Anderson Atlas is an author and illustrator in Arizona

Inspired by crowded malls, streams hidden by giant boulders, patches of moss, charred forests, and distant mountain ranges, Anderson’s goal is to catch the lost dreams and carry them from the shadows of forgotten time.

Dark Swarms Book Preview

 Dark Swarm Young Adult Book (preview)

 

“As engineers, we are going to be in a position to change the world – not just study it.” ~Henry Petroski

 

Chapter 1

 

On command, Jayce Morrison snapped open his eyes, eager to behold the surprise. His eyes darted around, confusion and worry setting in. “Where the heck did you drag me?” Jayce whispered. He pushed up his thick-rimmed glasses, trying to study the shapes outside the vehicle windshield, reminding himself why he hated surprises; they never turned out quite right and gave him little time to prepare. His thin frame pulled against the seatbelt, nearly pressing his long nose to the glass.

“You would never have come if I told you the truth. Hence the secrecy.” Mire flashed a half smile, eyes glinting with amusement. She was Jayce’s best friend, a Korean immigrant since age four and had sleek dark black hair and ivory skin. She was too pretty to be friends with dorky Jayce, he always thought, but she continued to come around. “Now get the hell out of the taxi, or else,” she said, snapping her tongue like a whip. Her smile widened.

The auto-shaw, a two-wheel robotic taxi that looked like an egg and a hoverboard mated, stopped in the heart of a forgotten neighborhood. Abandoned buildings, trash, tagging extended for blocks in either direction. Across the street was an old doughnut bakery, a cell phone repair shop and three other businesses long abandoned; broken signage hung from brick facades, trash cluttered the sidewalk, and an alley with tents and taller piles of trash. All the windows and doors were boarded up with plywood and two-by-fours adorned with no trespassing signs full of bullet holes. Some traffic, likely passing through, traversed the wide road and bums milled about minding their own business.

The auto-shaw’s entire front half opened up like a round cockpit. Mire dashed out of the vehicle, stopped when she realized Jayce was not following. “Come on,” she said in a hiss. “This you will like. I promise.”

Jayce shook his head. He leaned out of the auto-shaw, the vehicle gently rocking under his weight. “This place is not kid friendly.” Jayce instantly regretted saying ‘kid’. He was fifteen and in high school now. Time to start referring to himself as a young adult even if he didn’t feel like one.

Mire rushed back to the auto-shaw, grunting. “You should have kept your eyes shut until we got inside.” She grabbed Jayce’s arm and pulled.

“Inside where?” Jayce asked, refusing to budge from his seat, staring up at the creepy brick building looming over the auto-shaw, staring.

“Fine. I’ll give you two-hundred bucks if you move your ass.” Mire let him go and walked backward toward the brick building that resembled a corpse more than a place of work. The building was surrounded by a tall chain link fence, had a yard full of tall weeds, probably an old factory of some kind. “If you don’t hurry, we will attract attention. Not the good kind.”

Jayce stepped out of the vehicle and jogged across the street with Mire, his backpack loaded with his laptop and some cables Mire ordered him to bring.

Mire chuckled. “Jayce the Jaywalker.”

“Hey, I’m not…” Jayce was not in a crosswalk. He paused, considering her intent.

Mire’s face was full of amusement. “You can be such a weenie, sometimes. But I still like you.”

Jayce rolled his eyes. Hopping onto the curb and out of the street actually made him relax a little, just a little. “I’m so confused. Why all the mystery? Why do I have all my gear?” He noticed a bum two buildings away looking in their direction. “No really. What’s going on?” Jayce’s voice broke, slightly. He hoped Mire didn’t hear it. His heart was racing uncomfortably fast. He never broke laws, ventured into dangerous places. Mire on the other hand had an assorted past. She’d ran away from home, lived on the street for a few months, got arrested for stealing. The day Jayce met her last year, she had a tracker ankle bracelet on because she was on probation.  

Mire dashed down driveway next to the factory, following the chain link fence to the back parking lot. Jayce followed, grumbling. He’d rather be online playing Star Racer or Cyber Ops in the comfort of his bedroom. “What are you doing? Are we breaking into this place? Is this some kinda game? Like a dare or something?”

Mire dropped her backpack and pulled out a large bolt-cutter. “Zip it or you don’t get your two-hundred dollars.”

Jayce gripped his backpack’s straps, nerves twisting his gut. With two-hundred bucks he could buy Space Command when it comes out next month instead of waiting while he saved up.

Mire carefully, quickly cut link after link at the bottom of the fence. Jayce glanced at the surrounding buildings, eyeing the dark windows. People were watching them; he just knew it. Every cell in his body told him to run home, but he stayed anchored to Mire not wanting to look too weenie. Sweat trickled down his temples and forehead down his nose, making his thick-rimmed glasses slide down his nose. He pushed them up.

“This is a bad idea. Let’s go. Screw the two-hundred,” Jayce whispered. “It’s getting late and…and I really don’t wanna go to jail.”

Mire finished clipping the links and kicked her bolt cutters under the fence. She pulled up a section of loose chains. “Under. Now.”

“But–”

“Move it!” Mire hissed. “I’m bribing you, doing all the work. You just gotta beef-up. Hurry, before someone who cares, sees us.”

Jayce grumbled and squatted. “I’m thinking the bribe wasn’t big enough.” Mire shot him a warning look full of daggers so he hustled under the fence, stood and held it up so she could follow.

The two sprinted across a small patch of overgrown grass and weeds to the front door of the factory. Boards covered the glass and a thick chain bound the handles together. Mire positioned her bolt cutters on the chain and bore down on them. The blade sunk into the metal but didn’t snap. Jayce grabbed the long handles and pulled them with everything he had. Which wasn’t much. Not a lot of muscle wrapped his bones. Finally, the link snapped, and the chain clattered to the concrete.

Mire slipped into the abandoned factory, hunched, her footfalls as quiet as a cat, calm and collected. She was uber-smart also one of the toughest girls Jayce had ever known.

The dark of the building fell over Jayce as he followed Mire. He tapped a button on the side of his thick-rimmed glasses turning on a flashlight. The light wasn’t as bright as he’d wanted so, with a hand gesture he turned on an overlay that lightened the view further. And just for good measure, he pressed his hands together, turning on the glasses’s cellphone app. A holographic image of his contacts flashed onto his vision, looking like a floating directory. He reached out, tapped his dad’s image. Jayce didn’t initiate the call, just loaded the phone number just in case the whole braking-and-entering went bad, leaving Jayce and Mire in the crosshairs of desperate bums or angry cops.

Jayce looked back and forth, sweeping the light around. Dust covered the floor and reception counter, and trash cluttered the corners. He coughed then instinctively took out his inhaler and took a pull.

The echo in the gloom was louder than expected. It was early evening, but as dark as the backside of the moon. Only a thin sliver of flickering light from a nearby streetlamp speared past security bars and grime smeared windows. Shadows lurked behind tables and doors and hallways hiding evil things waiting to pounce.

Mire stowed the bolt cutters and moved quickly through a double doorway and onto the factory floor. Conveyor belts lay silent, their tracks and wheels rusted, the belts frayed. Electricity boxes were empty of fuses, splaying naked wires like guts. Everything looked ancient, preserved in its chaotic finale but the factory had only been closed for five years or so.

Mire spun back to the doorway, eyes wild. “Cops!”

Jayce’s heart seized. Instinctively, he sprang to the wall and ducked. His foot kicked a can across the floor, the clanking loud and obnoxious, startling him again.

“Just kidding.” Mire giggled, tucking her short black hair behind her ears.

“Totally not cool.” Jayce heaved, grabbed his inhaler and took another puff. “Why do you want to zap all my health points like that?” He stood, one hand gripping the strap of his backpack like a safety line. He could almost hear the jail cell doors clanking closed behind him. “Tell me what we’re doing here. Come on!”

“Chill. We’re here to test our science project.”

“What?” Jayce and Mire had been writing code for the past three months for an AI simulation that would express creativity. Maybe even desire. Jayce believed the key to true artificial intelligence was intention and creation.

“Our code is ready. You’re run all these simulations and got some weird results, right? Well, I want to try it out on a real robot.”

“Jeeze, you could have told me. I could have prepared. This is an epic step.” Jayce filled with excitement, a flood filling him with gratitude. He wanted to hug her but stopped himself. She wasn’t the hugging type. She barely said bye when she went home or to her bus. Before Jayce could revel in the excitement, worry and fear reared their ugly heads, battled the happiness and won.

“We don’t have to finish today. We can come back. This place has been for sale for years. No one’s gonna buy it.”

“There’s a robot in here? How do you know?” Jayce asked, swallowing hard.

“Online listing.”

Jayce threw up his hands. “Oh, great. Someone online led us here. This is a trap!”

“Trust me. Kick out the paranoia and let’s get this done before the cops do show up,” Mire concluded.

“I’m not just worried about cops. Bums live in places like these, desperate and all wacked out on drugs. We’re gonna get mugged. I can’t lose my laptop. I’ll never be able to afford to get another one.”

“I looked for a way for bums to get in.” Mire shook her head. “This place was locked up tight. Hence my bolt cutters. Sheesh. You worry like little mouse,” Mire mumbled.

“Okay, then the cops are gonna come and haul us in for trespassing. I don’t need a criminal record. I would not do well in jail.” Jayce said, his voice cracking again.

Mire stopped and put her hands to her hips, glaring at him. “Really? That scared? You really wanna tuck tail and just leave?”

Jayce coughed, realizing he was under her judgment spotlight. His face reddened and grew hot. “No… just…I’ve never done anything like this.” Mire’s cool-factor, her bravery and spunk rubbed off on Jayce, encouraging him to do things he’d never do on his own. So, he followed, trying to emulate her confidence.

“I’m your best friend. You can trust me. Nobody cares about this place.” She dropped her sass-pose and turned. “And nobody led us here. I did some sleuthing. With some hunting, I found what I was looking for all on my own.”

What Jayce really wanted was to go home but he pushed down the sensation to flee. “Let’s just hurry.” She was right, always right. The AI script they’d spent months writing and tweaking needed to be tested.

“Nothing here but dead cockroaches, spiders, and squatter-trash,” Jayce whispered. “All that’s left is crap. How did you deduce there was a robot here?” He pointed his light at all the empty racks and conveyor belts and cut wires.

“I saw this pic on a used-machine-auction website, called the seller’s number and pretended I was a buyer. They wanted to meet here but I said I wouldn’t go to this neighborhood.” She continued searching, swinging her flashlight around. She didn’t have com-glasses but had an actual, solid black flashlight. Jayce wanted to hold something solid right about now, something that could be used as a weapon.

On the other side of a large storage box in the middle of the floor were a dozen empty tables. “All these tables had robotic sewing machines,” Mire said. “Models T-50. Their fingers had dexterity and chipsets had onboard memory. They were autonomous to a degree. Before the government banned the use of labor-bots, factories were filling up with them. Putting people out of work. Don’t know who would wanna sit at a table sewing shirts together all day but whatever. Work is work for some people.”

“No robots here now.” Jayce searched by turning his head slowly.

Mire dashed to the far end of the room.

“Ugh,” Jayce mumbled and followed.

Nearly lost in the gloom, nested on its side along the wall was one remaining sewing-arm robot. It looked like the same type of machine that welded together cars and other heavy machinery only smaller and had two arms instead of one.

“See. She’s perfect.” Mire’s voice echoed softly in the large space.

Jayce knelt and inspected the bot. “How do you know it works?” He wiped off some dust and examined the wires coming out of the bottom.

“Website said it works. They’re trying to sell it for ten thousand dollars even though they’re banned tech.”

“Help me get this on a table.”

The two heaved the arms up but it barely budged. “Ugg, it’s a million pounds,” Mire complained.

Getting the arm on the table took nearly a half-hour of dragging, straining and using a piece of ply-wood as a ramp up to the table. One last push. Jayce and Mire grunted and heaved, tipping the arm up and into a bracket centered on the table.

Sweat poured down Jayce’s forehead. “My muscles aren’t built for manual labor.”

Even in the gloom of the factory, Jayce could see Mire roll her eyes. “Being strong isn’t always about muscle. It’s about brains. Now, let’s get to work. We burned too much time.”

Jayce gathered the wires, laying them off to the side. “You said there was still some power here?”

Always prepared, Mire pulled out an extension cord. “Yeah. They have lights on at night.” She ran off.

Two lights came on overhead. Jayce instantly felt relieved, then chided himself for acting like a kid. I’m fifteen for crying out loud. I should be tougher.

Jayce stripped the main data cord and connected it to a twenty-four-pin plug. He pulled his old laptop out of his bag, set it next to the arm and plugged in the cord. Tape held the screen to the keyboard and he was missing the S and the CTRL key but it still worked.

A bang startled Jayce. He spun around, eyes searching, throat tightening. Sweat dripped down his cheek, splashing on the keyboard.

Mire ran up to him, end of the extension cord in hand. “What? You see a ghost?”

Jayce shook his head. “There are scarier things than ghosts around here.”

“Got that right.”

“Don’t say that. You’re supposed to shoot down my paranoid thoughts,” Jayce said, typing feverishly.

Mire plugged the cord into the robot arms. Lights blinked on. “She lives.”

Energy surged through Jayce. If this project worked, good things would happen in his life, finally. He powered on his computer-glasses and dug into the robot’s bios.

Mire fished through her pack, pulling out a large roll of duct tape and a pen then carefully secured the pen to the hand-like clamp at the end of one of the robot’s arms. Satisfied, she sat on the table, popped a piece of gum in her mouth and waited.

Sirens wailed in the distance. Jayce froze, hands hovering over the keyboard. He listened, making sure the sirens weren’t getting closer. They faded.

Jayce continued mapping the robot’s bios to his program while simultaneously watching the Viewtube video that guided him. He moved as fast as he could, not wanting to drag out this experience any longer than necessary.

A moment of hesitation passed before he clicked the execute button on his program.

The AI software Jayce and Mire had spent a half a year coding cranked through images it found online. The goal was for the algorithm to want to draw a picture of its own making. Jayce encouraged the software by increasing energy when it made progress. If the robot stopped, Jayce would remove power, forcing the software to work harder. He was trying to simulate desire through creating discomfort. If his code expressed even the slightest spark of creativity, Jayce and Mire would win the science fair. The win would catapult them out of hell-hole Detroit High and, with full scholarships, into the prestigious Proxima Science Academy, a boarding school that trained astronauts and engineers for NASA.

Only one of the arms moved, raining dust onto the table from its seams. Jayce increased the power. A little squeak creaked from its gears, but it still moved smoothly. Mire leaned over and blew the surface clean. The pen touched the paper lightly and stopped. “Reducing energy.” Jayce drummed the table-top. “Draw something already,” he mumbled.

“Make it hurt, Jayce,” Mire said, a glint shone off her eye.

“You’re enjoying this a little too much.”

“Awe, come on. It’s simulated pain.”

The pen drew a line.

“Yes! It’s working,” Jayce yelped, his echo ricocheting off the walls feverishly. He wanted to hug Mire but held back. He cranked on the power.

“Hell, yeah!” Mire clapped, watching the line turn and twist.

The hand drew a picture with precision, jerking and turning, shading parts of the image, fleshing out the artwork.

Jayce looked around the busy arm, trying to see the image. His com-glasses’s light highlighted the page in the dark factory but he couldn’t make out what the drawing was.

Mire smacked Jayce on the back. “You did it.”

“You did, too. This is our project.”

Mire shrugged. “I know. But you’re the big brain. How many other freshmen can program boss-algorithms like you can?”

“I couldn’t have done it without you. You found so many mistakes I didn’t see.” Jayce felt emotion well up in his throat. He couldn’t believe his AI program was actually working. A surge of energy coursed inside his veins, tingling the tips of his fingers and every hair follicle on his head.

The lights and electronics went out, plunging the building into shadow–only sunlight shone through the smog and grime-obscured windows and security bars. “Epic hell.”

Brownouts happened daily and were no surprise, but this was bad timing.

“Give it a minute,” Mire mumbled.

“This is bad. The program can’t be punished for doing the right thing.” Jayce snapped. “It’s like it just got killed. When I reboot, it’ll be all messed up.”

“How do you apologize to ones and zeros?” Mire laughed.

A minute later, the power came back on, booting up the robot arm and the two overhead lights. The software restarted, but Jayce killed the program.

“What’d you do that for?” Mire asked.

“I don’t want the program to think the power outage was a punishment. We have to figure out how to reboot safely.”

“Let’s do it.”

Jayce’s com-glasses beeped from an incoming call. A video feed of his dad, Mel, flickered on the left lens of his com-glasses. “I’m right in the middle of something,” Jayce said sounding ruder than he planned.

“Excuse me,” Mel said. The feed was staticky because of poor reception but Jayce still saw Mel roll his eyes. “I’m just checking in. You’re coming home before nine, right? That’s–static–an hour.”

Jayce stood straight, stretching. “Yeah, I know. I’ll be home on time, promise.”

Kalsie, Jayce’s mom, stopped behind Mel, poking her head into the viewport. She took a deep puff off her breather; a plastic face cup and tube connected to a filter that blocked air pollution that irritated her lungs and made breathing difficult. She and Jayce shared similar allergies, only hers were more intense because of age. “What are you doing? It’s all dark behind you –static–you working on your sci–crackle–project?” She puffed again.

“Uh.” Jayce didn’t tell his parents where he was or what he was doing. If he did, they’d lock him up for the rest of high school.

Mire pressed her face next to Jayce’s so she could see the image on Jayce’s com-glasses. “Hi Mrs. K, we’re just taking a break watching some vids. We’ll get back to it.”

Kalsie’s eyes relaxed. She trusted Mire. “Okay. Well, home by nine. No exceptions. You have–static–school tomorrow.” Her image broke into serrated lines as the single weakened.

Mire moved away, smirking.

“I won’t lose track of time. Promise,” Jayce said. He looked past the image of his parents to the laptop screen and scanned his AI code. Jayce waved, his mind already tuning out his parents. “Bye.” He killed the call.

Another noise in the dark corner pulled Jayce’s gaze. Blaring sirens rushed by outside the factory, closer this time. Jayce tried to focus. He hated when his parents zapped his concentration. “What were we doing?”

Mire reached and grabbed the drawing. “Uh Jayce. Look at this.” She handed the drawing over.

Jayce took the paper. The image shading wasn’t finished but the outlines were.

“Look around you,” Mire said.

Jayce looked up then back at the drawing. “Whoa.” Jayce’s heart skipped a beat. “The AI scanned the internet for pictures and downloaded hundreds. It was supposed to find inspiration from them. Instead, it drew this place.”

“Not just this factory. It drew the other sewing robot arms. See?” Mire pointed. “Every table is full. Bright light is coming through the windows and everything.”

“Looks like a happy place. Is this a memory?”

Mire nodded. “Shit, this was how this place used to be. The machine is lonely, Jayce.”

He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “But…” There was no other way to interpret the drawing.

“No buts. You programed the AI to come up with something on its own. This is what it drew. Do you know how amazing this is? This has never happened before. Ever. When we were researching AI, looking at what had been done, what was successful and what wasn’t, I read paper after paper. No one’s code is this sophisticated.”

Jayce steadied his breath. “Epic.” He shivered. Not out of fear. He’d totally forgotten he was in a dark and abandoned factory full of spiderwebs and shadows. He knew his future had changed. Everything was about to change.

“We’re not done yet. I need to see what’d going on with the code, record it’s process.” Jayce leaned closer to the computer monitor. “While I do this, set up the camera. Let’s video tape the arm this time. We need as much proof as we can get otherwise everyone will think we’re full of it.”

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