Month: December 2014

The Bazaar: Chapter 36

Skorpion

Emily recognized the drone immediately.

It was a US EXPED Raptor. They used them to interdict drug shipments, for high-altitude recon, for targeted assassination (dirty word, that). She knew immediately there was something wrong with this one. It flew much too low. Much too fast.

Air Force drones operated up high, out of reach of man-portable air defense systems like Stingers and Strelas. They moved at a leisurely pace, because really what did you have to worry about at twenty thousand feet when the enemy had no planes? This drone was the military equivalent of a rabid dog, and Emily had a sneaking suspicion the explosion that ran them into a wall was no unhappy accident.

More like targeted assassination.

She reached the back of the SUV and flung the tailgate open with one hand. Sleek, black gun cases sat stacked three feet high. She snatched one off the top, popped the locks. Inside lay an automatic carbine. Emily threw it away.

The next case down yielded another carbine.

She hit pay dirt with the third.

In the center of the padded case lay the sleek, elegant, oh-so-sexy form of a Skorpion launch tube. Basically a miniature Stinger: a stubby box on the business end with a foot-long tube sticking out to funnel the back blast. The firing mechanism was a pistol grip with a trigger. The sight picture was about as basic a heat-seeking system as you could find on the market. In Grozny the OPFOR stockpiled thousands of the things. Sometimes they camped out near the airport. Whenever a plane took off two helicopters dumped flares alongside it to spoof the missiles.

Emily snatched up the tube. She spun, fell to one knee and brought the tube to her shoulder.

The eyepiece on the Skorpion held a stripped-down heads-up display: a gun cross inside a square. You put the box on top of the target. When the infrared sensor locked the target the box went red and moved to track the target. Firing was easy as squeezing the trigger.

Emily counted on that ease-of-use as she swept the sky for the drone and its jet engine, which, by virtue of the fact it was running hot and fast, would light the Skorpion’s IR sensors up like Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July come all at once.

She caught sight of a black speck in the distance and flicked a switch on the side of the launch tube with her thumb. This uncaged the heat-seeking sensor in the nose of the warhead. The box came off the gun cross. It jumped to the edge of the display then raced inward along the edges, spiraling toward the growing speck in the center until it finally locked, turning fire engine red.

Emily squeezed the trigger.

The Skorpion tube lurched up and back with the force of the launch. The missile shot out the end of the tube. Thick, black smoked billowed out behind it. A hot blast of jet wash caught Emily in the face. She snapped her eyes shut. When the heat faded she opened them to see the missile arcing skyward.

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Throne of the Crescent Moon Review

Throne of the Crescent Moon coverMost of the sci-if I’ve read comes from white dudes: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov… the list goes on. Even the score-if writers I know who set novels in other cultures, such as Ian McDonald (River of Gods, The Dervish House) and George Alec Effinger (When Gravity Fails) are still written by white dudes.

I don’t normally read fantasy novels. Certainly not sword-and-sorcery fantasy. But what attracted me to Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, were its unique voice and setting. This is a fantasy novel set in an Islamic world, written by a Muslim author (and written quite well, I might add).

The novel ‘s central character is Adoulla Mahkslood, the world’s last ghul hunter. Ghuls are zombie-like creatures created by sorcerers (or ghul-makers)   via magic powered by human sacrifice. Mahkslood and his young, fundamentalist assistant, Raseed, find themselves confronted by an evil of a magnitude not seen in millenia — a ghul-maker powerful enough to enslave the world.

Others join them on their quest. There is Zamia, a young woman with the ability to change shape into a lion. And Adoulla’s old friends, the sorcerer Dawoud and his potion-maker wife, Litaz.

All of Ahmed’s characters struggle with the role of religion and faith in their world. Adoulla is clearly a spiritual man — but he’s come to view his work more as a grim burden than a noble calling. Toward the very end of the novel (SPOILER ALERT), he observes:

He and his friends had faced their most powerful threat yet, and defeated it. And everything and nothing had changed. The sky had not split open to reveal the Ministering Angels singing that all ghul-makers were dead. There was no shower of flowers from a forever-safe populace. Tomorrow, or the next day, or a month from now, some fishmonger or housewife would come to Adoulla with more terrified tales. God had not rewarded Adoulla with retirement in a peaceful palace full of food and friends.

Adoulla clearly believes in God. But his faith is far from blind obedience. Contrast that with a group known as the Humble Students:

The Humble Students were charged with chastising those who needed to be chastised, helping men and women to walk the path of God. But Raseed had learned that some Humble students did this more out of greed or cruelty then righteousness […] Unsurprisingly, Raseed’s mentor was among their despisers. “I don’t trust anyone who claims to serve God by beating up dancers and drunks,” the Doctor had growled once.

For me, the pleasure of reading Throne of the Crescent Moon lay not so much in getting from Plot Point A to Plot Point B but in exploring a nuanced world through the eyes of its characters. All credit to Saladin Ahmed for a wonderful journey.

The reason sci-fi (or speculative fiction) dominate my fiction reading list is that when I read for pleasure I read to escape. Between working in financial planning and studying for the CFA Level II exam, I get a healthy dose of “reality” on a daily basis. It’s refreshing to discover a new world created by someone other than a middle-aged white dude. And frankly I can’t wait to discover more.

The Bazaar: Chapter 35

Fulton’s Plan

If AI Quarantine worked against a military-grade hunter-killer AI it stood to reason it would work on a civilian novelty app. Fulton queued it up to scan his own chipset — more specifically Reese’s suicide note.

For all the complex technical underpinnings of he what he was about to attempt the general idea remained fairly straightforward. Picture Toolbox as a shotgun. AI Quarantine is the chamber and Malware Insertion the barrel.

You pull an AI out of an existing program/repository, same as you’d pluck a shell out of a box of ammunition.

Drop it in the chamber.

Rack the pump.

Fire.

The AI exits the chamber, passes through the barrel. It penetrates the target (the drone’s already-compromised network security suite), then rides the information pipeline straight to the hacker in control. Fulton didn’t know what, if anything, the AI from Reese’s app was programmed to do outside of find memories and extract them for replay.

He did know he was about to launch one of the least ethical experiments in the history of computer science.

He sincerely hoped the university ombudsman would understand.

The Bazaar: Chapter 34

Transcendence

Faisal brought the drone down to 2,000 feet and dialed back on the throttle. He had yet to fully master the zoom function on its FLIR unit, so he preferred to cruise at a lower altitude.

He no longer had any sense of physical form. He perceived the world the way the drone perceived it, through the limits of the drone’s senses. No sound. The drone couldn’t hear. In fact, Faisal no longer had a “physical” sense of anything. His perception of his form, his ability to assess whether it was “healthy” (functional?) depended entirely on the drone’s diagnostic systems. It was intellectual awareness, based entirely on quantitative data.

There was no sense of self. No fatigue. No pain.

Faisal had become unfettered consciousness soaring over the slum.

Unfettered consciousness packing Hellfire missiles.

As he neared the plume of smoke he focused his attention on the wreckage at its base. No obvious signs of a vehicle. No skeletal carcass. No tires, doors or axles strewn about the road.

He panned his FLIR along the street.

A hundred odd meters from the wreck he spotted the black SUV crushed up against the side of a building. What’s more there was a person near it, a dark shape making its way back toward the vehicle.

Faisal hurried to bring his laser designator to bear. The FLIR unit’s gun cross tracked down, down, down… he touched it to the figure’s head and let it breathe there for the second the targeting computer needed to refine its calculations.

Suddenly it jerked up and away.

Fuck. Shit. Balls.

The angle between the laser and his target had blown out too wide. He’d have to go around again.

The Bazaar: Chapter 33

A Simple Plan

Fulton’s journey back to consciousness was a bit like swimming up through the murky depths of the ocean. At first everything was black. Gradually his surroundings got clearer and clearer till he was back upright in the armored Land Rover in the bright light of day, swaying from side to side as if suspended in a sea of gently rolling waves.

Up front Pritchard and the driver lay still. Emily was gone. The door on her side of the vehicle hung open. A helpful pinging sound reminded him the door was ajar.

Every part of his body hurt, though the worst of his pain was now concentrated in a few key areas: his back, neck and head. His stomach churned. He felt like throwing up. A long time ago someone (his mother, perhaps) told him nausea equaled concussion and he’d better stay on top of it lest he die suddenly in his sleep. His childhood self imagined this process to be something like flipping off a light switch. Somehow the concussion turned out your lights and that was the end of you. The thought had done nothing to ease his childhood self’s anxieties about death.

Behind him the Land Rover’s hatch flung open. Emily, he assumed, chucking things out the vehicle with reckless abandon.

Something else had attacked them.

His life had transformed into a bad action movie. A bad action movie because it was now robots attacking them instead of people. Fulton wasn’t one hundred percent sure a robot was responsible for this attack (he hadn’t exactly seen it) but no one seemed to be shooting at them, lobbing grenades, firing additional rocket-propelled grenades, et cetera.

His lens picked up a handful of networks straight away. Fulton let it ride and fired up the Network Penetrator. If it worked as advertised (he sincerely hoped it worked as advertised) he’d find everything wired within a certain radius. He couldn’t remember the thing’s exact range.

Tags from various devices popped up across his vision like daffodils with network IDs for petals. The closest was the Land Rover’s onboard navigation system, still querying the satellite despite the damage. Most others seemed to be personal devices and wi-fi routers. Fulton filtered those out. He was left with a final tag at the upper limits of his field of view: the send/receive unit on a USAF EXPED drone.

He expected another hunter killer AI but AI Quarantine read clean. Which meant either the drone was perfectly fine; a technical malfunction caused it to spontaneously fire missiles at a pair of otherwise innocuous four-wheel drive vehicles; or someone was controlling it some other way. Maybe the Arab freelancer had taken over personally. If so there would be an information pipeline running directly from the drone to his terminal. More likely still, his lens – thus his chipset and brain.

A fresh but intense feeling washed over Fulton.

Relief.

For the first time since this whole miserable adventure got underway, he had a plan.