The shifts got longer, a torrent of endless drops. Jumping from one remote to another, seek and destroy, pay attention and click.
At some point the terrorists began camouflaging killbots with branches and leaves to fool the computer recognition. Suddenly the human operators became more important and now their shifts involved staring intently at hedges and gardens trying to determine what was making the plants more move. Wind? Animal? Killbot?
As they crossed over to the mess at the end of shift, the cadets would stop and point. ‘Are those bushes moving or are those moving bushes?’
I honestly can’t tell what is a bush or a killbot anymore.
Tom pulled his visor off and rubbed his eyes. He was swinging in his hammock in the hanger, just another in the rows of humans lying down and waging war. He swigged water from the bottle wedged beside him and pulled his visor back down.
He wanted to tell Rachel about Patrick and how his brother was going to ‘flee’ the city but there was nothing she would be able to say or do that would help that she wasn’t doing already. He didn’t think that sharing his worry would make him feel better. If anything it would mean he couldn’t escape it. For now the only time he could worry about his brother and Zizi was during his morning ablutions; there he would keep it and function as per normal everywhere else.
Then everyone was talking about the global DDoS attacks. Taking the hacker term for destroying a given system by creating an overload of input, the same tactic of overloading any given system with massiveunrelenting usage. A widespread and non-centralised revolution where people conducted acts of civil disobedience and minor vandalism en masse, so that the police and justice systems could not cope, and nor could the detention system be expanded to such an extent as to detain all the guilty parties.
It had broken out, mainly in the bigger cities, in Europe and some states of America. Early commentators began predicting the disintegration of governments and an unstoppable collapse of society.
Tom had an alert set for news items about the hacker group. He saw the headline peep up in his notifications and loaded it up.
Schism in American Anarchy
In a press conference at ICCS headquarters in Paris, Director General of Internet Security revealed evidence of a factional split in the hacker group American Anarchy.
After seven months of DDOS bombardment on critical infrastructure including the closing of the criminal court and the forced relocation of the NASDAQ to an offshore facility, there appear to be signs of disunity and fracturing as multiple hackers claiming to be part of American Anarchy have begun making contradictory demands.
In a video release made up from graffiti text and a song by rock metal band The Grief, a hacker using the handle bad_apple demanded the closing of all stock markets while another video message posted by Inca Queen, also in text form but with no sound, listed demands that ranged from the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income and the dissolution of state borders.
Hood, a male wearing a hooded jersey that kept his face in shadow, didn’t make any demands in his video, instead making statements depicting the new world order he said American Anarchy was trying to bring about.
Xavier Cross, the self-proclaimed spokesperson of the group has yet to make a comment and his whereabouts remain unknown.
Many analysts have suggested that this division could be a deliberate tactic by the hacker group to confuse and further burden the already strained resources of the intelligence agencies by forcing them to investigate multiple targets.
He switched over to watch the California evacuation, roads clogged with cars, trucks and animals, people carrying suitcases and large swaddles on their backs. The ports were jammed skin to skin with people trying to board ships and trains. Every cruise ship was at capacity. Everyone who could buying their place on what they hoped would be an ark.
He didn’t really expect to see Patrick, but he watched anyway. Just in case.
After three days, when his brother should have escaped California, he began putting ‘Patrick Huxley’ in the search engines. He found no recent mentions—which was good, he thought—and set alerts on his searches to auto refresh and notify him if any results came up.
Zero Day hits South Africa as taps run dry
Tom watched footage in the briefing cubicule. Soldiers fending off bamboo and wooden robots controlled through batteries and articulators. Small versions scuttled like crabs to the feet of the defenders, then detonated.
Humans and remote defenders became chunks on the ground and a new wave of killbots jumped over them to pursue the next victims they could reach.
Dying sucks. Ten minutes timeout and score zeroed.
Other new releases to watch for
This last Wednesday, celebrity terrorist Karma Kunst released a new breed called Torment. Unlike other killbots, Torment does not harm targets but harasses them with visual and audio abuse. The first release of Torment lists over 200 target categories, including all major religions and gratuitous displays of wealth.
He had been five days and nights on shift, his longest stint so far, when a job changed from a point-and-shoot to a rescue. A new mission parameter slid onto his screen: RETRIEVE.
With most locations anonymised for privacy and security, signs blurred, faces replaced with black blocks and no legible text anywhere, Tom was captivated by this cloistered world. Even the clocks were distorted so he couldn’t figure the time. It was like a deep dream, where he operated without thinking and never really knowing where or when he was.
I think the wizard’s spells were lasting into shifts by this point. Three drops a night and visiting the wizard in between.
Right now, he was on the roof of a manor house, above a courtyard with an actual fucking fountain in it. Around it all was a 10-metre high defensive wall topped with razor wire. Grenade-bots were swarming over. Blowing it down a bite at a time. The RETRIEVE command flashed over his view.
‘Where is the target?’ Tom asked.
‘Inside. Fourth level. Take the stairs,’ the command operator directed him. Tom broke formation and saw the door opening for him. ‘Go down two flights.’
It was dark and he switched his beams on. The corridor lit up in front of him and he raced forward.
‘At the bottom, hard left.’
The hallway had a long rug and paintings. He knocked over a narrow table but kept on. ‘I’m close.’
‘To your right.’
Tom pushed at the door and it splintered. ‘Oops.’ He smashed the rest of the wood out of his way.
The target was a blue ball—that’s what he was allowed to see.
‘Acquire the target,’ the command came. ‘Quickly.’
The ball moved away from him and Tom jumped after it. He kept bending down to catch it but it got around him and bounced from the room.
‘It keeps moving out of my reach. What is it?’
‘Just grab it and get out. The defence line is breached.’
He reached for the ball again but it slipped through his arms and down the corridor. He gave chase, running as fast as he could. The ball went around the corner.
Just as he turned to follow, a killbot was in front of him. It was a tall and prickly beast of black metal, guns steaming the air. Tom armed his primary and the robot facing him did the same so he fired without waiting for command approval.
The killbot shattered into a million pieces. All that was before him was a burnt hole in a bare wall. Bricks behind plaster.
He looked down and found the shards of his own reflection, his remote’s reflection, looking back up him; bristly and black.
Australia’s ‘Dead’ Barrier Reef loses heritage status
He was running — no, the remote he was in was running — it was just his viewpoint that bounced from room to room, street to street. Target identified. Verify. Fire. End mission. Jump out.
He blinked. The grey between mission loads held a bit long before a text order appeared: report to the command office.
Tom unplugged. Why had he been pulled out? Shift end was hours off and all the rest of the squad were still in their hammocks, visored and rippling with muscle tremors. It was eerie to watch them, were submersed in battle and wriggling like maggots.
Feasting on my skin.
Outside the hanger, heat was pulsing off the sun and he sprinted across the dirt yard to a pile-up of dusty shipping containers burdened with air-conditioners—the command block.
He was made to wait near the door of Sergeant Marto’s office. Clocks with different time zones counted on the walls and he held a fragile plastic cup of ice cold water and a hot sick feeling in his stomach. He tried to ping his brother.
Come on, Patrick. Be okay.
Thomas didn’t notice the Sarge had opened his door and was studying him. Marto was a big-gutted guy and tall, hair and beard grey and struggling like grass in a drought.
He jumped up and saluted. ‘Sir.’
‘That’s okay, Huxley. This isn’t formal.’
‘What is it, serg?’
‘Look, you better come inside.’
Tom obeyed and followed Marto’s gestures to sit in the guest chair. The sergeant shut the door.
‘Is it my brother, sir?’ he asked.
The Sarge sat down and shook his head. ‘No. This is about your uncle.’
‘Jack?’ Tom sighed with relief then laughed. ‘What’s he done now?’
‘Sit down and I’ll give it to you quick.’ Marto looked straight at him. ‘Your uncle is dead.’
It took Tom a moment to process. He didn’t think of Jack much.
He felt his nose pressed again the glass by the front door, waiting for his parents to come home. He remembered the smell of the Hastings screen as Patrick rubbed it into his cheeks. Years prowling the deserted streets. Glass flying to the arythmia of the mob deanimating machines.
‘Yes. I’m afraid so.’
‘How?’ he asked.
Marto scrolled his finger down a screen. ‘It says he died of shock from severe burns.’
‘Fire?’ Tom asked. ‘At a protest?’
Marto nodded. He passed the handscreen over for Tom to read.
Coroners Report: Jack Huxley
CORONERS Inquest: Immolation — ante-mortem thermal injuries, 4th and 5th degree burns, causing organ failure.
CORONERS Fire inquiry: Cause of fire, a home-made molotov exploding prematurely.
He waited for Marto to say something but the older man was just studying him. ‘Should I go back to my duties then?’
‘Nah, champ. You’re on leave.’
‘I don’t need it.’ Tom shook his head. ‘We weren’t close.’
‘Doesn’t matter. You’re his executor. You have to close up shop.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means you go home and do a lot of paperwork.’
‘But the campaign? Am I out?’
‘Just two weeks of bereavement leave. You’ll be back. Your score gets locked in while you’re gone. You’re due an off-period anyway and this can be it. Your bus leaves at eighteen hundred.’
‘I can’t believe it.’ Even dead, Jack was messing it up for him.
A prick from start to finish.
Outside the command block he leaned into the thin wedge of shade. His mind played back to a moment; a memory of lying on a precarious recliner. One plastic tube was sucking blood from his left arm into an impassive machine, another tube came out the other side, pumping slightly colder blood back into his right arm.
After a few minutes he felt lopsided and nauseous. Jack pushed his shoulder to put him straight.
‘It’s cold,’ Tom said.
‘It’s cleaning your blood out. What d’ya expect, idiot?’ Jack said. ‘Told ya, you spend too much time outdoors.’