair to look up at Karl. “It replicates aggressively. Must have been silently infecting servers for a while before it triggered. Busy too. Don’t know what it’s doing but it’s doing a hell of a lot of it.”

“Is it destructive?”

“It’s degrading machine performance but I haven’t found any damage to data files yet.”

“So it’s a zombie.”

Jay resisted grinning. He loved the way Karl liked to use the terminology. “Could be. No sign of it being remote controlled though. It thrashes away even when it’s isolated.”

“Does Exorcist touch it at all? At full aggression?”


“OK, so what’s the good news?”

“It doesn’t mutate.”

“We can get a signature for it.”

“Yeah. Got one already, just testing it now. We can have an update ready for download within the hour. Only ...”

“Only what? Do you have a signature or don’t you?”

Karl’s people skills front slipped a little. He frowned, as if Jay was deliberately causing him problems.

“I do. We do. It just seems too easy, somehow. This is smart code, I’m sure of it. Why is it so easy to remove?”

“Exorcist is good.”

“Even so. Someone’s gone to a whole lot of trouble. Seems odd we can just clean it up like that.”

“They’re relying on the stupid 50 percent who don’t protect their machines. And all we care about are our customers, yes?”


“OK, good. Push out the signature to everyone.”

“Will do.”


By 8:30 am the day shift were fully briefed. Maddy put a hand on Jay’s shoulder. “Go home. You’ve done good.”

Jay nodded but kept his gaze on the infected machine. CPU still busy doing something. Disk space dropping but nothing visible taking up the room.

“Jay, come on. You need to rest. Go home. Sleep. Eat and drink. Do ... whatever it is you do when you’re not here.”

“Sure. OK.”

He got up to leave, stretching his aching back. His eyes prickled from the ten hours he’d spent staring at screens. Maddy was right, it wasn’t his problem now, not until his next shift. The problem was getting his brain to see it like that.



“Something still troubles me about this. I don’t think we’ve got to the bottom of it.”

“Go on.”

“This thing is smart. I think it’s given us a nice easy infection we can feel happy about removing while the real deal works away behind the scenes.”

“OK. I’ll pass on your concerns to the day shift. Just go and sleep before your brain explodes.” She looked exhausted too, wisps of her dark brown hair swinging loose to hover around her face. He wondered what she thought of Karl. There had been whispers of an affair between them but Jay found it unlikely. Maddy was smart.

“I want to take a machine home with me,” he said. “To carry on working with. OK?”

She studied him for a moment. It was tricky for her, being caught between the coders and the management, neither one or the other. He gave her his best lovable rogue grin.

“It’s at your own risk, OK? If you infect your own machines it’s your problem.”


“And sleep first. Zombie workers are no good to me.”

“Sure. Sleep. Got it. Anything else?”

“Get out of here,” she said. “I’ll see you back this evening.”


He lugged the machine up to his first-floor flat in the North London suburbs. The edge of the casing was sharp, cutting into his fingers. Next time he’d take a laptop. He’d had plenty of suspicious glances from the morning’s commuters, riding the tube with a PC clutched to his chest.

Inside his flat, he set the machine down on the floor and tried to flex life back into his creased hands. He glanced round. When he brought people up here—which he had to admit was rare—they were always surprised how tidy it all was. They expected the typical hacker bachelor pad: all Xbox games and pizza cases. But he hated clutter, obsessively so. Couldn’t get his thoughts straight until his surroundings were straight too. He wondered what Maddy’s place was like. So far as he knew she lived alone. Perhaps he should invite her round. They joked in the office and traded humorous YouTube videos but that was as far as it went.

He made himself a chicken sandwich, and, while the filter machine gurgled its ways through the coffee, set the machine up with a power supply, monitor, keyboard and mouse. He didn’t connect it to his router and he knew it didn’t have wireless. It was completely isolated.

From one of his regular desktop machines he dumped a load of utilities onto a USB drive as he had at work. He copied across a few gig of music too, something to listen to while he worked. “System of a Down,” lively enough to keep him awake. Making sure the device was switched to read-only he plugged it into the infected machine and sat down to play. He would sleep soon. Just a few more things to try. He plugged his earphones into the PC and set to work.

He sat for one hour, two albums and four coffees. Definitely something going on with the machine, but he was damned if he knew what. The CPU had stayed busy, something still ate away at the available disk-space. Damn sound card was dodgy too; an irritating background buzz in his ears distracted him. Maybe an out of date driver. He’d switched from metal to something a bit gentler, “Godspeed You! Black Emperor,” but it was the same. He could have just fetched his iPod but he was too engrossed in what he was doing. In the end he sat there in silence, buds still plugged into his ears.

He tried to think straight. OK, if Windows had been infected with a rootkit he wasn’t going to find it looking via Windows. The evil code was sitting there telling the operating system it didn’t exist. Logically, he needed to boot from another drive. Better still, another OS. He pulled a Linux DVD from a drawer, turned off the computer, counted to thirty, then booted up again. This time the infected hard-disk was just a bunch of dead files. He began to compare file sizes and dates against the standard list.

The scale of the outbreak became clear. A whole slew of device drivers were massively bloated. Which wasn’t supposed to be possible, even without Exorcist. Some unknown exploit. But he was no nearer working out what the virus did. Now it wasn’t running it was just megabytes of dead binary.

He did discover where the disk-space was going though: a single file called ~.~ deep in a tree of folders, 20 gigabytes in size. What the hell was that?

Too whacked to think of anything smarter to do, he tried loading the file into a hex editor. It wasn’t unknown for virus writers to leave URLs or Twitter IDs in there, bragging to their competitors. He scrolled through reams of ASCII sequences that just looked like noise: chance consecutive bytes of printable characters. The string Zer0.Zer0 appeared several times, but he could make nothing of it. Not a registered domain, nothing at all on Google.

He couldn’t think straight, pain thickening in his forehead, the room beginning to lurch. Time to sleep. He left the computer on to see what state it would be in later, pulled the buds from his ears, and fell into bed.


His mobile roused him, his ringtone an old Metallica track, “Trapped Under Ice.” He felt woozy and his head throbbed as he fumbled to pick up.


“So, are you not coming to join us in work today then?”

Karl. Damn. “I, uh, yeah. I’m just working on something here.”

“I see. Anything important at all?”

He looked around his bedroom. It was dark apart from the sodium glow of the city through his blinds. Had he slept through the whole day? Night shifts threw him completely. Pain thrummed in his head as he sat up and tried to piece coherent thoughts together. He held his phone out for a moment to see what time it was. Gone eight. Should have been at work an hour ago.

“Yeah. It’s the machine I brought home. Maddy said I could work on it here.”

It was a dangerous gambit, putting Maddy in a potentially awkward situation. He winced in the darkness.

“Maddy isn’t here either. As a matter of fact very few people are.”

“What? Why?”

“Flu, apparently.” The way he said it made it clear he thought being ill was a moral failing. “Haven’t you see the news?”

“I, uh, no. Been up to my elbows. What’s happened?”

“An outbreak, lots of people struck down. They’re panicking about H1N1 again. I need to know what your status is Jay. We’re pretty short-handed here.”

He sounded pressurised, struggling bravely to keep everything running. He played it beautifully. While he talked Jay scanned the headlines on the BBC web site. The outbreak looked pretty widespread. Pockets worldwide. Usual symptoms: dizziness, tiredness, aches and pains. Perhaps he had it. That would explain his throbbing head.


“Sorry. Feeling pretty ropy myself actually.”

“So you’re staying at home? We are at code red here you know.”

“The signature update didn’t work?”

“Yes but machines are still infected. Hidden processes. Your patch doesn’t touch them.”

Jay had to smile. Somehow this was his fault. “The thing is, Karl, I might be on to something here. Something worth pursuing.”

“What have you found?”

“Some strings in a hidden file that could be a signature. I’d like to check it out, see if anyone knows what they mean.”

There was silence. This confirmed all Karl’s fears about Jay’s former links to the blackhats and malware writers. The bad guys.

“Ask whom, Jay? Who will you ask?”

No point denying it. Truth was he did still have contacts on the other side. A few. He was just no longer one of them. The monthly paycheque saw to that. But his former contacts didn’t know; anonymity worked both ways. To them he was just “Firestarter,” hacker and occasional presence on forums. They didn’t know who he really was.

“Just people I used to know. People I haven’t spoken to for years. It’s worth a shot. If we can get a handle on this XOr can get ahead of the curve. Before our competitors do.

As expected, that worked beautifully.

“OK, Jay. See what you can find out. But I want you back in here with a full update tomorrow.”

“Sure, Karl.”


Jay washed paracetamol down with more black coffee while he tried to think straight. He really hadn’t spoken to his old contacts for a long time, apart from a few gaming sessions. What had he even meant? This damn infection had been running around in his brain all night, giving him trapped-in-code-loop nightmares. The string he’d found was pretty inconsequential. It was a classic mistake when debugging to see patterns where there were none. But, then again, it was another classic mistake to overlook a pattern just because it seemed unlikely.

He sipped his coffee standing at his window, looking out over the lights of London. Streets weirdly quiet. Normally they were thick with cars at this hour. Everyone was probably just staying at home. He was glad he had some Tamiflu left over from the previous winter.

He browsed boards and IRC channels for a couple of hours, looking for traces of his old associates. Nothing within the last year. Twitter, Facebook, Usenet: zilch. He left a few posts here and there, nothing overt, in the hope someone would get back to him.

The problem was people changed their online identities. Obviously. But they couldn’t do so constantly: if they did they’d just lose touch with everyone. There had to be someone still using an old ID, even if they only checked it occasionally.

He trawled through his archived emails to see if there were any sites he’d forgotten about. A few more forums he hadn’t tried, probably all long gone. He tried them anyway and found, to his surprise, the third was still active. Probably just popped back up on a different IP address when it got shut down.

He browsed through posts and found a recent thread with some user names on it he recognized. Which might mean nothing, of course. Anyone could pick a user name. Still, it was all he had. He sent direct messages to them all: again nothing too risky, just a polite hail. Then he sat watching his screen, sipping more coffee, nibbling toast to help settle his stomach.

It was another hour before the text popped up on his screen.

<NaN> Hey Firestarter. Where U been?

<Firestarter> Here and there.

NaN—if it was the same person—was a contact from way back, the sort of person who knew a lot about a lot. Probably too much about a lot.

<NaN> So, what’s up?

<Firestarter> Looking for help. Sick PC.

<NaN> You?

<Firestarter> Yeah. Not good.

<NaN> Go on.

<Firestarter> Something called Zer0.Zer0. Heard of it?

Jay sat for a minute, two minutes, waiting for a reply. Nothing. The cursor winked away at him. He guessed he’d gone too far. He was about to shut down when the conversation resumed.

<NaN> Wipe the machine and reinstall.

<Firestarter> That bad?

<NaN> Yup.

<Firestarter> What’s so bad about it?

There was another pause. Jay imagined NaN debating whether to carry on with the conversation.

<NaN> Really wanna know?

<Firestarter> Sure.

<NaN> Can we meet up?

That was unexpected. Hackers never just met up. They probably weren’t even on the same continent.

<Firestarter> Why?

<NaN> Can tell you about Zer0.Zer0.

<Firestarter> Tell me here.

<NaN> Showing you is better. You’ll be interested.

That threw him. What the hell did NaN know about him? Meeting up with him was an insane thing to do. It wasn’t like the old days, script kiddies writing viruses to see who could infect the most machines. These days it was big business, organized crime. Another reason he’d got out.

<NaN> Somewhere safe. Public.

Now Jay took his time to reply.

<Firestarter> Why would I be interested?

<NaN> We can help each other.

<Firestarter> How?

<NaN> I’ll show you. You’re in London?

<Firestarter> What makes you say that?

<NaN> Guess. You’re definitely UK. IP not proxied you know.

Damn. He’d forgotten to do that. He thought about leaving the channel. He could just tell Karl he hadn’t found anything. That was the smart move. Still, he hated being beaten.

<Firestarter> You in London?

<NaN> Can be. 9:00am, Trafalgar Square?

<Firestarter> OK.


“Hi Maddy.”

She looked terrible, peering around her door into the morning light with bleary eyes.


“Yeah. Sorry. Got your address from work, said I’d drop round and see if you were OK.”

“They gave you my address?”

“Well, actually, I more sort of know the administrator password for the database. Only that sounds creepy.”

She frowned at him, then sighed. “Alright. Come in. But don’t blame me if you catch flu too.”

“I got it already.”

She unchained the door and opened it, clutching her dressing gown closed at her neck. She looked pale.

“Why are you really here?”

“I just wanted to talk to you. It’s kind of a work thing.”

“OK. But I’m not up to much. You’ll have to make your own ridiculously strong coffee.”

She showed him into the kitchen. It was pristine, polished wood and steel, little-used. The espresso machine must have just come out of its box, like an unused wedding present. He busied himself with it while Maddy went upstairs. She returned wearing jeans and tee-shirt, looking only slightly less wrecked.

“I made you some tea,” he said.



“Just had some.”

“You have the headaches and the dizziness? Like being drunk and hungover at the same time?”

“Something like that. They’re saying it’s flu but it’s not like that.”

“Someone on Twitter said it’s just mass hysteria.”

“They wouldn’t say that if they felt like I do.”

They sat down at her kitchen table. Jay gazed at the continents forming in his coffee cup, wondering where to start.

“The thing is ...” “So what’s the ...”

They each started talking at the same moment. She grinned.

“Go on. You first.”

“OK. The thing is, I need your advice.”

“Go on.”

She looked amused. He tried to stop himself feeling like a school kid asking for a date.

“It’s this virus. I spoke to an old friend. He’s the sort of guy with contacts, yeah? The thing is he sounded troubled. Said we could help each other. And he wants to meet up. Which is pretty weird.”

“I thought you said he was a friend.”

“Well, kind of. I’ve never actually met him.”

“You mean he’s a hacker.”


“So you’re going to meet him?”

“I guess. It’s all very James Bond. Trafalgar Square, nine o’clock.”

“And you’re telling me this why?”

“I hoped you’d come along.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Well, I wanted to keep everything aboveboard. Plus, I’ll be honest, it would be good not to go alone.”

“You’re scared?”

“No. Of course not. Out in the open it’ll be perfectly safe. I just thought, you know, moral support.”

He looked back down at his coffee, aware of how ridiculous he sounded. But when he looked back up at her she was grinning. “From what I hear the streets are pretty crazy. Lots of people ill.”

“Yeah, but I figured since we’d both caught it already it didn’t matter. Look, this was a bad idea. I can see you’re not well. I’ll go alone and maybe see you at work tonight.”

He drained his coffee and stood up. He had to leave now to get into London in time.

“Wait. I’ll come.”

“What? Why?”

“Got to look after our star programmer haven’t we?”


They stood together until 9:30. No one approached. The problem was, of course, he had no idea what NaN looked like. Determined commuters and ambling tourists milled around the square. Quite a few wore white masks over their mouths and noses. The ground was strewn with them, like weird toadstools. Perhaps the outbreak, whatever the hell it was, was passing. Twenty-four-hour flu.

“You think he’s coming?” Maddy looked drained. She sat on the low wall that surrounded one of the fountains.

“I don’t know. Perhaps he’s been held up. Lots of trains cancelled.”

He tried not to think of the more sinister ideas nagging away at him. NaN had got him out of the way so he could search Jay’s flat. NaN had been intercepted by the evil Zer0.Zer0 coders. Ridiculous. He’d read too many science fiction novels.

“Can I borrow your lipstick, Maddy?”

“You look fine to me, sweetheart.”


She shrugged and handed him one from her handbag. He stooped to pick up a square of paper from the floor, a flyer for some pizza place, and wrote the words BAD SECTOR in large red letters.

“Good job you don’t go for subtle colours,” he said.

“Ha, ha.”

Jay held up the makeshift sign.

“And that means? Apart from the obvious?”

“It’s our gaming clan.”

“Of course it is.”

He stood, making sure the sign could be seen from all angles.

“Happy now?”

“I just figured he doesn’t know what I look like. He’s not expecting a couple.”

“Oh, you think we’re a couple?”

“No, I just meant ...”

“Ssh. Look. Someone’s coming.”

A man strode across the square. He looked mid-thirties, straggly hair, scruffy clothes. Standard geek. He walked up to them and shook Jay’s hand, like they were old friends.

“I’m NaN.”

“I’m, uh, Firestarter.”

Jay tried to ignore Maddy’s raised eyebrow.

“Who’s this?” asked NaN.

“She’s a friend. She’s cool. Why did you want to meet?”

Zer0.Zer0,” he said.

“You know about it?” asked Maddy.

“The whole world knows about it, don’t they?”

“Certainly hit a lot of machines,” said Maddy.

“I don’t mean that. Don’t you know? Haven’t you worked it out?”

“Worked what out?”

“This!” said NaN, indicating the square, London, the world all around them. “This so-called flu. Look what it’s done!”

“You’re saying a computer virus has infected people?” asked Jay. He suddenly didn’t dare look at Maddy. NaN was clearly mad. He’d made a terrible mistake.

“Well, yeah, obviously. I figured you’d got that far. That was why I decided to speak to you. I thought maybe you could do something.”

“NaN, a computer virus can’t infect people” said Maddy, her voice calm, reasonable. “You do know that? We call them viruses but that’s just a metaphor.”

“Yes. Obviously.”

“Then how can this Zer0.Zer0 have caused a flu pandemic?”

“Tell me, did you two catch it?”

“I guess,” said Jay.

“OK. And did you listen to music on an infected machine beforehand?”

“Well, yeah,” said Jay.

“Me too,” said Maddy. “Synced my iPod on one anyway.”

“There you are then,” said NaN.

“There you are where?” asked Maddy.

NaN sighed, glancing around before speaking further. “Certain wavelengths encoded into music. Get the right frequencies and you start to glitch out the middle-ear, send the semicircular canals crazy. Enough exposure and the listener starts to feel disorientated and dizzy. Headaches, sickness, everything.”

“A million things cause those symptoms,” said Maddy.

“But you can hear the sonics. Like a mosquito buzzing.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Maddy.

“Not everyone can,’ said NaN. “Depends how old you are.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“I heard it,” said Jay. “Like interference, but only when the music was playing.”

“Yes, it’s smart,” said NaN.

“How can we possibly believe that?” asked Maddy.

“You spotted all the disk-space it consumed? Did you work out what it was?”

“Well, no,” said Jay.

“It’s caching the music. Adding the killer frequencies to each track. You tell the computer to play something and what you actually get is the tampered version, streamed directly into your head.”

“Can you actually prove any of this?” asked Maddy.

“Here. Watch this.”

He showed them his iPhone, some shaky video footage. A man sat in a chair, smiling, looking calm. Loudspeakers around him played music, something classical Jay didn’t recognise.

“Let me skip on ten minutes.”

Now the man’s eyes were closed. His head lolled around like he was drunk. He clutched his hands over his ears, tried to stand, fell to the floor. He started to vomit. A line of blood trickled from one of his ears.

“We were testing which frequencies to use, how powerful. Went a bit far with this one.”

“You’re saying you’re responsible for Zer0.Zer0?” asked Maddy.

“In the early days, yes. I got out when I saw where it was going.”

“And where was it going?”

“Isn’t it obvious? They’ve infected machines the world over. A co-ordinated trigger message and they’ve crippled millions of people.”

“Why? Why would they—you—do that?” asked Maddy.

“Why do you think? For money, obviously. This whole flu outbreak has been just an opening shot. If they don’t get what they want they’ll do it for longer next time. Trust me, you do not want that. It’s not just the middle-ear. The right frequencies and you can disrupt the brain. Permanently.”

“So they’ll be demanding money?”

“Oh yeah. Lots and lots of zeroes.”

Jay looked at Maddy. She looked worried now. How true was any of this? It sounded like some insane conspiracy theory. NaN must have seen it on his face.

“Look, I didn’t expect you’d just believe me. Prove it for yourself.”

He pulled a memory stick out of a pocket and held it out for them.

“All the video’s on here. Plus some source code. You’ll be able to break open the rootkit, see what it’s doing. Kill it too.”

“Why are you giving us this?” asked Jay.

“It’s all gone too far,” said NaN. “Far too far. Just keep it quiet, understand? I’m trusting you here.”

“None of this proves Zer0.Zer0 has anything to do with the flu outbreak,” said Maddy.

“Then experiment,” said NaN. “You’ve got the antidote now. Set up some tests. I was skeptical too before I played guinea pig.”

“You tested this on yourself?”

“Sure. Lots of us did. That guy in the video. He was one of the key programmers in the early days.”

“What happened to him?”

“Let’s just say he’s not programming any more.”

NaN looked around again. He looked nervous.

“I should go,” he said. “Do what you can. Oh, and be careful, yeah? If they find out about you they’re not going to play nicely.”

“Who are they?” asked Jay.

NaN shrugged.

“What will you do?” asked Maddy.

“I’m going to disappear. I’m taking no chances. Complete change of identity. You won’t see me again, Firestarter.”

Jay held out his hand and after a moment’s hesitation, NaN shook it.

“Then thanks,” said Jay. “For everything.”

NaN nodded, turned and strode off. When he’d gone Maddy let out a deep breath.

“Christ. Do you believe a word of that?”

“I dunno,” said Jay. “He’s a smart guy. Maybe crazy too. At least we can try his code and see if it works.”

“OK, Firestarter. I’ll phone XOr and tell them we’re coming in. That’ll be the safest place if there is a gang of ruthless lunatics after us.”

Jay stretched his legs while Maddy talked. He could tell immediately the conversation wasn’t going well.

“What happened?” he asked when she hung up.

“I spoke to Karl.”

“Ah. What did he say?”

“Said we’d broken every company rule and that we’re suspended for misconduct.”


“We’re not allowed near XOr. Disciplinary procedures to follow.”

“That’s ridiculous! We need to work on this fix. Doesn’t he understand?”

“Obviously not. You know what he’s like. We bypassed him, that’s all he sees. Damn.”

“Christ. Look, I’m really sorry Maddy. I shouldn’t have involved you.”

She stood and slipped her phone into her bag. “No. You should Jay. This could be important. Let’s go back to my place and test this out together.”

“That’s not a metaphor is it?”

“No it damn well isn’t.”

“Then let’s go to mine instead. I’ve got the infected machine there. We can use that.”


The underground station was even more crowded than usual, people shuffling through the tunnels, thronging the platforms. A lot more wore face-masks down here. Over the fuzzy, blaring Tannoy speakers came a list of cancelled and delayed services.

They stood on the platform at Leicester Square, waiting for a Northern Line train. One was due in three minutes but Jay doubted they’d get on. They stood near the edge of the platform but the previous train had been packed and only one or two had managed to squeeze on.

He looked around over a sea of heads. Being tall had its advantages sometimes. Maddy could see nothing beyond those surrounding her. Most people waited patiently, although one or two tried to force their way through the crowds. He watched as two men, shaved heads like soldiers, forced their way down the platform. There was always someone. The man, seeing him, turned to his companion and nodded towards Jay. Jay, suddenly, was glad of the crowds.

The train arrived, heralded by a rush of warm air from the tunnel. The Tannoy speakers blared again. Jay didn’t see what happened next. The train entered the station, still moving quickly. He was thrust forwards as the crowd behind him shoved. He tried to stop himself being pushed towards the platform edge but the surge was too strong. He heard panicked screams. A young woman standing slightly in front of him, tottered on the lip of the platform, scrabbling at the other people. Maddy caught one of her hands but couldn’t hold on. The woman tipped out of sight. The sickening thump and squeal of train brakes made it clear what had happened.

People screamed. Jay clutched Maddy’s arm as the crowd pushed and heaved. The train scraped to a halt, a curving wall of glass and metal in front of them. Inside, the passengers picked themselves up from the crush of the emergency-stop.

Reflected in the glass, through the crowd of heads behind him, he could clearly see the two shaven-headed men standing against the arching wall of the station. They looked directly at Jay.

“Come on,” he said. “This way.”

“What?” Maddy looked shocked, terrified. Everyone around them did.

Jay ducked down, hoping he couldn’t be seen from the back of the crowd. Grabbing Maddy’s arm he worked his way along the gap between train and crowd. The doors opened but no one got on or off. They got two carriage-lengths before the throng became too much to push through.

“What are you doing?” shouted Maddy. “We can’t go anywhere.”

“Just follow me.”

Back down the platform he could see the two men trying to force their way through the crowd.

“Come on,” he said.

He pushed onto the train. The carriages weren’t quite as crowded as the platform. Apologizing again and again, he squeezed his way along, trying to keep as many bodies as he could between himself and the platform. At the end of the carriage they came to a door, notices containing dire warnings about going through. Jay heaved the door open and stepped across the gap.

“What exactly are you doing?” asked Maddy.

“We have to get away without them seeing us.”


“I’ll explain later. Come on. Please.”

They worked their way through the carriages and, eventually, back onto the platform near the exit. Police and transport workers directed the crowd up escalators. Jay, seeing his chance, darted down a side-tunnel, away from the crush.

“We’re supposed to get outside,” said Maddy.

“I know. That’s why we’re going this way.”

Maddy grabbed him hard and made him stop.

“Now look, Jay, just what the hell is going on? We’re all upset. We’re all shocked. There’s no need to go crazy.”

“I’m not!” he shouted. And then, more quietly, “I’m not. Look, OK. You think that was an accident?”

“Well, yes, obviously. The crowded platform. The crush as the train arrived.”

“No,” said Jay. “It was two guys at the back pushing. Pushing us.”

“Why would they do that?”

“When you spoke to work, did you mention where we were?”

“Uh, yes, I think so.”

“Someone was listening in. They came to get us.”

“Jay, this is insane.”

“Maybe. But let’s get away from here just in case, OK?”

Maddy considered for a moment, glancing back at the shuffling crowd of people.

“Okay,” she said. “We can change at King’s Cross for Euston.”


They crossed London. Each police car siren, each shoulder brushing by, made Jay’s heart hammer. His head throbbed heavily again now. He wanted to sleep. Maddy looked pretty ill too. Neither spoke much as they took the tube, two buses and, finally, walked down Jay’s quiet, car-lined street in north London. Inside, Jay made drinks for them both while Maddy lay on his sofa, hand over her eyes. It was midday; effectively midnight for both of them.

“I’ll take a look at NaN’s source code,” said Jay.

“Let’s look at it together. Between us we might get somewhere.”

Jay plugged the memory stick into the infected machine. It had stopped disk-thrashing now although it still felt sluggish as he opened windows and copied files.

“Looks pretty straightforward,” said Maddy as they examined the hundred lines or so of C.

“Let’s write a script and see what it does.”

They worked for half an hour, coding up the script, running it, debugging, trying again. He hoped there was no lockout after x failed attempts. They were both too tired, too ill, to think straight and kept making stupid mistakes. But finally they had a script that ran to end. As NaN had promised, the call dumped out a listing of all the tracks Zer0.Zer0 had catalogued. The names of the songs Jay had copied onto the machine raced by on the screen.

“OK,” said Maddy. “Let’s try the self-destruct call.”

“Let me play a track first. If we can hear the hidden frequencies have gone we’ll know it’s worked.”

“Sure that’s wise?”

“Just a few seconds.”

Jay selected a “System of a Down” track. He figured they were a good choice; the abrupt silences had thrown the virus last time. He played “Chop Suey.”

“Hear it? Like a drill noise underneath the music.”

“I think so.”

“This is how it should sound.”

Jay played the same track from his docked iPhone.

“It’s subtle but, yeah, I hear it,” said Maddy.

“See, I said you should listen to more metal.”

“Let’s just try and clean it up.”

Another hour and they had the self-destruct script ready. The rootkit was clever. The keys had to be passed in at the right intervals. Too slow or too quick and nothing happened. It could have taken months without NaN’s commented code.

Jay pressed enter and they both watched as the disk-light on the infected machine lit up. It stayed that way for a minute, two minutes. Finally, it went out and the flashing cursor returned.

Jay played “Chop Suey” on the machine again. He looked at Maddy, who nodded. Clean. He checked the processes on the machine and the available disk space. All back to normal.

“I think we got it,” said Jay. “I’ll package it as an Exorcist update.”

“Except we can’t can we? Karl made that very clear, believe me.”

Jay shrugged.

“We’ll just FTP it up to one of the others. Jenny or Roger. They can send it out.”

“Not without Karl’s approval.”

“Actually, it’s easy to do without Karl’s approval.”

It was the same the world over. Management put passwords and sign-offs around vital data, terrified they had no control over it. But they always needed someone to fix stuff if things went wrong. Techies with back-door access.

“We can just bypass Karl. You know this.”

“But I’m not supposed to know this. I’m supposed to be in control if you remember.”

Jay sat back. He felt too exhausted to argue. She was right, of course.

“OK. It’s your decision.”

Maddy held her face in her hands. She looked completely done in.

“You really think it wasn’t an accident? That woman at the station?”

“Yeah. You heard NaN. They came for us. Still might. The sooner we get this out there the better.”

“Send it,” she said. “Put my name on it and send it. Zip up everything NaN gave us: video, code, the lot. What does it matter now?”

“Will do.”

As he fired up an FTP client, Maddy crossed to the window.

“You think they’ll find us?”


“Your address must be easy to get. Work have it for one thing.”

“You think?”

“Of course, they have everyone ... oh.”

“Yes, sorry. Old habits. I amended my records some time back.”

“OK, but someone must know you’re here.”

“I guess. But I feel safer here than outside. There. Done. I’ve emailed Roger and Jenny.”

Maddy nodded.

“In that case I think it’s time we went to bed. You look about as bad as I feel.”


“Yeah. Don’t worry, we’re both too zonked to do anything but sleep.”

Jay raised an eyebrow but said nothing. She was right. Within a minute of lying down they were both asleep.


This time a repeated knock on the door awoke Jay. He looked round for a moment, confused. Maddy lay next to him, not moving but with her eyes wide open in sudden alarm.

Jay peered out through the spy-hole expecting to see the men from the tube station. Instead a policeman and a woman in normal clothes stood there. He opened the door on its chain.

“Uh, hello?”

“Jay Marston?” asked the woman.


“You’re a very hard person to track down, you know that?”

“Uh, sorry. Yeah.”

“Get dressed and come with us please.”

“Where to?”

“To XOr. You have a lot of explaining to do. I assume Ms. Day is here. She can come too.”

The police car sped them through the streets of London. No one spoke. Jay stared out of his window. It was evening again, sunlight fading, the shop windows and streetlights taking over. Did the streets look more crowded or less? He hadn’t had time to check the news. A hundred different scenarios ran through his mind. Top was the nagging thought that NaN had duped them. The script he’d sent out must have done something terrible, like disabling Exorcist completely. Which meant they’d think he was working with the blackhats.

At XOr they were ushered up to the boardroom on the top floor, past the stares of their colleagues. Jay caught Roger’s wary glance as they swept past.

In the boardroom they were met by Karl and George Lever himself: founder, owner and CEO of XOr. Jay had never met him before; he spent most of his time at the LA office. Lever indicated chairs for Jay and Maddy. The plain-clothes policewoman sat down too.

“So,” said Lever. “Karl? Would you like to start please?”

For thirty minutes Jay and Maddy sat in silence while Karl ripped into them, condemning them for their stupidity, their lack of professionalism, their irresponsibility, the way they’d endangered XOr and everyone who worked there. Lever didn’t speak, staring stony-faced out of the window while Karl raged.

Jay wondered what was to become of him. He had obviously blown it at XOr. But he couldn’t go back to the dark side either. It was clear from NaN no one would trust him now. He thought about the two thugs, still out there somewhere. His head throbbed. He wanted to sleep for a week.

Finally, Karl drew breath.

“So. Bottom line. You’re both suspended without pay for a month while we make further investigations. In all likelihood you won’t be coming back. Criminal proceedings may follow. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Karl.”

“You’ll be escorted from the building immediately.”

Karl stood up, nodded at Lever and swept from the room. Jay caught the look of triumph on his face. He and Maddy rose to follow. Just as they were leaving Lever spoke, asking him to stay. Maddy flashed him a sympathetic smile as he stepped back into the boardroom.

The CEO stood at the window, gazing out over the London skyline. The policewoman sat scribbling something on a pad.

“You might like to see this, Jay,” said Lever. He pressed a button on a remote. The blinds slid shut and a projector lifted out of the centre of the table. Jay watched as the images played on the boardroom screen.

“I’ve seen it,” said Jay. “My contact showed me on his phone.”

The policewoman spoke now.

“This was filmed this morning at the Home Office. The effect your contact described turns out to be real.


“Your script successfully removes the infection,” said Lever. “It’s doing so right now. I’m told certain communications from those responsible to sovereign governments have ceased.”

“But I don’t understand. Karl ...”

“Ah yes, Karl,” said Lever. “A very ambitious young man. I’m sure you can work out what is happening there.”

“Work out ... oh.”

“You see it. The reason he’s blocked you, smothered you at every turn. The reason he dislikes you so much. Those thugs at Leicester Square.”

“You mean Karl is working with the bad guys?”

“We believe so, yes.”

“Then why did you let him? Maddy and I could have been killed!”

“We weren’t sure of him at first,” said the policewoman. If that was what she was. “And then, when it became clear, Mr. Lever and I agreed it would be useful to have him in-house. To keep an eye on him.”

“And what about me?”

“Well. We must let Karl believe he’s won, you see,“ said Lever. “You understand I’m sure.”


“But this month’s suspension. Between you and me, let’s call it leave instead. Paid leave. Very well paid leave, in fact. You’ll find a bonus in your account big enough to go somewhere very expensive.”

“And when I come back?”

“Well, I can promote you if you want. You can spend your days in meetings with the Karls of this world. Is that what you’d prefer?”

“I’d rather saw my own legs off.”

Lever smiled for the first time. “I thought as much. In that case I have another suggestion. You clearly have a great deal of, let us say, useful experience. You’re invaluable to XOr. I’d like to set up a new division. A secret division with links to the other side. A secret service within XOr. And I’d like you to run it. Without Karl or anyone else knowing. Interested?”

“I might be.”

“It could be dangerous, of course. As you’ve discovered. But I’m assured by the powers that be”—he nodded towards the woman—“you will be protected. What do you say?”

“Can I tell you in a month?”

“Of course. Take your time.”

Jay got up to leave. As he was closing the door, Lever called after him again.

“Oh, and Jay? If you like, have a word with Madeleine. I could be wrong, but she might appreciate a month’s suspension somewhere hot and expensive too. If you’d like you could go together.”

Jay grinned to himself as he closed the door. infinity

Simon Kewin has had numerous short stories published in a variety of magazines,
including “Daily Science Fiction,” “Abyss & Apex” and “Electric Spec.” He is a member of Codex, the SF Authors Collective. He resides in Herefordshire, in the UK.




amazing stories