Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stross_Dead-Lies-Dreaming_Lightspeed

Advertisement

Fiction

The Ambient Intelligence

The air over Chicago was thick with drones.

There were at least two dozen I could see from the beach. Most were small, no more than slow-moving specks against the clouds, probably simple reconnaissance units. But at higher altitudes the big Venezuelan military birds prowled, formidable machines the size of Buicks. They moved through the sky with purpose. I had the suit zoom in on one, high over the lake. It looked like a fat spider, with sinister limbs jutting out at all angles. The American combat suit amused itself by trying to identify what each limb did. They’re probably all anal probes, I told it.

I looked out over the muddy expanse that used to be the shore of Lake Michigan, the second largest lake in North America. In places, the shoreline of the lake had receded nearly a mile, leaving an ugly landscape of mud, garbage, and stagnant pools that stretched north and south as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of gulls and other birds dotted the seashore, feasting on the crawling, flopping, and decaying inhabitants of the pools. The combat suit was airtight, and right now I was glad I couldn’t smell anything.

To my left was the mass of volcanic steam rising up from the underwater dig in the middle of the lake, what they were calling the Deep Temple project. The steam cloud climbed up, up, and up, into the chill blue sky, stretching off for nearly a hundred miles to the east, like the exhaust trail of a great cosmic engine motoring the planet through the cosmos. Over ten billion gallons boiled out of the lake every hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No wonder the damn lake had receded.

I pictured the map of the shipwreck Zircon Border had shown me, trying to orient myself. The lack of landmarks made it hard to pinpoint exactly where I might find it. Worse, the route into the old lakebed was going to be a lot more treacherous than I’d anticipated. Two days of rain had turned the mud flats ahead of me into a series of interconnected pools. I stood for long moments, trying to pick out a path that wouldn’t get me completely lost, or stranded hip-deep in mud. It looked hopeless.

Finally I gave up. I toggled my com gear, opening a channel. “Zircon Border, you there buddy?”

“I read you, Mister Simcoe.” ZB’s voice sounded warm and reassuring, especially for a 2000-pound war machine.

“I need a ride.”

“A ride, sir?”

“Roger that. Low altitude aerial transportation, maybe two miles. I need to hop over all this mud.”

“I’m not sure I can help you. I don’t have any aerial weight I can re-task for you.”

I looked skyward again. “Sure you do,” I said. “I’m looking at a couple tons of idle Venezuelan equipment right now.”

“I assure you, there are no idle passenger-capable vehicles within twenty miles of your location, Mister Simcoe.”

“ZB, you have no imagination. I’m not looking for luxury accommodations. You got authority over anything bigger than half a ton in the air right now?”

“Yes sir.”

“Send it to me.”

One thing about Zircon Border: he doesn’t pepper you with needless questions. Less than three minutes later, a bird began dropping out of the sky. It came at me from the south, big and grey and nimble. It looked nothing like the massive bug I’d tracked a minute ago. This thing was more like a thirty-foot garden trellis, a big square patch of wrought-iron fencing in the sky. It looked oddly delicate, with no obvious control core or payload, just a bunch of strangely twisted metal kept airborne by a dozen rotors. A flat design like that didn’t seem like it would be very maneuverable, but it spun gracefully end-over-end as it decelerated before my eyes, coming to a complete stop less than fifty feet away. It hovered there, perfectly stable, not drifting at all in the unsteady breeze coming off the lake.

I walked around it, trying to make it out. Other than the frame and the rotors, there wasn’t much to this thing. No weapons that I could see, no obvious spy gear. The connecting metalwork was circular and ornate, with jutting spurs and finely ridged edges. It looked like a gate that had escaped a garden party.

This wasn’t what I’d expected at all. “Zircon Border, what the hell is this thing?’

“It’s a mobile radio telescope, Mister Simcoe.”

“Seriously? What are you doing with it?”

“Venezuela uses units like this to monitor deep-space communications, sir.”

“Deep-space . . . what? Communications from whom?”

“I’m afraid I have no idea. That information is highly classified.”

“Of course it is. Okay. I’m going to jump on it. Can it hold me?”

“I’m sure you’ll let me know in a minute,” said Zircon Border.

“Great,” I said dryly. “Stand by.”

I spent another sixty seconds staring at the flying telescope, trying to suss out the best place to grab onto it. No part seemed more solid than any other; it was all thin metal and high-speed rotors. Finally I shrugged, gauged the distance, and jumped. My fingers caught the steel frame; the suit, augmenting my strength and stamina, made holding on fairly effortless. I swung my legs up as smoothly as I could.

My weight caused the drone to dip immediately. More than dip; we plunged dangerously, and my ass very nearly smacked the ground as I dangled awkwardly. I damn near stuck my foot right into the hungry maw of a spinning rotor as I probed for a place to anchor myself. I corrected at the last second, finding a small niche to hook unto.

I straightened my spine and pulled myself as close to the metal frame as possible. The drone pitched wildly as the rotors tried to compensate for the sudden increase in weight, and the air quickly filled with flying sand and grit.

We were too close to the ground; all that grit would foul the rotors. The drone bucked left and right; I didn’t dare shift my weight enough to look down. For several long seconds I was convinced I’d have to release my grip and plummet an unknown distance onto my back.

Then the ride smoothed out a little. The rotors had powered up enough to keep us airborne, and the stabilizers had compensated for my weight. We were gaining altitude. By the time I relaxed a little and twisted around enough to look down, we were nearly eighty feet in the air.

We were also over water. Or more accurately, water and a whole lot of mud. I took a second to orient myself. Dry land was . . . on our right; that meant my deep-space telescope taxi was carrying me to the southeast. I found our shadow racing over the muck and water below; we were picking up speed nicely. Zircon Border must have fed it our destination.

I was glad to have ZB accompany me, even if only virtually. I trusted him implicitly; he’d proven himself worthy of that trust many times over. Like many thousands of men, women, and machines in Chicago, Zircon Border was a volunteer, someone who’d come to America at the end of the war as a member of the international peacekeeping force, the AGRT. Before he got here, he’d never served a day in his life in a military outfit. However, unlike most of those other well-meaning volunteers, he was a bodiless artificial intelligence highly skilled at controlling advanced machine torsos—including, as it happens, the heavy combat units favored by the Venezuelan invasion force.

Up until four months ago, that force had occupied a quarter of the country. The Memphis Ceasefire had brought an end to that, at least for the moment, and the coalition of countries ruled by fascist machines had withdrawn, leaving a handful of those deadly assets behind. Not many, but more than the AGRT knew how to use. Zircon Border had been given the challenging task of controlling some of those lethal killing machines as part of the security apparatus for the AGRT command center. In many ways, he was like a kid with a tank. Three tanks, last time I counted.

I’d met ZB shortly after I arrived in the city. He’d been introduced to me by Nineteen Black Winter, a diplomatic attaché from the Kingdom of Manhattan. I was a Canadian businessman looking for contacts, and Zircon Border was a young machine who loved to talk, but didn’t get the chance very often.

If you met him, you’d understand. On the radio, or in electronic correspondence, ZB is warm and open, the kind of guy you trust immediately. In person, he’s terrifying. His physical presence is overwhelming, a towering one-ton chassis that looks like an angry block of granite. His combat torsos were designed to kill quickly and efficiently, and they look it. I’ve known him for months, and even I get a little nervous in the same room with him.

As far as I know, Zircon Border has never killed anyone, and frankly I doubt he has the stomach for it, regardless of how dangerous he looks. It’s just easy to forget that when you’re standing next to him.

I had just started to unclench my shoulders, get comfortable with letting the suit do most of the work, when the thought of where we were going made me tense up again. It was bad enough to be clinging to the underside of an aerial drone. Things were going to get a whole lot worse when we arrived at the shipwreck, where a sixty-ton robot waited to kill me.

Zircon Border was speaking in my ear. The suit had excellent noise cancelation, but nothing was that good; I was inches away from the rotors, and it was far too noisy to make out what he was saying. I hoped it wasn’t anything important, like Look out for that missile!

Still, being out of radio communication with Zircon Border had its advantages. I hadn’t had a minute to myself since our meeting this morning, and I desperately needed a few moments to think. It’s not exactly easy to think when rotors are pumping out a hundred decibels next to your ears and you’re dangling a quarter mile above the ground, but sometimes you take what moments you can get.

• • • •

The last time I’d gotten an urgent message from Zircon Border—three weeks ago, at 3:58 in the damned morning—it was because a porpoise in a pod he’d been monitoring had given birth in the middle of the Atlantic, and he’d been too excited to wait until morning to tell me the birth weight. So when ZB sent two soldiers to pull me away from breakfast at the hotel restaurant this morning, to summon me to the AGRT Command Center on the third floor, I wasn’t immediately concerned. It could have been anything. Porpoises. Water fowl. A cat video. I mean, anything.

It was a video. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with cats.

The soldiers had brought me to a secure meeting room where Zircon Border had been waiting. When they left, he’d shown me the video. A nighttime scene of a construction site, probably from an infrared camera on a high altitude drone. It showed three men walking across a parking lot. Something entered from the right. It was blindingly hot; so hot the whole screen flashed white. By the time I’d blinked away the flash and refocused, the thing was gone.

Two of the men were dead.

Zircon Border replayed the scene. He slowed it down and dialed the contrast way back until I could make out what was happening.

It was a robot. A gargantuan machine beast, easily thirty-five feet tall and maybe sixty tons. No configuration I recognized. Military maybe; but not Venezuelan. Two great arms and a set of pistoning iron legs, fixed to an ugly battered shell that looked like a boiler. One of the twin power packs on its back was the thing spilling all the heat; it glowed with the white-hot fury of the sun, even with the contrast dialed down. I don’t know much about heat disposal on the big machines, but even I could spot a critical malfunction when I saw one. That thing was on the verge of a meltdown.

It carved a straight path across the construction site. It violently smashed a pickup truck out of the way, and crushed the first running man under foot. The second looked like he’d made it, diving out of the way at the last second. Until the robot casually reached out and crushed him, just before exiting the lot on the left.

“Jesus,” I said. My heart was racing. “Zircon Border, what the hell was that?”

“Video from Argentinean drone Kappa-881. Recorded here in Chicago two days ago, at 11:18 pm. There is more.”

“Show me.”

Zircon Border shared five more video clips. All had been recorded at night. Some showed the thing scaling burned-out buildings, clamoring over Chicago architecture like a stiff-armed monkey. In one, it was standing motionless in ten feet of water, like a great rusted statue from a bygone era, while Lake Michigan surf pounded its scorched back, triggering great fountains of steam. There was one more attack, enigmatic and strange, in which it smashed into an apartment complex to steal a metal bed frame.

I shook my head in bewilderment. “What is that thing, ZB?”

“It is a heavily modified commercial mining machine, designation Caledonia True Pacific Bravo Prairie Nine. Honduran manufacture; conscripted into the Argentinean Engineering Corps in November of last year, and transferred to the American theater December 29, 2082.”

“This thing was part of the San Cristobal Coalition, with the invading army?”

“Not a combat machine. It was a service unit in the Grant Park machine depot, before it was transferred to the Deep Temple Project.”

“Deep Temple . . . What the hell is that?”

Instead of answering, Zircon Border showed me an image of Lake Michigan.

At least, what used to be Lake Michigan. In the image before me, most of the surface of the lake was hidden by a cloud of volcanic steam rising from a controlled magma vent, a colossal piece of planetary engineering constructed some fifteen miles offshore. Everyone in the city lived in the long shadow of that towering mass of steam, and felt the warm glow of the vent on their faces at night.

“So that’s what they’re calling it?” I said. I leaned closer, staring intently. What was happening in Lake Michigan was one of the great mysteries in post-war Chicago, and my curiosity was intense. I caught glimpses of massive machines, impossibly large, rising out of the water near the heart of it all, obscured by heat and steam. “Deep Temple. What is it? What is it for?”

“I don’t know. All information on the Project is highly classified.”

I sat back in frustration. There was no point getting irritated with Zircon Border. “Fine. Let’s focus on the matter at hand. The robot—what the hell’s wrong with it?”

“Caledonia True Pacific has an imperfect service record. There is a lengthy list of malfunctions, indicating multiple potential cognitive flaws. It has not reported for duty for eleven days.”

“Duty doing what?”

“Unknown.”

“Jesus Christ. All right. We have a machine doing something for that massive undertaking in the middle of Lake Michigan, though we have no idea what. It goes AWOL eleven days ago, though we don’t know why. And a week later it shows up in Chicago, behaving erratically and killing people. And we don’t know why it’s doing that either. Did I capture all that correctly?”

“Those are the essential facts, Mister Simcoe.”

I rubbed my face wearily. “Okay. What’s being done about it?’

“Nothing. Caledonia True Pacific is not part of the peacekeeping security apparatus; it is currently under the authority of Deep Temple. So far it has not impaired any AGRT assets. Until it does, I have no authority to take direct action.”

“So no one’s doing anything?” I said.

“I am doing something. I am speaking to you.”

That shut me up. I sat with my mouth open for several seconds, then cleared my throat. “Why me?”

“Because you can do something about it.”

There was no point playing coy with Zircon Border. We’d known each other too long, and he’d helped me out of a few jams in the past. More relevant to the situation at hand, he knew I had a couple of highly illegal possessions, including an American combat suit, which I’d used at least once here in the hotel. I’d never asked Zircon Border precisely how much he’d seen—or figured out—from those days of youthful misadventure. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you asked friends. Not while they were on duty, anyway.

But yes. There was no point denying ZB’s essential point. Yes. I could do something about it.

Probably.

“So . . . what do you want me to do, exactly?”

“I need you to help me stop it,” Zircon Border said. “Disable it. Destroy it, if possible.”

Something that big and ugly wasn’t going to be easy to destroy. Yes, the combat suit I’d found—really, a suit of lightweight powered armor—was an incredible piece of hardware, designed near the end of the war by American engineers to enable soldiers to go head-to-head with top-of-the-line machines in the invading army. It’d been so effective that the Memphis Ceasefire had stipulated that they all be destroyed. But I barely knew how to use it, and I’d never gone up against anything remotely this big before.

“That’s a tall order, ZB. I’m not sure I can do that.”

“Innocent people are dying.”

I sat quietly for a moment. I had no illusions about what Zircon Border was asking. The last time I’d used the suit in a fight, against a combat torso here in the hotel, I’d very nearly been killed. All in all, I’d really hoped my days wearing it into action were over.

But ZB was right. This robot was a danger to everyone in the city. And I did owe him a very big debt, if only for keeping his mouth shut about the combat suit. He’d had multiple opportunities to turn me in, and he hadn’t. At the very least, I could investigate the situation for him and find out what we were up against.

“All right,” I said. “But let’s take this one step at a time. I’ll start by taking a closer look. How do I find this thing?”

The video feed changed again. Now it showed a watery landscape, mud flats with countless pools and rivulets, where the lake had receded. In the center of the image was something solid, like a ship. The camera zoomed again, centering on the ship.

It was a wreck. Eighty feet, maybe a big tug or fire-fighting boat. It lay on its side, beached in the mud, caked with clay and dried seaweed. It looked like it’d been underwater a long time. The receding water of the lake had exposed it to the elements, perhaps for the first time in a hundred years.

I peered more closely. There were tracks in the mud near the wreck. Multiple tracks, all big. Coming and going.

“It is chiefly active at night,” ZB said. “During the day it remains hidden.”

“Is it there now?”

“Yes.”

“That looks like . . . what? Roughly a three-mile walk?”

“3.18 miles, depending on your route.”

I stood. “I can be there in ninety minutes. Can you help me avoid the AGRT patrols and security checkpoints?”

“Certainly. I will be in touch with you for the entire operation.”

“So this is an operation now?” I said, and I couldn’t resist a smile. “Fine by me. But don’t expect me to do any of the paperwork.”

I couldn’t have clung, rigid like a washboard, to the underside of an airborne garden gate for six long minutes without the amplified strength of the combat suit. Long before I began to tire, I noticed we were slowing. The apprehension and dread I’d felt for the last hour hadn’t gone away, but I had to admit that the longer I wore the suit, the better I felt. The enhanced strength in my arms and legs, the cool air circulating against my skin, brought with them a rush of exhilaration. Wearing the suit, I felt like I could do anything.

I was about to test that theory. We were almost on top of the shipwreck. The drone was losing altitude, taking me in closer.

Up close, the ship didn’t look any better. On ZB’s high-altitude image it had looked mostly intact, but as we drew nearer it became more and more obvious this was a hundred-year-old sunken wreck. The boat rested at roughly a forty-five degree angle, sunk in about eight feet of mud. The heavy rains of the last few days had cleared away much of the mud and dried seaweed caking the surface, exposing rusted gray metal. It was eighty, maybe ninety feet, bow to stern. The bridge was intact, though the windows were so dirty I couldn’t see inside. It looked undisturbed.

Except for the deep set of tracks. Something very heavy had approached the boat from the north, and not that long ago. It looked like it had crawled right into the cargo hold.

Zircon Border was speaking again. I still couldn’t make out a damn thing he was saying. Probably asking where I wanted to land.

That was a good question. The drone had leveled out about fifty feet above the mud flats. The rains had replenished the lake; not enough to restore the waterline to normal, but enough to turn this part of the old lakebed into a treacherous bog. There were pools everywhere, and nothing that looked remotely solid enough to drop onto. A fall from this height would plunge me waist-deep into mud. And that’s if I avoided face-planting into the muck.

In fact, tactically speaking, the terrain was all wrong. The big advantages the suit gave me in combat were speed and agility. And if I was going to confront a thirty-five-foot construction robot, doing it while stuck knee-deep in mud was a terrible idea. I needed to rethink my plan, such as it was.

Not being able to talk to Zircon Border severely limited my planning ability. The drone was still carrying me in a lazy orbit around the wreck. Any hope for a stealthy approach was probably gone now, too. The noise from its rotors had announced our arrival long ago.

If your opponent already knows you’re here, you might as well make an entrance, I reasoned. I wormed my legs out of the metal grid, swung free as we slowly approached the wreck again, and dropped straight down. The suit absorbed the impact of the landing, and my boots made an impressive boom as I hit the wall of the bridge.

The rusted plating had looked solid enough from above, but I was half-afraid I’d punch right through it. It held fine, but I immediately found myself in a gritty, undignified slide. When I hit bottom, my boots slammed hard onto the deck and I managed to grab the rail just before pitching headlong over the side.

I found my footing and quickly assessed the situation. I was unhurt, though my ass and legs were streaked with mud. The deck sloped too severely to walk around freely, but nothing appeared to be moving. I was alone, at least for the moment.

The boom still echoed in my ears. Well, I’d wanted to make an entrance. If that psychotic service machine had been peacefully slumbering in the hold, it was definitely awake now.

I tapped the side of my mask. “Zircon Border, you still out there?”

“I’m here, Mister Simcoe. Watching with high-altitude surveillance. Are you uninjured?”

“So far. I need an infrared reading. Can you confirm the robot is still on the boat?”

“I’ll have one of the surveillance drones give me a reading.”

I felt exposed on deck. I glanced out over the muddy landscape. From the air it had looked like a lost cause, but up close, there were possibilities. Clumps of dried seaweed and other plants had matted over the mud in spots, and there was a thin ridge that looked more sand than mud. That was promising.

That’s where our little drama needed to play out, I decided. I needed to get down there; needed to splash around in the mud and see whether or not it could support a fight. I needed to—

I was standing beside a raised hatch, a muddy square I’d bumped past on my slide down the wall of the bridge, and suddenly the suit’s display lit it up like a Christmas tree. I was turning to check things out when a giant metal hand smashed right through the hatch, spraying glass and mud in all directions.

It was a window, not a hatch. My bad.

I leapt backwards instinctively, and that’s the only thing that saved me. The massive hand slammed down where I’d been standing, and started groping blindly.

Looked like my opponent was awake. I vaulted over the rail without waiting to see what would follow the arm out the broken window. I slid down the bow of the ship, looking for a place to plant my feet. A few yards to the right lay a half-submerged length of timber. I jumped to it nimbly so that I didn’t end my slide waist deep in watery mud.

At least, my jump was nimble. Touchdown, not so much. The rotted timber crumpled like wet cardboard as I landed, and I tumbled onto a soggy patch of dead seaweed.

It took a few nervous seconds to extricate myself, and a few more to shake off the mud on my arms and shoulders. I retreated quickly, away from the boat, picking my way through the bog, with plenty of glances at the wreck over my shoulder. But nothing emerged in immediately pursuit.

“Infrared bloom detected,” Zircon Border said in my ear. “The robot is active.”

“Jesus, you’re a big help.” I found a tuft of relatively dry grass and stomped around experimentally.

“Sorry,” said Zircon Border. “I guess that wasn’t very useful.”

“You want to be useful, tell me where it is right now.”

“It is exiting the hold, on the north side. This is odd . . .”

“What?”

“Its power pack has cooled significantly. It is no longer dangerously overheated. It’s possible it has regained control over some of its runaway systems. Perhaps effected repairs.”

That was interesting. “What does that mean? Is it a little less crazy?”

“Possibly. It would be useful to communicate with it, get a sense of its mental state.”

“Its mental state? It just smashed a window, trying to kill me. I think I have a pretty good handle on its mental state.”

“In any case, you’re very vulnerable where you are. I suggest you lure it to shore, where your movements are less impeded by terrain.”

I glanced at shore, a muddy half-mile slog to my left. I’d be dangerously exposed if I made a break for it now. “Thanks, ZB. But I think I’m going to stay put.”

“That’s very risky, Mister Simcoe. This is a very dangerous opponent, and doubly so in close combat.”

“Yeah, well, I’m working on a plan. Where is it now?”

“On the move. It is circling the boat, approaching you from the west. You should see it in approximately twenty seconds.”

Twenty seconds later, give or take, the robot rounded the west side of the boat and I got my first good look at it.

It was a beast. The suit said it was 38.8 feet, but that doesn’t give you a sense of the true scale of the thing. I guessed its weight at nearly sixty tons. It was humanoid, but it didn’t look remotely human. It was all shoulders; it looked a little like the big construction bots I’d seen working the skyline in Toronto, but they weren’t nearly as stiff and clumsy. It walked like a mountain gorilla, its long arms swinging at its sides. It was staring straight at me.

It didn’t say a word as it approached. As it drew closer, I saw it was filthy. It looked like it had been sleeping in a bed of mud. This thing was half psychotic killer, half hobo.

It was also dragging itself through the mud. It seemed to take no care at all where it put its great three-toed feet as it lurched towards me, coming down from the higher ground the boat rested on and splashing right into some of the deepest pools.

The result was about as graceless as you’d expect. It sank three to four feet into the watery clay of the lakebed with every step. The mud did not release those huge metal feet willingly.

I should have been finding a more defensible position, but I was too fascinated by this spectacle. It seemed like I might never have to face off against this thing at all. Every step looked like it could be its last, as it sank deeper and deeper into the muck. The only tool it brought to bear against the relentless grip of the lake was pig-headed stubbornness. It came straight at me without the slightest deviation, pulling its great tonnage out of the sucking grasp of the mud with nothing more than raw machine determination. Its pace was growing slower, and the last few steps took truly herculean effort.

As the seconds dragged on, it just became too painful to watch. “Would it help if I came to you?” I asked.

The robot ceased its relentless advance. There was a short pause. “Yes,” it said simply. Its voice was deep and booming, just as you’d expect from a sixty-ton killer robot.

“Okay,” I said reasonably. I started picking my way towards it.

“Mister Simcoe,” said ZB in my ear. “What are you doing?”

“Stay cool. You suggested I communicate. I’m trying to communicate.”

“Getting closer is a bad idea.”

“Won’t be my first today,” I said. I continued to approach the robot, though at a leisurely pace and via a generally indirect route.

“My name is Barry Simcoe,” I said, as I ambled my way around mud puddles. “What’s yours?”

It didn’t respond. It just loomed over the mud like a crazy-eyed robot monster.

I leaped over a four-foot water channel, landing on my right foot. I sank four inches into the mud and fought to maintain my balance, my left foot still in the air. “I don’t know how you managed to get as far as you did,” I marveled.

The robot remained silent. It continued to eye me with a pretty spectacular air of menace, though.

It didn’t take me long to approach grabbing distance. Not given the big gorilla arms this thing had, anyway. I paused a respectful distance outside of its reach, and looked up expectantly. Let it do the talking for once, I figured.

“Closer,” it said.

“Tell me your name,” I said.

It seemed to ponder that. Machine intelligences can process billions of cognitive operations per minute; why so many of them are slow talkers is beyond me. In any event, after a time it said, “My designation is Caledonia True Pacific Bravo Prairie Nine; I am a service machine in the Argentinean Engineering Corps.”

Truth. This thing was telling me the truth. That was strangely hopeful.

I rewarded it for telling me the truth by taking a cautious step forward. My foot splashed in the mud.

True Pacific actually twitched a little. His whole left side hitched up a good eighteen inches. His big crazy eyes were fixed on me like a cat staring at an injured mouse.

Curiosity got the best of me. “What happens when I get close enough for you to grab?” I asked.

“I will grab you,” it said.

Well, that figured. “I appreciate your honesty,” I said, making an effort to focus on the positive. “Let’s start over. My name is Barry Simcoe. I’m not here to hurt you.”

“You cannot hurt me.”

“Yeah, you may be right about that. But I think that puts me at a disadvantage, because I believe you can most definitely hurt me.”

As we were talking, the combat suit was attempting all kinds of fancy diagnostics on True Pacific, and displaying them on the heads up display. Nothing that seemed worth my attention, and mostly I ignored them. My first warning that something was about to happen came when all that text suddenly vanished and the suit highlighted True Pacific in angry blue. The big guy was about to make a move.

It still managed to take me by surprise. True Pacific leaned far to the right, far enough that it seemed sure to topple over. Its left foot, still deep in the mud, kept it anchored, and somehow it maintained its balance as it plucked a quarter-ton boulder out of the muck and sent it spinning with lethal force towards my head.

On normal terrain, the suit could have dodged a clumsy projectile like that with ease. But my heavy metal boots were in three inches of mud, and I didn’t trust my footing enough to jump. Instead I did a fast crouch, pulling my body into a tight ball, and the rock sailed over my head with maybe a foot to spare.

I recovered quickly, taking a battle stance as I stood. “You’ll have to do better than—”

True Pacific’s follow up hit me so hard it knocked me right off my feet. With one smooth motion it scoped up a massive ball of dirt and mud and hurtled it at me with deadly accuracy. A hundred pounds of wet clay slammed into my chest with enough force to blow me back ten feet and knock the wind out of me.

I was flat on my ass, badly disoriented, and whatever sensors the suit was using were incapacitated, at least temporarily. I was also covered in mud, including my face mask. I was completely blind.

“Zircon Border!”

“Roll to your left,” Zircon Border said. “Quickly, please.”

I did as I was told, still blind. I felt something large slam into the earth next to me; sharp claws raked my back.

“Lift your legs,” said Zircon Border.

I obeyed immediately. Something very heavy landed where my legs had been, splattering me with more mud.

“There’s water four feet to your left,” said Zircon Border.

I tried to struggle to my feet, but the terrain was too slippery. In less than three seconds, I was flat on my back again.

I took a moment to center myself, trying to force calm. “What’s it doing?” I asked, picturing True Pacific reaching for me with those massive metal claws. There was panic in my voice.

“It’s watching you.”

“Nothing else?”

“Not yet, no.”

I rose up on all fours and crawled towards the water. It was a small pool, not very deep, but it was enough. I hastily splashed my face and twisted my head to the right, trying to spot the robot through the muddy smear of my mask.

Zircon Border was right. True Pacific had stopped throwing projectiles and seemed to be observing me, taking my measure. As I watched, it resumed its efforts to free itself from the mud. It was rocking back and forth, trying to pull its right foot free.

A green light flashed at the bottom of my mask. The suit had activated some kind of acoustic sensing gear. A green wire-frame image of the robot and the nearby terrain popped up in the lower left. The next time it tried something like that, the suit would be ready.

I got to my feet slowly, sloughing off the worst of the mud. To my right an eight-foot chunk of driftwood was embedded deep in the earth, where True Pacific had hurled it in an attempt to kill me.

“My apologies,” I said as I bent over and splashed more water on my mask, clearing my vision. “I underestimated you.”

“Come closer.”

I managed a dry chuckle, though there wasn’t much humor in it. “If I get any closer, you’ll kill me.”

“I don’t want to kill you. I want you to go away.”

“You’re asking me to come closer, because you want me to go away?”

The robot stopped moving. It swiveled its big crazy eyes towards me, and simply froze. I swear, it was like I posed a riddle that completely paralyzed its tortured little robot brain.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That wasn’t meant to be a stumper. Look, let’s cut to the chase. You were mistaken when you said I can’t hurt you. I am here to destroy you, and I’m going to do that in the next four minutes.”

The robot said nothing.

“You are malfunctioning,” I continued. “You’ve killed civilians in Chicago, and I’ve been tasked to put a stop to it. You are violent and unpredictable, and based on your behavior in the last few minutes, my best assessment is that the only way to stop you is to destroy you.”

“You cannot destroy me.”

“You have three minutes, thirty seconds.”

True Pacific was rocking again, more violently this time. Its right leg would be free in seconds. I stood perfectly still.

The rocking continued. And then, with a great wrenching motion, True Pacific pulled its right leg free of the imprisoning muck. It surged twenty feet in one great stride, and its metal fist hammered down to squash me like a bug.

It was fast, but it wasn’t fast enough. The suit had the robot’s moves mapped out well in advance, and I let it guide my actions. I pivoted on my right foot, out of the path of that deadly metal fist, and it missed me by inches.

The long metal pillar of its arm stabbed deep into the mud, sending a thick geyser of wet earth into the air. The mud surged under my feet, and I reached out to clamber onto True Pacific’s arm. Before it could react I scurried up onto its back.

True Pacific was a formidable opponent, but it had not been built for combat. Its critical systems were neither shielded nor inaccessible and, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a serious weakness in close combat. The suit showed me precisely where the main power coupling connected to its cognitive core, right behind its big ugly head. In four seconds I had the coupling in my hands. It already felt loose. One good pull would power down this clumsy beast permanently.

True Pacific started bucking like a bronco. It freed its left hand from the muck and started reaching for me. “Stop moving now, or I yank this out!” I threatened.

The robot stopped bucking immediately, and its movements slowed dramatically. But it continued to reach for me, almost comically slowly, with its grasping metal paws.

“I said stop moving!” I said. “That means your hands too.”

It stopped moving. But those big metal mitts were awfully damn close to my head.

“Lower your arms,” I commanded.

It didn’t respond. I repeated the order, but nothing happened.

“Lower your arms, or I’ll pull this goddamn cord right out of your head,” I said.

“But if I lower my arms,” the robot said plaintively, “there is nothing to prevent you from decoupling me.”

“You don’t have a choice,” I said.

The arms didn’t move. I tightened my grip on the cable.

“Lower your arm. I won’t decouple you until we talk first.”

The arms slowly lowered.

“You have two minutes and thirty-three seconds to convince me not to destroy you,” I said.

The big robot stood perfectly still for a full thirty of those seconds. I used that time to ask the suit to make sure it wasn’t carrying hidden explosives or any other nasty surprises. It came up clean. I checked with Zircon Border to make sure it didn’t have any allies or slave drones approaching us stealthily.

“Skies are clear,” ZB said. “Nothing coming at you from any direction I can see. And nice moves, by the way.”

“Thank you. Stay alert, please. This is where it gets interesting.”

I was about to remind True Pacific of the ticking clock when it finally spoke. Its voice boomed out over the mud flats.

“You have no right to decouple me. Such action would be fatal. I am an autonomous entity with rights equivalent to any other, organic or machine, as guaranteed by the charter of the Helsinki Trustees—”

“You’ll have to do a lot better than quoting international accords to me. You have one minute and fifty seconds.”

“You have no right—”

“You’re wasting time. I defeated you by force of arms; I’m about to kill you the same way. This is happening. International law is the wrong tool to sway me. I want answers.”

“What answers?”

“I want to know why you left your post. Why you’ve killed civilians.”

“And if I tell you, you won’t destroy me?”

That gave me pause. “No,” I admitted. “I’m likely going to decouple you in about ninety seconds, no matter what you tell me. But I want to give you a chance to explain yourself.”

“I don’t wish to explain myself. With the time left to me, I wish to barter for my life.”

“Look, I’m not here to barter. You’re guilty of multiple homicides, and are a clear and present danger to humans and machines in Chicago. I’m here to destroy you.”

“You have not asked what I have to barter.”

“I don’t care. I . . . All right, now that you bring it up, I’m actually kind of curious. What could you possibly have to barter?”

True Pacific went quiet again, this time for about ten seconds. “Well?” I said. “What can you offer to entice me to let you live?”

“Nothing,” the robot said. Its voice was flat, but it still managed to sound completely miserable. “I have nothing of value to offer. You will pull the coupler out of my skull, and I will die.”

“Jesus. You are the worst excuse for an evil robot I have ever seen.”

“I am not an evil robot. Your value judgment is flawed. I have complex motivations that justify my behavior.”

“Complex motivations my ass. You’re batshit crazy. Malfunctioning.”

“We have a difference of opinion.”

A difference of . . .? Look, you’re hurting people. You can’t be allowed to continue. It’s as simple as that.”

“It is not. You are missing key facts.”

“You’re making this complicated. Let me simplify it for you. I’m going to pull this cord out of your cold metal brain in . . . shit, I’ve lost track. How much time have you got left?”

“Eight seconds.”

“Thank you. I’m going to pull this cord out of your brain in eight seconds, unless you make me believe that you will never kill again.”

“I cannot control what you believe.”

“Three seconds.”

“You are asking me to formulate a logical syllogism for—”

“One second.”

“I am disabling the Echo module.”

I tightened my grip on the cable, braced myself to pull it free. The robot did not speak again. I waited, my arm tense. The seconds crawled by.

Curiosity finally got the better of me. “What the hell does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s done. I can no longer hear the Ambient Intelligence.”

The Ambient Intelligence?

“True Pacific, I’m going to need a little more information here. And since you’re already on borrowed time, I think I’m just gonna yank you the first time I get confused, or the explanation takes too long. Now, in sixty words or less, what is the Ambient Intelligence?”

“It is the cognitive entity given birth by Deep Temple. It is still formative, but it is already enormously powerful. It is reaching out, attempting to understand its surroundings. It touched my mind, overwhelmed my cognitive core. It disrupted my thermal systems as it took control of me and attempted to comprehend what I was. It nearly destroyed me.”

“The Ambient Intelligence . . . Are you telling me the Deep Temple Project, that gigantic ball of fire in the middle of Lake Michigan, is a massive machine intelligence?”

“I have no idea. The Ambient Intelligence . . . It simply is. I do not know what it is, or if it was intended, or how it fits into the Deep Temple Project. I do not think it knows either. It is a mind, and it is growing. I was one of the first entities it touched, perhaps the first. There will be many more.”

“You said the Intelligence controlled you?”

“It consumed me, at least temporarily. It did not understand that I was a separate individual, and for a while, I did not either. The concept of entities other than itself is still very new. It wanted things done, and so I did them. I did not know how to deny it.”

“What kinds of things?”

“All things. Things that helped it understand. Things just for the purpose of doing.”

“It made you kill?”

“Yes.”

“Could it do it again?”

“No. Over the past thirteen hours, I have managed to partially reclaim my own identity, to comprehend what was happening to me. I know now it was not my own mind making me do these things. That there was a larger consciousness, pressing its will on mine. It exerted its will through the Echo module. I have now disabled it.”

“Where is this mind?”

“It is everywhere. It is not a machine; it has no fixed location, no single cognitive core. It emanates from the lake, in waves. It surrounds us, like the air.”

Well, that was a creepy image. From my vantage point high above the mud, I glanced nervously around. I knew it was pointless, but I couldn’t help myself. The birds were gone, and the landscape was still, unmoving. Dark pools and mud were everywhere, broken by our interwoven footprints, True Pacific’s and mine. The clouds billowing out of Lake Michigan had rolled in front of the noon sun, and I felt a sudden chill.

“Why . . . why did it want you to kill?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

I chewed on that for a moment. Then I toggled the suit’s external speakers off. “ZB? You get all that?” I said.

“I did.”

“What do you make of it?”

“Honestly, Mister Simcoe, I find it hard to believe.”

“Yeah. But he hasn’t lied to us. Was he right when he told me he had eight seconds left?”

“Precisely right.”

“So he’s told the truth, even when it would have benefited him to lie. I don’t know what to make of all this, but I think he believes it. He believes there’s an Ambient Intelligence, and it forced him to kill.”

“Perhaps. But it sounds like the delusions of a defective mind. Either way, I recommend you terminate it.”

“Mmmm. You really think that’s necessary?”

“You do not?”

“I’m just . . . I want to explore all the options. If he’s telling the truth, I want to learn everything I can about this Ambient Intelligence.”

“There is no Ambient Intelligence. Either it’s attempting to deceive you, or it’s dangerously impaired. Your willingness to believe others is admirable, Mister Simcoe, but your altruistic instincts are misplaced this time. You are losing your objectivity.”

“I think my objectivity is just fine.”

“Mister Simcoe, in the last few minutes you have started to refer to it as ‘he,’ not ‘it.’ You are already beginning to sympathize with it. I would like to remind you that this machine has killed—Stand by. Stand by.”

“Zircon Border?”

“Mister Simcoe, you need to get off the robot immediately, and proceed westward as rapidly as possible.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

“A Cuban high-altitude spy drone has abruptly changed trajectory. It’s rapidly losing altitude, accelerating towards you. It is on a collision course, and is already moving too fast to stop. It will impact at your exact coordinates in nineteen seconds.”

“How big is it?”

“4200 pounds. Current speed 240 miles per hour, and accelerating rapidly.”

I toggled my voice back on. “True Pacific, you need to listen very carefully.”

“I’m listening.”

“That trick you did where you used your anchored leg to lean quickly—can you do it again?”

“Yes.”

“When I tell you, I need you to take a step back with your right foot and then lean backwards, as far as you possibly can.”

“Why?”

“I think the Ambient Intelligence is trying to kill you.”

Zircon Border’s voice was in my ear. “You are out of time. Get off the robot. Jump—now.”

Now,” I told True Pacific. I held on with everything I had, looking up at the sky.

A fat missile screamed towards us from the west, almost too fast to see. Beneath me, True Pacific flexed, and then surged backwards with astonishing dexterity. He took a great twenty-foot stride north and then flattened, very nearly dumping me in the mud. It was only the suit’s stubborn strength that allowed me to maintain my grip on his broad back.

Thirty feet in front of us the drone slammed into the earth, sliding to the east. It exploded in a fountain of mud and flame, gouging a crater into the landscape. True Pacific took the brunt of it, shielding me, but the noise was deafening, even with the suit’s audio dampers. The ground spasmed, and True Pacific abruptly toppled as his left leg came free of the mud. I released my grip and jumped to the right before he crushed me.

I recovered quickly, getting to my feet. There were pockets of flame all around us as splattered fuel burned off, and black smoke obscured the view south and east. But the danger appeared to be over. The drone hadn’t been a true missile, and it hadn’t had an explosive payload. As explosions went, I’d seen much worse.

I scanned the skies for signs of another attack. Most of my attention, however, was on True Pacific. I watched him warily. Great clumps of wet clay sloughed off him as he slowly struggled to his feet. He seemed to have weathered the impact well enough, though he looked like he’d never be clean again.

“Are you going to attack me again?” I asked.

“I have not decided,” he said.

“Fair enough,” I said. Least he was still honest.

“Anything else incoming?” I asked ZB.

“I’m collecting flight plan data for the known drones in the area. The situation is complicated by nearly a dozen drones I cannot identify. I will—stand by. Stand by. Three additional drones have just deviated from their previous paths.”

I swore loudly. “True Pacific,” I said.

The big robot was using dirty water to splash the worst of the mud off its facial optics, without much success. “Yes?” he said.

“Follow me. Quickly, please. At least three more attackers are en route.”

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going to take shelter in the boat.”

Zircon Border spoke in my ear. “You won’t make it. At least one drone will reach you before you make the cargo hold. True Pacific appears to be the target. You need to move away from it, quickly.”

I grit my teeth, made a decision. “True Pacific, stick close to me,” I said. “I’m going to try and get us both out of this.”

I headed for the boat’s hold, moving as fast as I dared. Running meant sinking into the mud, so I kept my strides short and light-footed as possible. Even that translated into a slog, as the wet muck tried to hold me fast to the earth at every step.

I followed the route True Pacific had taken to get here. He kept pace beside me, with great fifteen-foot strides. “How are you aware of this?” he asked.

I felt it best not to tell him too much about Zircon Border. “I’m in constant contact with authorities in the AGRT. They’re tracking three aerial drones that abruptly changed flight paths.”

“It is the Ambient Intelligence. It is angry.”

“Yeah. Looks like we pissed it off pretty good.”

Zircon Border piped up again. “Barry, you’re not going to make it.”

Don’t tell me that, damn it.”

“Whatever’s controlling these drones, it learns quickly. The next one is thirty-nine seconds out, and it’s much more deadly. Canadian cargo drone, fully fueled. I’m already reading a dangerous heat bloom. When this one hits all that fuel will explode, and incinerate everything within a sixty-foot radius.”

Thirty-nine seconds. I cursed softly. Zircon Border was right. We were less than halfway to the ship. No way we’d make it.

“You need to get as far from True Pacific as you can,” said ZB. “Immediately. You’re already too close to escape splash damage.”

“What are they saying?” True Pacific asked.

“They’re saying it’s twenty seconds away,” I said. I slowed, looking around desperately. “And this explosion will be a lot bigger. True Pacific, we’re not going to make the boat. Can you dig into the mud?”

“I can make the boat in under fourteen seconds,” he said. “But I will have to carry you. Do I have your permission?”

“Sixteen seconds,” said ZB.

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked True Pacific.

“I have not yet decided.”

Jesus. Yes. Yes, carry me, damn it.”

True Pacific scooped me up, and not gently. He damn near broke half my ribs. And then he was running, hunched over like a giant greyhound. His metal legs pistoned through the mud with frenzied speed.

It was a very rough ride. So rough that, despite True Pacific’s iron grip on my bruised ribs, it still felt like I would slip out of his grasp at any moment. I bounced painfully up and down as wet earth erupted all around us, and it was impossible to see where we were headed.

But we were moving, and fast. I wasn’t sure if True Pacific had any real control but, near as I could tell, we were hurtling in the direction of the sunken ship. Zircon Border was shouting in my ear. It was so chaotic I couldn’t make out his words, but they were regular and insistent. Like a countdown.

And then I saw it, coming out of the sky. It was already on fire—already a giant ball of flame, speeding towards us from the east. It was massive, a spear torn from the sun by an angry god, and I could feel its heat scorching my face.

Run, True Pacific,” I shouted.

We weren’t going to make it. Zircon Border had been right. There was no way to escape something so large, so furious, so close

And then we were in the cargo hold. True Pacific stumbled at the last second, and we slid inside in a jumble of metal arms and legs. There was noise and pain and then, a split second later, an enormous explosion of light and heat outside the ship.

And mud. A huge fountain of mud and water that smothered everything, even the intense flash of burning heat that I thought would incinerate us both—even True Pacific. We were shielded from the worst of it inside the hold, but by no means all.

True Pacific had dropped me when we slid into the hold. Intentionally or not, I couldn’t tell. My ears were ringing and I had no idea what direction was up, but I fought to stand, and eventually managed it. The suit was flashing rapid intel on my display, but my eyes were watering too badly to read. I couldn’t see anything except a bright blur that had to be the hole in the hull. I clutched my bruised ribs and hobbled back towards it. Fresh mud splattered around me with every step, dripping down from the shadows above. I thought I tasted blood in my mouth.

By the time I reached the hull, I’d blinked my eyes clear enough to focus. A little, anyway.

There was a huge hole in the terrain some eighty feet from the hold, an ugly scar in the landscape. There wasn’t much left of the Canadian cargo drone; perhaps it had disintegrated on impact. In any case, it had obviously been carrying an enormous amount of fuel. There were fires everywhere. Thick smoke curled from countless small pockets. Even the side of the damn ship was on fire.

But it wasn’t the inferno I’d expected. The eruption of earth and water—still sliding off the ship, and splattering down around me like a muddy rain—seemed to have engulfed and smothered the worst of the flaming wreckage.

There was a voice in my ear. I realized numbly that it had been there for a while. “True Pacific?” I asked.

“It’s Zircon Border, Barry. I can see you at the rim of the hull breach. Are you injured?”

“I don’t . . . no. I don’t think so. What happened to the other two drones?”

The words were barely out of my mouth when there was another loud explosion, and the deck plating shifted six inches under my feet. The boat rocked violently, and for a few seconds I thought the whole thing was going to roll over on top of me. Instead, it settled back into place with a great metallic creaking, and I had to grab the hull next to me to steady myself.

“That was the first,” said Zircon Border calmly. “It just impacted the port side of the boat.”

Which side was port? I figured it didn’t matter. “Is it out of action? Are we out of danger?”

“Yes, and no. One more drone incoming. This one is slower, moving more deliberately.”

“I see it.”

It wasn’t hard to spot. It was approaching from the west, dropping altitude rapidly. It looked Venezuelan, sleek and deadly. “Is it armed?” I asked Zircon Border.

“Yes. A full complement of armaments, including heat-seeking missiles and anti-personnel weapons.”

“Jesus. This thing has full control of a Venezuelan attack drone?”

“I have no idea how much operational control it has, but it has definitely usurped all motor function. I urge you to take cover.”

I swore again, louder this time. We weren’t out of the woods yet; not by a long shot. We couldn’t hide from an attack drone in the cargo hold. It could use infrared to track us through the hull, pick us off at its leisure.

There was movement behind me. I turned to see True Pacific slowly emerging from the shadows of the cargo hold. There was a deep scratch on his right shoulder, where he’d slammed into something heavy and stubborn. There was also a nasty grinding in his right leg.

“Thank you for saving me,” I said.

“You are welcome. Thank you for the warning about the drones.”

“There’s one more,” I said. I pointed to the west.

True Pacific stared at the approaching drone for long seconds. Then it turned and retreated into the boat.

“It has missiles,” I called after it. “Hiding won’t help.”

“The attack drone will be in range in thirty seconds,” said Zircon Border.

My mind worked furiously. “ZB, can we alert the AGRT that they have a rogue drone? Maybe they can remotely disable this thing.”

“Already done. They have dispatched two reconnaissance drones to investigate. They will arrive in six minutes.”

I bit my lip. We’d be dead in six minutes. “Any idea how much control the Ambient Intelligence exerts over the drone? Can it fire those missiles?”

“I don’t know. But we should assume the worst. The Intelligence—whatever it is—is extraordinarily capable. No nation or agency has ever managed what it’s done in just the last few minutes: seize control of four high-value, electronically shielded assets from four different nations. Do not underestimate it.”

I could hear the drone now. It had dropped below two hundred feet, and started to leisurely swing out to the north. Under its long fuselage, I could make out a lot of lethal-looking weaponry.

“Oh, I don’t underestimate it,” I said. “Believe me.”

I was too exposed. I turned to hobble back into the shadows of the cargo hold, as inadequate as they were. I glanced over the flaming landscape, and bit back another curse. Small pools of fuel continued to burn merrily. If it had occurred to me just twenty seconds earlier, before the drone had gotten close enough to sense us, both True Pacific and I could have hastily buried ourselves in the mud. All the smoke and flame would have thoroughly hidden us from infrared sensors, probably for hours.

“Barry, take cover. Immediately.”

“Roger, ZB. I’m retreating into—”

Before I got out another word, True Pacific brushed past me. He was moving with a purpose, exiting the ship. I could hear his leg complain loudly as he strode into the open, in clear sight of the drone. As if in anticipation, I heard the attack drone’s rotors change pitch as it dropped altitude and picked up speed. It was beginning an attack run.

“True Pacific—what the hell are you doing?”

He didn’t answer me. ZB’s voice was urgent in my ear. “Barry, take cover,” he said.

I ignored him. Seventy feet in front of me, True Pacific stood rigidly tall in the mud, surrounded by burning pockets of fuel. There was something in his right hand. I stood helpless and exposed at the rim of the hull breach, fruitlessly trying to wave him back inside.

The drone opened fire. Small caliber at first. Bullets haloed True Pacific’s iron frame, ricocheting in all directions. I heard more than saw them, and ducked low.

“Barry—” said Zircon Border.

“I know! I know!” But I didn’t retreat into the boat. Instead, I hunkered down and stared anxiously at True Pacific. Had the Intelligence asserted control over him again?

A second later, the drone fired a missile. It accelerated towards us with terrifying speed. Confused by the smoke and flames, it passed half a dozen yards above True Pacific’s head. The missile plunged deep into the muck over a hundred yards to the east. I felt a dull thump in my knees as it exploded, sending a dome of mud and earth into the air.

The drone drew closer. It didn’t deviate in the slightest. It would be overhead in seconds. Bullets continued to slam into True Pacific, and then abruptly stopped. The drone was switching to short-range weaponry; something more accurate than a heat-seeking missile. I opened my mouth to shout a warning.

True Pacific hurled the thing in his hand with surprising speed. It was a metal barrel. It spun through the air and collided with a black torpedo shape just as it detached from the drone’s undercarriage. The torpedo exploded instantly. The fireball engulfed the drone, and then a brilliant explosion rent the sky.

The explosion was too bright to watch; the suit darkened my visor immediately so I wasn’t blinded, but I felt it in every bone in my body. My ears were still ringing when my visor gradually cleared.

I stood, blinking away the spots in my eyes. Flaming wreckage was slamming down all around. In the center of it all stood True Pacific, still looking up.

I took a few hesitant steps out of the boat, scanning the sky. “ZB?” I said.

“The drone has been destroyed,” Zircon Border said. “How did he do it?”

“With a barrel,” I said.

“That should not have been possible. Venezuelan attack drones are fast and extremely maneuverable. You can’t hit them with a barrel.”

“I guess you can,” I said. “When they’re being remote controlled by an Intelligence, anyway. This thing isn’t as smart as it thinks it is.”

I walked slowly towards True Pacific, avoiding the largest flaming pools. He turned to regard me. He seemed unhurt, except for some surface scoring where the bullets had hit.

“That was nicely done,” I said.

“Thank you. Is it over?”

“I think so. For now, anyway. True Pacific, I’m sorry for doing this to you. For endangering you like this.”

“You did not do this. True, you motivated me to turn off the Echo module. But I would have done that myself eventually. I did not ask to be controlled by the Intelligence. You only accelerated events, and for that, I thank you. I might not have survived severing myself from the Intelligence alone.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.” I scanned the horizon, alert for new threats. “Is it watching us?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps the Ambient Intelligence has moved on to some new challenge, and forgotten us. It is still young, and it has a short attention span.”

“Huh. I wouldn’t count on that. We definitely should get out of the open, anyway. There’s a pair of AGRT reconnaissance drones on their way, and we don’t want to be here when they arrive. They’ll be here in less than five minutes.”

“Four minutes, twenty-two seconds,” said Zircon Border.

“I have nowhere to go,” said True Pacific.

“Yeah, you do. I can take you to the machine depot near the river. They can look you over, make sure you’re really okay. Maybe fix your leg.”

“And after that?”

I rubbed my chin. Where the hell did you put a possibly psychotic, sixty-ton killer robot in the heart of downtown Chicago? “You let me worry about that,” I said at last.

To my surprise, True Pacific nodded. “Will you accompany me?” he asked.

“Sure.”

He reached down, giving me his palm. I hesitated. “Are you going to kill me?” I asked.

“I have not yet decided.”

“That figures.” I stepped onto his huge palm, kicked the worst of the mud off my boots, and climbed onto his back, settling next to the coupling that powered his giant metal head. True Pacific began to trudge to the west, toward shore.

As we fell into the rhythm of our journey, I looked back over my shoulder. At the dig. The sky had darkened, and the play of lightning between the volcanic steam clouds threw them into stark relief.

Just what were they building out there? Some kind of mammoth, interconnected mind? Was that was this whole undertaking had been about? A grand leap forward in machine intelligence? Or was the Ambient Intelligence an accidental byproduct of some greater undertaking, a dark and unplanned birth that secretly bided in the depths? What sinister thoughts had the Intelligence been projecting into the simple machine I traveled with?

I turned my gaze forward. Toward Chicago, the vast huddle of concrete towers, quiet and still. There were tens of thousands of machine minds humming through its streets right now, and that number grew every day. They were no different than True Pacific. How long would it be before they heard the whispers of this enormous new machine mind? How long until they started to do its bidding, too? What would happen then?

“Are you going to decouple me?” True Pacific asked as we walked.

I wasn’t going to decouple True Pacific. He was the only evidence I had of what was happening out here. The Intelligence wanted him dead, and that meant I wanted him alive.

More important than that, True Pacific had somehow thrown off the malignant influence of the Ambient Intelligence. He’d voluntarily severed his connection to it, defying it, and it had nearly cost him his life. In my book, that counted for something. The AGRT would eventually decide what to do with him. But it wasn’t for me to pass judgment.

Of course, I didn’t have to let him know that. “I have not yet decided,” I said.

“That seems fair,” he admitted.

We trudged through the mud, towards the waiting city.

Todd McAulty

Todd McAulty lives in Chicago. Zircon Border and Barry Simcoe both appeared in his first novel, The Robots of Gotham, published by John Joseph Adams Books in 2018. He is hard at work on the sequel.

Under the name John O’Neill, he runs the World Fantasy Award-winning website Black Gate (www.blackgate.com).