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Web of Extinction (Zone War Book 3), page 1


Web of Extinction (Zone War Book 3)

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Web of Extinction (Zone War Book 3)

  Web of Extinction


  John Conroe

  This book is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  Copyright © 2019 John Conroe

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

  The Demon Accords:

  God Touched

  Demon Driven

  Brutal Asset

  Black Frost

  Duel Nature

  Fallen Stars


  Forced Ascent

  College Arcane

  God Hammer


  Snake Eyes


  Summer Reign

  The Demon Accords Compendium, Volume 1

  The Demon Accords Compendium, Volume 2

  Demon Divine


  Darkkin Queen (Winter 2020)

  The Zone War series:

  Zone War

  Borough of Bones

  Web of Extinction

  The Shadows of Montshire series:

  A Murder of Shadows (2020)

  Cover art by Gareth Otton.

  Chapter 1

  “Greetings, Ajaya! It’s been what? A month since we were together?”

  “Hi, Cade. About three weeks,” I said.

  He held both hands out from his sides, almost shoulder height, palms up, and his eyebrows rose. “We’re still here.”

  “Yes we are.”

  “The world hasn’t ended—you were wrong,” he said, throwing it out like a challenge.

  “I’m sorry, did I put a deadline on it?” I shot back.

  “You said a whole lot of provocative things, Ajaya. You said Drone Night was run against this country by this country. You said the Spiders were looking to wipe out mankind, and you indicated the last one was using NSA facilities to do just that. You claimed to have a bomb in your neck.”


  “That’s it?” he asked, incredulous, playing to the camera.

  “What is it you want, Cade? I know you’re kickass at these on-air theatrics. I’m not. Why don’t you just lay out whatever it is you want to say.”

  He looked at me for a moment, then his eyes hardened. “I’m saying that you lied.”

  “Ah, there it is. See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?” I said. “So where do you want to go with this? What’s your attack?”

  He frowned. “The government has refuted everything you said. Said you were a glory-seeking liar. That the whole thing was to get your fifteen minutes of fame… or maybe infamy would be better.”

  “Of course it refuted it. I even told you that they would be better at spinning than I could ever be. But did you research Dr. Wilks? Did you research Titanpointe? Cade, have you done your homework?”

  He was starting to get angry. “We looked into Wilks. Yes, she worked for the stock exchange, yes she was an acknowledged expert in AI. But that’s it. She disappeared over ten years ago.”

  “Just like I said. But doesn’t the fact of her disappearance trigger your journalistic instincts? Or is this just a witch hunt for ratings?”

  “It’s about getting to the truth. Yes, we looked into Titanpointe. Very mysterious, but ultimately no proof of anything.”

  “So why would I do this, Cade? Why would I send my family away, convince Astrid to leave, and make up a bunch of shit? I have no weapons, no drone assistant, I’m all alone, and you think I what? Want attention?”

  “People do all kinds of things for fame and fortune, Ajaya.”

  “You think I want fame? I lived a long time in the shadow of Zone War, Cade. The shadows are where I’m happiest. The only reason I have done or said any of this is because the danger is real.”

  “But Ajaya… the world hasn’t ended.”

  “Hasn’t it?” I asked. His frown deepened. “I asked you if you did your homework. You didn’t. You did superficial searches on information I gave you. You listened to the government. Very poor reporting, Cade. Piss poor. But hey, it’s okay, because I did the work for you. Both you and Trinity have emails in your inbox right now—from me. Open them.”

  His eyes unfocused as he accessed his contacts and his frown deepened.

  “What is this?” He refocused on me.

  “It’s an AI-driven graph of global accidents involving expert systems. It goes back ten years from yesterday.”

  “Trinity, can we put this up?” he asked off camera. She nodded and almost as soon as he spoke, the graph popped up on the wall behind us.

  “Walk me through this,” he said, looking curious.

  “Ten years ago, the rate of accidents by AI expert systems was moderately high. Car accidents, plane issues, shipping errors, accidental release of private information, financial security, et cetera. But then they drop right off as AI improved. Within three years, they bottomed to almost nothing and stayed that way for over four years. But look here, at the last three years. They started to creep up three years ago, doubled two years ago, and then went up by a factor of ten early this year. Now, in the last few months, they’ve skyrocketed.”

  “Ajaya, everyone knows this. It’s the result of your meddling with the internet.”

  “And when does the government say I meddled, Cade? Four weeks ago? Yet these numbers have been shooting up long before that. Ships colliding in open ocean, planes crashing, cars and buses smashing. But that’s the obvious stuff, Cade. Open that line there, the one from two months ago.”

  He sent a silent command and the data plot opened a subwindow that listed the accidents.

  “Read through those, Cade. Ignore the planes and ships. Look at line three—an Ebola-infected man leaving Africa gets by the airport AI’s health screener and makes it to France, where additional infections occur.”

  “Yeah, like three people, then they stopped it,” he said, not impressed.

  “It shouldn’t have happened at all. Look at number seven. Two ships colliding in the North Sea. One an oil tanker, the other carrying grain. Both sunk. And an oil slick over one of the most important fishing grounds in Europe. Look at eighteen: a Russian unmanned fighter, buzzing a US combat ship and it loses control, smashing into the ship’s side. It hit a heavily armored spot. If it hadn’t, that ship would likely have been crippled or possibly sunk. How about war, Cade?

  “Look at thirty-nine: a floodgate control AI in Ohio malfunctions and floods out countless acres of farmland throughout the state, right at planting time. And on and on. All of those happened long before the government said I or Harper had any impact on the web.”

  “You’re implying that the Spider did it? Plum Blossom. Through the NSA facility?”

  “Yes, Cade, I am. Why are all these systems crashing now? The government didn’t deny that some drones escaped the Zone and created problems, but this stuff is much farther spread than a few drones.”

  “Like what?”

  “I don’t know… malware? A virus? Trojan horse, maybe? Not my area of expertise. All I know is a supercomputer programmed to kill off humanity has had unlimited access to the internet via a government intelligence satellite uplink for years. And if I’m so far off, why did Zone Defense bomb the top of that Longlines building two weeks ago? I know that you know they did that, because your new show caught video of it.”

  “This seems… desperate,” he said.

  “To me it seems like you’re willfully hiding your heads in the sand. Cade, are
you familiar with tipping points?”

  “Like when something reaches a point of no return?” he asked.

  “Exactly. I think Plum Blossom is experimenting with viruses and malware, looking for the right algorithm to put enough expert systems out of com…” I gasped, a sudden pain in my neck so severe that I thought, for a second, that the bomb had gone off. Sharp, shooting pain, up into my brain, down into my chest.

  I felt my hand slap my neck, a motion I had avoided for weeks, yet this time I couldn’t stop the reflex.

  “Ajaya?” Cade asked, concern replacing the challenging expression he had worn moments before.

  A spasm took my voice, but a few seconds later I was able to shake my head.

  “Ajaya? Are you okay?”

  The pain receded, moving from a red-hot poker to a dull, thought-robbing throb. “Ah, how’s the… ah, new show… going? How’s it going?” I stuttered, changing the subject as fast as I could.

  “Um, it’s, ah, good. Our drone teams have killed off hundreds of enemy units. Are you alright?” He turned to the camera before I could respond. “We’re going to take a short break. We’ll be back in a moment.”

  Trinity was at my side in a second, her assistant and another person with her.

  “What was that? Are you okay?” she asked.

  “It was sharp pain. I thought the bomb had gone off,” I said.

  “But what was it?” Trinity pressed. The assistant offered me a bottle of water and I took a sip.

  “I’m pretty sure it was a warning,” I said.

  “Are you acting?” Cade asked, concern changing to anger.

  The other guy behind Trinity shook his head. “No, our programming AI says it’s a 99.999 percent real pain reaction. A really severe pain reaction.”

  “So what does it mean?” Cade asked, anger gone as fast as came.

  “It means I can’t talk about the topic I was talking about,” I said.

  “The whole virus thing?” Cade asked. The throb in my neck shot me a short burst of agony. I nodded, again unable to speak for a moment.

  “Oh God, it’s real,” Cade said, realization dawning.

  “Of course it’s real. You think Ajaya would lie about that? He’s never lied about anything, especially the Spiders and the Zone,” Trinity said, leaning close to look at first my neck and then my eyes.

  “But you told me to come at him like he was lying? Oh? Ratings?” Cade said, the light going off.

  She somehow managed to give us both one look that simultaneously said no duh to him and it’s just business to me. It was a whole body kind of thing with an eye roll and a shrug mixed in.

  “Can you continue the interview?” she asked me.

  “Not about that!”

  “No, of course not. We’ll just continue to talk about the new Drone Wars segment that you guys left off on. In fact, we’ll pull up live feed and you two can just ad lib. You’re both good at that, especially together,” she said with a big smile that seemed mostly for Cade’s benefit. He nodded, eyes slightly wide.

  “Is that okay?” she asked me.

  “Yes. Just nothing about what I was talking about before. My leash just got tugged—hard,” I said.

  “Okay, let’s bring it back live,” she said, waving her people back out of camera range.

  “And we’re live in three, two, one,” counted down the guy who had taken my side in the credibility argument.

  Chapter 2

  “So, you can see, our teams are fielding some pretty impressive drones,” Cade said, covering his nervousness, but not perfectly.

  We were watching live feeds from a trio of production drones that were following the new Drone Wars teams as they sent their highly customized, self-built combat drones into the Zone.

  I had, with nothing else to do on my daily schedule, watched most of the daily episodes up to this point, so I was already familiar with all the teams. It had been interesting to see what smart amateurs had built to send in against military bots, and I had noted that the newer model units were racking up a decent kill count against the older Zone units. But each swarm of team drones was being run by inexperienced amateurs, both live humans and AIs.

  “Yeah, pretty cool designs,” I said.

  “I sense a but in your sentence,” Cade said.

  “Well, this has been tried before. The military did it right after the walls went up around Manhattan. Then the Zone drones adapted quickly and started to eat the military units for breakfast.”

  “But this is a decade later. They’re old and slow, and you, personally, knocked out two of the Spiders,” Cade challenged. His whole tone was different this time though, much less hostile.

  “Which is why it might be taking longer for them to adapt,” I said, trying to stay engaged. I won’t lie: The whole stabbing-pain-in-the-neck-and-brain thing had shaken me up—a lot. “Plum Blossom has a lot to handle by itself.”

  “But what would they do?” he asked, curious.

  “I don’t know… set up ambushes or something,” I said.

  His trademark smile came back. “Come on, Ajaya. You can do better than that. Nobody knows the Zone like you do. Give us a guess… a real guess,” he said, the normal Cade back, replacing the nervous Cade.

  I felt my interest pique for the first time since we’d come back from break. I gave him a nod and then focused on the screen, really studying the situation.

  There were four separate teams, with swarms ranging from four drones to a really big group of a couple dozen minidrones, all flying in fully synchronized formations. All four swarms were traveling at a pretty high altitude, flying between skyscrapers, trolling for drones, which they hadn’t been seeing.

  “How many have they killed so far, to date?” I asked. He’d told me once but I hadn’t paid much attention, because, you know—neck bomb and shit.

  “Four hundred and twelve,” he said.

  “Most of those in the first week, right?”

  “Yes. The Zone units have gone quiet lately, not coming out to challenge these big teams.”

  “Which makes sense, right? If you’re getting your ass beat, stop going head to head. So, yeah, I’d expect them to see almost nothing and I’d be…”

  “There, one of the little ones… a Kite,” the voice of one of the team leaders broke in, excited. “The ones that hunt with Tigers!”

  “…wary if I did see one,” I finished. “Especially of something as valuable as a Tiger.”

  “Look, that’s the Tiger unit right there! It’s running!” another voice said. I’d lost track of who the players were. All four swarms were dipping down between the buildings, dropping low to the street. Some of them carried little bombs they could attempt to drop on the heavily armored Tiger. Some of the littlest ones were bombs—kamikaze drones.

  “You think it’s a trap?” Cade said. “I mean, it’s running for cover.”

  “You’re confusing it with a real animal, Cade. It’s a computer in a mobile machine. Darting out into view is completely illogical. The sort of instinct an animal that hadn’t fought drones would follow, but these things don’t have instincts. They have combat response programming, adapted over ten years of warfare.”

  All of the teams were racing to get over top of the fast-moving Tiger.

  “By rights, it should have run into the first open building,” I said. “Actually, it never should have broken cover at all.”

  Suddenly it turned sharply and ran right through a glass storefront window. “Oh damn, Cade, they should pull…” I didn’t get any further before the screen that was providing the current video point of view for the production went white. Simultaneously, the other two video windows of the Flottercot recording drones went crazy, the scenery blurring out as the drones both got knocked through the sky by an explosion.

  “Damn,” Cade said. Then all three screens went dead, but one kept flickering like it might come back. Finally the picture began to return and when it cleared, we could see that the street was cratered and
all of the windows on the facing buildings were gone, along with most of the doors.

  “What was that?” Cade asked, eyes wide.

  “At a guess… a fuel air explosion. You know, like a thermobaric grenade,” I said, studying the wreckage.

  “They have bombs?” Cade asked, shocked.

  “They have access to propane, gasoline, aerosols, cartridges, probably blasting caps, maybe military or police plastic explosives. For that, all they needed was to flood the air with propane and then ignite it with a spark.”

  “How? How did they learn to do that?”

  “From us, Cade. The military, the Zone War teams. We’ve used stuff like that for years.”

  “They learned it from us?”

  “That’s what they do, Cade… they learn.”

  Chapter 3

  It was the new show’s first setback, but it was a big one. All four teams were wiped out in one big blast. There were still twelve other teams, as they only competed four at a time, but with twenty-five percent of the competitors gone in an instant, the show needed to pause and regroup. We finished our conversation pretty fast and the live show ended for the day.

  As soon as the cameras went dark, the studio went into damage control mode. Cade argued for continuing the interview, as he thought picking my brain would be good television and good prep for the next episode, but Trinity vetoed the idea.

  So I headed home. Back to an empty apartment in Brooklyn. Mom, Aama, and the twins were all up north, with my other grandparents. And they needed to stay there, as far as I was concerned. They had things to do. Astrid and her family had relocated to New Hampshire and showed no signs of coming back, especially since I kept sending them the results of my ongoing research into world AI issues. In fact, they were in contact with my mother, working together for the first time in years.

  So I had an empty apartment. And some Indian takeout. Actually, it was pretty good food, just not as good as Aama would make. I checked my emails, briefly, just a glance really. These days, the hate mail way outweighed anything positive.

  Turns out people don’t like to be warned about stuff. They don’t like anything that scares them, threatens their comfortable lives, or shocks their worldviews. So I had haters who were angry that the world hadn’t ended, angry that I insulted our benevolent government, that I claimed to have a bomb in my neck, and quite a few that were angry that I had been dating Astrid.

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