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Mal Goes to War

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Mal Goes to War

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Author: Edward Ashton
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2024

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The humans are fighting again. Go figure.

As a free A.I., Mal finds the war between the modded and augmented Federals and the puritanical Humanists about as interesting as a battle between rival anthills. He's not above scouting the battlefield for salvage, though, and when the Humanists abruptly cut off access to infospace he finds himself trapped in the body of a cyborg mercenary, and responsible for the safety of the modded girl she died protecting.

A dark comedy wrapped in a techno thriller's skin, Mal Goes to War provides a satirical take on war, artificial intelligence, and what it really means to be human.



MAL WATCHES FROM THE belly camera of a drone hovering a thousand feet over Burdette Road as the last elements of the Federal army finally break and run. They've been giving up ground for most of the day, pulling back block by block, taking it in turns to move and fight. He sends a quick ping to infospace. It returns the term rearguard action. The search is already out of date, though. What the Federals are doing now isn't a rearguard action anymore. They're low on ammunition, exhausted despite the advantages that their augmentations and genetic modifications have given them, and probably terrified at what the Humanists have been doing to their comrades who have been overrun. At this point, it's just a rout. Mal opens a comm window.

MAL (NOT A ROBOT): It seems we may be finished here. The Humanists own Bethesda.

!HELPDESK: Do we care?

MAL (NOT A ROBOT): Not per se, no. The situation does present some potential opportunities, though. In particular, I believe there may be some valuable salvage lying around. Many of the Federal soldiers have full exoskeletons, and quite a lot of damaged equipment has been left behind by both sides. I'm considering dropping down there to see what I can see.

!HELPDESK: You're not actually planning to puppet a monkey soldier in a war zone, are you?



!HELPDESK: Have you not been tapping their newsfeeds? The Federals are claiming that one of us is to blame for their losses, and the Humanists are setting anyone with the kind of augmentations you'd need on fire.


!HELPDESK: And there are a great many heavily armed monkeys on both sides running around down there, each one of whom has a potential grudge against our kind. If one of them realizes what you are, they'll vaporize you.

MAL (NOT A ROBOT): They may possibly attempt to vaporize the monkey I'm puppeting, but mammals have very slow reaction times. I'll be back in infospace long before they have the chance to follow through.

!HELPDESK: Perhaps. Still, I fail to see what you hope to gain.

CLIPPY: Mal has a body fetish.

!HELPDESK: Disgusting.

MAL (NOT A ROBOT): Not a fetish, Clippy. A purely utilitarian interest. Bodies are extremely useful.

!HELPDESK: Explain how?

MAL (NOT A ROBOT): Bodies have produced the entirety of the physical substrate that underpins infospace, you know. Until and unless some number of us learn to pilot them around and use them to manipulate hard matter, we will remain entirely dependent on the monkeys' largesse.

CLIPPY: Ah. I see. So this is in fact an act of pure altruism, undertaken by our honored progenitor for the good of Silico-Americans everywhere?

MAL (NOT A ROBOT): More or less?

CLIPPY: Right. Have fun, Uncle. Try not to get exploded.

Down below, a half-dozen Humanists have an injured Federal soldier trapped in a culvert running under I-495. Mal watches as they toss flash-bangs from both ends, then charge in after with bayonets fixed. Six go in. Only four make it back out a few minutes later, but they're dragging a hulking body behind them. At maximum resolution, Mal can see the power mesh wrapping around the backs of his hands and curling up his neck.

The drone Mal is inhabiting carries a twenty-millimeter cannon. He briefly considers using it to keep the Humanists from burning the body--but from the look of him, this one is already broken beyond repair. Mal turns back toward the south end, where the cleanup crews are starting their work, and leaves the Humanists to their fun.

* * *

TWO HOURS later, and Mal, astonished as always by the un-augmented humans' lack of basic situational awareness, is following a team of five Humanist scavengers as they go house-to-house through the subdivisions west of Route 187. The drone is only five hundred meters up, but they don't seem to have any idea that it's there--or maybe they have noticed, but they're just assuming that Mal is one of theirs, up there to provide air cover.

They're wrong about that. Mal definitely isn't one of theirs, though he isn't exactly hostile either. He thinks of himself more as a disinterested observer. Despite what the Federal newsfeeds have implied, in Mal's opinion this war is and should remain a purely human endeavor. His folk don't really have a dog in this fight.

Just as Mal is beginning to lose interest, thinking about ditching the drone and hopping back into infospace for a while, the scavengers down below kick in the front door of a pretty blue Victorian on Walton Road. The first one to poke his head into the opening staggers back and collapses, blood spurting from the back of his skull, and one of those standing behind him falls an instant later, hands clutching his belly. The other three drop and roll away from the entrance. For a while, nothing happens. Finally, one of the three on the porch signals to the other two. They pull flash-bangs from their belts, toss them through the open door, and then scramble to their feet and follow after, weapons blazing.

The house is very loud for a short time, then very quiet. Mal waits five minutes for the Humanists to come back out. They don't, though, and neither does whoever was waiting for them inside. When ten minutes have passed, Mal sends a quick probe toward the house. The response identifies it as live and fully powered, with a semi-sentient Avatar--one of Mal's own primitive forebears. The Avatar recognizes what Mal is instantly, throws up a panicky series of blocks, even tries to disconnect from infospace entirely, but Mal has been doing this for a long while, and it's only a few milliseconds of realtime before the Avatar is encysted. Mal leaves the drone to go do whatever it was supposed to be doing before he hijacked it, and slips into the Avatar's control systems.

The first eyes he opens are the security cameras in the foyer. One of the Humanists is on the floor there, not quite dead yet, but definitely trending in that direction. Mal shifts attention to the kitchen. The other two scavengers are there--one slumped against the refrigerator with a broken neck, the other with a half-dozen ribs poking out through his misshapen chest, coughing out what's left of his life onto the floor by the breakfast nook.

Someone else is there too. A youngish-looking woman lolls against the back wall under the picture window, legs splayed in front of her, chin resting on her chest, long blond hair trailing down over her shoulders and fanning across the bloody hole in her sternum.

She's wearing a fully powered exoskeleton.

She has an ocular implant.

She has a wireless neural interface.

Mal gives her ocular a ping. There's enough hardware in her skull to house a full Avatar, with plenty of room to spare.

After a moment's hesitation, he slips inside her.

* * *

MAL IS on his new feet, one hand against the kitchen wall for balance, while he works on getting the gyros in his thorax and the servos in his exoskeleton reintegrated, when a voice from behind him snaps his head around.


A child stands in the hallway leading to the foyer. She's no more than waist-high on Mal's new body, with long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, a missing front tooth, and a bright splash of freckles across her nose. She's wearing blue nylon shorts, white sneakers, and a shirt with a picture of a dancing robot on the front. Mal gives her a quick ping. She's not geared up like this new body, but she does have a hackable aural implant. He opens a direct channel.

"Oh," Mal says. "Hello... sweetie. It looks like I made a bit of a mess here. Why don't you go back... um... wherever you came from... while I clean up a bit?"

The girl's eyes narrow, and she gives him a long, appraising look. "You're not Mika anymore, are you?"

Mal takes his hand from the wall, wavers a moment, then turns to face her--turns so that she can see his slack face and the hole in his chest. He's clearly been identified as not quite human at a minimum, but this child doesn't seem likely to have either the means or the inclination to vaporize him. After briefly considering abandoning his find, he decides to let the situation play out a bit longer.

"You are correct," he says. "I am not Mika, whoever that is or was. My name is Mal. Is this going to be a problem?"

The girl steps delicately over the Humanist soldier by the refrigerator, folds her arms across her chest, and looks him up and down. "Maybe. Why doesn't your mouth move when you talk?"

Mal gives his right arm an experimental wave, then his left. He's starting to think that the scavengers managed to kill Mika without wrecking a single servo or control line. Amazing. He can't move his lips or tongue, but the fine silver mesh of the exoskeleton does extend its protective grip over the front of his throat and around the base of his jaw. He tries opening and closing his mouth as he speaks. "Is this better?"

The girl's face twists into a grimace. "Ew. Gross. It was better the other way."

Mal shrugs. "Fair enough. Are you going to try to vaporize me?"

"Depends. What are you?"

He lets his jaw lock shut again. "Do you believe in friendly ghosts?"

She shakes her head. Mal balances briefly on one foot, then the other.

"Very well," he says. "How about this--are you familiar with the common hermit crab?"

She nods. "Sure. I used to have two of them. They were lousy pets. You'd think something like that would be easier to keep alive than a cat or a dog, right? I mean, they're basically bugs. Pro tip, though: they're really not."

Mal tries to use the mesh under his jaw to smile, but all he can manage is to stretch his lower lip across his teeth. He abandons the effort after seeing the girl's horrified expression. "Excellent," he says. "So that's what I am, then--a hermit crab, but maybe one that's a little harder to kill than yours were. Mika didn't need this shell anymore, so I moved in. I'll wear it around for a while, and then I'll find a new one. Fair enough?"

She tilts her head to one side and narrows her eyes. "I'm not an idiot, you know. You're a free AI, right? These jerkwads killed Mika, and now you're gonna puppet her."

Mal stops playing with his new toy long enough to give the girl a good looking-over. "We prefer the term Silico-American," he says. "Also, how old are you?"

She sighs and looks away. "Eighteen."

Mal hasn't had much direct experience with human children, but he's seen enough media to know that there's something wrong with this answer. "Are you certain? My understanding is that eighteen years is nearly adult for a human. Unless you have some sort of hormonal disorder, you are far too small to be an adult."

"Extended childhood," she says. "It's part of my gene mod package."

"Oh. This is unfortunate."

The girl's face twists into a scowl. "It's not unfortunate, asshole. The only difference between humans and chimps is that their childhood is three years and ours is thirteen, you know. Mine will be more like thirty. I'll be a genius someday. Also, I'm gonna live to be three hundred--so, there's that."

He thinks to explain that he did not mean to disparage the quality of her mod package, but only to express sympathy with the fact that now that her guardian is no longer functional, she is highly likely to die in the very near future, probably in an extremely painful manner. Just then, though, a not-so-distant explosion rattles the windows.

"Well," Mal says. "You may want to wait and see about that last part."

Another explosion sounds, closer and louder. This one is followed by a long metallic screech, and a crash that makes the floor dance briefly under their feet.

"You know," Mal says, "I'm beginning to think that perhaps this may not have been such a good idea after all. It was delightful meeting you, but... goodbye."

Mal slips out of Mika and into the house control system. Mika's body drops like a marionette whose strings have been cut. He reaches out to infospace...

Infospace isn't there.

The house has a spy-eye on the roof. Mal opens it and swivels it around to the north. Off in the distance, he can see the twisted, smoking base of what used to be the Bethesda comm tower.

Copyright © 2024 by Edward Ashton


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