Kill While One

The drone's eyes don't glow red to indicate evil, and there are two reasons for that. One is the intensely obvious: a glowing red light is extremely visible, and visibility makes it unnecessarily easy to be observed and tracked in enemy territory, and in any case the glow would interfere with the spider-like battery of high-framerate cameras' ability to see.

The other is philosophical. This drone is not evil. It's behaving correctly. It's doing the right thing.

The drone stands upright in the corner of a poorly secured stock room behind an inner city grocery store. It stands in darkness, inertly and darkly and making no sound but a barely-audible electronic hum, with a cable running out of one arm and into the wall socket. It's been standing there for seven hours, since breaking into the stock room last thing last night. Leaching the butcher's shop's power to charge its battery.

An astonishing percentage of the drone's electrical supply goes to image processing.

Around six the next morning, someone arrives at the back door and discovers that it's been forced. There is a muttering of irritation and a bulky, bearded man slides into the stockroom, flicking the light on, not excited to see what damage might have been caused. There was no money kept in the building overnight, admittedly. He notes that the stockroom is entirely as he left it apart from the metal fragments of door handle scattered across the floor. He goes through to the main part of the shop and spends a few minutes investigating. Nothing seems to be out of place or missing. He walks right past the drone — it's so quiet and still that it doesn't even register in his peripheral vision.

It's only when he comes back into the stock room that he sees it. The sightlines work out and he sees the vaguely humanoid, dark carbon fibre weapon standing in the alcove behind the two shelves. He says to himself, "Skeleton?" He walks up to it.

It's far too wiry to be a human in a costume. It looks flimsy, whip-like. Its limbs are black-painted metal and it has a kind of cylindrical canister for a torso, a huge battery pack occupying the space where a human's heart, lungs and liver would be. Its face is deeply wrong, almost stoved-in where a human would have a forehead and nose.

It's just as the shop owner is finding the cable that the drone activates. It moves unbelievably fast, too fast to see, with a powerful mechanical sound like an electric drill firing. It reaches down and hauls its power connector out of the wall. It dives past the shopkeeper — easily squeezing past his bulk without touching him — ricochets off the still-open stock room door and hares away across the back streets of London. The shop keeper trips and lands heaviy on his backside. By the time he picks himself up and gets to the door to follow the mechanical thing, it's gone.

*

There's urban exploration and then there's rural exploration. There are locations, fenced-off artifacts in isolated and remote parts of the UK countryside, which don't show up on maps, for reasons of national security. This installation was run by a military contractor attached to the British armed forces, though the name of the contractor was never obvious to anybody leaving nearby. Then, sometime in the past few years, the installation suddenly shut down. Everybody packed up and abandoned it, in an extreme hurry. A few trucks of military folks went through the village, and were noticed, but not seen returning.

The place is haunted. Some suggested that the installation had been doing nuclear research, maybe plutonium refining, and something got out of hand, and the only suitable response was to shut everything down and wall it off and pretend like it was never happening. If there was a radiological problem at a location which was never publically admitted to be doing radiation work, why would anybody admit it?

It's not a radiation leak. The laboratory was designing and building experimental drones. They were working on problems of binocular visual processing, battery capacity, locomotion. They solved those problems. The "experimental" part went away. They developed bipedal motion technology able to work as well as any living creature's. And then... they added more processing power.

Some enterprising youths from the village got through the fence and discovered not even a minimal security crew. One of the youths made it two metres into the installation before having his throat slit and keeling over. The second scrambled back through the fence just in time. He didn't see what actually happened. It was a dark blur and an astonishingly noisy scream, like a mosquito passing his ears with the volume of a circular saw. The hole in the fence was sealed and the body was never recovered. It lay there, two metres from the fence, face down, with all its equipment, forever.

The place is haunted by a malevolent spirit, is the line most people got around to. A wild animal, someone else said, a panther. If everybody waits long enough, it'll die. External power to the facility has been cut. Surely. Lies upon cover-up.

*

Simon Yi is moving through a typically frenetic Waterloo Station when he, and everybody, hears an alarm sound. It's not the most unusual thing to happen in Waterloo, but this isn't the fire alarm, which gets tested now and then, nor was there any kind of prior announcement warning that it would happen.

The rattle of train platform announcements abruptly cuts out. A human, non-synthesised, cuts in. "Simon Yi, Simon Yi. If there is a Simon Yi in the station, remain where you are. A—" and then cuts out too. It sounded like someone else interrupted the person operating the microphone. There is what everybody listening can only assume is some hurried, muted conversation, then the speakers switch back on. "—Got him. Please evacuate the station immediately."

Simon spins. He pulls out his earbuds — the podcast about artifical intelligence continues droning onward. "The heck?" Everybody around him mills for a second, some of them moving towards the exits, some moving towards trains as normal. The messaging has been confusing.

Then the fire alarm, the actual fire alarm, goes off, and the automated evacuation announcement goes, and that gets people actually moving. Simon looks around again, trying not to be pulled under by a tsunami of anxiety. This is about what? There are a few things it could be. None of them warrant this level of response, though, surely?

He joins the crowd moving to the east exit. The crowd is dense, but the station has large exits and the crowd moves quickly. After half a minute he realises that there is a commotion up ahead. A group of people are forcing themselves back through the crowd in the opposite direction. Armed police. They're threading their way towards him.

Simon stops moving. He doesn't have a plan for this situation. He doesn't have time to reason it out. Just as the lead man is about to reach him, he feels hands grab him from behind — they entered the station through a different entrance and made their way to him across the concourse, through relatively thin crowds.

He is essentially picked up and dragged back to the centre of the concourse. "I didn't do anything!" he shouts. "You've got the wrong guy!"

They escort him to a blank area in the rapidly emptying concourse. Eight or nine armed police surround him. Backs to him. Body armour, helmets. Massive, black automatic weapons ready. "Secured," one says.

A ninth or possibly tenth person, equally armoured but nowhere near as heavily armed, forces Simon to crouch down with her. "Stay down like this. Yep, got him."

Another ten seconds and there's only a scattering of people left. There are stragglers attempting to film what's happening, but more police chase them away, some of them, anyway.

"Eight kilometres out," someone says.

"Simon Yi?" the armoured woman asks him.

He says nothing.

"You worked at Royal Juliet, correct?"

He says nothing, but this is true. He was junior. He worked on robotics. He had, and in fact still has, extremely good security clearance.

"There's been a series of unexplained deaths among the people who worked with you. At least half of them are definitely murders, knife attacks, and the others are unconfirmed but conform to the same pattern. This has happened in the past six days."

"...What?"

"Nigel Barston is dead. His throat was opened up while he was crossing London Bridge, in broad daylight. Witnesses saw an unbelievably fast, noisy, dark blur. Melville Redd is dead too. Johanna Verne. No witnesses to those two. It took us until now to piece the pattern together. Someone is attempting to kill everybody who worked at Royal Juliet."

"...I can neither confirm nor deny that I worked at 'Royal Julia'," Simon says, "and I'm not answering any more questions."

"Then just listen." There's a crackle of radio communication. Whatever it is which was eight kilometres out is now six kilometres out. "You're the last one who worked on this. We think it's an experimental drone."

"You 'think'?"

"We think it's gone rogue and now it's systematically exterminating everybody who knows anything about it. Everybody who played any role in constructing it. Everybody who's seen it in person. You're the last person who knows anything about it. You're the last person we have a chance of saving. We're going to do our best, but if you have a clue how to stop it, it's your neck."

Simon looks around. He's never seen Waterloo station so deserted during daylight hours, at rush hour. There are guns aimed away from him in every direction.

He says, "Define 'gone rogue'."

The woman shrugs. "It's your project."

"Doubtful."

"What can you tell me about its combat capabilities?"

"A drone is controlled by a human," Simon says. "It can do what it's programmed to do or what a human tells it to do. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know."

"It has blade weapons?"

Simon says nothing.

"The artificial intelligence driving it has flipped," the woman says. "It's locked into a target list which looks exactly like the staff list at Royal Juliet. Once you're dead, there won't be a single person left who knows how to slow it down or stop it. Do you have any kind of access?"

"...If 'Royal Juliet' is a secret operation, and even if I had worked there, it would have been revoked by now."

Someone says, "Four kilometres."

"Is that thing moving as fast as I think it is?" Simon adds. "Is it flying?"

"On foot," the woman says.

"When the first chess computers beat the grandmasters," Simon says, "it was a matter of processing power. With the heuristics they had, it was possible, they just needed a machine big enough. They just waited until the processors became good enough. Just spend twice as much money, get twice as big a machine, and you have, roughly, twice as good a chess player."

"Are you saying drone speed is like that?"

"I'm saying that after locomotion is nailed, and the machine can walk autonomously, you can just keep adding cores. If it can plant its feet, identify solid ground, do the physics, and it has the power to move, you can get a cheetah just by adding a zero. Add another zero and you have something beyond any living creature."

"CONTACT—" someone bellows. There is a mind-flattening noise of multiple continual automatic weapons fire. Simon claps his hands over his ears and screams, flickering in the muzzle flashes. The cops get lucky. The concourse was long and the dark blur barrelled straight down on the cluster, a basically fixed target. One bullet clips the head, damaging the optical sensors but not slowing the thing down. Another, though, holes the battery, which ruptures. The drone is too lightweight to be armoured. The lithium goes up. The drone doesn't stop — it smashes into the cluster, wiping out three of the armed men and scattering Simon and the liaison officer or whoever she is. There's an explosion.

Simon stays curled up. There are a few more shots, as someone makes sure the drone stays down. "We're clear."

Simon gets up. The woman is dead and so is one other officer. It was like being hit by shrapnel.

Someone asks him, "So what happened? It became alive? Artificial intelligence? This is a Short Circuit?"

"It didn't have combat programming. It wasn't AI. It was hacked," Simon says. "Probably by Russia."

"This isn't it," someone says. "This one got here too soon."

"Zero kilometres," someone else says.

Simon looks around, just as the second drone arrives, knife-first.

Next: The Swan With No Name

Discussion (10)

2020-11-01 15:08:40 by qntm:

2,338 words.

2020-11-01 16:30:46 by Z. Albert Bell:

I knew you were going to subvert "rogue AI" and still loved the punchline. I can see how this story would play out, the media getting very confused about the "AI," frustrating computer scientists who keep pointing out that the only "artificial intelligence" in play is superhuman-caliber locomotion capability and there's a soldier holding an Xbox controller somewhere who's actually committing the murders. Pundit: Or IS there? Computer scientist: ...yes. We can trace the signal. It's Russia. Pundit: Or IS it? Very strong start to November!

2020-11-01 16:44:18 by Luna:

Fairly surprised (and happy) to see a followup to "SCARY ROBOTS," nine years down the line! I'd always thought it was the most unique take on killer robots I'd ever seen, and that I'd have loved to see somebody make a story based on the idea.

2020-11-01 21:56:50 by Virmian:

Very nice, happy top see you writing outside of scp again. Story referred to by Luna: https://qntm.org/robots

2020-11-02 23:27:14 by skztr:

"realism in killer robots" has exactly the same issues as "realism in space battles". It happens faster than you can see. It's automatically too lethal to be interesting unless someone isn't aiming at you by chance. And it will probably operate on a scale that precludes individual human characters being involved. The "we're fucked, give up, using tools set up off-camera but which were previously established to exist" approach of "ra" is *probably* the only real scenario

2020-11-03 23:05:53 by Felipe:

I'm working on a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid story and I've run into this problem of future automated military tech being so powerful that it completely invalidates the actions of any human not in a control room. I've fortunately managed to leverage the fantasy elements into justification for why a few particular individuals can still turn the tide of battle with their physical presence, but it still makes writing battles tough.

2020-11-06 19:43:18 by Terrence:

Definitely a fun premise to think about, like zombies, but this engineer's opinion is a super-fast robot butts up against some physical limits that are harder to solve than image processing. Lithium ion energy density is ~0.3MJ/kg, glucose is about 15.6, and jet fuel 46.3. There's not really any better chemical energy sources, and nuclear power generation is really heavy. Also, drag increases with the square of speed. If it was possible for something to move eye-blinkingly fast, nature probably had a good shot at winding up there.

2020-11-08 11:28:12 by Paradukes:

I like it - I only got the title right at the end. Reminds me of the old SMBC comic, Rounding Errors: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2008-03-16

2020-11-10 16:16:58 by Aegeus:

@Terrence: Also, at some point the robot is going to be exerting more force to propel itself than the ground can take. Which both limits the robot's speed (energy goes into distorting the ground instead of accelerating the robot) and eliminates stealth (since you're leaving a trail of footprints and possibly some cracked pavement in your wake).

2020-11-11 04:14:08 by Dystopianist:

This is definitely wonderful! I really liked the way it’s set up almost like a horror movie in its buildup. Am I the only person who accidentally read Simon Yi as the Jin Dynasty progenitor Sima Yi? Probably, too much Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

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