A Fact-Based Fantasy With Drones, Robots, and Rioting on the Washington Mall
Blending fiction with deep research on artificial intelligence, this excerpt from "Burn-In," a futuristic techno-thriller set in Washington, D.C., is both creepy and exciting.
Burn-In: A Novel of the REAL Robotic Revolution is a new form of book, a cross of a novel and nonfiction. It is a techno-thriller, following a hunt for a terrorist through the streets of a future Washington, D.C. At the same time, it is a work of research, sharing over 300 factual explanations and predictions, baked into the story, replete with the nonfiction reference endnotes to show their source from the real world. The idea is for the reader to enjoy a vivid story and characters, but also learn about everything from how AI works and its planned applications, to its likely impact on the future of politics, economics, society, and security. As a result, Burn-In has drawn early praise from a diverse mix that ranges from the current or former heads of the CIA, U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, NATO, and LinkedIn to the writer of Lost, Watchmen, and the new Star Trek movies.
The following scene takes place about halfway through the story. As the forces of automation and AI leave too many in the economy behind, a series of cyber-attacks have hit various critical infrastructure systems of Washington, D.C. The investigation of FBI Special Agent Lara Keegan and her new partner has led them into the midst of a massive protest on the National Mall and a clue that points to the role of a U.S. senator in the conspiracy.
Keegan stood on the roof of the FBI’s mobile command post, a converted tractor-trailer truck parked maybe 150 yards to the west of the base of the Lincoln Memorial. With one foot propped on a knee-high, mushroom-like antenna, she leaned into the breeze and surveyed the scene.
She could have viewed it through video feeds, but she wanted to get the lay of the land.
It was about as perfect a day as could be planned for a revolution. The weather had swung again, down from the low nineties to a pleasant and, most important to the cleanup, low-humidity 71 degrees. Under overcast skies, the slight breeze cut through the trees that surrounded the National Mall’s perimeter, feeling like soft, light touches to her skin.
A voice buzzed in her earbud. “Hey, you can’t be up there!” One of the FBI support techs inside must have heard the footsteps on the roof.
She ignored him and closed her eyes, going over what she had just seen. She wanted to imprint it all in her mind, something her old gunny sergeant had taught: a visualization insurance plan, in case the GPS went down mid-patrol.
Just above the tree line, a flock of media drones danced up and down, their control algorithms positioning them for the best crowd shots, but also trying to block their robotic competitors’ line of sight. Flying above them was another layer of law enforcement surveillance drones from each of the agencies that had to play together for events like these. U.S. Park Police had jurisdiction over the National Mall, but they were backed up by D.C. Metro, which owned the roads that ran through it, while Secret Service had the White House side, and U.S. Capitol Police had the other end of the Mall. Hell, there was probably a drone from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing police somewhere up in there too, thought Keegan. A third layer, yet higher, was made up of air taxis, evidently diverting from their normal commutes so that passengers could post selfies of themselves above this historic gathering.
Below the aerial scrum, a pair of movie screens framed the Lincoln Memorial. But there was no sign or banner draped overhead—in the augmented-reality feeds, each person would just project their own political slogan onto the screens and the building’s blank white marble. Everyone could then sell or see whatever message they wanted, contradictory beliefs occupying the same hallowed ground.
A wooden speaker’s podium stood in the center of the stage, an old-model silver microphone set on it—an unmistakable link back to the past great leaders who had stood there. Whoever was advising Senator Jacobs knew their business.
Before the memorial was an overwhelming crowd of people. For all the time she had lived in D.C., Keegan had never seen a protest march this big in person. Yet this was different from the photos of the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s rights marches she had only seen pictures of. Or rather, it was the crowd that was different, because they all looked different.
Usually protesters shared a common look or background. Mostly teens. Or mostly women. Or mostly pissed-off farmers. But here was a skinhead geared up in leather standing next to a thin, pale man in his fifties wearing a cheap gray suit, a Treasury Department lanyard around his neck. An elderly white woman in a shawl, carrying a sign that read “Income is a Human Right,” wedged herself next to a teen with beaded LED dreadlocks that blinked an image of the American flag. The two had locked arms and punched their fists into the air at the drones overhead, as if the power of their shared anger alone could rip them from the sky.
Keegan snorted at the thought—not just the fantasy that you could will an algorithm to fail, but also because she’d seen an angry crowd in Riyadh do the very same thing right before they charged her check-point. She wanted to shout back down to this crowd: You still have it pretty damn good compared to the rest of the world.
It didn’t matter; Jacobs offered something that had been missing for more than an entire generation: unity. The demonstrators were discovering what it was like to join together again with fellow Americans. Distinct in their own prior allegiances and affinities, together they were discovering how being angry could become its own identity. Angry at the changes they’d seen play out on the news and up close, from the color of the water that ran past their city to the historic flood that had taken a chunk out of it. Angry at what had happened to the banks, the food, and even the air itself. Angry at whatever catastrophe was next. But most of all, angry at all the algorithms and bots marching a few Americans into the future while leaving the rest of them behind. They no longer understood how the machines worked, but they understood they were changing everything. It was one massive crowd of a people who just wanted to get things back to the way they used to be.
“Agent Keegan, we really do need you to get down. Everything’s calibrated up there. You could knock us offline,” said the tech voice in her ear.
She opened her eyes and saw the crowd had grown even larger in the minute she’d been going over the scene in her mind.
“TAMS, estimate crowd size,” Keegan asked her partner. She’d left the Tactical Autonomous Mobility System robot below, both to keep a lower profile and to avoid freaking out the techs in the command post by putting any more weight up top.
“Surveillance footage identifies 368,242 individuals presently standing on the National Mall grounds,” TAMS responded. “Washington Metro reports 96,786 additional riders on incoming trains. D.C. bus system reports 57,345 on transit buses. Share ridership services report 12,398 customers designating the Mall as their destination—”
“Got it. End request,” Keegan said. “We need to get up there before he starts up. I’m coming down.” As she climbed down, TAMS was already waiting for her, its face looking up at her expectantly. But she knew that was just her mind layering human emotions on top of the machine. Indeed, the design was designed to do that, modeled after emotional blankness of a Japanese Noh mask.
When Keegan made the small jump off the last rung, her boots created small splashes, squishing into the grass. Despite the last three days of sun, the soil was still waterlogged from the flood from the hack of the upper Potomac dams and D.C. water systems. Everything behind them, from Independence Avenue all the way down to the river, looked like it could have been one big rice paddy. Even now, the FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., and Terrorism War Memorials were all still submerged under a foot of water.
“Follow,” Keegan instructed the machine. It instantly projected a suggested route to the stage onto her vizglasses. She ignored it; she’d already planned her route from her perch atop the FBI trailer. TAMS’s mapping software wasn’t factoring in the trouble that could play out if a robot marched its way through the biggest anti-technology crowd in history. Keegan’s path would take a little bit longer, but they would skirt through the back edge of the crowd, where thousands of people spilled over off the south side of the rectangle of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
As they started out, a forty-ish man in khakis and an expensive neon-green running jacket was the first to turn around and notice them. Probably some out-of-work lawyer or lobbyist, judging by the expensive black loafers that he was wearing despite the muck. He eyed Keegan, wearing her blue windbreaker with “FBI” stenciled in bright yellow, and the robot, wearing a vest marked the same over its gray mottled chest plates. The man gave the robot the middle finger. Another protester standing beside him noticed him turn, a woman in her twenties wearing a tie-dye skirt, held a neatly inked cardboard sign reading “Humanity First.” She laughed and slapped the man’s back in congratulations at his success at insulting a robot oblivious to insults.
The crowd thickened as they moved closer to the memorial. “Pull in tight behind me, half distance of normal-follow mode,” Keegan instructed TAMS. The corner of her glasses showed a green thumbs-up emoji signaling the bot’s compliance. The machine would be nipping at her heels, but it would make it harder for people to see what was coming through.
As they passed through the back of the crowd, most ignored them. Everyone was transfixed by the setup on stage; plus the five-foot-tall TAMS was almost too short to see before it had already passed by, its humanoid form blending in. When people did notice Keegan and the machine, though, there were none of the amused smiles they’d received during their first training runs. Mostly, there were frowns and curses. A few protesters recorded videos, seeking to go viral with a post about a machine shouldering its way into their day of outrage. One big guy, wearing tan construction worker’s overalls, spat at the robot. He missed and hit the back of another protester, their eyes still on the stage, oblivious to the drama behind. Keegan kept moving. Arresting some pissed-off, out-of-work day laborer for “contempt of cop” was not why they were here.
The robot kept pace with her, but Keegan noticed its feed of messages into her vizglasses was a microsecond slow. Overload. Every sensor in the area, from drones and the D.C. police surveillance towers to the heartbeat reports in elderly protesters’ pacemakers, created a massive fire hose of data that bogged it down.
Keegan felt a tug on her right sleeve. Her arm tensed, ready for a strike, maybe someone not content to spit. But as she turned, she saw a pair of rheumy eyes looking up from beneath a hoodie. A young girl, maybe in her late teens. It was hard to tell. Her cheeks still had the outlines of the hip harlequin color blocks that had become the fashion for fooling face recognition software in surveillance cameras. Now, the makeup was streaked, the girl looking like a clown who had spent the last night in tears.
“Hey, can you spare anything?” the girl asked. “I’m from Baltimore.” Keegan nodded and gave her a $50 bill from her wallet before moving on without a word. It was one of the bills from the big bank hack, when the ATM systems had been crashed. Hopefully, the girl would be able to use the bill to get something at one of the street vendors. A few were not yet linked into the tracking system that would take the money out of circulation.
The two approached the stage’s security perimeter, a 4-foot-high temporary metal fence circling the Lincoln Memorial’s base. A line of D.C. Metro Police officers stood behind it, looking unmovable in their well-worn riot armor. The police officers warily tracked TAMS’s arrival, trying to read the crowd’s response to the machine, worried it would spark the very violence they were here to stop. Once they were through the security checkpoint, Keegan noticed TAMS had already reverted to a normal follow distance, having analyzed and projected that Keegan’s close-in order was just for the crowd environment. Always a learning machine.
In the crowd, a call-and-response chant began. “Who is the future for?” a blue-jeans-wearing hype-man yelled over the loudspeakers. “We’re who the future’s for!” screamed back the crowd. It was supposed to be spontaneous, but everything was choreographed by the text on the physical screens and people’s augmented reality vizglasses feeds, which would then project an image of someone in the crowd.
Keegan indicated TAMS should hang back as they approached the waiting area for the speakers concealed at the back of the memorial. “There’s Senator Jacobs,” said Keegan. “Wait here.”
TAMS pulsed another green emoji at Keegan and moved to stand by one of the pillars, the bulk of the massive 7-and-a-half-foot-thick fluted white marble columns making the tiny robot look even smaller by comparison.
Keegan was in no mood to draw this out; she needed to get to Jacobs before he was swept up in his own moment.
As she walked up to the circle of staffers surrounding the senator, Keegan recited in her head the opening line she was going to deliver.
Jacobs beat her to it.
“Get that monstrosity out of here!” screamed Jacobs, pointing over the shoulder of one of his staffers at TAMS, standing back by the pillar. “Are you trying to start a riot?”
Jacobs strode out to meet her, face reddening with each step. TAMS sent a query to her vizglasses as to whether she wanted assistance, which Keegan blinked away. She studied the sneering man’s face, taking in the broken blood vessels in his nose, the gray hairs in his eyebrows, the sculpted canopy of thinning hair, and the anger lines around his mouth, all the imperfections that were automatically glossed over as part of the unspoken algorithmic compact between the media and powerful people. He was a couple of inches taller than Keegan, and it seemed like he was willing himself even taller, to tower over her and intimidate.
“Senator, if anybody starts a riot today, it’s going to be from that stage.”
“That’s an insult—as is bringing that robot here. How dare you, after everything that’s happened. Agent, you’re supposed to be stopping terrorists, not inciting violence. Give me your name!”
“Special Agent Lara Keegan, Washington Field Office.”
A pause to enjoy watching Jacobs’s eyes bulge—he’d heard the name before. But in what context?
“K — E — E — G — A — N.” She stepped forward and hissed in his ear. “But before you file a formal report, I have another name to share: Gregory Heath.”
Senator Jacobs snapped at the name of the extremist leader, “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
Senator Jacobs is lying, read the message from TAMS, monitoring Jacobs’s facial micro-expressions from 10 meters away.
Of course he is, Keegan thought. He’s a politician.
Jacobs looked rattled for a second, but then a woman stepped between them. She was in her forties, wearing thick black glasses that contrasted with skin so pale it looked as if it had never been touched by the sun. As she wrinkled her snub nose and glared at Keegan, she tapped her vizglasses to ensure they were on, likely rapidly ascertaining who this impertinent person really was. “Senator, you have to make your way to the staging area. You’ll be on soon.”
All it took was an audience of one, and the senator composed himself.
“I have an important announcement today and this nonsense has to wait,” he said firmly. “Alicia here is my chief of staff. You can make an appointment with her. Alicia, get the agent on my calendar for next week.”
Keegan knew there’d be no “next week.” The meeting would be bumped just long enough for the senator to bring holy hell down on the FBI’s leadership and budget. In the weeks afterward that it would take to officially dismiss her from the FBI, she would likely be assigned a job in the flooded Hoover Building basement, checking driver’s license numbers by hand.
The woman started to ask for Keegan’s contact information, but Keegan interrupted. “No, that’s not going to work. This is urgent. I’ll wait right here to speak with the senator after he gets offstage.”
TAMS sent an urgent update—not just a message icon, but a flash of bright red that washed across her whole view.
“I’m sorry, the senator is not going to be able—”
Keegan held up a hand for her to be silent, reading quickly.
“Jared and Haley Keegan are in the operational zone, approximately 73 meters from your position,” TAMS messaged.
“What? In the crowd?” Keegan said out loud at the naming of her husband and five-year-old daughter. “Here?”
She turned to look at the crowd, even larger, pressed in even tighter in the minutes since she’d surveyed it earlier. A faint green arrow appeared in the field of view of her vizglass, marking her family’s location. The crowd roared, a surge of sound that caught her off guard.
She turned to see that Jacobs had stepped onstage, slightly stooping, as if unsure if all this was for him. But with every step closer to the wooden podium, Jacobs stood taller, broader, the crowd’s fury a source of energy. With his chin now cocked, the senator said into the microphone, “Now. Is. Our. Time!”
The crowd only got louder with each line of Jacobs’ speech. The mass of people began to press toward the metal barriers, the line of police in riot gear rippling slightly, each of the cops taking a small step back, steadying themselves in case the fencing broke under the weight of tens of thousands of people.
Keegan could sense this was going to turn bad—and soon. She tried to open her personal comms app on her Watchlet to message Jared, but it froze, the network likely overloaded by the scale of the crowd.
She leaped off the back of the memorial. Between the crowd and the police line, there was no way she could make her way directly to where the projected green arrow was pulsing. So she worked her way back through the edge of the crowd, reversing how she and TAMS had made their way up. Her stomach knotted tighter with each step, not knowing what she was going to say to Jared or if he would even listen to her. They hadn’t spoken since their last fight.
Ducking under the signs waved by two protestors, Keegan pulled up quickly to reorient herself, and somebody bumped into her from behind, hard. “Back off,” she hissed and turned around, only to see TAMS. She’d forgotten to tell the machine to stay behind. It stared back at Keegan, pulsing a thumbs-up emoji of its readiness to her viewscreen. “That’s all you have to say?” Keegan said. “Stay close, but don’t step on my heels again.”
Another green thumbs-up. It also displayed a health monitor alert that Keegan was exhibiting signs of stress and anger. No kidding.
As she looked out at the crowd, she saw the Korean War Memorial, slightly to the right. The statues of the poncho-clad stone soldiers, stretched out in a patrol, broke up the tight mass of the crowd. That was where it made the most sense to wade in.
For the moment, the crowd’s focus had unshakably locked onto Jacobs. The energy in the air was real, unmistakable if not detectable by actual sensors. He was pulling them in, recounting how he had long been the lonely voice, warning against the ever-increasing spread of automation. He was the prophet to whom no one had listened. But now they would listen: “Because we will make them!”
As Keegan and TAMS reached the periphery of the Korean War Memorial, she saw how a few people had perched snake-bodied camera bots atop the statue soldiers’ helmets, their arrowlike heads panning from articulated rubber coiled bodies.
Another cheer from the crowd reverberated as Jacobs launched into a diatribe against the president permitting all of this “so-called progress to happen” due to inattention and greed, even letting the government’s own plans for the future be developed by the “very same inhuman monsters who are destroying the country, while profiting from it.” He stopped short of naming Willow Shaw, the cloud computing magnate, but he didn’t have to; the crowd already knew who he was talking about.
The green arrow in her vizglasses showed Jared and Haley 80 feet into the crowd from the Korean War Memorial. So close, yet Keegan could not figure out how to get to them, especially with the machine on her heels. And she couldn’t very well leave TAMS alone any more than Jared could leave Haley.
Think. Think. Think, she willed herself.
Then she saw a teenager in bright orange leather motocross gear that had hard plastic guards protecting his joints. He looked like some kind of postmodern knight, or the dissident version of the riot police. Instead of a shield and lance, though, he held two signs, dark blue reflective print on a white background, one propped on each shoulder.
After telling TAMS to stay in the shadow of one of the statues, Keegan took off her FBI jacket, turned it inside out, and went over to him. “Hey, my sign got wet and ruined. Could I have one of those?”
The biker looked her over, blinked a few times into his viz, and then smiled. They were all in this together. “Sure. I took two because they were giving them out for free anyway. Which one do you want? ‘Work + Glory+ God’ or ‘Damn the Machines!’?”
“Whichever one’s heavier,” said Keegan.
“They’re exactly the same. Here, take ‘Damn the Machines!’”
“Thanks,” Keegan said. As she held it, the sign’s pole felt off. She looked down and noticed it had a woven grip etched into it, which seemed odd. The weight of the pole was also off. It was plastic, but completely solid. The paper of the poster at the top was held in place by two plastic sleeves, each 4 inches in length. She ran her hand along the thick sleeves, noting they were thicker than they needed to be.
Take the paper out and you had a damn good melee weapon. With enough force, it could punch its way through skin, maybe even light body armor.
TAMS preemptively sent Keegan a message, driven by its human partner’s newfound interest in the sign: “There are 2,445 “Damn the Machines!” signs presently in the protest. Stenciling and format indicate the signs were made at the same facility as the 2,456 “Work + Glory + God” posters, 2,467 “Humans First” posters, 2,473 . . .”
So someone had seeded the crowd with thousands of weapons that wouldn’t be picked up by metal detectors. It was a lot like how the alt-righters back in school had weaponized flagpoles, always trying to act like they were patriotic, but really just gearing up for an unfair fight.
“Cease update,” said Keegan. “Just confirm Jared’s location and join me.”
“Position unchanged,” messaged TAMS. “They are 18 meters away.”
Keegan started a chant to match the message on her sign—“Damn the Machines! Damn the Machines!”—lifting it up and down in front of her, working the cadence into her steps. It worked and the crowd began to part, ever so slightly, as TAMS drafted behind her.
It wasn’t until she was three rows of people away from the green arrow projected onto her viz that she could finally see Jared with her own eyes. He had Haley on his shoulders, the little girl tapping on his chest with her purple rain galoshes. Keegan pushed her way through and grabbed Jared’s shoulder. He looked surprised and then mad.
“What you doing here?” he said, instinctively holding Haley’s legs tighter to his chest at the sight of her.
“We need to get out of here. It’s not safe for either of you,” said Keegan. “Why would you even bring her here?”
“This is history in the making,” Jared said. “She’ll always be able to say she was here.”
Keegan tried to figure out if this was the work stim drugs speaking. They kept him focused when the remote work grew numbing, but also had that false confidence side effect.
The earnestness in his face, though, showed it wasn’t. He really did believe it.
At that moment, Haley looked down and saw her. “Mommy! I can’t see the man on the stage. Can I watch through your viz?”
“Sure, honey. Let’s get you and Daddy over to the side where we can have some space,” Keegan replied.
“No, Lara,” Jared said. “We’re staying. You don’t get to . . .” That was when he saw TAMS standing behind her. “Did you really bring that thing here?”
Just then an alert hit her viz: “Notice: Senator Jacobs . . .”
Before she could finish reading the message from TAMS on her viz, she knew what was happening. Her body felt the eyes of tens of thousands of people on her.
“Mommy, Mommy, that’s you!” Haley screamed in delight.
Keegan looked up, and there they were: she and TAMS close-up on the two massive screens by the Memorial, Haley’s waving hand in the corner.
The screens shifted back to Senator Jacobs onstage. “And they even dared to send one of their machines for me today. To stop me! This is what they do to those who speak the truth,” Jacobs roared.
“Lara, what’s going on?” Jared asked. At the same time Haley cried out, “Mommy? Is that man talking about you?”
Simultaneously, TAMS began flooding Keegan’s vizglasses with updates, but all she saw was the wash of red color that now painted over them. Someone had tagged Keegan and TAMS, so anybody using augmented-reality glasses within the area would see their location, a giant dark red arrow hovering over their heads.
The people right around them began to turn, realizing that the arrow and the woman on the screen were literally right beside them.
Over the loudspeakers, Jacobs’s speech slurred as he raged. “Don’t let them do it! Don’t let the machines win! I promise whatever you do, you will be remembered as the righteous ones. As you protect me, I will protect you!”
So that was it. Jacobs wasn’t going to leave it to the bureaucracy to silence her.
“My threat assessment is—” TAMS reported. “We need to go, now!” said Keegan.
Just as the words came out of her mouth, someone snatched the “Damn the Machines!” sign out of Keegan’s hand and she was shoved to the ground. As she landed on her side, the fall knocked her into Jared and the two of them tumbled. Haley fell off her father’s shoulders. Keegan tried to push herself off the ground, fingers grasping at the slick grass for grip. As she pulled herself up on her hands and knees, a kick struck her on the right of her rib cage, just below the shoulder. The shock of it radiated across her whole side. She could hear Jared screaming for Haley, but the voice moved farther away as the rush of the crowd swept him up.
Another kick landed on her left. This one packed the power of a football punter, the laces of a shoe connecting in the soft of her stomach and lifting her up. The impact blasted the air out of Keegan’s lungs and she fell over gasping.
Fighting for breath, she thought only of Haley. Where was she? All she saw was muddy feet and legs. Somehow, over it all, she could still hear Jacobs yelling. “By taking back what is ours, we’ll show them who has the true power!”
Keegan struck out with a kick, feeling her boot’s heel impact someone’s knee. She didn’t know if it was the person who had kicked her; she just needed to create space. From her right another kick came in, this one trying to stomp on her head. She managed to block it with her right forearm.
Still on the ground, she drew her pistol, the bio-lock thrumming in her hand as it identified its owner. Keegan’s right arm lashed out with the gun, smashing the metal edge of its grip hard into a hand that was trying to grab her. She rolled over and, with her left hand, pushed herself up from the ground that had already been churned into mud from the fight. Three points of her body touched earth, while her right arm swung the pistol in an arc. The crowd pulled back as she panned the weapon in their direction.
Keegan spat blood and wet grass as she stood. Two hands on the pistol now in a close-combat shooting posture, the stance natural from years of training, but her mind forgetting everything else but her daughter.
“Haley! Haley!” she shouted, blinking away tears and mud, as her mind registered that she had lost her vizglasses during the skirmish. She continued to sweep her gun in an arc until she caught sight of an elderly woman, wearing a gray GEORGETOWN LAW sweatshirt, with Haley wrapped in her arms. The scared look on the woman’s face and the way she stroked the girl’s hair showed she was trying to protect the little girl.
Haley wailed in fear, but she was safe. Keegan wanted to run to her daughter more than anything else, but she could sense movement behind her. She spun, swinging the gun barrel back and forth at the crowd that had edged closer again.
“Back!” Keegan roared. “GET THE FUCK BACK!”
When the crowd stepped back just a few feet, she saw TAMS sprawled on the ground, two men bashing away at it with poster poles. One was in a blue denim shirt and cowboy hat with an American flag stuck in its leather band, the other wearing a bright yellow school crossing-guard’s vest. They hadn’t even bothered to pull the poster off their weapons. The paper anti-automation signs flapped about, torn and crumpled, as the poles crashed down on the robot. As Crossing Guard hammered away, Cowboy froze, seeing Keegan and her gun. He grabbed his partner, trying to stop him.
Over the loudspeaker, Jacobs was still yelling something, but the only voice Keegan could hear was Haley: “Mommy, they hurt him!” The little girl broke free of the elderly woman and ran to the machine, the muck sucking at her purple boots. Haley reached out a hand to TAMS to try to help the machine get to its feet.
Keegan tipped the gun’s muzzle slightly, to signal to the two men what would happen if they moved even the slightest bit toward her daughter. But she knew that if she fired, it would be all over in this crowd. They would tear her and her family apart and nobody would stop them.
The two men with poles didn’t move, but in the crowd behind them, Keegan could see an approaching line of posters bobbing up and down in tight formation. Reinforcements.
TAMS stood up, mud dripping from the sensor ridges that ran down the back of its head. The two of them looked ridiculous, the 5-foot-tall robot, its chest plate now gashed and dented, and the little girl in purple rain galoshes, holding its hand. Keegan could see the robot beginning to boot back up, a bent antenna extending to begin a data download.
TAMS reported in. “Agent Keegan, I am back online. Your vizglasses are nonoperational.”
“Haley,” she said calmly, ignoring the machine. “Come back to Mommy.”
“But they’ll hurt TAMS,” the little girl pleaded.
The crowd hung back, but Keegan could see that the two men now understood who the girl was. The man she’d mentally dubbed Crossing Guard stalked toward Haley, as if toward easy prey.
“Move another inch and you die!” Keegan shouted.
She pointed the gun at the narrow space between the man’s eyes. It wasn’t the proper aim point that she’d been trained at Quantico, but Keegan wanted him to literally look down the barrel. There would be no misunderstanding about where the first bullet would go if anyone touched Haley. The realization that she might have to shoot a man in front of her daughter made her simultaneously want to throw the gun away, and to shoot him even more.
The two men remained still, but behind them, two more protesters carrying makeshift weapons approached through the crowd. One wore digital camouflage fatigues and a matching chest rig, some militia member cosplaying soldier. The other was built like a body builder but wearing a white polo shirt. One of the alt-righter cliques. They pulled up when they saw Keegan’s gun. But Keegan knew more were on the way.
“Butterfly,” she said, deliberately ignoring them, speaking in her softer, mommy voice, “Let go of TAMS’s hand.”
Jared’s voice weighed in from behind her, the standoff allowing him to force his way back through the crowd. “Haley, come back to Daddy and Mommy, now.”
The little girl gripped the robot’s hand tighter.
“Agent Keegan, there is an important update from the FAA,” reported the machine in its normal tone. TAMS was either oblivious to the fact that it was about to be abandoned or was aware but didn’t care.
“The autonomous air traffic above the National Mall is not responding to FAA airspace-management protocols. Attempted overrides have not been successful,” it continued.
Keegan looked up and saw the barely controlled chaos of the earlier autonomous flight patterns had formed into a single orderly swarm of dozens of drones circling in a tornado-like swirl.
Then, the whine of a jet turbine pierced through the air.
An Ehang passenger-shuttle drone broke free of the swarm and swooped low over the crowd. Too low—just 20 feet overhead. It was close enough that Keegan could see the passenger banging on the clear-glass canopy from inside the drone with her fists, her mouth gaping in a silent scream. A second later, the drone pulled up slightly and then slammed into the side of the Washington Monument. A fiery blast erupted, but the solid stone held fast. The drone’s crumpled wreck then slid down the side of the monument, onto the crowd standing below.
Small news drones then began to peel off from the larger swarm, one by one, diving down and then exploding into the crowd. People stampeded when they realized what was happening, the standoff between the FBI agent and the protestors eclipsed by the automated death raining down.
Over the din, Keegan screamed, “TAMS! Get Haley to safety! Authorize: Riot Control Mode!”
TAM’s head tilted for a microsecond as it accessed the new operating profile. At the same time, the first man in the denim shirt broke toward the machine, swinging his pole in front of him like a scythe. It wasn’t clear whether Cowboy was attacking the machine and girl or just trying to clear his way through the crowd. It didn’t matter.
As the pole swung toward Haley, TAMS’s left arm snapped out, swatting the crude weapon aside. The machine then gently moved the girl behind it, bending at the knees to protect her with its body, while still holding her hand with its right hand. At the same moment, TAMS’s left limb went from rigid to flexible at the elbow and its forearm telescoped out another 6 inches. As it did, the fingers in its hand balled into a macelike sphere studded with knuckle joints. The robot smashed its fist into the man’s forearm, just above where he held the weapon he had been swinging in Haley’s direction.
The man dropped the pole with a scream, his ulna and radius bones shattered. As he fell to his knees, the robot’s arm began to swing in a figure-eight motion in front of it, the flexible arm moving like a nunchaku from its elbow, almost too fast to see. The big man wearing the polo shirt then tried to tackle TAMS from the right, where the robot had been shielding Haley. But before he could get close, the machine’s torso pivoted on its frame. The figure-eight arc of its rapidly spinning left arm rotated with the turn, colliding with the man’s collarbone in a spray of blood. It next spun toward the pretend soldier, who dropped his pole and edged back.
“TAMS, get us out of here,” Keegan yelled. “Get Haley to a secure location.”
“OK,” the machine said calmly, its programmed order acknowledgment delivered in the very same tone as if she’d asked it to sit or stand. Just beyond them, a drone flew into the Reflecting Pool in a watery eruption of spray and sparks.
“Please follow me,” it said. Keegan pulled the elderly woman behind Haley, the robot still holding her hand behind it. She motioned Jared to stand behind the elderly woman. They formed a tight line, stacked together behind their robot shield.
“Go, Go, Go!” Keegan screamed, slapping the robot’s shoulder just like she would in a room-clearing tactical formation.
But they didn’t run off. TAMS advanced at a walking pace, its arm swinging before them in a figure eight, arcing to the right and then left, clearing their path with a resonant hum like an airplane propeller. Most people in the chaotic stampede of the crowd flowed around the tight mass of five bodies, like river water around a stone. Every so often, though, someone got too close, and the machine’s spinning arm struck down.
Packed in tight and without her vizglasses, though, Keegan couldn’t see the robot’s route. But she soon got situated. After about 150 yards, they’d made their way through the dense heart of the crowd around the Reflecting Pool, to where the terrain opened up in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Rather than going toward the FBI command truck, TAMS kept going straight. Was the machine trying to find Jacobs? Had some algorithm reranked its priorities back to the investigation? “TAMS, I said get to safety,” Keegan yelled. “Not Jacobs. Priority is safety!”
“OK,” TAMS replied and kept moving in the very same direction toward the metal fence at the base of the Lincoln Memorial steps.
Most of the police had fled, but a Park Police officer still crouched beneath the arched entry gate, sheltering from the crashing drones. He saw TAMS’s macelike arm swinging and pointed his shotgun right at them.
“Halt!” he yelled, but the shotgun’s muzzle wavered.
TAMS froze, not at the gun, but at the sight of the fellow law enforcement officer giving orders that overrode Keegan’s by coming afterwards in the timestamp. Its arm stopped spinning and it stood still.
Keegan stepped out from behind the stack of bodies, holstering her weapon and putting her hands out, palms open, to show no threat. “FBI! Let us through!” she said, pulling out her badge.
“Get back!” said the policeman, gaining more confidence at the sight of a bureaucratic rival. “I don’t care if you’re FBI, lady. You can’t go through, especially not with your kid.”
As Keegan opened her mouth to reply, the roar of another drone’s engine drowned her out. The police officer looked up to the sky for a moment, and Keegan noticed his weapon’s strap wasn’t wrapped around his hand. Rookie move.
Keegan snatched the shotgun barrel with her left hand, yanking it toward her. Then with her right, she reached over to grab the barrel, pulling it with both arms so that the muzzle now safely faced out under her arm. The policeman tried to wrestle it back, but with the gun now tucked under her arm, Keegan gave it a hard tug, feeling the snap as the man’s trigger finger broke against the guard. Swinging the shotgun by its barrel back over her head in an exaggerated version of a baseball batter’s windup, she slammed the gun’s wooden stock into the policeman’s helmet. The man fell to the ground unconscious.
“Let’s move,” said Keegan.
TAMS reanimated and stepped over the unconscious policeman, still leading Haley by the hand. As they dashed up the memorial’s wide steps, Keegan turned to see if anyone pursued them. Seeing no one, she tossed the shotgun aside.
The podium, where just minutes ago Senator Jacobs had summoned the wrath of the crowd upon them, stood empty. He’d apparently fled at the first drone crash. Had that been his plan all along, to launch his campaign for president on a wave of victimhood and sympathy? Whatever it was, thought Keegan, it could wait. She needed to get Haley out of here now.
As they entered the darkness of the interior hall of the memorial, they stopped at the base of the massive statue. A few other people and cops huddled inside, peering out around the columns at the pandemonium below. The mass of the drone swarm was visually smaller, but it still ejected drones in steep arcs into the crowd.
“Agent Keegan, we are not yet secure,” TAMS said. Keegan noticed that too. For all the bulk of the memorial, the fact that Lincoln’s statue could gaze out on the National Mall grounds meant they were all still exposed to danger.
TAMS pointed to a set of descending stairs. A red velvet rope stand that had been blocking them lay on its side. The robot started toward the stairs, while Jared rushed to grab Haley’s other hand and hurry her down to safety.
Keegan looked back through the open side of the Lincoln Memorial as another passenger drone sped past, parallel to the building’s face. As it flew by, the marble columns broke up the image of its flight and then it disappeared from view. But the drone doubled back, flying away from the memorial, then abruptly changed direction again. When Keegan saw the aircraft in profile, she grasped that it was circling back to line up an attack run at the Lincoln Memorial itself. As the aircraft flew straight toward them directly over the Reflecting Pool, its sole passenger could be seen covering their eyes.
“Run!” Keegan screamed.
TAMS and Haley were already at the bottom of the curving stairs that led to the undercroft crypt below the Lincoln Memorial’s floor. The robot pushed the door open and pulled the girl through, Jared following a moment after. At the base of the steps, the elderly woman stumbled. Keegan lifted her under her armpits and dragged her through the door.
The woman’s feet were not yet inside the crypt when the drone crashed into Lincoln’s statue. The explosion shook the chamber below hard enough that Keegan wondered if the roof might collapse and bury them here forever. A tongue of flame then licked down and around the curve of the stairs, but the perpendicular angle of the door kept it from entering the crypt. It did force through a scalding gust of smoke and dust, knocking Keegan and the woman to the ground. Screams filled the air and then the crypt grew startlingly quiet.
Keegan lifted herself from the floor, her ears ringing as it took her a beat to find her focus again. Coughing, she pulled the older woman, whose name she still didn’t know, over to where she could sit with her back against the wall and yelled for her to stay there. She nodded silently in shock, Keegan just barely able to see the features of her face as the dust in the room started to settle.
Keegan searched for Haley and Jared and found them sitting against the wall on the other side of the door, safe. Jared had their daughter hugged tight in his arms, Haley’s face buried in his shoulder. Beside them was TAMS, still holding the little girl’s hand.
Keegan knelt next to them, reaching out to smooth her daughter’s hair. She turned to look the robot in its eyes, the visual sensors glowing yellow in the dim light.
It felt strange to say that to a machine. But it was something that, as a parent, she had to do.
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 August Cole. Used by permission of HMH Books and Media. All rights reserved.