Kids These Days

Antisocial Network

The school bus that took Jake home was a rattling yellow deathtrap that wheezed like a chain smoker. The moment Jake stepped off the thing, he mused possibly applying for telepresence exemption, so he could attend lectures online instead. He quickly ruled it out, as he had done most of high school the old fashioned way, and would be done in a few months. He loaded his augmented reality interface, and a marker indicating his meeting point with Carlos appeared. He walked down the street, remembering it had been over a decade since someone bothered tried to repave it. Many of the garages were either empty or home to abandoned cars, since few people could afford taking care of a mechanical dependent. Even electric ones and hybrids were still out of most people's price range.

He had spent the last couple of weeks setting up online accounts to handle transactions from the AI experiment. So far, there were only a few cents' worth of digital currencies sitting in them. Jake cursed to himself, wishing his software was more efficient. He looked deeper into the numbers, noticing the original amounts he was bringing in were slightly higher. Various automatic fees and deductions appeared, mostly associated with using certain online services. He called up Mike on his wearables, loading a chat program.

"Hey Jake, what's up?" Mike asked. "I'm at work, so I can't talk for long."

"The AI accounts getting hit by a bunch of fees from regulator bots," Jake replied. "There's only few cents left!"

"Looks like you got hit by some autolegal software," Mike replied. "They'll be looking for online transactions above a certain amount. Ever since those banking scandals in my day, it's been open season on internet finances."

Jake remembered auto-legal software, internet bots that inflicted fees, or even lawsuits, on certain transitions or traffic. Lawsuits and fines were mostly generated without human intervention, and simply spammed at any transactions they found. Most large institutions and major sites had legal defense software that deterred such attacks, but not all. Online services using gaming cyber-currencies were forced to pass these costs onto their users. The online currencies Jake used were magnets for such software, which was draw to them like sharks to blood. Most governments realized they were unable to totally ban or regulate online currencies, so they were content to let the auto-legal bots run amok in the dark corners of the net.

"Damn," Jake muttered. "Doesn't your university network have legal defense software?"

"Yeah, but all your transactions are all on third party sites, so it won't cover them," Mike explained. "I could think of a few solutions, though."

"I'm all ears, oh great and mighty Retromancer," Jake said. "I don't want some digital vampires to suck my accounts dry."

"Well, you could try several smaller transactions at different times instead of a few big ones. You could also use some of those encrypted online currencies to cut out the middleman, so to speak," he explained. "And finally, you could teach the AI to mimic legal defense software."

"That makes sense," Jake continued. "Neural nets can do function approximation, after all."

"It's harder than it sounds, Jake," Mike explained. "It's extremely complex to program, so training the AI is easier. Most higher end legal defense software comes equipped with AI instruction modules."

"Can I use the university's, then?" Jake asked. "Or is there some open source version you'd recommend?"

"No to the first, not yet to the second," Mike replied. "Even with defensive software, it takes time to train these neural nets. Especially one as complicated as a simulated connectome. Sadly, the open source builds I've seen aren't as refined as the commercial stuff yet."

"What's the best brand on the market?" Jake asked.

"Valefor Autolegal Suite," Mike continued. "It handles international transactions, too. Look, I know you're anxious to make money, but don't rush. Last thing I need is to explain to your parents about your hare-brained scam."

"You won't, Mike," Jake replied. "Thanks for everything."

"Seeya," Mike signed off.

Jake disengaged his wearables as he saw Carlos walking around the corner to meet him. He was dressed in his favorite smart fabric overcoat, with his screamer drones flitting about him. Carlos hung his rebar sword-club over his shoulder, like an urban samurai.

"Greetings, Jake," Carlos nodded at him. "I trust things are proceeding well?"

"Okay, just pissed now," Jake explained. "You know anyone with auto-legal defense software?"

"I lamentably do not," he replied. "But I shall inquire on our Hashishin networks for such programs."

"You know Mike's research, right?" Jake asked.

"I follow his online works religiously," Carlos answered. "Why do you ask?"

"Remember the one last week about the connectome AIs and online games?" Jake said. "I'm doing a side project based on that."

"Oh, do continue," Carlos' eyebrow furled. "Is this related to your previous question?"

"Yeah, and my project keeps getting screwed because of autolegal software," Jake tensed up. "They keep sucking me dry!"

"You are hardly the only victim of autolegal and regulator bots," Carlos replied. "Plenty of less fortunate people were driven to bankruptcy and poverty due to them."

"Honestly, I'd like to shoot whoever runs the damn things," Jake added. "Do some companies have nothing better to do than sue the pants off anything that moves?"

"No," Carlos continued. "They also often sue unwary inventors, based on broad interpretations of obscure patents."

"And the politicians just let it happen?" Jake asked. "Come on, man, that sucks!"

"Most politicians do not care, as they target online economies often separate from their political base," Carlos explained. "But there is a good side to everything, even those digital vampires."

"Yeah?" Jake asked. "I need some good news."

"Think of all the unemployed lawyers," Carlos continued. "Too many lawyers can be more dangerous than weapons in criminal hands."

"I heard Cascadia just tosses those suits out of court," Jake confirmed the fact on his wearable interface. "I'm so glad I'll be out of this dump soon."

"Not all of us are so fortunate, Jake," Carlos replied. "I am going to be staying, trying to fight for those who cannot fight back."

"Good luck on that," Jake said. "Jersey law's got more holes than Swiss cheese."

"And it continues to deteriorate," Carlos explained. "You are aware of the coming utility privatizations, correct?"

"Yeah, the Governor wants to privatize some of the remaining police forces," Jake's wearables brought up a local news headline. "Police unions are going to be protesting with some other groups."

"Including many of the groups they once arrested," Carlos explained. He turned around for a second, looking behind him. Jake quickly peaked behind, but saw nothing. "It is amazing how necessity makes odd bedfellows, is it not?"

"Are you going to join them?" Jake asked. "I've heard about you Hashishin doing stuff like that."

"Of course," Carlos nodded."We stand with even former enemies in their time of need."

"Even if they're still a threat?" Jake asked. "Seems rather dumb to me."

"It depends," Carlos explained, taping a small camera on the side of his AR glasses. "We Hashishin record everything while on patrol, and let others see our actions. It is through the fire of criticism that we purge our weaknesses and reforge ourselves."

Carlos lead Jake towards the edge of the suburb. The houses began to get progressively more decrepit, as if he was walking towards the end of the world itself. By the time the pair had walked to the edge of the street, the houses on either side had doors and windows covered in wooden boards and vines. The smell of decomposition reeked from the nearby drainage ditch, which was overgrown with cattails and skunk cabbage. Discarded shopping carts and litter were strewn about the swamp, slowly sinking into the mud. The disgusting trash marinated in the swamp, forming a nauseating soup that vaguely reminded Jake of his school cafeteria. Only the nastiest things remained alive in that septic stew.

Carlos continued into the woods behind the swamp. Jake followed, looking at the trees around them. Their bare branches began to enclose the canopy, reaching like skeletal figures towards the sky. Many of the trees grew into a concrete structure with peeling white paint. Jake recalled it as the old Apex Manufacturing plant, a factory abandoned at least half a century ago. A styled letter "A" adorned a wall with a tree growing on the side. Cold, stale air came from the building as Carlos entered the decaying structure.

"Yuck, man," Jake smelled decay from every corner. "This place is full of junkies and strays. Why'd you set up here?"

" It was mercifully empty once I moved in," Carlos replied. "But you can certainly smell signs of the previous inhabitants."

Carlos unlocked a door in front of him, opening the way to an empty chamber with a high vaulted roof. The room clearly used to hold some type of heavy machinery, judging by the marks left on the floor. Some of the windows were webbed with cracks, and water dripped through some holes in the ceiling. In one corner, however, was an arrangement of translucent tanks leading to a central hub. Pumps in the machine chugged and gurgled, forcing various chemicals through tubes leading to an angled print head. Connected to it was an ancient desktop computer, something that would not look out of place in Mike's house. A small tent was set up nearby, with a bedroll and battery-operated flashlight within. A nearby wall had some exposed steel rebar, where Jake assumed Carlos got his weapon from.

"Mi casa es su casa," Carlos put his hand on Jake's shoulder and looked around. "Welcome to my Hashishin den."

"Whoa!" Jake looked at the fabber. "That's industrial grade! Where'd you get that?"

"I salvaged it from a dumpster, and hauled it here, piece by piece," Carlos explained. "That is where my drones come from."

"That's sweet!" Jake approached the machine. "Does that old computer control it?"

"Yes, friend," Carlos nodded. "But there is more to that machine that meets the eye. Come, load this site into your wearables."

Jake brought up the website that Carlos sent him. There were streaming feeds of Hashishin patrolling other places, with faces blanked out to preserve privacy. Their actions were prone to real-time feedback from their peers across the world, ranked according to professionalism and courtesy. He saw a live feed from Carlos' glasses-mounted camera, with him in the center. His head was blurred out like the others, but he figured his voice and gait still could identify him.

"This is awesome, man!" Jake looked at the monitor. "You live in this place? Aren't you worried it could come crashing down?"

"I gave my muse a structural engineering module, and we believe that this room will be stable, at least for another decade," Carlos replied. "But I only do not always reside here. I do have parents who worry about me, after all."

"Not a bad setup, man," Jake looked around. "No one to bother you, and cops don't give a shit about this place."

"Precisely," Carlos explained. "If one seeks to perform activities of questionable legality, one should not draw excessive attention towards oneself."

"I thought you Hashishin were all about justice and stuff like that," Jake looked over the monitor.

"We are," Carlos explained. "Only we do so independently of existing law. We believe most law enforcement has become too removed from the public, and many laws were corrupted to benefit the status quo more than the interests of the public."

"Yeah, looking at Jersey, I can see why," Jake mused. "Instead of a political system, we've got a septic system where the biggest turds float to the top."

"A crude, if rather blunt description," Carlos replied. "But I do have favors to ask of you."

"Yeah?" Jake asked. "I don't want to run around playing superhero, no offense."

"Understood," Carlos nodded. "I did not intend to ask that of you. The path of the Hashishin is not for all, but even we need assistance from outsiders many times."

"So, what can I do?" Jake asked. "As long as it's not too illegal."

Jake knew many things people did each day were technically illegal, but most people were ignorant of the fact.

"I have two boons to request," Carlos continued. "The first is assistance with a programming task."

"That I can do," Jake replied. "What do you need?"

"We Hashishin have formed a combined database of various organized crime groups and possible connections between them," Carlos said. "Unlike state law enforcement, however, we do not have access to their social networks, communications, and other sensitive information."

"And you want me to spy on people for you?" Jake asked. "Is that it?"

"No, friend," Carlos continued. "We want a program able to infiltrate their social networks, create dummy accounts, and correlate violent activity with individual identities."

Jake grinned. "Oh, I've just the thing," he said as ideas swirled in his head. "Remember the AI I was talking about? I've got an idea that could solve both of our problems."

"Do elaborate," Carlos replied.

"Simple," Jake continued. "What if I could train the AI able to mimic people, observe their behavior, and then determine if they might be a threat or not?"

"That would be useful, yes," Carlos agreed. "Our greatest concern as Hashishin is to ensure the most violent types are under observation, as the welfare of the public is our first priority."

"Good call," Jake added. "But remember my stumbling block?"

"The Valefor software," Carlos recalled. "I could see how that might be useful."

"Oh, it'll be more than useful," Jake continued. "That's how the police spot potential terrorists. A lot of aggressive people behave carelessly online."

"But how about those who do not? Or those with capacity for restraint and planning?" Carlos asked. "A cunning sociopath may be more dangerous over the long term than a mere brute."

"It would be harder to nail those guys, sure," Jake agreed. "But if they've got willpower and brains, might they be drawn towards other forms of power than just petty crime?"

"True," Carlos agreed. "More ruthless and intelligent individuals could be drawn towards areas like politics or finance."

"Exactly," Jake continued. "In the meantime, give me access to your antisocial network, and I'll see what my AI can do."

"If any Hashishin come across a full copy of the Valefor software, I shall inform you," Carlos replied. "Now, there is the matter of the second favor."

"Yeah?" Jake asked.

"Our protest is coming up, and there will be a dozen Hashishin with me," Carlos explained. "I need someone to be mission control. Considering your experience as a gamer, I believe you are well suited for the task."

"Yeah, sure," Jake asked. "You're going to have to give me some time to get used to it, though."

"Duly noted," Carlos replied as he forwarded access information to Jake.

Jake had his muse sort through the data, and file it away for access later. He went back to the fabber, and looked at the object taking shape in the central body. It was another quadcopter drone, equipped with a screamer and laser dazzlers. Carlos took a small marker from an old desk and wrote something on one of the aircraft's struts.

"I shall dub this one, "The Cavalry," for that is its role," he looked proud at the thing. "You, Jake, shall be given the honor of deploying this aircraft in the field."

"It's just a drone," Jake commented. "Why name it?"

"You've named and customized your muse and game avatar, have you not?" Carlos responded.

"Yeah, but those are unique," Jake looked at the newly completed robot aircraft. "That's just a thing."

"The ancients used to name their weapons, believing it gave them special powers," Carlos explained. "We Hashishin continue this tradition, but for different reasons. We like to impart a bit of our own personality upon our tools."

"Interesting," Jake noted. "Do you name everything of yours?"

"No, my friend, just a few of my favorite things," Carlos pulled out his rebar club. "This is my weapon, "Foundation," for it once supported this factory, and without a strong and flexible base, everything crumbles."

"I guess there's some irony there," Jake looked at the state of the place. "But come on, do all you Hashishin make weapons out of garbage?"

"Some of us use conventional weapons, but there are times when such things would draw unwanted attention," Carlos explained. "If some weapons are illegal, learn to fight with what you have."

"And Jersey sure has a lot of trash," Jake mused.

"Exactly," Carlos nodded in agreement.

Jake spent the rest of the day getting used to the Hashishin site and drone controls, practicing until it was familiar. Carlos escorted him home when the sun sank low below the trees, and Jake was glad he had his friend alongside him. Behind him, the abandoned factory seemed to vanish into the woods. He left the wilted woods behind him, and headed for home and a new tomorrow.