Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.
Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.
And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
July 2, 2144
When does the thinnest smear of genetic material left by spilled blood finally evaporate? At some point it becomes invisible to human eyes, its redness dimmed by water and the mopper’s crawl, but there are still pieces left—shattered cell walls, twists of DNA, diminishing cytoplasm. When do those final shards of matter go away?
Jack watched the rotund blob of the mopper as it swished back and forth across a pinking stain that had once been a red-black crust on the floor of the control room. A blue glare of water-filtered sunlight came directly through the glass composite in the windows, blinding her until she dropped her eyes back down to the stain. She’d disposed of the body hours ago, its legs lashed to the cement blocks. By now, it would be frozen deep under the water.
Jack hadn’t had to kill anyone for a long time. Usually, in a tight situation, she wasn’t in the middle of the ocean. She could run away instead of having to fight. She ran a hand through the salt-stiffened tufts of her hair, wanting to vomit or cry or give up again in the face of the hopeless, endless pharma deprivation death machine.
That last thought make her crack a self-chiding smile. Sounded like something she would have written in college and published anonymously on an offshore server, her words reaching their destination only via a thick layer of crypto and several random network hops.
Black pharma smuggling wasn’t exactly the job she’d imagined for herself thirty years ago, in the revolutionary fervor of her grad student days. Back then, she was certain she could change the world just by making commits to a text file repository, and organizing neatly symbolic protests against patent law. But when she’d finally left the university labs, her life had become one stark choice: farm patents for shitty startups, or become a pirate. For Jack, it wasn’t a choice at all, not really.
Sure, there were dangers. Sometimes a well-established pirate ring in the Federation would find a few of its members dead, or jailed for life—especially if a corp complained about specific infringements. But if you kept a low profile, modest and quiet, it was business as usual.
But not usually business like this: cleaning up after a guy she’d killed over a bag of pills and a bot.
Where the hell had he even come from? She gestured for the sub’s local network, flicking open a window that gave her a sensors’ perspective on the mottled surface of the ocean from a few feet below. Nothing but the occasional dark hulk of icebergs out there now. Maybe she’d really started to lose it after all her years of vigilance? He’d exploited some obvious hole in her security system, fooling the ship’s perimeter sensors until he was on board and stuffing boxes of her payload into his rucksack. Selling a bag of those dementia meds wouldn’t have gotten him much more than a year’s worth of euphorics and gambling in some Arctic resort right on the beach.
The dead fusehead was the least of her problems right now, though. Jack needed to figure out whether something had gone wrong with her batch of reverse-engineered Zacuity. She still had some samples of the original drug she’d broken down to its constituent parts, along with plenty of her pirated pills. Jack tossed the original and pirated versions into her chem forensics rig, going over the molecular structures again with a critical eye. Nothing wrong there—she’d made a perfect copy. That meant the issue was with Zacuity’s original recipe. She decided to isolate each part of the drug, going through them one by one. Some of them were obviously harmless. Others she marked for further examination.
Jack finally narrowed the questionable parts down to four molecules. She projected their structures into the air, regarding the glittering bonds between atoms with a critical eye. A quick database search revealed that all of these molecules targeted genes related to addiction in large parts of the population. Jack paused, unable to believe it.
Zaxy had always placed profit over public health, but this went beyond the usual corporate negligence. International law stipulated that no cosmetic pharmaceuticals like productivity drugs or euphorics could contain addictive mechanisms, and even the big corps had to abide by IPC regulations. Her discovery meant that Zacuity was completely illegal. But nobody would figure that out, because Zaxy was rolling it out slowly to the corps, keeping any addictions carefully in check. When Zacuity came out of beta, the drug would be so expensive that only people with excellent medical care would ever take it. If they got addicted, it would be dealt with quietly, at a beautiful recovery facility somewhere in the Eurozone. It was only when somebody like Jack started selling it on the street that problems and side effects could be magnified into something more dangerous.
Jack was torn between rage at Zacuity and rage at herself for bringing their shitty drug to people without health resources. Hundreds of people might be eating those pills right now, possibly going nuts. It was a horrific prospect, and Jack wasn’t prepared to deal with the enormity of this problem just yet. Reaching into the pocket of her newly washed coveralls, she pulled out some 420 and sparked it up. Nothing like drugs to take the edge off drug problems. Besides, she had unfinished business with that bot behind the locked door of her cargo hold. He might prove to be unfixable, but at least that wasn’t her fault.
Jack expected the bot would still be in the same spot where he collapsed, eyes wandering under the control of some shit algorithm yanked off the net. But he wasn’t. Jack squinted, trying to figure out why the bot was huddled into a shadow where the wall met the floor. She’d started the ship moving again, and bubbles slid past the dark portals.
He was sleeping.
Suddenly Jack realized why the bot could look so beaten up but still show no signs of an alloy endoskeleton. This wasn’t a biobot—it was just plain bio. A human.
She leaned against the bulkhead and groaned quietly. A damaged bot was almost always fixable, but a damaged human? She had the goods to repair a mutating region in his DNA, and purge his body of common viruses, but nothing could fix a wrecked cognition. As she pondered, the hunched figure sat up with a start and stared at her with eyes whose emptiness was now far more awful than bad software. She wondered how long he’d been indentured to the dead thief. There was a number branded on his neck, and he’d obviously been following orders for a long time.
The 420 gave Jack a kind of philosophical magnanimousness, and with it a sense of resigned obligation to this kid. It wasn’t his fault that his master had decided to rob an armed pirate in the middle of nowhere. She’d do what she could to help him, but that wasn’t much.
“Do you want some water?” she asked. “You look like you could use it.”
He scrambled up suddenly, grabbing the edge of a crate to keep his balance, and she realized he was actually rather tall—taller than she was, though so malnourished that his height made him seem even more fragile. If things got dicey, it would be no trouble for her to overpower him, snap his neck, and toss him into the airlock.
“Please,” he said. “And food, too, if you can spare it.” His English accent was pure middle-class Asian Union, which wasn’t exactly what you expected from a kid with a brand on his neck.
“Come on, then.” Jack touched his shirtsleeve lightly, careful not to hit exposed skin. She led him down the spiral staircase from the control room into the wet lab/kitchen, where she booted up the cooker and gestured for broth and bread. He sagged into her chair at the tiny table, the wings of his shoulder blades showing through his thin shirt as he hunched over and stared at his hands.
She put the food in front of him. “I’m Jack.”
He ignored her, taking a sip from the bowl, then dunking the bread in and biting off a chunk. Jack leaned on the counter and watched, wondering if the kid even had a name. Families with nothing would sometimes sell their toddlers to indenture schools, where managers trained them to be submissive just like they were programming a bot. At least bots could earn their way out of ownership after a while, be upgraded, and go fully autonomous. Humans might earn their way out, but there was no autonomy key that could undo a childhood like that.
“I’m Threezed,” he responded finally, breaking Jack out of her spaced reverie. He’d swallowed about half the broth and his face didn’t look quite as blank as it had before. It was hard to miss the fact that the last two numbers branded onto his neck were three and zed. That scar was his name, too. Jack folded her arms over the sudden stab of sympathy in her chest.
“Nice to meet you, Threezed.”
Excerpted from Autonomous, copyright © 2017 by Annalee Newitz.