Excerpt from Extinction

Extinction by Mark Alpert

Dr. Zhang Jintao raced down the mountainside, fleeing the gray cloud.

Roughly oval and about the size of a hot-air balloon, the cloud glided just above the rocky slope, a hundred meters behind him. As he scrambled down the steep trail he looked over his shoulder and saw the gray mass coming closer. Its irregular surface heaved and roiled.

Although Dr. Zhang was a strong man in excellent condition, he'd reached the limits of his endurance. He was above the timberline of Yulong Xueshan, a mountain range in southwestern China, and the thin air made him gasp for breath. Stumbling and cursing, he scuttled over a crag littered with fist-size stones. Then he stepped on one of the loose rocks and lost his footing. He skidded down the slope, sliding helplessly on his back, and smacked into a granite boulder.

He lay there, stunned, for several seconds. By the time he opened his eyes, the gray swirls of the cloud had enveloped him. He felt hundreds of pinpricks on his skin, then a cool numbness. He couldn't move. His vision darkened and his hearing grew muffled.

The cloud gradually dissipated. Zhang couldn't turn his head, but out of the corner of his eye he saw two men come down the slope and stop beside him. One man was tall and thin, and the other was short and fat, but they were dressed identically, in gray jumpsuits. The expressions on their faces were also identical: blank and slack.

Zhang recognized both men. He'd operated on the short one six months ago and on the tall one just a week ago. The short man's hair had grown back since his operation, but the tall man's scalp had only a dusting of stubble. The stitches above his ear were still visible.

Furious, Zhang struggled to move his numb lips and tongue. "So this...is how...you treat me? After all...that I've done?"

The short man remained immobile, but the tall one stepped forward and looked down at Zhang. "We have identified you as a threat."

"I don't...believe this. If I hadn't..."

"We will return you to the Operations Center. Please be patient. Another unit will arrive soon to help us carry you."

"And what...will you do to me?"

There was a slight pause. "You no longer have the security clearance for that information."

"You..." Zhang's vision grew dimmer. The drug that had been injected into his bloodstream contained a sedative as well as a paralytic agent. "My fault...you're…"

The tall man continued to look down at Zhang, his face still blank. And then something odd happened. The man's lips twitched. His facial muscles fired spastically, as if struggling to do something extraordinarily difficult. After a few seconds he finally succeeded in coordinating the muscles, and his lips formed a smile. "Yes, it's your fault. You gave us the capabilities. And now we've made a discovery."

Zhang stared at the horrible newborn smile. It was the last thing he saw before he went under.

"Your fault, Dr. Zhang. Supreme Harmony is conscious now. We are alive."

**********************

Layla Pierce was dancing at an outdoor concert in the SummerStage amphitheater in Central Park. It was a steamy July evening in New York City and the place was packed. The band was apparently quite popular, although Layla had never heard of them before. Someone had told her the band's name a few minutes ago, but she'd forgotten it already. She was stoned, so she was having a little trouble with her short-term memory.

Whatever the name, she liked their music. A pair of guitar lines tangoed with each other, repeating the same steps with growing volume and fury. Layla danced with the guitars, trying to match their undulations within her cramped niche in the crowd. Luckily, she was small -- five-foot-even, a hundred-and-two pounds -- so she didn't need a lot of space. She wore her usual clothes, black pants and a black T-shirt. Her hair was black, too, dyed black and cut short. Her body was boyish -- skinny and flat-chested -- making her look more like a teenager than a woman of twenty-two. All in all, she was no Miss America, and yet several men and a few women in the crowd tried to dance with her. They smiled and sidled closer and mirrored her movements, but Layla just closed her eyes and turned away. She wasn't interested in either boys or girls tonight. She was dancing with the guitars.

She knew no one there. Although she'd lived in New York for the past six months, she hadn't made many friends. The problem was, she didn't have a real job, or a real home either. Every month or so she moved from one apartment to another, taking nothing with her but a change of clothes and her MacBook Pro. She was one of the most experienced hackers working for InfoLeaks, but the website couldn't afford to pay her, so she lived off the charity of the volunteers who supported the site. They let her sleep on their couches and share their organic food, at least until the novelty wore off. Most of them wanted to talk politics and get her involved in their boycotts and petition drives, but Layla had no interest in that stuff. Her only interest was hacking. She had a weird obsessive hatred of secrecy, and she got an equally weird thrill from breaking into networks and learning things she wasn't supposed to know.

Layla had started hacking in high school, but it was just a hobby until two years ago. During her sophomore year at MIT she helped InfoLeaks unscramble an encrypted video that showed an American helicopter strafing a crowd of Afghans. She found this assignment more interesting than any of her computer-science courses, so she dropped out of college and joined the InfoLeaks underground. Since then she'd hacked into dozens of networks and downloaded thousands of classified files. She'd targeted the Pentagon, the State Department, the Saudi monarchy, and the Russian Federal Security Service. Her latest job was breaking into a Chinese government network rumored to hold files about the mistreatment of political dissidents. An anonymous source, code-named Dragon Fire, had opened a digital backdoor that gave her access to the network, allowing her to download a batch of encrypted documents. She'd started decrypting them several days ago and finally finished this afternoon, but because the documents were in Mandarin she still didn't know what they said. So she'd forwarded the files to InfoLeaks, which would find Mandarin-speaking volunteers to translate them.

And now, to celebrate the job's completion, she was pretending for a few hours that she was a real New Yorker, a young hip woman enjoying an outdoor concert with her young hip friends. She surreptitiously relit her joint and concentrated on the music. The duet of the guitarists turned cacophonous, with loud random notes spilling from the amplifiers. But there was a pattern in the randomness. There was always a pattern. Layla saw the music as a stream of binary code, a long line of zeroes and ones floating over the crowd. It was like an encrypted file, a scrambled mess of data, and it was Layla's job to decipher it, to make sense of the noise. So she did the same thing she always did when decrypting a document: she hunted for the encryption key, the special sequence that would unscramble the data. And after a few seconds she saw it: a string of exactly 128 ones and zeroes, floating in the air right beside the music. The key specified the algorithm that would unlock the code, converting the hideous nonsense into beautiful, readable information. She reached into the air and grabbed the key. The zeroes and ones glowed in her hand.

Then the song ended and the key disappeared. The band played another song, but it wasn't as good. The joint was no longer in Layla's hand; she must've dropped it while reaching for the key. She tried to keep dancing, to recapture that ecstatic moment, but her buzz had already worn off. She drifted away from the crowd, all those happy young people, and left the amphitheater. She couldn't pretend anymore. She was different from the others. She'd always been different.

It was ten o'clock. Layla went to the dark, wooded area behind the stage and fished in her pockets for another joint, but all she found was an inch-long stub. She lit it anyway and listened to the distant music, which sounded trite and pointless now. Then the band finished its set and the crowd filed out of the amphitheater, heading for the lights of Fifth Avenue. But Layla walked in the opposite direction, going deeper into the park.

She finished her joint while strolling down an asphalt pathway that meandered under the trees. Then she heard a voice behind her: "Hey, baby, want another? I got smoke."

She looked over her shoulder and saw the guy's silhouette, bulky and tall. She called out, "No thanks," and walked a little faster.

The guy matched her pace. His shoes slapped the pathway. "Hey, slow down! Where you going?"

Layla started to run. Her father had once told her: If you can't win a fight, there's no shame in running away. She saw a lighted area ahead, a large rectangle of asphalt, and at its center was a lone man on inline skates. He was practicing his roller-dance moves while listening to his iPod. The guy wore gym shorts and a basketball jersey, and luckily he was just as big as the guy who was chasing her. Layla sprinted toward the roller-dancer, waving her arms and yelling, "HEY! HEY!" to get his attention. The guy stopped dancing and removed one of his ear-phones.

"Yeah, what's up?"

Then she heard a metallic click. The roller-dancer's head jerked backward and he crumpled to the asphalt. Blood fountained from his scalp. In horror, Layla turned around and saw her pursuer approaching. He was Asian and dressed in a black suit, and he held a gun equipped with a silencer.

She ran in earnest now, charging down the gravel path next to Sheep Meadow. She was fast, a former star of her high-school track team, but the gunman was faster. He gained on her as she raced toward the Central Park Loop. The road had been closed to traffic hours ago, and no cyclists or dog-walkers or strolling couples were in sight. But another guy on inline skates was speeding down the Loop, a daredevil in Spandex pants and a motorcycle helmet. Layla opened her mouth to call to him, but then she thought of what had happened to the guy in the basketball jersey. She was still agonizing over what to do when the skater went into a crouch and made a sudden turn. He barreled past her and smacked into the gunman. The tall Asian man tumbled backward and his gun went flying. Layla ran to the fallen man and kicked him in the head for good measure. He lay on his back, unconscious.

Meanwhile, the skater took off his helmet. He was also Asian. He wore a windbreaker over his Spandex outfit and carried a backpack. "Layla Pierce?" His accent was thick. "I'm Wen Sheng."

"Wen Sheng? I don't know—"

"Yes, you know me. My code name is Dragon Fire."

Oh shit, she thought. Her anonymous source. "I thought you were in China."

He nodded. "I was. But the Guoanbu discovered what I did." He pointed at the unconscious man on the ground. "They came after me. And they're after you, too. They sent a team of agents to New York to find you. I've been shadowing them."

Layla's throat tightened. "They know about the backdoor?"

"Yes, and they know you downloaded the files. The documents about Tài Hé. Have you decrypted them yet?"

"Yeah, I just forwarded them to InfoLeaks for translation."

He nodded again. "Good. Now I have two new files for you. I downloaded them before I left the Operations Center." He took off his backpack, unzipped it and reached inside. "The documents are on the flash drive. And I have something else for you, a specimen."

He pulled a small zippered pouch out of the backpack and handed it to her. Layla started to open it, but Dragon Fire stopped her. "No, not here. We have to leave." Putting his hand on her back, he led her down the path, heading toward the park entrance on West Seventy-second Street. "I saw two other Guoanbu agents in the park. They're not far."

Layla reached for her phone. "I'll call the police."

"No!" Wen grabbed her cell phone and tossed it into the grass. "The American intelligence agencies are also looking for you. They're scanning the communications bands."

"But once we tell them—"

"Listen to me. The CIA and the Guoanbu are working together. You can't trust any of the American authorities."

"Wait, how do you know that?"

"I was also an agent with the Guoanbu. But no more. What they're doing is wrong. You have to give the new files and the specimen to InfoLeaks, so the whole world can see them. Make sure—"

He stopped talking and stood absolutely still. Layla heard rapid footsteps. Two more men in black suits stepped onto the pathway behind them.

Dragon Fire pushed her toward West Seventy-second Street. "Go," he whispered. "I'll take care of them."

"Hold on, what are you—"

"I said GO!"

Confused, Layla ran west, clutching the pouch. Behind her she heard shouting in Mandarin. Then more metallic clicks, the sound of muffled gunshots.

She ran like mad until she reached the park entrance, about a hundred yards away. Then she dared a look over her shoulder. Through the screen of trees, she saw the two men in black suits bending over Dragon Fire. He was sprawled on the pathway, motionless, his legs and arms akimbo.

She faced forward and kept running. Leaving the park, she raced down Seventy-second Street, dashing past the puzzled residents of the Upper West Side. She ran about half a mile, then flagged down a taxi going south on West End Avenue. She scanned the street from the backseat of the cab, looking in all directions, but no one seemed to be following her. She told the driver to go to Penn Station. She needed to get out of the city.

Once she caught her breath, she unzipped the pouch. It contained just two things, a flash drive and a specimen jar. Inside the jar was an odd-looking insect, about the size of a fly. Layla squinted at it, trying to get a better look. Protruding from the insect's body, just under the thorax, was a tiny computer chip.