Hunters of the Void Chapter 3

The Weakest Link

Precision. Control. Calmness. The watchwords that kept Kayla grounded in the field.

She was not in the field any more.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!”

She punctuated every word with a step, burning a circle into the living room carpet. Seated at his workstation, Zen folded his hands over his belly, his lips locked into a tight, tense line.

“How the hell did the guards recognize me?” Kayla wondered.

“Facial recognition?” Zen volunteered.

“They didn’t have tech.”

“No external tech,” Zen corrected.

“Which means they’ve upgraded their implants. And that light disguise doesn’t work anymore.”

“Wish Alex could send in his bots.”

Alex’s voice issued from Zen’s laptop.

“Bots can’t do what you can do.”

Zen swiveled back around, looking at Alex’s face on the teleconference app.

“Shame.”

“All is not lost. Though you were compromised, the Void Collective didn’t harm you,” Alex said.

“Which is another mystery. Why didn’t they?” she wondered.

“Maybe because they don’t control all of Zenith. Only the labs. If you disappeared, someone would talk,” Zen said.

“Perhaps they weren’t sure if you were part of a larger organization, one that would seek reprisals if they harmed you. They chose to err on the side of caution,” Alex added.

Kayla exhaled sharply. All anger evaporated. She closed the bulkheads in her head, separating heart from mind. She had indulged in her emotions long enough. She was operational now. Always had been.

“On the other hand, they know I’m in Babylon now, and that I’m interested in their affairs. They’ll start looking for me, for Zen, for everyone connected to us. We’ve got to assume they have access to the city sensors and databases,” she said.

“We checked in here under false names,” Zen said.

“It’ll buy us some time. Not much. We’ve got to move.”

“Try to find us a place with high speed Internet.”

“Got it. What about you two? Got enough to work with?”

“We do not have access to the data center,” Alex said. “However, we are already receiving gigabytes of data from the tap you installed, as well as the devices you’ve compromised.”

“Let’s hope we find something useful.”

“If we don’t, there’s always sneaky ninja shit,” Zen opined.

“We have a large attack surface. We have many other potential targets,” Alex said.

“That was a joke.”

Alex blinked.

“Oh.”

“Well, half a joke. It might well boil down to that if we don’t come up with something,” Zen said.

“You boys do your thing. I’ll do mine,” Kayla said.

#

Humans were the weakest link in the chain. The most secure network in the world didn’t matter if a single careless user opened a vulnerability in the network. Air gapped systems truly weren’t air gapped. In this era of networks and cloud computing, outside of certain specialist tasks, any computer totally isolated from all other computers was functionally useless.

A corporate data center was no exception. An air gapped server was the best way to keep data safe from hackers. But without a method of feeding data into the server, it was practically useless. There would always be a vulnerability. Instead, computer security architecture sought to design choke points and safeguards, minimizing potential attack vectors and maximizing the defenders’ ability to identify and intercept cyberattacks.

Yet it was contingent on the users conforming strictly to cybersecurity protocols.

And if here was one thing Zen knew, it was that you could always count on human laziness and carelessness.

Data trickled from the sniffer into the secure website. Much of it was noise. Personal emails, cat videos, the odd mobile game. But hidden among the data dump was pure gold. Usernames. Passwords. Encrypted files.

Alex struck paydirt first. A manager used her work tablet to access Zenith’s intranet. From there he gleaned her credentials. Then he hopped on over to the HR department, where he created a new administrator account, with complete access to the entire system.

Standard IT security protocol was to manually transfer data from nonsecure machines to the data center using flash drives. After plugging in the drive into a nonsecure machine, the user was supposed to scan the drive. Then, at the data center, the user had to scan the drive again before transferring the data over.

But there was always a gap between paper and practice, and there was only so much antivirus software could do.

In the evening, Kayla and Zen relocated to another two-room suite in another hotel. The Wellington was a perfectly respectable business hotel, perfectly bland, perfectly anonymous, and therefore perfect for the job. Even better, it also had fiber optic high-speed room Internet.

When Zen set up shop, he took over from Alex. Using the new administrator account, he remotely accessed key computers. The receptionist, the managers, the executives, everyone who would have a reason to transfer secure data to the data center. He injected each machine with a payload of malware, whitelisted it on the computer’s antivirus program, then vacuumed up the data from every compromised machine and pasted it to the secure site.

Much of it was useless to him. Zen was only interested in information pertaining to the New Gods. He deployed crawlers to scour the text, looking for keywords related to the Void Collective, its puppet corporations, its biotech research.

Nothing.

There was plenty of other data. Biochemistry research, financial records, personnel folders, client information, so much more. Alex would surely find use in it. He knew the kind of people who would pay a premium for information like this.

It didn’t sit right with him. He had sworn an oath to protect and serve the people. He could justify this hack—this crime—as pre-emptive defense. To learn what the Void Collective was up to before they unleashed another surprise on him. But going after innocents, civilians, was a line he could not cross.

Not that Alex shared his qualms.

When his night’s work was done, he sent Alex a message.

Our focus is the VC’s biotech research, and only the research. We’re here to figure out what they’re up to. Everything else is not our business. We will discard all collateral data we’ve picked up and keep only what is relevant.

Alex responded with a single word: Okay.

Zen didn’t know whether Alex would keep his word. So he simply selected every piece of irrelevant information dumped on the site and deleted them all.

There was nothing stopping Alex from making and keeping his own copies, of course. But Zen had to try. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he hadn’t.

In the morning, Zen ensconced himself at his workstation, checked the progress over the previous night, and waited.

Hacking wasn’t like the movies. Most of the time, if you were doing it right, you just let the machine run the code and allow the data to flow in. You only stepped it when you needed to, to execute programs, to interpret data, to do what a machine couldn’t do.

He stayed at the laptop all day, sorting data, discarding what was useless, keeping only information related to biotech. Data streams ebbed and flowed as the hours passed, reflecting user preferences and behaviors. He stepped away only to eat and to tend to bodily functions. As he worked, he saw data moving around, files appearing and disappearing, notes materializing from the ether. Alex at work, his hands invisible but not the fruits of his labor.

It was slow, tedious work. But it was work like this that broke cases and exposed demons. Zen understood this when he signed up to become a cyber specialist in the STS. It had been a long time since he’d done anything like this, but it was riding a bicycle. Some things you just didn’t forget.

As time passed, stranger files flowed into the secure site. These weren’t text, videos, images, music, or anything a classical computer could read. These had a unique file format.

VOID.

The file format to end all file formats, the file format that had haunted Zen’s dreams in the weeks and months after the invasion of the Golden Mile. Bridging biological and classical computing paradigms, VOID coded text, imagery and video with equal aplomb. Only one kind of computer could read VOID.

A hybrid biocomputer running VoidOS.

Which meant there was a VC biocomputer in Zenith. Likely inside the lab. That would explain the presence of the guards—and why they ejected Kayla without hurting her. They didn’t want her to discover the secret, but they didn’t want to signal its importance by harming her either.

A calculated maneuver. Zen couldn’t read VOID files. Without a biocomputer, or a machine capable of reading data DNA storage, no one could. He hunted for plain text files generated by the classical component of a VC hybrid biocomputer that described the genetic sequences that stored the information. The last time they encountered VOID files, Alex had used this workaround to recreate information store don DNA data storage. This time, Zen found nothing.

The VC had patched that vulnerability.

Kayla had little to do. She read the news, worked out, maintained her gear, called room service at mealtimes. Occasionally she read through copied project documentation, to decide whether it was something the Void Collective was interested in, or whether it could be safely discarded. Every single time, she voted for the recycle bin.

Night fell. Zen finally broke away from the screen. Everyone at Zenith Biotech had left. He let the machines do their thing and wound down.

In the living room, he flowed through an intense bodyweight exercise regimen. Forty-five minutes of push-ups, squats, lunges, jumps, interspaced with punches, kicks, sweeps, strikes. He flowed from one exercise to the other without stopping, getting in dozens, hundreds, of reps each.

By the time he was done, he was panting, sweating, sore, but in a good way. He treated himself to a long, hot shower. He toweled himself down, changed into fresh clothing, and returned to his laptop.

And checked the secure site.

And grinned.

“Jackpot.”

They were in.

Yesterday, the Finance Executive had plugged a flash drive into his infected machine. The computer passed on the malware to the drive. Someone plugged the drive into a server in the data center. Once embedded in the machine, the malware hunted among the folders, copying every document that contained a set of targeted keywords.

This evening, someone else plugged another drive into the server. The malware exfiltrated the data onto the drive. The user plugged the drive into the HR Executive’s computer. The infected computer began transmitting the captured data onto the web through the device Zen had installed in the water dispenser.

The HR Executive shut down her computer. Fifteen minutes later, it stealthily booted back up, keeping the monitor dark but the processor running, and continued the exfiltration.

And now, at last, they had what they were looking for.

Kayla sidled up next to Zen, looking over his shoulder.

“Found something?” she asked.

He tapped the screen.

“Project Communion.”

#

It took the team an hour to read the project documentation. Heavy on concepts but light on details, it described the project vision and time lines, capabilities and use cases, division of responsibilities and implementation strategy. Alex needed only a minute to summarize it.

“Project Communion is the Void Collective’s next generation biocomputer. In development for five years, research and development was accelerated following the formation of the Temple Commission. Zenith Biotech brings together research findings from five separate subsidiaries, then submits them and its own work to the Golden Mile Research Laboratory for final integration.

“Project Communion introduces VoidOS 2.1, an upgrade to the previous VoidOS. Among other things, it features enhanced security measures, including native anti-intrusion DNA sequences. Unauthorized users who attempt to read specific sequences will upload dummy data or malware into their systems. These anti-intrusion sequences can be rapidly edited and rewritten to suit specific requirements. In addition, should a biocomputer be compromised, the remaining biocomputers can rapidly mutate into a new configuration to preserve critical data while locking out compromised devices.

“Project Communion has completed user acceptance testing and is now being deployed to all VC nodes and support facilities.”

Kayla leaned back in her chair, rubbing her temples.

“You’re saying the VC has upgraded their network.”

Through the window of the teleconferencing app, Alex stared at her with supreme indifference.

“It is currently ongoing.”

“How long will it take?”

“A biocomputer is not like a regular computer. You cannot simply push out a new OS over the Internet and install new parts. The OS is hardcoded into its DNA sequences. New biocomputers must be printed from scratch and old ones disposed of.”

Seated by the laptop, Zen stroked his chin.

“This upgrade takes time,” Zen mused.

“It says here that the VC expects the upgrades to be completed in five days,” Kayla said. “Alex, if you still want your biocomputer, we don’t have much time.”

“We have enough.”

“We’re still going to do it? We’re going to steal a biocomputer from the VC?”

“Without a biocomputer, one that conforms to Project Communion specifications, we will have no way of penetrating the VC’s information ecosystem. We must obtain it if we are to monitor future VC activities.”

“It can’t be as simple as breaking into a warehouse and stealing one,” Zen said. “If the VC knows we’ve stolen or compromised a biocomputer, they can mutate the entire network in moments. From then on, the stolen biocomputer can only read junk data on the VC net.”

“Or they’ll feed the compromised machine misinformation, viruses, or both,” Kayla added.

“Yes,” Alex said.

“That makes a heist extremely risky. I read the VC is using blockchain technology to maintain its supply line integrity. If something disappears from the system, if it doesn’t show up where it’s supposed to go, it sends an alert throughout the system.”

“It is unlikely that they will ship such sensitive technologies, not when they have in-house bioprinting capabilities,” Alex said. “I believe they will simply transmit the genetic sequences to every arcology and network node for on-site printing.”

“You can bet they will,” Zen said. “It cuts out the weakest link in the supply chain. Printing the biocomputers wouldn’t take long. No more than a day or two. The real difficulty lies in integrating the biocomputer into their existing infrastructure and testing them.”

“We could infiltrate an arcology, access the bioprinter, and print a new biocomputer,” Alex said.

“You serious?” Kayla exclaimed. “The VC know what we know like, even with disguises. While we can reasonably expect the arcologies to have bioprinters, we don’t know where they are, or how to access them. Even if we do break into the bioprinter workshop, the bioprinter will likely leave records. If the records are stored on a blockchain, we’re screwed. And then there’s the problem of extracting with the biocomputer, without sounding the alarm.”

“She’s right,” Zen said. “It’s just as risky as a heist, if not more so.”

Alex frowned, and went silent.

“The plans for the Project Communion biocomputer only exists as data, right?” Kayla asked.

“Yes,” Alex said.

“And Zenith Biotech is a ‘support facility’, isn’t it?”

“The presence of the guards suggests that,” Zen said. “They don’t deploy personnel to protect third-party personnel and infrastructure.”

“The presence of VOID files tells us that they have a biocomputer on site,” Alex said.

“Then we can expect Zenith to request a copy of the biocomputer plans, if they haven’t already,” Zen said.

Zen grinned.

“Which means we can obtain a copy of the plans.”

“And print our own biocomputer,” Alex finished.

His voice remained a flat monotone, but the hints of a smile crept across his face.

“Give me a moment,” Alex said.

“Wait one.”

He hammered at his keyboard. Clicked his mouse. Typed again. Clicked again. Nodded.

“The Lab Executive sent an internal email to the receptionist. He is expecting a secure courier to arrive tomorrow at three pm. The courier has a package for the ‘partner lab’ on the second floor. And this courier is from Vex.”

“The Void Collective’s delivery megacorp,” Zen said.

Vex ran the fastest, cheapest, most efficient delivery service in the world. Every courier had the power of teleportation. Within five minutes of placing an order, a Vex courier would show up at your address. Five more minutes and the job would be done, guaranteed. Vex’s only drawback was each courier was limited to what he could carry on his person. No other courier company could hope to compete against that. Either they switched their focus to delivering bulk goods or closed shop. Ever since its inception, Vex enjoyed an unbreakable monopoly in the industry.

It also served as a front for the Elect commandos of the Void Collective.

“We can’t grab the courier,” Kayla said. “He’ll teleport into the lobby. Or into the lab. No way to take him in a nonsecure area. We’ll have to wait until the code is uploaded into the network, then exfiltrate it.”

“It’s going to be encrypted,” Zen said.

“Give me a moment,” Alex said.

More typing. More clicking. More reading.

“While we have not penetrated the lab’s secure servers, we have access to the scheduling software Zenith uses to manage its rooms, machines and critical equipment,” Alex said. “The Lab Executive has booked time on the in-house bioprinter. Twelve hours, starting from six in the evening, tomorrow.”

“Enough time to print a biocomputer,” Zen said.

“Correct. The Lab Executive’s computer is networked with the bioprinter. To print the biocomputer, he will need to decrypt the file. Once he does this, we can exfiltrate the data.”

“And we can print our very own biocomputer,” Zen said.

“And then, the mission will be complete,” Kayla said.

“Not yet,” Alex said. “There is still one last task I would like you to perform.”

She sighed.

“And what is that?”

“Installation protection.”

The last time Zen hacked into a VC system, it didn’t end well. Read that operation here!

Hunters of the Void Chapter 3
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