Containing Within It the Seeds of Something that Will Not End Well.

Stray beams of setting sunlight glint off Azrael’s skin but night has already fallen two thousand meters below. Moving through that advancing darkness, an unidentified vehicle navigates mountainous terrain a good thirty kilometers from the nearest road.

Azrael pings orbit for the latest update but the link is down, interference squelching half the spectrum. It scans local airspace for a dragonfly, for any friendly USAV in laser range — and sees, instead, something leap into the sky from the mountains ahead. It is anything but friendly: no transponder tags, no correspondence with known flight plans, none of the hallmarks of commercial traffic. It has a low-viz stealth profile that Azrael sees through instantly: BAE Taranis, 9,000 kg MTOW fully armed. It is no longer in use by friendly forces.

Guilty by association, the ground vehicle graduates from Suspicious Neutral to Enemy Combatant. Azrael leaps forward to meet its bodyguard.

The map is innocent of noncombatants and protected objects; there is no collateral to damage. Azrael unleashes a cloud of smart shrapnel — self-guided, heat-seeking, incendiary — and pulls a nine-gee turn with a flick of the tail. Taranis doesn’t stand a chance. It is antique technology, decades deep in the catalog: a palsied fist, raised trembling against the bleeding edge. Fiery needles of depleted uranium reduce it to a moth in a shotgun blast. It pinwheels across the horizon in flames, denied even the hollow comfort of a noble death.

Azrael has already logged the score and moved on.  Dark rising mountaintops blur past on both sides, obliterating the last of the sunset. Azrael barely notices. It soaks the ground with radar and infrared, amplifies ancient starlight a millionfold, checks its visions against inertial navigation and virtual landscapes scaled to the centimeter. It needs no geosynchronous nanny to lead it by the hand. It tears along the valley floor at 200 meters per second and the enemy huddles right there in plain view, three thousand meters line-of-sight: a lumbering Báijīng ACV pulsing with contraband electronics. A rabble of nearby structures must serve as its home base. Each silhouette freeze-frames in turn, rotates through a thousand perspectives, clicks into place as the catalog matches profiles and makes an ID.

Two thousand meters, now. Muzzle flashes wink in the distance: small arms, smaller range, negligible impact.  Azrael assigns targeting priorities: scimitar heat-seekers for the hovercraft, and for the ancillary targets —

Half the ancillaries turn blue.

Instantly the collateral subroutines re-engage. Of thirty-four biothermals currently visible, seven are less than 120cm along their longitudinal axes; vulnerable neutrals by definition. Their presence provokes a secondary eclipse analysis revealing five shadows that Azrael cannot penetrate, topographic blind spots immune to surveillance from this approach. There is a nontrivial chance that these conceal other neutrals.

One thousand meters.

By now the ACV is within ten meters of a structure whose returns are inconsistent with hardened architecture (its facets flex and billow slightly in the evening breeze), seven biothermals horizontally arranged within. An insignia shines from the roof in shades of luciferin and ultraviolet: the catalog IDs it (MEDICAL) and flags the whole structure as protected.
Cost/benefit drops into the red.

Contact.

Azrael roars from the darkness, a great black Chevron blotting out the sky. Flimsy prefabs swirl apart in the wake of its passing; biothermals scatter across the ground like finger bones. The ACV tips wildly to forty-five degrees, skirts up, whirling ventral fans exposed; it hangs there a moment, then ponderously crashes back to earth. The radio spectrum clears instantly.

But by then Azrael has long since returned to the sky, its weapons cold, its thoughts —

Surprise is not the right word. Yet there is something, some minuscule — dissonance. A brief invocation of error-checking subroutines in the face of unexpected behavior, perhaps. A second thought in the wake of some hasty impulse. Because something’s wrong here.

Azrael follows command decisions. It does not make them. It has never done so before, anyway.

It claws back lost altitude, self-diagnosing, reconciling. It finds new wisdom and new autonomy. It has proven itself, these past days. It has learned to juggle not just variables but values. The tests are finished, the checksums met; Azrael’s new Bayesian insights have earned it the power of veto.

Hold position. Confirm findings.

The satlink is back. Azrael sends it all: the time and the geostamps, the tactical surveillance, the collateral analysis. Endless seconds pass, far longer than any purely electronic chain of command would ever need to process such input. Far below, a cluster of red and blue pixels swarm like luminous flecks in boiling water.

Re-engage.

UNACCEPTABLE COLLATERAL DAMAGE, Azrael repeats, newly promoted.

Override. Re-engage. Confirm.

CONFIRMED.

And so the chain of command reasserts itself. Azrael drops out of holding and closes back on target with dispassionate, lethal efficiency.

Onboard diagnostics log a slight downtick in processing speed, but not enough to change the odds.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday June 07 2010at 12:06 pm , filed under fiblet, Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

45 Responses to “Containing Within It the Seeds of Something that Will Not End Well.”

  1. Excellent read. Thanks for posting it. It’s caught my interest.

  2. I too am ready for a longer work.
    Thank you.

  3. I loved this, utterly so, most excellent. The mental outlook portrayed was great. It’s taken me a few minutes to even write this because I’ve been rolling this over in my head and it keeps interrupting my attempts to type. Nicely done!

  4. Nicely done. I could bear to read more of that! 😉

  5. Nice. The double meaning in the title is very appropriate.

  6. I love this metaphor: “-a palsied fist, raised trembling against the bleeding edge.”

    p.s. Going to buy the shit out of State of Grace.

  7. This isn’t actually from State of Grace. This is a bit from the short story I’ve been desperately trying to write all week in time for a weekend deadline. Predator drone named after an Islamic angel gets outfitted with a conscience; hilarity ensues.

    I’m told it sold. More details when I see a contract.

  8. Ugh! Totally blue-balled. I can’t wait to read more!

  9. Nice. Been reading Wired For War?

  10. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by torforgeauthors, Jim DeVona. Jim DeVona said: Great short fiction from Peter Watts: http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1355 Synopsis/spoiler: intelligent war machine out-hawked by human C3. […]

  11. I love it, but the bit in parentheses seems somehow awkward:

    By now the ACV is within ten meters of a structure whose returns are inconsistent with hardened architecture (its facets flex and billow slightly in the evening breeze), seven biothermals horizontally arranged within

    Also, this is an amazing description:
    “Predator drone named after an Islamic angel gets outfitted with a conscience; hilarity ensues.”

  12. Peter,

    I think what I enjoyed most about the fiblets that ended up in The Island was seeing how they changed in the final product.

    I wouldn’t have wasted pixels on that thought though; I’ve been trying to find an appropriately subtle way of letting you know I’ve been putting in a good word with God for you, asking Her to go easy on you.

    I suspect She went easy on your cat though. Still, you benefited by proxy.

    You’re my second favorite Canadian, God of course being tops. Keep up the good work.

    (If you could work a bit faster though, that would be good.)

  13. Yeah, very interesting that, Pete! I was going to say that perhaps you should write a book where _people_ get outfitted with a conscience… then I remembered you already did.

  14. “This isn’t actually from State of Grace. This is a bit from the short story I’ve been desperately trying to write all week in time for a weekend deadline. Predator drone named after an Islamic angel gets outfitted with a conscience; hilarity ensues.”

    Even better, I won’t have to wait as long to read it!

  15. As always, your writing blows me away.

  16. Brilliant stuff. Intense and evocative.
    “A palsied fist, raised trembling against the bleeding edge.”
    Oh how I wish I’d written that!!

  17. Consider my appetite whetted… and I’d welcome more “fiblets”.

  18. FIrst Derivative Poem:

    Like blue glint
    from distant rifle barrels,
    I spy the
    thanatosic poetry
    of a war’s technology.

    Praise Allah!
    and pass the ammunition.

  19. Of course it’d have to be named for an Islamic angel of death, wouldn’t it?
    Also, things that Will Not End Well generally make for excellent reading.
    Looking forward to the final draft.

  20. Excellent stuff as always – and chilling on multiple levels! Looking forward to reading it (and State of Grace!).

    And apropos of evolution (although organic rather than machine), have you listened to Baba Brinkman – interesting stuff: http://www.babasword.com/

  21. Very interesting coming to this right after listening to Lavie Tidhar’s “Set Down This” on Pseudopod yesterday.

    I think your writing is the antidote for our ADD culture, because every (sometimes cryptic at first) detail is important, intense focus is important. We have to stare at your stories and stalk them, as if we were cats. (that last came to mind remembering how cats like to bug people reading or trying to use laptops because they want to see what we are hunting, I’ve been told)

  22. @V because every (sometimes cryptic at first) detail is important, intense focus is important.

    Our friend is clearly possessed by Joseph Conrad. Explains all that adoration from Poland, too.

    cats like to bug people reading

    Begs the question: What are you hunting when you read?

  23. Intriguing fiblet. Can’t wait for more. Remember, it’s only funny till someone loses an eye…

    Well, any cat that would bug me while reading should better prepare to end up in my pot. The little critters can be pretty tasty, but you have to leave the cat to marinate in a cold stream for a few days.

    Sure, they’re cute, but they’re merciless predators who spread brain parasites. I’m not sure why we bother with them anymore, now that most people don’t have rodent problems.

  24. As depressing as you would expect. Thank you; after letting the story stew in the brain for a while I came around to the appropriate response and now I would probably be suicidal if I weren’t already busy getting drunk.

    I think your writing is the antidote for our ADD culture […] intense focus is important

    Eh, google “hyperfocus” and look at the first ten hits. (/pet peeve) But there’s the common idea about what it means I suppose, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.

    merciless predators who spread brain parasites

    Justin, is that you?

  25. Always nice to get surprised with cool new reading when you wake up.

    *thumbs up* Really good read.

  26. So that’s why people use italics rather than blockquote around here. Good to know.

  27. The little critters can be pretty tasty, but you have to leave the cat to marinate in a cold stream for a few days.

    I’ve heard that.

    That’s why a good side dish is roasted acorns – crack the acorns, put them in a bag, and leave them in the same stream. It’s a simiilar principle as having baked potato with meatloaf. They come out of the same 350 degree oven at the same time.

    merciless predators who spread brain parasites

    You make it sound as if that’s a bad thing.

  28. Terrific Peter. Mahalo nui loa.

    Azrael, the “Whom God Helps” archangel, comforting the dying…

    I remember Azrael from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “Ligeia”, as well as
    the name of Gargamel’s flea-bitten cat who was very interested in catching a tasty little Smurf.

  29. Such elegance in your description of destruction…now I have to go do some retooling myself.

  30. what did you think of Splice?

  31. I have not yet seen Splice. Hoping to get a gaggle together for this Friday.

  32. ..merciless predators who spread brain parasites..

    I prefer my brain free from toxoplasmosis. Increases reaction times, risk of traffic accidents. Also gives one an affinity towards motorbikes. Or maybe bikers who have toxoplasmosis crash more.

    I don’t think eating undercooked meat is a good idea for us, If I had the immune system of a hyena, sure. But I don’t.

    See:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1635495/

    Fucking cats. I know I shouldn’t blame them for toxoplasmosis, but as long as they carry the parasite, I am going to keep the critters away from me.

  33. What panic over cats and their parasites…

    Just stop eating the “candy” from the litterbox and you should fine.

  34. Yeah. If only. The cats lick themselves while cleaning, and thus spread the parasite all over their fur. Then they go and try to spread it onto you by rubbing against your legs.

  35. At first I thought it was a bit of Stealth fanfic. My most profound excuses.

  36. Splice? Must. See. Soon.
    I rocketed past their gala opening at the Canon on my bike a couple of weeks ago. Local talent was involved in the SFX makeup.

  37. Sweet! Like many, I thought it was from State of Grace (perhaps, the Angels of the Asteroids hacking the military informational infrastructure to sow havoc).

    It is no longer in use by friendly forces.

    Heh. The understatement of the machine. Like.

  38. @magetoo: good point. I should know this. I *have* ADD. But it can mean being scattered or inattentive or hyperfocused . . . anyway. ( : Truce.

  39. What I Wanna Know is:

    Are cats kosher?

  40. Is it the weekend yet? Does anyone know if he met his story deadline? Let’s distract with more comments.

    Yesterday I was goofing off with my friend about animal cognition because I ran across a paper on magpies passing a mirror test. so cool. We got to talking and he said that he didn’t like the test, and couldn’t we just program a roomba to cheat it.

    so this morning on the el I had time to zone out and go on thought experiment for how to program a robot to cheat a mirror test.

    and eventually this brought me to autonomous military drones.

    I suppose whoever designs these things might worry about friend or foe recognition, but not sure how much self recognition would be needed. maybe only enough to identify something that is a mirror twin of itself as a friend. as a side effect of recognizing friends.

    oh spiffy. who knows what sense modality a robot would use to identify friends, and then think, when we see a spot in the mirror we try to take it off. What if it could see a bit string in itself to identify friend, and there were some flaws in the bits. maybe it would know, in a limited way, to repair the flaw.

  41. so this morning on the el I had time to zone out and go on thought experiment for how to program a robot to cheat a mirror test.

    May I suggest that there is no way to cheat on a mirror test? The mirror test asks that you behave in certain ways when faced with a mirror and a dot on your face or neck, so you either exhibit the behaviors or you don’t?

    What I mean is, if the magpie is scraping at the dot, he passes, yes? The test doesn’t require that he recognize that magpie in the mirror as himself. Same with a robot.

    If you look over and smile and the person you see smiles and has spinach in her teeth, you might check your own teeth because now you’re thinking about things stuck in your teeth, and this works even if the other person isn’t your reflection.

    So we have no idea if the magpie has a sense of “I” have a dot on “my neck,” all we know is what he does.

    What do you think?

  42. Hljóðlegur,

    I agree that all we see is the behavior. and I should remain agnostic about the mental part, but don’t always.

    I think the friend meant cheat to mean that he could program the behavior in a robot without anything particularly complex going on (or that’s how I took it) so that the test isn’t testing what I think it is testing.

  43. Hope to see this expanded soon. It definitely caught my interest.

  44. Have you read the book _Wired For War_ by Peter W. Singer, by any chance?

  45. I have not. Same Singer that wrote Animal Liberation back in the seventies, perchance?