By the Waters of Babylon
Babylon was beautiful tonight.
Crowns and necklaces of light adorned the skyscrapers flanking the Babylon River, edifices of concrete and steel wreathed in multicolored flame. Soft red and yellows illuminated the waterfront, the sturdy towers and swooping cables of Founders Bridge, the ferries and lesser boats that plied the waters. The black water captured the many-hued lights, diffused and muted them, and reflected them as shimmering rainbow screens and soft rippling shadows, a blurry, surrealistic impression of the greatest city in the world.
A shame he had to share it with a black hat.
Alex stared at him with wide, unblinking eyes, blacker than the night, blacker than the Void. His face was perfectly, preternaturally smooth, sporting neither stubble nor stress lines. Built like a beansprout, he had a bowling ball for a head balanced on a delicate neck resting on a scrawny torso. His black suit carried the faint sheen of premium silk, emphasizing his stick-thin limbs and tiny waist. A chunky gold watch, too huge for his minuscule wrist, added a splash of incongruous color.
Alex sat in silence, saying nothing, swallowing him up with his eyes.
They existed in a bubble of frozen space-time, just the two of them. Outside the invisible boundaries of their table, the world continued to turn. Soft jazz played from discreetly-placed speakers. Waiters in red vests and black pants circulated the dining deck, carrying large platters. Delicious scents—rich soups, boiled lobster, fried fish, grilled eel—filled his nose. Diners talked, smiled, laughed, feasting in blissful ignorance, anchored in the unspoken and unconscious belief that nothing around them could shake up their world.
If only they knew who Alex was. And who sat with him.
Fulton’s Riverboat and Restaurant silently sailed down the length of the Babylon River, its cruise perfectly timed for the length of a ten-course dinner, its wake churning up the reflected city lights. The clear glass windows and roof offered customers complete visibility in every direction—and outside observers complete visibility into the dining deck.
The two men sat at the starboard quarter. The white dining cloth was completely immaculate. The utensils lay untouched. A brass candle holder, flanked by a pair of glasses, stood between them. Since the moment they had sat down and placed their orders, they had sat and stared and said nothing. No one—not their neighbors, not the waitstaff—noticed, or showed signs of noticing.
At last, Zen Tan spoke.
“Why did you call me out here?”
In that question was a concession. But a man could only hold that intense, unyielding gaze for so long.
“I have a proposition for you,” Alex replied.
His accent was posh, clipped, utterly foreign to Babylon. He sounded like a transplant from a distant age, an age of lords and ladies, knights and dames, an age that died with the coming of the New Gods. Over the jazz, the conversations, the sounds of the engine, his voice was so soft Zen’s eyeshields kicked in, amplifying his words into intelligibility.
“You wouldn’t have reached out to me otherwise,” Zen said.
Two years. For two whole years Zen had distanced himself from Babylon and its internecine power struggles. The second the Temple Commission was done with him, he packed his bags and fled to a small town on the other side of the country. He thought it was a new start, a new life, an opportunity to reinvent himself with the skills he had learned from the now-disbanded Special Tasks Section.
Turned out it was only a reprieve.
“I require your assistance in a matter of great delicacy,” Alex said.
And shut up.
Both men said nothing.
Half a minute later, a waiter approached the table. With exaggerated courtesy, he set down two bowls of soup. Clam chowder for Alex, pumpkin bisque for Zen, paired with a small basket of freshly-baked bread.
Another half minute later, when the waiter was safely out of earshot, Alex spoke again.
“I am planning a run against the Void Collective. I need your expertise.”
Zen’s eyebrows arched sharply.
Among the legions of black hats haunting the Nova Babylonia Net, Zen was a shadowed prince. He operated under a dozen aliases, he never bragged about his exploits, he never fell prey to any of the ego traps that undid lesser hackers. Instead, he built a reputation for getting the job done, for stealthily penetrating protected systems and exfiltrating critical data. No muss, no fuss. It was how he’d survived for so long in the blackest corners of the dark web.
Early in his career, Zen Tan had reeled in Alex. Back then he was a diamond in the rough, a teenager of incredible genius, a budding black hat who had made a single mistake. A slip-up that revealed his address to the Public Security Bureau. Zen had made the arrest—then pleaded to his superiors to give the boy a chance to redeem himself.
That was years and lifetimes ago. The boy was gone, and in his place sat the master hacker who changed names and handles as regularly as the seasons. He honed his talents as a state-sponsored hacker and built a sideline penetrating the systems of corporations and syndicates. When his sentence-contract ended, he went freelance, becoming a combination of information broker and black hat hacker.
Few people knew what, exactly, he did now. But evidently, he’d done extremely well for himself. Somehow, Special Counsel Temple’s crusade had passed him over, leaving him hidden from the public eye—and the eyes of the New Gods.
“You’re the best cracker I know. Better even than me. Why do you need my help?” Zen asked.
“You’re the best operator I know. I am not an operator.”
A shell of truth covering a layer of lies hiding a kernel of truth.
Alex was the stereotype of a hacker. Skinny, weak, so thin a stiff breeze could blow him away. Even a middle schooler could take him in a fight. Seated with his back to the crowd, to the stairs that led to the lower deck, he had violated basic situational awareness rules.
It was a carefully cultivated image.
The last time Zen had visited his safe house, he had seen a trio of killbots disguised as sexbots, an arsenal hidden in the furniture, computers rigged with self-destruct mechanisms. In the cutthroat world of the Babylon underworld, where cyberspace collided with meatspace, Alex couldn’t not take his security seriously. Zen knew there was more beneath the surface than he was letting on.
Zen suspected he had a security team hidden among the crowd. He noted four likely candidates, people who sat with their backs to the water and their faces to the stairs, strategically positioned to cover the deck and the meeting. All four of them drank no alcohol and ate only appetizers, going through their meals with exceeding slowness. Their dark suits offered camouflage, social and tactical, and no doubt they were packing heat.
Alex himself didn’t look dangerous. But Zen knew a dozen ways to hide a dozen weapons in his suit, and a man didn’t need to be a bodybuilder to pull a trigger. Alex might even be wearing concealable armor under his suit, perhaps a liquid armor vest, thin and flexible like a shirt, but strong as steel.
Alex certainly had the resources and connections to source for top-end gear and shooters. Which meant…
“Why me?” Zen asked. “Don’t you know others who can help you?”
“The target is the Void Collective. Few freelancers these days dare to challenge the New Gods. Among them, you are the best.”
“I’m no freelancer.”
Alex’s lips twitched.
“I have heard rumors of strange events in Riveria. A multiple homicide in Uptown, committed by two shooters with railguns. The city cameras crashed, allowing them to escape the scene of the crime.”
“Among the dead was an Elect of the Pantheon. He was pledged to the Ruiner, if I recall. More murders followed his death. Another Elect of the Ruiner, an Elect of the Liberated, and their respective security teams. Over a dozen dead in three days. So many deaths in such a short time point to two candidates: The New Gods, or the Special Tasks Section.”
“The STS is dead and gone.”
“The organization has been disbanded. Its former members are free. Some have gone into the private sector. The rest went underground.”
“For a damn good reason. Seven of them, in fact.”
“I am aware of the risks the New Gods pose to you. Consider, however, that if you do not act now, your position will be even more difficult.”
“What do you mean?”
“Special Counsel Temple did the impossible. He purged the worst of the corruption infesting the government. But his efforts are winding down. He has created a power vacuum, one the New Gods are eager to fill.
“The New Gods are scrambling to take advantage of the situation. They are snatching up properties, rolling out whitewashing campaigns, promoting their puppets and mouthpieces into key government positions. They are too busy to do much else to you.
“But once they are done? When they have reached a new configuration of power? They will turn their attention to settling old scores. To eliminating anyone who could pose a threat to them, now and in the future.”
“And everyone in the STS.”
Alex added a dash of salt and pepper to his soup, delicately stirred it, and took a sip. Zen took it as his cue to eat. He grabbed a hunk of bread, swam it around in his bisque, and tore off a mouthful.
The smooth, creamy soup blended beautifully with the soft, chewy bread. Herbs and spices danced on his tongue. Every flavor was carefully balanced in a symphony of taste and pleasure. He had never had food as fine as this.
He savored every morsel, maneuvering the bread to let the crumbs fall into the soup, then spooned up every last particle.
Alex left the bread alone, focusing intently on his chowder.
“What do you want from me?” Zen asked, at last.
Alex took his time, taking another sip, then spoke.
“I want to help you to help yourself.”
Alex held up his finger.
Zen looked up, past the finger, scanning the crowd. A pair of waiters approached. Zen sped up, finishing his soup. Alex lifted his bowl to his lips and drained the last of his chowder in a single pull.
Alex definitely had men in the crowd. He wore no visible devices, which merely meant he had a low-profile earpiece and transmitter on him.
One waiter cleared the empty soup bowls. The other set out the salad. The plates were huge, but the serving size tiny. Quinoa seeds, pine nuts and corn sprinkled over a bed of kale, augmented with apple slices and cherries, doused in vinaigrette.
When the waiters departed, Alex spoke again.
“The Void Collective is on the verge of rolling out new technologies. Indications point towards a next—generation hybrid biocomputer. I would like your help to secure information on this new biocomputer.”
Unpleasant memories churned through Zen. The Void Collective was a hive mind, every human member enslaved to the will of the Void through its cutting-edge biotechnologies.
Over two and a half years ago, Team Black Watch had infiltrated the Golden Mile, the oldest arcology in Babylon, and property of the Void Collective. Back then, Zen simply wanted to rescue Marcie Ngo from the clutches of the Void. On the way out, he took the opportunity to extract critical information from its secure data servers.
But he couldn’t use it.
The Void Collective used a network of hybrid biocomputers to store critical data and coordinate its activities, combining the functions of classical and DNA computers into a single machine. Utilizing DNA data storage, information extracted from VC biocomputers was unreadable to an ordinary computer.
Zen was one of the few people in Babylon who had a biocomputer capable of reading the VC’s data. After intense negotiations, he had agreed to help Team Black Watch. The New Gods identified the biocomputer’s location, forcing him to destroy it.
“Didn’t you have ‘associates’ who could source a biocomputer for you?” Zen asked.
Alex shook his head.
“Not any more. The times have changed. My associates no longer have the access they once had.”
“I’ve been out of the game for years. What’s going on?”
“Your exploits shocked the Void Collective. Previously they were confident that only they had the capability to read information stored in their servers. No other faction or institution possesses biotechnology as advanced as theirs, and they exercise strict technology server. You showed them that a sufficiently resourceful and capable team could expose their secrets to the world.
“Since the Temple investigations began, the Void Collective withdrew into themselves. They hardened their facilities and ceased active proselytizing. They fought only to defend their existing holdings and to prevent criminal prosecution, never to expand their territory.”
“Unusual. You’d think that they’d try to fill in the power vacuum.”
“Rational. They sought to patch their security vulnerabilities. They tracked down black market suppliers known to deal in VC technologies and assimilated or liquidated them. They hardened the networks and devices that interface with the Net. They shut down all partnerships with the rest of the New Gods. They aim to become invulnerable to outside intrusion.”
“Did it work?”
“Too well. I have lost most of my access vectors in the VC’s networks. They closed backdoors, removed malware, replaced compromised systems. They even sent a kill team after me. Once the Temple Commission began prosecutions, I went underground.”
“But here you are now.”
Alex armed himself with a salad spoon and fork, then began shifting pine nuts onto his spoon.
“You can eat them with the salad, you know,” Zen said.
“Crunchy and sweet do not go together.”
“They do. That’s the point of mixing up a salad like this.”
Zen shook his head. As Alex labored, Zen scooped up a mix of kale, pine nuts, corn and quinoa. A flood of flavors and textures filled his mouth, crunchy and soft and sweet and bitter, slathered in tangy, oily sauce. Zen enjoyed a second bite, a third, and Alex finally ate his nuts.
“Why did you resurface?” Zen asked.
“There is now an opportunity to penetrate the VC’s networks. I intend to seize it before the window closes.”
“And what is this opportunity?”
Alex gathered a bunch of soft, squishy leaves, slowly ate them, and spoke again.
“For decades, the VC preferred to keep their research in-house. With complete control over the technology ecosystem, they enjoy efficiency, economies of scale, and security. Then you defeated the security protocols. You developed the ability to read their confidential information and gave that ability to the government. The VC must assume that their rivals will soon have that ability. In response, they must develop a new secure network.
“Over the past two years, the VC have sought biotech breakthroughs in the private and public sectors. They invested heavily in biotech firms or bought them outright. They offered generous research grants to scientists through their shell corporations. Should a key target refuse their offer, they steal the technology and forcibly co-opt them into the Collective.
“By expanding outside of their ecosystems, they have greatly accelerated their research and development efforts. They have also created an enormous attack surface. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of assets outside VC control are now potentially exposed. These assets do not use the VC’s proprietary software and operating system, making them much easier to compromise.”
“Your plan is to compromise critical assets with information on next-generation VC biocomputer research.”
“Does this information even exist?”
“Of course. I have seen some of the raw data before the VC locked me out.”
Alex forked his apple slices and kale and brought them to his mouth.
“I thought sweet and crunchy don’t go together?” Zen asked.
“Apples present an acceptable level of crispiness. It is a texture distinct from crunchiness.”
Zen shook his head once again. Some things he would never understand.
When the men finished their salads, Zen spoke again.
“I take it you have an idea of which assets to target.”
“Zenith Biotech,” Alex pronounced.
More waiters came, this time bearing the main course. Grilled salmon fillet, served with fresh greens, tomatoes, onions, and a slice of lemon. Zen squeezed the lemon slice over his salmon. Alex contemptuously rolled his off the plate.
“Tell me more about Zenith Biotech,” Zen said.
“Outside of its ecosystem, it is the Void Collective’s lead biotech research agency. Specializing in biocybernetics, neurocybernetics, bioinformatics, biochemistry and molecular biology, it is uniquely positioned to drive advances in biocomputing. Through Zenith Biotech and its subsidiaries, the Void Collective coordinates and drives its private sector biotech research.
“You believe information on the biocomputers can be found there.”
Zen cut off a slice of fish and nibbled on it. Its flesh was firm and fresh and springy, coated with fish and olive oils, with a bite of lemon sour. Perfection.
“What are the parameters of the job?” Zen asked.
“Infiltrate Zenith Biotech’s secure servers. Exfiltrate all data related to VC biotech research, especially information concerning cybernetics and biocomputing. Leave no trace behind.”
“You specialize in operations like this, don’t you?”
“Zenith’s network is completely air-gapped. I have found no attack vectors capable of accessing their confidential information. Physical penetration is the best method available to us.”
“Which means you need a specialist.”
“I need you.”
From anybody else, it would have been a personal appeal. Alex had delivered the words in a soft monotone, bereft of human warmth, unblinking eyes still trained on Zen.
“What’s your endgame? A replacement for the biocomputer you lost?” Zen asked.
“Penetration of the Void Collective’s closed ecosystem. The biocomputer is only a stepping stone.”
The VC had the hardest network security among the New Gods. Not even the Singularity Network, for all its vaunted research into transhuman technologies, came close. It was a tempting target for every hacker out there, black and white hat, but only a few could justifiably claim they could defeat the VC’s biotech-based network defenses.
Alex used to be among them.
“What do you get out of that?”
“Does it matter?”
Zen narrowed his eyes.
“I’m not going to help you hunt a white whale.”
“There are no white whales here.”
“You know what I mean. I’m not doing this just for bragging rights.”
“I understand. You face many risks. But the reward will be commensurate with your risks.”
“I have all the money I need.”
“What about allies?”
Zen blinked. A concession. He regretted it the moment his eyes opened.
“You are alone,” Alex continued. “The government has disowned you. The military, law enforcement and intelligence communities have abandoned you. Special Counsel Temple supports you only as far as you are useful to his efforts to purge government corruption, and his campaign is wrapping up its activities.
“You are alone. You cannot hope to fight the New Gods all by yourself.”
“I don’t plan on fighting them.”
“You may not, but they may insist. The New Gods do not forgive and do not forget. Once they have consolidated their positions, they will go after you. It is only a matter of time. And by then, if the VC upgrades its network security and rolls out a new platform, you will have far fewer options.”
“They’ll have to find me first.”
“You can’t hide forever. Not even you have those resources. Unless you’re planning to live the rest of your life as a hermit in some uninhabited mountain.”
“That option seems more attractive by the day,” Zen said lightly.
Alex retained his poker face.
“Marcie Ngo,” Alex said.
Zen breathed. Cut another slide of salmon. Popped it into his mouth.
“What about her?” he said.
“She has disappeared from the public eye. Her online identity has been erased. The government is not protecting her. It stands to reason you are.”
“How do you know that?”
“Government databases are not as secure as the administrators claim. A fact you should be familiar with.”
“I’ve got nothing to do with Marcie Ngo.”
Alex shook his head.
“You and she vanished at the same time. The timing is too suspicious. Anyone who’s been tracking your activities—myself and the New Gods—would have noticed that.
“You say you can live like a hermit. Very well. Can she?”
Zen narrowed his eyebrows.
“Was that a threat?”
“A statement of fact. As I said, you may not wish to fight the New Gods, but the New Gods have every reason to go after you. If they can’t reach you directly, they’ll go after your known associates and contacts. She is among them.
“I can help you protect her. Give you advance warning of the activities of the New Gods. Disrupt their plots and strategies.”
“And in exchange, you want my help securing this data.”
“More than that, I want a partnership.”
“A partnership,” Zen repeated. “Why?”
“You can do things I can’t. I have capabilities you don’t. We have complementary strengths. Partnership brings mutual benefit.”
“What about the rest of the STS? Are you extending the offer to them?”
“Your allies will become my allies. Your enemies will become my enemies too.”
“You’re offering a lot. But if I’m one man, so are you.”
“I do not promise what I cannot deliver. I have more resources than most people imagine.”
“Really? How so?”
Alex lifted his hands above his head and clapped three times.
The music stopped.
Everyone went still.
Every waiter, every diner, everyone aboard the dining deck of the riverboat went still.
And turned to face Zen.
Heads rotated through a full hundred and eighty degrees, in defiance of biology. Bodies twisted on too-flexible spines, exceeding human limits. Double-jointed limbs flexed through too many degrees of freedom. Scores of unblinking eyes stared at Zen.
Zen’s breath caught in his lungs.
“I am not alone,” Alex said.
“Are they… robots?” Zen asked.
“Humans are too unreliable.”
Zen exhaled softly. He’d expected a security detail. He thought he’d pegged them. But this… this was a whole different level. He’d thought only the New Gods had the ability to do something as outrageous as this.
He’d been out of the game for too long. Far too long.
“You know that you will soon be hunted by the New Gods,” Zen said softly. “Partner with me, and you will have access to my resources, abilities and networks.”
Left unsaid was that if Zen refused, it would be too dangerous to let him off the boat. He could easily buy himself into the graces of the New Gods by handing over an even bigger threat. With so many of his assets aboard, covering up his disappearance would be a cinch.
On the other hand, Zen had his own insurance too.
“Sights are hot,” Kayla Fox whispered.
She had set up on the roof of a mid-rise by the waters of Babylon, covering the length of the boat’s route. She had been observing the entire conversation through Zen’s eyeshields. One word from him and she would ventilate Alex’s head with her railgun. After that, he could simply jump into the river and swim to shore while she picked off anyone who tried to pursue him.
On the other hand… Alex had a point.
Every STS operator, every dissident, everyone who had dared to defy the New Gods was on a hit list. Zen knew he couldn’t run and hide forever. Without government backing, he couldn’t create the kind of perfectly backstopped ID needed to disappear. Life history, medical records, educational records, identity documents, tax records, public activity, the signposts of a normal life, all these were beyond his powers to fake or create. The absence of these details was a sure sign that someone was working with a fake identity.
He could try to disappear somewhere else, somewhere in the dark corners of the world where the New Gods held no sway. Even then, their reach was expanding by the day, and where they couldn’t reach, they knew who to hire that could.
And then, there was Marcie.
A reckoning was coming. It might not be tomorrow or the day after, but sooner or later the New Gods would settle all accounts with everyone who had crossed them. And when that day came, any man who stood alone would die alone.
“You make a persuasive argument,” Zen said.
“Merely a rational calculus.”
Alex clapped his hands three times.
Dinner resumed in full swing. Patrons turned back to their tables. Waitstaff continued their duties. Conversation continued, as if it had never been interrupted. Suddenly everyone was talking and moving so fluidly, so naturally, it was a wonder to even think of them as robots.
Or maybe they were humans.
Humans who had undergone total cyborg conversion. Brains implanted in a shell of polymer and metal. All the creative and intellectual powers of a human, married to superhuman physical capabilities. But last he remembered, such tech was solely the province of the Singularity Network.
If these weren’t bots but total conversion cyborgs…
The world had changed. Dramatically.
“Do you accept this job?” Alex asked.
He framed it as a question. A choice. Zen knew there was no choice at all.
“Yes,” Zen said.
Alex, Zen and Kayla first met in an earlier adventure. Read their stories here on Babylon Blues!