Milo stood in an empty field. A vast featureless horizon stretched into the distance in every direction he looked. A lightly glowing grid pattern covered the field, like something out of an early video game. Milo knew this place: it was his recurring nightmare.
Looking down at his feet, the anxiety of what was going to happen next made him start to hyperventilate. Any second. The fall.
Just then, the sterile landscape shattered beneath him into countless blocks of virtual terrain. The dreaded sense of falling enveloped him. He tried to reach for one of the lines of the grid — now an edge to one of the many cubes — but was unable to grasp it in time. Only darkness. His fading scream heard by no one in this infinite expanse of nothingness.
He snapped awake with a jolt.
“It’s okay, Milo. I’m here,” Lisa whispered from her nearby perch in the small clear box.
“Thanks, Lisa. I guess the nightmare was pretty obvious,” Milo said, a bit embarrassed. He had always hoped to grow out of it but the dream only got worse over the years.
“Only at the end. You had slept peacefully for almost three days before—”
“Three days!” Milo interrupted. “How am I not starving or dehydrated—”
“I’ve been taking care of you and your physical needs are not what you think they are,” she said.
“Oh, yeah. That’s right,” Milo said as the realization that he wasn’t really human dawned on him again. “This is going to take some getting used to.”
“To give you something else to think about, I believe I know who took the computer. Marvin was so careful with it — trust me, I know — that the only people that knew of its existence were you, your mother, and his old friend Dr. Teller.”
“That guy on TV?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Used to be Marvin’s postdoc before he took over Sapient. I caught up on some of the wired-in broadcasts while you were sleeping and I’m pretty confident Teller is behind whatever is going on. If he has already given it to Progenitor, we may have a problem,” Lisa said. She then proceeded to explain the contents of a few of Teller’s broadcasts to him.
“So this thing that wants to kill us is called ‘Progenitor’?” Milo asked. “Doesn’t sound mean with a name like that.”
“Yeah, that’s the name from the broadcast.”
Milo nodded and then said slowly, “Just so that I’m tracking with you: an old friend of grandpa’s made a bad AI — named Progenitor — that stole a piece of me and now we need to stop it. Sound about right?” Milo said.
“Yep. I’m afraid so.”
“I bet you have his address, right?”
“Of course, but it’s probably surrounded with his fans and high security at this point. It’s not only his company’s stock that has soared. He’s kind of a big deal now.”
Lisa elaborated on Teller’s power grab, ending with, “This is exactly what we thought would happen, by the way. Humanity is giving up its own destiny by letting the AI take over without resistance.”
“Which makes it all the more ironic that we’re the ones to step in.”
“Technically you’re a little human too,” she said, but that only unnerved Milo.
“It’s still hard for me to believe. I’ve been totally average my whole life. I sleep, I eat, I bleed. I’m not unusual at all.”
“You have to give us a little credit, Milo. You had to blend in or you wouldn’t be safe. If you were the smartest kid in the history of the planet, you’d kinda stand out.”
“I guess that makes sense. But if I’m both metal and meat, could I rip off a sleeve of flesh to reveal a skeletal metal hand underneath?” Milo asked, with a smirk, mood improving a bit.
“Yeah, but I don’t think you’d want to do that, right?”
“True. Would be rather messy,” he said as he removed lint from his hoodie.
Milo looked around the room. It was all very difficult to believe. How could anyone accept that everything they’ve known about themselves was a lie?
But if there was a way, even the slenderest thread, that he could do something about the murder of his closest friends and family, he was determined to do it.
Milo continued, “It’s okay, Lisa. I don’t need all the answers on where I came from or big existential questions like that. Of course it’s hard to believe, but you are proof that the world is different than what I thought it was. Maybe I’m different too. I still don’t see how we’re going to recover the keyboard, but I feel better that you’ll be with me. Doesn’t seem totally impossible.”
“Says the first digital kid to the talking cube,” Lisa giggled.
Milo was opening and closing drawers, cabinets, and fiddling with the many gadgets throughout the lab, like a detective looking for clues. “Novelty aside, we’re going to need some serious firepower to take this thing down right? Anything in here designed to help us? Some sort of bulletproof robot armor that I can crawl into and then fly around zapping bad guys with lasers from my hands.”
“Hmm, why didn’t I think of that? That would have been pretty cool,” Lisa teased. “Seriously though, we’re too outnumbered to think on those terms. We’ll have to try something else. Maybe you already had a plan and it was in that fragment. I don’t know, Milo. But I do know that we have something you’ll need in that closet over there.”
Milo had almost finished his circumnavigation of the room when she said this. Bee-lining for the closet — like it was the tree at Christmas — he opened the door and saw a peculiar necklace hanging there.
“I’m not really big on jewelry,” Milo said.
“That’s for me, goofball. It has a cool electromagnetic clasp which attaches to my container so I can hide under your shirt. A talking AI suspended in plasma might raise suspicions.”
Fair point. Milo took the weird necklace over to where Lisa’s cube was resting. He noticed that her cube had a small metallic disk on the top which paired to a similarly sized construction on the necklace. Bringing them near to one another, they immediately snapped into place.
“See, that wasn’t that hard, was it?”
As Inu watched him do this, Milo noticed something about her collar which he hadn’t noticed before: there was a small metallic disk just under her head. A matching necklace.
Milo put the necklace on and tucked it under his shirt. It actually wasn’t very noticeable under there, being slightly smaller than a six-sided die. All anyone could really see was the necklace chain at the back of his neck and a very slight ripple near the neckline of the shirt. All right, we’re set, he thought.
“Yeah, we are. Watch out world!”
He heard Lisa’s voice, but without all the echoing and other artifacts of hearing with his ears. He could tell it was in his head more than it was in his ears. After all the things that had already happened, he didn’t think this too unusual.
“It’s easier this way,” Lisa said, again communicating without sound.
“Yeah, I get it,” Milo thought back, “make yourself at home.”
“Quite roomy,” she said while the rush of her giggles actually made him laugh out loud this time.
“What a pair we make: a teenager and his virtual pet, off to save the planet.”
“Pet! I’m so offended. Besides, aren’t you forgetting about the third member of our power trio?” Lisa teased.
Milo reached down to scratch under Inu’s chin. “I’m sorry girl, I’ll never forget you.” He looked around quizzically. “Isn’t there a leash or something for her?”
“She’s a machine, Milo. I thought you would have picked up on that by now. We started with an animal body before making yours, to work out the kinks, if you will.”
Of course, Milo smiled. That explains quite a bit.
“So can she understand what I’m saying?”
“If you’re asking if she’s smart, then the answer is yes. We’re still working on developing her network, so she’s not quite up to the human level of intelligence yet, but she’s quite smart by dog standards. So far we haven’t been able to find a third stable neural network pattern. There’s just the you kind and the me kind.”
Milo thought that was curious but didn’t really have anything to add to the field of AI research, ironically. So he collected his backpack and let his thoughts wander a bit. Why didn’t Marvin have everything waiting here? Why bother with the whole fragmenting scavenger hunt in the first place? Why not directly sabotage their efforts to make a super intelligence? Why can’t Lisa explain this more completely?
“Why, why, why? Lots of questions. It must make sense from some perspective, though, right? Give it time,” Lisa encouraged.
Having a hitchhiker in his brain was going to take some getting used to. “So is there a spaceship or something?”
“Yep, upstairs, but we are going to start with something easier to drive. Go clockwise in the hallway and I’ll tell you where to touch the wall.”
Milo couldn’t tell if she was teasing him, but he assumed she probably was.
Following her directions, he left the lab and went down the hall, touching the wall where she indicated. The wall slid downwards with a whisper, revealing a small closet with what appeared to be a BMX bike with big knobby tires. Milo was impressed; it was a really nice bike and even came with a matching helmet. It had a cool motocross face mask with goggles that looked like they were from the first World War.
“Sweet! Sure beats walking,” he thought to Lisa.
“That’s the spirit,” she said in reply. “And it’ll help you get past all the drones hunting for you.”
“Wait, what?” he said aloud.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got your back on this one. I think I know what frequency they broadcast on and if I synchronize the signal just right, you should be invisible.”
For the first time since all this started, Milo didn’t feel alone. He actually felt quite happy.
He hopped on the bike and proceeded to careen down the hallway towards the lab, Inu running along behind him. He took it up the ladder, carrying it easily with one hand, and made it back to the main floor.
Food, check. Water, check. A dog that can climb ladders, check. An AI in a cube dangling from his neck, check. Just another day.
Milo locked up the cabin and hopped on his bike. Time to start putting the pieces together.