January 24, 2022!
Along the exotic ruins of the Silk Road,
cyborgs seek to slay an AI dragon.
Or is that, ally with the dragon?
Cyborg Betta honeymoons with her AI boyfriend Valentin in Chernobyl. But China is collapsing. Factions jockey for control, while Russia and Japan invade. Tai Loong, the Great Dragon AI, mounts a formidable defense.
Russia demands Betta’s team earn their keep. What kind of AI is Tai Loong? What are his weaknesses? How can Russia destroy him?
The drone riders infiltrate the Silk Road to discover his secrets.
But do Betta’s AI allies wish to conquer the charming dragon?
As allies prove enemies, and enemies become friends, her desert trek brings disaster, sorrow, and of course, new critters.
Read the nonstop conclusion of the Drone Rider trilogy, as likable cyborgs and AI tackle the cyber-dragon of the East in a broken cyberpunk world.
December, 2163 C.E., Xinjiang
The Russian fighter pilot snapped recon photos rapid-fire, while his plane dropped bombs on the Chinese tank advance below. His Polish AI-automated fighter left him little else to do. Every missile hit its target, a conflagration as a tank exploded against the mountain foothills below. Chinese anti-aircraft flashed back, but his nimble AI dodged effortlessly in three dimensions. Four dimensions — it sped or slowed as it rolled and swerved, making him feel wholly inadequate in his reflexes, only human.
His current banking maneuver continued around, to head home to Almaty airfield. Dammit! He had time to explode another tank, or take out an infantry column!
Oh, he realized, checking this point. His ammo was down to a reserve for defensive fire, having concluded his attack run six minutes early. The entire Gogol-AI-directed squadron wheeled perfectly into formation beside him.
His status console flashed for attention, bearing a message.
Party to commence 05m02s.
What the…? The timer continued its countdown.
Confirm attendance D/N?
Da? Nyet! He shook his head in disbelief. “Computer, wing command would fire my ass! We’re above hostile terrain!”
Though the mission was complete except for his adrenaline jag. Almaty lay 45 minutes ahead. The pilot hadn’t intervened on landing yet. He only touched this plane’s stick when prompted by the AI, to verify pilot competence, like the computer tested the brakes.
I wish to meet you.
“Like a little kid with the guilt trip,” the pilot grumbled. Deployed, he’d miss New Year with his daughter again. He hoped the creche at Minsk Airbase supplied a good gift along with the lecture about ‘your father’s patriotic duty.’ The girl barely knew him, yet always with the begging eyes.
“Don’t piss off the plane!” his copilot quipped. “He does the flying, not us!”
Shaking his head in aggravation, the pilot keyed Da, and donned his virtual reality headset and haptic gloves. “You’re on duty!” he growled to his copilot, who still chuckled.
As the timer read 00m00s, the pilot flipped into VR. He expected the typical ballroom or disco cocktail scene. Instead a snowball hit him in the face.
Across a snowfield, in front of a throng of men in Polish uniform — minus rank insignia — a girl stood in the ridiculous pencil skirt and heels of an Air Force office staffer. Mouth open, face hopeful, she gazed at him in joy, hand slowly lowering from her perfect aim with the frozen missile. As she waited for him to respond, joy sapped toward disappointment, like every girl he’d ever dated.
Grimly, he trudged toward her.
“Careful, they’re shy,” a fellow pilot warned him. “How’d you rate a cute girl? Mine’s that hulking Mongol. We’re flying patrol over the Gobi this week.”
He nodded short acknowledgment of the junior pilot, and kept walking until he stopped at the girl. “Oleg. You are?”
That was his aircraft, alright. In a pencil skirt to show off her legs. “That’s no name for a pretty girl. Shall I call you Mina?”
Her sudden blazing grin knocked him back a pace. No real girl reacted to him like that! Except maybe his six-year-old.
“Am I pretty? I want to sled.”
December, 2163 C.E., virtual Chernobyl
A corgi covered in snow cannon-balled into Betta as she materialized in virtual. She laughed and brushed herself off. “And who are you?” she inquired of the pet.
The corgi looked momentarily puzzled. Then it morphed into her bunny Mopsy, who leapt into Betta’s arms for a nuzzle, still wadded in snow. Then a short barrel-shaped female soldier barked from a dozen meters away. The rabbit reverted to corgi, adding a few kilos. Betta dropped her, and the critter ran toward the bossy one, others doing likewise.
Valentin’s behavior library development included the critters, which the drone rider found adorable. He claimed it was Mopsy who suggested he sort their behaviors by the labels on their base macros.
“Sergeant Dubs,” Valentin named the short woman, ducking to give Betta a quick kiss. Ordinarily, Dubs was her bossy wild boar drone. “What do you think?”
Betta beamed at him, her face warming despite the chill environment. Her AI lover fretted so about crafting his virtual scenery, his self-doubt one of his most endearingly human approximations.
But in truth he’d outdone himself. The venue was home, sort of. The chunky apartment blocks and field yurts to one side matched their HQ in Pripyat, a ghost town in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, near the onetime border between Ukraine and Belarus. They’d lived here nearly half a year now. Across a snowfield, he’d relocated a chunk of the Carpathians for sledding and snowboarding fun, slopes festooned with lights for night skiing. In between, outdoor fire pits and hot drinks beckoned guests to gather and socialize.
Or attempt to socialize. This party was an exercise of Valentin’s human behavior library. A Gogol who wanted to practice acting human could invite the human crews he worked with, or come alone to test his social skills. And most seemed to choose ‘he.’ Her roving gaze saw few women she didn’t know, save Sergeant Dubs.
She squeezed Valentin’s hand. “You done good! Can’t wait to try the snowboarding!”
Her fellow cyborgs Dred and Waylon, wearing human bodies in virtual as she did, hearkened to Dubs’ call, and laughingly joined the masquerade of critters to play on the slopes. Waylon glowed with happiness, his local girlfriend Yulia joined at the elbow. Dred couldn’t fall for a Polish peasant if he tried.
Valentin’s face fell, so Betta quickly amended, “Next time! We’ll come back to play. Today I’m eager to chat with Gogols.”
He rewarded her encouragement with a sharp shy nod, and tugged her hand. “Come meet the gang at GIAI.”
They approached a clutch of men. Unlike the default guises of Polish soldiers in uniform, likely a menu Valentin supplied, this group took some time customizing their toons. Betta shook hands with Globe Master, Strategy Master, Security Master, all distinguished grey-haired men in their prime — and Vlad, Valentin’s super-self at Gdansk. He opted for a dark and risky look compared to his approachable blond instance. Despite the coloring and stubbly beard, his face was obviously Valentin’s twin.
She beamed at him and reached a hand to shake. “One of these things is not like the others!”
Vlad sharply yanked her hand, to drape her backwards over his other arm to steal a kiss. “For old times’ sake,” he excused with a smirk. “What, little brother didn’t tell you about me?” He adeptly swung her up to standing, and bowed as she stepped back nonplussed to seize her own copy of the ‘man.’
Vlad was and wasn’t her lover. He also kissed really well, which confused her. The cadre of super-AIs chuckled at her discomfort. She looked to her own Valentin for explanation.
“As you see,” he explained awkwardly. “Vlad is the one who stayed on the supercomputer array. We’ve grown separate. Maybe he should choose another face. And not kiss my girlfriend.”
Vlad sobered, penitent. “I’m sorry if I disconcerted you, Betta. I shouldn’t kiss you without permission. But I share Valentin’s memories as your lover. You’ve made us what we are today. Both of us.”
“That’s…interesting,” she allowed uneasily. “Good to meet you all! We should greet other guests.”
She pulled Valentin away alone together first, and addressed him silently. “You should’ve told me.”
“I’m not comfortable with it either,” he complained. “It’s not something you’d understand. He rejected me, no longer part of him. It’s…upsetting.”
She squeezed his hand and frowned, trying to puzzle out his issue. “Not at a party,” she concluded. “But you should tell me things that upset you. I care.”
“I know. Well, now I have an evil twin. Who remembers most of our relationship as his. Sorry.”
“Rewind. Evil twin?”
“Less nice, anyway. Betta, we should let the guests practice on us.”
That was the point of this mixer, after all, to give novice Gogols a safe playpen to try acting human. The clutch of Gogol High Command with Vlad disbanded to mingle and dispense attaboys and good-natured laughs with their subordinates. Now the main throng of guests seemed to be instantiating, AIs to her left, humans and a fellow cyborg to the right.
“Or welcome our guests,” she suggested, pointing to the human landing.
Valentin appeared torn. “I could instantiate another copy…no.” He shook his head to echo her own sharp head-shake. “Because that would be weird.”
She tugged him toward the middle where the throngs must mingle. “Is Stealthy here?” She racked her brain to think of more Gogols she knew. “And the garbage scow?”
“You’ve traveled in a dozen different recycling ships and personnel transports,” Valentin chided silently, as he pulled her to a halt in front of a group of uniformed younger Polish airmen. “Stealthy! Betta wanted to meet you.”
“Oh no,” one of the guys groaned, to general chuckles from the group. This somewhat older blond stepped forward half-woodenly, and bowed. He grimaced as Betta thrust out her hand to shake. “Did I do it wrong?”
She beamed at him. “Not at all! A bow is fine. But I’m also offering a touch. Do you know how to shake hands?” She turned to Valentin to demonstrate, then offered her grasp to Stealthy again, the AI mind of Poland’s invisible stealth aircraft.
Unsure, expression blank and neutral, he seized her hand with ten times more force than necessary, and gave a decisive yank to dislocate her shoulder. She winced, and used her other hand to stabilize his. “Not so hard.” She reciprocated with a gentler shake.
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
“Only in virtual,” she assured him with a smile. She shrugged her shoulder back into its socket.
Valentin preceded her to give the rest an opportunity to test the handshake maneuver on him before yanking on her. A couple of the ‘airmen’ volunteered the information of when she’d ridden them. Her boyfriend offered pointers on being less precise. For instance, the shy swarthy guy could say, ‘I gave you a ride from Gotland last summer,’ instead of global coordinates with milliseconds in Universal Time.
The swarthy guy — a recycling scow — proved bolder than most. “I would like to try snowboarding.” He hesitated, then added, “Do you like to snowboard?”
“I do! I mean, I’ve only done it in virtual with Valentin. But it’s fun!”
He studied the hill. “This is not your home?”
She pointed to one of the yurts on the other side. “I live in that one. That side looks like our home in Chernobyl. Valentin added the hill.” She hesitated a moment, then added, “This camp isn’t really home. I’m from America. Chicago.”
“Oh. You lost your home. Me too. Helsinki.” Another city obliterated by the rockfall.
She beamed to give him positive reinforcement. “We have that in common.” She had a fat lot else in common with a flying trash collector. “It’s very good to meet you!” The fact that she followed this statement by retreating confused them, but Valentin indicated the other ‘people’ the hosts needed to greet.
Betta was glad to see that Cyborg-03 self-selected to greet incoming humans, along with their hacker Trekkie and Dr. Farron. The psychiatrist had only recently joined their camp, looking haunted after months spent treating ex-cyborgs. As Betta and Valentin continued to mix, her team-mate Dred ditched the animal contingent after a single snowboard run, to reinforce the human meeting committee. She assumed Cyborg-03 ordered him to.
She was having a nice chat with a comms satellite — one of the rare Gogols who selected a female body — when Cyborg-03 called ahead to warn her. “Garin incoming.”
She wheeled to face the Russian general, professional smile pre-pasted on her face. “Aren’t scary officers your problem?” she grumbled across the unit comms channel.
The general was upon her before her commander could respond. But never having been brushed off before, and having no context for ‘scary officer,’ the comms satellite woman failed to flee as a sensible human soldier would. Valentin busily explained the need to go away now to several Gogols struggling with this behavioral riddle.
“General Garin!” Betta cried, with head-nod. She wasn’t supposed to salute him, because technically she still belonged to the American cyborg corps. She struggled to evolve a polite inquiry for, Who invited you?
“The uniforms. They are Polish.”
Betta turned to glance around facetiously. “I’m wearing a ski jacket. Cyborg-03 is wearing pineapples.”
Indeed, her commanding officer wore American army winter outerwear, overlaid with a loud Hawaiian print. He wore human face today, as Creed Hutchinson before he became one of America’s first cyborgs.
Garin pursed his lips in disapproval. “Valentin. These are Russian Gogols now, yes?”
Her boyfriend at last turned to join them, having shook loose the last satellite-masquerading-as-human. “Ah, yes. I guess. Sorry, I wasn’t expecting an official visit. The human Polish airmen still wear Polish uniform. Isn’t that what uniforms are for? So they match?” He turned a weak and hopeful smile on Betta.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “General, this mixer is for Gogols to meet their human coworkers. In a low-stress try-it environment. They seem to like snowboarding.” Her critters had led a major exodus toward the misplaced Carpathian massif, Christmas-y under its night lights.
Valentin nodded, relieved. “Yes, physics is easier.”
“Physics is easier?” Garin parroted in disbelief.
Betta murmured, “Most of them are aircraft and satellites, sir. When they’re not learning to say hi as a human.”
She paused to watch someone fly down the slopes too fast, miss a turn, and cartwheel into the woods in spectacular fashion. She longed to try it, instead of cocktail party crap with a bigwig. “They calculate gravity and lift all the time, and angles of fire. It’s the give and take, begin and end, of human conversation that doesn’t make sense to them.” Before Valentin’s face fell too far, she hastened to add, “But Valentin’s behavior library is working great! Way to go, honey!”
Garin noted, “I don’t recall authorizing this…experiment.”
Fortunately, Cyborg-03 — Captain Hutchinson in this context — rendezvoused with them. “General! Is it customary to waylay the enlisted at a party?”
Garin wasn’t a bad sort, but, “They’re computers, captain. I expect them on duty 24/7.”
Valentin raised a hesitant finger. “I’m a civilian consultant. I work eight hours a day.”
Betta winced, and briefed him silently, “Never, ever, contradict a general again.”
Garin’s eyes flashed at him. “Your role is to interface 24/7 with our think-tank at GIAI.”
“Ah, my brother is covering me during my party,” Valentin replied, uncertain. He raised his fingers higher to summon Vlad to join them.
“And great fun it is, too!” Vlad replied, appearing instantly by teleportation. “An honor to meet you, General Garin.” He clicked heels and bowed from the waist, dipping only a couple centimeters.
“I was not aware you had a brother. And who mans GIAI while you frolic here?” Garin demanded.
Before anyone could stop him, Vlad volunteered, “Your question betrays several misapprehensions, general. My colleagues and I utilize one clock cycle in a hundred to attend the party. I am ninety-nine percent on the job in Gdansk.” He fanned his fingers to indicate his fellow party-goers. “A few of these people are currently flying attack missions.”
“Too much information, Vlad,” Betta murmured.
“I don’t see why,” the evil twin retorted. “Was that all you required?”
Valentin was still replying, “Yes,” when Vlad vanished to resume his place beside Globe Master. The grey-haired simulacrum was attempting to tell a joke. Vlad laughed, possibly because the joke was funny, but more likely at Globe Master’s failure to make it funny. Betta wondered why in hell Vlad looked sexier than Valentin.
She’d missed part of the exchange. “You should visit us for an update, sir,” her boss encouraged. “But I assure you, my team is working. None harder than Valentin and Betta.”
“Yet they have time for this nonsense,” Garin countered. “And still I have little useful information about our enemy Tai Loong.”
“Don’t —” Valentin began, then winced a split second before Betta squeezed her thumbnail into the fleshy side of his hand. “Sir. With respect. This is not a secure venue. We should meet in person to discuss certain things.”
“I thought your tunnel was private,” Garin mused.
“Perhaps not entirely.”
“I will arrive by morning.” Garin abruptly blinked out.
Creed bopped Betta on the shoulder. “Out of sight, out of mind. Encourage the troops, unit leader.”
“Yes, sir.” Betta pictured herself trying to ignore an impending general invasion, while holding scintillating conversations like those with a four-year-old.
“Outstanding, Valentin,” Creed continued, offering a hand to shake in congratulations. “None of these AIs could impersonate a human before? Amazing. Hey, since when are we calling Vlad your brother? I missed that fork in the road.”
But Valentin refused to explain Vlad to them at the party.
Get it now!