serial fiction

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.

The Bazaar: Chapter 32

Blown Away

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion Emily was surprised but not afraid.

Surprise was okay. Fear was not.

It wasn’t the first time she’d seen a bomb explode, and it was far from the largest bomb she’d ever seen go off. In Syria the militia used to pack two-ton trucks full of C4 and drive them in formation toward army checkpoints. If one got stopped or the driver got killed there would be the others. All it took was a single truck. One truck carried enough explosives to demolish an entire city block.

People unfamiliar with explosives always expected fireballs. That wasn’t how it worked. Maybe you’d catch a flicker of flame when something particularly combustible went up, but for the most part when a bomb went off you got choking black smoke and dust. Particularly dust. More cloud than fireball.

Here the narcos preferred a standard car bomb (explosive + tilt fuse + time-activated detonator).

A bomb’s explosion wasn’t particularly dangerous. The shockwave and the pressure did most of the killing. Depending on the force of the blast and your distance from it you might break every bone in your body. Or your brain might turn instantly to jello — a gruesome smoothie all bound up in skin and bone.

Bombs were not to be taken lightly. Even under the best of circumstances.

This particular bomb wasn’t as powerful as a Syrian truck bomb. Emily knew that instinctively because she hadn’t been killed outright. The blast shattered the SUV’s bulletproof windows. Spidery cracks formed up, down and diagonally across the bulletproof windows. They flexed in place, bowing in and then out again.

Emily had time to observe all of this. In her business you either made time for details or you died. Flapping around hysterically wouldn’t do anything but get you killed.

Beside her Fulton doubled over in his seat. Probably thought he was dead.

The driver swerved the SUV hard left. A concrete wall loomed in the windshield. It took on a menacing look the closer the SUV came. Almost grinning. As if it were ready to eat her alive.

She let her body go limp, doing her best imitation of a rag doll.

The SUV hit the wall. Emily lurched forward. She got to about an inch from the seat in front of her before her belt caught and slammed her back. Then she was out of the belt with the door open and one leg headed that direction. Then she was outside the vehicle all together, spinning in place struggling to get her bearings.

Back in the direction they’d come from a whole block’s worth of corrugated metal shanties had been reduced to smoldering ruins. A plume of smoke rose up from the destruction. Bits of corrugated metal fluttered down from the cloud of smoke, the smaller ones spinning furiously end over end and the larger ones lilting gently from side to side.

No screaming, which Emily found strange.

There was always screaming.

Unless no one was home.

Awfully kind of these narcos to hit their target with no one at home. Added to that the scene looked wrong. There was no evidence of a blast outside the building. No wreckage. No demolished car. No crater in the dirt road. She would have expected something with a car bomb. Unless it was not a car bomb and they had rigged the place to blow from the inside, which didn’t add up, either. oo much trouble for narcos. Slum dealers weren’t mad bomber types. They wielded violence like a heavy blunt instrument – clumsily, but with purpose.

She became aware of a wetness along the right side of her face. Emily touched two fingertips to the spot. Both came away bloody.

She glanced back at the car.

No movement. She doubted the others were dead but this was no time to play nurse. She patted up and down her coat.

No gun.

Right, El Commandante kept it for a souvenir. There would be other weapons in the car. Emily struggled to her feet. And as she did she caught the faint whoosh of a jet engine.

The Bazaar: Chapter 31

War 2.0

Once more Faisal abandoned his hardware setup and zoned out. His unfettered consciousness circled at just over 5,000 feet, raining down destruction with the modern military equivalent of +2 acid arrows: Hellfire missiles. He needed to impress his clients in a big way and as luck would have it the Targets (military types preferred a capital ‘T’) were well and truly back on the grid.

Faisal cued up the drone’s FLIR feed on the monitor for his audience’s benefit.

His first pass was all trial and error in terms of firing procedure. He slewed what looked like a square designator box over the target, believing he locked it. The missile came off the rail all right. A pillar of fire shot skyward in the approximate location of the vehicle. Unfortunately the awesome destructive power of the missile also kicked up a tremendous cloud of smoke and dirt. To confirm the kill he had to circle back after the dust had cleared.

At the very least the narcos gathered round his monitors would be impressed. They liked watching things go boom. Instant gratification.

In the course of extending away from the target (Faisal played enough flight sims to know you needed separation prior to making a second pass) he perused the drone’s operating manual. It turned out an alloy bubble mounted underneath the drone’s nose contained a laser designator. According to the manual taking a visual-only shot meant degraded accuracy, more specifically an increased circular error probability. So despite the impressive pyrotechnic display he had more than likely missed.

When the drone reached the outskirts of the city, the point where the drab browns and grays of the slums gave way to lush green jungle, Faisal banked sharply to the left.

A column of black smoke drifted lazily skyward where the first missile had hit.

He cycled the weapons and cued up another Hellfire. This time he made sure to arm the laser.

The Bazaar: Chapter 30

Clarity

Emily’s colleague, Mister Pritchard, had brought a pair of armored, bullet-proofed SUVs to the prison. The military police saw them off cheerfully. They were rich now, after all. Fulton imagined that as soon as the convoy pulled away from the prison they would throw their weapons in the dirt and trek home, never to fight again.

Pritchard was up front with the driver. Fulton sat in the back with Emily. The car jostled them into one another as it snaked through the labyrinth of slum streets.

“On the face of it the app is worthless,” Fulton explained. “It’s not even spacial encryption, just Reese banging on about his worldview. Take one of the characters — if you can call her that — half spider and half girl. She’s patterned after Claire, this girl Reese used to sleep with. She’s not an exact match, of course, and not just because of the metal abdomen. He distorted her features. He did it to make fun of her.”

“Then what do the cartels want with it?” Pritchard asked.

“They could probably care less. I bet their freelancer wants it — this Arab they’ve got shut up in a room somewhere.”

“I thought you said it’s a joke?”

“It is a joke,” Fulton said. “On the surface at least. But there’s something fairly sophisticated happening underneath. The app does something with your memories. It takes bits and pieces and twists them around. Reese found a way to tag and extract memories from a digitally augmented brain. Not just memories, I suspect, but fantasies and fears as well. I’m not entirely sure how it works yet. Bear in mind this kind of modification is illegal in most places. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research on the subject. Consider for a moment the overarching trend in technology: digital integration, augmentation and immersion. You think of it in terms of defense, but it’s much bigger than that. Think of the pedestrian meandering down the street, browsing restaurant reviews on his lens. Think of the commercial pilot, the futures trader…”

Emily gave him a blank look that reminded him of Robyn, so Fulton skipped the detailed case studies he’d been working up on the fly and cut straight to his conclusion. “Reese tore the cover off the brain’s circuitry and started fiddling around with the wires underneath. Take this to its logical conclusion and you’ve got the ability to alter human perception of reality, potentially en masse.

Imagine someone writes a virus that bridges the gap between the integrated chipset and your actual brain. He doesn’t just infect a hard drive. He infects your mind. Maybe you end up on a perpetual LSD trip. Maybe your brain starts running traumatic stimuli on a loop. Maybe you lose control over your nervous system. To a hacker this is the holy grail: hacking the human brain. Now imagine that propagating across an entire network. You literally have the ability to trigger mass insanity.”

There was no scientific basis for his last statement. It was pure supposition. Fulton was not a hacker. An avid user of technology, certainly, but for practical purposes. Like most people he viewed technology as a means to an end.

The hacker, on the other hand, fetishized technology. For the hacker it was all about thrills. The end was incidental. This of course went a long way toward explaining the preponderance of freelancers in the world. Freelancers only cared that they were hacking, and that they were doing something BIG. As a wise man once said (or typed): “it’s all about the lulz.”

Fulton had worked with many a hacker over the years. Reese, for example. But he still understood them only in a distant, academic sense. From what he’d seen they preferred to exist in a different world. Maybe not in the way most people considered Mars a different planet from Earth. Maybe “world” wasn’t the right word at all.

The hacker’s world looked like ours, worked like ours in most respects but was not bound by the same social, moral, physical — even perceptual constraints. Which of course was why Reese struggled so desperately with anything that involved relating to other human beings. He existed above and beyond them, in an almost evolutionary sense. Reese was like Merlin trying to relate to the illiterate serf shoveling manure out back of Camelot.

Somewhere in the midst of this train of thought, long after he’d forgotten whether he was speaking aloud or merely thinking very, very intently, Fulton realized everyone else was staring at him.

Emily, Pritchard — even the driver eyed him sideways as he worked to keep his head on the proverbial swivel.

“Am I rambling?”

“Back to the part about spreading a computer virus through people’s brains,” Pritchard said.

Fulton swallowed. He didn’t have all that much to say on the subject. Really he was just thinking out loud. A bad habit. This was not the first time it had resulted in him biting off quite a bit more than he could safely chew. Granted, prior to this about the worst damage he’d ever done was derail small-talk at cocktail parties.

“It would be something of a cross between information and biological warfare,” Fulton said, immediately looking to Emily for approval. It said something about the current state of affairs that the woman who’d snapped and killed a half-dozen people earlier in the evening was beginning to look like an emotional anchor point.

If this explanation at all impressed Emily she didn’t show it.

For whatever reason Fulton thought back to Reese’s suicide note, to the image of the two of them mid-coitus playing beneath his feet, the visual manifestation of some subconscious fantasy he feared would now haunt him for all eternity.

“It’s nothing new,” Emily said. “NSA pegged it in a Threat Assessment almost as soon as the first generation of chips were being plugged into brains. Professionals have been working on this for a long time.”

“The theory of it.”

“He’s that smart?” Pritchard asked.

“Was,” Fulton corrected. “But yes, I believe so. From what I would understand there are two key elements that come into play. First, you have to crack the security on each model of chip. That’s the easy part. I’m sure the NSA got at least that far experimenting on convicts — however they do research and development these days.”

At that Emily stiffened a bit in her seat. “The hard part,” Fulton continued, “would be finding a way to pull memories out of someone’s consciousness. That’s where Reese got ahead.”

“How?”

“Some kind of AI. Reese’s specialty was cognitive development for AIs. He taught machines to learn through various carrot-and-stick type strategies. Most were all stick and no carrot. Every cub scout with his computer science badge knows you can shape an AI’s behavior with imperatives. Reese gave his AIs the imperative to survive, then programmed them to die unless they accomplished certain tasks. He taught them to fear.”

“Crude,” Emily observed. Again she had that distance in her voice that told him she’d gone somewhere else in her mind.

Fulton shrugged. “Efficient, was how Reese described it. His AIs were quick studies.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the building to his right exploded.

The Bazaar: Chapter 29

Improvisation

The laughing death’s head disappeared from Faisal’s flatscreen, leaving a black void in its place. Behind him the VIPs murmured. He didn’t need a translation from Paolo to know they were wondering whether this was a problem or just part of the show.

He caught a whiff of one of Don Carlos’ Turkish cigarettes. Unlike the narco and guerrilla VIPs Don Carlos would not have any trouble figuring out whether this was part of the show.

That’s what you get for improvising, for taking a job from guys who’d never held a touchscreen but still decided on a whim to fight a cyber war. Not that Don Carlos would ever admit that. This would go down in history as Faisal’s fault. It would be Faisal’s failure. It would be an excuse to pay Faisal less, to talk shit on Faisal’s work, to have Faisal handle more shit-kicker clients rather than the cream of the crop. You lived and died by your reputation in this business and he resented the fact his might take a hit because of forces wildly out of his control.

Faisal hoped he hadn’t said any of that out loud.

Then, the sound of Paolo’s voice low in his ear: “He wants to know what’s happening.” “He” meaning Don Carlos, of course. Given Paolo’s tone of voice you’d think he was talking about some deity that would strike him down if he didn’t show proper reverence.

“Tell him I’m fucking working on it,” Faisal snapped.

Paolo retreated into the crowd of narcos. The murmuring had gotten louder in in the interim. By now the majority of the VIPs clearly suspected something was actually wrong, as opposed to a minor hiccup that would be resolved quickly so the show could resume.

Faisal parsed the network traffic in the vicinity of the prison. There wasn’t much happening in the pre-dawn hours. Certainly not in the slums. No bots on the network. Either the prison had a total supply of one or the others had long since been shut down and dismantled. Maybe scrapped for spare parts.

He widened his search pattern.

A couple small, AI-controlled surveillance bots ran racetrack pattern circuits around the neighborhood. Either mercs or USAF. The police didn’t fly drones here. The military police had them but didn’t use them, so far as he knew, and these models looked too new to be local. Faisal didn’t bother with the details. Under normal circumstances he’d pause to fuck with them, but these were far from normal circumstances and the little bots weren’t armed, which made them just about useless.

He widened his search pattern further.

About ten kilometers out at twenty-thousand feet he hit the jackpot. A proper USAF EXPED drone orbited around the edges of the capital. It had a full sensor suite, complete with visual targeting pod and FLIR cam (so the VIPs could watch the fireworks). Most important, however, was its full complement of laser-guided missiles.

Drones weren’t hard to crack. Faisal did it on a daily basis to confuse the ones that came looking for the narcos’ jungle camps. But there was a big difference between cracking a drone to give the AI pilot a little nudge in one direction or the other and cracking a drone to rain hellfire down on a major metropolitan area. The USAF operators would notice. In the short-term they would ground the drone fleet, re-examine their operating procedures, probably tighten up security. USAF EXPED was slow but not completely stupid. In time they’d fix the most obvious exploits and Faisal would have to crack the drone fleet all over again.

He paused. Such a waste. Here he’d throw his whole setup away to keep the client from PMSing all over the place. On top of that a drone hack would be a rip-off of a past op. He’d done drones before, in Grozny. It didn’t help your rep to execute the same sorry hacks again and again.

Then Faisal caught the sweet scent of a Turkish cigarette again.

His nostrils flared at the smell, and he knew he hardly had a choice.