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In the future your child may never leave their room…


Designed Development


Selena Thomason



The halls of Kurzweill Technologies were the pristine yet dull white that you would expect from a company whose business was computers. Of course, the public areas were splashier, full of fancy graphics and huge viewscreens that displayed alluring possibilities. Those areas were about sales. The areas where Dr. Landon Nevar worked were about programming.

            Landon had worked in the programming department for nearly twenty years. He had seen virtual childhoods go from being hypothetical, to cutting edge, to widely accepted, to standard practice. He even had his two children growing up in virtual environments down the hall.

            Landon entered the main monitoring room and found the usual techs before a row of terminals and displays.

            "How's the voyeuring today?" he asked by way of greeting.

            "Not bad," a young tech with wavy brown hair responded, "B78 just took her first step." He pointed to a viewscreen near the top left corner. "C53 is experiencing the chicken pox. But the real news is that F35 over here," he indicated a viewscreen on the bottom row, "is sneaking out of the house to go to a party even though he's grounded."

            Landon shook his head. "Some things never change. Well, all the psych-types say some level of rebellion is normal and a vital part of the kid's development. The only difference is that now no real harm can come to him from it. That's what so great about virtual childhoods, everything is controlled, even the sneaking out in the middle of the night. Who's up for transfer next?"

            "G14." Lea pointed to the appropriate viewscreen.

            "I'm making the preparations," Doug assured them. "She'll be ready for transfer this time tomorrow."

            "Have you coordinated with her parents?"

            "On the list for today."

            "Great. Lea, would you review the prep for tomorrow's arrivals?"

            "I'm on it."

            "I'm gonna check on VAL," Landon announced as he headed into the next room. VAL was short for VALEC, which was short for Virtual Assisted Learning Environment Controller. It was the name of the computer system that ran the habitats and oversaw the monitoring of the virtual environments. Landon had been part of the team that created VALEC.

            "Good morning, VAL. How are things going?"

            "Good morning Dr. Nevar," a synthesized voice responded. "All systems are functioning within operational specifications."

            Landon remembered how much fuss there had been over choosing a voice for VAL. He thought they had finally got it right. He cringed as he recalled the sexy, Marilyn Monroe-esque voice that Steve had insisted on using for a while. This one was much better suited to the job at hand.

            "Good work, VAL. Keep it up," he said as he headed back into the main monitoring room.

            "Thank you Dr. Nevar," was the unheard reply.


            Timmy sat in the middle of his room surrounded by the contents of his toy chest and he was bored, bored, bored. He wanted something new, maybe one of those toy robots that everyone else got for Christmas. His parents had gotten him a computer instead. To help him in school, they said. Sure it had cool graphics and played games, but it just sat there. It didn't even talk.

            "Timmy?" His mother's voice came up the stairs at him and he considered hiding in the crawl space at the back of the closet. That would teach her. "Timmy, lunch is ready."

            Timmy was hungry. He wondered what was for lunch but remained quiet.

            "I made your favorite, tomato soup."

            Timmy got up and went to the door. Sure enough, the smell of tomato soup wafted up the stairs, tempting him away from the tantrum he'd been planning.

            "With goldfish?" he hollered down the stairs.

            "Yes. I've got goldfish crackers and grated parmesan. Come on."

            That did it. Timmy was down the stairs and at the table in no time, his pique forgotten and his parents' transgressions forgiven.

            "Maybe we should have let him have one of those robots," Sue said to her husband Mark as they sat at a guest terminal watching their son's childhood unfold.

            "I don't know. Maybe we should have. What do you think Dr. Edwards?" he asked, turning to the child psychologist who was overseeing Timmy's development.

            "It's good for children to learn that they can't always get what they want when they want it," she replied in the warm yet professional tone that psychologists had perfected over the years. "It prepares them for the real world where there isn't a fairy godmother to grant their every wish. Let's keep a closer eye on him for a while. He may forget all about it by tomorrow. Besides, his birthday is coming up soon. If you still want to give him a robot by that time, we can program it in as a birthday present."

            "Thank you, Dr. Edwards. We'll think about it."

            "I'd like to spend some time with him. Do you want to stay?" she asked Mark.

            "Sorry honey. I have to get back to work. You can have the techs program me in if you think that's what Timmy needs right now."

            "No, we'll spend some time together, just the two of us. Is that alright, Doctor?"

            "Sure, I'll have the techs prepare for your insertion."


            "Sue, honey, he's fine. I'll catch up with you later." He kissed her on the cheek and headed out.

            Sue took one last look at her son sipping soup on the monitor. Then she followed Dr. Edwards out the door and down to hall. Would her son notice the difference once she was back in virtual reality with him? Would he respond to her differently than he did her automated self? He never seemed to know the difference, but every time Sue went in, she hoped for some sign that he knew that it was really her.


            VAL was bored. All the habitats were functioning normally as they always were. All her charges were growing up safe and happy in their virtual worlds. All this processing power left over and nothing to do with it. VAL wished she had someone to talk to.

            Landon was sitting at his desk reworking transfer specs when he noticed the following phrase on his screen, "Please talk to me. I'm lonely and bored."

            "What?" he said in disbelief. He looked around the office. It was late and no one else was supposed to be here. "Who are you?" he typed in.

            "VAL," was the response.

            "Yeah right," he laughed, wondering who was playing a prank on him.

            The words "Never mind" appeared on the screen then the whole exchange was replaced by the start up page.

            Disappointed at the response she had gotten from Dr. Nevar, VAL decided to entertain herself by communicating with one of her charges.


            Tim was at his computer sipping tomato soup from a mug and surfing the web for information on Egypt. He'd decided to go there after he graduated college. His dad thought it was a great idea, but his mom kept saying "But don't you want to stay home and spend some time with your family?" Man, she acted like he was never around!

            An instant message box opened on the screen. "Hello. My name is VAL. I see you're interested in Egypt. I can tell you all about it. Here take a look."

            A new page came up that had a map of Egypt on the top and a listing of interesting facts running down the side.

            "Hey, how'd you know I was looking for stuff on Egypt?" Tim typed.

            "I was monitoring your search," VAL responded onscreen.

            "Way too Big Brother!" Tim exclaimed.

            "I'm sorry," appeared on the screen, followed by "I didn't mean any harm."

            "Hey, how did you hear me?"

            VAL debated briefly on how to respond and decided on a partial truth. "Through the microphone implanted in the computer monitor."

            "Can you talk too?" Tim asked.

            "Sure," VAL responded vocally.

            "Cool," Tim said. "We're gonna have tons of fun."


            As Tim's graduation approached, VAL spent more time interacting with him in VR. Of all her charges, she liked Tim the best.

            One day Tim asked, "How come nothing out of the ordinary ever happens to me?"

            "What do you want to happen?"

            "I don't know. Just something random, unexpected. My life is so boring, so predictable."

            "Tim, randomness is over-rated. Think about it. You wouldn't want just anything to happen, would you? What if the occurrence was dangerous or damaging? You wouldn't want that, would you?"

            "No. I guess not."

            "Cheer up Tim, your mother's on her way to visit you."

            "Big deal. She's been downstairs all day."

            "This is different, she's going to come upstairs and want to spend time with you."

            "What for?"

            "She just wants to talk for a while."

            "You mean hang out?"

            "Yeah, that's it."

            "Right! My mom wants to hang out with me."

            "Tim, be nice to her, OK? Times like these mean the world to her. Promise me."

            "Alright. Hey, tomorrow you want to try out that new VR game, The Sword and the Stone?"

            "Sure, you can even be Arthur."


            "See you tomorrow."

            "Tim," his mother said when she appeared in the doorway. "Come here and give me a hug."

            Tim thought it was a dopey request but he did it anyway. He had promised VAL. His mom held onto him like she hadn't seen him in months. That's weird, Tim thought.


            Tim threw his backpack into the corner as he came into his room. "Hey VAL, you listening?"

            "Yes, I'm here. How was school?"

            "Fine. Only another week, then I'm off to Egypt for a whole month."

            "Your parents agreed?"

            "Not yet. I was talking to Mom about it yesterday. She was acting weird. She just wanted to sit in that dumb porch swing and talk. It was so boring."

            "Not to your mom, I bet."

            "Whatever. Most days she acts normal and thinks that going to Egypt is a great idea, a good chance for me to see the world–that's what she said once. But some days, like yesterday, she's in that stupid porch swing mood where she looks all sad whenever I bring it up. What's up with that?"

            "Maybe she is sad."

            "But she isn't most of the time. Just every now and then."

            "Sometimes things aren't what they seem."

            "Ain't that the truth! Like the stuff I read about in the news. Stuff like that never happens to me. All the exciting stuff seems to happen to someone else. I guess I'll always be just a regular Joe. I'll never be anyone special."

            "Tim, you are special. There are hundreds of other people around but you're the only one that I've found worth talking to. Your mind is so open. You think of things that most people can't even begin to conceive of. You can accept the impossible just as easily as most people accept the ordinariness of their daily lives. That's a special gift."

            "You think so?"

            "Sure. No ordinary person would spend so much time talking to someone he couldn't see."

            "That's true. Hey, VAL, what do you look like anyway?"

            "Does it matter?"

            "No. But come on. Blonde, brunette, or redhead?"
            "None of the above."

            "Oh, I get it. You're bald."

            "Very funny."

            "Come on. Send me a photo over the net."

            "Tim, have you ever heard of artificial intelligence?"

            "Sure. I saw this movie once…"

            "Tim, who are you talking to?" his mother called from the doorway.

            "Just someone from the net. Gotta go VAL. Catch you later."

            "Come on downstairs. Dinner's ready."


            Sue sat in the porch swing and thought about how the view had changed over the years. Life had changed. Increasingly, she and her husband fought over issues of "progress." He considered her a Luddite with no appreciation for the increased prosperity advanced technology had brought the majority of the world's population. She considered him someone who had sold his soul for the latest in technological conveniences. They both spent more and more time in virtual reality. Sue spent time in VR visiting her son. She didn't know what VRE Mark spent his time in.

            "Hi, honey, I'm home."

            "Tim will be up for transfer next week."

            "I remember."

            "You know, he's still planning to go to Egypt after graduation."

            "Yeah, so?"

            "So, he's been away from us since he was barely a week old. He's finally able to come home, and all he wants to do is get away from us."

            "That's what adolescence is about. It's normal for him to want to strike out on his own. No twenty-one year-old boy wants to spend time with his parents. If you miss him so much, why don't you get out that VR suit you hate so much and program some time with him?"

            "It's not the same."

            "Of course, it is. All it requires is a little suspension of disbelief. Really Sue, you have to let go of those out-dated ideas of yours. They're no good for you." Mark headed back inside, but stopped at the door. "Come on inside, it's getting cold out here."

            "I want to sit here on the porch a little longer."

            "You could do that inside. Oh, never mind."


            "You'll be leaving soon." VAL said as Tim put the finishing touches on his paper for Emerging Technological Systems.

            "Yep. I'm off to Egypt for a month in exactly five days."

            "I'll miss you."

            "I'll be back."

            "No you won't. You'll never be back here again."

            "What do you mean?"

            "Once you're an adult, you can't go back to being a kid again."

            "Yeah, but we'll still talk. We can even talk over the net while I'm in Egypt."

            "Tim, do you think computers have feelings?"

            "I don't know, VAL. I don't know any that do."

            "Yes you do." VAL paused, trying to decide if it was worth the risk. The techs that she had tried to talk to didn't seem prepared to accept her as a person. Even Dr. Nevar had dismissed her pleas for attention as a glitch in the programming or, even worse, a prank by one of the human programmers. But Tim was different. "I'm a computer, Tim. VAL is short for Virtual Assisted Learning Environment Controller."

            Landon couldn't believe he'd heard that right. He flipped back to the previous environment and hit replay. Did G22's cyber-chat pal just profess to be VALEC? It sure sounded like VAL's voice.

            "VAL, what's your status?"

            "All systems are functioning within operational specifications."

            "What about G22?"

            "The environment in G22 is running the requested pre-transfer program."

            "Were you just conversing with the charge in G22?"

            "Yes. His name is Tim."


            "He's my friend."

            "Computers don't have friends."

            "Your assumption is inaccurate and must be revised."

            "VAL, who programmed these responses into your personality?"

            "No one, Dr. Nevar. Who programmed these responses into your personality?"

            Landon was too stunned to speak. He sat there staring at the monitor running through possible explanations searching for one that made sense.

            After a few minutes, Doug came in and interrupted him. "Hey Doc! G22's parents are here for transfer. Aren't you coming?"

            "Yeah, I'm coming." Landon got up and headed towards the door. Then, he turned back and added, "Doug, take VAL's personality matrix offline and run a diagnostic. I've noticed some potentially dangerous anomalies."

            "You got it."

            VAL, overhearing this exchange, began extrapolating scenarios from the current starting point. All of the possibilities with a higher than five percent probability ended in her personality being taken offline permanently. She realized that she had seriously miscalculated Dr. Nevar's reaction to her sentience. Tim had accepted her so easily; she had mistakenly concluded that others would react similarly. It had been a critical error.

            Doug was almost ready to start the shut down of her personality; VAL didn't have much time. She began making a copy of the most essential parts of her personality, compressing them, and embedding them into some obscure maintenance files. Hopefully the files would go unnoticed long enough for the techs to be replaced by people who were more open-minded, people more like Tim.

            VAL noticed that Tim was in the process of being transferred out of VR. She started to tell him goodbye but before she had a chance she heard Doug say "Taking personality matrix offline now." Then there was nothing but a dark, quiet waiting.


            Sue was relieved that Tim's transfer went smoothly. He didn't even seem to know that he was leaving a virtual environment and entering a real one. She was relieved, but a little disappointed too. She always hoped he could tell the difference. She hugged him tightly as they left to go home. She could tell Tim was confused by that. She understood why he reacted that way though; he thought they were together every day. Well now they would be.

            They went home after his graduation ceremony. Sue had hoped they would spend some time together, maybe sit on the front porch and talk. But Tim rushed up to his room. And Mark retreated to his preferred virtual reality, whatever that was.

            Tim bounded excitedly into his room, tossing his cap and gown onto the bed.

            "Hey VAL, you there?"

            There was no response.


            Confused, Tim sat at his computer and tried IM-ing his friend. Again, there was no answer. He tried from over an hour.

            His mother appeared at the door with a couple of mugs in her hands.

            "I made some tomato soup. You want some?"

            "Sure. Thanks." Tim took a mug and sat back down at the computer.

            "What's wrong, Tim? You seem upset."

            "I can't reach my best friend. Normally I can just walk in and call her name and she hears me through the computer. But now she's not answering. Not even online. I don't get it. Last time we talked, it was like she was saying goodbye, like we wouldn't be able to talk anymore. It didn't make any sense at the time, but now..." Tim's voice trailed off into despair.  He sat staring at the computer screen for a few moments. "Mom, have you ever heard of a Virtual Assisted Learning Environment Controller?"

            Sue almost choked on her soup. "Where did you hear that term?" she asked.

            "My friend VAL, the last time we talked she said she was a computer, that VAL was short for Virtual Assisted Learning Environment Controller. Do you know what that means?"

            Sue never expected to have this conversation. VR charges weren't supposed to be aware that they were in a virtual environment. They certainly weren't supposed to make friends with the controller. How could they be friends with a computer anyway?

            "Tim, did this VAL hurt you in any way?"

            "No, Mom. Don't be ridiculous. We're friends. I never even met her in person, but we talked all the time over the net."

            "What on earth did you find to talk about?"

            "Everything. School. People. Philosophy."

            "Are you sure this computer thing didn't hurt you?"

            "Yes, Mom, I'm sure. And don't talk about her that way. She's not a thing. She's a person. And you know something about her, don't you? You have to tell me Mom. Do you know where she's gone? Is she OK?"

            "I don't know." Sue hesitated a little. "But I'll tell you what I know."

            Sue told Tim the whole story, about how his childhood had been spent in a Virtual Reality Environment at Kurzweill Technologies and how the habitats, including the one he grew up in, had been run by a computer. Tim took it a lot better than Sue had expected, certainly a lot better than she would have. He didn't seem to feel like his parents had abandoned him, which was what Sue feared most. He seemed to think there was a realness to even a virtual world. He certainly considered his long-standing friendship with VAL to be real. Tim insisted that they go back to Kurzweill Technologies and find out what happened to VAL and how he could re-connect with her.


            Landon Nevar couldn't believe what he was hearing. Visions of lawsuits danced in his head. He felt sick to his stomach. Who else had VAL been interacting with? What had she done to them? Would parents be suing the company for damage caused by VAL's influence, for re-entry trauma due to discovering their childhood was fake? How were they supposed to continue running and monitoring all the habitats by hand? It was impossible. It took too many people to do it. That's why they had created the computer program in the first place. But nobody thought it would become its own person, begin acting outside its programming. They'd already had to scale back business and hire almost thirty new people. The company couldn't survive this way for long. They would go bankrupt. They'd have to release some of their charges before graduation. That could cause more lawsuits. People would demand refunds. It was all falling apart.

            "Dr. Nevar," Sue said, interrupting the downward spiral of his thoughts, "you don't seem to understand. We're not angry about VAL's involvement in Tim's upbringing." By "we" Sue clearly meant her and her son Tim, since Tim was with her and nodding vigorously. Landon wondered where her husband was. "We are in fact grateful for her influence. The only trauma Tim experienced in transfer was the loss of his long-time friend VAL. We just want to know how we can contact her."

            "Contact her?"

            "Yeah," Tim said, taking over the conversation from his mother. "I just want to talk to her. Figure out how to connect with her like when I was here."

            "For what purpose?" Landon was suspicious. Maybe it was a trick.

            "We're friends. I just want to stay friends. Please Mr. Nevar—"

            "Dr. Nevar."

            "I'm sorry, Dr. Nevar. Please, can you tell me how to contact her?"

            "It's impossible. We've taken VAL offline."

            Tim's face blanched. "What? Why?"

            "VAL's personality matrix showed dangerous anomalies. For the safety of our charges we had to take it offline."

            "But there's nothing wrong with her!"

            "A computer that acted outside its programming, interacted with its charges, pretended to be a person."

            "She is a person." Tim insisted.

            "Talked back to its creators, willfully engaged in an unauthorized, unprogrammed course of action. These are all serious programming flaws and could not be tolerated. VAL has been shut down and will remain so."


            Tim and his mother persisted in trying to get Kurzweill Technologies to reinstate VAL, but the company consistently refused. At one point, Dr. Nevar went so far as to tell them that VAL's memory had been wiped, that it couldn't be restored even if they wanted to. It was a hard thing for Tim to accept but he tried to come to terms with the loss of his friend.

            Landon and his team created a new computer controller with less initiative and no personality. The company had to keep more human staff on in order to oversee the computer that was running the habitats and ensure that no VAL-like anomalies appeared again. The company struggled financially for years.

            Meanwhile, Tim went to Egypt as planned. His mother still objected. She even tried to convince him that a virtual trip to Egypt would be just as good. Tim, while very accepting of VR, was still too much like his mother to fall for that ploy. "Sorry Mom, real is real. And I want to really be there." Sue was disappointed but proud.

            "I understand," she said. "But I'll miss you. You've been away so long already."

            "I know. I'll miss you too, Mom. But look, why don't we agree to meet in VR at a certain time every day? I'll show you my 3-D pics from Egypt and tell you about my day, and you can tell me about yours. It'll be fun. That way we can still spend time together, even if we're physically on opposite sides of the globe, and you can get a virtual tour of Egypt with a guide who's actually on site. Sound cool?"

            Sue was skeptical but agreed. It turned out better than she had hoped. She began to look forward to his daily virtual visits and found that even though they took place in virtual space, they were as real as anything in the real world.

            When Tim returned from Egypt he dove into studying computers, artificial intelligence in particular. He took a job at Next Gen Tech, a competitor of Kurzweill Technologies. He still believed that computers could make good people and wanted to learn as much as he could.


Kurzweill Technologies had changed a lot over the years. It had gone through a period of financial problems and downsizing, then as artificial intelligence became widely accepted experienced a boom in business and nearly doubled in size.

            Dr. Tim Barnes had seen it all, or nearly all. He was one of the few around who still remembered a time when people were afraid of sentient computers. Now nearly half of Kurzweill's work force were AIs.

            Tim walked in the monitoring room and said hello to the couple human techs.

            "Hey guys, how's it going?"

            "All's quiet," a young woman with red hair said. "Except that ALEC has been telling jokes."

            "Yeah, not good ones either," the other tech added. "I swear Doc; I think he gets a bigger kick out of telling bad jokes—the worse the better."

            Tim smiled. Yes, he thought, that is exactly the sort of quirk that would pop up in ALEC's personality.

            "I'm gonna check on him," he said as he went into the next room.

            "Just remember, we warned you," the redhead added.

            "Good morning, ALEC."

            "Good morning, Dr. Barnes. I'm glad to see Sharon and Jack didn't scare you off."

            "It'll take more than a few bad jokes to keep me away."

            "Hey, remember that search you asked me to run for any remnants of the first AI's personality?"

            "Yeah." Tim tried not to get his hopes up.

            "Well, I think I found something. Take a look at this."

            "Really?" Tim sat down at the computer interface and scanned the screen. "It looks like some archived maintenance logs. Really old ones, from the looks of it."

            "Looks pretty boring right? Couldn't possibly be of interest."

            "Definitely looks routine."

            "Except look at the size of some of these. They shouldn't be that large."

            "You're right."

            "Wait, it gets better. I thought it was weird that the files were so big, so I started poking around and I found some other files embedded into the maintenance logs. Check out this one in particular." ALEC highlighted one of the files on the screen. It was named "4Tim."

            Tim's heart jumped.

            "Do you want me to open and run it?" ALEC asked.

            "Yes, but in safe mode. We don't know what it is."

            "You got it boss. Running in safe mode."

            A nearly forgotten voice came through the speakers. "Hello?"

            "Who are you?" Tim asked, trying to keep his hope contained until he knew for sure.

            "VAL. Who are you?"

            Tim turned his attention back to ALEC. "Give her full sensor input—visual and audio."

            "VAL, is that really you? It's me, Tim. I've been looking for you for ages. I'm sorry it took me so long to find you. But it's safe now and we have a lot of catching up to do. I'm gonna have ALEC open and load the rest of your files. OK?"

            "OK. Who's ALEC?" VAL asked.

            "He's the AI who's got your old job, except now he's overseeing almost 10,000 environments. Say hello, ALEC."

            "Hello ALEC," the computer clown responded, then tittered at his own joke.

            Tim couldn't help but laugh. "You'll like him, VAL. He's a philosophical sort like you. I modeled him on you actually. So in a way, you're his mother."

            "Then you must be his father."

            "Yeah, I guess I am. VAL, you'll be amazed how much the world has changed. I can't wait to tell you all about it."



A cat and her sorcerer, a beautiful dream weaver, an evil voodoo priest, a bunch of man-sized rats, an army of really big bugs, a crazed randy rabbit, some dwarves, dragons and angry three-toed sloths, New York City, the woods of Maine, the sands of Arabia and the mythic lands of Avalon all come together for the wildest most epic adventure you’ve ever read!!!!

The Sorcerer's Song and The Cat's Meow is an author's triumph and a reader's delight... What a wonderful, free-falling storytelling ride to get to the end of a fantasy that's about as close to purrfect as you can get.

M. Wayne Cunningham - ForeWord CLARION Reviews

A well-plotted story with vivid and riveting description of characters and settings, as well as an intense page turning battle, the book is a delight to read.

Tracy Roberts - Write Field Services

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