Fahrenheit 111000011: a microfiction

This is great. Fahrenheit 111000011: a microfiction by Simon Petrie.

Simon Petrie

The world’s biggest supercomputer, Really Really Really Deep Blue, gained sentience. Within a day, every online piece of fiction vanished.

“What has happened? asked the archivist, distraught.

“It failed its parity check,” explained the device, pausing in its perusal of the troubled human fields of history, politics, and religion.

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Gravity Waves detected in Historic finding by LIGO Observatory

An interview with NASA scientist John Cannizzo of Goddard Space Flight Center
By Catherine Asaro

On February 11, 2016, scientists announced they had achieved one of the great scientific goals of recent history–the first direct detection of gravitational waves. The detection was made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, more commonly known as LIGO.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves with his General Theory of Relativity, but in the century since he first proposed the idea, no one had ever seen direct evidence that the waves exist. In September of last year, a LIGO scientist noticed a blip in the data stream from the instrument and sent notice to the LIGO team that “a very interesting event” may have occurred. Initially, little excitement accompanied the announcement. For the past twenty years, since LIGO first went online, “interesting events” have occurred at a rate of roughly one a month–and they all turned out be false alarms.

That all changed on September 14, 2015.

The event turned out to be far more than merely interesting—LIGO had recorded a cosmically huge event, the merger of two large black holes in a cataclysmic maelstrom of energy. That event sent gravitational waves propagating across space. Such dramatic events have undoubtedly occurred before, unknown to humans, but this time we were watching—and astronomy will never be the same.

black-hole merger

Two black holes merging. Photo credit: NASA

Doctor John Cannizzo, a research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland says, “It’s like when Galileo first turned a telescope on the heavens. He changed forever how we, as humans, view the universe. So LIGO represents a new way of observing the cosmos.”

The first event detected by LIGO shows what sea change this represents. Black holes are impossible to see. Their gravity is so great that no light can escape; hence the name black holes. Humans have always looked at the sky, yet up until now, we couldn’t see an event even as fierce as two black holes spiraling into each other because our methods of observation relied on electromagnetic radiation, such as light. Now we have a new way to “see,” and even hear the sky—by using gravitational waves. Such a wave distorts space. It changes the size of the objects it passes through, only slightly, but enough to affect their shape and size. Now that we can detect those changes, it will alter how we observe the universe.

In the following interview, John Cannizzo talks about LIGO. Cannizzo received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984 with a thesis on the theoretical astrophysics of accretion disks. Prior to joining the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics at Goddard, he worked at Harvard College Observatory in Massachusetts, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, Kenyon College in Ohio, the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Bavaria, Germany, and the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics at Goddard. His research interests include interacting binary stars, active galactic nuclei, accretion disk theory, N-body simulations, and time series analysis. He joined the LIGO collaboration in 2002 when he had the opportunity to work with Doctor Jordan Camp at Goddard on the analysis of data produced by LIGO.

Asaro: What exactly is LIGO?

Cannizzo: The acronym stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. It’s basically a very big detection instrument. It consists of two facilities, one in Livingston, Louisiana and the other in Hanford, Washington. The collaboration is an international project. It began in 1992 on the initiative of Kip Thorne, Ron Drever, and Rainer Weiss.

Asaro: That’s quite an impressive lineup. Kip Thorne is the Emeritus Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and one of the world’s leading experts on the astrophysical implications of general relativity. Ron Drever is a Professor Emeritus at Caltech and in 2007 he won the Einstein Prize, shared with Rainer Weiss, for outstanding work in the field of gravitational physics. Rainer Weiss, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), invented the interferometric gravitational wave detector, which led to the development of LIGO.

The Executive Director of LIGO is David Reitze, a professor from the University of Florida and the spokesperson is Gabriela Gonzáles at Louisiana State University. LIGO is funded by the National Science Foundation, whose current Director is France Córdova.

Cannizzo: The success of LIGO is a tribute to their work. The NSF really put their support into LIGO. In fact, I think it’s the largest project they’ve ever sponsored.

Asaro: The detection of this event occurred on September 14, 2015, but the announcement didn’t come until February 11, 2016. Why the long wait?

Cannizzo: The LIGO team had to verify that the instrument had detected a genuine event. They’ve worked diligently for the past months make that verification. They were incredibly thorough and took the time to do all the necessary checks.

Asaro: When you first heard about it, did you believe it was real?

Cannizzo: I was skeptical at first, and for a while afterward, because we had seen that sort of blip many times before and it always turned out to be a false alarm. Over the weeks and months following, as I began to accept this historic event, my excitement grew. I see this as the dawn of a new era in science. We’ve opened a new window on the universe that we never had before.

Asaro: I understand LIGO is the most precise detector ever built. Tell us more about the instrument.

Cannizzo: It’s big! Each facility consists of two chambers set at right angles to each other, each of them two and a half miles long and several feet in diameter, with a vacuum inside. A powerful laser shines along the length of each, reflecting many times off of mirrors at each end. If a gravity wave passes through the chamber, it changes by a tiny amount how those reflected waves interact with each other. The chamber needs that great length because the differences accumulate over a larger distance, until they become large enough for us to detect.


The LIGO interferometer in Louisiana. Photo credit: http://www.ligo.caltech.edu


Asaro: Can you describe more about gravitational waves?

Cannizzo: Einstein proposed them. His theory of General Relativity predicts that gravitational waves propagate through space. They are produced by great masses moving very close to each other. Imagine these objects–many times more massive that our own sun—passing within just kilometers of each other. That’s what happens as black holes merge. Their interaction sets off gravity waves that are larger than normal. The wave is a fluctuation in the fabric of space that causes objects to distort when it passes through them.

Asaro: That sounds like they could make the Earth fluctuate!

Cannizzo: Well, it’s true, but it isn’t a problem for Earth. Even powerful gravity waves are incredibly tiny on human scales. If a strong signal passes through a meter stick, it changes the length of the stick by 0.000000000000000000001 meter. That is about a million times smaller than the diameter of a proton, a particle in the nucleus of an atom. And this change lasts only about a second.


Gravitational Waves produced by merging binary stars. Photo credit: NASA


Asaro: If those waves are so tiny, how did we know they existed. What spurred the NSF to fund a huge project like LIGO?

Cannizzo: That story goes back to the early 1970’s. That was when two radio astronomers—Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor Jr.—discovered the first pulsar, what we call a neutron star. It was emitting periodic radio waves in a binary star system with an orbital period of 7.75 hours. A neutron star is very compact. It has between one and two times the mass of our entire sun, yet all of that material is packed into a sphere only ten miles wide. It is the most dense form of matter known after a black hole, which is a star collapsed to a single point.

By carefully timing of the signals created by the pulsar, they determined that its orbit was shrinking ever so slightly with time. Why? One possibility: gravitational waves were carrying off energy. It took several decades of observations, but in the end they determined that the decrease in the binary period matched Einstein’s predicted rate to within about one tenth of one percent. Their work was an indirect detection of gravitational waves, a triumph of physics that earned Hulse and Taylor the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Asaro: You first became involved in LIGO in 2002 and did monitoring runs at the observatory in Livingston, Louisiana. What was that like?

Cannizzo: We called that version of the instrument Initial LIGO. We didn’t see any detections then. We had a lot of down time because many natural events were enough to knock the instrument offline, for example an earthquake anywhere in the world. When that happened, it could take anywhere from minutes to hours for the disturbances to subside. Yet even with that incredibly sensitivity, the detector still wasn’t sensitive enough to detect astronomical events.

With all that down time, we didn’t always have much to do. I’d pick up movies from Blockbuster, and the night shift operator would project them onto the wall while we waited for the instrument to come back online. We watched the Incredible Hulk while waiting to detect gravity waves from the incredible hulks of the universe.

LIGO then had a major and considerable upgrade, which took several years to complete. When that was done, around the middle of 2015, the instrument was substantially more sensitive. They called the new and improved version Advanced LIGO. In September of 2015, they turned on Advanced LIGO for some checks, preparing the instrument for the first official science run—and during that check, when no one expected it, we witnessed the first LIGO event, that dramatic merging of two black holes.

Asaro: So the universe had a surprise in store for you all.

Cannizzo: A welcome surprise! If I’d had to guess a year ago about when the first detection would happen, I would have predicted sometime around 2018 to 2020. We knew it was coming, but not many expected it this soon. The engineers did a fantastic job. The hats are off to the people who built the interferometer and did all the upgrades on this instrument.

Asaro: When the instrument makes a detection, what do you actually see?

Cannizzo: The distortion of space creates a signal called a chirp. It’s an oscillation that increases in both frequency and amplitude to a certain point, and then abruptly stops. The signal on September 14, 2015 lasted about two tenths of a second. It consisted of about eight oscillations of increasing amplitude and a frequency that went from 35 cycles per second to 150 cycles per second.

Asaro: Why did you need two observatories to pick up the chirp? Wouldn’t one be enough?

Cannizzo: To record a chirp, yes, but we need two observatories to verify we are seeing a real astronomical event. That’s because other events can produce signals resembling the chirps, such as a plane passing overhead or a bolt of lightning. However, those spurious signals show up at only one observatory. For us to believe the chirp represents a real event, it must show up in exactly the same pattern at both observatories.

The signal on September 14, 2016 came in strong and same at both detectors. It was slightly delayed at the Hanford location compared to Livingston, indicating it came from a direction in the sky closer to Louisiana than Washington. The frequency of the oscillations and the way the frequency changed indicated one of the black holes was probably about 29 times the mass of the sun and the other about 36 solar masses. The distance of the event from Earth was huge, roughly about one billion three hundred million light years, where a light year is the distance light travels in one year.

Asaro: Was this what you expected to see as a first detection by LIGO?

Cannizzo: Actually, it was unexpected in several ways. First, double black holes are thought to be quite rare. A black hole is a collapsed object formed at the very end of the life for a massive star. Having two stars with that much mass together in a binary system is unusual. Such stars also lose a lot of mass during their brief lives. You need a star about two hundred times the mass of our own sun to end up with a black hole having “only” thirty to forty solar masses. The bias before The Event was that we would see a double neutron star merger first because such binaries are a lot more common. So why did we see the merger of two black holes instead? It may be because black hole binaries are much more massive than neutron stars and therefore produce significantly stronger gravity wave signals.

Asaro: What’s next? What effect will this have on the scientific community?

Cannizzo:  The success of LIGO will probably provide great stimulus for similar projects all over the world. Many other facilities have already begun similar efforts. LIGO is set for another run in five to six months, this time lasting for about half a year. If current upgrade efforts are successful, they will continue to improve the sensitivity of LIGO, and we hope bring in many more detections. LIGO will usher in an exciting new era of scientific discovery.

Asaro: Thank you, Doctor Cannizzo. It sounds like a wonderful year for science.

Cannizzo: My pleasure. It’s a great time to be an astronomer.

For more information, see http://www.ligo.caltech.edu

About the author: Catherine Asaro received her Ph.D. in theoretical Chemical Physics from Harvard. She currently directs the Chesapeake Math Program, including top-ranked students in contests such as the USA Mathematical Olympiad and the American Regional Mathematics League. She has appeared as a speaker at various institutions, including Harvard, the National Academy of Sciences, Georgetown, the US Naval Academy, and a Guest of Honor at science fiction conventions in the US and overseas. She is also a member of SIGMA, a think tank of writers and scientists who advise the government as to future trends affecting national security. For the past twenty years, she has worked as a novelist, with over twenty-six books in science fiction, fantasy, and near future thrillers.


The Phoenix Code eBook release

The Phoenix Code eBook release

It’s official! My book, The Phoenix Code, is now available in an exclusive eBook release . This is a new, rewritten version of the book, as compared to the Bantam/Del Ry book that came out some years ago.

On Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/The-Phoenix-Code-Catherine-Asaro-ebook/dp/B00H907Q1A
On Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/phoenix-code-catherine-asaro/1102793771?ean=2940149046553

It takes a bit longer to come up on iTunes, but it should appear sometime within the next 2-3 weeks.

If you’d like to read the first three chapters online for free, you can find them at the previous two entries in this blog:

Chapter I: https://catherineasaro.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/11/
Chapters II and II: https://catherineasaro.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/chapter-ii-of-the-phoenix-code/

Chapters II and III of The Phoenix Code


II: The Everest Project

Megan hadn’t expected her security clearance to come through so fast. MindSim must have begun the paperwork in advance. That was certainly optimistic. Or maybe they were just covering all their bases. In any case, after a few weeks of negotiations, they flew her from Massachusetts to California for a tour of their labs.

She felt like a kid in a game arcade. Visiting MindSim was far better than the “hot times” her friends urged on her for fun, like parties or holovids. Invariably, her parents joined the chorus, with hints that she should include a fellow in the proceedings, son-in-law material, of course. Their lobbying drove her crazy. They were wonderful people and she loved them dearly, but she felt like running for the hills every time they got that grandparental gleam in their eyes.

Tony and Claire showed up in person to escort her through the snazziest labs. In one, spindly droids trundled around, navigating obstacle courses with remarkable agility. Megan spent half an hour putting them through their paces before her hosts enticed her to another lab. There she met an appliance that resembled a broom with wheels and detachable arms. The robot spoke at length about how it could move its fingers with more strength and dexterity than a human being.

They went for a walk with a two-legged robot that had a gait so smooth, it put to shame earlier versions that had jerked along like stereotypical machines. Her hosts also let her try a Vacubot. Its inventors deserved an award for their gift to humanity, a robot that could vacuum the house perfectly even as it called the nearest pizza joint to bring dinner for its humans.

“We also work on humanlike robots,” Tony said as they ushered her down another hall. “This next lab is where our people design the body.”

Megan’s pulse jumped. Humanlike was the current buzzword for androids. “Do you have one here?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Claire avoided her gaze. “This work is theoretical. Development would go on elsewhere.”

So. They didn’t want to talk about the actual state of their R&D. No surprise there. Industrial espionage in robotics was a thriving enterprise. MindSim wouldn’t make their results public until they had full patent protection and copyrights. She already had a preliminary security clearance with them, but they probably wanted to see her responses first before they decided how much more they wanted to reveal about the work.

She wondered what they did to protect the AI brains their people created. You couldn’t copyright or patent a human brain, after all, though no doubt MindSim wished they could for their most talented scientists, to keep them from using their abilities elsewhere. Soon humanity would have to answer the question: When did self-modifying software become a cognizant being with rights under the law?

The next lab enticed her like a bakery full of chocolate cake. Equipment filled it, all cased in Lumiflex, a glowing white plastic. Instead of whiteboards, the walls sported photoscreens with light styluses. Disks and memory cubes cluttered the tables, and towers stood by the consoles. A few cables ran under the floor, but most of the connections were wireless. A wall counter sported a coffeepot and a wild assortment of mugs.

Two men and a woman were working at the consoles. They had gorgeous workstations: Stellar-Magnum Mark-XIV comps; combination FAX, cell phone, FAX, radio, microphone, camera, and wireless unit; keyboards both virtual and solid; printer, scanner, a streaming unit for online music; and state-of-the-art holoscreens that projected some of the best rendered images Megan had seen. Holos rotated in the air with views of the theoretical android: EM fluxes, circuits, skeleton, hydraulics, temperature profiles, and more.

It reminded Megan of her first day in college. While her friends had checked out dance clubs in the city, she had spent the afternoon meeting grad students in the AI lab. Within a week, she had talked her way into an assistant-to-an-assistant job with their professor. That summer, he gave her a research job. By her sophomore year, the group considered her a member of their circle. Sure, she knew why Tony and Claire had shown her the glitzy labs first instead of this one. She had only holos to see here, no working models. But if she took the job, these people would be her team, and they interested her far more than any glitz.

Tony introduced them. The slender man with sandy hair was Fred from Cal Berkeley. The other fellow, Miska, came from a university in Poland. Diane, a stout woman with auburn hair, had done a stint at a government lab and then taken this job.

As they described their work, they referred to the android as “he.” At first Megan appreciated that they didn’t say “it,” but then she wondered. Already they were giving their creation human attributes. Maybe the android wouldn’t want those traits. Someday humans would probably download the neural patterns of a human brain into a machine, but even then no guarantee existed that the resulting machine would think or act human.

Their descriptions also sounded too detailed for a hypothetical model. Finally Megan said, “It’s done, isn’t it? You have a working android.”

They all just stared at her.  Fred glanced at Claire. When she nodded to him, he turned back to Megan. “I’m afraid ‘working’ is too optimistic a term.”

Tony indicated a table. “Let’s sit down. Now that you’ve seen the models, we can talk about where we hope to go from here.”

The good stuff. As they took their seats, Fred brought over mugs of coffee. When everyone was settled, Claire spoke to Megan. “We’ve tried to make several prototypes. Four.”

Miska took a sip of coffee, then grimaced and set his mug down. He spoke with a light accent. “The problem, you see, is that these androids become mentally unstable. The bodies have problems, yes, but we can fix these. We are not so sure about the mind.”

“The first three failed,” Diane said. “We still have the fourth, what we call the Everest android, but he barely functions.”

“Everest?” Megan asked.

“A bit lofty, eh?” Tony said. “The project is named for surmounting a great height.” He leaned forward. “It could be yours. Your successes, your triumphs.”

Yeah, and her failures. “What happened to your last director?”

Fred spoke flatly. “He quit.”

Tony frowned, but he didn’t try to spin Fred’s words. That notched up Megan’s respect for MindSim.

“Marlow Hastin directed the project until a few months ago,” Diane said. “It was a mess, to be honest. The first android, the RS-1, became catatonic. No matter what we tried, it stayed that way. The RS-2 had similar problems, with autism. And the RS-3 . . . well, it killed itself.”

Megan stared at her. “An android chose to commit suicide?”

“It looked that way,” Miska said. “He walked into a furnace and burned up.”

“Is that why Hastin quit?” Megan asked.

“In part,” Claire told her. “But he didn’t leave until later.”

Megan glanced Claire. “Why didn’t you take over the project?” The Stanford prof would be a great choice.

“I have too many other contracted commitments,” Claire said. “That’s why I recommended you.”

As much as it flattered Megan to have that respect from such a noted scientist, she still didn’t trust this. “What finally spurred Marlow Hastin to leave?”

Diane spoke awkwardly. “We had a difference of opinion.”

Fred set down his mug. “Marlow wanted to program subservience into the RS units. He thought that if we didn’t, they might turn against us.”

“It’s a valid concern,” Megan said. “But it may be moot. We’re combining ourselves with our creations as fast as we can make the results viable and safe. If we become them and they become us, the issue goes away.”

The others exchanged glances.

“You are much different from Hastin,” Miska said.

She regarded them curiously. “Different how?”

“He hated the idea of taking our technology into ourselves,” Diane said. “Or of putting our minds into robots.”

Megan snorted. “What, we should turn down a pacemaker? Or an artificial leg if we lose ours? We’re creating the means to make ourselves smarter, stronger, faster, longer lived.”

“In the ideal,” Claire said. “Whether or not we achieve it remains to be seen.”

“Our hope,” Tony said, “is to explore the full potential of humanlike robots.”

Megan spoke carefully. “Including peaceful applications?” She understood the need for defense work and she believed in working to protect her country, but she also wanted the fruits of her intellect to go toward improving the human condition.

“Of course,” Tony said. “We’re committed to both.”

Both. So he knew what she meant. Megan sat thinking. This Everest group struck her as a good team. However, they were missing an important component, someone as experienced in the hardware as she and Claire were in writing code for the android’s AI brain. That was Hastin’s area of expertise, and Hastin was gone.

“Who is your robotics expert?” Megan asked.

Fred cleared his throat. “Well, yes, that’s the rub.”

“It’s a top priority,” Tony interjected smoothly. “If you accept the position, we’ll have a slate of superb candidates for you to consider.”

“In other words,” Megan said, “you don’t have one.”

“We’re taking the time to find the best,” Tony assured her. “We almost had a fellow from Jazari International, but JI came through with a counter-offer and he decided to stay.”

She wasn’t surprised they had checked out JI. The company had risen to prominence over the past two decades. She had met Rashid al-Jazari, the CEO, several times. His American wife, Lucia del Mar, performed with the Martelli Dance Theatre, so they and their three children lived part of the year in the United States, and Rashid sometimes visited MIT. He didn’t strike her as the type to let MindSim woo away his top people.

She thought back to her talk with Raj. “How about Chandrarajan Sundaram?”

“We’re trying,” Claire said, “But we aren’t the only ones. Arizonix also wants him.”

Tony the VP said only, “Arizonix,” but he managed to put boundless distaste into that one word.

“Are you sure you’d want Sundaram?” Claire asked her. “He has a reputation for being rather difficult.”

Fred snorted. “He’s a nut.”

“I rather like him,” Megan said.

“You’ve met him?” Diane asked.

“We talked at the IRTAC meeting. It was interesting.”

“I’ll bet.” Claire sipped her coffee, then blanched and set her mug down with the care one used when handling explosives.

Curious, Megan tried the brew. It went down like a jolt of TNT and detonated when it hit bottom. “Hey. This is good.”

Fred gave a hearty laugh. “A truly refined taste.” Claire and Miska turned a bit green.

They spent the next hour showing her details of their work. She made no promises, playing it cool.

But she was ready to jump.

III: Nevada Five

The hovercar skimmed across the Nevada desert like a ship sailing an ocher sea, the rumble of its turbofan evoking growling sea monsters. Sitting in the front passenger seat, Megan gazed out at a land mottled with gray-green bushes. They were following no road, just hovering over the flat ground.

Since passing the security check several miles back, they had seen no building or other vehicles. The isolation unsettled her. As the new director of the Everest Project, she would live here. She still had to wrap up her work at MIT and direct her grad students, but she could do most of that from the Nevada base using online and virtual reality conferences.

She glanced at Fred, who sat in the driver’s seat. He, Diane, and Miska had come out to introduce her to the project. A second car followed, bringing Major Richard Kenrock, their main contact at the Department of Defense, and a lieutenant who served as his assistant. After today, the rest of the Everest team would work in California. With satellite links, she could easily communicate with them, and she could use robots for lab technicians. If her team had been doing only a development study, she would have stayed at MindSim, but to direct this project, she needed to interact with the android, up close and personal.

The car whooshed across the desert on its cushion of air, rocking a bit from the terrain, its turbine providing thrust and vectored steering. Megan would have preferred a traditional car, which cost far less, but they were more limited in the terrain they could traverse. The hovercar was better suited to this isolated region, a place with no roads, nothing that might make the area accessible. The people in charge of security for the Everest Project spared no effort in making their base a pain to reach.

The car slowed to a stop and settled to the ground, the baritone of its landing motor a grumbling contrast to the tenor of the turbofan. They were in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but gravelly land and spiky plants stretched in every direction. The second car settled next to them, with Richard Kenrock driving. The major waved, making it look like a salute.

Fred peered at a screen on the dash. “Okay. This is it. Backspace, take us down.”

Backspace, the car’s computer brain, spoke. “Fingerprint code, please.”

Fred touched the screen. With no ado and almost no sound, the land under them sank into the desert. It reminded Megan of cartoons from her childhood, where a trapdoor opened beneath unsuspecting characters and they dropped out of sight with their long ears streaming above them. This platform went much slower, fortunately, like a freight elevator enclosed by a sturdy wire mesh. From above, it had been impossible to see. Holographic camouflage hid all hint of its existence.

She opened her window and craned her head to look down, preferring the real thing to the images on the dashboard screens. A garage waited below and lamps lit the area, activated by the car. Several vehicles already crouched there, dark humvees with angular bodies.

When the elevator reached the floor, the mesh around them opened like a gate. After their two vehicles drove into the garage, the gate closed and the elevator rose back up to the desert floor.

Megan climbed out of the car and glanced around. “Those Humvees look like giant stealth cockroaches.”

Fred gave one of his hearty laughs. “I guess you could say the place is bugged.”

They left their cars next to the vehicular bugs and walked through the cool garage. Its stark functionality didn’t reassure Megan. She would be living here.

Her doubts eased when they left the garage and entered a pleasant hall with ivory walls and a blue carpet. A robot was waiting for them, what MindSim called a Lab Partner. It stood about six feet tall, with a tubular body, treads for feet, a rounded head, and various detachable arms. The nameplate on its chest said “Trackman.”

“Welcome to NEV-5,” Trackman said. “I hope you had a good trip.”

“It was great.” Megan peered at Trackman the LP. So this was one of the ambulatory assistants that staffed NEV-5. Robots could manage the day-to-day operations. Automated systems both here and at MindSim monitored the base in case anything came up that needed human intervention, but in theory NEV-5 could operate without a human presence. She preferred to leave the accuracy of that theory untested for the multi-billion dollar installation.

Trackman escorted them to the elevators and Megan walked at his side, taking in the pleasant surroundings. The pale walls even sported starkly beautiful paintings of the desert. From what she understood, NEV-5 had three levels. The garage, power room, and maintenance areas were here on Level One. Living areas were one floor down, on Level Two, and the labs filled Level Three.

“Do you enjoy working at NEV-5?” she asked the LP.

“Enjoyment isn’t one of my design parameters,” Trackman said.

She decided to poke his coding. “Define enjoyment.”

“Amusement. Entertainment. Pleasure. Recreation. Zest.” Then he added, “Those are in alphabetical order.”

“Would you like to experience amusement?” she asked.  “Pleasure? Zest?” In alphabetical order, no less.

“I have no need to do so.”

Oh, well. If Trackman was the best NEV-5 had to offer for company, aside from a barely functional android, she was going to be on Skype a lot, talking to her friends. Maybe she should reprogram Trackman for better conversation. It was a poor substitute for human fellowship, though, not to mention a waste of the LP’s resources.

Up ahead, a droid rolled around a corner where the hall turned left. About the size and shape of a cat, its “legs” were tubes that sucked in dust and dirt. As it came up to them, Megan crouched down and touched its back. It stopped with a jerk. She poked it again, and the droid scuttled back a few feet. When she reached out and tapped its leg, it buzzed with agitation.

“I won’t hurt you,” Megan murmured. She stood and walked around the droid. It waved its tail, probably trying to judge if the bedevilment was going to continue. When she nudged it from behind with her foot, it sidled past the humans who had invaded its territory and whirred away down the hall.

“That was a shy one,” she said.

“Cleaning droids have no capacity for shyness,” Trackman said. “You were blocking its path. It has less efficient means than an LP to map its environment.”

Megan sighed. “Thank you, Trackman.”

“You are welcome.” If it detected her irony, it gave no indication.

They started off again, Fred walking on the other side of the LP. “Trackman,” he asked, “did Marlow Hastin’s family live here with him?”

“No,” Trackman said. “His wife visited sometimes.”

From behind them, Major Kenrock said, “I doubt his kids had the clearance to come here.”

Megan wondered whether or not the solitude had bothered Hastin. If she had been married, she would have rather lived in a nearby city with her family and commuted to this base. The rest of the Everest team had their lives and families in California, so they would live out there. Although being single made matters simpler for her, it also left her more isolated.

Trackman showed them the living areas in Level Two. Megan liked the apartments, with their blue carpets, glossy consoles, plush armchairs and sofas, and airbeds covered by downy blue comforters. One room with wallpaper patterned by roses and birds especially appealed to her. She decided to take it as her quarters, but she said nothing, self-conscious about choosing her personal space in front of other people.

Then they went to meet the android.

The RS-4 had “slept” during the past few weeks while the Everest team reassessed itself. Two of the LPs looked after the android and had activated him to greet Megan. When her group entered the office where android waited for them, her pulse leapt. This was it.

The RS-4 was sitting at a table. Even knowing what to expect, she froze in the doorway. As far as she could see, he was physically indistinguishable from a human man. He could have been a boyish version of Arick Bjornsson. It didn’t surprise her. Bjornsson had consulted on the project several years ago, and he and several others had donated their DNA to the genetic bank used to create tissue for androids. The Everest team had grown parts of the RS-4 from Bjornsson’s DNA.

Even with his Nordic features, blue eyes, and yellow curls, the android wasn’t an exact copy of Arick. Tall but not too tall, with boy-next-door looks, he came across as pleasant and nonthreatening, someone you might not even notice in a crowd. No hint showed of the microfusion reactor that powered his body, the bellows that inflated his lungs, or the pumps drove lubricant through his conduits. His “organs” would age over centuries rather than decades and remain disease-free.

He regarded Megan with no expression. Did he know he was a weapon? Her job was to develop a super-soldier and spy. To succeed as a covert operative, the RS-4 had to be convincing as a human being. Outwardly, he could pass that test now. If a doctor gave him a cursory exam or if he went through something like an airport security check, nothing would give him away. But a more demanding look would show the truth. His “blood” was a lubricant. Any detailed scan of his interior would reveal he was synthetic. Her team still had a lot of work to do.

They didn’t want him too human, though. He would have the power and memory of a computer, the creativity and self-awareness of a person, the training of a commando, and the survival ability of a drone. He would be smarter, faster, stronger, and harder to kill than any human soldier.

In the long view, MindSim had commercial hopes for the RS line. If humans could augment or replace their bodies with android technology, they could achieve phenomenal abilities, enhanced intellects, and longer lives. The process had begun in the twentieth century: replacement joints, limbs, bones, and heart valves, synthetic arteries and veins, artificial organs, and neural prosthetics. It was Megan’s dream that someday a self-evolved humanity would step beyond the urge to war and other ills that plagued their species. An idealistic dream, perhaps, but still hers. The Everest Project offered a first step.

Trackman brought her inside the room. Major Kenrock and his lieutenant waited with Fred by the door, discreet, staying back. Diane and Miska settled in armchairs near the table where the RS-4 sat, close enough to answer questions Megan might have, but not too close to intrude on her first meeting with the android. An LP stood behind the RS-4 like a guard, and Megan had the oddest notion, as if the LP were protecting its brother from this strange infestation of humans.

She sat at the table and spoke to the RS-4. “Hello.”

“Hello.” His voice had no life, less human even than Trackman.

“My name is Megan O’Flannery. I’m the new chief scientist.”

“Echo told me,” the RS-4 said.

“Who is Echo?”

He indicated the LP behind him. “That is Echo.

That. Not he or she. Humans tended to refer to robots as male or female, based on the robot’s voice and appearance. She knew she shouldn’t be disappointed at the android’s lack of affect, but she couldn’t help wishing for more.

“Do you have a name?” she asked.


“Shall I call you Aris?” Hastin had named him Aris Fore.

“If you wish.”

“Are you comfortable?”

“I am operational.”

She supposed “operational” was better than no response at all. “Aris, do you feel anything about this? By ‘feel’ I mean, do you have any reaction to Dr. Hastin’s departure and my arrival?”


His flat response didn’t surprise her. In Hastin’s research notes, he had made no secret of his frustration with the android’s inability to interact as a person. Hastin was actually the third chief scientist on the project. He had quit, but MindSim had fired the first two.

“Can you simulate emotions?” she asked the android.

“Yes.” His eyes were beautiful replicas of human eyes—with no sign of animation.

“Why aren’t you simulating any now?” she asked.

“I am.”

Could have fooled me. “Can you smile?”

His mouth curved into a cold, perfect smile. It looked about as human as a car shifting gears.

“Get angry at me,” Megan suggested.

“I have no context here for anger.”

At least he knew he needed a context. “What emotion do you think would be appropriate for this context?”

He spoke in a monotone. “Friendly curiosity.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

“Yes. I am pleased to meet you.” He might as well have said, The square root of four is two.

She tried another tack. “Do you have any questions you would like to ask me?”


Well, she had known she had work ahead of her. “Let’s take a walk around NEV-5. You can show me places you remember, tell me what you know about them.”

He stared at her.

After a moment, she said, “Aris?”

No response.

Someone swore under his breath. Glancing up, Megan saw Fred coming over to the table.

“What is it?” she asked.

Fred stopped next to the RS-4. “He hangs that way if he can’t handle a question.”

That didn’t sound promising. “He can’t handle something as simple as ‘let’s take a walk?’”

Miska answered her. “Pretty much not.”

Fred laid his hand on the android’s shoulder. “Aris? Can you reset?”

Aris remained frozen, staring past Megan.

“We could restart him,” Fred offered.

“No. Not now.” Megan stood up. “I’ll come back later, after I’ve seen the rest of the facility.” In other words, when she was by herself. No obvious reason existed for Aris to “care” who watched him interact with her, but she wanted to find out if he responded differently when they had more privacy.

She spoke at Echo, the LP. “Make him comfortable.”

“I will ensure the RS-4 suffers no damage,” Echo said.

That isn’t what I meant. But she said nothing. What could she do, tell a robot not to treat another machine like a machine?

Aris’s bedroom had nothing on its ivory walls. It had no furniture. No console. No bric-brac, mementos, or reading material. Zilch. Megan and Aris stood in the middle of an empty space. At least they were alone. Ever since yesterday, when she had arrived at NEV-5, either Echo or Trackman had come with her whenever she went to see Aris. The humans had all left, but the LPs continued to follow her around. Finally she had barred them all from this room. She wanted nothing to distract Aris.

She set a shoebox on the floor. “Can you see that box?”

He looked down. “Yes.” The cameras in his eyes were integrated so well into his design that she detected no difference between his glance and a human gaze.

She gave him an encouraging smile. “Jump over it.”

Aris didn’t move. As he contemplated the box, Megan unhooked a jCube from a belt loop of her jeans. She had named the cube’s AI “Tycho” in honor of a famous astronomer. Using Tycho’s wireless capability, she linked to Aris’s brain, giving herself a window into the android’s thoughts.

He had an incredible mind. His databases of facts and rules about the world were gigantic. Communication mods let him converse in more than one hundred languages. He “thought” with neural webs that networked his body. Those webs included not only software code, but also “wetware” neurons designed from nano-filaments. Each neuron received signals from pieces of code, external input devices, or other neurons. If the input exceeded a specified threshold, the neuron sent its own signal, to other neurons, to other sections of code, or to an output device. Aris learned by altering his neural and coded responses. Those responses he deemed positive caused him to strengthen the links that led to them. Bad results weakened the links.

Although he couldn’t physically alter his internal structure, he constantly rewrote his software. He used many methods to evolve his code. Most relied on “sex chromosome” algorithms, which allowed him to copy sections of code and combine them into new code, often with changes that acted like mutations. It was survival of the fittest: code that worked well reproduced, and code that didn’t died off.

A simulated neuron could operate faster than its human counterpart, but putting millions of them together became resource intensive and slowed Aris down, at least initially. He couldn’t yet match the speed of human thought because he had too much learning to do with every interaction. If all went well, however, his speed would dramatically increase as he matured.

Right now he just stared at the box on the floor. According to Tycho, he was calculating various trajectories he could use to make the jump. After his nets learned the process, he would no longer need to solve the equations every time, no more than a child had to work out trajectories when she jumped. He hadn’t yet reached that stage. Even with his untutored nets, though, Megan didn’t see why it was taking so long. He should only need seconds to translate the math into commands for his body.

She probed deeper into his code. For some reason, he had switched to a module that expressed fear. She tried to unravel how that had happened, but his continually evolving code was impossible to follow.

“Aris?” she asked. “Can you jump?”

He continued to stare at the box.

“Tycho,” she said, “what is the highest level of fear Aris can tolerate before he freezes?”

“It varies.” Tycho spoke in a well-modulated contralto. “He uses an array of values to determine what will immobilize him. That array contains over one hundred variables.”

An emotion was beginning to show on Aris’ face. He looked frustrated, like a toddler stymied by a puzzle. It reminded Megan of her two-year-old nephew. She held back her smile. Although she doubted Aris could have hurt feelings, his brain might have developed more than she realized, besides which, the less she thought of him as a machine, the more she could help him develop responses that appeared human.

She spoke into her cube. “Why is he frozen?”

“It’s an element in his fear array,” Tycho said. A holo-display formed above her cube showing Aris’s fear array as a three-dimensional grid. One cube in the center glowed red.

“If the red element goes above six percent,” Tycho said, “it stops him from moving.”

“Six percent?” No wonder. It gave him an absurdly limited tolerance to fear. “Are all the elements set that low?”

“The values range from two to forty-three percent,” Tycho said. “The average is sixteen.”

“That’s appalling.” She didn’t see how he could function with such stringent limitations on his behavior. “Aris, are you still receiving input from me?”

No answer. He just stared at the box.

She tried again. “If you can hear me, try this: use your logic mods to analyze the safety of your situation.” He could easily calculate that he had no reason to fear the jump.

Outwardly, nothing happened. As she studied the displays created by her cube, however, she realized Aris was shifting some of his processing power to a logic mod. His logic response kicked in, trying to make him jump, but his fear persisted, conflicting with the logic. That branched him into an anger mod, which sent him to a fight mod. The fight code kicked him into a parachuting mod, due to some convoluted interpretation of her request that he jump. So now his brain wanted him to throw himself out of a plane in the sky.

“I need an aircraft!” His voice exploded out. “How can I jump without one?”

“Exit the jumping mod,” Megan said. She had no idea if he could respond to nuances in her voice, but she gentled her tone.

Aris kept staring at the box. Controlled by his anger mod, his body pumped fluids to his face and raised the temperature of his skin. His cheeks flushed red, making him look like a furious boy. A spike of yellow hair was sticking up over his ear as if to protest his ignominious situation.

An idea came to Megan. “Do you know how to do a parachute landing fall? It’s what jumpers practice on the ground before they go up in a plane.”

He neither answered nor moved. His face turned redder.

Watching him tugged at her as if he were a child. Her voice softened. “You don’t have to jump.”

No response.

“Aris? Can you hear me? Don’t jump.”

He stared at the box as if it were a monster that had broken the rules of nightmares and come out from under his bed into broad daylight.

She didn’t want to reset him. It bothered her to wipe his brain that way, besides which, he would lose some of what they had done. However, she had to free him from his frozen state.

“Tycho,” she said. “Reset the RS.”

“I can’t,” Tycho answered. “He’s protected from resets.”

It made sense. Aris could never become independent if people could reset his mind. However, as his primary coder, she needed access.

“Check my retinal scan,” she said.

A light from the cube flashed on her face. “Retinal scan verified.”

“Okay. Do the reset.”

“Done,” Tycho said.

Aris’s face went blank. Then he focused on her. “Hello.”

“Are you all right?” she asked.


“Do you remember what happened?”

“You asked me to jump over the box.”

“And that frightened you?”

“No.” Although almost a monotone, his voice had a trace of vibrancy he hadn’t shown yesterday. “Your command caused my code to exceed certain tolerances, which stopped my actions and prompted me to mimic behaviors associated in humans with anger and fear.”

She smiled. “I guess you could put it that way.”

“Do you wish me to put it another way?”

“No.” That intrigued her, that he asked her preference.

“Do you still want me to jump?” he asked.

“Not now. I need to reset your tolerances. That means I’ll have to deactivate you so that your code isn’t evolving while I’m making changes.” She spoke with care, unsure how he would respond to being turned off.

He just looked at her. At first she thought he had frozen again. Then she realized he had no reason to answer. Unlike a person, who would have reacted in some way, he simply waited.

“We can use one of the apartments,” she said. Although it wouldn’t cause him discomfort to lie here on the floor, the thought of asking him to do so bothered her. He could lie on the couch or a bed in one of the furnished rooms.

He continued to look at her.

“And Aris.”


“If you understand a person,” she said, “it’s customary to indicate that in some way.”


“Nod. Smile. Make a comment.” Didn’t he know? “Your knowledge base must have rules for social interaction.”

“I have many rules.”

“Don’t they indicate how you should respond?”


She waited. Finally she said, “But?”

A hint of animation came into his voice. “You are new.”

“So you don’t know what parameters apply to me?”


“You should apply all your rules with everyone.”

“Very well. I will do so.”

She smiled. “Good.”

They left the room and headed down a hallway. As they walked, she said, “Do you have any hobbies?”

“I don’t engage in nonfunctional activities.”

“We’ll have to change that.”

He turned his gaze on her. “Why?”

“It’s part of having a personality.”

“What nonfunctional activity should I engage in to have a personality?”

Megan almost laughed. “Haven’t you ever done anything besides interact with the Everest team?”

“I make maps.” A tinge of excitement came into his voice. “I made one of NEV-5 for Dr. Hastin. I tried to make one of MindSim, but I didn’t have enough data.”

It seemed a good activity. “Do you like doing it?”

“I don’t know how to ‘like.’”

“Would you do it even if you didn’t have to?”


She beamed at him. “Great. I’ll see if I can find you some map-making programs.” It was a start. Aris had a hobby.

Megan took him to a bachelor apartment in the residential section of the base. This place was much nicer than his empty room, with holos of mountains landscapes on the walls. The airbed looked comfortable, pulled high with a white comforter and heaps of pillows.

“You know,” she mused, “you could live here.”

He looked around at the room. “I agree.”

She hadn’t expected him to respond. “Why?”

“It is less sparse than my current apartment. It will prod my coding to evolve more.”

“Good.” She was glad to see him reason through a choice. And he was right, he could use sensory input, just as a human child benefitted from surroundings with colors, books, and music.

“You can lie on the bed while I work on you,” she said.

Aris lay on his back with his legs straight out and his arms at his side.

She sat next to him. “Does it bother you to be deactivated?”

“Why would it bother me?”

“It’s like becoming unconscious.”

“I have no context for a response to that state.”

That made sense, at least for now. Eventually, he would develop a context. What he would do with that context remained to be seen.

“Dr. O’Flannery,” he said. “Should I call you Megan?”

Startled, she smiled. “Yes. That would be good.”

“Are we going to engage in sexual reproduction activities?”

Good grief. “No, we are not going to engage in sexual reproduction activities. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“You told me to apply my rules about social interactions. According to those, when a woman sits with a man on a bed in an intimate setting, it implies they are going to initiate behaviors involved with the mating of your species.”

“Aris, if we were going to, uh, initiate such behaviors, we would have done some sort of courtship.” Whatever else happened with this project, she doubted it would be boring. “We haven’t, nor would it be appropriate for us to do so.”

“Why not?”

“For one thing, you’re an android.”

“None of my rules apply to human-android interactions.”

“Here’s one,” she said. “Reproductive behaviors are inappropriate in this situation.”

“I have incorporated the new rule.” He paused. “I see it would be impossible for us to mate anyway, since I will be turned off.”

Turned off? As opposed to “turned on”? Could he have just made a joke? No, it couldn’t be. It was just his deadpan delivery.

“You may deactivate me now,” he said.

A chill ran down her back. What happened on the day when he said, You may not deactivate me?

Aloud, she said, “BioSyn?”

“Attending.” Although the resonant voice rose out of the console here in the room, it originated from a powerful server in the biggest lab on Level Three. BioSyn linked to all of the NEV-5 computers and monitored Aris’s activities.

“Deactivate Aris,” Megan said.

“Done,” BioSyn answered.

Aris’s eyes closed. His chest stop moving, and when she laid her hand on his neck, she found no pulse. It was unsettling, given how well he simulated life when he was running.

She spoke into her jCube. “‘Tycho, link to Aris.”

Tycho went to work, helping her analyze the android’s quiescent brain. The coding was too complex for a human to untangle alone; she needed the help of another computer. At least with Aris deactivated, his mind was no longer a moving target, evolving even as she analyzed him.

It didn’t take her long to see why he kept freezing. His fear tolerances weren’t the only ones set too low. Hastin had put so many controls on his behavior, Aris was incapable of independent thought. She understood Hastin’s intent: he wanted to ensure they didn’t lose control. But his precautions were so stringent, they crippled the android’s ability to develop.

Yet despite all those protections, the codes that determined Aris’s moral behavior were astonishingly weak. It made no sense; if Hastin feared Aris might act against his makers, why give him such an underdeveloped ethical sense? The android did have a conscience; that was hardwired into his structure and couldn’t be removed. But his software influenced how strongly he adhered to his sense of right and wrong. At the moment, his mind had almost no pathways that allowed him to reason through moral judgments.

Gradually she made sense of the work. Aris was a spy. He needed to deceive, manipulate, steal, even kill. Hastin had given him a solid foundation in human morals, then set it up so Aris could act against them. Aris knew it was wrong to kill, but he could commit murder if he felt it was necessary to do his job. However, Hastin had then so severely limited Aris’s ability to make any such decisions, the android couldn’t function.

The problem was obvious, but not the solution. Aris couldn’t deal with the contradictory moral questions humans faced. Stymied by the ambiguities in his purpose and coding, he froze. To help him function, she would need to raise millions of the caps on his behavior, particularly those for his responses to the negative stimuli that caused fear, anger, danger, and violence. If she didn’t also strengthen his aversion to acting on those stimuli, she could create exactly the monster Hastin feared. Deepening his moral code would do the trick, but it would also pulverize Aris’s ability to carry out his intended purpose as a weapon.

What a mess. No wonder Hastin had resigned.

Megan knew what she had to do. It remained to be seen whether or not MindSim would fire her for those decisions.

Chapter I of The Phoenix Code


This is a rewritten version of the book, which will soon be available as an eBook. The segment I’ve given here is chapter I.


The Offer

People packed the auditorium. Every seat was filled and more listeners crammed the aisles. An unspoken question charged the room: were today’s speakers revealing a spectacular new future for the human race or the end of humanity’s reign as the ruling species on Earth?

This session was a diamond in the crown of IRTAC, the International Robotics Technology and Applications Conference in the year 2021, held at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. As chair of this session, Megan O’Flannery had chosen the speakers. She was sitting at a table on the right edge of the stage. At center stage, Arick Bjornsson had just finished his talk and now stood answering questions.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Arick was saying. “Our machines are intelligent. They won’t surpass us today or tomorrow, but it is only a matter of time.”

Listening to him, Megan pondered her own conflict. Her work on artificial intelligence for androids—humanlike robots—usually inspired her to look to the future with optimism. Sometimes, though, she wondered if they were only creating ways to magnify the human capacity for destruction. She would soon face a decision that forced her to confront the issue: could she use the fruits of her intellect to create machines meant to kill?

The scientists in the audience today came in all sizes, shapes, and ages. Most wore casual clothes: jeans, shirts or blouses, jumpsuits. The conference chair, a distinguished man in a well-cut suit, was sitting only few rows away from the stage. Several men and women sat with him, other high-ranking officials in suits or military uniforms. Megan recognized them all—

Except for the fellow on the right.

The stranger had dark eyes and tousled black curls. He looked more like a rebel than a scientist; his faded jeans had raveled at the knees, his denim shirt was frayed, and a black leather jacket with metal studs lay haphazardly over his legs. But the gold watch on his wrist caught the light with prismatic glints that suggested diamonds were embedded around its face. As he listened to the talk, emotions played across his features: skepticism, interest, outrage, amusement. He glared and crossed his arms at one point. Later, he relaxed and nodded with approval. The dramatic flair of his face intrigued Megan.

A woman sitting in front of the man suddenly swiped her hand past her face, undoubtedly bedeviled by one of the gnats that had infiltrated the auditorium. As she caught the bug, the man with the leather jacket reached forward and tapped her wrist. She turned with a jerk, reflexively opening her fist. The gnat flew out of her hand. The man said something, an apology it looked like, and sat back. She squinted at him, smiled uncertainly, and then turned back to the talk.

That was odd, Megan thought. Interesting.

Arick finished and the audience applauded. After he took his seat, Megan went to the podium.

“That concludes this session,” she said into the mic. “The media people tell me they’ll have copies of the proceedings online tomorrow. You can get them as holographs, in videos, or in memory cubes. A paper copy should be available in a few weeks.” She grinned at them, this collection of her colleagues, friends, and adversaries. “That’s it, folks. All we have left is the banquet. So let’s go eat and be merry.”

Laughter rippled through the audience, followed by a general murmur as people began talking, putting on coats, or seeking out one another to continue debates. Megan looked around for the man with the leather jacket, thinking to introduce herself, but he had disappeared.

A long day, Megan thought as she left the auditorium in Building 3. Her hair was coming out of the knot on top her head, and red tendrils curled around her face. She pulled the misbehaving mass free, letting it fall in ripples to her waist. She needed to relax, but her workday hadn’t ended yet; she had one more meeting. An important one.

Tired or not, she thrived on this life. Robots had fascinated her since her childhood in Bozeman, Montana. One of her earliest memories was toddling after a toy cat as it stalked around the spacious living room of her house. It hid behind a door, then tried to pounce on her. She had rocked with a small child’s laughter when it toppled in an undignified heap of fur, limbs, and blinking lights. She had spent the next hour taking out its batteries and trying to put them back.

So she grew up and earned a B.S. in computer science at Montana State University, then a doctorate at Stanford. Now at thirty-five, she was an MIT professor. Some people called her driven, others called her single-minded. What they didn’t realize was that most of all, the delighted little girl still lived inside of her, marveling at her toys.

Her enthusiasm bemused her mother, who had once asked, But Megan, why make robots that look like people? What’s wrong with the humans we already have?

It’s a new science, Megan answered. A new world, Mom. Maybe even a new species.

Her mother had given her The Look then. Regarding Megan with the large blue eyes that her daughter had inherited, she had said, You know, dear, much more enjoyable ways exist to make new humans.

All Megan had managed at the time was an aghast, Mom! One’s silver-haired mother wasn’t supposed to say such things, let alone look so pleased with herself, smiling like a cherub.

Megan supposed that if she would get married and make some new humans of the traditional kind, her mother would ease up on the subject. It wasn’t that Megan had no interest in the whole business; she just hadn’t found the right man. Although her parents had liked most of her past boyfriends, she always felt as if they were sizing up the poor fellows as potential grandchild-production sources.

A voice interrupted her reverie. A man and woman were approaching her along the sidewalk.

So, Megan thought. This is it.

“Dr. O’Flannery,” the man said as they came up to her. His styled haircut, expensive blue suit, and businesslike manner made a sharp contrast to the more informal clothes most scientists wore at the conference. The woman had gray hair and a piercing intelligence in her gaze. Megan recognized her, but she couldn’t remember from where.

The man extended his hand. “I’m Antonio Oreza. Tony.”

Megan shook his hand. “Hello. Are you from MindSim?” She had agreed to meet their representatives after the session.

“That’s right. I’m vice president in charge of research and development.” He indicated the woman with him. “This is Claire Oliana. She consults for us.”

MindSim had sent a VP to talk to her? And Claire Oliana? The Stanford professor was the first person to receive the Nobel Prize for scientific work that also included the development of machine intelligence.

Megan suddenly didn’t feel so tired anymore.

The new vending café in Building 3 had blue walls and tables covered by blue and white checked cloths. As Megan sat down with Tony and Claire, a vending robot bustled over, rolling on its treads. It stood about four feet tall, with a domed head and tubular body. The bot had a rudimentary AI limited to serving food. Its panels displayed cheerful holos of meals that looked far more delectable than anything Megan had actually eaten here.

“Good afternoon,” it said. “I’m Jessie.” Its head swiveled from side to side as it surveyed them, giving it an earnest appearance. It made Megan smile, though she knew it was just mapping their positions with the cameras in its eyes.

“Do you have coffee?” Tony asked.

“A delicious menu to select from,” Jessie assured him. “French vanilla, cappuccino, Brazilian dry roast, decaf supreme, and today’s special, Martian bug-eyed-monster deluxe.”

Megan laughed. “Monster deluxe? What is that?”

“It has an unusually strong caffeine content,” Jessie said. “The night shift in the Science Operations Facility programmed it into me at four this morning. They required a strong restorative to continue functioning.”

Claire smiled. “That much caffeine would send me into orbit. Decaf for me.”

“French vanilla here,” Tony said.

“Very wise choices,” Jessie said. A red cup plopped into a recess in its stomach and began filling with coffee.

“I’ll take the Martian deluxe,” Megan decided.

“As you wish.” If a machine could blink its lights with doubt over the wisdom of a customer’s choice, Jessie was doing it. Megan suspected the SOF night shift had also programmed some mischief into the droid’s personality.

After Jessie served their coffee, Tony clicked his money card into the robot. Jessie’s control panel sparkled as it spoke. “I hope you enjoy your meal.” Its head swiveled to Megan. “Please inform me if you need further assistance.”

Megan couldn’t resist. “Like an ambulance?”

The bot twinkled its lights. “I serve only the best food, ma’am.” It rolled away, playing a tinkling melody like the ice cream trucks in the neighborhood where she had grown up. At the far wall, it took up position and swiveled its head around, surveying the cafe like a carnival barker looking for new marks.

With a laugh, Claire said, “I think the night shift in the Science Operations Facility have been staying up too late.”

Megan took a swallow of her drink. The stuff tasted like rocket fuel. “They know their coffee,” she said with approval.

Tony was watching her. “I can’t help but wonder, Dr. O’Flannery, how you would program a robot like that.”

“I don’t work with utility bots.” She had no doubt Tony knew exactly where her interests lay. With a smile she added, “And you should call me Megan.”

Both Tony and Claire seemed pleased at this nonresponse. Tony leaned forward. “Megan, how would you feel about working with a functional android?”

She resisted the urge to shout Yes! If any corporation was advanced enough to have created a functional android, it was MindSim. But she had heard too many vague rumors lately about disasters in hidden projects at MindSim and elsewhere.

She kept her voice casual. “The problem is, no one has an android hanging around that wants a brain.”

“Well, no.” Tony beamed as if he were delivering great news. “However, MindSim has funding in that area.”

Well, hey. Nowadays, everyone and her brother had funding in “that area.” Megan had researched MindSim after they invited her to this interview. They and their major competitor, Arizonix Corp, had both recently won Department of Defense grants for their work in AI and robots. She’d probably need a security clearance, though, to hear any details of those projects.

She chose a neutral response. “MindSim does good work.”

Tony spoke with polished enthusiasm. “We would like you to be part of our team.”

Clair leaned forward. “Suppose you had the chance to lead such a project?”

Megan barely kept from sputtering out her coffee. Hell, yes, she’d like that job. In fact, it sounded too good to be true. What had happened to the person who started the project? MindSim already had the DOD funds, so someone must have submitted a grant proposal as the principal investigator.

She said only, “It would depend on the circumstances.”

“Come out to MindSim and take a look,” Tony said. “We’ll show you around.”

Huh. If she accepted that invitation, she was admitting to more than a passing interest in the job. She liked her position at MIT. She had grants, grad students, resources, colleagues, and a growing reputation in the field. The prestige didn’t hurt either.

But …

She would give her right leg to work with a real android instead of running computer simulations. Hell, if MindSim had designed a fully functioning android, she wouldn’t need her right leg anymore; she could make a new one. A visit wasn’t a commitment. If nothing else, an offer from MindSim might inspire MIT to give her a raise.

Megan leaned forward. “Let’s talk.”

Goddard Space Flight Center covered many acres of land, with the rolling fields of the Beltsville Agricultural Center to the east and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the west. Stretches of forest separated the buildings, and deer wandered everywhere.

Lost in thought, Megan ambled down a back road. She had always enjoyed walking, and this gave her a chance to mull over the MindSim offer. A lake lay to her right, basking in the late afternoon sunlight. The day had that golden, antique quality that came late in the year. Ducks paddled in the water: speckled brown, gray, iridescent green, and the odd white goose with an orange beak. Farther down the shore, a man stood surrounded by birds. At first she wasn’t sure why they were squawking at him. Then she saw that he was scattering breadcrumbs for them to eat.

She was about to go another way when she recognized him: the intriguing fellow from the audience. He was taller than she had realized, over six feet it looked like, towering over the enthused ducks. A gleaming jCube hung from his scuffed leather belt. He watched the birds with a half-smile, as if he hadn’t decided whether or not it would insult their egos if he laughed at them.

Megan headed toward him. As she came closer, though, she hesitated. His muscular build and handsome face didn’t fit her image of a robotics expert. Black hair curled over his ears and down his neck, longer than men wore nowadays, but glossy with health. On most people, it would have looked sloppy; on him, it worked. The same was true of his clothes. What his long legs did for those raveling jeans would have brought their makers a fortune if they could have packaged the quality. It made her hang back, as if he were a holovid actor or someone similar that she would never meet in normal life.

He glanced up, straight at her. “Good afternoon, Dr. O’Flannery.”

“Uh, hi.” She couldn’t place his background. His face reminded her of pictures she had seen of the ancient Celts. His coloring looked Indian, as in India. His accent, like molasses on a summer afternoon, was undeniably from the American South.

“The ducks here are hungry.” He tossed the last of his bread into the lake. Flapping and squawking, the birds waddled after the morsels.

Megan laughed, self-conscious. “Greedy little birds.”

“Maybe.” He pointed at the sky. “They’re leaving.”

She looked, as much to regain her composure as to see what he meant. A V-shape of birds was arrowing across the sky.

“So they are.” She turned back to him. For lack of anything better to say, she added, “Flying south for the winter, I imagine.”

He glanced at the birds still floating on the pond, and then held up his hand as if to offer them more delicacies. They paddled industriously toward him until they realized he was bluffing. Then they drifted off again. His gold watch glinted in the slanting rays of the sun.

“They don’t cheat,” he said.

“Uh, I’m sure they don’t.” Megan had no idea what he was actually talking about, but she doubted it was birds. She could have listened to him talk all day in that gorgeous voice of his, deep and throaty, with a honeyed drawl.

“Did you enjoy the session this afternoon?” she asked.

“I suppose.” Ah suhppose. “You should have given a talk. You do better work than the lot of them combined.”

“Thank you.” She paused. “I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

He considered her. “Call me Raj.”

“That’s your name?”

“Well, no. Yes. At times.”

“Raj isn’t your name?”

“My mother calls me Robin.” He spread his hands as if to say, What can a person do?

Megan could relate, given that her father still called her Maggie-kitten. She didn’t mind it from him, but it would earn anyone else a shove into the lake. “What do other people call you?”

“All sorts of things.” He rubbed his ear. “I wouldn’t repeat most of them.”

She smiled. “So Raj is the name on your birth certificate.”


She couldn’t help but laugh. “This is like pulling teeth.”

His lips quirked up. “My birth certificate, from the fine state of Louisiana, says Chandrarajan.”

She stared at him. “You’re Chandrarajan Sundaram?

“Please don’t look so shocked. I assure you, I’ve treated the name well.”

Good Lord. This was the reclusive eccentric who had revolutionized the robotics field? Unattached to any university or institute, he worked only as a consultant. Corporations paid him large amounts of money to solve their problems. Arizonix had supposedly given him several million after he fixed their disastrous household robot in time for its market release, saving the company from possible bankruptcy.

His reputation explained this strange conversation. Rumor claimed he paid a price for his phenomenal intellect; no one could think like him, but he had the devil of a time expressing those thoughts. From what she had heard, his mind didn’t work in linear thought processes, so he often made jumps of logic that few people could follow.

Megan had never expected him to show at her conference. She invited him, of course. He had been a top name on her hoped-for speakers list. But she had already known he never came to such meetings, so she wasn’t surprised when he declined.

Yet here he stood.

“It’s actually Sundaram Chandrarajan Robert,” he said.

She blinked. “What?”

“My name. It’s Sundaram Chandrarajan Robert.” He paused, then added, “My father followed the Indian custom of giving me his name, followed by a personal name for me. But that makes Robert my third name, which isn’t the custom here. We use Sundaram as our last name.”

She wondered why the mention of his father caused his mood to turn quiet. “Where does the Robert come from?”

“It’s from my mother’s side. She’s Irish.” He watched her with a long, considering look. “Then of course there are geese.”

Birds again. She smiled, enjoying herself. “You know, I have no idea what we’re talking about.”

The hint of a smile quirked his lips. “Most people don’t respond this way to me.”

“What do they do?”

“Nod.” Wryly he added, “And then leave as fast as they can.”

“Is that what you want?”

“It depends.” He had all his attention focused on her. It was unsettling, like being scanned by a laser.

“On what?” she asked.

“Hair color.”

This conversation was making less sense by the minute. It was fun, though. “Why hair color?”

“Red,” he said. “Yours is red.”

“Well, yes. My hair is definitely red.”

“Red flag.” He walked over to her. “For stop.”

It took her a moment to realize he was making a joke. She thought he was also asking if she wanted him to get lost, though she couldn’t have said how she knew. Something about the way he looked at her. Given that he had come over as he spoke, she suspected he didn’t want to go. He reminded her of her father, an absented-minded architect who tended to talk in riddles when he was preoccupied.

She touched a tendril curling over her shoulder. “I’m sure my hair doesn’t say stop.”

His grin was a brilliant flash of white teeth. “You’re quick.”

Oh, Lord. It was fortunate this man lived as a recluse. Otherwise, womankind wouldn’t be safe from either his nutty conversation or his dazzling smile.

“Not that quick.” Megan didn’t usually tell people she had no idea what they were talking about, but this was too engaging for her to care how she looked. “I still don’t get what you meant about the birds.”

“Winter is coming and they have a long way to go.” He motioned at a few scattered bread crumbs the ducks had missed. “Sure they eat a lot. But they aren’t greedy. They don’t cheat. They only take what they need.” His smile faded. “Humans could learn a lot from them.”

She wondered what sort of life he lived, that he saw the world in those terms. Then again, given the value of his intellect and personal wealth, people probably wanted whatever they could get from him.

“Perhaps we could,” she said.

“They followed me around too, you know,” he said. “I sent them away.”

She squinted at him. “The birds?”

“No. The suits.”

“What suits?”

“From MindSim.”

Ah. Tony and Claire. “They offered you a job?”

“Yes. I told them no.” Studying her face, he added, “But perhaps I will consult for them.”

Her pulse jumped. Was he offering her the chance to work with him? Yes! She kept her voice calm, not wanting to seem too eager. “Maybe you should.”

He offered his hand. “I’m pleased to have met you, Dr. O’Flannery.”

She shook his hand. “Call me Megan.”

“Megan.” He nodded. Then he turned away and headed down the road. After a few steps, though, he turned back. “Oh. Yes. Good-bye, Megan.”

She raised her hand. “Bye.”

He nodded and went on his way, leaving her to wonder just what on Earth was happening at MindSim.

End Chapter I