Dr. Roman Harding’s research into advanced robotics is truly amazing – to think that he had developed a humanoid robot, capable of responding to any human command, and physically looking almost indistinguishable from an actual human. Sure, it lacks the emotions and advanced reasoning skills of a human, but it still is fascinating. With the proceeds from my most recent bestseller, I was able to purchase one of the robots from him. Sadly, he only had his personal model in stock, so he told me he would build me one, but I would have to come back later to collect it.
“So,” Bill said, reading the diary, “this Dr. Roman Harding is who we’re investigating next? You suspect that Liza may have come back to collect the robot, and somehow got attacked?”
“Actually,” Evaira said, “Dr. Harding’s lab is one of the first places I visited. I was there even before Chira joined us. Naturally, Liza was not at the lab, but Dr. Harding did allow me to collect the robot on her behalf.”
“So the robot is Alpha?” Bill deduced.
“Exactly,” Evaira replied, “now, Dr. Harding recently called to tell me that he had a major upgrade ready for Alpha, but he needs us to be there to receive it. He told me to stop by the next time I’m in the area, so that’s where we’re headed.”
“We are nearing Dr. Harding’s laboratory,” Alpha said.
“Then let’s go,” Evaira said.
“As you request,” Alpha said.
The lab actually looked just like an ordinary ranch house, only one story tall. It was well-taken care of, but did not stand out from any of the other houses along the street. Bill was a bit surprised.
“That’s the lab?” he asked.
“Yes it is,” Evaira said, “Dr. Harding always did like to keep a low profile. He’s afraid of what his research will do if it ends up in the wrong hands, so he keeps it a secret.”
“By the way,” Bill asked, as the RV was pulling into the driveway, “if Alpha was the second robot Dr. Harding built, why is he called Alpha and not Beta?”
“Alpha’s the name of the model,” Evaira said, “his full name is actually Alpha-Two.”
The RV pulled to a stop. Evaira got up.
“May I come too?” Bill asked, “this guy does sound interesting.”
“Sure,” Evaira said, “just don’t do any shapeshifting around him. Dr. Harding may be a nice guy, but he’s also got some very strong scientific curiosity. He’s not the type of guy we should trust with any of our supernatural secrets.”
“I’d sure like to see the lab,” Chira said, peeking her head out of the pot.
“I know,” Evaira said, “but you know that unlike Bill and Alpha, you don’t appear human.”
“Can’t we do that stuffed animal routine again?” Chira asked.
“That only worked until you blinked,” Evaira said.
“Yeah,” Chira sighed, putting her head back in the pot.
Evaira, Bill, and Alpha walked out of the RV, and approached the door to Dr. Harding’s house. Evaira knocked.
“Dr. Harding,” Evaira said, “it’s Evaira!”
“Coming,” Dr. Harding’s voice said.
The man who opened the door was tall, had short brown hair, and wore a white coat. He spoke with a slight German accent.
“Ah, Evaira,” Dr. Harding said, “I take it you’re here for the upgrade for Alpha?”
“That I am,” Evaira said.
“Then come in,” Dr. Harding said, “and who is this with you?”
“He’s Bill,” Evaira said, “a new travelling companion.”
“Then welcome, Bill,” Dr. Harding said, “come, to the lab.”
Dr. Harding escorted them through an ordinary house hallway, right up to a white wooden door. Dr. Harding opened it, revealing stairs leading down to the basement. They all climbed down. As they approached the bottom of the stairs, lights turned on, revealing a mid-sized laboratory, filled with several large computers, and robotics equipment. Several inanimate bodies like Alpha lined the wall. Bill started to wander around the lab, looking at all the equipment carefully with interest.
“So,” Evaira said, “what’s this upgrade supposed to do?”
“This should enhance Alpha’s awareness and reasoning abilities,” Dr. Harding explained, “essentially, it will give him the ability to learn, a rather major upgrade from being an obedient CPU in a shell.”
“Interesting,” Evaira said.
“Of course, this will dramatically enhance his capabilities,” Dr. Harding explained, “but it will also make him less obedient. The upgrade does a better job of simulating a human’s actions than the version already coded, and a human will not blindly follow everything he’s told.”
“So long as he still drives the RV for us,” Evaira said.
“Naturally,” Dr. Harding explained, “but he may form his own opinions on other things, and object to your orders if they differ with his opinions strongly enough.”
“Well,” Evaira said, “having an extra opinion could be helpful. Alpha, get ready for the upgrade.”
“As you request,” Alpha said.
“Just let me fire up the chamber,” Dr. Harding said.
He walked over to a computer terminal, and pressed a few keys on it. A metal door in one of the machines opened.
“Just enter there, Alpha,” Dr. Harding said.
“As you request,” Alpha replied.
Alpha walked into the chamber. Dr. Harding pressed a few buttons and a progress meter appeared on the screen in front of him.
“This should take about ten minutes,” Dr. Harding said, “I really hope this works.”
“You hope?” Evaira asked, “haven’t you tested it on Alpha-One?”
“No,” Dr. Harding said, “Alpha-One was destroyed in a lab accident. This is my first time performing this upgrade!”
“It hasn’t been tested?” Evaira said, a bit surprised by this, “why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
“You didn’t ask,” Dr. Harding said, “but it’s too late now…”
“I’d think the fact that this upgrade hasn’t been tested is rather important,” Evaira said, trying to maintain her cool.
Evaira and Dr. Harding continued to argue about this, until they were interrupted by the lab computer making a beeping noise.
“It’s done,” Dr. Harding said, responding to the beeping.
He pressed a few buttons on the terminal, and the door opened. Alpha stepped out.
“My diagnostics indicate the upgrade was completed successfully,” Dr. Harding said.
“Alpha,” Evaira said, “are you alright?”
“I am perfectly alright,” Alpha said.
“Alpha,” Dr. Harding said, “is killing people right or wrong?”
“Killing people is generally wrong,” Alpha responded, “except when the killing is done as an act of self-defense, or when killing a small number of people would prevent a larger number of deaths.”
Dr. Harding then handed Alpha a sheet of paper.
“What is the answer to this problem?” Dr. Harding asked.
“1,962,” Alpha replied.
“Correct,” Dr. Harding said, “now, let’s do some more tests.”
Dr. Harding spent much of the afternoon performing various tests of Alpha’s enhanced reasoning abilities. Evaira assisted with many of the tests and Bill watched. The tests lasted most of the day, and ultimately managed to convince Evaira and Dr. Harding that Alpha’s reasoning skills had improved.
“Everything seems to be in order,” Dr. Harding said, after the last test had completed.
“So the upgrade worked perfectly?” Evaira asked.
“Indeed,” Dr. Harding said, “he’s all yours again.”
“Great,” Evaira said, “I’m sure this upgrade will be a great help.”
“It was great meeting you,” Bill said.
“Bye,” Dr. Harding said, “I’ll let you know if there are any more upgrades.”
With that, Evaira and the others left the lab, and returned to the RV. Chira was sitting up outside of her pot when they returned.
“Man you guys were long,” Chira complained, “and I was getting bored.”
“The upgrade apparently had to be tested,” Evaira said, “but everything is working now, correct, Alpha?”
“My systems are working at full capacity,” Alpha said, “though I have noticed several inefficiencies in the design of my program that I am working to correct.”
“A result of your enhanced reasoning?” Evaira asked.
“Correct,” Alpha said, “I have also been performing tests on the copy of Liza’s diary I have scanned into the system, and have been able to extrapolate the full content of nine of the damaged pages. If you would like, I will arrange to have copies of these pages printed for you to analyze. I also believe given more time, I can extrapolate the contents of many more pages.”
“And possibly find the page about the investigation that will lead us right to Liza?” Evaira said, “Of course. Print out the pages, I’d like to look at them.”
“I will do so,” Alpha replied, “Additionally, one of these pages mentions strange lights that appear in the sky of a nearby town called Elmsbury, but only right after a full moon. This site might be an ideal choice for our next investigation. Based on my estimates, if we leave first thing tomorrow, we will arrive in Elmsbury one day before the next occurrence of these lights.”
“It does sound like a good idea,” Evaira said, “but I’d like to read the diary page first.”
“I expected that response,” Alpha said, “I shall print them out.”
Alpha walked back to the driver’s seat.
“Wow,” Chira responded, “Alpha sure seems different. I haven’t heard him say so much before.”
“The upgrade,” Evaira said, “the way it’s been going so far, I am sure it’s going to be a great help in finding Liza.”
“True,” Bill said, “but it’s only been running for less than a day. I’m not completely sure we can safely say that it doesn’t have any problems at this point.”
“Don’t worry,” Evaira said, suddenly getting really happy, “it’s going to be great, it’s going to lead us right to Liza!”
As she said this, she walked into the bedroom, giggling with delight.
“We’ve lost Evaira again,” Chira sighed.
“Lost her?” Bill asked.
“One of her mood swings,” Chira said, “she’s usually pretty level-headed, but when she gets really excited about something, that all changes.”
“And…” Bill said.
“Well,” Chira said, “she’ll calm down eventually, but until she does, you’re probably not going to get anywhere trying to make her see reason.”
“Well,” Bill said, “at least Alpha seems to be working properly for now.”
Then, Alpha approached them, holding several sheets of paper.
“I’ve got the diary pages,” Alpha said, “where’s Miss Evaira?”
“In the bedroom,” Bill said.
Alpha took these sheets of paper into the bedroom, to be studied by Evaira.
The next morning, Evaira woke up, having calmed down considerably. After having breakfast at a nearby café, the RV began to move.
“I have to thank you for getting these pages,” Evaira said to Alpha, “the lights in Elmsbury do sound like a good lead.”
“I have been working on some more pages,” Alpha said, “the damage was much more serious, but I believe I can have a few more pages restored for you by the end of the day.”
“What about the last few pages in the diary,” Evaira said, “I would bet those could lead us directly to Liza.”
“Those pages are severely damaged,” Alpha said, “but I estimate I could have them cleared up within the next week.”
“Great,” Evaira said, “now, I’ve been looking through the pages you recovered yesterday. I also think the page about the werewolves in Springfield may be a viable lead, but we’d have to be extra careful with that one. Werewolves are probably a lot more secretive than grounders.”
“Such secrecy is foolish,” Alpha explained.
“Excuse me,” Evaira said, “they’re werewolves. So many werewolf stories have them portrayed as monsters. You really think humanity’s going to be accepting of them?”
“Logically,” Alpha said, “if humanity discovers their existence, the fact that they kept it a secret will make them significantly less likely to be accepted than if their existence is discovered because they chose to reveal it to the world. The same applies to any of the secretive groups we have encountered on our journeys so far: grounders, shapeshifters, everybody.”
“You may have a point,” Evaira said, though she was a bit uncertain about Alpha’s arguments, “but humanity will eventually be ready for them to reveal their existence. Until then, though, it is probably best they remain secret and I will not be the one to divulge the secret.”
“That argument is illogical,” Alpha replied, “there is no evidence that humanity will change to become more accepting of such groups. The best course of action would be for them to simply reveal themselves. Considering their own flawed logic, they will not do this on their own, though.”
“Hold it, Alpha,” Evaira said, knowing Alpha was up to no good, “whatever you’re planning, stop right now.”
“Ultimately,” Alpha explained, “our best course of action will be to inform everybody that Liza’s stories are real.”
“No,” Evaira said, “that would create a panic and chaos.”
“Of significantly smaller magnitude than would occur should they be discovered by humanity on their own,” Alpha said, “by revealing their existence through a series of e-mail messages, each impersonating one of the people involved, and sending these messages to scientific leaders worldwide, we can present the illusion that they are revealing themselves to the world, and significantly mitigate the damage. I shall begin to prepare the first message.”
“But there may still be panic and chaos,” Evaira pleaded.
“Of a small magnitude,” Alpha said, “due to the methodology by which I’m revealing the information.”
“But we promised them we’d help them keep their secrets,” Evaira added, “We have to keep that promise!”
“Insignificant,” Alpha replied, “lying may be wrong, but it is a minor wrong compared to the atrocities that could result if their existence is discovered in the wrong way.”
“And somebody will eventually figure out that you did this,” Evaira argued, “once that gets out, nobody will trust us anymore! It will severely impair our ability to find Liza!”
“Still,” Alpha replied, “a small issue created in preventing a large one. Besides, I should be able to track down Liza from the diary on my own.”
Evaira knew this would not end well. She had to stop Alpha. At this point, she didn’t care about Alpha’s upgrade being useful in tracking down Liza. She had to preserve the secrets.
“Alpha,” she ordered, “initiate an emergency shutdown immediately!”
“Shutting down,” Alpha said.
He then turned himself off. Evaira quickly grabbed the wheel of the RV, and pulled over to the side of the road.
“What’s going on?” Bill asked, stepping out of the bathroom.
“I don’t know,” Chira replied, “I was taking a nap until the RV stopped suddenly.”
“I’m afraid Alpha’s upgrade had a problem,” Evaira said, “he just tried to reveal all of the secrets we’ve been keeping to the world.”
“You stopped him, right?” Bill asked.
“Of course,” Evaira said, “I was able to run an emergency shutdown.”
“But what do we do now?” Chira asked.
“I guess we have only one choice,” Evaira said, “we take him back to Dr. Harding, and have the upgrade removed.”
“Remove the upgrade?” Bill asked, “But won’t that upgrade lead us right to Liza, like you were saying yesterday?”
“We have to keep the secrets first,” Evaira said, “Liza wouldn’t want us to find her this way. Buckle up, I’ll drive us back to Dr. Harding’s lab.”
“You sure you can drive this thing?” Bill asked.
“I drove it all the time before Alpha joined us,” Evaira said, “but I will need some help moving Alpha out of the driver’s seat. He is awfully heavy…”
Once Bill and Evaira moved Alpha from the driver’s seat, Evaira drove the RV back to Dr. Harding’s house. Bill and Evaira approached the door, and knocked on it. Dr. Harding answered.
“Evaira,” he said, “I thought you left yesterday.”
“I did,” Evaira said, “but unfortunately, we had a little problem with the upgrade. It really messed up Alpha’s logic.”
“Messed up his logic, you say?” Dr. Harding asked.
“Yes, and he attempted to take a major action based on that logic. There was no reasoning with him,” Evaira responded, careful not to reveal the kind of secrets she had to Dr. Harding, “It’s complicated. Regardless, we had to perform an emergency shutdown. He’s in the RV.”
Dr. Harding paused for a moment.
“Well,” Evaira said.
“Hold on, I’m thinking,” Dr. Harding said, “I made a backup of the files before the upgrade. I can reset Alpha to his original settings and then upload the backup I made to his system. This shouldn’t take too long, and it should revert him to the way he was prior to the upgrade.”
“Then let’s do it,” Evaira said, “Bill, let’s get him to the lab.”
Bill sighed, knowing how heavy Alpha is, as they stepped back into the RV to get him. They brought him to the lab, and pushed him into the chamber where he got the upgrade.
“I’ll run the procedure,” Dr. Harding said, “just hold on.”
He pressed a few buttons on his control panel, and another progress bar appeared. Everybody waited for the progress meter to fill – about fifteen minutes. Then, the system beeped, and Dr. Harding pressed a button to open the chamber, showing Alpha inside.
“Alpha,” Evaira said, “are you alright?”
“All systems are running at full capacity, Miss Evaira,” Alpha said.
“Then I’ll work some more on this upgrade,” Dr. Harding said, “and call you to let you know when I’ve perfected it.”
“Please test it on another robot first,” Evaira said, “Alpha is a very important member of my team the way he is, and I can’t let something like that happen again.”
“Alright,” Dr. Harding said with a sigh.
“Then we’d better go,” Evaira said, “come on, Alpha, if we leave now, we can still make it to Elmsbury in time.”
“As you request,” Alpha said, and they began to leave the lab.
“That’s the Alpha I know,” Evaira said.
Once they were upstairs, Bill looked at Evaira, a bit uncertain.
“Are you sure we did the right thing,” Bill asked.
“Of course,” Evaira said, “Alpha would have revealed a lot of secrets if we hadn’t removed the upgrade.”
“I know,” Bill said, “and I’m not questioning that. However, one little thing’s really bothering me: did we say that the upgrade was flawed simply because he attempted to act on a position we disagree with, or was it genuinely flawed.”
“You do bring up a good point,” Evaira said, thinking carefully on what Bill said, “I’m not sure that I know. Regardless, we had to prevent him from revealing our secrets, and that was the only way we could do it.”
“I know,” Bill said, “but I’m still a bit unsure.”
“I understand,” Evaira said, “I’ve felt the same way about some things I’ve done. There isn’t always a clear right and wrong, but don’t worry about it too much. If we had let Alpha send the messages, we’d have been regretting that we didn’t stop him.”
“You’re probably right,” Bill said, as they left the house.
After Evaira, Bill, and Alpha left, Dr. Harding returned to one of the computers in his lab, and looked at the data he downloaded from Alpha. Before resetting Alpha’s systems, he downloaded all of the data from the upgraded system, to try and use for his further research, to determine why the upgrade failed so he could fix it. He first opened the file labeled “Memory Bank”, and began to read through its contents.
“What have we here?” he said to himself, amazed by Alpha’s memories, “It looks like the secrets the Evaira sisters are keeping are bigger than I thought.”
After he had read a large number of Alpha’s memories, he reached into his pocket, grabbed his cell phone, and placed a call.
“Professor,” Dr. Harding said, “this is Dr. Harding. I have some information I think you’d be very interested in…”
Author’s Notes (may contain spoilers):
Now, it’s time for Alpha’s introduction story. At the start, I decided I would write one story dedicated to each of the main characters early off, so I have a chance to tell each of their story, and the readers can learn more about them. “The Shapeshifter Phenomenon” introduced Bill and Evaira, and “The Ambassador Phenomenon” introduced Chira. I put “The Unseen Phenomenon” between Chira’s story and Alpha’s as a bit of an interlude.
The character of Alpha is, well, not much of a character anyway. He’s a machine, and technically not even alive – all he does is obey orders. He may not even be self-aware. I considered making him more advanced, but realized this is set in present day. I was already stretching the bounds of modern technology by including a robot, and I didn’t want to stretch it further. Besides, Alpha’s blind obedience could present some interesting story opportunities later on.
Also, in this story, I wanted to introduce Evaira’s sometimes overly cheerful and carefree nature when it comes to opportunities to find her sister, and bring up a dilemma: if Alpha is allowed to keep the upgrade, they may find Liza sooner…but he’ll reveal secrets they promised to keep. I’ll probably use this concept in many Evaira stories: create a situation where Evaira can find Liza sooner, but at what cost? Plus, did Alpha really malfunction, or was it simply a disagreement? I love using these questions and dilemmas!