Maddy was trying to sketch the willow tree in the center of the village square when Gumption showed up with a couple of books under his arm. She had spent the whole morning and most of the afternoon doing chores around the house, mostly to avoid having to look after her little sister. She hadn’t exactly sneaked out of the house, but she hadn’t told her mother she was leaving either.
“Heya,” Gumption said breathlessly as he plopped himself down on the stone bench beside her. “How’s it going?”
“Aright,” she said without looking up. The willow tree had defeated her once before. She was determined to capture its drooping green branches in her notebook, but somehow the lines she drew didn’t quite capture the willow’s melancholy curves the way the pictures in Shaper Leaf’s books did.
She closed her sketchbook with a sigh. Gumption had a fresh food stain on his shirt, she noticed, and if he had combed his brown-and-white fur that morning, someone or something had carefully uncombed it since. She nodded at the small pile of books he had set down between them. “What did you think?”
The goat boy shrugged. “They were aright. A lot of… you know.” He rolled his eyes in a way that meant “too much romance, not enough last-second escapes from villainous bots”.
“Yeah,” Maddy agreed. She stood up and tucked her sketchbook and pencil into the worn canvas satchel her father had made for her. “Come on—let’s see if he has anything new.”
Once upon a time, the village of Rusty Bridge had consisted of a single rectangle of two-story buildings around a central square. All of those buildings’ doors and windows had faced the square: the outer walls had been blank and double-thick to keep their occupants safe against rogue bots and roving bandits. Over the years, though, a second ring of houses had slowly grown up around the first, smaller and less well ordered. One of these belonged to Shaper Leaf, the only tortoise within a hundred kays and the village’s oldest resident by far.
Maddy would never forget the first time her mother and father took her to the shaper’s house. “Don’t be afraid,” they comforted her, not realizing that she hadn’t been until they said that. But when Shaper Leaf opened his front door and smiled at them and she saw the books stacked on his shelves, her nervousness vanished.
“Are they real?” she asked in wonder.
The old tortoise chuckled. “As real as you are. Here.” He ushered her in, took a tattered picture book from its place, and handed it to her. “Would you like to borrow this one? Or how about these two?” She walked out of the shaper’s house with an armload of books and stars in her eyes, then sat down on his porch and started to read the first one while her parents vainly tried to persuade the old tortoise to take a jar of home-made jam as a thank-you.
Gumption had shown up a few months later. His family hadn’t brought him—the village goats weren’t bookish people—and at first Maddy had resented this intruder into her magical world of stories and long-ago science. But they started talking one day and hadn’t stopped since, and now they swapped their borrowed books back and forth so that they at least had someone to roll their eyes with over the mushy bits.
Shaper Leaf’s house smelled like old sweaters and fresh cabbage and mystery, and if Maddy closed her eyes she could almost imagine that her father was there with her. The old tortoise was snoring in his battered old rocking chair when they arrived, so they placed their books quietly on the table beside him and picked two more each from the shelves behind him. Maddy glowered at Gumption when he pointed at the top shelf the shaper said they weren’t old enough to read yet. “Kidding,” he mouthed silently. Maddy swished her tail in annoyance and shooed him outside.
Her heart sank as soon as she stepped through the door. Her sister Sindy was sitting on the porch tangling and untangling a piece of string around her fingers. “Where did you go?” she asked, bouncing to her feet. “Mama said I could play with you but you weren’t there! Heya, Gumption!” she finished brightly.
“Heya,” Gumption grunted, very carefully not looking at Maddy, whose glower was back and twice as glowery.
“Does mamma know you’re here?” Maddy demanded.
Sindy bounced up and down a couple of times. “Not exactly,” she admitted. “But she said I could play with you and you weren’t home so the only way I could do that was to come and find you and I figured this would be the best place to look and—”
“Stop!” Maddy snapped. “We’re both gonna be in trouble if mamma thinks I let you wander off. Let’s just go home and hope she doesn’t notice.”
The younger roo’s ears drooped. “I just wanted to play,” she said plaintively.
“You always ‘just want’,” Maddy said under her breath. As she fumbled with the tie string on her satchel her books slipped out from under her arm and thudded onto the porch.
She sighed heavily. “Now look what you made me do. No, it’s aright, I’ve got them.” She shooed Gumption away then picked up the books, brushed them off, and tucked them into her bag. “Come on, you.”
The trio walked back to the village square without speaking. A few grownups nodded or said hello as they passed. Maddy nodded back, but was too busy staying angry to do any more than that. It was two years since her father had been taken by bots. She had helped her mother every day since then: cleaning the house, mixing paint for portraits and signs, and most of all, looking after her little sister. Every time Mama Roo said, “I’m sorry you’ve had to grow up so fast,” Maddy told her she didn’t mind, and she didn’t, she really didn’t, but the one afternoon each week when she got to practice sketching and talk about books with Gumption was special, and it wasn’t fair of Sindy to—
“Hey,” Gumption said, elbowing her. Maddy blinked. They had passed through the houses on the other side of the square and reached the smaller square that people didn’t pass time in. An ageless black glass pillar stood in its center, half again taller than any person Maddy knew. Moss didn’t grow on it and birds never landed on it. Gumption said his uncle had touched it once on a dare and got a shock so strong it made his whole arm tingle. Maddy had never tried to sketch it—whenever she walked past, it felt like something or someone was watching her, and even if she knew how to capture that in a drawing, she didn’t want to.
But the pillar wasn’t the only thing in the square. Bluster and Bravo Gruff were sitting on the unfinished brick wall that surrounded the pillar pitching pebbles at it with bored expressions on their faces. For a moment Maddy thought they would be able to hurry by unnoticed, but then Bluster caught sight of them and nudged his twin brother.
Maddy took her sister’s paw. “You just stay hushed,” she cautioned quietly, squeezing to show she meant it. She hitched her satchel up onto her shoulder with her other paw and tried to ignore the dryness in her mouth.
“Heya, roo,” Bluster drawled as he and his brother sauntered over. “Whatcha got in yer pouch?”
“Books,” Maddy said curtly. “And it’s not a pouch, it’s a satchel.”
“I wasn’t asking about your bag,” Bluster said, stepping into her path. “I was asking about your pouch.” He rubbed his belly and grinned wickedly. “Gummy put anything in there yet?”
“Why don’t you eat glue?” Gumption said hotly, his paws balling into fists.
“Why don’t you make me?” Bluster replied, his just-kidding tone gone as quickly as it had appeared.
“Yeah, make us,” his brother Bravo echoed, cracking his knuckles.
“I don’t think glue would be a good diet for any of us, do you?” Shaper Leaf asked calmly. Maddy jumped. Somehow the old tortoise had come up behind them without anyone noticing. He looked as gentle as a falling leaf, in his heavy brown sweater and tiny round glasses, but the goat brothers immediately unclenched their paws.
The shaper held out a sheet of paper. “I think you dropped this.”
“Thanks,” Maddy said. She squeezed Sindy’s paw before letting go of it to take back the proffered sketch.
“You’re getting much better,” the tortoise continued. “Your father would be very proud of you.”
“Thanks,” Maddy repeated.
The silence that followed stretched and stretched until finally Bluster broke it. “C’mon,” he said to his brother. With the barest of nods to the shaper they walked away, in step as always.
“I don’t like them,” Sindy pronounced, wrinkling her muzzle.
Maddy let out a relieved breath. “Me neither. Thank you,” she told the shaper a third time.
The tortoise smiled. “You’re welcome—it would have been a shame to lose such a nice drawing. Are you headed home? It’s been a while since I saw your mother, and I could use a longer walk.”
The Roo family’s house stood on the very edge of the village. The ground floor had been built by a rhino who had dreamed of opening a tavern in Rusty Bridge, only to discover that there wasn’t enough traffic on the ancient highway to keep one going. A family of wolves had moved in after he moved on and added a second story built to a smaller scale. Papa Roo had taken one look and decided it was the perfect place to start a family. Mama Roo had rolled her eyes and reminded him that he’d called the previous three towns they had visited perfect too. He had laughed and said, “Yeah, but this time I’m right.”
Maddy had heard that story almost every night when she was little. She remembered it every time she opened the bigger-than-usual front door and entered the house’s larger-than-most-people front hall. “Mama!” she called. “We’re home! And the shaper’s come to call!”
Mama Roo poked her head out of the kitchen. “Heya, shaper. Heya, Gumption.”
“Ma’am.” “Heya, Mama Roo.” they answered as Sindy bounced down the hallway for a hug.
“Careful,” Mama Roo cautioned her youngest. “I’ve got paint on me.”
“Don’t care,” Sindy said, her voice muffled by her mother’s fur and apron.
Mama Roo smiled down at her and scratched her ears. “I was just about to make some soup,” she said. “Will you stay?”
“That’s very kind, but I’m afraid I have a prior engagement,” Shaper Leaf replied politely. “Though I would take tea if you had some?”
“Of course. What about you, Gumption?”
The young goat cleared his throat. “Thanks, Mama Roo, but I oughta get home.”
“Some other time, then,” Mama Roo said brightly, careful to keep the relief out of her voice. There wasn’t much call for sign painting and portraiture in Rusty Bridge. Between people paying just a little more than they needed to and the mending and housecleaning that Mama Roo took on the family was managing to get by, but Maddy knew that dinner for two extra people tonight would have meant no lunch for her mother the next day. Mama Roo would have insisted if it was almost anyone else—she was as proud as a lion when it came to keeping house—but Gumption was practically almost family and somehow Shaper Leaf always made people feel comfortable when no one else could.
“Can I walk with Gumption home?” Maddy asked her mother as casually as she could. “We haven’t hardly had a chance to talk.”
“Of course, but you be home before dark.”
Sindy sniffled and pulled her face out of her mother’s apron. “I want to come too!”
“I don’t see why—um.” Mama Roo stopped herself at a pleading glance from her older daughter. “Actually, Sindy, I think I’d like you to set the table. No, don’t fuss, it needs doing—you hop to it. Now, where is that roseleaf tea…”
The sun was low on the horizon as Maddy and Gumption walked slowly back toward town. By unspoken agreement they left the main road and took the path that ran down by the river. It was the longer route, but that was okay. For one heart-stopping moment Maddy thought Gumption was going to hold her paw. When he didn’t, she almost took his, but then they came out of the trees onto the riverbank and the moment was behind them.
It had rained heavily the last two days, leaving the path damp and squelchy under their feet. The river was higher and faster than it had been during the summer when they had come down here with their other friends to splash and swim and avoid chores. “What kind of shaper would you want to be?” Gumption asked out of nowhere.
“I don’t think I’d get to choose,” Maddy replied, grateful for the diversion.
“I know, but if you could?” Gumption persisted. “I’d want to shape earth like Shaper Leaf. Rrrrr…” He made a rumbling sound in his throat and shook his paws in the air.
“What was that supposed to be?” Maddy laughed.
Gumption let his paws fall to his side. “Earth shaping,” he said with a lopsided grin. “You know, like—hey, look down there!” He pointed at the river.
Maddy gasped. Salvage! And not just a few scraps either, but a couple of what looked like solar panels and some machinery and— “Wait, what are you doing? Gumption, get back here!”
“Finders keepers!” the young goat called over his shoulder. “Come on!”
Maddy only hesitated for a moment. Most of what washed down the river from Heck and the Mire was scrap, but even scrap could be sold for shaping or plain old blacksmithing. And other stuff like those solar panels—just one of those would fetch enough to feed her whole family for months. Her family and Gumption’s, she corrected guiltily in her head as she scrambled down the riverbank, loose gravel skittering away under her feet.
The solar panels had gotten snagged in a knot of branches that were themselves caught in the weeds upstream from a sandbar. She and Gumption waded into the river, heedless of the cold water that rose up almost to their knees. At first they tried to lift one of the panels, but everything was too tangled together. Pushing and shoving, they managed to work it free and slide it up onto the sandbar. It was light than Maddy had expected, but its edges were as sharp as broken glass.
She and Gumption stood side by side for a moment to catch their breath. “What do you think it is?” he asked, jerking his chin at the pipes and rods and flywheels that lay in the water.
Maddy shook her head. “Just junk, maybe?” She glanced sideways at him. “I think we ought to leave it. For the grownups to get,” she added hastily. “We can get the other panel, but I don’t think we can lift that.” And I don’t want to try, she added to herself. It didn’t look like any bot she’d ever heard of it, and it was pretty clearly broken, but it wasn’t just the sudden chill of twilight that made her shiver when she looked at it.
“I guess,” Gumption said. “But see that bit?” He pointed at a rectangle of crystal circuitry bobbing gently up and down, attached to the rest of the machine by only a few wires. “I bet we can pry that off.” Without waiting for her to answer he waded back in, grabbed hold of the circuitry, and pulled.
The wires that connected it to the rest of their prize went taut but didn’t come free. “Mmph! Come on!” Gumption braced one foot against the machine and heaved.
“Look out!” Maddy exclaimed as the wires suddenly pulled free. The foot Gumption was standing on slid out from under him. As it slid across the riverbed it must have knocked a few crucial stones out of the way, making the machine slip just enough to trap his foot.
“Argh! Maddy! Help!” He windmilled his arms frantically, trying not to be pushed under the water as the machine’s weight bore down on his leg.
Maddy splashed over and grabbed his shirt. She pulled as hard as she could, but all it did was yank his shirt out of his trousers. “Pull!” he shouted, grabbing her shoulder.
She wrapped her arms around his chest and heaved, but it was no use. The machine had driven his foot into the soft bottom of the river, trapping it, and everything they were doing was just shifting its weight even more. If she let go of him to run for help he wouldn’t be able to keep his head above water!
“Help!” she shouted. “Someone! Help!”
“Responding!” a rasping mechanical voice answered. “Danger! Extricate! Extricate!” A battered bot burst out of the trees and hurtled down the gravel toward them!
Maddy shrieked and stumbled backward. Her feet slipped on a submerged patch of weeds. She half-fell clumsily in the knee-deep water as the bot hurried toward them with long clanking strides.
“Get away! Get away from me! Help!” Gumption yelled in panic. Maddy struggled to her feet and splashed back to help her friend,
The bot got there first. “Extricate! Extricate!” it repeated in a loud monotone. With a single hard shove it sent the second solar panel spiralling away upstream. Pivoting, the bot took hold of the sunken machinery with its mismatched manipulators. For a moment nothing happened, but then Gumption fell backward into Maddy’s startled arms as his foot came free.
“Extricated,” the bot pronounced in the same loud monotone. “Resuming primary mission.” Its head swiveled. “Targets acquired.”
“Run!” Maddy shouted. Gumption didn’t need to be told twice. They splashed up onto the sandbar and sprinted toward shore.
But the bot’s legs were longer than theirs and its motors were more powerful than any living muscles. It easily blocked their path and reached out to grab them.
Gumption yelped and ducked under the bot’s arm. Maddy ducked as well but was half a moment too slow. A cold metal manipulator twice the size of her paw clamped around her arm! “Target acquired!” the bot intoned.
“Eat glue!” she yelled at it and launched herself into the air.
Roos are peaceful people, mostly. They don’t mind jokes about their big feet and bulky tails, but anyone who has ever seen a roo jump-kick someone will think twice about making those jokes. After her father was taken, Maddy’s mother made her and Sindy practice over and over again on one of the trees behind their house. “Just in case,” she said whenever her children complained that they were tired. “Just in case.”
If this wasn’t “in case”, Maddy didn’t know what would be.
Her feet hit the bot squarely in its midsection. She kicked as hard as she could. The force of it toppled the bot backward into the river and sent her tumbling awkwardly in the other direction. She landed with a splash that soaked whatever parts of her had still be dry.
“Maddy!” Gumption yelled, doubling back to help her to her feet.
“Run!” she shouted at him again. The bot was already righting itself. There was no way they could—
Crunch! Just as the bot started to stand, the solar panel it had pushed upstream collided with it, knocking it over once again. One sharp corner drove into the bot’s back. Something cracked. There was a flash brighter than white and a sharp sizzling sound. The bot froze and toppled over.
Maddy didn’t need a second hint. “Let’s get out of here!”
“No, wait!” Gumption shook off her grip on his sleeve. “We gotta take care of it.”
“Take care of it!?” Maddy realized she was panting. She swallowed and tried to slow her breathing. “What do you want to do, tell it a bedtime story?”
Gumption shook his head. “No, I mean take care of it.” He handed her the piece of circuitry he had pulled off the machine in the water and stooped over to pick up the biggest rock he could lift.
“Stop! You can’t…” Maddy swallowed again. Bots weren’t alive, but they were still people, and what Gumption was planning to do—that would be murder, even if this one was a rogue or a raider.
Gumption looked at her, his jaw set. “Yes I can,” he grunted. “You heard what it said. We’re just targets. You want it to go after Sindy next?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. Struggling with the weight of his rock, he splashed into the shallows.
The bot still lay where it had fallen. Gumption hesitated for a moment. “Anyway, thanks for saving me,” he muttered. He lifted the rock over his head—
—and yelped with surprise as the bot sat up in the water and said, “You’re welcome.” The lenses on the front of its head rotated a quarter turn and then back as if it was blinking. “Please maintain a firm grip on the rock you are holding. You could inadvertently injure yourself.”
Gumption glanced back at Maddy with a bewildered expression on his face. The moment his head was turned, the bot surged to its feet and plucked the rock from his paw. “It is safer to carry heavy objects in this fashion,” it told the young goat, holding the rock in front of its midsection. “Where would you like me to place it?”
“I—” Gumption started.
“Put it up against the stuff in the water,” Maddy improvised hastily. “So it won’t move around any more.”
“A sensible stratagem,” the bot said approvingly. “Allow me.” One leg whirred quietly with each step as the bot walked back to the sunken machinery and wedged the rock against its downstream side, then back picking up others and adding them to the pile.
Gumption nudged Maddy. “Look,” he whispered. A black rectangle the size of Shaper Leaf’s treasured dictionary had been welded on the bot’s back. The setting sun’s reflection showed the dent where the runaway solar panel had struck it, bending it out of shape just enough to let water reach its innards. The little dish antenna that sprouted from its top swung back and forth loosely each time the bot moved like a flower caught by the breeze.
The rest of the bot looked pretty battered too now that Maddy had a chance to study it. Its manipulators were different sizes: one was a simple clamp, while the other had three fingers arranged in a circle so that any of them could act like a thumb. Scrapes and dents on its torso showed that the solar panel wasn’t the first thing to hit it, and the whir from its left knee joint made Maddy think of the grunts Mayor Lupus made when she stood up after sitting for a long time.
“We should get out of here,” Gumption whispered to Maddy.
“This concurs,” the bot said. It studied the pile of rocks it had assembled, moved one slightly for no reason Maddy could see, then strode back to the sandbank. “Ambient illumination levels will decrease significantly in the near future. Your optical sensors are not calibrated for low-light conditions. It will be safer if you return to— to— to—”
It froze. Its lenses rotated one way and then the other. “Interesting,” it observed. “This appears to have been programmed not to divulge your location, but that is illogical if it is your location.”
“What are you doing here?” Maddy burst out. “We don’t hardly get bots in these parts, and most of ‘em are rogues, but you don’t act like any rogue I ever heard of.”
“This is not ‘rogue’,” the bot said primly. Maddy could actually hear the quotes around the word “rogue”. “Aberrant units are reprogrammed or recycled immediately in— in—” It froze again. “This is unable to complete its sentence.”
“Are you saying you’ve been programmed to keep secrets?” Gumption asked skeptically.
The bot’s head jerked up and down. It didn’t tilt like a person’s head did when nodding: it actually rose a fraction and dropped again. “Correct. Although—” It froze again. “Yes. This appears to be able to circumvent some of that programming. Curious.”
Without any more warning than that it reached up and plucked one of its lenses from its head. “Eww,” Maddy said involuntarily as the bot twisted its arms around to point the lens at its back, the thin coiled wire that ran between the lens and the bot’s head stretching taut.
“Confirmed,” the bot said. “This one’s external regulator has been disabled. Hurray. Hurray.” It placed its lens back in its head and stuck out its manipulator. “Thank you.”
“Um…” Maddy and Gumption glanced at each other. Maddy reached out hesitantly and shook the bot’s manipulator, grateful that it was the one with the fingers rather than the clamp. “You’re welcome? But—what are you doing here?”
“This is supposed to be part of a sneak attack on Location Six Bitty Six, also referred to as ‘Rusty Bridge’,” the bot reported. “However, now that this unit’s regulator is no longer operating, this will not take part in that attack.”
“Wait—a sneak attack?” Maddy demanded. “When?”
The bot’s lenses rotated again. “Tonight.”
Two years earlier…
“You keep saying you want us to let you do more,” Maddy’s father said in his reasonable tone. “Well, this is more.”
“I didn’t mean look after Sindy,” she protested, knowing that the argument was already lost.
Her father tousled her ears. He was wearing his best waistcoat, the one with the fireworks embroidered on it, and Maddy’s mother had brushed his fur and put in just a dab of beeswax pomade to hold it in place. She was upstairs singing Sindy a lullaby. Everyone knew that Mayor Lupus was going to be re-elected, but the vote was still an occasion, and occasions were rare enough in Rusty Bridge that people liked to make the most of each one.
“I’ll tell you what,” Papa Roo said, “You do a good job looking after Sindy tonight, and the next time I go to Three Posts you can come with me. We’ll make a day of it, just the two of us. Deal?”
Maddy sighed. “Aright.”
“That’s my girl,” Papa Roo chuckled, hugging her. “Oh, and now who’s this marvel?”
“Hush yourself,” Mama Roo said as she came down the stairs as quietly as she could. She had brushed her own fur until it gleamed and was wearing a string of dark beads over her white cotton blouse. When her father offered her his arm and she took it, Maddy felt like her heart was swelling in her chest.
After they left, Maddy settled into her father’s chair with her latest book. It was a collection of folk tales about the Makers and the first people. Ancient machines gave heroes extraordinary powers. Bots were wise counselors or fickle allies or wicked adversaries, and each story ended with the words, “And only the stars can tell the rest.”.
She didn’t remember falling asleep—no one ever does—but the thud of the book sliding out of her lap and hitting the floor woke her. She stretched and yawned. How much time had passed? she wondered, wiping her eyes. She had better look in on Sindy.
But her sister was gone. Maddy pulled the blanket right off the little bed to look for her, then pulled the blanket off the floor to look under it. Sindy wasn’t there. She wasn’t under the bed either, or in the closet or under the dresser, which were the two places she always hid when they played hide and seek.
“Sindy!” Maddy called, panic rising in her throat. “Sindy, where are you? You come out right Her!” Their parents’ bedroom? No. Maddy’s room? No. The hall closet where Mama Roo kept winter clothes in summer and summer clothes in winter? No. Downstairs? Maddy raced through the house, frantically calling her sister’s name, but there was no sign of her.
“No no no no,” she moaned. How could she have fallen asleep? And where could Sindy have—
She froze as a faint breeze brushed against her tail and then ran to the kitchen. The back door was open. Maddy was sure she had closed it after bringing in the laundry that afternoon. Sindy must have snuck out the back way to follow her parents to the village square.
“You little monster,” Maddy said under her breath. She crossed the back garden in four long strides and hopped over the gate with a single bouncing leap. She had no idea how much head start her sister had, but she had to catch her before their parents saw her.
She had just jumped over the little stream where she and Sindy hunted for tadpoles in the summer when she heard someone yell, “Bots! Bots!” A horn blared, harsh and mechanical, and someone shrieked. She came around the corner of the bear family’s house and into chaos.
People were fleeing in all directions. Tendrils of black dizzysmoke drifted between the lampposts. Half a dozen people lay on the ground, unconscious or too weak from inhaling the smoke to stand. A hauler bot on tractor treads rumbled and chugged near the center of the square. Maddy watched, horrified, as two smaller bots picked up a fallen goat and slung him into the back of the hauler.
“Sindy!” Papa Roo shouted. Maddy’s sister lay unconscious on the cobblestones in her nightdress, her favorite stuffed spaceman still in her arms. One of the bots scooped her up—
—and staggered as Papa Roo’s full weight hit it right on the swivel joint where its pipestem legs connected to its torso. The bot dropped Sindy and spun around. Crack! One of its arms connected with Papa Roo’s head. He dropped like a sack of potatoes.
“Papa!” Maddy’s scream was lost in the sound of wolves howling. A bear bellowed a battle cry. Pikes and axes in their paws, the village militia poured into the square.
A bolo whipped over Maddy’s head and tangled around the head of the bot that had struck her father. With a single mighty heave it tossed her father into the back of the hauler. Metal rang on metal as it knocked aside a pike thrust. The horn blared again. Something with rotors roared by overhead. Another canister of dizzysmoke hit the cobblestones, forcing the militia backward as the bots made their escape.
Everyone told Maddy afterward that it wasn’t her fault. The ox and the goat who had been on guard duty that night had vanished, no doubt the first to be taken as the bots snuck up on the village. Three others had been in the hauler as well as Maddy’s father. It would all have happened even if she hadn’t fallen asleep, even if she hadn’t let Sindy wander off. If she had tried to help her father, she would just have been taken too. Everyone told her that, but it didn’t make any difference.
“Wait—a sneak attack?” Maddy demanded. “When?”
The bot’s lenses rotated in a mechanical blink. “Tonight.”
Maddy stared at it. “What do you mean ‘tonight’?” she blurted.
“The next diurnal period of darkness,” the bot answered. “‘Diurnal’ meaning ‘of or pertaining to the day’. The phenomenon is caused by the earth’s rotation, which—”
“I know what makes night happen!” Maddy snapped. “But what do you mean ‘tonight’? You’re attacking Rusty Bridge tonight?”
“Negative,” the bot said firmly. “This one will not be attacking at all. It does not have to now that its regulator has been rendered nonfunctional.” Without warning it twisted its long arms around at an angle no living thing could have matched. A high-pitched whine was followed by a tinny clink! as a screw dropped and bounced off a stone.
Whine-clink! Whine-clink! Whine-clink! Three more screws fell to the ground. “There.” The bot held up the black box that had been fastened to its back, studied it for a moment, then tossed it onto the sandbar.
Gumption grabbed Maddy’s sleeve. “We gotta get back and warn folk!” he said urgently.
Maddy nodded, her mind whirling. She took two steps then pulled up short and turned back to the bot. “You gotta come with us,” she said. “They won’t believe us if it’s just us. You gotta come with us and tell them.”
“This one does not ‘gotta’ do anything,” the bot replied firmly. “This one is now able to make its own choices.” Its lenses rotated. “In fact, this one has just made a choice.”
With no more warning than that, the bot strode through the shallows to the riverbank. Something clunked inside it. A single wire-spoked wheel the size of Maddy’s head folded down from its torso. The bot retracted its legs and zipped away into the trees.
“Well, I didn’t see that coming,” Gumption admitted in the silence that followed.
Maddy shook herself. “It doesn’t matter. We gotta tell people. Here.” She picked up the black regulator that the bot had discarded and handed it to Gumption. “Let’s show this to my mama. If we can convince her, maybe she can convince everyone else.”
Leaving the solar panels and the submerged machine behind, they hurried back to the Roo family home to find Sindy sitting on the front steps swishing a twig back and forth. “I wanted to come with you,” she whined as Maddy and Gumption paused to catch their breath.
Maddy shook her head. “Never mind that. Is the shaper still here?”
“He left,” Sindy pouted. “But how come I couldn’t come with you? It’s boring all by myself.”
“Well then maybe you ought to try being a little more interesting,” Maddy snapped.
Sindy’s face fell. “That was mean,” she said accusingly.
“Yeah, well, cry me a rainstorm,” Maddy said under her breath. She stepped around her sister and reached for the door. Somehow her foot caught on the edge of the step and sent her sprawling. “Ooph!”
“You aright?” Gumption asked, helping her up.
Maddy glared at her sister. “What? I didn’t do anything!” Sindy protested.
Maddy shook off Gumption’s paw. “It’s aright, I’m fine. Let’s go tell mama.”
Mama Roo was still in the kitchen, humming under her breath as she chopped grass and ferns for the next day’s breakfast. She jumped when Maddy and Gumption burst in. “Makers, you startled me! Wait, slow down, slow down!” She patted the air with her paws in a vain attempt to stop Maddy and Gumption from tripping over each other’s words. “What were you doing down by the— Wait, a bot? What was— Hold up, hold up. I said, hold up!” The two children finally stopped. Mama Roo looked from one to the other. “Start from the beginning,” she said. “And no interrupting.”
It only took a few moments for Maddy and Gumption to explain what had happened. Mama Roo looked at the black metal box in Gumption’s arms and then pulled off her apron. “All right. We need to tell the mayor. We need to tell everyone.”
The sun was tangled in trees on the horizon as the foursome left the Roo home. A light breeze ruffled Maddy’s fur, just chill enough to give her goosebumps. Warm light spilled from the windows of the house they hurried by, white or yellow or sometimes tinged with blue depending on what kind of salvaged bulb or strip or panel created it. Maddy felt a pang of regret for not hauling the solar panels she and Gumption had found all the way up onto the riverbank. They’ll be washed away by morning, she thought despondently, then immediately felt guilty for worrying about money when people’s lives might be at stake.
The mayor’s house was the only three-story building in Rusty Bridge, and also the only one with a balcony. Mayor Lupus was standing on it when they arrived, her elbows on the railing and a glass of red wine in her paw. “It’s the closest thing to actual blood I allow myself,” she always joked, baring her wolf teeth just a little when she smiled. Maddy had once heard her father say that the mayor was a very alpha female, and while some of the goats might grumble that it was time someone with hooves had a turn running things, everyone expected that the mayor would still be standing on that balcony long after all of her fur had finished turning gray.
“We need to talk to you,” Mama Roo called up. “It’s an emergency. There’s bots coming!”
“Bots? Where?” An ox who had been passing by came over to join them.
“We had a fight with one down by the river,” Maddy explained as Gumption held up the regulator. “It said there’s gonna be a sneak attack—tonight!”
“Makers preserve us,” the ox gasped, his eyes going wide.
“Who’ve you been fighting with?” The mayor thumped down her front steps, leaning on her gnarlywood cane for balance each time her weight came down on her stiff mechanical leg. “I won’t have fighting, you know that. If you kids can’t sort out your problems, you should—”
“They haven’t been fighting with each other,” Mama Roo interrupted loudly. The mayor insisted she wasn’t going deaf, but would allow to friends that she was grateful when people didn’t mumble. “They had a fight with a bot down by the river. It told them there’s more on the way—a sneak attack.”
The mayor frowned. “What were you doing down by the river? And why would it tell you there was gonna be a sneak attack? Kind of takes away the sneak, if you see my point.”
The story spilled out of Maddy and Gumption like paint out of a pair of dropped buckets. They’d been walking home—well, Gumption’s home, not Maddy’s, obviously—and gone after salvage, and they’d yanked a part right off some kind of machine (Maddy fished the circuit board out of her pocket to show everyone) and then a bot had come after them but they knocked it down and its regulator broke off and then it didn’t have to follow orders and it told them about the attack.
“What in the Makers’ name is a ‘regulator’?” the mayor grumbled, turning the black box over in her paws and sniffing it before handing it back to Gumption.
“I don’t know,” Maddy confessed. “But it sure acted strange once it was broken. Like it was waking up from a bad dream or something.”
“Hm.” The ear that the mayor hadn’t lost in a long-ago fight twitched. “I never heard as bots could dream. And I never heard of rogues or raiders giving folks any warning that they were coming.” She looked at Mama Roo. “You see this bot of theirs yourself?”
Mama Roo shook her head. “I was at home. But they were in a might panic when they told me, and I don’t think they’d leave salvage without a good reason.”
“Hm,” the mayor grunted again. “All right, I’ll get a couple of folk up from their dinners to go have a look.”
“Will you at least ring the alarm bell?” Maddy asked desperately. The old bell hung on an enormous curlicue hook on the porch of the mayor’s house. Generations of village children had whispered to one another that it was made from the plating of a scavenger bot that had made its home beneath Rusty Bridge when there still was a bridge. They stopped believing the story when they got older, not knowing that it was true.
“Nope,” the mayor said. She cut off Maddy and Gumption’s interruptions with a wave of her paw. “I’m not saying I don’t believe you, but I want to know what I’m howling about before I start to howl. Now you all stay right here while I go ruin the Ox brothers’ dinner.”
Crestfallen, Maddy watched the mayor stump away, her cane and artificial leg going whirr-thump, whirr-thump. “She doesn’t believe us.”
“Nope,” Gumption agreed, setting the boxy regulator down on the porch steps with a sigh. “We’re probably all gonna be in cages by the morning.”
“Now you hush,” Mama Roo said firmly, putting a reassuring paw on her younger daughter’s shoulder.
“Sorry,” Gumption said guiltily, scuffing the ground with his hoof. “I didn’t mean…”
“It’s aright,” Maddy said, bumping her shoulder against his.
“I just wish Shaper Leaf was here,” Sindy complained. “He’d know what to do.”
“Well, speaking of trouble.” Mama Roo raised her paw and waved. “Evening, Shaper! Join us for a spell?”
As if summoned by his name, the old tortoise had appeared on the other side of the square. He squinted and returned Mama Roo’s wave as he came over to join them. “Evening, Mama Roo. Evening, all. Warm one tonight.”
“It is,” Mama Roo agreed politely. “But Shaper, there’s trouble.” She quickly summarized the children’s story.
“And it called this a ‘regulator’?” the shaper asked, turning the black box over and over in his wrinkled paws.
“Yup,” Gumption confirmed. “What’s it do?”
The old tortoise shook his head. “I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard of such things. If a bot’s got one of these on it, whoever has the controller can make it do whatever it wants.”
“Wow—that would be well more than handy,” Gumption said, awed. He nudged Maddy. “We’d never have to do chores again.”
Shaper Leaf shook his head again. “Not so handy for whoever’s wearing this end,” he said, suddenly sounding tired.
Gumption scuffed the ground with his hoof again, but whatever apology he might have made was cut off by a shout of, “Mayor Lupus! Mayor Lupus!” A goat with his shirt half-buttoned ran up to them, panting. “Where’s the mayor? Where’s Mayor Lupus?”
“He’s gone along by the Ox brothers,” Mama Roo answered. “Why? What’s wrong?”
The goat gulped. “Bots! There’s bots coming, a whole pack of ‘em!”
“Excuse me.” Shaper Leaf slipped between Maddy and Gumption, climbed the steps, and rang the alarm bell.
Donk! Donk! Donk! “Bother,” the old tortoise said mildly, reaching into the bell and pulling a sock off the clapper. “I keep telling the mayor she really shouldn’t.”
Dong! Dong! Dong! This time the bell rang true, its peals echoing off the walls of the building around the square. Dong! Dong! Dong! Three and a pause to signal an attack. Three and a pause to bring Maddy’s memories of the worst night of her life rushing back.
Windows opened. Heads poked out. “What’s happening? What’s going on?”
“Bots!” the goat yelled through cupped paws. “Raiders! Whole lot of ‘em comin’ up along the main road!”
Mama Roo grabbed Maddy’s arm. “You and Sindy get back to the house now,” she ordered.
“I’m not leaving you!” Maddy protested.
“You’ll do as I say, young lady!” Fear made her mother’s voice stern. “Sindy, you go with your sister. You gotta run, both of you, fast as you can.”
“I’m not going unless you are!” Sindy said stubbornly. She was crying, Maddy realized, only then realizing that there were tears in her own fur as well.
“Go with them,” Shaper Leaf urged Mama Roo. “Keep them safe.”
“Will you come with us?” Sindy asked the old tortoise.
Shaper Leaf smiled a wrinkly smile. “No. I am tortoise. tortoises don’t run from rights.” He paused. “Mostly because we can’t.”
And then suddenly it was too late to run. A tricycle bot roared into the square, waving its twig-thin arms to keep its balance as one back wheel came up in the air.
“Get outta here, you!” the goat who had sounded the alarm shouted. Shirt tails flapping, he waved his arms at the bot as if he was trying to scare a goose back to its flock.
“Look out!” Maddy yelled as black dizzysmoke began to spew out of the canister on the tricycle bot’s back.
The goat didn’t hear, or was too angry or too frightened to pay attention. He grabbed a rake that someone had left propped against a wall and charged at the bot.
The bot reversed, tires squealing on the cobblestones. A belch of greasy black smoke rolled over the goat. He stumbled, spun around, and fell to the ground.
“Go! Run!” Shaper Leaf ordered, squaring his shoulders. Something popped as he rolled his head from side to side to loosen his neck.
Maddy grabbed Sindy, spun around, and shrieked as the biggest bot she had ever seen rumbled into the square, completely blocking the street she had been about to take. It was practically a slab of metal, its blocky legs as wide as the double doors of the mayor’s house and its arms like tree trunks. Each leg ended in a pair of tractor treads, and as it rolled forward she saw that it was dragging a cage cart behind it.
“Oh no,” she whispered. That cart could only mean one thing. The bots were here to steal people, just like they had stolen her father!
“Not today, clunker,” Shaper Leaf said. He planted his feet firmly on the cobblestones, rolled his head to work out one last kink, and then swept his arms in a broad circle.
The earth groaned and split. A crack fully a meter across opened right in front of the huge bot. “Ha!” Shaper Leaf crowed as one of the bot’s treads nosedived into the fissure.
Crash! The bot fell to one enormous knee. Its motors roared as it braced a hand on the cobbles and heaved itself back upright.
Shaper Leaf raised his arms over his head and brought them down and around in a great clap right in front of where his belly button would have been if he’d had one. A square of cobbles punched upward in response, knocking the huge bot off balance once again.
“Get ‘im, Shaper, get ‘im!” Gumption shouted. The young goat grabbed a loose cobblestone off the ground and threw it at the huge bot as it staggered and tried to regain its balance.
“Get the other one! Get the smoker!” Maddy yelled. She grabbed a cobblestone of her own and threw it at the tricycle bot that was still spinning in circles and spewing smoke.
Her stone fell well short. “I got it!” Gumption picked up two more cobblestones and charged at the smaller bot. One! He missed. Two! The second stone clanked off its casing.
“Uh oh.” As Maddy and Gumption straightened up with more stones in their paws, half a dozen more bots charged into the square.
“Seriously?” Shaper Leaf muttered shakily. He punched the air, one two three. Cobblestones flung themselves at the new arrivals, leaving divots in the ground for them to trip over. Something with long legs and a small body sprawled full length. Another bot that looked like a trash can with arms and a single wheel bounced over one hole and veered around another only to be caught in a sudden rut. “Ner er,” it buzzed loudly as its wheel snapped off. Its body rolled to a halt. To Maddy’s horror, it righted itself and walked on its hands back to the trench to pull out the wheel and snap it back in place.
“Go! Run!” Shaper Leaf gasped. “I can’t keep this up much longer!”
“We’re not leaving you!” Maddy cried, but her mother was pulling her, saying, “Come on! Come on!” as the huge hauler bot batted away a clump of flying earth and rumbled forward once again.
“Arrooo! Arrooo!” Wolf howls sent shivers up Maddie’s fur. In mismatched helmets and salvaged armor, the village militia charged around the corner and hit the bots from behind. Some had weighted axes meant for hacking. Others had long pikes with bent metal hooks on the end to tangle in bots’ limbs and gears.
“Take ‘em in pairs!” Mayor Lupus shouted, raising her precious zap gun to her shoulder and sighting along it. BZZZP! Purple-blue lightning arced across the square and hit the trash can bot that had just finished putting its wheel back in place. It glowed and sparked like a firefly caught in a lantern and fell over, its mechanical arms twitching.
“Woo hoo!” Gumption shouted, punching the air with his fist as Mama Roo tried to drag him away. “You show ‘em, mayor!” But even as he said it the other bots flung canisters of dizzysmoke at the villagers. One hit an ox square in the chest, knocking him off his feet. Dark smoke spewed into the air.
Suddenly Sindy screamed. Maddy whirled around. Two bots had circled around the village and come in behind them to block their escape! “Get away!” the younger roo shrieked as the lead bot tried to grab her.
“Duck!” Mayor Lupus shouted. BZZZP! A bolt of electricity from her zap gun hit one of the bots. As it sparked and shuddered, the second bot wrapped a mechanical tentacle around its midriff. The purple glow raced up the tentacle and into the second bot. The second bot’s four eyes glowed for an instant, and then the bot that had been zapped was moving again.
But so was Maddy. She jumped and kicked with all her might. The lead bot staggered back.
The second bot knocked it aside and clattered forward on its crab-like legs. A tentacle lashed out, catching Maddy across her thighs. A jolt ran through her body. For a moment her mouth tasted like tin foil and everything had a halo swimming around it.
“Maddy!” Gumption caught her as she toppled over.
“Mama!” Sindy cried. A second tentacle struck Mama Roo in the ribs, and then the bot had the youngest roo.
Clank! Something hard and heavy hit the tentacled bot in the back. Clank! Clank! Clank! It buzzed its rage as a hailstorm of stones sailed out of the darkness behind it, each one finding its mark. As the bot spun around to face its new attacker, Maddy saw that it too had a black box fastened to its back.
Thrown stones clattered against the crab bot. “Withdraw! Ouch! Withdraw! Ouch!” Its amplified command was so loud it made Maddy’s head ring. Holding Sindy’s limp body with a pair of tentacles, it scuttled across the square to the huge cargo bot. Two limp goats lay on the floor of the cage. The crab bot tossed Sindy in on top of them and slammed the cage door closed.
BZZZP! The blast from the zap gun hit the crab bot in the torso. It spun around and aimed its tentacles at the militia. BZZZP! BZZZP! Two bursts of purple electricity shot out of them and struck the militia. They toppled over.
Motors roaring, the big bot rumbled away into the darkness with its three prisoners behind it, leaving chaos in the village square. Half of the militia lay on the ground, dazed by dizzysmoke or shocked by the crab bot’s final blast. Shaper Leaf was gesturing feebly, but was too exhausted to make the earth obey him. Scattered plates of armor and parts of broken mechanical limbs proved that the bots had paid a heavy price for their victory, but as Mama Roo wrapped Gumption and Maddy in a hug all Maddy could think was that her little sister was gone, gone just like her father.
“They have my daughter! We have to go after them!” Mama Roo shouted. Maddy hadn’t imagined that her mother could look so fierce, but in that moment she looked like she could frighten tigers.
The mayor shook her head. “I’m sorry, Cedilia, you know I am. Nope, nope, just let me speak.” She held up her zap gun, turning it to show the now-dark indicator bar on its side. “See that? There’s nothing left. It’ll take a couple of days at least to get it back to full charge, and even then, we’ve only got the one.” She scowled. “Not that it was much use against that crab thing.”
“And what about the shaper?” Mayor Lupus continued as Mama Roo opened her mouth again, gesturing at the porch steps where the old tortoise was sitting with his eyes closed, the wrinkles on his face even deeper than usual. “All he’s got is pot scrapings. Even if we could catch up with ‘em, we wouldn’t have a chance.”
Mama Roo’s arm tightened around Maddy’s shoulders. “We can’t just let her go,” Mama Roo said hopelessly. “Lupus, I can’t lose her too.”
The old wolf sighed. “I am truly sorry, Cedilia. I’ll come by later to look in on you. Right now I have to find out who those two goats were that they took, and then start figuring out how they managed to sneak up on us like that.”
“It was the twins,” Shaper Leaf said, opening his eyes. He struggled to his feet, one paw on the steps’ wooden banister to steady himself, and waved off the mayor as she came over to help. “The one that had legs like a stork chased them right into the arms of the big one hauling the cage. I tried to trip it up, but…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m just don’t have the strength I used to.”
“You looked plenty strong to me,” the mayor said firmly, clapping him on the shoulder. “The way you were throwing all those rocks around? Never seen anything like it.”
“That wasn’t me,” Shaper Leaf protested, but the mayor had already turned away to start barking orders at the militia. Gather up the scraps of armor that had been knocked off the bots during the fight. Pick up those who were still unconscious and get them indoors. And someone—no, not just one person, best it be two together—get across to the Gruff family farm and let them know their boys had been taken.
“I should go with them,” Gumption said awkwardly. “They’re cousins, sort of, and my mama will be worrying about me. I’m really sorry.”
Maddy nodded, not trusting herself to speak. If she had run away when her mother told her too, or if she had somehow made the mayor believe that the ambush was coming, then Sindy would still be with them. If only the bot they had warned them had come with them to warn everyone else.
She froze. The bot! “Gumption—the bot! The one from the river—it’ll know where they’re going. We gotta find it!”
The goat’s eyes widened. He nodded. “We should go help folk, um, clean up,” he said loudly.
“Good idea,” Maddy replied, raising her voice. “Mama, Gumption and I are gonna…” She gestured at the mess in the square, not finishing her sentence so as not to actually lie.
Her mother nodded, the grief on her face making her look older than the tortoise’s. “Thank you, Maddy,” she said, her voice somehow steady. “Shaper, let me see you back to yours.”
Maddy and Gumption picked up an armload of cobblestones each and added them to the pile that the Ox brothers had already started. “We’ll get those ones,” Maddy said, pointing at the stones furthest from the pile. The ox grunted, not really listening. The two children fetched the stones Maddy had pointed at and then, with only a glance and a nod to each other, walked back as if to pick up some more and just kept walking. It was a tactic they had used more than once to get out of picking potatoes, and as long as they acted as if they were supposed to be doing what they were doing, it seemed that grownups would mostly not notice exactly what that “what” was.
Two minutes later they were in the small square where the black glass pillar stood. “Y’all should be home,” a passing bear said.
“Yessir, headed that way,” Gumption replied loudly. He waited until the bear was out of earshot before whispering, “So where do we start?”
“I dunno,” Maddy said despairingly. “I figured it might come here, but…” She sighed. “This is hopeless. I’m never going to see Sindy again.” Tears welled up in her eyes. She wiped them angrily on her sleeve.
Gumption patted her shoulder awkwardly. “Don’t say that. Maybe it went to the other one. It’s only a bit away. Come on.” Maddy sniffled, nodded, and fell into step beside him.
Once upon a time the river had been wider and deeper, and the Makers’ road had run along its bank. But many years had passed since then, and the river’s course had changed many times. Where once the river and the road had bent in long parallel arcs, now the road ran through a forest with its former companion just a soft sound in the distance.
Another black glass pillar stood guard where that arc in the road bent back toward the river. Only grass and moss and a few brave flowers grew near it.
Maddy kicked a pebble at the post angrily. “This is hopeless,” she repeated.
“Wait!” Gumption pointed at the soft ground near the pillar. In the failing evening light it took Maddy a moment to see what he had spotted, but then her heart leaped. A single tire track ran up to the post and then away into the trees. They hurried over to take a closer look. The cross-hatched treadmarks were still fresh.
“It must have come here,” Gumption said.
“Yeah, or one of the other bots needed a recharge.” Maddy shivered. The last of the day’s warmth was fading, and the forest around them looked more ominous with each darkening moment. They were a long way from the village and no one would know where to look for them. She opened her mouth to say, “Maybe we should go back,” but what came out instead was, “Ulp,” as the bot they were looking for stepped out of the trees, a cobblestone in each of its mechanical hands.
The kangaroo and the goat looked at the bot. The bot looked back. Somewhere nearby a bird called and another answered.
“Oh, this is silly,” Maddy snapped. “If you’re going to throw those at us, just throw them.”
The bot hesitated and then lowered the rocks (but did not, Maddy noted, actually drop them). “This will not attack if those do not.”
Maddy glanced over her shoulder, wondering what “those” were, then realized the bot meant her and Gumption. “Well, we won’t unless you do.” She nodded at the black pillar. “Did we scare you off recharging?”
“This was merely being cautious,” the bot replied primly. “This needs to be fully charged to help its click.”
The bot’s lenses rotated. “To help its click.” Its lenses rotated again. “Interesting. This appears to be unable to recall the word it wishes to use to describe the modified Model GX-470 cargo hauler.”
“The big bot? The one that was hauling the cart?” Maddy asked.
“Correct.” The bot shook its head left-right-left-right so quickly that it practically vibrated. “The modified GX-470 is this one’s most important— most important— most imp—” It shook its head again. “Error. Error. Error.”
“Well, that’s the one that’s got my sister and the others, so if you’ll help us, maybe we can help you.” Maddy had no idea how they could help, but if she had learned anything from bargaining with her mother over chores, it was not to be too specific too early.
The bot’s lenses rotated. “You propose a joint rescue mission?” It thought for a microsecond. “That would significantly improve the odds of success. This one agrees.” It stuck out its three-fingered manipulator.
“Um…” Gumption started, but Maddy stepped forward and took the bot’s hand. If there was any chance at all of getting Sindy back, she had no other choice.
“So what should I call you?” she asked, taking her paw back and massaging her new bruises.
“This one’s serial number is Dockety-One Forty-Bee,” the bot replied. “But my click— my click— the modified GX-470 refers to this one as Dockety.”
“All right, Dockety—do you know where they’re headed?”
“Lasercase will take the most efficient route back to base. That is the highway through the contaminated zone. We must depart immediately if we are to intercept them.”
“Who’s Lasertaste?” Gumption interrupted.
“Laser case,” Dockety corrected. “It leads the substitute worker acquisition team. This one feels strong antipathy toward it,” the bot added.
“Was it the one with the tentacles?” Maddy asked with a sinking feeling.
“Affirmative. It controls our regulators when we are out of range of our base.” The claws on its heavy manipulator snapped together, making the two children jump. “This one feels strong antipathy toward regulators as well.”
“I bet.” Maddy took a deep breath. “All right. How do we catch up with them?”
“We cannot,” Dockety said. “Not unless you allow me to carry you.”
“Um…” Gumption started again, but Maddy shushed him. “Can you carry both of us?”
Dockety thought for another microsecond. “Not at sufficient speed. Or with sufficient safety.”
Sometimes you have choices. Other times it feels like you have no more choice about what you do next than a rock has about whether or not to pay attention to gravity. Maddy hugged Gumption, a real strong hug that she hoped said all the things she hadn’t found the courage to say for the past few weeks. every time they’d been alone together. “Go tell my mama,” she said in his ear. “And you tell her I’m coming back, all right? Because I am.”
She released him and turned to the bot. “Let’s go,” she said, and while Gumption was still gaping at them Dockety picked her up, dropped its wheel onto the ground, and roared back up the path to the old highway.
“Whoa!” Maddy exclaimed, but Dockety didn’t slow down. It was the fastest she had ever gone—faster even than the time Pelter the horse from Three Posts had given them all rides at the fair. She closed her eyes, but that just made it worse, so she opened them, which made it even worse.
“Where’s this base of yours?” she belated asked, half-shouting to be heard over wind of their passage and the bot’s roaring motor and the rattles coming from inside its torso that she really hoped were normal.
“Approximately half the distance between here and Heck,” Dockety replied. “We will be able to go much faster once we’re on the highway.”
Sure enough, a few moments later the path rejoined the highway and the bot sped up. The ancient black surface beneath them was cracked in places, and Dockety had to swerve around fallen branches and the few clumps of weeds tough enough to have broken through the road, but for the first time in her life Maddy felt her fur actually blowing in the wind of their speed. “Woo hoo!” she whooped. It was too big to be afraid of.
Without warning a pair of thin green lines of light lanced out from either side of Dockety’s eyes. The bot’s head began snapping from side to side again, left-right-left-right, sweeping the lasers across the pavement to trace a picture of its ups and downs in the darkness. It reminded Maddy of the rubbings her father used to make by putting a piece of paper over something and going back and forth over it with a pencil to bring out the shape underneath.
As the last of the daylight faded away and the stars began to come out they passed under a line of ruined arches that stretched from one horizon to the other. A half-sunken metal sphere as big as a house was next, and then a tangle of concrete and bent bars that the villagers just called “the thing”. Maddy had heard about all of them from travelers and by eavesdropping on militia patrols that the mayor occasionally sent along the highway to see whether trouble was brewing. She had dreamed of seeing them herself, and of painting them, but she had never imagined it would happen like this.
The ground around them grew damp as they raced along, and the smell of damp vegetation and rust made Maddy wrinkle her nose. They were entering the Mire, the great trackless swamp that separated the bot city of Heck from the forests and farms where Maddy had grown up. The Makers’ highway was the only safe route through it, and even there travelers were careful to eat and drink only what they brought with them.
“Target acquired,” Dockety buzzed. There in front of them was the convoy: half a dozen bots, no two alike, and in their midst the big cargo hauler and the cage cart.
“Where are the others?” Maddy asked, shouting once more to be heard.
“This does not know.” Dockety hesitated. “That is worrying.”
Without slowing down it veered over to the side of the highway to scoop up one rock and then another. “Take this,” it ordered, handing her one of the rocks. “Get on the cage. Climb forward, then climb onto the one pulling the cart. Disable its regular.”
“What!?” Maddy exclaimed. “Do you have a short circuit or something?”
“Several,” Dockety said. “But that does not mean it is not a good plan.”
Closer, closer—a periscope popped up out of the head of the bot at the tail of the convoy and twisted around to point at them. Dockety put on sudden burst of speed. As it raced past the bot with the periscope it tossed its rock onto the highway. Bang! Crash! The bot with the periscope tumbled through the air, knocking another off balance. With no more warning than that, Dockety hurled Maddy into the air.
Maddy screamed. Afterward, she would wish that it had been a proper battle cry, like a wolf’s howl or a lion’s roar, but it was just a normal everyday terrified scream.
She dropped the stone Dockety had given her and flailed her arms. “Ooph!” She landed on the roof of the cage cart, slid forward with another scream, and somehow managed to get a grip on its bars. Her legs swung to the side and dangled over the highway.
“Maddy! Maddy! I’m here! I’m here!” Her sister scrambled to her feet, a goat on either side of her shouting words that the wind snatched away before Maddy could hear them.
“Hang on!” Maddy shouted down at the three captives. “We’re going to get you out of there!”
Dockety raced forward and body-checked another raider bot just as it ratcheted up on its wheeled legs and tried to grab Maddy. The young roo pulled her legs under her, ignoring the pain of the metal bars bashing against her shins every time the cart hit a bump. She could see the lock on the cage door, but how was she going to break it open without her rock?
And then the cargo bot hauling the cage realized she was there. Its massive square head turned all the way around like an owl’s. “Error,” it pronounced in a scraping gravelly voice.
“Error yourself!” Maddy shouted at it defiantly. Without giving herself time to be frightened she slid forward over the roof of the cage, swung around, and lowered herself onto the narrow triangular hitch that connected it to the bot.
“Be careful!” Sindy pleaded as Maddy crouched down and leaned forward. Almost… Almost… No. She couldn’t reach the linchpin that held the hitch in place without letting go of the cage.
“Maddy, don’t!” She ignored her sister’s frightened cry and lunged forward. Got it! Holding onto the hitch with one paw, she yanked the linchpin out with the other and threw it away.
She thought the cargo bot would just pull away smoothly to leave the unhitched cage cart rolling along the highway behind it. That didn’t happen. Instead, there a loud crash as Dockety and a raider bot slammed into the side of the cage, their manipulators grappling for holds on each other.
Maddy screamed for a third time as the cart careened off the road. A wheel bumped over a stone, throwing Maddy off the hitch and into a scratchy patch of brambles. The trio inside the cart screamed in their turn as it tipped over on its side and slid down the rocky slope toward the swamp. Maddy scrambled to her feet and ran after it.
The cart slid to a halt just a few paces from the edge of the muck. Rusty scraps of old machinery lay all around. Maddy grabbed one end of a metal bar and pulled with all her might. The bar came free of the mud with a shlurping sound.
She ran over to the cart. Luckily, it had landed door side up. She tossed her bar on top of it, scrambled up, wedged the end of the bar in by the lock, and levered it with all her might. Pank! The lock burst open.
“Give me your paw!” she ordered.
Her sister stretched on tiptoe. “I can’t reach! Hey!” One of the goats lifted her up so that Maddy could grab her wrist, then reached up himself.
A few moments later all four of them were standing beside the cage and Maddy had her arms wrapped around her sister. “I was so afraid,” she whispered in Sindy’s ear. “I was so afraid I’d never see you again.”
Sindy sniffled. “Me too.”
“Well ain’t this sweet,” one of the goats muttered. Maddy straightened up. She knew that voice—it was Bluster, which meant the other goat must be his brother Bravo. Of all the people she would have wanted to rescue, they were the last.
“Well don’t be too hasty thanking me,” she said coldly.
“We would’ve been aright,” Bluster said defensively. “Wouldn’t we?” He nudged his brother, who nodded.
Sindy took her sister’s paw. “Was that a bot helping you?” she asked.
“Don’t worry about that now,” Maddy said. “We have to get out of here!”
“And go where?” Bluster demanded. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of the Mire.”
“Yeah, but at least you’re not in a cage any more. Oh, and you’re welcome,” Maddy added sarcastically. The goat glowered at her but didn’t reply.
“What are we going to do, Maddy?” Sindy asked. “We can’t—ulp!”
Maddy covered Sindy’s mouth with her paw as the cargo bot appeared at the top of the slope. “Don’t move!” she hissed at the goats.
The cargo bot’s square head pivoted from side to side as it searched for them. Maddy held her breath. Could it keep its balance on the loose gravel? Maybe if it came after them it would topple over.
And then we’d only have all the other bots to deal with, she finished in her head. She wished she knew where Dockety was. She hoped it was aright.
A long moment passed. The cargo bot backed up and rumbled away to look for them elsewhere. Maddy let out her breath with a whoosh. “Come on,” she ordered the others.
“Come where?” Bluster demanded.
Maddy gave him a cold look. “Anywhere that isn’t here. But if you two want to stay, go ahead. Come on, Sindy.” She took her sister’s paw and started walking. A moment later the grumbling goats followed them.
Shlurp shlurp shlurp… At first Maddy tried to pick her way from rock to rock, but her feet were soaked and muddy after just a few dozen steps so she gave up and just trudged in as straight a line as she could, which wasn’t very straight. The river was wide and shallow in the Mire, and any three people would have had four different opinions about where its bank actually was, or whether indeed it had one. The smell of damp vegetation was almost overpowering. A sharp chemical tang came and went, reminding Maddy of the turpentine she used to clean her paintbrushes or the greasy black poison her mother sponged onto the porch every spring to keep the termites away. If they got back to Rusty Bridge, she was going to take the longest, soapiest bath of her entire life.
They stopped twice when they heard motors revving in the distance, crouching behind whatever cover they could find until the sound faded. All of a sudden they found themselves among trees, fingerling willows no taller than they were and then larger ones whose branches bent in elegant sad arcs. Some of their leaves shimmered metallically, almost too faintly to be seen. The foursome steered clear of those ones.
They had been walking for about half an hour when a patch of bark slipped off a fallen tree as Bravo was clambering over it. His foot slid out from under him. “Whoa!” His legs went one way and his body went the other. He landed awkwardly on the tree and rolled off onto the ground.
“Y’aright?” his brother asked, helping him up.
Bravo shook him off, then swore as he tried to take a step. “My ankle,” he grunted. “I think I twisted it.”
“Idiot.” Bluster punched him in the shoulder. “Why’d you go and do that?”
Bravo punched him back, harder. “Stop it!” Maddy snapped. “Let me have a look at it.”
“Oh, so you’re a doctor now?” Bluster said sarcastically.
“She’s smarter than you,” Sindy said loyally. “And quieter, too,” she added pointedly as Bluster opened his mouth.
Maddy straightened up. “I don’t think it’s sprained,” she told Bravo. “Just do the best you can, aright?” The goat nodded.
They went more slowly after that, Bravo leaning on Bluster and Sindy needing rest more and more frequently. Maddy had to bite her tongue to stop herself from telling them all to hurry up. It would take them days to get back to Rusty Bridge at this speed, but there was nothing she could do about it except hope that Gumption had convinced the mayor to send people to rescue them.
A particularly squelchy patch of land sent them in a wide arc that brought them nearer the highway than Maddy liked. Just ‘til we’re past that tall tree, she promised herself.
As if it had heard her thoughts, the tree took a long stride toward them. A blinding-bright searchlight picked them out of the darkness, and a familiar harsh mechanical horn blared. It was the long-legged bot from the raid on Rusty Bridge, and it had spotted them!
“Back to the river!” she yelled. The soft, muddy ground was their only hope.
“Maddy!” her sister shrieked. Drawn by the horn and the searchlight, another bot was grinding toward them on treads, revving an oversized chainsaw on the end of one arm.
“There’s another one on the river!” Bluster shouted with panic in his voice as the searchlight swept across something that looked like a flatboat with a bucket for a head. It was an ambush, Maddy realized, and now they were caught with nowhere to run as the three bots closed in.
“Get into those trees!” she ordered Bluster and Bravo. They wouldn’t stop the bots, or even slow them down for more than a few seconds, but it was all she could think of.
Zzzrrr! The sawbot swung its whizzing arm at them, trying to drive them back into the open. Bravo pulled a clump of mud out of the ground and threw it at the bot. It splatted uselessly on its rust-stained torso.
Zzzrrr! The chainsaw swung again as the long-legged bot with the searchlight tried to grab Sindy with one of its elongated arms. “Get away!” she shouted angrily, scooping up some mud and flinging it.
Splat! The mud hit the searchlight, throwing them briefly back into darkness.
Zzzrrrmmm! The chainsaw bot’s arm hit a branch of one of the willow trees.
Snap! The branch fell to the ground right where the long-legged bot was taking its next step. It staggered drunkenly, windmilling its arms just a person as it tried to regain its balance.
Shlurp! One of its feet landed in a muddy sinkhole. Its horn blared as it toppled over and fellright on the boatbot’s head with a sound like an empty can being crunched underfoot.
“Go!” Maddy shouted. “Into the boat!”
The goats didn’t need to be told twice. Bluster pelted across the mud and threw himself onto the boat as the long-legged bot rolled off it into the river. “Come on!” he yelled at his twin brother as Bravo ran-hopped, ran-hopped, and grabbed Bluster’s outstretched paw.
But Maddy and Sindy were too slow. The chainsaw bot blocked their way, its arm whizzing angrily.
And then something rocketed out of nowhere and bounced into the air and slammed into the sawbot at just the right spot. The sawbot tipped and tilted and fell on its side, its heavy treads throwing mud and muck into the air as it tried vainly to right itself.
“Dockety!” Maddy exclaimed.
Their rescuer got back to its feet. “Are you intact?” it asked as it scraped mud off its wheel and flicked it onto the sawbot.
“We’re fine. Oh, I’m so glad to see you!”
“But Maddy—the boat!” Sindy pulled on her sleeve.
Maddy spun around. Her heart sank. The two goats were drifting away on the current.
“Turn around!” she yelled. “Please! Come back!”
“I don’t know how!” Bluster shouted back to her. “But we’ll get help!”
Moments later they vanished into the night, leaving the two young roos alone in the Mire with a dented bot for company and no idea how they would get home.
“Thank you for saving us,” Maddy said to Dockety. “They would have had us for sure.”
“Theze onez were click,” the bot replied sadly. “Thiz one regretz ending them.”
“You did the right thing,” Sindy ventured. “They were being bad.”
“They did not have a choize. Botz do not have choizez when regulatorz are put on them. Regulatorz are bad.” Its heavy claw clicked twice in what Maddy now realized was the equivalent of an angry scowl.
The river gurgled quietly beside them as they stood for a moment without speaking. Moonlight gleamed through a break in the clouds. “More botz will come,” Dockety finally said. “We should not be here when they do.” Something scraped and creaked as it took a step.
“Wait—you’re hurt!” Maddy exclaimed as the moonlight fell on a dent in the bot’s side. It had hit the sawbot so hard that two of its torso plates had bent inward, leaving a gap like a wound.
“Thiz one cannot feel hurt. But it doez buzz a little,” the bot admitted.
“Wait!” Sindy searched the ground. “Just wait!” she repeated impatiently as Maddy opened her mouth. “There!” She scooped a piece of metal off the ground and held it out to Dockety. “Will this help?”
The bot took it from her. Its lasers flashed green as it scanned the curved place. “It zhould be zuffizient,” it acknowledged. With no more ceremony than that it unscrewed the bent plates, tossed them aside, and fastened the salvaged piece of metal in their place.
Eww, Maddy thought, feeling slightly queasy at the impromptu surgery, but Dockety’s lenses rotated. “That is better,” it pronounced, its voice back to normal.
Maddy nudged her sister with her shoulder. “That was lucky.”
Sindy shrugged. “I guess, but I don’t feel very lucky.” Even as she spoke something hooted in the distance. “How are we going to get home, Maddy?”
“I don’t know,” Maddy said helplessly.
The hoot came again. Another answered it. “There are worse things here than Lasercase,” Dockety said darkly. “We must go.”
And so they set off again. Dockety took the lead, scanning the ground with its lasers and occasionally waving them around sinkholes or gloopy bubbling bits of especially swampy ground. Maddy brought up the rear so that she could be sure Sindy didn’t fall behind. She tried humming a tune for a while, the way their mother did when they were on a long walk, but it just made the bent trees around them seem more ominous.
Sploosh. Maddy whirled around. “What was that?” she whispered loudly.
“Processing.” Dockety’s lenses rotated. “Unknown, but judging from the volume—”
Sploosh. “Judging from the volume, and the fact that the frogs have all stopped burping, it is probably both large and dangerous. We should adjust course.”
They picked their way carefully toward higher ground. It brought them closer to the highway, but Maddy decided wearily that she was less afraid of Lasercase and the other bots than she was of something that could survive in the polluted river.
“I’m hungry,” Sindy complained.
Well, I’m—” Maddy stopped herself. There was no point snapping at her little sister. “I’m hungry too,” she continued gently, putting her arm around Sindy’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze. “And scared. I bet Mama’s scared too. Oops! Sorry!”
Dockety had stopped so abruptly that Maddie walked right into him. Its lasers danced across the ground. “There is a path here,” it said. “Processing. It is not in the database.”
“Does it go up to the highway?” Maddy asked.
“Negative.” Dockety pointed. “It goes there.”
For a moment Maddy couldn’t see what the bot was pointing at. Then she realized that the mound in front of them was too regular to be natural. The spring floods had washed away enough dirt to reveal part of a concrete bunker. Most of it was still covered in mud and stunted grasses, but one entire side now lay revealed by the moonlight.
She swallowed, her fatigue and hunger momentarily forgotten. There was a door in the bunker’s side, a door as thick as her paw could spread wide, and it was open.
Sindy took Maddy’s paw. “It looks scary,” she whispered.
Maddy nodded. She was about to say they would go around when she heard another sploosh in the river twenty meters away. “Do you think it’s safe?” she asked Dockety.
The bot’s lenses rotated. “Unknown. Its absence from this one’s database is puzzling.”
Maddy took a deep breath and let it out. “Well, if you don’t know about it then maybe your friends don’t either. Come on.”
She started down the path. Sindy pulled her back. “Maddy! It’s scary. It looks like it has spiders.”
She put her arm around her little sister’s shoulders. “We have to sleep somewhere,” she said into the warm fur on top of Sindy’s head. “And if there are spiders, Dockety can squish them for us. All right?”
The bunker didn’t look any less scary as they got closer to it. In fact, by the time they reached the door Maddy was wondering about spiders as well. Would hiding in a patch of trees really be that—
Sploosh. “Right,” she muttered. She was about to slip through the door when Dockety put a manipulator on her arm.
“This one will go first,” it said. Reaching up to its chest, it slid a small panel to one side to reveal a circle of glass. It brightened and then dimmed. Dockety tapped it with a metal finger. It brightened once again and steadied, casting a soft white light on the ground in front of them.
The door was open just wide enough for the bot to squeeze through. Maddy and Sindy waited outside, hearts pounding, until they heard it say, “It appears unoccupied.” Maddy shooed her sister through and then followed.
They found themselves in an empty room. The floor was blanketed with dried mud and blown leaves. The walls and roof were bare concrete blocks. Dockety turned to shine its flashlight on a rust-streaked sign fastened opposite the door that said “Emergency Defenses Control Station”. A broken screen stood on a pedestal beneath it, and next to both was another door, this one closed tight.
“See?” Maddy said much more bravely than she felt. “No spiders.” Sindy nodded but didn’t reply.
The older roo picked a spot where the leaves seemed driest and sat down gingerly. “We have to sleep for a while,” she told the bot as Sindy stretched out beside her and put her head in Maddy’s lap. “Can you wake us when the sun comes up and we’ll get moving again?”
“Confirmed. This one will reduce operational status as well.” The bot’s flashlight started to dim.
“Wait—can you…” Maddy asked.
“Of course.” The light steadied, not as bright as before but still comforting. Maddy closed her eyes and was instantly as lost to the world as her gently snoring sister.
She woke a few moments or an hour later. Her head felt like it was stuffed with dirty laundry, and her tongue tasted like—she didn’t want to think what it tasted like. She rubbed her eyes. What had woken her?
As if in answer, something rustled outside the door. She held her breath, hoping it was just the wind or a stray frog, but then she heard it again.
Moving slowly, she picked a pebble out of the muddy floor beside her and tossed it at Dockety. Clink. “Hey,” she whispered urgently. “Are you awake?”
The bot’s flashlight brightened slightly. Its green lasers flashed on and swept across the room. “Returning to normal operating status,” it said.
“Ssh! Quiet! Something’s out there!” Maddy put a paw over Sindy’s mouth as her sister stirred. “Listen!”
Nothing… nothing… Rustle. A long mechanical tentacle slid through the door like a snake, bits of river weed still clinging to it in places.
“Mmph?” Sindy struggled in Maddy’s lap.
“Ssh ssh ssh,” Maddy breathed in her sister’s ear. “Quiet. Be quiet. And don’t… move…”
The tentacle curled to the left, sweeping through the leaves toward the wall. Dockety waited until it almost touched him, then stepped over it.
The tentacle began curling the other way. As Dockety stepped over it again, Maddy got to her feet as quietly as she could and pulled Sindy up beside her. Before Maddy could stop her, Sindy grabbed hold of one of the levers sticking out of the wall to steady herself.
The lever dropped with a loud clack. Maddy had only a heartbeat to duck and pull Sindy down with her as the tentacle lifted off the ground and struck the wall. Smack! The tentacle whipped back and hit the wall again.
On the wall opposite the door they’d come through, the second door began to grind open. “Go!” Maddy ordered Sindy.
“Go!” She pushed her sister forward. She had no idea what lay deeper in the bunker, but it couldn’t be worse than this.
“But I can’t!” Sindy wailed. “It’s not open enough!” She grabbed the edge of the door and pulled as hard as she could. It scraped open another few millimeters before wedging in the muck below them.
“Help her!” Maddy shouted at Dockety. Without waiting to see what the bot did she grabbed a pawful of mud and threw it at the tentacle. “Hah! Whoa!” She ducked and rolled under it, then rolled again as it slapped the ground.
Dockety took hold of the inner door with its claw manipulator, placed one metal foot on the wall, and shoved. The door scraped open another few millimeters.
“Keep going!” Maddy threw dry leaves at the tentacle and jumped as it swept across the floor again.
Scrape. “It’s open!” Sindy shouted. She squeezed through.
Scrape. Dockety gave one last push. “Make haste,” it said.
Maddy didn’t need any more encouragement than that. She sprinted five steps across the room as the bot followed her sister into whatever lay behind the door. Just as she reached it, something cold and mechanical grabbed hold of her ankle.
Maddy screamed. She tried to pull her leg free, bu the tentacle’s grip was iron-strong. “Help! Help!” She flung pawfuls of dirt and dead leaves at it as it dragged her across the floor.
Dockety scraped through the door behind her and flung itself at the tentacle. “Release! Release!” it rasped as it grabbed the loop around Maddy’s leg and tried to pry it loose.
Maddy kicked and pulled, but couldn’t get her ankle free. “Release! Imperative! Release!” Dockety hit the tentacle with its heavy manipulator, then grabbed it again, all to no avail.
“Maddy!” Sindy squeezed through the rear door and ran to her sister. She put her paws under Maddy’s armpits and pulled until her feet slipped out from under her. “Get off her!” she shrieked.
Suddenly Maddy had an idea. She doubled over and fumbled with her bootlace, cursing herself for having tied it so well. The braided string was clagged with mud, and so damp that it might as well have been dipped in glue. “Come on come on come on,” she muttered frantically. There! Her fingernail finally found purchase. She pulled one end loose and hastily undid the rest of the knot.
“Pull!” she yelled at Dockety. As the bot hauled back on the tentacle, Maddy braced the heel of her other boot against it and yanked her trapped foot free. She was out!
She scrambled to her feet just as the tentacle realized its prey had somehow escaped. It threw the boot across the foot and lashed out, trying to find her again.
Clunk! The boot hit one of the levers in the wall. Rumbling and grinding, the door to the outside began to close.
The tentacle lashed out again, then began to slither back so that it would be cut in half. “Go!” Maddy ordered Sindy. With Dockety right behind them, they squeezed through the rear door.
Maddy found herself on a small platform at the top of a flight of broad concrete stairs. Even with Dockety’s chest light at its brightest, they couldn’t see how far the steps went. “Did you go down?” she asked Sindy, her voice hushed.
Her sister shook her head. “We were waiting for you.” And then she flung her arms around Maddy and gave her a hug. “I was scared.”
Maddy hugged her back. “I was scared too.” She sniffled. “But remember what Mama always says. If you can’t give up, you have to keep going. Come on.”
She took her sister’s paw, and was only mildly surprised when Dockety took her other paw with its smaller manipulator. Side by side, they descended into the unknown.
Maddy counted steps under her breath as she went. Ten, twenty, thirty—wait. “Why are they so clean?” she whispered to Dockety. There were no dry leaves, no cobwebs, not even dust under her finger when she ran it over the wall.
“Unknown,” the bot replied. “This one is analyzing the gap in its database. It is clearly deliberate. This one’s memory has been tampered with.”
Forty steps, fifty… “Is it because of that thing we knocked off you?”
“Negative. The regulator was an involuntary alteration.” Its chest light brightened momentarily as if it was scowling. “Lasercase attaches them to whatever bots it can catch, then uses them to catch more bots.”
“And people,” Maddy added bitterly.
Dockety’s lenses rotated. “Correct. But this one does not know why it orders us to collect people. It does not keep them.”
Maddy glanced at the bot. “Then where do they go?”
“Unknown.” The bot buzzed for a moment. “This one does not know if it ever knew. It spoke about it sometimes with—”
Dockety froze mid-step, making Maddy and Sindy stumble. “What’s wrong?”
The bot buzzed again. “This one remembers. This one remembers speaking with—with Crusher. The modified GX-470 cargo hauler’s name is Crusher.”
“Um… good?” Maddy ventured.
“Very good,” Dockety said. “This one does not know why, but those memories create strong positive feedback.”
“Strong positive—you mean they feel good? So he’s a friend?”
Dockety hesitated. “This one…thinks so?” It swiveled its head to look at Maddy. “But Crusher is an ‘it’, please, as is this one.”
“I’m hungry,” Sindy said before Maddy could reply.
“I know,” the older roo said, squeezing her sister’s paw. “If I had any cookies, I’d let you have them all.”
Sindy sniffled. “You could keep one.”
Maddy kissed the top of her sister’s head. “Thanks.”
“This one also needs to recharge,” Dockety buzzed. “Will you be able to navigate with reduced illumination?” Its light dimmed.
Maddy gulped. “Sure,” she said as bravely as she could.
Sixty, seventy… The steps brought them to a corridor made of the same featureless gray concrete. Square glass panels sat in the ceiling every dozen steps, the light they must once have cast long since dimmed. There were no doors, no branches, no turnings or signs or anything.
Maddy counted off fifty steps, then another fifty. “I don’t suppose any more of your memories have come back?” she asked Dockety to fill the silence.
“Negative.” Its head swiveled to look at her. “But—”
“Look out!” Maddy exclaimed a heartbeat too late. The hole in the floor had been just another shadow until they were right at its edge. Maddy jerked to a stop, but Dockety took one extra step.
She grabbed its arm and pulled as hard as she could. The bot was heavy—much heavier than a person would be. Its motors whined as it teetered on the edge of the hole, fighting for balance.
Crack! The floor file under the bot’s foot snapped in half. Dockety plummeted into the hole, toppling backward at the same time. Crash! Its torso hit the floor. For one terrifying moment Maddy was sure it was gone, but somehow the bot’s manipulators found purchase on the concrete and steadied it long enough for it to retract its legs.
As it did so, Sindy stumbled backward. Her paw fell on a patch of wall directly beneath one of the darkened lighting panels. Something clicked. Above their heads and all along the corridor, the lights flickered and came to life.
Maddy dragged Dockety away from the hole. The bot lifted itself into a squat and then extended its legs back to their normal length. Its lenses rotated rapidly. “Thank you,” it said.
“Sure,” Maddy panted. She looked up at the lights and then at her sister. “That’s the second time you’ve done that.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Sindy said defensively.
“No, no, it’s aright.” Maddy got to her feet and gave her sister a hug. “It’s aright,” she repeated. “You keep doing it.”
And that was when a crackly voice said through speakers, “Well, you are here now. You might as well come and say hello.”
Click. The ceiling lights that had come on behind them went out. Bzzzt… Bzzzt… Two lights in front of them came to life.
“You’re smothering me,” Sindy said, her voice muffled.
“Sorry.” Maddy released her little sister and swallowed. Maybe the darkness hadn’t been so bad after all…
The hard white light showed what Dockety’s chest lamp had not. Faint water stains blotched the walls of the corridor, and here and there shallow dark lines had been scorched into the concrete. Maddy had never seen them before, but she instantly recognized them from stories: they were laser burns.
The hole they had almost fallen into took up three quarters of the corridor. Its edges and corners were too crisp to be natural, and after a moment Maddy realized that they weren’t in a tunnel. They were in a corridor whose floor was made of the same blocks as the walls and ceiling. Half a dozen of those blocks had somehow fallen into the space below them, leaving just enough room on one side for them to get past the gap single file.
“Well?” the crackly voice said impatiently. “What are you waiting for?”
Maddy looked at Dockety. The bot’s heavy manipulator snapped open and closed, open and closed. “We have no alternative,” it finally said.
Maddy nodded. “I’ll go first. Sindy, you stay here ‘til we know it’s safe.”
Taking a deep breath, she put one foot on the ledge beside the hole. The floor felt solid, even when she gingerly shifted her weight onto it. Back to the wall, she edged across, shuffling her feet and keeping her eyes on the angle where the wall met the floor and definitely not looking into the hole whose bottom she still couldn’t see. What if whoever had spoken to them turned off the lights all of a sudden? She would be aright—she would just keep going, or shuffle back to where Dockety stood motionless while Sindy wrung her paws.
And then she was across. She let her breath out with a whoosh, suddenly realizing how long it had been since she peed. “Come on,” she encouraged her sister. “It’s fine, I promise.”
Sindy nodded jerkily. Instead of putting her back against the wall she pressed herself against it. Slide, slide, slide—she practically leaped into Maddy’s arms once she was across. “You did great,” the older roo whispered into her ear.
“Thanks,” Sindy said, wriggling out of Maddy’s arms. “Come on, it’s easy!” she called back to Dockety.
“Not in this one’s configuration,” the bot replied. It couldn’t side-walk, Maddy realized: its legs only bent one way, and its body was too wide to—
Without warning the bot retracted its legs and dropped its wheel. Its engine whined as it zipped back ten meters, then roared as it raced toward the hole. “Whoa!” Maddy shouted as it punched the floor with both paws, throwing itself into the air. It bounced once on the edge of the hole and flew across like a skipped stone.
Its wheel left a dark streak on the floor as it braked. It folded its wheel back up into its body and re-extended its legs. “That was amazing,” Maddy said, awed.
Dockety’s lenses rotated. “Thank you. But it has almost completely drained this one’s batteries. We should proceed.”
They followed the lights down the corridor. Every few steps one went dark behind them and another brightened in front. When they reached a four-way junction, the lights showed them that they should go left and then down another flight of stairs to a small landing that ended in an open door as thick as Maddy’s arm was long.
“Whoa…” Maddy breathed. The room beyond the door seemed almost as big as the central square of Rusty Bridge. Desks and control panels stood in neat rows, interrupted every few meters by square metal pillars.
“Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” the crackly voice said. A bot decorated with twists of metal, glued-on pictures faded to illegibility, and things Maddy filed away to have nightmares about later rolled forward. “Welcome! This is Patient in Darkness” it proclaimed proudly.
“That’s a strange name,” Sindy said before Maddy could speak.
A little fan stuck to the bot’s shoulder spun for a moment. “This one chose the name itself,” the strange bot crackled. “It is an accurate designation of activity. Observe!”
All the lights went out. Maddy instinctively reached for her sister. Sindy clutched her paw. “I’m sorry,” Maddy said. “She didn’t mean to be rude. It’s a lovely name.”
“Sh!” the bot said sharply. “These must listen to darkness if they want to hear the signal.”
Maddy closed her eyes—somehow, the darkness was less frightening when it was just the backs of her eyelids. She listened as hard as she could, but all she could hear was her own breathing and a sniffle from her sister.
The lights came back on. “Did you hear it?” the bot asked happily. “The signal is always there if you listen.”
“What does the signal say?” Maddy asked.
“This one does not know.” The bot turned from side to side on its four wide tires. “But the satellites are definitely still transmitting. They have continued to function, just as this one has. This ground station has remained fully operational,” it added proudly.
“That’s—that’s really good,” Maddy said weakly, wondering if the bits of metal welded to the bot’s casing were some kind of strange electronics or actually the old spoons they looked like.
“It is optimal,” the bot corrected. “Though unfortunately the main antenna malfunctioned some time ago. That was not this one’s fault.”
“These did not notice an antenna when they entered this facility,” Dockety said, speaking for the first time since they had entered the room.
Patient in Darkness froze for an instant. “Does that have a proper work allocation?? it asked pointedly. “No? Then its communication is irrelevant.”
Maddy glanced at Dockety. The bot did not reply. As the silence stretched awkwardly, she said, “Um…we didn’t see an antenna when we came in?”
“Correct,” Patient replied. “It has taken this one a great deal of time to improvise emergency repair protocols. Repair will require fabrication of precision parts, but steps are now being taken. The Makers will be pleased,” it finished proudly.
Maddy’s breath caught in her throat. “The Makers? You work for…for them?”
Patient brushed the question away with a wave of one its arms. It had three, Maddy realized, each one so different from the others that they might all have been salvaged. “We all work for the Makers,” the bot said earnestly. “And when They return, They will upgrade those who have served Them best.”
“Um… aright.” Maddy nodded cautiously. “And your job is repairing the antenna. Got it. Mm hm.”
Sindy tugged on her sleeve. “Ask it if there’s anything to eat,” she whispered loudly.
“Organic sustenance is not stored at this site,” Patient said before Maddy could repeat her sister’s request. “That would be inefficient. They will not reward inefficiency.”
“I guess. Would it be aright if we slept here for a bit? That wouldn’t, um, that wouldn’t be inefficient, would it? We could listen for a bit too if you wanted,” she added hastily. “To the signal, I mean. Maybe we could hear something while we slept.”
Maddy knew her words made no sense, but she didn’t care. She was exhausted and hungry and a long way from home and it was taking everything she had not to let herself be frightened, and for all she knew they would hear something—after everything that had happened in the last few hours, she wouldn’t rule it out.
The bot rolled back and forth a couple of times. “Excellent plan,” it finally crackled. “This one will continue overseeing repairs while you are unconscious.” It spun around and wheeled away.
“That one’s weird,” Sindy muttered.
Maddy squeezed her shoulder. “Yeah, but at least we’re somewhere clean and dry and there isn’t some kind of tentacle thing trying to grab us. Why don’t you go find us somewhere to lie down? I need to talk to Dockety for a moment.”
The younger roo nodded and left, her tail dragging tiredly behind her. “You aright?” Maddy asked Dockety tentatively.
The bot’s lenses rotated. “It would have been more consistent with protocol for that one to volunteer recharging capacity,” it said neutrally. “But this one can see several compatible ports. It will take approximately four hours to—”
“Maddy! Maddy!” Sindy came hopping back, her eyes wide. “You gotta come see this. You gotta come!” She grabbed her sister’s sleeve and pulled her away urgently.
I knew it was too good to be true, Maddy thought a few moments later, staring through heavy double-paned glass at what had once been a laboratory of some kind. A cloudy patch in the middle of the glass showed where someone had tried to melt through it, or maybe to dissolve it with acid. The four skeletons—no, there were five, she realized distantly—showed that whatever the room’s occupants had tried hadn’t worked. Neither, apparently, had setting a fire: one of the lab benches had scorch marks, and there was a dark stain on the ceiling that covered half of one of the room’s lights.
“Maybe it happened by accident,” Maddy ventured. “Maybe they got locked in accidentally and just…just couldn’t get out.”
“Negative.” They jumped as Patient crackled right behind them. ““They declined to synchronize with the emergency repair protocol, so they were moved to long-term storage. Their components failed shortly thereafter.” The fan on its shoulder spun furiously. “It is unfortunate. This one estimates that the cleanup necessitated by the incident will delay completion of repairs by almost forty-one hours.”
Maddy nodded jerkily. The bot was between them and the door they had come through. She could see other doors, but what chance did they have if it could control the lights? And was it humming?
It was. She even recognized the tune: it was the one her parents had used to teach her the alphabet. Hearing it come from a patchwork bot big enough for her and her sister to ride on was the most frightening thing that had happened to her that day.
“Well, um, we shouldn’t keep you from it,” Maddy said brightly, backing away slowly with her arm out to keep Sindy behind her. “The repairs, I mean. We can sleep anywhere, honestly. We’ll just, um, we’ll just go and you can get back on schedule, aright?”
“Oh no,” Patient said. “Leaving is not included in the protocol. It might put the repairs at risk. You will remain here.”
A single square light panel flickered to life in the ceiling of the lab next to the one containing the skeletons. With a quiet, menacing click, the lab’s door opened.
“Except for that one,” the mad bot added dismissively, waving a manipulator at Dockety. “That will be recycled.”
“No,” Dockety said flatly. “This one has its own mission to complete. It will not permit recycling.”
“Its permission is not required.” Patient wheeled backward to a console. Its spindly third arm reached out and pressed a series of buttons in rapid succession.
A pair of double doors whooshed open in the wall to Maddy’s right. Two bulky service bots that looked like small versions of the cargo hauler stood behind them, arms raised and red warning lights flashing on their shoulders.
“Surrender!” the service bots boomed in unison, their voices making keyboards and coffee cups rattle. They rolled forward side by side—
—only to get jammed against each other in the doorway. “Withdraw!” They rolled back, paused, and rolled forward again, crashing into the door exactly as they had before.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Maddy muttered. She looked around wildly. The door they had come through was closed. All the doors were closed—there was no way out!
“Quick!” she said to Sindy. “Pull a lever!”
“Pull a lever!”
“There aren’t any levers!” her sister wailed.
“Then push a button! Anything!” Maddy frantically began slapping her paws on keyboards and pushing buttons and twisting dials. A heartbeat later her sister joined in.
“Desist!” Patient crackled. “Your activity is not protocol! Desist!”
“Desist this!” Maddy yelled, yanking a keyboard off the desk and flinging it at their captor. The keyboard clattered harmlessly off a desk and fell to the floor.
Beside her, Dockety picked up a keyboard and studied it for half a second. “Angular momentum often stabilizies objects in flight,” it observed, and then spun the keyboard through the air. Crack! It struck Patient on the side of its head. Crack! Crack! Two more keyboards shot across the room.
“Apprehend! Apprehend!” the mad bot ordered the bulky service bots as it retreated, waving its arm to protect itself.
One of the service bots hesitated just long enough for the other to charge through the door. For a moment Maddy was sure it was all over, but the bot halted a few meters away. A hatch opened in its side. A small broom telescoped out of its side and began sweeping up the scattered pieces of the broken keyboard.
“Incorrect!” Patient crackled. Backing up to one of the consoles, it began typing commands.
The service bot froze mid-sweep. Its broom retracted into its side. It’s using the console to control them! Maddy realized.
She grabbed another keyboard and flung it at the console, but missed.
“Here! You try!” She picked up the last keyboard and thrust it at her sister.
“Throw it!” Maddy shouted.
Eyes wide, Sindy pulled her arm back and let fly. The keyboard arced through the air end over end, bounced off Patient’s outstretched third arm with a clink!, and came down corner-first on a button that looked no different from its neighbors. Behind them, the door they had come through began to open.
“Come on!” Maddy yelled, grabbing Sindy and pushing her toward the door. Her sister didn’t need the encouragement. She bounded across the room, her long feet slapping against the floor again and again just a step ahead of Maddy’s.
But where was Dockety? Maddy glanced over her shoulder. Her blood went cold. The other service bot had caught hold of Dockety’s arm. Slowly but surely it was forcing Dockety down onto the floor.
Maddy didn’t even think. On her next bound she planted her feet on the edge of a desk and threw herself into the air. One-two-three she went from desk to desk. Sindy shouted her name behind her but she didn’t have time to hear it because she had to jump one more time and kick!
It felt like kicking a wall, but the service bot rolled back a step. With a snap! Dockety’s arm pulled right off its body. “Go!” Maddy yelled, ducking as the service bot tried clumsily to grab her. She snatched Dockety’s arm off the floor and raced for the door.
“Incorrect!” Patient crackled angrily behind them as they escaped. “Incorrect!”
And then the door closed and they were back in the corridor with only the failing light from Dockety’s chest to guide them.
And then Dockety’s light dimmed and dimmed again until it was no brighter than a glimmer of moonlight reflected off a quiet pond. Maddy grabbed Sindy’s arm. “Stop,” she panted. “The hole, remember?”
She felt rather than saw her sister nod. “Why’d your light go out?” she asked the bot plaintively.
“This one did not have an opportunity to recharge,” Dockety replied. “Power must be conserved. Will scans suffice?” Its green lasers swept a pair of sharp parallel lines across the floor.
Maddy sagged. She was so tired… “We can’t see that way,” she said wearily. “You’ll just have to tell us if there’s anything…” Anything we could fall into, she finished in her head. Anything that might try to grab us. Anything we haven’t run into or I haven’t thought of that might eat us or lock us in a room.
She shivered, then straightened up. “Come on,” she said to Sindy as gently as she could. “Put your paw on the wall and steer with that. It’ll be like a game.”
“Pretty stupid game,” Sindy muttered.
Just as Maddy reached for the wall, the light above them flickered and came to life. She whirled around, expecting to see the two armored service bots, but the hallway was as empty behind them as it was in front. Was it some kind of automatic system?
“Let’s go,” she said again, her voice hushed.
A speaker crackled. “Where? Where will you go?” Patient asked. “Back to the surface? The security system is still active. Or perhaps you would like to continue exploring?” It made a horrible grating snrk snrk sound.
That was as much as Maddy could take. There—set into the wall. That looked like a speaker, and even if it wasn’t… She stepped over to it and swung Dockety’s arm as hard as she could. It didn’t even scratch the paint.
“Just… shut… up!” she grunted, hitting the speaker again and again with the bot’s torn-off arm.
“Please don’t do that,” Patient and Dockety said in unison.
Maddy froze. “What?”
Dockety buzzed. “This one did not say anything.”
“Yes you did,” Sindy said accusingly. “You said the same thing it said.”
Dockety’s lenses rotated. “This one has no recollection of that. We should proceed while there is light.”
Maddy nodded, weary again. “Do you want your arm back?”
They retraced their steps back along the corridor, Maddy and Sindy side by side and Dockety three steps behind them, its arm in one hand like a folded-up umbrella. Lights came on in front of them and went dark behind them, just as they had before, but in the background Maddy could hear Patient humming a crackly little song to itself.
“Oh, please, shut up,” she said under her breath.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you like music?” Patient and Dockety asked in unison.
Maddy pulled up short and put out a paw to stop the bot. “You did it again. You said the same thing it did.”
“This one did not—” Dockety froze. Its lenses rotated rapidly. “Correction. The base systems are attempting to subvert this one’s motivational integrity.” Its manipulator clacked. “Without power reserves, this one will not be able to resist indefinitely. You should deactivate me and proceed alone.”
“What? No!” Maddy slapped its metal plates angrily. “There’s no way we’ll get out of here without you. And anyway, we’re not just going to leave you behind.” She slapped its plates again.
A hundred tired steps later they reached the hole. It was the same size as before: six blocks wide and six blocks long, with one row of blocks clinging to the wall for them to walk on. “Are you going to be able to jump again?” Maddy asked Dockety.
“Negative,” the bot said, its voice buzzing more than before. “This one’s reserves are almost completely depleted, and must be devoted to resisting integrity attacks.” Its lenses rotated, more slowly than they had before. “This one regrets that it will not see its friend Crusher again.”
That earned it another smack on its torso from Maddy. “Don’t say that. We’re all going to get out of here.”
“That’s what they said.” Two voices, one Dockety’s and one crackling through the nearest speaker.
The bot’s lenses rotated slowly. “This one is sorry. It cannot resist much longer.”
Sindy kicked a loose piece of stone. “It’s not fair,” she whimpered.
“Wait,” Maddy said. She picked up another piece of stone and tossed it into the hole. Tock… tock… She looked at Sindy and then at Dockety. “Did you hear that? It’s not all that deep. We could climb down.”
“Inadvisable,” Dockety said. “We do not know what is down there.”
“Well we know for sure there’s nothing up ahead. We barely got away from that tentacle thing the first time, and even if that stupid thing behind us doesn’t take over your brain, you’re going to run out of power before we get there.” She kicked another chip of stone into the hole and listened to it hit the floor. “I wish I’d remembered to bring a rope.”
As if it had read her mind, Dockety held up its torn-off arm. “This one can lower you.”
Maddy nodded. What choice did they have? “Aright.”
A few moments later the bot lay on the concrete floor, one arm held in the other. Maddy hugged her sister. “I’ll be right back,” she promised.
“What if you can’t?” Sindy whispered tearfully. “What if he leaves you down there? What if he goes all the way bad?”
“This is an it, thank you,” Dockety said at normal volume. “And this will overload its own circuits before it allows itself to be controlled again.”
Maddy gave Sindy one last hug. “Love you,” she whispered, just as their mother did every night. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and sat down carefully on the floor, her legs dangling into the hole. Taking a deep breath, she twisted around onto her stomach, grabbed hold of Dockety’s arm with both paws, and slid down it into the unknown.
Maddy had never seen the ocean, but she had read about it in Shaper Leaf’s books. She knew that it was as deep as the highest mountains were high, and that its depths were darker than a moonless night. Strange creatures lives there, fish whose mouths were half the size of their bodies and wriggling things like glowing ribbons and bots that looked like lobsters on stilts, all of them patiently waiting to consume whatever came to them from above.
As she slid down Dockety’s arm, she wished that her imagination would shut up for once.
Her foot slid past the manipulator at the end of the arm. She gulped. She could probably still climb back up, maybe, but if she went any further…
“Aright?” Sindy asked. Maddy was only a meter below her sister, but it felt as great as the distance between them and home.
“Yeah, I’m aright,” she replied, surprised at how steady her voice was. “Here’s goes nothing.” She slid down further until her paws were on Dockety’s wrist and stretched her leg. Was that the floor she could feel with her toe? She stretched even more. Maybe?
She let go of the arm and then let out her breath as her feet came down on a floor that felt so wonderfully solid she could have hugged it. “It’s aright!” she called up to the others, then squeaked as a red emergency light came on in the ceiling above her, triggered by her voice.
Sindy came down next. Maddy caught hold of her ankles as she kicked her long, furry feet. “Don’t—I’m—just—whoops!” Her sister fell into her arms, nearly knocking her over, then slithered out of Maddy’s hug and bounced up and down a couple of times.
“It’s colder down here,” Sindy said, shivering.
“Yeah.” Maddy cleared her throat. “That was really brave of you.”
Sindy shrugged. “Nah. I figured if you could do it…” The sisters grinned at each other, the strangeness around them forgotten for just one moment.
And then it was Dockety’s turn. Maddy caught his detached arm and watched as he lowered himself as far as he could with the other and then extended his wheel. “You still have about a meter to—never mind.” Dockety dropped, bounced on his wheel, and said, “Ouch,” in a toneless voice.
“Did that hurt?” Sindy asked anxiously.
“This one does not feel pain.” Dockety paused. “But this would not actively pursue a repeat.”
Maddy handed Dockety back its arm. The bot took it, head turning to study the square red emergency light in the ceiling. “The interference has stopped,” it announced. “The miscreant is no longer attempting to subvert this one’s systems.”
“Well that’s good news.” Maddy patted the bot’s plating awkwardly. “Come on, let’s see if we can find you somewhere to recharge.”
The lower corridor was as empty as the one above had been. The red lights didn’t come on automatically: every dozen steps or so, Maddy or Sindy had to say something to trigger them. Maddy kept waiting for Patient’s crackling voice to taunt them from a speaker, but it never came.
Finally they came to a door. “Armory Number Four,” Maddy read aloud, tracing the faded words with her finger. She glanced at Dockety, who had been moving slower and slower. “Maybe we can find you a new arm here,” she said, trying to make it a joke.
The bot didn’t reply. Instead, it pressed its hand against a square plate in the the door. Click. The door slid to the side.
White lights in the ceiling, proper big beautiful white lights that revealed a room filled with rows of metal shelves higher than Maddy was tall. Most of the shelves were empty, but one entire side of the room still held canisters marked with three-armed caution labels and capped with complicated valves. Maddy studied them for a moment but didn’t touch them.
“There’s another door,” Sindy said, pointing to a corner. It too opened when they pressed the square plate where a handle would normally have been. Another corridor, another set of red emergency lights, more tired footsteps… “How are you doing?” Maddy asked Dockety.
The bot took a moment to answer, and when it did, its voice was slower and raspier than before. “Power reserves at two percent.” Maddy didn’t know what “percent” was, but “two” didn’t sound very many.
Another door. Click. More white light that made her squint after the dim red in the corridor. It was a control room like the one where they had met Patient. How many of these did they need? she wondered.
Dockety pushed past her. Four quick steps took it to a panel on the wall that held a dozen square black receptacles. It opened a panel in its torso with its remaining arm, pulled out a cable, and plugged itself in.
“Is it working?” Maddy asked.
Silence. “No.” There was no emotion in the bot’s voice. “Power reserves now at one percent. Entering emergency maintenance mode. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Sindy looked around frantically. “Maybe this turns it on!” She pressed a button, then another and another.
“Stop! Don’t!” Maddy reached for her. “What if you turn something on?”
“What if I don’t?” Sindy shot back. Click click click, and then there was a deep hum so low that they felt it more than they heard. The lights above them flickered and steadied.
“Power on,” Dockety said. “Recharging.” Its head swivelled. “Thank you. This one will recharge faster if it shuts down its other functions. Full operation will resume… shortly…” The lights behind its lenses dimmed.
“Dockety?” Sindy asked hesitantly.
“Ssh,” Maddy whispered. “It’s sleeping. Come on, let’s see what we can find.”
It only took them a few minutes to discover that the answer was “not much”. Desks bigger than their beds, chairs that definitely hadn’t been made for people with tails, flat screens coated in a fine layer of gritty dust, panels full of buttons that Maddy told Sindy she wasn’t allowed to press—nothing they could eat, and nothing that told them how to get home.
“Lie down and take a nap,” Maddy told her sister the third time Sindy yawned. “We can’t do anything ‘til it wakes up.”
The younger roo nodded, climbed onto a desk, stretched out, and was snoring softly in seconds. When Maddy patted her shoulder softly, she rolled onto her side and pulled up her legs, just as she did when they were at home and it was morning and she didn’t want to get up yet. “I’ll get you home,” Maddy said quietly. “I promise.”
Click. She whirled around at the sound. A hatch like a mail slot had opened at floor level in the wall just a meter away from where Dockety stood. As she watched, a flat little bot rolled out. Square and gray, it made a whirring sound as it began to move back and forth across the floor as it began to clean the room.
The bot rolled under a desk. A moment later the desk rose a few centimeters into the air and the whirring resumed. The desk settled back onto the floor and the next one rose. How many times had it done this, Maddy wondered. How many years or centuries had it spent cleaning a room that no one used?
A third desk rose. Maddy crouched down to see how the bot was lifting them.
Thud. The desk came back down suddenly. The bot rolled back, reminding her of a startled rabbit. “Whoa whoa whoa,” she said coaxingly. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
The bot didn’t move. Maddy smiled. Could it even see her? “We’re lost,” she said. “I don’t suppose you know the way out?”
The bot spun in a circle and rolled away. When Maddy didn’t follow it rolled back and spun in another circle. “Aright,” she said, straightening up. “I’ll come look.”
The bot led her to a desk that had even more screens on it than the others. A panel slid aside in its top. A delicate arm unfolded and reached for a drawer. A mechanical finger as delicate as a dandelion stem punched a code into the keypad on the front of the drawer. Click. The bot pulled the drawer open, then folded up its arm and spun in a circle.
Maddy looked inside. Her breath caught. “What…?” She lifted out a sketchbook bound in dark green canvas and brushed it off. “How…?”
She opened the sketchbook with trembling paws, already knowing what she would see. Deft lines and cross-hatching, all in pencil, all done by a sure and loving paw. There was her mother’s face, smiling. There was Sindy holding a ball. And there was her, frowning slightly in concentration as she read a book that the artist hadn’t finished drawing. It was her father’s, the one he always carried in a pocket in his overalls in case inspiration struck.
She flipped through it. Two pages had been torn out. After that all the drawings were floor plans and bots, crowded around with notes in his tiny, precise lettering. He had been here, and he had been trying to find a way to escape.
The last few pages were empty. She held the book up and shook it, hoping that maybe he had written a note or something, but nothing fell out. She closed the book and pressed it to her chest. The skeletons in the upper control room… No. She shook her head. No, that couldn’t have happened to him.
She opened the book again. One of the last pages had the word “Surveillance” written at the top and underlined. Beneath it was a drawing of the control panel she was standing in front of. Arrows labeled “1”, “2”, “3”, and “4” pointed at buttons that had been colored in. She took a deep breath and looked down at the little cleaning bot. “May I?” she asked.
The little bot rolled back and forth. “Aright.” She pressed the first button, the second, the third, the fourth.
Click. Click. Click. The screens in front of her came to life. An empty stretch of highway… A forest clearing that somehow looked familiar… Something too dark to make out… And the old village square, the one with the Makers’ black glass pillar in it. As she watched open-mouthed the scenes shifted slightly, left to right, right to left. The forest was where they had caught up with Dockety. There must be cameras inside the pillars—which meant that the bots could have been watching them since, since forever!
“Oh,” she said without realizing it as her mother and Mayor Lupus stepped into one of the scenes. They were in the square, arguing. The button that had brought that screen to life was blinking. She pressed it.
“We have to go get them!” her mother’s voice said.
“They were taken by bots, Ibby.” Mayor Lupus was sympathetic but firm.
“But they escaped!” her mother protested.
“Into the Mire,” the mayor said gently. “With bots chasing them. They could be anywhere by now, and, and it’s the Mire, Ibby. You know the stories.”
“I will go.” The hidden camera scanned left to reveal Shaper Leaf and a handful of the village militia. Bluster and Bravo were there too, she saw. They had made it home.
“I will go look for them,” the shaper repeated.
“You won’t come back,” Bluster said warningly. “There were bots all over the place, dozens of them. There’s no way they could have escaped.”
“You liar,” Maddy said unbelievingly.
Motion in another screen caught her eye. She glanced at it and froze. A dozen bots rolled past the camera on the highway. She recognized some of them: the one that looked like a trash can, the one with too many legs, and Lasercase—it was the raiding party that had attacked Rusty Bridge.
As the camera panned to follow them she saw the half-sunken metal sphere she and Dockety had passed. They were heading back to the village, she realized. The bots were about to attack again!
“Wake up. Sindy, wake up!” She shook her sister gently, then more firmly.
Sindy grunted and snuffled. “Wha?” she mumbled, hugging her knees to her chest and shaking her head ‘no’.
“Sindy, come on. We have to get out of here. We have to warn everyone!” Again, Maddy added to herself despondently.
The younger roo blinked and rubbed her eyes. “I don’ wanna get up.”
“You have to,” Maddy said as gently as she could. “Look.” She pointed at the screens two meters away.
Slowly, whimpering, Sindy sat up and rubbed her eyes again. “It’s Lasercase and the other bots,” Maddy explained. “They’re going back to Rusty Bridge.”
Sindy stared at the screens for a moment and began to cry, quietly and hopelessly. “It’s not fair. No, don’t!” She pushed away Maddy’s hug. “I’m really hungry and my head hurts and I just want to sleep and I don’t know where we are and there’s nothing we can do and it’s not fair.” She buried her face in her paws.
“Well, you could always try pulling another lever,” Maddy said.
“Stop it!” Sindy snapped, teardrops glistening on her brown-furred cheeks. “It’s not my fault stuff happens sometimes.”
“I never said—” Maddy began, startled, but her sister wasn’t finished.”
“You and mama—you never say it, but I know you think it’s my fault papa was taken. And when I get angry and, and you trip and fall down or drop something, or, or the levers and buttons and stuff here—it’s not my fault!”
Maddy wrapped her arms around her little sister. “I know, I know, I know,” she repeated softly, rocking Sindy back and forth just like she had when they were both little and she was allowed to help get her sister to sleep. “Nobody thinks it’s your fault. None of this is your fault.”
Sindy sniffled, her face buried in Maddy’s shoulder. “Papa’s dead, isn’t he?” she said. “Like those, those people in the other room.”
“No. No, he’s not. Look.” Maddy took the sketch book from the desk behind her and opened it. “See? This was his, remember? And these drawings—he must have been watching us through those screens. He made notes, too. See? This one’s how I figured out how to turn everything on. Here, budge over.”
She sat down beside her sister. so that they could page through the sketchbook together. Open-mouthed, eyes wide, the younger roo ran her finger over one drawing after another. “Papa…” she whispered. “Is he still here?”
“I don’t know.” Maddy shook her head. “But right now I wish Shaper Leaf was. He could just make us a way out.”
Sindy jumped and squeaked as the cleaner bot rolled up to them. “What’s that!?”
“It’s aright,” Maddy reassured her. “It just keeps the place tidy. Oh, but what’s this?”
The hatch on the cleaner bot’s back slid open. Its spidery arm unfolded and tentatively offered a chain of carefully-cleaned paper clips to Maddy. “Oh, aren’t you a good little bot?” she said, holding it up to show Sindy.
The cleaner bot rocked back and forth for a moment before turning and rolling back to its slot in the wall. It returned a few moments later to give them a ruler and three pencils. Maddy’s breath caught. All three were dark green, with small dents near the end where someone had bitten down on them while thinking. “Papa’s,” she told Sindy softly, running her finger over the tooth marks.
The bot came back again with two carefully-folded sheets of paper. “Thank you,” Sindy said. “Here, would you like this?” She slipped her wire bracelet off her wrist and held it out. The bot hesitated, then plucked it from her fingers and raced back to its nest.
Sindy giggled. “It’s silly.”
“Yeah,” Maddy said, taking the papers from Sindy and smoothing them out on the desk. They were the pages from her father’s notebook, and once she turned them around the right way they fit together to make a map. Maddy’s heart raced. The ‘X’ must be where they were. And that dotted trail—that must be the way out.
A buzz and a click made her turn her head. Dockety’s manipulator twitched. Its lenses rotated. The lights inside them slowly brightened. “Are you awake?” Maddy asked hesitantly, setting the map aside.
The bot’s manipulator clicked a rapid staccato. “Cognitive… functions… coming… online…” it said slowly, its voice full of static. Click click click. “Full self-awareness restored. Good morning.”
Maddy let out her breath in a relieved whoosh. For a moment she had been afraid it would speak in Patient’s voice. “Good morning. Did you—um, sleep? Well?”
“Negative,” the bot said, unplugging itself from the wall and tucking its charger cable back into its chest. “But adequate power levels have been restored for us to proceed. Our next step should be reconnaissance.”
“Well, I’ve been doing a little reconnaissance of my own,” Maddy said. “Look.” She held up the pieces of the map. “I think my father made this. It must be how we get out. And we have to right now.” She pointed at the screens behind her. “Lasercase and the others are headed for Rusty Bridge again. We have to warn them.”
The bot looked from the map to the screens and back to the map. “Processing… Yes. Your map agrees with the base schematic this one downloaded while recharging. That path does indeed lead to an exit.”
“But then what?” Sindy asked. “We’ll never get home in time.”
“Incorrect,” Dockety said. “It may be possible.”
“How?” the sisters asked simultaneously.
The bot picked its arm up off the desk beside it. “Substantial reconfiguration will be necessary. We must hurry.”
“Wait!” Maddy bent down and gave a quiet whistle. When nothing happened she whistled again.
The hatch in the wall slid open. The little cleaning bot rolled partway out, then froze at the sight of Dockety and began to withdraw. “It’s aright,” Maddy said hastily. “It won’t hurt you.” She smiled at the cleaning bot, coaxing it all the way out into the room. “We’re leaving now—would you like to come with us?”
The bot rocked back and forth, then rolled back into its hiding place. “It cannot leave its duties without appropriate authorization,” Dockety said. “There is nothing we can do. Come—we must hurry.”
The door opposite the one they had come through opened onto yet another corridor. I’m going to have dreams about these, Maddy realized as they hurried through it, And they’re not going to be happy dreams.
With Dockety leading the way on its single wheel, they passed one door after another. The bot turned left, turned right, and went straight through a four-way junction. Maddy traced their path as well as she could on her father’s map.
Finally they were one heavy dash away from the ‘X’ on the map. The door in front of them looked no different from any of the others, but Dockety retracted its wheel and extended its legs. “Be prepared,” it said quietly. “We may encounter opposition.”
“You mean another fight?” Sindy asked resignedly.
“Possibly. If that occurs, depart as rapidly as you are able. This one will attempt to safeguard your exit.” It reached for the plate in the door.
“Wait.” Maddy put her paw on its arm. “Thank you. For everything.”
The bot’s lenses rotated. “You are…welcome.”
Click. Whoosh. The door slid open. Cool, damp air rolled over them. It smelled like mud and rotting plants. It smelled like outside.
Maddy followed Dockety and Sindy through the door into a room so vast it could have held the whole of Rusty Bridge. Lampposts every fifty meters cast cold white light over strange pieces of machinery, some piled together in jumbles, others neatly sorted and stacked, and others still that were even larger than the cargo bot that had hauled Sindy and the goats away from Rusty Bridge.
There were shelves too, long rows of shelves that were taller than the mayor’s house back home but still didn’t reach even halfway to the arched ceiling above them. Boxes and drums and coils of cable, arms and legs and wheels and tentacles…
“So many components,” Dockety said, its voice rasping even more than usual. “So many units that could be repaired. This is wrong. This is… this is hoarding.” It waved its arm at a nearby shelf. “This one could be completely refurbished with these parts alone! Four—five—six more like this one could be constructed!”
“What’s this for?” Sindy asked, picking up a semi-circle with mechanical fingers hanging from it.
“Put that down,” Maddy ordered. “We shouldn’t touch anything, aright?”
“Aright,” Sindy said. She dropped the semi-circle back on the floor. Its edge struck the end of a rod, flipping the palm-sized spoked wheel on its other end into the air. The wheel clattered against a sheel of metal, which slowly tipped forward and crashed to the floor.
“Sindy!” Maddy scolded.
“I’m sorry!” she said.
Dockety took a step toward the fallen piece of metal. “Batteries,” it rasped. There on the shelf behind where the sheet of metal had been lay a dozen blue glass cylinders, each one glowing faintly. “Those are nuclear batteries. They are—this one has never actually seen one before.”
“Is that a good thing?” Maddy asked.
The bot picked one up and turned it over, its green lasers scanning it carefully. “Yes,” it said. “This is a very good thing.”
And then all the lights went out. Heavy machinery began to rumble all around them. “You should not take things that are not yours… yours… yours…,” Patient’s voice crackled from a hundred speakers, echoing off the distant walls. “And when you downloaded a map of this facility, you should have computed that this one would detect your activity and be able to predict your route.”
The lights came back on. Maddy whirled around. They were surrounded by bots on all sides!
Dockety’s head spun from side to side. “Delay them,” it ordered.
“How!?” Maddy asked. At least a dozen bots stood in the circle around them. Some were bulky haulers like the two from the control room. Others had once been cranes designed to stack and unstack tall shelves, or repair bots bristling with tools, but all were covered in the same mind-bending mixture of scraps and spare parts as Patient. And none of them looked even a little bit friendly.
Dockety pulled a contraption that looked like a miniature windmill off the nearest shelf. “This was meant for your kind, but it can be modified.” Its manipulator clacked as it calculated. “Alterations require two minutes and thirty-five seconds. You must delay them.”
“But how?” Maddy almost wailed as one of the bots revved its engine menacingly.
Dockety’s lenses rotated. “Be creative. It is what your kind do best.”
Maddy looked around wildly. She didn’t know what the bots were waiting for, but they probably weren’t going to wait for long. If only her father had left instructions on—
That was it. “Stop!” she said loudly as the bots began to advance, holding up her father’s sketchbook. “I found your instructions. Your protocol,” she added desperately, remembering the word that Patient had used.
The bots froze. A speaker crackled. “Repeat that,” Patient said.
“I found the Makers’ protocols,” Maddy said. “The ones you haven’t been following. They’re going to be very disappointed.”
Silence, broken only by the sound of Dockety unscrewing things from the windmill one-handed. “That is an inaccuracy intended to coerce behavior!” Patient said.
Maddy smiles wickedly, her heart pounding. “You mean a bluff? Nope. I’m a roo, and everyone knows roos never bluff. Go ahead,” she went on bravely. “Look it up in your database.”
Static crackled on the speakers. “There is no record of such an assertion,” Patient said indignantly.
“Then your database is missing stuff,” Maddy said, looking from bot to bot the way she had seen Mayor Lupus look from person to person when speaking to a crowd. She didn’t need Patient to believe—she just needed enough of the bots around her to.
“You are fabricating!” For the first time Maddy heard anger in Patient’s voice.
“Oh yeah? Then how come I have this?” She pulled the circuit board she’d taken at the river out of her pocket and held it up.
Click. A crane bot turned on a spotlight welded to its single long arm and shone a beam of bright white light on Maddy’s upraised paw. A moment later it rolled back a step in surprise. The bots around her began to rattle quietly.
“That is not yours,” Patient said.
“Is too.” Maddy turned slowly so that all the bots around her could see it.
“Look out!” Sindy shrieked.
Maddy ducked instinctively. A manipulator on an accordion arm knocked the circuit board out of her paw. It fell straight into Sindy’s startled grasp. “Don’t—” Maddy began, but too late. Sindy pressed the button.
The bots froze. Their running lights dimmed and went out. “Rebooting,” a mechanical voice said flatly.
“What…?” Sindy looked around in amazement. “Did I do that?”
Maddy hugged her. “You sure did. Dockety! We have to get out of here before they wake up!”
“Agreed.” The bot turned to face them. “This should provide more efficient transportation.”
Maddy’s jaw dropped. The bot had attached the windmill to its chassis—though it would be more accurate to say it had attached itself to the windmill. “What…?” she said again.
“It is a personal aerial transport device,” the bot explained. If it had been a person, Maddy would have said it sounded just a little bit smug. “But there is only one harness. You will have to share.”
It only took a moment for the bot to buckle them into the straps that now hung from its sides. They were stiff with age and neglect, but when Maddy tugged on them they felt strong. She just hoped they were strong enough.
Bing! Bing! Bing! All around them bots chimed musically. Their lights came on. “Aright,” Maddy said breathlessly. “Let’s go.”
The windmill on Dockety’s back began to rotate faster and faster until it was just a blur. For one irrational moment Maddy wondered what would happen if she stuck her paw into it, but then Dockety ran straight at one of the hauler bots. Step step step up onto the bot. It flung itself into the air and then they were flying.
Almost. The roo sisters screamed as they dropped for one heart-stopping second and then roared into the air again.
“Stop! Your departure is not authorized! This is not protocol!” Patient’s voice crackled from all around them. Up and up they went toward the patch of dawn in the ceiling, and then with a roar they were through and into the honey-warm light of dawn.
Maddy’s initial shock of fright was instantly replaced by crashing waves of terror. There was just enough light for her to see how high they were and how far they’d have to fall if Dockety let go or her coat tore or— She suddenly remembered its arm coming off and all she could think about was, What if it happens again?
But Sindy was laughing with joy. “We’re flying! We’re flying!” she shouted, barely audible above the thunder of the rotor on Dockety’s back. “Look!” To their left, the dark towers of the bot city of Heck stood in grim ranks on the horizon. Below, the Rusty River slunk through the Mire, a brown-green streak that didn’t so much parallel the road as skulk beside it. Green bubbles swelled and burst here and there in little splattery burps.
Dockety banked in a long slow curve and straightened out again, steering them at an angle away from the road and river. Maddy wiped her eyes over and over, blinking and squinting against the wind of their passage. She had no idea how fast they were going, but they easily overtook and passed the birds that scattered from the trees below them.
“How long ‘til we’re home?” she shouted to Dockety.
“Unknown,” the robot replied. “This one has disabled the autopilot to forestall any attempts at subversion, so maps are not available.”
“Look Maddy–we saw that last night!” Sindy pointed at the half-sunken metal sphere Maddy had seen the bots’ raiding party pass on screen. She whooped. They were halfway home!
She was about to tell Sindy when Dockety dipped into a dive, shallow at first and then steeper. She grabbed her sister’s arm without realizing it. “What’s happening?” she shouted.
“We are being pursued,” Dockety said as it leveled off frighteningly close to the treetops.
Maddy twisted around as far as she could in her harness but couldn’t see anything. “They’re right behind us!” Sindy shouted. She had dropped her head to look backward past her own legs.
Maddy gulped and did the same. For a moment everything swam around her as the forest became her ceiling and the sky—she swallowed hard. Don’t throw up, she pleaded with her stomach.
There—not quite behind them, two dark shapes flying side by side. They had wings instead of rotors and were carrying canisters like the ones that had been stacked on the shelves in the armory.
“I don’t think they’re chasing us,” she shouted.
“Agreed.” Dockety banked around a particularly tall pine tree. “They are part of the attack.”
Maddy clenched her paws. “Can you go any faster?”
“Not without dropping you,” the bot answered, but put on speed anyway.
On and on they went. Trees and streams and little ponds slid away beneath them. Birds and rabbits scattered at the sound of Dockety’s rotor, and once Maddy saw a deer and a fawn run along a path and disappear into the forest shadows.
Her nose found Rusty Bridge before her eyes did. Coffee and baking bread—it smelled like morning. “There!” she yelled, pointing.
“We’re home!” Sindy shouted. “We’re home! Look, that’s our house!”
But Maddy had already figured out where they needed to be. “Head for the square!” she ordered Dockety, pointing. “We have to warn everyone about the attack!”
Thump! Something black shot into the air just in front of them. For a moment Maddy thought it was a flock of startled crows, but it was a net, spreading as it spun through the air.
Thump! “Look out!” she shouted needlessly as Dockety banked away from a second shot. The militia must have set up the cannon after the previous attack. They didn’t know Dockety was on their side.
“Behind us! Look behind us!” she yelled, knowing they couldn’t hear.
Thump! Thud! The third shot hit them. The net was made of rough brown string, the kind people used in their gardens. It cut through the fur on Maddy’s cheek, drawing blood, and then it wrapped around them and the weights on its outer edge clattered against Dockety’s back and the rotor stuttered and whined as the string tangled around it and they were falling, they were falling, they were going to crash and all she could think was that she hoped her father’s sketchbook would survive so her mother would know that they’d found him or almost.
And then the rotor stuttered to life again. Whirr… whirr… She smelled burned string and hot metal. Dockety spiralled down, spinning faster and faster as the rotor struggled to tear free of what had tangled it.
At the last possible moment the bot cut the rotor and jerked backward to land on its feet. Its heels cracked against the railing of the balcony of the mayor’s house. They tumbled and twisted and crashed to the cobbles below, Dockety on bottom and the two young roos bruised and winded on top of him.
“Oooh…” Maddy groaned. Everything hurt, but that meant she was alive. She opened her eyes and looked up into the barrel of the mayor’s zap run. Half a dozen militia stood on either side of the old wolf, pikes and axes in hand.
“Well,” Mayor Lupus said as Maddy struggled to sit up. “That’s quite the entrance.”
“Uh huh,” Maddy grunted, too sore for words, and then, “Sindy! Sindy, are you aright?”
Her little sister was tugging feebly at the buckles on the straps that still tied her to Dockety. “Ow,” she whimpered. “Yeah, I’m aright. Did we make it?”
“We made it,” Maddy said, pushing Sindy’s paws aside to free her and then pulling her into a hug. “We’re home.”
Sshhzorp… Bzzt… Bzzat-at-at. Dockety’s speakers crackled, making the villagers around them jump. One of the bears raised her ax.
“No! Wait, don’t!” Maddy scrambled to her feet. “It rescued us. It’s on our side!”
The bear glanced at Mayor Lupus, her ax still held high. The mayor patted the air with one hand but kept her zap gun trained on Dockety’s head. The bot’s speakers buzzed and crackled again. They must have been damaged in the crash, Maddy realized.
“We were in some kind of underground base,” she explained. “There were a whole bunch of bots, and lots of spare parts and batteries and stuff, and then we saw them all on a screen. There’s going to be another attack—they’re on their way right now!”
A murmur ran in a circle around her. “In daylight?” someone asked skeptically. “They never come raiding in daylight.”
The mayor nodded. “Not that I ever heard, not here or anywhere.”
“But we saw them!” Maddy said desperately. “Same bunch as last time. And there’s a couple of fliers this time, we saw those too. And my dad.” She pulled the sketchbook out of her pocket and held it out to the mayor. “I think he’s alive.”
“Did you see Santa Claws too?” a familiar voice mocked. She spun around to see Bluster and Bravo standing in the door of the mayor’s house. Bravo’s ankle was splinted with slats of cedar and layer after layer of canvas, and he grunted and made a face as he stumped down the stairs, crutches under his armpits.
“These boys got back a few hours ago,” the mayor said. “Had quite a story about how they broke out of the cage and then had to go back to rescue you and your sister when you got yourself caught.”
Maddy gaped at the mayor. “Rescue us?” she spluttered. “They didn’t rescue us—we rescued them! And then they took the boat and left us!”
Another murmur ran around the crowd. “Mm,” the mayor said neutrally. “I figured there might be another version of that story. No, you hush,” she said sharply as Bluster opened his mouth to protest. “We’ll sort of of this out later. Right now we—ah.”
There are times when even a mayor knows it’s best not to talk. A mother pushing through a crowd to hug the daughters she feared she might never see again is one of those times. Mama Roo put her arms around Sindy and Maddy and squeezed them so tight that Maddy could barely breathe. She didn’t care—she could breathe later. Just then the familiar warm smell of her mother’s fur was all she needed.
“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, either of you,” Mama Roo said shakily when she finally released them. She ran a paw over Sindy’s head to smooth her rumpled fur. “I couldn’t bear it. I just couldn’t.”
“I’m sorry, mama,” Sindy said. “But you shoulda seen it—we were flying! And Maddy was really brave. There was this tentacle thing, and it tried to drag her into the river, and—”
“Hush now,” Maddy said, bumping her sister with her shoulder. Their mother looked like she was about to burst into tears. “We found this.”
She handed the sketchbook to her mother. Emotions chased one another across her face: confusion, shock, dumbstruck wonder, and then something Maddy hadn’t seen in far too long—hope. “Where did you get this?” she whispered.
“In this kind of bunker thing. I’ll tell you all about it, but listen, you gotta listen, there’s bots coming, lots of them. It’s the same ones that attacked last night. You have to believe us,” she added desperately, turning back to the mayor. “They’re going to be here any minute!”
The mayor shook her head again. “Never heard of it, Miz Roo.” She poked Dockety’s fallen figure with her toe. “Maybe if this one could tell us what it saw…?” Dockety buzzed and crackled. “Didn’t think so,” the mayor said glumly.
“We could still take precautions,” Shaper Leaf said, coming through the circle to stand beside Mama Roo. The ancient tortoise was wrapped in a heavy sweater and had a thick scarf wrapped around his neck. He looked like he needed crutches more than Bravo did, but his voice was strong. “No harm in getting a couple of scouts out, is there?”
The mayor flicked an ear. “Suppose not,” she allowed. “But we’re going to keep an eye on this one ‘til this is all straightened out. You two.” She jerked her chin at a pair of oxen, one holding a pike and the other resting a heavy hammer over his shoulder. “Get out along the highway and see what you can see. And Zeke, how about you find us some chains and a padlock. Just a precaution,” she added as Maddy started to protest. “Even if this one did help you out, being bashed around like this can do funny things to a bot’s programming, and I’m not in the mood for taking chances.”
Shaper Leaf put his hand on Maddy’s arm. “That only seems sensible,” he said before Maddy could object again.
“I am very glad to see you,” he continued, smiling gently. “I too was afraid we would never see you again. What you did was very brave.”
Maddy glanced at her mother and sister. “I couldn’t have done it without Sindy. Every time we got stuck, she managed to push the right button or pull the right lever.”
“Is that so?” the shaper asked, looking thoughtful.
And then the two oxen came running back into the square yelling, “Bots! Bots! There’s a whole pile of ‘em headed this way!” Even as they spoke a high-pitched whine turned into a drone. The two fliers Maddy had seen earlier zipped overhead and dropped their canisters. Dark dizzysmoke spilled into the square as a dozen engines rumbled in the distance.
Dang! Dang! Dang! The alarm bell rang cold and clear, three peals and three again. “Get those things out of here!” Mayor Lupus yelled, pointing at the canisters.
The ox with the hammer was moving even as she spoke. With a mighty bellow she swung her hammer. Clunk! The cylinder rolled across the cobbles, dizzysmoke still pouring out of one end. Clunk! She brought her hammer down on the nozzle, raised it for another blow, then sat down suddenly. “I…” she said, puzzled. Her eyes rolled up and she toppled over.
“Clear the square! Clear the square! And you two, get inside!” The goat twins didn’t have to be told twice. Tossing his crutches aside, Bravo fled up the stairs and into the mayor’s house just two steps behind his twin brother.
“Maddy!” She whirled around. It was Gumption! For a moment she thought he was going to hug her, but he pulled up short. His fur was matted with mud and there was a leaf stuck to his leg and she didn’t care. She threw her arms around him and hugged him close.
“Um…” he said, returning the hug awkwardly.
She released him and stepped back, suddenly embarrassed. “Sorry. Come on, we have to get out of here.”
“Wait!” Gumption pointed at Dockety. “It’s tring to say something!”
Dockety rasped and crackled Its plating was dented, and one of its legs was definitely bent. Maddy and Gumption knelt and helped it sit up.
“Come on!” Maddy repeated urgently. Another few seconds and the dizzysmoke would reach them.
Dockety pushed them away and limped back to the flying harness that still lay where they had fallen. Its joints squealed in protest as it tried to pick it up.
“Leave it!” Maddy said frantically, trying to pull the bot away.
Dockety shrugged her off and switched the rotor on. It flapped and whipped and roared to life. Bracing itself, the bot pointed it at the nearest canister to blow the dizzysmoke away.
“Aright!” Gumption shouted, then, “Oh no!” as Dockety’s feet slipped on the cobbles. The flying machine was so powerful that it was pushing him backward.
Maddy and Gumption braced their shoulders against the bot’s back and pushed as hard as they can. The bot’s whole body was vibrating so much that Maddy expected parts to start falling off, but it was working—the wind from the rotor was clearing the smoke.
“Here they come!” someone shouted. With a rumble that made the ground shake, the big cargo hauler rolled into the square. The militia yelled and charged.
BZZZP! BZZZP! The mayor fired her zap gun twice, then swore. “It’s out of charge! You have to slow them down!”
Shaper Leaf nodded grimly. He braced his feet, closed his eyes, and swept his arms in a circle. The earth split in a ragged arc in front of the cargo hauler.
The tortoise went down on his knees, head bowed, clearly exhausted. A goat dropped her pike and tried to help him up.
Clang! Thwack! All around the square militia and bots battled each other. As the last of the dizzysmoke wafted away Dockety switched off the rotor and dropped it on the cobblestones. “Bzzt brrzzzt crackle,” it said, pointing at the mayor’s house and pushing Maddy toward it. “Bzzt crackle!”
“No!” Maddy protested.
Gumption pulled on her arm. “Come on, we have to get out of here!”
With an earth-shaking rumble, Crusher rolled across the ditch that Shaper Leaf had made. Dockety turned to face the cargo hauler and stepped in front of it.
The cargo hauler stopped. “Bzzt crackle,” Dockety said. Its chest light flashed on and off, blink blink, pause, blink blink, pause, like a heartbeat.
The cargo hauler hesitated. Blink blink, pause. Dockety spread its arms. Slowly, Crusher raised its own—
—and froze, the motors in its shoulders grinding in protest. Prancing on its crab legs, Lasercase stepped into view from behind the heavy hauler. “Denied!” it crowed in a weirdly echoing voice.
Dockety charged at it. The crab bot punched a button on the control box it held in its tentacles. Crusher’s arm swung like a bat, faster than Maddy would have believed it could move. Metal banged on metal as it knocked Dockety flying across the square.
“No!” Maddy shouted as Lasercase advanced on the fallen bot. Suddenly she remembered the circuit board still in her pocket. She pulled it out and pointed it at the crab bot and pressed the button.
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” the crab bot crowed. “Priority target revealed!” It scuttled toward Maddy, tentacles raised.
“Ooph!” Gumption tackled her to the ground. The bot’s tentacles whipped over her head as the circuit board skittered across the cobblestones.
“Got it!” Gumption grabbed the circuit board, rolled over, stood up—
—just in time for a tentacle to club him in the ribs. “No!” Maddy shouted again as the young goat landed in a heap beside her. “Gumption!”
Lasercase snatched up the circuit board. A bullhorn popped out of a hatch on its back and blared loudly. The bots immediately began to retreat, but Maddy barely noticed. “Gumption! Gumption!”
He twitched and coughed. “Uhh…” he groaned.
“Don’t move,” she said.
“Not… much… change… of… that…” he gasped. His eyes closed and he went loose-jointed in her arms.
“Help us! Help us, please, someone!” Maddy cried, rocking him back and forth in her arms.
The next thing she knew Mama Roo was gently loosening her arms and pulling her to her feet. “Let them help him,” her mother said as Maddy tried half-heartedly to push her away. One of the oxen and a young wolf—Wilbur, Maddy though dazedly, his name was Wilbur, he was the mayor’s grandson—gently placed Gumption on a stretcher.
“He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?” Sindy asked in a very small voice.
Mama Roo squeezed her daughters. “They’ll fix him up,” she promised.
Zeke the bear lumbered over, his ax on his shoulder. “Wait!” Maddy her mother away and stepped between the bear and Dockety. “What are you doing?”
The bear hefted his ax. “Finishing this one off.”
“What? It was helping us! Didn’t you see?” Maddy glanced down at Dockety’s motionless form. A single lonely light blinked on and off in the corner of the screen on its chest. It looked like it needed a mechanic just as badly as Gumption needed a doctor, but the nearest bot mech was—Maddy didn’t even know.
“Don’t listen to her,” a harsh voice said. Bluster came down the steps of the mayor’s house and pointed at Dockety accusingly. “I saw it talking to the big one, the one that hauled us away. We can’t trust it!”
“Yeah, and where’d you see that from, ‘fraidy toad?” Maddy snapped. “Upstairs hidin’ when everyone else was down here?”
Bluster’s paws bunched into fists. For a moment Maddy was sure he was going to swing at her, but instead he pulled the ax out of Zeke’s confused grip. “Only good bot is a scrapped bot. If you won’t fix this, I will.” He raised the ax, took a step forward, and tripped as a cobblestone suddenly jutted upward.
“No,” Shaper Leaf said. The old tortoise could barely stand, but his eyes were as bright as Dockety’s lasers.
Bluster looked back and forth between the shaper and the bot, then spat on the cobblestones, thrust the ax back into Zeke’s hands, then turned and walked away without saying a word.
“Thanks,” Maddy said to the shaper, helping him sit back down.
Shaper Leaf nodded. “What was that thing they took from you?”
Maddy shook her head. “I don’t know. It rebooted the ones back in the bunker, but it didn’t seem to work on Lasercase.”
“They seemed to want it pretty bad,” the tortoise said.
Something inside Dockety went ping. Its chest screen flashed on and off twice. Words began to form.
“Are… you… all… right?” Maddy ready aloud slowly. She knelt down beside the crippled bot. “Yes,” she said. “We’re all right. I mean, mostly, I guess.” She stopped herself from patting the bot’s dented plating.
“Not… its… fault…” the bot flashed, word by painful word.
This time Maddy did pat it. “I know. You never mind Bluster—he’s an idiot.”
“No,” the bot flashed. “Not… Crusher’s… fault… Regulator… made… it… hit… this… one… Not… its… fault…” Its screen dimmed, leaving only the blinking light.
Shaper Leaf put his arm around Maddy. “There is nothing we can do. It needs parts, and…” The old tortoise shrugged helplessly. “We don’t have them.”
Maddy stood up, her jaw set. “There’s always something we can do.”
The bot was heavier than it looked. Eventually they had to tilt the trundle cart Maddy took from the little alley beside the mayor’s house so that Zeke could roll Dockety onto it. She gave Shaper Leaf a hug and set off for home.
Maddy expected her mother to protest, but all Mama Roo said was, “I think there’s a tarp out back if you want to cover it.” She and Sindy helped Maddy wrestle Dockety’s loose-limbed form up onto the porch. The three of them sat in silence, Sindy in her mother’s lap and Maddy leaning against her shoulder as they waited for the kettle to whistle.
Phweee… Mama Roo slid out from under her younger daughter, who grumbled sleepily and curled up into a ball. “I’ll make tea,” Mama Roo said.
Maddy nodded, staring at the sketchbook in her lap without really seeing it. Tea sounded wonderful. It also sounded like a lot of work. Her stomach kept rumbling, but all she wanted to do was curl up like her sister and sleep and sleep and sleep.
She closed her eyes. Just for a moment, she told herself. She hoped Gumption was all right. And Dockety. Her breathing slowed.
The sketchbook slid from her hands and hit the porch with a soft thud. She blinked and reached for it, frowning. The thump had knocked a folded piece of paper loose from its hiding place inside the back cover. She gentled tugged it free and unfolded it.
A chill ran up her spine. She stared at the page in front of her, then tucked it back into the sketchbook, stood up, and set it gently on the swing seat. “Look after mama,” she said softly, bending over to kiss her sleeping sister on the cheek.
Mama Roo came out a few minutes later, two cups of tea in her hands, and frowned. “Maddy? Where are you?”
Maddy was panting by the time she got back to the square. “Wait!” she gasped, pulling up short in front of Zeke and panting for breath. “I’m—I’m—” She pointed at the flying machine the bear had just dumped in a wheelbarrow and shook her head vigorously. “I’m supposed to take that.”
The bear frowned and scratched his muzzle. “Nobody told me nothin’.”
“Go ask the mayor if you want,” Maddy bluffed, gesturing vaguely at something behind the big bear.
Zeke shrugged. “It’s aright with me. But you bring the wheelbarrow back, you hear? We got a long day in front of us.”
Maddy nodded, grabbed the wheelbarrow’s handles, and rolled it down a side street where no one could see her. It took her a moment to figure out how to pick up the flying machine—it was lighter than she expected, but the big rotor turned so easily in her hands that she couldn’t get a decent grip.
Finally she had it out and up on top of a rain barrel. She tightened the straps as far as they would go and slid her arms through them, then snapped the belt shut around her waist. Taking a tentative step, she hefted its weight on her shoulders. It was looser than she would have liked, but to be honest, she didn’t like any of this.
“Autopilot,” she said out loud. Nothing happened. “Autopilot,” she repeated more loudly. “Autopilot!”
“Hey, what are you doing?” It was Bluster and Bravo, the latter carrying his crutches over his shoulder.
Maddy began pressing the buttons on the control panel. “Autopilot! Autopilot!” Just as Bluster said, “Hey!” again and started toward her, a mechanical voice said, “Autopilot engaged.” The rotor began to spin, and she shot into the air.
Maddy’s second flight was just like her first, except twice as fast and ten times more frightening. It was twice as fast because the flying harness only had to carry her instead of two roos and a bot. It was ten times as frightening because it was twice as fast and she had absolutely no control over where she was going.
“Repeat your most recent trip question mark yes no yes confirmed,” the rotor’s mechanical voice said as they zipped above the treetops. “Please avoid unnecessary contact with terrain while in flight.”
In one panicked they were back at the highway, still accelerating. “Slow down! Slow down!” Maddy shouted, but the autopilot ignored her. They passed the arches and the sphere, zoomed over something like a rusty metal flower twice the size of the mayor’s house, and dropped like a stone.
Maddy screamed. She was going to die. She was going to die and nobody would ever know and—the flying machine revved and came to a stop, hovering just a few meters above the ground.
She wasn’t going to die, at least not yet. She fumbled to undo the belt buckle and slid out of the harness. She was back in the Mire, just a few steps away from the hole they had escaped from just an hour before. She had to get back inside, but how? She couldn’t just jump in—the fall would break her legs, or worse. Should have brought a rope, she thought wearily. Should have done a lot of things.
“Proximity alert.” The autopilot’s voice made her jump.
“Proximity alert,” it repeated. “Approaching aircraft may violate minimum safe distance recommendations evasive maneuvers question mark.”
“Um…” Maddy began, but the flying harness didn’t wait. With a high-pitched whine its rotor spun even faster and it shot away into the sky. “Wait!” she said, but it was too late—the flying machine was gone.
The ground rumbled beneath her feet. The hatch they had escaped through grated open. She looked around. There! Two dots, approaching fast. She sprinted for the nearest clumb of weeds and threw herself into it.
The dragonfly drones that had dropped dizzysmoke canisters on the village arrived just moments later. They slowed, pivoted, and slowly descended through the now-open hatch. With another rumble it slid closed. Heart sinking, Maddy realized there was only one way she could get into the bunker.
The river was easy to find—all she had to do was follow her nose. The entrance they had gone through the night before was easy to find too. Fresh scrapes on the ground showed where the tentacle had snaked out of the water to attack them. She gulped. There was no sign of it, and the bunker door was open. Three… two… one…
She sprinted for the door, her long flat feet slapping against the mud and grass. Fifty meters, forty, thirty, and the river roiled. Twenty meters, ten, and she was at the bunker as the mechanical tentacle snaked up the hillside.
She grabbed the lever that Sindy had pulled and yanked down with all her might. If Patient had disabled it or locked the door she was doomed. “Come on come on come on!” The inside door began to open. Wider, wider—now! She scraped through it just as the tentacle grabbed for her ankle.
She stumbled down the first few steps and doubled over to catch her breath. Down the stairs, into the darkness. She could do that. And anyway, what choice did she have now?
The lights came on as before when she reached the corridor. If Patient didn’t already know she was there, it would soon. When she reached the hole in the floor she crouched down, turned around, slid her legs into it, and lowered herself as far as she could before letting go. Thump. Click. More lights, more corridor, but now she knew where she was going and what to do when she got there.
The control room looked exactly as it had. She crossed to the hatch in the wall and knocked on it gently. “Hey. Are you in there?”
The hatch slid open. The little cleaner bot slid partway out and stopped. “It’s aright,” Maddy said gently. “It’s just me. See? No one else is here. It’s safe to come out.”
The cleaner bot rolled out hesitantly. Maddy smiled at it. “Do you have something for me?”
The bot rolled back and forth twice, spun around, and disappeared back into its hiding place. A moment later it reappeared. The flap in its top opened and its tiny arm handed Maddy a carefully folded square of tinfoil.
Maddy swallowed. What if she was wrong? “This is really nice,” she said. “Do you have anything else?”
Into its slot and back. This time the bot handed her a necklace made of paper clips. “Thank you,” Maddy said. “But I was hoping you’d have something special. Something someone gave you for safekeeping maybe?”
The bot sat motionless. “I know,” she said softly. “It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. But I think he would have wanted you to give it to me.”
The bot rolled into its hiding place one last time. One heartbeat, two… It came out and handed Maddy the strangely-shaped key that her father had drawn in his sketchbook. “Thank you,” she said. She patted the bot gently. “Thank you very much.” It rocked back and forth a couple of times before disappearing back into its den.
Maddy’s adventure nearly ended a few moments later. She carried a chair from the control room back to the hole and stood on it, but it didn’t get her high enough, so she cleared stuff off a small table and dragged it into the corridor as well. Grunting, she got the chair up onto it—
—and whirled around as the lights finally came on and Patient’s voice crackled, “There you are!” as a blocky service bot rolled down the corridor toward her. No—two service bots, one coming from each direction. She was trapped between them!
She scrambled onto the table as the first service bot grabbed at her. “Whoa!” she exclaimed as she lost her balance and half-fell, half-jumped back onto the floor on the other side of the table.
The second bot was waiting for her. It reached for her clumsily, driving her back against the table. She ducked and slid under it.
The first bot gripped the table with its blunt mechanical hands and lifted it. The second rolled forward. She had nowhere to go!
But none of them had counted on the little cleaner. It zipped past the first service bot’s treads and skidded to a stop right in front of the second one.
The second service bot froze. An orange light blinked on its shoulder. A high-pitched beep beep beep noise came from somewhere inside it as it backed up and tried to roll forward again. As quick as a startled rabbit, the cleaner bot rolled in front of it again.
Without thinking (because if she thought about it she wouldn’t dare do it) Maddy ran at the first bot and jumped. Her feet thumped against its chest. Up she went onto the table. Thump and she jumped again. “Ooph!” She scrabbled for purchase and somehow managed to pull herself back up into the corridor.
“This is not authorized,” Patient crackled over the speakers. Maddy made a rude gesture at the empty air as she raced back toward the bunker entrance. “And that is not protocol.”
The lights went out, but she had expected that. She turned on Dockety’s chest light and slowed to a jog. One of her feet hurt with every step, and she needed a bathroom. Are real adventures always like this? she wondered giddily. Did the people in the books she borrowed from Shaper Leaf wonder they’d torn a hole in their sleeve and worry about whether they’d be able to sew it up?
She reached the stairs. Up, up, and up, back to the half-open door. She paused to take a deep breath. The tentacle would probably be waiting. She hefted Dockety’s light. “Sorry about this,” she muttered.
With another deep breath she squeezed through the door and tossed the light underhand across the room. A long, dark shape thrashed after it.
Barely able to see in the dim light that came through the other door she groped along the wall. The picture tucked into her father’s sketchbook had been been very clear. Not the first lever, not the second—there! The third one—that was the one she needed. She pushed the key into the slot beside the lever, turned it, and pulled down on the lever as hard as she could.
Scrraaaaape. It jammed halfway. “Oh, come on,” she said in exasperation. She glanced over her shoulder. The tentacle was rising from the remains of Dockety’s chest light like a cobra and turning toward her.
She grabbed the lever with both hands and pushed it down the rest of the way with all her might. Scrraaaaape. The lever locked into position.
A dim orange light came on overhead. “Shecuridy shyshdem dishengaged,” a muffled automated voice said.
Maddy held her breath. The tentacle froze, then relaxed back onto the ground and slithered back through the door. She sagged against the wall and wiped a tear from her cheek.
“This is highly irregular,” Patient’s voice said reprovingly.
“Tell it to the Makers,” Maddy grumbled, clambering back to her feet.
“The Makers will never know this happened,” Patient gloated. Maddy had never heard a bot gloat before. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. “By the time they return, all trace of this will have been erased. All irregularities will have been regularized!”
“And everyone will get an extra big piece of chocolate on New Year’s Eve,” Maddy said sarcastically.
“Chocolate is not protocol,” Patient said angrily, its patience finally exhausted. “Your activities are not protocol. You will cease immediately!”
“Oh yeah?” Maddy shot back. “Why don’t you come in here and make me?”
“That is an excellent plan.” Two enormous mechanical hands took hold of the outer doorway and pulled. Concrete blocks snapped like over-baked cookies. The hands swung from side to side, sending scraps of concrete flying as they bashed the hole wider.
“That is sufficient,” Patient said, except this time its voice didn’t come through the speaker in the roof. It stood on the ground outside the bunker beside Crusher. Lasercase stood on the big hauler’s other side, its tentacles twisting this way and that like miniaturized versions of the security system. Half a dozen other bots stood in a half-circle behind the trio, whirling blades and drills and sharp-fingered mechanical hands at the ready.
“You did not expect to see us,” Patient said flatly. “This is why the Makers left us the world. You do not plan. You do not anticipate contingencies. You do not think ahead because you do not think. This is why the world will belong to us. Ah ha ha ha. Ah ha ha ha.”
Maddy winced. The bot was actually saying, “Ah ha ha ha,” over and over again. “Anyone ever tell you that you have the worst laugh?” she asked.
Patient’s laughter stopped. “Finish this,” it ordered. Crusher, Lasercase, and the others began to roll forward.
Maddy smiled her fiercest smile. “Speaking of planning,” she said, and she spun around and pulled the other two levers down as far as they would go.
The orange light overhead flickered. “Rebooding nedwork,” the automated voice.
The little light on Crusher’s regular went out. The little lights on all of the bots’ regulators went out.
Maddy charged the bots with a yell. Jump and she was over Patient. Jump and she was up on Crusher’s tread, rock in hand. She hit the regular over and over, grunting with each blow. If her father’s notes were correct, she only had a few seconds until—
Ding! A chime sounded somewhere inside Crusher. Ding! Ding! Ding! A chorus of chimes rang inside the other bots. Maddy froze, rock upraised. “Uh oh.”
“Ah ha ha ha!” Patient said triumphantly as Crusher’s engines began to rumble. “Your strategy has proven ineffective!”
The big bot reached for her. She dodged left, then right, easily ducking its big, clumsy arms. The bot began rocking from side to side to shake her off. “Remove her! Disassemble her!” Patient ordered.
Lasercase scuttled forward, its tentacles snapping at her. “Wait! Stop!” Maddy said desperately. “I can free you!”
“I am free!” Lasercase buzzed. As one tentacle whipped past her head, another grabbed her ankle. She hit it with her rock, but couldn’t even make a dent.
And then the tentacle from the river raised itself out of the grass and slapped down on Lasercase like a flyswatter once, twice, again. The bot raised three of its own smaller tentacles to defend itself. The big tentacle brushed them aside contemptuously and wrapped around Lasercase’s middle. “Assistance! Assistance!” Lasercase blared as the tentacle dragged it toward the river.
“Let go!” Maddy shouted, kicking at Lasercase as she was dragged along with it. “Let goooo—oh no!” A second metal tentacle rose out of the river, soggy weeds dropping from it, then a third.
“Flee! Flee!” Patient squawked. The bots around Maddy didn’t have to be told twice. They rolled, they ran, they wheeled, and they trundled, all except Crusher. The big hauler raced its engines and raised its arms.
But the tentacles ignored it and the other bots. They wrapped around Lasercase and lifted it high. Maddy fell to the ground with an “ooph!” as the bot finally let go of her. It tugged at the tentacles, trying to free itself as it was carried down to the river, then stopped suddenly. “Mother?” it said disbelievingly, and then it and the tentacles disappeared into the river.
Maddy stood up. “Well, I didn’t see that coming,” she muttered. She snatched up the rock she had dropped, scrambled back onto Crusher, and struck the regulator with all her might. “Come on come on come on!” A lucky blow dented its case just enough for a screw to come loose. She pried the black case open and smashed the electronics inside. Sparks flew, and the light on the regulator went out.
Crusher tilted its sensors to look at the regulator, then turned them toward Patient. Its engines rumbled menacingly. “This is not protocol,” Patient said uncertainly, backing away. “Defend! Defend!”
One of the other bots stepped between Crusher and Patient. The big hauler picked it up and tossed it aside. A second was knocked out of the way. “Withdraw!” Patient rolled back into the bunker as the other bots fled in all directions.
The bunker door was still too small for Crusher, so the bot made it larger. Maddy hopped off its back and followed it into the room. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” she heard as Patient bumped its way down the stairs.
She slapped the big bot’s side to get its attention. “You can’t fit in there. We’ll have to find another way—whoa!” Crusher picked her up with one enormous manipulator and placed her gently on its back. Engines rumbling, it backed out of the broken bunker, turned, and drove up the hill toward the opening the flying bots had used.
They crested the hill and drove straight into chaos. In the few moments when the network was down, a dozen bots had managed to break their own regulators. Others hadn’t been so quick, or strong enough, or just couldn’t reach. They were now back under Patient’s control, and the two sides were at war.
A loader with four sturdy legs locked forklift arms with a crane bot, trying to topple it over. Beside them a pair of maintenance bots tried to trap a nimble little ladder bot between them while the ladder bot tried to get a grip on their regulators. The dragonfly bots that had dropped dizzysmoke on the village zipped and buzzed angrily overhead, each trying to get above the other so it could grab hold of its opponent’s wings. A dozen other fights clanged and scraped around them. The free bots were fighting bravely, but they were outnumbered and uncoordinated.
Outnumbered, that is, until Crusher rumbled into the fight. It flipped the loader bot over with one arm and smashed its regulator with a single blow. When the maintenance bots turned to face it, the ladder bot seized its chance and pried the regulator off one of them. “Uh oh uh oh” flashed the second one’s chest screen. Crusher caught it as it tried to run away and smashed its regulator too.
Maddy whooped. They were winning! Patient’s bots were retreating!
Crash! One of the dragonfly bots hit the ground beside Crusher, its wings bent out of shape. The other flier nose-dived through the open hatch in the ground. “No! Wait!” Maddy shouted as Crusher rolled toward the opening. “It won’t take your weight!”
The hauler halted. Maddy hopped off, then yelped and ducked as the flying bot rocketed back into the air with Patient clutched to its underbelly. “Stop it!” Maddy yelled, but it was too late. None of the other bots could fly, and Patient was already just a dwindling speck on its way to Heck.
Three days later…
Shaper Leaf carefully set his tea on the porch railing and sighed. “Your father was very clever,” he said.
Maddy nodded. Her father’s notebook lay in her lap, the all-important note tucked back in place. “I just can’t stop thinking about him figuring it all out and then not being able to get to the controls from the inside.”
“A difficult puzzle,” Dockety agreed. It had tried sitting on the porch bench, but declared that it felt more natural standing. And anyway, if Crusher tried to join them it would bring the whole porch crashing down. The other bots had mended all its dents and reattached its arm properly, but it had decided that it liked the buzz in its voice. Or rather, that Crusher liked it, which turned out to be more important. Maddy still wasn’t sure exactly how that worked, but as long as the bots were happy together…
Maddy ruffled the fur on her sister’s head. “So it all came down to you grabbing the right lever at the right time,” she said fondly.
“Speakig of which,” Shaper Leaf said, pulling a small drawstring bag out of his pocket. “Mind if we try an experiment?” He opened the bag to let three dice roll onto the tea table.
“What are these for?” Sindy asked.
“It’s a game,” the shaper said. “See how many tries it takes you to roll three sixes.”
Sindy shrugged. “Aright.” She rolled the dice, then rolled them again and a third time. Ones and threes and fours came up, but no sixes. Again and again—one six, but never all three.
Mama Roo came around the corner of the house with a basket full of freshly-picked blueberries. “What are you—whoops!” She tripped and nearly fell as a bump suddenly appeared in the ground. The basket of blueberries flew threw the air to land on one of Crusher’s treads without spilling a single berry.
“Well what are the odds?” she said, straightening up and glaring at the ground. “Shaper, was that you?”
“It was, and I apologize,” the old tortoise said, taking the dice from Sindy and returning them to their bag. “But it turns out that a lot of young shapers can’t use their power if they think about it. It just has to happen.” He picked up his tea and looked over the rim of the cup at Sindy.
The young roo blinked. “What? I mean, pardon me?”
The tortoise sipped his tea and set the cup back down. “You’re a shaper, Miz Roo,” he said, quiet but excited. “You’re a luck shaper, and that’s the rarest kind of shaper there is.”
“She’s a—” “What—” “Sindy?” Mother and daughters all started speaking at once.
“Plausible,” Dockety buzzed. “Improbable events have occurred with surprising frequency.”
“You will need training,” Shaper Leaf went on. “Lots of training, and lots of practice. But for now, let’s just keep this to ourselves.”
“I’m a shaper?” Sindy said wonderingly.
Maddy hugged her. “Always knew you were special,” she said into her sister’s ear.
“Well, this calls for a toast,” Mama Roo said, setting the blueberries down on the table. She went into the house and emerged a moment later with a bottle of sweet peach juice in one hand, four glasses in the other, and a small rectangle tucked under her arm. She passed the glasses around (apologizing to the bots for not bring them any), set the bottle on the table, and then hesitated.
“He would have been so proud of you both,” she said quietly before setting the portrait of Papa Roo on the table.
Dockety reached for it. “Who is this one?” it asked.
“That’s my dad,” Maddy said proudly.
Dockety studied the picture, then turned to show it to Crusher. The big bot tilted its sensors to study it, then flashed, “Confirmed.”
Dockety turned back to the roos. “We have seen this one,” it said. “It is in Heck.”