Month: September 2014

The Bazaar: Chapter 26

Hack or Die

Anyone who possessed even modest technical aptitude had at least briefly dreamed of founding a billion dollar tech firm. Fulton and Reese were no exceptions. Toward the end of their university careers they began work on a full-featured suite of user-friendly hacking tools. Fulton had been the inspiration. He liked to muck around with tech but he could barely code. Reese built him betas for a few simple utilities. Fulton called it Toolbox. The idea was to sell Toolbox to law enforcement and military clients, to instantly provide agents and officers with some basic information warfare capability.

The problem was Reese.

Reese got bored and gave up. He never properly debugged the apps. Since technically he and Fulton were 50/50 partners Fulton couldn’t finish up on his own (Reese insisted on drawing up a contract prior to the start of development, complete with an absurd buyout figure). After Reese’s suicide Fulton started carrying the apps around again. He kept telling himself he’d hire a freelance developer to finish the project. To date he hadn’t gotten round to it.

Now Toolbox would determine whether he lived or died.

His chipset’s wi-fi radio was still Connecting…

The way Fulton figured it he had one chance to dodge the bot. He’d throw himself from the top bunk to the floor, roll under the bottom bunk and buy himself a precious few seconds as the machine adjusted its aim. From there he had nowhere to go. From there it was hack or die.

Connecting…

Out in the corridor the bot’s servos whined. A laser sight dot appeared at the foot of the cot. It tracked swiftly along his leg. When it reached his hip Fulton threw himself full force off the edge of the bunk. He extended his hands slightly as he fell, so that when he landed he was in a push-up position, his arms bent slightly to absorb the force of the landing like shock absorbers.

A gun went off. Projectiles ricocheted off the metal bunk, pinging around the tiny cell.

In Fulton’s mind his little maneuver had played out smoothly and perfectly, with his roll and the shotgun blast occurring in isolation. He didn’t consider ricochets until the first pellets sliced into his back. Fulton had just begun processing those tiny stabs of pain when he hit the concrete, hard. The force of the impact shot from his palms up through his forearms, elbows and arms, through his shoulders then down along his back till an invisible baseball bat struck the end of his spine.

Connected!

Fulton rolled the opposite direction, back under the bunks.

Another shotgun blast tore up the concrete where he’d landed.

Again the laser tracked toward him, probably along the heat signature he’d left in his wake. Of course there wasn’t enough time, would never be enough time, to beat this bot at a game it was designed to play and win with maximum efficiency.

About a foot from his head the laser paused.

Gunfire erupted from further down the cell block. The corridor rang with a sharp, sustained stream of ping ping ping ping ping sounds as bullets ricocheted off the bot’s armored shell.

The laser retreated from the cell. The shotgun fired several times in rapid succession.

Whoever had burst onto the cell block wouldn’t kill the thing with small arms. He/They wouldn’t last more than a few moments in a stand-up fight unless one of them had the foresight to pack a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. But they had bought him time.

Fulton dialed up his lens and rifled through Toolbox.

Reese structured the app suite around three basic tasks: network security/penetration, malware insertion and AI quarantine. Each task had a standalone executable to simplify the process, and an array of specific utilities to deal with potential obstacles. It had been years since the software was updated. It wouldn’t stand a chance against modern network security, but Fulton doubted this particular bot was on the bleeding edge of the tech curve.

He executed the network penetration and AI quarantine apps in quick succession.

Two glowing status bars materialized in front of him. They immediately began filling with electric green ooze as the apps went to work.

Out in the corridor the gunfire slackened. The bot began rumbling away from Fulton’s cell, back toward the new arrivals.

The top bar (network penetration) filled completely and disappeared. The second bar paused halfway. A transparent dialogue box appeared in place of the first box. It contained a list of all foreign entities present on the network. The first module cracked the network (almost instantly in fact – confirming Fulton’s suspicion that the military police here weren’t exactly technophiles). The second module completed its sweep for AIs.

It found only one: Chinese Hunter Killer, v???.

Fulton pulled the trigger on the quarantine. The status bar resumed its crawl across his field of vision, but this time at a snail’s pace. He closed his eyes and waited for the shooting to stop. And even with his eyes shut he saw that electric green bar, inching its way toward full.

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The Bazaar: Chapter 25

Disruption

The two MPs had set to beating El Jefe viciously about the head with their rifle butts when the alarms went off.

Emily watched with her hands folded across her chest.

War is not Breakfast at fucking Tiffany’s, Number Eleven. “Don’t die for your country, make the other bastard die for his.” You know who said that, Number Eleven? George S. Patton. He was the finest soldier this country ever produced and you would not have been fit to lick the shit off his boots.

Jefe‘s head resembled a misshapen melon. Blood trickled from his shattered jaw. A vicious backslash ran left to right across his forehead. His right eye had swollen shut. Blood speckled the floor and walls of his cell.

Still, he had not yet begged for mercy. He hadn’t even cried out. The only sound they’d got out of him was a grunt when the first MP jammed a rifle butt into his stomach.

Behind Emily Pritchard paced back and forth like a caged animal, dicking around with the wi-fi via the computer implanted in his brain, looking for updated stock prices, or whatever else kept him up nights.

Then the lights turned blood red and a siren began shrieking. The MPs’ walkies crackled. Voices squawked frantically over the airwaves. Her Rosetta Stone caught bits and pieces.

“…Breach…down…gunfire…Block B…prisoner…”

The MPs allowed Jefe to collapse and lie still. He lay face down on the concrete. Blood pooled around his mouth and began inching its way along the floor. Without a word of explanation the two MPs bolted down the corridor in the direction from whence they’d come initially. They didn’t bother to shoulder their rifles, or even to lock up the cell.

Emily and Pritchard exchanged looks.

She knelt by Jefe‘s head. “Who’s doing this?” she asked.

Nothing.

Emily grabbed him by the hair on the back of his head. She twisted him around to face her. “Who’s their freelancer?” she asked.

When Jefe spoke it was a whisper. Bloody sputum came out with the word. Between his tone and Espanol Made Easy‘s frantic efforts to calibrate to the wailing prison klaxons the word came out sounding like “raghs.”

“Louder.”

“A-raghs.”

“Louder.”

Maybe he got tired of her holding his head in a death grip. Maybe Espanol Made Easy finally got a handle on the background commotion and his strangled voice. Whatever it was this third time the bud in Emily’s ear finally resolved the sounds into an intelligible word.

Arabs.

The Bazaar: Chapter 24

Showdown

Once more Fulton found himself staring up at solid concrete block, tracing hairline cracks with his eyes.

All this for a practical joke.

That’s all there was to Reese’s app. He was sure of it. Just another way for Reese to lash out at the world. That and show off a nifty extraction routine, one that apparently pulled imagery from certain parts of your brain and made a collage out of it. A novelty act, a parlor trick – what Fulton had suspected from the start. It was more than a little funny, what with Emily and company scurrying around searching desperately for the blueprints to some secret weapon. As if you could trust miscreants like that Jefe character to point you in the direction of a secret weapon with anything even vaguely resembling reliability. If Fulton weren’t locked up in a dismal third world prison he might have laughed out loud.

He dialed up the wi-fi on his lens, hoping he could at least catch the plaintext news.

Connecting…

Still couldn’t quite catch the signal. He decided to let the radio run in the background.

Then came a sudden explosion of activity.

First, a high-pitch whine. Then a few loud beeps, like an old PC’s BIOS posting for the first time. A sustained rumbling. Then unintelligible shouting from the lone prison guard posted to the corridor, followed by a loud explosion.

Fulton picked his head up off his bunk.

Smoke drifted down the corridor. Stale prison air scented with cordite. He was getting used to the smell of gunfire, pungent as any of Robyn’s perfumes. He wondered stupidly (nonsensically actually) whether Emily ever wore perfume.

A stupid thing to wonder in the face of extreme violence.

By now the guard had long since stopped shouting, presumably not by choice. From the corridor came more sustained rumbling, not unlike the sound the military police APCs had made on the pavement. It was, Fulton realized, the sound of a light tracked vehicle on concrete.

A bot.

These narcos run bots? But really it made perfect sense. The US and all the other nation states had their drones. Why shouldn’t the cartels jump on the bandwagon? Fulton flattened himself against the bunk. His heart kicked into overdrive. Already this night he’d been through more anxious episodes than he cared to remember.

No way to outsmart or outfight a bot. Not in these circumstances. They were built to withstand small-caliber weapons fire. Military-grade and after-market custom models could usually hold up against light anti-tank rounds. Comprehensive sensor packages meant there would be nowhere to hide, either.

The rumbling in the corridor stopped.

Fulton was vaguely aware of a massive form standing outside his cell. He didn’t dare look up. The bot was almost certainly sweeping the cell with a built-in laser sight. Most bot AIs operated off a branching decision tree. If it didn’t spot him with the cameras it would switch to night vision and sweep again. If night vision failed it would switch to infrared – somewhere along this bot’s particular hierarchy Fulton would be located and terminated with extreme prejudice.

His stomach began clawing its way up his esophagus.

Fulton had a naturally anxious disposition. The idea of death had never sat particularly well with him. He’d been all right earlier in the night because he hadn’t quite grasped the level of danger he faced. Things happened fast. Emily had been in control, shooting anything that so much as looked at her the wrong way, pulling him along in her wake. Now, face-to-faceplate with the robo-reaper, the full weight of an eternity of non-existence hit him square in the gut, propelling his stomach even further up his throat.

This was a showdown.

Kill or be killed.

Only he didn’t have anything to kill with, and even if he did happen to find a man-portable high-explosive anti-tank weapon lying around his cell he wouldn’t know the first thing about using it. In fact, about all Fulton had going for him was an intermittent wi-fi signal.

So that would have to do.

How a literary agent can improve your writing

I don’t really believe in the traditional publication model anymore. That is to say, the model where the writer writes, then queries an agent, who (ideally) agrees to rep the author and actually submit to publishers. I believe this process is interminably tedious, and that it gives authors the short end of the stick both creatively and financially.

That is not to imply that all literary agents are talent-less, bloodsucking hacks. There are agents out there who are up there with the best of editors in terms of their ability to whip a sagging manuscript into fighting shape. When I think of these kinds of agents, I think of Janet Reid. Her blog, Query Shark, is one of my absolute favorite writing resources (and that’s from someone who’s not even interested in querying agents).

Reid’s specialty is the annotated critique of query letters. Here is an example, from Query #254 (Reid’s comments in italics):

“Wealthy French attorney André Gensonné, specializing in art crime, discovers a painting of a woman who resembles the vulnerable girl he met in the United States two decades ago, just after his 18-year old brother drowned. (36 words) His failure to save his twin defines his virtuous existence; he strives to fulfill the role of two sons for his family and their four-generation law firm.

36 words is too many. Too many words is made worse when they form a boring sentence. Why do we care about any of this? And oh my Godiva… virtuous existence? I’d probably stop reading right here. Why do I want to read about anyone who could possibly be described as having a virtuous existence? Virtue is boring. TRYING to be virtuous when beset by evil temptresses… now THAT is interesting.

Truthfully though you’ve made a classic query error here: you’re focused on setup and backstory rather than where the story gets interesting. You’ve compounded the problem with Andre Gensonne sounding tres ennuyeux.

The painting entitled Miriam disappears from the Musée de l’Erotisme propelling André to search for it and the woman named Anne, who has lingered in his psyche. Miriam has a notable history; the painting disguises an Impressionist work by Elisée Maclet. The two men responsible for the camouflage, Maximillian and Bertrand, skirmish over custody, value and ownership. But their primary objective is to fence the Maclet without getting caught.

Who is Anne? And why is she stalking his psyche?

At this point we’ve got way too many characters in play: The boring Andre, his dead brother, their entire family firm, Miriam, Anne, Elisee, Maximilian and Bertrand. This is the von Trapp family without the soundtrack or a scorecard.”

This isn’t just a query lesson. It’s a free writing lesson, and it’s valuable whether you plan on querying agents or not. Check it out sometime. You just might learn something. I know I have.

The Bazaar: Chapter 23

Showtime

“…The hunter killer works off facial recognition. Now that the AI’s had a few minutes to learn the targets’ faces it can identify them on sight. It also has a standing protocol allowing it to engage anyone it perceives as a threat. Anyone who points a gun at it gets blown away. It recognizes weapons same as faces, by matching them to a database of military hardware. A threat table helps it prioritize targets.”

The professor’s face was easy to locate. He had research all over the net. Most of the abstracts included headshots and bios Lady merc, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found (her bosses probably scrubbed her out), so Faisal used a screen cap of the surveillance feed from the hotel. Less than ideal, but as long as the Chinamen weren’t exaggerating their hunter-killers’ processing power the bot should match her bone structure without too much trouble.

“In just a few moments the hunter killer will have oriented itself in its host, and it will begin working to accomplish the mission, starting with the nutty professor.”

His narration was more for Don Carlos’ benefit than the narco and rebel big shots. Faisal doubted they understood a single word he’d said. Espanol Made Easy was terrible with jargon and the clients were technologically impaired to begin with.

Don Carlos was lurking in the crowd somewhere, however, still expecting his big show. And he would get every last word.

Faisal cued up the CCTV feed of the professor’s cell block on the main monitor, so they could all watch the fireworks together. He manipulated the camera feed with his chip, which he figured would make the whole thing seem a bit more magical, a bit like a movie, without the annoying clickety-clack of fingers working a keyboard.

For now they were fixated on a single, chain smoking MP standing in a fuzzy, black and white corridor.

Shame they hadn’t bothered to wire individual cells. The audience would miss out on the gore.

Suddenly the MP snapped to attention. No doubt he’d been startled by the sound of the Riot Control Bot coming to life after its extended sleep. He crept down the corridor, began to unshoulder his rifle.

Mistake, habibi.

Much like splitting off from the group or having sex in a direct-to-net slasher flick, pointing a gun at a hunter killer meant a death sentence. The MP held the gun at his hip, pointed at the bot which was still off screen but probably trundling toward him at a leisurely pace, giving its visual processing unit time to shake off the cobwebs, perform a threat assessment then kick the output upstairs to the hunter killer AI, where it would instantly opt to blow him away.

The MP jerked back.

Black pixels burst from his midsection. Blood always looked like black ooze filtered through the lens of shitty CCTV systems. The guard crumpled to the floor. Then the bot rolled into view from the left edge of the screen. It held its armament/appendages outstretched as if gearing up for the world’s deadliest cuddle session.

The narcos gathered round Faisal’s workstation applauded.

Is this how rock stars feel? he wondered.

2 + 2 = 5

Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs and innocent dance. Oh, we shall allow them even sin, they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin. We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission, that we allow them to sin because we love them, and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves. And we shall take it upon ourselves, and they will adore us as their saviours who have taken on themselves their sins before God. And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient – and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity. Though if there were anything in the other world, it certainly would not be for such as they. It is prophesied that Thou wilt come again in victory, Thou wilt come with Thy chosen, the proud and strong, but we will say that they have only saved themselves, but we have saved all. We are told that the harlot who sits upon the beast, and holds in her hands the mystery, shall be put to shame, that the weak will rise up again, and will rend her royal purple and will strip naked her loathsome body. But then I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin. And we who have taken their sins upon us for their happiness will stand up before Thee and say: “Judge us if Thou canst and darest.” — Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor

Suppose we could destroy an idea.

Should we?

Take sexism for example. Or homophobia. Or fascism. I think most of us can probably agree that these are Bad Ideas, and that the world would be better off without them. Suppose we could line the isms of our choice up and have them shot — erase them from human consciousness, never to return. Who gets to decide what stays and what goes? How would we justify the legitimacy of their decision? Is it desirable, or even possible, for human society to continue to evolve without Bad Ideas?

I am sure you can guess what the Grand Inquisitor would have to say on the subject.

Modern technology is often seen as a democratizing force. However, I would argue that the same technological infrastructure makes it possible to brainwash people on a scale never before imagined. It is tempting to believe the internet offers pure, unfettered access to information. In reality what most of us call “the internet” is a whole bunch of pages indexed by a search engine. The search engine mediates access to information. The search engine quite literally shapes our perception of reality.

Take a look at Hidden From Google. There is a fine line between the Right to Be Forgotten and the Power to Alter Reality. In a sense they are one and the same.

Again, the Grand Inquisitor:

We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient – and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death.

The Bazaar: Chapter 22

Q&A

The more of the prison Emily saw the less she believed it actually held inmates.

All the cells were empty — the equipment disused, rusted and generally falling apart.

“Do they actually hold anyone here?”

Pritchard shrugged. “The ones who can’t pay. Or won’t, maybe.”

The commandante assigned a pair of guards to take them down to see Jefe. He said his staff would beat on Jefe as much as Emily and Pritchard wanted, adding cheerfully that they could torture him themselves for an additional fee. Pritchard of course declined this in deference to their ever-shrinking budget.

He (Pritchard) gave her a pair of sneakers so she no longer had to go barefoot on cold concrete. Brand name knockoffs with a misspelled logo, courtesy of a street vendor. The commandante returned the ear bud pre-loaded with Espanol Made Easy (“Apologies for the inconvenience, my dear”). Her weapon, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. Not that it surprised her. A recent-model compact PDW would probably fetch a full year’s income on the black market.

Jefe had a cell block all to himself. They found him doing push-ups in his cell, banging out reps one after the other with perfect form. Emily gave him credit for that. He wasn’t built for it. Then again neither was she.

He had stripped off his shirt so she could see the muscles in his back work with each rep. A faded tattoo of the Virgin Mary sat square between his shoulders. The Blessed Virgin rippled as Jefe’s muscles flexed. It occurred to her that he was awfully strong, for a scrawny little monkey.

“Why’d you set me up?” she asked. “Is my money no good here?”

Jefe knocked out three more reps before answering. “Their money was better,” he replied, without looking up. His voice crackled as Emily’s ear bud calibrated to his tone and the background noise.

“I didn’t think the cartels were allowed to strong-arm brokers.”

He laughed a little without breaking form or pace. “What do you know about it?”

“They killed your boy.”

In fact, Flannel Shirt was probably still lying face down in that scuzzy hotel room.

Jefe finished a rep. He paused at the top of his form. “I have plenty of boys,” he said, then adjusted his hands for triangle push-ups and began again.

“Okay. We don’t have time to screw around. I’m going to ask you what I want to know. If you don’t answer that’s fine, but these guys-” she gestured to the prison guards “-are going to beat the shit out of you. All I want to know is this: who are the freelancers who set us up, and where do they work?”

Jefe ignored the question.

Emily hadn’t been trained for interrogation in The Program.

At first AEGIS hadn’t authorized her to do interrogations, either.

Not till Syria.

Everything she knew about psyops she learned form the militia. The elder statesman of the Democratic Liberation Front, Dr. Kamel, had a doctorate in psychology. He was a thoughtful, bespectacled man with wispy, receding hair. Before the war he practiced in a wealthy Damascus neighborhood.

Dr. Kamel refined his technique with scientific precision. He kept notes on his methods and results in a thick, spiral-bound notebook, fitting two lines of his cramped Arabic characters into every ruled line.

He did not approve of brute force torture.

Cut a man. Burn a man. Make him believe he is drowning. Insult his family and religion. Spit on the things that are sacred to him. Strip his clothes off and abuse him like an animal.

There Dr. Kamel paused to adjust his glasses on the bridge of his nose.

Hurt a man like this and he may talk. He may tell you this thing or that thing. But he will only give you bits and pieces in proportion to the pain, and only enough to make the pain stop. To break a man you must break his mind. Then it will all come flooding out like water through a crack in a dam. You will know everything he knows, as if by magic.

His technique of choice was burying prisoners alive for days on end with no food and limited air, then digging them up after they thought they’d died. At which point they’d usually spill their guts – in between convulsions and sobs, of course.

Dr. Kamel was living proof you had to worry about the quiet ones.

And while he wouldn’t approve of what Emily was about to do to El Jefe, she had neither the time nor energy to drive the little bastard slowly out of his mind. “Go to work,” she told the prison guards. “Extra money if he begs for mercy.”

The men began rolling up their sleeves.

“Extra?” Pritchard coughed — and she could have sworn his eyes were watering.