Things had been weird for Jing-Wei for a real long time now. Robots, space stations, mutant animals? Fine. It was a head trip for sure, but she was unexpectedly alive, and that was worth something. You can get used to anything, if you have to. Humans adapt.
After all that adapting, she would have bet cash money you couldn’t surprise her anymore. She hadn’t dreamed that things could get even more weird in a whole new direction.
Like finally running into actual factual people, when she’d all but given up on the idea that there were any. And to put the freaky cherry on the weird-ass sundae, they acted like they already knew Jing-Wei. But she’d never seen them before in her life. Either one.
The pair of strange girls sighted her through the trees a split second before Jing-Wei spotted them back. “Hello?” the long-haired girl called. She came running toward Jing-Wei flat out. The other chased close behind.
They slowed as they got closer, stopping a little farther than an arm’s reach away. The first girl just stared at Jing-Wei’s face. “Oh my god, it really is you. How are you—”
“You know her?” the other girl asked. This one was Latina, with short hair and a set to her jaw like she could show you stubborn if you were wondering about it. She gripped a keeper arm in her hands, and she edged around Jing-Wei like she thought she might be dangerous.
“That’s Jing-Wei,” said the first girl. Pretty thing, shiny hair. Didn’t look like she got much sleep, though. “She’s one of the ones we told you about on the train. Jing-Wei . . .” The girl swallowed. “They killed you.”
Jing-Wei stepped back, just a half step, enough to give some space between herself and the idea of any “they” killing her. “How do you know my name?”
Jing-Wei’s makerspace was a glorious jumble of stuff, all lit by naked fluorescent tubes that cast splintered shadows onto every surface. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling sheet-metal shelving. Those shelves were stuffed with cardboard boxes of hastily wrapped bundles of cords and wires, and cheap plastic organizers full of screws and bolts sorted haphazardly by size and shape. Various pieces of gear were crammed into every spare nook, and even teetered on the very top shelves. Broken quadcopters, broken vacuum cleaners. Bolts of plastic sheeting and Bubble Wrap. Glitter paint.
The total effect was like somebody had taken everything they could find from ten years of garage sales, disassembled all of it, then put the pieces in a box and shaken it up. To Jing-Wei, it was the coziest, happiest place in the universe. It was a teeming and glorious ecosystem of possibilities.
And it had everything she needed to take those possibilities and yank them into reality, too. There were wide workbenches, the thick wooden work surfaces scratched, stained, even burned. A few of them were bare, waiting for a new maker with a new ambition, but others were permanently occupied with 3-D printers, laser cutters, or piles of more low-tech gear like soldering irons, hot glue guns, and screwdrivers. A server rack hummed in the back corner, its lights a steady green.
The cement floor was painted gray, and sloped toward a drain somewhere in the center of the wide-open room. The makers liked to make cracks about how that made it easy to hose the place down after they got blood all over it. They were careful not to say it whenever the landlord stopped by, though. Not everyone could take a joke.
Jing-Wei preferred to be alone in the space, like she was now; it was a couple of hours before school, and not many of the other makers were early risers. She bent over her workbench, examining the toy that twitched there. It was a gift for her little sister, Chang-Rou; Jing-Wei had made a spindle-legged thing meant to walk on its own and hop a few inches straight up from time to time. It was cute and funny, and her sister was going to love it to pieces. Or she would, if only Jing-Wei could get the thing to work right.
It had been fine for about fifteen seconds, but then one of the legs had jammed in a lifted-up position and wouldn’t move anymore. Now the poor thing wobbled and tipped over when it tried to walk, and when it tried to hop, it just looked like it really needed to pee.
Jing-Wei pulled the leg out of its jammed state and flexed it a few times. If there was a rough spot somewhere in the joint, maybe she could smooth it out.
Jing-Wei set the toy down and switched it on. “Try again, little guy.”
The robot walked five steps, hopped three times, and then its leg got stuck up again, as if it were trying to imitate one of those tap-dancing peacock spiders. The poor thing fell over and twitched until Jing-Wei switched it off again.
“Well, that isn’t going to work, is it?” She sighed and flipped the toy over so she could take its leg...