Lucas leaned against the shower cubicle wall as hot water pours over him. The scars on his body glistened, pink and raw. He traced one with his fingertip, still in disbelief at its existence. Twelve months might’ve healed the wounds, but the evidence would remain forever. He closed his eyes, clenched them tight, and took a deep breath.
The doorbell rang and echoed up the hallway. Lucas turned off the water, stepped from the shower, and tied his robe tighter than it had to be. He hurried into the dim hallway. Light trickled in through the tattered curtains in the lounge, dust mites floating through the air.
Lucas grabbed his keycard from the mantle. His chest tightened and legs quivered as he peered through the front door peephole but, as expected, it was the pizza delivery guy. Lucas opened the door and blinked into the sunlight. He thrust his keycard at the delivery guy and snatched the pizza from him.
“Oh, wait, I don’t have the thing,” the delivery guy said.
“The thing. The eftpos.” The delivery guy mimed using the eftpos.
“You don’t have it?”
“I mean it’s in the car.”
“Can you get it?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Hang on.”
Lucas bounced on the spot as he waited for the delivery guy to return. A short, buxom brunette in tight black jeans and a low-cut blouse walked into Aiden’s house next door. She flashed a smile and Lucas tried to grin back.
The delivery guy returned with the eftpos, swiped Lucas’s card, made an error, apologized, then swiped it again. Lucas wordlessly cursed every delay, the ground underneath his feet rocking, his breath shortening.
“Savings?” the delivery guy asked.
The delivery guy keyed in the amount, then offered the eftpos to Lucas. Lucas reached for the keypad, hand trembling. He closed his fist, told himself he was less than a minute from being done, and typed in his pin.
“You okay, man?” the delivery guy asked.
The delivery guy watched the face of the eftpos. “All cool. Want the receipt?”
“No.” Lucas started to close the door.
“Hey! Your card!”
Lucas took back his keycard. “Thanks.” He closed the door, put his keycard on the mantle, and headed into the study. It was dark bar for his computers, their operating lights flickering, processors whirring. Their cases lay open, cables interlinking them as if some gargantuan spider had wound them all up in some hideous multi-colored web. An array of flat screens blared. Websites appeared on some, while columns of code unraveled across others.
Lucas swiped the table clear of notepads, cans, and chocolate wrappers, and put his pizza down. He sank into his recliner and sat there motionlessly, waiting as his breath normalized and heart settled. The smell of the pizza wafted into his nostrils and warmth emanated from the box. He grabbed a slice, the cheese leaving a contrail across the desk, took a bite, and alternated his attention between the code on the screens and a USB that protruded from a port in one of the computers, its function light blinking frantically.
Monty was at work. One of the sites unlocked into its root server with a triumphant beep. Lucas grinned. Monty was a phishing program he’d devised, replete with firewalls and an ISP randomizer to protect his location – at least temporarily. Right now, Monty was hacking into several servers – nothing major, just sites that were good test runs.
Through the wall Lucas heard soft music, something slow and melodic – Aiden, no doubt, entertaining his date. Lucas wished he had Aiden’s confidence, Aiden’s charms, Aiden’s looks.
But he didn’t. He had his scars and his computers. And his pizza.
At midnight, Lucas went to bed. Light twinkled into the doorway from the computers in his study. Monty would be at it all night. He had a list of sites to crack. Through the wall, moans punctuated a squeaking bed. Nothing new in Aiden’s world.
Lucas stroked himself through his pajamas. His erection stirred. He closed his eyes and thought of Karen, wishing he’d dream of her.
But knew he’d dream of knives instead.
The doorbell awoke Lucas, but it was the ringing phone that got him moving. He reached for the phone on the bedside drawer. The cradle was there, but the receiver wasn’t. He stumbled out of bed, put on his robe and hurried into his study, where he found his phone. Monty was still busy at work. “Hello?” Lucas answered as he drifted into the hallway and looked through the front door peephole. A supermarket deliveryman got into his van.
“Hey, Lucas,” a coarse voice on the other end of the phone said, “Only me.” Me was his boss, Harry Parkes, who owned and ran WebCentrics. Harry knew little about IT, less about design, and nothing about coding, but he did know how to mesmerize clients. There was a backlog of work dating months. “How’s that bakery job going?” Harry asked.
Lucas opened the front door. A box of groceries sat on the front step, like a patient dog waiting to be let in. Lucas picked them up. In the neighbor’s drive, Aiden was getting into his Ford. He smiled and waved to Lucas. It was a pose an underwear model could’ve worn on a billboard. Lucas waved back.
“Tonight, huh?” Aiden said.
Lucas gave him a thumbs-up and closed the door. As Harry went over details that didn’t need going over, Lucas put his groceries in the kitchenette, fixed a couple of slices of toast and poured an orange juice. He swallowed his two antidepressants, wolfed through breakfast, and finally interrupted Harry to assure him he would be finished tomorrow – he’d be finished today, but Harry didn’t need to know that.
After Lucas was done – both with breakfast and Harry – he returned to the study to find Monty had infiltrated thirteen of the twenty-five assigned sites. That was better than Lucas had anticipated.
He poured through reams of code Monty had recorded – a log of his travails most would’ve considered indecipherable. Lucas had shown the code to Aiden once, who thought it gibberish. But Lucas could see patterns in it, could see a language which, sometimes, he felt only he understood.
He’d programmed Monty with a metamorphic algorithm that identified patterns and anticipated the probability of characters in any given password. In short, Monty learned and adapted, so the more data he accumulated, the more intuitive he became. Most mid-range sites used variations of the same security, and checking the time indexes showed Monty’s successes had come progressively quicker. The big boys would be next.
With Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto playing on the stereo in the loung, Lucas spent the rest of the day on the job for WebCentrics – a site for Alfonso’s Bakery. It was little more than a glorified frontend, but it was a fifteen hundred dollar pay-check.
Every now and again he checked on Monty, who continued notching up triumph after triumph. When Lucas was finished with Alfonso’s early in the evening, heprinted a hardcopy of Monty’s log to flick through. In the coding, Lucas could see the websites the coding constituted, but there was also some shadowy tendril. Advertising, maybe? Although its constancy wouldn’t explain why it appeared on every site, nor why it was encrypted.
A rapid thumping at the door startled him – trademark Aiden. Laying the printouts aside, Lucas headed down the hallway. The familiar sensations greeted him – the quickening heart, the shortening breath, and stifling around the collar. He tried to dismiss them. Beer would provide a sedative soon.
Lucas and Aiden sat on a couple of wicker chairs on the veranda their houses shared. The willows lining the street swayed mournfully in the night. Lucas had already downed most of his first Corona. His breath was still shallow, and his hands fidgeted in his lap. But it would settle as soon as the beer took effect. Aiden drank at a more sedate pace. Four more Coronas sat in their six-pack box on the little table between their chairs, “Game Saturday night,” Aiden said. “You should come.”
“Maybe,” Lucas said, but there was no maybe about it.
“It’ll be okay, you know,” Aiden said.
Lucas finished his Corona, grabbed another, opened it with Aiden’s key-ring opener, and took another swig, “You should try. The world’s not like that night.”
Lucas had heard all this before – from psychologists, counsellors, Karen, and sometimes even himself. “Can we just … you know, sit here, talk about normal stuff?” he asked.
“Just trying to help, man.”
“I know. But some things can’t be helped.”
“That’s not true.”
“What do I do?” he asked. “Every person I look at, I think they’re a threat, I think they’re gonna pull a knife. I know it’s not the case. I tell myself it’s not the case. But telling doesn’t mean believing.”
“So, you’re just gonna live in your shell?”
“Modern living, Aiden. You can do everything from a computer.”
Lucas finished his second beer. They hadn’t gone down well tonight. There was no buzz, nor any mellowing. “I gotta go,” he said.
“We just sat down.”
Lucas got up. “I got some work waiting.”
“I’m sorry if I pissed you off.”
“It’s not that. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Lucas …?” Lucas went back into his house.
The code was everywhere. Lucas had thought it was interlaced through the websites, but over the next several days he traced it in servers, in browsers, as well as in various operating systems. It wasn’t indigenous. It had sewn itself in like a virus. Lucas printed out every example and tiled the floor with it. When he ran out of room in his study, he used the hallway, the kitchenette, and the dining room. When there was no more space, he papered the walls.
Still, he couldn’t piece together what he was seeing. It wasn’t until he was sitting in his creaking chair flicking through sheet after sheet, trying to take them all in at once, that he realized he was staring at fragments. Independently, they were an oddity, but innocuous. Together – a site intertwined with the server, a browser, and a computer’s operating system – the code formed a protocol that relayed data to another remote host. Lucas got on the computer and tracked the host to a farming equipment website that sold harvesters. Surely that couldn’t be right.
He set Monty onto the site, almost out of habit. The security surprised him. It wasn’t commensurate with a retail website. It had to be a dupe. Lucas got up, paced the floor, snowy with printouts and crunching underfoot. His stomach rumbled – both with hunger, as well as constipation. His own odor clogged his nostrils. He checked his main screen. Monty obliviously phished away. Lucas decided to use a little time to take care of himself.
Lucas went to the toilet, showered, and made himself a sandwich, but remained preoccupied with the code throughout. Computers – both hardware and software – were an amalgamation of technology. Components could go through numerous hands before they reached their final destination. Anywhere along the way, a foreign body could be slipped in.
The question was why. Lucas could come up with not one reason that satisfied the foreign coding’s pervasiveness. That alone suggested a realm of power usually associated with high authority. The best thing to do would be to unplug Monty, trash the printouts, and forget about it.
Somebody pounded at the front door. Lucas jumped. But it was Aiden – had to be. He wouldn’t let up. Any failure to respond meant something was wrong. Lucas answered the door, “Haven’t seen you for a couple of days,” Aiden said, noting all the paper spread across the floor and on the walls. “Everything okay?”
“Had bugs with some of the stuff I’ve been working on. Been trying to work it out.”
“I got a date in a bit, but how about a beer?”
“Mind if we do it tomorrow? I’m pretty tired.”
Lucas started closing the door.
“I’m sorry about the other night.”
“It’s okay. My bad.”
“I’ll bring some beers, pizza, and movies over tomorrow, huh?”
“Yeah. That’ll be good.”
Lucas again started closing the door, but now stopped of his own volition. “Aiden?” Aiden, halfway down the veranda stairs, turned; “Thanks.”
Aiden flashed a grin that would’ve killed with the women. “No problem.” Lucas closed the door.
Lucas rifled through the desk drawer in his study. It was where junk went to remain out of sight. He plundered through paperclips, memo pads, pencils and erasers, then finally found it – a creased picture with dog-eared corners of him and Karen taken in a booth that night. Karen had her arms around him and her lips pursed at his cheek. Her red hair fell tousled over her face. He was grinning – he’d tried to be suave, but he’d been stunned that somebody like Karen would be interested in him. His thumb stroked her face. Where would Karen be now? Probably dating somebody like Aiden. His hand tightened around the picture.
Monty bleeped triumphantly. Lucas spun in his chair and absently shoved the shot of Karen and himself in his pocket. The retail website disappeared. Appearing on each flat screen was:
H A R V E S T E R
Enter Subject’s Name: _
Lucas half-typed his own name, but then stopped. He should use somebody else’s, but his mind blanked. Music filtered in from next door. Should he? Moans resounded, a bed squeaked.
He typed in Aiden’s full name and hit ENTER. Numerous results appeared with addresses from all around the world. Lucas scrolled through them and chose the one from next door.
The screen segmented, each section filtering different information: Aiden’s personal details; a history of the websites Aiden had visited for the last five years; a breakdown of his surfing habits; as well as a psychological profile.
Lucas lost all track of time as he read through the text. The profile was assembled entirely through an analysis of Aiden’s browsing history – what he read, where he shopped, how much he spent, how much he banked, what he typed in search windows, the sorts of nicknames he used when registering for sites, messages he posted, the times he was logged on, how he interacted on social media – nothing had been overlooked.
The name – Harvester – was apt. It’s what it was doing: harvesting users of the internet and cataloguing them.
Lucas shot to his feet. How long before his intrusion was detected? High security would inevitably unscramble Monty’s location. Not to mention he’d been idiot enough to use Aiden’s name – Aiden’s address would be a starting point for any search. Was he being tracked now? The screen showed nothing.
He rushed to the front door and jerked it open. Headlights appeared at either end of the street and engines gunned. Cars raced towards his house, which shook as a helicopter closed overhead. The cars screeched to a halt. Doors opened. People in black suits and gloves got out, hands going into their jackets. A flitting spotlight from the helicopter blinded Lucas before engulfing Aiden’s house.
Slamming the door shut, Lucas stomped through the printouts and glowered at his computers. It was impossible to clean-up what he’d done. There was physical evidence everywhere. It was just a matter of time before they realized their error in apprehending Aiden.
Yanking Monty out of the computer, Lucas stuffed the USB in his pocket, grabbed his jacket, put his shoes on, and headed for the back door. Through the walls, he heard the suits break into Aiden’s house, and Aiden’s and his date’s startled shouts.
Lucas opened the back door. His heart pounded so hard it beat in his ribs. He couldn’t catch his breath. Sweat streamed from his temples. His tiny backyard swayed, like a boat on an ocean swell.
He stood, certain he couldn’t go, but when the front door splintered and crashed behind him, his resistance sundered like a snapped plank, and he stumbled out into the dark, closing the door behind him.
Les Zig is an author and screenwriter. He's had short stories and articles published in various print and digital journals, two novels published, and three screenplays optioned.