Chapters II and III of The Phoenix Code

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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.
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Chapter I of The Phoenix Code

3

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.

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.
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