Three books in one: this paperback collects Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy – Dissidence, Insurgence and Emergence – in which man and machine compete at the far reaches of space in this robot’s eye view of a robot revolt.
Back in the Day
Carlos the Terrorist did not expect to die that day. The bombing was heavy now, and close, but he thought his location safe. Leaky pipework dripping with obscure post-industrial feedstock products riddled the ruined nanofacturing plant at Tilbury. Watchdog machines roved its basement corridors, pouncing on anything that moved – a fallen polystyrene tile, a draught-blown paper cone from a dried-out water-cooler – with the mindless malice of kittens chasing flies. Ten metres of rock, steel and concrete lay between the ceiling above his head and the sunlight where the rubble bounced.
He lolled on a reclining chair and with closed eyes watched the battle. His viewpoint was a thousand metres above where he lay. With empty hands he marshalled his forces and struck his blows.
Something he glimpsed as a black stone hurtled towards him. With a fist-clench faster than reflex he hurled a handful of smart munitions at it.
The tiny missiles missed.
Carlos twisted, and threw again. On target this time. The black incoming object became a flare of white that faded as his camera drones stepped down their inputs, correcting for the flash like irises contracting. The small missiles that had missed a moment earlier now showered mid-air sparks and puffs of smoke a kilometre away.
From his virtual vantage Carlos felt and saw like a monster in a Japanese disaster movie, straddling the Thames and punching out. Smoke rose from a score of points on the London skyline. Drone swarms darkened the day. Carlos’s combat drones engaged the enemy’s in buzzing dogfights. Ionised air crackled around his imagined monstrous body in sudden searing beams along which, milliseconds later, lightning bolts fizzed and struck. Tactical updates flickered across his sight.
Higher above, the heavy hardware – helicopters, fighter jets and hovering aerial drone platforms – loitered on station and now and then called down their ordnance with casual precision. Higher still, in low Earth orbit, fleets of tumbling battle-sats jockeyed and jousted, spearing with laser bursts that left their batteries drained and their signals dead.
Swarms of camera drones blipped fragmented views to millimetre-scale camouflaged receiver beads littered in thousands across the contested ground. From these, through proxies, firewalls, relays and feints the images and messages flashed, converging to an onsite router whose radio waves tickled the spike, a metal stud in the back of Carlos’s skull. That occipital implant’s tip feathered to a fractal array of neural interfaces that worked their molecular magic to integrate the view straight to his visual cortex, and to process and transmit the motor impulses that flickered from fingers sheathed in skin-soft plastic gloves veined with feedback sensors to the fighter drones and malware servers. It was the new way of war, back in the day.
* * *
The closest hot skirmish was down on Carlos’s right. In Dagenham, tank units of the London Metropolitan Police battled robotic land-crawlers suborned by one or more of the enemy’s basement warriors. Like a thundercloud on the horizon tensing the air, an awareness of the strategic situation loomed at the back of Carlos’s mind.
Executive summary: looking good for his side, bad for the enemy.
But only for the moment.
The enemy – the Reaction, the Rack, the Rax – had at last provoked a response from the serious players. Government forces on three continents were now smacking down hard. Carlos’s side – the Acceleration, the Axle, the Ax – had taken this turn of circumstance as an oblique invitation to collaborate with these governments against the common foe. Certain state forces had reciprocated. The arrangement was less an alliance than a mutual offer with a known expiry date. There were no illusions. Everyone who mattered had studied the same insurgency and counter-insurgency textbooks.
In today’s fight Carlos had a designated handler, a deep-state operative who called him-, her- or itself Innovator, and who (to personalise it, as Carlos did, for politeness and the sake of argument) now and then murmured suggestions that made their way to Carlos’s hearing via a warily accepted hack in the spike that someday soon he really would have to do something about.
Carlos stood above Greenhithe. He sighted along a virtual outstretched arm and upraised thumb at a Rax hellfire drone above Purfleet, and made his throw. An air-to-air missile streaked from behind his POV towards the enemy fighter. It left a corkscrew trail of evasive manoeuvres and delivered a viscerally satisfying flash and a shower of blazing debris when it hit.
‘Nice one,’ said Innovator, in an admiring tone and feminine voice.
Somebody in GCHQ had been fine-tuning the psychology, Carlos reckoned.
‘Uh-huh,’ he grunted, looking around in a frenzy of target acquisition and not needing the distraction. He sighted again, this time at a tracked vehicle clambering from the river into the Rainham marshes, and threw again. Flash and splash.
‘Very neat,’ said Innovator, still admiring but with a grudging undertone. ‘But . . . We have a bigger job for you. Urgent. Upriver.’
‘Jaunt your POV ten klicks forward, now!’
The sudden sharper tone jolted Carlos into compliance. With a convulsive twitch of the cheek and a kick of his right leg he shifted his viewpoint to a camera drone array, 9.7 kilometres to the west. What felt like a single stride of his gigantic body-image took him to the stubby runways of London City Airport, face-to-face with Docklands. A gleaming cluster of spires of glass. From emergency exits, office workers streamed like black and white ants. Anyone left in the towers would be hardcore Rax. The place was notorious.
‘What now?’ Carlos asked.
‘That plane on approach,’ said Innovator. It flagged up a dot above central London. ‘Take it down.’
Carlos read off the flight number. ‘Shanghai Airlines Cargo? That’s civilian!’
‘It’s chartered to the Kong, bringing in aid to the Rax. We’ve cleared the hit with Beijing through back-channels, they’re cheering us on. Take it down.’
Carlos had one high-value asset not yet in play, a stealthed drone platform with a heavy-duty air-to-air missile. A quick survey showed him three others like it in the sky, all RAF.
‘Do it yourselves,’ he said.
‘No time. Nothing available.’
This was a lie. Carlos suspected Innovator knew he knew.
It was all about diplomacy and deniability: shooting down a Chinese civilian jet, even a cargo one and suborned to China’s version of the Rax, was unlikely to sit well in the Forbidden City. The Chinese government might have given a covert go-ahead, but in public their response would have to be stern. How convenient for the crime to be committed by a non-state actor! Especially as the Axle was the next on every government’s list to suppress . . .
The plane’s descent continued, fast and steep. Carlos ran calculations.
‘The only way I can take the shot is right over Docklands. The collateral will be fucking atrocious.’
‘That,’ said Innovator grimly, ‘is the general idea.’
Carlos prepped the platform, then balked again. ‘No.’
‘You must!’ Innovator’s voice became a shrill gabble in his head. ‘This is ethically acceptable on all parameters utilitarian consequential deontological just war theoretical and . . .’
So Innovator was an AI after all. That figured.
Shells were falling directly above him now, blasting the ruined refinery yet further and sending shockwaves through its underground levels. Carlos could feel the thuds of the incoming fire through his own real body, in that buried basement miles back behind his POV. He could vividly imagine some pasty-faced banker running military code through a screen of financials, directing the artillery from one of the towers right in front of him. The aircraft was now more than a dot. Flaps dug in to screaming air. The undercarriage lowered. If he’d zoomed, Carlos could have seen the faces in the cockpit.
‘No,’ he said.
‘You must,’ Innovator insisted.
‘Do your own dirty work.’
‘Like yours hasn’t been?’ The machine voice was now sardonic. ‘Well, not to worry. We can do our own dirty work if we have to.’
From behind Carlos’s virtual shoulder a rocket streaked. His gaze followed it all the way to the jet.
* * *
It was as if Docklands had blown up in his face. Carlos reeled back, jaunting his POV sharply to the east. The aircraft hadn’t just been blown up. Its cargo had blown up too. One tower was already down. A dozen others were on fire. The smoke blocked his view of the rest of London. He’d expected collateral damage, reckoned it in the balance, but this weight of destruction was off the scale. If there was any glass or skin unbroken in Docklands, Carlos hadn’t the time or the heart to look for it.
‘You didn’t tell me the aid was ordnance!’ His protest sounded feeble even to himself.
‘We took your understanding of that for granted,’ said Innovator. ‘You have permission to stand down now.’
‘I’ll stand down when I want,’ said Carlos. ‘I’m not one of your soldiers.’
‘Damn right you’re not one of our soldiers. You’re a terrorist under investigation for a war crime. I would advise you to surrender to the nearest available—’
‘Sorry,’ said Innovator, sounding genuinely regretful. ‘We’re pulling the plug on you now. Bye, and all that.’
‘You can’t fucking do that.’
Carlos didn’t mean he thought them incapable of such perfidy. He meant he didn’t think they had the software capability to pull it off.
The next thing he knew his POV was right back behind his eyes, back in the refinery basement. He blinked hard. The spike was still active, but no longer pulling down remote data.
He clenched a fist. The spike wasn’t sending anything either. He was out of the battle and hors de combat.
Oh well. He sighed, opened his eyes with some difficulty – his long-closed eyelids were sticky – and sat up. His mouth was parched. He reached for the can of Cola on the floor beside the recliner, and gulped. His hand shook as he put the drained can down on the frayed sisal matting. A shell exploded on the ground directly above him, the closest yet. Carlos guessed the army or police artillery were adding their more precise targeting to the ongoing bombardment from the Rax. Another deep breath brought a faint trace of his own sour stink on the stuffy air. He’d been in this small room for days – how many he couldn’t be sure without checking, but he guessed almost a week. Not all the invisible toil of his clothes’ molecular machinery could keep unwashed skin clean that long.
Another thump overhead. The whole room shook. Sinister cracking noises followed, then a hiss. Carlos began to think of fleeing to a deeper level. He reached for his emergency backpack of kit and supplies. The ceiling fell on him. Carlos struggled under an I-beam and a shower of fractured concrete. He couldn’t move any of it. The hiss became a torrential roar. White vapour filled the room, freezing all it touched. Carlos’s eyes frosted over. His last breath was so unbearably cold it cracked his throat. He choked on frothing blood. After a few seconds of convulsive reflex thrashing, he lost consciousness. Brain death followed within minutes.