“Don’t you want to know why you’re here?” Jing-Wei asked. “Why we’re all here?”
The rest of the teens looked at one another, nervous or doubtful, but Hyrum kept his eyes on Jing-Wei. She’d been back for a while now, but Hyrum couldn’t stop staring. Even though he knew it wasn’t polite. Even though she had caught him, at least twice. He’d believed, for so long, that this was the afterlife, although each death shook that belief a tiny bit, like an earthquake that didn’t really do much but rattle a few books off a shelf. And then Jing-Wei showed up without memories of any of them—and with a metallic companion. And Hyrum’s world had started shaking. Hard. It hadn’t stopped since.
“You’re telling us that caretaker knows why we’ve been remade?” May asked. May was good at being practical, even when Hyrum was swirling into a panic. Hyrum made a mental note to thank her later.
Jing-Wei patted the caretaker on the head. “Well, I’m pretty sure that’s what Sparky said. It can be hard to tell sometimes.”
The caretaker swung its large red eye from person to person.
Hyrum found himself straining forward, breaking the line of the small group as he took a baby step in the direction of the caretaker. He didn’t trust that thing, but if it had a reason for all of this, shouldn’t they at least hear it?
“All right, Sparky. Spit it out.” Jing-Wei crossed her arms.
Then her eyes went fuzzy and faraway, like she was looking somewhere on the horizon. But the way she’d described it, she was actually looking at pictures in her own head. Hyrum felt something deeper than a shiver, a sliver of discomfort that went all the way down to his soul. “Sparky’s showing me something . . .”
“I still don’t like the idea that it can drop thoughts into her head,” Inez muttered. “Am I really the only one who has a problem with that? Please raise your hand if you have a problem with that.”
The hands of pretty much everyone in the little group—May, Gabe, Sebastian, Amelia, Alex, and Inez herself—shot up. Seyah shrugged. “I don’t think you’d like it any more if the caretaker was talking to us. With an actual voice.”
“Good point,” Inez said, shuddering.
Hyrum hadn’t put his hand up, but that had nothing to do with liking the notion of caretaker telepathy. He was just so confused. Disoriented. He had no idea which way was up or down.
Where he was. Who he was.
If he’d really died and been brought back to life, was he still Hyrum? Did he still have the same opinions that Hyrum would? Would the Hyrum he remembered being want to know what this caretaker had to say?
“Okay. I see a handprint,” Jing-Wei said. “And then a picture of a worm? And then a big pit. And that’s definitely a picture of Earth. And then a bunch of people. Like, an enormous crowd of them. And then Earth again.”
“That’s the all-important message?” May asked.
“It doesn’t really make sense,” Seyah added, like she was sorry for stating the obvious, but the obvious was important.
“Look,” Jing-Wei said, sitting down unceremoniously on the nearest rock. She was clearly at the end of her patience. “I’m doing my best with what I have. And what I have is a keeper. They weren’t made to interface with humans. So they do the best they can.”
“Sorry if we’re not throwing that thing a parade,” Inez said, shifting her weight. Her ankle was still a mess, and she’d half hopped all the way here, ignoring Hyrum’s and Gabe’s attempts at help.
Hyrum felt bad for Jing-Wei, too. She had no idea what their group had gone through. If she’d been there when Teddy had died, would it be so easy for her to lean against one of the caretaker’s legs? Its bright eye flared at her touch. That would have looked cute if Hyrum weren’t afraid it was waiting for the right moment to dismember him.
Jing-Wei might not have been afraid to rest against the caretaker, but she did look exhausted. She put a hand to her forehead and rubbed it furiously, as if Sparky’s message was still repeating in there.
Remembering a trick to get rid of headaches that he’d learned from his mom, Hyrum stepped toward her to volunteer the information. Here, at least, he could be helpful. But when he stepped toward the re-remade girl, Sparky rushed between them, two pincer legs up as if it would attack. Seyah grabbed Hyrum’s arm and dragged him back, and the caretaker retrained its red eye on her instead. Seyah’s breath stopped, hard. She held herself perfectly still.
Hyrum looked around. Inez was glaring at everyone, including Hyrum and Seyah. And Sparky. “Nobody move.”
Gabe, Amelia, and...