Insidiousby Michael McCloskey
Bren Marcken is a
Leaked stories of strange new rules and codes of behavior indicate something's gone sour in the deep space retreats of the superrich corporate execs. Some say that it's only the eccentricities of the powerful leaders of capitalistic society. But others speak of dark, twisted rituals, human slavery and illegal experiments in banned technologies.
Bren Marcken is a robot handler and strategist on a special team of the United Nations Space Force, formed to occupy the corporate space stations and seize their technological secrets. To accomplish the mission, he's been authorized to field artificial intelligences that he considers just as dangerous as the enemy.
Chris Adrastus is an aggressive young executive whose careful machinations have carried him to a high position at the powerful European Union company, Vineaux Genomix. Instead of finding satisfaction, he's become disillusioned with what he discovers at the top of the executive world.
Aldriena Niachi is a covert operative of Black Core, a Brazilian software company with a global sphere of influence. She's about to find out what Black Core will do for a technological lead. Do some kinds of knowledge come at inordinate cost, even for a supercorporation?
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By Michael McCloskey
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Chapter OneMajor Bren Marcken prepared for battle by closing his eyes. He focused on the data displayed in his personal view. The PV assembled immense amounts of information in tabs and panes that competed for space in his mind's eye. His attention flitted from pane to pane, picking through the vast data streams at the slow animal pace of the human brain.
No drill this time. So many months of work to get to this point. Only minutes left to wait now.
Some submerged part of him still felt his real surroundings. He knew he sat in the ASSAIL nexus of the space cruiser Vigilant. The crew called the nexus "the Guts," because the main functionality of the cruiser lay here: Bren's cores and their Veer Industries chassis. His United Nations Space Force uniform wicked sweat off his wan skin releasing moisture into the dry air of the nexus. A five-day stubble bristled on his face, the whiskers about half the length of his close-cropped brown hair. The mental tension spilled over into his muscles, cementing him in place.
"All handlers have completed the containment checklist," he broadcast, sending the words across the link device in his skull. "Bring up your cores." Part of him disliked the fear, the pressure, but another part thrived in it. His team worked alongside him as they prepared to launch the Vigilant's Board and Control Package against a corporate space station.
He watched the readouts from a pane in his PV as ten power reservoirs filled and fed current into the AI cores. Each core carried a nascent set of "seed" code, which would begin to self-modify within seconds of release. The closest one sat mere meters in front of him. He imagined the durable metal sphere buried in the chassis of its robot, holding a new mind as it formed and expanded to a capacity exceeding human intelligence.
Bren always imagined he could feel a sinister presence when a core bloomed. He denied the feeling, knowing it was irrational. Although young, the core held power like the rogue AI that had seized Marseilles years ago, forcing worldwide military action. Afterward, people everywhere had embarked on a decade-long witch-hunt, purging data across the globe to avoid a resurgence of the horror.
It took about two minutes for each core to self-optimize, rewriting itself several times. In that time, each core's code and processes would advance beyond human comprehension. With training, and enough time, a human could usually follow the first two steps of the process, and maybe part of the third. After that, it was, of necessity, a mystery-an AI smart enough to audit the evolution would be much too dangerous to keep around. Bren squirmed and told himself they hadn't missed any precautions.
"All normal. My core's up," came Hoffman's voice. Lieutenant Hoffman served as one of ten robot handlers in Bren's team. Hoffman launched and observed the ASSAIL robot-killer nicknamed Meridian. The other nine handlers echoed Hoffman's announcement in an avalanche of tense voices. Bren saw boxes go green in a line in a mental display, showing that everyone was ready.
"It's accessing the mission storage module," Hoffman said. His voice broke nervously. "Should be ready."
The cores were young and thus blank. They relied upon the limited information the team had chosen to provide, the background the machines would need to successfully seize a space station. The information vacuum avoided anything that might give a new supermind pause about serving its creators for a few hours.
Bren saw the reads of the storage modules pass by in his high-granularity log stream and nodded, even though no one would witness the gesture. All the handlers monitored their own machine's data, and most kept their eyes closed to concentrate. He accessed another nexus pane in his PV to grant his handler team permission to execute the plug-in phase. Each of the handlers completed the link between their AI core and its body, one of the Veer Industries ASSAIL series 910 robot-killers.
"Okay, this is it. Let 'em loose."
The sound of ASSAIL movement filled the Guts, a cyclical whining and rumbling accentuated by the muffled smack of feet on the rubberized nexus grating. Bren glimpsed the nexus with his real vision. The lead machine was Hoffman's unit, Meridian. The ASSAILs resembled metal lions with flat bug heads. The quadrupedal chassis had massive front halves, which housed the ammunition stores. Those magazines fed into twin 12mm cannon turrets mounted on each side of the ASSAIL's flat heads, like stubby antennae. He suspected the mechanical engineers who had designed the chassis took cues from the anatomy of natural quadrupeds. Only the hammerhead and lack of any tail negated the impression of an armored cat. The gray metal chests and flanks bore simple green circles, the symbol of the UNSF.
Bren had worked hard getting his part of the Board and Control Package to this point, but now he had to wait while his handlers and machines performed the "crack 'n pack" of the giant space station named Thermopylae. Bentra, a Brazilian conglomerate, had built the station. The BCP had been deployed here to seize the station and investigate reports of illegal activities. Bren believed Bentra had probably created the station far from Earth to escape the arm of UN law, and he was eager to find out more about the situation.
He monitored the ASSAIL progress from the Guts, well behind the point of incursion. Despite the relative inactivity, Bren got a charge out of watching the AI cores operate after long months of preparation.
The machines filed out of the narrow spaces of the nexus, weaving gracefully through the banks of equipment. The sounds faded as they headed for the umbilical that connected the Vigilant to Thermopylae.
Bren trained his attention on the forward-mount camera feed from Meridian. The feeds from all the ASSAILs were visible in his PV through his nexus interface, but a human brain could only process so much input at once. Bren sifted through his data, looking for critical points, ready to back up his handlers.
Meridian approached the breach point, an airlock that led into the station. A team of space force engineers had already forced the door to make way for the ASSAILs. Meridian removed the debris of the armored airlock door with a swipe from a front foot. The camera jolted as Meridian rammed through to the inner passage.
"Meridian is in," Hoffman's voice came over the link.
Bren checked another pane in his PV that monitored the tactical situation by displaying an overhead map with the positions of his units. He noted the other ASSAILs entered the airlock breach behind Meridian. The handlers would be monitoring the data streams from their ASSAIL machines and providing Bren with summaries. He liked to play handler himself and jump from machine to machine, but he forced himself not to interfere with the handlers' duties even though he outranked them.
Meridian strode down the corridor toward another metal door. The camera bobbed from the four-legged gait of the Veer Industries machine. Meridian glanced to one side and recognized a manual door control. A five-fingered tentacle shot forward from under the machine's head and activated the mechanism. The door swung open to reveal a different world.
"Wow," Bren said.
A marble floor extended toward a running fountain at the center of the room beyond. The area looked huge at first, but Bren noted strategically placed walls and mirrors, which disguised the room's true shape and size. A bank of cubicles with suspended chairs huddled against a side wall, framed by tall green plants growing from giant corner vases. The whole scene held more grandeur than he'd seen on any other spacecraft or station.
It can't be real marble. Too expensive to haul this far out ... or is it?
Four forms stood next to the fountain, alarmed by the sudden entrance of Meridian and the other ASSAIL units. They looked like humanoid robots in suits of black plastic and silver metal. One of them fell back in surprise as Meridian strode by. The others scattered after a moment of shock. Bren concluded from their actions that they must be people, even though he couldn't see any faces, only metallic helmets of differing designs.
"What the hell are they wearing?" Bren asked himself aloud. The bizarre helmets disturbed him in particular; they didn't have noses or mouths-just smooth black plates of various shapes over the eyes. Bren wondered whether they could see straight out or if they relied on sensors built into the suits for vision.
Apparently, Meridian had already classified these people as non-threats. The machine moved through the room taking in data from several cameras and audio sensors. The area appeared to be an atrium or perhaps an elegant conference room. Four exits led out of the room, one of which headed straight up toward the station hub.
Meridian spotted a placard on the wall and scanned the writing with one of its sensors. Bren followed along for a moment, noting the writing was in some other language. A translation came through on a side screen in his mind:
"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
Activity in Bren's PV got his attention. Bren brought the signaling pane forward. A multicolor graph displayed activity in the AI core. A red line wormed upward on the side of the display. The core's rate of interaction with its chassis was down sharply. Bren interpreted this as a sign of intense concentration on the meaning of the message.
"Ignore the Greek message," Hoffman told Meridian over his link. Bren listened in, approving of Hoffman's choice to intervene.
"It's not a clue, Lieutenant Hoffman?" Meridian asked its handler over the link. Bren suppressed his fear by force of will.
"No. Just a historical reference not pertinent to the mission."
Meridian moved on past the placard. Bren felt relief that it had easily accepted Hoffman's guidance.
Bren analyzed link activity from the people in the room. The encrypted traffic spider webbed out on a graph displayed in Bren's virtual control center. Most likely, they were calling for help or at least reporting the presence of the assault robots. He dismissed the graph to the back of the growing pile of data. Only the AI cores could hope to make real-time use of all the information.
The instant the security robot registered on Bren's consciousness, it already had a smoking hole in its vaguely humanoid chest. The security machine was black with three red arms-Bentra's colors. An instant later, the robot exploded, sending metal fragments flying in all directions. Bren heard screams and shouts coming across the line from Meridian's audio sensors.
"Meridian has a kill," Hoffman reported. Bren suspected from the satisfied tone that the handlers might be competing with one another or even running bets. He wondered if that was a dangerous conflict of interest or a natural outlet of the élan of a military unit. He decided it didn't matter because the machines acted mostly on their own without much direction from the handlers.
Bren believed more security robots patrolled the station, but the thought didn't worry him. The ASSAIL machines functioned as robot-killers. The security robots they faced were designed to control humans, not other robots. He didn't expect to lose a single unit. Ironically, even though Thermopylae belonged to a Brazilian company, the security robots were American-built like his own. Only the United States, China, and the European Union mass-produced robots of this sophistication.
The AI cores held formidable cognitive power, but they still lacked flexibility at this stage. They'd only been awake for minutes now, so they'd rely on the strategies suggested in the mission data modules. That's why the handlers observed and gave directions at critical points during an operation. The handlers only intervened as necessary, to avoid accidents that would illustrate to the AI cores that their "masters" were slow, dumb, and flawed creatures.
The views of the assault machines diverged as the team deployed from the atrium. Bren caught an image of a squad of human marines filing into the room behind the vanguard of the ASSAIL units. He knew the four corporate security people in the funny suits would find themselves in interrogation cells inside the hour. He needed to scan those recordings and see why in the hell they wore the Halloween getups. The incursion wasn't just a response to the illegal activity on the base; the UNSF wanted as much information as it could gather about the powerful corporations and their activities.
Meridian's view showed a corridor wavering with the movements of the machine. Bren expected another security robot to pop up at any moment. The ASSAIL units had been in the station less than five minutes. He knew hundreds more of the special armor-piercing rounds waited in Meridian's main gun magazines. The rounds would puncture a security robot's skin, which was thick enough to repel normal small arms fire. But the AP rounds couldn't work too well. If the AP round didn't break up after penetrating one piece of armor, it could travel through a target and cause more damage or even perforate the double hull of the base, causing a disaster. All of the larger space habitats had emergency countermeasures to repair hull breaches, but such an incident could still kill people before coming under control.
A human in one of the inexplicable costumes burst through the door at the end of the corridor holding a weapon leveled at Meridian. The sound feed screeched and then dropped off Meridian's link.
"Sonic weapon? That guy's trying to get himself killed," Bren said to himself.
Meridian accelerated down the corridor toward the attacker. The gunman retreated behind the door, but he came back into view as the ASSAIL unit penetrated it a second later. Bren saw a lab or medical room with a bank of white cabinets on one side and a heavy scanning machine mounted on the other. The machine looked like a giant robot arm with a knobby metal-plated hand. The person who had attacked Meridian stood in the center of the room preparing for another shot. Bren spotted another person, a woman, huddled in the corner naked and shivering. She tried to pull one of the plastic suits over herself.
Bren found it hard to fathom how the two could be connected, one of the people suited, defiant, and standing before the ASSAIL unit, the other naked, backed into a corner and half-paralyzed with terror.
Meridian snatched the weapon from the person's hands with a quick movement of the tentacle mounted under its head. Once again, the ASSAIL unit held its fire, although it took a half-second to remove the huge scanning arm from its target queue. The piece of machinery did look vaguely like a threatening robot, Bren decided. Meridian would have recognized any of a wide array of security robot models defined in the mission data module, but the medical equipment must have given it pause.
Bren laughed to himself. The machine took a half second to think and he'd already started to wonder if it malfunctioned. He expected the machines to complete complex analyses in a few milliseconds. Then he became more serious as he realized the delay meant the AI core had been doing a lot more than just recognizing the scanner. It may have been thinking about humans and their medical needs, or even trying to understand the naked woman cowering in the corner.
The ASSAIL machine turned and casually obliterated a polarized glass wall. Once again, the camera view bounced along, headed through a medical observation room, and toward a door labeled "storage." The door opened at a link command sent by Meridian. Bren nodded. It meant the invaders had managed to authenticate themselves to at least part of Thermopylae's systems.
The machine walked in. A stack of storage containers blocked the way forward. Meridian turned left. Bren saw another door ahead.
Meridian launched two 12mm rounds in a precise cascade. The rounds penetrated the door, leaving only one hole. The door swung open. Bren saw the second round had traveled neatly through the hole created by the first before scoring a direct hit on the torso of a security robot on the other side. The security machine tilted on its dead legs and toppled to the floor, spraying glittering metal and dull plastic. Meridian was already passing over the wreckage. Bren heard the echoes of smashed parts snapping under the heavy feet of the ASSAIL.
Excerpted from Insidious by Michael McCloskey Copyright © 2009 by Michael McCloskey. Excerpted by permission.
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Michael McCloskey is a software engineer in Silicon Valley afflicted with recurring dreams of otherworldly creatures, mysterious alien planets, and fantastic adventures.
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