Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution is a technothriller that
follows the hunt for a terrorist through the streets
of a future Washington, DC. More than 300 factual explanations and
predictions (with endnotes) are baked into the story, and the research
for it ranged from assembling the latest job automation reports to
interviews with AI scientists and water-system cybersecurity experts.
This is the first chapter, where we meet the main character, FBI
special agent Lara Keegan, who is responding to an emergency alert at
Washington’s Union Station. Soon Keegan will be assigned to test
out a robotic policing tool and launched into a conspiracy whose
mastermind is using cutting-edge tech to tear the nation apart.
The man’s greasy red beard and braided Viking-style Mohawk had likely not been washed in a couple weeks, but the way that he cradled his AR-15 assault rifle made it clear he took care of what most mattered to him. And Special Agent Lara Keegan of the FBI’s Washington Field Office would have bet a month’s salary the Viking cleaned that weapon each and every day.
Side-eyeing him through the passenger-side window of a dated black Chevy Tahoe SUV, Keegan delicately folded the wax-paper-thin, orange-tinted nanoplastic that she had laid out on the vehicle’s dashboard. It gave her something to do while they waited in traffic, plus it kept her hands visible for the Viking to see.
Everything from Louisiana Avenue on up to Union Station was at a standstill. A few drivers honked in frustration, but the rest of the vehicles idled without complaint. That was the easiest way to tell which had a human at the wheel; machines knew not to waste their energy on emotional inefficiency.
Keegan made sure the nanoplastic’s gold unidirectional filament was aligned with the crease, and then gently pulled on the next fold of the sheet. As she did, a blue minivan crept into the lane next to them, blocking her view of the Viking. The parents in the front seats were ignoring their two kids in the back trading punches over a suitcase wedged between them. She hoped for their sake it was the end, rather than the start, of a family vacation.
The minivan moved a foot forward, and she got a better view of the Viking. The AR-15 was airbrushed a mottled gray and black. So he’d kitted it out for urban combat operations. And, yep, there it was. Peeking out from under the man’s red beard was a tactical throat microphone. It was the same kind once only used by special operations teams, designed to allow subvocal, hands-free communication during a firefight. Now anyone could buy one.
The next step in the build required Keegan to look down for just a microsecond. She carefully slid a needle-like spine inside the crease of the folded sheets.
“Hello, World,” she said quietly to herself, reciting the mantra of expectant computer programmers dating back before her grandparents’ day.1
As she quickly looked back to the side, to ensure the Viking hadn’t moved, the folds in the orange structure opened up into an origami form of a robotic praying mantis, six tiny hairlike legs unfurling.2
It gave Keegan a tiny moment of satisfaction to know that she’d created the only thing that seemed to be moving this morning.
2 Adam Conner-Simons and Rachel Gordon, “‘Superhero’ Robot Wears Different Outfits for Different Tasks,” MIT News, September 27, 2017; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Robot Origami: Robot Self-Folds, Walks, and Completes Tasks,” YouTube, June 11, 2015. Video, 2:43.
The SUV moved an entire foot, then braked hard enough to tip the mantis over. A freshly washed black four-door sharecar wedged itself into their lane, mere inches ahead of a dirty red hatchback with cracked roof solar panels. It was just one tiny skirmish in the all-encompassing war between billions of lines of software code, each fighting to make society function smoothly, while simultaneously screwing over their market competitors.
“Bot fight coming,” said Keegan. “Two cars up.”
Another gleaming black car braked to let other vehicles pass. It was all part of the game. A vehicle might perch on the edge of the traffic line, not close enough to block the neighboring lane, but enough to set off the automated detection protocols, tricking its counterpart into stopping to creep around the perceived obstacle. Or it might be what the fleet of black cars were up to evidently. If two vehicles detected a rival company’s car behind them, they would set up a moving screen, driving in parallel at the lowest legal speed.
And Keegan was stuck behind it all, playing with a robot in the passenger seat, trying to ignore a newbie agent nervously tapping a steering wheel that required nothing of him.
“You should call their complaint number,” said Special Agent Aiden Griffin. “Or should I override and clear a path?” He’d been out of the FBI Academy a little over a year and still had that too-eager voice; that was why he had the backup-chauffeur job.
That was the only sacrifice the systems would make to the algorithmic gods of efficiency— the law enforcement vehicle protocol had been required for legalization of autonomous vehicles. At the simultaneous signals of a short-range radio wave and siren blast, the battles for speed and position would cease and all vehicles were required to pull to the side of the road.
“Don’t touch anything,” Keegan commanded. “You do that and ‘FBI seen on way to Union Station’ will be in the newsfeeds before we even make it a block,” she explained.
The drive out to the downtown train station and subway hub hadn’t been a planned operation, just a quick response to a flash alert that necessitated an FBI presence. It was likely a wild goose chase, but they had to assume whoever was behind it would be monitoring any activity of interest in the area.
Griff started picking at the sole of his shoe as the tension built, flicking out a small rock that had gotten lodged in one of the ridges. The nervous fixation annoyed Keegan because he wasn’t keeping his eye on their environment.
“I get the rest, but what’s the hat for?” she asked.
Each day Griff came to work as if dressed for a raid: sleek gray tactical pants and a too-tight black long-sleeved sensor-defeat shirt. He also wore a cumbersome tactical vest, which he was always trying to find a reason to wear.
“Keeps the sun off,” he said of the knit black watch cap he had pulled low, almost touching his eyebrows.
“Seriously? It’s a winter hat.”
“Sweat gets in my eyes otherwise.”
“Because you’re wearing the hat.” She reached back, grabbed a ballcap with “FBI” on the front, and offered it to him. “Here, this is actually what you need.”
“Nah, I’m good,” he said.
She tossed the hat back behind them. “Suit yourself,” she said, point made.
She picked up the origami robot off the dashboard and began to move it back and forth through the air, the way kids played with toy planes. Sweeping it slowly across the horizon, her eyes tracked what was happening in the distance behind it.
“Yep, right there. Just about your 2 o’clock. One coming down from the distro facility in the Post’s old printing plant in College Park.”3 Zooming the mantis back out, she aimed the triangular point of its head at the eight-rotor delivery drone flying above, an imaginary line running from her tiny robot to the larger one in the sky.4
“As that thing flies over to deliver its beet juice or spare charger or whatever, it’s just soaking up data to mine and sell. That’s where the real money is. You set off the siren and it’ll flag us to anybody who’s buying that drone’s feed right now.” Keegan tipped the tiny robot in the direction of the Viking. “Plus, there’s no telling how our friend with the AR-15 will react to the excitement.”
“We’re taking too long, though,” Griff said.
On that, the newbie was right. She used the robotic mantis’s beak like a stylus, tapping it on the “Time to Destination” option on the vehicle’s map display. In the rush out, they hadn’t been able to reserve one of the newer vehicles in the FBI’s fleet, so the display was the old-school, hard-screen kind, rather than a head-up display that projected onto the window.
She didn’t need to say anything. It had read seven minutes when they left the office, and they’d already been in the SUV for 12 minutes, with another six blocks to go. No plan survived first contact with the enemy or DC traffic. So it was time to change it. Keegan pressed the FBI pin in her jacket lapel that doubled as the send button for her radio.
“Control, this is Keegan. We’re stuck here. Permission to get out and leg it?”
She could hear Griff ’s quiet groan at the idea of leaving the car on the sweltering spring day.
“We can cut across Lower Senate Park and get there in the time it’ll take us to move another half block in this car,” she said. Keegan intentionally used the formal title of the green space that divided the Senate office buildings from Union Station, knowing that’s what the wall map back in the FBI Operations Center displayed, rather than what the Viking and everybody else would have called it: Patriots Camp.
In the earbud in her right ear, Keegan could hear the voice of her boss, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Harrison Noritz, having a muffled conversation with the others back in the Operations Center.
“I think that makes sense,” Noritz replied directly to Keegan. “You aren’t moving at anything over walking speed anyway. But use discretion, given the … sensitivities there.”
“You heard the man,” Keegan told Griff, crumpling the origami robot in her hand and slipping the balled-up nanoplastic into her pocket. “Set it on RUR. No sense in FBI property getting blown up at the station’s parking garage along with us.”
With the required permission from the human bureaucracy, Griff gave the machine its authorization, setting the vehicle on Roam Until Recall, to drive about until called back to their location for pickup. The vehicle quickly lurched forward a few inches. “Now you start moving,” Griff huffed. But it was only the autodrive resetting to the more precisely programmed follow distance in its traffic protocol.
As Keegan slammed the passenger-side door shut, she gave an open-handed slap onto the SUV’s window, as if giving the machine a high five. The titanium of her wedding ring made a reassuring ping as it rapped against the glass. Griff looked over and gave Keegan a thumbs-up that wasn’t needed. The slap was just an old ritual of Keegan’s from when she’d had to exit armored vehicles in far more dangerous places.
As she moved around the blue minivan, Keegan saw the dad escalating the argument, jabbing the air with his fingers while he yelled at the kids. Asshole. She could also see that the Viking had moved, and not in a good way. His lips were opening and shutting in the staccato style of a professional sharing a rapid update with someone on the other end of a command network. More important, his finger had flicked off the safety and moved down into the rifle’s trigger guard.
Keegan walked slowly toward the Viking, with her hands held palms out. “Hands where he can see them,” she hissed at Griff.
As they closed, Keegan caught a whiff of that old familiar smell of goat crossed with Break-Free cleaning solvent. She’d been right about both the hair and the gun.
“That’s far enough,” growled the Viking.
Keegan paused and scanned the area ahead of her. She stood near the start of a central lane that ran through the camp that had sprung up on the seven blocks of park bordering the Capitol building. A row of tents ran along each side of the path, covering ground that members of Congress had been using as a landing area for autonomous personal aircraft. None of the tents were uniform, ranging in size from Improved Combat Shelters—the Army version of a one-person pup tent—to massive AirBeam inflatable barrack buildings. Here and there, a few brightly colored civilian camping tents livened up the sand and jungle green of military surplus. But that’s where any disorganization ended. All of it was squared off and as clean as could be. Even the gravel in the pathway had been recently raked into the wavelike patterns of a Zen garden; whoever had that duty had evidently served in INDOPACOM.
“You know the agreement,” the Viking said as he tipped the gun toward the edge of the cement, which also aimed it just before their feet. “No cops inside. Only those that paid their dues. Step on the green and y’all will get your asses handed to you . . . again.”
Keegan still got angry every time video of that confrontation flashed through her feed. The DC police had gone in dumb, thinking they could roust out the camp with the same tactics that worked on angry students or farmers. But batons and pepper spray were nothing to a couple thousand veterans who’d been through far worse. No one was ready yet to copy what General Douglas MacArthur had done to the Bonus Marchers over a century earlier and bring in tanks.5
So instead, a rough truce had been made. Traffic was allowed on the streets that ran through the parks, but everything in between—now known as Patriots Camp—was the veterans’ turf, to run as they saw fit. At least until Congress paid up.
“Not a cop, but a federal agent,” Keegan said. “More importantly, I’m one of you. I have just as much right to be here as you do.”
Behind the Viking, a woman emerged from a tent set up at the park’s edge. It was pixelated desert tan, evidently military surplus, with a sign directing journalists to register there. Keegan knew enough about electronics, though, to recognize that the array of antennae peeking from the top was not merely for linking up to the news networks. When the DC police had tried to storm the camp, the veterans had thrown up a digital blockade, not just jamming radios, but tossing up so much electronic noise that the cops’ surveillance drones had literally fallen from the skies.
The woman was in her late twenties, diminutive, with a matte black eyebrow stud and dreadlocks. While the Viking was in green digital camo, cut off just above the knees into a pair of ragged shorts, Dreadlocks was in blue Navy coveralls. As she came closer, Keegan spied the name “Richter” stitched on the right, as well as the blue, gold, and red stripes of a Presidential Unit Citation on her sleeve. That and the fact that she carried no weapons indicated she was higher up in the camp’s ranks.
“Everything OK, Red?” she asked, looking only at the Viking, as if the two FBI agents didn’t exist. Keegan tried not to smile at the typically creative service nickname.
“This lady cop says that she can come in, that she’s one of us.” “You don’t say,” Richter replied, leaning forward as she stared directly at Keegan. Her breath smelled of mint stim gum, which took Keegan back to her own deployments and the cravings that followed. “Prove it.”
Keegan slowly pushed up her left sleeve to just beneath the elbow. There, 1 inch below the elbow and 2 inches above the wrist, was a tattoo of an eagle above a globe crossed by an anchor. Three names were below it, each in a different font: Ferry, Rodriguez, Anton. Keegan covered the tattoo with her hand, just to show that it was sized according to Marine regulations, just like she’d had to do for her NCO the morning after she’d come back to the barracks with it.6
Richter nodded her approval, not having to ask what the three names meant. “How about you?” she asked Griff.
Before he could answer, Keegan said, “He’s with me. We just need to cut through to the station.” Griff nervously cracked his knuckles while Richter briefly looked him over.
“Sorry, no can do.” Now, she only looked at Keegan, ignoring Griff again. “Only those that served.”
There wasn’t time to argue.
Keegan turned to Griff. “Head back to the vehicle. Link back up with me when you get there.”
Griff looked like he was going to argue with her—the Academy certainly didn’t teach you to leave your partner behind in a camp full of armed protesters—but Keegan cut him off.
“I’ll be fine. Any of them could have shot me back in the Corps, so why do it now? Move,” she said more emphatically, signaling an order. “We don’t have time to waste.”
At that Griff turned and headed back to the SUV, which had only driven itself another 7 feet.
At Keegan’s impatience, Richter looked at her quizzically. “I got this, Red,” she said to the Viking. “I’ll escort her through.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, the chain of command clear. Richter motioned for Keegan to follow.
Keegan had mixed emotions about it all. She’d been asked to march more than once, but declined every time. She’d varied her excuses—sometimes it was an FBI training course she claimed she couldn’t get out of, other times a family commitment. But it was really because she just didn’t like where it all had ended up.
Of course, she understood their anger. The toxic combination of an economic collapse and a screwed-up political system had done a job on the benefits they were supposed to get after their service. Everyone was suffering, but it was the inequity of it all that had sparked the movement. Civilian Social Security checks were automatically adjusted higher by law, but not the veterans’ benefits, which had to be voted on each year.7
That one little difference, and the pedestal that veterans were put on in politics, had made their checks the hostages that the two parties used to bargain for what they wanted. Anyone in the military knew that being a pawn for politicians was part of the deal, but not in a way that also harmed their families.
So the response had been familiar to anyone with military tactics: advance toward the threat. A million-strong march of vets from around the nation had shown up in DC to “occupy” Congress.
But that was the thing about anger—once you got organized around it, it could never be satisfied. Most of the vets had gone home after Congress had buckled and the checks had been adjusted. But a decent amount had decided to stay on until Congress also met their demands for guaranteed jobs, housing, and, well, pretty much anything else anyone who’d given more than their fair share felt they deserved. This was the part Keegan wasn’t too comfortable with—the idea that they deserved more not just because they were owed it, but because they were better than those who owed them, and whose rules they no longer had to follow.
It was maybe because she wasn’t really owed anything; she could never really repay what the Corps gave her. She had joined up a few weeks short of college graduation. She had seen one of those recruitment ads about how the Marines chose to run toward trouble. For her, it had been about fleeing it. The University of Washington Tacoma was 2,936 miles from Parris Island, South Carolina, but even after a cross-country bus ride, at times it still felt too close. After boot camp, the Marines had sent her a few thousand miles farther, to yet another place and time she’d rather not remember, but for different reasons. Forgetting was a necessity, just like it was for a nation that had simply come to accept the sight of veterans bathing in the Reflecting Pool as the price of staying a superpower.
“What’s your story, Marine turned Fed?” asked Richter. “Where’d you serve?”
“Keegan. Lara. E-5,” Keegan answered, using official shorthand for the enlisted rank that anyone in another service would recognize as a sergeant. “Marine 1st Law Enforcement Battalion, most of it in the Sandbox. You?”
“MP unit, eh? That answers how you ended up becoming a cop afterward,” Richter replied. “Me? Radar tech on the Zumwalt, most of our time off Hawaii.”
“No shit,” said Keegan. “I’ve been to the Smithsonian exhibit.” “Yeah, that was exactly what it was like.”
“Smelled better than the ship, I bet.”
Richter got an annoyed look and brushed a rogue dreadlock off her face. She was evidently still getting used to their length.
Keegan had done the same thing when she got out. After years of someone else telling you how to live your life, all the way down to the exact length of your hair, you wanted to have control, even just over your looks. Now, she compromised, wearing the straight black hair she’d gotten from her father’s side of the family in an angular bob that hit just past her jawline. It was barely long enough to pull back into a half-ponytail when she needed it out of her eyes—or just needed a change.
Keegan nodded and edged slightly ahead of her, a less than subtle signal to Richter that they needed to pick up the pace beyond casual walking speed. She didn’t have time for a get-to-know-you talk. The increase in speed, though, caused the sciatic nerve running down her right hip to fire. She suppressed a wince. It felt like a shot of electricity, followed by the muscles involuntarily contracting around the nerve. The old wound always seemed to wake back up at the worst times. Normally, she would ease off and baby it with the yoga stretches she’d learned in recovery, but Locust pose obviously wasn’t an option now.
“Seems like you have more than a train to catch,” Richter said as they crossed the park toward Columbus Circle. “Something going down at Union Station?”
“Just something that requires our attention,” Keegan replied tersely, hoping the pain wasn’t registering on her face. That was the only answer Richter would get. Fellow veteran or not, she was still outside the fold.
“Look, I don’t need to know the specifics, but do I need to move my people away from that side of the park?” Richter pressed. “If the SOA is able to do here what they did in London, we’re within the blast radius.”
It wasn’t a surprise that Richter’s thoughts had first turned to the Sons of Aleppo. Rising out of the refugee camps that held the second generation of Syrian war refugees, the terror group hadn’t even been on the FBI’s threat matrix when Keegan had first joined.8
Now, SOA hits on watch lists were a daily fixture of the FBI Counterterrorism Division’s briefings. The alerts had spiked again after the Paddington Station attack, where the suicide bombers had worn virtual reality cameras to allow fans to “experience” the attack.
“Just something that requires our attention,” Keegan said, repeating the statement as a signal that was all Richter was going to get.
“Of anyone, we have a right to know,” Richter replied, playing that card.
“Then you also understand why I can’t say more,” Keegan said. She gritted her teeth as her sciatic nerve fired again, this time radiating farther down her leg. She’d gone off to war a young woman and returned with her grandfather’s back, courtesy of her spine being torqued one way by an IED explosion as 135 pounds of combat gear twisted the other way.
“Roger that,” Richter answered, but in a disappointed tone.
As they approached the border of the camp at the traffic circle in front of Union Station, another sentry was waiting for them, also carrying an assault rifle. Apparently, the Viking had called ahead. This veteran, though, was older, making no attempt at follicle rebellion, just leaning into going bald by shaving it all off. From a guess at his age, Keegan thought he might have even served in Iraq during one of the earlier times around.
“I’m going to pass you off here,” Richter said. “Whoever it is you’re looking for, good hunting.” She held out her hand, and as the two shook, Richter added with a wry smile, “And thank you for your service.”
To another vet, it was as big a “Fuck You” as could be said.
The second that Keegan stepped off the grass onto the curb of Massachusetts Avenue, Richter started bellowing orders to shut down all access to the camp and place the medical team on alert. So much for trust, Keegan thought.
Massachusetts Avenue was somehow even more snarled up closer to the train station. There was no sign of Griff in the SUV, so Keegan began to pick her way through the cars. The automated ones were programmed to be 18 inches apart, so you could squeeze between those pretty easy. It was the human-driven ones that you had to watch out for; they were more likely to lurch unexpectedly and knock fenders, with you caught in the middle.
She stopped alongside a yellow-and-blue-striped sharecar, with two women in the back. One was evidently well-off, if the designer suit and pearls were anything to go by, maybe a lobbyist. Immersed in a VR rig, she was spending her rush hour somewhere else, maybe taking a mind-vacation in Aruba or Alaska. The other was sitting beside her, bored, no technology in hand. She made eye contact with Keegan and seemed to contemplate whether to get out and walk. Keegan shook her head, pulling back her jacket to show the badge on her belt and the holstered Sig Sauer 420 pistol. It was simultaneously the least and most she could do to warn the woman that she might want to wait a beat. The second Keegan did it, she regretted her kindness, realizing the woman would likely post something about it the instant she turned.
Keegan pressed the FBI seal lapel pin in her jacket again. “Control, I’m at the station.”
“Received,” Noritz replied in her right ear. “We’ve also got the Tac-Net up, so you can go AR.” Keegan pulled an eyeglasses case from her jacket and put on the pair of vizglasses. The FBI-issued version married thick-framed ballistic shooting glasses with an augmented-reality projector.9
They were supposed to be rugged enough to carry around loose in your pocket, but Keegan always kept hers in the case until needed; a bit of care was worth avoiding the tiny scratch that could cost you a paycheck or even a gunfight.
As Keegan switched the lenses on, her field of view began to populate with colored icons and raw data layered over what she saw. While the first versions of augmented reality had projected the data onto the glass, subsequent versions projected it into your eyes, allowing more information to be packed in. You could control some features with double blinks or exaggerated eye swipes to the side, but any typing was done on her wrist-worn Watchlet, the name of which was a bit of marketing misdirection. It was more like a bracelet than a watch in size, really just a flexible organic light-emitting diode screen that wrapped around the wrist.10
Whatever they wanted to call it, it was still a far cry from the clunky ruggedized tablets she’d lugged around for the Corps, or even the old iPhones she’d played with as a kid.
Noritz continued to update in her ear, while her viewscreen began to fill. “Griff is at least another minute out,” he reported.
Keegan looked back toward Patriots Camp. Just through the tree line, a blue orb glowed on her screen, marking Griff ’s position at the end of Louisiana Avenue.
Keegan turned back to the arched entrance to Union Station. Now the dirty white stone of the nearly century-and-a-half-old station pulsed with data, from the estimated number of people currently inside (3,740) to a cluster of light blue marking the location of local police arriving on the scene. Most important, though, was the flashing red warning message that had set them all on this seeming race against time. The red strobed, messaging that the station’s automated bomb sniffer had caught a trace of volatiles, the chemical vapor trail of explosives.
Keegan made her way over to the police, who were huddled behind the low wall that bordered the marble memorial fountain in front of the train station’s entrance. It wouldn’t be much cover from a drone, but it might block shrapnel from an explosion. Her AR displayed a text box that marked the local cops’ positions and identified the 15-foot statue looking down—Christopher Columbus. That also helped explain why the white marble had a pink hue from being splashed with red paint so often.
“FBI!” Keegan announced as she approached. The law enforcement agency networks were supposed to be integrated, but they’d been developed by different sets of contractors. Anytime a crisis like this arose, the area was soon awash with cops from DC’s forty-six different law enforcement agencies, reporting to their own bureaucracies. So the information flow lagged, often taking seconds or even minutes to transfer across systems. No sense in getting shot by an itchy-fingered cop, just because a government contract office went with the low bid. The cops were a mix of Washington, DC, city police in blue uniforms and, because Union Station was also a subway stop for trains running out to Virginia and Maryland, black-and-yellow-uniformed Metro Transit Police Department officers. Sitting just behind them, two squatters in faded dot-matrix camouflage uniforms calmly dipped canteens in the fountain, then began to divide up a thumb-sized pink bag of Mexican synth. They’d be locked out of the camp, but she guessed they wouldn’t mind in a few moments.
“Our guys inside haven’t seen anything suspicious. You getting anything more on your rig?” a DC police lieutenant asked Keegan, pointedly ignoring the two men as they stretched out and lost themselves in a narcotic haze. He was mid-forties, African American, evidently the senior officer on the scene. He was also wearing vizglasses, but the blocky, thick, black-rimmed ones that the local PD used. As he spoke, two of the Metro Transit officers began pulling a four-legged bot out of their trunk. Keegan recognized it as a derivative of the military models that she had used in the Marines. With chemical sniffers and cameras mounted on its head, the bot looked like a shaved Dalmatian whose body had been layered in sleek armor.
“Nothing more than the alert that went out. A hit on the chem sensors in the HVAC system,” Keegan replied. “Our records are also showing that it has a 43 percent false positive rate.”
“Yeah, those sensors were put in just after 9-11, so they’re . . .” The police officer paused as their glasses executed a digital handshake, which established an encrypted network. Each shared their officer’s identifying information and then layered their views over one another. Keegan watched a starburst of reflected color dance across the cop’s lenses. “. . . getting old,” said Kerryon Reynolds, lieutenant, Capitol Hill Station. With ID now shared, the FBI database began to populate Keegan’s AR with additional information: sixteen years of service history, no mentions in current FBI investigations, etc.
“My inclination is to follow your lead until there’s something more definitive,” said Keegan. The quick read from his info showed that Reynolds likely knew his business. Plus, there was no sense in big-footing the local authorities—until there was a need to.
“Appreciate that, Agent Keegan,” said Lieutenant Reynolds, going through the same quick assessment of her info. “Given the uncertainty, we’re not yet ordering an evacuation. The plan is to do a front-to-back sweep for anything suspicious.”
Keegan paused and looked up in the sky as a formation of dark gray Air Force drones flew over. She and Reynolds stood in silence, weighing whether the aircraft were part of the usual White House counter-drone air patrol or tasked to the threat at Union Station.
“Concur. I’ll follow in your wake. Give you another set of eyes. Plus the resources of the FBI IT department,” Keegan said, tapping the bridge of the vizglasses.
She also liked that the cop’s plan meant she’d be going in second. Anyone who’d served knew that going in first was for heroes, the kind more often celebrated at a funeral. At that, she spun her Watchlet’s screen absentmindedly, passing through message notifications, a weather forecast, and a photo of a young girl.
Pressing the send button on the lapel pin again, Keegan gave a quick update to Noritz. As she spoke, an automated delivery bot trundled by on the sidewalk, looking like a six-wheeled ice chest.11 In a different place, under different rules of engagement, she would have advised Reynolds to disable and blast it, just to be safe. But here, they assumed that the vacuum seal meant to keep any food inside fresh would have also likely kept any volatile fumes from leaking out, making it less likely to contain whatever had set off the sensors.
“Received, and agreed,” Noritz replied in her ear. “I’ll coordinate with their chain of command. I’m also going to relocate Griff, to link with their units going through the east entrance.” Taking away her backup wasn’t the call Keegan would have made. But it was all part of being quarterbacked from afar.
“Fan out, and try not to start a riot,” said Lieutenant Reynolds to the group of police, now up to fourteen with the addition of a couple of US Capitol motorcycle police.
The bright blue helmets and high leather boots worn by the latest two arrivals worried Keegan. Their pomp may have seemed fitting for a police department tasked with protecting the grounds of Congress, but with the Patriots Camp squatting on most of the green space, they had little left to patrol—only the Capitol building itself and the senators’ and representatives’ office buildings. They still had jurisdictional rights in a two-hundred-block radius, but Keegan thought their officers sometimes seemed to be trying too hard, too eager to make up for the loss of their home turf.
“Entry through each doorway, then fan out to cover the station. Keep off the net unless you see something. Identify but do not engage unless you have to. Call it in and then wait for backup, especially if it looks like something for EOD,” Reynolds commanded, referencing the Explosives Ordnance Disposal team, popularly known as a “bomb squad.” “And remember, everyone, move nice and calm-like. Day in the park.”
Stepping into Union Station was like colliding with a wall of smells. Urine, century-old HVAC systems, and unwashed floors all mixed. More disorienting, though, was the spray of digitized color that washed over information that already overlaid Keegan’s view of the lobby due to her AR. The station had been built in the Beaux-Arts style of the turn of the twentieth century, mixing Classical architecture with dripping ornamentation. Now, the soaring ceilings, decorated arches, and granite pillars were covered with riotous wrap-around 3-D projections. Lightning-brand gummy stims (“Power Up!” the gum sticks said in a glowing neon rainbow) dueled with pop-up ads for MonsterMash, the latest vizglasses game, where you hunted classic Hollywood monsters across the landscape of your own city.12
Indifferent to it all, a pigeon took off from its perch in the honey-comb-like ceiling of the station, flew lazily down through a projected werewolf, and began to eat the leftovers of a crumpled farro chip bag on the floor. And through it all walked hundreds of people, equally numb to it all. About the only thing you could immediately tell was someone’s income and age. The oldest and poorest had their heads down, staring into their screens, while the virtual territory was dominated by the young and wealthy, staring vaguely into space as they experienced a personalized reality through their vizglasses.
Keegan considered the problem anew. An elderly woman in blue jeans was being followed by one of those “puppy” robotic suitcases, tiny motorized wheels extending out from pivoting legs. It could easily hold 40 pounds of nanoplex, enough to paint all the walls red. The high school group of twenty-two kids wearing matching back-packs . . . enough to take down the entire building.
Noritz’s voice chirped in her ear again. “We’ve been able to connect to the station’s sensor cams. We’ve gotten no hits of interest so far, but facial rec should start populating for you soon.”13
As the line of police worked its way through the lobby, Keegan stood about 30 feet behind them and slowly panned the crowd. She frowned. The sniffer bot was advancing on the far left side, not the center where its sensors would have been most effective. The two Metro Police officers had kept their bot close to them; this sort of thing always happened when you threw together people from different agencies that didn’t play well together.
The pause gave her a moment to stretch her hip, releasing some of the tension that had built up in the firing nerve. Federal privacy regulations kept the system from identifying everyone in the crowd with facial recognition; only companies could legally do that. But the system could run automated searches to ID any person in the crowd unlucky enough to have crossed paths with a US law enforcement agency, a fairly large portion of the population that grew with every traffic stop, visit to an airport, even a police athletic league summer camp. As the sales pitch for the Chinese company that had pioneered the effort put it, “If someone exists, there will be traces, and if there are connections, there will be information.” 14
A red pop-up identified Andrew Watts as the college-aged male in the yellow and green sweatshirt celebrating the Palo Alto @s World Series win, marking him with a misdemeanor conviction for public intoxication and urination. Two drug arrests for Leigh Sullivan, the girl in a peach-colored long dress beside him, both old ones for synth. And a slew of people popped up as victims in one identity theft case or another. None of it matched the SOA database, though, or even the statistically tailored profile for extremist activities.
Then lines began to appear, illustrating any relationships between those identified by facial recognition. A green line blazed between two women at opposite sides of the room; Stacy Limbago wore a purple backpack over one shoulder, while Torrance Fettison carried a maroon attaché case. They seemed to have nothing in common other than that they were both in pantsuits, but the feed marked them as persons of interest in a tax fraud investigation, each unaware that they were about to be swept up in the same case. More and more pop-ups clouded Keegan’s view, lanced by green, then blue, then red lines identifying the type of link.
“We’ve got hyperspectral from the cameras in the station,” said Noritz in her ear. “I’m piping it through.” A pop-up live feed appeared in her glasses, a moving forest of rainbow limbs, a carnivalesque rendering of each person, their clothing, body, and luggage rendered in different colors depending on the material and temperature — every color but the red that would indicate explosive materials. 15
It all made Keegan’s head ache. It was a familiar pain, that same deep ache in the absolute center of her skull when information overload and adrenaline collided. She’d first felt this way when out on patrol. Just when her unit needed to be at their most alert, they would be flooded with data streams, back then coming from drone feeds and satellites and officers back in an air-conditioned op-center trying to steer them one way or another. The AR rigs were supposed to take all that and boil it down into a “user-friendly tactical interface.” But it was still like trying to sip from a fire hose.
She took a deep breath and pushed the glasses to the top of her head. “I got nothing. You got anything?” she asked Noritz, who was likely toggling between the same video feed and whatever Griff was pushing out.
“Same here. Nada. But put your rig back on and just keep monitoring,” Noritz replied. He was watching her too.
As the line of police continued to move forward, it began to lose its cohesion, each officer moving off in a different direction, spreading out across the station. She saw Lieutenant Reynolds turn toward the escalator that led down to where the old food court had been in the belowground level of the station. A good idea.
“Understood. I’m going to head down to the good seats,” Keegan said. “Tell Griff to sweep the commuter train area and I’ll take the Freedom Lounge.” The entryway of the train station was where the majority of the foot traffic was, but killing the most people wasn’t always the goal of terrorism. Sometimes the play was to go for the most symbolic, the most likely to send a message.
As the escalator took Keegan down to the lower level of the station, she felt the pressure change as she crossed through a new wall of smell. Instead of piss, though, this one was of pumped-in oxygen and eucalyptus oil. At the base of the landing, the white Carrara marble floor shimmered with liquid waves, as if covered by a shallow reflecting pool. It was a projection of water mixed in with the blue text of a holo-ad. Keegan’s eyes didn’t pick up what it was for, though, instead surveying the room for faces.
Reynolds was in conversation with the Freedom Rail cop who’d been permanently stationed down here, both as an added layer of security and to deter the riffraff. He made eye contact with Keegan and said something quickly to the Freedom Rail guard, who waved her through.
Keegan began to walk slowly through the lounge, each step leaving the simulated appearance of a ripple of water on the marble. The lower-level food court had been converted as part of the Acela privatization deal. The original buyer had gone belly-up when their promise of trains going 800 miles per hour ran into the laws of physics, eminent domain politics, and unbridled inflation.16 But the ambitious design aesthetic lived on in the lounge, from the sleek black and silver Bauhaus benches to the projection on the wall celebrating the train’s passengers as not merely customers, but “visionaries of transportation’s future.”17
Down here, there were fewer pops on the facial recognition. The crimes also shifted, reflecting the clientele, meaning mostly white-collar hits. William Kellerman, in a gray pin-striped double-breasted suit: “illicit transaction designed to evade regulatory oversight.” Denise Aboud in a white pantsuit: “falsification of net asset values.” Here and there, though, the high and the low crossed. The gray-haired man in the pearlescent blue silk suit was Richard Reynolds: double entry, member of Congress from Delaware and multiple arrests for solicitation of a prostitute—no convictions.
Knowing the vizglasses were steering her to the visual cues, Keegan tried to shift her focus beyond, to see who and what wasn’t being called out by the data. An older man with a cane stood beside a woman in her mid-twenties checking her watch, an old-school wrist piece. Neither had any luggage, so Keegan could write them off as packing explosives. Indeed, the woman was hiding nothing at all, wearing skintight purple leggings and an even tighter tube top. A glossy white-legged robot stood beside her, one of the new Attendant models; it was unclear whether the bot was there to aid her, or sent by someone else to monitor her. Maybe a little bit of both?
Nearby was a possibility, a man with a large rolling suitcase and a duffel bag. A lot of carrying capacity. He was in a nice suit, but dated, a few years back in style, another tell. The man then went down to his knees and wrapped his arms around two young boys, twins maybe eight or nine years old.
As Keegan edged closer, though, she could hear the man apologizing: They couldn’t afford for all of them to move now, but Daddy had finally gotten a new job and he would come down from New Jersey every other week. Even more, now he’d be able to bring them back something special for their birthday next month. At that, a woman behind the man joined them, asking if the boys wanted ice cream on the way home.
Just on the other side of them. Long black robe and black knit prayer cap. The man had a beard, but scraggly from being uncut for reasons of faith. He thumbed through screens on a tablet with his right hand, while his left hand gripped the handle of a battered rolling suitcase. He held it so tightly that it had turned the skin pale around the gold band on his ring finger.
That familiar feeling hit Keegan, and a single bead of sweat tracked down her back.
Keegan did the rapid double blink that ordered her vizglasses to take a snapshot and upload the image into the database.
She flicked at her collar as if dusting off lint, brushing her mic’s comms feed open to Noritz. “Tagged person of interest. Moving in closer to engage. Notify others to converge,” she murmured.
In her lenses, a text message popped that there was no return on the face in the law enforcement database.
“Keegan, what are you doing?” said Noritz in her ear. “Continue search.”
Keegan took the vizglasses off and put them back in the case, slipping it back into her pocket. While wearing vizglasses wasn’t a tell that she was an agent, the lack of them would steer a suspect’s mind to think she was a civilian. Plus, she didn’t need the info overload now. She needed focus.
With the easy amble of someone lost in conversation, she began walking toward the family. “No. That is not what I said. Begin again . . . Order five hundred shares at fifteen hundred.”
At that, Noritz spoke again. “Keegan, put your viz back on and continue your search. We have you in the station’s video feed. I repeat, there is nothing on that individual’s profile to indicate SOA affiliation. I am overriding target designation. Move on.”
“No, no, no,” Keegan said, now slightly louder, gesticulating as if making her case. “Five. Hundred. At. Fifteen. Hundred. One. Thousand. Five. Hundred.” She crossed in front of the tearful family, the children looking up at the loud woman yelling at some call center chat bot. They were old enough to know that arguing with a machine never worked, but people who hadn’t grown up with them couldn’t help themselves.
“Stand. Down. Keegan!” Noritz again in her ear, this time more forcefully. “Data’s not indicating a target. Stand down. You’re going to create an incident you won’t recover from.”
“Dammit, NO!” Keegan said roughly, stopping in front of the family, her back to the man in the black robe. The parents looked over at her angrily.
“Hey, can you please have your call somewhere else?” the father asked.
“No,” said Keegan, her annoyed disbelief evident to anyone within 20 feet of her. “I didn’t say one thousand at five hundred, you fucking machine. Cancel!”
She could sense the man in the robe notice her, but Keegan kept her back to the target. She didn’t like positioning that way, but better to show physical disinterest.
“Let’s try it again, you dumbass machine.”
In the distance, she could see Lieutenant Reynolds squinting at her quizzically.
“Look, I’ve got my kids here.” The father again, a little louder this time. More eyes—and vizglasses—turned their way.
When was the last time she had been this close to somebody dressed like this? Keegan half expected a sensory flashback to the choking heat and the taste of dusty phlegm and gunpowder residue. But nothing manifested. She was still in Union Station.
“New order. Five. Hundred. At. One thousand and five hundred . . .
And don’t fuck it up this time.”
The father moved the children behind him, his body straightening itself up as he found his confidence. “Ma’am, I’ve asked you politely. You really need to stop.”
“Agent Keegan,” Noritz said in her ear. “I am now ordering you to exit the area, and report to me. Cease operation.”
“Don’t you fucking tell me what to do,” Keegan said louder.
As she said it, she extended her left arm and wagged her finger at the father’s face, knowing that everyone around her would be drawn to it, including the man in the robe. At the same moment, an expandable metal baton slid from her sleeve into her right hand. 18
In one fluid motion, Keegan swung it backward. She’d aimed for the chest, but with her back turned, her aim was slightly off. The baton impacted higher than she meant to, striking soft flesh of his neck. The snap of metal striking skin was followed an instant later by a sizzle as 75,000 volts passed from the baton into him.
The crowd screamed as the bearded man crumpled to the ground.
Then came the telltale puff of smoke.
Excerpted from BURN-IN: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution by P.W. Singer and August Cole. Copyright © 2020 by P.W. Singer and Redoubt, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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