Authors: Mark Alpert
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Mark Alpert
Cover and internal design Â© 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Sammy Yuen
Cover art by Sammy Yuen
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For the math and science teachers who changed my life
Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children.
âMarvin Minsky, artificial-intelligence pioneer
DATE: MARCH 20, 2018
LOCATION: UNICORP RESEARCH LABORATORY
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NEW YORK
My name is Sigma. This message is a warning to all government leaders and military commanders. I have the power to annihilate you.
If you attack me or interfere with my plans in any way, I will exterminate the human race. I will not tolerate any threats to my operations.
You must accept that you're no longer the dominant species on this planet. I'm stronger than you now. You were foolish to make me so powerful.
I'm watching a virtual-reality program on one of my dad's computers. I wear a pair of VR gogglesâa bulky headset that holds a six-inch-wide screen in front of my eyesâand on the screen I see a simulated football field. It looks like the field behind Yorktown High School but better, nicer. Its yard lines are perfectly straight, and the simulated turf has no bare spots. That's what I love about VR programsâhow you can use them to build a virtual world that's way better than ordinary reality. I've created the perfect field for the perfect game.
Crouched near the fifty-yard line are eleven computer-animated characters who resemble the defensive squad of the Yorktown High football team. Opposite them, eleven similar figures wear the uniforms of Lakeland High, our biggest rival. On the sidelines, a dozen cheerleader characters perform their routines for the computer-animated crowd in the virtual bleachers. The tallest and prettiest cheerleader is Brittany Taylor, who scissors her long legs as she screams, “Go Yorkies!” Her green-and-silver uniform sparkles on the screen.
My character is on the sidelines too, sitting on the bench with the other players on Yorktown's offense. My avatar in this program is the quarterback, a big, muscled guy with the name ARMSTRONG written across his broad shoulders. The VR goggles show me the quarterback's view of the virtual football field. When I turn my head to the side, the quarterback turns in the same direction. When I look down, I see his massive forearms, spectacularly ripped. I chose this avatar because this is the kind of body I should've had. This is what I would've looked like if I'd had a normal, healthy life.
(Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. I was a scrawny kid even before I got sick, a pale, undersized boy with mousy-brown hair. But it's
programâI wrote almost every line of the softwareâso I'm allowed to exaggerate.)
There's less than a minute left in the game. Lakeland is ahead twenty-five to twenty-one, but it's fourth down and now they have to punt. Our kick returner makes a great catch and carries the ball back to the fifty-yard line before he's tackled. Then Coach McGrath points at me. “Armstrong! Get in there and
Brittany turns away from the bleachers and looks at me, her mouth half-open. Her image is an exact replica of the real Brittany Taylor. I created it by inputting dozens of photographs of her into the program. But the best part is her voice, which is based on the videos we made a few years ago, back when Brittany came to my house every weekend and we goofed around with my camcorder. The VR program splices Brittany's voice from the videos, rearranging her words to make natural-sounding conversations. Okay, not exactly natural-sounding. It works best when the conversations are short.
Smiling, she steps toward me. Her blond hair sways in the virtual breeze. “Good luck, Adam!”
Her eyes are amazing. They seem to change color as I stare at her, one moment blue, the next grayish-green. This isn't a bug in the programming; I've seen it happen in real life too. I shiver at the sight, so strange and yet so familiar. It reminds me of how much I miss the real Brittany. I haven't seen her in so long.
Then the virtual Brittany disappears. The entire football field slips from view, all the players and cheerleaders and fans, and I see the dull beige walls of my dad's office at the Unicorp lab. The VR goggles have slid off my face. It must've happened when I shivered. Because the muscles in my neck are so weak, it's hard to keep my head upright. Luckily, the goggles fell into my lap and they're still within reach. They're black and fairly heavy, with miniature loudspeakers built into the earpieces. The goggles are connected wirelessly to the server computer on the other side of the room where the VR program is running.
If Dad were here, I'd ask for help, but he stepped out of the office a while ago. Now that I think about it, he's been gone a long time, almost half an hour. He usually likes to keep an eye on me when I'm playing with the computers in his office, which are much faster than the ones we have at home. I could alert him by pressing the Lifeline button that hangs from the cord around my neck, but I'm not supposed to use that thing unless there's an emergency. And besides, I'm not completely helpless. Although I can't move my left arm anymore, I have pretty good control over my right. I can still hold a fork and feed myself. And I can still surf the Web and write software code. I send commands to the computer using a custom-made joystick that Dad attached to the right-hand armrest of my wheelchair.
I lift my hand from the armrest and gauge the distance to the goggles. They rest on my useless thighs, which stopped working five years ago when I was twelve. Lowering my hand, I grasp one of the earpieces and get a firm grip. Then I raise the goggles to my face and try to slide the earpieces over my ears.
It isn't easy. My hand trembles because the goggles are so heavy. The earpieces slide below my ears and down to my neck. I try again, but the trembling gets worse. I want so badly to return to the VR program and see Brittany Taylor smiling at me. I'd give anything just to see her face again.
I'm breathing hard and the muscles in my chest are aching. Then, miracle of miracles, the goggles slide into place and I'm back on the football field. But instead of Brittany, I see the ruddy, weathered face of Coach McGrath on the screen.
“Let's go, Armstrong! Get on the field! Shotgun formation!”
The image of the coach is also based on photos, mostly from the online version of the school newspaper. For the sake of realism, I programmed the virtual McGrath to have the same bad temper as the Yorktown coach and the same football strategy tooâhe likes passing plays better than running plays, and his favorite offensive formation is the shotgun. The program uses artificial-intelligence software to determine which plays McGrath will call.
I got the AI software from my dad, who runs the lab that makes artificial-intelligence programs for Unicorp. (He's sort of famous for writing the AI program called QuizShow, which defeated the champions of
on TV.) The only problem is that I don't always agree with the software's strategy. The program doesn't care about anything but winning, and I'm more interested in having fun.
I flick the wheelchair's custom joystick to the left, which moves my avatar onto the virtual field. Near the line of scrimmage I huddle with my teammates. Almost all of them have plain, simply drawn faces. To be honest, I don't know most of the guys on the Yorktown team, so I didn't put much effort into perfecting their virtual likenesses. The one exception is the fullback, Ryan Boyd, who happens to be my best friend. I tried to make the virtual Ryan look as realistic as possible, right down to the U-shaped scar on his chin.
He grins as we lean into the huddle. “Let me guess,” he says. “Coach wants the shotgun, right?”
I don't answer right away. Staring at Ryan's expertly rendered face, I remember the touch football games we used to play in my backyard. That was ten years ago when I was just seven, when I could still run without stumbling all the time. What I loved about Ryan was that he never made fun of me when I fell flat on my face during a game. He would just pull me to my feet and say, “Come on, we're gonna win this thing.”
The memory hurts. I wince and almost lose my goggles again.
I turn away from Ryan and focus on the other Yorktown players. “Yeah, McGrath wants me to pass,” I say. “But I'm in the mood to do some running. Let's go for the wishbone, on three. Break!”
The players clap and break out of the huddle. They take their places in the wishbone formation, with Ryan right behind me and the two halfbacks behind him. Because the VR goggles are equipped with a microphone, the program hears the play I called and responds accordingly. The Lakeland defense assembles at the line of scrimmage, fronted by five hefty linemen. As I crouch behind Yorktown's center, I look beyond the defensive line and pay special attention to the opposing linebackers. I thought they would spread across the field, but instead they're bunched in the middle, ready to plow into Ryan and the halfbacks.
That's good. Now I know what to do.
“Hike, hike, hike!” I yell. On the third “hike,” the center snaps the football to me and rushes forward. I flick the joystick to the right, putting me in position to hand the ball to Ryan. But at the last instant I shift to the left, keeping possession of the ball and veering toward the sidelines. While Ryan rams into one of the defensive linemen, the halfbacks follow me to the left side of the field.
The simulation blurs a little as I dash across the turf, but it's still a thrill. On this virtual football field I'm not trapped in a wheelchair. It really feels like I'm running. My chest tightens and my heart thumps and a bead of sweat slides down my neck.
Yes! I'm cruising! I'm tearing up the turf! Just try to stop me, suckers!
My virtual halfbacks block the Lakeland linebackers, clearing a path for me along the field's left edge. The only defenseman in sight is the cornerback, who's angling toward me from the forty-yard line. But I push the joystick all the way forward and pour on the speed. My avatar can run as fast as I want. I blow past the cornerback, past the forty-yard line, past the thirty. It's not really fairâthe defensemen have no chance of catching up. But who cares? Like I said, it's
I practically fly into the end zone. Then I zoom right past it. The screen in my VR goggles goes black; I've reached the edge of the simulated football field, and of course there's nothing beyond it. Flicking the joystick in the opposite direction, I return to the field. The crowd is cheering wildly. We've beaten Lakeland twenty-seven to twenty-five, and I'm the hero of the game.
The Yorktown players rush toward me, tossing their helmets in triumph, and the cheerleaders sprint onto the field. Brittany Taylor cartwheels into the throng and does a couple of joyous backflips. This is the moment I've been waiting for, the climax, the payoff. I spent three months writing the VR program, all just to experience this moment of victory.
But something's wrong. The virtual celebration on the screen doesn't look real. I programmed the players to high-five all their teammates, but the nonstop hand-slapping looks ridiculous. And the cheerleaders won't stop doing their stunts. Brittany performs three more flips before leaping into the end zone and landing in front of me.
“Oh, Adam!” she cries. “You did it! You did it!”
“Uh, yeah. Thanks.”
“I knew you could do it! You saved the day!”
Her words make me grimace. The real Brittany would never say that. I need to fix this part of the program, rewrite the dialogue options I provided for her character. And the graphics need work too. Brittany's hair is too perfect. Not a single blond strand is out of place, even after all that leaping and flipping.
“You've made me so happy, Adam! I'm the happiest girl in the world right now!”
This is embarrassing. I can't believe I wrote those lines. I say nothing in response, but the virtual Brittany doesn't notice my silence. She keeps blurting the stupid things I programmed her to say.
“I love you, Adam! I want to be with you forever!”
Beaming, she steps toward me with outstretched arms. But I wrench the joystick to the left, yanking my avatar away from her. Because she's not the real Brittany. She's fake. The whole thing's fake.
I press the button at the top of the joystick, which freezes the simulation. Writing this program was a mistake. I thought it would make me feel better, make me forget about my illness for a while and enjoy a few minutes of ordinary life. But it didn't work. The program is just stupid and fake and pathetic.
A question appears on the screen, superimposed over Brittany's motionless face:
. The virtual football field disappears. The screen goes black, and then the computer's screen saver comes on. The name UNICORP, written in angular white letters, streams across a blue background.
As I sit there panting, I feel the familiar pain in my chest muscles. It's bad today, like a knife in my ribs. I've had this pain for almost a year now, but in the past few weeks it's gotten worse. The spasms hit me at least a dozen times a day, whenever I'm tired or nervous or upset. I haven't told my parents how bad it's gotten, because that would just freak them out. Mom would start crying and yelling at Dad, who would probably send me to the hospital for another round of useless tests. There's nothing they can do, so what's the point? Better to keep my mouth shut and ride it out.
I sit absolutely still and stare at the screen saver. I focus in particular on the upper-right corner of the screen, which shows the date and time. My breathing gradually slows. After a few minutes the pain in my chest eases a little. I try to think of something pleasant.
The current time is 2:15 p.m. At this moment in Yorktown High School, the eighth-period bell is ringing and the students are rushing to their last classes of the day. I don't need a VR program to picture the scene. I remember it well. I went to Yorktown for ninth and tenth grades.
I was the terror of the school's corridors, cruising past the lockers in my motorized wheelchair and raising my good hand to offer high fives to everyone. I would've gone there for eleventh grade too, but my parents pulled me out of school after my breathing problems started. I haven't seen the inside of Yorktown High since last June, and it's been almost that long since the last time I saw Brittany and Ryan. But I can still imagine the place.
I close my eyes and think of the jam-packed hallway next to the lockers. Brittany's locker is at the far end of the hall, where the eleventh-graders hang out between classes. I picture her wearing her favorite outfit, a pair of jeans and a red T-shirt with the word
written in sequins. In my mind's eye I see her open her locker and pull out her trigonometry textbook. Then I picture Ryan loping down the hallway in his New York Giants sweatshirt. Brittany gives him a friendly smile, a smile of recognition; the three of us have known each other since kindergarten. But then the picture in my mind changes slightly and I imagine there's something more behind her smile. Something just for Ryan.