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 off. The thing had been put together from scraps she’d scrounged up around the space anyway, so the legs didn’t all match in the first place. But she wasn’t sure if there was anything left that could work with what she had.
She stuck the broken leg in the pocket of her lab coat—a gift from her mother, who was always cracking jokes about the mad science Jing-Wei got up to. The box she needed would be on one of the high shelves, unless somebody had taken it into their head to “reorganize” in the last few days. You could never be sure. She grabbed one of the stepladders and rolled it toward a likely looking shelf. There was a box helpfully labeled robot parts.
Once she got up there, she blew away a thick fur of dust. This wasn’t the box she’d found the first time, but maybe she’d dig up something even better now. She rummaged through it.
It really wasn’t what she needed, though. The box held an array of motors, brackets for holding sensors, treads, and wheels. She thought for a moment about reworking the toy to replace one or two of its spidery legs with wheels, but decided it wouldn’t be funny enough to make Chang-Rou happy.
Jing-Wei stretched past the edge of the stepladder to reach for the next box. Her center of balance hung somewhere in the air between the ladder and the shelves, but she could steady herself with three fingertips. She pulled out the first thing she could reach to see what was in the next box, and recognized the part at once: it was a pincer claw that somebody had coated with rubber cement in a fit of misguided experimentation, trying to make it more grippy or something. She tugged the box a little closer to her along the shelf to see what else it held.
No dice. Just as she’d expected, there wasn’t another leg precisely the same size as the one that had broken. Well, maybe this was a chance to make the little toy even funnier, with mismatched parts that balanced one another out. She weighed a likely candidate in her hand, then stuck it into her pocket while she tried to find another one.
The box tipped forward. The ladder wobbled under Jing-Wei as she reached a little too far to keep the box from falling. A shower of small parts spilled out of the box, bouncing off Jing-Wei’s arm and shoulder. Her forearm banged hard against the metal shelf, and she stopped, hanging perilously in the air. Her heart started pounding, too late for the adrenaline to help; it just made her knees and hands shaky. She took a deep breath, settled her heels back on the ladder, and pulled the box down to rest on her thigh so she could look through it more safely.
Once everything was steady, she sifted through the robot parts some more. Most of them were junk, but there were a few maybes in there, and she stuck those into her pockets. Finally, she found enough potential replacements worth testing out. She pushed the box back into its spot and climbed down.
Once safely on solid footing, Jing-Wei took the new set of robot legs out of her pockets to compare them more closely. The legs weren’t all the same length, but she could probably adjust the angle of the knee bend so that they operated the same. And the brackets that held them in place were the same size as the old ones. It would work out great, maybe even better than she’d planned. “Here we go, little guy!” she called toward her workbench. “I’m gonna fix you right up.”
Her elbow struck the ladder as she turned. The ladder rattled against the metal shelving unit. Above Jing-Wei, the box of robot parts tipped again, then fell.
She didn’t see it, and she didn’t feel it for very long either. One moment she was smiling at the future of Chang-Rou’s gift in deep satisfaction, and the next everything turned white and full of stars.
Eventually the whiteness receded, but the stars remained the same. Jing-Wei floated in nothingness, suspended over an infinite field of sparkling emptiness. No, not just emptiness; there, just to the left, was the blue-and-white marble she’d seen hundreds of times before.
She tried to turn her head to see it better, but either her muscles were too weak to move her, or she was immobilized in some other way. And now she noticed the pain, gushing from the back of her skull, flooding the nerves to her neck, her shoulders, her back. She made a noise of distress, something small and choking.
A robotic arm passed into her field of view. It spun her, and Jing-Wei saw what had been behind her: a cold, utilitarian room. Metal walls, glow lights embedded at the corners. The robot arm shifted again. She could see the glint of the needles before they came down. They filled her veins with fire as they pierced her.
The flames inside her burned her consciousness away, and she returned to blessed darkness.
When Jing-Wei woke up again, she felt better. Mostly. A little . . . electric, as if there were a radio in her brain tuned to a dead channel. Not static, not any noise at all. Just a strange, buzzy sensation. There was a sharp feeling under her ear, but when she reached to touch it, there was nothing there but smooth skin.
At least the shooting pain from her head was gone, and the fire in her veins, and the needles. She was still in that room, though. Still floating. Half the room was stars. She was . . . in space?
Whoa. That was pretty awesome.
However awesome space was to look at, though, it did raise a few questions that wanted answers real bad. She began to take stock of her situation. The room was completely empty. Not even a Frankenstein slab for her to lie on, and that spidery robot arm she half remembered was gone too. She’d thought the walls were metal, but when she touched them, they weren’t as cold as metal. Some kind of plastic, maybe, or a plastic coating.
That beautiful window full of stars, though . . . She ran her fingertips across it. Was it just a screen? That seemed most likely, except for the part where the law of gravity wasn’t being strictly enforced all of a sudden.
Maybe it really was stars. Dang. How did she get here? And—she noticed for the first time—why was she wearing a red jumpsuit? Was it, like, a NASA uniform kind of thing? Or was she some kind of prisoner? She had a momentary flash of fear.
Well, maybe she should do some exploring and get a few answers about what was what around here. Except . . . problem. The whole room was maybe three meters across, and there was no door.
Wait. She looked up, and experienced a moment of wild vertigo as she completely reoriented herself in space. The hatch she saw in the ceiling became a door in front of her, and the stars became a ceiling, not a window.
She pressed at her uneasy stomach. “This is bonkers,” she said out loud. Her voice reverberated off those plastic-coated walls.
That hatch hissed and opened, and a robot came in. It was bigger than she was, crowding her into a corner of the starry room. It looked something like a spider sticking its butt high in the air. Its black carapace was scuffed up, even melted in places, so she could see into its mechanicals. One of its joints was welded together with something bubbly and silver.
It reached out a pincer arm to give her something: a little package wrapped in waxy paper. She took it from the robot, hesitant. It withdrew its arm and stayed motionless, watching her with an array of red lenses: one big eye and a lot of little ones, almost like freckles. Infrared sensors, maybe?
Well. It was becoming clear what was going on here, at least. This was one heck of a weird-ass dream, and her parents were going to die laughing once she told them about it.
The robot shifted its weight downward, apparently settling in to wait for something.
Jing-Wei looked at the packet it had given her. May as well open it, then. As she did, a delicious, faintly spicy smell wafted toward her, and her stomach grew uneasy in the opposite way. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was.
She took a bite of the protein bar inside. It was amazing: a little sweet, a little chewy. Not quite like anything she’d had before. This was a surprisingly vivid dream.
She sized up the robot. “So what are you supposed to be?” she asked it. “My anxiety about that social studies paper?”
Inside the robot’s body, something sparked. The robot scuttled away from the doorway and lowered itself closer to the floor, as if apologetic. After a few minutes, a new robot entered. Jing-Wei could tell from its gloss, its elegant motion, its lines that this was a higher-end model, newer and better treated. Its carapace was etched with elaborate designs. Pretty.
Its red eye peered at Jing-Wei and flared bright. And inside Jing-Wei’s brain, she saw . . . things.
The images came quick, just flashes that were there and gone again almost before she could process them. They were as clear as a movie projected on the inside of her forehead.
She saw an army of thousands of robots like these two, working equipment, cleaning, building. She saw a sky turn from yellow to blue, then a pile of detritus sifted from the ocean. The robots’ job was to keep things clean and safe. Keep things from falling apart. These keepers were made to help people, and Jing-Wei was a person, so they meant to help her.
Gradually Jing-Wei became aware that the mouthful of protein bar was still sitting on her tongue. She’d stopped chewing during the onslaught of images.
Yeah, this was a weird-ass vivid dream, all right. She swallowed. Or. Unthinkable, but she had to think it. What if it wasn’t a dream at all? “How did I get here?” she asked the keeper. “Where . . . where is this?”
Again Jing-Wei’s brain filled with incomprehensible images. She saw herself, streamers of blood running toward the middle of her face from her scalp. She saw a broken skull, a shattered vertebra. She saw a stream of digits counting down to zero, then blackness.
So that was upsetting. The food bar slipped from her fingers and floated by her hand, unable to fall without gravity.
The keeper continued speaking, if you could call what it did speaking. Jing-Wei saw herself coalescing into existence, blue-lipped and still. She saw the keeper working over her with a dozen tools that flashed away before she could understand them. It was bringing her back to life, or perhaps preserving the tiny flicker of life that remained in her.
“So I was dead and you . . . remade me? Like from a blueprint?”
The avalanche of images ceased. The first keeper, the scuffed-up one, shifted its weight forward, plucked the protein bar from where it hovered by Jing-Wei’s side, and pressed it into her hand again.
She took the bar. “Thank you,” she told the keeper. “I . . . guess.” She rubbed the back of her head. It seemed fine, not even tender. Things sure had taken a turn for the interesting. But none of it was real. Was it?
Seyah stared at Jing-Wei. “I watched you die. You were dead. Again.”
Jing-Wei eyeballed these strangers—very strange—and held her hand out to shake. “Uh, do you think we could start over? I’m Jing-Wei, and you’re . . . ?”
“I’m Seyah, and this is Inez.” Neither one of them reached out to shake, though.
Jing-Wei let her hand drop, but still ventured a smile. “I can’t even tell you how good it is to hear another human voice. It’s been a real long time. It’s great to meet you.”
Inez didn’t let her guard down for a second. “We’ll see about that,” she said.
These were the first faces she’d seen in . . . How long had it been, anyway? Two months? Three? These were the first people she’d so much as sniffed since she’d woken up. But she hadn’t thought for a hot second it would go this badly once she met somebody. Tough luck.
“How do you all know I died, anyway?” Jing-Wei asked, puzzled.
“Some of us saw it happen.” Seyah looked at her feet. “Don’t ask for details.”
Some of us? Some of who? “But I was alone.” Jing-Wei looked around, her puzzlement growing. “I was alone in the makerspace, and—”
“No, we mean the second time you died. Once to get you here, and the second time after you met us.” Seyah’s eyes widened. “Wait. If you’re alive, then is Wesley with you?”
“Or Teddy?” Inez asked quickly. “With you, or back at the TV studio?”
TV studio? Jing-Wei puzzled over that, but it was a small weird in the face of a huge brick wall made of various weirds and she didn’t think it was worth asking more. “I’m sorry? I don’t know you or Teddy or . . . What was the other name?” Then she was struck by a new thought. “Wait, did . . . did you die too? To get here?”
“Yes. We all died.” Seyah sounded more matter-of-fact about it than you might expect. “That’s how we got here in the first place, right? We died and they remade us.”
“Oh . . .” Jing-Wei focused on her feet and those ultra-comfy slip-on sneakers. “Right.”
“So you’re alone?” Inez asked. “You’re lucky we found you before any caretakers did.”
“Big robots, lots of arms? Not much for talking?” Inez raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t they remake you, too?”
Jing-Wei grinned and shook her head. This was a way less uncomfortable topic than death; she could talk about robots for ages. “You must mean the keepers? Nah, you’ve got the wrong idea about them. My keepers—my caretakers—have been great. I don’t know what I’d have done without them.”
Seyah and Jing-Wei both turned gray, like Jing-Wei had outed herself as an enormous, tentacled sea monster. “Your caretakers?” Seyah said slowly.
There were no other people on the space station, that much was clear.
There were plenty of keepers, but Jing-Wei could never quite work out how many. The one that had come to her first, the one with the damaged carapace: that one was Sparky, for the little arcs of electricity she could see inside his shell from time to time. Sparky seemed to be in charge of the care and feeding of Jing-Wei; he stayed with her basically every second of the . . . however much time was passing. Sparky was the bottom of the food chain, apparently.
At the top was Pretty, the speaker for the robots. The others could also communicate with Jing-Wei, flashing pictures straight into her brain, but aside from Pretty, they were only about as informative as a foreign country’s subway pictograms.
There was another that seemed to be the same model as Pretty, with a similar ornate pattern of lines and circles stenciled onto his chassis, or maybe cut into the surface with a laser. He was skittish; whenever Jing-Wei came close to him, he would flee. She called that one Bashful.
There was one with twice the limbs of her companions, and Jing-Wei named her Grabby. There were at least three or four more that came in and out of Jing-Wei’s presence like a whirlwind, never staying long enough for her to work out identifying features and names.
She wondered where the other keepers went when she couldn’t find them. It wasn’t like the place was so full of hiding spots.
In fact, the vessel they were on was only maybe a couple hundred feet long in total. There was a curved central hallway with rooms coming off of it like spokes in a bicycle wheel. But only a small part of the wheel. Jing-Wei had looked outside and the rest of the wheel was gone, if it had ever existed in the first place. There were hatches at the ends of the long hallway, sealed up tight, and when she stayed close to them too long, Sparky would pull her gently back to the center of the craft.
But the rest of the place was her domain, for all the good that did her. There was a bathroom, thankfully, and that was the closest thing she had found to human furniture. Some of the doors wouldn’t open for her; others were jammed so they wouldn’t close anymore. There were rooms full of broken equipment: cracked glass panels, huge metal housings jutting from the walls, crumpled piles of gold foil. She could only guess at what it had all been meant for. And not very good guesses either; there were plain chunks of metal and crystal where she would have expected circuit boards. Nothing that looked like a screen, either, much less a keyboard.
When she was feeling introspective, she’d stare at space, or at Earth. She’d died, apparently, over a robot toy for her little sister. She thought she’d have had a lot longer. Years, decades, maybe a whole century. She took comfort where she could find it, though. She was grateful that she’d been doing something kind with her last breath; she’d been making something. And though everything else was strange and lonesome, she got to play with robots here all she liked. That was something, even if it wasn’t how she’d have arranged for that to happen.
Eventually, she ran out of places to explore and mysteries to contemplate, and then the boredom set in. Sparky gave her bulbs full of dusty-tasting water to drink and a seemingly endless supply of those protein bars. She tried to sleep, floating in empty rooms, but the lack of weight made it difficult. She’d never realized how much she needed the pressure of a pillow under her head to be comfortable, or how impossible it was to rest without the weight of a blanket resting on her.
She tried to ask Pretty questions. What the keepers were for, why she was here in space, what was going on. She slowly learned that each keeper was a different model; some were custom-built for specific purposes, some of them (like Sparky) were general laborers, and others had adapted or been retrofitted for specialty work.
But whenever Jing-Wei started asking for specifics about why, Pretty shut her down. Images of Jing-Wei sleeping, staring out a window, floating motionless. Their meaning was clear to her: Not yet. Wait.
So Jing-Wei tried to make things out of the junk instead—at least she’d be making things here, too. Leaving her mark on the world. Nothing mechanical; she didn’t have the right parts for it. But she made an armada of floating ships out of glass tied together with strips of gold foil. She gave them shining gold sails, too, and raced them down the hall.
That was what she was doing when everything lurched. Jing-Wei slammed against the wall. From somewhere out of sight, Sparky sent her a stream of semicoherent messages: a keeper dressed in . . . bones? Another with blades in place of its arms. She saw a keeper plunging a claw through the chest of an old woman, like something from a horror film.
The image flickered and changed, and suddenly the old woman had Jing-Wei’s face.
“What’s wrong with you?” she said out loud. Was Sparky threatening her? She shivered. Or was he trying to warn her about something?
One last image: a picture of a door she recognized. It was close to the far end of the hallway; she’d never been able to open it, and Sparky hadn’t let her linger there for long either. She knew it from the red symbol etched on it.
The station rang like a bell, as if something enormous had struck it. Pretty rushed by her, going the other way. As she passed, she shoved Jing-Wei so she tumbled through the air and toward the door.
Adrenaline filled her veins. Something was really not okay, and she knew how to take an order when she had to. She kicked her way down the hall.
Jing-Wei passed a window, but the empty sweep of stars had changed. There was a keeper on the other side, in space. It had a drill attachment on one limb. It set the drill to the window, where it made a high, shivering whine that hurt Jing-Wei’s teeth.
Red lights began to flash up and down the hall. Klaxons blared. Jing-Wei half expected a robot voice saying, “Emergency, emergency.” Except the robots didn’t have voices around here.
She pounded on the door Sparky had sent her to. It hissed open. She pulled herself into this new room, and the door closed behind her. The room had a recliner, the first real furniture she’d seen in this place, and an enormous vista of stars. She tried to settle into the seat, though it was no easy task without gravity. She felt a gentle push, and through the window she finally saw the outside of the space station that was her home in this strange new life.
It was an arc, like a piece of leftover pie crust. Ducts and cables trailed into nothingness at either end, and she could now see that one of the doors she hadn’t been allowed near opened into empty space. This place had once been part of something much larger. She wondered what catastrophe had happened to the rest of it.
Or maybe it wasn’t so mysterious. There were keepers swarming the outside. She didn’t think they were the ones she knew. As she watched, one of them pulled off a section of the space station’s hull. The section exploded outward, pushed by the force of air racing into a vacuum. The attacking keeper was blown into space along with it.
“Dang,” she whispered.
She looked around, half expecting a robot to jump out and start disassembling the puny shell of metal and ceramic that protected her from the vacuum of space. She put two and two together: Sparky had sent her here to be safe. This must be an escape pod, then.
She went back to trying to figure out the buckles on her seat. In the end she wasn’t completely sure she’d done them the right way, but figured it would work well enough. Getting things to more or less work right was her specialty.
The escape pod plummeted toward the Earth. After a time, the window filled with light, so bright that she couldn’t look at it. Gravity returned too, sweet, beloved gravity. First she was pressed lightly into her seat, and then she felt heavy. Finally, it seemed as if the air around her had turned to stone, crushing her. The edges of her vision turned red, and then black.
When Jing-Wei woke up again, she was still strapped into her seat, and the view outside was of nothing but brick-colored dirt. She might have been out for minutes or for hours; she had no way to know. She unstrapped herself gingerly and slipped to the ground. Standing upright on her own two feet was a delicious luxury.
Time to get out of here, she supposed, and see where she was and what was going on. There might even be people around who would explain things to her better than the robots could.
There was a glass pad next to the door with the outline of a handprint on it. Jing-Wei smiled at it. Finally, a user interface she understood. She pressed her hand to the plate, and the door to her escape pod slid open.
A blast of dry air struck her, carrying a swirl of sand. She climbed out of the pod and found herself surrounded by waves of red dunes. Blue mountains rose in the distance, and lines of pale green scrub traced the hills between.
She felt dizzy. The sky was so big here, and she was all alone in the middle of it. She turned to look back at her escape pod.
And found she wasn’t so alone after all. There were keepers clinging to the outside of the pod, maybe half a dozen in total. One by one they detached from the pod and settled onto solid ground. That was some robust engineering if the things could fall from space and still be fine. Jing-Wei couldn’t help but be impressed.
Except . . . she took a few unsteady steps back. Maybe these were the bad keepers, the ones who took apart space stations and people. No, not keepers. Unbuilders.
Maybe she shouldn’t wait around to find out for sure. She turned to flee, but before she could go more than a few steps, one of the keepers chased her down and scooped her up. She twisted to get away and fell to the ground.
The keeper loomed over her, and she cringed away from its reaching arms. Then she recognized the keeper’s scuffed-up carapace, the holes. It was Sparky.
Sparky picked her up and cradled her under his body. He used three limbs to hold her in place, like one of those absurdly uncomfortable minimalist-design chairs. Then Sparky scrambled toward the mountains with a rapid, jerky gait. Apparently they weren’t done running yet.
Jing-Wei pounded on his shell. “Stop! What’s going on?”
Sparky sent her the same images he had on the space station: the funny-looking keepers, the old woman being killed. Jing-Wei thought about it. If they were still on the run, that meant she was still in danger. She did wonder, though, why she would be in danger in the first place.
But maybe the keepers were bringing her to people. That would be a nice change of pace. Not that the robots were bad company, but they weren’t exactly great conversationalists.
Jing-Wei stared at the faces of the teenagers bunched around her, like they were bees and she was the only flower for a hundred miles. Seyah had brought them all here to pass judgment on how to handle this emerging situation.
The wait had been brutal: Inez glaring at her from a dozen feet away. Jing-Wei trying to make conversation but getting shut down left and right the same way her mom had shut down requests to stay out after curfew. She even started to miss that thing where she hadn’t seen another human being in ages, because at least then she didn’t have anyone projecting hate out of their eyeballs at her.
When the squad arrived to look her over, it turned out that there were eight kids in all, evenly split between boys and girls, and racially diverse like a Disney show about kids running a circus or some shit. Every one of them looked like they’d seen a ghost. Except Inez, who still might as well have been on her guard against an ax murderer.
The youngest one chimed in first, the white boy with the round cheeks and the soulful blue eyes. “You really don’t remember us? I’m Hyrum.”
“And I’m May. We were friends, Jing-Wei,” said the Asian girl. She seemed shaken. “Remember? You were an amazing builder and you came up with a neat way to make hammocks in the jungle.”
“Jungle?” Jing-Wei looked around the scrubby hillside. Were all of these kids off their rockers, then?
The swole black boy stepped next to May and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “And I’m Gabe. I helped you carry all that plasti-steel stuff from the ruins.” He searched Jing-Wei’s face. “You really don’t remember any of it, do you?”
“How do you even know this is Jing-Wei?” Inez demanded. She drew herself to her feet. “This could be a . . . a clone, or a caretaker in disguise.”
“Can they do that?” Hyrum asked, horrified.
“I suppose we can’t prove they can’t,” said May. “I wonder what Holden would—”
“Holden left,” Inez cut her off. “We don’t need his superpower of knowing-better-than-the-rest-of-us to see what’s going on here. She’s definitely in league with the caretakers.” Inez finally turned her back on Jing-Wei to address her friends. “Did Seyah tell you she called them ‘my caretakers’? Like she thinks they’re friends.”
“I told them,” Seyah said.
“They are my friends,” Jing-Wei said. “And I think they wanted me to find you. Well, somebody, anyway.” Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember anything related that Pretty had told her back on the space station. “They made me because something went wrong? Or re-remade me, it sounds like, but they didn’t tell me about that part.”
Jing-Wei shook herself; she was going off the rails. “They needed me because they didn’t know how to talk to people.” She hesitated. “Pretty always said I’m supposed to talk to other people for them, but they never had anyone besides me. Until now.”
“How can you talk to them?” Gabe asked. He stared at Jing-Wei with a mix of revulsion and fascination. “They’ve never talked to us, and not for lack of opportunity.”
Jing-Wei shrugged. “They put something in my head when they made me,” she said, ignoring the dirty glare from Inez. The words flowed out of Jing-Wei’s mouth so casually now: They made me. “But it’s not like a radio or anything. It’s just . . . pictures, and lots of numbers.”
“What, like video?” May asked.
Jing-Wei shook her head. “There’s no audio, except static,” she said. She put her hands out, palms facing up. “Listen, I’m sure if you got to know the keepers like I do, you’d see that some of them are really helpful. They’re meant to be helpers.”
“Fat chance,” muttered a pale boy. Jing-Wei hadn’t caught his name. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Jing-Wei grinned, triumphant. “Okay then, I’ll prove it.” She whistled. “Hey, Sparky? Come on out.”
A flicker of motion came from the trees. A flash of red light. Her keeper emerged with an awkward, disjointed gait. Seyah shrieked; Inez froze in place, but only for a split second.
Inez pushed Seyah away. “Run,” she said.
Gabe pushed May behind him, then bent his knees and raised his spear, ready to fight by Inez’s side. The slim boy, Alex, put his thick walking stick up too. Looked like those were the scrappy ones.
The others started to back away, clearly torn between running at top speed to make a faster escape versus slipping away slowly, hoping to not catch the machine’s attention with any sudden motion.
Inez brandished her keeper arm as if it were a weapon. She looked crazed, hopeless. “I’ll hold it off as long as I can,” she said, her voice vibrating with urgency. “Now run!”
The view of Sparky’s undercarriage was really dull after a while. Jing-Wei twisted around and saw that the other keepers had followed along, single file, like marching ants. They demolished the miles far more quickly than Jing-Wei would have predicted, and she spent some time studying how they moved and balanced to try to figure out how they worked. They really were beautifully engineered.
They raced onward like that for what seemed like forever. Hours, maybe. The sun had started high in the sky; it sank until it cast long shadows from those distant mountains. And after a while, the running itself became unbearable. Each step jolted Jing-Wei to her bones. Sparky’s metal limbs pressed into her, and no matter how she shifted, there was no comfort to find. And eventually she had to pee.
She thumped on Sparky’s shell. “Hey, we really have to stop soon,” she said. She squirmed a little to try to take some pressure off her bladder. “I mean it.”
Sparky ignored her, or perhaps didn’t hear her at all. She pounded again. “I’m serious.”
The keepers just kept running. Pretty hadn’t even made it down to Earth; Jing-Wei wondered if she’d be able to get her message through to the other keepers anyway.
Jing-Wei kicked up, this time, to make a hollow ringing sound. Let’s see Sparky ignore that. “I need a break,” she pleaded. “I’m cold and tired, and I need something to eat, and a bathroom, and—”
Sparky stopped short then froze in place. Something inside of him clicked and whirred. Jing-Wei tried to wriggle her way out of the keeper’s grasp, but his limbs were immobile and she couldn’t get free.
The keepers stayed there, still like monuments, for about forty heartbeats. Then they turned in unison and began racing in a new direction. Now they were headed for the trees.
Maybe that was promising. But maybe not. Jing-Wei renewed her complaints, her Sparky-thumping, her fruitless efforts to slip out of Sparky’s arms. She’d just about given up when she saw lights through the trees.
Jing-Wei experienced a sudden flare of hope. Signs of civilization. Signs of life?
The lights streamed out from the windows of a rambling country house. It looked well kept, from the neatly pruned hedges to the sparkling clean diamond-paned windows. Except for the trees growing up and out through the roof.
Sparky finally set her down, and nudged her through the door.
Inside, the house was a curious mix of perfectly maintained and perfectly abandoned. There was no dust, the paint looked fresh, the wood floors gleamed. But the furniture was oddly sized and arranged. A chin-high table dominated one room, with chairs tucked under it that would have suited toddlers. Another room had a whole row of normal-sized dining room chairs carved from glass. And the whole echoing place turned out to be empty of people.
She found a bathroom that looked about right, except that none of the plumbing operated. After some debate with herself, she used the facilities anyway, wiped as best she could with an embroidered hand towel, and shut the door behind her.
There was a bedroom, too, with a low canopy bed the size of a swimming pool, studded with waist-high mounds of pillows and blankets. Now this she could get used to.
Once she sat down on the edge of the bed, Sparky gave her a protein bar and another bulb of dusty water to drink. The bars had been delicious enough the first time she’d eaten them, but now she could tolerate only a few bites before sheer boredom overwhelmed her. “You don’t have any Cheetos stashed anywhere, do you?” she asked the robot.
Sparky didn’t say much. No surprise there.
Eventually Jing-Wei climbed under the blankets. She fell asleep fast and completely, a sweet relief after the unsettled sleep she’d had in space. But she woke up a few times in the night. She had bad dreams, dreams about suffocating in an infinite space. Dreams about running forever. Dreams where she was the only person left in the world.
Every time she woke, though, Sparky was there, standing over her, keeping her safe.
The next morning, Jing-Wei hardly had time to wake up, use the facilities, and take the protein bar Sparky offered her before the keeper grabbed her and set off again.
Jing-Wei wondered where the keepers were taking her, or if they were taking her anywhere in particular. Maybe they were just running away. But from what? Wondering was all she could do. Sparky wasn’t much for small talk, and he didn’t always answer her even when the talk wasn’t small.
The day passed in inches and drops. Barely. Jing-Wei felt frozen in time, with no way to tell whether minutes had gone by, or only seconds, or maybe hours.
Twice she pounded on Sparky’s hull and asked for a rest break. Both times Sparky complied, handing her another bar and another bulb of water and giving her maybe fifteen minutes to stretch her legs. By late afternoon Jing-Wei found herself eyeing the scrubby little cacti nearby, wondering if it would kill her to eat them. She might even have been willing to chance it, just for the change of pace. She didn’t know if she could take one more protein bar.
Eventually Jing-Wei grew unsettled by how empty the terrain was. They didn’t cross any roads or fences along the way. After they left the house, there was no sign that humans even existed. Or ever had. When she’d first woken up here, she’d been too enchanted with her environment to start asking many of the big questions. Just being in space had been pretty big, and the terror of leaving space had crowded out anything else for a while.
But now she started to wonder where she was. And where everybody else was, for that matter. She asked, but Sparky only showed her a brief glimpse of an unhelpful map with a blinking dot on it. The map didn’t have any words on it, just the outlines of landforms and long strings of numbers.
The keepers ran, Sparky in front and a whole entourage behind. She spotted Bashful in the mix, and a few others she’d never properly met. More this morning than there had been last night. Where had they come from?
Together they ran for the mountains, making steady progress toward . . . something.
The sun was just beginning to set when they stumbled into the ambush. At first glance, the expanse of patchy grass they were crossing was perfectly ordinary. Sparky led straight across, the others still trailing behind in single file. Like Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, Jing-Wei thought, if it had been re-themed for The Matrix.
As soon as the last of Jing-Wei’s keepers had crossed into the open, figures erupted from beneath the ground: more keepers. They had been buried and lying in wait for their prey.
The new keepers were strange and frightening—wrong. Just like the ones that had attacked the space station. These must be unbuilders too, she thought. Some had decorated themselves with collections of bizarre odds and ends, like they’d missed the memo on acceptable media for arts and crafts day. They were strung with bones and studded with stones, coated in paint or in mud. Some had armored themselves with metal or enormous sheets of plastic. One had torn away all of its carapace, so its inner workings lay exposed. Jing-Wei twisted to try to get a better look at that one.
Many of them had replaced legs with other tools.
Some of those other tools looked awfully dangerous.
Sparky began to back away. Jing-Wei’s brain burst with a constellation of images, gone before she could recognize any of them. “What’s going on?” she whispered.
One final image: a skull and crossbones. That was about as universal a symbol as Jing-Wei could think of, and since she was the only thing here that was technically alive, she had no illusions about whose death was on the table here. Her fingers shook and her palms began to sweat.
One of the unbuilders raised a limb. It was thick and heavy at the end, covered in sharp spikes. It struck one of Jing-Wei’s keepers and left a rippling dent in its shell.
Just like that, the fight was on. Things happened too quickly for Jing-Wei to make heads or tails of them; it was just a barrage of sensory data that didn’t make any sense, no more comprehensible than Sparky’s message before the fight had started.
An arc of lightning sizzling from one machine to another. Two robots grappling together, removing each other’s legs. The harsh shriek of metal being torn apart. The smell of hot graphite bubbling up from a gap in a keeper’s shell. Fire, quiet and patient, licking at the desert scrub.
Sparky began to flee with Jing-Wei wrapped tight in his arms, his body between Jing-Wei and any possible threat. Something burst behind them, and Sparky toppled forward, somehow arcing into a somersault around Jing-Wei. The keeper pushed her away from the violence, toward the trees.
Jing-Wei didn’t need more than that. She pelted down the hill as fast as she could go, finally coming to a halt in a little hollow under a pine tree where she could see out but hopefully still be sheltered from harm. Though if the unbuilders saw with infrared, then there was nothing she could do to hide, anyway.
Sounds from the battle carried over to her—clanging, sawing, the thud of something heavy hitting the earth. Explosions.
Eventually the noise died down and the field went still.
Jing-Wei huddled where she was, barely breathing. Sparky didn’t come for her. But nothing else came after her either.
The sun finished setting, and the stars came out.
Jing-Wei shivered, afraid to move and afraid to let her guard down, in case one of those unbuilders was still waiting around to unbuild her. Damp settled into her skin, penetrating her jumpsuit as if it were nothing. She hugged herself for warmth and stared at the stars. There were more than she’d ever seen before in her life. She pretended that they were company enough to keep her awake.
Finally, at dawn, Jing-Wei crept back toward the still-smoking wreckage. It was simultaneously gruesome and comical. Pieces of keepers were strewn everywhere, a mess all too much like a bad day at the makerspace.
Jing-Wei leaned down to pick up a scrap of Bashful’s shell, then dropped it when it burned her fingertips.
She was suddenly, acutely aware of being alone, with that big sky watching her. She roamed the field of blackened parts, looking for something that could be salvaged. Or something that could tell her where to go from here.
Tap. Tap. Tap, tap.
The sound was the click of plastic against metal. An image appeared in Jing-Wei’s head, but it was scrambled; it might as well have been a photo of an unsolved jigsaw puzzle. The kind that was all paint splatter. Jing-Wei stepped gingerly around the husk of a broken keeper. Not one of her entourage. She would have recognized it, for sure: It had pieces of armor welded to its joints, like conch shells.
She searched for the source of the noise amid the wreckage. And eventually she found it. The keeper was seriously damaged—it was hard not to think of it as injured. One leg was snapped at the second hinge, and others were completely missing. Its carapace had been removed; a soft yellow fluid leaked from exposed lines. She ran gentle fingertips across the top of its shell. “What did they do to you, big guy?” she asked.
Between two wires, just next to a deep gash in its skeleton, there was a familiar blue flash.
Jing-Wei swallowed. “Sparky.”
She inventoried the damage as best she could. She didn’t know much about how a keeper was put together, but she had a lot of broken examples to go by.
She’d make it work. She’d bring Sparky back to life.
The main problem was a lack of tools, but Jing-Wei was surrounded by a generous supply of scrap metal to repurpose. Before long she’d found things she could use as wrenches, pry bars, even screwdrivers for the weird hex-head screws the keepers used. She set about making Sparky whole as best she could. She replaced that leaky tube with only a little trouble, and straightened a bent section of the machine’s skeleton with disproportionate effort. In the end it was still crooked, just . . . less so. But Sparky hadn’t been mint in box to begin with, so she didn’t think it would matter too much. She pulled out a cracked heat sink, its fins glistening, and found a whole one from another keeper. She was grave-robbing to make one life out of a couple dozen corpses. It was satisfying work, one of her favorite kinds of tinkering. Jing-Wei could almost pretend she was back at the makerspace for a few hours, making broken things whole, or making new things from broken pieces. She wondered what her little sister would’ve thought of a keeper as a toy instead of the jumping spider that, it turned out, had killed Jing-Wei.
There were lots of unmarked modular boxes inside Sparky that Jing-Wei couldn’t get into. She figured they might be power supplies or batteries, but it was possible one of them might be . . . Sparky, or at least the thing that was the most Sparkiest part of Sparky. The CPU or the hard disk or its equivalent, she couldn’t be sure. But some of those mystery boxes were pretty obviously busted too. She worried about this for a while as she crouched over her patient. If she took pieces from an unbuilder, would Sparky become an unbuilder too?
Well, it wasn’t like she had a lot of better options. She gently uncoupled wires and pried out the most damaged components, the ones that were crushed and singed. She took matching parts from other keepers and pushed them into place, then realized she had absolutely nothing even faintly resembling a soldering iron. She wouldn’t be able to get the wires hooked up properly. Dang.
Well, she could at least twist the wires together and see what happened.
As soon as she made the connection, Sparky woke up and became . . . chatty. Numbers counted up in Jing-Wei’s head, a test pattern of blocks of colors, a flurry of meaningless symbols. Then Sparky reached inward with one of his whole limbs, touching the place Jing-Wei wished she could have soldered. There was a flare of heat, the smell of hot metal, and then the connection was solid.
“That’s a neat trick,” Jing-Wei murmured.
Working together now, they repaired Sparky. The keeper directed her toward the parts he needed, and helped her to place them correctly. Gradually, the machine took over his own repairs, until by the end Sparky was limping through the field on his own, harvesting scraps of shell and securing them in place.
“Should we fix up your friends, too?” she asked. Sparky shook like a wet dog. Jing-Wei got the vague impression that he had decided that one fully functioning keeper would be better than two or three half-broken ones that might fail entirely in hours or days.
Almost done—just one last problem. They hadn’t been able to repair the keeper’s last broken leg; Jing-Wei and Sparky had both searched the remains, and there was no other fitting leg to use.
“Hey, I have an idea,” she said. She scurried toward the trees where she’d hidden through the night. “We can use a piece of wood, right?” She pulled a thick branch toward Sparky and used one of the unbuilders’ serrated arms to cut it down to size (well, until Sparky took over the job, presumably in the name of efficiency).
Jing-Wei helped him to fix the piece of wood into place. Now the keeper looked jaunty, like a pirate with a peg leg. She patted him on the carapace. “There you go, Sparky. Good as new.”
There was still a whole metaphysical question about whether the new keeper could be considered the same Sparky in any meaningful sense. But Sparky Senior hadn’t asked her any questions about her authenticity or identity, and Jing-Wei felt like it was only polite to return the favor to Sparky Junior.
Eventually, the keeper prodded her forward, again showing her a glowing dot on an indecipherable map. Origin or destination? Jing-Wei couldn’t guess. The mystery remained, but other things had changed. Now the keeper needed to conserve his energy; Jing-Wei would have to walk from here on out.
The keeper reared up and swiveled to look at Inez. She hefted her makeshift weapon, ready for anything the machine might throw at her.
Sparky was a patchwork of mismatched pieces, not unlike one of the unbuilders, come to think of it. Parts of his carapace were embossed with elaborate designs; parts were glossy and new, others scratched up, their best days long behind them. The leg Jing-Wei had replaced, the gnarled piece of wood, was much shorter than the others.
The keeper ambled closer to Inez, whirring softly. His biggest red “eye,” that steady red light, flickered madly like Sparky was winking at them.
“Get away from that caretaker,” the Latina girl warned Jing-Wei. “We’ll take care of it.”
“Sparky is fine!” Jing-Wei insisted. “There’s no problem here.”
Nobody was interested in what Jing-Wei had to say, though. Sparky reared up tall, his gaze still fixed on Inez. Inez shifted from side to side, poised to defend or attack, it wasn’t clear which.
For a moment, everything was still. A breeze moved through the tableau, ruffling Inez’s hair. “Why are you still here?” she hissed. It wasn’t clear if she meant Seyah and the gang, or Jing-Wei, or maybe just the patched-up keeper.
The keeper leaned forward, slowly, slowly, just a half an inch at a time, until he was almost touching Inez.
When he was only half a foot away from touching her, Inez threw herself at the machine. She kept up a steady, inventive stream of bilingual profanity as she attacked him. She struck at his red eyes with the wrench; she kicked at his legs with her feet. She hurled her shoulder at his body, hoping to unbalance him.
“Wait,” Jing-Wei pleaded. She looked at the others gathered around for support, but none of them seemed like they were about to take her side. Most of them had backed away and were watching warily, not sure if they should intervene to help Inez.
Gabe circled the pair, looking for an opening to attack the keeper without getting in Inez’s way.
The keeper danced away from Inez, then tried to grab her with his pincer arm. Inez ducked under his reach and clanged her weapon against the shell again. The keeper skittered back a few yards, supernaturally quick. He leapt, briefly lodging himself in a tree, then came down behind Inez.
“Stop it!” Jing-Wei was urgent now. “STOP!” She waved her arms to try to catch everyone’s attention. She might as well have been invisible, for all the effect it had.
Inez swung toward Sparky again: his weakest point, the peg leg. The wood snapped.
The unbalanced keeper pushed her as he fell, hard. Inez reeled back and landed badly on one foot. She cried out and dropped to one knee, then fell to her hip. “Jesus Christ, my ankle.” She glowered at Sparky and tried to pull herself back onto her feet.
Gabe stepped between Inez and the machine, fists high, not that they’d be much help to him. “Come at me,” he said.
Before Gabe or Inez could attack the keeper again, or the keeper could strike back, Jing-Wei threw herself in front of Sparky, the same way she’d kept her little cousins away from each other when they were set on a dustup.
“Enough,” she said. “ This is my friend!”
Inez slowly picked herself up from the dirt and spit on the ground at Jing-Wei’s feet. “You’re really friends with this—”
“The keepers brought me back to life,” said Jing-Wei. “Why wouldn’t we be friends?”
Seyah darted to Inez’s side and wrapped an arm around her, lips pressed tight and silent, like they’d taken some kind of oath of silence or some garbage.
Inez dropped her weapon onto the ground and buried her face in her hands. Her voice floated toward Jing-Wei, acid curling out into the trees. “You wouldn’t get it,” she said.
Jing-Wei decided to overlook that outburst. If Inez wanted to fight some more, well, she’d have to try harder. Jing-Wei wasn’t the one with a grudge, whatever that grudge was.
But maybe there was a way to chill this situation out a notch. “Sparky, take a hike. We need some space. I’ll be fine here.” She made a little shooing motion with her hands.
Sparky swiveled his gaze between the three girls, ever vigilant. Jing-Wei wasn’t sure if the keeper would do what she said. But then he scuttled back through the trees and out of sight. Probably not a step farther than that, though.
Inez twisted to look at Jing-Wei. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
Jing-Wei raised her arms high in the air. “What am I supposed to say for myself? Why are you so worked up? What in the world did I ever do to you, anyway?”
“It’s not what you did; it’s what they did,” Gabe said. He wasn’t as high-strung as Inez, but he wasn’t turning out to be a whole lot more friendly either.
“Sparky hasn’t done anything to any of you. None of them would ever hurt a—” She remembered a burning field, the remnants of violence, and stopped short. “Well, they’ve never hurt me, anyway.”
May pounced on her hesitation. “What would they hurt, then?”
“There were some other keepers,” Jing-Wei said. “It was . . . it was a fight.”
“Just go,” Inez said. “You and your pet murderbot. Both of you, get out of here. We don’t need any robot sympathizers. That’s already cost us enough.”
Jing-Wei put her palms up. “Hey, hey, we’re all friends here.”
“Are we?” Inez stared her down.
But Seyah put her finger on Inez’s arm. “Hang on a second,” she said softly. “I know this is hard, Inez, but we’re not exactly fighting from a strong position right now. And if she can talk to the caretakers, Jing-Wei might know some things that can help us.”
Inez stiffened at this. “Yes, but—” She looked toward where the keeper had disappeared.
Jing-Wei snorted. “Sparky is harmless, I promise. C’mon, give me a break. If we’d really wanted to hurt any of you”—Jing-Wei said this not at Inez but definitely loud enough to make sure she heard—“we would have done it already.”
Inez stared Jing-Wei down. When she spoke again, her voice was full of needles, like some kind of porcupine. “That’s enough from you. Listen up, everyone. We need to decide how to deal with this . . . this . . . traitor.”