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  • Published: 2 July 2021
  • ISBN: 9780241371336
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $37.00

Scorpion

Extract

Prologue

Henrietta Yi and her team have been underground for three days.

They are over 150 meters down, directly beneath the France—Switzerland border, collectively leaning into the glow of a slab of black plasma glass. The green rectangular cursor at the top blinks, but the eyes transfixed by its promise of results do not.

From the moment it was switched on, the Large Hadron Collider collected far more raw data than researchers could possibly process, so the vast majority went straight into the particle detector backlog, or PDB. Cold storage, as it was sometimes called. As part of Henrietta’s thesis research, she is leading the team tasked with thawing it out, slicing it up, and feeding it to a voracious AI painstakingly trained to identify quantum anomalies. The theory is that there may be previously undiscovered signals buried beneath all those years of noise.

Exactly what meaning those signals may carry nobody knows. Some of her peers hope to clinch their PhDs by certifying the theory of supersymmetry. Others hope to be the very first to glimpse the multiverse. A few even believe it is possible that they will discover an entirely new particle – infinitesimal units of mass with such novel characteristics that the world will be forced to rewrite the rules of physics.Henrietta’s dreams are no less ambitious. Her father was killed in the nuclear attack on Seoul, leaving his relentless pursuit of a Nobel Prize to his only child. Henrietta has dedicated her life to academia, turning down multiple offers from the private sector – packages of obscene salaries, perks, and stock options – all for the opportunity to work underground and to be exactly where she is right now.

When the first few rows of hexadecimal data finally appear, the room erupts. There are hugs and high-fives behind her, but Henrietta remains focused. And then something in the data changes, and the celebration abates.

Fingers enter Henrietta’s peripheral vision from all around.

‘That’s an encryption header,’ someone says behind her.

‘That’s AES encryption, isn’t it?’

‘And look. It’s repeating. Like a . . . blockchain.’

The characters are not appearing sequentially, but erratically – sometimes incorrectly decoded, then overwritten moments later. But something about the content at the top feels different. It is not a dribble of incomprehensible bits, but two distinct lines of text.

‘Look at that. That’s not binary. I think that might be . . .’

Several of the letters are shuffled and replaced, and then the cursor jumps to a different location, the algorithm seemingly content with its predictive composition:

We know what we are,

but know not what we may be.

‘This doesn’t make any sense.’

‘Why would there be text in the particle detector backlog?’

‘Where the hell is all this coming from?’Henrietta resets her big round specs and squints in concentration. She goes over it in her mind several more times. The room has grown so quiet that she can hear the high-frequency whine of excited plasma glass as data continues streaming by.

‘Not where,’ she finally says, as much to herself as to her team. ‘When.’

 

PART ONE

1. Agent of Chaos

The first thing Kira does before she gets up is put on her legs. They balance on an inductive charging mat beside her bed between a set of steel rails, and the muscles in the young woman’s back and shoulders flare as she elevates herself. The nerve terminals in her thighs magnetically align to the pin jacks at the bottom of the carbon-fiber cups, and the interfaces constrict until they are securely attached.

She has skins somewhere she can roll up over them, and if she were to conceal the seams where the texture-etched urethane and her tissue meet with shorts or a tight skirt, the looks she would get on the street would be of lust and envy rather than curiosity, revulsion, or pity.

But Kira lives alone, so the servo-mechanical guts remain exposed, and she does not even bother dressing beyond underwear, a tank top, and her aviator-style metaspecs. She has not left the penthouse suite asylum at the top of the twisted and slowly rotating Infinity Moscow Tower in nearly four years. No good reason to even brush her teeth, or to close the master bathroom door while she pees.

Kira works nights. Her workstation is her studio, and her tools are instruments of fabrication and conspiracy. Proxies conceal her real IP and map to her many identities. Location can be cloaked from the outside world, but real-time interaction cannot be forged, so Kira has become nocturnal. Her boss calls her a ‘change agent’ but she knows that’s simply a way of distorting the truth. She is an agent of chaos.

The first step in her evening routine is to make herself tea. In the kitchen, she activates the kettle, and while she waits for it to boil, she sits down to flash charge the monitor affixed to her wrist. The device cannot be removed, so it must be replenished in place. She interweaves her fingers and leans forward, both arms flat against the mat. A lightning bolt icon appears in the corner of her vision, indicating that her glasses are receiving an ambient trickle charge conveyed through her biomagnetic field.

The charging mat is infused with stacks of overlapping coils that are meant to get warm but never hot, and it is not until she smells something caustic and hears an electrical pop that she is on her feet and her legs are backing her away, and she understands that she’s been burned. She kicks the cord out of the wall, turns to the sink, and runs her arm beneath a cold stream.

She can already see round, red welts forming on the inside of her forearm. It hurts, but she is no stranger to pain. Pain is always with her, and she has learned to observe it from a distance rather than letting it in.

Kira was her family’s primary source of income before the missiles hit, and her parents had her back in front of a computer before she was even out of the hospital. At home, her father carried her back and forth between her desk and the toilet, and her mother changed her bandages and brought her soup and bathed her, and they never spoke of the retaliatory attack her work provoked. It was in the past, and the past could not be changed. Kira learned from an early age that some people do not have the luxury of indulging in yesterday’s fears or even today’s chronic pain.

If any of her personal monitoring systems fail, she is supposed to alert her handlers immediately. Fuck them, she thinks. They refuse to use anything that is not Russian-made, which means half of it is trash. The other half has shit firmware that any script kiddy could hack. They will know her charger is fried when her monitor runs dry and her biometrics suddenly drop offline.

Kira slides the patio door open to help get rid of the smell. Usually she does not check the pigeons until her tea is steeping, but tonight she steps outside into the cold Moscow evening.

Once a day, a bird arrives with a new handwritten encryption key wrapped around its leg. Homing pigeons are supposed to be only one-way. Once they have established a specific loft as their home, they will deliver messages only in that one direction. To use them again, they must be collected and redistributed. But these pigeons have been genetically engineered to have bifurcated brains with dominance that toggles according to light. They fly in one direction during the day and the opposite direction at night. Like Kira, their handlers have learned to turn their multiple identities into weapons deployed against their many enemies.

Tonight’s bird has not yet arrived, but the night air feels good, so Kira does not go back inside. She can feel the spring in the silicone tiles as she passes the pigeon loft, and she gently places her injured arm against the cold metal of the rail and looks out over the city. She is chilly, but not as cold as she would have been in the past. Legs make up 36 percent of an adult’s heat-bleeding surface area. And Kira’s cybernetic prostheses are emanating warmth that her torso absorbs.

Kira has come to think of her relationship with her legs as symbiotic. She communicates with them through the neural pathways she formed as a little girl, and they interpret her intentions, form a consensus, and communicate spatial information back up through the same route. The vast majority of the time, it all happens unconsciously, but occasionally there are miscommunications. When it feels like her legs have suddenly gone numb, she recalibrates them by deliberately sending them a set of simple diagnostic instructions.

This time, she experiences the neurological dissonance as a dizzy spell. Her legs take her two steps back as if to help her regain her balance, which she was not aware of having lost. And then the back leg launches a firmly planted front kick that connects solidly with the rail and leaves a rippled, crumpled dent.

Because the signals travel in both directions, Kira understands exactly what is happening. There is even a part of her that, despite her trying to fight it, is actively participating. The signals are influencing her like a reversal of cause and effect; by thinking about having just kicked the rail, she is involuntarily sending her legs additional signals that, after resetting her stance, culminate in her striking the rail again.

The aluminum is shearing away from its anchors, and the third kick sends the entire middle section of railing spinning down into the dark. Kira now understands that she has been infiltrated, and that she only has seconds to detach. But the releases are not responding. And because it is supposed to be impossible for modern Russian prostheses to fail, there is no mechanical override.

She takes two steps forward, and then there is an awful, silent pause. The clatter of the rail hitting the street below rebounds off the surrounding buildings, and her brain uses the delay to make a sickening calculation. Kira has stopped trying to free herself and is now attempting to focus. She knows that she cannot physically prevent the next step, but she might still be able to regain control.

With her eyes closed, she breathes in deeply and wills everything around her to be calm and still. She grows poised and balanced, and she unexpectedly begins to feel strong and tall. Newly resolute and deeply empowered. She can no longer tell who or what is in control, but she knows that the easiest and fastest path away from the pain of her past is to have the courage to move forward. It is with this profound sense of peace that she takes that last step and allows herself to drop from the top of the tower.

The feeling is not one of flying or floating or freedom. Free fall is neither peaceful nor meditative. The atmosphere rushing past her rapidly intensifies into a roar, and it lashes at her shirt and tears the specs off her face. She feels herself pitching forward, rotating, and reflexively she tries to claw her way straight. All she can do is scream into the cold black wind until her breath is gone, and when she tries to draw another, she finds that her lungs are too weak to pull anything from the torrent of air around her. The girl is silent and limp by the time she hits, and the crack of dead weight against the concrete reverberates through the quiet.

As her body lies contorted and twisted, the burns on the inside of Kira’s pale forearm continue to redden and blister. But even though they were caused by overlapping concentric coils wrapped inside soft polymer, they are not resolving into perfect circles. It is as though only select sections of filament malfunctioned. The fresh wound is developing into what appears to be a string of digits woven out of segments of rings – the numeric sequence 6809.

 

‘Nobody is untouchable,’ the Israeli says. ‘Just like I told you.’

The tall man is standing behind him. They are both watching a hijacked surveillance feed on a slab of plasma glass. It is being rendered in the false-color spectrum of the infrared, and the thing they are observing has gone from red to green and is now cooling to blue.

The Israeli’s workstation contains a matrix of displays. Some of them are news feeds, and some are different angles on the same street scene. One of them shows a schematic of a cybernetic prosthesis, and on another, an editor in hex mode renders thousands of lines of highlighted bytecode.

The Israeli spins in his chair and looks up. ‘I think it’s safe to transfer the other half.’

‘I’m impressed,’ the tall man says. ‘But there’s one thing I don’t get.’

The Israeli raises his eyebrows. The sides of his head are shaved and the remaining black mohawk is French-braided into a single looped topknot. His beard fades in from smooth, dark skin and neatly wraps the pointed contours of his chin.

‘This is dangerous work that you do,’ the tall man continues. ‘But you let me walk right into your flat. You have no protection. No real leverage. How do you know I won’t kill you?’

‘Because I have a system,’ the Israeli says.

‘A security system?’

‘Better,’ the Israeli says. ‘An economic system.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Do you know the only way to keep information safe?’

‘Tell me.’

‘The cost of stealing it has to be higher than its value. Securing information is less about encryption and more about the cost of decryption. It’s all economics.’

‘What does that have to do with your security?’

‘I never charge so much that it would be easier to kill me than to pay me.’

‘But what is difficult for one man may be easy for another.’

‘That’s why I don’t base my fee on the complexity of the job,’ the Israeli says. ‘That’s my secret. I base it on careful evaluation of the client.’

‘What kinds of things do you evaluate?’

‘Everything. Net worth. Disposition. Presentation. You think inviting someone into my home is a liability. I see it as an asset.’

‘What’s your evaluation of me?’

The Israeli’s chair twists as he looks the tall man over.

‘It would be cheaper for you to pay me than to wash my blood out of that suit.’

‘But that assumes I’m rational,’ the tall man says.

‘I’m not counting on you to act rationally,’ the Israeli says. ‘I’m counting on you to act out of self-interest.’

‘Do you believe everyone acts out of self-interest?’‘Of course they do. If they didn’t, the world would be complete chaos.’

‘You don’t believe the world is chaotic?’

‘I believe the world is a complex and interconnected machine, and that the people who can’t see how the pieces fit together dismiss its elegance for chaos. But I can see them. That’s how I do what I do. That’s why you retained my services instead of someone else’s, and that’s how I know you won’t kill me.’

‘But what if I know something that you don’t?’ the tall man asks. ‘What if I can see pieces that you can’t?’

The Israeli looks doubtful. ‘What pieces?’

‘The kind of pieces that change the rules. The kind that make the machine run backwards. The kind that might result in people making grave miscalculations.’

The Israeli sits up in his chair. He is no longer composed, and his tone grows conciliatory. ‘Look, man, if you don’t want to pay me, that’s fine. We can call it even. I mostly do this shit for fun anyway.’

A moment passes between them, and then the Israeli’s eyes drop to the tall man’s hands. The tall man reaches into his jacket and removes a smooth, lithe handset. He authenticates, navigates, and then consummates the remainder of a sizable transaction.

The Israeli watches his client nod, turn, and leave. And it is not until he can no longer hear the hollow knock of the tall man’s shoes along the hallway that he remembers to breathe.


Scorpion Christian Cantrell

I Am Pilgrim meets Minority Report - a gripping international cat-and-mouse thriller with an ending you won't see coming

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