The flight back to the hotel was long and circuitous. Sirens echoed in discordant choruses through the empty streets, the first responders finally confident that the wrath of the New Gods had passed. The Angel at the controls pulled a series of high-speed high-precision maneuvers, staying far from police vehicles and away from the city’s sensor net.
A half-hour after the exfiltration, Zen, Kayla and Alex strode into the lobby of the Wellington. The Angel remained in the gravtruck. The humans lingered in the lounge, making small talk, while Kayla surreptitiously checked her eyeshields. The microcams she had installed inside the room and the hallway outside showed no sign of intruders. Then again, following Will Connor’s not-so-recent brush with a Liberated spook, she didn’t trust the feed completely.
They headed up to the room. As Alex waited outside, Zen and Kayla cleared the suite. They checked every corner, every closet, everywhere a man or monster might hide. Only after they were satisfied did they invite Alex inside.
They gathered in the living room. Zen drew the blinds. Kayla turned on the television, tuning it to a foreign language movie channel. Alex took one step further, removing a jammer from a trouser pocket and turning it on.
Now, at last, they could speak freely.
“You want to let us in on your plan?” Kayla asked.
“The best case scenario was that we exfiltrated the biocomputer code and printed one without being detected,” Alex said. “The worst case scenario was the Void Collective tracing us and sending a kill team. I was prepared for both.”
Kayla said nothing.
Zen said nothing.
Alex placed his hands on his knees. He appeared relaxed, but his fingers seized his kneecaps in a death grip. He stared at a spot halfway between and behind Kayla and Zen, observing them in his peripheral vision, waiting—inviting—them to speak.
“It’s not like you to be traced. Even by the New Gods,” Zen said.
“A conventional computer performs one operation at a time. The best quantum supercomputer today can perform one million simultaneous operations. A DNA hybrid supercomputer has a theoretical capability of one billion operations. The finest encryption protocols are useless against the Void Collective.”
“How is this possible?” Kayla asked.
“Parallelism. A quantum computer uses qubits, quantum bits, a unit of information that exists in a quantum superposition. Where a classical bit can only hold one value, a qubit holds two. A qubit can perform two operations. Two qubits entangled together can perform four. With a small number of entangled qubits, a quantum supercomputer can perform hundreds, thousands, even millions of operations at once.
“A DNA computer uses biological molecules instead of chips. Information is represented using the four-character genetic alphabet, in contrast to 1 and 0 in classical computing.
“When performing a task, a conventional computer must examine all potential pathways one at a time, following every branch to its conclusion. A DNA computer doesn’t have to. It grows to explore all pathways at once.
“By analogy, consider a brute force attack. When attempting to guess the password for a secure account, a traditional brute force attack tries countless possible permutations, one at a time, until it hits the correct password. In contrast, a DNA computer can theoretically attempt all possible password permutations at once.”
“Damn. That makes the Void Collective the best hackers in Babylon. In the world.”
“Correct. Even the Singularity Network cannot compete against their cyberwarfare capabilities. It is how they have managed to secure so many secrets. The same secrets you exposed to the world.”
“They grew overconfident in their tech,” Zen said.
“Which was why they scrambled to develop a next-generation hybrid biocomputer. You didn’t just eliminate their cybernetic supremacy. You turned their own strengths against them and destroyed one of the few advantages they enjoy over the other New Gods. They know that if their rivals sense weakness, they will act swiftly and ruthlessly. They may even band together to destroy the Void Collective once and for all.
“The Void Collective thus views all threats to the hybrid biocomputer project as existential risks and will act accordingly.”
“But you planned for this,” Kayla said.
He said it so plainly, so matter-of-factly, that he might as well have reaffirmed the existence of gravity.
“Any physical penetration carries the risk of compromise,” Alex continued. “After you were detected and ejected from the building, the VC’s next logical step would be to sweep the entire building for signs of intrusion. They must have detected the packet sniffer Zen installed in the water dispenser.”
“They chose to leave it in place,” Zen said.
“So they could trace me. Us.”
“How did you plan to counter that?” Kayla asked.
“I routed all the data we received from that sniffer through my laptop. The same laptop I set up at the warehouse.”
“You wanted to lead them to your operation? Why?”
“Had our intrusion gone undetected, we would now be in the possession of a hybrid biocomputer capable of penetrating the VC’s networks. If not, I would immediately execute my deception plan.”
Kayla crossed her arms.
“And what is this deception plan?”
“A threat actor who targeted the biocomputer data would logically be expected to attempt to create one. I merely showed the VC what they wanted to see.”
“And you destroyed the lab in front of the VC,” Zen said.
“Yes. Investigations will conclude that the explosion was caused by hydrogen. The fuel cells were punctured during the firefight. The hydrogen leaked out and rapidly evaporated, filling the warehouse with hydrogen gas. Tragically, the defenders failed to notice this. A stray spark ignited the hydrogen, destroying most of the warehouse.
“The investigators will find evidence pointing to a makeshift lab. A destroyed laptop, printers, a modular cleanroom, the remains of the biocomputer I attempted to build, and a few bodies.”
“The bodies of Angels,” Kayla said.
“Plus a human cadaver. One that uncannily resembles me, liberated from the morgue.”
Kayla recoiled. Zen blinked.
“Where did it come from?”
“I had stored it in the freezer. I took it out after you left and propped it by the fuel cells. By the time the warehouse had blown up, the cadaver had reached room temperature. The investigators will only recover the head, DNA samples, perhaps a severed limb or two. Any irregularities can be explained by blast damage. They will also conveniently find personal effects scattered around the warehouse, enough to identify the body as me.”
“Alex, you magnificent son of a bitch!”
Alex rocked back and forth, his lips twisting into a smile.
“They didn’t know you escaped?” Kayla asked.
“You killed the only VC operatives who could have witnessed my escape. Most of my Angels stayed behind to engage the remaining Elect long enough for me to leave. There is no BOLO on the police dispatch system, only the standard orders to cordon and search the area. Had the VC noticed my departure, they would have enlisted the police to hunt me down. We can confidently assume that they did not notice my flight.”
“They noticed ours,” Zen said.
“Yes. But you were in North Valley, far from the warehouse.”
“They’re looking for us, but not you,” Kayla said.
She shook her head.
“The VC may think you’re dead, but they know we’re alive. They may think the code is still out there,” Zen said.
“Do not worry. The moment I received a copy of the biocomputer plans, I disconnected my laptop from the network we established for this operation. I transferred a copy of the plans to a flash drive, uploaded the plans to the secure site from a second computer, and allowed the VC to compromise my original laptop.
“This laptop also contains correspondence between myself and a pair of freelancers. The correspondence will show that I recruited them only to provide overwatch for my operation. I did not share any details of the biocomputer with them. There is no evidence that another copy of the plans exist.”
“My God… You thought of everything, didn’t you?”
Alex rocked himself faster, more vigorously, his eyes gleaming with delight.
“The world believes I am dead. The VC believes that they have eliminated a hacker who obtained the plans to their biocomputer. They believe that their biocomputer remains secure.
“I am still in possession of the biocomputer plans. I can build a biocomputer anytime I wish. A biocomputer the two of you can access freely.”
Kayla gaped. Zen’s jaw dropped.
“I… well… Thanks,” Zen said.
“You have done much for the nation. For us. Consider it a token of appreciation,” Alex said.
“They may still mutate the biocomputer code,” Kayla said.
“They might. On the other hand, they still think I am dead. That matters more than the biocomputer.”
“Freedom seems important to you, huh.”
“After you were sent into ‘protective custody’, I used every tool, information and marker I had at my disposal to manipulate the New Gods and their cronies. I removed everyone who could have prevented the creation of the Temple Commission, and everyone who could have hindered them. I identified those who could have retaliated against the STS and gave them to Special Counsel Temple and ensured their prosecution and conviction. I published on the Dark Web the secrets even Temple could not expose.
“All this came at a cost. The New Gods are after my head. I am perhaps the only man they hate more than Yuri Yamamoto. I had to go underground.
“Now I am dead. I am free.”
Zen looked at Kayla. She looked back. Alex continued rocking.
This was the first time she had heard of this. They had lost all contact with Alex after they were sent to the Box. She had assumed that he had worked in the shadows, that he made use of the information before the authorities could process it all, but this… She hadn’t expected this.
“Thank you,” Zen said.
“I only did what was right.”
“Why did you do it?” Kayla asked.
Planted his feet on the floor.
And fixed her with his unblinking stare.
“I am human. The New Gods are not. They seek to make slaves of us all. I can’t allow it. I will not allow it.
“Everything I have done, I did for humanity. I targeted only the New Gods, their properties, and their puppets. I played them all against each other. I fought a one-man war against them on cyberspace, the only kind of war I can fight.”
“I never knew you were an idealist.”
“It was why I recommended that the PSB recruit him,” Zen said. “He’s one of the few people with the guts to challenge the New Gods.”
“When we first met, I thought you were some kind of black hat mercenary hacker. I guess I was wrong,” Kayla said.
“No mercenary will oppose the New Gods. Working for them is far more profitable,” Alex replied.
“I appreciate everything you have done for us.”
“I did only what I could do. What I had to do.”
“What’s your next step?” Zen asked.
“I will need to reinvent myself. I already have a backup identity prepared. We will all need to lie low for a while. But when the heat dies down, I will resume the war.” He blinked. “And, as it happens, I have a list of targets. Once it is safe to prosecute these targets, I may need your help.”
“Do they belong to New Gods?” Zen asked.
“All of them.”
“Wonderful. And you, Kayla?”
For the past two years, she had followed her heart. And her heart followed… Call it intuition, conscience, or even the Voice of God. Whatever it was, a powerful feeling had brought her here, to Babylon. A feeling she couldn’t articulate, only sense, pulsing in time with her heartbeat.
She was meant to be here. To do something important. To carry out Yuri’s wishes: to hold the line.
Was this it?
This wasn’t it. But it was, however, a stepping stone. Another link in the chain of events that had to happen before it came.
She still had her mission. And this was part of it.
“Me too,” she said.
Alex smiled. A genuine smile, with wide eyes and flashing teeth.
“Wonderful. Thank you.”
“Hey, either we hang together or we hang separately,” Zen said.
“And on that note,” Kayla said, “we have access to a network you might be interested in. A network of former STS operators, committed to opposing the New Gods. We could make introductions, see how we can all work together.”
“Please do that,” Alex said.
Alex’s smile grew wider.
“For two years, the Void Collective thought they were hunting us. Now we will be the ones hunting them.”
“Them and the rest of the New Gods,” Kayla said.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Zen said. “The New Gods will be combing the streets for us. We have to leave.”
“Yes, of course. We’ll resume this discussion later. You have my email address. Contact me when you’re secure,” Alex said.
Alex was the first to leave. Zen and Kayla had already packed their things for a quick getaway. They gave Alex a five-minute head start, then grabbed their bags and left.
Alex’s gravtruck was already gone. Zen and Kayla’s vehicles remained in the underground parking lot, parked side by side. They inspected the vehicles thoroughly, checking for bombs, listening devices, any unwanted surprises.
At last it was time to go. Zen held out his hand.
Kayla shook it.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “Appreciate your help.”
“Anytime,” she replied.
They departed. He took to the skies in his gravcar, heading east. She drove southwest, jumping from one expressway to another, and raced down the highway leading out of Babylon.
Behind her, the lights of the city glowed like a constellation of cold stars, bright and fixed and dazzling, accenting the darkness of the night. Before her, the open road stretched into the infinite night.
She’d only recently arrived in Babylon. Now she had to leave it again. It was the second time in as many years. But, from the depths of her soul, the same depths that had sensed the call of Babylon, the call to war and duty, she knew she would return.
Thanks for reading HUNTERS OF THE VOID! For more stories in this universe, check out BABYLON BLUES!