By Mark Alpert
Release Date: July 5, 2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
“Adam is an unusual hero—and he faces a frightening question: Computers can’t kill— CAN they? I’m still shaken by the answer. Will the near-future really be this terrifying?” – R.L. Stine, bestselling author of the Fear Street series on The Six
“This is serious YA sci-fi, full of big ideas, big questions, real science, and things that will make you think and wonder and lie awake late at night. And it’s all wrapped up in a wonderfully exciting action story chock full of characters you’ll love.” – Michael Grant, bestselling author of the Gone series on The Six
“Alpert’s exploration of neuromorphic electronics raises interesting questions about ethics, technology, and human nature…a haunting ending scene will leave readers pondering the line between progress and loss. A thought-provoking clash between humanity and machinery.” – Kirkus on The Six
“A well-researched, hardcore science-fiction joyride, great for fans of first-person shooter video games like Halo and Destiny. Highly recommended.” – School Library Journal on The Six
“The Six are introduced as terminally-ill teens, but there’s plenty of high-speed action in which they engage. Their physical disabilities and limitations through disease are forgotten as the teens’ hearts, minds, and personalities shine through, even though their bodies are now steel data containers…questions of principle, power, and possibility keep this look at our modern, hardwired existence fresh and fascinating.” – Booklist STARRED review on The Six
“Alpert’s innovative science fiction novel explores questions such as what makes people “human,” when life ends, and what people owe each other. Alpert pays Crichton-esque attention to the power of technology in human existence.” – VOYA Magazine, Perfect Ten on The Six
Adam gave up everything for a new chance at life. Now with a cutting-edge digital mind, he is smarter, faster, better than a normal teen. Except Adam is anything but invincible. He’s indebted to the government program that gave him this ability—and freedom comes at a price.
Adam and his teammates, the six Pioneers, swore to defend humanity against Sigma, the most ruthless artificial intelligence program ever designed. The Pioneers are all that stand between the AI and world domination. But Sigma has an advantage. It has learned about human weakness, and its new weapon? Betrayal.
In this war between good and evil, the battle lines have been drawn…but someone is about to switch sides.
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My girlfriend is mad at me, and this is the worst possible time to have an argument. It’s midnight, and Shannon and I are crawling through the grass outside a military base in North Korea.
“Slow down, Adam! You’re going too fast!”
There’s an urgency to her words, though she doesn’t raise her voice. In fact, we’re not even talking. We’re sending messages back and forth on a short-range radio channel. The antennas are embedded in the armor of the robotic crawlers we’re occupying for this mission. Shannon’s words leap from her antenna to mine, then ricochet inside my circuits. It takes me less than a millionth of a second to analyze her message and determine she’s angry, but I have no idea why. Even with all the computing power in my electronics, I can’t figure her out.
I send a radio signal back to her. “We’re okay. No one can see us under all these weeds and—”
“No, this isn’t safe. We’re supposed to go slow and be cautious. Just follow orders for once, okay?”
Instead of arguing, I adjust the motors inside my crawler and reduce its speed. Shannon and I are on a reconnaissance mission, so we’ve transferred ourselves to machines that are designed to be stealth. My robot is shaped like a snake, like one of the big rat snakes that are pretty common in this part of the Korean Peninsula. All its motors and sensors and electronics are packed into a five-foot-long flexible tube that’s four inches thick in the middle and tapered at the ends. At the core of the tube are special neuromorphic circuits that hold all my data: my memories, my personality traits, the millions of gigabytes of information that define who I am and how I think. Shannon’s robot is smaller, only one foot long, but it has the same kind of advanced circuits inside, and they pulse with her own gigabytes of memories.
These are special-purpose machines, used only for spying. Our usual robots, the ones we occupy when we’re back at our headquarters in New Mexico, are larger and more humanlike. Shannon and I can download our data to any kind of machine — infinitesimal, gigantic — as long as it has a neuromorphic control unit. Better yet, we can use radio antennas to wirelessly transfer ourselves from one machine to another, streaking through the air like digital ghosts. We can do all these things because we’re not really human, not anymore. Our bodies died before we reached the age of eighteen. But just before we died, my father — a computer-science researcher working for the U.S. Army — turned our souls into software. We are Pioneers.
The official Army name for my spy robot is ATSU, the All-Terrain Surveillance Unit, but I call it the Snakebot. Its motors bend and twist the robot’s flexible armor, propelling it through the grass in a wavy pattern that looks just like the motion of a snake. At the Snakebot’s front end is an infrared camera that allows me to navigate in the dark by showing the heat signatures of all the nearby objects: the warm grass and weeds appear to glow brightly above the cool, dark dirt. Thirty yards ahead is the military base’s chain-link fence — chilled by the cold October night air — and beyond the fence is a guard tower with two North Korean soldiers standing sentry at the top. One of the soldiers holds an assault rifle, and the other is gazing through a pair of sleek, high-tech binoculars.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Adam. Those are infrared-vision binoculars. The soldiers can see in the dark, just like us.”
I would shake my head, but I don’t have one. Instead, I wag the front end of my Snakebot back and forth. “Snakes are cold-blooded, and our armor’s cold too. Even if they spot us with those infrared binocs, we’ll look like reptiles.”
“I have news for you. Most people don’t like snakes. The guy with the rifle still might take a shot at us.”
It’s a good point. Shannon’s excellent at spotting dangers during our missions, which is one of the reasons why she’s the leader of the Pioneers. Besides her and me, there are three others in the Pioneer Project: Zia, Marshall, and DeShawn. All of us were terminally ill teenagers, with just a few months left to live, when my father figured out how to digitally preserve our minds and transfer the data to combat-ready robots. A sixth volunteer also made the transition, a seventeen-year-old named Jenny, but she’s no longer with us. I know Shannon blames herself for Jenny’s loss, which explains why she’s so cautious now.
But it doesn’t explain why Shannon’s acting so cold to me tonight. The radio messages she’s sending are so much harsher than her usual easygoing tone. A girl wouldn’t say that kind of thing to her boyfriend unless she was upset. But what’s bothering her? What did I do wrong?
My circuits ponder the question for an unusually long time, almost a hundredth of a second. Then I shunt it aside. I need to focus on our mission. Shannon and I have to get past that chain-link fence so we can see what’s inside the base.
“You’re right, we can’t stay here. It’s time to go underground.” I point my Snakebot’s front end downward, jabbing it into the moist dirt. Then I turn on the drill. “Stay close. This might get a little rough.”
The drill extends from the front of the Snakebot and spirals into the ground. It turns slowly at first, because the upper layer of soil is soft and easy to dig through, but after a few seconds I burrow down to the hard-packed dirt and the drill spins faster, so I can go deeper. I wriggle the Snakebot into the hole I’m digging, and Shannon follows me underground, her smaller robot slipping easily into the narrow shaft. Once I get six feet below the surface I change direction, turning the drill horizontal. I head for the military base, tunneling under the fence.
I can’t see much through the infrared camera now, but the Snakebot is equipped with other sensors to help me stay on course. I have a sonar device that sends sound waves through the dirt, and by analyzing the echoes I can detect the objects in front of me. There are thousands of thick roots threading down from the weeds on the surface, so many that they form a maze of tendrils. Between the roots are millions of worms and bugs and grubs, either creeping through the soil or lying motionless in hibernation. I have to admit, the underground world is pretty amazing. The Snakebot is showing me things that most people never get a chance to see. For a moment I’m thrilled to be a Pioneer.
But the feeling doesn’t last long, less than a thousandth of a second. And it doesn’t make up for all the things I’ve lost.
After two minutes of digging, I wriggle past the fence, which extends only three feet underground. As soon as Shannon and I tunnel safely under it, I review a series of photographs stored in my memory. A U.S. spy satellite took the photos a few days ago; they show an enormous factory complex that was constructed in a matter of weeks at this remote military base in the North Korean wilderness. The Pentagon’s spy chiefs thought the new factories looked suspicious, so they shared the pictures with General Hawke, the Army commander who started the Pioneer Project. The photos alarmed Hawke, so less than twenty-four hours after he received that communication, all of us Pioneers were loaded into a B-2 Stealth bomber that took off from our airfield near Las Cruces. Hawk didn’t brief us about the recon mission until we were flying across the Pacific — but by then all five of us already suspected what was going on. It had to be Sigma.
Now I use my sonar to get my bearings. The sound waves echo against the concrete foundation of the newly built factory. It’s a hundred yards ahead.
“I’ve located the biggest factory,” I radio Shannon. “And my sensors are picking up loud noises coming from the building. They’re definitely mechanical.”
“The factory’s in operation? At this hour?”
“That’s what it sounds like. They’re working the night shift. Whatever they’re manufacturing, they’re going full throttle.”
Shannon doesn’t answer right away. She takes a few milliseconds to analyze our options. “Can we get into the building from underneath? Drill upward through the foundation and slip into the basement?”
“Yeah, that might work. Judging from the acoustics, I’m guessing the concrete’s pretty thin. We can probably break through it.”
“Probably? You’re gonna have to do better than that, Adam. I don’t like guesses.”
There it is again, that harshness. I wish I could ask Shannon what’s wrong. We were friends even before we became Pioneers, and she helped me a lot in those terrible days right after our transformation, when we had to adjust to our new lives inside hulking robots and while training for our first battle against Sigma. She helped me after that too, when we were all devastated over losing Jenny. A few weeks later I asked Shannon to be my girlfriend, even though I knew it was a little ridiculous. I mean, the Pioneers don’t have human bodies anymore, so how can we be boyfriend and girlfriend? That kind of relationship isn’t quite the same for us. But Shannon said yes anyway, and for the past six months the other Pioneers have treated us like a couple. Marshall started calling us the Dynamic Duo, and after a while Zia and DeShawn started using that name too. It made me feel good to know there was something special between Shannon and me. And I feel stupendously horrible that whatever we had seems to be slipping away.
But I can’t talk about this with Shannon, at least not till after the mission. “Okay, you want the details?” I say, “There’s a ninety-two percent chance that the concrete is less than thirty centimeters thick. Is that precise enough for you?”
My message is deliberately testy, echoing Shannon’s attitude. She pauses again before answering.
“Proceed to the target. But be ready to retreat if they detect us.”
Her tone is neutral, emotionless. I shouldn’t get so upset. Like I said, we’re not human anymore. But somehow that makes it even more painful.
Before I move forward, I use my sonar to send a seismic ping through the soil. In less than two seconds, the sound wave will travel three miles back to the small communications device I embedded in the dirt near the Hochon River. That’s where Shannon and I landed two hours ago after parachuting out of the B-2 bomber. When the ping hits the device, it’ll send a radio signal to the bomber, which is still circling the area, five miles overhead. Marshall, who’s in charge of communications for the Pioneers, will then share my message with Zia and DeShawn. One ping means Shannon and I are okay. Two pings means we’re not.
After sending the message, I wait five seconds until I receive Marshall’s signal that we’re good to go. I wriggle the Snakebot forward and plunge my drill into the hard-packed dirt.
Exchanging their bodies for machines, these teens will defy expectations, brave danger, and defend civilization. They are The Six.
Adam’s muscular dystrophy has stolen his mobility, his friends, and in less than a year it will take his life. Virtual reality games are Adam’s only escape from his wheelchair. In his alternate world, he can defeat anyone. Running, jumping, scoring touchdowns: Adam is always the hero.
Then an artificial intelligence program hacks into Adam’s game. Created by Adam’s computer-genius father, Sigma has gone rogue, threatening to kill Adam—and the entire human race. Their one chance to stop Sigma is using the technology Adam’s dad developed to digitally preserve the mind of his dying son.
Along with a select group of other terminally ill teens, Adam becomes one of the Six who have forfeited their failing bodies to inhabit weaponized robots. But with time running short, the Six must learn to manipulate their new mechanical forms and work together to train for epic combat…before Sigma destroys humanity.
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Mark Alpert is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of several science-oriented adult thrillers: Final Theory, The Omega Theory, Extinction, and The Furies. This is his first young adult novel. He lives with his family in New York. Visit Mark online at markalpert.com.
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