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Excerpt for Aramid by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Aramid

By

Paul Haddad


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

World Castle Publishing, LLC

Pensacola, Florida

Copyright © Paul Haddad 2016

Smashwords Edition

Paperback ISBN: 9781629894553

eBook ISBN: 9781629894560

First Edition World Castle Publishing, LLC, May 16, 2016

http://www.worldcastlepublishing.com

Smashwords Licensing Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.

Cover: Karen Fuller

Editor: Maxine Bringenberg


PART I


SECTION 01

WELCOME TO ADVANCED AUTO-TRONICS


May 27, 2080

Imagine you could play God.

Imagine you had the ability to create an intelligent being that looked, sounded, and acted human. How would you design it? Would you create the robot in your own image, like God did man? Would you give it only the best traits of your personality? Or just the parts you always aspired to, but were never able to achieve? Could you make it…perfect?

Now accept some facts: Human beings are innately imperfect. What may be someone’s idea of perfection may be someone else’s folly. A harmless personality tic in one person may portend something dangerous–even deadly–in another.

Now ask yourself: With so many flaws, should humans even be designing humanlike robots? And if they did, what would that mean for the robot?

Now imagine all this is not just your imagination. Imagine that everything that follows really happened.

* * *

Over in the corner of a dark basement, two robots are beating the screws out of each other.

Riv Michaels’s fingers dance over the controls of his robot’s control unit. Mirroring the machine’s movements, he looks like an undulating Goth street punk, the flaps of his black trench coat swaying open from the stomp-stomp of his combat boots. Next to him is fellow twelfth-grader Troy Campbell, built like a bricklayer, with bulging neck muscles as thick as Riv’s thighs. Troy’s too cool to gyrate, more disposed to barking out violent commands that would make a drill sergeant blush. If it looks like the “bots” are made out of old water heaters and spare factory parts, that’s because they are. Snaking through their steel husks are a network of hoses, claws, and hydraulics, their heads made up of upside-down metal mop buckets.

“You’re going down,” Riv sneers. “Your guy is spewing hydraulic fluid.”

“That’s sweat,” Troy replies.

“More like blood. Bot blood.”

Troy’s contraption lurches forward on four rickety shopping cart wheels and rams into Riv’s, which reels backward against the wall.

“Got you right where I want you,” Troy boasts, wiping his sweaty, Samson-length hair away from his eyes.

“Prove it, hot pants. Double or nothing….”

Troy clenches his jaw. Damn Riv, always winning these bot battles, even when it looks like he’s toast. Always wagering, always upping the ante. Why can’t our robots ever just engage in some good-natured sparring?

* * *

Over in another corner, two fellow seniors are oblivious to the boys’ one-upmanship. Jenna Davidson is that rare diamond in the high school rough, equal parts brains, beauty, and brawn. Her friend Beth O’Connor is a spirited redhead with cat-eye glasses that speak to a kooky-retro sense of style. The girls fuss over a Keeper—a robot whose sole purpose is to serve people and tend to their needs. The robot looks more human than Riv’s and Troy’s clunkers, which isn’t saying much. Its bald female head was appropriated from a clothing store mannequin. The rest of her is an alloyed exoskeleton of hissing pneumatic pistons. Two rotational blocks function as feet. She’s a little creepy-looking, but clearly a work-in-progress.

Jenna shuts a small hinged door on the robot’s backside. “All clear,” she announces. Beth rubs her hands together in anticipation.

The Keeper sputters and whirs and staggers two steps forward. She spins her head 180 degrees and belches a metallic crackling sound not unlike a fork stuck in a garbage disposal.

“Uh oh,” Beth says.

The small door flies off its hinges. Sparks start shooting out. Jenna shrieks and ducks. The robot does a little shimmy-shake, then powers off.

Jenna sighs. “How long have we been working on Millie?”

“Two years and counting,” Beth says.

“And this is the first time I’ve seen sparks fly out of her butt. I mean, what was that about?”

“Maybe the guy versions find it sexy.”

Just then, a thunderous crash fills the room. The girls turn to find Riv’s robot lording over Troy’s, which lies in a contorted heap on the floor, its decapitated bucket head wobbling away. Viscous black fluid pools out of its neck.

“Another KO for the undisputed champ!” Riv does a victory dance while Troy bends over his robot to inspect it. “Hundred bucks, Hondo,” Riv shouts at his back. “This time, I’m charging interest.”

A stern adult voice interrupts the revelry. “Gambling is grounds for suspension.”

* * *

Dr. Daniel Quidnotsky enters the room to start the first day of class for the school year. At fifty-five, he looks younger than his years, owing to a rock-star skinny body and smiling blue eyes framed by a graying pompadour and facial stubble. But it’s his trademark denim jacket that defines Dr. Quid. So old it could belong in a museum, it seems held together by reinforced stitching and greasy patches. There are rumors he sleeps in the thing, rumors that would be almost impossible for any of his four students to prove. Truth be told, Dr. Quid couldn’t care less about the friendly wagering or anything else his students do with their spare time. Free-form tinkering is encouraged, so long as everyone cleans up after themselves. Besides, right now he has more important matters on his mind.

“Young engineers, first off, I hope everyone had a great summer and stayed out of trouble…unless of course your efforts were geared toward reversing humanity’s intractable downward death spiral. In which case, I pity your optimism and you’re probably in the wrong field anyway.”

The students laugh.

“Now, please feign interest as we welcome a new comrade to our top-secret bunker….”

From the shadows of the staircase a slender boy cloaked in a hoodie shuffles forward. He directs his gaze to the ground, lost in his own head, only looking up with his soft brown eyes when social norms demand that he do so.

“This is Sam Phenix. A senior. He just moved to Los Angeles from….” He turns to Sam. “… San Bruno, was it?”

Sam shrugs as if to say, close enough.

“Somewhere in the Bay Area,” Quid continues. “Treat him as you would each other. Second thought, scratch that. Treat him with respect.” Quid gestures to an empty desk in the first row. “Grab a seat, Sammy boy.”

* * *

The four students watch Sam fling his backpack over his chair back as Quid walks to the front of the class. Their “bunker” is actually the basement of the Ledgewood Preparatory High School facilities building. It used to be the head janitor’s quarters, but when the school added Quid’s robotics class as an elective, they didn’t have extra room, so they moved the janitor to a trailer by the football field and converted this space to a classroom. It was supposed to be temporary, which made the bank of circuit breakers and exposed overhead pipes bearable. But over the years, as it’s taken on a kind of permanence, Quid has grown fond of the sunken space. Even the students proudly regard it as their own little funky robot lab. They’ve gotten used to its wild temperature swings and claustrophobic concrete walls, whose only natural light source comes from a series of transom windows—ground level from the outside, lining the tops of the walls inside—propped open by rusty chains, functioning relics from the last millennium.

Signs of the students’ industriousness are everywhere. It’s a room that smells of old oil and strange fumes. Its floors are a veritable spider-web of orange extension cords and discarded copper wires buttressed by work benches holding soldering irons, solenoid coils, and crumpled soda cans. The walls speak to semesters past, decorated with old photos and fingerprint-smudged bot sketches. Half-finished machines like Riv’s and Troy’s clutter the corners. Someone has even constructed a homemade karaoke machine along the back wall. It’s a room with life.

Quid removes his jacket and places it over his chair back. “Everyone listen up. First off, welcome back to Advanced Auto-Tronics. To start off our final year, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, starting next week, graduate students from Pomona Tech Institute will be dropping by our class to help us design and build.”

A collective groan goes up from Troy, Riv, Beth, and Jenna. “We don’t need to be babysat,” Riv protests. “We’ve been doing fine on our own.”

“Ah, but your hubris is what leads me to the bad news,” Quid says, whipping a folded-up letter out of his jacket pocket. “And that is—as Riv has just demonstrated—you’re all about to get even bigger heads after I tell you what I’m about to tell you, making you even more impossible to teach than you already are.”

“Wait,” Jenna says. “I’m confused. You mean there’s a third piece of news?”

“Yes.”

“Good or bad?” Troy asks.

Quid grins. “You tell me.” He unfolds the letter and reads from it: “Congratulations. Your school has been chosen to compete in the 2080 Fifth Annual Auto-Tron Nationals in Washington, D.C.” He turns the letter around and displays its contents to the class. “You did it, guys.”

A collective gasp goes up in the classroom.

Quid hands the letter to Troy. The four students pass it around in a torrent of celebratory whoops and high-fives. As the new guy, Sam was informed of this news several weeks ago, before school even started. But even he can’t help but smile. He is obsessed with Auto-Trons—A-Ts, for short, the more common term for highly-functioning robots these days—and is well-acquainted with what the Nationals are.

Three decades ago, by the mid-twenty-first century, robot technology had advanced to the point where A-Ts had become an accepted part of everyone’s daily lives. China and other Asian countries were cranking them out like pork fritters, selling them directly to American consumers. That’s when the United States government decided to get into the robot business. First, they slapped huge tariffs on overseas A-Ts. Then, taking a page from NASA, the national space program launched in 1958, they created an agency called NATE—National Auto-Tron Enterprises. NATE’s purpose was to oversee the entire highly-functioning, artificial intelligence industry, pulling together the nation’s best private contractors and engineers. For every A-T sold, Uncle Sam would get a commission. This set-up would not only allow Washington to undercut foreign markets, but create a national set of standards outlining what robots can or cannot legally do.

It’s turned into a hugely profitable venture—some estimate A-T sales make up eight percent of federal revenue. Now there are robots for every possible situation: Housekeepers—or Keepers—for maintaining households. Tutors for teaching kids. Caregivers for assisting old people. There are pet robots, pleasure robots, robots for sport, even robots that oversee other robots. In some industries, like manufacturing, trash collection, fast-food, and out-patient surgery centers, robots have virtually replaced the entire human workforce. These are known as Grinders, the most common kind of robots out there.

Flash-forward to 2071. Realizing that younger generations are the key to keeping the Auto-Tronics industry alive, NATE launched an initiative designed to get high schools kids interested in A-Ts. Schools that offered robot classes were given federal grants, and students who excelled got scholarships to prestigious universities like MIT or PTI. Five years later, the government launched the first annual Auto-Tron Nationals, a competition in which high schools from around the country compete to create the nation’s most humanlike machine. Robot fever exploded. Five thousand high schools now offer A-T courses. As one of only five schools invited to this year’s event, Ledgewood Prep can now brag it is in an exclusive club. The 1-in-1,000 club.

“Hey, Dr. Q.” Beth is standing directly in front of Quid. “I think you mean ‘we did it.’” She throws her arms around him and squeezes. The others line up behind her, expressing their gratitude. A celebrity in his own right, Quid’s high-profile reputation and familiarity with NATE politics almost certainly helped propel Ledgewood into the final five of the nation’s premier robot competition.

“I’ve always told you guys, teaching is ninety percent lobbying and ten percent actual teaching,” he says. “I’m just happy for you guys that the ninety percent paid off. This will change your lives in ways you never imagined. And no one has worked harder than the four of you to get to this point.”

Tears well up in Beth’s eyes as the magnitude of what just happened sinks in. Quid began teaching Advanced Auto-Tronics her freshman year, the same year that Jenna, Troy, and Riv started. There were twelve students in the class back then. Over the semesters, kids dropped out or stopped enrolling because it was so difficult. At the same time, the school’s president—J.H. Prestwick—temporarily closed the class to new students, complaining that the “lab-costs-per-student ratio” was getting too high. Now, as the Fearless Foursome (as Quid calls them) enter their final year at Ledgewood, they’re the only ones remaining from that inaugural class. Sam is the rare exception who’s been allowed to join their ranks.

“Troy, hit the lights, will you?” Quid says. “I wanna show you guys something.”

As the lights dim, Quid places his cube on a work bench. Cubes are basically advanced smartphones…only smarter. And smaller. The average person’s cube is the size of the dice you use for a board game, its four sides lined with screens and invisible ports like video projection. Quid hits a button and a light beams out of the unit, illuminating a blank part of the whiteboard.

“The first Nationals…,” observes Riv.

Quid nods. “I want you guys to see what you’ll be up against. Starting with this footage from five years ago.”

The students watch video of a young man, about eighteen years old, bicycling in a circle on a stage. Three stoic judges sit off to the side, arms folded or jotting in electronic writing tablets. The footage cuts to the man doing other physical activities on the same stage. Playing ping-pong. Preparing a stuffed cabbage dish. Moonwalking like Michael Jackson and doing the splits. A loud cheer goes up, and the camera cuts to a rapt audience on its feet. Sam has studied this footage countless times before.

“What a dweeb,” cracks Riv. “Don’t tell me this guy won.”

“I think he’s beautiful…,” says Jenna, mesmerized. “He has…soul.”

“Not bad for an HS-50 Rep,” Beth muses. Reps are the highest form of robot there is. Where other robots are specialized, Reps, or “Human Replacements,” can replicate pretty much any task a person can do. They also look strikingly human, whereas Grinders, Keepers, and other service A-Ts made on the cheap don’t take on human forms—or if they do, they lack the detail and realism offered by Reps.

“Shhh…,” Quid implores. “Everyone listen.”

The man bot is now standing with his arms behind his back, facing a persnickety judge. The judge asks him a question. “Thomas, what does cogito ergo sum mean to you?”

Thomas the Rep blinks his piercing blue eyes. He runs a hand through his shaggy blond hair and crinkles his freckled nose. If someone didn’t know any better, they’d swear he was a surfer dude. “Cogito ergo sum, of course, is Latin for ‘I think, therefore I am,’” he says in perfectly enunciated English. “It stands to reason that such a phrase applies to me, just as it does humans. Meaning, because I can form thoughts, I must exist. But this logic is exclusionary. For it does not allow for the idea that, though I may exist, I may be unable to form thoughts as defined by humans. Take that chair you sit on. Or this microphone. These are inanimate objects. These too exist. So while it may be true that I can form thoughts that reaffirm my existence, the statement does not take into account the state of being of objects that may be expressing themselves either passively or in ways that humans simply don’t understand.”

Quid pauses the video. “Seattle Tech Magnet, which designed Thomas, won the first Nationals on this answer alone. The rules are the same ever year. Each school’s Rep has to complete six tasks in eighteen minutes. They call it the 6/18 Rule. Most of the tasks are physical, but then, most people have gotten pretty good at making Reps look and act human.” The video cuts to runners-up in the Nationals that year. Four other “young men” engage in variations of Thomas’s activities, like cooking and dancing. One of them walks on his hands and does a flip, to the astonishment of the crowd.

“But that Debate round was a bitch,” Quid continues. “Most of ’em had trouble framing complex thoughts to different philosophical questions. One Rep sounded like he was reading straight from an encyclopedia site. Another went on a long-winded discourse about the philosopher who first posed his question. None of the others could offer comprehensive answers that reflected back on themselves.”

The video cuts back to Thomas. To the sound of deafening applause, he is taking a bow onstage. Six geeked-out high school students and their teacher are presented with a first-place prize in the form of an oversized check.

Quid poses a question to his class. “What made Thomas’s answer so brilliant?”

“You just said it,” Troy shrugs. “He didn’t give a pat answer.”

“But it goes beyond that,” Beth says, transfixed. “He was thoughtful. He gave voice to the non-humans in the world, which was clever and not the initial meaning of the phrase.”

“He made the humans in the room feel like the inferior species.” The voice is from Sam, speaking for the first time. “It’s like he and other non-humans are on a wavelength we’re not attuned to. He made us question the phrase itself, which we’ve always approached from an egocentric point-of-view. He humbled us. Paradoxically, that boosts our own ego, since we humans created him.”

The students stare agape at their newcomer.

Quid chuckles. “Kinda like the student passing the teacher…?”

Sam looks down, cheeks flushed.

“But it’s a gimmick,” Troy protests. “Thomas doesn’t really feel those thoughts. He was just programmed to give smart-alecky answers to existential questions.”

A sparkle comes to Quid’s eyes. “Was he?”

The class watches more footage from subsequent Nationals. A parade of young male Reps with names like Bif, James, Hans, and Rudy perform various feats and answer probing questions. The one thing they all have in common, aside from being males, is that their ages and body sizes are virtually identical. Each approximates eighteen human years and stands five-foot-eight with solid, compact builds. Riv points this out.

“Very observant,” Quid says. “That’s because they each come from the same NATE-issued block of clay, so to speak—a standard male starter kit that’s delivered to all the schools.”

“They’re gonna send us Play-Doh?” Riv quips.

“Aramid, to be exact. Steel and synthetic heat-resistant fibers. Along with basic hydraulics, servos, electronics—everything we’ll need to put together our very own Human Replacement over the next eight months.”

The students can hardly contain their excitement. Every time they’ve talked about the Nationals in the past, it was always in the abstract. But now it’s really happening.

“So when do we get our block?” Jenna asks.

Quid rubs his whiskers and offers a cautionary rejoinder. “The real question is not so much, ‘when do you get it?’ But rather, ‘once you get it, what will you do with it?’”


SECTION 02

POST-MOM-BOT


Under the bright lights of a crisp Thursday night, a wide receiver sprints toward the end zone. The quarterback for Ledgewood Prep fights off rushing defenders and unleashes a perfect spiral, forty yards down field. The receiver’s outstretched hands cradle the football like it’s a baby bird falling out of its nest. Without breaking stride, he tucks the pigskin against his ribs, outmaneuvers his defenders with a graceful spin, and glides over the goal line for a touchdown. The ref blows his whistle and throws his arms into the air. A kicker comes in to make the extra point. The scoreboard on the fifty-yard line reads Ledgewood Titans 7, Santa Clarita Cougars 0.

The bleachers erupt with cheering Ledgewood students, awash in green and crimson red, the school’s official colors. But no one appears more excited than a squat little robot roaming the sidelines, a clunky cylinder on wheels that looks like a poor man’s R2-D2. Someone has painted a football jersey on him, right down to the binary digits 0101 on his front and back. Spinning around in circles, his body lights up like a slot machine while a speaker in his domed head pumps out a gratingly loud air-raid siren. The students love it. Well, most of them. High atop their back-row perch, Riv and Beth roll their eyes at each other. Sam sits alongside them. Beth notices his bemused expression and shouts into his ear so he can hear her over the din.

“That’s Titey,” she says. “Short for Titans.”

Riv chimes in, “Fiendishly clever, eh?”

“That’s a really old model A-T,” Sam observes. “We could create something better in a week.”

Beth nods. “Twelve years ago, the football team bought him off eBay as a gag for their coach. They were gonna get rid of him after the season, but the students loved him so much, they started a petition and convinced the school to keep him. Now he’s like our big, dumb, lovable mascot.”

“Emphasis on the word ‘dumb,’” Riv adds. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet. “You didn’t get a good look at our school’s official seal before you started here, did you?” He produces his student ID and shows Sam a 3D image of the school’s insignia. Sure enough, it includes a rendering of Titey amid other iconography of higher education. “There he is…stupidity immortalized.”

On the field, Titey stops spinning and plants himself in front of the bleachers. A latch pops open on his forehead, above his dark bubble-eyes.

“Uh oh,” Riv says. “Plug your ears.”

An explosion of fireworks and colored smoke stream out of Titey’s cranium, sending an echoing boom across the football field. The crowd goes bonkers.

Play resumes as the Ledgewood Titans kick off after their touchdown. Sam notices that Titey is not the only A-T on the field. The opposing team, the Cougars, has a Grinder assigned to hand out towels, distribute sports drinks, even spray players with a built-in mister when they get too hot. The Titans have a Grinder of their own—a spindly machine along the sidelines whose sole purpose is to pin footballs at a forty-five-degree angle to the grass so kickers can practice kicking balls into a net. After every practice kick, the machine wheels over to the net, plucks out the pigskin, and sets it up again. The only problem is, the Grinder has only a two-thirds success rate in positioning the football at a forty-five-degree angle. The other third of the time it fumbles the ball away, requiring the kicker to pick up the ball himself and manually place it firmly in the robot’s mechanical fingers—a complete waste of the kicker’s time. Sam can’t help but shake his head at this display of ineptitude from the A-T. A simple tweak to its stabilizing system would fix that quirk. But it’s not the machine that annoys him. It’s the fact that it represents another sorry-ass example of society’s over-reliance on Grinders. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to have some eager freshman take the place of the A-T and align the ball properly each time? This would allow the kicker to get in way more practice kicks with the added benefit of simulating this same situation in a game—a game played by humans. At least, for now.

A horn signifies the end of the first half. Sam’s never liked competitive sports, never got the whole jock mentality. But as the new kid, he figures the best way to fit in and understand his school’s culture is to take in the inaugural football game. Now that he’s made his presence felt, it’s a good time to quietly slip away. He grabs his skateboard and prepares to head home.

Just then, Titey clomps over to the bleachers and extends a hand-held microphone to a tall, barrel-chested man with a ruddy face and bad hair-dye who lumbers up from the first row. Clutching a football in his sausage-like fingers, he sports an Arizona State football jersey that’s pinched under his armpits—at least two sizes too small. Glancing over his shoulder, Sam recognizes this man as J.H. Prestwick, the school’s president. Prestwick had interviewed Sam as part of his admittance process and had worn his alma mater jersey then too. “Same jersey from when I played college ball,” Prestwick had boasted. “And it still fits!”

Prestwick grabs the microphone from Titey with his free hand. “Thank you, Titey!” He makes a throwing motion with the football. “Go long!”

Titey lowers his wheels and scurries down the sideline. Prestwick flings a fifteen-yard pass. Two segmented arms with grippers unfurl out of the robot, like antennae on an old car. The ball zips between his arms and flops around on the grass. Titey follows the path of the bouncing ball, but in his franticness, the ball gets trapped beneath his undercarriage. He tries to dislodge the ball by backing up, which only punctures it. The students find this laugh-out-loud hilarious. Sam buries his head in his hands—he can’t bear to watch, and feels actual pity for the thing.

“Hey Titey!” someone yells from the bleachers. “C’mon, throw it!” The hapless bot picks up the deflated ball with a claw and attempts to toss it. The pigskin pancake flutters harmlessly to the ground.

“Nice hands, Titey,” Prestwick deadpans, to the further amusement of the students. Student-bonding complete, he gets down to business. “People, we have so much to look forward to this year at Ledgewood Prep. Our football team, as you know, is coming off a disappointing season. But now, with Troy Campbell as our starting quarterback, I suspect this will finally be the year that we take home the gold!”

Sam does a double-take. Troy? From Dr. Q’s class?

Prestwick pivots and waves at the quarterback, who’s just removed his helmet. Long, sweaty locks cling to his face. “You hear that, Troy?” Prestwick hollers. “No pressure or anything.”

Troy parts the matted hair from his eyes and gives a thumbs-up. As he leaves the field, he passes a row of cheerleaders. One of them leans in and whispers something in his ear. Troy casually drapes his hand on her slender waist before whispering something in return. They share a laugh and off he trots toward the locker room.

Sitting with friends at the bottom of the bleachers, Jenna hasn’t missed a beat. Ever observant, Sam sees that she is quietly fuming.

“It’s not just the football team that we’re all proud of,” Prestwick continues. “Our lacrosse and girls volleyball teams promise to be better than ever this year. Where are you guys? Stand up and take a bow.” Players from the teams rise and acknowledge the students’ applause. Prestwick proceeds to give props to all the other varsity squads before turning his attention toward noteworthy academic and extracurricular news. He devotes exactly four seconds to Quid’s class— “Dr. Quidnotsky and his team promise to do more exciting things in the world of robotics”—before moving on to lengthy praise for the brand-new Glee Club and Culinary Workshop electives. Sam finds it odd that the school prez wouldn’t use this forum to announce that Quid’s class would be representing at the Nationals this year. This was the sort of news that dwarfed the accomplishments of all the other departments put together.

As Sam starts to skate away from the bleachers, a boy clambers over a row of kids and follows after him. “Corey!” he yells.

Sam looks back and sees a pimply senior coming toward him. His eyes sit like black marbles at the base of his melon-shaped forehead. Something tells him this kid is bad news. He continues skating.

“Hey Sam!” the kid hollers this time, catching up on foot.

“Why’d you call me Corey?” asks Sam, staring forward.

“That’s your name, isn’t it? Corey Phenix?” The boy is practically sprinting, trying to keep up as Sam quickens his pace. “I looked you up in the admissions records. Sam is your middle name.”

“I hate the name Corey. I started going by Sam years ago.”

“Well, I’m Darius. Darius Kergell. I’m the editor-in-chief of the Ledgewood Ledger, the student paper and website. I’ve heard a lot about you. I was wondering if I could interview you for our first edition of the school year.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?’” Darius finds this amusing. “I run a column on new students. Where they come from, what brought ’em here. I thought—”

“Sorry, not interested.”

“Whoa, tiger. Why so defensive?”

“I’m not defensive. I’m just not interested in sharing my story with the school. I’m here to learn. Finish out my senior year.”

Without breaking stride, Darius takes his cube out of his pocket and hits a red button on the screen.

“I didn’t give you permission to record me,” Sam says flatly.

“What are you running away from?” Darius asks.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. MIT offered you a full scholarship to start college a year early, but you turned it down. Were you scared of failure? I also read you were institutionalized for a while. Care to comment on that?”

Sam jumps off his board and flips it up into his hands. Darius comes to a stop and rests his hands on his knees, panting from exhaustion. “Can I see that for a sec?” Sam asks.

Sam reaches out and grabs the cube out of Darius’s hand before he has a chance to respond. The record button is still on. “Y’know, they have an app now that turns your cube into a mini-drone. Retractable rotors, electric motor, everything.”

“I know,” says Darius, smugly.

Still clutching Darius’s cube, Sam cocks his arm back….

“What are you—?” Darius cries.

…and hurls the device through the air, end over end. It disappears behind a clump of bushes.

“Sorry…,” Sam shrugs. “Thought maybe it could fly.”

* * *

That night, Sam enters his bedroom holding a take-out bag from Tommy’s Hamburgers. He flings his backpack to the floor and fires up his computer, its sleek screen taking up almost an entire wall. A half-completed chess game juts out as a hologram. As Sam tears into his chili cheeseburger, he gives his computer verbal instructions: “Activate A-Ts.”

“Sure thing, Sam,” the computer replies in a calm male voice. “Welcome back, by the way.”

“Thanks, Hal.”

“Finish our game?”

“In a minute.”

Instantly, Sam’s bedroom comes to life with robotic pets. They are hardly lifelike—Sam created them himself—but they possess a certain charm in the way they emulate the animals they represent. A mechanical snake with scaly metal plates and a flickering forked tongue slithers out from under Sam’s bed. It’s joined by a yapping pseudo-dachshund and a squawking raven perched on a curtain rod. Last but not least, Sam opens a cage on his dresser and welcomes a squeaking “hamster” that looks a lot like an old Zhu Zhu Pet, all the rage in the early twenty-first century.

Sam places the hamster on his arm. It glides up his limb and nests in his hair as he punches up his hybridizer—a modern-day digital juke box with a twist. The device learns your musical tastes, but rather than play selected artists, it creates a new, original song every time you turn it on. Each song digitally blends all the styles of music you like into one endless, mash-up tune. Sam’s room is filled by the sounds of a synthesized male voice incanting stream-of-consciousness lyrics to a trumpet-laden guitar bed that alternates between slow and fast tempos. It’s as if Weezer met Joy Division and had a Miles Davis baby.

Sam parks himself on his bed with a bag full of fries and studies the virtual chessboard. “Let’s see…Rook, H3 to H6.”

Hal moves the piece for Sam and ponders its next move.

Suddenly, Sam’s older brother knocks on the door, opening it simultaneously as he always does, much to Sam’s irritation. At twenty-nine years old, the bearded Wayne looks old enough to be Sam’s father, which he basically is.

“Hey bro. How was the football game?”

“Good.”

“Do your homework?”

“I will.”

“Not too late, ’kay?”

Sam smirks. He hates being nagged by his older brother and wants to say, Since when do you care about homework? You’re a college dropout! But he could never utter an ill word to his brother, knowing he had to drop out of school to become Sam’s full-time guardian. To Wayne’s credit, he really stepped up to the plate, becoming a brilliant, self-taught software designer who always keeps food on the table and a roof over their heads. When Wayne’s lucrative job relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles earlier in the summer, Sam had no choice but to follow him down, which led to his enrolling at Ledgewood. Sam owes his life to Wayne. Maybe that’s why he resents him. The indebtedness he feels is a constant source of guilt.

“And hey, could you turn that down a bit?” Wayne asks. “Rik’s over. We’re gonna watch a movie.”

Wayne’s girlfriend Rikki pushes her head between Wayne and the doorway. “Hi, Sam!”

“Hi,” Sam mumbles, still focused on his chess game. He hates the sing-songy way she says his name. She and Wayne have only been going out for four months, but Sam’s noticed they’ve started becoming more serious. Many mornings he’s awakened to find her in the kitchen, wearing his brother’s shirts and blending up stinky skunkweed smoothies for her and Wayne. Lately she’s been making dinners for the three of them, usually some mysterious vegan dish with a pungent curry sauce. Sam once groused that it smelled like sweaty armpits. He marveled at her ability to turn every meal into something completely foul-smelling or inedible. The feeling was more than mutual.

“I smell dead animal,” Rikki says matter-of-factly.

Sam shovels the remainder of his chili cheeseburger into his mouth, smacking the chili off his fingers.

“Gross,” she says. “At least mix some greens in with that, Sam. I made a kale salad with candied walnuts that I think you’d really go for. It’s in the fridge.”

Sam holds up a limp piece of chili-laden lettuce. “Greens.” He folds it into his mouth. As if on cue, Sam’s raven dive-bombs the door, causing Rikki to shriek and seek cover behind Wayne.

Wayne shakes his head and smiles. “We get it. We’ll leave you alone. C’mon, Rik….” He shuts the door.

Annoyed that the sanctity of his bedroom has been violated, Sam turns off the hybridizer and marches over to his desk. This is where he’s most at peace, this reenergizing hub for designing, tinkering, dreaming. Its surface is cluttered with other A-T companions in various stages of completion. To the right of his workspace is his closet, its doors decorated with classic sci-fi movie posters displaying his favorite robots and monsters: Frankenstein, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Metropolis, the classic Fritz Lang silent from 1927 that features a futuristic femme-bot.

Sam pulls out a handheld tablet that shows a live point-of-view of his pet snake slithering around his bedroom, taken from a little camera between its eyes. Sam studies the screen as the snake glides into Sam’s open closet.

“Hey, what’re you doing in there?” Sam groans.

The snake slides into a wooden crate of mementos.

“Get outta there. You’re gonna get stuck!”

But Sam is distracted by the screen. The snake’s vision has switched to infrared in order to cut through the dark bowels of Sam’s closet—just as Sam designed it. The serpent’s tongue laps over an eight-by-ten framed photo of a man and woman, looking spooky in the IR light. Sam’s eyes get wide upon seeing the propped-up photo.

“Hey!” He rushes the closet and yanks the snake out of the crate. As it slithers away, Sam pulls the photo out and cradles it in his hands. It’s his mother and father, smiling at the camera during an unknown dinner party. The picture of happiness. Almost too much to bear, really, which is why Sam keeps it stowed in his closet, along with anything else that reminds him of his parents.

As he puts the photo back, Sam can’t resist sifting through other reminders of his past. He swallows hard as he comes across a gift he made for Mother’s Day when he was ten years old. He remembers this project like it was yesterday: A cut-out photo of his mother’s face, youthful and radiant, is glued to a sheet of construction paper. Below the head, Sam has drawn a robot’s body. The robot has multiple arms accomplishing thankless tasks—vacuuming, cooking, cleaning, dish washing, walking the dog. Under the picture, a young, robot-obsessed Sam had scrawled, “Happy Mothers Day to My Favorite Mom-bot.” Sam’s mom thought the card was hysterical. “Sometimes I wish I were a robot,” she had laughed. “Can you imagine how much I could get done around here?” Remembering the exchange brings a smile to Sam’s face. Little did he know at the time it would be the last Mother’s Day card he’d ever present her.

Hal shakes Sam from his stupor. “Your move, Sam,” he says gently.

“Huh? Oh…uh, Knight. E5 to F7. And check, by the way.”

“Oh dear.”

Sam slides the Mother’s Day card back into the crate and closes the closet door. He hears a muffled squeaking sound. “Huh?” He reopens the closet, and the hamster comes scurrying out. “Oops! Sorry Hammy.” As he closes the door again, Sam is distracted by the Metropolis poster.

“Your move again, Sam,” the computer utters.

Sam’s eyes drift to the chessboard. Exactly as he planned it. “Queen. A3 to F8,” he says. “Check-mate.”

“Well-played, Sam. Shall we play again?”

“Sorry, Hal, I’ve just hit on a brainstorm.”

“Do tell….”

“No offense, but you wouldn’t understand.”


SECTION 03

BRIDGING THE VALLEY


“A chick robot?” spits Troy. “Who’s ever heard of a female Rep in the Nationals?”

“In four years, all twenty finalists have been male,” Riv protests.

As the Advanced Auto-Tronics students openly debate Sam’s idea, Quid folds his arms over his denim jacket, his face pinched in a pensive squint.

“That’s why it’d be cool,” Sam offers. “We’ll stand out more.”

“But anatomically, girls are a lot harder to make realistic,” Troy says. “I mean, even Dr. Q has said the cores are male prototypes.”

“Now hold on,” Quid interjects. “I never said the cores had to result in males.”

“So our robot’s gonna be transgender?” Jenna asks.

Quid paces the room. “There’s a reason we humans are social creatures. Conformity ensures teamwork. Survival of the species. But change and innovation also lead to advancements in thinking. History is defined by rebels who challenge the status quo…who take chances. Everyone from Albert Einstein to Rosa Parks to Steve Jobs—”

“Johnny Rebello!” Riv blurts, referring to a recent musician known for performing naked at all his concerts.

“So you’re saying you approve of Sam’s idea of making our A-T a girl,” Troy says.

“I’m not taking a position, just presenting you with facts,” Quid replies. “I put it to a vote. Majority rules. Everyone okay with that?”

Troy scoffs. “Wonder how this’ll turn out.” He turns his gaze to Jenna as if to warn her, Don’t you dare….

“All those in favor of a male Rep,” Quid proclaims, “raise your hands.” Troy shoots his hand up. Riv looks at the others, then slowly raises his.

After no other hands go up, Quid asks, “Female Rep?”

Sam and Beth immediately thrust their hands in the air. Jenna meets Troy’s defiant stare and puts her hand up as well, for the third and decisive vote.

“Then it’s settled,” Quid says. He strides over to a rear storage closet. “I agree with Troy that creating a female will be more of a challenge. But I also agree with Sam that it will create buzz. Reps are graded on originality in the event of a tiebreaker. That could help us, especially with the male judges.” Quid winks to the class as he slides open the storage unit. “We don’t want to just put in a good showing at the Nationals. We wanna win the damn thing.”

Quid momentarily disappears inside the closet. He emerges wheeling out a cart, upon which sits a boulder-sized object. Draped over it is a tarp displaying the words “Classified: NATE—National Auto-Tron Enterprises.”

“Christmas has arrived early,” Quid declares.

“It came!?” Beth shrieks.

“NATE’s elves dropped it this morning when you were all in class.”

The students rush the cart as Quid whips off the tarp, exposing a seventeen-inch-tall male Rep torso wrapped in a removable aramid mesh. There are cavities where the arms and legs will click in, and a gaping hole where the neck will attach to a head.

“Whoaaaa,” whispers Sam, running his fingers over the pewter core’s glistening fibers.

“Where are his limbs? His parts? His head?” Riv asks excitedly.

Her head,” Beth corrects.

“Separate shipments, due tomorrow,” Quid says. “The limbs will come with basic articulation in their joints. The tricky part will be what sort of actuators we should use. Biomechanics, people! And her head…that’s where our nerdy friends from PTI will really help out. Not just with her visual cortex, but the sensory connection to her brain, which as we all know resides in her, uh… well….” He spins the cart around. “Her heinie.”

The students get a look at the A-T’s hollowed-out exterior, where its buttocks will be attached.

“Just like Keepers,” Jenna says, referring to the robot she and Beth are making in class.

“Only way to pack in all that data,” Sam adds. “Cranial CPUs went out with the HS-200s.”

“Fellow comrades…,” Quid beams. “Contemplate, if you will, just how epic this is. Forget for a moment that you all now get automatic scholarships to college—no small feat in itself. This will be your chance to put a lifetime of acquired knowledge into something truly ground-breaking. To do something no one in the history of the world has previously achieved. To create the first female robot, built by high-schoolers, that successfully crosses the divide….”

Ah yes. The divide. The students immediately know that Quid is referring to bridging the “uncanny valley,” one of his favorite topics. The term was devised by a Japanese roboticist in 1970. As replicas of humans became more realistic, robot-makers began to refer to the uncanny valley as a reference point for how humans emotionally responded to robots. The idea is that, when a robot is overtly un-humanlike, we tend to be more empathetic toward it. To illustrate this concept, Quid had put up a poster in class that displayed famous robots from years past: Robby the Robot from the ’50s sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, Robot B9 from the 1960s TV show Lost in Space, R2-D2 and C-3PO from the Star Wars movies. The poster also included a picture of a typically crude robot that a kid might make out of cardboard boxes and wire hangers.

Quid then drew a line left to right across a graph that represented human empathy. The line started low on the graph for the picture of the simple robot made of cardboard, but rose as the bots grew more sophisticated-looking. The line of empathy peaked when it got to C-3PO. That’s because while he did bear some resemblance to the human body, he was not human enough that we compared him to ourselves.

* * *

When robots start to look and act like us, we can’t help but see them as reflections of who we are. So we start to scrutinize them more. And if we see that a humanlike robot is flawed—say, the eyes don’t look right, or the movements are too stilted—our empathy goes away and we feel disdain. Director Robert Zemeckis experienced this phenomenon firsthand when he released motion-capture 3D movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf in the early twenty-first century. The computer-generated human characters looked mostly human, but something was off. In The Polar Express, critics complained that the Tom Hanks lookalike had “dead eyes,” leaving viewers emotionally cold. So if you were to continue the empathy line on the graph, it would dramatically dip at this point, creating a “valley” on the graph.

Thirty years later, by 2035, Hollywood had long since been able to bridge that gap with virtual actors—CGI figures that looked and acted completely human on screen. It seemed like every other movie featured new incarnations of James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve McQueen, or other iconic performers long since dead. The fad to resuscitate the careers of deceased actors eventually waned once the gimmick got old. But their cinematic likenesses were so real, it was not uncommon for younger generations to believe that the young Arnold Schwarzenegger on-screen was an actual living actor playing a cyborg in Terminator 15.

Meanwhile, in the real, non-movie world, many argued that no one had been able to build a robot that looked and acted convincingly like us. In 2055, NATE claimed to have closed the uncanny valley with its much ballyhooed Alpha series, billed as the first robot that was so human, it earned the right to be called a Human Replacement. It wasn’t just that Reps were a reflection of ourselves; it’s that they could also perform every task that Grinders, Keepers, or any other A-T could do. The downside was that Reps were astronomically expensive, making them unaffordable for ninety-nine percent of the population. But for that one percent, Alpha Reps were sometimes preferable to actual humans. Their hair was regenerated from human hair, their skin almost imperceptible from human skin. They moved fluidly and eloquently, and their speech patterns were perfectly imperfect (they stuttered, hemmed and hawed, and spoke in anything but a monotone voice). They didn’t nag you for not taking out the garbage, didn’t leave toothpaste in the sink, didn’t require sleep or sustenance other than occasional maintenance. They were as loyal as your favorite dog, as dependable as gravity. There was a famous story of a reclusive Japanese trillionaire taking one as his wife (rumors abounded that he had her outfitted “down there” to feel completely female; Reps purposely don’t come with sexual organs, one of the few anatomical features that separates them from humans).

But to even casual observers, there were niggling flaws. As usual, the eyes were a problem. They were not moist enough. They seemed to lack life, which some blamed on pupils fixed in a constant state of dilation. Lacking tear ducts, they were unable to cry. The insides of their noses looked waxy and translucent. Skin turned yellow over time, like a sheet of wax paper left out too long. Many pointed out that Alphas had the IQ of a thirteen-year-old, or couldn’t perform complex physical tasks, like standing on their heads or sliding on their backsides to check your car’s pressure regulator. Defenders argued that even most humans couldn’t perform these tasks, so why hold these bots to a higher standard?

Then there were the car accidents. On several occasions, Alphas who doubled as chauffeurs for their rich owners got into wrecks that made the news. One of them rammed his limousine into an elementary school gate while picking up his owner’s children. NATE blamed the incident on a stuck gas pedal, insisting Rep drivers were still safer than self-driving cars. Robot critics said the Rep had malfunctioned. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it did lead to a national dialogue over whether or not we should restrict robots’ rights. Are there certain things an A-T should not be doing? Or should they be allowed to engage in the same activities as humans, as long as they aren’t breaking laws? That debate remains heated and ongoing.

Stung by criticism that they had not quite bridged the uncanny valley, NATE redoubled its efforts and came out with the Beta Human Replacement line four years later. Beta Reps addressed some of the concerns of the Alpha series. While the price was still sky-high, more rich folks felt comfortable replacing their dependable but unsightly service A-Ts with beautiful-looking Reps to help with housework, dinner parties, and childcare. In fact, if there was one workforce that hated the arrival of Beta Reps more than any other, it was nannies. Many suddenly found themselves pushed aside by androids that could do what they do but didn’t ask for a penny in return.

Some years later, there was a long, unexplained delay before the government released version number three of Human Replacement A-Ts: The Delta line. Where Alphas had only come in four pre-molded versions, the Delta model could be prebuilt to one’s specifications, much like designing a car online. Gender, age, hair color, pigmentation, skill-set, even IQ-level were all categories one could choose from. For the first time, they were also affordable to, if not the masses, at least the upper-middle class. Deltas proved especially popular among older couples whose kids had moved out of the house and were experiencing empty-nest syndrome, or widows looking for “human” companionship. These widows would craft Reps to resemble lost loved ones as closely as they could. The Deltas were also the first Human Replacement line in which even the most hardened critics had to agree: This thing truly was human. Or close enough that a casual observer could not tell the difference. After years of trial and error by the world’s foremost scientists, NATE had finally bridged the gap. Quid himself saw fit to include the Delta as the pinnacle of his uncanny valley chart, drawing a line over the U-shaped valley to close the chasm once and for all.

* * *

Which brings him back to the government-issued core sitting on the cart in his classroom.

“Its operating system is inferior to that of Reps on the open market,” the teacher explains. “Simple economics. NATE figures students could never create something as complex as a Delta, let alone an Epsilon or Zeta”—the more recent Human Replacement models—”so they had contractors craft a cheaper line for high-schoolers, starting with the HS-50, right up to this year’s HS-250.”

While Reps designed for high schools may have limitations, Dr. Q is quick to point out they’re still capable of bridging the uncanny valley and doing things other Reps can’t. It all depends on how wisely each school spends its twenty million dollar federal grant. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he reminds everyone. “It’s not about resources. It’s about being resourceful.”

But his students don’t seem to be listening. They’re still in awe, running their hands over the aramid core in front of them. Quid switches gears. “Make no mistake…creating a Human Replacement A-T is going to require hundreds of hours of extra work beyond the three days a week we meet for class. You’ll need to function as a tight unit, take orders from one another, work closely with the grad students who will be dropping by. There’s no guarantees we’ll even have a completed Rep in time for the Nationals. We may work on her for eight months and still bone it. So as long as I’m in charge, I won’t settle for anything less than a hundred percent commitment.” Quid makes a point of fixing his gaze on Troy, perhaps a nod to his football obligations. “If someone doesn’t feel up to it, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Quid sees his answer in their silent, steadfast faces. After a few seconds, Riv raises his hand.

“Yes, Riv,” Quid says.

“What do you mean, ‘take orders from one another’?”

“Each of you has certain specialties. I’ve had three years to evaluate all of you. Except Sam, of course. And the best way this is gonna work is to divide the construction of our Rep into distinct task forces.”

Quid goes to the whiteboard and scribbles out assignments. “Riv, you’re gonna head up her neuro-muscular system. The brains behind her brains.” Quid turns and notices Riv doing a fist pump. “Just don’t let it go to your head, or your brains will end up below the waist like hers.”

“Isn’t that every guy’s brain?” Jenna quips, drawing chuckles from the class.

“Jenna,” Dr. Q says, “your family is in the synthetic skin business. I understand they patented a prosthetic that grafts human skin cells into polyurethane blends, where you can’t even tell the difference.”

“Best on the market,” Jenna boasts. “NATE uses them for Zeta Reps.”

“Well, I want you to take the lead on sensory systems. How she receives information and acts on stimuli through her neuro-muscular network. So you’ll be working closely with Riv. And Beth.”

“What will I be doing?” Beth asks.

“Outer layer.” Quid nods toward the Keeper that sits half-finished off to the side. “I like the way you and Jenna have worked together on Millie. You’ve got a good eye for aesthetics. You’ll be responsible for the look of the two-fifty—face, hair, body. Details like tear ducts and hysteresis, which we’ve all talked about…the subtle way skin acts under pressure. All the nuance that’s needed to make her as humanlike as possible.”

Given her family’s expertise in synthetic skin, Jenna seems a little disappointed not to be in charge of the female robot’s appearance. But she takes a measure of pride knowing that Dr. Q is entrusting her with one of the more difficult tasks, and she’ll be working closely with Beth anyway.

“As for you, Troy—” Quid begins.

Troy interrupts him. “Lemme guess. Hydraulics. Power. Control.”

Quid laughs. “Yes, yes, and yes.”

Troy nods. Like Jenna, Troy’s father is a big shot scientist. Working out of Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Dr. Terence Campbell oversees the delicate control systems of spacecraft sent out to explore interplanetary bodies. He even had an asteroid named after him after successfully landing a craft onto the surface of one traveling at twenty-five thousand miles per hour. When he wasn’t playing organized sports, Troy spent many summers shadowing his dad at JPL, inheriting his gift for finding simple solutions to complex problems. But where Terence had total passion for his job, Troy was a reluctant protégé. Because his father casts such a long shadow—an “eternal eclipse,” he once joked to Jenna—Troy has told the group that he’s not sure he wants to become an engineer anymore. Building things takes so much discipline and patience; it’s all such thankless work, done in dark recesses away from the public’s adoring eye. Football offers immediate rewards—guts, glory, girls. Luckily, he’s good at both fields—great, actually—and will be offered scholarships either way. He has choices, which is more than the other kids in class can say.

Quid puts down his grease pen and steps away from the board.

“You forgot someone,” Riv says. “Boy Wonder. What’s he doing?”

Dr. Q looks over at Sam. “Well, every orchestra needs a conductor. Sammy boy is gonna be ours. He’ll oversee every department. And work with me on developing her language system.”

A murmur of annoyance spreads among the others.

“Settle, comrades…settle,” Quid says. “This is only our third class, and I know most of you haven’t had an opportunity to really sit down and talk to Sam. But we are blessed to have him in our midst. Full disclosure: it was me who brought him here.”

Sam slides down in his seat, mortified by the sudden attention.

“This past summer, I found out that our application for the Nationals was finally accepted by NATE,” Quid explains. “But there was a condition. We were one under the class minimum of five. Knowing we were down to four students and in danger of losing our place, I got permission from President Prestwick to go on a little scouting mission, looking for the best brain out there so we could make the best Rep we could.”

Sam pulls his hoodie so low it practically covers his eyes.

“I won’t get into too many personal details, but suffice it to say he was recommended to me by several professor pals whose universities offered him early-entry Auto-Tron scholarships. Sam decided to finish up his senior year—a wise move, by the way, Sam—but there was still the issue that he was going to school up north. I had just about given up hope when Sam wrote me to say he’d be moving to L.A. By this point, Sam knew our school got accepted to the Nationals, and he was eager to get involved. I told him the feeling was mutual. And so here he is…and here we are.”

Troy hollers in Sam’s direction, “So what have you done that’s so special?”

Quid jumps in. “Troy, I recommend you all socialize with Sam outside the classroom like I have. He really is an amazing guy. You may even learn a thing or two about humility!”

Sam pipes up with a question, as if to deflect attention from himself. “Excuse me, Dr. Quid…?”

“Yes, Sammy boy.”

“On your charts here in the classroom, you have models of the five Human Replacement models of the last twenty-five years...Alpha, Beta, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“It seems there’s one missing.”

“No,” Quid says firmly. “These were the only Reps that ever entered the marketplace.”

“Are we sure about that?”

“He’s right,” Riv says, nodding toward Sam. “Take it from a Greek. They’ve skipped over Gamma. Third letter of the Greek alphabet. But I always assumed there was nothing behind it.”

“And there isn’t,” Quid insists. “For years, old phones didn’t include the letters Q and Z on keypads. Computer programs often jump model numbers. Google-Apple VR goggles went from version 10.1 to 10.3. Who knows why companies do what they do sometimes? I’m sure NATE had its reasons for skipping straight from Beta to Delta. Maybe it just sounded cooler.”

“Yeah. Just sounded cooler…,” Sam says, with a faint air of derision.

It’s just a fleeting moment—no more than a half-second—but in that half-second, Quid shoots Sam an icy look. The moment of tension is not lost on the other students. Sam seems to suspect something, and Quid seems to know what Sam suspects, but doesn’t want Sam to share it.

Either way, the cat’s out of the bag now. Empty bags are a vacuum. And if there’s one thing every science kid knows, it’s that nature abhors a vacuum.


SECTION 04

THE MISSING LINK


It’s mid-September and a freak rain storm is passing through sunny L.A. It patters against the metal roof of a bus stop shelter, where Sam hunches under his hoodie, his skateboard lodged inside the jacket. He has spent years decorating his board with stickers of his favorite bands and doesn’t want them to get wet. The board’s back wheels cradle Sam’s chin, lending him a stiffly robotic look himself.


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