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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Automatic Reload

A Novel

Ferrett Steinmetz

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ACT 1


Reluctantly Crouched at the Starting Line

I can’t help but ask: one day, many years later, when you find your previous awareness, cognition, and choices are all wrong—will you keep going along the wrong path, or reject yourself?

—Gu Li, the last world-class Go player beaten by Google’s artificial intelligence, realizing that humans had finally been obsoleted in a game originally thought to be unplayable by computers. January 2017, The Wall Street Journal

I’m not a fan of human arms. That quarter-second delay between visual confirmation and trigger finger movement is, quite literally, a killer in a combat situation. Compare your sluggish meatware to the baseline friend-or-foe targeting routines on my Zentrine-Gauss upper-limb armed prosthetics—they have their own sensors, and can put three rounds into an emerging hostile in under .04 seconds. Even if you have your gun aimed at me when I walk into your line of fire, I’ll outdraw you, with computer-targeted accuracy, with .21 seconds to spare. You’ll be dead before either of us realizes what happened.

So to survive, you must realize this: the human body is the least reliable component of your combat equipment. The more you can minimize its influence, the better.

Which leaves good maintenance as the only thing that will protect you.

Yet the sole advantage your organic appendages have over my sweet darlings Scylla and Charybdis—yes, I nickname my limbs—is that your meat-arms are self-lubricating and self-repairing. Your daily maintenance consists of pull-ups and a salad.

Me? I spend hours fieldstripping my arms and legs, clearing out debris that could jam the delicate machinery. I recalibrate my artificial musculature. I optimize the computerized routines that govern Scylla and Charybdis—their baseline friend-or-foe identification routines take .04 seconds to acquire a noncombatant target, but I’ve shaved my capture-to-fire time down to .0125 seconds, and my onboard computers can differentiate between happy children and gun-toting criminals with dwarfism.

It’s the little details that matter.

Yet even if you do proper maintenance, you must do your precombat prep then stow your ego away. Too many body-hackers tether their self-worth to their in-combat contribution—if they don’t fire a few bullets manually, they figure they’re not real soldiers. These assholes get themselves killed, relying on their high-latency nervous system.

If you do it right, the fighting’s all but done before you arrive at your drop zone. You tune your reaction packages for the killing ground, you ensure your armed prosthetics are combat-ready, and you let the computers do the work.

Case in point: two men just died while I dictated this sentence.

* * *

The kidnappers I’m engaged with now—whoops, there goes a third one—are not, it must be said, particularly bright. The smartest kidnappers in Nigeria stopped when they realized the global fuel shortages were forcing oil companies to cut out unwanted expenses like, say, ransoms paid to kidnappers who targeted petroleum workers. The middling kidnappers gave it up when Aishat Njeze, current managing director of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, started cracking down on kidnappers with bloody hi-tech reprisals.

These dumb motherfuckers kidnapped Aishat Njeze’s daughter.

That poor kid’s eleven years old, the worst age to be kidnapped—old enough to understand what’s going on, young enough for the trauma to kick her right in the formative stages. If I don’t get her out soon, little Onyeka’s in for years of desensitization therapy.

So here I am, a one-man rescue squad sweeping through rusted sheds in the Niger Delta’s ankle-deep silt. Which is a shame, because I love Nigeria—Lagos is a friendly city, almost as nice as my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and there are even some really scenic views to be had from the Niger River. But dirt-poor brutes don’t take a kidnapped kid to places the Nigerian tourist board would approve of. I’m watching the numbers tick up on my readouts as Scylla and Charybdis auto-target and kill five kidnappers in under forty-five seconds.

(I should say “disable,” not “kill”; my sensors have not verified these men’s deaths, only confirmed these former opponents are sufficiently maimed to be combat-irrelevant. Too many body-hackers get off on tracking their exact body counts—but me? As a drone pilot, I not only had to call in air strikes but had to circle the kill zone for hours afterwards, watching dismembered bodies rot in case their terrorist friends showed up to bury the corpses. I am done with watching corpses. So my IFF routines mark anyone unable to fight back as “disabled”—even though, knowing how high I’ve dialed in the mortality factors for Scylla and Charybdis, they’re probably dead.)

We’re now a minute into the kill box. I started the assault just as dawn glimmered over the Niger’s muck-slick waters; the kidnappers are realizing someone big has come for them. My sensors track movement behind the soft wood and tin walls, assign high probabilities to which folks are going for their guns and which ones are diving for cover.

Less ethical hackers have their IFF routines set to fire through cover. But I won’t take any chances harming innocents in their houses. If these bozos emerge to snap off a shot at me, they’ll find a bullet smashing through their brain long before their slow, slow nervous system pulls the trigger.

As my ground routines scan for little Onyeka’s biosignatures, I have time to compile a partial list of items I personally would have gotten around to before kidnapping a politician’s daughter:

a drone net to warn me of incoming hostiles, as opposed to the two guys chugging banana beer outside the perimeterautomated turrets keyed to exclude white-listed biosignatures, ready to fire on any hostilenetworked subvocal implants among my commanders on a tight-beam, encrypted frequency, instead of crappy text-message codes that got cracked by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporationmines, or at the very least buried grenades, to stop me from sauntering through their compound (Would it kill them to at least try digging a good old-fashioned punji stake pit?)a bucket of fine sand. (I’m not saying it’s a great plan, but it’s at least possible some errant dust might work its way past my environmental seals to clog a vital servo and throw off my targeting systems.)But I suppose if these guys had the money for non-sand-buckety tech, they wouldn’t have gone for the Hail Mary pass of kidnapping Aishat Njeze’s daughter. Nigeria as a whole is thriving in the new world economy, but this is the starving part.

I don’t like people living in poverty. These thugs are skeletal, scabbed, overwhelmed. I feel sorry for them—

—until I remember there’s a crying girl sobbing into duct tape, wearing the most adorable bow tie and blue vest jacket, held hostage somewhere in these shoddy huts. I’d seen the footage of her kidnappers pulling up in a rusty van to yank her off the street on her way to school.

She’d had two human guards—antiquated meat-technology. Njeze’s daughter Onyeka had watched these assholes murder her protectors; that’s not something any kid should have to experience. Each passing minute scrapes deeper scars into her psyche.

Scylla kicks off another three rounds. An eighth person gets sorted into the “disabled” column. And as Scylla and Charybdis clear the path, I fine-tune their scanners, adjusting for the unexpectedly damp morning fog, homing in on poor Onyeka—

A ragged kid in a tattered Cleveland Cavaliers T-shirt emerges, hands up. My IFF routines switch to manual intervention, identifying the object in his hand as a harmless Apple cell phone, asking if I wish to disable.

Kid’s lucky I’ve configured my software to accept surrenders.

“Speak your piece.”

The kid trembles. He’s emaciated, his dark skin prickling with fear-sweat. He turns the phone towards me to show it’s on speakerphone—

But the button is green underneath his thumb, as opposed to the red “disconnect” icon.

It’s an inverted speakerphone. A dead-man’s call.

“If you do not leave,” he says in a quavering adolescent voice, “we will shoot the girl in the head. If this call disconnects”—he mimes dropping it—“we will shoot the girl in the head. Your only hope to keep her alive is to leave.”

I smile.

That’s the first smart thing they’ve done.

“That’s some mighty fine improvisation,” I tell him. “Which moves us on to the negotiation stage of events.”

When I have Scylla and Charybdis trained on someone, my Missouri drawl comes creeping out. Can’t keep the cowboy out of the boy, I guess—or maybe I swagger when I’m uncertain.

Yet from the way he flinches, I’d wager that Kidnapper Intern here has seen a few Westerns too. Though I don’t look much like a cowboy to him—Scylla and Charybdis are massive spidery prosthetics bristling with weaponry, so overdesigned for combat that they bear little resemblance to human limbs. My legs are hulking contraptions like walking bulldozers, my slim meat-torso covered in thick armored plating, my head hidden behind a bulletproof HUD.

“No negotiation,” he says. The blood-pressure readouts I’ve got aimed at his throat inform me it’s 87 percent likely he’s telling the truth. Still, I’m activating my linguistic analyst modules, chopping up the thirty-seven words he’s spoken in an attempt to narrow down his accent. “You killed too many. Go.”

Forty-two words in, and my linguistic analysts tell me his vowels have a distinctly Ibibian tang. Not that I know what the hell that means, but that’s why I loaded up my knowledge banks with a full accent database before heading to hot ground. (I could stream the data off-site for refined language analysis, but the three-second delay might prove deadly.)

“Oh, you wanna negotiate with me,” I say. “If I go home empty-handed, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation will decide nobody can get the girl out safely.”

He squints, uncertain what I mean. Under different circumstances, I’d fill in the gaps. As it is, I nod helpfully, as if I’m guiding him to the inevitable conclusion.

“They will pay us.” He glances up at the cell phone, hoping his bosses will give him answers. “Or the girl will die.”

He’s using a Dr. Seuss vocabulary. That’s good. “I’m not so sure I agree a hundred percent with your police work there, Lou.”

He glares. “My name is not Lou!”

“It’s a reference, kid. Fargo. It’s an old movie. I love old movies. You love old movies?”

He grips the phone like he wants to chuck it at my head. He’d probably prefer I shot him; that would at least make him look good in front of his buddies. Now he can’t decide whether negotiating with me is what his bosses would want, or whether he’ll get murdered for talking too much to the enemy.

“You have thirty seconds to leave,” he tells me.

“That’s generous. I’d have done ten.”

“Or she dies.”

“I got that already.”

“Thirty. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight…”

Each syllable loads more precious data into my analyst programs. I triangulate Scylla’s tasers, set the disabling targets on Charybdis, multitasking hard enough to blunt my incipient panic. “Kid, I just took out your friends without blinking. I’m the friendly option. If I walk away, my bosses won’t give you cash—that’d tell every other cut-rate kidnapper it’s still payday in Nigeria.

“No, sir.” I pull a cigar out of my leg-mounted humidor and light it—which is less dangerous than you’d think, as Scylla and Charybdis’s front-facing armaments are shoulder-mounted. “This is about money. Right now, you kidnappers have been an unwanted expense on NNPC’s balance sheet. Then they figured out that hiring my metallic ass cost less than the future payouts they’d be obligated to shell out if they continued to play nice with you kidnappers. And if I don’t work out, well …

“The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation doesn’t want to owe anyone else. But they’re gonna have to call in the Yak.”

The kid stops counting.

The Yak is the acronym for the International Access Consortium—the IAC—who are the modern world’s deep-process gods. If you think Scylla and Charybdis can pull off some terrifying stunts, envision black-budget AI networks staffed by the nastiest ex-CIA, ex-MSS, and ex-GRU agents—each of whom can break into any network you’ve ever touched, read every email you’ve ever written, compile a list of every place you’ve visited, then use that to compile a profile that knows you more intimately than you know yourself. They’ve driven strong men to suicide.

I say they’re gods because they are the closest thing to infallible I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve only seen them unleash their data-fueled mayhem three times, and the longest it took from “contract acceptance” to “delivery of the corpse, as agreed” was five hours.

They are digital gods, and I pray they never notice me.

Yet as the kid’s dark skin flushes darker, understanding just what deep feces he’s in, I realize that I have a future if I walk away—whereas this kid’s bosses will shoot him in the head twenty minutes from now if he hesitates. This kid is an unwise equation, the sum of every bad decision he’s made compounded by wretched starting circumstances. Though he clearly regrets his decision, his outs have narrowed to “hope he gets lucky sticking with the side he’s already picked.”

“Nuh-nine,” he continues. “Eight. S-seven…?”

“Isaac!” a distorted voice cries from the phone. “Stop talking! He’s checking your voice against the worldwide video feeds to identify you!”

His cheeks flush with embarrassment. I am running a default social-media trace, in fact, but what good would it do reading this asshole’s Facebook posts while these assholes put bullets in Onyeka’s chest?

Still, the veins in Isaac’s neck bulge as he realizes I was never negotiating in good faith. He opens his mouth to yell words that look like “kill the girl”—

Takedowns are a lot like being in car crashes.

I’ve spent the last minute programming how Isaac is going down, but the actual mechanics are like being fired down a highway. I’ve set my legs to accelerate at speeds that won’t quite concuss me. Still, I’m launched from zero to twenty miles per hour in under a half second. My head snaps back, putting strain on my reinforced spine. Charybdis injects headache-suppressant drugs as my tightfoam neck braces stiffen.

And when my vision unblurs, the haptic feedback from Scylla indicates I am holding a convulsing 125-pound male by his right wrist. He makes muffled choking noises, the taser wires in his throat silencing him before he could complete his sentence. No surprise: if my aiming routines couldn’t target anatomical vulnerabilities to a 2-millimeter variance, hell, I might as well use meat-arms to shoot.

I check his phone even though the “objective accomplished” light on my readout is glowing green. Sure enough, his fingers are mashed against the phone by a thick artificial muscle loop wrapped around his hand—a fibrous mesh handcuff that had been charged with electricity when Charybdis fired it from a secret compartment, but shrank like a cramped muscle fiber once removed from the charge station.

Contemplate the algorithms needed to calculate what residual charge the goopcuff should have. Ponder the heavy-duty physics calculations required to determine what trajectory the goopcuff should be fired at. Envision the skill required to know what anatomical area Charybdis should target to guarantee the primary objective that “Isaac cannot drop his phone.”

Now imagine the weeks spent cloistered in my firing range, a mad programmer-combat monk, endlessly firing a glorified rubber band against a spare arm set to “maximum flail” mode, and realize that practice pays off.

And while I’m staring with dumb triumph at Isaac, goggle-eyed for the .75 seconds it takes to visually verify this successful field trial to my sludgy brain’s satisfaction, Scylla and Charybdis are carrying out the next phase of their programmed mission, bless their CPUs. They grab the phone, verify it’s still connected, and slam in the connection jack.

Readouts blossom across the HUD as my crypto routines analyze the kid’s phone. He’s patched his phone to the latest OS—a pleasantly diligent act of security in a slipshod operation—but guess who keeps a list of zero-day vulnerabilities for occasions such as this?

Preparation, my friends. Preparation staves off ruination.

An intake of breath from the speakerphone. His bosses are about to demand that Isaac check in. When he doesn’t speak up, it’s lights-out for Onyeka.

Cold sweat trickles down my neck. Here goes the big trick—creative improvisations like this are where missions get saved or go FUBAR.

“I don’t care if he sees my Facebook posts!” I say, my linguistic routines mimicking Isaac’s Ibibian accent. “What if he’s right about them bringing in the Yak?”

I cringe—if Isaac doesn’t have a Facebook account, and they know that, this mission’s over. Plus, I know the façade isn’t perfect; he didn’t speak enough for my linguistic modules to get a firm handle on his speech patterns.

Then again, they’re not expecting me to have pulled the ol’ switcheroo on him. If he’s speaking funny, maybe that’s stress talking. And each second they spend talking to fake-Isaac is a second I’m rootkitting his phone, injecting spyware programs, following his bosses back down this open call to compromise their phone and activate their GPS.

Maybe someone in this village is watching me from a slit in their hut, taking live video they’re selling to the kidnappers, sat so far back in shadow that my sensors can’t pick them up. Then again, I did just disable eight armed guards in under three minutes. Most sane people dive for cover when they hear shots fired.

Yet anyone who sees me cradling Isaac’s shivering body could call his bosses to inform them their agent’s been compromised.

Every passing second shoves Onyeka deeper into danger.

When I committed, you committed!” his boss shouts, each word transmitted helping my spyware to close in on his location. “You do not back out now, Isaac! Get that body-hacker to leave!

A dot blooms across my HUD map; the boss has been backtraced to a location six hundred meters northwest. The fucking NNPC got their data wrong; they handed me the location the kidnappers’ mooks were sleeping in, not where Onyeka was.

Then again, if combat was a predictable exercise they’d have sent in drones. They pay me the big bucks to improvise.

“The Yak is more than our lives,” I-as-Isaac say. “They go after families. They kill everyone.”

And I drop Isaac before my legs propel me through the shanty city, my artificial musculature cornering at top speeds like a computer-enhanced quarterback, splicing in satellite maps taken an hour ago with current visual data. Merchants are poking their heads out to see if it’s safe yet.

As I take off, my routines ask me if I want to terminate Isaac. Which would be simpler. He’s a scummy kidnapper who’ll probably get involved in some other crime if I let him go—one shot from my rear-facing armaments, and he’s gone.

But the kid stood up to me. Knowing he’d die.

I respect Isaac’s bravery, knowing how messed up that is, and let him live.

My chest tightens again as I head into the streets. I remind myself that I programmed my IFF routines personally. Scylla won’t shoot a kid who darts out in front of me; Charybdis won’t cap some grandmother who’s opening a window.

I’ve prepared for this. I won’t hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Not anymore.

And I’m rounding the corner to the target zone as his boss shouts through the compromised phone: “Wait. When the fuck do you care about families?

Oops. If I’d checked his Facebook, I’d have known he was an orphan. “The IAC is a different danger,” I say, knowing I only have to stall until I can get to the green dot on the map.

After everything we’ve been through?” the boss yells. “After—wait. What’s our passphrase?

Fuck.

The only consolation is that I am now at the green dot.

Except I’m standing in an empty hut, my metal feet planted on the location where Isaac’s phone thinks Onyeka is being kept, and no one is here.


Copyright © 2020 by Ferrett Steinmetz