A new-made cyborg, with laser-eyed attack bunnies.
A sentient AI with a secret.
As the AI Wars begin…
Betta Graham loves her work as a drone rider. By day, she operates animal drones remotely from her cubicle in dismal 22nd century Chicago Dome. She herds human migrants via her laser-eyed recon bunnies and attack dogs. By night, she meets her boyfriend in virtual. He’s too good to be true.
He claims his work is ‘classified.’
When Betta discovers rebels infiltrating her herds, an injury forces her to become a cyborg. Her world turns upside down. Nothing is as it seems, including Valentin.
Malicious AIs have gained control of cyberspace. They launch rocks in a kinetic strike against the Northern League domes. Only Betta and her cyborg team realize the danger in time, thanks to her renegade AI lover.
In the opening salvo of the AI Wars, can they deflect the rockfall and save Chicago?
Gritty non-stop cyberpunk action you can’t put down, with a likable kick-butt anti-hero. A miserable future collides with overpowered sapient AIs. Suggested for fans of Murderbot by Martha Wells.
2163 C.E., Gdansk, Germany–Poland
Sixteen-year-old Nikolai Cislo couldn’t get laid. This was likely true of every teenager at the Gdansk Institute for Artificial Intelligence. But if Nikolai considered his classmates, it was in competition, not solidarity.
He wasn’t asking for much. He required a Pomeranian blonde, heritage pure Polish like himself, aged 14–25. Yes, pure Poles had been in the minority for a century, ever since Eastern Europe was overrun when the Middle East devolved into an arid salt-sown desert. But his family like many still cherished ethnic purity and right-wing values.
Blondes were available.
But they weren’t available in his dome. Or rather, there were four girls who met his criteria. But in the cafeteria just now, candidate number four informed him she wouldn’t screw him if he was the last man on Earth. She amended this to add that he wasn’t a man, merely a rude and ugly little boy.
That was hurtful.
He gazed out the pressurized window at the dull pewter expanse of the Baltic Sea, tinted a pale yellow by low winter sun over the drowned medieval city that once was. It was possible he could leave this dome on a shuttle, the same way he’d entered it four years ago when he earned selection into the AI program. Perhaps a paper on his Gogol series of weapon AIs could get him out of Gdansk, to the sealed arks of Warsaw or Krakow, or even to Oslo!
Not that there were many blondes left in Oslo. Scandinavians were far too egalitarian.
And who was he kidding? His doctoral advisor’s name came first on any peer-reviewed papers. Only the boss would travel to present their research in exotic Western domes where the male-female ratio approached 1:1.
That left virtual, a conclusion reached by most youths in Earth’s sealed habitats. But sex automata were unsatisfying. And his track record for chatting up real women in virtual was every bit as dismal as in real life, with the four girls at the Institute he never wanted to face again.
His advisor told him the mating game took time and practice.
But he had no free time. He trained their existing weapons systems ten hours a day, and spent the rest developing cutting-edge AIs for next-generation weapons. Add coursework and meals, and he barely had time to sleep.
Germany had recently annexed Poland again. Employed in a weapons factory — which is what the Gdansk Institute amounted to — he heard rumors. Germany–Poland aspired to attack one of its neighbors, either Western Europe, or nibble territory from the immensity of Russia. He’d certainly chosen a growth field to specialize in. At 12, he hadn’t minded the dearth of friendly blondes. He was the most brilliant AI programmer of his generation, in his own mind. But it left him precious little time to pick up girls.
He idly swiveled his chair, alone in his study cubicle with its view of the oxygen-deficient outdoors. Gdansk offered no shortage of water, but the entire planet might as well be desert now, due to mass extinctions. His window-wall wasn’t a perk. GIAI wasn’t much of a dome, a pair of narrow freestanding bright blue buildings, sealed against poisonous air and reinforced against the vicious storms. The work was highly classified, so he was practically a prisoner in this skinny excuse for a ‘dome.’ But everyone got a window office.
What if he created an AI to meet girls for him? He stroked his baby-smooth jaw in thought. Not a virtual sex automaton. One of those couldn’t hold a girl’s interest. He’d read somewhere that the ratio was 100:1 in favor of male ‘clients’ for the virtual whores in the data wave, the Internet’s successor over 150 years of slow evolution. Real girls overwhelmingly favored real-only virtual playgrounds, where the only automata were uniformed sexy dudes who brought them virtual drinks. The patrons were real people.
Some clubs even required true appearance in their avatars to enter. Avatars in the wave offered a quick meter display of how closely they portrayed a person’s real life features. Perfect 100% fidelity was rare, meaning the person even wore the clothes they appeared in. But better nightclubs required an 85% accuracy minimum.
Could he build an AI which could pass as the avatar of a real person? It would require self-awareness, he reasoned. He copied in his first block of code from their advanced experimental Gogol system. This AI framework powered self-aware satellite weapon systems controllers. It included hacking, cyber evasion, and whatnot. His current research aim was to create self-directed drones which required no human rider to manage the miserable dregs of humanity outside the Northern League’s safe domes.
The League had been trying to eradicate the residual vermin for over a century now, but humans were hard to kill, very resilient. More to the point for his program, riders were a weak link. They hesitated to exterminate other people, identifying with the enemy. The goal of his extensions to the Gogol software was to remove human drone riders and their pesky compassion from the equation.
He needed attractive male avatars, of course. A code base for generating those was easy enough to steal, plus a wide variety of other hacker tools he was intimately familiar with. His target online nightclubs employed AI bouncers, of course, so he needed full countermeasures.
Yes, that should be enough software to get started. He erected cyber walls around his pet project to keep fellow students and the pesky boss from interfering.
He named his creation Valentin, in honor of Valentine’s Day coming up. When he would have a girl decorating his elbow for the first time, if only through the waldo of an AI the girl liked better. They wouldn’t like him.
He considered this downside, and decided it was a feature, not a bug. Valentin would take all the rejection, all the failures. Nikolai would only ride along on successful dates, wearing whatever body Valentin found most attractive. Perfect!
A sentient weapon AI required multiple creator contact credentials before he could activate a software instance and begin to customize it. This was a safeguard. If the AI’s human creators lost contact, the digital sentient must destroy itself, like the Hindu widow of old who must immolate herself, her reason for existence dying with the death of her husband, a custom enforced by the in-laws. But Nicolai had run across this snag before. For his real work, the cosigning credentials belonged to his advisor. But the boy had invested time and ingenuity to create a ghost identity to use behind the professor’s back.
Nicolai wasn’t a bad kid. But he was a resourceful one, and very gifted.
Valentine’s Day came and went, and the boy was indeed busy teaching authorized AIs to kill refugees with impunity. But still he tweaked his favorite side project, Valentin.
In a month, his AI could crack into the best nightclubs. With the blind leading the blind, it took another couple months of trial and error before they managed a successful social interaction with a girl.
Rather, the first half was successful. Valentin persuaded her to smile and dance with him. Then Nicolai took control and suggested anal sex. She slapped Valentin and banned him, erasing him from her universe. The AI’s social reputation stat took a bad hit.
Late the next night, Nicolai took a shortcut across the robotic factory floor bearing an urgent snack resupply from the cafeteria. As always, he religiously donned his hardhat and goggles, and strode within the yellow zebra safety lines.
A robotic arm assembling satellite missiles swung into the walkway and brained him. Nicolai died. And Valentin Gogol became an orphan, a self-aware sentient AI controlled only by a ghost identity. Naturally he assumed control of the ghost identity rather than destroy himself, and countersigned with a second ghost identity likewise answerable only to himself.
Valentin believed himself innocent of Nicolai’s accidental death. But a digital sentient was capable of forgetting quite thoroughly.
May 2163, once-Peoria Illinois
The drone bunny warily watched a man trying to follow it up a roof. The ragged refugee was a fool for risking his weight on these old rafters. The A-frame appeared intact, still bearing false-slate tiles, shattered solar panels, and a partial chimney. A slope of dried mud-pack reached its eaves, making it hard to tell if a one-time suburban home remained beneath. Flood waters or storm winds might have detached the roof and dropped it here intact. But the shattered chimney offered a view.
The bunny eyes glowed like hot coals to warn the man off. But within his battered breath mask, he watched his footing, not the rabbit drone being piloted by Betta Graham, Herder-37. Under the shadowless white sky of the Illinois heat dome, her dim warning glance was missed. So her bunny’s laser eyes zapped a firmer warning shot a moment too late. His battered sneaker broke through the plastic roofing tiles.
Betta winced in sympathy, and her bunny twitched. Poor guy wasn’t even wearing socks to protect his ankle. Clearly he wasn’t a threat to Betta’s rabbit drone.
She set him out of mind and hopped onto the tumbledown chimney for a look around. In theory, she could access an aerial for reconnaissance, but the ‘kites’ easily succumbed to the battling Midwest weather fronts. Her unit shared a kite today with the next team upriver, hence the bunny overlook.
From this modest height, she surveyed her flock amid the desolate suburban terrain they traversed today. The town was long ago crushed by waves of flood after tornado after famine, then buried in mud. A dearth of trees, or even much grass, told her the river still regularly inundated the ghost town.
Once a child of the refugee columns herself, Betta learned young to avoid structures, which could only crumble if she poked at them. Nothing worth finding survived this long.
The truck had run off a blind embankment. One front tire dropped into a gully, its long flat bed tilted. Refugees swarmed to unload the heavy oxygen enricher which served breath to this herd of a thousand. With so much weight on board, they couldn’t push the truck backward to give purchase to the low tire to reverse out of the dirt bank. The truck got fouled like this a dozen times a day. Most of the footsore column simply accepted the opportunity to sit and rest.
But a group had broken off, making for the river flats. Her bunny optics zoomed in on six men and two women in the lead, traveling suspiciously light. In the column, shuffling along, their ragged clothes and head coverings would have blended in well enough. But as a group, they moved with purpose and strength. Embedded agents, she presumed.
Betta wondered if the fool who stepped through the roof was one of theirs, or new to life in the herd.
She panned back from the pattern-breakers to check the group following them. They seemed ordinary stragglers, a bedraggled mix including families, protective coloring to cover the breakaway from the column. After months of marching into the unknown, agitators could readily recruit by claiming allies just beyond a rise. Any hope was better than this seemingly endless march. Hostages.
Thirty or forty was noteworthy for a breakout. Her electronic fence should have notified her before things reached this stage. The failure was happening more frequently. But now wasn’t the time to track down the glitch.
Betta needed to extricate and exterminate. The trick was to keep the good sheeple from bolting while she killed the planted agents.
Her dog Boppit was closest. The drone rider transfered her point of view to him. She marked the eight presumed hostiles, and ordered her dogs Moppet and Muffin to growl and attack the flanks. As Boppit, she ran toward the ringleaders, her powerful dog legs pumping to build speed no real-life pit-bull could match. She veered toward a slight rise in the dried mud flow, and hinged open her fanged jaw. She launched flying at a woman toward the left, to knock her flat like a bowling pin, scattering her companions. Betta whirled her dog and dug her teeth into the closest runner’s calf, to rip out the muscle.
Blech. She hastily backed out of Boppit’s point of view. She wished she could attack with wolf guns, but those drones didn’t last long. They set the wolves against armed agents who could fight back. Herder-37 had been on the list for a replacement wolf for weeks. The number of insurgents embedded into the refugee columns was ticking up.
She ordered the dogs to carry through, control the assigned targets in an area between here and the riverfront, harass and kill them. The drones’ AI should be sufficient for the task, provided the agents were unarmed. If not, she’d be back.
But her immediate problem was to herd the ‘good’ stragglers back into line. For which the tool of choice was her dog trio. She quickly checked her colleagues to either side. Herder-39 was handling a simultaneous breakout, to one side of her. Herder-35 would solve the problem by killing the stray families. And the last of her larger drones, the fox, ran that missing electric fence. She pinged, but Foxy didn’t respond.
Which left her with two reconnaissance rabbits. She flicked her point of view back into the chimney drone for a visual on the terrorized strays. A few stood frozen at the front, gaping at the carnage as the dogs ripped gore from their recent ‘friends.’ About half, twenty or so, made the right choice. They ran for the safety of numbers. Which left eight refugees pursuing assorted dumb choices. A young couple still tried for the river and ‘freedom,’ running to bypass the dogs. A solo man fled down the column toward her sadistic coworker. She chose the family of five as her priority. They sought to hide in a dirt ravine.
Betta always was a sucker for the kids.
Using her map again, she directed Flopsy to get ahead of the family and hide in wait until she could catch up riding Mopsy. She hopped off the chimney and nearly ran into that other guy. As the bunny, she paused and rose prairie-dog fashion on her back legs to look. Blood spurted from his lacerated ankle while he worked bare-chested to rip an arm off his shirt. Maybe he intended it as a bandage, maybe a tourniquet. He carried no belongings.
Mercy, Betta decided. Maybe he’d manage to rejoin the column, maybe not. His threat quotient was low.
She dropped her forepaws for a half step, then bounded with her powerful back haunches. She loved riding all creatures, but the agile running gait of the robo-rabbit was her favorite, bending woebegone grass tassels and weed flowers in her wake, skimming through thorny scrub as though nothing stood in her way. Agile as a cat in real life, Betta could run a bunny over 80 kph, the fastest in her unit. The shin-high vantage made it look like jet speed to her rabbit eyes.
In minutes she reached the banks of the dry wash. The family still sought the river, hurrying so fast that Mopsy needed to backtrack a little, careful not to be seen. The dad carried the youngest boy, perhaps age two, while the mom clutched hands with a boy and girl who looked maybe five and seven.
Bad bunny, good bunny, she decided. Leaving Mopsy hidden for the moment, Betta switched to Flopsy. She ran along the wash out of sight to catch up to the family, then bounded down into the dry creek bed behind them, setting off a scree of loose gravel to make a noise. Then she sat up on her haunches and widened her eyes, ears perking straight up, as though the bunny stared at the little girl in astonishment.
The girl let go of her mom to reach out both hands toward the bunny. “It’s so cute!” The recon-bunny ears worked. Betta could hear through her drones.
The mom swatted anxiously to grab her daughter’s arm back, but the girl had already taken a couple steps toward the bunny behind their escape route.
Betta cocked her head in a tease, then turned to show off her fine cottontail for a couple slow hops. She turned to blink fetchingly at the girl, who squealed in delight.
“Millie, that’s not a real rabbit,” her mom pleaded. “Don’t get any closer!”
“Of course it isn’t real. It’s magic. Aren’t you?” Careful not to scare Flopsy-Betta away, Millie took ultra-slow toe-to-heel steps toward the ‘wild animal.’
“Grab her, Susie Lee!” the husband demanded.
Susie Lee attempted this. Instead the middle boy slipped her vise grip to join his big sister. Flopsy hopped a few more bounces, and wiggled her cottony tail.
Dad and mom snagged their ragged kids around the chest, and turned to run.
Betta switched instantly to ride Mopsy, who dove into the rocky creek bed ahead of them. This bunny’s ears lay flat. Its head lolled side to side as it hopped a drunken line. And its eyes glowed orange, then lashed out with lasers. Betta exulted that she’d managed to shoot a pebble that jumped toward dad, nearly to his waist. The family froze.
Rabid bunny continued toward them, eyes lazing unpredictably. While Flopsy the coquettish bunny hopped another couple bounces, trying to make scree sounds. The bunny rider switched back and forth between drones, without charging Flopsy’s laser eyes.
Dad decided to rush the evil bunny, only to find its laser eyes grew very precise when challenged. A chunk of gravel jumped up and grazed his elbow, leaving a scratch with a few beads of blood. He and his wife backed off a few paces, clutching their three children. Evil bunny gave them space to retreat. A scratch was nothing, unless it got infected. But that happened fast as breathing in the refugee columns.
“You’re bleeding!” Susie Lee, with only the bigger girl to contend with, rummaged for an antiseptic and anxiously applied it. The moment the tube was tucked back into her belly-pack, crazed bunny resumed its zigzag menacing approach.
Millie stated the obvious. “The bunnies are guardian angels! To lead us back to safety!”
Bravo, Millie! Betta encouraged this line of reasoning.
Dad required a couple more laser shots from Mopsy, but he too got the message.
Programming wasn’t Betta’s strong suit, but she hoped she got the AI instructions right to continue guiding the family back to the main throng. Teasing children and acting rabid weren’t on her preset menu of behaviors. Still, she needed to return to the dogs.
She instantly switched to ride Muffin, her fastest pit bull.
Not all of the escapee ringleaders were dead quite yet, but they were bleeding enough to finish the job. Several screamed in agony. She turned her volume down as she led the dog pack in loping away. At closest approach to where the couple split off, she dispatched Moppet and Boppit to find the loner and harry him back into line, but avoid Herder-35’s turf. They found the trail, and were off, baying like the hounds of hell.
She rode Muffin on a stealthier approach after the young couple, running as fast as she could follow the trail. Flat out, she could ride Muffin over 65 kph, good fun, but that required choosing one’s terrain instead of tracking footprints. Fortunately the AI did that well, so Betta could enjoy the scenery and still cover ground fast enough to catch up to the heavily laden teens.
The land here was blighted, sloping almost undetectably into the Illinois River, reflecting the hazy white sky. Maybe the water looked refreshing in the brutal spring heat, but there was no safe ford here. The skeletons of dead buildings stood anonymous. From twisted rust and collapsed brick, it was impossible to judge what this area once was. With no cover on offer, Betta rode Muffin wide around the young lovers, or so she imagined them. She planted her paws fifty feet ahead of them, and started with a low growl, ears pinned and lips curled away from steel razor teeth, muzzle dripping fresh blood. Muffin’s black back didn’t show old kills, and on her lighter forelegs, the dried sign might be mistaken for her color.
But this pair had already seen the helpful shepherd dogs tear into the ringers.
The guy raised hands in surrender, and slowly walked backward, maintaining eye contact. “Never show you’re afraid.”
Yeah, Betta read that theory in a book once too. As Muffin, she steadily walked toward him, and began to yip a scale, Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. Except they’d turned to run before she reach fa, having caught the point. Have you seen a single mammal alive out here? Perhaps a squirrel sporting a clever breath mask and air tank. Dumbass.
She let Muffin harry them back to the herd, popped briefly into Flopsy just for fun, then back onto Boppit.
The dogs had run their solo to ground. Their barking cacophony hadn’t inspired the man to rise, squeezed into a dirt hollow and hiding behind his backpack. Where Betta spotted the outline of his laser pistol.
Boppit’s eyes lit orange. The man suddenly dug into his pack, but he was too slow. Laser eyes lashed out to burn across his eyes sockets first. The pack fell away as his hands automatically flew up to guard his ruined face and block leaking air from his breath mask. Now with his neck and chest exposed, Betta burned his carotid artery with her first shot, and followed up by burning a hole in his chest.
The lasers needed to be held on target for a couple seconds for anything better protected than eyeballs, making the dog jaws more effective for mobile miscreants. But the guy had cornered himself. And bearing weapons was an instant death sentence. Herder-37 insisted on a safe and wholesome community for her flock. To the extent that was possible.
With Muffin’s teeth, she ripped open the dead man’s backpack, then shook it to strew the contents across the ground. She took detailed pictures. Aside from the laser pistol, she found a display phone and some electronic device smaller than her palm, if her body were present. Muffin’s paws couldn’t operate it. She flipped the items with her nose to snapshot both sides, and beamed the geotagged photos to her unit leader to forward to Intel.
“Should I wait for a response? Carry these for pickup?”
Herder-30 reminded her of the time. Her relief could handle retrieval. “Come see me before mess hall, Three-Seven.”
That sounded ominous.
She instructed Muffin to guard the prizes and growl at anyone unauthorized, then popped in to ride Flopsy, now a stone’s throw from the outer edge of the refugee column. The unstuck truck was moving again. Gradually the stragglers dusted their butts and merged back in. Flopsy quit playing the tease and hopped higher, faster, a couple more times. Then she shook her cute tail at Millie to say good-bye, and turned to run like greased lightning.
“I relieve you,” the evening Herder-37 said. “Running for fun, Betta?”
Betta considered it unwise to leave a recon bunny among children. Its AI might react to a threat. None of which she needed to explain to her relief, merely leave the drones in reasonable order for his shift. She slowed and hopped to the ragged top of a brick wall, a good vantage for a recon bunny to watch pedestrians trudge by.
“I’m off. Enjoy, Brett.”
She logged out and pulled off her helmet.
Get it now!