We’ve followed Annalee Newitz’s career here for more than a decade, from her science writing fellowship to her work as an EFF staffer to her founding of IO9 and her move to Ars Technica and the 2013 publication of her first book, nonfiction guidance on surviving the end of the world and rebooting civilization: now, I’m pleased to present an exclusive excerpt from Autonomous, her debut novel, which Tor will publish in September 2017, along with the first look at her cover, designed by the incomparable Will Staehle. As her editor, Liz Gorinsky, notes, "Autonomous takes an action-packed chase narrative and adds Annalee’s well-honed insight into issues of AI autonomy, pharmaceutical piracy, and maker culture to make a book that’s accessible, entertaining, and ridiculously smart." I’m three quarters of the way through an early copy, and I heartily agree.
July 2, 2144
Sand had worked its way under Paladin’s carapace, and his actuators ached. It was the first training exercise, or maybe the fortieth. During the formatting period, it was hard to maintain linear time; memories sometimes doubled or tripled before settling down into the straight line that he hoped would one day stretch out behind him like the crisp, four-toed footprints that followed his course through the dunes.
Paladin used millions of lines of code to keep his balance as he slid-walked up a slope of fine grains molded into ripples by wind. Each step punched a hole in the dune, forced him to bend at the waist to keep steady. Sand trickled down his body, creating tiny scars in the dark carbon alloy of his carapace. Lee, his botadmin, had thrown him out of the jet at 1500 hours, somewhere far north in African Federation space. Coming down was easy. He remembered doing it before, angling his body in a configuration that kept him from overheating, unfurling the shields on his back until they cupped the wind, then landing with a jolt to his shocks.
But this wasn’t just another repeat of the same old obstacle course. It was a test mission.
Lee had told Paladin that a smuggler’s stash was hidden somewhere in the dunes. His job was to approach from the south, map the space, try to find the stash, and come back with all the data he could. The botadmin grinned as he delivered these instructions, gripping Paladin’s shoulder. “I tweaked some of your drivers just for this test. You’re going to float up those dunes like a goddamn butterfly.”
Now it was an hour until sundown, and Paladin’s carapace bent the light until it slid below the visible spectrum. To human eyes, his dark body on the dune’s summit would look like a shimmer of heat in the air, especially from a distance. That’s what he was counting on, anyway. He needed to get a sense of the area, its hiding places, before anyone figured out a bot was prowling.
Pale, reddish swells softened the landscape in every direction. The sand was totally undisturbed—if anyone had been walking around here, the wind had blown their tracks away. The stash had to be underground, if it was even here at all. Paladin stood still, lenses zooming and panning, searching for a glint of antennas or other signs of habitation. He cached everything in memory for analysis later.
There it was: a crescent of chrome unburied by wind. He scrambled down the dune, making hundreds of small adjustments to avoid falling on the slithering ground, getting a precise location on a portal that probably led to a buried structure below. He would yank it open and get back to the lab. Lee would clean the sand from his muscles, and there would be no more of this grinding discomfort.
As Paladin reached out, ready to pull or torque the lock mechanism, a hidden sniper tore his right arm off at the shoulder. It was the first true agony of his life. He felt the wound explode across his whole torso, followed by a prickling sear of unraveled molecular bonds along the burned fringes of his stump. Out of this pain bloomed a memory of booting up his operating system, each program calling the next out of nothing. He wanted to go back into that nothing. Anything to escape this scalding horror, which seemed to pour through his body and beyond it. Paladin’s sensorium still included his severed arm, which was broadcasting its status to the bot with a short-range signal. He’d have to kill his perimeter network to make the arm go silent. But without a perimeter he was practically defenseless, so he was stuck feeling a torment that echoed between the inside and outside of his body. Throwing himself down into the sand, Paladin used his wing shields to protect his remaining circuitry—especially his single biological part, nested deep inside the place where humans might carry a fetus.
He scrabbled with his remaining hand at the portal and it opened with a gasp, the air pressure differential seeming to inhale him. Another bolt smashed into the sand next to his head, puddling grains into liquefied glass where it hit. Hurling himself inside, Paladin caught one last glimpse of his arm. The fingers were still flexing, reaching for something, following their software commands even in death. As the door closed, his pain eased; a shield had blocked the arm’s hopeless data stream.
Paladin found himself in a lift whose dim, ultraviolet lighting marked the building as a bot facility—or, at least, a bot entrance to the facility. Humans would see nothing but darkness. Clutching his jagged stump, Paladin slumped to the floor in a jumble of disorganized feelings. With some effort, he distracted himself by watching a tiny display that showed how deep the lift was going. Forty meters, sixty meters, eighty meters. They stopped at one hundred, but from the faint echoes in the machinery, Paladin knew they could have gone a lot deeper.
The door slid back to reveal Lee flanked by two bots, one hovering in a blur of wings and one a tanklike quadruped with folded mantis arms. Paladin wondered if any of them had been responsible for blowing off his arm during a training mission that was supposed to be noncombat. He wouldn’t put it past them. Now Lee was grinning, and the bots weren’t saying anything. Paladin stood in a way that he hoped was dignified and ignored the physical anguish that flared through his body as he took in the scene.
“That was some seriously awesome combat shit,” Lee enthused before Paladin even stepped into the wide, foam-and-alloy tunnel. “See how that new climbing algorithm worked?” He slapped Paladin’s unwounded arm. “Sorry about your arm, though. I’ll fix that right up.”
The bots were still silent. Paladin followed the group as they walked down the tunnel, passing several doors marked in paint that reflected nothing but ultraviolet light. Visible to bot eyes only. Maybe this was some kind of bot training station? Was he about to be integrated into a fighting unit?
Down another tunnel they found what was obviously a mixed area, with paint reflecting in the visible spectrum, and several doorways too narrow to admit an armored bot like himself or the mantis. They stopped at an engineering station, where Lee printed a new arm and Paladin cleaned his joints with compressed air and lubricant.
The mantis beamed Paladin a hail. Hello. Let’s establish a secure session using the AF protocol.
Hello. I can use AF version 7.6, Paladin replied.
Let’s do it. I’m Fang. We’ll call this session 4788923. Here are my identification credentials. Here comes my data. Join us at 2000.
Fang’s request came with a public key for authentication and a compressed file that bloomed into a 3-D map of the facility. A tiny red tag hovered over a conference room forty meters below them. Judging by the map’s metadata, they were in a large military base operated by the African Federation government. It seemed that the bots here did the kind of work he’d been training for: reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, and combat. Paladin had just been invited to his first briefing. It was time to authenticate himself properly to his new comrade.
I’m Paladin. Here are my identification credentials. Here comes my data. See you there.
Lee finished the arm and tested Paladin’s stump with a voltmeter. The bot stood on a charging pad, drawing power for the batteries that tunneled through his body like a cardiovascular system. Generally he relied on the solar patches woven into his carapace, but pads were faster.
“No problem, no problem,” the botadmin mumbled. It was his favorite phrase, and was in fact the first string of natural language that Paladin had ever heard, in the seconds after booting up for the first time three months ago. The arm was bonding to his stump now, and the torture of his injury became a tingle. Lee used a molecule regulator to knit the arm’s atomic structure into an integrated body network, and as it connected Paladin could feel his new hand. He made a fist. The right side of his body felt weightless, as if the pain had added additional mass to his frame. Giddy, he savored the sensation.
“Gotta go, Paladin—I’ve got a bunch of other shit to do.” Lee’s dark hair fell across one of his eyes. “Sorry I had to shoot you there, but it’s part of training. I didn’t think your whole arm would come off!”
How many times had Paladin looked into this human face, its features animated by neurological impulse alone? He did not know. Even if he were to sort through his video memories and count them up one by one, he still didn’t think he would have the right answer. But after today’s mission, human faces would always look different to him. They would remind him what it felt like to suffer, and to be relieved of suffering.
When Paladin arrived at the meeting location, two humans were sitting in chairs, while Fang and the hovering bot remained at attention. Paladin announced his presence with a beamed hail to the bots and a vocalized greeting to the humans, though protocol kept the rest of his communication in human range. He took up a position next to Fang, bending his legs until he was at eye level with the humans. In this position, knee joints jutting out behind him and dorsal shields folded flat against his shoulders, Paladin looked something like an enormous, humanoid bird.
“Welcome to Camp Tunisia, Paladin,” one of the humans said. He had a tiny red button on his collar bearing the letters “ipc” in gold—it marked him as a high-ranking liaison from the Federation office of the International Property Coalition. “This will be your base for the next few days while we brief you and your partner Eliasz on your mission.” He gestured to the other human, a slim man with pale skin, curly dark hair, and wide brown eyes, wearing Federation combat fatigues. Paladin noticed that Eliasz’ right hand was balled into a fist very much like his own. Maybe Eliasz was also remembering something painful.
The liaison projected some unopened files into the air over the table. “We’ve got a serious pharma infringement situation, and we need it stopped fast and smart,” he said. One of the files dissolved into the corporate logo for Zaxy, and then into a tiny box of pills labeled Zacuity.
“I assume you’ve heard of Zacuity.”
“It’s a worker drug,” Eliasz replied, his face neutral. “Some of the big companies are licensing it as a perk for their employees. I’ve heard it feels really good. Never tried it myself.”
The liaison seemed offended by Eliasz’ description. “It’s a productivity enhancer.”
Fang broke in. “We’ve got reports of people buying pirated Zacuity in some of the northern cities in the Free Trade Zone. Some recon bots found about twenty doses in a First Nations special economic holding near Iqaluit. Nobody can prosecute there—it’s totally outside IPC jurisdiction—so there have been no arrests yet.”
The liaison brought up video of a hospital room, packed with humans strapped to beds, twitching. He continued. “Zaxy will take legal action later. But right now, we need an intervention. This drug is driving people nuts, and some are dying. If it gets out that this is Zacuity, it could be a major financial loss for Zaxy. Major.”
The liaison looked at Eliasz, who stared straight at the projection of the hospital, watching the tiny, struggling figures loop through the same tiny struggles again.
“Zaxy’s analysts think the Zacuity is being pirated here in the Federation, in a black-market lab. Obviously, this situation could seriously endanger the Federation’s business partnerships with the Free Trade Zone. We need to find out for sure one way or the other, and that’s why we need you.” The delegate looked at Paladin. “You’ve both been authorized by the IPC to track the pirated drug to its source, and stop it. We’ve got a few leads in Iqaluit, and they all point to one person.”
The afflicted Zacuity eaters dissolved into an enhanced headshot of a woman, obviously constructed from several low-quality captures. Her cropped black hair had a glint of gray, and a fat scar that started on her neck snaked into the collar of her coveralls.
“This is Judith Chen—she goes by the name Jack. We suspect she’s working with one of the biggest pharma pirating operations in the Federation. We know she’s connected with some pretty shady manufacturers in Casablanca, but she’s got a legit shipping fleet. She ferries for spice and herb companies to the Zone—lots of stinky little boxes. Perfect cover. We think she might be the one who’s smuggling the drugs from here across the Arctic.”
Fang vocalized, “We’ve been watching her for years. Never been able to catch her red-handed, but we know she’s got connections with people in the Trade Zone who are suspected dealers. Plus, she’s a trained synthetic biologist. It all fits together. If we can get to her, I think we can shut down these pirate shipments.”
“She’s also an anti-patent terrorist,” Eliasz added quietly. “Spent several years in jail.”
“The official charge was not terrorism. It was conspiracy to commit property damage,” said Fang. “She was only in jail for a few months, and then she fled from Saskatoon to Casablanca. We think that’s how she made the connections that she’s using for her pirating operation.”
“Once we’ve got her, we just can hand her over to the Trade Zone on a plate,” added the liaison. “Piracy stopped. Justice done. Everybody’s happy.”
“It still sounds like terrorism to me,” Eliasz said, looking directly at Paladin. “Don’t you agree?”
Nobody had ever looked at him quite like that, as if he could have an opinion about anything beyond how his network was functioning. The bot’s mind spiraled through what he’d been taught about terrorism, quickly compiling an index of images and data that required nothing but a crude algorithm to reveal a pattern: pain and its echo, across millions of bodies over time. Paladin did not have access to the nuance of political context, nor did he have the urge to seek it out. He had only this man’s face, his dark eyes sending an unreadable message that Paladin wanted desperately to decrypt.
How could he look at Eliasz and say no?
“It does sound like terrorism,” Paladin agreed. When Eliasz smiled, the planes of his face were asymmetrical.
Fang broke protocol for an instant, beaming to his hovering companion in an off-the-record session. Words of wisdom from the newbie, who has never seen terrorism in his life. 🙁