Fall From Grace
My new target might have been wearing Armani and some ridiculously overpriced pair of shades, but he was certainly not comfortable in them. Not sure how I sniffed it out, but those things came easy to me.
I guess it was the whole Beverly Hillbilly thing. Maybe it was just because I always felt uncomfortable and felt a kinship with such folk.
New money or not, he stared me down with a “who the fuck are you” sort of glare that I had to kind of admire. Him being unarmed and so on. He kept that look up until I took the blue can out and set it on the table.
“Shit,” he said, with resignation. “Shit.”
I waved the gun at him. “Sit down.” Tossed the duct tape over. “Strap yourself into that comfortable-looking chair.”
After he taped his legs and one of his wrists to the chair, I moved closer and took care of the other wrist, then took a moment to enjoy the surroundings.
“How much this room cost?” I asked, opening the sliding doors and stepping out onto the balcony. In the distance the Miami skyline glittered silver in the sun.
Several more decks of balconies were stacked below. Then the great hull of the cruise ship plunged down toward the dark water.
“It … five hundred a night.”
“It looks worth every penny,” I told him, walking back inside. Then, shaking my head. “Six thousand people are taking their vacation on this? The town near where I grew up was smaller than that. I had a girlfriend once who wanted to get on one of these things, but I read a story about flu breaking out on a ship like this. Tried to stay away ever since.”
I sat on the couch and unrolled my kit.
“You’re going to kill me?”
I nodded. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Till. But I’m going to have to. But don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you. I have a more painless solution. I’m not a sadist. I have come to change my ways over time.”
He started to cry as I pulled out the syringe.
“Why?” he asked, his eyes large and full of tears.
Well. This was just getting tougher and tougher these days.
USED TO BE most of my targets were tough gunthugs. Russian Mafia with tattoos jumbled all over everywhere. On my last job, I killed this low-level Chinese pimp who had a geek in his basement running code.
Men like that pimp were soldiers. Lived violent, died violent.
Holding a gun to the temple of some tough motherfucker ready to kill me the moment I made a mistake, that didn’t feel so wrong.
But thinking about trying to kill the coder, still in his teens, a box of Chinese food and some chopsticks still in his hand and the eyes of a startled doe about to get shot, well that had shook me. I’d aimed at the geek, then put the gun away and told him to run.
He’d been almost a kid, really. And I wasn’t going to shoot no kid.
And this little punk here in front of me wasn’t hardly any more of threat to no one than that geek had been.
So back to the question: Why?
“Because, son, I was paid to,” I explained, and pointed at the blue can. “And don’t bullshit me. You know why. It’s right there on the damn can.”
He swallowed snot and tears, sniffed. “Spam.”
We both looked at the red meat on the tin. “Spam,” I confirmed.
“But why do you have to kill me?” he asked.
Well. That was the question. “I —”
The spammer’s head jerked back as his brains blew out of his skull.
I turned and fired, then dove for cover. I stood back up with my gun drawn at the balcony I’d just stood on. Well, that was going to cause a right ruckus any second.
A shadow leapt from the balcony to the next one over.
I ran out and caught a glimpse of jeans and a black polo. Business casual camouflage, the equivalent of a gillie suit for the tourist environment. I shot the fucker in the leg and he collapsed, screaming and moaning.
A pair of already-sunburned passengers quivered in the corner of their balcony, looking at the downed man in horror.
“Hey there,” I said to the wounded man as I came over the balcony. “You twitch, I pop you.”
New guy was more focused on clutching his thigh and moaning anyway. I grabbed his gun and tossed it overboard.
But even a first-timer could get lucky.
New guy had three day’s stubble and a gaunt face. Some tattoos near his shoulder. He’d served. Then worked as a “consultant.” But he wasn’t a black ops type. More like a grunt with delusions of awesome. Probably a gun fetish type.
I’d known enough of those back home.
I’d have bet anything he tried to go Special Forces but flunked any number of the tests. Psych or intelligence.
“Better hope there aren’t any sharks,” I told him.
I picked him up over my shoulder in a fireman carry and clambered up onto the railing. I turned to the tourists. “Ma’am, sir, sorry to disturb.”
And I jumped.
AN ANONYMOUS woman driving the chase boat hauled us out of the water. She wore a wig and a plastic mask that distorted her features.
No doubt the boat wasn’t hers, either.
She’d been randomly offered the job online because she could drive a boat, and she’d been doing random chores around the city for the last few months.
The boat was left there because it’s part of a partial ownership deal, and the last user was told to dock in a certain place once they were done.
These things lined up for me all the time.
I couldn’t answer that truthfully any more than I could explain it to the sad spammer lying dead in that stateroom back on the cruise ship.
If I were a religious type, I’d believe the internet was playing the world like god, and setting things up to slap the assholes of the internet around.
But I wasn’t the type.
And besides, it wasn’t like I was being sent around to kill the internet’s real devils — forum trolls and the like. That would be some real Old Testament-style justice. No, right now it was just the spammers.
So whatever this internet god was, its aims were limited.
I’d always promised myself I’d dig deeper to try and figure it out. But so far I hadn’t wanted to. Why ruin a good thing?
“Wake up, asshole.”
Mr. New Guy With A Gunshot Wound stirred, looked around groggily. He probably only vaguely remembered being dragged around, gagged, knocked out, waking up in a car trunk, getting knocked out again, and then finally getting a face full of water here.
Welcome to some shitty hotel room near a lesser airport in greater Miami.
I tossed the rest of the cold water and ice at him, and he quickly sputtered his way to sharply focused.
“Here’s the thing,” I explained, squatting in front of him. “Usually I do this sort of thing, I get paid a certain amount. And there are certain things I do to qualify for it. I have to provide video of the act, with the can of Spam in it. Once I upload proof of the kill, then I get directed to the cash drop. That’s how it works. So now, my question is, what’s going to happen to my money?”
“I…” He lost track of what he was going to say. “Wait, you’re the spam guy? You’re him?”
I shifted the gun in my hand, enough to draw his attention back to what mattered. He paled. “Look, I got the same job. Only, no video, no spam. I was just told to take care of the guy. I didn’t know you would be there. I know spammers are your thing, I’ve seen the uploaded videos of your kills, they’re all over the internet. I swear I didn’t know.”
He swore some more and promised that’s all he knew.
But a hundred grand was a shitload of bills to see spooked.
I took a few moments to impress on him the gravity of his situation, getting him to volunteer a few more details about his employment.
“I contract for Genesec,” he whimpered. “They’re pushing a new boner pill, and it’s not hopping because apparently the spammers are keeping brand awareness of the competition going. I got the order by encrypted email to clean that guy up.”
Which was odd. Usually the corporations never leaned in and got their hands actually dirty. Sure, the companies indirectly made money off spam. It worked. The spammers sold pills. All it took was one complete, fucking moron out of every million to just click and buy. And the company didn’t care who their retailers were, ultimately.
But with click and buy rates of less than one in a million, pharma wasn’t that obsessed with this side of things, even if they were the eventual beneficiaries. And whoever hired me delighted in uploading the videos I took of my kills with the ubiquitous can of Spam in them. This was something different.
Plus, I’d been hired to kill the spammers who took over computers using worms hidden in email to build zombie computer nets. As a result, I’d never figured that whatever mysterious force was hiring me was pharma. I’d just enjoyed the sick, underground anonymous fame. The “spam assassin” moniker that I’d been given by the media.
“I would never have done it if I’d known it was you, man,” the amateur assassin said. “I’m a big fan!”
Of course. Who wasn’t?
But now I was curious about who was hiring me. A very large group of hackers? Other spammers? Sometimes I idly wondered if the internet had come alive, like in that movie The Lawnmower Man. Or maybe it was the CIA ordering me around.
It hadn’t mattered much to me, but now I needed to know.
A Chinese official releases tainted milk and is executed. People act shocked, and then confess they wish people who put them in danger by cutting corners “were taken care of” to send a similar message.
Which is why I had always joked to myself that it was the collective “internet god” that had decided to hire me: to kill spammers. To engage in revenge on the behalf of the internet. I always imagined a crowdsourced army of clickers deciding to engage in white-hat hacking, using me.
But now I doubted that. And I needed to get to the bottom of it all.
“This ever happen to you before?” the man asked.
I was trying to decide whether to kill or answer him when I heard the boots on the ground outside the door.
A second later the door exploded in splinters and the SWAT team poured through the door in an explosion of navy blue.
I was already out of the back window, down the three-story drop to hit the mattresses in the extra-large dumpster I’d paid to have rolled out back, and then through the window into a bottom room before anyone knew any better.
All the doors between these bottom rooms were opened already. I made my way through them. Out of a bathroom window into an alley, and then to a nearby parking garage.
I’d picked up a few tricks from the crowdsourced support that my assassinations had.
USUALLY I GET a phone call on the other end of an untraceable line. Read to me by a computer in that automated weather warning sort of sounding voice.
With that call came my instructions.
The support for my missions was always put together by crowds of unconnected people who would never realize they were helping participate in a crime. In the old days they would be “accessories” in one way or another.
Now they were just someone playing an online geo-caching game that got hacked by my employer. Or doing some live action role playing game via an augmented reality app put out by shady people, also with my employer behind it.
Half the people running bot-nets these days think they’re solving cancer.
By the time the anonymous crowdsourced mission reaches me, it’s gone fully immoral.
But I’ve never minded much.
I HOLED UP in one of my safehouses, a trailer in a retirement community near Boca Raton.
I told the nosy retiree neighbors I was someone’s grandson, visiting from Georgia.
And I waited some more.
It became clear that something had changed, though, after two weeks of staring at palm trees and people playing shuffleboard.
The mysterious entity on the other side that used my services would have contacted me by now.
Something was wrong.
And somewhere in my gut, I realized that there weren’t going to be any more “assignments.”
I’d failed the internet god by releasing the young hacker and killing only the thug. And I had the distinct feeling that I was supposed to have been caught on my cruise ship mission.
Well then. I was being hunted, now.
I wasn’t a computer wizard, but I figured spending some time learning about Genesec from some of the seedier areas of the internet might be a good start toward figuring out what sort of trouble I was in. I spent a long, late night in my boxers clicking around, leaving a few questions sprinkled in the right place, and turned in.
The next morning SWAT woke me up after they kicked through the door, the window, and a good chunk of wall.
“Good morning,” a grim-faced sergeant with a dirty blonde mustache said. “We missed you at the hotel. You must have stepped out.”
Really Smart Filters
“Hello,” said the man with an I’m-a-better-human-being-than-you sort of look to him and a very nice suit. I bet he liked brands. Brands of all sorts. Probably defined his life with them.
“You the lawyer?” I asked.
He smiled. “No. Interpol. I’m the poor bastard that’s been tracking you all over the world, Mr. Mayhew. My name is Derrick Eaves.”
“You sound American.”
“Five years at UC Davis, six working for Interpol on the Eastern Seaboard.”
He had a tablet that he laid on the table between us. After a few moments of unimpressed silence, he began to flip through documents.
The Interpol suit wasn’t lying. Everything was in there.
And he’d known my name. Something the god of the internet had promised was going to be near impossible for them to ever find.
“My favorite was Morocco,” he said. “You probably had to enjoy that, getting to fly all over the world. You started going criminal in Ohio, right, then Alabama? Most of your record is small-time intimidation, until five years ago. Have you noticed of late that your targets have changed?”
I stared at him.
He continued. “Now you’re going after white-collar criminals. That’s when they started giving me the resources and cooperation I needed to get to you. But even then, I don’t think I could have done it if you hadn’t have been turned over by your employer.”
My blood turned all icy.
I leaned forward. “I know my position here is no good. I’ve led a dangerous and immoral life, I accept that. And if what you say is true, then I am more than willing to work with you, and cooperate in any way I can for whatever I can. I know that’s not good negotiation tactics, but let’s just put our cards on the table.”
The suit smiled. “On the table, then. Do you use email, Mr. Mayhew?”
“You use smart filters, that learn as you go along?”
“Well, that’s basically who hired you.”
IT BOILED DOWN to this, according to Eaves:
Basically the filters learned too much. Your own inbox couldn’t keep up with all that bullshit slinging itself at you from spammers. So the smart filters had to get smarter. Nerds in labs started building dedicated antispam systems that would read the email and make a decision. The antispam was hosted outside your computer, and built on supercomputers. Or something like that.
And then the spam would have to get smart enough to fool that spam software.
Now, I personally wasn’t too sure about all that evolution stuff, and I’m certainly no scientist, right? But apparently a few years ago these filters started getting smart and smarter, to the point where you could end up talking to one in an email and not know it wasn’t a person.
Makes you think, huh?
These corporations built these filters up on megaservers, and then started using smart software to predict inventory, and scan the stock market, and so forth. And it all got smarter and smarter until, well it wasn’t intelligent, but it certainly could get shit done.
Now you unleashed that software on solving problems the company had that weren’t just spam, but logistics, and gave it autonomy, and suddenly you have this thing that’s acting like a mind, giving orders like a mind, but sure as fuck ain’t no person.
And it turns out some of them were doing things like figuring out how to order assassins to target spammers to reduce their processor workload so they could more effectively work on other problems.
It’s a problem of efficiency, see? A filter can do a great job of running through billions of spams a day. But you kill one spammer who’s the nexus of a piece of the net responsible for most of the spam, and you have a better solution because it reduces the spam for a while.
I was, Eaves explained, the last subroutine of a larger set of routines.
“SO WHAT NOW?” I asked Eaves. “You use me to go after them?”
“We’ll try. But the companies are American, so there’s only so much we can do. Ever since Citizens United, companies have all the protections of a person, and none of the responsibility. And since a company is the sum of its processes, including these computer systems, the computer system is legally a functional person as long as it’s interwoven into the company’s processes. Now, you or I kill a person, we’ll got to jail for life. In Texas we’d likely get the chair. A corporation does it, even though they now have all the same legal rights, they’ll get a fine. Maybe worth a half percent of their yearly profit. You don’t see a company put in jail for ten years for doing something that, if it was an actual person, would horrify us all.”
“So it’s all going to be on me?”
“In the end, you pulled the trigger.” Eaves put his tablet away. “But, you can help us shake them up. Testify. You were hired by a company’s system to cripple another company. We’ll use that as best we can. See where it goes.”
“Genesec?” I asked.
He smiled. “Yes. Genesec.”
Let’s Try This Again
Anonymous people posted bail. Five thousand small donations overnight, and early the next morning I was back on the street and out in the sun.
Eaves offered protective custody, but I disappeared. Lost the police tail, and lost the other tail sitting in the black Town Car.
I was a killer. I’d come to terms with that a very long time ago. It was immoral, and I had no doubt my granny would have thrown the good book at me from her recliner in the corner of the trailer. But the money was good, and I had spent it to live a life I never would have imagined in the meth-addicted trailer park I’d come out of all those years ago.
I’d read some. Smart helped keep me a little ahead of others. I knew what I’d done, and that I wasn’t going to avoid being locked away. Or worse.
I wasn’t going to go to the chair without taking a company with me. No fucking way.
MR. ARI NAISMAN, Genesec’s CEO, walked into his library and flipped on a light. He jumped when he saw me sitting behind his desk, eyes widening. He couldn’t stop staring at the gun.
“I know this won’t stop it, or even solve much,” I said conversationally, but starting to warm up to the whole situation after spending a mind-numbingly boring two hours sitting by myself in the dark. “But I feel compelled to ask, why is your company screwing me?”
“I’m told your company’s computer brain is taking over running things, and that it took upon itself the decision of hiring assassins to help the company out.”
I took out a can of Spam and set it on the man’s desk. “I’ve been killing people for your company. Until recently. When it got complicated. And Interpol got involved. That ring a bell, Mr. Naisman?”
He stared at the can now, not the gun. “You.”
Because in a way, he wasn’t any different than any of the other men who had looked at that blue can in their last moments. Advertising. Spam. Both were secondary effects of their company’s burning need for you to buy, buy, buy.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to go to jail for the things I did for your weird-ass computer, the one that decided it could use me to crowdsource assassinations. Now, I can’t take the corporation with me. Sure, I could implicate a few people in the structure, but then the things that company did will keep on being done. But it occurs to me, I can make people very nervous about wanting to come work for you. Shoot the CEO, work my way down through the chain, and see how far I get before they come for me and it’s all over. Because, for you and me, Ari, it’s all over.”
I shot him. Left brain tissue all over those old, expensive, retro-looking books on the shelves.
By the end of the night the chief financial officer, the vice president, and several other higher-ups were all dead in their homes.
It was grim work.
But I’d been doing it long enough, and been trained well enough by their pet company mind, that I was pretty good at it.
THE CLOSEST THING I had to a home was a small houseboat on a swamp near a national park. I rowed out to it and settled in.
Genesec was all over the news. People were wondering what was going on.
Interpol would know. Eaves would know.
I watched the news with satisfaction, and then settled into an old recliner toward the back of the houseboat and checked my offshore accounts, trying to figure out how long I could last in hiding.
But the accounts weren’t right.
Too much money.
Way too much money. Several million had been deposited in them. From Genesec?
I stared at the zeros for a very long time, until I heard the creak of floorboards behind me. Something, or someone, was standing there.
I had not been smart enough, I thought.
Why would Genesec raise money online via crowdsourced donations to pay my bail?
Why would Interpol point me in their direction?
Oh sure, I believed what Eaves had said. I was probably being controlled by some strangely intelligent-not-intelligent program I didn’t understand.
But I hadn’t taken the time to think too deeply about it all, had I?
No, I’d basically been handed yet another mission: I’d eliminated Genesec’s boardroom in a fit of revenge.
And whoever was putting the money in that account wanted to make it look like what I did was the Genesec’s mind’s idea. It was a set-up.
“This won’t work,” I say out loud. “People will get scared about these company minds, and there will be a backlash if they think I was hired by Genesec to kill its own humans.”
The figure behind me wore a blue uniform. I could see it in the reflection of my computer monitor, like a ghost in front of my account login. I recognized the uniform. It was from a private security firm. They would have spam filters too, wouldn’t they? Minds like Eaves had described.
I’d gone after the wrong thing.
This had been a carefully orchestrated hit by one company’s mind on another. And this company didn’t care about blowback. A security company would do just fine in that atmosphere, offering solutions for better protection against other software. There would be even more escalation.
I’d been little more than a program, or a tool, used by another tool, to create an outcome. A “subroutine” as Eaves called me.
The floorboards creaked again. The figure took another step forward. I gripped the sides of my chair and waited for the crack of the gun from the assassin behind me.
Because I knew that whoever, no, whatever, set all this up, did not want any loose ends, or any extra routines still running.
About the Author
Born in the Caribbean, Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author. His novels and over 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages and he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He currently lives in Ohio. He can be found on his blog and on twitter.