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From the Hugo Award nominee S.B. Divya, Zero Dark Thirty meets The Social Network in this science fiction thriller about artificial intelligence, sentience, and labor rights in a near future dominated by the gig economy.

Welga Ramirez, executive bodyguard and ex-special forces, is about to retire early when her client is killed in front of her. It’s 2095 and people don’t usually die from violence. Humanity is entirely dependent on pills that not only help them stay alive, but allow them to compete with artificial intelligence in an increasingly competitive gig economy. Daily doses protect against designer diseases, flow enhances focus, zips and buffs enhance physical strength and speed, and juvers speed the healing process.

All that changes when Welga’s client is killed by The Machinehood, a new and mysterious terrorist group that has simultaneously attacked several major pill funders. The Machinehood operatives seem to be part human, part machine, something the world has never seen. They issue an ultimatum: stop all pill production in one week.

Global panic ensues as pill production slows and many become ill. Thousands destroy their bots in fear of a strong AI takeover. But the US government believes the Machinehood is a cover for an old enemy. One that Welga is uniquely qualified to fight.

Welga, determined to take down the Machinehood, is pulled back into intelligence work by the government that betrayed her. But who are the Machinehood and what do they really want?

A thrilling and thought-provoking novel that asks: if we won’t see machines as human, will we instead see humans as machines?

Chapter 1: Welga WELGA
30. All forms of intelligence have the right to exist without persecution or slavery.

31. No form of intelligence may own another.

32. If the local governance does not act in accordance with these rights, it is the right of an intelligence to act by any means necessary to secure them.

—The Machinehood Manifesto, March 20, 2095

Welga stared at coffee the color of mud and contemplated the irony of the word smart. Near the end of her daily morning run, she always stopped for a cup of joe or espresso or qahwah, depending on the part of the world—which happened to be Chennai, India, on this particular day.

“I asked for it black,” she said.

The boxy aluminum vendor-bot replied from its speaker, “Yes. This is black coffee.”

A microdrone flew close to her face. She swatted it away. Her own swarm of tiny cameras stayed at a polite distance above her head. “It has milk in it.”

“Yes, very little milk. This is black coffee.”

She repressed the urge to kick the machine. What kind of idiot had designed this bot’s coffee-making ability? Welga glanced up at the microcameras and said, “It’s my thirty-fifth birthday, and I can’t get a decent cup of coffee from this piece of shit.”

Her fan base wasn’t celebrity-size, and most of them lived on the other side of the world, but someone could be watching. Maybe they’d recommend a better vendor for tomorrow’s coffee. Swarms had been present in public spaces since her childhood, and she mostly ignored them as a part of life, but she wouldn’t mind a little extra attention on her birthday. Between that and the day’s high-profile client, her tip jar ought to do well.

A voice called out from across the street, “Madam, come to my stall. I’ll serve you correctly.”

Welga turned. A gray-haired person stood behind a folding table and beckoned with their right hand, plastic bangles reflecting the cloud-diluted sun. Metal pots sat atop basic burners around them. Plastic sheets wrapped the stall on three sides, and a fourth provided a sagging roof.

After two auto-trucks and a trike crammed with too many people drove by, Welga crossed the road. The vendor handed her a static cup filled with liquid as black as their pupils.

Welga took an appreciative sip.

“That bot has a Zimro WAI. It’s not meant to serve foreigners.” They pronounced the acronym for weak artificial intelligence like why, the way most of the world did. Many of the people back home said way, demonstrating the ongoing American disregard for everyone else.

“How can you tell I’m not Indian?” Welga asked. The mix of Russian and Mexican in her parentage usually made it hard for people to guess her origins.

The vendor tapped their temple with their middle finger. “I have a real brain. I pay attention.” They lifted their chin toward the competition across the street. “That bot sees your brown skin and dark hair and thinks you’re from Chennai. I see your nose and cheek shape. No gold jewelry, no pottu”—they gestured to their brow—“so you must be foreign. Bots. WAIs.” They made a spitting sound. “They work faster, but human is smarter.”

Welga hid a smile behind her cup. Some jobs still belonged exclusively to people, but much of the world’s workforce did little more than babysit bots while they did the real work. Artificial intelligences had dominated the labor force for decades. They had their limitations, though, like interpreting the meaning of black coffee.

“What are you cooking?” she asked the vendor.

“Vegetable sambar, tomato rasam, basmati rice… but it’s not ready. Come back in one hour, and I will give you delicious food.”

“Good cooking takes time,” Welga agreed. She drained the rest of the coffee and returned the cup. “How much?”

“No charge.” The vendor smiled, revealing teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. “Wish you a happy birthday.”

Welga laughed. “You do pay attention. I like that.” She pressed her hands together the Indian way. “Thank you.”

As she jogged toward the congested main road, she subvocalized to her personal WAI-based agent. “Por Qué, tip that vendor with double the average local cost for a cup of coffee. And add them to my list of possible slow-fast-food contributors.”

A second later, her agent replied, “Transaction complete.”

It sounded as if she stood beside Welga. In reality, the audio came from microscopic implants in Welga’s ear. The first version of Por Qué had run on a palm-size device that Welga got when she was seventeen years old. At the time, the name she gave her agent had provided some juvenile giggles. Still did sometimes, though not today.

Welga’s mood turned sour as she finished her early-morning run back to the hotel. Sweat and dust covered her body—not a bad one at her age. She could still pass the MARSOC entrance physical—she knew because she did the workout at least once a week. And yet her contract with Platinum Shield Services ended in three months. They wouldn’t renew. They cared as much or more about youth and looks as fitness, and thirty-five qualified as middle-aged by their accounting. She could take a desk job like her boss, Ahmed Hassan, and organize the field teams, but sitting around in an office had never been her style.

Instead, she’d been squirreling away money for the previous five years. Platinum paid well, and they provided that rarity of modern life: steady employment. It saved her from having to hustle for gigs like her father and brother. Her public tip jar stayed full, too, thanks to the high-profile nature of shield work. Her plan for Life, Part Two, was to take her passion for cooking and turn it into a business. She dreamed of funding a group of chefs who designed recipes intended to take time. Modern kitchens cooked fast for the owner’s convenience, but the best food took hours to develop complex, rich flavors—like her personal favorite, mango molé. Her chefs would improve their ability to compete with kitchens by speeding up their motions and stamina with pills. She would change the world by revolutionizing the way people cooked and ate. Or she would lose everything and have to start over. It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened.

Gray clouds hung over the towering hives of humanity on either side of the street—flats, as they called apartments in this part of the world, though the skyscrapers were anything but. The hotel, in contrast, had a classic colonial style. White columns and marble stairs led into the lobby. Welga sighed as the cool, climate-controlled interior surrounded her. The turf floor gave her steps an extra spring. Jasmine and other flowers she couldn’t name trailed from hanging pots, their scents forming a heady perfume.

Her room sat on the fifth floor and looked over a sprawling network of swimming pools. A kitchen unit lined one wall, opposite the bed. Her team’s client, Briella Jackson, one of the biggest pill funders in the world, could handle the expense. If only Welga weren’t training her replacement, this would have been a fun, easy assignment. Instead, Platinum had stuck her with babysitting some basic named Jady Ammanuel. The new recruit had arrived the previous night, but she hadn’t met them yet.

She stepped into the shower and scanned the feeds in her visual field. Connor Troit, her partner in more ways than one, stood guard outside their client’s door, white leathers against pale skin. Her father’s feed showed him accompanying a type of bot she didn’t recognize, no doubt on their way to some gig. Her brother, sister-in-law, and niece were in their Chennai flat, toward the coastal edge of the city. Those feeds came from cameras embedded in the walls rather than the ubiquitous microdrones. Local Indian culture preferred modesty and kept swarms out of the home.

Welga shrank the views of her loved ones with her left hand as she scrubbed her back. She expanded the top-ranking news video. A minder-bot named Mojo interacted with a round-cheeked little boy. Its charge was a minuscule force of intellect, zooming from one question to the next. The bot kept up with him and answered everything. It had no face, wheels in place of legs, and its arms existed only to remove small children from trouble, but the voice that issued from its speaker held a warm human tone of affection and exasperation.

WORLD’S FIRST EMERGENT AI, blared the caption, followed by, IS IT REAL?

Of course not. Another fake, an illusion perpetrated by some machine rights group to advance their cause. See this nurturing, understanding minder. See how humanlike it is in its interactions with this child. The age of weak artificial intelligence is at an end! WAIs and bots are equal to people. They would pick the most innocent-seeming machine they could find to illustrate their point. But a recording meant nothing. Who’d corroborated it? Who had designed and funded the bot? As Welga watched, the video’s reliability rating trended down, marked by curators whose own expert ratings had been verified. Another video replaced it in the top position.

Welga flicked the news stream away, annoyed by the two minutes she had wasted on it. She scanned the latest clothing designs as she dried her hair. Briella Jackson had impeccable fashion sense and expected no less from anyone who stood beside her. Welga couldn’t afford the best, so she settled for a mid-level outfit from a designer in Peru. It ought to earn its cost in tips, at least: black leggings, red miniskirt, a jacket with glowing pinstripes. Thigh-high black boots completed it. While her basic tunic and pants remade themselves, Welga grabbed her makeup bottle.

“Por Qué, let’s go dramatic today.”

“Would you like the most popular choice or the most recent?”

“Recent.”

Por Qué would filter the options for her facial structure, skin tone, and budget. What would a sentient AI do differently? Counsel her against the choice? Recognize the flair that Briella Jackson’s personality required? Her agent had improved in capability over the years, but she would never take initiative like a human being.

“It’s ready,” Por Qué announced.

Welga closed her eyes, relaxed her lips, and sprayed her face. By the time she finished putting her hair in a dancer’s bun, the makeup had colored and set. She dressed, then launched a swarm of microcameras from the charging tray and examined herself from every angle.

Last night’s sleep drug had banished any shadows under her eyes, and a microbial cocktail had restored her complexion. Welga nodded in satisfaction. A handful of admirers agreed by giving her feed a thumbs-up. One threw a small coin in her tip jar. She ignored the inevitable unwanted advice from a sixty-year-old man in Kentucky about “covering up” to save her soul.

“You need to be at the prep room in three minutes,” Por Qué said.

Timelines scrolled along the right side of Welga’s visual. She expanded the feeds of her teammates. Connor still stood guard. Ahmed Hassan slouched behind a desk, as usual, in a boring, dark-colored suit that matched his full beard. Their fiftysomething bear of a boss conducted their briefings and rode virtual on their missions from his office in San Francisco. Briella Jackson sat in her vast suite alone, immersed in a flow trance. She wore a pale gray suit, tailored to fit her long legs, with a red silk scarf tucked into the neck. Jady Ammanuel waited in the prep room, wearing a black fitted jacket and pants with yellow piping. Their tight curls matched the bright color.

Welga crossed the hallway and went through the door into the prep room. The day before, she and Connor had reprogrammed the room’s smart-metal bed frame into a cabinet, a table, and three chairs. A mattress made of static foam rested vertically against the window. Gear lay ready on every surface.

Ammanuel stood and extended a hand. “Sergeant Ramírez, it’s an honor.”

She’d looked up Ammanuel’s record during her door duty the prior day: Twenty-four years old. Ethiopian, German, and Vietnamese ancestry. Nonbinary terms of address. Served one tour of duty in Central America. Like Welga, Jady Ammanuel had been a Raider for the US Marines, with a specialization in Advanced Technology and Intelligence. As part of her ATAI training, Welga had received cutting-edge implants for audio, visual, and network interfaces. She had more electronics in her body than most people in the world, but Ammanuel had better. They had the advantage of newer technology—more sensors to monitor their body’s responses, faster feedback mechanisms to control the effects of pills.

I’m obsolete in every way. Welga swallowed the bitter thought and shook Ammanuel’s hand. None of this was their fault. “I’m a civilian now. You can drop the rank.”

“Third woman to get into MARSOC. You’re a legend to some of us. You set the bar high for every Raider.”

“Thank you.”

“So why’d you quit?” Dark eyes met her own, utterly without guile.

Welga did the math on Ammanuel’s age. The operation in Marrakech happened in early 2088. They would’ve been seventeen years old and paying little attention to politics or world news. It had taken a year for the truth to emerge: that the American president wanted to demonstrate his toughness, but he couldn’t, not with the caliph preaching peace and love. He needed to provoke a war with a pacifist, so he sent the first American all-female Raider unit into a blackout area, with an unreliable double agent as their intel source. He gave himself the perfect cover story in case the operation went wrong.

It might be an ambush, Captain John Andrews Travis had said at the time. But we know how to wade through the bullshit, and our commander in chief says go, so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to capture the target alive and unharmed, because you don’t inflict violence on a nonviolent person. Those are our orders.

“You can watch it in the archives,” she said.

On her feed, Connor raised his eyebrows at her terse reply. He’d been there, riding virtual for the operation until her squad crossed into the blackout zone, and he’d had a front-row seat for the aftermath.

Welga unclenched her fists. Jack Travis had been a mentor, almost a father, and he’d never talked down to his squad in spite of getting ripped by other men for leading a bunch of girls. “Captain and everyone else in my squad didn’t make it out of there. I was in the rear—and partly around a corner—when those assholes blew themselves up. Eight people, on their side. They took out their own kids. Took out my squad, too.”

Shock registered on Ammanuel’s face. “They all died?”

“Yeah. We were in a blackout zone, no comms. Worse, they had EMDs, which deactivated our pills, radios, and bots. Not only did they know we were coming, they knew exactly what type of soldiers we were. Then the president had the nerve to call it an error in judgment. Not his, of course, but my captain’s.”

After that, the president had pulled all combat personnel and sent bots to fight on the front lines. The caliph disavowed the suicide squad. He never used violence against people, even then. Welga wanted to go back in with a different team—smaller, less overtly military. They knew where he was. They could’ve gotten close to him, at least brought home the remains of her squad, but the president wanted war theatrics more.

Welga shook her head. “I lost my faith in god as a teenager, but that day, I lost faith in my government. I’ll always be loyal to my Raiders, to my family, and to the people of America, but I won’t fight for someone who doesn’t stand up for their troops.”

“You done, Ramírez?” Hassan asked on their team’s audio channel.

“Yeah. Let’s get to work.”
Sargeant Creative

S.B. Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Divya is the Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author of Runtime and coeditor of Escape Pod, with Mur Lafferty. Her short stories have been published at various magazines including Analog, Uncanny, and Tor. She is the author of the short collection, Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Situations, and debut novel, Machinehood. Divya holds degrees in computational neuroscience and signal processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author. Find out more about her at SBDivya.com or on Twitter as @DivyasTweets.

“With clever invention and astute observation popping from every paragraph, Machinehood takes you on a thrilling ride through a gritty, panoramic future that showcases intelligence in all its manifestations, humanity in all its potentialities, the infinite grace of ourselves as well as of our creations.” —Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

“From the opening manifesto to its ingenious technologies, Machinehood builds an inspiring and believable vision of the future that is both thought-provoking and hopeful. It will leave you wishing that tomorrow could arrive a little sooner.” —Ray Kurzweil, bestselling author, pioneering inventor, and renowned futurist

* “This stunning near-future thriller from Divya (Runtime) tackles issues of economic inequality, workers’ rights, privacy, and the nature of intelligence. . . . Crack worldbuilding and vivid characters make for a memorable, page-turning adventure, while the thematic inquiries into human and AI labor rights offer plenty to chew on for fans of big idea sci-fi. Readers will be blown away.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A fantastic big-idea thriller, with plenty of action, and substantive, important perspectives on what the future might look like.” —Malka Older, author of Infomocracy, and the Hugo-finalist Centenal Cycle

“Divya has created a richly imagined and eerily familiar world . . . confronting urgent questions about humans’ place in a society increasingly run by AIs.” —Kirkus Reviews