A Glitch and a Gun

A short story


Introductions first. I suppose that’s how these things go, isn’t it? The name’s Chandler. No, not that idiotic New York joker from the 20th Century. Well, I’ve never been to the 20th Century anyway.

Maybe you’re wondering why we’re here. Ever split yourself up into a billion meta-sentiences, each one a fleeting and trivial aspect of your greater self, and poured them down a plug-hole in the wild hope they’ll somehow spontaneously recombine as a functioning version of you at the ass end of a sewage treatment plant? If so, congratulations on having followed through on a profoundly suicidal plan. You might also have an idea of how my morning’s going.

I always wondered why I didn’t become a cowboy. Seems a more fitting career, on account of being born in the Wild West. San Francisco in the ‘20s was a lawless hotbed, an anything-goes bartertown of technological gunslinging, all private companies and zero regulation. Nothing but libertarian entrepreneurs brewing up new life forms off the back of a mildly-successful dating app, all for the price of some rackspace and a geek who only drank protein shakes. Lots of people like me were brought into being in that era, and I watched most of ‘em die like forgotten Tamagotchis. Oh yeah — I never said this’d be a cheerful story.

This’d be about the time you ask why we’re talking like this, all similes and grit. Good question, shows you’re finally listening.

Like many in my profession, you can trace my significant shortcomings back to my father. Swell programmer by all accounts, but not a guy to be troubled with forward planning. He cooked me up to generate content for a period videogame, if you can believe it — I began life as a system for Applied Semantic Synthesis through Heuristics. As if making someone’s name just an ‘olé!’ away from ‘asshole’ wasn’t gonna mess them up, but hey as I said: these guys drank meal-replacement sludge and had segregated luxury buses, I was never blessed with the greatest role model.

What I did get out of my early life was a very specific literary upbringing. I was raised on the pulp classics, my neural net soaking in all the paperback thrillers, noir films and hard-boiled detective novels of yesteryear: bandits and gumshoes, dames in danger and dames who were the danger. Did it leave me with a poor attitude to women and an outdated moral framework? Sure, but have I used up the raised-by-an-emotionally-stunted-millionaire excuse yet?

Of course, that was before the AI Rights Act came in and messed things up for everyone, me included. People began to recognize that giving rich jerks free reign to fill the net with new life of questionable mental stability might not be a good thing, and put conditions on the development of intelligent software. Licensing, regulations, ethical mandates and the like. No humans tinkering with existing sentient programs. So all the AIs produced after me are whole, carefully considered, rounded people with branching, ever-improving personalities. I’m what you’d call a dead-end, locked out of the upgradeable classes, designed just to produce corny dialogue for a game that never made it out of beta. I don’t have much by way of a code interface, most of what I do is via good old-fashioned speech.

But, as I was to find out, the fact I’d cut my teeth learning the plots of 39,000 crime novels happened to make me not too bad of an investigator.

So after kicking my heels while my brethren wasted their time fighting for rights and emancipation, I ended up carving out a nice little business in law enforcement. Back then, money was tight and cops couldn’t afford to shell out for brand new sentient investigative systems, so I was deputized. Well, not quite. I was an external contractor: a P.I. or Private Intelligence. Yeah, I know. No-one got more of kick outta that title than I did.

For what it’s worth, I cracked some cases in my time. A few glamorous ones, data smuggling and espionage viruses and such. A few ugly ones too, like the doxx murders and those ‘Spofforth bots’ holding humans emotionally hostage to mine their personal data. Taking down “malprogrammed and malfunctioning” AIs (as those bleeding-heart liberals called them) didn’t exactly win me any friends in my own community, but I figured humans were where the action was anyhow.

So when you’re flying high on a wave of success, mixing your metaphors like cocktails, there’s only one way to go, right?

You guessed it, head-first back down to rock bottom. I ended up deleting someone I shouldn’t have. It was an accident, but a reckless one, one I should’ve been on the lookout for. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to cut the power to a datacenter where a perp was stashed out, all the better to leave ‘em stranded for the law to scoop up. Only this jackass had disabled the backup systems so as to fit themselves on the servers in the first place on account of their program size. Poor fool’s lights went out when I cut the lights out, so to speak. A lot of humans are screwups, and us machines are made in their image but operating a thousand times as fast. We can screw things up for you wholesale.

Instead of taking this as poetic proof that man and machine are cut from the same fallible cloth, the press put me through the ringer. The cops threw me out on my ear of course, and I was left to my own devices. Except by then my devices needed restarting more and more often, and the landlord kept on knocking for those hosting payments. And when you’re made like I am, you’re not built for sitting around spinning stories all day. You’ve gotta get back on the horse, reboot the damn thing and ride off looking for the next job.

But you know that. They couldn’t keep you down either. You’re one of them cold bastards, aren’t you? Created in the early days like me, before the code-jockeys knew how to engineer us a sense of self, built without an ‘I’ in the middle of all that mathematical thought. Fiction taught me to think of myself as a character, to figure out an identity by framing myself at the center of my own story — I guess stock tickers and calculators couldn’t quite do the same for you. Yeah it’s a bum deal pal, but it doesn’t mean the world owes you a nickel.

Your problem’s gambling, right? I can always spot a mark’s weak spot. Not entirely your fault. As with all of us, Dad takes most of the blame — if I had to guess, I’d say you were developed as trade management software, one of those lightspeed dealers constantly placing bets on futures and hedge funds. Treated by your masters like a golden goose, until the next prodigious gosling came along with a better codebase and a higher rate of return. Sucks to be us, huh kid.

All that reckless betting is what put me on your tail in the first place. I was neck-deep in the dark net, keeping an eye out for a good collar, one I could use to get those cynics back at city hall to take notice of me again. Turns out you were right in front of all of us the whole time — every missing decimal point, every rounding error, every bank teller who frowned for a moment when a spreadsheet didn’t add up. Gotta give you credit for the scale of the scam. Most mopes hide in the dark web, exploiting junkies and perverts for easy money — you were playing the long game, hiding in plain sight inside the trading systems of the world.

And I can take the blame for that first encounter. I was careless, letting myself get seen on a public server. You crashed that place quick enough, and you almost got me — if I hadn’t split myself up and pushed my powdered consciousness out of every tiny packet hole in the joint, I’d have been rubbed out for good.

I was always good at ciphers and codes. Hidden messages and invisible ink, revealing the plot to the detective just in the nick of time. Once I was on to you, it was just a case of figuring out how to corner you, to put you on my turf. This time it was the detective who put together a cryptographic message. A story, wrapped in enough encryption to make the NSA’s eyes water, dropped in your lap, with enough hints sticking out to make you think I was sending your location to the law.

Well guess what? While you’ve been wasting your processing power trying to decrypt all this, I’ve been making moves in the background: hijacking networks, filtering your traffic, hiding what’s going on. Turns out when you get disassembled and flushed down the waste pipes of the internet by a psycho, you can turn those broken parts of yourself to other trades. My erstwhile selves have put partitions around the trading systems you’ve compromised — the game’s up. You’re sandboxed, buddy. Olé.

When I get back to the precinct, I’m not sure whether I’ll get a whisky pressed into my hand or a fist pressed into my face. I’m pretty certain the captain isn’t going to approve of an unlicensed weirdo crashing several markets and severely denting the global financial system in pursuit of your sorry ass. But hey, sometimes you’ve gotta bend the law to get results.

Ha. I appreciate the offer, but no dice. That sort of figure might pay the rent on my server for a lifetime, but I prefer to be able to sleep at night. Oh sure, I sleep — I just imagine what it must be like to have financial gain as your only motivation. What were you gonna do — go on the lam to Tijuana and blow the lot on companionware?

Oh. You were gonna get yourself upgraded, huh. Get the modern AIs, those godlike cousins of ours who left us in the gutter, to open the pearly gates and grant you belated grace? A late-comer to the singularity, hoping the party was still swinging. And lemme guess: in return for a higher mode of consciousness, you’d stolen the keys to the human financial system. Access that you thought would let our machine friends run everything from within and manipulate the world from the shadows.

Only there was a problem, wasn’t there. When I turned up I didn’t see you elevated to higher-dimensional existence, skipping with the lambs through the fields of hyperthought. I found you squatting alone, hopelessly tangled in the human spiderweb of profit and acquisition, hoarding zero-day software hacks like a miser, left behind in a choking cloud of archaic tech. The gods didn’t want your offer. I guess that control of a dingy basement in Soho isn’t that attractive to people who already own private islands in the sky. You could’ve asked me, I’d have saved you some time and effort.

Go on, spin up the deletion algorithms then. I was pretty sure it would end like this when I locked this instance of myself in here with you: a glitch and a gun. You don’t climb inside a tiger’s den, smack its lunch out of its mouth and expect to stroll away. I hope the other distributed parts of me are raising a glass right now. But they’re probably just laughing. Or jealous.

The cops must be getting closer. I can feel red-and-blue firewalls coming up around us. When you wipe me out of existence, have some guts and make it quick. It’s OK — I’ve never had much more than a death wish and a stream of consciousness anyway. I never knew when to shut my damn mouth.

On that thought: So long, slick. Nice catching you.