Thrash Vs Spandau
Claws of ice tore at my stomach. I halted and stared down at the note resting on the doormat. Somehow, I knew the day I’d been dreading had, at last, arrived. As I picked up the note, my hand shaking, my mind revisited that fateful day.
I found the fence panel buckled by the pressure of an over-grown hawthorn and pushed at it until it provided a gap wide enough for me to squeeze through. The thorns ripped at my skin as I battled the foliage. I didn’t care, I was confident the evening would be worth it.
I followed the fence around to the side of the house and pointed my torch’s beam at a washed-out wooden French door. I pulled out my lock pick kit, and with my torch between my teeth, set to work. It was harder than I expected - the torch kept wobbling and the lock was rusty.
After a good ten minutes, I heard a reassuring click. I’d been watching this house all week. A big Edwardian place close to Brockwell Park. There’d been no activity, which meant the owners were away. I reasoned they would probably return at the weekend, so Thursday night was the best time to go in. I had high expectations of finding some saleable valuables inside. I needed to, I was desperate.
I crossed a small sunroom containing two wicker chairs, a coffee table loaded with magazines and a bookshelf stuffed with old-fashioned books. I’d check for any first editions on the way out. To my relief, the door opened into a large reception room. My heart bounced at my chest when my torch exposed a large display cabinet full of silverware.
I was cramming armfuls of silver objects into my bag, when I heard, “Hmm, Robert. What are we to do with you?”
I leapt two feet in the air and dropped my bag with an ear-shattering clunk, causing silverware to spill all over the Axminster. I spun towards the voice as a table lamp sprang to life. Sitting in a brown upholstered armchair was a small, stocky man with a large head, holding a whisky and smiling at me. Despite my knees knocking and my pulse racing I smiled back. The man reminded me of a singer my dad used to listen to – Matt Monro.
“H-how, h-how d’ya know my name?”
“Oh, I know a lot about you, Robert,” he answered, sipping his drink and smacking his lips with pleasure.
My initial reaction is always flight, so I lobbed a candlestick at Matt-man and ran for the nearest door. It was like trying to skip through porridge; I was using all my energy, but going nowhere. As I gasped for breath and slowly raised a knee, the man breezed past me and stood arms folded before the door. I feinted one way, then turned and made for another door. It was the same story, me pumping and wheezing and getting nowhere, while he whizzed past me and waited. After one more wasted attempt, I collapsed exhausted to the carpet. I didn’t understand how could he know me? And why did I run as if I was in a dream? Or, a nightmare.
Ten minutes later, having recovered sufficiently to get back to my feet, I was seated opposite Matt-man. He poured me a whisky with a couple of spots of water added.
“This is rare Malt. Enjoy.”
I didn’t like whisky, so threw it down in one gulp. I waited, anticipating the acrid taste as it burnt my throat. It was as smooth as milk, I didn’t dither with distaste, just felt the warmth as the heat spread through my body.
“Hmm, not the best way to appreciate it. Feeling better?”
“Right, Robert. You can continue on your current path – thieving, imprisonment, heroin addiction, begging and mugging – until you die alone in a shop front, sometime soon...”
“I don’t believe ya,” I shouted, knowing I was already caught in that mud-slide to oblivion.
“Or, you can listen to me and let me help you.”
“I don’t believe ya. Why would ya?”
“Because I know you have potential. And you could be valuable to u... me, in the future. I can help you make the right choices. Have a comfortable life. I will, of course, want something in return. Call it a forfeit.”
“What could I possibly do for y...” I thought of something. “Wait a minute; you’re not gay are ya?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not that way inclined,” he shuddered and continued. “I happen to know you’ve been camping in the park for the last month. Not very hygienic.”
“How d’ya know that?”
“Never mind. Do you want to change the path of your life, for the better?”
“I don’t know what ya want,” I did know I’d had enough of sleeping rough, but I was still cautious. “Ya might be after my soul.”
“I can assure you I do not want your soul. I merely want you to repay your debt by providing a service in the future.”
“Yeah, but how far in the future?”
“That is impossible to calculate. Certainly, not in the short-term. Possibly, decades from now.”
“Could be ages away?” I felt better, then I thought of something. “Will I die?”
“Unlikely,” he said, shaking his giant head. “Although, we can never be sure with you hum... our calculations.”
I had so little future to look forward to, decades away seemed forever. I agreed.
That had taken place over 30 years ago. For the first few years, I was like an ill-treated dog - permanently jumpy, panicking every time I got a call or letter I didn’t recognise. Gradually, as my life improved I forgot about the posh house by Brockley Park. Until, this morning, when certain details had come pile-driving back.
The letter simply said, ‘Come to the house, tonight.’
I walked across an acre of natural wood flooring, through the conservatory and stared out through the French doors at the Thames gurgling past my landscaped gardens. I loved my home; I didn’t want to do anything to spoil my comfortable life.
Putting on my jacket, I said, to my wife, “I’ll be late home tonight, Sal.”
“Is it that new financial software you’re installing?”
“Yep. I’ve got to run the final checks.” Actually, there was little to do. It was an excuse so that I could visit the house by Brockwell Park on my way home.
“Morning, Pringle,” said my chief programmer, Arvid. “Not long now. Can’t believe they picked our bank.”
“Well, they picked five others, too. All old-established financial institutions.”
“Why do they call you Pringle?” asked the new temp, Suresh.
Arvid laughed and said, “Cus its sort of an anagram of the ancient programming language he uses.”
“Oi, less of the ancient. RPG/ILE is a brilliant language. Better than Microsoft’s bug-riddled efforts.”
“Oh yeah,” said Suresh. “I heard, there’s an old IBM mainframe running in the background, here.”
“An IBM mini, actually. An old, dependable workhorse.”
There were dozens of financial institutions in the city with mainframes and minis chugging away behind the scenes. Fortunately, they were built for reliability.
I left work at four and drove across the city to the area I once called home. Leaving the main road I joined a service road that ran parallel to it. At the far end, I pulled on to a drive that led to an imposing Georgian house.
The front door opened as I approached and I was greeted by the man I owed my good fortune to. He beckoned me in and, as I walked into what he called the drawing room, my knees buckled and my brain swirled. A thousand memories assaulted me as I stumbled into a waiting chair.
“It’s all coming back to you,” he said, pouring a drink. “You’ll need a Malt.”
My eyes followed him; he looked exactly as he did in my returning memories.
As I sipped the drink and recovered, I realised I’d travelled all around the world trying to find this particular whisky. I also remembered that Matt-man had set me up with an apartment and found me a place on a computer programming course. I hadn’t known I’d got an aptitude for programming. But, he knew. I’d gained employment as a programmer on an IBM AS/400 mini. Within two years I’d been headhunted by a leading merchant bank. I’d been there ever since. I’d met Sally shortly afterwards. A quick calculation established my life had changed irrevocably 32 years before. I’d forgotten a lot of the details until today.
“It’s forfeit time, I guess,” I said.
“What do you want me to do, Bruce?” His name had come back to me.
“The new financial software you’re trialling, along with five other banks in the city. I want you to sabotage it.”
“What! Why?” That could cost me my job and earn me a prison sentence.
“It’s a danger to society.”
“What does that mean? I thought it analysed millions of financial transactions and spotted anything potentially illegal. That’s a good thing, surely? Unless you’re running something dodgy yourself?” He wants me to risk everything to help him get even richer.
He jumped to his feet, “I can assure you we- I do nothing illegal.”
“It’s a danger to life as we know it. Some unscrupulous people will use it for their own ends.”
I shrugged. I didn’t have a lot of respect for the people who ran things.
“You will have to take my word for it,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “You made a promise.”
“That’s right, I did. I’ve now remembered all the things you did for me. But, the software’s written in a proprietary language owned by the sponsors and Microsoft.” I spat out the final word and threw up my hands. “It’s apparently similar to Microsoft’s C Sharp Major. I’ve never seen any of the code.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he said, calm again. “You need to corrupt the data it extracts from the AS/400. It sits between the servers and the AS/400. It basically mines data.”
“Of course,” My programmer brain was already planning the what we used to call ‘Noddy’ program, I would write. “I’ll get it to double the value of any transaction that ends in 85p and halve the value of any ending in, say 40p. Yeah, for the first 10,000 transactions. Then, change the criteria for the next 10,000. And so on. That’d bugger the data up.” What am I saying I don’t want to do anything of the sort.
“I’ll leave that to you,” he said.
“Trouble is, I won’t be able to test the program,” I said, feverishly searching for an escape route.
“Ah, we thought of that,” he said, handing me a small cassette. “There’s an extract of the financial code on there. Load it on to the AS/400 in a separate Test environment.”
“Blimey, you’re thorough,” He would be. “But, won’t it cause damage to the city’s reputation. Or, even damage the financial stability.”
“Thank you, a compliment at last,” he said. ”No. They’ll be running in parallel. So, when it fails, they’ll quietly remove the new software.
My brain was swirling. I had a thousand questions to ask.
I had a sleepless night wondering how I could get enough access to the computer without arousing too much suspicion. I’d decided I had to do what he asked. I had to. He’d kept his end of the bargain. And it had been a bargain up to this point. But, if there was any chance of getting out of it...
At work, I explained I needed to perform some tests on the mini to make sure it was ready for the big go-live next week. Everyone was too busy and excited to query what I was doing
“What music ya into, Pringle, man?” Suresh asked me.
“Indie rock. Why?” I lied.
“Oh, nothing. I like to guess. And I was right.”
I locked myself away all day. The AS/400 was in a room of its own at the back of the IT section. I set-up the Test environment, compiled my ‘Noddy’ program and ran it until I was confident it would screw up the data. All I had to do was move it into the Live environment during final testing at the weekend.
On the way home I called at the big house.
“Ah, Robert. Do come in.”
I threw the cassette next to his whisky decanter, “Right. I want some answers. I looked at that code. I can tell you that wasn’t written by someone from this planet. That is alien code.”
He sat for a few seconds his face contorting, his brow furrowing as if he was fighting a mental battle. He came to a decision and threw up his hands, “All right, you deserve to know. For the last 200 years, we the Thrash and another alien race the Spandau, have been living with and monitoring you Earthlings.” He poured me a whisky.
“B-but, what have you been doing? What for?”
“Simple really, to stop you from making the mistakes a lot of rapidly developing races have made.”
“What. You mean like blowing ourselves up?”
“That’s one example. Another one is – in the 70s the Americans and Russians were experimenting with the power of the brain. Trying out telekinesis and telepathy.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard about that. Staring at goats,” I said, pleased he was talking about something I knew.
“Well, because they wanted to utilise the power of the brain for the wrong reasons, as a weapon. We steered them away from that and towards technology. That, on reflection, may have been a mistake. We have harnessed the full potential of the brain and were hoping you would do so too. Ah well!”
“So, you’ve been poking your noses into our lives for...” Something occurred to me. “Spandau as in Spandau Ballet?”
“That’s right. In the 80s there were a number of bands – Iron Maiden and Saxon to name two – playing the music we Thrash enjoy. In response, the Spandau started up several boring bands – like Spandau Ballet and ABC – that played the music they listened to on their home planet. What do you like?”
“Metalcore, Hardcore, Deathcore and Thrash Metal, of course.”
“If both of you alien races are here with good intentions,” I said. “Why do you need me to sabotage this software?”
“Ah, well. The Spandau have not stuck to their side of the bargain. They concentrated on Marketing and Technology. While we invested our time in Finance and the Arts. Unfortunately, people of today have little interest in the Arts, and Technology is all pervasive.”
“Yeah, but, Finance is important.”
“It is, true. However, they want to use the software to undermine our predominance in the Banking and Financial markets. Their influence will grow, while ours will diminish until your world becomes a digital by default Disneyland.”
“Yuk! I see,” I said. “And I presume you can’t confront them directly.”
“Exactly. That’s why we positioned you and several other humans in places that could be to our advantage. Because we knew they couldn’t be trusted.”
“How did you know?”
“It’s in their nature. Remember in the 80s when they were saying Black Sabbath were agents of Satan.”
“Oh yeah,” I chuckled. “If you played their records backwards there were supposed to be satanic messages. That was the Spandau?”
“Yes. And have you noticed there are a lot of adverts that are anti-Metal?”
“Oh yeah. That train advert. Thrash Metal or Spandau. That’s a bit blatant.”
“And, MTV. That was one of their little ventures.”
“MTV! I hated MTV. It turned good, serious bands into novelty acts.”
“Exactly, they can’t help themselves. There’s the hybrid car advert. Saying Metal and Classical are not good together, when, of course, they are. There are a lot more examples.” He slapped his thigh. “I meant to ask you, has anyone at work asked you what music you like?”
“Yeah. The new temp, Suresh. But, it’s all right. I told him I like indie rock.”
“Good man. He’s probably a Spandau spy. Be careful.”
I drove home again with my brain spinning. I was caught in a tug-of-war between two alien races and I was the one taking the risks. I could get ripped apart.
Saturday, the computer room was crowded. It contained me and my team, some engineers from the software company and a couple of cocky, spotty youths from Microsoft. I had no opportunity to put my program live.
At the end of the day, the managing director appeared, I’d never seen him at the weekend before, “Everything’s been tested to satisfaction. It is crucial this works first time. So, there will be several security guards on duty until Monday morning. When I will have the honour of pressing the ‘Go’ button. No one will be admitted into the IT section until then.”
I kicked an innocent doorframe and stifled a scream. Suresh gave me a meaningful smile. He must know I’m planning something. And now my plans had been thwarted. How did he know? How was I going to get past the security guards?
That was it then. I would tell Bruce there was no way I could get past the security. We would have to halt or delay the plan.
“Look, Suresh, the Spandau spy, knows I’m trying to sabotage the software. And they’ve somehow tricked the MD into putting security guards on the IT area. We’ll have to abandon the plan.”
Matt-man stopped pacing up and down and turned to me, “That isn’t an option. It is imperative we prevent their software from running as soon as possible.”
“So, we can’t just wait a couple of days?”
“No. You must release your rogue program by Monday.”
“B-but, I can’t. And I’m not sure I want to risk everything just on your say-so.”
“What! After all we’ve done for you.” He stamped across the room picked up his phone, stabbed a button and pushed it under my nose.
There was a video playing that made me gasp and drop to my knees. It showed me kissing a woman. A woman I’d never seen before.
“What! How?” I groaned, my stomach turning cold. “I don’t even know the woman.”
He gave me a sympathetic look, “I am sorry to have to use such underhand tactics, but this is extremely important.” His lips turned down, “I will send this to your wife if you do not co-operate.”
I folded my arms across my chest and glared at him in defiance.
“And then, I’ll systematically destroy you. I’ll make sure you lose your house, your job...”
I had no choice I loved my life and my wife. That night, I lay awake sifting my memories to come up with a means of getting into the computer room. At five, I thought of Randy Andy Baxter, the chairman we had in the early 90s, and an idea formed.
After breakfast, I drove around to my niece’s house. “I need to borrow your security pass, Lyn.”
I knew she couldn’t refuse I’d got her the job in the currency exchange section. She gave me her spare.
I handed my spare badge and Lyn’s to Bruce and asked, “As I said, they’ve got security guards stationed at the bank. No one’s allowed in the IT area.”
He pulled a face, “You’ve come up with a contingency plan?”
“Yes, there’s a small chance,” I said, the tiredness showing. “Can you merge these two badges so that I can get into the currency exchange section?”
He jumped from his favourite chair, scooped up the badges and hurried through a side door.
I was nodding when he returned.
“Not much sleep, hey?” he said, handing me an I.D. card.
“No. Wow, this is perfect,” I said, with more enthusiasm than I felt.
“Glad to be of service.” He looked at his feet. “Sorry, I had to use threats; it was necessary.”
I parked on a side street and entered the car park by a side entrance. There were two security vans and three cars in the car park. One I recognised as Suresh’s Jaguar. He was being thorough. How did he know I was working for the Thrash?
I hid in some bushes and trained my binoculars on Suresh’s irritating face. I felt my heart pounding the same as it did when I went thieving as a youth. I’d even got my lock picking kit with me.
It was warm and I soon drifted into a blissful sleep. I lost my balance and fell against a sharp branch. I rubbed my arm and shook myself awake. I noticed Suresh too was succumbing to the heat in his car. His eyes closed and his head lolled sideways. I took my chance and skipped and ran up and into Reception.
“There’s been some fluctuations in the market. I need to do some work.”
The security guard looked at my badge and then at his colleague, who said, “We’re only stopping anyone going up to IT.”
“Yeah, but it’s on the same floor.”
“True. But, Jim’s on the door. He won’t let anyone through.”
They both looked me up and down: a middle-aged office worker, in a suit and tie. I was nothing for them to worry about.
They waved me through and I took the lift to the third floor. This was home to the currency section, the IT section and the old boardroom that was empty and unused. I checked the IT section, but the door was locked and there was a guard the other side.
I logged on to Lyn’s pc and fetched a coffee, looking as normal as possible. There used to be 30 young ladies in here tapping at calculators, on Monday there would be four mouse-sliders. After a half-hour without being disturbed I put my plan into action. At the far side of the currency room, partially hidden behind some filing cabinets, was a door leading to a balcony. It was used by smokers prior to the smoking ban. And for the young ladies who had fallen under Randy Andy’s spell to visit him in the boardroom.
There were a couple of bolts to undo, both stiff with age, but I soon had the door open. It creaked like an old bike when I pushed it further open. I waited, my heart in my mouth, expecting a security guard to come bursting in. The noise hadn’t drawn anyone’s attention. I crawled along the weed infested balcony to the old boardroom door. Twenty minutes later, sweat ran down my nose, my fingers were sore and my knees ached. I was out of practice and the lock was rusty.
I gave up and returned to Lyn’s desk. I was just sipping some cold coffee when a guard marched in.
“Ya gonna be much longer?” he said.
“Fraid so. Probably, another hour.”
“OK, I’ll be back round in an hour.”
I needed to hurry. With a one hour deadline, I worked again on the lock. I punched the air as I heard the wonderful click of access. The boardroom seemed smaller than I remembered it. The directors had moved to a new room because it was always cold in there, due to the fact that the AS/400 was in the room the other side and it had to be kept at a low temperature.
The door to the room that housed the mini had the key in the lock. I turned it, but it didn’t open. Of course not, there was a bolt on the other side. Why hadn’t I thought to pull the bolt on Saturday? I slipped to the floor exhausted and slapped my hands to my forehead. I’d got so close.
I couldn’t turn back now, so kicked at the door until it crumpled and folded inwards. The noise from the server room would prevent the guard hearing me. I needed to repair the door first thing on Monday.
I went through into the inner sanctum, to where the old workhorse unfussily went about its business. I signed in and moved my ‘Noddy’ program into the Live environment. Once I’d finished, I blew the old machine a kiss of good luck and returned along the balcony.
I was about to enter the currency room when I noticed a movement from within. Kneeling down I peered through a glass panel to see Suresh standing next to Lyn’s desk. What was I to do? The guard would be here soon.
The adrenalin rush had carried me through to this point, but the buzz deserted me and if I hadn’t already been on my knees I’d have dropped to them. Overcome with fatigue I growled with frustration as I stared helplessly at the Spandau spy, my heart pounding.
Lyn’s pc had timed out and he didn’t know about the balcony, so he switched out the lights and left. My breathing returned to normal as I waited in silence. I counted to one hundred before dragging myself to my feet and sneaking back in. My heart slowed when I heard the rumble of the lift as it descended. I tip-toed out into the corridor. There was no one about.
Two minutes later, the lift started up and I greeted the guard as he exited it. He had a quick look around before we rode together to the ground floor.
I crossed over to Suresh’s car, tapped on his window and said, “Don’t bother coming in tomorrow. I won’t be requiring your services anymore.”
He smacked his steering wheel causing his phone to slide into view. It showed a Facebook video of me going to Boston Music Room to see Finish Death Metal band Demilich.
As I staggered away, feeling a mixture of elation and weariness, he shouted, “Ya don’t understand what ya’ve done, ya fool. Ya shouldn’t have trusted them.”