Bleedback Issue 1 Redo
Early attempts to control the ZombAI virus.
Early attempts to control the ZombAI virus.
In this post I’m revisiting my comic book series Bleedback and rewriting the opening scene with the aim of fixing some of the issues I had with it. The story takes place in the near future and centers around the ZombAI computer virus that got its name because it turned both machines and people into mindless bloodthirsty zombies. ZombAI was able to control people through their cybernetic enhancements and even utilized the human brain to power its takeover of the world. The Bleedback comic book series follows humanity’s attempts to contain the ZombAI virus and explores its origins inside of a state of the art simulation that you could think of as a precursor to the Matrix; exploring the events leading up to the robot takeover and the creation of the Matrix. The ZombAI virus is heavily related to Electinion, though I won’t say anything more than that as this is a major spoiler.
The story is set in the nearish future, the country is on the brink of a civil war. Andrei was once a senior level roboticist working on some of the world’s most advanced autonomous machines. But he lost his job to the very machines he created. Robots were increasingly being designed, or more specifically evolved, inside computer simulations. His wife had lost her job a few years earlier after an accident. She developed a dependency on the pain medication she was prescribed. She died of an overdose two years prior to the opening of the story leaving Andrei to raise their daughter on the meager subsidy the government provided. He was barred from working with advanced robotics but he found his second calling vintage motorcycles. In fact Andrei could be mistaken for one of the neo-Luddites who fanatically resist utilizing technology.
Andrei was worried about his daughter Angella who’d grown rebellious in her teenage years and had already had a few run ins with the law. There were so few jobs that any kind of criminal record could make it impossible for her to find work. Angella was less concerned about her status in the existing system believing that she was helping bring forth a superior system, that once instantiated would prove immortal because of its equity.
Andrei was worried she’d end up like him or worse her mother. A gifted engineer Angella had quite literally created an idealized portrait of her mother she called it MothAIr. The story opens amidst a massive protest movement sweeping the city into chaos. Andrei has discovered that Angella has disobeyed his orders to stay away so has entered the protest zone to pull her out.
We learn more about Andrei and Angella through their interactions with the variant factions that have descended on the city center. There is one group that are important to the story and whom Andrei holds much disdain for. In the story there is this entire subset of the population who spend most of their time not present to their surroundings (see Augers) and instead live their reality inside of the Mirror. It’s a much more extreme version of people walking down a busy sidewalk facetiming with friends and family. Technology allows people to place family members living on the other side of the world right next to them as they walk down a sidewalk. They are maintaining distant relationships while alienating those right next to them. Augers can customize how the city shows up to them by selecting a city skin transforming their city into a post apocalyptic wasteland filled with zombies, a castle from Game of Thrones, the jungle from Avatar or turn everyone into cute furry animals. In a world devastated by climate change, political upheaval and economic uncertainty the Mirror provides a seductive escape.
One application of the Mirror World technology that is important to the story is the rendering of anticipated futures onto the present. Imagine literally stepping into weather reports, or seeing the effects climate change will have on the world, or seeing how your city will look in five years once the approved developments are built. The future has become big business with people living their lives inside of future mirrors, for those who own the future control the present.
At the highest levels of society there was grave concern about the error rate of Future Now’s predictive model. The police had come to rely on the prescient technology that helped them bring the crime rate to historical lows. On the night of the protests the cities top officials were staring at a black hole of data, they were flying blind.
Even FutureNow’s weather forecasting service was growing inaccurate by the day. A data scientist demonstrated that the models were growing exponentially less accurate everyday, a trend that had started five years ago. He said it was no coincidence that this lined up with the infamous Russian incident (a popular conspiracy theory about the real reason Russia collapsed). For the police the unreliability of the weather reports was a big deal. It reinforced the perception that the authorities didn’t have control and this would only embolden the protesters.
FutureNow’s error rate had much bigger implications for national security. The leaders were enacting policy based on inaccurate models and the economy was taking a hit. Even debate about climate change being real was gaining traction and impacting the platforms of political parties. FutureNow blamed their decreasing performance on privacy laws that limited the data they could collect. Some blame the Chinese, saying that they were injecting bad data into the Mirror. Society was on the brink of a civil war and the authorities were not confident in their intel. There was a massive protest that night and the security agencies had competing “Optimal Solutions” for how to best minimize the impact of the protests.
Angella and her friends were preparing to enact a massive hack under the anonymity of the protests. They believed the chaos of the protests would provide them with adequate cover from the watchful eye of the authorities. And they were not alone, hundreds of anonymous compatriots were joining them all across the city. The mood amongst the protestors was volatile but electric, people were attracted to the spectacle or the event. Augers were turning off their city skins for the first time in months. This was the most exciting thing that had happened in the real world in a long time.
The protests were started in response to proposed humanity first legislation title the RobAI Protocol intended to bring back jobs by restricting the use of automation and AI. Though it was updates to data privacy laws that sparked outrage. Six months later the movement became a focal point for citizens to express any and all grievances. The sheer number of people who participated brought solidarity but water down the original cause. Each protestor knew that their proximity to the unrest would negatively impact their Citizen Score but they took comfort in knowing that the majority of the population would be impacted alongside them.
The state surveillance apparatus known as The Mirror was all pervasive, keeping a detailed record of nearly every second of a person’s life including their most intimate moments. People couldn’t shake the suspicion that someone was watching them going to the washroom despite the authorities insistence that a person’s Life Path could only be viewed with a court order. The security agencies rationalized the invasion of privacy as a necessary evil to protect society, the more data they had the safer society was. Though when the weather models became inaccurate citizens began to question whether giving up their data was worth it. These apprehensions were exacerbated each time a celebrities complete Life Path was hacked and leaked to the dark world.
The government had recently passed legislation dubbed the RobAI Protocol that placed significant restrictions on the use of autonomous machines. The government passed this legislation to appease a growing percentage of the population that saw robots as competition for jobs. Though many didn’t realise the legislation authorized increased surveillance measures in order to police the new laws.
Amongst the protests that day there was a small contingent of Pro Lifers who had formed friendships with intelligent machines and considered them to be worthy of the protection afforded all living things. Also, the RobAI Protocol affected people who had outfitted themselves with cybernetic implants, most particularly brain augmentation devices. There were fears amongst the body enhancement community that the law would permit the government to forcibly remove their implants.
In often violent opposition to the Prolifers, Augers and Ampers were radical neo-luddites. They believed that the cyberization of everything would lead to the eradication of the human species and fought for a repurification of the human body. Many fights broke out between extreme anti tech purists and amped up cyborgs.
The political discourse had spun 90 degrees from Left/Right to a Forward/Back) dichotomy. With the Ampers and Augers in the Forward camp embracing technology as the solution to future problems and the anti-luddites fighting for traditional values that would bring society back to a more sustainable state. Elections were fast approaching and polls showed the population was split on where they would cast their vote. The latest political controversy was the use of strategic predictive AI to chart the most effective path to election, that helped a conserviatve candidate win the previous election.
Amidst the peaceful sit ins, laydowns and fights between opposing factions, Angela was working her way through the crowd. She was planning to release a computer virus designed to infect every piece of technology in the area. Once in the most hostile and chaotic place she could find she activated the device. It acted as a data hub; devices looking for a stronger signal connected to it and were injected with the virus. Infected devices repeated this process, helping the virus spread exponentially. The virus was careful to sever the hosts connection with The Mirror before instantiating itself. Protestors were annoyed when their devices disconnected from the network severing for example their Life Feed to friends all over the world. Irritation grew into panic as rumors spread that the police were planning a raid. Stampedes ensued. The police descended upon the crowd firing tear gas and non-lethal artillery. People were trampled. Civilians were blinded by rubber bullets. The masses were used to consulting their Life Path and personal AI for recommendations on what to do for everything. And then one by one the devices came back on. As far as anyone could tell things were back to normal. But Angella and her friends were exhilarated, they knew the power of what they’d done. Soon the entire city would be infected, then the country. Viva La Revolution.
At a portable police command station a data analyst observed a surveillance dark spot growing out from the main square. It was spreading fast. It was immediately flagged as the highest security threat level triggering nationwide emergency retalitary procedures. At the cities cyber security command the captain ordered 1,000 additional surveillance drones be sent to the area in and around the growing data blackout. SecurAI recommended turning off the drones communication system meaning that they wouldn’t be able to send real time updates, but at least they’d have a record of the events that transpired. The national security agency made contact with the cities cyber command notifying them that they would be taking the lead against the threat. At NSA central command a room of analysts were searching for the culprits using SecurAI to review the Mirror’s footage right up to the moment the virus broke out. They had SecurAI scanning thousands of Life Paths for any behaviour that might link the person to the attack. The problem was that they were getting results that either implicated nearly everyone or noone, they didn’t have a smoking gun.
Angela and her friend Tim were walking with a crowd of people leaving the chaos at the main square. They listened intently to the chatter of the crowd, they overheard people accusing the police of triggering the blackout to incite chaos and panic into the protest. An Auger was complaining that he couldn’t deploy his City Skin. Angella’s news feed revealed a statement from the NSA, they said the blackout was the result of a terrorist attack and that the area was put under strict quarantine. The people around them started to panic now desperate to find a way out of the district.
At the cities cyber command operatives were reviewing the flagged files of potential suspects. They had instructed SecurAI to scrub the Life Path of everyone in the area looking for people with advanced computer experience or convictions. Hovering over thousands of data points were the images of the three top suspects, and there flickering on the screen was Andrei. Due to the attack status the authorities did not require a warrant to view Andreis Life Path, though the only way to view it in complete detail was at the cities World Modeling data center. Agents were already on site waiting for instructions.
Life Path grew out of the remnants of the big social media companies (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) after the government imposed strict regulations on how user data was stored and shared. This opened up a new wave of technological advancement and a surge in new services that could immediately leverage the work companies like Facebook had done. Though within a decade a new even more powerful company came to dominate the personal data space, Life Path.
In a secure room in the basement of the data center an analyst opens a full version of Andrei’s Life Path. No AI entities were allowed in the viewing room, only flesh and blood humans with zero electronic body modifications. This meant that the information that was captured in the room had to be recorded without the aid of an electronic device. Andrei’s entire life was on display, the meals he ate, the bowl movements he took, his arguments with his daughter, trying to resuscitate his unconscious wife. The controllers moved quickly to build a profile and search for suspicious entries. They learned he emigrated to the US from Russia shortly after the Sparticus virus was released and triggered the collapse of Russia’s economy and later the government. The agent was looking for recent signs that would link Andrei to the virus that was released during the protest. Curiously they couldn’t find any compromising information and it could take days to find something without the help of AI agents. In time they uncovered subtle but unmistakable evidence that Andrei’s Life Path had been fabricated, and not a few embarrassing events covered up, but nearly all of his life before arriving in America. The analysts are impressed by the sophistication of the work, it’s backed up by multiple data points. They understood that this level of editing would only be possible with the help of very powerful people.
Angella and Tim were eating at one of their favorite Japanese restaurants. Angella kept her attention on the front door expecting the police to enter at any minute. Then her dad stepped into the restaurant. Angella felt a poke in her side, Tim had apparently noticed Andrei too. Angella whispered, “I know.” They both brought their menus up to cover their faces. “What is he doing here?” Tim asked. Andrei took a seat immediately across from them, “Hi hun, you like this place too?” Angela and Tim lowered their menus trying to mask their anxiety. The devices of everyone in the restaurant started to flash. Dozens of drones descended in front of the restaurant and pointed their lights in the window flooding the restaurant with light. Andrei told Angella and Tim to put their heads down and keep quiet. In a beat police in full tactical gear burst into the restaurant and commanded everyone to place their heads down on the table. “I’m sorry,” Angela told her dad as her eyes watered. “Do what they say,” said Andrei. “I’ve done something really…“ Before she could finish her sentence Andrei leaned a little closer to Angela. He whispered in Angela’s ear while she watched the police restrain a middle aged couple.
Inside one of the world’s most state of the art computer simulations an NSA agent handed over one of the infected surveillance drones flanked by heavily armed marines. The technicians would test scenarios for the spread of the virus by placing it inside the most detailed model of the earth there was. They could watch the virus spread from the epicenter and then test millions of strategies for containment in just a matter of days. The idea would be to extract the most effective antivirus software for each type of infected device and have them ready for upload. The NSA operative clarified their core challenges. First the virus was different in each device, it appeared to mutate after each infection meaning developing a single antidote would be impossible, instead each device would need its own unique patch for every variant of the virus.
So far they were unable to significantly slow the virus’ spread in any of the simulations, none of the containment strategies were working. With an entire city district on lockdown the officials felt pressure to provide answers. The agent looked over the control room where dozens of operatives reviewed the status of simulations testing various containment procedures. On a giant monitor the agent watched as one of the predictive models show the entire eastern seaboard of the United States go dark. “How many weeks was that?” asked the NSA agent. The facility representative responded, “Days, sir. Thirteen days.”
There was panic in the streets now as people realised that the entire district was on quarantine and a curfew had been put in place. All non-residents would be permitted to leave but would need to pass through a checkpoint. The streets were starting to clear and Angella and Andrei both knew that attempting to pass through a checkpoint was risky. They were keenly aware that the Mirror was on high alert and looking for any suspicious activity. To communicate they embedded their own personal code into casual conversations about things like the weather.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Andrei said.
“Really?” Angella replied sounding excited.
“We’re going on a vacation.”
“Yes you are,” said the commander of the portable command base. He was standing over a screen being monitored by an operative. “What’s the status on Andrei’s Life Path?”
Meanwhile at the advanced simulation facility (CCVC). “They’re all failing, sir” said one of the controllers. “The virus is adapting very fast. It’s like it’s anticipating our attack.”
At that moment the light in the control room went out.
Meanwhile at the NSA’s command center investigators were scrambling to get a handle on the situation.
“The CCVC just went dark, they were testing some of the infected devices. We’re working to make contact.”
“What? They’re the best,” replied the commander.
“Second best, sir. There is WOMB.”
“Wasn’t it shutdown after the Russia incident?”
“No,“ said the Director, “It’s still operational, just less powerful without the Russian node.”
“The Chinese would become fully aware of the situation.”
“We may not have a choice.”
Andrei and Angella were walking down the street when they ran into a friend from their neighborhood. They tried to avoid making eye contact with him. But he recognized them, and called out to them. He was eager to find someone he recognized. “What the hell is going on? He asked.” At that moment a gust of wind blasted them from all sides with dirt. They were blinded by dust and heavy flood lights. Angella could just make out the silhouette of dozens of heavily armed men. A voice came over the loudspeaker, “Drop to the ground. Keep your hands where we can see them.”