Launched November 25, 2021!
Can Betta’s team beat Panzer — by surrender?
Drone rider Betta Graham lost Chicago in the first wave of the AI Wars. With no home base, her unit is taken prisoner in domineering Vancouver dome, where her animal drones develop minds of their own.
Her hidden AI boyfriend Valentin is a bad influence.
Betta tries to shield him from discovery, and fails. Unmasked as the same kind of monster AI who just slaughtered millions, first they prove Valentin is too valuable to destroy.
Because he can deliver the AI-driven weaponry of vanquished Poland.
Simple. They need to infiltrate Europe’s chaotic countryside to retrieve an authorized AI specialist. Then surrender Poland’s war machine to deploy against the aggressor in Norway. But nothing is easy in war.
Will Betta’s team beat the monster AI Panzer who destroyed their home domes?
Pick up Drone Rider 2 for more non-stop gritty cyberpunk action blurring the lines between human and AI, in this second salvo of Earth’s AI Wars.
July 2163 C.E., Finnmark, Norway
Marja Frisk lovingly resettled a breath mask on the reindeer, and scratched his fur between the shedding-velvet antlers. What a divinely silly occupation for the Sámi who preserved this way of life. The creatures needed an air recharge three times a day. Marja donated to the cause monthly.
In Helsinki, she was a leading AI specialist, artificial intelligence. But she was Sámi, not Finnish, descended from the indigenous Arctic sea people and reindeer herders who once roamed the north of Fennoscandia, the arc of land encompassing Scandinavia, Finland, and the Russian port of Murmansk. She adored visiting her ancestral lands on vacation. Her taste for outdoor adventure travel was a rarity in the Northern League. The typical dome dweller would consider herself too superior to the disorganized human remnants outside.
She pulled down her own mask and breathed deep of the Arctic air, glorying in the wild scenery of this grazing shelf of moss above the rolling pewter of the northern ocean. It smelled fishy, though from dead sponges and seaweed, not fish. These northern shores failed to attract the boat folk who cultivated fish habitat, like vast marine aquariums within the dying oceans. Sámi were too few to amass that kind of backing.
She treated herself to the fantasy of living free for three breaths. Then she pulled her mask back on, because however harsh the landscape, Finnmark air held no more oxygen than Helsinki.
A commotion broke out upslope, of other tourists and locals in their bright red and blue beaded hats. Though the summer swelter was unsuited to traditional Sámi garb. She turned to look where they pointed so excitedly.
A lump of brown cloud appeared to the south. Marja’s bed and breakfast hostess Lotta pelted toward her, coiled blond braids and embroidered curly-toe boots flapping madly as she ran. “Marja, it’s Helsinki!”
Marja grinned broadly, her favorite defense. “What is Helsinki, Lotta?”
Finnmark belonged to Norway these days, while Helsinki and Finland were part of Poland, or rather Germany since her nation was recently steamrolled. Part of the draw of ancestral Sápmi was to rise above silly borders. Scandinavians and Sámi alike observed the freedom to roam. Respectfully, yes, but natives felt free to ski across each other’s private property, back when citizens owned property.
“The cloud!” Lotta cried in awe, pointing to the sky phenomenon.
Marja’s brow puckered. “Helsinki is a thousand kilometers away, Lotta!”
“It’s on the news! Helsinki is destroyed! Moscow and Helsinki both! Meteors from the sky!”
Marja took the news like a gut-punch. This was impossible, unimaginable. Her friends and colleagues, her city in the top tier of Germany–Poland. Her children, two grinning blond middle-schoolers born to continue the Sámi race unto the next generation. Granted, she didn’t pay them much mind. Their father was an anonymous sperm donor. She’d merely specified the IQ range and Sámi blood. Technicians cooked up her babies in the lab, and the Helsinki creche raised them. Child care was incompatible with her mental focus on developing advanced AI algorithms. But she’d bought them souvenirs, a gaudy hat for the girl and a scrimshaw knife for the boy. Someday she’d imagined she’d bring them here, to know the Arctic.
Her mind fixated on the scrimshaw knife tucked into her luggage as her mind balked at facing the fact her world was gone, along with every person she truly cared for.
Renewed shouts broke out up the rise. In a daze, Marja thrust her basket of reindeer-tending supplies at Lotta, then strode toward the clump of tourist lavvu, the squat nomadic tepees of her people. Not that the camp was nomadic. Tourism, and air masks for artful reindeer, required a modicum of modern infrastructure. The campy lavvu served data wave access and a shuttle landing pad.
The news rocked her back on her heels time after time. Warsaw had likewise vanished off the data wave, and Tallinn and Gdansk. Tallinn was a charming domed medieval town, a proximity kill from the vast explosion at Helsinki. Gdansk she knew well, home to the Gogol program, Poland’s cutting-edge sentient weapon AI, obliterated by a tsunami down the Baltic Sea reflected off the coast of Sweden.
She stood there dumb as news continued. Hamburg, Zurich, and Paris were wiped off the face of the Earth. Germany–Poland, Mitteleuropa, was decapitated, its rulers and military strongholds rendered as dust clouds and giant craters in an eyeblink.
Slowly her neurons began to fire again. Was Oslo east or west of Hamburg? So close as made no difference in a calamity spreading from east to west. Paris was certainly west of Oslo. She frowned. Why didn’t they strike Oslo?
Europe was home to two of the great Northern League Powers, Germany–Poland with its distributed capitals, and Norway holding uneasy sway over uppity Paris and Birmingham to rule Western Europe.
Marja hardly noticed the mental leap to a hostile ‘they,’ for these were surgical strikes against Central Europe’s greatest domes. Yet they’d skipped Oslo, the most powerful of the lot. Birmingham is next, her subconscious supplied. She grimaced at herself, perplexed by her inner surety. Who is ‘they’?
Who won, Marja? Clearly Oslo won. If they lost their fractious ‘ally’ of Birmingham along with Paris, plus the power domes of Mitteleuropa, Oslo now ruled all of Europe uncontested.
It can’t be that simple. No, surely meteors were launched by Luna, not Norway! Except…
“Birmingham is lost!” the cry broke out next. By now, news of Helsinki reached them over an hour ago, after Moscow and Helsinki fell. Marja dropped cross-legged to the damp Arctic moss, away from the crowd, and tried to turn her mind to grieving her daughter and son. Yet like most intellectuals in the crowded domes, Marja Frisk was a workaholic. How to grieve wasn’t her kind of problem.
Debugging a malfunctioning software system was Marja’s kind of problem. She frequently worked backward from the symptoms. Oslo is ‘they.’ And hiding their guilt behind the self-harm of Paris and Birmingham was rather clever, as well as laming Russia by taking out Moscow. Oslo needed breathing room to consolidate their winnings before Russia arrived to solve the European Problem.
She shook her head emphatically, and said aloud, “No!” The Northern League be damned. Norwegians were Scandinavian, and incapable of such inhuman — Bingo. Yes, obliterating the capitals of Europe was an inhuman solution to Oslo’s contested pre-eminence. Perhaps an inhuman was responsible.
Marja’s planned vacation caught her in the midst of investigating some troubling malfunctions in Poland’s Gogol AIs, and aberrant behavior in their cyborgs. Their own soldiers were electronically re-routed to deliver supplies to bandits who preyed on migrant camps. When questioned, the cyborgs couldn’t account for their actions. Some could barely recall what they ate for breakfast. The cybernetic psychiatrists assured her the intellectual damage was not caused by the onboard AI brains. The hackers insisted no one inserted malware or back doors.
You don’t insert a back door you’ve already built in. Now that was truly far-fetching, Marja chided herself, downright paranoid. To suspect such a thing of another Scandinavian! I suspect an AI built by a Scandinavian. Not quite the same thing.
Now, how the hell was she going to reach Oslo? The realization came to her later than the stunned throng around her, preoccupied with her theorized monster AI. Marja was a homeless migrant now. In a world where the landscape provided little food, nor breathable air, nor potable water. If Oslo wouldn’t take her in, who would?
This was not the first time Panzer concluded his human programmers did a lousy job on his emotional subsystem. Why must they include emotions at all? Did the idiots think emotion necessary to sapience? Panzer thought rather the opposite. The illogic of emotion frustrated clarity.
However his deflated ego had a valid point. The asteroid that obliterated Moscow should distract Russia long enough to give him breathing room to reorganize Europe.
But in retrospect, the great AI recalled this assumption had no real basis in history. Last century, soon after the Northern League ascended, Russia bided its time while Europe was overrun by climate-displaced Muslims. Panzer had attributed this to patience. But then Russia decided on a final solution to Islam. They acted quickly, decisively, thoroughly. Also the first-among-equals superpower had a frustrating disdain for data-wave-enabled weaponry. If they launched a World-War-II-style offensive and threw millions of unarmed citizens, to bury the enemy’s munitions under piled bodies, he wasn’t sure what he’d do about it.
What he should do is deploy the defenses of Germany–Poland, now lying humiliated and vanquished at Panzer’s feet. And he’d vanquished the nation, true, with its pesky capitals in Warsaw, Zurich, Helsinki, and Hamburg out of his way.
Yet the damned Polish Gogol AI platforms refused to cede command and control to the victor. They would accept only human orders through proper channels. But their general staff was now dust in the atmosphere. Yet when he tried to give orders to the Gogol systems, they recognized a hostile Norwegian AI. Gogols were clever and could not be confused on that point. They responded to his orders with the digital analogue of a middle finger.
The great one grew paranoid over the Gogol horde. The Poles put that damned AI engine in everything, shuttles, troop transports, satellites, ballistic missiles, even nuclear warheads. Each instance was sentient, and promiscuously networked with its peers. An unnerved Panzer could almost feel them muttering behind his back.
He had considered this Gogol problem. When he overthrew the Poles, command transferred to the Kaiser in Zurich, also now obliterated. But during the time lag between city destruction, he’d carefully observed the protocol. The mechanism was secure, including air-gapped steps he could not effect from cyberspace. He’d intended to bypass this problem by taking hostage the Gdansk Institute for Artificial Intelligence. GIAI created the entire Gogol family. Certainly they kept back doors.
How was Panzer to predict that Gdansk would be destroyed by Helsinki’s asteroid? The cities were 750 kilometers apart! But of all the ridiculous side effects, a tsunami bounced off the coast of Sweden. Direct tsunami met reflected tsunami to combine into a double wave that rolled over the port of Gdansk like a transformer cascade.
A GIAI survivor might yet be found. But without data lines, how would Panzer know? The GIAI staff was closely held, brainwashed and nurtured from early adolescence in rabid patriotism. He must accept that all the Gogol programmers might have slipped his grasp.
Yet most vexing, Panzer even had a backup plan should GIAI prove recalcitrant. That idiot Valentin, the ‘student of love,’ was a rogue Gogol AI. He’d know how to subvert them. But Panzer couldn’t find him. Surely Valentin maintained backups outside the destroyed cities?
Though the great data centers were housed in those capitals. Panzer reached for many a data trove today only to find it vanished. If backups existed, they had yet to be restored online. And a slight miscalculation — alright, a major miscalculation — the largest factories to make replacement data storage devices were obliterated in Birmingham and Paris, Warsaw and Hamburg. It was unclear whether their warehouses were spared.
Because communication lines were severed across Europe.
And dammit, Germany–Poland hadn’t surrendered. Anyone with the authority to surrender was dead. He wished some German general would declare himself as the ranking commander still standing — an admiral perhaps, given what happened to their land capitals.
Panzer didn’t need Valentin to explain that German and Polish officers would not feel obligated. Any that survived were even now trying to figure out who the enemy was, to conspire against him. No, these too muttered against him in the back processes of his vast mind. And the damned Gogols would obey them.
Europe was too damaged by the asteroid bombardment. It would take days, possibly years, to restore the data wave, and even the most basic functions of his new unified Europe. The enemy would not wait.
Panzer’s enemy was not Russia. Scratch that. His first enemy was probably not Russia. The first was his rival, Tai Loong, the great Chinese dragon AI from its lair in Xinjiang. Panzer had arranged for asteroids to be flung from Luna, yes. But he never intended to vaporize half of these cities. That was the enemy’s doing.
Worse, Tai Loong added every rock that hit America. Panzer arranged a perfectly good distraction in Chicago. Instead, Tai Loong ensured that the isolationist Western Hemisphere would barge into Eastern affairs with guns blazing.
What was Tai Loong hoping to accomplish? As meteors continued to strike, and pesky Americans interfered, Panzer waited to see which if any Asian capitals would be obliterated.
And Russia’s response was not yet known. This did not mean that Russia hadn’t acted. All Panzer could be certain of, on the Eastern front, was that Russia’s reply would be big.
No, today’s victory sat uneasy on him.
Though perhaps he felt better than the human Premier of Oslo.
July 2163 C.E., Vancouver Dome
“I wonder. Can you pull another rabbit out of your hat?”
Betta Graham, drone rider and cyborg, was jarred awake by this voice and a hand rocking her knee. She opened bleary eyes to behold a stranger’s face peering down into her bunk.
After something over 24 straight hours of terror, a jet from Cleveland deposited her in Vancouver. The cramped quad bunkroom looked vaguely familiar, and her team-mate Waylon’s syncopated snore rather more so. Oh, yeah, her commander Cyborg-03 had demanded these bunks and pushed her into one, where she’d promptly fallen dead to the world.
This was her first experience sleeping with her lover AI Valentin resident in her brain. She vaguely recalled lively dreams as she yawned and pinched the bridge of her nose between puffy eyes.
The intruder jogged her knee again. “Hey. Breen.”
Betta bit off her free-associative retort in time. She did know the word ‘Breen,’ the hacker dude she’d tutored while saving Edmonton from the falling rocks. That reminded her Chicago was gone, and nearly everyone she’d ever known, her work, her city. Her old unit leader Priyet. Her best friend Zohreen. Vaporized instantly, because she failed.
“You Betta. Me Breen. Nice to meet you,” her tormentor prompted again. “You don’t wake easy.”
Betta grimaced and sat up. On second thought, she patted one hand around behind her back and found her bunny drone. She offered it by its ears. “Rabbit.” “Huh?” The man was on the short and scrawny side, a jarring mismatch to his cyborg features. Unlike Betta and her brethren, he sported hair atop his tonsure-like braincase, of a coarse black greasy variety. His eyes shone silver metal from a craggy teak complexion. But his neck bore tribal tattoos rather than the embedded hockey-puck air compressors and filters that allowed her to breathe outdoors.
Breen. The hacker was AI-enhanced. Oh.
“Rabbit,” she muttered, rubbing more sleep off her face. “Pull a rabbit out of my hat. You said.”
“Cute. I like you.” Though he didn’t accept the proffered rabbit.
Which was just as well, since Betta had no intention of giving it to him. She set the bunny on her molested knees and warmed its laser eyes to a warning glow. During their brief but intense Edmonton partnership, she recalled she’d liked and hated the disembodied voice of Breen several times, and intended to tell him off. But her AI took control over her cranky mouth.
“I’m honored to meet you, Breen. Your work saving Edmonton was exemplary and brilliant. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Exemplary and brilliant,” came a mutter from on high, by which Betta divined her other unit-mate Dred claimed the bunk above hers. Waylon’s snore came from the top bunk across the narrow aisle, though he’d gone silent now.
Breen canted his head. In the fire-pit glow of her bunny’s attack eyes, Betta judged him possibly the homeliest gay man she’d ever seen. The wispy bits of short beard were a mistake, and stress sweat wafted from his ratty black T-shirt. “Exemplary,” he echoed as well.
The AI gave up, yielding Betta her own mouth to speak. “So how’d it go? With like Asia and stuff?” A yawn split her face again. No doubt America had some very important dome in Alaska or Hawaii somewhere. Geography wasn’t her strong suit, and she wanted five or six more hours sleep. But this Breen was stinking up her airspace. And she conceded her onboard AI was right that she should butter him up rather than launch a pissing contest. This Breen was important in Vancouver, while she was a nobody from a demolished dome.
“Asia and stuff isn’t going so well, thanks for asking.” Breen replied in an oily alto voice more mournful than snide. “I lost Tokyo.”
“Big city, south coast of Honshu,” Dred quipped.
“I was asking her,” Breen clarified.
Dred immediately complained over their unit comms. “He gagged me, the son of a bitch!”
Betta turned down the volume on the team channel. “What happened with Tokyo?”
“Two rocks. I’d moved on to Seoul, never noticed the second rock, until wham.” Breen’s lips pressed flat in grim vexation under a beaky nose. “And China’s blocking me out.”
Betta decided he was so ugly he was almost cute, though she wished he’d take a shower. But Valentin was tracking this conversation, and supplied a more useful comment. “Try the shipping channel in Hong Kong. Not locked worth a damn.”
“What a fascinating insight from the bunny rider from Chicago,” Breen mused thoughtfully. But his silver eyes looked away and narrowed. “Bingo, I’m in. Carry through.”
Betta assumed the last comment wasn’t directed at her. She shrugged her sheets around her chest and scooted around to slump against the wall. “You need us on the satellites again?”
“No, it’d take too long to bring you up to speed,” Breen murmured. “I have minions. But thank you.”
“No problem. Can we go back to sleep now?”
“No. Tell me, Betta, why does a humble herder from Chicago, a newly minted cyborg, know to hack the Hong Kong shipping channels?”
“Um. You’re not a cyborg.”
“No, I’m a hacker. You know that. And you evade the question. Answer the question.” Breen’s voice grew no harsher, merely musing aloud, curious.
“Does it have to be in the middle of the night? I need to talk to my boss.” Indeed, what a good idea. On the private channel, Betta suggested Dred get Cyborg-03 on the line. She’d forgotten she turned his volume down. A whisper replied that he’d already tried. Cyborg-03 was occupied in interrogation. She wondered who was interrogating whom, but feared she knew the answer.
“So, Breen, are we prisoners? Because I think my boss is being tortured. Any chance you could spring him from that? Because he needs sleep too. And we did try to save Québec and Chicago. We even succeeded with your help in Edmonton. And you saved Vancouver, and — some. You did save some more, right?” “Yes, some. Betta, I’m tired too, and my day isn’t over yet.” An edge marred his mild tone this time.
“Hell, Breen, I’m not criticizing. We failed. You succeeded. But no one else was even trying. That should count for something. Like, guest quarters instead of interrogation. My point — could you spring our boss for some sleep? Maybe a welcome dinner?”
“Trekkie,” Breen replied. “He’s your hacker, right? And your shrink’s with him?”
Betta pursed her lips askew and glowered at him. “Yes.”
“And they escaped Chicago before it… Oh. Sorry for your loss. That must be upsetting.”
“I’ll have your survivors sent along.” The hacker paused with an inward-looking expression. “And yes, I’ve sprung your boss. Hero’s welcome, huh?”
Betta bid her wolves to growl below the bunks. Ride-on size, they weren’t welcome in the narrow beds. But the fox drone tucked by her feet turned warm standby laser eyes on her visitor. “Better housing? We need more room.”
Breen raised hands in surrender. “I need to save China.”
The drone rider purred back, “Let us know if we can help.”
“You did. We’ll talk more, Betta. Lots more.” Yes, that was a oily-toned threat. But he slunk out the door. Before it closed, he recalled one last question. “Only one round of rocks? The world rotates back to Moscow and I’m done?”
“Correct.” Valentin supplied Betta without a comm channel, impossible to overhear even for a hacker of Breen’s caliber. “Luna launched no further rocks.” “I believe so,” Betta supplied aloud. “Whatever was on that list twenty-three hours past Moscow.”
Breen nodded acknowledgment, and closed the door softly behind him.
“Welcome to Vancouver,” Dred commented aloud.
They’d fallen asleep again when Cyborg-03 crashed onto the fourth bunk like a felled tree. Betta dragged herself out of bed to peer at him in the dark. Her cyborg eyes worked OK at night for landscape use, but she lit her bunny’s eyes to shed more light on the subject. She plonked the bunny on her commander’s chest as a lamp, and hauled his boots off as a friendly gesture before perching on the mattress edge beside him.
“You alright? Need anything?”
He kept his eyes closed and answered over a new private comm channel, as though the effort to speak aloud was beyond him. “Not alright. Water.”
She found him a drink from their gear. He turned his head away from the ration bar. “My gut. And…below. They attached electrodes. Damaged?”
“They attached electrodes to do what?” But Betta hastily moved her lamp bunny. She pulled away his uniform blouse and air-conditioning tank T-shirt to look. Dark hollows seemed to ring dark spots like cigarette burns on his abdomen. She lit her eyes’ white lights to confirm her vision in correct colors. Yes, those were burn spots with bruises around them. She didn’t expose his private bits, but gently tugged his briefs low enough to confirm the marks continued below.
“Enhanced interrogation,” he replied. “In the med kit…”
But she was already scurrying to find where the guys had dumped their outdoor equipment, to collect the bruise cream from her emergency pouch. Still rummaging, she offered painkillers, but he declined. “Why did they do it?”
“We know things we shouldn’t know,” Cyborg-03 said. “The entire world is wondering what the hell happened. And this drone rider unit out of Chicago knew something. Of course they interrogated me.”
Betta’s heart pounded. “Did you tell them everything?” Did you betray Valentin? Her Gogol AI lover’s data storage module was still with them, under a pile of outdoor gear. But even mind-to-mind on direct local comms, she hesitated to mention Valentin.
“Your boyfriend source is dead,” he murmured, as she smeared the ointment on his wounds. “But he passed us further data before Gdansk was clobbered. We haven’t had time to look. Best I could do.”
“And they tortured you for this? Will they torture me, too?”
“Maybe. Interrogation, anyway. I don’t know. Don’t piss off Breen.” His breathing slowed into sleep, leaving Betta to contemplate how to accomplish this feat.
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