The lights in the hallway fluttered three times, up down, up down, up down, as if signaling a curtain about to rise. Lunchtime. Sunita picked up her pace to hit a faster—but not too much faster—stride. Loki, alongside her, matched it.
“We’re on our way,” Loki said, some chirp in his voice.
“But we wouldn’t want to run in the halls,” Sunita added.
“Of course not,” Ozymandias said from everywhere and nowhere. His voice was neutral, cool but not freezing. And, by now, intensely familiar.
The doors to the commissary came up on their left, and Sunita waited as Loki pushed them open to let her enter first. A railed balcony surrounded an open floor of cafeteria tables—only one of which they ever used.
All the others had been on time. They sat in their usual seats at the long table nearest the doors, their hands folded neatly in front of them. Holden first, then Nevaeh, then Umta. On the opposite side, Cole, and two empty chairs for Loki and Sunita. No one said a word to either of them until they were in their places.
Holden nodded. He spoke stiffly. “Hello. We were getting worried we’d have to start without you.”
“Hi, guys.” Nevaeh cleared her throat. “I hope you’re hungry. I’m sure lunch will be delicious.”
Cole said nothing, suddenly busy checking his fingernails.
Umta grunted. She spoke, the words almost a whisper, “Why? It never is.”
Nevaeh shushed her.
“Hi, gang,” Sunita said as brightly as she could manage. “I hope Oz has something extra-good for us today.”
“Yes,” Loki said. “And how.”
He winked at her. She’d whispered in his ear last night when they were hanging out . . . or, okay, making out . . . that she felt a little like they were on some old black-and-white sitcom. “I keep waiting for a gee whiz to come out of my mouth,” she’d said. “And then I’ll know I’ve lost it.”
She winked back at him. “Gee whiz.”
Loki coughed into his hand.
“I’m glad you have time to amuse each other,” Oz’s voice came from above.
That sucked all the joy out of the exchange.
“It makes me upset when you’re late, as you know,” Oz said.
“We’re sorry, Oz,” Sunita said, looking down at the table. “We lost track of time. We came as soon as we realized.”
Silence stretched on for seconds. Sunita counted them. When she got to ten, Oz finally spoke.
“You all need your nutritious sustenance. You have to stay strong and healthy. And when you break the rules, you must learn that there are consequences.”
Holden’s hands tightened a fraction on the table in front of him. “We know, Oz,” he said. “You’re just looking out for us. We appreciate it.”
“Thank you, Holden.”
And then Oz appeared, flickering into existence as the child hologram they’d first met. This had been become rarer and rarer in the two weeks they’d been in Sanctuary. Usually Oz seemed content to be a faceless, bodiless voice. Omnipresent.
But the child version of Oz clapped his hands with excitement. How had they not noticed from the start that it was fake? It seemed so obvious now—like he imitated a human for their benefit. Which, Sunita supposed, he did. Her skin went cold. Why had he changed his manner? What new development awaited them? More rules to try not to break? Another time-out?
“Just this once,” Oz said, “I will overlook the infraction. Because today is a special day. Today I have a surprise for you.” Little kid Oz smiled at them with gleaming, empty eyes. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” Nevaeh answered, her hands knotted in her lap. Nervous.
“Very,” Sunita said, not wanting whatever surprise this was. Unless it was real food for once. Tasty, hot food. They were entirely dependent on Oz for meals, which usually tasted like deluxe cardboard.
“I have repaired some new attendants to help me meet your needs,” Oz said.
Before they could begin to figure out what that meant, the doors beside the food printer swung open. The answer came through them immediately.
The answers, plural. Someone gasped, and Sunita couldn’t have said if the sound had torn from her throat or another’s.
Clunky, chunky metal bodies covered in blunt edges and proto versions of the claws they were all too familiar with walked through the doors, some carrying lidded trays. They stopped in a staggered formation. One, two, three, four—Sunita wanted to stop counting—ten robots.
One for each of them, and then a few extra.
Plus Oz. They were badly outnumbered.
There’d never really been a chance to study caretakers in depth—since she and the others were usually fighting for their lives when they ran into...