Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Hunters of the Void Chapter 2

To the End

For a corporation linked to the New Gods, Zenith Biotech was remarkably transparent about its operations.

Its corporate website betrayed critical information about the company. Address, contact form, areas of specialty, mug shots of executives and critical staff. More photographs showed the interior of the labs, the conference rooms, the reception area. Its staff maintained profiles on every major professional and social networking site, and in their published content they revealed slices of the company’s inner workings.

Specialist journals summarized the lab’s key achievements. Breakthroughs in DNA data storage. Revolutionary new method for assembling biocomputer. Engineering novel molecules for industrial use. A dozen patents in the past ten years, half of them in tandem with other corporations—all of which were also linked to the Void Collective.

The one thing Zenith did not declare was its affiliation with the New Gods.

It was not listed as ecclesiastical property. It was not publicly traded. Its bank statements showed no irregularities. None of its key staff were declared as members of the VC—or any of the New Gods, for that matter.

Zen Tan needed a lot of digging to find the truth. Buried in the bottom of a business news journal dated two years and ten months ago, a single sentence mentioned that Zenith Biotech had been acquired by Yoma Investment Group. Yoma was a shell company, owned by another shell company, itself the subsidiary of yet another shell company. Its true owner was Clays Strategic Technologies, a low-profile investment group which was completely owned and operated by a single family. A family declared as part of the Void Collective.

“Lots of smoke and mirrors here,” Kayla Fox noted.

“It’s how the New Gods work,” Zen Tan said.

The two of them shared a two-bedroom suite in the Aria Hotel, one of the few five-star establishments not in the clutches of the New Gods. Zen had transformed the room’s workstation into his office away from the office. A high-end custom-built 17-inch laptop took pride of place. On the right of the computer he had a wireless mouse, on the left a trackpad. A fiber optic cable connected him to the Net. A solid state drive held the software and documentation he needed to run any kind of cyberwar operation from anywhere in the world.

The laptop he had ordered from a small custom shop, paid for in cash. The peripherals were commercial off the shelf. The software, though, that was a legacy of his STS days. When the Public Security Bureau ordered the termination of the STS, the organization went into overdrive, ostensibly winding down operations, in reality throwing up a blinding smokescreen.

Armorers marked guns, ammo, gear and explosives as expended, transferred, or disposed of, and bequeathed them to the outgoing operators. Administrative staff copied sensitive documents and shredded the originals. Technicians marked sensitive computers as destroyed. Cyberwarfare specialists produced records stating that their penetration tools and cyberweapons had been securely erased. In all that activity, it was too easy for the enterprising operator to assemble a stash for himself.

Everyone did. And the brass approved.

Every operator knew that one day they’d have to fight the New Gods again. Ex-Commander Joshua Gregory was now running around the country, linking up every operator into an informal network. Zen wasn’t crazy enough to think he could take on the New Gods by himself, but the wise operator always created his own insurance policy.

The contents of his SSD was part of it.

Kayla leaned against the sofa, arching her back, stretching her long limbs. The sunlight caught her red shoulder-length and set it aflame. The heavy muscles packed on her lean frame hinted at her suite of augmentations, a combination of genetic therapy, muscle growth implants and respirocytes. She was a combat athlete, and so long as she ate right and kept her implants going, would remain so with minimal maintenance.

Zen looked away. While there was no denying that she was easy on the eye, he didn’t, couldn’t, let himself think of her that way. Among Team Black Watch he’d worked with her the closest and the longest. She was the shooter, he was the spotter; he was the cyber guy, she was his backup. He couldn’t let emotions—hormones—color how he saw her. Besides, he suspected that if he did, Yuri Yamamoto would take offense.

And if there was anything more terrible and frightening than the New Gods, it was surely him.

“What’s the play?” Kayla asked.

“I don’t think we can penetrate Zenith’s network from the outside,” Zen said. “If it were that easy, Alex would have done it already. My own probes haven’t revealed any vulnerable access ports. That means the company probably uses a secure intranet.”

“Makes sense. Keeps secure data isolated from the Net. But it can’t coordinate research with other companies over the intranet.”

“Correct. I’m thinking there are two possibilities. One, they have an Internet-capable computer, air-gapped from the intranet, which they use to communicate with the wider Net. Or two, they send confidential data using secure couriers.”

“Or both.”

“Or both,” he agreed. “Given the nature of what they work on, and the possibility of corporate espionage, they wouldn’t want any random employee to access everything confidential data stored on the intranet. The network architecture is likely to be highly siloed, with each department having their own networks, isolated from every other department.

“They’ll collate all the information in a secure data center. Only employees with the right credentials can access the information, and even then, only the information they are cleared for.”

“You’re making lots of assumptions there,” she said.

“Zenith is IS 72001 certified. That means it meets the international standards for information security. If we have to assume anything about the target, we should first assume it is a hard target.”

“I’d rather find out for myself.”

He gestured at the screen.

“You want to try, go right ahead. I can tell ya now, they’re almost impenetrable this side of the Internet.”

“That leaves us with physical penetration.”

“Yup. Which is why Alex called me.”

“And why you called me.”

Zen chuckled.

“Yeah.”

Five days ago, Alex had reached out to him, using an old email he maintained but never used. In his characteristic style, he invited Zen for a face-to-face meet at Fulton’s Riverboat and Restaurant to discuss ‘business’. Alex spent the next three days setting up.

He packed his things and drove cross-country, a one-man expedition that began at the break of dawn and ended close to midnight. He checked into a no—name motel at the outskirts of Babylon, got some rest, then began his research and reached out to the members of Team Black Watch.

Yuri Yamamoto couldn’t help. The second he’d delivered his testimony to the Temple Commission, he disappeared into thin air. He hinted that he was overseas, but he wouldn’t say where. He was the New Gods’ number one enemy, and was now drawing fire away from everyone on the team. Zen couldn’t ask him to come back. It would jeopardize everyone. Besides, this was a cyber job, and Yuri, for all his talents, was not a cyber guy.

Karim Mustafa was one of the few STS members brave or crazy enough to stay in Babylon, in the seat of the power of the New Gods. He wasn’t in, though. Zen had gotten his autoresponder. Karim claimed he was out on ‘special training’. After what he’d heard of the events at the Temple of Galen, Zen suspected he was training a temple militia.

James Wood couldn’t leave Moreno Island. The new sheriff was cleaning house, getting rid of everyone even remotely connected to the New Gods and hiring replacements. Wood was presently engaged as a trainer, bringing the new recruits up to speed. He couldn’t leave. Or, rather, if he did, and the New Gods found out, they would sense weakness, and strike.

Will Connor was eager to help, so Zen sent him to protect Marcie. It worked out well for everyone. He had to lie low, and a small town on the other side of the country was the last place the New Gods would look for him. Or so they hoped.

As for Kayla… she happened to be in Babylon.

Six months ago, immediately after the showdown in Riveria, she had caught the first long-distance bus out of the city. It had taken her to Babylon. It was unplanned, but she’d made the most of it.

Ever since she arrived, she laid down roots in Babylon, preparing herself for…

Something.

He didn’t know what. She didn’t know either. All she knew was that she had a feeling she should return to Babylon and get ready for her next op. She hadn’t known what it was, when it was, only that it was coming.

When he called her, she jumped at the chance immediately.

But this wasn’t the job she was waiting for.

Only the lead-up to it.

Or so she said.

So she felt.

He was a rational man. He didn’t trust feelings. But feelings had brought her to Babylon at a time when he needed backup, needed her. This was not the time or place to dig deeper into these ‘feelings’. Only the mission mattered.

“How do you want to do this?” Kayla asked. “Social engineering or sneaky ninja shit?”

The STS had done enough of both over the years that either was a viable option. Still…

“There’s a lot we don’t know about the facility,” Zen said. “Interior layout, security systems, police response time…”

“Only way to find out is to recon from the inside.”

“Which means we’ll need social engineering either way.”

“Yup. We’ll do what we can with SE and do the sneaky ninja shit if we need to follow up.”

“Gotcha. We’ll need props, costumes, vehicles, gear… Got to make a list.”

Zen turned to his computer and called up his word processor.

“Let’s start with our cover. Everything we need flows from that.”

“Before that, I’ve got a question.”

“Yeah?”

“Can we count on Alex for help? Or are we on our own here?”

Zen paused. Narrowed his eyebrows. And smirked.

“We’re only two people. If he wants the job done right, he should help us help him.”

She smiled.

“And if he helps us, we’ll have more options.”

“Sounds like you have some ideas.”

Her smile grew broader.

“A few.”

#

Kayla was a shooter, not a spook. Sure, she could work a legend like the best pavement artists of the Public Security Bureau, but her strengths lay elsewhere. Give her a precision rifle, high ground and clear lines of fire any day.

At least this time she didn’t have to do much talking.

It had taken five days to prepare for the op. Five days of research, reconnaissance, poring over open-source maps, multiple drive-bys to study Zenith Biotech’s patterns of life and identify external security, and most importantly, building their cover.

Alex had responded surprising well to Zen’s and Kayla’s request. Everything they asked for and was within his power, he granted. No questions asked, no strings attached. It wasn’t the same as providing everything they asked for—even this shadow broker had limits to his reach and resources—but they had eighty percent of everything they needed for undercover work.

The remaining twenty percent relied on deception and human behavior.

At half past noon, Kayla approached the Zenith Biotech building in a second-hand white van. Purchased with cash, graciously donated by Alex, it bore the logo of IPM Group, one the few courier services that hadn’t yet been crushed by the New Gods’ megacorps. Obtaining the van was only slightly harder than convincing the body shop techs to carry out the paint job. All she had to do was to flash a winning smile, a set of official-looking documents, a handful of bills, and they painted the vehicle exactly like every other van in IPM’s inventory.

Her uniform was legit, too. IPM’s uniform, or what passed for one, was a simple gray long-sleeved shirt with khaki slacks and comfortable shoes. She printed up an employee identification pass, wore it on a lanyard around her neck, and just like that, she was practically indistinguishable from every other IPM courier.

Zenith Biotechnologies was as generic a building as could be. Three stories tall, it was a concrete block in a district filled with concrete blocks. Three islands of blue-green glass windows slashed across every face in a futile attempt to lend it color. Enormous corporate logos shouted from the top floor of every face, its only proof of identity. It was the aesthetic of bland corporate modernity.

The aesthetic of the Void Collective.

She parked the van in front of the building, a stone’s throw from the entrance, engine facing out. Then she grabbed the envelope and tablet computer in the passenger seat, pulled her gray ball cap low over her face, and stepped out into the glaring sun.

It was boiling. Blinding sunlight reflected off the windows, forcing her eyeshields to darken, hiding her green contact lenses. Heat radiated from the cracked asphalt. She picked up her pace, slouching over, shielding her face from the sun and the exterior cameras. The stones in her shoes sent sharp stabs up her soles, forcing her to alter her gait, just enough to confuse gait recognition algorithms.

The main doors slid open the second she stepped on the welcome mat, releasing a gust of blessedly cool air. She sighed in exaggerated relief, clutching her tablet and envelope close to her chest with one hand, the other tucking her dyed platinum blond hair behind her ear.

She wasn’t Kayla Fox now. She was Michelle Smith, minimum wage courier, working the only job she could find in an industry dominated by robots and Elect, but still hopeful for promotion. A bright smile plastered on her face, she entered the lobby.

A long line of turnstiles demarcated the space in two. The public side was a lounge and waiting area, populated only by clusters of sofas clumped together in small groups. Past the gantry, the lift lobby awaited. Off to the left, the front desk straddled the divide. There were two computers, but only one receptionist seated behind the desk.

The receptionist, one part greeter, one part gatekeeper, looked up from her computer just as Kayla Fox arrived at her desk.

“Hi! I’m from IPM? I’ve got a secure delivery for the labs?” Kayla said, raising her voice to turn every statement into a question mark.

The receptionist smiled back.

“Let me just check the appointment book.”

She glanced at her monitor, clicked a few times, and frowned.

“I’m sorry. Your delivery isn’t on my schedule.”

“But it’s on mine? Says that this is an urgent delivery? Generated… half an hour ago? Maybe you didn’t receive the notice?”

As Kayla spoke, she leaned over the desk, bringing her tablet close to the screen. An app running in the background captured wireless signals radiating from the receptionist: her intranet-connected computer, her smartglasses, the employee pass hanging from a lanyard.

“Here, let me show you mine?” Kayla said.

She flipped the tablet around, showing an order sheet on the screen.

“I just made an urgent run from KPM Laboratories? They said they wanted to send you confidential data within four hours? They said they’d contact you as soon as I picked up the item? Maybe it’s in your email?”

Kayla hefted her envelope for emphasis. The receptionist swiveled around to the other computer and typed away. And smiled.

“Ah, I see the email now,” the receptionist said.

“Great!” Kayla gushed.

Neither Alex nor Zen had to do any hacking for that. Zen had simply sent an email mocked up to look like it had been sent from the receptionist’s counterpart in KPM.

“I’ll need your ID,” the receptionist said.

“Here you go!”

Kayla handed over her lanyard.

“Sorry, I meant driver’s license,” the receptionist said.

“It’s on the other side?”

The receptionist flipped the card holder around.

“Oh, I see it.”

The receptionist looked at the photo on the driver’s license, then up at Kayla. She saw a tall, athletic woman with platinum blond hair, a beauty spot under her nose, dark circles around her eyes, her cheeks full, her lips pale. She saw Michelle Smith, not Kayla Fox.

The receptionist’s hands blazed across the keyboard. Moments later, she opened a drawer filled with visitor passes, and exchanged Kayla’s cards for a pass.

“Here you go. Lab is on the second floor. Just go right through the gates and the elevator will take you there,” the receptionist said.

Kayla grinned brightly.

“Thank you so much!”

Kayla examined the closest turnstile for a second, as if trying to divine how they worked. Then she pressed the visitor pass against the card reader. The machine beeped, the bars unlocked, and she stepped through.

No alarms.

No mantrap.

No VC commandos teleporting in out of thin air.

She was in.

#

Corporations don’t exist in a bubble. Zenith certainly didn’t. Some of the brightest minds in Babylon’s biotech industry were packed within the four walls of the laboratories. But they were still human. They needed to eat, to drink, to have their needs met. An entire industry existed to service those needs.

Including water dispensers.

Zenith demanded the best of everything. They didn’t want ordinary water dispensers, no. They wanted the best, and the best came from Hydropure. Pure water run through an eight-step filtration system, eliminating fungi and bacteria and impurities, introducing minerals, adjusting the pH value to slightly alkaline. Hydropure dispensers were state of the art, fitted with wireless receivers and transmitters, constantly updating HQ on their status. The moment they ran low on water, the filters expired, a sensor went on the blink, they would send an alert to the company headquarters, which would then dispatch a technician to resolve the issue. Quick, convenient, no need to trouble the customer.

And it was such a simple thing to detect the water dispensers’ transmissions during a slow drive-by.

Hacking into the data stream was a breeze. The data packets gave up everything about the machines. Their model number, the manufacturer, their present status, the intended receiver. From there, a quick Internet search revealed the company that produced and supplied the water dispensers, and with it, their uniforms and logos. Armed with that information, building a cover was simple.

Zen Tan pulled into Zenith’s loading bay. Sited at the rear of the building, it was mostly empty. A single truck bearing the corporate logo idled in the parking lot. Elevated off the ground to accommodate delivery trucks and shipping containers, the four loading bays opened into the storeroom. The right-most bay sported a ramp for push carts.

Every bay was shuttered.

Zen Tan climbed out of his van, slipping into work mode. In his gray polo shirt, thick jeans and worn black boots, hands clad in electrician work gloves, he was every inch the blue collar worker. In his right hand he held a toolbox, in his left a tablet. Whistling to himself, he pulled out a black ball cap from his rear pocket and slipped it on, opened the rear doors of his white step van and muscled out a push cart. He set the toolbox on the cart and clambered aboard.

A half-dozen five-liter water tanks filled the cargo compartment. One by one, he hauled them atop the cart, arranging them in two rows of three. He shut the door and pushed the cart to the loading ramp.

He kept his head lowered, giving the cameras nothing but his black cap and thick paste-on beard. The heavy thick-soled boots added inches to his height, and he dug his heels into the ground with every step. He leaned forward, throwing his bodyweight into the cart, further confusing his profile.

At the base of the ramp, Zen planted his fists on his hips and looked around. The heavy shutters stared back. Shaking his head, he pulled out a burner phone and dialed a number.

Five long rings later, the receiver picked up.

“Who’s this?” the receiver asked.

“Is this the storeroom clerk of Zenith Biotech?” Zen asked.

“Yeah.”

Hydropure’s systems were much easier to crack than Zenith’s. The clerk’s number was stored in its customer relationship management database. Didn’t hurt to make sure, though.

“Hi. I’m from Hydropure, here to service your water dispensers. I’m around the back at the loading bay. Could you kindly let me in?”

“You can’t go in through the front door?”

“I’ve got a bunch of water tanks. I was told to come in through the loading bay.”

The clerk sighed.

“A’ight. Give me five. I’ll let you in.”

Zen had prepared a cover story, excuses, explanations. But you can always trust a minimum wage worker to choose the path of least resistance.

Five minutes came and went. Six. Seven. Zen tapped his boot impatiently against the ground, leaning on his cart.

Eleven minutes after the call, the rightmost shutter finally budged. With a heavy metallic clattering, it reluctantly rolled up, revealing a short, stout man in a black shirt and pants.

“You from Hydropure?” the storeroom clerk asked.

“That’s me,” Zen said.

“Didn’t hear anything about servicing water dispensers today.”

“Beats me. I just go where the boss tells me to go.”

“We just had a water delivery three days ago.”

“You guys had a party or something? Either that or there are other water dispensers that need servicing.”

The clerk shrugged.

“Eh, probably the second. Come on up. I’ll sign you in.”

Zen pushed the cart up into the storeroom. Cramped and dusty, boxes upon boxes and pallets after pallets filled the small space. More boxes rested in high shelves. Tiny aisles cut through the space, feeding to the exit at the far end. The clerk sat down at a desk by the door and booted up a computer.

“I’ll need your ID and work order,” the clerk said.

Zen dug out a card holder from his toolbox, then handed both his false driver’s license and tablet computer. The clerk pecked at the keyboard with two fingers, slowly filling in an army of fields. The tablet displayed his work order on the screen and ran a packet sniffer in the background. The app silently intercepted and logged all data streams across every wireless network the tablet detected, gathering and compromising information.

The clerk stowed the driver’s license in a drawer and exchanged it for a pass card.

“Here ya go. Keep the card with you at all times. Once you’re done, call me and I’ll log you out.”

“Thanks,” Zen said.

He held up the visitor card to a reader by the door. The machine beeped and flashed a green light. The clerk helpfully opened the door for him.

“Thanks!” Zen repeated.

“No problem,” the clerk said.

Now on the inside, visitor pass worn on a lanyard around his neck, pushing a heavy load, everybody would assume he had every reason to be here. Zen pushed the cart down the closest hallway, away from the clerk. He turned around the corner and found himself at the employee gym.

It wasn’t much of one. Obligatory exercise bikes and treadmills looked out the window into the road, half of them in use. A small rack of dumbbells stood by gleaming full-length mirrors. A man lay on the sole bench press station and grunted his way through a rep, while another one spotted him. Clusters of exercise machines, strange arrangements of bars and weights and cables and handles, sat untouched at the other end. Television sets mounted on the ceiling burbled soothingly. The air conditioning was at full blast, saving everyone the inconvenience of sweating. A single security camera watched from the ceiling.

Next to the entrance, a water dispenser awaited.

Zen let himself in with the visitor card, then hauled the cart over to the dispenser. It was a bottom-load model, the water tank concealed behind a panel. He popped the panel open, exposing the tank.

It was only half-empty. All the same, he hauled it out and replaced it with a full tank. Then he grabbed the dispenser with both hands, lifted it off the ground, and set it down a foot away from the wall.

Toolbox in hand, he wedged himself into the space he had created and sat down. The rear access panel was right at his eye level. He grabbed a screwdriver and removed the panel.

A woman approached the dispenser, her skin flush.

“Hey! Can I use the water dispenser?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Zen replied. “There’s something wrong with the heater, though. Got to check it out.”

“All right. Sure.”

The electronic guts of the dispenser revealed themselves to him. The wiring, the motherboard, the chips, the sensors, everything that elevated it from a mere hydration device to a networked asset. He brought his toolbox onto his lap and curled himself over it, shielding its contents from the camera and witnesses.

The woman filled up a cup and took large gulps, turned away from Zen, her attention entirely on her smartglasses. Working swiftly, he pulled out a black stick the size of his little finger from his breast pocket, disconnected the power supply from the motherboard, reconnected into the stick, then hooked up the stick to the motherboard and screwed the panel back on.

The stick was a packet sniffer, not unlike the one in his tablet, equipped with a transmitter. Connected to the power supply, it would run for as long as it stayed in place, gobbling down all data streams on all wireless networks it found, then transmitting its findings to a secure site on the Dark Web.

And any anomalous wireless signals can be attributed to the computer in the water cooler.

He returned the water dispenser to its original position, grabbed the cart, and headed out.

And heard shouting.

Kayla shouting.

#

The elevator had an access control system. The moment Kayla swiped her card over the reader, the doors closed, the button for the second floor lit up, and the elevator began its slow ascent. She poked the third floor button, but nothing happened. A shame. The labels on the console stated that the third floor was reserved for the executive offices and the data center. If she could access the secure servers, the mission would be complete there and then.

She just had to play the hand she was dealt.

The elevator doors opened to reveal tasteful carpeting and bland paintings. Stepping out into the lobby, she resisted the urge to scan, the way an operator did. She was a civilian, and in her civilian persona she took three deep steps into the hallway beyond.

“Do you require assistance?” a man asked.

To her left, two men in gray uniforms stood in front of a swinging door. One had black hair, the other brown. Both men openly wore pistols at their hips. Their faces were completely void of expression, but their eyes were wide and fixed, staring straight at her, through her.

“Hi! I’ve got a secure delivery? For the biocybernetics lab?” Kayla said.

“You do not,” Brown Hair said.

“Hey, come on, it’s on my work order! The receptionist didn’t tell you?”

“You lie,” a voice said behind her.

She looked over her shoulder. Two more men with matching uniforms and sidearms stepped away from another door, marching towards her. Their faces were completely flat, their eyes bright and piercing.

Void Collective. Only they possessed this inhumanly flat effect in numbers.

Her heart pumped in her chest. Her hands tightened around her tablet. Backing up to the elevator, she swept her head back and forth, taking them all in.

“What’s going on? What are you doing?”

“You are not here for a secure delivery,” Brown Hair said. “Leave.”

She held up her envelope and her tablet.

“Come on! I’ve got a work order here! I’ve got to drop it off!”

“You lie.”

All four guards approached her in lockstep. Right foot, left foot, right again, perfectly in sync, their gun hands on their weapons and their secondary hands held close to their sides.

“I don’t know what your game is, but if I don’t drop this off, your boss is gonna get pissed,” she said.

Brown Hair stopped an arm’s length from her. This close to him, she saw a darkness swimming beneath the surface of his jet-black eyes, the darkness of the Void, glaring at her, reading her, trying to place here.

“Leave. Immediately,” Brown Hair said.

“And the delivery? You could at least take it—”

The elevator doors opened behind her.

And the guards rushed her.

They seized her arms, two men to a limb, dragging her into the elevator car. Powerful legs swept out her own, destroying her balance, turning her into a ragdoll.

“What the hell? What are you doing?!” she demanded.

The guards pinned her against a corner. She wriggled, writhed, trying to break free. They had fingers like vices, solid and immovable. She stepped on their feet and insteps. They didn’t react.

“Let me GO!”

The doors opened.

In perfect sync, they adjusted their grips and pivoted around her. The ones closer to her shot their arms through the gap between her body and her arm, then wrapped around to cut their forearms down and through her biceps, forcing her down and forward, and seized their wrists with their free hands. Brown Hair and another guard stepped out, clearing the way ahead.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

Brown Hair turned to face her.

“You will leave the premises immediately.”

“I came here to make a delivery! That’s all!”

“You did not.”

“This is bullshit!”

Brown Hair bent over, looking at her in the eye.

“We know who you are, Kayla Fox.”

Cold flushed her face. Blood pumped to her arms and legs. She snarled.

“I am Michelle Smith! What the fuck are you talking about?!”

“We have no quarrel with you, Kayla Fox. Consider it a mercy that we will not use you as a test subject in the labs. Leave now and this will be the end of it. Resist, and you shall never leave.”

She gnashed her teeth, fighting down every instinct to fight back.

“Fine. I’m going. But I don’t know who this ‘Kayla Fox’ is. You’re going to hear from my boss real soon!”

The guards frog-marched her to the gantries. Brown Hair waved her pass over the reader. The moment the light turned green, they shoved her through the turnstile. She stumbled, then caught herself.

“Are you alright?” the receptionist asked.

“She is not authorized to be here,” Brown Hair said.

“What do you mean?”

“They mistook me for someone else,” Kayla said.

“She lies.”

“Huh?” the receptionist muttered.

Kayla sighed and handed over her visitor pass.

“These idiots think I’m some kind of criminal. They won’t let me do my job. Whatever. Not my problem anymore. I’ll just take it up with my boss.”

“I’m sorry you had to experience that,” the receptionist said.

“Do not pity a liar,” Brown Hair said.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Kayla said.

Out the corner of her eye, she spotted Zen rolling his cart down a hallway.

He looked at her. At the guards. At her again.

She looked at the receptionist.

“Here you go,” the receptionist said, handing over her lanyard. “Sorry you had to experience that.”

“No problem? Only with those guys over there?” Kayla nodded at the guards. “They take their jobs too seriously?”

She was Michelle Smith. This was how Michelle Smith spoke.

“Do you want to file a complaint?” the receptionist asked.

“What’s the point? I’ll just take it up with the cops?”

The guards stared at her, silent and unmoving.

She clutched her belongings close to her chest, spun on a heel, and walked away.

#

The mission was scrubbed.

Once the guards were done with Kayla, they’d come for him next. Zen stayed in the hallway long enough to see that she wasn’t in danger, then backed up the cart and turned around.

He retraced his steps at a brisk pace, ten percent faster than his previous walking speed. His hackles rose. With every step, he braced himself for shouts, alarms, guards teleporting right up in his face. He rounded three corners, taking every opportunity to check his flank and back.

He pressed his card against the storeroom card reader. The machine mercifully flashed green. He carted the water through and scanned the room.

No one in.

But the bays were all shuttered.

He aimed his cart at the loading bays, pulled out his phone, and called the store clerk.

“It’s the Hydropure tech,” Zen said. “I’m done here.”

“Gotcha,” the clerk replied. “Head on over to the storeroom. I’ll let you out from there.”

“See you in a bit.”

Zen checked the hinges. The door swung open to the left. He stood on the right, phone gripped in his left hand. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but the person he was pretending to be didn’t have a reason to carry—and had every reason to hold a phone in his hand.

He waited. Breathed. Waited some more. He was just a tech, he’d just completed a job and was now on the way out, nothing to see here. He crossed his arms for the benefit of the camera, tapping his boot, still looking down at the floor.

The keycard reader chimed.

He tensed.

The clerk stepped through.

And the door closed.

“Didn’t know you were here already,” the clerk said.

“I was close to the store when I called you,” Zen said.

The clerk sat at his workstation. Zen surrendered his keycard.

“Heard some kind of ruckus at the lobby. What was that all about?” Zen asked.

“Didn’t hear anything about that. I was on the third floor.”

Zen shrugged. “Oh well.”

The clerk returned Zen’s card and pressed a hidden button. The shutter rolled up.

“That’s it. You’re good to go,” he said.

“Thanks. Appreciate it.”

Zen carted the water out of the store.

Down the ramp.

Across the parking lot.

Here was the moment of maximum vulnerability. If the guards wanted to take him, if the cops were coming, he was right here, out in the open. But he had to play his cover to the bitter end. Until he saw evidence otherwise, he had to assume his cover wasn’t compromised.

It was why Zen and Kayla arrived separately. If one were intercepted, the other could carry on. Or bug out, as the situation demanded.

He willed himself to slow down, to be casual, to maintain his persona as a blue collar worker. He’d just finished his job, he was gearing up for the next one, he wasn’t in any rush to get back to the rat race. He unlocked the truck, then loaded up the water tanks and the cart.

No one stopped him.

He secured his cargo, locked the doors, climbed into his cab, started the engine.

Still no sign of guards.

His burner buzzed. A new text message.

Fromm Kayla.

I’m clear of the area. You?

He typed a quick response.

E&E now. Legend intact. Regroup at safe house.

She sent a single letter in response: K.

He drove off.

Didn’t look back.

Social engineering isn't Zen and Kayla's strong suit. It's direct action. Read all about it BABYLON BLUES!

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