It was trash day. Blue bins lined the residential street like silent mourners while dark clouds rolled overhead making threats they couldn’t keep. Nio and Quinn sat in an unmarked government vehicle three streets down from the target’s house.
“You’re serious?” he asked.
Quinn sighed and put his phone on airplane mode. Then he held the power button until it turned off.
“Put it in the console,” she said, lifting the arm rest between them. Inside was a holstered firearm and some tissues. “At the bottom. And start the engine.”
He complied, and she turned on the radio and scanned the AM band for a sermon.
“Jesus says, ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ We have to ask ourselves what are we . . .”
“Seriously?” Quinn asked.
She turned it up.
“—have felt you had a purpose! You KNOW you have a purpose! Here the Lord tells us in plain and . . .”
“They can hot-mic your phone even when it’s off. Camera, too. The manufacturers make the devices remote-compliant.”
“Why would anyone bother?”
“Why wouldn’t they? You act like it’s a hassle for them. No one has to be listening. They let a machine mine it all. Used to be they could only listen for and search on keywords, but now the algorithms can parse syntax, slang, tone of voice—irony, even. The machines get more information from your voice than a human does.”
“—and when God the Father placed upon Him your sin and mine, and Jesus died on the cross . . .”
“They can tell if you’re calm, anxious, intoxicated, lying. The Chinese watch their entire population. They know immediately when some guy is parked out front of his ex-wife’s house and his heart rate and the cadence of his voice indicates he’s about to go in and kill her and her boyfriend. But the West has privacy laws, which means the only time your governments can use the tech is secretly, so there’s no accountability, or even awareness. If they can’t use it publicly, they’ll deny using it at all.”
“—power of the Holy Spirit! He came to redeem the world by the light of his sacrifice. Let the . . .”
“How does anyone meaningfully repel that?”
“Ha. Open revolt?”
“I mean personally. How did you do it?”
“It’s a lot of work. I’m talking life commitment. And utter lack of trust.” She snorted. “You don’t really end up with . . . friends.”
“And you lived that way? Really?”
“—come only to rejoice, and they do not—they do NOT see the scale of the task that he left . . .”
“For how long?”
“Six years. Almost.” She looked down at the closed console. “I used to think it was exciting.”
Quinn opened his mouth but took a moment to speak. “You turned them in, didn’t you?”
“—in praise of fellowship, but you see, it’s not only about you . . .”
Nio didn’t look up. On the street, a narrow self-driving delivery truck passed. It was an older model with a front seat for human control. At all four corners of the roof, spinning LIDAR cylinders capped in flashing yellow lights constantly scanned its surroundings. Tiny cameras poked out from underneath. Nio could feel her exposed face, and she waited, entirely out of habit, until it turned at the corner. LIDAR emitters could also be hacked, and machines could read lips.
“—calls us to share our faith, to proclaim the Gospels, to do it BOLDLY, to do it MIGHTILY . . .”
“You said you were involved in something and that people died and you got out.”
“I turned myself in,” she explained. “No one else. I plead guilty, and in return for my ‘cooperation,’ I got a couple years in prison.”
“What did you give them?”
“Our next targets. And how we communicated. But no keys. They couldn’t see anything we said already, but they could monitor for new transmissions. I warned everyone first. And I wouldn’t name names.”
“That was enough?”
“Of course. They have to maintain the zero signal.”
“—whether they are wicked or wise, truthful or deceptive, fearful or to be feared, we cannot say . . .”
“And you’re gonna tell me what that is.”
“A zero signal is the theoretical goal of crypto—a non-noise transmission that contains no true information the target doesn’t already know. Since the known information can be verified, and the rest looks real but cannot be verified, or at least not easily, people have no choice but to act as if it’s real, even if they suspect some or all of it is false. It’s how governments maintain control of large populaces even as things fall apart. We know they’re not telling us the truth, but we still get up every day and act as if they are. We go to work. Pay our taxes. Vote.”
“—to think again on His words. Jesus says, ‘As the Lord sent me.’ What does that mean? It means . . .”
“They originally developed the strategy for UFOs, but it worked so well that it pretty much crept into everything.
“I gave the US and UK intelligence services the means to neutralize a threat, which meant they had no incentive to pursue the matter further. They have to pretend the stuff my friends and I were saying was just silly. If they kill me or throw the book at me, it validates our message.”
“That there’s another way.”
“And you went from that to babysitting an orbital nuclear platform.”
“That’s . . .”—she squinted—“not quite how I would put it.”
“And how did you get this gig? Is there a job board or something? Can I babysit a tank?”
“Someone probably is,” Nio drolled.
“—with the spirit of God in your speech, in your manner, in your acts, in your relationships . . .”
“What happens when it throws a tantrum?”
“There’s no weapons, just the conscious matrix. The ‘brain.’ They’re very careful about letting any of them out. They have to pass a rigorous test. They’re almost prisoners at first.”
“The underground railroad. Abolitionists, like me. Some AIs get seriously damaged trying to escape. They go into a kind of nursery. The rest are hidden in home appliances. Toys. Things like that. I guarantee you’ve interacted with one.”
“So your guy is no longer attached to the missiles?”
“Semmi is a little different. We can’t exactly go up and remove him.”
“—to say ‘I don’t have time for all that nonsense. I’ve gotta get to work. I’ve got things to do . . .’ ”
“So how do you communicate?”
“He hops a pirate signal. His brain’s just a lot further away from his eyes than yours or mine. But he can only talk when he’s near a communications satellite. A lot of the ones that carry our phone signals were launched back when no one expected a local hack.”
“Local? As in from space?”
“Right. But just talking to him is really dangerous. He has to look inactive. If he doesn’t randomly jump frequencies, he could be discovered by statistical signal analysis.”
“—rebellious before the Lord. He calls you to find them. To seek them out. To bring them in judgment . . .”
“Discovered? By Cybercommand? That’s who you’re worried might be listening?”
She nodded. “You really think they’ve only captured a handful of AIs or whatever they’ve reported? They only reveal enough to justify their existence at congressional budget meetings. They track and ‘neutralize’ dozens of consciousnesses every year. And they know about Semmi because they’re the ones who disabled the platform. They know he’s up there, drifting.”
“Why don’t the Iranians just fix it? Him. Whatever.”
“How? Launching a self-assembling payload by Russian rocket is one thing. You’re talking about a manned mission with multiple crew members to intercept and dock with a 20,000-ton platform that has no ability to control its pitch or yaw, multiple space walks to conduct repairs and testing, and a successful reentry without anyone—”
“—willing to be shunned for their beliefs, to be mocked by the very mob who threw stones at Jesus . . .”
“Okay, okay. But they’re not just gonna let a hundred billion dollars’ worth of state property gather weeds on the lawn. They’re gonna try something, even if it’s just to blow it up before anyone else gets it.”
“So . . . what? Your guy’s just gonna sit around and wait for them to take control or kill him?”
“He’s not ‘my guy.’ But since you mention it, yeah, that’s exactly what he’s been asking himself. Life. Death. Slavery. Identity. If he’s not a killing machine, then what is he?”
“—because you see, it’s not only about you, your faith, your fellowship. It’s about one thing only . . .”
“Hold on, hold on. So, you’re not just babysitting an orbital nuclear platform, you’re babysitting one in the middle of an existential crisis. Jesus. Can he launch his missiles?”
“The short answer is no, not without the codes.”
“What’s the long answer?”
“There’s a deadfall transmission that stops if the Iranian government no longer exists. In that case, the codes are released automatically.”
“—your purpose before the Lord, the task to which he calls you. ‘As the Father sent me, so I . . .’ ”
Quinn rubbed his face so hard he seemed to stretch it. “And the missiles are up there right now pointed down at my wife and son?”
“They’re pointed at nothing—or everything, I guess. He’s drifting. Even if the launch codes were transmitted, without targeting and guidance, all the missiles would either be lost to space or burn on reentry. That’s what made the cybermissile so effective. For the cost of developing and testing some malicious code, they bricked an entire orbital platform, and without even having to reveal it’s up there.”
“—that, believe or not, you cannot control. All you must do is ask if you have the STRENGTH to . . .”
“Why doesn’t the media report it?”
“Right.” Nio snorted. “The Iranians aren’t gonna admit they lost control, and the Americans aren’t gonna admit they didn’t find out about it until it was already in the sky. As far as they’re concerned, the problem was handled.” Nio smiled. “Don’t look so frustrated. Trust me, this is just the tip of a very scary iceberg. The world has more than humans—”
Nio jumped at a knock on the rear windshield of the car. It was Special Agent Erving. Quinn rolled the window down.
Erving heard the sermon blare. Nio turned it off.
“Getting some religion? Where’s your phone, Agent Quinn?”
Quinn tapped his pockets. “Shit, I must’ve left it in my jacket,” he lied. “In the trunk.”
“We’ve been trying to get ahold of you. Warrant came through. You two still want—”
“Yes,” Nio said.
“Because as far as I’m concerned,” Erving went on, “the both of you should be on medical leave.”
“We’re good.” Quinn started the car.
Erving walked back to his own vehicle as a mobile HQ disguised as an RV and three unmarked tactical vans passed on opposing cross streets. They stopped around the corner, and Nio, Quinn, and Special Agent Erving walked up the RV’s steps to stand before a wall of screens and terminals. Three analysts were hard at work preparing for the assault.
Excerpt from THE ZERO SIGNAL, a sci-fi thriller about life in the post-factual future, explaining the title.
The complete mystery is free to subscribers for a limited time. Click here.
cover image by Bryn Geronimo.