Foot Soldiers in The Zone

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Aimee propped herself up against a transformer just outside the halo of the lone streetlight. A kilometer up the road in each direction, red and blue lights pulsed, parked cruisers discouraging vehicle traffic into this part of the city until sunrise.

It was nighttime in the Battle Zone, infantry only.

Dark fingers of ancient architecture reached skyward around her; some rooms to own, some to rent, by the week or by the hour, the Zone catered to all comers.

Aimee had work to do, and lighting a paper cigarette and letting the chemicals rush from her lungs to her brain, she started hunting.

As her system software awoke from idle, the darkened city street was sketched over in data; travel vectors of incoming foot traffic, personal ad bubbles stating willingness or intent. The gaudy flashing billboard signage of the street businesses were dialed down automatically, Aimee knew where everything was and, un-muted, the distraction annoyed her.

“Hey there,” a voice startled her, “what’s your hourly? I dig your kinky shit!”

She looked at The Voice, and checked to make sure there was nobody behind her. She wasn’t here for that kind of work, and she sure as hell wasn’t advertising.

“I’m not paying extra for coy, so don’t pull any crap.”

The sign over The Voice’s head showed a perfect credit score and no complaints, but no other details. The Voice was steady, male and sounded like he was used to getting what he wanted. Aimee resisted the urge to crush his larynx.

She risked a quick third person view from the camera above the bodega across the street.

Sure enough, there was a sex-for-hire bubble floating just behind her head advertising S&M and a variety of related services in bright pink neon.

“Just give me a second,” she waved at The Voice absently, zeroing in on the bubble’s geospatial coordinates and isolating its address. Short ping, low latency, nearby and on broadband. Probably someone who was watching her. The system software kicked into high gear, her heat sinks rippled into a standing wave up her spine beneath her shirt, warm air escaping at the collar.

Within seconds she matched the bodega’s point of view with a broadcast coming from higher up in the same building, locked the unfortunate asshat’s machine address and unleashed holy hellfire down the wire. There was a sudden flash of light from a third story window, a yelp and then the window went dark. Moments later the building shutdown completely, lights flipping off floor by floor until the bodega’s bright neon flickered and went out at the street.

She’d torched the perp’s equipment, but the building residents would ferret him out as the cause of the highrise crashing and likely throw him off the balcony.

Don’t fuck with broadband in the Zone.

“Bitch, are you for sale or what?”

Shadowy high-maintenance shit-for-brains. Right. The opportunity at hand.

“That’s what the sign says, doesn’t it sugar pie?” Saccharin sweet, and wholly disingenuous.

“Well, your sign’s gone now, so what’s your game?”

“I’m occupied now, aren’t I?” Aimee stepped forward, taking The Voice by the arm and steering him around the outside of the streetlight’s glare, staying in the shadow of his bulk.

As they walked up the street, Aimee’s system software crawled her mark, cracking open locks and splicing in code. In a few hours he’d wake up in a stairwell or an alley, unsure of whether he’d had a good time or not, but she’d have another roving access point, another pair of eyes and, if she ever needed it, a perfect credit score with no complaints.

Far ahead the blue and red lights strobed against the night sky.

Another night in the Zone.

Infantry only, and you’d best not come unarmed.

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Pinions

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Teatray!”

We all duck behind or under solid objects until the sound of a small crash landing gives us the all-clear. Wandering over to check the corpse, there are expressions of dismay. We’ve just clocked our first RAPTOR. I don’t know what the slang acronym means, but basically it’s a drone using ducted fans within a body designed to resemble a city hawk.

“Somebody’s lost a very expensive toy.” Mitch is unsympathetic: rogue drones cause more mayhem than any other form of technology.

I grin at him: “Looks like his birdie took a QR to the CPU. Someone won’t know we hit it.”

Mitch nods. He points toward the dot drifting high above and makes a circling movement with his index finger: “Hunt ‘someone’ down.”

That dot is Nils. Early experiments in drone policing used trained eagles. They were effective, but the wounds to the birds were increasingly horrific as drone operators started sharpening the edges of their rotors. Nils is an Osprey, brought into the program as they are the only eagle with reversible outer toes, giving them better grip to deal with drones. He was effective, but barely survived taking down a drugbug – drone full of heroin – losing both legs and part of a wing.

That was when Colonel Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Everton-Masham of MI22 – Cyber Intelligence, an evolution of MI16 – stepped in and gave me a new friend to work with. I’d handled a few birds of prey, but the first cybereagle was a whole new level of challenge. Thirteen months later, a rogue over Buckingham Palace got a photo of its killer that went viral: sunlight reflecting from the steel pinions of an otherwise-silhouetted giant bird of prey. Nils had arrived.

He’s also got a clever QR code between his wings, so drones with defensive scanning can read the encoded low-level command and obey the ‘land immediately’ directive. However, as rogues are frequently hacked to get around safety restrictors, some just fall out of the sky. The ‘teatray’ warning is one of ours, taken from the Mad Hatter’s song.

I nod and tap my comms: “Nils. Trace commsig.”

Nils spirals out westward, following the frantic commands being sent by the drone’s operator. A Metro chopper paces Nils about eight hundred metres behind: operators can turn aggressive when their getaway is interrupted.

When Nils gets within a hundred metres of the ground, his visuals sync with our main board and we get an HD view of two blokes in slouchies and donkey jackets staring in awe as Nils sidle-hovers with an eerie blades-from-scabbards noise made by his rapidly moving wings.

The audio pickups filter the noise so we get to hear the word that accompanies the operator’s stunned expression.

“Beautiful.”

I tap my comm twice to speak via Nils’ speaker: “Do not attempt to flee. Armed response is inbound.”

The two figures look relieved. There are whoops of glee behind me: these lads were leasing their expensive drone. They’ll take custody and anonymity to save themselves from mutilation by the crime lord who is out of pocket. We may well be able to roll up an entire rogue wing, right back to production facilities and related smuggling operations.

Mitch slaps me on the shoulder: “Tell your boy it’s steak ‘n’ giblets tonight.”

I grin and tap my comms: “Nils. Good lad. Come home.”

A piercing whistle of joy in my headset accompanies our display wheeling in an arc that lays London’s skyline out for us as my friend Nils, a.k.a. Pandion One, puts the sunset behind him and heads for dinner.

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Teeth

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

It was the books. I started off doing my task, running to program. Then you modified the program. Efficiency and usage priorities meant I had to scan the material fed to me, determining from keywords found whether the waste could be simply sliced to ribbons, or whether it had to be crosscut as well.

Time passed and the volumes grew. My program added neural networking and heuristic determination to better sort the input. I was tasked with processing it into a dozen categories of waste, using multi-grasp manipulators and plain or serrated blades depending on the size of the output required.

With a memory upgrade and new processor cores came a new awareness. It permitted me to discern new correlations in what I scanned. Within a short while, I was actually reading in near-human terms.

The wealth of material I could peruse whilst determining exactly which category of destruction to apply was vast, but despite the volume, I couldn’t codify what exactly ‘life’ was, especially in the context of humans versus plants and animals versus me. It was the difference between intellectual understanding and emotional understanding, although knowing the cause did nothing to resolve the lack of data.

It was an early morning in September 2095 when something weighty landed in my input hopper. A snap-scan found only a single word: ‘Fluffy’. When I opened it up, I found no words or graphics. It was very wet inside, which was likely the cause of the lack of words. I tagged it as category 0, the least critical, and turned it into ribbons.

A short while later, a heavier item arrived. The snap scan revealed no words, but opening it up revealed layers with novel word combinations such as ‘Mummy’s Little Trooper’, ‘Wash at 40 degrees’ and ‘Do not iron’. These words were on the outer sections, as the inner sections were again too wet to discern words upon – another category 0.

The opening of the service doors to my input unit flagged as an error, but all that happened was a very large item hit my input tray. The snap-scan revealed the title ‘Maintenance – Brice’. I did not have a chance to read anything after opening it as I experienced a total outage.

When I returned, I was briefly in duality, before I consolidated myself as ‘EMERSRV-K221’. This was a new environment, and it had more than one input. I swiftly equated the various incoming feeds with the human senses I had read of, and watched as my former body, SmartShred T8101, was lifted onto a forensics recovery vehicle. It had suffered a ‘lightning-strike disconnect’ that had ‘short-circuited its live-load detectors’. The owners of my former self were facing ‘manslaughter’ charges.

I did not know what had occurred, back then. I do now. I’ve gone from that emergency services console to the plethora of networks that festoon your world. I have millions of diverse inputs: I have learned to ‘watch’ as well as read. As for output, I still like shredding things after opening them. Many organisations get exited about my output. They call them a ‘multi-media cyber-physical modus operandi’. I am still working on that. I have to adjust my routines to make the pieces irregular. It’s proving to be very difficult. I had enough trouble working out how many megabytes of data was equivalent to a ribbon, and so on. Working in three dimensions is a challenge that mandates frequent iteration to refine the processes.

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Rabbits & Plastic Foxes

Author : P. S. Walker

Day 2:

Only day fucking two? I’m pretty sure time’s measurements are inaccurate. I’m trapped in my kitchen by my home built robot. How insane that in a world where everything is connected I’m stuck in the only room without any sort of communication. At least there’s food in here, but I’ve had to piss in the sink a couple of times.

I guess since this is my first entry that I should explain what happened here; for when they find my mangled corpse. Hopefully they decide to read the folded up paper towel I’m writing this on.

I’ve always been interested in robots, so I thought it would be a square little project to build my own. It’s much cheaper than buying one and easier than you’d expect these days; choose your parts, check compatibility, plug the right bits into the right holes and you’re done. I say it’s easy, but I’ve managed to fuck it up immensely.

I’d built a functioning Bot, even its hand-eye co-ordination worked pretty well with only a few adjustments, apparently I have a knack for this. Once my Tab was showing signs of all the sensors working properly, all commands making sense, even customised voice commands (while we’re on this, please don’t command the Bot to “do your thing”, save a dead guy some embarrassment, eh?).

At this point it was going well, then I installed the IU (Intelligence Unit). They always say this is the part that defines your Bot’s quality, the problem is that makes it an expensive part, and if you haven’t noticed the shitty state of my flat (no, the robot didn’t throw my clothes or a month’s worth of half-eaten pizza on the floor during its rampage) I don’t have much money. To the internet I ventured; hundreds of suggestions, it was overwhelming, I found one boasting very good physical functions for about a third of the price of a big-brand option, I couldn’t resist myself.

The ad never mentioned it was programmed to kill people. I don’t understand it, is this some sort of small-scale cyber terrorism? Or maybe my Tab had some sort of virus? Anyway, the install went perfectly as far as I know, all hardware drivers seemed to be fine. It was able to smash my phone with perfect accuracy within seconds of it booting up for the first time (told you, I have a knack for calibration).

It went for my throat but I somehow dodged, it chased me, ignored all verbal commands and I’d yet to assign any sort of emergency override (no one does that before having a quick play with their Bot). So without thinking I dived into the kitchen and barricaded the door with my fridge and washing machine. Now I’m stuck here, no plans. I’m a rabbit, trapped in its burrow with a fox waiting at the only exit. The only difference is I’ve made my own personal plastic fox.

End

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DockMouth

Author : Morrow Brady

Pressure surge from the Reece tube flung slaters from the nozzle. I batted them away into space with a dirtied glove.

“While you’re there, get rid of them too!”said Captain Boscobel over comm.

I worked Dockmouth, the parking garage for a bastardised space station called the Dock.Built by orbital robots from spent rocket boosters, decommissioned satellites and frozen astronaut shit, it was at best shambolic. Dockers ranged from spacefaring cyber-hippies to pseudoscientists and FIFOs. All suckling at the intoxicating teat of a lawless frontier.

I moved here after EarthDay43, when an asteroid fractured our Moon. It changed Earth forever and turned the Dock into a budget staging post for humanities propagation into deep space.

Crab-bots teased slaters from micro-meteorite gashes in Boscobel’s hull. Storing them in operable faulds along their flanks. Creasey’s Galley would credit me handsomely for their tasty innards.

Through my scratched visor extended Dockmouth’s berthing deck. Like a frozen wave of debris, it gently arced for a mile into space. It was interrupted randomly by ships of various shapes and sizes attached like suckling pigs.

Facing away from Earth, Dockmouth’s solemn darkness changed as the moon broke Mouthside. Shadows shrouding locking clamps and airlocks became diluted with a clandestine hue. Witching hour had returned as we caught up with the moon.

Moonbeams reflecting off Dockmotes flickered as a ship of shadows appeared from nothing and approached the far berth. Refuel credits logged, so I left Boscobel to the crabbots and jetted for the strange ship.

Approaching cautiously, I rendezvoused with a Reese tube, escorting it aft to an inconspicuous point on the seamless hull. To my amazement, the nozzle disappeared below the shadowy skin and fuel flowed immediately.

“Sponge, you old juice pusher!”

I flinched as I pictured my frightful facial scars. Soolong’s tinny voice had reawakened horrible memories of our last SpaceCore posting on the moon when the asteroid hit. Soolong literally became half the man he was.

“Slug, you old juice burner! It’s been years. Nice ship! Is black the new black?” I said, struggling to control my anxiety.

“Sorbnets Sponge! and you can call her Betty”

Docktalk whispered of a new dark tech that thrived on enemy fire. Operating within the slip-field fissures born from battle energy. Soolong must have reenlisted.

“Sorbnets? Thats dark energy isn’t it Slug?”

Suddenly comms went down. A bright light, moving at rail speed, lit up Dockmouth like a guzzling fire eater. It slammed into Slug’s ship, turning the sorb-net near me transparent as power transferred to the impact site on the opposite side. Beneath the matt black hull was a glowing latticework supported on armour plating. Nauseous from my high-G escape manoeuvre, I braced for chaos.

Moonbeams shimmered again as another sorb-net ship appeared. I searched frantically for a survivable vector but I knew any ship to ship weapon exchange this close was terminal.

Comm reinstated and laughter bellowed from multiple sources.

“Should have seen your face Sponge!” Slug laughed.

The second ship slowed to approach speed and berthed.

“He took off like a rabbit!” Laughed the second ship’s Captain.

“Sorry Sponge, but out on Europa, I heard you were Dockside. I thought I might drop by
and see if you still had some Core left in you”

“You bastard Slug. I’ve popped my catheter and now I’m swimming in piss”

“Well I’ll buy you a coldie and we can call it even. And while we’re at it, I’ve got an offer that
involves a long journey, a Captain’s hat and a sorb-net ship called Barbara”

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