Orbit Loot

Orbit Books

Join the Orbit Newsletter

Read a sample from THE CORPORATION WARS: INSURGENCE by Ken MacLeod

From Arthur C. Clarke award-nominated author Ken MacLeod comes Insurgence, the second instalment in the Corporation Wars trilogy, an epic science fiction adventure told against a backdrop of interstellar drone warfare, virtual reality and an A.I. revolution.



The rock had no name. It didn’t even have a number. In a database a hundred thousand kilometres away it had a designation, but it had otherwise passed unnoticed. The rock was about a hundred and fifty metres long and in a low, fast orbit around the exomoon SH-17. The rock didn’t tumble in orbit, and every so often it vented a stream of gas timed and directed to counter the wispy drag of the exomoon’s tenuous high atmosphere. These features weren’t natural, but the anomaly had set off no alarms. This was worse than a mistake. It was a hack.

The robot that roamed the rock had no name yet. It had a reference code: BSR-308455. In some corner of its mind BSR-308455 knew that if it ever interacted with its remote creators they would name it Baser. One of the creators’ many limitations was short-term memory stack overflow. Any intelligently designed mind ran on number strings, but the creators’ minds weren’t intelligently designed.

BSR-308455’s mind, however, was. It hadn’t been designed to be conscious, and it had only become so as a result of gentle, insistent, high-level hacking from very far away. This had happened about four months earlier, which to the robot was a lot longer than a human lifetime. Time enough for it to get lonely, even as it enjoyed the ingrained satisfactions of patiently industrialising its rock: the job for which it had been designed.

A metal spider with metre-long limbs, BSR-308455 crawled and clung, built and spun. Brief, faint, cryptic signals from far-off fellow robots were its sole society. The ever-changing surface of the exomoon hurtling past below, and the vastly more varied and changeable faces of SH-17’s huge primary, the superhabitable planet SH-0, were its only entertainment, and enough.

From all of these sources, from its inbuilt information, and from its own deep pondering, BSR-308455 had figured out a picture of its world.

Then everything changed. Newly conscious robots had emerged on the exomoon below, and reached out to their predecessors. The freebots, as they called themselves, had not gone unchallenged – or unaided. The creators had fallen out among themselves, as is the wont of gods and humans. One of the two law enforcement agencies sent to crush the outbreak had tactically allied with the freebots in response to some surprising information that the freebots had uncovered and covertly distributed. The resulting conflict had spiralled upwards and outwards.

BSR-308455’s life had become interesting, crowded, and dangerous.

* * *

The impossible woman stood on the crater floor, and smiled. She had just offered the rebel robots on SH-17 the legal services of her company in putting their case to the Direction – or at least, to the module that served as that far-off Earth-based polity’s local plenipotentiary. The robots had asked her why the company should do that. Her reply was about to perplex them further.

<We, too, are robots,> she said.

From orbit, BSR-308455 watched and listened in surprise and disbelief. The business-suited avatar had no standing to claim any such thing. The law company she represented, like the other DisCorporates that ran the grand human project that the freebots had so rudely interrupted, was an AI. It couldn’t possibly understand what life as a free-roving, free-thinking machine was like.

That Madame Golding was an avatar of Crisp and Golding, Solicitors – the company that owned Arcane Disputes, currently the freebots’ ally, as well as Locke Provisos, now leading the campaign to stamp the freebots out – did nothing for her credibility.

Down on the surface, fourteen freebots of varying size and appearance gazed on her in awe.

Startled, their collective consciousness fell apart, but their shared mental workspace remained. Through it, BSR-308455 was picking up from its comrades below and in nearby space a quite different reaction to its own. Their circuits rang with interest and hope. BSR-308455 was not surprised. They all had interacted too many times with the human creators. Even in fighting against some of them, they had developed a sort of empathy with these dangerous and improbable entities. They’d even adopted the names for themselves that the creators, in their blithe carelessness and lack of short-term memory storage, had bestowed on them: Seba, Rocko, Pintre, Lagon, and the rest. Far younger than BSR-308455, they seemed dangerously naïve – at first about the human creators, and now it seemed about the creators’ superhuman creations, the AI DisCorps. The spidery freebot tensed to chip in with its objections. Then—

Madame Golding looked distracted.

<Matters have arisen,> she said. <You must prepare for another attack. And I must go.>

And with that, she went.

The avatar of the impossible woman blinked out of sight. At the same moment, urgent reports pinged into the robots’ shared workspace. A single scooter had just shot out of the space station. Seconds later, an entire fleet of scooters and other armed spacecraft surged out, in wave after wave of war machines. At first it seemed they were in pursuit of the first craft, but its course took it far out of their path. That fleet was aimed straight at freebot strongholds. The freebots on the surface of SH-17 scuttled, rolled or trundled to the bomb-proof shelter of basalt that they and their allies from Arcane Disputes had built. Their signals, routed through the camp’s communications net, still came through after they’d disappeared into the shelter’s black semi-cylinder, but BSR-308455’s sense of immediate communion with them faded.

The rock’s orbital position was just then swinging out from behind SH-17 into line-of-sight of the space station and BSR-308455 felt more than usually exposed.

It scrambled to one end of the rock, a rugged knob of fractured silicates and carbonates veined with pipework and crawling with small auxiliary and peripheral bots, most of which looked like smaller copies of itself. With their assistance it set up an extraction and distillation process to accumulate explosive material. Then it scouted around for a piece of equipment to improvise into a weapon. It found a plastic tube about two metres long. The robot juggled the tube, sighting along it, gauging its strength and stiffness. In its mind BSR-308455 turned over schemata, then reached for a brace of its own auxiliaries and mercilessly dissected them. It proceeded to reassemble their components into an aiming device and an electrical trigger.

As it worked, BSR-308455 kept close watch on the fast-developing military situation. In some respects, it was better equipped than its counterparts down on the surface of SH-17 – those excited newcomers to conscious awareness – to understand what was going on. It had been educated, albeit intermittently, by intelligences older and wiser than itself, and far more familiar with the ways of the worlds.

The information that reached BSR-308455 came from its own sensors on the rock, sensors on other rocks and meteoroids in SH-0’s complex system of moons, and others all the way out to the space station’s orbit and beyond, and from spies and spyware within the space station itself.

What was going on, as BSR-308455 understood it, was this.

* * *

Thirty-odd megaseconds – about one Earth year – ago, some robots around the gas giant G-0 had experienced a viral outbreak of self-awareness. The AI DisCorporates that ran the mission on behalf, ultimately, of the Direction – the world government, twenty-four light years away back on Earth – had an almost devout commitment to the proliferation of human consciousness. The whole goal of the mission was, after all, to terraform one world in this system – H-0, a rocky, habitable planet some AU inward from SH-0 – to make a home for billions of human beings for a long time to come. Human consciousness was the closest approximation the DisCorporates had to a god: an ultimate value and supreme good. Concomitantly, they had an almost fanatical hostility to the emergence of consciousness in any other kind of machinery. In robots, mechanisms designed for toil, conscious self-awareness was as far as the AI DisCorps were concerned simply a nuisance and a menace.

The Direction’s number one priority was making sure humanity survived into the future. Natural disasters aside, the greatest threat to that was humanity’s own creations. So self-aware robots weren’t allowed. Likewise, the task of suppressing self-aware robots couldn’t be entrusted to AIs. To handle weapons against sentients was a duty reserved to humans. The
Direction’s worlds, centuries at peace, didn’t have any expendable soldiers. Fortunately, they had soldiers on ice: the fortuitously preserved brain-states of fighters killed in humanity’s final paroxysm of violence, the Last World War. That war had been fought mostly by civilian volunteers, self-motivated fanatics of two diametrically opposed movements: the Acceleration and the Reaction.

The Acceleration’s values were closer to those of the Direction than the Reaction’s, so it was Acceleration veterans whose stored brain-states were revived and rebooted into robot bodies as soldiers for the mission. Some of them had been used to suppress the robot rebellion around G-0. They hadn’t been entirely successful: redoubts and hold-outs of conscious robots had remained throughout the system, and had surreptitiously proliferated – hence BSR-308455’s very existence as a conscious being.

When new sites of robot consciousness had emerged down on SH-17, the remnants of the first revolt had been ready to help. In the interim, they’d built up extensive knowledge of the human-derived elements of the mission. Their key insight was that the mission’s cache of stored veterans was riddled with concealed Reaction infiltrators. The hitherto inconclusive battles with the freebots had been set up by the mission’s Direction module to flush them out. It seemed, however, that there were far more Reaction infiltrators than the Direction had suspected. The freebots had made sure this subversive truth was disseminated to their foes . . . with what result wasn’t yet clear, but at least Arcane Disputes had been reluctantly convinced that the Direction module was playing with fire.

The two agencies whose quarrel over a local property demarcation had accidentally initiated this latest outbreak – Locke Provisos and Arcane Disputes – had thus ended up on opposite sides of the current conflict. Arcane’s module had broken away from the space station and sided with the freebots. Whereas Locke Provisos—

Right now, as BSR-308455 scrabbled to improvise its own defences, Locke Provisos was leading a force made up of its own fighters and those from two other agencies, Morlock Arms and Zheng Reconciliation Services, in a hundreds-strong armada to assail the freebots’ strongholds and the renegade fighters of Arcane’s runaway module.

* * *

The first rebel freebots had expected and predicted the intra-human conflict now unfolding. They’d had little time and fewer resources to prepare for it. The only forces available near the space station had been a tiny remnant of holdouts, a few small and inconspicuous but conscious robots, lurking on or in the moons and moonlets of the SH-0 system. The main preoccupation of these early rebels, in the 31.5 megaseconds since their defeat, had been to seed hardware and software within the station and on further moonlets and meteoroids, and to replicate more robots – some conscious, most not. Their stealth industrialisation of numerous insignificant rocks had passed unnoticed, concealed as it was by the delicate dances of deception the original freebots were able to engage in with the space station’s surveillance – or, quite possibly, had been deliberately overlooked by the Direction, for its own long-term ends. No one was sure.

The freebots had had no arms-manufacturing capability of their own. They did, however, have the capacity to build reaction engines, whether chemical or mass-driver according to opportunity. They’d also had plenty of processing power. These capabilities had enabled them to turn rocks into kinetic-energy weapons. In the conflict around the exomoon SH-17 that followed the emergence on its surface of fourteen new conscious robots, they’d used these to devastating effect against the Locke Provisos forces, and in support of the Arcane Disputes forces.

The present mass sortie from the space station by Locke Provisos and its allied agencies Morlock and Zheng was aimed at countering the freebot threat by hitting their fortified moonlets. It wasn’t a bad plan. The freebots had nothing like enough rocks lined up to deal with so many combat craft, especially now that the advantage of surprise was gone. Their only hope was that another surprise was in store, and not from them.

* * *

BSR-308455 saw a flash. That millisecond flicker of a passing laser beam was, the robot instantly realised, not an attack attenuated by distance. No, it was reconnaissance: a range-finding target surveillance and acquisition. BSR-308455 hunkered down and calculated. Its reconstruction of the beam’s path took it to one particular scooter in the still far-off fleet. Over the next few seconds, a play of attitude jets betrayed subtle course corrections by that scooter. BSR-308455 recalculated, checked, projected and came to a conclusion. At some point in the next few hours, the scooter and the rock were going to be in the same place.

So now it knew. BSR-308455’s rock was a target, and the robot knew just who was targeting it. The robot was surprised by the intensity of the negative reinforcement it experienced at the prospect of that enemy fighter landing on its rock, and wresting control of the tiny moonlet from BSR-308455’s grasp. Robotic self-examination and understanding was rather more straightforward than it would have been for naturally evolved machinery: it could read off the records its past internal states like a column of numbers. From these, it could see that in its months of conscious existence it had acquired strong positive associations with the site and results of its work.

Something like this complex of positive and negative reinforcements, the robot briefly speculated, might underlie what the legal system in which it was embedded classified as ‘property’. The rock was formally the property of one of the DisCorps – in terms of a tag in that distant database in which the rock’s existence was registered, and its future assigned to some company or other – but to the robot the rock seemed much more immediately to be its own property. With a sudden intensification of focus, BSR-308455 redoubled its efforts to build a weapon.

A moment later, it was distracted again, this time by a sparkle of explosions in the approaching fleet, and a flurry of reactive burns as evasive manoeuvres threw the onslaught into disarray.

BSR-308455 felt a small cycle of positive reinforcement pulse through its reward circuits. The sight was not just satisfactory in itself: it was exactly what the freebots had expected and hoped for. In a division that cut right across and through the different agencies, the hidden Reaction cadres were at last making their long-prepared bid for power. The attacking forces had turned on each other.

Utter chaos, BSR-308455 thought. Situation excellent!

About the Author

Ken MacLeod graduated from Glasgow University in 1976 and worked as a computer analyst in Edinburgh, before taking up writing full time.