Jack stepped past the six-inch reinforced alloy frame of the armored personnel carrier, glass and gravel crunching beneath his tactical boots. He squinted through mean wind that tasted of burning batteries, to take in the broken majesty of AT&T park. Half of the Giants’ stadium had collapsed, digested by the stomach acid of Pacific sea salt and the floor-by-floor demolition of state budgets. The more obscure digestion of the United States by its infestation of tapeworms in the form of the financial elite, who devoured all legitimate business, all productivity, leaving nothing but stinking piles of economic feces and fraudulent bank paper where metropoli once boomed. The Bay itself had gone the color of bile, shoals of trash and untreated sewage festered and smothered whatever remained of the coastal ecosystem.
It’d been ages since he’d actually seen un-mediated, unpolished urban decay in meatspace, let alone actually had to wallow in it, and it made Jack’s skin crawl with a kind of ambient tension and Rousseau-esque guilt. It made his head hurt more to think about what it meant that he felt such revulsion toward reality. Visions of the Agent Smith-Morpheus showdown asserted themselves like popup ads into his mind’s eye.
“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it.” The smell, that’s what it was. The smell of burning ash and rotting garbage and dead mammals. All of this un-targeted, un-personalized stimuli, all this terrible ‘serendipity’, this unprogrammed experience. It was viscerally repulsive to Jack. He papered over the sight with the clinical rectilinearity of his email and felt instantly better.
The Emergency medical drones made it in time to stop the bleeding but the kid had slipped into a coma, and all the king’s nanites couldn’t put his prefrontal cortex back together again. Multiple cerebral contusions, face smashed unrecognizable- Jack hadn’t seen that kind of gutty gore since the Compton prison guard robots went AWOL from a bad firmware update, pounded the inmate’s skulls into corned beef with fire extinguishers. That incident had been a bitch to cover up. It took the cleaners six hours to scrub the goopy chunks of brain and hemoglobin from the cell walls and bars. The cover story about a facility-wide prisoner revolt had been a stretch, but necessary to ward off all the Human Rights and Anti-Robot organization limpdicks salivating at the chance to score political points against the big-box automated prison industry. Jack had pulled multiple Red Bull-powered all-nighters taking down whistleblower blogs and humanitarian sites using DDoS hacking attacks, shouting down activists in forums and chatrooms with an army of AI-run counter-poster accounts. Jack nipped all attempts to expose the incident in the bud. The spin team CGed black faces onto all the released security footage; the undying fear of the angry black man could always be counted on to sway public opinion in a pinch.
But this wasn’t an airbrush job for the corporate Elite; for the first time in months, Jack was actually being asked to solve an honest-to-Gnossis crime.
“I’m feeling like a real police officer, I think I need to up my dosage,” Jack bantered into his earpiece.
“Book’em, Dano.” Stasia laughed back, exiting the vehicle beside Jack, ballistic leather-analog creaking as she slapped him on the shoulder.
“The boy, one Justin Diamond. Stable condition. Son of Alistair and Margaret Diamond. Divorced. Father is a senior executive at Vitanet Medical. Former governer of New Hampshire and New Jersey. On the board of the American Medical Association. Duck hunting buddy of President Vanderlyle’s old man.”
“Vitanet? Jesus. That explains, well, everything. Of course the trillionaires can afford to buy their own personal investigation into their son’s near-murder.”
Jack pulled up the boy’s files into an unused section of retina real estate, thankful for the overlay’s breakup of the real-world overload. The brick and mortar was starting to grate on his eyeballs.
“Last connectivity, today, 9:34 AM. Via a dVice Ubiq.” Jack fiddled through the kid’s pockets, coming up with only lint and date-rape pills.
“No dVice on him. Looks like someone out there is running around with stolen hardware. Let’s run it by the registries.”
Jack examined the area surrounding the chalked outline, stepping over the metal column of a fallen street lamp, fluted green metal blistering with rust. There was another dead body, thirty feet away. A spider crawled over to the mess, scanned the face and took a DNA sample. A tiny hooked implement like a dentist’s scraper ejected from the forensic bot’s mandibular area. It used the scraper to extract a dollop from the pool of blood beneath the corpse’ head. The blood had congealed solid in a pothole like strawberry Jell-O.
The results for the second victim were instantaneous, and the dossier tabbed itself like a playing card beside the primary’s file.
“Amit Garcia. Ex-accountant. Former Ameribank City citizen till a few months ago when his citizenship was revoked due to consecutive delinquent payments.”
“Double homicide? Or a separate incident?” Stasia hypothesized.
“Maybe. Hard to say. It’s dangerous, chaotic out here in the Bay Area. Life expectancy rates aren’t so great.”
“Chaotic? Aren’t we going to at least look into it?”
“He had his citizenship taken away for failing to make payments. That means this guy’s a Deadweight. An Unemployed. He doesn’t count as a person as far as we’re concerned.” Jack pointed to Amit’s former white collar office shirt turned grey from living in the street as if it was QED.
“As far as we’re concerned? So we’re going to look the other way?”
“As far as our bosses are concerned. We’re not being paid to investigate deaths of unimportant individuals.”
Stasia performed a Premium Internet search with Amit’s facial biometrics.
“Look, there’s a video of Amit and some other jobless San Franciscan tearing at each other’s throats. A human dogfight. It’s got fifty thousand hits on the ‘Tube and is circulating semi-viral on Friendbook. It looks like Justin here wasn’t exactly innocent.” Stasia held the jittery clip up in Jack’s face. Jack feigned incredulity.
“We don’t know that. It could’ve been anyone filming the brawl.” Jack said.
“’San Fran Food Fite to Teh Deth’, uploaded 9:34 AM today by Darkshado, registered name: Justin Diamond.” Stasia held up the streaming video of the soon-to-be-dead Amit having his head crushed against the point of a fire hydrant by another unemployed Deadweight bum. A cracking teen voice laughed and wagged a bag of fast food at the starving Deadweights, egging them into killing one another in sick gladiatorial fashion.
“It’s just high schoolers being stupid high schoolers, that’s what they do. Things got carried away.” Jack brushed the video aside.
“Jesus, somebody is dead, Jack! And this rich little silver spoon brat was directly responsible. We have to do something.”
Jack sighed, pulled an Altoid tin from the inner pocket of his double-breasted trenchcoat, one of the few pieces of dumbware he kept on him for sentimental value.
“I said I feel like a police officer, Stas. But that’s not what we are. Police don’t exist anymore. We’re Troubleshooters. Sooner or later you’re going to learn what that means.” He offered her one of the flat white cylinders. She turned away.
Jack waved away the autotriage, which beeped subserviently. Attached by braided wires, a blood pressure monitor self-strapped itself to the arm of the brutalized teen’s unconscious body as the self-driving stretcher wheeled up into the loading bay of the awaiting Valkyrie drone. Jack sheltered his eyes as the drone’s four swimming-pool-sized rotors spun up, blowing a typhoon of dirt and trash up from the San Fran sidewalk. En route back to Ameribank City, polished crystalline skyline shuddering through the grimy atmosphere like a hallucination. To Justin Diamond’s mega-rich parents, soon to be devastated mega-rich parents, then vindictive mega-rich parents. A very dangerous combination.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m tired and this unpurified air is bad for my asthma. Let’s just get through this, yeah?” Jack touched Stasia’s back. The smell of her apple cider washed hair was a refreshing oasis in the blunt reek of the necropolis. Her frazzled business-punk do made her seem younger than she already was.
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll let you buy me a drink, explain to me the dark riveting history of how you became such an asshole,” She took the piss out, batting Jack in the head as she ran through juxtaposed charts of either victim’s vitals, intersections of their social graphs, teasing out potential connections. She was fetchingly smart, impossibly passionate, a fireball, a shooting star, and she reminded Jack so much of himself, of his wife, twenty years ago, before he’d burned all his naïve idealism out in the suffocating atmosphere of the hardball, neo-feudal world. Which might’ve been why he’d given into the nepotism and pulled strings to make sure Stasia survived whenever the monthly Layoff Games came around and management looked for more “fat” to be trimmed from the already bleeding bone, to be fed to robots and automation. Nothing unforgivable had happened yet between them, but Jack wondered if there would be anything to forgive, given that his marriage had deteriorated precariously close to emotional bankruptcy. The thought would be a useful talisman against guilt if anything did happen, Jack mentally noted.
Concentric yellow semicircles surrounding an antiquated phone symbol radiated from the corner of Jack’s eye. Not a text, not a voicechat, an honest-to-Gnossis telephonic request. It was Jack’s wife, he knew, before even glancing at the caller ID.
“Hold on, Joy’s on the line, need to take this,” Jack said. Stasia didn’t frown, but Jack could tell she was trying not to. With her light freckles and Bjorkish nose it made her look sad but also achingly cute, and Jack looked away. He walked back to the APC, tapped the blinking face of his wife, initiating the voice convo, steeled up his nerves.
“What the hell is your problem?”
“Jesus, Jack, again? Really? You forgot again? I’ve already put the kids to bed. We had to run to Bake Boss to pick up the birthday cake. I told you I needed eggs for the recipe, and I know you got the message. I know because I’m looking at the confirmation email that I added the wall note into your Life Planner, which is the only thing you ever check.” Jack had indeed accidentally-on-purpose dragged the message to the trashcan, but he’d already blocked the incident out of his memory so well that he almost convinced himself he hadn’t.
“Well, honey, maybe if you didn’t let the cat get into the chicken coop, you’d have- Look, I know you’re really on this urban farming kick, but not everyone is meant to be an Amish hippy and raise their own food.”
“No. You can’t make this about me. If you’re going to miss your daughter’s birthday party, again, at least have the goddamn decency to own up to it.”
“That’s not fair. You know I’m out here working my ass off just so she can *have* cakes and parties and running water. They laid off another two Troubleshooters today, replaced’em with the new Mach 9s. Citizenship fees are up 10% from last month and we’re an inch from slipping underwater on the mortgage. You know that? Of course not. Because I do all the worrying in this family. Me. The cross is all on my fucking shoulders.”
“That’s because you never tell me anything, asshole. I have to crawl my way up the ladder through your friends coworkers and boss just to get a dead-end number that you never answer. And then I reach you, and it’s just some chatbot-encapsulated version of you that I’m supposed to ‘relate with’? What, you need machines to live your life for you too, now? God, sometimes I feel like I’m married to a drone.”
“Look, I can’t deal with this right now, I’m working. I’ll be home later. Sometime.”
“Fine. Bye.” Jack hung up, recomposed himself. Thought of solving Rubik’s cubes and Stasia’s hair.
“Everything ok?” Stasia asked. Jack just waggled his head ambiguously, like a Mumbai Taxi Driver.
“Let’s just get this done.”
As Jack wandered over to some of the nearby crumbling apartments, he saw that women in hennaed head wraps and hand-dyed, quilted hemp fleece sarongs were out, hanging clothes up to dry. They joked, laughing over some small talk as if to spite the withering collapse surrounding them. The clothes lines of reclaimed, unbraided telephone wire were strung across the branches of young dogwood trees, cracking their way through the sidewalk strips. Without illegal-immigrant landscapers paid to keep hedges and shrubbery suppressed in fashionable rectilinear shapes, nature had begun to redeem the prodigal urbanity.
A father in his early twenties and his waist-high daughter climbed a ladder made of welded park railings canted against a row of Matson containers, gathering rust and moss in the street like the lost luggage of a civilization’s cancelled flight. The containers had most likely been helicoptered across King Street as barricades during battles between anti-austerity insurgents and the corporate militaries, left to sit for years. Atop the industrial metal prisms were planted rooftop gardens, which the father and daughter tended. The girl scuttled about, gathering Thai basil, tomatoes, bok choi, sweet lettuce while the father adjusted settings on a notebook computer, rainproofed with a modified Gap raincoat. The decade-obsolete paleoware bloomed with recycled hardware components. Cables, temperature, humidity, and pH sensors, automatic watering apparati, monitoring cameras, all wired like an ecological nervous system, the brain of some sort of self-regulating aquaponic setup. The man illustrated for the girl how to select ripe Polynesian taro, cutting the stem an inch above the soft earth, pulling the corm, replanting the cutting, renewing the cycle. Some fleeting memory of a ‘high tech-high-touch’ lecture from an eternally Birkenstocked professor surfaced in Jack’s mind then descended as quickly. The man was patient, so patient, as the girl accidentally cut too close to the heart-shaped leaves, spoiling several harvestings. He demonstrated again and again till she got it right, and Jack thought of himself lobbing ten-second canned explanation of trigonometric functions to his daughter’s eager requests for math homework help, and he felt a hot burning in his face like contempt but he knew not of what. On arrival, Jack had been too caught up in the urban decay of the necropolis to notice, but upon closer inspection, one could see that many of the balconies of nearby uncollapsed apartments were adorned with similar vertical gardens, solar cells popping up like mushrooms from a dead log. Green shoots of self-sustainable life sprouting from the ash of the forest FIRE. The economy of Finance Insurance and Real Estate.
The women froze like deer when they saw Jack and his fellow CyberSec Troubleshooters, the dreadlocked man in the container-top garden grabbing his daughter’s arm, pulling her in close. Jack approached them, cautiously, but not so much so as to suggest a defensive stance.
“Hi. Nice weather we’re having,” Jack said, regretting the joke in poor taste, choking on the Beijing-flavored swamp passing as atmosphere.
“Take your Tin Men and leave, Wraith. We have done nothing wrong,” said the gardener.
“We mean you no harm, just want to ask you a few questions. I like what you’ve done with the place.”
“How can we trust your serpent tongue? You are the harbinger of pain and death,” the gardener said, pointing a gnarled wand of olive branch at Jack, as if the immutable magic of peace and love might vanquish or at least ward off “The Corporatist State” or whatever hegemonic evil these neo-hippies saw when they perceived Troubleshooters. The man climbed down off the Matson container, lifting his daughter before she reached the rung fourth from the pavement, though she protested.
“Look, I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me to be here,” Jack said, changing strategy to appeal to mutually assured beneficence. “I’m Jack.” Jack stretched out his hand. A gull shrieked, plummeted into the bay, dead of some new, unnamed and unforeseen ecological calamity.
“East,” said the dreadlocked leader of the ‘cargo cult’.
“Have you seen this boy around? This morning perhaps?” Jack said, offering a picture. Jack tried to gauge the man’s reaction as he examined the digital portrait. Jack’s Oracles read the man’s facial expression, ultrasonics detected his heart rate, crunched the biometrics in a kind of distance-polygraph.
“No, I haven’t. He looks like one of the Bent Ones, not from our community.” The man named East said. The Oracles completed their analysis. Probability of truth: 62%. Unreassuring. Jack didn’t know whether to trust his intuition or his technology, either was liable to fail. Jack scratched his chin reflexively and tried to ignore the smell of undisguised human body odor and mulch. The stink of reality. And what was this word, “Community?”. A rusted memory sunk deep into the floorboards of Jack’s frontal lobe struggled into his mind’s eye, a whirling miasma of sandalwood incense and shared living rooms and Afro-Celtic drumming and unflinching spiritual and emotional honesty. Even more than the visceral stench of nature, it was this abominable adherence to truth that most repulsed Jack. The thought of facing the ugly minefield that was Jack’s relationship with his wife was too much to bear, and it was that thought that broke the mirror of Jack’s reflection. This dirty savage named after a compass direction. Jack couldn’t wait for this mindless Fortune 500 vendetta chase to be over, get home, luxuriate recumbent in the serendipity-free saccharine media bath of his CyberSec office. Watch his perfectly scripted reality TV shows, listen to his computer-generated Bob Dylan songs, amongst the prefabbed pristine marble swept only by the sweet zephyrs of climate control and skirtsuit perfume.
“Is that your daughter, there?” Jack said, eyeing the young girl who was tethered to one of the two women, trying to pull away to get to her daddy. They hissed something to her and the girl frowned, but relented.
East’s sun-dried forehead flattened ambiguously, smile lines at the corners of his mouth erased by a closed stoic stare.
“Yes, that is my daughter.”
“See, this picture here, that was somebody’s child too. And that boy’s parents, well, they’re not happy at all about what happened to their son, right here on your street, earlier this morning. These people, they have great power.”
“They hold your leash, Wraith? And the Tin Men?”
“I would put it in other terms, but yes, essentially, I am on the payroll. What you need to know is that you need to tell me everything that you know, if you care at all about your daughter.” Jack said, popping another Altoid into his mouth. East seemed to weigh the thought carefully, as if considering which betrayal was the lesser of two evils.
“There was a… quarrel this morning, yes, although I do not know who was involved. These happen often, here, you understand. I was out harvesting copper wire and plastic bottles to melt down, at the time.”
“Is there anyone else who might’ve gotten a good look at them?” Jack picked up the slightest twitch in East’s right eye. He could see the skin over the man’s jaw ripple slightly. The Oracles captioned: ‘severe distress’.
“My daughter. She was out straining the catchment this morning.”
Jack crouched down to her eye level.
“What did you see honey? Who attacked the kid?” Her hair was matted the way border collie fur clumps into thick layered scales when they’re allowed to roam freely, roll about in the dirt. Her eyes were hot green embers, fierce with a precocious intelligence. She glanced at Jack’s armored carrier, at the light-absorbing, pristine black leather of his CyberSec uniform. Clucked her tongue.
“He looked like you.” The girl said, pointing to Jack’s goggles. Jack smiled.
“Of course he did. Of course he did.” The little crunchy-granola Deadweight imp was toying with him. This little green-thumbed urchin.
Then the Oracle’s polygraph results chimed in: 93% probability of truth. Now that was interesting.
“It’s her birthday tomorrow. She’s going to have her first birthday cake. Almost all the sugar cane was eaten in the machine plagues and it’s taken us months to collect the ingredients.” East said. Jack almost said it was his own daughter’s birthday today, then it hit him how he’d completely neglected to even remember it let alone expend energy collecting cake ingredients. He filed with an intoxicating cocktail of disgust, guilt, and infantile hatred that felt like a puffer fish in his stomach.
“She’s very excited, aren’t you, Sunrise?” East said. The girl nodded her head, popping a cherry tomagranite into her mouth. A genespliced variant, highly resistant to hydra rust. Also a copyrighted strain, owned by Demetric, and it was vanishingly unlikely these jobless Deadweights were paying the monthly thousand dollar rent to lawfully grow the tomato-pomegranate hybrid. Jack could’ve taken them all in for agricultural piracy, if he were in a bad mood. Rich, pink soup spurted from Sunrise’ lips as the hybrid fruit burst its sweet tartness. Her father snatched the remaining tomagranites from her thatched satchel before she could toss another of the plum-sized juice bombs in her mouth.
“Sunrise, now you know it’s not polite to eat in front of guests.” East said. She scowled her complaint but didn’t attempt to steal them back. Jack smiled with half his face.
These people reminded Jack of his wife and her bizarrely renewed nonconformity. He could see her, here, amongst these apocalypse gardeners, dipping her fragile, post-industrial hands into the rough, tarry soil of a boulevard parkway, mouthing something about reclaiming the soil for Gaia. She would reset, retrace the song line of a Steely Dan anthem back to the dreamtime of liberal undergraduate California, carved out of the austerity rubble. Her lips accepting the Earthy gift of kava drink, languishing in the incensed ambiance of dijeridoo and sitar strung with frayed bridge cables. Here, she would forget her nursing career truncated by quasi-sentient blood pressure machines. She would forget her underwater and soon-to-be-repossessed home, the private school tuition she could no longer afford. She would forget her distant husband whom she’d forgotten how to love. She would forget about being stuck, and worrying about being stuck.
Her neon batik silk whirling dreamlike under bioluminescent lighting would strike sparks off the eye of a djembe virtuoso. He would court her with black Hindu magic, say he’d seen her through a third eye. She would want to and then would believe him, riding the velvet crest of a lungfull of cannabis. They would make love in the back seat of a permanently stalled VW Bus, make love like Jack hadn’t since before he’d taken the CyberSec job, and she would feel nothing but the hot flare of youth and bliss uninterrupted by guilt, uncomplicated. Guilt could wait, could be postponed, like a refinanced mortgage. The image expanded to fill Jack’s mind like a computer virus, compromising his every thought, and the immune reaction was a tremendous and impotent hatred.
Jack knew these things, because he could see his wife’s song lines, traced in time and space like snail trails, on the GPS tracking window he’d obtained from her wireless provider’s database. Jack, through his privileged access as a corporate security officer, had been monitoring his wife’s every credit card purchase, every email, had watched her through a thousand intelligent surveillance cameras stationed throughout the city. He knew that Joy had been lying to him for months. Every weekday yoga class, every visit to her sister in Red Wood, every morning when he would kiss her goodbye and they would both do their best to soften their lips like sponges, as if to soak up the mess with pleasantry into the trajectory of the past. Jack knew. And he never said anything, would never say anything. Because Jack was a grown up, unlike all of these frolicking, crunchy, nymph-like children, and that is what grown ups do. They keep quiet about systemic problems and double down. Bailout. They refinance.
“Well, better run the place through the wash,” Jack mumbled, cracking the remaining sliver of Altoid, thin as communion host, against the roof of his mouth. It was a comforting and familiar sensation.
Jack dialed in directives to the intra-cloud network, twitches of his finger tips, read as input by his haptic gloves. A team of RPLCNTS fanned out like an oil slick from the rear loading bay of the cabon-black, behemothian CyberSec vehicle. The roboSWAT team grouped organically into squads following a flocking algorithm that Jack had personally helped develop during a contracting project for the US Department of Defense. Mostly the software was used to automate the slaughter of Kenyans and Kazakstanis who, it was revealed, were sitting on caches of lithium and copper the size of the Himalayan mountain range. Lithium and copper’s vital role in electronics having replaced long-peaked oil as the fulcrum for the next resource war, of course. The ability of the human race to find new reasons to kill one another in the face of insurmountable abundance was truly commendable. The advent of the machinized ground troop solved the PR problem of Flag-wrapped coffins coming back from warzones, the bleeding-heart journalist fodder created when Predator drones accidentally blew up hospitals full of Pakistani children went away. With those moral safeties clicked off, half of Asia and most of Africa was leveled and strip-mined in less than a decade by US robo-military campaigns.
The RPLCNTS immediately began securing the perimeter. Green zone was demarcated on Jack’s heads-up-display by a film of lime-colored territory spreading across an aerial map like algae in a pond. Through an adjacent matrix of livestreaming troop feeds, Jack could see that the bottom three floors of the San Francisco Giants building, even the interiors, were blanketed in graffiti and gunshot holes. Primate pissing matches played out in neon red and vomit-green street kanji, then diplomacy continued by other means. Esoteric Kurt Vonnegut quotes and six-foot-wide stenciled portraits of Che Guevara cried truths against the wall of violence and misspelled inanity. These political art seemed to post-date the rest, suggesting the gangs had either moved on or had mutually assured one anothers’ destruction. The building was mostly filled with countless grey-collars, the overeducated poor who’d either been replaced in their office by a robot or who were enslaved to their 200k student loans, and for whom no job outside prostitution and unpaid social work would ever come. They tended to their shoebox shitakes, absorbed themselves in dead media like paper books and sculpture. Some even played those face-to-face video games called “roleplaying”. Jack and Stasia remotely questioned the denizens, most of whom either had not seen the event or were too numb to care. The drone SWAT teams encountered a few wyrehead junkies spewing braindead strings of cursewords. One attempted to attack a soldrone with a ball peen hammer, had what remained of his brain splattered all over his non-functioning refrigerator by hollow point rounds. The sight made him feel uneasy, so Jack changed channels.
“No one else home,” Stasia said, double checking a satellite-based body heat scan of the building.
The arachnoid forensics bots continued the arduous task of scrubbing the vicinity for evidence –marks, tracks, blood, DNA -- crawling physical reality for every last byte of data, aggregating it in CyberSec’s servers. What the Troubleshooters discovered was, well, troubling.
“Christ, it’s like they edited out a slice of reality. All of the security footage from CCTV cams, even the spydrones flying over during the incident apparently came down with temporary cases of anterograde amnesia. All our audiovisual records of that five minute period are blank,” Stasia said.
“Yeah. Curious, isn’t it? Winklemann’s not going to be happy with this.”
Other than the corpse of the Deadweight accountant, the only real piece of evidence were two Tyr X2 bodyguard robots. One had been mowed down, so many bullet holes perforating its chrome chassis that it resembled a cheese grater. Jack knelt down beside the collapsed humanoid, its secret-service windbreaker ripped to shreds, its plastoid skin peeling from its face like a third-degree sunburn.
“That’s heavy weaponry they were carrying,” Stasia commented. Jack aimed his dVice’ camera at the QR barcode on the neck of the android.
“Assuming the assailant was carrying it. Let’s run these serial numbers.”
The other Tyr had a small puncture at the nape of its neck. Jack examined the hole, inserting an arthroscopic microcam into the ‘wound’ and fished around.
“The central processor is fried,” he added.
“You thinking another bot glitch SNAFU?” Stasia asked.
“Maybe. A coincidental malfunction is certainly what they’d want us to think happened, anyway. Hold on, Winklemann’s on the line.” Jack looked at the flashing avatar of his boss, expanding a videoconference that occluded the investigative augmented reality overlays.
“What have you got for me, Jack,” Winklemann cut to it with his eternally hurried, upper-managerial inflection.
“The kid’s still unconscious but stable. Prognosis uncertain, it’s 50-50 whether he’ll snap out of the coma. We’ve got two body guards, both owned by his parents. Where it gets interesting is we just cross checked the Tyrs, and the bullets that Swiss cheesed the bodyguard match up with the .50 cal subdermal forearm cannon of its counterpart.”
“So the guard robot went Hal 9000, short circuited and started shooting at friendlies. Wouldn’t be the first time, and at least since this was bot-on-bot homicide we won’t have to blackout the story from the internets like the School Bus incident down in Gnossis Plaza.”
“That’s possible but I highly doubt the culprit was buggy software. For one, we just finished patching up the targeting systems heuristics and enemy acquisition AIs for the entire drone fleet this morning. Then there’s the fact that the BIOS clocks of the totaled Tyr and its counterpart are frozen within seconds of each other, as if once the puppeteer was done, he cut the strings from his marionette and made off.”
“Puppeteer. That’s your diagnosis? Ok, fine, Mr. Conspiracy Theory. Roll it out for me.”
“I checked out the stab wound at the back of the other guard’s neck. It’s bull’s-eye within a half-inch sized target, a backdoor port into the Tyr’s system used for debugging purposes during beta testing. Whoever struck the blow, it wasn’t just a reactionary defensive stab, it was a calculated hostile takeover attack. These are not your run of the mill necropolis street punks. They had intimate knowledge of Totech android anatomy. Knew just the right switch to flip.”
“They could’ve gotten lucky, went for the bot’s head and scored the central processor.”
“Highly unlikely. Residue analysis of the exposed wire and CPU suggests that whatever the foreign object was, it was electrical. Perhaps some kind of spine-based remote operation ice pick. There are no signs of other firearms discharged in any of the visual or audio CCTV feeds suggesting this guy was unarmed. These were professionals, black hat hackers.”
“Fantastic, just what we need. Unwashed masses with brains. I thought we had that problem kicked with reality TV and Angry Hamsters. Goddamnit, times like these I wish we still had paper books so we could torch them all like Fahrenheit 451. Who do you think is behind it, assuming your theory is true?”
“There’s the usual suspects, the Washingtonians, but they spend too much time bleating on about how government is trampling the US constitution to reach that level of technical sophistication. And they’re more about giving their lives for God and Country M16 in hand, blaze of patriotic glory and all that. They’d probably view such an attack as vaguely dishonorable commy-tactics. We can’t rule out a covert strike by Pfeiffer Pharmaceutical or one of Vitanet’s other major competitors looking to take out a VIP then use the circumstances to frame the murder on jobless necropolis slumdogs. But if I had to, I’d put my money on Hex-Gen.”
“Generation Hex. Those V For Vendetta-guzzling hacktivists, of course. Fine. Whoever the culprit, what we need to do right now is pin the murder on World Class War. Hex Gen and WCW have had loose associations and it’s going to be guilt by association 24/7.”
“Won’t that be a little challenging to spin? I mean we don’t even know who the assailant is.”
“Nah, it’s no problem. Hell, since we’ve acquired MediaVerse, we’ve got every major news channel, e-newspaper, and network on a tight leash and the President is doing his part to declare all the whistleblowers terrorists and have them disappeared systematically, no sweat off our backs. Elections are coming up and it’s crucial that we crush popular support of this underclass movement ASAP. Gnossis and our other generous employers have dumped hundreds of billions of dollars into President Vanderlyle’s campaign and it is absolutely imperative that he is sworn into office for another term. Or it’s all of our heads, it goes without saying. If we can just get that American Anti-Piracy Act passed we could file all of the web censorship and attacks like this airstrike under the blanket immunity clause of ‘defending US cybersecurity’. Make this all so much easier.”
“Airstrike? What airstrike?” Jack felt his temperature drop two degrees, his stomach suddenly became a cold, sinking stone.
"Oh, right, you’re not in on this loop yet. Our ‘generous benefactors’, the ones personally funding this operation, seems they need a certain sense of closure. A sub-nuclear, multi-block leveling, megaton sense of closure.”
An ill wind descended, drawing cryptic runes in the red desert of the San Francisco sky, like the mark of some terrible and ancient alien race, aroused from its epochal slumber. Bloated corpses drifted like unprocessed lumps of sewage through the grey tide beneath the gaping ruins of the Golden Gate. Omens. Preambles to the indiscriminate wrath of infantile gods.
“You’re serious,” Jack mouthed. He felt his heart rate spike, microscopic nanomed machines swimming in his arteries synthesized angiotensin blockers automatically to counteract his heightened blood pressure.
“Am I affecting a humorous tone? Yes. I have an executive order straight from the top to do a 426 on the entire area code.” The usual static from wireless communications borne by sketchy necropolis cell towers suddenly cut out, as if emphasizing the message.
“A 426? Nuke the site from orbit? Isn’t that kind of overkill? I thought this was a crime scene, not a re-enactment of the Hell’s Kitchen Predator drone massacre.”
“Hey, that wasn’t our fault, we had bad intel from the CIA. Besides, it was a festering sore of jobless insurgents. The World Class War mobs had publicly executed the CEO of Nationwide Bank, hung him by his own tie from the Wall Street Bull. For fucks sake, they nearly took down a fifty story corporate tower with explosives concocted from nothing but gene-hacked ammonia-rich algae and pinesol. Fucking algae bombs! You ever heard of that shit? An example had to be made. Top it off, yeah, come on you stingy whore.” Jack could hear the tinkle of crystal champagne flutes through Winkleman’s phone, the oceanic burble of a party crowd, live smooth jazz.
“Carpet bombing fourteen city blocks worth of apartments full of families who had nothing to do with the movement at all? That was setting an example?”
“Jack, Jack. My boy. Of course I don’t want to see innocent people killed any more than you do. Of course we’d prefer to control the hoi polloi with hope. It’s much more efficient in the cost-benefit analysis to have people believing, falsely, that they can Be Whatever They Want When They Grow Up in America, satisfied with their McDonald’s shit-shoveling job limping along on foodstamps and Wal Mart as long as they can turn on their ‘Tubevisions and strive to be American Idols and Jersey Shore Playgirls one day. But with this… extent to which things have managed to deteriorate, it’s becoming harder and harder to sell the shit sandwiches as caviar, convince the people that their debt shackles are their tickets to a better life. So now we’ve got to rely on good old fashioned People’s Republic of China-style fear of Authority with an itchy trigger finger. It’s – what do those World Class War lefty financial journalists call it? Moral Hazard. That’s it. This Is about reinstating moral hazard. There’s got to be an equal and opposite deterrent to the degree of outrage in the general population. They start getting the cahones up to cut the heads off the royalty, well, we’ve got to fire an ion cannon at the poorer half of Manhattan. Now they know the hazard of being moral. One day you will understand how business actually works, son.”
“Alright. Fine. You need to put shock and awe back into the hearts of the irreverent peasants. I just don’t see how indiscriminately blowing up random swaths of population, many of whom are not necessarily active World Class War members or part of any other resistance movements is going to draw down support for WCW. Cause it just seems like we’re going to have another World Trade Center’s worth of unemployed martyrs, all of whom will have mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who will be filled with firey jihad, devoting the rest of their lives to taking down the ‘Plutocrats’, the Great Satans who stole their loved ones and destroyed their lives. Why not just go after the extremists? The insurgents who are doing actual damage taking out Ameribank City financial towers, assassinating hedge fund managers and actively plotting to bring down the global financial system. I mean these people here, they’re just human beings who got the short end of the stick.” Jack could feel his inner lawyer suddenly flipping to the side of the smelly hippies he’d silently despised minutes ago, once he was asked to massacre them.
“Christ, don’t refer to them as ‘human beings’. Don’t do that to yourself; it’s bad for your psyche, all this humanizing of your victims. Unbecoming of a Troubleshooter. No, thank you Sylvia, I’m fine. Tell the governor I’ll be out in a minute.” Winkleman said to someone at whatever $10 million-a-plate dinner function or economics conference he was attending, slurping down what sounded like some kind of chilled shellfish on the line. He cleared his throat, continued.
“Look, Mother Theresa, I’m not going to spend all day arguing asymmetric warfare ethics with you. This is a direct order and you WILL execute. Diamond wants someone, anyone to pay for his son’s death. Maybe he’s overreacting; whatever, it’s moot. Alistair Diamond is one of our largest and most well-connected shareholders, and happens to be the brother of the Cybersecurity Senate Subcommittee head, the group that will make or break the American Anti-Piracy Act. I don’t care If Diamond asks CyberSec to assassinate the President of China or mow down a Catholic school full of Canadian children with Panzer tanks or open up a singularity at Earth’s core just so he can laugh at the poor below, martini in hand, from his low-orbit ISS villa’s swimming pool. You will execute, Jack, or you will find yourself, very soon, jobless, cowering in one of these decrepit Plebian sinkholes without running water, imagining your wife and kid kissing some other man with steelier balls than you that took your job, wondering with your last breath why you ever for one moment had second thoughts about your vocation’s duties both to CyberSec and to Ameribank City. And then your life will end, horribly and without even an acknowledgement in your former friends’ status updates, beneath the great vengeance and furious anger of a drone-fired CyberSec lead zeppelin, just like the one you’re about to call down on the tens of thousands of people eeking out their pathetic, gutter-moss-and-cardboard-box lives in that wasteland called San Francisco.” Serious as bioengineered, weapons-grade cancer.
“Oh, I should add. There’s a juicy forty-k bonus tied to this mission as well, plus a week-long paid junket in Switzerland for you and your wife upon completion. The President Wilson Hotel, Imperial Suite. Only the best for Ameribank City’s Finest. The monk seal sashimi there is mind boggling. You’ve gotta try it.”
The endangered cuisine wasn’t exactly Jack’s cup of tea, but the $40,000 would be enough to keep their daughter in private school another semester, maybe pull them above water in their mortgage payments long enough for Jack and his wife to spend a few dinner table conversations not fighting about money. Jack could feel his angels and demons being shouted off his shoulders by the megaphone of Darwinian survival. There were breadlines of double PhD’s and former IT workers gunning for Jack’s position. Jack didn’t have the luxury of not working. He couldn’t think about what would happen if he’d lost his job and he and his family fell behind in their citizenship payments.
“Well, hey, Jack! It’s been great chatting, but I’ve got a couple of hundred thousand dollar human trafficked Yugoslavian sex slaves here that I need to ruin before the night is over, followed by 18 holes with the governor of Texas and the CEO of Caco Cola on board his two-mile-wide airship. Insider trading tips, brainstorming ways to get students and homeowners deeper in debt, reversing progressive labor rights, oh and there’s that damned Financial Fraud Protection Act that we need to have congress defang now that their election season is over. All that boring stuff I know you don’t like hearing about. Get this, the airship’s zeppelins are built entirely with paper recycled from back issues of Atlas Shrugged! Who knew you could make fricking blimps out of paper? You learn something new everyday. Anyway, I’ll leave you to your mass murdering now. Do try to enjoy your work, Jack. It’s important to take joy in your work. Remember, you’re one of our best. I have faith in you, my boy. Sylvia! Jesus, that’s my ballsa-” The signal cut out.
Muther fucking vindictive mega-rich parents. That acquired sociopathy born when a hundred floors of money are placed between the rich and their fellow human beings, running their Starbucks coffee and polishing their thousand dollar shoes below. What were simple butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers with feelings and lives and families, from two thousand feet in an autopiloted Gulfstream, suddenly became nothing but ants, insects. To be crushed beneath boot heels. Jack discovered that familiar and burning hatred for Winkleman, for the Diamond family who’d ordered him here to commit their war crimes free of the “cognitive load”, outsourcing the heavy crucifix onto Jack’s shoulders. Jack insulated himself in that hot membrane of hate and blame, and it assuaged any sense of guilt long enough for him to carry out what he had to carry out.
“Stasia, I need you to de-activate all 3G + spectrums and cut all landline connections in and out of District 8, sectors A-F.”
“Why, Jack? What’s going on? What did Winkleman say?”
Jack strode briskly toward the CyberSec APC, jumped into the front seat, and grabbed the intercom mic on the dashboard of the cockpit. It was too quiet out. No bombshells rumbling in the distance, no gunshots tapping off. Not even the screams of domestic violence and meth-induced Tourette syndrome. One of those peculiar moments of peace when a hundred simultaneous Plebland skirmishes reach the same brief lull. As if all of San Francisco was holding its breath in anticipation, awaiting the market correction, the return to the equilibrium level of violence. Jack switched on the loudspeaker, static and feedback piercing the silent night, ricocheting off the concrete squalor.
"Everyone, get out of here. Now. Get as far away as you can.”
“Why? What’s happening?” East shouted back from his Matson container garden.
“Look, trust me, just get out of here. The drones are going to retaliate.”
“But, we have done nothing wrong! We have sowed no evil. Why would they attack us?”
“It doesn’t matter. The reaping is coming, either way. Old Testament style. The hellfire and the brimstone.”
“I don’t trust him. Look at him, he’s got one of them special agent rent-a-cops uniforms on. What they call them?” Someone shouted from an apartment window.
“Yeah. We ain’t listening to you, you goddamn Troubleshooter thug.”
“We ain’t going nowhere.” A small crowd had gathered now in the street, perhaps a few dozen, outside of the Giants Museum. East stepped forward from the group, approached the front door of the APC where Jack sat holding the mic. His dreadlocks were dancing burnt-gold vines as the wind picked up, sang through the abandoned buildings like the haunting wail of a seashell. East examined the light absorbing hull of the vehicle’s urban camo finish.
“Harbinger of death.” East said, crossing his arms.
“I’m sorry, East, this isn’t my fault. They would’ve just called in someone else,” Jack protested.
“Save your words, Wraith. I knew you cared about nothing the moment you arrived.”
“Whatever you think of me, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to tell them.” Jack said. “They won’t listen to me.”
East shook his head. “You said I could trust you, Jack. We cooperated, gave you what you wanted. You said we’d be ok. You asked me to trust you and now you are bringing the great flood of fire upon our home, upon our community. Now I understand, Wraith man. You are indeed the rider of the final machine. Terminus Machina. But you are not a Bent One, Wraith. You are merely empty. You are hollow as the Tin Men whom you command like clockwork figurines, toy soldiers who kill and enslave my people. You are a master of gadgets, yet you yourself are a gadget, a gadget of the truly Bent. For unlike the Bent, you understand what you do, but you do it anyway. I will pray to all the gods for your soul, Jack the Wraith, for I cannot imagine a worse fate. You are an emptiness unlike any that I have ever known. I will pray for you.” Jack could see the dark smile lines branching beneath East’s eyes begin to fill with water, could see the sadness pull at his face. A man of action, like Jack, East forced emotion aside, steeled himself and took the microphone.
"Everyone, please, get out of here. Get as far as you can. Do not waste time with belongings. Run.“ East’s amplified voice reverberated against the city, echoes rising like a tide, and the people, hearing one of their leaders proclaim the end times, began to flee like scattering ants.
“Stasia, I need you to black out all internet traffic in a twelve block radius,” Jack summoned a map of the Bay Area, toggled off markers for all drone units except heavy aircraft.
“What are you talking about, Jack? What’s going on?” Stasia asked, voice trilling with hysteria, like a canary descending, against its will, into a coal mine.
“Just shut down the land lines and cell towers, now. We need to get a head start on the damage control, minimize the chance of word getting out.” Jack pinpointed the nearest suitable drone, a monster annihilator like an F16-sized on steroids, carrying enough firepower to turn Manhattan into the Yucatan crater.
“Control damage from what? Jack? Tell me!” Jack ignored her demands, knowing that she might object to the order if she understood what it was she was doing.
A few decades ago, nuking a national landmark sports stadium in a major US city would've been immediately branded a cataclysmic terrorist attack at best, and the kindling for World War III at worst. Today it was de rigeur cost-of-doing-business, a meteorological process, a bad thunderstorm, and everyone would whip out their umbrellas till the shower of retaliatory tit-for-tats, news reports passed. Barely worthy of a front page trending topic.
"Alright, Jack, it's done. All relays, hubs are off, no packets leaving the space, not even the faintest HAM radio signal. There's an effective Faraday cage enclosing all of SoHA. Now can you clue me in to what the hell this is about?"
“Look, I can’t believe we’re being forced to do this either, but they've ordered a thermonuclear facelift of everything within two miles of the crime scene. A grudge-nuke special requested by the diamonds. And our bosses are finding our their own uses for the bombing. They’re asking us to wipe this entire area code off the face of the Earth, and then they're going to frame World Class War as the perpetrators. The heat seeking mechanisms on those stinger missiles degrade rapidly in this humid climate. They should've asked the Russians for an extended warranty. Seems they forgot to RTFM on that suitcase antimatter bomb. Detonated that tactical city-buster on themselves. Shame. That's the official story."
“Jesus Christ, Jack! Think of all those people! There’s no way they’ll be able to evacuate in time, you’re talking about blowing up dozens of blocks worth of people leading peaceful lives. Families."
“Don’t humanize them, like that. It doesn’t suit you, Us, as Troubleshooters.” Jack repeated his boss’ words that he’d so despised mere minutes earlier. Stasia’s eyes crumpled up into that Scandinavian grimace of universal pain, that frowning Siberian husky look flowing from an overgrown sense of altruism. He could see the bright light of innocent passion in her eyes being torn apart by the tidal forces of market reality. He remembered how it had felt that first time executing the death warrant on an innocent, and it hurt him to see her hurt like that, but everyone had to grow up some time.
“Jack! We can’t do this! We… I can’t do this. We might mow down armed insurgents marching into Gnossis Plaza, even take out key leaders and fomenters of populist resistance. But I can’t allow all these innocent people to be slaughtered so needlessly, just to sate some insane, power-drunk Plutocrat’s infantile need for vengeance. I just can’t allow it.” Stasia’s hand had unconsciously begun to reach for the 45 caliber slung from her hip. Jack frowned, made a cat's cradle around her blip in his heads-up display. A pair of roboSWAT drew together on Stasia’s flank, a swarm of red laser dots converging on her head like a disco ball. Stasia choked, eyeing the black cold barrels of a dozen rifles surrounding her. She lowered her hand, and lowered her head in defeat and shame.
“I’m sorry. I won’t tell anyone about this. Imagine that this never happened, if you can. Close your eyes.” He caught her as she collapsed into him. He held her, feeling her hot young tears burning along his neck like holy water. But it did not, he would not allow it to phase him. He continued to work even as she broke down, typing commands into his interface, fixing these ‘bugs’ in the Ameribank system. Troubleshooting. His skull throbbed with adrenaline and conflict, his hands shook as he began the process of programming the drone attack, but if he kept his head just in the right headspace, he could spin the guilt in his head as bravery and valiance, and he held onto that moment like an alcoholic wife beater to a Sunday sermon.
Jack dialed in latitude, longitude, anchored the crosshair on the corner of King Street and 3rd. Drew a blast radius with his pinky, as if wiping a smudge from a blemished hardwood table. Is this nuclear strike acceptable? (Yes/No) Yes. Would you like to include _chemical _biological agents in this attack? (Check all that apply) Would you like Atrocity Cleanser Version 6.0 to establish internet traffic censors and pre-emptive buy up of search engine keywords associated with this airstrike? (Yes/No) Yes. Would you like SMS alerts of escalating death toll? (Yes/No) No. Please enter your user name and launch codes now.
An investigative journalist was detected in the vicinity by a patrolling stealth-drone running facial rec examinations on the panicked crowd running from the site. Jack entered a console command and one of the RPLCNTs hounded the journalist’s GPS, sprayed him with fully automatic fire till his body stopped twitching, tossed the corpse in a dumpster. A mother and child were hit by stray bullets, but the RPLCNTS did not waver from their predesignated courses sweeping up 'lose ends'. The father was left to sit on his knees, wail over his young dead family at ground zero, waiting to be put out of his misery by the cleansing fire of the behemoth-class bomber drone.
“The Archangel is inbound. Time for us to leave.” Jack said. Stasia sobbed, made no eye contact as she climbed into the rear of the APC. Jack slammed the heavy reinforced door shut, ignored the screaming and pounding on the bullet proof glass as the Deadweights tried desperately to get in, to save themselves from the coming tactical apocalypse. Toddlers were held up to the window by parents, pleading their children might be spared.
“Jack…” Stasia began.
“We can’t. They’d overrun us if we opened that door.” There was nothing to be done. No one would bail them out.
The APC rolled out, post-haste, towards the Bay Bridge, as the Archangel reared its self-piloted head. Wingspan twice the width of the bridge itself, the nuclear drone was like a fissure in the heavens, an ebon maw, grinning wider as it approached. An array of oblong metal raked white stripes across the bloody sky, howling at a supersonic clip in the direction of the Golden Gate. Jack blocked out the irony.
The nuke's marigold blast wave wiped skyscrapers away like cardboard boxes in a hurricane. It reminded Jack of watching footage from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, being glued to the screen despite the ineffably terrible event transpiring, unable to look away. Seeing it now, Jack knew no one could’ve escaped the bomb. Why did he tell the people to run, why didn’t he tell them to spend their last moments saying goodbye to one another? East, his daughter, the hippy girls hanging their clothes, they might’ve made it out of the kill zone in time, if they had wheels. Maybe they managed to get that VW bus’ engine to turn. Maybe there’d be gas. Jack needed to believe that they survived, though a part of him, the part of him that debugged paramilitary AI firmware, knew that they were all dead, every last one. Jack’s mind’s eye rendered them now, three tall and one short, a family of nuclear shadows, stenciled on the incinerated flank of a Starbucks. Too much reality. Jack could taste the stink.
Jack disliked violence. Just thinking about all the immolated innocents and wailing mothers clinging to lifeless bloody messes that used to be their children outside his APC window made Jack queasy. He pulled an abstracted wireframe overlay like a curtain over reality, transforming the flying body parts into little gold arcade game coins. Adding up to a $40,000 bonus. This was why Jack preferred to work from office, have the robots do all the dirty work; it was all so uncivilized, this war stuff. It made things much easier, seeing destroyed communities as housing statistics. Debugged code. Figures in a spreadsheet. He could handle that. Jack wondered how anyone ever got any work done before computers. Jack told himself that he was doing all of this for his wife and daughter, to float their teetering middle class existence, that he had no choice, but to double down, to refinance. Jack opened a fluffy talkshow in the upper right corner, tried to focus on the topic which was the hipness or tastelessness Lord Dada’s dildo-shaped speedo at the Grammys. Jack felt better already.
The trick, Jack reminded himself, always lay in depersonalization, complication, obfuscation of the massacre into financial numerology. Market efficiency, supply and demand, and that’s all this was. The demand for extermination of unwanted humans was skyrocketing, and Jack was merely filling the niche before someone else did. The holocaust was simple rational self-interest; what makes the world go round, get off your high moral horse. Maximized profit in a spreadsheet column. Jack could feel the thoughts absolving his conscience already, ensconcing his mind like a warm balm, like Pontius Pilate’s spa and cucumber mask. Jack checked his Friendbook feeds; smiled as he commented on a picture of some cousin stuffing jell-o shots in a drunken fiance’s mouth. Jack fired up a game of Angry Hamsters. He imagined the megaton missiles screaming overhead toward the San Francisco ground zero as slingshot rodents, crashing humorously into 8-bit wooden castles. The mounting dead were cartoon pigs with ‘x’s on their eyes, each adding points to Jack’s high score. Within seconds of playing, East and his daughter, the squatter community, the airstrike, all that unmediated, untargeted reality ceased to exist, and there was only the flash and bleep of the rectangular screen, the soothing reptilian dreamstate of the video game.