The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 4 (Ivan)

Chapter 3 here.

Cyn led the way as the trio left the Ithildin building, passing from the elevators through the soaring foyer. Bad corporate office art reared above them, aggressive, primary colored mediocrity on a grand scale. Security systems scanned them as they departed into the cool night air. The lack of street lighting made it easier to see the stars, and Ivan was struck by the beauty of the Milky Way soaring above him. He looked up and down the empty streets, but there was no one in view on the sidewalk, they were practically deserted. A single vehicle approached, a blunt teardrop shaped thing of indiscernible make. The city was like a ghost town at this hour, as Cyn’s car silently glided up to the curb and came to a halt, its falcon wing doors raising to admit them to the compact seating area with a small round table at the center.

“Wow, nice ride,” said Ivan. He glanced around the austere interior, looking for a logo or some mark of the manufacturer, but he could find none.

“But why bother owning one?” he said.

“Oh, this is very custom ride,” said Cyn. Her face lit up with excitement. Ivan could tell that she was very proud of her car and loved to talk about it. He braced himself for a long list of specs, and he wasn’t disappointed. “Redundant satellite uplinks with subscriptions to both of the private space based providers. Four long range wireless arrays, two medium range and two short range.”

“Why the short range?” said Batou, obviously more interested than Ivan.

“I use the IoT peer network a lot,” said Cyn. “That’s a tricky network to trace. It takes special chops to pry an access log out of an HVAC unit that has been forwarding packets for me.” She gave them a wicked grin and pushed her blue bangs out of her eyes. “It’s armored for special jobs. I’d be happy to tell you how many petaflops it’s running or what active countermeasures are onboard if you two want to sign an non-disclosure agreement. I might need to check your security clearance too.”

“Security clearance? With which government?” Ivan asked with a smile. He had worked with Batou before, never with Cyn. But she was starting to grow on him. He liked girls who were into heavy equipment. But he wondered why Rasmussen, who had put this team together, had thought they would need someone with a tactical background.  

“I’ll pretend you didn’t ask that, comrade,” teased Cyn, her hands weaving before her as she worked on a private interface.

“Can you find me an anti-Tor node on that IoT net, Cyn?” asked Batou, throwing a handful of terminal windows into the shared workspace.

Ivan tried to focus on the operation at hand, but he couldn’t stop thinking about his girlfriend out with those two strange guys. He pulled up ChatTime, but she hadn’t posted any updates lately. She had left her location unhidden though, and was in fact at some bar in San Francisco.

“Certainly, my good man,” said Cyn. She was gazing into the ether and Ivan sighed and looked out the windows as the car executed some seemingly random turns around the empty downtown area, its algorithms scouting out an improperly secured building control mesh network. They slowed to a crawl along the curb by a big, nondescript building without windows, near an old decommissioned BART station. “Ah, here we go,” said Cyn. “Lots of open devices here. Sloppy admins.”

“What’s this place?” asked Ivan. Then he answered his own question by looking up the address. “Seems to be some sort of bio lab.”

“Yeah, lots of lab equipment, doesn’t really matter what we’ve got with a mesh like this, I’ll just send a worm through to dig up an internet connection,” said Cyn. She paused for a second. “Well, that didn’t take long. And here’s an anti-Tor node for you, Batou.”

Batou brought up an ultraSploit package he had been preparing. “Can I run this locally? See how much horsepower you have. Or should I dig up a botnet?”

“No, you can run it here, this is a rolling datacenter,” said Cyn. She could not hide her smug self-assurance as she passed Batou a container for him to drop his code into.

“Wow, that is impressive,” said Batou, with a grunt as the package rapidly cycled through its loading. “That’s a pretty deep net it’s building.”

“I see that,” said Cyn, sharing a resource monitor as they watched the bars get pegged.

Batou got his program initialized and then unleashed a machine learning attack algorithm on the server in China that he had located earlier. Ivan couldn’t make sense of the interface that Batou was showing them.

“What are we seeing here?” he asked.

“Uh, I think they locked this server down pretty tight,” said Batou. “Every time we find an exploit, it’s getting patched instantly and the connection resets. Fucking machine learning defense systems. Used to be that command and control servers were pushovers. In the old days, hackers were all teeth and no shell. But with automated patching, it’s tough to break a properly secured server.”

“Good thing so few admins properly secure their shit, or we would all be out of work,” laughed Cyn.

Just then Ivan’s glasses chimed in his ear and his girlfriend’s ChatTime status updated with a picture of her and two guys dancing together in a bar. It was a pretty suggestive dance, one guy behind her and the other in front, in some sort of lewd crotch to rear conga line. He gritted his teeth in anger as he blew up the picture and examined it in detail. As he looked closely, though, he wondered if these guys, Jayson and Franklin, were queer. They definitely had a queer look about them and he relaxed somewhat. Maybe this was a harmless night out with the “girls” for Bryce after all.

“Ivan, what the hell are you doing? Are you on ChatTime for Christ’s sake?” asked Batou, clearly annoyed. “Are you going to help us or not? I’m not getting anywhere with this goddamn server, even after throwing a ton of iron at it. I’m stuck.”

Ivan snapped his ChatTime window closed with a flourish. “Alright, alright, I’m here, I’m here,” he snapped.

“What’s she doing? Is she fooling around with one of those guys?” asked Cyn. She was clearly delighted and wanted him to fill her in on the dirt.

“Maybe not, they look sort of gay,” said Ivan.

“Don’t be so sure, looking metrosexual is back in, you know,” said Cyn, suppressing a grin.

“Cut the shit,” sighed Batou. “Focus, people. Focus.”

“Right, Batou, right,” said Ivan. “Okay then, let’s recap. Somebody hits Ithildin, and a big chunk of change goes missing. We dig up at least one of their pivot points, a derelict HP printer from the turn of the century, and trace it back to a Chinese datacenter, but the bastards had the nerve to properly lock down their server and your finest algos can’t break in, even with the heavy computing power of Cyn’s rolling datacenter.”

“Yes, we know all this, detective,” laughed Cyn.

“Okay, well, when in doubt, we go for the weakest link,” said Ivan. “Who’s the hosting provider?” He searched around a bit and found the name of the company responsible for that IP address. “Ah, look at this, they have a Hong Kong number for tech support. I’ll bet they speak English.”

“Don’t be an idiot. Even the Chinese outsource call center work to India, of course they will speak English,” said Cyn.

“All the better,” agreed Ivan. “Batou, set up a server with a URL with that hosting provider’s name in it somewhere.”

“Oh, you are going the social engineering route?” asked Cyn. “Impressive. Let’s see what you can do.”

Ivan grabbed a proxy address in Hong Kong to route his call from, and loaded one of his default business avatars as he dialed the hosting technical support line.

He was greeted by a low resolution AI and groaned as it started spouting Mandarin at him, which was quickly translated by Cyn’s workspace manager. “Welcome to Double Six hosting support, can I have your customer number?”

“Oh, I know this system, I know this system,” whispered Cyn. “There is a code to bypass the AI and get a human agent.” She sent a series of tones to the session and the support AI froze and was replaced by an animated scene resembling a classic Song Period Chinese painting of a river flowing through a valley and mountains rising into the mist beyond.

“Hello, hello, this is Double Six hosting, can I help you?” asked a tentative sounding human with a thick south Indian accent.

“Oh, hello, yes, this is Chadwick Xu from the main office,” said Ivan, using a voice filter that emulated a Chinese speaker with an English accent. “We are just doing a review of your training, this will only take few minutes.”

Cyn rolled her eyes at Ivan’s choice of names.

“So sorry, this is a customer line, so who are you with again?” asked the voice while the Song Dynasty inspired painting placidly looped.

“I’m calling from the main office, there must have been some mix up with the call routing, you should be seeing this as an internal number. No matter, I will take a note of that and open a ticket with our internal help desk. This call is just an audit so that we can make sure everyone is up to date on their training. We just go through a quick checklist. It will only take a few moments. First question, have you had any security training?”

“Err, yes, we do security training every year. I just completed that two months ago. Don’t you have a record of that?” said the voice.

“I wouldn’t have access to that, I’m just a contractor hired to help with the audit,” explained Ivan. “Now how long have you been with the company?”

“Uh, two years now. This is really irregular, I must say. We’ve never had any sort of call like this before,” said the voice, sounding nervous.

“Oh well, I’ve been doing these for a few months now, maybe they haven’t called your department yet. Next question, what shift do you work normally?”

“Well it’s first shift obviously. Look, I’m not sure I should be answering these questions. What’s your employee number?” asked the voice.

“Oh, I’m not an employee, I’m a contractor. But I have a contractor number,” said Ivan.  He provided a random string of numbers and digits. “Can you tell me what model visor you are using there? Is it the Samsung or the Huawei?”

“We have glasses here, not visors, but it’s a Huawei I think. This contractor number doesn’t seem to have the right number of digits,” the voice was sounding strained and Cyn cast Ivan a nervous glance.

“Call center like that would still be using version 7 or 8 at the latest, let me load something up for that,” mumbled Batou.

“Oh well, that’s the number they gave me when I started,” said Ivan, trying to sound contrite. “If you have some concerns, please open this URL and you can fill out our customer satisfaction survey, there is a feedback form at the bottom.” Ivan passed the URL that Batou had constructed over to the skeptical technician.

Suspicious though he was, the poor tech support worker opened the link and fell right into Ivan’s trap.

“I’m seeing a resource not found error, this really doesn’t seem legitimate I must say. I might need to talk to my manager about this,” said the voice. “Hello? Hello?”

Ivan left the session open for a moment as Batou typed away rapidly, taking ownership of the hapless technician’s workstation via an exploit in his Huawei glasses.

“Oh well, I certainly understand. But please try reloading that page and do leave me a positive rating. You know how important ratings are,” said Ivan, before cutting off the connection.

“Wow, impressive, I thought you were going to lose him,” said Cyn.

“I’m better with Americans,” admitted Ivan. “But it looks like we got in anyway. Batou, what sort of access does our Indian friend have?”

“Very good access. I was able to find the IP address of our Chinese command and control server in their hosting control panel. I’m creating a temporary user with sudo rights as we speak.”

“We’re getting a lot of incoming traffic here, Batou,” said Cyn. She hunched forward and splayed a cluster of windows across the shared workspace. The recessed interior lights dimmed suddenly, making Cyn gasp in shock. “Holy shit, we are getting pounded here. What are you doing?”

“I don’t see any problems on my side. I’m about to get root on this Chinese server. I don’t see how they could have traced us,” said Batou, fingers flicking frantically before him.

Ivan tried to pick through all the displays, but was confused by the conflicting messages. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a car rapidly approaching down the street. Cyn’s car chimed and the interior lights turned red.  

“Please fasten your seatbelts,” said a calm female voice.

“Are you shitting me?” asked Cyn, but Ivan didn’t know who she was talking to. “This can’t be happening.”

“What’s going on?” asked Ivan, feeling his heart rate increasing and his palms growing sweaty. He was never one of these tactical guys. He was more comfortable in a nice, safe office somewhere.

“Enabling countermeasures, you may need to grab onto something,” said Cyn.

Ivan looked out the back window and realized that the approaching car was driving insanely fast and headed directly toward them. Cyn’s car started rocking very rapidly back and forth, as though testing its footing, but it didn’t move.

“Uh, Cyn, that car,” said Ivan.

“I see it,” she said, her face completely obscured by windows.

“We’d better get moving,” said Batou, craning his neck around.

“Systems are coming online,” said Cyn. Her voice was strained.

Ivan fought the urge to fling the door open and leap from Cyn’s car as the other vehicle barrelled toward them. He didn’t know how they could possibly escape a collision at this point and he braced himself. He could clearly read the approaching car’s Tesla-Uber logo and could see its frantic passengers pounding on the console as it swerved toward them, when Cyn’s car suddenly lept onto the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding the Tesla-Uber, which couldn’t correct its course and slammed into the side of the bio lab building. Its interior filled with compression foam as it gouged an ugly gash into the stone face.

“Shit’s getting crazy,” muttered Cyn. Her car sped away on the sidewalk and deftly flicked over the curb to get back onto the road surface.

“The cab is trying to back up,” noted Ivan. His blood was running cold from the near collision. He watched as the Tesla-Uber backed away from the building, but it’s suspension was damaged and it it crashed backward into a lamp post.

“I’ve got root on this server, by the way. I’m trying to download the logs now,” said Batou.

“Fuck that shit, Batou!” said Cyn. “Someone just hacked a fucking cab and flung it at us at 90 miles per hour. Maybe you should leave their fucking server alone!”

“I’m with Cyn on this one,” Ivan said.

“Incoming,” blurted Cyn suddenly, as their car swerved so sharply that it went up on two wheels. A massive window cleaner’s scaffold came crashing down where the car had just been moments before. “Batou, seriously, we are getting pummeled. Get your head out of your ass. Look around you. All my links are getting DDOSed. I need you on deck, stat. Someone’s gone fully Wile E. Coyote on us here. I’m launching my drone swarm. I need eyes in sky and I need you to help me right now!”

“Fuck!” shouted Batou in frustration. “So goddamn close.”

Just then, Rasmussen appeared in the shared workspace, looking mildly annoyed, but superbly attired, in a dark suit and a white shirt without a tie. Batou shoved his image aside and lit up the workspace with a broader and broader 3D map of their surroundings, as Cyn’s drones spread out and started gathering reconnaissance.

“What are you people doing?” asked Rasmussen. “Will you stop poking at that command server? The accountants have found something here.”

“We are kind of busy right now, Rasmussen,” said Ivan. He was practically useless when it came to this tactical stuff, but it looked like a lot of blinking red dots were converging rapidly on their position.

“Who are these fucking people?” asked Cyn. “Is that a fucking cement truck? Have these maniacs hacked every goddamn piece of equipment with an internet connection in a one mile radius?”

“Affirmative on the cement truck,” confirmed Batou. “Radius looks more like one kilometer, but why split hairs?”

“They found a dummy vendor that was used to funnel the funds into,” continued Rasmussen, his image running a hand through his feathery blonde hair. “I need you three to disengage from this ridiculous, totally unauthorized operation and go check it out.”

“Ras, we are in a tough spot right now,” said Ivan, as Cyn’s car dodged a dumpster that had flung itself out onto the roadway.

“We appear to be headed toward that cement truck, not away from it, by the way,” said Batou.

“I know that,” said Cyn. “I’m taking it back from them.”  

Ivan watched in horror as the massive truck approached on the map. But Cyn just calmly dropped a drone down onto it.

“Take out the antenna, and I can get right in there and do what I like,” said Cyn. “It’s  a cement truck, not a goddamn tank, its radio gear isn’t hardened or anything.”

Ivan’s horror morphed into amazement as he watched the video feed of Cyn’s drone, while it launched four tiny missiles that precisely blasted each of the truck’s antennae. Some sort of onboard safety process finally kicked in and the truck pulled over to the side of the road. A moment later, they were close enough for Ivan to see it through the window with his own eyes, a deafened killing machine, now sitting harmlessly on the side of the road. Unable to automatically deliver cement or crush a car full of wayward hackers.

“Stop that, Cyn!” scolded Rasmussen. “The Feds are on top of this and they are reestablishing control of the compromised systems and vehicles. That construction company is probably going to send us a bill for those antennae and I will have it forwarded directly to you. It’s not coming out of your expense account either. You can’t just launch micro missiles in downtown Oakland, what are you thinking?” Rasmussen paused for a moment. “Well, you can’t launch missiles in the absence of civil unrest, but you know what I mean.”

“Jesus, it’s so easy to say that when you are sitting there safe and sound in your office. We had window cleaner’s scaffolds trying to kill us out here,” said Batou.

Rasmussen smiled and shook his head. “It wasn’t my idea for you to go rogue and try to illegally attack a server of interest in a foreign country, Batou. Luckily, I like you and I understand that I need to allow operators of your caliber some leeway. But the Feds are involved now and I will not even attempt to call in any favors to protect you from them. So don’t do anything stupid. I mean stupid-ER. Because I need you for THIS project. I’m sending over the files on the dummy vendor. Save some missiles, Cyn, that location might get hot. It’s in Arkansas. Have fun, kids.” Rasmussen signed off.

Ivan’s phone buzzed in his pocket and a text window opened before his face. “I won’t be home tonight, I got too drunk and I’m staying over at Jayson’s,” texted Bryce. “On the couch, of course. Love you. Call me tomorrow when you get up.

“This gig sucks so far, you know that?” said Ivan, as Cyn glumly looked up the price of replacement antennae for Mitsubishi automated cement trucks.

Chapter 5 here.

The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 3 (Evelyn)

My contribution for 2015. Please provide constructive feedback.

Chapter 2 here.

Evelyn stepped out of her car with the aid of Matheson, her head of security. She frowned at the explosion of flashes that lit up the night and blinded her as she emerged. The paparazzi were drawn to her tall, thin form and regal demeanor, but she never allowed herself to be photographed. She touched the diamond brooch on her neck subconsciously. Its paparazzi countermeasures had always proven effective, disabling the cameras with infrared flashes, but she often found herself wishing that she could use a more visceral deterrent. It would have satisfied her to see lasers erupting from her throat and destroying the cameras hovering all around, but she tried to quell that emotion. Delighting in the destruction of other people’s property was a low emotion that was beneath her. Something must be bothering her. She made a mental note to examine it later during meditation, and her personal assistant detected the thought and chimed demurely in her ear to let her know it was recorded.

She made a subtle motion to Matheson as she strode up the pathway leading to the entrance of the estate, and he widened the area denial fields, pushing the camera drones back and catching a few off guard. They fell unceremoniously to the ground, their control signals jammed. It was gauche, Evelyn knew, but she allowed herself a tight little smile of satisfaction nonetheless. Her staff could wipe the drones from the sky for miles in every direction, and trace down their owners and sue them into bankruptcy within a month, but it wouldn’t do to take such draconian measures, as she was attending a charity ball for the poor and needy. The social media gadflies would feast long and well on the irony of such an outburst.

Evelyn eyed the the park bordering the Kulkarni estate. Next to a lake stood a dramatic, tall dome, supported by faux marble columns. It had been built to look like a Roman ruin and was lit from below by golden light that was reflected in the dark and serene lake. The park was ostensibly public, but no member of the great unwashed sat on the empty benches or huddled beneath the colonnades that extended to either side. No gates or guards were necessary to keep them away, gentrification had pushed them to the outskirts of the Bay Area years ago.

The columns had been restored many times over the years, and she had to admit that they did look dramatic lit from below, as they were on this mild summer evening. But their beauty was poisoned for her by the knowledge that they were merely new world replicas aspiring to old world grandeur, assembled for some world fair in the distant past.

She ascended the wide stone steps, flanked by towering palms. The columns were as false and inauthentic as the Spanish looking estate she was about to enter, a giant, tan stucco structure with rows of single paned windows and an orange tile roof, erected by South Indian tech money. More bitterness within her, she sighed. Amrita Kulkarni had been a rival of Evelyn’s back in their ivy league days; Amrita always stealing away the boys that Evelyn fancied and then casting them aside with disdain. And now, though her mansion lacked taste in Evelyn’s view, Amrita was outflanking her again by funding this American Refugee Project.

What a chuckle her brahim family must be having at the idea of a nonprofit to help these pathetic, unemployed Americans, displaced within their own country by economic upheaval. How high it must make them feel, while billions starved back on the subcontinent, thought Evelyn. She paused to draw a deep breath. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be like this. She was going to be gracious and loving. She was going to feel those emotions within herself because she wasn’t a low and common creature.

She smiled warmly at the greeter, whose glasses authenticated her admittance via facial recognition and cryptographic key exchange with Matheson’s portable system. The bulk of Matheson’s ballistic armor was effectively a lightweight computer that was housed inside of his jacket. That night he had dressed in his typical uniform, a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie, a striking outfit on his giant frame. He’d worked for her father for years and had solved some particularly sensitive matters for her when her husband had divorced her, and Evelyn felt comforted by his presence.

She entered the echoing foyer, a vast floor of beige tile interspersed with stone pillars and arches. Other guests were loitering, chatting amicably with drinks in hand.

A preposterously huge tapestry depicted Amrita’s grandfather with a white beard and a lotus flower in his hands. It was displayed in the hall, along with other Hindu influenced hangings, which served to dampen the noise from the hard, echoey surfaces. She noticed that everyone had chosen extremely conservative attire, black dresses and tuxedos were everywhere, and she felt a bit self-conscious in her bias cut, more avante-garde gown. Matheson deployed whatever host approved, tiny floating eyes he normally used at events such as this, and then melted into the crowd as Evelyn forged deeper into the palace in search of a drink.

The American Refugee Project was trying to attack the burgeoning problem of American poverty from multiple angles. They contributed to the Social Stability Fund, which produced the free food rations available at the ubiquitous temporary housing barracks across the nation.They also contributed to the Internet Everywhere consortium, which made the free disposable visors, so the poor weren’t cut off from internet access. But their crowning accomplishment was a scholarship program that used a surveillance algorithm to identify high IQ individuals by passively monitoring their online activity. Interspersed in this crowd was the latest class of poverty stricken geniuses, selected as they slumped down in their cardboard visors, the bright, infinite online world blocking out the slovenly reality of their circumstances.

Evelyn could spot them immediately, freshly scrubbed, wearing unfamiliar clothes, plucked from whatever filthy hovels they’d been languishing in. They’d been transported to a special campus prepared by the ARP, so they could study the only field that seemed to have any prospects for future employment: software development. Her heart went out to these brilliant peasants, raised without any manners or refinement. They formed little groups, cowed by the ferocious opulence of Amrita’s San Francisco estate. Evelyn understood that the Kulkarni’s owned dozens of such palaces throughout the world, all equally magnificent, but she made a note to not bring this up to the scholarship winners.

She approached one group, finally feeling the generous warmth of compassion growing in her, driving out the bitterness. Her assistant whispered names and short introductions for each youngster, overlaying subtle captions on her sensorium. They stared at her like animals about to be run over, their own glasses no doubt telling them just how much the Ardenwoods were worth, as she favored them with an indulgent smile.

“Ah, some scholars, I see,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “Manuel, Tucker, Sheila, Maglalang,” she nodded at each teenager in turn. “Please call me Evelyn. This must be so surreal for all of you. How are you holding up?”

“I’m so afraid of saying the wrong thing,” said Maglalang, a lanky Filipino boy, maybe 16 or 17, with pimples and a horrid scar that slashed across his cheek and down his neck, plunging below his collar. Evelyn had to hand it to Amrita. She couldn’t be accused of choosing scholars for their looks.

“I keep thinking that I’m going to break something expensive,” added Manuel, a chubby Hispanic boy with a stubborn cowlick.

“And then they’ll send us back out on the streets,” said Sheila, a freckled Appalachian with greasy blond hair and a weak chin.

“Oh no, no, my dears, please don’t worry about such things,” scolded Evelyn. “The AFP knows that everyone makes mistakes. They wouldn’t hold that against you.”

“Err, it’s in the contract,” blurted Tucker, obviously deep in the autism spectrum. “We’ll be billed for any damages.”

Evelyn listened to her assistant murmuring for a moment. “The AFP will be extending credit against your future earnings, which I’m sure will be quite sizable. You would have to work very hard to break enough valuables to deplete that.”

“We won’t make anything compared to what YOU have,” said Tucker, completely unaware of how rude he was being.

His friends tried to shush him, but Evelyn just smiled. “No, perhaps not, darling, but my father got his start in software. Maybe you’ll have what it takes as well.”

“Can I get you a drink, Evelyn?” asked Maglalang suddenly, clearly receiving a cue from his social media peanut gallery. “The bar’s right over there.”

“That would be wonderful, Maglalang,” said Evelyn, offering him her arm. “Please lead the way.”

The brash teenager gulped, but gamely took Evelyn’s arm, then jerked it away as though burned by her gown’s hydrolipophobic material, specially designed to repel stains.

“Whoa, that feels weird,” he gasped.

“Nevermind then, we can just walk together,” said Evelyn, as she and the gawky youngster threaded through the crowd.

Her own father would have approved of this scholarship program. He’d struggled between his conflicting desires to help the poor directly, or to push innovation forward so that world economies could flourish and the poor could have the opportunity to help themselves. Here the dilemma was solved nicely in one fell swoop.

When they reached the bar, Maglalang turned to Evelyn, glancing at her shyly. “What do you drink?”

“Ask for a dry martini, thank you, dear,” said Evelyn.

The bartender indulgently waited for Maglalang to repeat her order and then whipped up the drink, raising the shaker above his head with a flourish that captivated the unsophisticated teen.

“Are you making many new friends, dear?” asked Evelyn.

The bartender handed the drink to Maglalang, who carefully took it by the stem and relayed it to Evelyn. It all seemed perfectly harmless. She had no idea why her assistant was whispering warnings in her ear.

“Yeah, I have some new friends now,” said Maglalang, watching Evelyn carefully as she took a sip of the drink. “But it’s my OLD friends that have a message for you, bitch. You’re going down! All of you motherfucking plutocrats are going DOWN!” The young man was shouting and waving his arms, and Evelyn was so shocked that she nearly dropped her drink.

Her assistant was chattering instructions madly in her ear, rudely superimposing an exit route onto her vision, which was against her standing protocol. Evelyn had a strict rule about what sort of visual overlays were allowed. The crowd parted as Matheson came pounding toward them in full combat mode. Maglalang turned to run, but was dropped almost instantly, paralyzed by the neurotoxins delivered by one of Matheson’s darting, insect sized drones.

“My god, Matheson,” exclaimed Evelyn, utterly shocked. “That’s a bit much, isn’t it? Must you make such a scene?” But before he could answer, the entire world changed before her eyes. Matheson’s face transformed into a white mask with a broad grin flanked by a black handlebar mustache, and a pointy black beard. Her assistant’s voice faded away and a computerized voice buzzed in her ears.

“Enjoy your drink, Evelyn?” asked the voice. “I’m so glad you did. Let’s introduces ourselves. We are legion.”

That was the last thing Evelyn heard before the world went dark and she descended into madness.

Chapter 4 here.

The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 2 (Mira)

Chapter 1 here.

Mira trudged past the boarded up storefronts, careful to stay in the thin sliver of shade provided by the sagging overhang. She pulled a mildewy t-shirt across her face to keep the swirling dust out of her nose and mouth. The California sun pounded down like a molten hammer on a filthy anvil, and she squinted across the broken pavement of the parking lot. This had been a shopping complex of some kind once. One of the storefronts read “Carvel” in thick red letters, while another one featured the words “Hens & Kelly” in big black cursive. She had seen places like this on shows, but she had no idea what these stores had sold. She looked down at her cardboard visor and shook it. The power bar was good, she’d been in the sun for hours, so it’d better be, but the picture was dead. She pinched the reset dot for a moment, nearly pushing her cracked and dirt encrusted thumbnail through the flimsy material.

“Fuck,” she spat. She rarely had to look at default reality, and it made her feel bad. This place was goddamn ugly. Everything was brown and dry and crappy. With her visor on, she could just follow the map and it would abstract away this ugliness. It lit her path with little green dots, gave her points for avoiding obstacles, and she could keep chatTime running all the while, her friends never out of reach. But without her visor, well, this whole thing sucked. She had no idea where she was or how to get to where she was going. She wandered forward aimlessly, surveying the deserted plaza.

“What’s the matter, wirehead? Your rig broke?” croaked a voice, making Mira jump. She twirled around, trying to see where it came from. “Heehee, up here, idiot,” it said. Mira looked up to see a tiny sparrow drone hovering above her. The drone’s cameras zeroed in on the skinny, Hispanic teenager as she stamped her foot in frustration. “It’s not gonna work. I jammed it!” it said. “This is my turf, you gotta pay the troll if you wanna pass.”

Mira scratched her head and thought for a moment. She’d never heard of a drone troll before. Usually the gang that controlled the area around a blood bank would just post some guys a few hundred meters out and they would tell her how much tax she had to pay. But she was trying out a new place, because she’d heard they were paying more if you were young. Maybe the gangs were different out here, but they usually had guns and didn’t mess around with this high tech stuff.

Real gangs had AKs. An AK could blow a big ragged hole through her. What was this stupid little drone going to do? Also, the voice sounded like a kid, someone her little brother’s age, maybe twelve or thirteen. But still, her visor was toast and she was stuck. “How am I gonna pay you if my visor doesn’t work?” she asked the drone hovering above her head, well out of reach. She glanced around for a good rock. There were plenty of loose stones around.

“That’s not how you’re gonna pay this troll tax,” said the voice. “There’s another way, with your body.”

Mira shivered with disgust and glanced around fearfully. “Ew, don’t be fucking gross!” she shouted. She doubted there was anyone with enough muscle around to grab her. And she was pretty fast if she had to run.

“That’s not what I meant, wirehead,” said the drone. The whiny tone of voice was definitely that of a petulant tween. “Put your visor back on, it will work again, sort of. Just follow the blue dots. You’re gonna make a little detour on the way to the blood bank.”

Sure enough, when Mira put on her visor again, the display was lit. But everything looked wrong. It wasn’t set up as she liked. She tried opening chatTime windows, but they were grayed out. She could see her friends posting frantic updates about how she had dropped offline, but she couldn’t respond to any of their messages. Still, it felt good to see the hit counts ringing up for #whyMiraOffline.

“Can’t you stay off chatTime for five seconds?” complained the drone. “Just follow the blue dots.”

The dots led up to a metal, graffiti covered door to one of the boarded up shops. She never bothered checking these any more; they were always locked tight. And if you found a way into one of these deserted places, someone had usually found their way in first. Unsavory someones, mostly. So Mira only went into squats with a group of friends, and only if they knew people who could vouch for the place. But it looked like this snotty kid with the drone had truly hacked her visor, so she was stuck and had to follow his directions.

Mira pulled the bar on the door and discovered that it swung open, reluctantly. She gasped in surprise at the lush green interior, and stepped eagerly inside, pulling the door shut behind her. The roof had caved in long ago and sunlight filtered in between the beams, offering bands of cool shade from the unrelenting sun. A water main must have been leaking somewhere, because the bushes and small trees sprouting through the floor of the shop were fresh and healthy seeming. Mira pulled off her visor and saw that this wasn’t an overlay, but part of default reality. She couldn’t believe that this verdant garden was thriving behind that rusty door. She wondered what other magical places were hidden behind the other battered storefronts.

The little drone dropped into the space between a gap in the rafters. “Nice, huh?” said the voice, full of boyish delight.

One of the trees was an apple tree with actual apples hanging from it. Mira had never seen an apple tree in real life. “Can I have one?” she begged the drone boy, as she approached the tree in wonderment, visor tilted back on her head.

“What? Oh yeah, sure, I guess. Are you hungry or something? We have SocStab rations,” said the drone.

“I’m sick of social stability rations. Everything I eat is old, dry, and crumbly,” said Mira, grabbing a ripe apple and yanking it down from the tree. Several other apples fell and she guiltily scrambled to grab those as well. She crammed them into her bag and took a bite of one. Its crisp, sweet flesh exploded into her parched mouth and she nearly fainted with delight. It was the best apple she’d ever had in her life, though she rarely had anything like a fresh fruit or vegetable, so that wasn’t saying much.

“Will you put the visor back on now and follow the blue dots? I can’t wait long, this battery is almost dead,” complained the little drone; and then it was gone, buzzing quietly up through a gap in the roof and soaring out of sight.

Mira idly considered ignoring the drone boy and hanging out in the leafy refuge for a while. But then she remembered that he’d fucked up her visor so she couldn’t get on chatTime, and she needed the little bastard to fix it. She dropped her visor back down and found the blue dots, occasionally pawing impotently at the semi-disabled chatTime windows, as interest in her whereabouts quickly faded and was replaced by conversations about the latest shows. At least she had the wonderful apple to comfort her, and she gnawed it down to the core, even eating the bitter seeds, as she picked her way through the miniature forest.

It ended abruptly thirty feet from the back wall of the store. The black and white tiled floor was oddly intact along this wall, somehow impervious to nature’s prying fingers. The dots pointed Mira toward a pair of doors with crash bars, the exit sign above them illuminated. Mira was startled to see electricity still flowing through this destroyed place. She lifted her visor to be sure it was real, and, sure enough, the green letters of the exit sign glowed brightly. She pushed through the doors and found herself in a massive warehouse. The ceiling soared above her into darkness. The only light was the sunlight filtering through the ruined roof behind her. Her path led down an aisle between towering racks stacked with cardboard boxes. She let the doors slam shut behind her and was engulfed in darkness, her visor providing a wireframe of racks and obstacles in her path.

She felt gypped when she scrambled over a pile of tumbled boxes, but didn’t get any points for her effort, and she watched her chatTime feeds longingly, wishing she could post about this adventure right away. Her social status would definitely spike once she’d told this story. She hoped her visor wasn’t too screwed up to be recording. Going from that weird overgrown store into this huge warehouse was as interesting footage as any video game she’d ever played. Her friends would love it.

After a while, the dots led Mira down an aisle to the right, and she came to a door with a punch clock next to it and a little stand with a coffeemaker on it. The button was lit and Mira could smell a fresh pot of coffee. She found a stack of paper cups and poured herself some. It burned her tongue and tasted bitter. She rummaged around a bit more and found the nondairy creamers. She emptied five or six of them into her cup, which cooled the coffee and made it lighter and smoother, though they were greasy and added an oily sheen to the surface. Refreshed by a few sips of coffee, Mira pressed ahead and went through the door.

She would have been blinded by the bright fluorescent lights of the break room if her visor hadn’t adjusted the brightness. A middle aged woman in a white lab coat sat at a table, performing some virtual task, her fingers flitting deftly above the bright white tabletop before her. A young teenaged boy, maybe thirteen years old, sat across from her, kicking his legs as he manipulated something, probably the drone, Mira decided.

The woman promptly stopped working and lifted her glasses when Mira entered. She had brown hair streaked with grey and a hard expression on her face. She looked like a rich woman, both she and the boy were dressed in clean clothes that looked expensive.

“Close the door and sit down. We don’t have much time,” said the woman, gesturing tersely to a strange chair with one padded armrest and a reclined backrest.

Mira lifted her visor to her head. “Your kid messed up my visor! Tell him to fix it!”

“I’m the one who told him to break it in the first place,” responded the woman, taking Mira by the shoulders and pushing her down into the chair. Mira complied because she was tired and it felt good to sit down. “Don’t worry, we have plenty of those cheap cardboard visors around here. I can give you a whole box if you want them. But I need you to run an errand for my employers.” The woman sat on a stool beside Mira and brusquely rolled up Mira’s sleeve.

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Mira, trying to struggle, but the woman was surprisingly strong and quickly strapped Mira’s arm to the armrest. Mira realized that this was sort of like the chairs in the blood bank. “I’m not giving you any blood for free or even for a box of visors,” Mira said, “I was on my way to get real money.” Her heart started racing as she wondered if this woman was trying to steal her blood, but something about the woman’s demeanor gave her pause. She wasn’t friendly by any means, but she wasn’t angry, either. She was businesslike, and her eyes didn’t have the deadness that Mira saw when people really intended to harm her. And she had seen dead eyes plenty.

“Oh shucks, I messed up, Mom,” said the boy. “I must have missed a security system somewhere, private security is being dispatched out here to check on the cameras.”

“That’s fine, it was to be expected, get us a car,” said the woman, unwrapping a tiny hypodermic needle from a plastic bag.

“What are you shooting me up with?” asked Mira. “This is going to look so crazy on my feeds.”

“You aren’t going to be able to put this on your feeds,” said the boy smugly. “I’m wiping your visor history.”

“You fucker, do you know how much status I could get from this?” cried Mira.

“This isn’t for you, Mira,” said the woman calmly, as she swabbed Mira’s filthy arm with alcohol and deftly sank the needle into her bulging vein. “It’s a present for the blood bank. You won’t feel a thing. It’s perfectly harmless to you.”

Mira believed the woman; she handled the needle so well that she could barely feel the prick. A few seconds later, the woman was done and had released her arm from the restraint. She pocketed the needle and the plastic wrapper as she and the boy got up to leave.

“There are the stability rations and a box of visors,” said the woman, pointing to a pair of cardboard boxes on a counter in the corner. “Take them and get out. Security will be here soon.”

“Wait, what the fuck did you just do to me?” asked Mira.

“I don’t really know, dear,” admitted the woman with a shrug. “I just took this gig off of a job board. I tested the vial first and I can assure you it’s not toxic, but that’s all I know.”

“But it’s for the blood bank? Why?” Mira called after them, as the woman and the boy exited by the door opposite the one Mira had entered.

“The blood bank is a longevity clinic. The blood goes to plutocrats,” said the boy with a smirk. But his mother shushed him and the door closed. They were gone.  

Mira sat stunned for a moment. Looking at her arm, she found no evidence of the point where the needle had entered. She didn’t feel drugged either, maybe a little jittery from the coffee. She jumped up, stuffed the boxes into her bag, and bolted out the back door, hoping to ask more questions of the mother and the boy. But, just as she emerged into the pummeling heat of the afternoon, their autoCar was pulling away. Mira found that the visor she’d been wearing was dead again and she tossed it away in frustration. She pulled a fresh one out of the box and, after scanning her for a moment, it logged her in properly. Green dots leading to the blood bank reappeared and all of her other windows came up, just as she liked them. Her friends were practically shrieking with excitement when Mira’s feed came back on chatTime, and she was texting away so intensely that she didn’t even notice the security vans pulling up and the guards jumping out and pounding into the warehouse behind her, laden in body armor with their rifles out.

A burly white guard in a puffy black vest stopped in front of her. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Blood bank,” Mira murmured distractedly. She’d spent enough time in reality and didn’t want to deal with it anymore. The guard shook his head in disgust and let her pass.

Chapter 3 here.