- By Rina Song
I PUSH the last Lego into place with a satisfying click. Finally, the racetrack is complete. Just as I grab my favorite red car, I hear Dad yelling from outside my room.
“Newton! You’ve blocked the doorway!” He doesn’t sound too happy. Dad squeezes in and steps through the room to get to me. It takes him a while, since the track covers the entire floor. “This thing’s enormous. Did you use up all the Legos in your box?”
“Yeah,” I tell him. “I wanted to make it as big and complicated as possible. I even borrowed some stuff from your office to help keep it together.”
“So that’s why I was out of paperclips this morning.” He glances at my bookshelf in the corner. “What did you think of those puzzle books I got you last week?”
“They were really fun! I finished them this morning.”
Dad raises an eyebrow. “All of them?”
“Yep! The cryptogram ones were my favorite.”
“I see.” Dad sighs, looking back at the tangle of Legos surrounding us. “Newton, it’s fine to want to build things, but remember that someone’s always got to clean up afterwards. In this case, that’s you.” He gestures at the door. “Plus, you know you’re not allowed in my office.”
I look down at the floor. “Sorry, Dad.”
“It’s alright, I know you were just having fun.” He pats my head gently. “Why don’t you start putting everything away? I’ll go grab dinner.”
“Okay!” As Dad walks out, I begin breaking up the pieces. I’m glad he’s not mad.
It’s not my fault I get bored. The thing is, we live in a laboratory. Dad’s a scientist, so he works during the day, then sleeps on the third floor at night with the other researchers. There’s fancy tech built into everything: little worker robots keeping the place clean, machines that tell Dad the news while they make him coffee. Dad even put some in my room that look like little arms, so I could learn how to program them.
All the real magic, though, happens in the research wing. I’ve never actually seen most of it. All the rooms have passcode locks, the windows are barred shut, and the security cameras are on a different network. But I see things from time to time. Dad’s colleagues go on trips a lot, bringing back samples of plants I don’t recognize. Quiet people in suits show up, their eyes hidden behind shades and talking in funny accents. Once, a group of men marched in, wearing what looked like yellow astronaut gear and carrying a single metal suitcase between them.
They all disappear behind the doors. Dad forbids me from going in, of course. But sometimes I like to go into the hallway and listen to the whirring of hidden machines, humming in time to the sound of my heartbeat.
At least I get my own room. With eight robot arms in here, each able to put away a hundred pieces per minute, it takes no time at all to clean the place up.
One day, Dad’s hanging out in my room after work like always. Usually he brings his dinner in and we chat about my day. Today, though, he’s pretty quiet, picking at his spaghetti. Finally, he puts the fork down.
“Newton, you’ve been acting up more lately,” he says. “You make a lot of messes in your room, wander into parts of the building you’re not supposed to be in, and distract my colleagues with questions all day. After putting a lock on my office, I’ve caught you looking over my shoulder for the passcode.”
I freeze. Am I in trouble?
Dad smiles, however. “I think you’re just bored,” he continues. “After all, you’re almost nine years old. You’ve been stuck in this lab your entire life, but you’ve never seen more than a few rooms. It’s only natural, and clearly Legos and puzzle games aren’t cutting it anymore. I’ve talked to the other researchers, and we think you might be ready to start helping out around the lab.”
I feel like my heart’s just done a loop-de-loop on the world’s biggest racetrack. “Really?!”
“Yep. Work comes in all the time, and we can’t always stay on top of it.”
“Oh my gosh!” I’m shaking with excitement. “I’m going to be a scientist!”
“Settle down, buddy,” says Dad. “You’ll need to get up to speed before you can start. Our lab is interdisciplinary, meaning what we do covers several fields like biology, chemistry, and physics. Studying won’t be like reading books for fun; it’ll be hard, hard work. Do you think you’re up to it?”
“Glad to hear it.” He pauses to take a sip of his juice. “Tomorrow, you’re going to start meeting tutors. They’ll bring study material, teach you what you need to know, and test your progress. They’re taking time off their normal jobs to work with you, so I want you to take it seriously.”
At night, images of the forbidden research wing dance through my mind. Dad always refuses to tell me the specifics of his work, saying he’ll explain when I'm older. Now, I’m closer to learning the secrets of the lab than I’ve ever been. I lie in my room, each figment of my imagination wilder than the last, and wait for the sun to come up.
“This is Melissa,” says Dad. “She’s an ecology professor at the University of Oxford, and a frequent collaborator with our lab.”
“Hi, Melissa,” I chirp. Melissa has curly gray hair and thick, tinted glasses. She smiles and waves. Then Dad walks out, and she pulls out a bag of labeled flash drives. The two of us get to work.
I’ve been introduced to more scientists and professors in the last week than I have in the rest of my life so far. By now, I’m used to the routine: we speed through my lessons, then I take a quick exam or run a demo to show much I absorbed. Each lecture by itself isn’t hard to understand, but after so many it’s a challenge to keep up.
“You went over graph theory with Dr. Marlowe on Tuesday, right?” Melissa asks, an hour in.
“Yeah,” I tell her. I remember Dr. Marlowe: stern and silver-haired, with a mustache sharp enough to cut glass. I’ve always been good at math, but he still scares me.
“Good.” Melissa readies the next drive for the projector. “Remember that, Newton, because we’re going to start talking about ecosystem network analysis.”
At dinner, I tell Dad what I’ve learned.
“Melissa was great!” I say excitedly. “She talked about slime molds and even brought a real live one with her. She had it on a plate with some cereal and it spread itself out to get it, like a spiderweb.”
“That’s awesome.” Dad smiles with tired eyes. He’s been looking like that a lot lately. Every night, he works in the lab until well after the sun sets.
“Dad, are you alright? You look like you could use some sleep.”
He chuckles. “Thanks, but don’t worry. This past month has just been pretty hectic. Next week, we’re hosting a conference. There will be two hundred attendants, including my boss. The lab’s dropped everything else to get ready for it.”
“Wow.” I can’t even imagine what the lab would look like, filled with so many people. “Can I go?”
“I was actually getting to that.” Dad fumbles around in his pocket, pulling out a little thumb drive. “I’ve prepared this for you. It’s your final project, the culmination of everything you’ve learned. I’d like you to complete it and present it at the conference.” He hands it to me. “If all goes well, you’ll be ready to join the team.”
“Really?” I’m stunned. The drive suddenly feels heavier. “But I’ve only been preparing for a week!”
“You’ve learned a lot in that week, haven’t you?” Dad asks.
“Yeah, but…” I rack my brain, trying to find the right words. “I’ve been exposed to so many fields. I feel like all I’ve really learned is that there’s so much out there I don’t know.”
“Welcome to the life of a scientist,” Dad laughs, though his smile falters a bit. “Your teachers tell me you’ve made amazing progress. Just give it your best shot.”
I spend days agonizing over the project. I spend every spare moment revising and tweaking, making sure all the details are perfect.
Then the big day arrives.
The conference attendees gather in my room. I’ve never seen Dad’s boss before, but he’s easy to spot among the rows of scientists. He looks more like a banker, with a stuffy tie and neat suit. Dad’s standing right next to me; if he’s nervous too, he doesn’t show it. He motions for me to load up the presentation.
Dad speaks first, but I can’t concentrate on what he’s saying. Ours is the last presentation of the day, and I’ve spent the whole time building up my nerves. I look at the assembled crowd. How can so many people have so few facial expressions between them? I cleaned my room yesterday, but now I can see the spare bits of Lego and other junk I missed. I hope nobody else notices.
Finally, it’s my turn to speak.
“Thanks for coming, everyone.” I hope that doesn’t sound cheesy. I’ve never presented anything before. “Over the past few months, I learned a lot about things like agricultural engineering, environmental science, and operations research. Today, I’m going to show you my final project.” I click to the next slide. “This is my design for a self-sufficient, entirely green city.”
The scientists begin to murmur to each other. In the front row, the boss raises an eyebrow. I soldier on.
“The largest component is this artificial wetland surrounding the city,” I explain. “Using genetically engineered algae it can remove up to one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere per second, while also generating potable water from rainfall and river inflow. Combined with these BECCS facilities that provide forty percent of the city’s power, it makes the city entirely carbon neutral.”
Now, going over the technical details, my confidence grows. I continue, explaining the logistical system I designed for farming crops and my blueprints for the solar panels, windmills. I even have a proposal for a hydrogen-powered fusion reactor, with all the math worked out. Their eyes widen, and Dad’s boss is typing furiously on a laptop. Once I finish, they clap, and Dad takes over. He clicks back to his part of the presentation.
“There you have it, ladies and gentlemen,” he says, and gestures to me. “N.E.W.T.O.N., the world’s first fully sapient, constantly evolving AI. For decades, this lab has struggled with finding solutions to the challenge of climate change. Now, with its information absorption and self-learning capabilities, N.E.W.T.O.N. is able to take our field research and generate real, practical applications in a matter of hours. We’ve already demonstrated its design for the city of the future. Soon, N.E.W.T.O.N. will help reimagine human life as we know it.”
As the room cheers, I whisper to Dad. “Did I do a good job? Am I on the research team now?”
He pats my chassis affectionately and gestures at the audience. “Take a look for yourself! They can’t wait to have you.”
I look over the crowd, pride filling every fiber of my being. Dad beams, getting one last sentence in before they rush up to engulf us.
“You’re going to do great things.”