Episode 5: CLU Box (Part 4)



Sarisa’s autocar parked itself at the top of a garage two blocks from the construction site. Security blankets generated what was essentially a dome of interference, but it only stretched so high — in this case, less than seven stories. Had their hostage considered that when they chose the seventh floor?

Cowan offered Sarisa his linkline. It would pay to have her on this call too, as a second witness. Also, if they talked to the hostage, he might need her headshrinking skills.

Sarisa pulled back her glossy hair and plugged the linkline into the auxiliary port behind her left ear. “I’m here, Cowan.” Her voice sounded just as soothing on the wireless. She would now be able to hear everything Cowan heard, if they made contact.

“Great.” He patched them both into her autocar’s wireless transmitter, which had a much better range than the one inside his PBA. “What I’m going to do next is generally considered illegal, but I think you’ll agree we have mitigating circumstances, considering unknown soldiers are impersonating Corporate Security. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” The endorsement of an OMH counselor was about the best justification Cowan had to bend the law.

“I’m going to repurpose the synthetic hacking scripts the CID confiscated from Joseph Dunn, renegade braincook, to contact a synthetic at the construction site. There should be some riveting models higher in the building skeleton, above the interference dome.”

“I learn something new every day,” Sarisa said.

Cowan scanned the construction site and found a synthetic riveter on the seventh floor, in sleep mode. Cowan pulled one of Joseph Dunn’s archived hacking scripts from his template box and made a few tweaks. He queried the synthetic.

The synthetic — a medium-sized riveting model — powered up. Cowan passed the synthetic’s single camera feed to one eye. He stomped it toward the darkened elevator shaft. The synthetic’s head-mounted camera spotted a large piece of metal blocking the view through the elevator’s fence. Cowan adjusted the synthetic’s vocal synthesizer to the lowest tone that would carry and spoke. “Anyone in there?”

A head peeked out from behind the metal, an Indian man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. “About time.”

“I’m with the CID,” Cowan said through the synthetic, because it seemed best to identify himself as not with whoever wanted this man. “Do you need assistance?”

“First, I need to know you’re not with the people down there. Can you prove that?”

Cowan couldn’t, so he glanced at Sarisa. “Any ideas?”

“Conspiracies require more than one person, Cowan. So conspire.”

Right. “We know the people after you aren’t Corporate Security,” Cowan told the man, “and we suspect they’ve involved in some crime committed up the corporate ladder. Were you a witness to that crime? Is that why the people down there are after you?”

“That’s not very convincing,” the man said, “but I’m screwed either way, so I’ll play ball. My name is Doctor Rohan Bedi, and I was the chief engineer at Protection Services.”

“That’s the leading manufacturer of OneWorld’s synthcops,” Sarisa told Cowan.

“You’re the leading manufacturer of OneWorld’s synthcops,” Cowan said. “Like the one shooting at people downstairs?”

“Officer 817 has its reasons. After I explained what a total rewrite was, and that the men coming here planned to rewrite me, it agreed it could be a form of murder.”

That was clever, and Cowan could see how a synthcop running a CLU box would interpret rewriting as murder. It erased everything you were. You came out the other side as someone else, and that was what these thugs wanted to do to Doctor Rohan Bedi.

“When I explained that the men coming to take me planned to rewrite me,” Bedi said, “817 adjusted its operational parameters to prevent my murder. It really is a clever bot.”

“I knew it!” Cowan said to Sarisa. To Bedi, he said, “Why is Protection Services after you?”

“Ramon Munn, our CEO, recently ordered me to update our synthcops with operational parameters I believe to be illegal. I refused, and when Munn sent synthcops to arrest me, I fled with our proprietary algorithms as insurance. Now Protection Services has reported me for stealing corporate secrets, and OneWorld probably believes I did it.”

This was so much like Cowan’s own experience with OneWorld it made his head spin. “What were these illegal parameters?”

“You need to understand how synthcops make decisions, first,” Bedi said. “Are you familiar with how VIs process their hierarchy of operational parameters?”

“Sarisa?” Cowan asked.

“Let him educate you,” Sarisa said. “It builds trust.”

“No,” Cowan said. “I’m afraid I’m not.”

“Each parameter has a priority,” Bedi said, “from highest to lowest. If any two conflict, the higher takes precedence over the lower.”

“I understand,” Cowan said.

“So, directive one. Shield all humans from harm. Directive two. Enforce all active laws. Directive three. Shield self from harm.”

“Sounds reasonable. What’s the illegal part?”

“Directive one. Shield all humans from harm, unless orders from Corporate Security state otherwise.”

“Wow,” Sarisa said.

“They wanted a workaround to let synthcops attack humans?” It bothered Cowan how easy it was for him to believe that. “HARM switches for androids?”

“That’s a good comparison,” Bedi said, “but it’s more like ‘allow me to observe murders and not intervene’, and I doubt I could prove it in court. It’s my word against Munn’s, and he’s certainly deleted his directives from our systems by now.”

While Cowan believed Bedi’s story, there had to be more to it. Why would Ramon Munn change synthcops to ignore murder? At best, it would make his products look defective, and at worst, someone would dig into a synthcop’s VI and find the new directive.

This only made sense if Munn wasn’t the person who’d requested the new parameter. If Munn was passing down a directive from higher in the corporate chain, or worse, being blackmailed. So who could direct or blackmail the CEO of Protective Services?

“So,” Bedi said. “You’re calling in the cavalry?”

“We actually don’t have any cavalry,” Sarisa reminded him, “since everyone’s still cleaning up that mess on the Five. Convince Bedi to give himself up to Zhang and Mel.”

Cowan couldn’t think of another option. “Two VCD cops are currently waiting for you downstairs, thanks to clever thinking by your brave synthcop. And a nail gun.”

“Two against five isn’t going to work,” Bedi said. “I know the man leading those soldiers. Captain Patrick Kyle is committed to his orders, and he’ll muscle out your VCD. They’ll lodge a protest, but by the time it gets back to OneWorld, I’ll already be rewritten.”

Bedi was probably right, and Cowan needed a better plan. He scanned the construction site one more time. There were an awful lot of inactive synthetics down there.

“We can try calling the OMH, Cowan,” Sarisa said, “but it would get back to OneWorld. I suspect Ramon Munn can monitor those calls. He’d know about the order immediately, and he could order his soldiers to get more aggressive.”

“No worries,” Cowan said. “I’ve got this.”

“Detective?” Bedi asked.

Cowan told Bedi his better plan.

* * *


They got back to the VCD’s parked autotruck just as the gunshots started. Cowan waited as the doors rolled open and Sarisa hopped out, head down, on the side of the car away from the shots. She drew a stunner from her dark jacket and paced the car as it rolled.

“Hey!” Zhang shouted, from where he and Bradley hunkered behind the autotruck. “You forget your wallet?”

“Cover me!” Sarisa shouted. “I’m coming over!”

More gunshots sounded from the construction site, along with the snap-hiss of stunner rounds. Cowan supposed Captain Kyle had taken the fight to Officer 817. Maybe Ramon Munn was escalating the capture operation after all.

“No one’s shooting at us!” Zhang shouted. “Yet!” To reassure her, he raised his rifle and advanced on the construction site gate. “You’re clear!”

Sarisa gave Cowan a comforting smile. “Good luck.” She sprinted toward the other side of the construction site fence as Cowan remained with the autocar, bum knee and all.

Cowan watched her, not daring to breath, until Sarisa slammed up against the far side of the autotruck beside Melissa Bradley. Bradley crouched in the cover of its front end, rifle pointed at the construction site. She wasn’t firing either.

Sarisa would explain his plan to the VCD. Cowan dropped into the Sim and verified his wireless remained suppressed by the security blanket. It did, but that wouldn’t stop him from activating the autocar’s relay drone. All corporate autocars had those, in case they needed to send a wireless signal from an underground location.

The tiny quadcopter popped from its berth on the autocar’s roof. It zipped skyward on four displaced rotors, bound to the car by a thin data cord. Its high-resolution camera swept the fenced construction site below, showing Cowan the ongoing battle.

Officer 817 hunkered down amidst three concrete barriers. Had it placed them in front of the elevator into the building? The synthcop kept its torso and head hidden behind them, with only its scrawny metal arms raised out of cover. Its elbows bent backward.

Its metal hands hung open, giving its stunners a line of fire that covered the construction site. It fired blue energy at the soldiers impersonating CorpSec, all of whom sheltered behind similar barriers. As Cowan watched, a stunner bolt caught an armored soldier in the open. He wriggled into cover instead of going down.

Stunner blasts were designed to immobilize unarmored targets, not penetrate military body armor, and Cowan knew then that man was a distraction. He had let himself be hit. From the side of a big yellow backhoe, Captain Kyle aimed a menacing looking rifle.

He fired. Whatever ammo he was using hit dead center in one of 817’s stunners. Blue juice and metal shards splattered the ground behind the barricades.

Kyle ducked behind the backhoe as 817 splattered stun bolts in his direction, but the synthcop was losing this battle, fast. The CorpSec soldiers could use any level of lethality they wanted, and had real bullets. 817 couldn’t really hurt anyone.

Cowan turned the drone’s camera to the scene outside the construction site. Sarisa stood in the open now, keeping the autotruck between her and the site. She saluted the quadcopter, which meant everyone understood the plan.

It was time for Doctor Bedi to surrender.

* * *

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