37. The Cat is Out

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Mason peered over his monitor at the other team members. They were all deeply immersed in their work. Surreptitiously, he opened an Internet browser window. The Google search box was like a peep-hole into the global information dream-scape. Surely one question couldn't do any harm. Up to now, he had refrained from casual browsing, not trusting himself to resist the urge to test the FN Security filters. He didn't do well with boundaries.

The pull felt irresistible. This happened to him sometimes. After single-mindedly obsessing over something for days on end, he would find himself unable to focus and his head would buzz with constant static. He called it the frazzles. It must be all that multi-tasking he did growing up. Those damn smartphones and Facebook and instant messaging. They created an entire generation with ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper-I-can't-finish-the-fucking-acronym.

There was no cure for the frazzles. No amount of herbal tea or mindfulness meditation helped, and he had no other hobbies like fishing or frisbee golf. All he could do was try to distract himself until it passed. Back in his dorm room this had involved playing console games, the more violent the better, until he scrambled his retinas and dropped from mental exhaustion. Then he would sleep for an entire day and wake up clear headed. Problem was, he didn't have so much as a mobile app to play and he doubted he would be able to sleep even if he tried. All he had was an Internet browser. Which happened to be running on a government issue workstation on a military-lockdown network.

He pulled up the CNN web page. Even FN Security couldn't find that too suspicious. He selected the tab called World and scrolled down the list of headlines: Chinese trade war, Syrian terrorists, another royal wedding.

What had the major been saying about a UN resolution to ban X-Bots? It couldn't be too secret if even that Scottie guy had gotten wind of it. Of course, they wouldn't be calling it an X-Bot on the Internet. AI spyware? Micro-drones? Bio-mechanical chimera? He entered "UN resolution" but wasn't sure what to put next. Was AI a naughty word? What about drone? Nope. He got a veritable google of hits. He never understood the point of having all those Os at the bottom. Did anyone ever use them? One oh-man, oh-God, oh-shit was all you ever needed. Google should rename itself to Goggle. Rhymes with Gobble. As in I-gobble-it-up.

He clicked on the first link. It took him to news.un.org. He groaned. A dot-org site. Talk about boring. They should call them dot-ugh. He scanned the news article, almost all of it text. Hadn't these people ever heard of hyperlinks and video? Far down the page he found a direct excerpt: "General resolution to ban the use of smart drones and spyware including advanced micro-drones and bio-mechanical chimera operated by autonomous AI." Blah blah blah. The rest of the article read like a beauty pageant speech translated by a legal scholar, abounding with phrases like "global commitment to a demilitarized future." Hell, why not just say "world peace?" Who could object to that? America apparently, on technical grounds. Would an Amazon delivery drone carrying a Louisville slugger be considered weaponized?

Back to Google. Search for China and smart-drones. Circular reference back to U.N. resolution. Bounce around political commentary sites for a while. Narrow to AI and ethics. Dire prognostications from Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, now dead. Driving cars are coming. Much ado over the trolley problem. Narrow to military tech. Killer drones are bad. They kill innocent people on their way to market. Killer drones are good. They get the bad men and no good guys get hurt or come down with PTSD. God, it was all so morbid. And to think, he nearly got put in the clink for shooting video of a girl in her bra.

He found himself scrolling through picture-tiles of robotic bugs. What word combination had he searched on? He wasn't sure. He almost laughed out loud at the sight of such quaint little toys. Cockroaches with backpacks. Plastic crawlers with staple-like legs and quad-copters with twirly-gigs. Rolly-polly things. Vehicles with wheels and treads. Utter shit, all of them. Worse than shit. Shit had value as fertilizer. You could grow things in it. It floated. It happened. This stuff was pure garbage. Stocking stuffers for Christmas which kids quickly grew tired of. The X-Bot had as much in common with these cheap gimcracks as humans had with life-size blow-up dolls.

Mason came suddenly to himself. The side scrollbar was over halfway down the screen. Of course, it would never reach rock bottom. The images would go right on scrolling, a never-ending conga line of crap-bots. What did you call a group of robot insects? A swarm? A colony? A gaggle? How about a goggle? Enough. This was serious. He had glimpsed something in that scrolling blur. He started working his way back up, paying closer attention this time. Duck. Duck. Duck. More ducks. Where was the fucking goose already?

When he finally found it again, nearly at the top, he had the strange sensation that came with seeing something familiar in a context where it had no business being, like the time he had spotted his middle school teacher coming out of a Planned Parenthood clinic. The image had been right there the whole time, hiding in plain sight. That same crazy-ass watertower with black, flexy legs and one red, creepy eye. He would recognize it anywhere. What the fuck was it doing in his browser window? Could he have accidentally uploaded something while he was spacing out? Had the mole found a way to hack into his machine remotely?

Mason stood up and backed away from the screen. His head was spinning.

"Mason, are you OK?" Corny said. "You don't look so well."

The floor pitched up and Mason blacked out.

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