During the next week, Johann, Vickie, Nathan, and Hillary left, for one reason or another.
The eleven of us sat in the lunch room a couple days after Hillary left. We were all at one big table, and we each had a different meal of our choice. W had mostly been finished eating for a while, except for Ty Collins, the tall guy at the end of the table, and Landon, of course. He was on my left, absently munching on corn chips while he held a conversation with Nicci Thomas across from him, the twenty year old African beauty with bronze hair.
Chera, on my right, had pushed her half eaten lobster away and had lain her head on the table. We were beginning to get anxious. Always before, Lisa had come with another detail while we were still eating. She was long overdue.
Next to Nicci, Karrie Shay began tapping the table nervously. I had already been clinking my fork on my plate. Landon glanced at me, then to Karrie. He picked up his knife and began tapping his cup with a steady rhythm.
Andi, on the other side of Landon, immediately picked up on what he was doing and began keeping counterbeat with her spoon and mug. Nicci joined in and Chera sat up to add lobster-claw-against-glass to the mix. Soon everyone was tapping out a rhythm, and we had quite an interesting percussion piece going on.
We were so into our "music" that we didn't notice when Lisa entered. When she stepped into view with a rare, genuine smile, the clinking ceased almost immediately.
"I am glad you have found a way to occupy your time," she said. "Thank you for waiting; I will make you wait no longer. I am here to tell you that if you take this job, you will be committed for life. There is no going back once you have made the decision at the end of the month. The rest of your life will be spent in service to us, which may be for a surprisingly long time. Any who cannot commit to this must leave immediately."
She let us contemplate this for a moment. I remained seated. I'd had nothing planned for the rest of my life, and if I could spend it like this, so much the better.
Karrie and Adam rose almost simultaneously. They handed over their badges and left silently. Lisa waited for some minutes afterward.
I shifted uncomfortably. Usually she would have let us go by now. I sensed that there was more coming.
Satisfied that none of the rest would leave, Lisa continued.
"From now to the end of your training, I will be working more closely with you about the specifics of the job, which I will reveal to you now."
She paused, maybe for dramatic effect. It was like saying "and now, the moment you've all been waiting for…" We held our collective breath.
"You are volunteering to be subjects of a scientific and technological experiment. I cannot stress enough that this is purely voluntary, but this information is top secret. Should you leave, you will be sworn under oath to keep it that way. But should you stay, we will attempt to connect your mind to a state-of-the-art computer, to put your mind inside the computer, and lock your body away in prolonged stasis. You will become what is commonly though of as artificial intelligence."
"We're gonna be computers?" Landon asked.
"In a sense. We wish computers to have a human awareness, creativity, will, and thought process. We have been unable to program these things. We have only achieved a constant personality with the ability to make decisions based on fact and logic. We concluded that the only way to get what we want is to merge the human mind and the computer intellect."
"So what are the exercises and physicals for?" Beth wondered. "I mean, if we're not going to be using our bodies…"
"Your bodies need to be able to withstand the stress of the prolonged stasis, not to mention the transferring process," Lisa told her. "Anyone else?"
I had a question.
"So we're gonna be computers," I said, "but what are we going to do? Computers can run almost anything."
"We have certain positions available, and over the next couple weeks I will meet with each of you and we will discuss the options." She paused for more questions, but everyone was mulling over the idea. "Well, I will leave you now, but if any of you wish to speak with me for any reason, I will make sure that each of my staff can point you in my direction."
After she left, we remained at the table for a while to discuss it. It seemed a bit odd, after all the weeks of mystery, to finally know what was going on.
"Wow," Chera remarked. "Computers. This is so much different that what I imagined."
"What did you imagine?" Landon asked her.
"I don't know, but it wasn't this."
"I know what you mean," Jamie said. "I was better off not knowin' what she meant half the time. This is just too bugged out for me."
"Yeah, but you don't even know what you'll be able to do as a computer," Beth argued.
Nicci shook her head.
"Uh-uh. I like my body, and I aint gonna lock it up for the rest of my life."
"Lisa told us before that we'd have to give up our bodies," I pointed out.
"Lisa?" Nicci looked confused. "Who's Lisa?"
"Uh, Commander Adams."
"And how do you know that?" Chera asked.
"Landon told me."
Nicci rolled her eyes.
"Think about it, guys." Andi returned to the subject at hand. "If it works, we'll be the first to do it. We'll go down in history. Kids will memorize our names for tests. We'll be famous!"
"That does sound kinda cool," Quentin agreed.
"I don't know," Nicci murmured. She shook her head slowly. "I just don't think I can do that." She removed her badge and left the table. As if on cue, the rest of us rose and wandered off.
Andi, Landon and I slouched on a sofa, not really watching the sitcom that was playing on the tv in front of us.
Landon shook his head slowly.
"I don't know… This is big."
"Yeah, it's big."
We sat again in silence.
"I don't think I'm gonna stay," Landon announced.
I turned to look at him.
"I'm a pilot. I want to fly. If my body's shut away in a room for the rest of my life, how am I going to do that?"
On the other side of him, Andi laughed.
"Landon, you're an idiot," she told him. "If you're a computer, you can do anything. They can hook you up to a plane, and you could fly it better than anyone."
Landon began t smile.
"Yeah, you're right. With a computer mind, I'd be the best pilot ever!"
"What about you?" Andi leaned forward to look at me. "Are you staying?"
"Yeah. It's not every day you get an offer like this. I do't want to live like everyone else, and this seems like the best way to do it." If I left, I would most likely live out my days with a mediocre job, a dog, maybe get married, and I would be just like everyone else. I didn't want that. I wanted something different. "Are you staying, Andi?"
"Of course, yeah! This is cooler than I'd ever hoped for. Like you said, I don't want to be like all the other people."
Most of the others decided to stay. Jamie eventually followed Nicci's lead and left before evening. Ty stayed, but was still unsure. He said he needed to think about it.
After breakfast the next morning, he announced that he had decided to leave. I hadn't been that close to him, so it wasn't a painful parting, but he was a good guy and might have made a good friend as well.
Lisa stopped coming at lunch, but instead joined us randomly and informally, just talking about us, our likes, dislikes, interests, personalities, just getting-to-know-you stuff.
I soon learned that Landon was right about her. She wasn't really a stick in the mud. I discovered that she wasn't all that much older than us, only about ten years more than Jon. I learned that she played the violin, that she had been first string in a large orchestra when she was younger, that she had a ten-year-old daughter on a softball team, that she liked fast, sleek cars, and that she truly cared about us. It wasn't something you could put in words, but I could tell that to her at least, we were real people, not just willing test subjects. She was like a big sister, or an aunt, only not related.
We began a countdown to the end of our two months training, the doomsday clock as Andi called it. With ten days left, Lisa began pulling us aside for ominous private talks. Landon was the first. Jon went on the next day. On the third day, Landon and I were beating the crap out of each other on a ninja fighting game when Chera came back from her meeting. She came in quietly and sat on the couch next to me, hugging the pillow.
Not taking my eyes off the screen, I sasked, "So how'd it go?"
She didn't answer immediately, but drew a long, shaky breath. I glanced over and saw tears in her eyes.
"Chera? What happened?"
Landon took the opportunity to deliver a winning kick.
"Ha! Two in a row!" he crowed. I absently hit him.
"Shut up, Landon. Chera's crying."
"I am not," she protested, wiping her eyes.
Landon turned towards us.
"What's wrong, Chera?"
"I… I'm disqualified. I have to go home."
"What?" The news hit me like a blow.
"Why?" Landon asked.
"I have a heart condition," she told us. "They don't want to risk it."
We sat in silence for a minute, absorbing this.
"So… are you going to leave now?" I asked.
"Commander Adams said I can stay the rest of the day and leave in the morning."
Landon leaned forward to turn off the game.
"In that case," he said, "you want to go for a ride?"
Chera smiled gratefully.
We had only discovered the stables a couple weeks earlier, but Chera was thrilled. She had gone riding every afternoon, usually dragging one of us with her. I liked riding all right, but Landon was still a little nervous around horses. He said that he preferred a machine because then he had total control. His offering to ride anyway was just the sort of thing that made him so popular with the ladies. I asked him once what his secret was, but he couldn't tell me. He said it was just automatic.
I went with them and we rode or the rest of the day. Chera seemed to feel better by the time we got back, and we said our goodbyes before bed. She left before breakfast the next morning.
On the sixth day 'till doomsday, Lisa found me sparring with Andi in the gym. For all her interst in swords, Andi didn't know how to handle them all that well, which meant that I never lost too badly. She had beaten me three times when Lisa rescued me.
She took me to what I assumed was her office, a spacious room with an overstuffed leather couch facing a large desk. Instead of sitting at the desk like I expected, she sat on the couch next to me.
"Well, Troy," she began, looking through a sheaf of papers. "It looks like you're physically and mentally fit."
I gave her what I considered a rakish grin.
"Why thanks, Lisa, er, Commander Adams. I think you are, too."
She gave me one of those looks that women seem born with, the kind that stops you in your tracks.
"Can we be serious for a moment, Troy?"
"Sure." I leaned back and put my hands behind my head.
"Now, after talking with you this past week, I feel that I know what position would be best for you, but why don't you tell me what you would prefer? What sort of thing do you want to do?"
"Well…" I didn't have to think long. It had been the thought most on my mind ever since she told us about being computers. "I don't want to be stuck in some box in a room somewhere just taking orders and answering questions. I want to do stuff and go places. Something… exciting." I stopped, hearing myself. "Yeah, I know. That sounds typical and naïve."
Lisa smiled and stood up.
"On the contrary, I think I chose the perfect job for you. You may go now."
I stood, a little baffled.
"Wait, that's it? Well, what job is it?"
Lisa only smiled cryptically and gestured to the door.
I found Landon in the second lounge channel surfing. I dropped onto the couch next to him and stared at the tv for a minute before speaking.
"Andi says six days 'till doomsday."
"Yup," Landon said.
Landon looked at me for a minute, then away.
"Liar," I accused.
"Well, aren't you?" he shot back.
I shook my head.
"No, not really. I'm just gonna miss you and Andi and everyone. It's been a long time since I really had any friends."
"Who says we're not gonna see each other after doomsday?" Landon asked.
"Lisa said so. You know, that whole 'leave everything behind' thing?"
Landon put a hand to his chest, pretending to be offended.
"Troy, it's me, Landon. Your best buddy. I can do anything."
I snorted with laughter.
"Yeah, sure. You can do anything."
"Just leave it to me," he said confidently.