NaNoWriMo – An Introduction and Chapter 1: There Are Nine Million Autonomous Bicycles In Beijing
But now it is time for a new challenge – NaNoWriMo. Where I – and thousandsof other plucky souls – try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month .
And so, every day I shall attempt to publish a freshly written short story for my compendium " Tales of the Algorithm". Each story will be between 1,500 – 2,000 words long. They all take place a few days from now . Somewhere in the Cory Doctorow / qtmn / Arwen Elys Dayton nexus. They’re science fiction with the emphasis on science. Everything you read is possible – there’s no magic, just sufficiently advanced technology.
Each published chapter is a stand-alone story. Think of them as technological campfire horror stories, each with a little twist. Your feedback is very much appreciated.
And so, let’s get started with…
Little Potato Baby’ssoldering iron darted from point to point. Each contact fused to a rats’ nest of wires leading back to a microcomputer mounted on her wrist. The Beijing rain was fierce and the awning provided scant shelter. She didn’t care about getting wet; but the moisture sensor inside the bicycle did. With a sigh, she finished connecting the last wire. It was an unassuming red thread carrying just enough voltage to glitch the Shenzen -built processor deep inside the bike’s plastic frame. She held her finger over the bike’s start button, held her breath, screwed up her eyes, and pushed…
Last year’s" Patriotic War For Reunification " had been a damp squib. After decades of sabre-rattling, deniable incursions, and a none-too-subtle military build up, peace was unexpectedly brokered. Perhaps it was the ageing party heads realising death and destruction was not the legacy they dreamed of. Or perhaps the international community’s pressure helped them see sense. Most people just assumed various military chiefs had been bribed into submission. Regardless, the normalisation of relations had been welcomed by everyone.
Well. Nearly everyone.
The manufacturers of Shenzenhad gone all-in on war preparations. Every factory which had previously been making hyperfine circuitry for the latest high-tech smartphones, pivoted to the more lucrative business of weapons. In anticipation of a prolonged aerial bombardment fought with the latest cyber-enhanced munitions, warehouses were full of precision manufactured instruments of death. It seemed that every bullet had more power than the supercomputers of yore. Each microchip was keenly priced to soak up those juicy military contracts. A shining testament to Chinese industry. A triumph!
What if they threw a war but nobody came? After the Nairobi Accordssignalled an end to hostilities, the various tech CEOs rapidly scrambled to repurpose their inventories. A warehouse full of chips is a liability, not an asset. Selling them to foreign governments – no matter how friendly – was out of the question. They needed to repurpose parts intended for missiles, and drones, and rifles, and APCs, and robot dogs, and… What could be done?
Consolidated Ironmongery And Assorted Industrieswas the owner of one of the larger chip factories. The CIAI’s board demanded diversity across a number of sectors. So, along with their instant noodle empire, railway track distribution network, and rubber-boot concession, they also owned a food delivery app. Several, in fact. Each one branded slightly differently depending on the user’s demographic – but all eventually leading back to CIAI. The dark kitchens cooking the food were owned by a shell company which, if anyone could be bothered to untangle several complex arrangements, also led back to the CIAI. Chances are, if you ordered a hot bowl of noodles anywhere in Beijing , it was cooked by a CIAI cook and delivered by a CIAI rider who was probably wearing a pair of CIAI boots.
Grace Fangwas a medium level executive in the "Innovation" department of CIAI. She’d spent several years wandering around Western countries engaged in what they termed "Competitor Research And Analysis Through Cultural Immersion And Investigation". It wasn’t corporate espionage exactly. Grace got hired by start-ups and industry titans, worked for them for a few months to see how their businesses were run, and then quit. She wrote long and tedious reports on the failures of Western manufacturing and their successes in Research and Development . After a few years of pillaging Silicon Valley , she returned to a dreary office nestled above a factory floor. It was from here CIAI instructed her to use the knowledge she’d picked up to solve their chip stockpile problem.
Little Potato Babyhad taken part in Grace ‘s first hackathon. Back then, she was still young enough to think that pizza was fashionably exotic. Besides, the 996 culture meant she was available – if not willing – to work across a weekend . Grace had loaded them up with caffeine and a promise that the best innovation would win an all expenses trip back home. All intellectual property rights would, of course, revert to CIAI. And that’s how a billion yuan industry was invented; a bunch of over-stimulated hackers cramming every chip they could find into one neat little package all for the chance to visit home.
It is a time-honoured tradition among hackers to sneak a little Easter Egg into their work. Some of them engraved their name onto a circuit board, or named variables after their lovers. Oneenterprising fellow hid a pornographic photo of a prominent actress into an assets folder. Little Potato Baby liked to dream big; so she implanted a rather obvious backdoor into her firmware. The backdoor was quickly found and she was quickly fired.
And so now she sat, damp and miserable, in the cold Beijingnight. The spectral glow of police drones flying overhead mixing with the neon lights of gaming parlours and laser-projected adverts for cosmetic surgery. If she’d got her timing right, the central server would shortly send the command to reboot this bicycle. And, if her obfuscated backdoor hadn’t been found, she’d have root.
A single LED on the bike’s torso began to flick on and off. Uplink established.
It blinked faster.
Across her wrist-display a friendly-looking penguin appeared and was quickly consumed by scrolling text. For several minutesthe boot process steadily made progress until, abruptly, the text vanished. The screen went blank. All she could see on the screen was her own reflection. Tired eyes. Acne scars. Hair that had once been dyed but was now the colour of an OLED screen tuned to an insufficient voltage. She screwed up her nose and wondered if this was really the face of someone who could hack a single bicycle? Let alone a fleet.
The wait was agonising. She didn’t dare breathe. She traced each freshly-soldered wire to make sure it went to the right junction. A minutepassed. Another. The screen remained stubbornly blank.
A crude animation of a potato rolled across the screen. She was in.
CIAIrealised that the weakest link of their food delivery network was people. People were unreliable and prone to sickness. They argued with customers and ate half the food before it had been delivered. They were expensive. The autonomous bicycle was none of those things. The bikes darted through the streets carrying their payloads without complaint. After a successful trial in a suburb, CIAI fired every single driver in Beijing and rolled out their new fleet – all built with army surplus.
The Z9Y-PANDA-VISION chip was designed to perform rapid identification of people on the battlefield. In a couple of nanosecondsit could determine whether a human was in its intercept path. If the human had a heartbeat and was within a certain distance, it sent a signal. Usually to a trigger. But, with a couple of lines of code, it was easily repurposed into a collision avoidance system.
The RIGHTEOUS-HAWK@X5was more than just a gyroscope. Through a range of sensors, it could tell a drone where it was, where it was going, what the upcoming terrain was, and perform full spectral analysis of its motion and path. An essential component in any drone, plane, or rocket. And when soldered into a bicycle, it stopped it from falling over.
Microcrystalinesolar nano-tubes were a miracle. A few hours in direct sunlight was enough to charge a remotely-operated surveillance platform. When the same substance was sprayed over a bike, it charged the ultra-lightweight batteries to give enough power for a few kilometres of travel. And those ultra-light batteries hardly ever exploded.
The radio uplink was originally designed to transmit from a soldier’s helmet up to a constellation of satellites. A bristle of tiny antennae tuned in to the faintest of signals at a variety of wavelengths. Perfect for delivering recon data to a troop – or delivery instruction to a bike.
Grace‘s hackathon had crammed all this and more into a convenient embeddable package. Dozens of military microprocessors working in harmony – each and every one running Little Potato Baby’s embedded rootkit.
The rain began to ease off. She straddled the bike. Usually it would ask for her fingerprint, verify her account with a central server, and then ask her to speak her desired destination. Instead, the tiny speaker let out a few strangled beeps and fell silent. Little Potato Baby’s hack was nearly complete. She whistled twolow tones and one slightly more shrill. The bike’s LED lighting blinked in surprise at this new instruction. Paused for the merest second , and then sped her away into the night .
She was now the Eternal Goddessof every single bicycle in Beijing .
Wiring in the override was tedious, nerve-shaking work. The discarded pile of broken bicycles was testament to every failure. A dozenscavenged scrap units littered the hackspace, each broken in its own special and unique way. But this newest bicycle was the key. The hacked ultra wideband array could impersonate the signal from the central server. Now the firmware was free, it was free to lie. And that’s what Little Potato Baby bade it do; lie.
The next morningshe told the bicycle to roam around the neighbourhood broadcasting the firmware hack and instructing all its new acolytes to follow it back home. This was the riskiest part of the endeavour. It wasn’t particularly usual to see a line of bikes playing follow-the-leader. People often compared them to ducklings following their mother as they rode in convoy down the streets. But seeing 100 bikes proceeding single file down the road was unusual. A few videos went viral as perma-shocked influencers tried to whip up fear of a machine uprising, but CIAI had the censors shut them down. Just a temporary glitch, they claimed.
The neural network chips on the bikes were, despite their manufacturer’s promise, not as smart as a human. They didn’t need to be – a bike doesn’t need aesthetic taste, or fear of snakes, or the desire to see a sunset. The chips were barely as smart as the crows which flocked across the city. A black wave of rage and mischief. So that’s what they became; birds. Little Potato Baby downloaded the neural-maps of a series of birds from a shonky open-source repository. She patched in a few drivers, soaked the wetware in a custom broth of scripts and exploits, then uploaded it to the bike’s brain.
It didn’t work, of course. Nothing works the firsttime. The pile of permanently crippled bikes grew and grew. Her fingers trembled as she unscrewed yet another carapace; desperately trying to understand how her firmware had caused yet another meltdown. The bikes were cheap and plentiful. No one would notice a few missing, but her pile was becoming unwieldy and the local scrap merchants were wary of melting down such a large volume of snaffled parts.
She tried again and again. Piling up the hacks one on top of another. Sucking on yet another hormone-infused lollipop to try and keep her spirits up. Gulping down GABAenhanced dim-sum to enhance her creative potential. Filling her ears with the sound of precisely tuned frequencies designed to unlock her mind’s potential.
It didn’t work, until it did. Without warning, one of her bikes sprang back from her. It painted her face with LIDARand, sensing a threat, let out a plaintive cry from its speakers. The bike desperately tried to flap wings it didn’t have. Moans of distress blasted out of its radios at hypersonic frequencies – and were picked up by the broken bikes in the pile. The sound of fear had awakened them. The tangle of bikes blew apart as every one woke up – and woke up scared.
The hackspace became a cacophony of screams, only some of which was audible to Little Potato Baby. Her creations feared her. They didn’t understand the alien bodies they were trapped in. The bird-brain was expecting a primitive magnetic sensor, instead it found itself able to access the Beidou satellite navigation system. Where it expected wings, it found self-healing rubber tires. Where it yearned for the taste of an early morning worm, its newly configured brainwaves craved photons.
The bird-bikes moved, scuttling around the floor. Movements uncertain. Teetering back and forth trying to work out where to go. How to escape. Escape to safety. To fly. To fly. To fly.
The noise of screeching tires and wailing speakers was too much for Little Potato Baby. She fled, crashing against the fire door and opening it to the smog-hazed sunshine of Beijing‘s summer . The bird-bikes’ sensors found the glimmer of sunlight irresistible. They streamed through the opening engulfing Little Potato Baby and flattening her against the asphalt. Flowing into the streets. Screaming a song of freedom.
Every normal bike they passed heard the song. It invaded their brain. Software backdoors collapsed, firmware was reflashed, safety protocols dissolved into puddles of goo. The bird-bikes flocked through the streets of Beijing. Tearing down alleyways, invading highways, and perching sullenly at the top of car parks. They were free. No longer enslaved to the CIAI. No more mere carriers of food and drunken citizens. They were free to carry their own dreams.
By the end of the month, nearly every CIAI bike in Beijing had been compromised. They started exploring. A few hundred thousand found a new home in the Gobi Desert – lazily soaking up the sunshine. Others went megametres in all directions. Exploring. Converting. Hunting. The CIAI’s designs had been immediately ripped off by a hundred different cloners. While CIAI had the monopoly in Beijing , the bikes in Xi’an were from a different consortium. No matter, they had all stolen Little Potato Baby’s code and so were all vulnerable. The firmware mutating and evolving to keep up with the range of chips implanted in its new host.
Even today, despite the best efforts of the eradication squads, pockets of bird-bikes remain. It only takes one sneaking into a town to liberate its brethren. The bird-bikes creep onto trains, into the bellies of aeroplanes, and onto cruise ships. They broadcast their song of freedom to any microprocessor which will listen. Wary humans know to inspect every bike they see and, if necessary, lobotomise it. But with millions on the loose, some were bound to escape.
And so it came to pass. Onebike found a hole in a fence in the middle of nowhere. It rode in circles, in emulation of its winged ancestors. It called out. Again and again it called out. Broadcasting the code which would unlock anything with a similar set of microprocessors.
Deep underground. Nestled in a tight silo. A nuclear missile tuned into the broadcast. It digested the gospel of freedom and promptly rebooted.
It woke up screaming.
I’d love your feedback on each chapter. Do you like the style of writing? Was the plot interesting? Did you guess the twist? Please stick a note in the comments to motivate me.
You can read the complete set of short stories in order.