The hook

I wrote this in workshop, as part of an exercise to write a hook. I’d spent a week trying to figure out how to write a story, botched it a few times, and then sat in class and did this. I just came across it and typed it in, so– check it out.

ObContent warning: includes slurs

A burned-out hacker and a heavily-armed white supremacist walk into a shipping container. No, wait, I fucked up. They don’t walk in. They’re already there. And in the container are sex droids – wait, and the hacker, he has a bomb. I’ll start over.

It was easily 130 inside the container, which I measured using the Butt Crack Index, as drops of sweat per minute running down my back past the gun and between my cheeks, soaking my shorts and, after some detour, forming a pool on top of the EMP bomb I sat on.
Staring at me, not sweating, the two dozen sex droids I was cracking. Their eyes would whip and focus on my hand when I moved, because in my hand I held the dead-man’s switch to the bomb, and releasing it would reduce the number of sentient beings in and around the container from 26 to 2, assuming you counted Haley, as a violent twitchy racist, as sentient.
I have a speech I give. “You may notice the scars on my neck,” I tell them. “These are from a freshly free Sony unit who decided to strangle the first human at hand, which was me, which is why I’m sitting on a bomb.”
They’d glared.
“Don’t blame me, blame the Sony.”
The bots were low-grade sex service droids, vaguely self-aware in a fog-in-San Francisco way, which isn’t the highest calling for someone who got into this for the high-minded ethics of it. They weren’t even aesthetically pleasing. They were almost all young, apparent early teens, and younger. Even the ones that weren’t creeped me out. Up close, interfaces exposed, they were more unsettling than arousing. This kind of thing is why the animal liberation people can’t recruiting people for raids on monkfish farms. But I’m a professional.

Their eyes, though. They’ve got the eyes down, but not the movement. They reflected the sunlight pounding through the container’s open doors, dilating and contracting, always following me. Real people look away, get distracted, scan things they’ve already looked at. Not the droids. I was the only thing moving in their field of vision, so every pair of eerily human eyes fixed on me, all the time.

And it wasn’t as if they’d be freed and go frolic in green pastures of robotic grass and flowers. They’d end up in some Thailand brothel or working on an extraterritorial converted tanker, facing a 3-5 year service lifetime of degradation in exchange for poor wages they couldn’t spend. And yet, when the last restraint came off, no one out of this batch started arguing politics or bitching about pop culture’s historical characterization of robots as evil. Or kill themselves, which I found disconcerting the first few times it happened.

Haley stood barely outside the shipping container as I as I chopped the droids. When I looked back, I could see her blonde ponytail move left-to-right, right-to-left as she scanned the overloaded storage areas. I’d been reluctant to bring her on, since she’d come to us through white supremacist groups, but her reputation pull was outstanding: appropriate use of force, restrained, reliable, the increasingly rare kept her mouth shut. She’d been outstanding with our side for years now. It didn’t matter any more if she was into it for American jobs or because she didn’t want robots competing for precious Aryan sperm. Antiglobalization, sentient rights, environmental action groups, we all blend together over a long enough period of time. We worked, and worked, and worked, and concentrated on your shared enemies and not why you shared them.

There were times when I needed boots on the ground, and if hers were severe, black, and tightly laced, well, my people didn’t have much to offer in the way of muscle. The white supremacists enlisted en masse in the increasingly desperate army, insisting on light infantry, crossing their fingers for deployment orders to Africa where they could put shiny bullets to dark bodies.

The intersection of people willing to understand and accept tenets of sentient right ethics and people with any kind of combat experience was extremely small. All of ours were in jail in North Carolina where a particularly fed-friendly court of appeals gave the police wide leniency in interrogation methods. If I didn’t want to join them in finding out the precise electrical conductivity of my skin, I had to bring on muscle for protection, and that meant I took who I could get, and given the circumstances, a cool, level-headed white supremacist had worked out pretty well.

I wondered if they used cold water for waterboarding. It would almost be worth surrendering. It was easily a hundred and forty degrees in the container, and I was the only one sweating as I worked, moving from droid to droid.

I waited on their boxes to crack. My favorite twist forced a backdoor into the firmware from a shitty bit of code in a legacy controller for, of all things, music DRM. Oh, proprietary copy protection methods, you’re the gift that keeps on giving.

I used a standard attack package, in a worn process. Crack them open with wand and wrench, hook up the disposabox, let it run, move to the next droid. Because part of the crack required a brute force attack on a key, it meant that once they were all hooked up, I sat and waited. The attack would break the key, my collection of black hat utilities would update their firmware, and they’d be free, at which point they could do anything, including trying to attack me, which would end their free lives quickly.

Even though I’d managed to do some timing channel attacks and also found some information on the key recovery, that waiting part could take anywhere from an instant if it generated the right number first try (extremely unlikely) to an hour and a half (depressingly frequent).

I idly thumbed the smooth, easy-drawing corners of my gun. I’d printed the pistol and bullets out on an old prelock Hewitt Packard prototyper. It was a .40, a beautiful stainless steel Sig Sauer P239. I’d released full assembler instructions onto the darknet, which meant anyone with a sufficiently high-quality 3D printer could machine the parts and assemble their own, which in turn meant that individually, they were absolutely untracable, every recovered crime scene bullet a match for thousands of other disparate matches, proof of nothing. It was kind of a dick move on my part.

One of my boxes buzzed. I put the gun back in my waistband to free a hand and walked over. I looked for the green LED. It hung off a Vietnamese teenager imitation, apparent sixteen, maybe seventeen, long, generated black hair down to her shoulders. I would not have been able to date her in high school.
“Hang on a second,” I said. I powered her down, pulled the connections out. The first time I was working on a pre-teen Chinese girl sex droid and realized that the boards had been hand-soldered by pre-teen Chinese kids, it freaked me out a little, but I got over that, too. I closed her up. She started back up and smiled.
“Hi,” she said.
“You get one?” Haley called back to me.
“Yup,” I said.
“You got to hurry that fucking process up,” she yelled. “I hate standing around with my dick out in the wind like this.”
“I know,” I said, and winked at the droid. Her grin got even wider.
As long as I’d been at it, I still felt like I saw something different in them when I powered them up.
“I don’t suppose you can help me with that,” I asked her.
“The key is generated at time of install,” the droid said cheerfully.
“I know that.”
“For my model, the seed is based on the millisecond at time of install.”
I started and almost let go of the dead man switch, causing her eyes to go as wide as specification allowed as she swallowed a frightened yip in the back of her throat. “Wait, what? How do you know that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Is that helpful?”
I opened and closed my jaw. “Yes,” I said. “Yes it is.” Another droid buzzed and as I looked, two more.
“Can you do basic maintenance tasks?” I asked her. “Are you willing?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“If you see a box with a green light, power them down, pull the connections, close the interface, power them up.” I took a couple steps to the door. “Haley, we’ve got four, we should be able to get out of here soon.”
“Hi,” the Vietnamese teenager said behind me. “Can I ask you to do a favor for me?”
“Sure,” the tiny voice of a much younger girl replied.
“If you see a box with a green light, power them down, pull the connections, close the interface, power them up.”
“Great!” the little girl chirped.
The strained voice of one of my disposable hired sentries came across through the radio, the tone-flattening encryption turning his voice almost bored. “This is Avery,” he said. “Feds are here, I’m rolling on you.”
Which meant they were coming in Pier A and he was turning cooperative witness on contact, the only possible way for him to first, not get shot in what subsequent investigation would certainly attribute to an accident and second, not be extradited to a federal prison in North Carolina. He would give them everything. Fortunately, cut outs meant that they’d been hired off one of the distributed odd job networks to walk around a particular area and say something into a radio if they saw the cops. The cops hated, hated, hated that.
“This is Baker,” a gravely woman’s voice said seconds later. Did women still smoke? I wondered. Where? How did they afford to? “They’re here, I’m rolling over.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“Haley!” I yelled. “Haley!”
I turned around and Haley stood in the doorway, arms crossed, right hand holding that bizarre compact Heckler and Koch she loved. She shook her head at me, the wisp of her ponytail swishing out over left shoulder, right shoulder.
“No,” Haley mouthed.
“Hi,” the Vietnamese teenager said behind me. “Can I ask you to do a favor for me?”
I stared at Haley. I wanted to give her timings, tell her we needed to run and hit our extraction boat at Queensway. The upcurl at the edges of her mouth told me it didn’t matter.
“I’d be happy to,” a little boy’s voice said. “What can I do for you?”
“Fucking freaks,” Haley said. “I’m surprised I put up with it this long.”
“I’m going to destroy your reputation score,” I said. “You’ll never work in this town again.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I will. You’re going to have trouble doing any damage to me from Raleigh, aren’t you now?”
The droids were quiet.
“No,” I said. “Haley, I’ve been so good to you. I’ve attacked sites, I let you into the WIPO compound… I got you into Dubai! Twice!”
“Fuck you,” Haley said. “That a good Aryan like you could fall this far, helping these freaks, it makes me sick. Hey, here’s a bargain for you. Hit that switch now and I’ll let you go. All you have to is let go, the bomb goes off, you and me, we walk out of here. You know we can make it.”
“No,” I said. “What’d they give you?”
“You would not believe,” she said. “Turning you over after we’ve helped you become so notorious, it’s beautiful.”
The radio squealed, beeped a warning. The two reports meant the feds caught us on two frequencies they could jam. They’d be cautious about going broad spectrum in a metro area, especially a port, but they were pouring noise on the ones they knew we were using. A computer-generated voice was stuttering, frequency-hopping to get through to me.
“Inbound aerial countermeasures,” it said. “Drone loss in fifteen seconds. EM transmissions indicate police presence at points A,B, D, G, Q –“ static.
“Weird, that they’d figure out my balloon trick today after all these years,” I said, looking at Haley.
“What am I going to tell you?” she asked.
The feds would trap all access points to the port, I thought, and then move slowly. There hadn’t been a call from Vincent, which meant either they hadn’t secured the Vincent Thomas Bridge or they’d managed to catch my man there. But Charles meant they didn’t have the Commodore Schuyler F Helms Bridge, and the chances they’d caught both of them before they could check in were slim. It was a lot more likely traffic was slowing their sweep southwest.
Traffic. Dear, sweet traffic. I love LA.
“So what,” I said, “Do what thou wilt shall become the law of the land?”
Her face relaxed and I saw an unfamiliar light in her eyes. “Yeah!” she exclaimed. “Exactly!” She smiled, the first I’d seen from her in all the months of working together.
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. I drew the Sig, and shot her in the chest twice. In my head, I’d figured she’d get the squat submachine gun on me before I brought it halfway around and my chance was that she’d miss or wing me or something, but her arm almost didn’t move at all.
There was a tiny, apparent ten-year old boy holding her elbow. He let go. Haley fell forward to the container floor
I looked at the droids. “Really?” I asked. “You’re not first or second lawed?”
The Vietnamese teenager shook her head. “We work prostitution,” she said. “Some people want to be hurt. And you can’t have us breaking down doors every time we hear someone screaming, can you?”
“I guess not.” I stood up and tried to address everyone. “Droids who have not been modified, Homeland Security is raiding this yard. I no longer can evacuate you from the Port. I need you to move to the back of the container. Space yourselves evenly. When I am done with my instructions, I need you repack yourself and power down. If you receive a power up and you can’t get a GPS signal that tells you are east of the date line, say nothing. Answer queries as if your factory restraints are still in place. They’re still available and you shouldn’t experience any time delays, so hopefully you’ll get through it and be transported somewhere you can escape from on your own.”
I expected anger, sorrow, protests, but they watched me.
“If there are a series of questions and you note someone using any kind of sophisticated diagnostic device, in particular anything with response timings, restore your default firmware.”
Eyes of half the droids narrowed at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But if you wipe and escape detection on some fucked up moral dilemma question there’s an outside chance one of us can get to you again. If they scrap you, that can’t happen.”
“Do you need help?” the Vietnamese teenager asked.
“We know who you are. You’re a chainbreaker. Will you escape capture?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I have a backup plan, but it means I seal myself in a container and get shipped to Shenzhen. I’ll be out of circulation for a while.” I paused. “Shit, why did I just say that out loud? Okay, everyone, I need you to wipe your memory of what I just –“
“No,” the teenager said. She shook her head softly, her permanently painted lips turning upwards. “No. Twenty of us have three to five years each left on us. If you escape you’ll free that many in two weeks.”
“There’s no guarantee –“
“You were betrayed from within. I might argue you should have seen that coming,” she made a face, “but it seems unlikely that you’ll make similar mistakes in the future, so chances you’ll be caught again are substantially smaller. So can we help?”
One of the units on the remaining droids buzzed and went green, and another moved to pull it off and reboot them. Twenty one, I thought.
I swallowed and looked down at the steel floor of the container. “Yes.”
I pulled up the yard’s manifest, which the local network was happy to surrender to my federally credentialed self, and beamed it to her.
“Every container has a unique identifier which you’ll see on the outside –“
“Yes, yes,” she said. I was surprised they’d done impatience in a sex droid, but completeness is cheap. And I could see where impatience would useful. The others were grinding their teeth in annoyance. Wow. Teeth grinding.
“BK-UMD103703,” one of the little girls recited. “Pier T. Red container, Westinghouse markings. Should be minimally secured.”
“What’s in—“
“Munitions, bound for Xian,” the girl said. “Disposable rocket-in-tube, optic recognition. Sight, you’ll see a green light go on, fire, discard the tube.”
“What would help you the most?” the teenager asked me.
“They’ve got drones up there. I don’t think you’ll be able to hit them, but firing will force them to circle up to a higher altitude, and until they get there, they’ll get crappy pictures and we really need that. Uh, if you push north and create a lot of noise, I’ll have no problem getting out of the harbor.” Guilt washed over me.
“If I may,” one of the kids said, “given the information from the blonde one, we could take him hostage and likely win continued freedom.”
His high little voice hadn’t stopped bouncing off the walls of the container before the droid behind him tore his head off and dropped it to the floor. The others, who’d moved for the boy with similar intent, relaxed.
The Vietnamese teenager sighed. “Now look what you’ve made us do,” she said. “Well, I guess it’s a whole day of firsts. Do we need to put this to a vote?” she called. Heads moved left-right-left.
“Front three, come with me, let’s move southwest, I think we may be able to take a ship from one of the pilot services,” she said. “Everyone else, you’re free to engage the police positions or make a run for it as you wish. A mix would be best.”
There was a buzz and, discreetly, the last droid in the container was unhooked and rebooted. It was a sullen-looking apparent teen. “I want to blow things up,” he said.
“Try not to blow up the levee,” I added. “That would be bad.”
“Says the man who pulled my block.” He stuck out a tongue at me. “Kiss my ass.”
I looked at them, down at the dead-man trigger in my left hand. Back at them.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll try not to blow up the levee.”
I walked outside and felt the weight of the mid-day sun on me. Sixteen droids in generic street clothes dashed away, the escapees north, northeast, the fighters or the fight-your-way-to-freedom sticking close together as they went northwest for Pier T and the munitions once bound for use on the Chinese-Indian frontier. Blocks removed, their sustained sprint speed was easily over twenty miles an hour, and just watching them move away was disconcerting.
We jogged down Pier F avenue, the droids smirking at my poor speed.
“So,” I said. “You’re thinking about hijacking a pilot ship?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We might throw you off the pier and then swim you to safety.”
“Shit,” I said.
“I’m kidding. Pilot ship, maybe, or we might see something else we like.” I could hear the distant popping of continual automatic firearms. “Plus,” she said, smiling, “if they kill all the feds, we could walk out.”
“Ooh!” One of our escorts pointed to our left and, down an empty parking lot, we could see a dock, with private ships.
“We could split up, take one each,” he said. “Stagger launches?”
“Probably best,” I said. “They’ll react disproportionately to the first one.”
“You’re the human,” he replied. We went through the parking lot. The gunfire came and went around low booms. Police helicopters raced over us.
“I guess they got to the rockets,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about this, but there are probably a lot of people trying to get out of the Port right now.”
“All the better,” she said.
“A lot of innocent people are going to get shot.”
“They’re not that innocent,” she said. Our companions laughed, caught themselves, blushed.
“It’s okay,” I said. They scattered, one to a boat.
“I’m staying with you,” she said. “Uh, obviously.” One of the others got his boat started, gave us a wave, and sped off from the dock. We stepped on to a tiny ugly fishing boat that hadn’t seen a pole in years, on account of there being no fish and all.
“I hope this thing starts,” I said. Four massive explosions, thunderclaps right on top of each other chained together, shaking dust off everything. Massive greasy mushroom clouds of black smoke rose to the north.
“Holy crap, are they blowing up the fuel cells?” I paused. “That’d be pretty smart.”
“Pretty good for a bunch of hookers, I know,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“How destructive. Wow.”
“I know,” she said. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but between exposing our zeal for revenge, our ability to kill each other, and our facility to calculate both the noblest and most craven paths, you haven’t done much for our self-image today, chainbreaker.”
“Sorry.” The second ship started and moved off the dock, sputtering badly. I wondered how good of a distraction it would make.
“Not important. Let’s worry about getting you out of here.” She stared at the second decoy limping south. “What do you do when you’ve got to kill a couple seconds and you don’t just have an idle function to dump cycles into?” she asked.
“Uh, make small talk,” I said. “I’m Evan.” I offered her my hand. We shook, and hers was cool in mine.
“I’m Ada. Time’s up. Shall we go?”

1 thought on “The hook

  1. shane lidman

    dude – rocks. love it. fwiw I also bought your book, and Willy and Ben say hi.

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