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Authors: Bruce Coville

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BOOK: Forever Begins Tomorrow
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The rack held two rows of five tubes. It was hinged at the rear, which allowed a user to flip it out to the side and read the labels on the tubes.

With a sigh, Trip swung the rack open.

The labels were pretty general: math, science, history, and so on. But he knew that with their memory capacity, each tube could hold a vast library of books and films on its assigned topic.

Grudgingly, he booted up the machine. The screen blinked into life with gratifying speed.

Trip blinked. The introductory message he found himself looking at was one of the weirdest he had ever seen:

“The first series of questions on this tube will help you prepare your computer to effectively meet your needs through all future lessons. It is essential that you answer honestly! Do you understand? Type
Y
for yes,
N
for no.”

What's this honesty bit?
he wondered as he pressed the
Y
key.

A new message appeared on the screen. Trip wrinkled his brow. This was even weirder than the last one:

“Thank you. Are you alone? BE HONEST! Type
Y
or
N.”

What difference does it make if I'm alone? he wondered, tapping the Y key again.

When the next message appeared, he understood. After a brief jolt of surprise, he read it eagerly, then looked for a way to print it out.

Snatching up the paper, he bolted for the door, thinking,
Wait till the gang gets a load of this!

 

Sherlock

Hap Swenson glanced up from the rivet he was tightening in Rin Tin Stainless Steel's jaw and decided that the robotic bloodhound would have to wait. The constant motion of the tiny blond girl striding back and forth in front of him was too distracting for him to do a good job now.

Hap watched her for a moment longer, studying the way she moved, the way she looked. The first thing anyone noticed about Wendy “the Wonderchild” Wendell was her height—or rather, the lack thereof. She was, in fact, the only person on Anza-bora Island shorter than the Gamma Ray.

After that you saw the pigtails, the grubby sweatshirt borrowed from her father, and the snub nose lightly dusted with freckles.

Wendy could be demanding and difficult. Yet Hap was extremely fond of her. For one thing, she made him laugh. But right now she was starting to drive him out of his mind.

“Will you settle down!” he snapped.

“I can't!” said Wendy. “This electronic tutor thing is such a plasmagorically revolting development that if I have to hold still, I'll blow up!”

“You can't be
that
surprised. I've been expecting it for weeks now. When my father accepted Dr. Hwa's offer to stay on Anza-bora after the Air Force pulled out, the main condition he and Mom insisted on was that my education be provided for.”

“You've been getting an education,” said Wendy tartly.

Hap laughed. “That's for sure. But it's not quite what they had in mind. They're getting a little tired of spies, plots, and life-and-death situations.”

“It's better than being bored to death,” said Wendy. “Which is exactly what's going to happen to me if I'm forced to use that tinker toy tutor.”

Suddenly a three-foot-high collection of loose parts known as Norman the Doorman went scuttling past them. “Welcome!” it cried as it pulled open the door of the abandoned house the A.I. Gang used as a headquarters. “Welcome!”

“Thanks, Norman,” said Rachel. She stepped into the room. “You're doing a good job today.”

Roger came in after her, carrying the leather bag they used to transport Paracelsus.

“Welcome,” said Norman again.

Roger crossed the room and took Paracelsus out of the bag.

“Welcome,” said Norman for the third time.

“I take it you both got the bad news this morning?” asked Roger, turning to Hap and Wendy.

“Welcome,” said Norman.

“Oh, chips!” cried Wendy. “Sometimes I wish Ray had never pulled you out of that trash heap, Norman.” She crossed the room and thumped the robot soundly on the head.

“Thank you, sir,” said Norman. It turned around three times, then rolled back to its closet.

“We got it,” said Wendy. “My heart still hasn't recovered.”

Rachel started to reply, but was interrupted by the door swinging open again. The six-foot-plus frame of Trip Davis loomed in the opening. “Where's Norman?” he asked, looking around.

“He's not feeling well,” said Roger. “And what are you smirking about? Didn't you get your own private schoolroom this morning like the rest of us?”

“Sure did,” said Trip. “And I got a little something along with it. I don't know if it's good news or bad news, but I bet you'll find it interesting!”

“He's not kidding!” exclaimed Ray, ducking in under his friend's arm. “Show 'em, Trip!”

Trip held up the message he had printed out a short time earlier. “I found
this
when I turned on my machine.”

“What is it?” asked Wendy. “A ransom note for your brain?”

Trip shook his head. “Our mysterious friend is back.”

Ray decided he was glad he had run into Trip along the way. If he hadn't already read the note, he would have been lost in the small mob scene now going on. As it was, he sat on his basketball and watched while the others clustered around their towering friend, demanding to see the message.

“Ah-ah!” cried Trip. He held the note over his head—which put it completely out of everyone's reach. “Why don't we run it through the optical scanner. Then Sherlock can put it up on the big screen and you can all read it at the same time.”

“Sherlock” was a special program the gang had been working on for the last several months. Its name came from the fact that their initial plan, suggested by Roger, had been to write an artificial intelligence program that could act as a detective for them. The idea had been prompted by Ray's discovery of a small spy microphone on Rachel's collar after the first meeting of the Project Alpha scientists and their families.

The frightening realization that the bug must have been planted by one of the seventeen adults at the meeting had given urgency to Roger's idea. But the gang's project had rapidly grown to something much greater when they had deduced what Project Alpha was really about: an attempt to create a thinking computer—a computer that would actually be
aware
that it was thinking, aware of its own existence.

In short, their parents and the other scientists were trying to create a machine that could say “I am” and have some idea of what those simple but utterly mysterious words really meant.

Once they understood the adults' quest, the gang had decided to see if they couldn't beat them to the punch. It was an undeclared race—the adults had no idea what the kids were up to. But the gang took it very seriously. And now their work was beginning to pay off. Whether or not ADAM (the adults' name for the main computer) was actually approaching consciousness, the gang's Sherlock program had become a useful tool.

Roger, the group's unofficial leader, dashed across the room and switched on the scanner they had attached to their main terminal a few months earlier. “Be my guest,” he said, bowing to Trip and gesturing to the operator's seat.

Trip exasperated the others by ambling slowly across the room, then acting particularly fussy about inserting the message into the scanner.

No sooner was the paper in position than a small green light began to flash, indicating Sherlock had “read” the message. Trip flipped the display switch, and the message appeared on the main monitor—an oversize screen designed by Wendy and constructed by Hap.

Date: October 25

To: The A.I. Gang

From: A friend

Re: Our Mutual Enemy

Congratulations on thwarting Black Glove's attempt to use your rocket to send a transmitter into space when you launched Dr. Weiskopf's robot. Your work on that affair was outstanding.

“Outstanding!” snorted Roger. “Half the point of that project was to set a trap for Black Glove. Three of us nearly died in the process, and all we managed to find out from it was that B.G., whoever he or she is, has black hair!”

“Shhh!” said Hap. “I'm reading!”

I am sorry I am not able to reveal myself to you. It is impossible at this time. I can, however, tell you this: I am fairly certain I know Black Glove's identity. Unfortunately, I cannot act without positive proof. You must continue to be wary. The enemy is desperate—and dangerous.

I want to share a clue I uncovered recently—a scrap of paper with the following symbols:

[email protected] @% ## )!$ #& @(

I am sure this is significant, but I can't make head or tail of it. Perhaps you will have more success with it than I have.

Good luck.

A friend

“Looks like a bunch of comic-strip cuss words,” said Wendy, squinting at the screen.

“Could be a substitution code,” said Ray.

“Could be,” agreed Roger. “Let's feed the symbols into Sherlock. After all, that's the kind of thing we initially intended him for.”

“Already done,” said Rachel. “It happens automatically with anything that goes into the scanner.”

“Great,” said Wendy. “Now if we can just ask Sherlock the right questions, we might actually get somewhere with this.”

“I have a possible solution,” said Sherlock, about forty minutes later. The computer spoke through a voice simulator programmed to sound like Basil Rathbone, the actor who had played Sherlock Holmes in so many movies.

“Display!” said Roger.

A red light began to flash on the monitor as Sherlock listed the results of its long series of calculations.

Wendy scanned the screen and let out a low whistle. “Sherlock, you are a plasmagoric genius. In fact, you're almost as smart as me!”

“Thank you,” said the computer. “Actually, it was elementary.”

Paracelsus was sitting on a shelf above the computer. Now the bronze head opened its eyes and muttered, “Smart-aleck machines give me a headache.”

“Thank you,” repeated Sherlock. “Actually, it was elementary.”

No one heard. The gang had already barreled out of their headquarters and was sprinting toward the trio of dune buggies they had checked out of the motor pool.

“I don't get it,” said Ray, scrambling over the side of the buggy he shared with Trip. “How did the code work?”

“Later!” yelled Wendy, from her own duner. “If Sherlock is right, Black Glove's probably got a transmitter in place already. It could be spilling Project Alpha's secrets to G.H.O.S.T. right this minute!”

 

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

“Take the west beach, Roger,” called Hap Swenson as he settled in beside Wendy. “Then cross the island when we get past the motor pool.”

“Got you,” said Roger. “Hang on, Sis,” he added to Rachel as he switched on the duner's electric engine. He slammed his foot onto the pedal. Current flowed into the silent engine and with a spray of dust the dune buggy shot forward.

Rachel, the wind whipping through her outrageous flame-red hair, clutched the side of the buggy.
It looks like there might be a real storm brewing
, she thought, glancing at the sky. Her stomach was already jumping with that peculiarly pleasant excitement that accompanied the chase. A good storm, if not too severe, would add to the fun.

The dune buggy bounced over a rock and Rachel tightened her grip. A grim smile touched her lips. Where else could a pair of twelve-year-olds have this kind of vehicle at their disposal?

She glanced over her shoulder. The others were close behind, with Wendy in the lead. The look of fierce joy that lit the Wonderchild's face made Rachel laugh.

“What's up?” asked Roger.

“I was just remembering how Wendy drove her parents' Volkswagen through the doors of the computer center the night we saved the island from blowing up.”

Roger smiled. “Did it ever strike you what a backward kind of luck that was?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, in a way we owe a lot to the maniac who tried to blow us all up. If not for that bomb, we would never had found Black Glove's first transmitter—in which case it might still be sending Project Alpha's research straight to G.H.O.S.T.!”

Rachel glanced at her hands, which still bore a slight scar from the burns they had suffered when the transmitter had self-destructed while she was holding it.

The gang had first become aware of G.H.O.S.T. through their friend Dr. Stanley Remov, a code expert who had worked for numerous spy agencies before turning to pure research. He swore the mysterious initials stood for “General Headquarters for Organized Strategic Terrorism,” a secret group out to take over the world. The problem was, the group was so secret most people refused to believe it even existed!

That was the case with Dr. Hwa. “Sheer nonsense,” was his response whenever the question of G.H.O.S.T. came up. It was a hard charge to refute. The first transmitter the gang found had self-destructed before they could show it to anyone. The second, located in the rocket they had prepared to take Dr. Weiskopf
'
s robot Euterpe into orbit, had actually been seen before it disintegrated. But since the rocket had also been tampered with by another spy—the notorious foreign agent Ramon Korbuscek—it had been easier for Dr. Hwa to blame the transmitter on him than to believe that it came from G.H.O.S.T.

Dr. Hwa's reluctance to believe in G.H.O.S.T. didn't really surprise the gang. Despite his responsibilities as director of Project Alpha, the diminutive scientist preferred to dedicate his time to the technology required for the project, and hated having to give attention to non-research problems. That tendency, combined with the fact that the government itself refused to acknowledge the existence of G.H.O.S.T., made it possible for Dr. Hwa to convince himself there was no problem on the island.

BOOK: Forever Begins Tomorrow
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