Sweat slipped into her eye, burning it. Verena sometimes thought the saline was the last thing about herself that was human.
The swarm of 30 silent micro-quadcopters that had been hunting her were gone for the moment, but they would be back. Verena’s ghost suit—a multispectrum infrared camouflage—had hidden her in the rubble where an old building had stood.
“Thank God they don’t bother training dogs anymore,” she thought.
She was behind enemy lines attempting to exfiltrate and transmit the enemy data: a last hope to stabilize the world.
Within an instant, a flash of lightning crashed through her mind, and she knew they would return soon. They would run an overhead image comparison of the rubble pile at minutes apart and see where she had been. Machine learning algorithms would anticipate her next likely moves based on threat regions around her position and ease of access. She had to move fast—unpredictably and fast.
She sprinted up a hillside faster than an Olympian. Usually her sides would be burning, but the hyper-oxygen-doped synthetic red blood cells were doing their job. With them she could sit on the bottom of a pool for 15 minutes before needing more air.
Lightning in her mind crashed again. These weren’t simple “Eureka!” moments. It was something more common these days: the rough interface between her mind and her “Mind’s Eye,” a clever name for an implanted neural computer.She could always tell the difference between her own thoughts and the computer’s input because while she worked for answers, Mind’s Eye required no intellectual reasoning or processing. It just dumped answers into her cortex.
Mind’s Eye was annoying at times, but she had learned to trust it. Augmented cycling, or moving faster through the OODA—observe, orient, decide, and act—loop, was the only way to compete on the modern battlefield. She dove into a small drainage pipe.
“Decent cover,” she thought.
“NOW!” her mind boomed. Unzipping a pocket, she removed a small digital cube. She popped it into her quantum transmitter and began sending.
“Amazing that so big a situation could end with a piece of polymer so small,” she thought. The irony was using technology perfected by Chinese military and telecom companies to transmit files detailing the designs of their “Transparent Ocean” system. The Chinese had developed incredible neutrino sensor fields that had made visible all the hidden submarines. Overnight, the most survivable leg of the Alliance’s nuclear triad had become the most vulnerable.
Transparent Ocean was the straw that had broken the deterrent camel’s back. The advent of hypersonics, maneuverable reentry vehicles, and high-precision nuclear warheads had already made nuclear silo fields of ICBMs and stealth bombers obsolete technology. The world was in a destabilized nuclear position.
Sending Transparent Ocean system information to the World Alliance—more or less every country not already conquered by China—had the potential to reestablish the balance of power. If the Alliance knew the designs and where system components were located, maybe it could design an effective kinetic or malware attack against it, or design a neutrino stealth to hide the subs once again.
Nothing else mattered now. Getting out alive would be nice, but the Alliance had received the plans. “How did I get here,” she thought. “How did the world get to this place?”
In 2025, the world her parents had known was shattered.
While the world had been distracted by North Korea, Iran, and other small countries pursuing thermonuclear weapons, miniaturization, and ICBM technology with billion-dollar programs, a small antisemitic terrorist organization had released a CRISPR gene-editing weapon on 14 December, the first night of Hanukkah. Something they had built in a garage with technology costing less than $100,000. Their goal was to kill practically everyone of Jewish ancestry.
But a miscalculation of gene commonality on their part caused rapid terminal brain cancer in all people of Middle Eastern descent. Within a year, 98 percent of that population had died. The subsequent vacuum led to wars and land grabbing across the eastern Mediterranean, eastern North Africa, and—most violently—around the region’s oil fields. Seemingly over night, the world had collapsed into sadness and anarchy.
On the brink of nuclear war, the United States and Russia had jointly led the formation of a World Alliance, a one-world government movement seeking to reestablish order. It was meant to usher in world peace, at least among nation-states. It believed wars of the future would be against terrorist groups, racists, and lone wolves. One by one, the free nations of the Earth joined. Everyone except for China and the Chinese-controlled territories of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Korea, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.
Under the guise of humanitarian aid, the Chinese had raced into the Middle East during the crisis and secured land and resources. Mass graves were dug and bodies burned to prevent disease.
The threat of war in India was overwhelming. India’s nuclear program had protected that country from Chinese invasion, for a time, but now it had become an island of the Alliance surrounded by Chinese territory. Japan, too, was always under imminent threat. China was ambitious; it had invested in the right military technologies and planned on ruling the world under capitalism with Chinese characteristics, a goal that saw no need for alliances where conquest would do.
The DIY genetic weapon was sloppy—people in every country died. Everyone felt the sting of loss. Nations had pointed fingers, but most were guilty of making similar (albeit much better targeted) weapons in their military labs.
“We are so fragile” Verena thought. “Our DNA is so fragile.”
She snapped out of her mental fog. Retrieving a ziptop bag, she reached in and took a pill. It wouldn’t be fast, but if she was going to escape alive she needed to alter her own DNA. “Better start now,” she thought, as the pill slid down her throat.
Over the next two weeks, edits to her genome would take effect. Melanin in her brown eyes would shut off, and they would fade to a milky blue. Her skin would pale, and the skin cells on the pads of her fingers would rearrange as they naturally replaced dead cells, shifting the whorls of her fingerprints. Even her voice would change a bit, which to her was the eeriest and most unsettling change of all. Other than craving some different foods and having a few nights of poor sleep, the entire process would be . . . easy. Her long hair wouldn’t change—those dead cells were frozen in time. To change her hair from brown to red, she would use hair color by L’Oréal Paris—in the end it was all just chemicals.
Good luck identifying her as the thieving spy; Verena as they knew her was dead—or would seem to be after transitioning.
Across the field she saw a flicker of motion. Moonlight bounced off tiny propellers. The drones had finished recharging on some nearby power lines and were coming right back toward her. How did they know where she was?
“Most probably, you were marked with a radioactive droplet tag while in the Transparent Ocean secure room,” Mind’s Eye answered. “You are being tracked.”
Freshly charged, the drone’s sensors were operating at higher power, and they could “see” her radioactive signature through her IR multiflage. She had been lucky until now.
Leaping out from cover, she sprinted away from the drones. The multi-flage flickered as it attempted to process and reproduce the spectrum around it. To the naked eye, she would have appeared as little more than a smudge of background streaking across the field. As she ran, a visual display on her contact lens indicated nearby features. There was a tilapia farm just ahead.
The nearly silent swarm of 30 drones produced only a high-pitched electric whine. They flew in a V-formation like geese, each tiny device slightly reducing the drag for those behind it. They were on top of her now. As they went in for the kill, she drew a deep breath and splashed into the tilapia pond. Thousands of fish slid and thrashed across her body, coursing and pulsing all around her. She was inside nature’s swarm. She tried to keep calm as she let herself sink to the bottom. There was no tension in her lungs. During her military training she had often sat on the bottoms of pools for a quarter of an hour, but now, there were these damned fish.
“Based on the speed of their pursuit, the drones will require a recharge in 14 minutes, and the nearest power lines are 2 minutes away,” said Mind’s Eye.
Verena thought about her next move. When they went to recharge, she could swim to the top of the tank and run toward an area with fewer power lines. Was that smart or would they send backup forces to pursue her in areas where drone coverage was thin?
The tilapia began to settle down. They were no longer agitating the water around her but seemed to be moving much more peacefully, the tank becoming serene. Finally, she could concentrate and come up with a plan.
Then the fish became eerily calm. Verena realized her skin was starting to tingle. She rolled over to look up, and she saw that all the fish were dead—floating in a three-foot-thick layer above her. The only movement was caused by the residual spin and churn of the water.
Above the water’s surface, five drones remained. Five more had flown back to start recharging in shifts, and 20 had sacrificially splashed into the water and released their poison darts. They had made the same calculation her Mind’s Eye had—they would have to recharge a long distance away and their target would likely escape. Based on the total poison available and the expected dilution, they had a 50 percent chance of killing her if they all deployed their toxin into the water, only slightly less if a few drones remained to pursue her.
Verena’s personal monitors began issuing warnings. Her heartbeat was increasing and becoming erratic. Her need for oxygen was rising faster than expected. Her body temperature was 103 degrees Fahrenheit and climbing.
“You may start to hallucinate,” said the voice in her head.
She plucked an orb from her vest. It would’ve floated to the surface if not for the dead fish in the way, so she slid her arm up through the mass until she felt the surface and let it go. As it bobbed in place, she swam back down and flipped over to watch. The darkness above her came to life with streams of blueish pink light firing in every direction, obscured by silhouettes of fish.
The tactical high-energy laser grenade was burning deuterium fluoride to generate massive pulses of energy that would target all movement and heat signatures.
The tiny drones were no match for the grenade, but she knew the consequences of using the device; she might as well have shot a flare into the air and identified her exact location.
Swimming up through the fish and out of the toxic tank, she rolled to her feet and started running. As she ran, her mind drifted beyond the mission.
“I’d really rather my kids grow up knowing me than my digital clone,” Verena thought. Everyone had a digital clone now, though they were more like ghosts. High-fidelity dynamic manifestations not only of a person’s physical appearance but even their emotional spectrum overlaid on their personality. Information painlessly gleaned from their sent email and social network profiles were combined with a few personality tests to recreate much about a person. That data was simply uploaded into an Artificial Intelligence platform that brings it to life. The public debate was ongoing—“Was it artificial intelligence or synthetic intelligence?”
“It sure as hell isn’t really me. My kids need me.”
That thought made her question for a moment whether everything she’d done had been worth the risk. She found renewed strength as she accepted that she actually wouldn’t have been so good without them.
It was horrifying for a top spy also to be a mother to three children—but it actually was because she had three kids that she became a top spy. Chinese insider-threat algorithms failed to detect her only because she was a dedicated mom. The many others who had tried to gain access to that facility had always been detected. She was serving a purpose far greater than her life or her family’s.
She had liberated the data, but because she used a quantum transmission, her enemy had no way of knowing her mission was complete. To them, they might still be able to stop her. Her goal was to get to 21°50’81.89”N, 111°63’98.60”E—Dashu Island. A small island just off the southern tip of the Guangdong peninsula. She was approximately a 325-mile drive from Hong Kong, but much closer to the underground secret complex from which she had stolen the design plans. Only six more miles as the crow flies and she’d be at the edge of escape.
Ten miles away, the Chinese sniper watched her through the lenses on his sniper rifle. The lenses applied more electric current as he zoomed in, shifting the liquid crystals. He had watched from above the tilapia tank from the perspective of one of the drones before the laser grenade had taken it out. Without the drone, his view was not as good. He needed to close the gap between them before he’d be able to fire a round downrange. In anticipation of what was next, he punched a magazine box into his long rifle and chambered a single solid Cermet, a ceramic-metal composite, slug. Then he ran in her direction. As he ran a mechanical horse, nimble and silent as a deer, ran beside him. Within minutes, he would be within the range he needed to attempt a shot.
Verena emerged from the thick forest and stared out at the beach. The moon reflected across the dark choppy water of the South China Sea. Knowing she would be incredibly vulnerable on the open sand, she threw a small ball to the halfway point between her and the water’s edge and then ducked behind a tree trunk.
Five miles down the same beach, the sniper emerged and lay on the sand with the wide feet of his heavy rifle’s bipod sinking slightly into the sand. The four-legged mechanical war horse stood behind him collecting environmental data. Temperature layers, humidity, distance, and variations between them and their target were all fed into the horse’s super computer. An invisible laser sent to their target’s approximate location measured wind-induced attenuation, then pulsed backward, measuring the loss in steps to get an accurate read on variations in wind between them. The horse housed a small modular reactor: portable nuclear energy for the sniper.
Through the crosshairs he saw Verena duck behind the tree. A small dot on the left side of his forehead glowed a faint blue-green, not much bigger than a grain of sand, the anode and cathode of his tDCS—field transcranial direct-current stimulus—were active. A small dose of electricity was stimulating his brain and increasing the native half of his cognitive ability. He trained his scope on her and established the target. The miniature rail gun, large for a shoulder mounted sniper rifle, made minor modifications to its own positioning based on the computing power and environmental inputs. She would be fast. But this was what he trained for every day.
Down the beach, the ball she had thrown had wobbled to a resting point. The top popped off, jumping five feet in the air and then bursting into a wave of hot yellow flame. Seeing her run, the sniper fired his silent round. The super computer was automatically adjusting for all changes in the environment in real-time and transmitting the desired destination to a small chip in the center of the round. The Cermet bullet was nearly frictionless as it raced through the air. As it sensed small unexpected changes in its trajectory, small jet puffs fired from its microfluidic-driven thrusters to correct its course. The railgun’s electric pulse raced the mass through the perfect barrel at nearly 22,000 feet per second—15 times the speed of traditional rifle rounds and seven times faster than the war-weary .50-caliber machine gun’s slugs.
In 1.2 seconds, the cermet round perfectly matched its target, ripping through the holographic ghost and continuing down the shoreline for miles before supercavitating into the water. On the shoreline, 30 holographic copies of Verena ran through the orb’s original heat plume from the forest edge and into the water. The sniper fired two more rounds at the holographic copies, never identifying the real Verena until she splashed under the water. He fired one more round into the water, confident that the round’s hydrophobic Cermet skin and reinforced core would assist in supercavitation and keep the round on course and deadly for 30 feet underwater. Any traditional round hitting the water at that speed would fragment, but this one punched through. It missed Verena, but the jarring noise momentarily disoriented her. The round eventually lost momentum and peacefully settled on the sea floor. She swam and swam down the coastline, staying deep enough to evade any indication of her location. Her breath held, and no bubbles broke the surface.
Combined with Verena’s multiflage masking her IR signature, the heat plume and smoke had prevented the sniper from using infrared to identify the real target. “She escaped again,” he thought. He knew the general direction she was going but not whether she would travel by air, sea or land. The digital voice in his head boomed, “Exfiltration chances: 20 percent air, 75 percent sea, 5 percent land.” She was already on the coastline. Traveling by land meant backtracking, and in the air, she would be much more exposed than underwater.
In a split second, so fast that it was almost without choice, he summoned a swarm of microsubmersible reinforcements. Fifty networked drones—miniature submarines—all diverse in their design and capabilities, would all be working together to kill Verena. The mechatronic zoo was sensing, pulsing, and slicing through the water’s inky surface as it moved in her direction.
A mile offshore and behind layers of cresting waves, Verena slowly brought her lips to the dark surface of the water and took several deep breaths to hypersaturate her blood with oxygen once more. Night was finally here. Resubmerging, she kicked 15 feet down, removed the multiflage to reduce drag, and started moving toward the cliffs of Dashu Island. “Continue to swim southwest for four miles. You will reach your destination in 58 minutes.” She was swimming nearly 110 meters per minute, sustaining the pace over distance. Only 6,437 more meters to her destination. The edge of her 3/4-length sleeves flickered in the water as her speed stressed the material. The black compression suit wasn’t the hydrophobic nanofiber sharkskin suit that she was used to swimming in.
The swarm moved in like a net, optimizing the opportunity to sense her presence if she swam into the open ocean to be picked up and exfiltrated by an ally submersible. The swarm raced five miles out to cut her off and them moved back toward shore –Four miles out. Three miles. Two miles . . .
If deep drones found Verena, they would violently attach themselves and then release a gas bladder to drag her to the surface, likely exploding her lungs or at minimum causing terrible decompression sickness as the dissolved gases in her hyperoxygenated blood came out of solution and destroying tissues and organs. If faster middle-depth drones found her, they would puncture her clothing and inject her with a CO2 cartridge, killing her instantly. Finally, if the surface drones—primarily used for sensing the environment and directing the swarm—found her, they would cluster around and explode just under the water to maximize the transfer of energy through the shockwave. Killing her or not, she would be stunned until the others arrived to finish her. The sniper thought of them as a violent school of fish, his piranha. Now they were only one mile out.
As she reached the rocky shore of Dashu, black waves smashed into the grey rocks and sprayed white. He and his nuclear steed had optimally positioned themselves on the shoreline to fire a round into Verena’s head if she surfaced in their line of sight. Slipping out of the water, Verena climbed up the rocky cliff on the back side of the island. He waited for the autonomous submersibles to report the final position of their kill, but they were not sensing her. Something wasn’t right.
Verena made her way to the first rally point on the island cliffs and uncovered a small ruck with a large disc on the back. She quickly changed clothes, unfurled the large clear silky sheet, and slipped into the harness. Stepping toward the cliff’s edge, she peered at the rocks below. With two fast steps the land breeze filled the transparent fabric. It was a beautiful glassy parachute made from a synthetic spider-silk nanocomposite that was lightweight, clear as glass, strong and stretchy, and incredibly resistant to tears.
“This is what a bubble would look like as a sheet,” she thought as she stepped off the cliff’s edge. She switched on the silent motor, and the stealth fans caught her brief fall. The system lifted her higher and higher into the air. The lower surface of the stealth-powered paraglider was matching the IR signature of the space above it. She was as invisible as physical objects can be in the natural world. She appeared as natural as any other feature of the landscape–she became one with the night’s sky. The sniper never had a chance.
She pulled a small rubber face mask from the left shoulder harness to protect her eyes from the wind and cold and regulate her oxygen over the long distance. Verena needed to get to the final rally point, 20°40'42.7"N 116°55'19.3"E, where she would encounter a small circular island that grew out of an undersea volcano. The island would be in the South China Sea in the general direction of the Philippines.
“You have reached an altitude of 20,000 feet,” said Mind’s Eye, and she held her course. She would be in the air, fighting the -12 degree freezing temperatures over the next five hours, covering the 250 miles to the unnamed island. The flight cocoon kept her warm inside it while matching the air temperature on its surface. A few small gaps at joints mean that a sliver of her back was exposed and freezing.
She was floating through the darkness. There was no light pollution, no noise except the occasional hum from the thin rigging as the strings sliced the air, or a flap of the sail at it encountered small air pockets. The blue and purple Milky Way ached though the sky like a dragon— “A dragon running from her”—she thought. There was nothing above her, nothing below her, nothing to her sides. It was a place where total peace was almost maddening. She set Mind’s Eye to play quiet music in her head and to give her updates every 10 minutes. The system’s autopilot was steering now, ensuring her the safest path from point-A to point-B. There was nothing to distract her now, and she realized how exhausted she was. Verena closed her eyes and stopped fighting.
She fell asleep.
Verena jolted awake in the harness, heart pounding. She was disoriented, sweating, panicking. “I’m over the water. I’m flying. I’m escaping!” she thought.
Mind’s Eye had automuted when it sensed her sleep though increase delta brain waves, but now it was shouting, “Heart rate 290! Temperature 104°F! Twenty minutes to destination!”
“I’m not OK!” she realized. Verena’s body started shaking, then there was a flash of bright white light, and her body slumped deeper into the harness.
Miles away, seven men and three women who were ready to assist Verena in her escape stood on a small sandy beach where they had swum from an open submarine pod. They had had many names over the years—Task Force Blue, and ages before that Seal Team Six. They were DEVGRU –the most elite soldiers in the world. Once an American-only group, they had now fully integrated Russian Spetsnaz and commandos from other countries in the Alliance.
As they stood looking northwest, they began to see a limp body skimming across the sand, dragging her feet, crashing into the shallow water at the shore.
They ran to her and lifted her head out of the surf. They dragged her seemingly lifeless body to dry land, released the harness as they went. They checked her vitals. A faint pulse. The team raced her back to the submarine, calling for an emergency surfacing. They climbed into the deck pod. As quickly as the sub had risen, it submerged.
James, a naval hospital corpsman, rushed to save the girl. He administered oxygen then a blood sample to determine what happened to her. He placed a few red drops on a disc and it started to spin. The centrifugal force pulled tiny droplets through microfluidic channels into 50 individual chambers to mix with unique reaction chemicals. Removing the disc, he looked at the chambers and saw nothing. But chamber 29 glowed green under fluorescent light.
That could only mean one thing. Verena had been attacked with CRISPR.
“But is she alive?” the captain demanded.
“Barely, but yes,” James responded. “My best guess is that the Chinese must infect their top-secret workers with a CRISPR edit to ensure their silence.”
Indeed, this was the case. Verena, like all the other workers, had been given a gene modification that lay dormant and would only activate as a weapon if it was triggered. Her high-altitude flight caused respiratory changes, including the release of enzymes that activated the malicious genes. The thought was, the only Chinese workers who would die would be those who tried to leave on an airplane, the cabins of which are pressurized to around 10,000-foot equivalents. Her body reacted by unleashing a cytokine storm that threatened to kill her in just hours.
The corpsman had Verena on an IV now and was running follow-up diagnostics. The only thing that saved her life was the luck of intentionally modifying her own genome at the same time for purposes of disguise, overwriting the CRISPR gene in many cells, and reducing the strength of the attack. The meds he gave her reduced the pain and fever while helping her rehydrate. Most importantly though, they facilitated her own genetic changes to minimize the effects of the attack.
She started to blink awake, catching his eye.
“You’re going to be OK, Verena,” he said. “We’re going to get you back to your kids.”
A single tear rolled down her dry flush cheek. She strained to speak, “I’m on a sub? You’re using a sub?”
“Yes,” James replied. “Don’t worry—They can’t see us. We know that, thanks to you. And we know why. Go back to sleep.”
When she woke again, hours later, the captain was there. She could barely speak, but he sensed her anxiety about being on a sub and guessed her questions.
“Thanks to the plans you transmitted, we are starting to get a handle on Transparent Ocean,” he said.
“We suspected their technology was based on some sort of miniaturized neutrino detector, because we’ve been trying to build one ourselves since the 1950s.”
He told her the key Chinese discovery seems to have been that solar-originating neutrinos were causing very slight abnormalities in the functioning of 3D silica microchips in Internet-of-things devices.
“We don’t quite understand how, yet, but there’s an interaction between submarine magnetic fields and the neutrinos that can be measured on connected devices,” he said. “They are measuring fluctuations in cellphones, refrigerators, coffee makers, home vacuuming robots, autonomous cars, routers, computers, printers, toasters, and even washers and driers—everything with a 3D chip that was connected to the internet.”
“Imagine that: Submarines detected by your toaster!”
He shook his head, then explained that the most actionable intelligence was the IP addresses of the servers that processed all this.
“To hide our intent, we launched a massive denial-of-service attack at several server farms, including that one, and they took them all offline temporarily.”
He explained that plans were in motion to harden connected devices to shut the system down permanently.
“But for now, we can disrupt the system at will. The nerds at Sandia think they can kill it completely in a few months.”
Verena managed a weak smile, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.