The Secret Workings of the World
Before you kill a man, first learn everything about him.
Where he lived and worked, his haunts and routines, the people he loved and hated, his favorite foods and joints, his preferred routes, everything. From this raw data came his patterns of life. From the patterns came the ability to predict him.
And kill him.
It was a long, tedious process. Days, weeks, even months. It would take as long as it would take. The key was patience. And Kayla had plenty of patience in spades.
Robert Steele’s dossier was thin. Name, surveillance camera photographs, digital copy of driver’s license pulled off the Riverian city database. The STS had worked with a lot less.
Fitzgerald Apartments was a massive slab of raw concrete rising from a patch of open ground. Indistinguishable windows covered the facade in monotonous, hypnotic rows and columns. Imposingly huge, the mere sight of it threatened to crush the spirit under its titanic bulk. It felt like the remnant of a colossal wall, its purpose inscrutable, built and then abandoned by giants long vanished in the mists of time.
In the dead of night, Connor had explored the area in heavy disguise. He found Cowan’s vehicle, an ancient black SUV, sitting in the parking lots across the main entrance. It had no gravity mirror, just four road wheels, heavily used. An ultra-cheap third-hand vehicle, one of the first viable post-gasoline cars, the kind of car only the borderline poor would use today.
The house and car confirmed Connor’s assessment. The hitters weren’t pros. Pros wouldn’t be caught driving a car like this, not in the First World, and they sure as hell wouldn’t live in the projects. Their patrons would shower them with cash, give them nice cars, upmarket houses, everything they needed to keep them sweet. At best they were low-ranking soldiers.
Or wannabes looking to make their names with the gods and climb the ladder.
Connor had spent most of the night here. Now it was Kayla’s turn on watch. At five in the morning, she had pulled up on the sidewalk a block away from the apartment. She’d preferred positioning herself further out, but from here she could monitor the main entrance of Fitzgerald Apartments and Cowan’s SUV in her peripheral vision.
Cowan had parked his car facing in. He’d have to reverse out of the lot before he could drive off. Another strike against him. Pros would take the extra moment to park their cars facing out, letting them drive off immediately if they had to.
The second she was in position, Connor pulled out. The man was still working vampire hours, living by night and sleeping by day. He didn’t have time to adjust, not yet. They figured they might as well make the most of it while they still could.
Now she was alone, deep inside Shadow Court, no backup, no badge, no way to talk her way out if the locals found the railguns in the bag next to her. No different from her STS days.
Except that, back then, she was paid for this.
The thought sent ripples of silent laughter through her. Her body shook, her core squeezed, but no sound escaped her lips. The episode lasted for a single second. Then she settled into her chair and got to work.
She kept the engine off, the interior dark, the radio silent. Seated low in the car, she watched the world around her. The entrance of the apartments, her mirrors, her flanks. She’d adjusted the side and rear mirrors of her rented vehicle to provide as close to three-sixty awareness as possible from the driver’s seat. A good watcher didn’t just focus on the target. She had to see to her own security too.
Notebook and pen on her lap, eyeshields on her nose, she watched.
People streamed in and out the apartment. Minimum-wage workers trudging back home from the graveyard shift or making their way to work. Health fanatics pounding the pavement and getting their miles in before rush hour. Parents escorting children to school. All of them moved with purpose, with awareness, looking at the people and the things around them. Their movements were obvious and unrefined, lacking training and practice against street animals, but she understood the implications.
They knew they lived among predators.
Which meant that Cowan would likely possess higher-than-average situational awareness. This was going to be… interesting.
Dawn crept up on her with sudden violence. One moment the sky was a light-tainted dark, the next, raw shades of red slashed from the heavens to touch the world. Windows, cars, every reflective surface reflected the light back into her eyes. Her eyeshields darkened automatically, saving her sight.
And a man loped out the door.
She zoomed in on him. Young man in his mid-twenties, short dark hair, doe eyed and baby-faced, narrow shoulders and narrower hips, his arms held close to his body, walking in a languid, ambling gait.
He was wearing a uniform. Bright red windbreaker with white racing stripes, matching shirt underneath. A single word, bold and bright white, was stitched over his chest.
A leading player in the gig economy, it was one of the few delivery and public transit megacorps still around. The coming of self-driving trucks and cars had shattered the shipping, transportation and delivery industries. Moover claimed that its advanced algorithms and decentralized fleet of vehicles allowed its drivers to pick up anyone within minutes, deliver anything within hours, carry out the social interactions a robot could not. Members could hire themselves out as drivers and couriers in their spare time or rent out their vehicles to other members.
Was this vehicle his? Or was it merely rented? Or was he going to rent it to someone else?
Cowan swept the world around him as he approached his car. Good instincts, but she was too far away. He walked around his vehicle, checking the windshield, the tires, under the hood. A pre-drive check that doubled as a security routine. He was probably a driver then.
She turned on her eyeshields, dictated her findings as a voice message, and sent it off to Zen. Minutes later, Cowan climbed into his car and drove.
She pulled out and followed him.
Zen Tan hadn’t been operational for a long time. But he’d kept in practice, and with his rig set up, he could make war from anywhere.
War. A funny word. Technically he’d been a law enforcement officer for his entire life. Everyone on the STS was law enforcement. But what they’d done to the New Gods was nothing less than war. Though, to be fair, the New Gods had made war on each other, and the world, for decades. For centuries, since the Cataclysm that had reshaped the world and dragged it into a strange realm.
All the STS had done was to shoot back.
Those days were over now. Now he had to watch over Marcie. The government had placed her in the witness protection program as she prepared to testify before the Temple Commission. Her testimony had dealt a severe blow to the Void Collective, proving that they recruited members by force and brainwashed them using sophisticated implants. The government had passed severe sanctions against the Collective for that, but even the Feds lacked the power to shut it down completely.
Then strangely, incredibly, the government had taken Marcie off witness protection.
She’d played her part, they said. There was no longer any threat to her. There was no justification to continue protecting her.
Bullshit. Everyone who opposed the New Gods was a target. The STS, their allies, key witnesses in Temple’s anti-corruption crusade, everyone who crossed the New Gods in one way or another. The New Gods might be lying low for now, but once the government moved on to other things, they would surely seek revenge.
It was already happening. They were going after Connor. That meant they would go after the rest of the STS next. And then other targets on the periphery.
He was only one man. He couldn’t save the world. But he could save one woman, at least.
They’d moved to a small town far to the east. Self-sufficient and insulated from the New Gods, there was little danger of the New Gods tracking them here. Over the past few months, Zen had steadily erased their tracks, wiping their names from public records, creating new identities from scratch. It was tedious work, and he still had to protect Marcie.
He couldn’t leave her. But with his computer, he didn’t have to.
For hours he’d sat at his rig in the dark, staring at the screen, watching, waiting. He’d fired up his suite of cracking software, set up proxy servers and remote access tools, brewed up a pot of coffee.
A voice message popped up. Kayla, from her burner number.
“The target is wearing a Moover uniform. Spelling Mike Oscar Oscar Victor Echo Romeo. That might be his day job. See if you can dig up his profile.”
A jolt shot through Zen. He smiled and sent a voice message of his own.
“I can do one better, Deadeye. Stand by.”
He cracked his knuckles. Stretched his neck. Touched his fingers to the keys.
The mission of the STS was to hunt down and destroy the most dangerous monsters of the New Gods. With a nationwide jurisdiction, they sifted through oceans of data to identify and track their targets. More than a few targets had worked as Moover employees. By law, the STS, through the offices of the Public Security Bureau, had to obtain permission from Moover to access the personnel files. But everybody knew that every megacorporation was in bed with the New Gods. Any request for personal information pertaining to any employee who worshiped the New Gods would soon reach the ears of their priests.
To maintain operational security, the STS’ cyber experts had covertly penetrated the databases of key megacorporations connected to the New Gods and installed backdoors. They were supposed to seek a warrant before they could use the back doors, but when running against the princes and powers of the world, those whose reach extended into law chambers and courtrooms, warrants were little more than suggestions. Though the STS had shut down, the backdoors were still active.
Just in case.
Zen Tan fired up his virtual private network, then logged into his privacy browser. Using the backdoor, he accessed a vulnerable computer within Moover’s corporate headquarters. From that gateway he leapfrogged through the network, masquerading as a system administrator, and penetrated the personnel database.
Within seconds, he had Cowan’s complete profile.
Name, years of experience, user rating, vehicle information, lifetime earnings, job history and preferences, routes, achievements, testimonials. Then the hidden data: internal assessment (excellent driver and courier, but only fair customer skills), traffic record (no fines or citations), phone number, projected profits and tips over the coming weeks and months, dispatch algorithm settings to recommend the most profitable jobs for his skillset and personality type.
Religious affiliation: None.
“Huh,” Zen muttered.
The crew weren’t pros then. At least, Cowan wasn’t a pro. Maybe he was a name maker or a hangaround, looking to earn his way into the graces of the New Gods. As a layman, not an Elect, he wouldn’t have to declare his religious affiliations. Or maybe he was an independent, hired by someone higher up the food chain. A Speaker, not just an Elect, someone with the juice to sanction a hit against a target as hard as Connor.
But if a Speaker sanctioned the hit, why did he send an amateur instead of his heaviest hitters?
Something didn’t add up here.
Moover used an app to coordinate their drivers. Whenever someone hired Moover for a job, the central AI would notify all eligible drivers within the job area and select the driver who accepted the job first. Or, if a customer wanted to hire a specific driver, it would reach out to him personally.
And mocking up a Moover app push notification was a piece of cake.
Zen crafted his message and prepared it within the Moover dispatch system. He stared at Cowan’s status, watching as he drove around Riveria, fingers primed on the mouse. Cowan was currently ferrying a passenger and wasn’t taking on any more requests.
That was all right. Zen could wait.
Cowan’s drive took him halfway across Riveria, terminating at the airport. A couple of minutes later, his status flashed to green.
Zen clicked ‘send’.
On Cowan’s smartglasses, a Moover notification popped up, inviting him to accept a delivery job from one of his long-standing clients, a client who had asked specifically for him. An express job, delivery within two hours, with express rates. And, the app promised, there was a significant probability that the client would reward him with a tip.
Cowan accepted immediately.
In acceptance, he lowered his device’s defenses. A virus infiltrated his smartglasses, resembling a data packet from Moover Dispatch confirming acceptance of the job. It downloaded a remote administration tool, auto-killing the notification, authorization and installation windows before they appeared, burrowing deep inside the system. Once installed, the tool wiped its app icon from the interface, becoming effectively invisible.
Just like that, Zen owned the smartglasses.
The first thing he did was to modify the firewalls and antimalware suite. Not kill them, that would be too suspicious. He merely modified the rules slightly, ordering the software to whitelist everything that came from Moover—no matter what.
Next, he copied all of the device’s stored data—email, text messages, photos, videos—and sent it to a Dark Web secure email account. An automated routine monitored the process, uploading data in hundreds of small batches, small enough that it wouldn’t trigger Cowan’s suspicions.
More hacks followed. Turning on location services, killing the notification, and feeding the data to Zen’s computer. A program to capture everything the smartglasses saw, heard, received and transmitted. Data analysis to determine which apps he preferred, what he used his device for, where he went with his smartglasses. Accessing his social media apps and pulling information on his networks, his friends, his enemies, his preferences, everything he leaked about himself to Big Social and the world.
And, finally, Zen canceled the job.
Cowan cursed. The smartglasses captured the sound of his voice and transmitted it to the other side of the nation with crystal clarity. The device’s cameras showed Cowan looking out onto a busy street, rapidly turning off from a highway. To placate him, Dispatch sent him another job—a genuine job this time. Cowan accepted it.
And cursed again and turned back onto the highway.
Time to get to work.
Cameras were everywhere in Riveria.
There were twenty cameras for every thousand people in Riveria. Every corner, every intersection, every plaza, every bus stop, every train station, everywhere lots of people passed through, there was a camera. Hell, even the streetlights were cameras.
Every lamp post was armed with a sensor package, tracking pedestrian and motor traffic, recording video, tracing suspicious and annoying sounds, feeding the city administrators huge amounts of data. Traffic patterns, weather conditions, crime, everything they needed to govern the city.
Every car that appeared on a sensor was immediately logged. Make, model, color, direction, velocity, license plate. From there, vehicle recognition software would extract critical information: driver registration information, outstanding citations and demerit points, whether the vehicle was stolen or linked to a crime, whether it even existed on the databases. Any vehicle flagged as stolen or otherwise suspicious would be flagged and tracked, and the system would direct nearby cops to conduct a stop and search.
Every human captured on camera was immediately subject to a barrage of analytics. Height, weight, clothing, distinguishing features, and the Big Three: facial recognition, gait analysis, behavior prediction. Anyone with an outstanding warrant or flagged as a person of interest who appeared in front of a camera triggered a system-wide alert, drawing the attention of the cops.
The authorities had unfettered access to this system. The police, the Public Security Bureau, every law enforcement agency with a presence inside the city.
Which meant the New Gods had access to the cameras too.
Everywhere he went in Riveria, Connor traveled in heavy disguise. He applied subtle makeup, drawing in lines and dark patches, hardening the lines of his face and adding five years to his age. His clothing dampened his infrared signature and his eyeshields had an array of infrared lights to blind cameras at night. He added inserts into his shoes, changing his walk.
It would fool the cameras, he hoped.
Not the New Gods.
Their priests could bind and summon demons to their will. Natives of the Aether, he hadn’t seen one before, though he’d heard horror stories from other STS operators. These creatures existed outside the material realm but could look into it. They didn’t see physical features so much as the shape and colors of a man’s soul. No physical disguise could save a man from their sight.
Karim had taught the team a method to camouflage themselves from watchers. Imagine drawing a cloak around yourself, large enough to cover your entire body, bending all incoming light. It was like how a chameleon cloak functioned in the real world. This was a simple technique that even non-psis could use. However, it had to be refreshed every day for maximum effectiveness.
Connor made a note to reinforce the cloak every six hours.
While his shift had ended, his mission continued. As he drove around the city in his rented car, he had his laptop running in the back seat. Fitted with an omnidirectional antenna, the computer sucked in wireless data for blocks around, identifying and mapping network access points, creating a picture of the city’s wireless network coverage.
Most of the networks were innocuous. Open networks, free for public use. Pay-for-access high-speed networks. Private networks for homes and businesses.
And a few belonged to the city’s intranet.
The city’s sensors communicated with each other using a secure wireless intranet. Gigabytes of data—audio, video, imagery, traffic observations, pattern analyses—flowed through the net every nanosecond. Cracking into the city net would take resources he didn’t have and knowledge he didn’t hope to possess.
But he didn’t have to.
The city offered free wireless through its smart streetlights. In addition to sensors, they were also fitted with wireless routers. Anywhere a man went in Riveria, he had Net access.
The streetlights used the same routers to transmit their data.
Identifying the streetlight public network was easy. Labeled Riveria_Open_Net, it was visible to the public. Using the laptop as his gateway into the city, Zen injected a polymorphic virus into the network. Disguised as an innocent data packet, it slipped past the firewalls and infiltrated the router’s software. It spread like wildfire, infecting every file it touched, creating replicas of itself, every copy incorporating a slight mutation.
The antivirus software caught some of the copies. Not all. The survivors unpacked themselves and continued replicating, obeying their programming. Within moments, the antivirus software was hijacked, granting root access to a newly-created account. New instructions flowed from the account: flag and track Chris Cowan and his registered vehicle, and everyone he meets regularly, and everyone who borrows his vehicle, but do not broadcast to the police.
Job done, Connor took a long, winding route back to his motel, dodging every place he knew as covered in cameras. He couldn’t erase himself from the system. Not yet. Zen would take care of it later. What he could do was lay down a false trail, introduce breaks in his route, obfuscate his destination and intention.
When running against the New Gods, there was no such thing as too paranoid.
Cracking was simple.
Analyze the target. Identify vulnerabilities. Deploy appropriate tools and techniques to exploit vulnerabilities. Wait for results. If detected or unsuccessful, adapt and try again. If successful, do what you need to do.
Not easy. But simple. Simple enough that Zen could let the programs infesting Cowan’s system to do its thing and concentrate on the city grid.
The sensors were linked to every database in Riveria. The databases in turn were accessible by every organ of the city and federal government. Those agencies in turn were connected to each other through data links. And through those data links, the New Gods tapped into the city’s beating heart.
For long, long hours, Zen busied himself compromising the system. The law enforcer within him quailed at the sheer… wrongness of it all. The operator reminded himself that this was war, that his brother was at risk, and with the government unwilling or unable to protect him they had to do things their way. It was the right thing to do, the only thing to do.
He gave himself root access to the city’s camera network. He wormed his way into the citywide emergency services dispatch system. He accessed the utilities grid. He tapped into the artificial intelligences that processed the vast amounts of information flowing through Riveria. He targeted the outposts, allies and churches of the gods represented in Riveria: the Pantheon, the Court of Shadows, the Liberated.
He searched through the databases for Robert Steele and was unsurprised to discover that there was no one with that name whose face matched the imagery Connor had provided. Facial recognition also returned zero results. Either Steele was in heavy disguise, too subtle even for Connor to detect, or he was an outsider to the city, or perhaps both. All the same, he placed a silent BOLO on Steele, and on everyone who associated with him. Should the cameras spot him, it would alert his fake account—and only his account.
Combing through the surveillance footage archives, he ordered the system to compile a list of everyone within three degrees of separation from Chris Cowan. Friends, family, clients, everyone he interacted with regularly. No one lived, worked and played in isolation. Everyone was part of a network. Work your way up the network, you find the man who called the shots.
He also tasked the system with identifying Cowan’s haunts and comparing them against ecclesiastical property, and any other establishments known to be owned and operated by the registered Elect, priests and Speakers of the city. At the nexus between Cowan and the New Gods was the shot-caller.
A competent shot-caller wouldn’t meet Cowan and his crew on ecclesiastical property, of course. They’d meet in a neutral location. But such a location would be covered by cameras, or at least the approaches would be. And then the shot-caller would have to report to his boss at some point, which meant he’d have to visit a place of worship, or meet a priest or Speaker, all of whom were declared to the mortal authorities.
And who knows, maybe Zen would get lucky, and the shot-caller would be incompetent.
Zen fell into the zone. The outside world ceased to exist for him. There was only the screen, the machine, his tasks. His attention narrowed down to a laser focus, concentrating on the goal of tracking Cowan and his identifying his networks, yet also expanding to incorporate every possibility, every avenue of attack, every tool he had at his disposal.
During New Operator Training School, and later in cyberwarfare and cybersecurity training courses, the instructors had identified this trait, and honed it to a razor’s edge. Now every fiber of his being was bent towards manifesting his intent, towards the singular purpose of finding the men responsible for killing an innocent woman and marking his brother for death.
And destroying them.
A window popped up on his screen, disrupting his concentration. He frowned, then noticed where it came from, and read it.
Meeting tonite. 7 @ my place. Bring dinner for all of us.
Cowan had received a text message. The tone meant this was the alpha of the crew. Everyone in the crew was going to the meet.
Maybe even the shot-caller.
He read his hands, joy spreading through his heart, the joy only a hacker who had glimpsed the secret workings of the world would ever know.
He forwarded the message to Connor and Kayla and added a note of his own.
I’ll bug C’s smartglasses, compromise any other devices and sensors in the area, and identify the meeting place. If the shot-caller visits, take him.
Zen indulged his emotions for a second longer, then got back to work.
Now he had the alpha’s phone number. He set the city’s cell towers to track and triangulate the device. While the information flowing in and out of the device was encrypted, it was astonishingly trivial to inject a data packet into the data flow. One of his cyberwarfare tools, preserved from his STS days, could do just that. Feed it a phone number, and it would insert a payload of malware into the target device by disguising it as a cell tower signal.
Within minutes, Zen had full control.
Location, photos, videos, contacts, Zen scooped it all up, downloading the information on his machine. He installed a backdoor, allowing covert activation of the cameras and microphone, turning the device into a bug. Then he compared the address books of both Cowan’s and the alpha’s, looking for common numbers, and carried out the same attack.
Some—maybe most—of them were innocents. Or, at least, they weren’t involved in the hit. But the only way to find out was to go through the devices one by one and find exonerating or incriminating evidence.
In Cowan’s device, the alpha’s name was recorded as Dave. No last name, no other identifying features. Not as much as Zen would have liked, but it was a start. Once again, he turned his software suite on Dave’s device, looking for networks, information, patterns of life.
This would be a long process. A tedious process. But that was all right. Save for the Liberated, the New Gods weren’t aware of Connor’s and Kayla’s presence. The Liberated might guess that Connor was in the city, but they had taken pains to conceal their presence. There was no need to rush. They could carefully map the networks, study the ground, plan their next move.
They had time.
Once, Team Black Watch was on the right side of the law. Check out their stories here!