Fourteen human children, plus one other. Distinct from one another in development, temperament, and origin. Bound together by chance; torn apart by philosophy.
These are the sole inhabitants of a city named Arcadia. She welcomes them as best she can, but her best is, alas, a shadow of what it should have been. Systems unused for untold years churn into erratic motion. They bring clean water from distant aquifers, heat from beneath the earth. Fabricators whine and grudgingly make food and clothing.
Arcadia produces other substances, also, to ease injuries of the mind and body. And she watches through a thousand lenses, waiting to reveal herself to them.
Human beings all have patterns and cycles, and these children are no exception. Their habits form quickly, perhaps copying routines from another time and place. The children go their separate ways, mostly in twos and threes, through the day, exploring or retreating into the luxury of privacy. But toward sunset every evening, they assemble to eat a meal together.
The fourteen gather around what was once a round conference table, and one by one collect tailored meals from the fabricator on the wall. This was once a medical facility, and so the fabricator is unusually well equipped for this purpose. The food provides healing agents, mood enhancers, increased caloric density. All the children know is that they are experiencing renewed vigor. Once they have their meals, they talk, and plan, and fight.
Today is the same as yesterday, and the day before. Holden enters first. He waits until a few others have joined: Amelia. Loki. Inez. Teddy. “Did you find anything today?” Holden asks.
Teddy shakes his head soberly. “Nope. Nobody home but us chickens. There’s nothing to find, Holden.”
Holden closes his fists, opens them. “There has to be something. Even if there’s nobody here, there has to be a clue about what happened to everyone.”
Sunita troops in, her hair still wet from bathing. “Robot uprising,” she says. “We have enough information already, Holden. We have a completely empty city, like the people just all walked away from it. Or were dragged away. And we have the caretakers, ready to rip us apart on sight. Do we really need any more clues than that?”
Is that what happened? No. No. No.
“None of that explains why we’re here, though.” Holden is plaintive.
May joins them. Hyrum. Cole. Alex. Gabe shakes his head at Holden before he can ask the question. “Came up dry. Nothing new.”
Neveah and Sebastian enter last. They shrug at Holden. “I’m sorry,” Nevaeh says in her gentle voice. “We’ll keep looking, but I don’t know if there’s anything to find.”
“There has to be something.” Holden looks at each member of his clan in turn. “There has to be a map somewhere, or some newspapers, or a library. If we could just find a library . . .”
This is a well-worn conversation, but nobody else is up to continuing their part in it today. Instead, Hyrum clears his throat and then speaks up in the silence that ensues. He is the least mature of the children, physically if not in other ways; his voice is still pitched to soprano, and he lacks the (over)confidence that sometimes comes with the rapid flush of testosterone. “It’s almost Christmas,” he says. “It’s two days from now. At least according to the calendar we started back at the first camp. And it looks a lot like Christmas out there, right, guys?”
Snow is falling outside. It will snow for three more hours, leaving behind six inches of accumulation. The streets of Arcadia are heated from below; in five hours, they will be clear of snow again.
A hush settles over the group. Each adolescent has been provoked into an emotional maelstrom by that one word: Christmas. The air fills with the chemical markers of stress and anxiety.
Inez clears her throat. “I did say we needed a party,” she ventures. “Blow off some steam. May as well be a Christmas party. It would be good for us.”
Hyrum is heartened by this small show of support. “It would be! We could have a tree, and presents, and a special feast, and—”
May snorts her skepticism. “Sure, and maybe Santa will get you that toy fire truck you’ve been wanting.” This is a surprising outburst coming from her; she has been subdued since coming to Arcadia. May presses her palm to the food fabricator. The machine whines and delivers a trio of small pastries filled with spiced potatoes and cabbage.
“I’m serious.” Hyrum turns pleading eyes toward May. “Christmas is important.”
May hesitates before answering, then pivots toward sympathy. “It is important to you, isn’t it?”
Nevaeh takes her turn at the fabricator and receives a rice dish studded with custom-grown sea creatures. “I’m sure we can put together some kind of celebration.”
“Not all of us even celebrate Christmas.” Loki sets his jaw, spoiling for a fight. “Remember? I may be the last Jew on Earth, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take up celebrating Christmas.”
Sebastian stares into...