Short story competition – August : The automated worm

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From the memorandum of Prof Thompson

31 May

What a strange and terrible day Jeff and I have just experienced. It should have been a celebration of the successful vote for a World Government, instead it turned into the biggest technological debacle I have ever seen.

At about 10 A.M. Lisa came in to see me. She was overwrought and wouldn’t get to the point of her meeting with me. I encouraged her to talk, thinking she would come around to it and eventually she did. Telling me that she was pregnant and would need time off from December to at least March to care for her new-born. She kept telling me how sorry she was to let me down by falling pregnant when Jeff and I had shown her so much kindness and consideration by re-training her as a data analyst. I told her she didn’t need to worry and that she could take the maternity leave she needed, which would be more than three months and come back to her job and her on-going training. She burst into tears at my words and I was relieved that Jeff came into my office just then and took over the job of calming her down. For half an hour or more he spoke to her and eventually she became quite quiet and went back to her desk, where I saw her sitting at her computer, gazing, unseeingly into space.

At about 11.30 A.M. I got up to go to the toilet. On my way past the IT help desk, I saw a couple of clusters of confused looking employees gathered around it. All of them were carrying laptops. On my way back to my office, a few minutes later, I saw that even more people were standing around waiting for assistance from the single IT administrator on-duty. I went over to find out what was happening.

All of the employees’ laptops were displaying a strange message in large black letters: “Sorry, your files are all encrypted.” While I was considering the implications of this message, all of the laptops spontaneously restarted.

I heard an unusual murmur of noise from the main open-plan office where the programmers sat and, rushing over to ask what the problem was. From the doorway I watched in horror as a wave of laptop and desktop screens turned black and silent. Attempts to restart them failed, with the screens returning immediately to the same blackness. The computers and laptops were all irreversibly locked. Every employee’s desk phone and company mobile phone was also dead.

I immediately rushed back into my own office and disconnected my own PC from the network, shouting at Jeff in the adjacent office to disconnect too. Due to the sensitive nature of our work, Jeff and I have specialised cybersecurity, but I wasn’t going to take any chances that the penetration tool embedded in this destructive piece of malware could hack into our machines.

Jeff came rushing into my office, “What’s going on?”

“The networks under attack by some sort of cyber weapon. I suspect it’s an automated network worm. Thank God we have backups of our work on external hard drives. Our computers should be fine anyway, the worm won’t have had time to hack their complex security software before we switched them off.”

My private phone began to ring and I noticed that my company mobile phone had gone dead. I answered it and had a short discussion with the caller. “That was Duarte Teixeira, the Chief IT administrator from the World Government’s building. He is being inundated by calls and messages from people all over London, telling him of similar situations in other World Government organisations. He said that the networks for all of the Free Zone developments have been infected. It’s also spread to all of the hospitals involved in inserting the World Government microchips. He says this appears to be a targeted attack on specific areas of the World Government administration, but we can’t rely on that and need to shut down the whole network.”

“What does he want us to do?”

“Get on the phone and call all government organisations linked to the World Government network and tell them to unplug their networks without hesitation, even if it means shutting down their entire operation. If they wait too long, their infrastructure will be lost.”

Jeff and I finished with the calls at around 3P.M. We made dozens of phone calls, locally and internationally, and in many cases, the infrastructure was saved. In many other cases, the calls had taken too long and it was already too late by the time we reached the relevant people.

Duarte appeared to have been correct in his assessment that this had been a targeted attack. Every World Government office and organization relating to the Free Zone developments, the insertion of microchips and other related benefits and services in the United Kingdom had been infected to some extent, as well as certain operations in France, Germany, Italy, the United States and Australia. It was obvious that the infection had targeted the UK.

We walked out of my office and into the general office area. Lisa was still there but all the other employees, rendered completely idle without a functioning computers, servers, routers and desk phones, had left and gone home.

“Why are you still here, Lisa?” Jeff asked.

“I wanted to wait and see if you needed me to do anything. Fortunately, the electric buses and the tube were not affected by the cyber-attack, so I can still get home.”

“Jeff and I have been asked to go to the World Government offices in Reading tomorrow to lead the IT team that will assist with the launch of Bella here in the UK now instead of February next year. Fortunately, the system is ready to launch. The delay was purely to give the World Government time to get the Free Zone developments up and running before Bella’s implementation and the resultant disruptive employment changes to the world economy. As a result of this cyber-attack, a decision has been made to launch Bella, with its sophisticated cybersecurity, in the United Kingdom now. It will be rolled out over the next seven months to all the federation countries.”

“How long do they expect the launch of Bella to take in the UK?”

“We’ve only been given ten days to get it up and running. The infected organisations, Free Zone developments and hospitals will have to operate manually as best they can during that period. It is a nightmare.”

“Do you need me to do anything for you over the next few days?”

Dr Thompson thought for a moment. “If you don’t mind coming with us to Reading, you could help us wipe the hard drive of all the laptops that were infected by the worm. It would be a good learning experience for you.”

I could feel the huge smile on my face. “I would love to come with you, Dr Thompson. Thank you for asking me.”

This is an extract from my new dystopian novel Russian Roulette, anyone? for Stevie Turner’s short story competition. You can participate here: https://steviet3.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/share-your-short-story-august-2019/

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