Excerpt from The Six

The Six by Mark Alpert

I’m inside what I like to call my bedroom, even though it has no bed. At first Dad wanted me to stay in the laboratory all the time so he could observe my progress, but I told him I needed my own space. So he found a large room—exactly twenty-four feet by nineteen-and-a-half feet, according to my sensors—that was on the same floor as the lab and had all the necessary power and communication hookups.

The room is practically empty because I have no use for furniture. I don’t need a bureau because I don’t wear clothes anymore. I don’t need a table either because I don’t eat or drink. (Dad deleted the hunger and thirst commands from my circuits, but I still feel nauseous sometimes.) What the room lacks in furniture, though, it makes up for in decorations. An Army courier went to our home in Yorktown Heights, collected the contents of my old bedroom, and brought everything to Pioneer Base.

Now my old Super Bowl posters hang on the walls of my new room, including the poster with the photo of me and Ryan, and the one with my pencil drawings of Brittany. My comics are stacked on a long shelf nailed to the wall, and another shelf holds my Star Wars chess set and my official Super Bowl XLVI football. Although the floor is bare, the walls are full of memories. They give me something to look at while I pace back and forth.

That’s been my main activity since I became a Pioneer: pacing across my bedroom. I walk twenty feet in one direction, then spin my turret one hundred eighty degrees and walk back the way I came. Over the past three days I’ve performed this maneuver thousands of times, pacing for hours on end. When my power runs low, I go to the corner of the room and plug the electrical cables into the port in my torso. It takes six-and-a-half minutes to recharge my batteries. The process is neither painful nor satisfying.

While I’m recharging I have to stand next to another Pioneer robot—a lifeless one, with no intelligence in its circuits. This robot has “1A” stamped on its torso, in the same place where I have my “1,” but otherwise it looks just like mine. General Hawke put it in my room because he wants me to practice transferring my intelligence from one robot to another. He says learning how to do this will help me adjust to my “new status.”

Each Pioneer is equipped with a high-speed wireless data link that can transfer everything in its memory to another robot in less than a minute. Hawke has ordered me to practice this transfer at least thirty times a day. But I have no intention of obeying this order. I already transferred my mind once, when my body died, and that was more than enough. So while my batteries are recharging I turn my turret away from the motionless robot in the corner, my mindless evil twin. I don’t like looking at the thing. It reminds me of what I’ve become.

Once I’m fully charged, I detach the cables and go back to pacing.

At first, I admit, it was thrilling just to walk again. After I figured out how to coordinate the motors in my steel legs, I started practicing my footwork. I learned how to jump, sidestep, and reverse course. It was a big, big improvement over my wheelchair. I became so enthused during one practice session in my bedroom that I reached out with one of my telescoping arms and grabbed the official Super Bowl football off the shelf. For a moment I fantasized that I was back in Yorktown Heights, standing on the football field behind the high school.

In a hundredth of a second my circuits retrieved all my memories of those games. I could see, simultaneously, every football game I’d watched at the Yorktown field, every remembered sight from all those mud-splattered showdowns, right down to the grimace on Ryan Boyd’s face as he dashed toward the end zone. It was like the virtual-reality program I’d written, but a thousand times more vivid. And like the VR program, it was ultimately disappointing. When I tried to reenact one of Ryan’s plays, running with the ball across my empty bedroom, I felt nothing in my legs, neither fatigue nor joy. They just moved numbly beneath me.

I tried talking to Dad about it. I asked him if it was possible to put tactile sensors in my legs so I could feel my joints flexing and my footpads hitting the floor. He said yes, it was definitely possible, but right now we had other priorities. He said I shouldn’t get too attached to my Pioneer robot because it was only meant to be a transitional platform, a temporary home for my mind. To fully explore my new abilities, he said, I needed to occupy all kinds of machines.

I told Dad he sounded just like General Hawke, and he replied that Hawke was right. The future of humanity depended on communicating with Sigma, Dad said, and I had to prepare myself for this challenge. Before I could interact with the AI, I needed to understand how it thinks and makes decisions. In other words, I had to become more like an AI myself. That’s why it was so vital to practice transferring my intelligence and to download the databases that Hawke had ordered me to study.

That was yesterday. Now Dad’s in his lab, readying the scanner and nanoprobes for the second procedure, which will be performed on Jenny Harris at four o’clock. I’m still angry at him for being so unsympathetic. Doesn’t he realize what I’m going through? Can’t he see how hard this is, living inside this hulking machine, cut off forever from everything? But I also feel guilty because Dad’s working ’round the clock and I’m doing basically nothing. So while I pace across my bedroom, I turn on my wireless data link and establish a connection with Pioneer Base’s computers. There’s no way I’m going to transfer my mind to my evil twin, but I’ll take a look at Hawke’s databases.

I download a dozen folders, each holding a hundred gigabytes of data. It’s a humongous load of information, the equivalent of a thousand encyclopedias, but my electronic brain immediately starts sifting through it. The text files and blueprints and photographs and video files cascade across my circuits, pouring through billions of logic gates as I analyze them.

There’s information here about Sigma and the experiment that created the AI. There are also diagrams of the neuromorphic circuits at the heart of every Pioneer robot. But most of the files hold data about weapons. One folder contains the engineering plans for the F-22, the F-35, and every other fighter jet in the U.S. Air Force. Another has the blueprints for the Army’s Black Hawk and Apache helicopters.

So much information rushes into my circuits that I feel like I’m drinking from a fire hose. After a few milliseconds, though, I adjust to the flow of data. My mind seems to expand. I feel exhilarated and triumphant, as if the whole world is spread before me, every fact and figure within easy reach.

As I analyze the files I notice something strange. All the blueprints and engineering plans have been changed within the past three months. Each jet and helicopter has been redesigned to include a control unit composed of neuromorphic electronics. The purpose of the changes seems obvious: a Pioneer could transfer his or her intelligence into any of the redesigned aircraft. I could occupy the control unit of an F-22 and zoom into the sky and fire its guns and launch its missiles. The databases include all the instructions needed to fly the jet.

I’m so surprised that I stop pacing. Although Dad wants the Pioneers to communicate with Sigma, General Hawke clearly has little faith in this strategy. He’s going to train us for combat. He sees us as weapons.