Crabs In A Bucket
In the darkness, they congregated in the living room. Sirens screamed in the night, steadily approaching the street. The curtains were too thin to completely block out the light, and the last thing anyone needed was for a suspicious cop conducting routine canvasing to notice them.
“How did they trace you?” Tan asked.
Heat flared in Alex’s voice.
“They didn’t. They traced you.”
“We never came close to your remote machine,” Yamamoto said. “Yet they knew where to look. How do you square these statements?”
Alex clenched his fists. Perched on his sofa, he rocked violently back and forth.
“I didn’t use any of my botnets. I didn’t crack any systems. I downloaded Zen’s data shards using a VPN and proxy servers. That’s all. It was the only exposure I had to the Net, and that took just ten minutes. They must have found you.”
“Or they were tracking electricity use,” Fox said. “It’s how the PSB finds hackers and terrorists, by identifying sudden, unexplainable surges in electricity and water consumption.”
“I know. That’s why I sited my machine in an office building with an on-site data center that caters to the tech crowd. Everyone runs their computers all day and all night in there. One more computer drawing on the grid won’t attract too much attention.”
“We never entered your building either. So what gives?” Connor asked.
“They must have spotted you on the streets. I told you about the cameras. You might have disguised your faces, but not your gaits. They patterned your movements and tracked you to this neighborhood,” Alex said.
“If the cameras were all-seeing, why didn’t the hit team attack this safe house instead?” Mustafa said reasonably.
“It could be both,” Fox said. “The New Gods know we were somewhere in Electric City. When they combed the streets and audited the grid, they noticed that the office drew a huge amount of electricity. They decided that we were using it as a safe house, or at least as a base to download and decrypt the data.”
“It does fit into how the Singularity Network thinks,” Wood said. “They measure their lives, and everybody else’s, by power consumption.”
“And if they were looking for a hacker, they’d look for the signs that would give a hacker away,” Tan added.
“On the bright side,” Yamamoto said, “we’re all still alive and free. So long as we keep our heads down until the police are done canvassing the area, we’re good.”
“You have to leave,” Alex said.
“Weren’t we under your protection?”
He sucked in a breath. Rocked slowly.
“Yes. And I’m telling you this for your own good. They will ask the neighbors about suspicious activity. They would have noticed strangers coming and going from this house. They will tell the police. The police will pay more attention to the area. To me.
“I can hide my hardware, explain away the bots and the computers, but I cannot explain you away. You must find another safe house. It’s for everyone’s protection.”
“I understand where you’re coming from,” Yamamoto said. “But we can’t leave now. Not when the police are right outside.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just… get ready to get out when the heat dies down.”
“Did you manage to get anything useful before you blew your machine?” Fox asked.
Alex stopped rocking, finally. His lips parted into something resembling a smile.
“Yes. I decrypted the phone data belonging to the Court of Shadows.”
“Nice!” Tan exclaimed. “How’d you do it?”
He shrugged. “Nothing special. I simply used a virtual private cloud, imaged the data a million times, and brute-forced them all using Hashcracker. And, yes, I connected to it using a secure data connection, closed to outside access. I’m surprised you didn’t do it.”
“I would have done it too, but it’s expensive. Nobody gets rich on the government dime.”
“Nobody honest,” Yamamoto added.
Tan nodded vigorously. “Damn straight. After our suspension, I was stuck with the hardware I had at home. Nowhere near as powerful as yours.”
Alex lifted his nose into the air again. “This is why I don’t rely on the government.”
“Same here. Anyway, send the data to me and we can figure out what’s going on.”
“Have you found anything interesting?” Yamamoto asked.
“My bots are still trawling the raw take. But if you look at the titles of the documents alone, there are many interesting items. ‘Contracts and Liquidations’. ‘Five-Year Strategic Direction’. ‘Lubricant’.”
“‘Lubricant’?” Connor repeated.
“Odd, isn’t it? Even more so when it is a budget spreadsheet, tracking payments over months and years. A spreadsheet that lists the names of many politicians, government officials, and high-ranking police and PSB personnel.”
“Holy shit!” Tan exclaimed. “We have it! Proof of corruption within the PSB!”
“But it’s not everything,” Wood said. “It doesn’t explain why everybody else is after us.”
“It could be on the data we recovered from the Golden Mile,” Yamamoto said.
“Did you crack it too?” Tan asked.
Alex firmly shook his head.
“No. I can’t.”
“We can reconstruct it from the blockchain and try again on a fresh—”
“No, you don’t understand. I can’t.”
Alex rocked again.
“It’s the file format. .VOID. It can only be read on computers running the VoidOS operating system. The OS the Void Collective created specifically for their own computer networks.”
“Last year, you told me you found a way to read .VOID,” Tan said.
“And just now, I blew up the only machine I had that could.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but you can’t just get another VoidOS computer?” Mustafa asked.
“What do you know of .VOID?”
“Nothing,” Mustafa admitted.
Another sigh. Louder, this time.
“The Void Collective doesn’t use ordinary computers. They use hybrid biocomputers, combining the functions of both a classical and a DNA computer in the same machine. .VOID isn’t just a regular file format; it functions like a bridge, seamlessly transitioning data between both computing models as necessary. Text, video, audio, it’s all encoded as .VOID before being uploaded on the computers. I have no idea how they did it, it shouldn’t even be possible, but the New Gods are in the business of the impossible.
“VoidOS isn’t simply installed in a computer. It is grown. It is hardcoded into the DNA computer component, and on startup, it self-propagates into the classical computer component. It begins life in as a molecule of DNA in the biochip, and on startup, it somehow crosses over into silicon. Again, I don’t know how they did it, and no one I know does, but as far as I know that’s how it works.
“The VC exercises strict technology control. It is extremely difficult and expensive to obtain a VC biocomputer, and even more difficult to reconfigure it to be compatible with non-VoidOS machines. My suppliers do not have any VoidOS-compatible machines available in stock.”
Fox shook her head. The VC took technology control to the next level, even for the New Gods. She wouldn’t be surprised if they developed these biocomputers solely to prevent outsiders from penetrating their systems.
“I presume you can’t make your own biocomputer hybrid?” Mustafa asked.
Alex shook his head firmly.
“Impossible. We need to know the DNA sequences for the VoidOS software and the biochips. Codes that the VC jealously protects. And before you ask, attempts at reverse-engineering were unsuccessful. The DNA sequence is hidden in a batch of dummy DNA sequences. Processing the wrong sequence will generate a null result or upload a virus that will brick your computer.”
“‘We’?” Wood asked.
“Your fellow crackers.”
Alex shrugged. “We are in the same or similar lines of work, yes. But we operate on both sides of the law. The government and the underworld are keenly interested in VC biotech, and they collaborate on this issue more often than you may think. Not that these efforts have paid off so far.”
“What’s the solution to this problem?” Yamamoto asked. “We steal a VC biocomputer?”
“You’re welcome to try, but I think we don’t have to,” Alex said. “We can recreate the data directly.”
“In a VC biocomputer, data is stored on the biochips while the integrated circuits handle calculations. The silicon hardware needs to know which DNA sequence corresponds to which program, document, whatever, to retrieve the information. Whenever the user creates a new file on the biocomputer, the system will also create a plain text file that describes the DNA sequence the data is encoded into.
“We have those plain text files. With them, we can regrow the DNA sequences and recreate the data.”
“Let’s do it, then,” Connor said. “What do we need? Can we buy the equipment from Electric City?”
Alex held up his hand.
“Not so simple. While you can grow DNA in a home kit, for our purposes, we need maximum precision. We need an industrial-grade DNA printer in a controlled lab environment. Fortunately for us, I have a contact who works at the nanobiotechnology lab of the BITE. The Babylon Institute of Technology and Engineering. He will give us access to the lab, and he’s trained the girls to use the equipment.”
“Do we have any other alternatives? A black lab somewhere, maybe?” Wood asked.
“It is the only option I can offer you.”
“If the New Gods know that we have the DNA sequences, then they will monitor all locations in Nova Babylonia known to have the capability of growing cells,” Connor said. “If we got to the BITE, the New Gods will spot us. We’re not in the business of dragging innocents into this.”
“There are no innocents in Babylon. Never have been, never will be,” Alex said.
Fox wondered what a man would have seen to make him say something like that.
“It’s not just that,” Fox said. “The New Gods have all agreed to hunt us down. If we go to the BITE, we will risk the wrath of the New Gods.”
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” Yamamoto said softly.
Everyone looked at him.
“Are you shitting me?” Connor asked.
“You’re saying we should fight all of the New Gods at once.” Connor shook his head. “Brother, I like a good fight as much as anyone else, but c’mon, we’re biting off more than we can chew.”
“Not necessarily. You noticed they don’t get along? Their agreement is just superficial. And there’s something about this mess that doesn’t make sense.”
“What is it?”
“We offended the Court of Shadows and the Void Collective. By all rights, they should be coming after us. But where are they? Why haven’t we seen them?”
“The New Gods each have their own turf. Maybe they don’t want to spark a war by intruding into someone else’s,” Wood mused.
“Exactly. They don’t want any misunderstandings. At the same time, though, they all want the data. Which doesn’t make sense. They know we have the data. The VC and the Court can take countermeasures to render that information irrelevant as much as they can. They can change their plans, send their agents into hiding, conceal their slush funds, whatever. They’ll still want to punish us, but they wouldn’t worry so much about the data. And yet the Seekers, they didn’t kill Zen. At least not right away. They wanted the data from him.
“This means there’s something fundamental about that data, something in there that the VC or the Court cannot change. But the Seekers know that if the New Gods know that they have that data, the New Gods will dogpile them. That’s just how they work; they can’t stand any one faction having an advantage over others. Further, the involvement of the Singularity Network and the Liberated tells us that the VC and the Court believes that they alone cannot handle the situation—but at the same time, they know that if outsiders get that data ahead of them, they will use it against them.”
Mustafa shook his head. “Man, this is making my head spin.”
“What I’m saying is, the VC and the Court believe we are too formidable for them to handle alone. At the very least, they must deconflict with each other and the rest of the New Gods or risk an outright war. On the other hand, the other New Gods each want a decisive advantage over the VC and the Court. On the third hand, the New Gods know that if one of them is seen as possessing that advantage, they will be targeted and attacked.
“This entire affair is not about recovering the data. It already belongs to the VC and the Court. We only copied it; we didn’t delete anything. It’s about the New Gods preventing each other from gaining an advantage over everybody else.
“The VC and the Court want to make an example of us and ensure that their data doesn’t fall into anybody else’s hands. The best-case scenario for the Seekers, and the other New Gods, is to recover that data and make a copy of it without letting the other factions know about it. But the outcome everyone will settle for is the destruction of the data we hold, and us, witnessed and verified by all other factions.”
“They’re all crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down,” Fox observed.
“Exactly. They don’t trust each other at all. Any agreement they have is temporary and fraught with suspicion. It won’t take much to drive a wedge between them.”
“How do you propose to do that?” Wood asked.
“I have a few ideas. But Alex?”
“I need to borrow your girls.”
Babylon Blues is a cyberpunk horror saga told in five stories. Back BABYLON BLUES: REMASTERED on Kickstarter today to read the entire collection in a single easy-to-read volume, plus a bonus story!
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