Give it a listen here at Far Fetched Fables.
God is greatest, God is greatest.
I bear witness there is none worthy of worship except Allah.
The call to prayer came just as the sun began to dip below the horizon. Cargo ships lay at anchor throughout the harbor. The larger fishing boats were pulling into their berths. Fishermen dragged the smallest of them right up onto the beach. Rowboats and dinghies dotted the shore, including a handful of improvised rafts that looked like they’d break into a thousand pieces as soon as they hit the waves.
Faisal enjoyed watching the boats in the evening. It had become his daily ritual. As soon as the sun began to set one of the Yemenis wheeled him out onto the balcony where he had a spectacular view of the harbor. Lately they had been bringing him tea. They said it was good for his nerves. As if Lipton yellow tea had medicinal properties.
He didn’t remember the trip to Aden.
He didn’t remember much of anything beyond the moment the virus began drilling into his brain. One moment his chipset was shrieking about a critical security breach, the next his whole field of view was a psychedelic nightmare and then he sat up in bed in Aden, completely cut off from the net. Faisal knew immediately they’d deactivated his chipset, same as if they’d chopped off a limb. From time to time an older man in a dark suit claiming to be a doctor showed up. He was bald and wore thick-rimmed glasses with dark frames. Looked a bit like he’d stepped through a portal from 1966.
The doctor never really examined Faisal. Mostly he just asked questions.
How are you feeling ? Are you sleeping? Do you ever question things you see or hear? Do you dream much? When you do dream what do you see?
Faisal didn’t dream.
Supposedly people who didn’t dream went insane, or were already insane. Maybe that’s what the doctor was waiting for – the doctor, the Yemenis, Don Carlos – they were all waiting for Faisal to lose his shit completely and wheel himself straight off the balcony.
Except then he’d no longer be of any use.
One morning the Yemenis gave him an old laptop to play with, the way zookeepers drop strange toys into animal enclosures to keep the critters engaged. Faisal fiddled with it for a half hour or so that first day then left it on his nightstand to gather dust. He preferred to watch the boats in the harbor. The boats and the sunset.
Now the call of prayer finished:
Allah is greatest
There is none worthy of worship except Allah.
The Yemenis didn’t like it that Faisal didn’t pray. For the most part they kept communication to one-word questions and answers. They never said anything about what he was supposed to be doing in Aden or how long he could expect to stay here. Maybe they didn’t care to answer his questions. Maybe they didn’t know anything more than he did. Maybe they were convinced he was a djinn and were slowly working up the courage to burn him at the stake. What did Arabs do to djinn? Faisal hadn’t the slightest idea. It had been a long time since his last trip to Arabia. He was a kid then, so young he might actually have believed in God.
At first Faisal honestly believed they brought him to Aden to recover. He told himself that in a few days Don Carlos would show up to check on him, to explain the next assignment. But days passed with no word from Don Carlos, then weeks. Now a full month had gone by.
They weren’t nursing him back to health. They were studying him. Watching and waiting. Wondering whether he’d flip out, and, if so, how long it would take. Don Carlos & Co. thought he might be useful like this. Or, more likely, whatever tunneled into his brain.
A fat military helicopter came in low over the harbor, low enough it sent waves rippling out in concentric circles. The thwack thwack thwack of its rotors echoed across the water and up the cliff face to Faisal’s balcony.
The helicopters always came near sundown. Sometimes – usually on the days where there was a particularly serious cafe bombing or highway ambush – the air force sent a pair of jets screaming along the coast instead. From a distance the jets looked like darts skimming across the water. And from a distance they reminded Faisal of the drone.
Funny because he didn’t remember the sound of its engines. He hadn’t heard anything during his time in the drone. His brain took the sound he heard in the present and dubbed over his memory. In his more paranoid moments (more and more often, anymore) he wondered whether this was something his real, biological brain was doing this or whether it, too, was the product of an AI dicking around in his mind.
There was a war on in Yemen. Faisal didn’t know much about it. He didn’t read the news. Every once in a while he got flashes in the corner of his mind’s eye.
A half-imagined image of a soldier in desert camo dropping a round into a mortar tube.
Artillery rounds bursting over the desert in sinister puffs of dark smoke.
Soldiers loading men and women onto army trucks.
These were not images, the way Faisal used to view feeds on his lens. They were more like memories. Not his memories, though. Seeing them was like watching someone else’s memories.
That thing had put them in his head.
Sometimes Faisal wanted to drill a hole in his head and tear it out with his hands. He made the mistake of describing this to his doctor once (it’s like a bee buzzing in my head; I don’t hear buzzing I can actually feel its wings flapping) In response the Yemenis took all the sharp objects from his room.
It occurred to Faisal he didn’t know any of their names.
That was one difference between doctors and prison guards. Everyone knew their doctor’s name. They could give a shit about their prison guards. They got nicknames, maybe. Here in Aden Faisal had both: prison guards and a prison doctor. All of them holding their breath, waiting for him to crack.
They don’t know it but I’ve already cracked.
It was obvious. So very obvious. Here he sat: the start-up guy who’d failed but was too in love with his concept to admit it, struggling to hang on to the scraps of the sorry little market share he’d carved out of the tech sphere.
I cracked. I failed.
Faisal looked back over his shoulder. One of the Yemenis lurked just indoors, watching him from halfway behind a curtain, just in case Faisal tried to wheel himself up to the railing and over the edge.
Everyone was watching. Watching and waiting for something to happen, some unnamed event they all clearly expected and Faisal didn’t have the slightest clue about. Which left him to spend his days watching this war play out in his head.
And the war wasn’t all he saw.
Sometimes he saw his father. Sometimes he relived that childhood beating in the streets with the Salafists’ shouts about his European whore mother echoing to the furthest reaches of his mind. Sometimes he watched Latin policemen die on a grainy CCTV feed, over and over on a loop as if he himself had turned into a television and someone else held the remote.
He suspected he might no longer be human, but a human-shaped conduit for the net, that the ceaseless buzzing inside his head was an electric stream of trillions of bytes of data passing through him on the way to somewhere else. And from this torrential outpouring of data the AI plucked bits and pieces of sensory and auditory stimuli for him to see.
Faisal the man was nothing but a puppet now.
He didn’t dare tell the doctor his theory. If he did the Yemenis might lobotomize him or something. It would be the end of Faisal, as surely as if they put a bullet in him. Maybe that was what Arabs did to djinn.
By now most of the boats had been beached or tied up. The only ones left were the larger cargo vessels. These had deeper drafts. They couldn’t get in close to shore. They lay at anchor overnight, lolling gently from side to side.
The sun had sunk halfway below the horizon.
Faisal watched it fall further.
And again his world slowly went dark.
Fairy Tale Ending
Emily returned to the Land Rover to find Fulton hunched over, vomiting into the gutter. His puke was that thick, yellow bile you threw up after a night of hard drinking.
“Concussion, I bet. You’ll need to get that checked.”
“I thought I was dead.” Fulton wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Again,” he added.
Emily bent for the carbine she’d tossed away earlier.
“I didn’t know the cartels had an air force,” Fulton said.
He looked up. Bile dribbled down his chin. “It was a joke.”
Emily stuck a clip into the carbine, gave it a good whack with the heel of her hand for the satisfaction of seating it properly. Something about the feel of a gun in her hands. A gun made her master of her fate. “Earlier you compared hackers to wizards. Do you believe that? Or is that just some bullshit you talk about when you’re wound up or drunk?”
Fulton wiped his chin on his sleeve. “I’d bet my life on it,” he said.
January is the toughest month of the year for me. The last few years it’s brought a new financial picture (in a good way) as well as (inevitably it seems) unexpected expenses. I mention this because financial changes have disrupted the publishing schedule for my next indie short. It will probably be toward the end February before I get cover art purchased and the copy edited.
I’m still looking forward to the project. It’s a horror piece that blends Lovecraft, math and finance in (what I hope) is a frightening and unexpected way. At the very least it was a blast to write.
In other news, my serialization of The Bazaar on this blog is just about wrapping up. It’s an exciting place to be. Not least because I will be putting an ebook version of this novella together over the coming year.
I hope to put more indie work out there in 2015, as well as get short pieces published in markets with a bit more visibility. I’ve already got ideas for a couple shorts kicking around in my head, and am eager to get them down on paper.
Or rather, hard drive.
Faisal didn’t immediately perceive the missile impact. He couldn’t feel it and he couldn’t immediately see it, either, what with the FLIR camera being mounted on the underside of the fuselage. He understood the impact first as a loss of control, then as the unified series of the drone’s sensors and control mechanisms flying apart. All the warning indicators seemed to trip at once. It was as if one moment he was sitting in a dark room and the next someone flipped a switch to reveal it had been strung with blood red light bulbs that all came on at once.
The FLIR image spun wildly. Chunks of drone fell away toward the ground. The FLIR pitched up and Faisal found himself looking skyward while at the same time knowing he was hurtling down, down toward the ground as if he were falling in a dream. Flames blossomed at the edges of the screen, glowing white hot in monochrome.
Fuck fuck fuck he thought and was about to disengage from the drone’s hardware when he caught sight of something familiar in the flames lapping at the FLIR. They weren’t just flames.
Warped faces with deep black pits for eyes that twisted with the flames. Warped, bearded faces like the faces Faisal stared up at all those years ago when they were flogging him in the street in Gaza. Then, as now, nothing to be found in those black eyes but inflexible, implacable purpose, al-hamdu’lillah.
Faisal screamed the way he screamed when he was falling in a dream and he suspected (no – knew) it was all a dream but was scared shitless anyway because wasn’t there something to the notion that if you died in a dream you died for real? A long, silent scream that set the microchips rattling around inside his head.
And meanwhile those twisting, black-eyed faces multiplied, crowded closer and merged till Faisal was staring into total darkness, screaming.
Fulton heard a tremendous commotion rise up somewhere behind the vehicle. Another missile, probably. He twisted to look out the SUV’s shattered rear window. All he could see was nondescript corrugated metal. That and smoke. There seemed to be smoke everywhere.
A moment later he got Penetration Complete!, which meant his chip had established a direct connection to the drone, and by association whoever or whatever had taken up residence inside. Fulton queued up the Malware Insertion app and loaded Reese’s AI. As soon as the Locked and Loaded! indicator winked on he pulled the virtual trigger.
Dance of Death
Emily watched the drone enter a ninety-degree dive, looking for all the world like an over-sized lawn dart.
She had never seen one maneuver so violently.
The missile changed direction to compensate, entering a steep dive of its own.
Emily had an intuitive understanding of this dance of death. The pilot guessed the missile would pull lead as it guided to the target. By pointing himself toward the deck at high speed he planned to drive it into the ground. If the Skorpion pulled a lot of lead (that is to say, aimed itself way out in front of its target to intercept) this would have been a perfectly reasonable strategy. Unfortunately for the pilot, the Skorpion had been designed to pull less lead than earlier generation missiles, so as to achieve higher kill probabilities in exactly these kinds of situations.
It caught the drone halfway down the fuselage. Didn’t explode immediately. For a fraction of a moment it appeared to Emily the missile might actually bounce off, then plummet to earth inert and harmless.
Which would have been just her goddamn luck.
But in the next instant a fireball engulfed the drone’s midsection.
The craft snapped in half. The two pieces fell, spiraling around one another as if performing a mating ritual in reverse where the end wasn’t sex but fiery death. The spiral accelerated, the diameter of the revolutions shrank until finally the wreckage slammed into the slum, sending enormous plumes of dirt and debris hurtling skyward.
Faisal saw the Lady Merc.
He saw the flash, the smoke trailing out behind it.
Fucking Strela. Growing up around Russian military hardware Strela became Faisal’s generic term for all man-portable air defense systems. He didn’t have the speed to outrun the missile or get above it so he pitched his hurtling consciousness down at a steep angle, subjecting the drone to more negative Gs than any human pilot could hope to withstand without his brain exploding.
Faisal aimed straight for the ground and waited as the slum rose to meet him.
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.
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.
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.