A short story
If you don’t live in a high rise building, you might be forgiven for thinking we enjoy the view. The truth is the grime and dirt of the city build up so quickly on the windows that you are better off watching an 8K live feed on your latest Huawei tablet than trying to look down.
Of course the fact that I was actually looking out the window was novel only for the fact that this time I could see nothing at all. Officially today had an air pollution level of 459 PM2.5 — ‘hazardous’. Unofficially, according to feed from the US consulate, it was 754 PM2.5. ‘Catastrophic’.
For a catastrophe which occurred with such frequency, it was a sad irony that life went on more or less unchanged. Mostly anyway.
One minor annoyance of such days was that the usual delivery drone network was non-functional. Something to do with the Lidar they use for navigation not being sufficiently accurate in such grey-out conditions for Public Safety. Regardless, this is why I stood by the window — hoping to get a glimpse of a green China Post van through the grey muck the government still euphemistically called ‘fog’.
The intercom buzzed. They probably just sent someone on an ebike. They probably didn’t even give them a respirator.
A male voice requested I let him in to deliver the parcel. I told him to drop it by the entrance.
I sent SaoSao to pick it up. The hacked robotic vacuum cleaner returned 15 minutes later grasping the package in a small mechanical claw.
24 hours later and the PM2.5 level had dropped below 300. The drones could once again be seen flying through the sky. Appearing and disappearing malevolently into the grey, the hungry ghosts of souls long departed returning to haunt our futuristic present.
Below their buzzing motors, 38 million went about their lives. Chongqing produced a non-trivial fraction of the entire country’s GDP. From high enough up, you could see the entire municipality working like a giant machine. Producing For A Better World — that was the latest slogan to be spun out of the Two Sessions.
Electric cars, carbon sequestrators, computers, smartphones and solar panels were the new must-haves of the early 20s and they were all built right here. Solar especially. It turned out that making cheap solar panels needed just the right balance of economies of scale, and an economy that didn’t much care for words like ‘unions,’ ‘overtime’ and ‘automation taxes’.
In advertising, the panels were always blue. In reality, lining the innumerable city roofs, they reflected grey smog — millions of monochrome grey squares amongst the monolithic skyscrapers.
The package had taken a minute to unwrap, but about a day to get working. Firmware problems. It ran an ancient piece of Western garbage — and downloading its outdated operating code from the Outnet through a digital crack in the Golden Shield was a tedious process.
But eventually it lit up green, and interfaced (slowly) with the more modern operating system of my tablet. I then brought it up to my window, and connected it to a device which would boost its signal output by a factor of 1000, before carefully placing it on a 3D-printed mount which angled it precisely at an unseen point 5732.65m away in the smog.
[Scanning for network designate: Zhougguo Youju Gongsi 88045960-a2e9]
Sometimes, when people attain great power, it comes with the fanfare of an election or a coup d’état. This was not one of those times.
The words ‘Connection Successful’ remained unblinking on the screen, in imperceptibly high resolution. The traffic still snarled below. The drones still buzzed through the sky. A light rain brushed the window, cleaning off a layer of polluted scum.
The world felt no different.
But it was.
Director Yu’s office had been both opulent and minimalist. The air conditioner hummed softly, and blew a light breeze over the collection of well-manicured plants which stood by the room’s edges. I breathed in. The air tasted clean.
The room had no windows. One door, steel, was emblazoned ‘SRI’ — Solar Resources International. White walls, adorned with copper thread. No, not thread — wire. A Faraday wallpaper blocked all electronic emissions. Interesting, but hardly surprising.
Prior to the meeting, I imagined Yu sitting in a large leather recliner like some TV-show executive. Instead he sat on a non-descript, swiveling desk chair — one of millions in this city alone. His suit as well was not tailor made, but instead poorly fitted, its dark green jacket befitting a low-end salesman — not one of the richest people in the country.
But when he spoke, his voice and words conveyed the clarity and acumen of decades of power.
“You must understand that this project will require a rather unprecedented level of deniability,” he stated.
“This is a special job — one which simply cannot be carried out by any of my full-time employees. You either decide you are in, or you walk out right now.”
100 Bitcoins were hard to turn down, especially when I was feeling the hunger pains of another skipped meal. Times had been tough since the Support Center was automated. With little choice, I accepted.
His plan was diabolical.
Now, three weeks later, it was all but complete. The technical aspects, anyway. A very specific piece of malware had been inserted wirelessly into the all-but forgotten ‘atmospheric monitoring’ division at China Post. To call it a ‘division’ was likely an overstatement. It was probably one bored controller sitting in a dusty, cobwebbed room.
The relative age of the system here was important to the plan. Somehow Yu (or one of his employees) had found that it contained an old and disused router system, one which was inexplicably still connected to the wider China Post network. He had also explained that its age had made it incapable of receiving any of the more advanced security updates now common within the industry. Together these factors meant that the router represented a chink in the digital armour of one of the country’s largest logistics providers.
And now a knife pierced that chink.
I was in control. Imperceptible changes were being made to key parts of the system. I had to be careful. But realistically, the network admins were looking the other way. That is, if they were even human anymore. If they even had eyes. Regardless, software or flesh, they posed little more than a nuisance.
Of course, this was just the start.
Tianshan Solar made their name selling panels, and then diversified. One of their recent best-sellers was the DianLin 2 — a solar-powered carbon sequestrator that worked at 30% the efficiency of an evergreen tree. The small, black carbon bricks stacked at its base would eventually be buried or reprocessed into fibre.
The ‘trees’, despite being rather inefficient, had several advantages over their natural cousins. First, they were immune to acid rain, and other kinds of more exotic pollution that tended to kill all but the hardiest weeds. Second, and perhaps more cynically, the production of great numbers of these seemingly useless devices presented itself a perfect opportunity for economic stimulus. Manufacture, export, pollute. Then manufacture the solution to the pollution. Then pollute some more. A perfect circle.
Anyway, the point was that the DianLin 2 also required a large amount of human maintenance — something the government had mandated as part of its design. And this meant that so long as you wore something that looked superficially like the bright green coveralls of a Tianshan Solar repair worker, no one would ask questions when you started taking apart one of these ‘trees’ on a busy footpath.
Using a small screwdriver, I removed a panel from its side, and gained disturbingly immediate access to the unit’s control board. I then replaced the board with an almost identical one from my bag. “Almost” being the key word here. In fact, the new circuitry contained two novel additions.
The first of these simply caused that electric tree to malfunction. It could produce power, but it would stop scooping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This would automatically trigger an alert which be detected by a Tianshan support team, who would eventually be sent to investigate. A red light inside the tree’s cavity indicated this was already in progress. I closed the panel and disappeared into the crowd.
The second change came into effect about 9 and a half hours later. As expected, a support worker had noted the malfunctioning tree, correctly identified the faulty control board, replaced it (for the second time that day) and then shipped it out via drone to diagnostic center. There it was connected to a testing unit, which also correctly discovered the errored firmware, and rewrote it anew. Before this happened, in the 15 second period in which the testing unit was running, the board injected a new piece of code into the testing unit’s computer, which then wirelessly synced with the larger Tianshan solar network.
My tablet whistled a notification.
The thing with big words like ‘economics’ or ‘development’ is that they are just words. Good for speeches and slogans but bad for the practicalities of business. Business (for now) still revolved around people, and people are, well, messy.
18 months ago Tianshan solar had embarked on an ambitious plan to corner large parts of the panel market. Their strategy involved aggressively cutting prices and pricing out competitors, before monopolising the industry. Likely modeled on one of several supercomputers they owned, it went like clockwork. Other players in the industry — including SRI — felt the pain, and diversified their way out while they had some capital left.
But the one thing they couldn’t predict was people. Specifically one person — the Vice Chairperson of the Standing Committee, Hua Chenli, who unofficially regulated the sprawling shadow banking sector.
Tianshan’s problems began when a chance meeting between Hua’s daughter and an executive from yet another Solar conglomerate turned into something more. By the time they were married 8 months later, Hua gave them a wedding gift unique to his position of power. With just a few phone calls credit lines closed, and Tianshan could not continue to finance its ongoing strategy to undercut the market.
Now the company, despite being literally everywhere, was financially drowning. Blood was in the water and sharks were gathering. Director Yu’s company SRI was one such predator. And he had decided it was time to go in for the kill.
Through a series of encrypted emails, an employee of Yu reviewed and approved the coordinates mined from Tianshan’s network. A few additions had been made for plausible deniability, but finally a full list of targets was ready. 387,942 of them to be exact.
Likewise our metaphorical gun was also loaded and ready to fire.
In the leadup to this, I would have thought that issuing the final command would be an emotional and dramatic event. But really, it was series of so many small steps, lines of code and inconsequential keystrokes, that each one felt like nothing.
And then, like a speeding train accelerating towards a broken bridge, my fate was sealed long before I had seen the abyss opening before me.
I was off the cliff now. This was freefall.
When would I hit the ground?
4 days later. -9 degrees according to the weather app on my tablet.
Just as the temperature dropped, the pollution levels began to march upwards. Coal-fired plants ringing the city kicked into overdrive to meet the demand for heating. It hovered at about 290 PM2.5, and had risen 15 points in the last 6 hours.
Clouds began to roll over the city, and the light coming through my window dimmed. I could imagine more blazing turbines firing up, belching grey smoke as the solar power output decreased.
297 PM2.5 — My heart began to race.
The PM2.5 measure stood for “particulate matter, 2.5μm” in English. I couldn’t help but think, were we all just microscopic particles in a sky of soot? Carcinogens waiting to be breathed in and coughed back up? Or would we be the ones which could enter the bloodstream and trigger a cancerous growth? Could we, with the right timing grow to kill the entire polluting organism?
299 PM2.5. What would our prognosis be?
300 PM2.5. ‘Terminal’.
When the air pollution reached a level of 300 PM2.5 a series of events would occur. On a ‘normal’ high pollution day, the central atmospheric monitoring station for China Post would detect leaves in excess of 300 and pulse a signal to a number of wireless repeatings strategically positioned around Chongqing for maximum coverage.
These would then transmit a signal to the hundreds of thousands of drones the company operated over the skies of the city, telling them to return to their base stations until the pollution level dropped and the all-clear signal was transmitted.
This time, however, things went a little differently.
To prevent their drones from being hacked or jammed, China Post operated them autonomously once they had left the ground. The high pollution signal just happened to the be one exception to this rule. And unlike other times the PM2.5 level exceed 300, this time, something very different to a recall signal was sent.
I rushed to my window to see it happen, not trusting the numerous live feeds I ran on screens around my room. There wasn’t much to see through the smog, but all around the city the drones were not returning to ground. Rather their buzzing intensified, and their movements — which to the casual observer usually seemed random — became disturbingly synchronized.
They gained altitude, and flew higher and higher above the canyons of buildings. Then they disappeared from sight altogether, unseen but still heard.
Finally, they were silent.
A little more than 30 seconds after the drones went silent I heard the first impact. Crash, bang, glass shattering.
Then another, closer. Was it on my building? Then another and other. A scream echoed up from below. Shards of glass tumbled down from the heights above.
A drone plummeted past my window, before cratering into a solar array 14 floors below.
More glass and aluminium struts accelerated down to the street below. People were running for cover. A car careened into a shopfront. Another attempted to make into a parking garage on the opposite side of the street, before have a head-on collision with a bus coming the other direction.
All around this destructive rain continued, as more and more drones simply dropped out of the sky. Whack. Shatter. Scream. Boom. Screech. Yell. Smack. Bang…
And then it stopped.
All I could hear now were the screams. Of people, of alarms. Of fright, of pain, and of confusion.
I had promised myself that I wouldn’t look. I didn’t want to know. It was better that way. But on the issue of broken promises, I was now speeding downwards in my building’s lift, nervously mashing the ‘ground’ button.
The door opened with an electronic chirp, ejecting me almost directly onto the street.
Glass was strewn everywhere. The tinted glass of windows made up some of it, but the vast majority of it was blue. Shards of solar panels, splintered across everything and anyone unlucky enough to be caught below.
People huddled under a metallic awning, fearfully looking skyward.
“The drone. It fucking fell out of the sky!” one shouted in disbelief.
Another stood up to inspect his damaged car before being dragged back undercover by his wife or girlfriend.
“More could fall!”
“There can’t be any of those things left!”
I wandered out into the street, knowing that the last voice was 100% correct. Glass crunched under my shoes.
Beyond the crashed car lay a body. A shard of glass had speared into her neck. Her black hair was matted with blood. Blood which now drained towards a gutter.
Further on a man laid slumped over the wheel of his car. A car whose front section was almost completely crumpled in. I couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or dead.
A small lithium fire smoldered several meters away. I copped a mouth full of acrid smoke. My eyes stung. I vomited into a drain, mixing with the blood draining away from the body.
Someone pulled me away from the scene of the crash. A medic. Or maybe just a police officer.
I ran. Back to the lift. Up. Above. Away.
It took Chongqing’s social media users about 3 hours to realise the drones didn’t just randomly drop out of the sky. Rather they had targets.
The rolling brownouts now being experienced in many districts stood testament to that. The drones had destroyed about half of the city’s solar capacity. They targeted not people or even buildings. Rather they went for panels.
‘Terrorism’ was the cry of the army of WeChat users who had taken it upon themselves to work out what happened.
About an hour later all mention of this had vanished. The government had woken up to what had happened too.
With social media harmonised I was left to watch TV for official news. A newsreader read off the latest headlines.
*253 dead, mostly due to motor vehicle accidents. *
*Several hundred thousand drones ‘lost’. *
*Damage estimates ranging into the hundreds of billions of Yuan. *
*Emergency power rationing announced. *
The guilt had since subsided into a general sense of dread.
*Authorities investigating act of sabotage against SRI. *
“Huh?” I said out loud.
The newsreader went on say that a high percentage of the solar panels destroyed belonged to a single company: Solar Resources International.
That can’t be right. The drones had been sent the coordinates of Tianshan Solar’s panels. Not SRI’s. The news channel must have made a mistake.
But as the hours ticked by, it seemed less and less likely. Their roving crews, between the footage of broken glass and crashed cars, showed off row upon row of broken solar panels, all bearing the sun and mountain logo of Tianshan Solar.
In a panic I reviewed the coordinates I sent to Yu for review. Location after location, all Tianshan panels. For a moment I was relieved.
Then a thought crossed my mind.
I checked the database of targets which I received back from after he had approved them. The first was a Tianshan array. But the second was SRI. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.
“Shit!” I swore out loud.
Why would Yu direct the drones to attack his own company?
*SRI stock price soars following attack. *
I had been staring at the coordinate list for over an hour, before the newscaster announced these incongruous words. How? They just lost billions upon billions of dollars of products. Their market presence had been wiped out.
“Traders are speculating that SRI stands to gain from the industrial sabotage directed against its installations in Chongqing. The government has assured citizens that insurance companies will pay up for lost panels despite the bizarre events.” the newscaster stated with crisp certainty.
Then it dawned on me. Yu hadn’t wiped out his market share. He had wiped out a saturated market. 99% of the affected customers would replace their panels with insurer cash. And they would replace them with SRI panels. Billions would be made replacing the lost stock. Factories would stay open, and Tianshan solar, crippled by debt would miss out on the largest solar production boom in a decade.
It was brilliant. No one would be so insane as to suspect a company of attacking itself.
I was the only one who knew.
The doorbell rang.
I opened it tentatively. No one was there.
I stepped out into the hall.
A sharp pain to the back of the head.
If someone was watching the feed from the roof camera of the apartment block, they would have seen two balaclava’d figures dump a body amongst the glass fragments and broken plastic remnants of drones.
They would have seen the body come alive writhing and screaming.
If they had of used lip-reading algorithms on the now animate person they would have analysed it to be shouting “I won’t tell anyone! You don’t need to do this!”.
They would have then seen one of the figures take long shard of glass and impale it into the person’s chest, holding them tight until they stopped struggling.
Then they would have seen the two figures exit the roof via the fire escape.
But no one was watching.