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War Machine

by Dan Rice

Part 1 appears
in this issue



Gavin stayed in a cockroach hotel near the location of the latest school turned slaughterhouse. A combination of fast talking and white lies got him five minutes with the mayor and a few other public servants early the next morning. The mayor’s office possessed the ambiance of a funeral parlor.

“I don’t know,” the mayor said, leaning back in his chair. “Putting an armed robot into a school? This is all happening so fast. The shooting just happened yesterday. I still have parents of dead students to meet.”

The mayor fell silent and wiped at his eyes. Gavin quickly surveyed the handful of political and school officials around the room, knowing by their body language that he had to sell them on the idea in the next minute or his career was torpedoed. It was time to play what he hoped was his trump card.

“You had an armed teacher in the school at the time of the shooting. Am I correct?” Gavin said, keeping his tone empathetic. A stony-faced school district official nodded in the affirmative. “That tells me you take the safety of your students very seriously. Unfortunately, the teacher and the shooter ended up in a shootout: 13 dead, 25 wounded. Those are stark numbers.”

“Would you get to the point?” the mayor snapped.

“The Defender shoots with 99% accuracy. Allegiance Robotics is offering a Defender Autonomous Mech to Franklin High School for free on a six-month trial. You’ll never have to worry about another school shooting. On top of that, this is a high crime area. Petty crimes and even felonies are happening in the school and the surrounding community all the time. With the Defender on site, you’ll see the crime rate drop.”

“We will?” the mayor said skeptically.

“Yes, the Defender’s drones are equipped with audio and video recording devices. When a crime is detected, the police are notified. The drones will track the perpetrators to ensure apprehension by the authorities.”

“Six months free?” the mayor asked. “No strings attached?”

“No strings attached,” Gavin confirmed.

* * *

A month later on a chilly morning, an Allegiance Robotics box truck pulled up outside the neo-gothic Franklin High School. Gavin watched the truck roll to a stop alongside the mayor, the school principal, and a handful of other public officials. Things had been kept hush-hush to avoid protests.

“So this robot will be ready to go as soon as it hits the ground?” the mayor asked.

“The blueprints of the school grounds have been uploaded to the Defender,” Gavin said. “It knows the school as well as I know the back of my hand.”

“This robot can’t be hacked?” the school principal asked. She was a petite woman dressed in enough layers to look half again bigger than she was.

“The Defender’s AI meets all DOD and international standards for anti-cyber intrusion,” Gavin said. “The mech has passed all safety protocols, including repelling all known cyber attacks. There is also a failsafe in place that allows Allegiance Robotics to shut down the mech should anything happen.”

The burly driver tramped around to the back of the truck. The man hit a few buttons on the side of the truck next to the vertical door. The soft whir of a motor started up, and the officials fell silent in anticipation. The door to the back of the box truck slid up.

“The Defender is online, Gavin,” Obedience said.

“Give it the ‘Go’ command. Full autonomy,”

From inside the dark container came the bright glow of a single LED, the mech’s eyeball. The officials behind Gavin started to talk amongst themselves; some sounding awed while others sounded skeptical. Gavin smiled. They’d all have their minds blown if everything went according to plan. But then last-minute nerves made Gavin gnaw on his lower lip. The robot in the back of the truck was just a prototype, and Murphy’s Law had a track record of sabotage.

“Full autonomy granted, Gavin,” Obedience said. “Defender Prototype, serial number 129431A-1, is now under command of the onboard AI.”

“Here comes the Defender!” Gavin called over his shoulder.

Metallic thuds, like footsteps, emanated from the container. The morning light gleamed off the Defender’s armored chest and bulky shoulders, which housed two of its drones. Some of the officials gasped, and at least one cursed. The mech flexed humanoid hands and rolled its wrists. A compact machine gun was located along the inside of each forearm.

The Defender bent at the knees and jumped from the truck to the concrete. Its head rotated, its cyclopean eye pausing at each official. Gavin let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. His lips twitched upward in a pleased smirk. Everything was going swimmingly.

The mech bent at the waist, bowing then straightening to its full height of two meters. “Hello,” it said in a soothing female voice. “If you will excuse me, I will familiarize myself with the school.”

The Defender marched past the gathered crowd and entered the school grounds.

“Wow,” the mayor said.

Cha-ching, Gavin thought.

* * *

Boris leaned back in his chair, his sports jacket straining to contain his considerable bulk. Ignoring his wandering gaze, Natasha handed him an intelligence report detailing that a Defender Mech was stationed at Franklin High School, a polling station her team had hacked months ago. They could seize control of the school’s network and other information technology infrastructure at any time.

After flipping through the report, Boris said, “You think you can hack this civilian Goliath... Then what you learn can be used to hack a real Goliath. There is no way the Americans will deploy a battle mech into a civilian area without ensuring that its cyber defenses are top-notch.”

“It’s a prototype,” Natasha said. “No way its cyber defenses are as good as the Goliath’s.”

Boris placed his elbows on his polished wooden desk and steepled his fingers beneath his double chin as if in deep contemplation. Clenching her jaw, Natasha tapped her foot against the floor. As if he ever had a cogent thought about anything other than sex and vodka.

After a minute, he said, “Look into this civilian Goliath. I’ll make some calls and see what the men up top want us to do. It will take me about an hour. No hacking before you hear from me.”

Natasha nodded and marched from his office, aware that his gaze was glued to her ass as she walked back to her seat. Twenty minutes later Boris trundled out of his office to tell her that the men up top approved hacking the Defender.

The horny chimp added, “They want the Defender hacked before the U.S. midterm elections.”

“That only gives us three months,” Natasha said. “We need more time. Why do they need the hack to correspond with the elections?”

Boris glowered at her. “Just make it happen.”

* * *

Gavin was sitting in the office of the police chief, feeling inordinately pleased with himself. Just as he had predicted, the mere presence of the Defender at Franklin High School had lowered the crime rate. Not just by a little bit either: a full fifty percent. Fifty percent in three months. Crime inside the school had dropped to zero. Public agencies would have to start buying the mech now; the stats didn’t lie: the Defender was a resounding success.

“So, what does your department think about adding a Defender to the force?” Gavin asked.

The chief, a gaunt man with a neatly trimmed gray moustache, leaned back in his chair. “You know, three months ago I would say no way in hell that would ever happen. Too much resistance from the rank-and-file and too expensive. Now” — he shrugged — “I have to reconsider. Sure, there’s been a few protests, but those are settling down. People are becoming used to having a mech on patrol. Hell, some of them even like it. The crime-tracking stats are impressive. Damn impressive. People are noticing.”

“Imagine those stats citywide,” Gavin said.

“I’d like to,” the chief said, leaning forward in the chair. “The fact is, 175 grand is a pile of cash. It’s a big ask.”

Gavin and the chief dickered over the Defender’s price tag for about an hour. By the end of the discussion, Gavin told Obedience to prepare a contract for the chief to sign the following day. His first sale. With any luck, the first of many. He’d probably win a Nobel Prize for permanently ending violent crime.

“You know,” the chief said, “next week is the midterm election. Franklin High School is a polling station. The Defender is going to provide security.”

“I know,” Gavin said, smiling broadly. “I’m going to be there. We’re expecting lots of press.”

* * *

Boris ogled Natasha from behind his desk. “I hope you have good news for me. The elections are tomorrow.”

“I have excellent news,” Natasha said. “We’ve hacked the Defender by exploiting a vulnerability in its wireless communication. As long as it’s in the vicinity of a hacked voting machine, we’ll be able to make the mech go haywire and prevent a remote shutdown.”

Boris brightened at this, sitting up in his chair. “Excellent. You’ve done a great job, Natasha. The men up top will be toasting your name when they hear about this. Can we make the mech shoot up the polling station?”

Natasha blanched, not believing what she had just heard. “What do you mean, shoot up the polling station? You’re not talking about killing civilians, are you?”

“Of course not,” Boris said, his fleshy face going red. “A poor choice of words. We want to make the Americans look like morons. How better than to make their mech fire off a few bullets at random? Hit a few voting machines. Something like that. We’d never kill civilians. We’re not animals.”

Natasha needed a cigarette. She didn’t trust Boris.

* * *

Gavin stood next to the gleaming metallic bulk of the Defender, watching people line up to cast their ballots at one of twenty touchscreen voting machines inside Franklin High School’s gymnasium. Most people openly stared at the Defender, some with distaste but most with fascination. A few even stopped to speak with Gavin.

Gavin couldn’t keep from smiling. He’d already given two interviews to local news outlets and expected to soon be talking to CNN. The news network’s cameraman was already taking establishing shots on the other side of the gym. All the positive press meant more sales. Life was good and was only going to get better.

“Gavin,” Obedience said, “I’m receiving strange readouts from the Defender. I recommend a hard reboot of the mech’s AI.”

The CNN reporter, a gorgeous leggy blonde Gavin recognized from TV, crossed the gymnasium toward him.

“Not yet,” he said. “Wait until after I talk to this reporter.”

“I’m not sure that is wise,” Obedience said.

“Is the mech going to start shooting for no reason?” he whispered.

“You know that is highly unlikely, Gavin.”

“Then the reboot can wait until after the interview,” he said under his breath.

The reporter approached him. “I’m not interrupting?”

“Not at all,” Gavin said, smiling and extending his hand to shake hers. Her skin was smooth and warm. “I’m Gavin Clement, Director of State and Local Government Sales for Allegiance Robotics.”

“Can I ask you a few questions about the Defender?” the reporter asked.

“Certainly—” The deafening report of automatic gunfire interrupted Gavin.

Bullets ripped through the gym, cutting down bystanders. Feeling his heart galloping up his throat, Gavin threw himself to the floor and looked up in time to watch the reporter’s head disintegrate in a spray of red. As he crawled across the floor to escape the bloodbath, Gavin glanced over his shoulder. What he saw horrified him. The Defender was firing indiscriminately into the crowd with both its machine guns.

“Shut it down!” Gavin screamed at Obedience. “Send it the shutdown command.”

“I have. The Defender is not responding. Initiating failsafe procedure,” Obedience said, voice eerily calm.

The mech’s head swiveled toward Gavin until the cyclopean eye gazed upon him. The machine guns continued to spew bullets into the crowd.

“Hurry!” Gavin yelled.

“Failsafe activated,” Obedience said, mere seconds before black smoke started escaping from the Defender’s chest.

The machine guns stopped firing, the mech’s arms fell to its sides, and the glowing blue light faded from the eye. Drawing a shuddering breath, Gavin sat up, amazed that he was alive. He stared at the slaughter, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Survivors were creeping around the gym; someone cried, and someone else groaned, and mostly there was death. From outside the gymnasium came the blare of sirens.

“Gavin, are you hurt?” Obedience asked.

He didn’t answer. He didn’t know if he was injured. Fishing his phone out of his pocket, he called his daughter.

* * *

Watching the news report about the massacre at the polling station nearly brought Natasha to tears. She took a long drag on her cigarette and stormed into Boris’ office. The fat bastard was looking positively smug as he leaned back in his chair.

“How could you!” Natasha yelled at him. “You went behind my back and had my team modify the malware. Don’t you remember the school siege at Beslan? Now we’ve done the same thing.”

Boris shrugged. “It was not enough to make the Americans look foolish. We needed to make them look weak, too. All their Goliaths have been taken off-line over security fears. The operation is a huge success. Now, did our candidate win the election?”

Natasha flicked her cigarette onto his chest. “I quit.”

Copyright © 2018 by Dan Rice

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