Zero-day (story and critique) FREE

Zero-day

By Shawn

 

Cashier typed in a cup of coffee the third time in a row, shook his head, scoffed, and gave me an apologetic look.

“Sorry. It is the system. This is the fifth time this afternoon. We must be under serious attack“ he proclaimed and gave it another shot until he gave up and slapped the counter. „Usually we say any credit is fine with us as long it’s in the government SPC list, but I can’t make the register work. Do you mind paying with cash?“ he asked, and I couldn’t take my eyes from his long oily beard covering the white spot under the green apron.

„I couldn’t redraw it from the ATM this morning.“ Convenient lie, we all do it.

„Fuck it, coffee is on the house. Who knows what damage they inflicted and what’s going on with the system.“ He raised his hands not caring about the job. It was just, a glitch too many to kick him out the order.

„Thank you!“ I shouted, saw him wave away and picked up a styrofoam cup with my ill-written name on it.

Orange inner lights set the mood, created a warm feel of metal chairs and white tiled floor. I never sat upfront, always looked for the back booth closer to the router. Opposite corner, a group of casually dressed men watches the TV on the wall. There is a picture of a young man face covered with acne, bright shirt exposing his thin structure, and hair was something modern, trendy. A female anchor happily informed us that the government cyberattack unit successfully demolished someone’s economy, brought them to heel. Thunderous applause follows, chubby southerner pulls his cap down, strokes his trimmed grey beard and lays a juicy sailor’s one. They all smiled rejoicing victory. ‘Some victory’ it crosses my mind while I taste the drip version from the menu.

That person on the screen, he is famous, a hero some call him, and kids love him. Tomas Holt, better known as ‘Havoc’; wonder kid, fluent in 5 coding languages, government’s most esteemed asset, eight years running point on the International Cyber Terrorism Brigade. His home? Far, far, far away from the hometown in Iowa, living on the base somewhere in the Nevada desert, attack helicopters guard the premises, special unit on standby, three shifts rotation. He had a steak for breakfast; I saw it on social. Drafted in the fifth ‘Real War’ championship, he was a clear choice to enter the armament procedure. Many track his steps, avidly play that game simulation, train to bring down the governments, dismantle the trading chain without concern for the people who help build it. Millions suffer in poverty, but they do like the games, happy to praise the success of teens doing the devil’s work. Empty stomach complains must be easier to overrule when enchanted by the flashy lights from the box.

Another sip before I open my laptop, it automatically connected with the web; I moved my finger around and activated the program. Standard analyses ran in the background while I inspected the fresh reports. Just as I suspected, the economy is ruined, tensions rise and the enemy issued a statement that more funds are to be relocated into defense systems. Fear of losing power and money drives them to neglect the people they protect. The heads will roll; there is no doubt about it. Someone made a mistake, miscalculated, their team was unable to hold it together and the firewall broke causing a major flood of spam emails raising the smokescreen. In for the kill, a hacker team enters the system, does a rough assessment, and unleashes the virus block. Mercenaries, traitors, they guard the entrance, plant charges when the enemy brings the system up, so there is a door in for the ‘spooks’. And everything goes to normal, dust settles, but the firewall misbehaves. The glitches are not enough to alert them about the mistake in the construction. The second attack goes quicker, even bigger damage is inflicted, a ‘double-tap’, resources go through the drain, innocent pay the cost. Thought of it unfolding almost spoils the taste of the coffee.

Looking at the broad glass screen, I saw a black Ford pulling up to the curb and a man buttoning his coat came to the door. He made a sharp turn of head sideways, took the shades off and entered. He raised his right hand and nodded at the barista before he proceeded to approach me. Soon after, two cops in uniform came in, took their hats down and stopped near the door.

“How can I help you?” the barista asked, mute cops stay motionless.

Elegant man, an agent, cleared his throat and sat opposite me, no identification is shown, no introductions made. Slowly, so I can see, he turned the laptop and looked at the monitor. Numbers pile up, codes write themselves, he smirked at it and began typing. I say nothing, but I drink my coffee, gaze outside, the autumn amber leaves glide towards the pavement.

“Siberian bunkers are cold in this time of year. Their sheep’ herds are in dire need of recount. They are missing a few in the stall.” A grin on his face radiates with despise.

“I am not a sheep, and it’s called a cote, not stall,” I replied, he closed the laptop, turned it upside down and took a screwdriver out of the pocket to dismantle the backside.

“A sheep would know.” The grin, I would rip it right off his face. “Nevertheless, Russia is kind of cold right now. Not cold, like Minnesota cold, but really, freezing.” He wanted to illustrate his point, thinking the fear of failure will strike a chill in my bones.

“I got used to it.” A short reply made him peel his attention away from what was he doing, size me up in a gentle way and return to pulling out the hard drive.

“Then it’s settled. You’ll fit in the Canadian tundra just fine.”

“Probably. At least I’ll have friends.” My grin served with the right amount of cold was enough to make him drop everything and lean back in the chair.

“Do you refer to Zatamnoya, Preezrack, and Leduchcka? Oh, your whole gang is up there, wasting their time looking through the window, growing bored and insane. I suppose that is the life you imagined growing up in Saransk. Well, good news, soon it will become your reality.” Not taking any of it from me, he sped up his work, took the battery out, ran the sharp end of the tool all over the motherboard and stored the hard drive in the pocket. “It doesn’t matter how many Russia sends; we will catch you. For a hacker, you made a dumb mistake turning your laptop on. I found you the second you got online. Nice try, but that is not working anymore. We got ahead of you.”

“In some places, you did. Still, that does not change the current climate, explosion of terrorism, foreign and domestic kind. People got tired of it. Thanks to the never-ending war concealed from the natural human vision you have created, the whole world is in ruins. An unstable economy and constant cyber attacks crippling the little countries forced them to shelter themselves in cantons under the shield of more advanced superpowers. And when they do, you set your system on them, raise standards, kill the productivity, run them like a gang, give little to the poor. Never in our lives had we seen more homeless on the street, more hostility, more intolerance, more violence and depravity. You call it a victory, but you keep laying to yourself just to clear conscience for what you did. It does not matter you won, but how did you get there. That is what you were missing all along. That is why you had so many wars led against you. It was a pervasive measure to curb your power so others can take a bit more oxygen…”

“We shall not stop and let our enemy gain straight. Haven’t you learned anything? You give them time, they reorganize. It’s preemptive…”

“No, it is aggressive. The more you press, the more they will fight to stay alive.”

“I guess you have your way of looking at it and I have mine. Why are we bickering? And why do I even listen to you? I caught you. You are done.” Hand gesture insinuated he was running out of a will to listen and it was a sign for me to stop bothering.

“We are all done.” Just when the words came out, so did the lights in the local.

“Ah, great! Another one.” The barista raised his hands and let them fall. Aggravated, he took the apron off and went out for a smoke.

“You think this is going to affect us, but we will fix it. Every switcher runs with an extranet in a close grouping, segmented for safety. There are cameras monitoring everything. There are guards on speed dial, and people who maintain the system within. We learned from our mistakes. No mass factory incident or poisoned well is going to stop us. No broker’s firm or board meeting attacks will slow us down. No currency war, no economic sanctions, no production blackmail, no assassination is going to make a difference. We adapted to the situation.” He finished it getting up and striking a pose of dominance.

“And so we will adapt to darkness. No Empire fell from too little power, but too much.”

“What did you do?” He gawked; the horror was visible in his eyes.

“I squashed your illusion of safety. The virus we created has reached its peak of spread. All systems are saturated with it. At first, it had the task to infiltrate all the computers in the world, stay dormant for years in the servers, track the information traffic, monitor the users, think for itself with only one goal in mind. When it reached the main servers of internet providers, it went hyperactive, plaguing all users and relocating to another grid. We all use phones, flash drives, people plug and unplug their gadgets in cars, at home, even give them as presents. It festered until it made a full map of all of the power plants we have, ordered them to save power, store it and let it circle in the grid. Now, it all came back, frying the conductors, melting the cells, burning down the OS computers use in those facilities.”

“Pf, those can be replaced. Never heard of backup generators?” He dared to laugh as if it were nothing, forgetting a side of him was completely black because the lights were out.

“I did, so did the virus. Your satellites are infected too. All of them are. Even the military ones. Drones already watch over the big facilities, some owned privately, hired paramilitary uses them, and so the security forces. A rocket here and there, right into the black spot the virus cannot detect, or the popup energy surge, it will kick them out of service, no human casualties. Hospital generators will run until it finds a military-grade system draining power. So, mind how you employ the rest of the power you have.” I took a sip.

“And the goal was what? Make everyone live in the dark ages?” A frown was the last thing I expected from him, but he offered it generously.

“Look outside. See how peaceful it is? No war out there. No sight of raging battles, collapsed economies, angry people who lost everything by the click of a mouse. It’s just the world, rotating piece of dirt with all its beauty for us to enjoy.”

“You crazy bitch.” Gnash surprised me, but I managed to hide it from the agent. “You hacked the world.”

“I ended the war in the same manner your government wages them. It is total overkill, I’ll admit it, but it brings results.” I crossed my hands to get arrested and made he formed a weak smile when his nostrils whistled and he showed the policemen to do their job.

They took me to the car. On our way, I looked out of the window knowing this will be the last time I see the daylight. There will be no trial for me, but it comforted me because someone else is going to get the chance to enjoy the sun.

 

The critique

 

This story is the second in a group of stories that predict the evolution of war and the battlefields. The intent behind creating these write-ups is to investigate the possible path of what we could be facing in a matter of years. It is known that current political and economic affairs employ some elements of combat tactics in their interest to stay in the leading position. This reflects on the branch of the government that is predisposed to violence, which leads us to the military and the Ministry of Defense. This branch is to actively research new mechanics of fighting, develop systems and tools to achieve victory. After the military branch makes a breakthrough, the patented concept is to be further researched, tested and developed into a prototype. After that, patent license trades between allies provoke an overlap with other branches of the government that slowly adapts their operations to look like the tested method. From there, the process goes in circles and a need for upgrade drives all of the branches to invent new prototypes.

In other words, the primer task for the military is to remain focused on new ideas and implementation, used in peace and war times, for attacks and defense, for destruction and the good of the people. Prototypes that once were top secret, we consume freely, like scanners, lasers, and the internet.

In the past story, I spoke about human integration with machines and cyborg technology that would suggest we have autonomous weapons and people in the warzone. Such a concept is based on artificial intelligence, advanced cybernetics and human factor placed juxtaposed the undeveloped rebellious groups in other countries with a low budget for weapons systems. That story spoke about high-tech weaponry utilizing all spheres of battlefield levels that include water, ground, and air, economy and cyber attacks. The idea for a war representing two people, nations and ideas clash head-on is an old concept, where today, we must calculate in the segments where war can transport itself. The story you have read is leaning to one of those spheres and I did some research on how that would look like.

Even the plot is concerning the highly speculative type of warfare and I do not have extensive information about how will that unfold in reality; I positioned the story in more familiar surroundings. We all have been to a coffee shop, and know what we can expect to see there. So the story begins in a small local with a hero of the story introducing us to the world she lives in. At first glance, it seems peaceful, calm and ordinary, but that is just a shell, as the structure of that bubble is shattered while we watch. If the speculative world described in the story is real, I believe that our governments would do their best to conceal the problems from us, guard our ignorance and thus enjoy full control of the populace. This is somewhat borrowed from the real world since we are not thoroughly informed about our government’s actions and involvement in a conflict.

Propaganda is a tool for the government to fight for the civilian’s heart and mind. In the beginning segment, you can spot the action. I will leave it to the reader to assess if this part contains logic or not.

Choosing a Russian hacker to be the protagonist came easy since Russia has a tradition of developing software and training soldiers to be versatile in combat. Russia has made its pick when it came to selecting dominion on the battlefield. If the USA is a leader in ground forces and air force, combined for effective counter-insurgency, Russia developed its forces to counter such power by upgrading submarines that could intercept air carriers, anti-air systems to counter aerial attacks and software warfare to counter communication. Having a Russian tech spy in a place like Minnesota sounds ‘Cold war’ like, too familiar. The thing is, you need something your reader has an idea of and build from there. I counted on that spy, cat and mouse, cloak and dagger sort of feeling in you to realize the fictional world I wanted to present.

For the last segment, I would like to talk about the action our protagonist did. First, I need to tell you about what ‘zero-day’ thing is. During the Bush administration, the USA and Iran had tensions rise amid the attempt of Iran to transform their nuclear potential into the weapon system. The chance of nuclear war was reaching dangerous levels and any sort of action could result in large-scale conflict, civilian casualties, resources spent in what would be a very costly effort to restrain someone’s ability to attack. To combat the threat, the USA developed a hybrid virus with a core that contained twenty ‘zero-day’ type components. Zero-day is malware with the ability to counter any countermeasure the same day that the measure is being created. This makes it un-hack-able. As said in the story, the virus spread and at one point, it plagued about half of the computers in the world. The sole purpose of the virus was to anchor itself in the Iranian nuclear power plants operating system and control programs, raise the temperature, speed up the turbines while simulating optimal values on the measuring devices, showing everything was in order. The sabotage was revealed later, the malware was stopped and contained from causing harm. This happened in the nineties, and that is about twenty, up to thirty years ago. If such thing was possible at that time, and we live in a twenty-first century, with technology booming every day, bringing us new concepts and gadgets, programs and software, the question is, how far did this platform on which we can lead war has gone?

Moreover, I have questions too. Do you feel safe surfing the internet? Are you sure, everything in the news is provided with a dose of reality? Is your government working in your best interest? When will we hear about the virus that plagues the world at this moment?

Thank you for reading this far. I’d like to express my affection towards my Patrons Michael and River Dixon, two authors and Commanders in Quill that made this possible. I’d also want to thank Jovana Mitrović for editing this story and Association Hitchiker’s guide through fantasy for lending me logistics and professional help.

If you wanted more, you are free to browse my blog for stories. If you’d like to participate and help me get published, please consider becoming a Patron and fund my translation efforts. I’ve written FOUR novels for which I plan to translate when I get the chance and enough money to finance someone to do it properly. Not a cent goes to my private spendings, I can assure you that I am not a reckless person. Your donations go straight to art and culture. Thank you kindly for visiting my blog. You can also find me on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

Kind regards,

– Shawn –

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