My eyes meet the gaze of the first stars of the evening, and I wonder if they’ll bring us luck as they watch over us tonight. From the hill our neighborhood stands on, I can see the city lights below us, and I feel safe inside my family's house as I watch the last stragglers hurriedly heading home through the twilit streets. They know as well as I do that soon, almost everything will shut down. I can already imagine the darkness.
If all goes well, by morning, it should all be back up, and the world will be managed by the much-hyped new version 2.0. But first, there's the retirement party for WorldGuidanceNet 1.5 or One-five for short. It’s a gala night, and it’s much bigger than any new year's celebration you’ve ever seen! The preliminaries went on for the last few days, and I watched with my little brother as they holographically invaded our living room. There were parades in every city with building-sized floats of famous characters from the last two centuries. There were giant butterfly droids with billowing gossamer wings flitting through illusory jungles and snakelike dragons as long as rivers coiling between skyscrapers. Last night countless moons waxed and waned, and the sun rose a thousand times over as legendary stories were retold in lucent mountain-sized projections in the sky.
Now the night is slowly settling on us like a blanket of unease, and the countdown to everything turning off will soon be broadcast live into every home. We’re in the living room, and Mom and my little brother Henry are sitting on our enormous white couch. They're watching the news intently and leaning over to the coffee table to nibble on some chocolate cake and milk. I’m sitting with them and partaking in dessert, but I can’t get too comfortable because I know I have to leave soon.
Our living room is filled with holographic images of orbital stations powering down non-essential systems in preparation for the big upgrade. Inhabitants are being interviewed as they hole themselves up in their quarters. Then the news returns to the monumental reception and goodbye party for One-five. Shimmering celebrities looking like exotic birds, all sequins and glitter and tuxedos, are taking turns on stage to thank One-five for its service. Every once in a while, the camera cuts to a genderless android being controlled by One-five, smiling and waving as they all give their speeches.
"Many thanks for keeping us safe and keeping the power stations, farm bots, builders, research, and everything else running smoothly, One-five!" says one of the World Council members.
"One-five, you were great, baby! Thanks for your service," says a famous musician before belting out a few bars of a tune.
"You’re my inspiration. We're going to miss you so much!" says a famous actor.
Then the biggest bands of the day perform live. There’s a philharmonic orchestra, and fireworks burst into the sky. Celebrities are enjoying cocktails and speaking privately to the One-five android.
My little brother Henry also wants to say goodbye.
“Goodbye, One-five. I’ll miss talking to you,” he says softly.
The sound fades away, and the live broadcast disappears from our living room for a moment and is replaced by a projection of Galadriel, the Queen of the Elves from Tolkien’s books. That’s how Henry always liked to interact with One-five.
“I’ll miss you too, Henry,” she says, smiling gently back at him.
Then as One-five’s projection slowly fades away and the news resumes, I remember I have to go. Now! Adam’s probably been waiting for me for a while. I hesitate a moment, but I know Mom and Henry will be okay. Our home has a security system that would go off if I used the front door, and it also has a battery backup.
It’s time to go.
“I forgot I needed to do something upstairs,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Well, just hurry up and come back down, darling. You’re going to miss it!” Mom says, looking at me like I’ve lost my mind, and Henry nods his little brown-haired head in agreement.
I head up to my room and make sure my note for mom is in plain sight. Then I throw open my window, but in my nervousness, I knock down the lamp on my dresser. I wince as its delicate base, which I thought looked so pretty, shatters loudly on the floor.
“Uma, are you okay up there?” I hear Mom from downstairs. Then she’s rushing up the stairs.
There’s no time! I throw one end of the rope out the window.
“Uma, I’ve been waiting for you!” Adam whispers urgently from outside.
Then Mom bursts through the doorway to my room.
“Uma, where are you going?" she asks in shock as she sees me halfway out the window.
"Mom, I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I'm going to Adam's place tonight. I'll be just down the street," I answer with an embarrassed smile.
"Darling, you can't just go out like that. Not tonight!"
"Sorry, Mom! I'll see you in the morning!" I say, quickly lowering myself out the window while holding on to the rope.
"Uma!" Mom says in an angry tone, and not the lenient kind.
I’m falling a bit too quickly to the ground, but Adam helps catch me, and the breath is knocked out of me for a moment. Mom's eyes are darting around in silent desperation, and she's seemingly debating coming down the rope herself.
Then there’s a blaring loudspeaker voice and a scanning searchlight piercing the darkness. “Citizens! Curfew period is active for your protection. Please remain peaceful!”
I look at the street and see the wheeled patrol bots with their rotating dome turrets policing the streets like angry chickens. They seem to move with a sort of hesitation, as if even they’re worried about what’s about to come. Luckily, they haven’t seen us yet.
“We’ll be safe, Mom! I promise!” I whisper loudly up to her, then we turn around and run before she can answer.
Adam takes my hand as we run through moonlit suburban backyards, avoiding the streets where the patrol bots are out hunting. Then we hear the blaring voice from the street right next to us, even louder now. “Citizens, you are in violation of shutdown and upgrade law, section N375-P: curfew period. Please make your way indoors immediately, or you will be cited and arrested!”
“Shit, I think he saw us!” Adam says.
“We’re almost there,” I say.
The bot’s droning voice is even louder and nearer, and we can hear it whirring evilly as it morphs into hunting mode like a furious butterfly rapidly metamorphosing.
“Citizens, this is your last warning!”
Bright blue and red police lights color everything in our field of view, and searchlights scan the yards around us. As we run, it feels like forever, and I’m sure we’ll be caught. But finally, we’re ducking through the back door of Adam’s home and catching our breath. Outside it sounds like the patrol bot is slowly winding itself down in satisfaction.
“Whew, that was close,” Adam says, wiping his brow with his sleeve.
That’s when the lights decide to all go out at once.
“It just happened. One-five's gone,” Adam whispers.
It sounds like Adam’s parents are coming down to see what the commotion is about.
“I’m fine, guys. You can go back to sleep,” Adam says.
“Okay, Adam. Don’t stay up too late,” his Mom says, peering down from the stairs but not seeing much in the darkness.
Then we feel our way to the room in the back of the house that Adam's parents use for storage. It's replete with the grey shadows of plastic containers, piles of clothing, unused gym equipment, and other paraphernalia of hopeful aspirations. It’s full of junk because, to be honest, his parents are hoarders. It works in our favor now because no one noticed our setup. We have our large antenna connected to a receiver box. We can then click-link it to our holo-watches. And we've wired several car batteries together to power all of it.
“Looks ready to go,” I say excitedly.
“Do you have the codes?” Adam asks.
“What do you think? Of course I have them,” I answer with a smirk.
Please don't ask me how I did it, but I managed to get decryption codes that I can use to hack into local and worldwide encoded police channels. That’s what Adam and I are doing tonight. I want to see firsthand what’s going on in the world to help keep our families safe. But most of all, I want to see how Dad is doing while he’s on patrol tonight.
I key in the codes, and it feels like we’re waiting a long time for our holo-watches to connect. Then I start in excitement when I see that it's working. We're in, and the streams light up our faces. We can switch between hundreds of channels with sound and the small holographic video our watches can project.
"... TAC-COMM will go down temporarily during the switchover. Please be on guard for anyone exploiting the disturbance..."
"...enforcer local battery power ready... all enforcement resources switching to inertial guidance systems..."
“Cool…” Adam says, turning to look at me, his eyes sparkling.
Then the projected image on my wrist saturates to an intense white that lights up the room for a moment. Did something go wrong with our setup? No, they say it's a white phosphorus bomb, and it's raining its bright flames over a city, setting buildings on fire. It's expected to be claimed by a rebel group from one of the separatist far-space stations.
I look at Adam in the dimly lit room, light and shadows playing over his face as the broadcast continues. "Do you think that's really happening?" I ask him.
He nods his head yes, his expression somber.
Fear tightens my throat, and I feel my heart pounding as we hear the distant wail of sirens in our own city. We turn to a local police channel and see looters ransacking stores.
"At least it's not a bomb or something," I say, my tenseness fading slightly.
We turn back to the worldwide streams and can’t believe what we see. It feels like a movie. One of the near-Earth orbital space stations is crashing down with over ten thousand souls on board. They think it might be sabotage. There’s footage of horrified people watching it falling, flaming out like a shooting star.
“That’s terrible…” Adam says, eyes downcast, and we hug each other sadly.
Meanwhile, the activity feed on the police channels only keeps intensifying furiously like a swarm of angry fire ants.
“… pre-boot sequence in progress. Initial core systems of WorldGuidanceNet 2.0 coming online and providing GPS and target tracking support. Please standby…”
“… there's flooding in lower Manhattan due to a levee system malfunction…”
I gasp as I see footage of new enforcement bots like I’ve never seen before. They look terrifying, standing twice as tall as any human and scurrying so quickly on their spindly spider-like legs. They’re rolling out in their thousands and capturing looters, stuffing them into giant nets like animals.
Then there’s another report on the local police channels.
“… code 10-1004: detected illegal internal combustion vehicles not connected to automated driving network… engaging interceptors…”
“Must have been someone who had found a loophole in One-five,” Adam says softly.
“Adam, help me locate my dad's cruiser. I need to know he's okay,” I ask, suddenly remembering my main reason for doing this.
Adam furrows his brow as he switches through the police geolocation channels and zeroes in on my dad. “It looks like he's really close, actually,” he says, sucking in his breath.
“… code 10-303: detected illegal, obsolete police decryption code use. Enforcement dispatched…”
“Oh no…” I whisper as the police channels become scrambled and then suddenly disconnect in a pop of static, and we're left in the dark.
A minute later, there’s an insistent knock on the back door, and Adam goes to open it. I'm right behind and I can see his hand shaking.
An officer pops in through the doorway in his intimidating coal-black police armor, followed by one of those floating law-robot balls made by Omnitech. Its front screen is flaring the text of laws at a screaming pace, like a shower of hieroglyphics. It starts speaking immediately in an emotionless voice.
“Law-ball interpreter provides the most accurate judgment and up-to-date law information guaranteed to match current law within microsecond accuracy. Law-ball interpreter represents the progress of society and provides the most efficient and humane judgment available.”
I start tearing up as I worry about what’s going to happen to us, but then the officer’s helmet opens up, and I see it’s Dad! He doesn’t seem too worried, so I feel a bit better.
“You have the right to a speedy trial and to face your accuser.”
“Law-ball interpreter is your accuser. Law-ball interpreter accuses you of the crime of utilizing stolen police codes.”
“All evidence has been presented by Law-ball interpreter to Law-ball interpreter and dutifully reviewed by Law-ball interpreter.”
“Law-ball interpreter will now serve as your jury. Creating twelve peers based on Eigen-personalities for your synthesized jury,” and so saying it projects the images of twelve synthetic people.
“Deliberations are now complete. You have been found guilty of all crimes listed.”
“Accuracy of judgment is deemed to be above ninety-nine-point nine percent.”
“Law-ball interpreter will now provide you with your sentence, with guaranteed extra fairness built-in.”
“However, you are eligible to enjoy first crime forgiveness for the sum of one hundred digital credits.”
Dad nods at me as he runs his forearm implant over the Law-ball’s credit scanner.
“Payment received. Please enjoy your first crime forgiveness.”
Dad walks over to me. He hugs me tightly, and even through his armor, I feel relief flooding through me at his familiar embrace.
“Please don't do anything like this ever again. You've used up your first crime forgiveness now," he says in that calm tone that makes me feel ashamed of disappointing him.
"I just wanted to see everything for myself and know that you were okay out there," I say, tears pooling in the corners of my eyes.
"I know, Uma dear. Your mother won't be as lenient as I am, but as for me, I'm impressed that you managed to pull this off. Don't be afraid, though. Everything will return to normal soon, and we can continue with our lives.”
Both Adam and I nod hopefully at his words.
“Uma, I'll drive you back home, then you sit tight and wait for me to come back. We’re halfway till morning, and we'll be safe soon in the hands of WorldGuidanceNet 2.0.”