Jordan Hamilton never knew what made him fall. Something about running through a forest wearing telepresence goggles tended to restrict one’s vision. He fell hard. He heard the bone snap like a fallen branch. His right leg, just below the knee.
But even with the pain beginning to rush over him, Jordan had the presence of mind to remember his model airplane overhead. A broken bone could be mended. A $4,000 tilt rotor remote controlled Osprey, personally modified with 3D cameras, solar wing panels, rocket launchers, and working bomb bay was virtually irreplaceable.
He’d gotten carried away with his game. That’s how he’d gotten into this mess. That was how he got into most messes, actually. He’d been sitting in a lawn chair outside his family’s high tech home in the East Texas piney woods, flying his Osprey by remote, harassing a buzzard. The chase had taken him to the limit of the range of his remote controller. His precious airplane had been in danger of going out of control.
So he’d taken off down the grassy hillside, trying to keep the goggles over one eye to fly the plane, another eye free to see where he was going, and both hands on the controller. And that was how he’d gotten here, flat on his back somewhere on his parents’ property, with flayed skin and a fractured tibia.
Jordan had no idea where he was in relation to the Osprey. He couldn’t see himself from the air or the plane from the ground, and the tall pine trees bounced sounds like a high school gymnasium. Plus, it was beginning to get difficult to concentrate.
Finally he just used his 3D aerial cameras to set the plane down in a clearing. Jordan peeked out from under the goggles and spotted it touching down fifty yards away. He shut the engines down and turned his attention to himself.
“Nice work, doughboy,” he said. “Nice mess.” Jordan hadn’t realized he’d picked up his father’s way of talking sarcastically to himself. He reached into his belt case for his phone.
And pulled out a tangle of black plastic, tiny green circuit boards, and multicolored wire. “Wonderful.” He tried it anyway. Nothing. “Perfect.”
Now it was suddenly serious. His parents and little sister weren’t home. He’d begged to stay home to fly his plane while they went into town. No one would know he was in trouble or where he’d gone.
He checked his leg. He could tell it was a real break. There was no blood spurting out, or anything. No bone poking through his jeans. But it made a zig where it shouldn’t have. He’d watched enough TV to know he didn’t have much time until he went into shock. Whatever he did, he was going to have to do it fast.
How, in 2012, the era of super high technology, could a simple fall wipe it all out and send him back to the Stone Age?
He pulled himself up against a tree, banking on the adrenaline to mask his pain long enough to get him home. He felt a wave of lightness pass up from his chest to his head. Suddenly he was on the ground again, his face matted with pine needles.
Think, Jordan, think.
He thought about the Osprey. Maybe he could fly it somewhere to get help. Kind of a RC Lassie thing. But where would he fly it? He was out of range of anybody’s house but his own—and even that was iffy. His parents could be home by now, but probably weren’t. Even if they were, how could a model airplane communicate any kind of complex message? Where were those quasi-psychic Lassie owners when you needed them?
His leg was really hurting now. More of his concentration was being sucked that direction.
If only he hadn’t landed on his right hip. If only he’d put his phone case on the other side. But that’s where he always wore…
Jordan whipped the handheld computer from the case on his left hip. “Kludge,” he said into it, “Kludge, are you there? Please tell me you’re—”
“I’m here,” a crotchety voice said from the palmtop. “What d’ya want?”
“Oh, Kludge!” Jordan rolled on his back again. Thank You, Jesus. A plan began forming in Jordan’s mind. He stared at his artificial life friend on the tiny color monitor. He looked like a cross between Karl Malden and Sam the Eagle. “Kludge, you’ve got to do something for me. I’m in trouble.”
Jordan growled. “Kludge, don’t be like that, okay? I’m not kidding.” Jordan usually delighted to load ‘colorful’ characters into his mobile, but now he was regretting it. “I need you to help me. I’m hurt.”
“You’re hurt? How do you think I feel? I’m the one who has to live in a box. What am I, a pair of shoes?”
But Jordan wasn’t listening. He had the telepresence goggles back on and was already firing up the Osprey. He hovered over the forest and scanned the ground with the cameras. He spotted a sprawled body—Boy, that kid looks bad—and brought the tilt-rotor down. He pushed the bomb bay door release on the remote and doors opened on the airplane’s belly.
“Okay, Kludge, listen,” Jordan said to the palmtop. “I’m sorry you have to live in a box, but th—”
“Sure you are. If you were really sorry, you’d—”
“There’s nothing I can do about that right now! Look, if you do what I ask, I’ll set you loose on GlobeNet for awhile. How’d that be?”
Kludge’s eyes narrowed. “Really? On GlobeNet? By myself?”
“Well, I’d want Sylvie to go with—”
“Oh, no. Not Sylvie! She’s—”
“All right!” Jordan shouted. He heard his voice echo. “If you help me out of this mess, I’ll let you go all by yourself.”
“Hoohoo! Now you’re talking, boyo. What do I do?”
Jordan outlined the plan, choosing his words carefully.
With normal artificial intelligence, all you had to do was give a command and rank its importance numerically. That way, the AI had no problem choosing between alternatives when they arose. But with A-Life, all the normal rules went out the window. They had minds of their own. Jordan stressed the importance of certain aspects of the plan and just had to hope his friend took it to heart.
Jordan knew about the big debate going on over whether A-Life creatures were really alive and so had rights and all. If you erased an A-Life entity off your storage drive, was it murder? That wasn’t Jordan’s headache. Especially not right now.
“Well…” Kludge said when he’d heard the whole plan. “Can’t I just—”
“No,” Jordan said emphatically. “Kludge, read my lips: no games. Later. When you’re online. But not until then. Got it?”
The bot was still protesting when Jordan loaded the palmtop into the Osprey’s bomb bay and shut the doors. His leg was throbbing painfully now and his thinking was getting foggy. He might have just enough concentration left to fly the plane home.
“Lord,” he prayed aloud, “thanks for reminding me how much I need You. You know me, I… I like to think my high tech can get me out of anything. But now… Anyway, please help me do this. Amen.”
Jordan’s view rose above the pine trees. He circled slowly until he spotted the little lake in front of his home. He soared for the house at full speed, compensating for the side wind.
He spotted the remote controlled riding lawnmowers out doing their job. He’d been counting on them not being done yet. If they’d finished, they would’ve driven into the garage and shut the door behind them.
His vision was fuzzing out. Partially from the onset of shock and partially because he was at the edge of the remote’s range. He tripled his concentration.
He brought himself to the back of the house, in front of the open garage door. The car his parents had taken was not there. Jordan saw three identical dachshunds yapping at him from the ground. He couldn’t hear them, mercifully, but he knew their yap by heart. “Stupid clone dogs,” he muttered.
This was the trickiest part: remote piloting the Osprey into a dark garage. He knew the darkness would not only hinder his vision, but would cut off the solar energy, forcing the plane to fly on fumes. What signal strength he had left would be almost completely cut off by the structure of the house. But everything depended on this part of it.
He tilted the rotors completely upward and inched the hovering craft toward the entrance of the garage. Little grease-eating nanobots scattered across the floor like roaches. His view was dimming. Jordan couldn’t judge his altitude. Was he two feet off the ground or six? Or was he already down? He eased off on the throttle slowly.
Finally his view quit sinking. But Jordan’s awareness kept going down. He was losing it. His hand flopped over the remote, killing the Osprey’s engines. With his last micron of energy, he pressed the bomb bay door release.
It was up to Kludge now. Could the bomb bay doors open enough to let him drop to the concrete floor? Had he fallen out and been damaged? Would he obey Jordan’s instructions or just do his own thing? Would HAL—the house computer—listen?
It seemed to Jordan that he’d only blinked, but some time must’ve passed, because now it was raining. He heard what sounded like thunder, but it was choppy. A rescue helicopter? He rolled over weakly and saw the grille of some unmanned vehicle. Must’ve belonged to someone named John Deere, because he’d written his name on it. Strange that John wasn’t aboard. Jordan found himself somehow on John’s little car. It was so loud. And look what it did to the grass.…
Three circles hovered over Jordan. Two dark and one way too bright.
“Ug,” he quipped.
The two dark circles moved. And someone was mumbling. Then his mind seemed to snap awake. He lurched to sit. “Mom! Dad!” The third circle was just a light, so he didn’t talk to it.
“Relax, Jordan,” his dad said. “You’re in the hospital. They fixed your leg. You’ve got a cast. But they’ve got you on some medicine. It’s making you a little loopy.”
Jordan fell back into his pillow. He tried to say, “You got that right,” but his lips had decided to stop enunciating again. He looked at his mother, who was smiling and brushing the hair from his eyes. Jordan saw his little sister looking up at him, worried. He smiled at her. Maybe sisters weren’t so bad, after all.
He realized his dad was telling him something. Jordan heard him say Kludge. “Huh? Dad…what…Kludge?”
“I said Kludge told us all about it. He said HAL hadn’t wanted to call 911, but that Kludge woke up Sylvie and the rest and got them to convince HAL it was a real emergency. The paramedics thought it was a hoax when they got out there, but then here you came riding the John Deere lawnmower. They didn’t know what to think. It was Kludge who drove the lawnmower to get you. He said something about it being better than a box, but not as good as GlobeNet. What’d he mean by that, Jordan?”
Jordan just chuckled. A rippling, bed-shaking chuckle. He thanked God for high technology and—more than that—for being Lord of it.
Jordan is the boy genius son of Ethan Hamilton, hero of the Ethan Hamilton series of technothrillers.
This story appeared in Breakaway magazine.