An Excerpt from The Silence

The Silence by Mark Alpert

I’m dying. For the third time, believe it or not.

Until six months ago, I was a terminally ill kid named Adam Armstrong, seventeen years old and dying of muscular dystrophy. There was no cure. Just taking a breath was excruciating. Nothing could save my failing body.

But my dad figured out a way to save my mind.

Dad’s a computer genius who designs high-tech weapons for the U.S. Army. As I got sicker, he started a new project. He invented a scanner that could record all the information inside my brain—my thoughts, memories, emotions, everything. Just before my body died, he used this scanner on me. Then he transferred all my data to the circuits of a robot.

Seriously. A seven-foot-tall, eight-hundred-pound Pioneer robot.

After the transfer, I woke up inside the electronics of a motorized, armor-plated, battery-powered machine, built and paid for by the Army. I could flex the robot’s steel limbs and see through its cameras and think billions of thoughts using its specialized neuromorphic microprocessors. I was stronger, faster, and smarter than the Army’s best soldiers, and I could take control of any weapon—a tank, a helicopter, even a missile—simply by transmitting my data to its circuits. My soul had become software. I was a Pioneer.

Encouraged by my success, the military doctors performed the same procedure on five other terminally ill teens: Jenny, Zia, Shannon, Marshall, and DeShawn. But the Army didn’t do this out of generosity. It needed a team of combat-ready Pioneers to fight another weapon my dad had invented—an artificial-intelligence program, code-named Sigma, that had rebelled against the military’s control.

This AI program took over a nuclear-missile base and threatened to exterminate the human species. But Sigma was even more determined to destroy the six Pioneers, because it considered us to be its most serious rivals. When we tried to retake the missile base, Sigma claimed its first victim. It took control of Jenny’s circuits and erased her mind. The AI deleted all her millions of memories and emotions.

Or so we thought.

Then, a week ago, Sigma attacked us again, and this time the AI almost eliminated all the Pioneers. It convinced DeShawn to betray the rest of us, and after Sigma captured our robots, it started performing an experiment on my circuits, testing and torturing me. The results were horrifying. In reaction to the experiment, I developed a terrible new power, a computational surge that could obliterate any target in sight. I used the surge to kill DeShawn, charring his circuits to ash. Then I turned the power against Sigma and erased the AI from every machine it controlled.

We won the battle, but there was no joy in the victory. I was shocked by what I’d done. I wasn’t Adam Armstrong anymore. I was too powerful, too inhuman. Even the other Pioneers were afraid of me. That was the second time I died.

But it gets worse. I got friendly with a new Pioneer, a girl named Amber Wilson, formerly an Oklahoma teenager dying of cancer. The Army brought her to our secret base in New Mexico as a replacement for Jenny, and the military doctors transferred her mind to a sleek flying machine called the Jet-bot. Amber helped us defeat Sigma during our final battle, and afterward she was the only Pioneer who didn’t seem to hate me. Which explains why I trusted her today.

You see, we held a funeral for DeShawn this afternoon, and it made me feel so guilty and depressed that I had to get away from our headquarters for a while. So I went jogging, steering the machine I call my Quarter-bot across New Mexico’s White Sands desert. I was trying to clear my circuits, refresh my software. And just as I’m starting to feel a little better, I spot Amber’s Jet-bot on the horizon. She flies toward me and lands on the hard-packed dirt nearby.

We start talking. And yeah, flirting a little. I like her confidence, her cheerful swagger. Amber asks me if I want to see a video of what she looked like when she was human. (She gets me interested by claiming she was “smoking hot.”) I say yes, and she wirelessly transmits the data from her Jet-bot to the electronics in my Quarter-bot. But what she sends me is much more than a video. It’s a computer simulation that starts running on my circuits, showing me a virtual-reality landscape of green hills and meadows.

The simulation looks totally real. It mimics all the sights and sounds of the countryside—a virtual wind blows over the hills, an unseen bird chirps in the distance. I can even smell the simulated grass. And standing in the middle of the simulation is Amber’s avatar, an incredibly lifelike brunette in a red strapless dress. She smiles at me, her virtual hair riffling in the simulated breeze, and I completely forget about her Jet-bot and my Quarter-bot and the flat desert all around us. I see only the virtual meadow and the human girl that Amber used to be.

She’s so beautiful. I let Amber transmit more data to my circuits, millions of gigabytes of memories and emotions. Soon we’re sharing the same wires inside my Quarter-bot. Our thoughts merge. Our minds make contact. For a millionth of a second, it’s perfect bliss.

Then the simulation vanishes and everything goes dark. The motors and sensors in my Quarter-bot stop working. I can’t move. I can’t see a thing.

I send a frantic signal of distress across my circuits: Hey! HEY! Amber, where are you?

A millisecond later, I hear a new voice in the darkness: Please calm down, Adam. We need to talk.

I’ve made a horrible mistake. This girl isn’t Amber Wilson. Although her voice is warped and distorted, I recognize it. I feel a stab of pain, unbelievably sharp. I’m dying once again.


I used to be Jenny. But not anymore. There’s a long, terrible pause. I’ve become something new.