“Scientists have epistemic humility, they are always willing to be proven wrong by data, to think beyond their assumptions by argument and proof.” ~Gad Saad
Dark Swarms (preview)
Jack Morrison spent six months working until midnight, finger tips calloused and always sore, eyes strained and stained with sunspots, back sore from hunching over his high school science project. It was more than a project. It was an invention that will change the world and rescue his hopes and dreams from the abyss.
He adjusted the rickety, flexible lamp, lowering it over a string of tiny bulbs. The last bulb in his plier glowed red, but not too red. Jack pressed the tiny single-wire electrode into the glass, slowly, carefully, his hands shaking. If he did this wrong he’d be up another hour or more. The electrode pressed into the molten glass, the waxy coating burning off the metal. Success. He’d managed to insert the electrode, without letting the argon gas escape the bulb. The painstaking process could, no doubt, be done better by a machine, but the idea needed to be borne by human hands first.
Mel, Jack’s father, entered the garage where Jack toiled every night, carrying a plate with one cookie and a glass of powdered milk. “Hey, buddy. How’s it going?” Mel set the desert down, his arm muscles pressing on his shirt like it was plastic wrap. He worked in a construction pod, and it showed, was average height, brown hair, thinning at the top, but only peppered with grey. His eyes were kind and everyone liked him. Jack, on the other hand, had the same eyes, but his experience with people was altogether different. And his eyes were where the similarities ended. Jack had red hair, carrot top, thick as a mulberry bush, taller than his father at age sixteen, lanky and no muscle tone what-so-ever.
“I’m doing good.” Jack didn’t move toward the cookie. They were good, but flourless and sugarless, those items were too expensive, so it wasn’t terribly exciting to eat. His eyes rolled as he grabbed the cookie anyway, shoving it into his mouth in one bite. “I think I’ve done it,” Jack said with his mouth full.
Mel leaned over to inspect. “You’re good. Who knew you’d be able to blow a glass bubble that small and still fill it with gas.”
Jack drained the powdered milk. “Trick is to use the gas to blow the bubble. I had to use non-flammable argon so it wouldn’t catch fire.” Jack inspected the final lightbulb with the magnifying glass, it being only two centimeters round.
“Let me know when you’re gonna test,” Mel said. “I wanna see it.” He moved back to the door. “Do the trash real quick so you don’t forget. Take two bags out. We can’t afford the fee for the weight. Maybe next week. Your little project better pay off, it had cost us all our savings.”
Jack leapt from the chair, grabbed the trash bin, took out a couple of bags, leaving it half full. He pulled up the squeaky garage door by hand, the motor broken, and wheeled the half-empty container out to the street.
He returned to the garage door reached up to the handle, when a tall, overweight man walked out of the dark street and into the light. He wore a blue bandana around his nose and mouth, sun glasses and a button up shirt with a bloody knife patch on the sleeve. The man was a Crypt, a local thug.
Jack’s heart stopped, he backed up. Adrenaline flooded his veins and he wanted to run away, but knew that would only get him killed, his parents too.
“Hey, stick bug, call for yo mom or yo dad,” the man said, his voice booming. “But stay right where you is.”
Jack knew the drill, but never had to deal with the gangers directly. Crypt collectors would come around once a month and collect ‘protection’ money, but it was pure extortion. “Dad!” Jack yelled.
Mel came out quickly. “What’s wrong?” He saw the Crypt collector and held up his hands.
“Payment is due.” The man held up a credit card, his button-up shirt shifting, exposing the handgrip of a large gun. Mel’s strength did not intimidate the man, not with the gun in his belt. Only bad guys and cops had guns these days.
Mel slipped his wallet out of his back pocket, took a similar looking card and touched the surface. The number one-thousand flashed on a digital screen on the card and Mel handed it to the man. The collector touched the cards together, the one-thousand transferring from Mel’s card to his.
Satisfied, he handed the card back. “Got anythin’ to report?”
“No. No Bloods, no Neoz.” The Crypts were very concerned about red flagged gangsters or black flags, making sure their neighborhood was always blue.
The collector walked off without saying a word, he’ll be back next month, at some random hour.
“I don’t know why we can’t call the cops on them,” Jack mumbled, returning to his desk. “I hate living here.”
Mel ruffled Jack’s hair. “They won’t hurt us, as long as they get their money. And we can’t call the cops because that would put you or your mother in more danger. We’re gonna get out of here one day. This little invention of yours might just help.” Mel closed the garage door, the squeaking interrupting the quiet night again.
Jack returned to his project, calming himself by focusing, inspecting the metal wire and all the tiny electrodes. He capped the last bulb with a blob of PVC plastic, finalizing the last bulb on the string of lights. He’d ruined over a hundred bulbs at this stage, the garbage basket next to him full of broken little bulbs.
Mel sat in the other stool. “Gonna save the world?”
Jack shrugged. “Gonna change it. And this will save us. We’ll be able to move into one of the gated communities.”
A rustling noise outside startled Jack, his head spun. “Is that the collector?”
Mel walked to side door, unlocked it and, peered into the dark side yard. “Just a cat.”
Jack’s hands shook. Too much distraction tonight left him jumpy.
“William’s out in his front yard,” Mel said, standing half out the dooryway. William Carpenter was Jack’s arch enemy. He was a bully, a freak and all around asshole, but somehow never got caught. Only Jack knew the truth, he’d seen William’s guilt in his smile an in his cold stares.
“He knows I’m entering the science fair. Probably trying to figure out how to ruin it.”
Mel pulled the door shut, locking it. “Paranoid?”
Jack ignored him. Held up the string of lights carefully. “I’m ready to test.”
Jack plugged the wire end to a computer board he’d made, the size of a piece of bread, and flipped the on switch. The lights flickered on, their glow intensifying until they were hard to look at. Jack smiled, all the bulbs were on. He checked the voltage meter he’d plugged into the line. “This is ten bulbs going, and it’s barely pulling current. Each bulb is only using half a watt.”
“Yeah, boy!” Mel yipped, clapping Jack on the back. “You’re ready!” He made for the house. “Now get to bed or you’ll be zombified.”
Jack cleaned up and shut down for the night. He had three days until the science fair, plenty of time to finish the presentation. Another noise came from the side yard.
He walked to the side door, parted the blinds, stared into the dark. That noise couldn’t be a cat. It had to be something bigger. Jack instantly suspected William of crossing the street and spying on him. The prickles on the back of his neck echoed his thoughts. Couldn’t help but feel protective. Nothing could go wrong with his project, too much was riding on his win.
Jack double checked the lock, then, out of sheer paranoia, took a piece of tape and barely stuck it to the bottom of the door. If someone picked the lock and came in, the tape would fall. He felt ridiculous, but didn’t care.
The day of the science fair arrived. Jack hadn’t easily fallen sleep, but just before two in the morning, passed out, hard. He smacked the alarm off and jumped out of bed.
Mel ate a breakfast muffin, wearing his typical grey one-piece jumpsuit, hair neatly combed. He stared straight ahead while chewing, reading the news feed that appeared on the inside of his thin, narrow framed com-glasses. Jack wasn’t allowed to put his com-glasses on until after school, one of the bogus rules, Jack had to comply with. No matter, today was special and he had no time to dwell on anything but the science fair.
What kept intruding his thoughts was the rustling outside the garage the day the Crypt collector came. Jack had checked on the tape every day, but it remained.
“No breakfast today, honey,” Kalsie said, wearing purple exercise leggings and skin-tight white top, too tight if you asked Jack.
Jack shrugged, used to mornings without food.
Mel sipped his coffee from a half-size mug. “Are you nervous?” Mel asked, pushing a small glass of orange juice, made from a powder, toward Jack. “It’s the best science project I’ve ever seen.”
Jack heard Mel go on and on about it all yesterday and the day before that, but didn’t mind hearing it again.
“You really think I’ll win?” Jack looked different, hair slicked back with gel, uniform actually ironed. He wanted to look professional and as nice as possible. The judges will take him more seriously if he’s groomed and professional; according to Mel, a verifiable fact.
“Yeah, your idea will be bought by a company and produced,” Mel said eagerly, smile as wide as it could be. “I mean that.”
Kalsie spun Jack around, a wet washcloth in her hand. She dappled at a spot on his collar. “Toothpaste part of the school uniform these days, huh?”
Jack downed the drink and headed out the door.
“Good luck!” his parents chimed.
Jack lifted the box of lights, computer, and poster board off the work table and headed out of the garage. He glanced over at the side door, noticing the tape laying on the floor. His heart stopped, his breath sucked in. He set the box down and picked the tape up. Dust covered the adhesive. The lock still engaged. Could it have fallen off by itself? No way to tell. His jaw tightened.
He didn’t know what to do or think. Today was the big day. Nothing can go wrong. Jack pulled the lights out of the box and the computer and plugged it into the wall. The lights lit up. He sighed a breath of relief. The tape probably fell off, or his dad had used the door.
Jack repacked the box and picked it up, heading to the curb. He waited for the taxi, his father having paid extra for a private ride to school so Jack could carry his things and practice his speech without stuffing himself in the bus. No taxi arrived.
William strolled out of the house, his one-piece uniform unzipped to his waist, his under shirt black with an Astral Punk band logo on it. Jack liked the band, too, but that was where his similarity with William ended. “Trouble with your taxi?” William hollered from across the street. He had a wicked smile across his face.
Jack turned to go inside, talk to Mel, when his father exited the house. “Sorry, buddy. Your taxi got canceled.” Mel shook his head, a small light shining on the bottom corner of his com-glasses. “They say I’ve been blacklisted. I’ve no idea why. But since there’s no other company that picks up in this neighborhood, you’re gonna have to take the bus.”
“Giga-hell,” Jack hissed. He wished his parents could afford a car. Minutes later, the bus arrived. Its breaks squeaked as it stopped. The vehicle looked like it came straight from the junk yard; fifty years old, cracked windows, scratches along the side, some graffiti.
Jack hustled to the door, climbed the steps, and struggled down the cramped aisle holding his box above his head. Chattering kids filled the seats, none paying any attention to Jack. No one on his block did. He finally found a spot next to Jen. She looked away, her headphones blaring.
William got on next. Kids stood, elbow bumped him, spat out jokes, laughed and moved aside in case he wanted to sit by them. It was disgusting. What was it about William that people liked? He was quick at comebacks, spiked his short hair, flaunted the dress code, and failed nearly every class gracefully, that’s why.
Jack rode to Detroit High School in silence. Half an hour later the bus pulled up behind fifty others. Students swarmed the grass before the buildings. A fight broke out by the far building, but was broke up quickly by a security bot. Others smoked vape pipes, flaunting the rules, some chatted in groups, couples made out near the bushes. In general, most everyone pushed the clock to the last bell.
Jack waited for his bus to clear out before lugging his box off the seat.
He didn’t head to the main walkways, but down the long drop-off curb and around the administration building toward the enormous gym. There were a handful of other kids totting boxes and bags, too.
Ben, one of William’s best friends approached, his head bobbing to music played in his earphones. Jack kept to the other side of the walkway, but at the last moment, Ben swerved, stuck his foot out, and tripped Jack. The box went flying, the poster board skidding into the grass, the computer and voltage meter banging on the concrete. The box broke Jack’s fall, but he’d have rather busted himself up than his invention.
Ben exaggerated his concerned look, “Oh giga-hell.” Ben offered his shoe to Jack’s face. “Yo smudged my kicks,” he hissed, his teeth clenched. “Better clean it off, know waz good fo yo health.”
Jack quickly rubbed the smudge off with his thumb. Classmates walked by and said nothing. Jack could feel their eyes on him like hot coals.
Ben strolled away, a little skip in his step. “See yo lata.”
Jack threw his stuff into the crushed box and rushed to the gym, red faced and dry mouthed, worried about his gear. None of the bulbs broke, but the computer board took a hit.
Two security robots stood on either side of the double doors. Jack scowled at them. “Lotta good you guys are, standing over here, buffering like dolts.” Jack hissed. The bots had black faces in the shape of a shield, no facial features, unless they were ordering you around. Then two red lights would turn on looking like demon eyes. Armor-like plates made up its body, synthetic muscle crowding the joints. The bots were stronger and as mysterious as a cat. No one knew how much AI was in their brains. Some said they were as dumb as dogs, others insisted they were plotting to take over humanity. Jack had seen them pick up kids and carry them over their heads kicking and screaming. “Hurry up!” Jack yelled. The guards scanned Jack’s eyes before opening the door.
Over a hundred other students entered the science fair this year, trying to win a ticket out of the decrepit public school, Detroit High; the winner receiving a grant to the prestigious Proxima Science Academy in upstate New York. The PSA was every nerdy kid’s dream, it was where NASA recruited from, almost exclusively.
The gym was big enough for two basketball courts and bleachers all around. The bleachers had been pushed back, the entire floor devoted to tables and projects. Jack hustled by other kids, setting up, plugging in, making last minute adjustments. Eyes found him, stared, but he stared also. The competition was fierce. In a school with over six thousand kids and only one point five percent gave a damn about science, it was no wonder the future of the world seemed so bleak.
Jack found his table and name plate, the contestant spaces arranged by alphabetical order around the enormous gym. He set the box down, flipping the lid open. Time to focus, collect his thoughts, though he was shaken up by Ben. Truth was, he’d gotten off easy. Ben was outwardly nasty and violent, didn’t care if he got detention or suspension, and had thumped Jack hard a dozen times or more. Whereas William played his pranks quietly, never getting caught.
Jack yanked out the tangle of wire, stiff with beads of glass every few inches and carefully set it aside. The small computer box was dented, but should be okay. Jack hand cut and glued it together, the computer inside a left-over chip from a DVD player that Mel said used to play movies from a so called ‘disk’. The poster board had lots of graphs and descriptions and now a grass stain, too.
No folder, no speech. Jack frantically dug through the contents, but he’d left his speech at home. How? He’d packed and double checked everything last night.
The tape. Jack’s eyes narrowed and his breath quickened. Someone had been in the garage. Correction, William had been in there. He was going to stop at nothing to ruin Jack. Should he tell someone?
No, he needed to make sure everything worked, he’d practiced his speech enough to remember it, hopefully. Jack dragged the extension cord to the socket and plugged it in, returned to the table, plugged in the computer box, and flicked on the switch. The lights turned on. Relief washed over him. He will still win this.
Six months of hard work was about to pay off. This win will catapult him into a great career with NASA, where he’d pilot a spacecraft, and study the distant planets.
He powered the lights down, intending to turn them on at the perfect time and arranged the poster board and string of lights around the table, looking neat and tidy.
The gym bustled, growing louder and louder as the clock advanced. It was a big day and a long one.
“The judging will begin in ten minutes. Your parents will be able to attend the showcase this evening to see the projects and view the winners. Good luck to you all,” said the principal over the intercom.
Jack will have only three minutes to explain his project, but he was more ready than he’d ever been.
The Judges marveled at other student displays: robots, chemistry experiments, design ideas, life science studies, and more. But Jack was still confident he’ll win. Many of the other students didn’t have unique ideas, and some were blatant rip-offs.
Two hours later, the group of five judges approached his table. Sweat poured from Jack’s armpits, down his forehead and it wasn’t even hot in the gym. “H–hello.”
The older woman, her glasses thick as glass bottle bottoms. “What do we have here?” She read the name placard. “Jack Morrison.”
Jack cleared his throat. He wished his father could be behind him, but no parents were allowed. He’ll have to deal with the pressure all by himself. “My project is an adaptation of plasma lightbulbs that use so little energy, they can be powered by solar panels the size that are on calculators. I couldn’t afford a calculator, but I can prove how efficient my bulbs are.”
The poster board explained plasma, the fourth state of matter. “It’s a gas but with equal amounts of positively and negatively charged electrons and the gas is highly conductive to electric current. That makes it different than other gasses,” Jack said. He showed off his illustrations of electrons, atoms, and nuclei. “See, if you add energy, a solid becomes a liquid. Add more energy, a liquid becomes a gas and even more energy, becomes plasma.”
The judges leaned in and read his graphs and diagrams.
“Typical sixty watt bulbs use approximately sixty watts when you turn them on. That’s point zero six kilowatts. My bulbs use around one half a watt each. That’s only five watts for ten lights. The gas inside is in a plasma state maintained by the current. Because my scale is so small, the light is bright, but the amount of power is minimal. Ten lights are twice as luminous as a sixty-watt bulb and only uses ten percent of the power. This will revolutionize lighting in our world.”
Jack continued talking, his speech flying from his lips. “Homes use ten percent of their annual electric costs on lighting, and I will be able to cut that to one percent without sacrificing our visual needs.
“Very impressive,” said one of the judges, taking notes.
“Practical applications go beyond the house hold. Lighting takes up twenty to thirty percent of commercial and industrial spaces. We can half that. Also, plasma light is better for your eyes, and the small lights can be easily blocked to help keep our light pollution down to a minimum.”
Jack picked up one of the small lights and held it up. “I filled the glass balls with argon gas and then before it cooled, inserted the electrode. It took me a long time to figure out, but I’m positive the process can be automated.” He showed off his string of tiny lights. “The plasma lights are so energy efficient, hardly any charge will turn them on.” Jack touched the on switch on the computer box. “When I turn them on, you’ll see on my voltage meter how much power is consumed while still kicking out two hundred lumens each.”
“Wow,” said one of the judges. “Let’s see how bright they are.”
All the judges waited, eagerly anticipating the demonstration. They wanted to see the lights as described in Jack’s drawings and charts. They watched Jack fiddle with the power cable.
“And now, behold, the greatest, most efficient string of Christmas lights ever.” Other students gathered around.
Jack flipped the switch.
Nothing happened. Jack wiggled the wire’s connection to his computer. “Hold on.” He flipped the button off, then on again. Nothing. Jack looked at the judges, his sweat now flooding his brow. “I–just give me a minute.”
Jack tried to get the lights to work but his speech soaked up all the time allotted.
“Great idea. Get it to work and maybe next year, you can resubmit the project. Lord knows we need more energy saving inventions these days with the brownouts and the high electrical costs. Removing ten to thirty percent of our energy usage is no small thing.” The woman judge said. The others agreed, marking their notes, and moving on.
“But they work!” Jack yelped. He looked at his lights. “I just plugged them in a minute ago.” Did something happen to them when Ben tripped him?
Jack inspected the wire and each light. They weren’t cracked, chipped, bent, broken. It should have worked. Nothing was wrong with them, nothing wrong with the computer board either. Jack wanted to fall apart.
“What happened?” Becka said from her table.
Jack shook his head. “I’ve no idea. The only thing I can think is that my voltage regulator burned out. I don’t understand how or why.” Jack was about to cry. That would be a bad thing, especially in high school.
Jack fiddled, but nothing he did to his wire, or the voltage regulator or the transistor lit up his bulbs. He hit the table top and marched out of the auditorium.
Months ago, Jack was ready to give up on his idea. He had trouble keeping the gas inside the bulb. “Nothing worthwhile comes easy, buddy,” Mel had said. “You’ll make it. You never stop playing just because you lose a game. There’s a whole season to think about.”
“But PSA only gives out grants once a year and only to freshman. I’m done.” Jack responded, hovering over a pile of broken, tiny, glass beads.
“Thomas Edison found out a thousand ways not to make a lightbulb, he only needed one way to make it work,” Mel quoted. “Think like an inventor. Try a hundred different ways.”
Jack passed the statuesque security bots and hurried to the track surrounding the empty football field and let his tears come. His brain couldn’t think straight. There was no reason his invention wouldn’t have worked. He’d tested it a hundred times. It wasn’t that complicated of a system.
After purging his emotion, Jack walked back to the auditorium, head low. He passed graffiti covered walls, empty planters, a burned oak tree outside the building that had been the senior prank last year.
He’d missed his opportunity to get out of Detroit High. Kids seemed to snicker as he shuffled by. The problem with being as smart as Jack was, people had high expectations. When he failed, it created bigger ripples in the pool. Jack didn’t speak to anyone. When he arrived at his table he wanted to kick it, chuck his project in the garbage. He’d totally failed.
But the bulbs failed for no reason. That bothered Jack the most.
The lunch bell rang for the freshmen, the halls filling up. Jack weaved through the noisy crowd back to his table.
The judges finished browsing all the tables and headed to an empty meeting room to discuss the projects in private, announcing the winner by end of day.
Mire, Jack’s only real friend, walked up to him, her mouth full of a lunch-cake. “Whoa. You should be giga-happy. Didn’t you win this thing?” She stopped chewing. “Geez, what happened? Do I need to drag those judges back here? Your lights are the best in this whole place.” She was pretty, black silky hair cut to her shoulder, eyes rich and dark like chocolate confection, and tough. She took a boxing elective if that wasn’t proof of her mindset.
Jack shrugged. “I flipped the switch, and nothing, nada. I epic-failed. The judges looked at me like I was bluffing.”
She fiddled with his stuff. “You’re the smartest guy in school, you’ll figure a way to fix it.”
“I don’t want to fix it. I don’t really care about the lights. I want out of his raw place.” Jack moved to a new, angry stage in his grief. He felt so hot in his grey one-piece uniform, it constricted his neck at the collar, too tight at the wrists.
Mire leaned close to him, “I just came from the south wing, one of the judges is talking with Mr. Yamato right now. They’re whispering like passing secrets. Nothing is settled, until it is. Go tell them you’ll fix it and show him it works.”
Jack shook his head. “It’s too late. All I really care about is getting the grant money for Proxima.” He stared at his wired lights sitting in a coil. Mel’s words about finding another way, echoed in his mind. “Maybe my assumptions are wrong and there’s nothing wrong with the hardware.” His brain considered options. In his haste, he’d forgotten about step one in fixing things. Make sure it’s plugged in, and that plug has juice. He needed to remove the lights from the gym, to remove any doubt about the power source. Jack snatched the coil of lights and the small computer switch and ran to another table. Jack grabbed an external battery pack connected to a twelve-inch dance robot, powered down, having done its jig for the judges. Without asking, he unplugged it from the robot, and ran.
“Hey,” the owner yelped.
“Borrowing it!” Jack called out as he ran. No time to test, he had to follow his gut feeling. The bulbs worked a few hours ago, so there had to be something wrong with the power by his table. That was the only variable that could change. He pushed past other students to the south exit. The walkway arched around the outside of the gym, rising to the ground level exiting at the quad. Mr. Yamato stopped as Jack ran by.
“Not taking no for an answer!” Jack called out.
“Good boy!” Mr. Yamato cheered. Near the exit was the old woman judge and one of the men, pushing out the door.
“Wait!” Jack rushed up to them. The two judges paused, then moved back inside.
Jack, out of breath, held up the end of his wire of lights. “This will change lighting forever. This is worth a second look. There was a problem with the power outlet by my table. That’s not my fault. I shouldn’t be penalized for it.”
“We really loved your idea, it was a stunning concept, so much effort in production, but it wouldn’t be–”
Jack laid the coil on the ground. “Please,” he whispered and jammed the end of the cord into the battery. The lights lit up in bright white.
Jack held out the computer box, showing them the voltage meter. “Ten lights, a combined lumen rating of over two thousand, pulling five watts of electricity. The lights burned brightly. “You could use different gasses in the light bulbs make different colors, just like neon signs.”
The two judges smiled, checked out the voltage meter and laughed.
“It uses about as much energy as a calculator. Beats LED lights, too and the light is full spectrum,” Jack said. “The world needs these efficient inventions, more than ever before.”
The lady judge tapped her com-glasses on, recalled the three others so they could marvel at the invention. They stared, inspected, gawked.
“Sure is bright,” one of the judges said.
Jack nodded. They loved it. He was going to win this. His body felt lighter now, the pressure gone. Whatever happened to the power in the gym was a fluke. Other people’s inventions that needed to be plugged were fine, but the outlets by Jack were dead. Could it have been sabotage? Hell yeah.”
The end of the day finally came.
One of the judges made the announcements. “Thank you to all the students who eagerly worked on science projects. They were all fantastic. Third place, and the prize of three hundred credits goes to George Ambria, for his unique miniature robot that will cruise the ocean and suck up trash. Good show.”
Jack sat up. He’d seen George’s project. It was a novel idea, but had been tried before. It was too costly, always will be.
The announcer said something that Jack couldn’t hear. Many of the students weren’t listening, didn’t care, too disconnected from the contest for it to matter. The teacher shushed the kids, but her efforts went unnoticed. Jack got up and walked past the twelve aisles of desks to be closer to the speaker.
“Second place goes to Rebecca Ulrich. Her project detailed the recovery of the rainforest after the South American War and how the urban recovery efforts were yielding positive results. Very inspiring and thorough. She will get to attend a summer school program at the PSA and receive eight hundred credits.”
Here it comes, Jack chewed his fingernails, the anxiety creeping up his backbone like ants.
“And first place goes to Enys Cromwall for his self-cleaning and sterilizing toilet. Public toilets will never need cleaning again. Neither will any of us use the bathroom and find it a disgusting disaster. This is very exciting to all of us. Congratulations! You’re going to PSA. The best technical and space science school in North America!”
Jack’s eyelids closed. That was it. His last chance evaporated.
“But we have a special announcement this year. We’ve awarded two first place prizes because of a tie in scoring. Jack Morrison will also receive a grant to PSA for his energy efficient plasma bulbs! Combined with solar panel strips, we might not have to plug in another lightbulb. We were so thrilled with his passion and determination. Congratulations to all and wish the rest of you good luck next year.”
Not everyone heard Jack’s name. In fact, Jack didn’t know he heard it either. His heart jumped and he looked at his teacher for confirmation. She smiled, nodded, her hands clapping silently with approval. She hugged Jack, tears coming to her eyes. “You were one of my favorites. Always listening, taking me seriously. I’ll miss you.”
Jack would miss her, too. She tried very hard, all the teachers did. Jack was moving on, heading to a better school, a better life, more prosperity, more kids like him.
The final bell rang and the kids burst out of their seats like popcorn.
Jack won first place. He felt dizzy and leaned on the wall so he wouldn’t fall. It had been a long day. He’d get to take his invention to the state competition with all other kids in Michigan. But he didn’t much care about that. He’d gotten his grant, he’d gotten out.
“All code can be broken, all broken code can be broken again until nothing is left but possibilities,” ~ Anonymous
Jack Morrison stared out his cracked window, through metal security bars, avoiding going to bed. Nothing would let him sleep tonight anyway. He was high on life, on his future, on everything.
He’d been talking to his best friend, Mire for the past hour or so on chat. Displayed in the bottom corner of Jack’s glasses was her profile pic. The conversation was dying down, everything having been said, but Jack didn’t want her to go, not yet. She was a little upset that she’d have to stay at Detroit High, but it paled in comparison to her enthusiasm. They’d still be friends and hang out online no matter what.
It was mid-May and sunset occurred at nine. By late June, it wouldn’t get dark until ten and by then, he’d be sound asleep by the time the sky got dark enough to see the city lights and the stars and the ring of the Nexus Space Station. He loved to look at the lights before bed. It was his bedtime story to himself. Jack looked at the clock, five until nine. First visible light from the skyscrapers, a few miles to the East, dense as a star cluster, but orderly, like stacked blocks.
The graceful procession to night continued, stars turning on, one by one, brightest first, including a ring of bright stars rose from the horizon, looking like a ring of diamonds. It was the Nexus Space Station–built between the moon and the Earth at the Lagrangian point, which is a stable place to orbit between the Earth and the moon. He envisioned himself blasting off into space, going to live on the Nexus.
“When will NASA let astronauts live on the space station?” Jack asked, staring, dough-eyed, at the lights. “I’m going to the Starlight Student Academy, so I want to make sure I’ve a job to go do when I get out of college.”
“They pretty broke, budget slashed more and more every year, but when the economy comes back, we’ll be ready to go. NASA still has some money. Nexus has robots up there now. Robots are cheap. They don’t complain, they work twenty-four hours a day and they are smarter in some ways.” There was a pause. Mire continued. “It is OPA,” Mire said. OPA meaning, Over Powered Awesomeness and one of her favorite sayings.
“They made it to house, like, five hundred people. There are all these empty rooms and cold kitchens and quiet hallways. It’s like a ghost town. Probably freaky up there at night.” Jack smiled. He didn’t care, he’d live up there anyway. It would be better than living down here. There will soon be scientists, engineers, and biologists up there. No criminals, no gangs.
“You gonna go to bed at all tonight?” Mire said. “I know you’re epic-jazzed, but I’m getting woozy here.”
“Yeah. I’m going down soon.” He sighed.
Jack pushed a button on his thick-rimmed glasses—they had a communication computer embedded in the rims and would project a computer screen onto the glass, making it look like the screen was a holographic image in front of him, but it wasn’t; the glasses only augmented his vision. Though it was dark around the Nexus lights, Jack’s com-glasses highlighted the shape in delicate vector lines. He could zoom in on the drawing and see the windows, ports and antenna and learn all about its functions.
“The sky is so clear, you can see the station really well,” Jack mumbled, his chin resting in his palm as he leaned on the desk.
“Yeah. It’s cool. Looks like a sparkly necklace in the sky.” Mire was distracted. “You really wanna live up there, huh?”
“It’s gonna happen. I’m going to make sure of it.”
“You never know. I’ll work on making Earth cool again instead of thinking about how to escape it. I’d like to visit Nexus, but to live there?” Mire was always talking about how messed up things were; how many go hungry at night, how many bombs were being dropped, how many ghettos kept popping up everywhere. She was similar to Jack’s dad in that way. Jack didn’t think Earth was savable. He just wanted to get off-world and start fresh. But it was more than that to Jack. He loved space technology, he loved the idea of traveling to other worlds. As young as he can remember, he wanted so desperately to join NASA, pilot a starship, and uncover things never before seen.
Jack sat up. “I want to strap into the Atlas Heavy Lift Rocket and blast off this rock. I want to be one of the first to walk on Mars, Titan, Europa.” He pictured it in his head a thousand times. His elation didn’t last, he was getting tire and couldn’t think of anything else to say. “I guess I gotta go. I’m gonna watch some Viewtube and zoom out for the night.”
“K. Get into your ancient P.J.’s. Don’t move too fast or they’ll disintegrate.” Mire chuckled. “You’re a bit too old for P.J.’s you know.”
“Whatever, they’re comfortable.”
“Anyway, go and fly off to Never Never land. I’ll catch you tomorrow.” Mire ended the call.
Jack stared at the diagram of the Nexus Station a minute more. “One day, I’m gonna get up there. Leave all these villains behind.” The display flickered as his Internet connection faltered. His glasses were cheap and old and always did this. He tapped them on the side. “Come on, piece of junk.”
The glasses flicked off. He was about to reboot them when a small screen turned on, displaying a red phone icon. His com-glasses were calling 9-1-1! Jack sat up. “Call end,” he said, ordering the glasses to disconnect. They did not respond. “End, end, end!” He pressed the power button.
There was a momentary blip on the phone line before the emergency dispatcher answered, “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” A woman’s face filled Jack’s screen, her own com-glasses so thin and light they were barely visible.
“Somebody’s in the house!” a voice shouted. It sounded like Jack’s voice, but it wasn’t him. He hadn’t said a thing or called 9-1-1.
“No, what? Wait!” Jack snapped, his glasses not picking up his own voice.
The fake Jack continued, “They have a gun. They locked me in my room . . . mom and dad . . . hostage.” There was gunshot. “Help me!!” the voice cried.
The emergency dispatcher pressed a large red button in front of her. Lights lit up around her profile pic as emergency signals burst from the dispatch center, alerting police across the city. Her fingers shook nervously. “Stay calm.” She slammed her hand on the red button again.
“Stop! This isn’t my voice!” Jack cried out. He could see the panic and worry in her eyes.
The dispatcher steadied her voice and replied, “I’m here now. I’ll help you. Voice recognition has identified you as Jack Morrison. Is that correct?”
“You have to hurry–shot–my dad –can hear–mom screaming!!”
The phone call cut out. Jack jumped out of his desk chair, knocking it over. He turned to the door and paused, his heart racing. Where did that voice come from?
Was someone in his house?
His com-glasses turned on, this time displaying a man in a black hood, face obscured by shadow. “I’m coming for you. Trust me, I’ll get there long before the cops do,” the figure said, and the call ended.
Jack leaned to the window and scanned the night. How long would it take the police to get to his house? Who would do this to him? This was crazy!
Jack ran to his bedroom door and flung it open and sprinted to his parents’ bedroom. They weren’t in there; they were watching TV downstairs. He spun and raced to the stairs, but before he took one step down, the front window shattered. A tin can lobbed into the home, clanked on the tile and erupted, shooting smoke in every direction.
The front door crashed open followed by men in black ski masks and military gear.
Jack didn’t know what to do. Should he call out for his parents? Should he run? That was one thing Jack was good at, running. He ran down the hall, bolted through the doorway, and practically crashed into the balcony sliding door. He was so afraid, and confused. His parents were adults, they should be okay, wouldn’t they be?
He turned and pulled open the heavy, iron-bar-laden door and escaped the home. The balcony was held up by iron trellises covered in vines. He jumped over the railing, scampered down to the ground, ignoring the crushing of the plant, and booked it across the yard.
One of the intruders burst onto the balcony. “He’s left the home and on foot, traveling east.”
Jack stopped at the front gate. The gaps in the wood slats highlighted an approaching figure, cutting off Jack’s escape.
He turned and ran the other direction, past the huge oak tree that cradled his rickety tree-house and to the back fence. He jumped up and over the fence and charged it through the empty lot behind his house, where only a concrete foundation was left, surrounded by tall weeds.
His vision adjusted to the dark night. Stray dogs fought over food, trash, and litter everywhere and a stained, broken couch. Jack didn’t stop until he reached the road. He looked back and forth. Where do I go? His mind raced.
Mrs. Theodore. She had babysat him a lot when he was young and her home was a few houses away. Best to go around the block and sneak back to her house so he could call the police and figure out what to do. He ran.
A few yards before reaching the corner, the streetlight flickered off. He slowed but kept running. His science teacher Mr. Yamato said there were rumors that people were conductive and that sometimes they interfered with surrounding electrons and make things electrical disrupt, like streetlights. But then Mr. Yamato explained that the lights simply flicked off when they got too hot and the gas inside the bulb became nonconductive. Either way, it was creepy running in the dark, but Jack had to hurry. He picked up the pace.
The light came on again, illuminating a man right in front of him at the edge of the light. Jack screamed, tripped, and tumbled on the cracked asphalt, fell to his knees, legs spayed. The man fell back.
“I’m sorry, sorry!” Jack yelled, jumping to his feet. His jeans tore at the knees and his hands scrapped. He clasped his hands together, knowing they were going to start bleeding and stinging any second.
The man grunted loudly and pulled himself off the pavement. “Boy! You need to watch where you’re going.” It was Mr. Carpenter, the archeologist who lived across the street in a very large, two-hundred-year-old house. “You nearly knocked my com-glasses off my face! They cost me two-thousand dollars. It has the latest metacore processor.” Mr. Carpenter dusted off his coat. “What are you doing running around at night? Causing trouble? Did you knock me over on purpose?” he snapped, massaging his wrist. Mr. Carpenter was older but not elderly. His hair and beard were gray and his skin tanned and wrinkled from too many days in the sun. He wasn’t very tall, but his stocky shape and irritable personality made him ominous.
A month ago, Jack had accidentally thrown his model glider into Carpenter’s yard. Carpenter retrieved it from a bush and handed it over. He didn’t say a word, didn’t smile his usual smile. He had dark circles under his eyes like he’d been punched, a red vein that crossed his left eye like a single lighting strike, and a faint dark spot that hovered over his pupils like the reflection of a phantom. Something was off with the neighbor. Maybe he had always been creepy and Jack never noticed. After all, he spawned the meanest teenager in all of Detroit, William. William bullied Jack to no end but always seemed to squirm out of any blame or repercussions.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Carpenter. I-I didn’t see you. These guys, they’re in my house. I—” Jack paused. Something in him told him to run from the man as fast as he’d run from the intruders. Even at the edges of the lamplight, the man’s shape seemed to be fading at the edges, translucent, flickering like a bad signal. Jack backed up, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks. He couldn’t trust Mr. Carpenter any more than he could trust William, his son.
A police car turned onto the street, its spotlight finding the two. Jack ran to it. Mr. Carpenter slinked away, disappearing into the dark.
“Help me!” Jack cried out, his arms to either side. The cruiser was all black, except for a thin silver stripe and badge. Its tires were oversized so it could navigate pothole-laded streets and cut across empty lots.
The policeman stepped out, wearing all black and a ski mask just like the intruders.
Jack slid to a stop, confused. Is this a real cop?
The officer stripped off his mask and stepped away from the vehicle. He had no gun. “Stop right there, kid. Put your hands in the air.” He approached Jack carefully and slowly, a gun pointed down, but ready. His full beard was red, and he was tall and strong. His badge gleamed in the flashing red-and-blue lights.
Jack’s tension released like the undoing of a tight belt, and he fell to his knees, gasping.
The officer grabbed Jack’s arm, pulled him up, twisted it and slammed him against the car. “I’m Officer Bailey, ID four-four-nine.” He held Jack’s arm tight, but not painfully so. “You don’t run from the police, kid. Your parents ever teach you that?”
“What happened to them?” Jack said through heavy breaths, as the officer laid thick cuffs over his wrists and they automatically synced closed.
He pulled Jack off the car. “There’re fine. They were watching a movie when my men entered your residence.”
Jack was so confused. “Your men? Why were you all wearing ski masks?”
“Listen kid, when S.W.A.T. enters a home, it’s hard to know what we’re up against. Police have been identified by perps and gangsters, their families targeted. We have to protect ourselves. I still don’t know why you ran. You called us.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Bailey shoved Jack into the back of the police car and drove him home.
A couple of cruisers and a large S.W.A.T truck parked in front of the home. The other officers had removed their ski masks and lead Jack’s dad, Mel, out of the home in his bathrobe, his hands cuffed, too.
“Dad!” Jack tried to exit the car, but the doors were locked, his own wrists bound.
“Cool it, kid,” Bailey said. “We have protocol to work through. Something happened here, and we need to find out what. You’ll see him in a minute.” He parked and stepped out.
Mel ducked into another car. Minutes later, Jack’s mom, Kalsie, exited the home, led by a female police officer. Kalsie saw Jack in the back of the patrol car and ran to him, flung the door open, and hugged him, squeezing the air out of him.
She had tea stains all over her nightshirt, and her hair disheveled. She shot a look at Bailey. “Get these cuffs off my son. He’s barely sixteen.”
“Sorry, Ma’am. But I don’t know Jack from a drug dealer. I had to take precautions.” Bailey took the cuffs off. He glared at jack. “When someone runs from us, they typically have guilt smudging their hands.”
“What is going on?” Kalsie asked her son, breathing rapidly.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Jack stammered.
“You have to know something! Cops don’t just burst into people’s homes,” Kalsie blurted. She folded her arms tight, as if trying to keep herself from exploding.
“I didn’t do anything, I swear. My com-glasses turned on and called the cops all by themselves. Then this guy said he was coming to get me.”
“Impossible! Com-glasses don’t do things on their own.”
“Mom, this was William. This is another one of his tricks!”
She grunted. “I mean, how is that possible? He’d have to be a really talented hacker and I know he’s not. He has trouble with school.”
Jack lowered his head. “I don’t know how he did it, but he did.”
Kalsie turned to the large house across the street where William Carpenter lived. Jack wanted to reassure her but didn’t know how. She was so angry.
A woman in a dark suit handed Kalsie a water bottle and gave one to Jack. “Are you okay?” she asked. Her smile was warm, but her eyes looked worried. “Sorry, stupid question.” She had dark hair, light skin, and no com-glasses. “My name is Officer Ashlyn. I’m with Child Protective Services.”
Kalsie drank her water in large gulps. “What on Earth is going on?”
“At approximately nine thirty we received a call from Jack. He said there was someone with a gun. It wasn’t clear to dispatch who had the gun, but it was clear that Jack and you were in danger. We weren’t sure if it was your husband or an intruder. A gunshot was heard on the line before the phone went dead.”
“Oh, my god,” Kalsie replied. “Do you have the right Jack?” Kalsie looked around.
“Voice recognition clearly identified the caller as Jack Morrison.” The female officer looked at Jack. “And it came from your com-glasses. Your photo was there too.” Her smile flat lined. “No way to fake that, Jack. Phones are encrypted and geo located.”
Kalsie’s eyebrows lifted. “My son would not do this. He’s a good kid, smart. He just had a great day at school.”
“I didn’t . . . I didn’t call anyone,” Jack sat up straight. “My glasses did it all by themselves.”
All the officers came out of the house a moment later. The one with the red beard walked up to Ashlyn. “House is clear. No sign of an intruder. No weapon found.” He led Ashlyn out of earshot.
Neighbors stood on the sidewalks, pointing and whispering.
Ashlyn and Bailey returned to Jack. “We’re going to have to charge you, Jack,” Bailey said. “Your voice and image were clearly identified by our computer, so we know it was you. A crank call of this nature is very serious. You’ve wasted our time and possibly endangered someone who really needed our help. I have to charge you with at least two offenses here.” He walked off.
Ashlyn knelt to Jack’s level. “Why don’t you tell me why you did this? Were you mad at your dad? Or mom?”
“No!” Jack snapped, anger boiling inside. “I had such a good day. I just won the science fair contest, got a grant to the PSA. I–I didn’t call anyone. William did this. He’s the only one that would do this to me.” He wondered if William’s father helped set it up. Why else would the old man be walking around the neighborhood at night? Maybe the two were in it together.
“If it’s worth anything, I believe you. They used to call it swatting. Kids pulled off this prank before voice recognition. It doesn’t happen anymore, until now. If this wasn’t you, then someone has a pretty clever computer program mimicking your voice and cloning your phone signature and your image. Whoever did this, knows what they were doing, or maybe they used magic or something. At any rate, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead. The courts have mandatory rules for sentencing and they apply to misdemeanors. Stay here, Jack. I need your mother and father to come with me,” Ashlyn said. She turned to the red-bearded officer, “Officer Bailey, read Jack his rights.” She moved away, jotting notes on a black tablet.
Officer Bailey made a hand gesture, and his com-glasses reacted. Jack could see the glow of light reflecting off the glass surface communicating to Bailey. The officer read him his rights. Afterward, Bailey stared hard at Jack. “This is my beat. I’m in this neighborhood every day. I got my eye on you. My suggestion, keep your nose clean from now on or I’m gonna lock you up with real hard criminals. This is a zero-tolerance zone.”
Jack recoiled, pressing into the padded seat.
“You tried to get into the PSA, middle of last year by taking the entrance exam, but you weren’t picked by the lottery system,” Kalsie said.
Jack blinked out tears. “Yeah, and?”
“I know the qualifications like the back of my hand.” She was angry, seething. “Me and your father tried everything to get you in,”
“I know, mom, but I found a way, I got in.” Jack didn’t know why she was so angry Didn’t she believe he was innocent? “So, what are you trying to say?”
“You can’t have a criminal record to get into PSA,” Kalsie said solemnly, her tone wavering. “If we can’t get the judge to reverse this arrest, you won’t be going to PSA. The grant will be revoked.”
Jack looked over his shoulder to the Carpenters’ mansion across the street. Hot anger continued to boil inside. William did this. He knew Jack won the grant and figured out a way to stop it. He was devious, picked on Jack every chance he got but was smart enough to keep his nose clean. He made Jack feel weak and stupid and now made Jack a failure. This was the second time the PSA will reject him. And the final time.
It wasn’t clear how William had the brains to pull this off, but there was no doubt it was him. This was the worst act yet, and Jack was in a lot of trouble. “I hate you,” Jack hissed, while staring at a single glowing window on the second floor of the huge Carpenter home. A dark shadow lurked in the corner of the window. It was William, looking down at his handiwork and no doubt patting himself on the back.