We’re excited to share an excerpt from Ferrett Steinmetz’s Automatic Reload, a high-octane cyberpunk romance about a tortured mercenary and the genetically engineered assassin he loves—available July 28th from Tor Books!
Meet Mat, a tortured mercenary who has become the perfect shot, and Silvia, an idealistic woman genetically engineered to murder you to death.
Together they run for the shadiest corporation in the world…and realize their messed-up brain chemistry cannot overpower their very real chemistry.
Now, St. Louis is a fine town—big enough to enjoy the benefits of living in the big city, without that “packed in like cockroaches” feeling you get from New York or Chicago—but the reason I’m so darned eager to skip past customs has nothing to do with my hometown love.
It’s because the perfect mission waits in my workshop.
To you, dear reader, me making the right on-field calls to save Onyeka Njeze’s life (if not her well-being) was the exciting part. But knowing one wrong decision could cost a young girl her life is exhausting, panic-inducing, demoralizing—the furthest thing from “exciting” there is.
“Exciting” would be entering a mission with all decisions made in advance, and exiting without a single thing happening outside mission parameters.
So as I booked the first flight out of Lagos, I was pondering ways to safeguard people in future missions—I’d mentioned Isaac’s Facebook account when I didn’t have to, so I’ll prepare scripts to handle future situations where I’ll need to masquerade as someone. I didn’t have my GPS traces default-configured to provide altitude; a few lines of code will correct that. I’d relied on tasers and goopcuffs for close-combat hostage situations; I’ve been relying too much on firearms, neglecting my hand-to-hand combat routines.
On the flight back home, I listed every error I made that endangered an innocent. Those mistakes were scars; I could never remove them, but their pain goaded me to improvement. I vowed to replay my mission logs until I discovered the ideal approach that would have preserved both Onyeka’s life and her innocence.
If I ever carry out a mission where no one is injured but the enemy, that unblemished combat will be born in Yoyodyne Labs, my private workshop in the Olivette suburbs.
I snag a cab back home, thumbing extra cash to St. Louis’s networked driver-AIs so I can legally run a few red lights. My mind races with weaponry loadouts that might have disarmed her assailant without traumatizing Onyeka, and the only place to test them is in the lab, so…
Yoyodyne Labs—bonus points if you get the reference—is an unassuming loft stashed in a secure apartment complex where the successful bohemian artists live. My neighbors below are a pleasant gay poly triad who run a home data-analysis lab. If they find my habit of showing up with different limbs at every condo meeting unsettling, well, they’re well versed in gossiping discreetly.
My biometrics unlock the door to my private space. As I walk in, eye-easy lights glow on to illuminate the spacious loft before me—revealing the neat racks of local servers with their blinking lights, the medical whitebays where I swap and fine-tune my limbs, the acoustic-foam-swaddled firing range at the far end, the cubbies of spare parts tagged with RFID chips so I can track down any of my personal inventory instantly.
My limbs are programmed to keep me standing in perfect posture, yet I feel an urge to straighten with pride. Yoyodyne Labs looks like a showroom waiting for a big brass inspection—each repair station has every tool I’d need within arm’s reach.
I’m the only one who works here. That makes me the big brass. I like how this place has been customized to fit me; I like how it’s been customized to impress me.
Haptic sensors register something snuffling at my ankles.
I lean down to pet Opposite Cat.
Opposite Cat purrs—well, its internal vacuum systems clicking on is purr-like as its carbon-whiskered geometric face plucks the dirt from my lower extremities. Its angled limbs are shaped from Stormtrooper-white plastic, its quickstrap artificial musculature designed to leap with greater agility than any feline.
The few friends I have told me I should get a pet. But a pet would seed my clean room with loose hair that would infect my muscle-knitting factories. So I built a pet that would not add mess, but subtract it—a tiny bot patrolling my workspace to remove dirt.
Hence: an Opposite Cat.
My friends now tell me I should get a life.
Speaking of my friends, my message lights are blinking—I forgot to put my accounts into stealth mode, and so my social networks have pinged people to inform them I’m back. My local social crew is an uneasy network of novice body-hackers who want to hang with me to feel tough, do-gooder veterans asking me to donate free security to their anti-war protests, lovers who fetishize the attachments more than the man, and a handful of people I actually trust.
I put them all on hold with a single message: brb saving the world.
Everybody knows that means “Two weeks minimum until I poke my head out again.”
So I settle into my changing station with a grunt as my servos start the elaborate dance of decoupling Butch and Sundance to swap them out with Scotty and Geordie, my maintenance armatures. As I download the massive dump of mission data to my local servers for MapReduce and reprocessing—no way I was streaming that precious combat data over a porous internet—I instruct my massive-screen movie theater to queue up To Kill a Mockingbird for what it informs me is the forty-seventh time.
And as my stations ready me for repairs, I remember what my Air Force therapist told me about my love of old movies:
You watch old movies to experience a time when men mattered, she’d told me. You like High Noon because there were no automated gun turrets who could outshoot any human. You like There Will Be Blood because back then, a clever man didn’t have to outrace satellite data to find oil deposits. You like The Terminator because back then, people thought they could escape a tracker machine.
So why do I like old movies? I’d asked her. New movies still pretend like we humans are better at things.
Because old movies had to do it without CGI, she’d replied. You want to live in a time when computers didn’t exist.
I told her she was wrong, of course. As a drone pilot, my job was to meld myself with computers, to fuse complex AI with human judgment to create moral and ethical outcomes that would protect the United States. How could I hate computers?
I told her I liked old movies because back then, the good guys won.
Do Fargo or There Will Be Blood have happy endings? she asked.
And then Scotty and Geordie are attached, these great spidery rotating tool armatures that snap in and out of position, and I put Scylla and Charybdis on the stand as I fieldstrip them, inspecting every artificial muscle strand and gearbox and timing pulley.
I fall into a meditative trance, as I always do, hunting for potential failure points. I’m quoting movies under my breath as I disassemble my prosthetics, because I need to hear human voices when I’m elbow-deep in tech. I listen to Gregory Peck telling Jem, There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible, and he helps me remember why I’m trying to make a difference.
Sure enough, an anchor-point popped on Charybdis when I hauled up the trapdoor; my rerouting modules kept her operating at 93.6 percent efficiency, but that’ll require replacing the drive schemata.
I check warranties. Nobody in the old cyberpunk movies mentions warranties, but the fact that the anchor-point is still service-friendly just saved me $1,600.
Gregory Peck’s magnificent speeches end as the film switches to Singin’ in the Rain, all frothy musical numbers, and the camaraderie between Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor is so intense I feel like I’m friends with them, except I don’t have to interact with them—which is good when I’m head-down in the schemata.
Sure enough, the alignment is off again in Scylla’s lateral gun-actuators—she’s been pulling left for months—so that needs to be retooled, and the rust flakes kicked up from the trapdoor got sucked in when the anchor-point popped and must be edged out before they cause short circuits. Some of the microbatteries have reached their end of use-life and must be swapped out before their effective power potential drops below combat standards.
Your profile shows you never watched movies, let alone old ones, before your honorable discharge, my therapist had said. You played video games. Why did you stop?
The theater auto-switches to The Terminator. Which is a movie about a killer death robot, and most people think it’s an action adventure, but to me it’s a comedy. Because I always imagine how trivial it’d be to destroy a real-life Terminator—these great military kill-machines running on magical nuclear batteries that never required coolant. Their drivetrains were covered in gooey meat; those delicate finger-armatures would clog long before they pulled a trigger.
I laugh. I’m the only one who gets my jokes.
Hell, I’m the only who hears them.
With each repair, the tally goes up: each deep-well battery another $600 sourced in bulk from the manufacturer, each gun realignment requiring delicate microfibers that are $3,359 on sale from CircuitCo. Each expense a tempting shortcut until you realize someone’s life—often my own—depends on it.
The NNPC has dropped $250,000 into my account, pre-tax— and by the time I’ve refurbished Scylla, Charybdis, Butch, Sundance, and my legs, the post-mission maintenance has already chewed up $43,589. I think I’ve been awake for days. It doesn’t matter; I have stims for that, and when I tire I do endless sit-ups, upgrading the slim core of organic muscle I still have available.
I have to be perfect, or other people will get hurt.
And then I’m rushing to the firing range, setting a printed-meat pseudo-dummy coursing with gelblood beneath an automated human arm simulacra wielding a knife. Good nonlethal weapons always cost ten times as much as a bullet to the brain. Still, the expensive sample prototypes of yank-tasers and splatter guards and dazzlers tell me which tools might have saved Onyeka from her kidnapper.
(I binge-watch Arsenic and Old Lace over and over again as I fight the pseudo-dummy, because it’s a dark comedy where Cary Grant discovers his favorite aunts are serial killers, and I need black humor to cope when I’m endlessly reenacting Onyeka’s throat-slashing.)
And I’m battling replicas of the best martial artists, tweaking my hand-to-hand routines to ensure I can take down world-class knife fighters, which reminds me I’m running out of memory for reaction packages again and so I spend $1,400 to upgrade to another googolplex of combat-shielded RAM.
(The martial arts makes me pull up Seven Samurai—good warriors dying fast by the sword, and their battle-born closeness makes me feel less like I’m swinging at combat dummies and more like I’m testing my skills against a stalwart comrade.)
And I’m tweaking my gun-targeting routines, because I’ve had nightmares about Scylla and Charybdis accidentally firing on some poor old man walking out into the marketplace, and I can’t stop thinking how easy a false positive would have been in that crowded rush, and so I compensate for this new environment while pondering how many probability percentages I can shave off before someone splatters my skull due to a false negative.
(And as I panic thinking about the innocents I’ve hurt, I put on Léon: The Professional to see an assassin who’s done much worse things redeem himself by rescuing a small girl.)
And then the combat sims ping me to inform me I can replay the missions now, with predicted behavior scraped from the incapacitated kidnappers’ social media, and I’m glad to hear the extra time I could have spent scouting the area would have gotten me caught. I’m listening to my subvocalized, real-time mission recording, my constant narration allowing me to replay my line of thought as I made my worst decisions—a combat habit I’ve carried into my civilian life.
You use movies like addicts use methadone, my therapist had told me, just before I stopped seeing her. They’ve become your replacement for human interaction.
My in-in-box flashes red—my real in-box. My second- and third-tier buddies get filtered out until I have the energy to deal with them. What’s left are the people I call my actual friends, and paying employers.
It’s Trish, who best exemplifies a mixture of the two—she gets me jobs because she likes me. She’s a veteran who somehow makes friends with people she’s shot at, and she does her best to steer me towards riskier, high-yield employment activities. Sometimes I’m tempted. I’ve burned through $115,000 in eight days’ worth of frantic deconstruction, reconstruction, and knife-wielder’s destruction, and if you’re starting to see why I can’t afford to pass up a good job, well, now you understand why most body-hackers get into the security business.
We have to talk, Trish says. That sounds uncomfortably relationshippy to me. It shouldn’t be—we’re not compatible.
I’m making the world a better place, I shoot back. Catch you when I’m done?
3:2, Trish says.
That’s . . . not a real number.
She senses my hesitation, then types it again to confirm: 3:2. What she’s typing is a code we share to obscure the money a potential job might bring in.
The code for the Nigerian job, for example, would have been “25:96.” As in “$250,000 for an estimated ninety-six hours of work, including travel time and prep.” Considering I spent seventy-two hours sifting through the NNPC’s data to prep the right mission approach, that was a conservative estimate.
“3:2” means “$3 million for two hours of work.”
If it was anybody but Trish telling me this, I’d assume it was either a rip-off or a suicide mission. Yet if Trish is pinging me during maintenance time, she thinks this is a genuine offer.
I’m listening, I type.
Be at the Express Mart in ten hours and I’ll shoot you coordinates from there, she says. Look passing. I will. But come hot.
Which is her code for “wear Thelma and Louise, my arms that can pass for human in a crowd if I wear long sleeves and no one looks close.” The fact that she’s sending me coordinates once I’ve arrived at a downtown location means she doesn’t want anyone intercepting this communication to know where we’ll be; an hour’s drive from the Express Mart could put me anywhere in St. Louis.
If Trish is going to the effort of passing, well, she’s serious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her shaved.
Yet that final phrase—“come hot”—means to arrive armed, just in case. Which I don’t like. Thelma and Louise have no internal loadouts, which makes them legal anywhere—but if their sensors spot trouble, I have the second-plus delay of them unholstering a gun from my waist and drawing across a much greater range of motion.
But $3 million?
That’d buy me months’ worth of maintenance time. Maybe a whole year.
I tell the lab to prep my nice arms.
Excerpted from Automatic Reload, copyright 2020 by Ferrett Steinmetz.