‘The swarm is ready.’
Tia heard the notification from her wristband. This was what she had been waiting for. She welled up with a sense of gratification, as the announcement confirmed she was a competent hacker. There was a spark in her hungry blue eyes, the fierce burning spark of achievement.
Hacking into drone networks was not a challenge suited to a newbie, you had multiple layers of firewalls and algorithms to fool, before you even laid eyes on any real coding. Still, she had done it. The notification was only meant for the Swarm Manager at the Disaster Tourism HQ, somewhere in the city. The fact she heard the notification, it meant the manager, probably some overweight techie, staring at a bank of screens in a dark hole, had not been alerted to her parasite program, elegantly straddling their code. He would have had no idea she was listening and now had total access to the fleet of ‘disaster drones’.
She had been fortuitous, just entering the front door of her ground floor apartment when the message had come through to her. It meant she could react instantly, piggybacking the network before any of the bona fida subscribers were told they could make a bid to log on and control a camera drone.
She flung her brightly patterned shoulder bag over the back of the beaten-up sofa and threw herself onto the bean bag in the middle of the floor. Her trusty ultra-slim keyboard was tucked under her wrists, before her backside had even landed in the soft, pliable ball. The white wall opposite lit up as a projected screen, and her fingertips danced across the keys.
She pulled a headset on and asked it to dial up her hacker mentor, known to her as ‘Flyboy’. The call diverted twice, covering its tracks.
“Whassup, Mayfly?” he said. The tags were silly for sure, but real names were a ‘no-no’ over the airways. Flyboy had taught her everything she needed to know to hack Disaster Tourism. He was a lesser-known genius, and who better to learn from than the smartest guy off the grid?
“I have control!” Tia blurted, punching the air with one fist.
“Awesome. Make sure you shadow a real bid. By the time the punter has worked out he’s paid with no control access, it will take him 15 minutes to reg a complaint, 10 minutes to be processed and two hours before they do anything about it… sooo…”
He was waiting for an answer.
“So,” said Tia matter-of-factly, “in around two hours time, I give him control of his drone to shut his ass up.”
“Bingo. The company will give him a discounted access for the duration and you can maybe get away with shadowing another three to four times before they suss they are being hacked… Anyway, what IS the disaster this time?”
“Looks big. Looks less like a road traffic accident, more like…. Holy shit! It’s a major incident!”
Tia had hit the jackpot. The disaster drones were all over the planet, in every major city, hanging like bats off the metal branches of large masts, waiting for a police prompt that something awful had happened. When disaster struck, the sponsored drones launched and filmed everything, piloted by customers wanting some voyeuristic control. The rights to the footage were often fed to news, but mostly just private social media accounts in need of ‘likes’ and comments. Disasters were cool to watch and with a drone to control, people could explore everything from train wrecks to terror attacks, from the safety of their living rooms.
Tia logged her drone and on the wall projection in front of her, the camera’s view of somewhere in India became her new world. The drone was already prompted to be air borne, so she switched controls to her keyboard.
There was a dam ahead, a large curved concrete wall. Behind it, the mirrored surface of a vast expanse of water.
“Tia, I’m hooking up to your feed and program, but you’re in too early, before the other customers. You may alert suspicion.”
“Damn, will they know?” Tia realised she had made a rookie mistake, maybe exposing herself by being too enthusiastic to take control as soon as possible.
Strangely, there seemed no sign of disaster, mayhem or screaming hordes, yet this was a major incident? The message at the top of the screen was ‘Burst dam’, so why was the dam still intact? On the road leading out from the huge curved wall of the dam, on the left, what looked like a silver transit van sped off, accelerating away from the scene without so much as a gear change.
“Um.. Don’t get it?” Tia stuttered.
As if in answer, an explosion of concrete ripped open a hole near the top of the dam, and a bursting column of water jetted out into the emptiness of the valley. The hole edges widened with the immense pressure of the water behind it and in seconds a crack tore down the dam wall and unleashed what looked like an ocean of water. It was terrifying to observe. Tia had to back up the drone, worried in case the top of the white eruption of water clipped the spinning blades.
She span it around to follow the path of the water into the valley.
“Holy shit!” she gasped. The water cascaded over everything in its path, an unstoppable tsunami engulfing trees, fishing boats, small wooden huts by the once peaceful riverbank. With skillful piloting, the drone swooped down closer, to skim over the top of the fast-moving body of water. In the near distance there was a town, she could see the tops of houses, the vague definition of streets and roads and taller buildings.
As she flew at top speed forward, trying to catch up with the head of the wave in vain, she began to think aloud.
“Hey Flyboy, how come I witnessed the start of this? Was it weakened before it blew? Did authorities know this was about to happen. The dam sort of blew up?”
Tia could hear his concern. He was bright enough to work things out quickly when they looked off.
“Hey, Mayfly, this looks wack. I mean, I think maybe you should log out. You weren’t meant to see that. Looks like they may have blown it deliberately.”
“Who knew?! Disaster Tourism are murderers! You know, I’m not going to log out now, no way. It’s taken me a long time to parasite this program and I intend to get a session or two out of it before it gets taken down.”
“OK, sure. But I’m going to take a look in the backend, I wanna make sure they aren’t onto you, OK? Call it part of the service.”
“Aww… Didn’t know you cared so much, my man. I appreciate it. Get a look at this disaster zone if you get a chance, it is unbelievable. The news will buy rights if we show them this feed.”
“Be careful, Mayfly. You start mouthing off about what you saw or show your film footage to a news site and they’ll be onto you. You get me? Stay small, stay out of sight, live to hack another day.”
“Yes Sir-y,” she smiled. She was in her element now.
Her drone was nearly onto the town’s peripheral buildings. Anything less than three stories high was now underwater. Cars were being tossed around like toys in the frenzied flood. Water was channeling into streets, flowing even faster. By now, the other drones were nearby, all activated, finding the best angles to film the carnage.
Tia found a family on a rooftop, a man and two teenage children. Her expression changed from glee to awe. She was staring intently, like she was privy to finding treasure in a cave.
They were panicking, shouting up at her drone for help, waving their hands. She hovered and recorded in slow-mo so she could review it later, second by second, maybe she could even add some dramatic music for effect. The water rose around them, there was nowhere to go. The father brought his two children in close, hugging them, crying, shaking.
“Found a kill spot,” she whispered into her mic. Her tone became serious, thoughtful, slow. “It’s lonely, thinking you are in this world so briefly. Viewing a death, sharing that personal lonliness. Let’s face it, Flyboy, it’s the ultimate buzz!”
Flyboy was busy though. He was breaking into Disaster Tourism’s CRM system, trying to find a route into the wider programming.
“Got some bad news for you, Mayfly. I think they might be onto you. In fact, I think they are onto me too. Their systems have all kinds of hidden layers. My software is pretty good, it’s showing up their security runs, and I tell you, they have smart systems. I’m pulling the plug on exit.”
The family of three were washed off the roof in a single moment, overwhelmed by the wall of water upon them. Tia exhaled, she had been holding her breath, she realised.
On her headphones, she heard loud noises, like a door being kicked in, followed by shouting. A scuffle for a couple of seconds and then… A gunshot.
“Flyboy?” she pleaded, “Hey, Flyboy?” There was silence but she had the distinct impression someone was listening to her on the other side, and it wasn’t Flyboy.
Then the voice, a gravelly male voice. “Enjoying the service?”
She tore off the headphones and hit the power button on the keyboard to cut connection. That’s when her wristband buzzed for the second time that day.
‘The swarm is ready.’
The apartment walls began to shake violently, cracks appearing like dark cobwebs on the wall. Objects toppled over in the room; the light stand, the books that were perched on the fire mantel. There was a low, deep rumble, like a monster was growling underground. She tried to crawl to an upright position, by grabbing the arm of the sofa. It was an Earthquake, a major one, right under her apartment. Parts of the ceiling began to disintegrate and fall upon her.
Tia sheilded her skull with her arms, coughing out the dust that was circling and managed against the odds to stagger to the door in a zig zag. She swung it open. Outside was like a movie set. The street was crumbling, buildings were collapsing, cars were crashing and people were screaming at the top of their lungs. There was sheer panic pouring from every doorway.
How had they done this?
Directly in front of her, as if to greet her, three black drones hovered with their lenses trained on her every move, their red lights flickering on, intent on following the fate of a victim.
Tia held herself steady in the door frame, fixed them a stare and gave them the middle finger.