By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Atheneum, 2008.
This page contains the prologue, first chapter, and second chapter of The Sky Inside.
The big television cameras of the You've Been Caught Napping game show prowled in the darkness at the edge of the set, their lenses focused on the old man's face. Mindlessly thorough, they relayed to viewers his iron gray hair, his thick bifocals, and the trickles of sweat that wandered down tracks of wrinkles into his eyes. A thoughtful viewer might have wondered why he didn't wipe the sweat away. But behind the silver podium that displayed a very high score, his hands lay trapped in a pair of strong plastic manacles. That was something those cameras couldn't see.
"You're right again, Dr. Church! You are simply amazing." The handsome host beamed at the old man, white teeth flashing in a tanned face. "That completes the round. What will our contestant do next? Will he take home his winnings?" The audience groaned. "Or will he try to double them with our special bonus quiz?"
The audience shouted and cheered. This was odd because no audience was there. Beyond the banks of garish lights, the cavernous studio was empty.
"It's a big decision," said the host. "He needs to think it over, and that gives us time for a commercial break. We'll be back with Dr. Rudolph Church right after this!"
The lively notes of a familiar advertising tune cut through the studio, and the wildly cheering audience hushed with the flick of a switch. The old man rested his head on the podium in front of him, the one that hid their nasty secret. After all, game shows were rollicking good fun, entertainment for the whole family. Imagine how viewers would feel if they saw the hypodermic needle inserted in his arm.
Meanwhile, in a comfortable living room, two of those viewers were fighting over the remote. The bigger one snatched it away and triumphantly changed the channel, and a buzzing squadron of red motor scooters charged across the screen.
"Martin, you jerk!" said the girl, flopping back onto the sofa. "You always watch these silly races! I wanted to see the rest of that."
"Mom says no game shows," Martin said smugly. "Plus, that one's stupid. 'Who wrote this?' 'What's the term for that?' It's as bad as school."
"I like it," Cassie said. "It teaches me things. And this contestant is amazing. He hasn't been sent off in nine straight shows."
"Big hairy deal," Martin said, leaning forward to grab her bag of chips. "Who cares what happens to one old man?"
The first day of spring had come to the suburb, bringing its subtle but unmistakable signs. Martin noticed them right away as he left his house that morning. The recording that played through the neighborhood speakers was different, for one thing. It had lost its spooky, desolate sound. And wiry old Mr. LaRue was kneeling on the sidewalk next door, peeling the glittering snowflakes off his big picture window and sticking a line of pink and yellow flowers there instead.
Cassie wanted to watch, so Martin loitered on the sidewalk to let her. He gazed down the curving row of redbrick houses that framed the circular street, hooked together so that the garage wall of one became the bedroom wall of the next. The houses had identical windows, identical doors, and identical garage doors. At each garage, the pale gray sidewalk slanted down to the dark gray street so that scooter wheels could roll over it. Then the curb rose again and became level until the next garage: dip, rise, dip, rise, all around the edge of the street, like a perfect piecrust.
In the center of the circle lay the park, with its wide green-gravel spaces, dusty baseball field, bonded-rubber jogging track, and brightly colored play structures. The exact middle was a fishpond where Dad went to practice casting. Once, this park had seemed like a wonderland to Martin, and it had only recently ceased to be a marvel to his six-year-old sister. Now it was just the park: a good thing, to be sure, but a place of limited joys.
"See," directed Mr. LaRue, pausing in his work to glance up at them, "see, these are roses, and these are daffodils." He unstuck an orangey yellow flower from the vinyl sheet and carefully smoothed it onto the window glass. "They're for spring. It's spring now, you know."
"The vernal equinox," Cassie agreed.
Martin was bored. He had seen a number of springs arrive, had heard the speakers change their music and watched the plastic flowers go up on front windows across the neighborhood. None of it interested him anymore. Just this year, he had begun to grow at a prodigious rate, zooming past his peers, looking down on their hair parts and cowlicks. Not one ounce of weight, it would seem, had come with this growth, so he was beginning to resemble an Elasto-doll or a spaghetti noodle. His hair was such a dark shade of brown that everyone called it black, and his eyes were such a dark hazel that they looked brown. Only when he was excited did flecks of green and gold light up in them, but that didn't happen very often. Usually, Martin was assessing life cautiously from behind lowered eyelids: thinking of ways to escape class; thinking of plausible excuses for not doing schoolwork; or thinking of the millions of things he would rather do than sit in class and do schoolwork. No spark of color lit his eyes then. "Stop looking sullen!" his teacher would snap.
Martin sighed and tilted his head back, gazing at the network of steel girders that held up the immense dome enclosing their suburb. The vast metal structure was painted pale blue with big white splotches wherever the square golden skylights didn't intrude. Clouds, his granny had called those white blotches. He didn't see why they needed a special name.
High above him, a tiny inconspicuous figure crawled along one of the steel beams. Blue against the enormous blue ceiling, a toolbot was checking the rivets. As it crawled onto a cloud, the robotic form stood out clearly for a few seconds. Then it paused, probably to adjust its settings, and turned white, blending in once more.
A cloudy bot was harder to see than a blue one. Martin lost it against the faint lines and seams of the dome. He felt a tug at his sleeve. Cassie wanted his attention.
"Yard work isn't for everybody," Mr. LaRue was saying, "but I take pride in it. Got my lawn all finished." He gestured at a strip of green plastic that fringed the bottom of his house's red brick. "Bennett's still got his autumn leaves up on his window. It wouldn't kill some people to do a little work around here."
"Today is Martin's birthday," Cassie said. "It's nice that the speakers are playing something pleasant."
The old man looked scornful. "Birthday's got nothing to do with it." He used a razor blade to remove the last traces of a snowflake's outline. "It's the spring song," he said, pointing his razor at the nearest hidden speaker. "That's a robin, that's what that is."
Cassie tilted her head to listen to the jaunty, careless notes. "I don't know how that can be a song," she said. "There isn't a tune. It's different every time."
"Don't contradict me!" said Mr. LaRue. "Don't you smart kids learn any manners? If I say it's a song, it's a song, and if I say it's a robin, it's a robin!"
"Let's get to school," Martin interrupted, catching Cassie by the strap on the top of her pink backpack and starting to pull her away.
"Wait! What's a robin?" she wanted to know. "Is it some kind of woodwind instrument? Or is this another one of those concepts that no one understands anymore?"
Mr. LaRue dropped his sticker book onto the concrete and glared at her. "You damn freaks!" he barked. "Trust you to take the pleasure out of spring!"
Cassie stepped behind her brother, and Martin allowed her to hold his hand. "Damn? I don't know what that word means," she whispered. "Martin, do you know?"
"It means time to go," he said. Then he hauled her away down the sidewalk.
"But what does it mean?" she asked again as they turned the corner and walked away from the park.
"It's just a bad word. It means you made him mad." She hadn't asked him about freaks, of course. She had learned that word long ago.
The suburb was laid out in concentric circles, like a dartboard. They crossed curving street after curving street of tidy brick houses with identical windows, doors, and garages. On each street, the color changed. All the houses were tan, or all pink, or mustard yellow. Martin passed them without seeing them.
Freaks, he thought. The word was as much a part of Cassie's life as the steel dome above them.
The ads had started running on mid-morning television the summer after Martin's fourth birthday. WONDER BABIES are here! they announced. Be the first family on your block to raise a WONDER BABY! Even as young as he was, Martin had been aware of Mom and Dad's interest. Mom had already talked about having another baby. Now Dad wanted one too.
Never had the arrival of the stork brought such excitement. Overflowing with charm, brimming with intelligence, Wonder Babies were like nothing the suburb had seen before. But that didn't turn out to be a good thing.
Wonder Babies didn't wait around to be raised. They got involved in their upbringing, wanted to know about their feeding schedules, and read voraciously before the age of two. Worst of all, Wonder Babies—or the Exponential Generation, as they preferred to be called—wouldn't stop asking embarrassing questions. No amount of time-outs, missed snacks, or spankings could break them of this awful habit.
Three years ago, when the first class of the Exponential Generation had reached kindergarten, their teacher had quit within the week. No one would stay in their classrooms and put up with the deluge of questions their bizarre genius produced. But that didn't matter. They were driven to learn. They went to school anyway, dividing up the duties and team-teaching themselves.
Martin eyed the thin little girl whom he was attempting to steer toward school. She was wearing a stretchy shorts set of bright magenta, accessorized with a purple sweater. She had donned one pink sock and one purple sock this morning with her white sneakers, and her wrists sparkled with various pieces of childish jewelry in rhinestone and plastic. Her blue eyes and short golden curls bobbing in every direction made Cassie look downright perfect, like a living doll—even he had to admit that. He couldn't understand how the neighbors could say such cruel things to her face. He knew how he could, of course, but that was different.
"This word list is so inadequate," Cassie said, typing away on her handheld. "It doesn't have damn or robin. What is a robin, anyway? Does anybody know?"
Martin hesitated. Granny had whispered things to him when he was very young, while they sat together in the bright, glorious wonderland park of his earliest memories. Granny had told him of small, quick creatures that whirred through the air like toy planes, creatures that were as soft to the touch as a handful of yarn. But Cassie couldn't keep a secret, and everyone knew the walls had ears.
"I dunno," he said. "Stop asking stuff or I'll tell Mom."
They reached the school beside the outermost ring of streets and joined their classmates on the noisy playground. Cassie went off to assemble with the other members of the Exponential Generation under the guidance of Jimmy, their eight-year-old leader. Martin threaded through the knots of students, looking around for his friends.
Matt and David were waiting for him with almost identical grins. Matt immediately tried to grab him in a headlock. As they thrashed about, bumping into other students and raising cries of annoyance, Martin felt hands in his backpack.
"Let go of me, you doofus!"
He flung off Matt, who bounced against a larger classmate, received a smack to the head, and ricocheted back into Martin without losing a millimeter of his grin. Frowning, Martin turned away and set his backpack on the ground to examine its contents. Nothing was gone, but his handheld was flashing random patterns.
"You messed with this," he accused.
Matt was already overcome with glee, making noises like a badly tuned scooter, but David gazed up at him without a trace of guilt. "Uh-oh," he said. "Looks to me like your handheld has a bug."
"A bug..." Martin looked at the dancing lights for a few seconds, pressing combinations of buttons. Then he turned the handheld over, tweaked off the back cover, and studied the circuit board. There it was: an extra computer chip, colored bright purple. He pried it off, and the multipronged chip morphed in his hand. Now a small bug crawled across his palm, a purple bug with gold legs. David and Matt whooped in triumph and celebrated by punching each other.
"Sweet!" said Martin, examining the metallic computer bug. He put it back onto the circuit board so he could watch it freeze into chipdom and then pried it off again. "I wanted some, but my dad wouldn't buy them. He said they could damage the wrong kinds of machines."
"Nah," said David importantly, scooping up his chip. "These only work on little stuff, it says so right in the ad."
The bell rang, and the students squeezed into the main hall. The three friends allowed the force of moving bodies to carry them along.
"We put one on David's cat Cinder—gross! Shorted out the whole simulation."
"She turned into a big lump like silver Jell-O, and now she won't come near me. Here, I'll show you," David said. Chip in hand, he pushed through the crowd over to the Wonder Babies. Martin and Matt knew what was on his mind. Only one student brought a pet to school. Only one child answered to no one.
Jimmy stood at the door of the second-grade classroom, seeing the first group of Wonder Babies to its destination. He ticked off the roll on his handheld as children filed past him into the room. His pet rat, white with black patches, clung to his shoulder.
"Look out for a crash," David said, shaking the purple bug onto the rat.
The big piebald rat felt the bug crawl across its shoulder and scratched with its back paw. Then it seized the bug and sat up to sniff at it. Jimmy craned his neck to see and took the purple chip away. "I saw those on television," he remarked.
Staring, David took back his chip. Matt was punching him. "What happened, man?" Matt demanded in a whisper. David punched him back.
"You—man!" David stammered. "You—I mean, it—man! That thing's real!"
Jimmy walked his next group of charges to their room. Martin and his friends followed. "Hey, I want one too," Matt said in excitement. "Where do you buy a real rat?"
"You don't buy them," Jimmy answered. "I caught him in the warehouse area when he was a baby—Melanie, get rid of that gum."
"Can it change into anything?" asked Martin. "Like, different kinds of rats?"
"Or a rapid-fire slingshot?" suggested David, eyeing the long bare tail.
"No," Jimmy said. "He stays a rat. Brent and Margery, you start the reading lesson, and I'll be back in half an hour. Kindergarten Exponents, go to your room, and I'll be there to take roll in a minute."
Distracted from the rat, Martin speculated briefly on what it would be like to be eight years old and a teacher. Judging from the worried expression on Jimmy's face, it wasn't much fun.
"Look," Jimmy said as the little children filed by him, "Patches is alive. He was born, he grew up, and in another year, he'll die."
Death. Martin had a confused vision of a tiny black railcar coming to retrieve the furry body, just as one did when a person died. "Wow," he murmured. "That's very cool." He wondered about Granny's birds and clouds. Did they die too, like rats and people? How did that work?
"I'll buy one from you," Matt insisted.
"Yeah, we'll buy him," David said. "How much is he?"
Jimmy paused in the doorway, looking away from them.
He's disappointed in us, Martin thought. I wonder what we did.
"Rats," said Jimmy finally, "are not for sale." Then he shut the door.
"Stupid kid, stuck with a toy that can't do anything," David said, turning away.
"He made us late. Now we'll have extra work," Matt grumbled. "That stupid freak!"
Trailing behind them, Martin reluctantly entered his classroom. The sight of its familiar green walls crushed the happy thought of rats out of his mind. Pea green. Vomit green. A very appropriate color.
School was the usual interminable torment. In silence, the students worked exercises that had been fed into their handhelds, downloading the results to the school computer every half hour. In silence, Martin's teacher paced up and down, gazing out the window at the deserted playground. The computer had given him no lecture to read to them that day, so his only duty was to call time at the end of each exercise. But the handhelds did that anyway, a clock in the upper left-hand corner ticking down the time remaining before the termination of each drill.
Martin watched the seconds depart, scuffing his feet on the floor to provide a distraction. Across his screen paraded an endless succession of sentences to diagram, math problems to solve, science questions to answer, spelling errors to correct. When he daydreamed, the handheld beeped at him, and his teacher came over to shake him. By the end of the day, rigor mortis had set in, and his brain held no thoughts at all.
"It's your birthday," Cassie reminded him on the way home. "What present do you think you'll get?"
"I dunno," Martin said vaguely. He was still coming back to life.
"What do you want to get?" pursued Cassie, not for the first or even the tenth time that week.
"I dunno," Martin said again. "I guess Mom could give me back my jeans."
Cassie hooted. "Those old things! Everyone could see your underwear! I can't believe Mom had to sneak them out from under your pillow."
"I knew she was after them," Martin muttered. "They were just the way I like them."
"Oh, come on, what do you want?"
"Nothing, I guess." Martin was thirteen now, he reminded himself, not some dumb little kid anymore. Toys were for kids, and the things he was mildly interested in, like David's bug, he knew his parents wouldn't give him. But the sorts of things his father and mother gave to each other—puzzles, hobby kits, clothes, grown-up junk—he couldn't imagine ever wanting.
"You can't want nothing," insisted Cassie. She took his hand and tugged on it as she skipped and hopped in excitement. "There are so many things you don't have. Fun things! Pretty things too! I wish it were my birthday."
"That's just kid stuff, Cass," he said. "If you were old like me, you'd understand." And he stiffened his arm so she could hop higher.
Martin and Cassie reached the park and crossed in front of Mr. LaRue's house. Crates and bags teetered in wobbly piles on their sidewalk, and their father stood in the middle of the chaos outside the open garage.
Dad was comfortable-looking and a little soft, like his favorite recliner chair, with a cheerful face and a patch of long grizzled hairs that he carefully combed over his bald spot. Something was wrong today, though, Martin thought. Dad's hairs were disarranged, and his movements were impatient. Maybe he and Mom had had a fight.
"You're home early," Martin said. "What's up?"
"I got the trash shipments out the door ahead of schedule,"Dad said. "And the new scooter came in today. I thought I'd try it out."
Martin spotted Dad's new scooter leaning against the house behind a stack of Young Scientist in the Kitchen kits. Dad had been talking about his new scooter for the last two weeks. He should look happier about its arrival.
"I can't even squeeze it in here."Dad gestured hopelessly toward the garage. "I don't know why they didn't make these things with more storage space!"
"We could move the volleyball stuff," Martin suggested. "We never play. Or we could throw out Mom's old weights." Balancing several boxes of Cassie's baby clothes on top of the foosball table, they wedged the scooter in at last.
They burst into the dining room from the garage. Mom was there, hurrying from cooker to table. Mom always hurried, every movement decisive and efficient. She drank those hideous no-dye-added energy drinks all day, and they obviously worked.
"It's the birthday boy!" she cried, and Martin was subjected to a smothering hug and kiss. "I tried out my new cake-decorating module today. The frosting is 'a mystery flavor that will keep your company guessing for hours.' You'll have to tell me what you think."
As they ate their dinner and the enigmatic birthday cake, Martin kept an eye on his father. Dad didn't eat much, which was unusual. He didn't say much either, but that was typical. Cassie monopolized the conversation as always, telling them about her day.
"We finished Peter Pan," she said. "I thought it was well written, with vivid characterizations, even if the setting was a bit fantastical. Peter is a lawyer working for an agency that investigates companies for tax evasion. He takes on Captain Hook, CEO of the Jolly Roger shipping line, for failing to report stolen merchandise. With the help of the Lost Boys Accounting Firm, they finally get Captain Hook dead to rights." She paused long enough to take a drink of milk.
"My favorite character was Tinkerbell," she continued. "Tinkerbell works in advertising, so she can do magic. Captain Hook tried to make Peter Pan lose his job, so Tinkerbell ran a thirty-second spot on television about how great Peter was. That saved him, but then she was going to get fired. But then she said she thought she could keep her job if enough little children believed in advertising, and Peter Pan asked us to clap our hands if we did. And we clapped, and then she just got a verbal warning from her supervisor, and her biggest account was renewed for two more years."
"Reading Peter Pan in first grade!" said Mom, shaking her head. "And that's not what happened to Tinkerbell when I read it."
"What happened to your Tinkerbell, Mommy?" asked Cassie.
Mom shot her a stern glance. "Don't ask questions!"
This looked like the start of one of Mom's lectures, and those generally ended with Cassie running off in tears. Martin decided it was time for a diversion. "Great cake, Mom," he said. "I think it's banana. Anyway, something like that."
"My birthday boy!" Mom smiled at him. "You certainly are quiet tonight—you haven't said a word about presents. Not so long ago, you would have been begging to open your gift before the morning vote. Cassie, go get it for me." His sister trotted from the room.
Okay, this is the big moment, Martin told himself. Remember to look excited. Then a large object struck him in the chest, knocking his chair to the ground. Something heavy proceeded to dance on him. He gave it a shove and got a look at it. A big golden-coated collie was attacking him in a frenzy of affection, licking his face and yelping ecstatically.
Martin became aware of the sound of his own voice adding to the din. "STOP DOING THAT RIGHT NOW!"
The dog stopped whining and wriggling. Ears forward, it considered him. Then it flopped over onto its back and lay with its paws in the air, inviting him to rub its white tummy.
"'The Alldog,'" read Cassie from the side of a big cardboard box. "'Large or small, sleek or fuzzy—all the dogs you ever wanted rolled into one. Contents: one Alldog, owner's manual, and reset chip. Runs on two Everlite long-life rechargeable batteries. Batteries not included.'"
"He's all yours, son," Dad said, helping Martin to his feet. "They had us send in your photo and a dirty sock and programmed him right at the factory."
The collie, unable to contain itself any longer, flipped right side up and began swimming forward on its belly. When its nose rested on Martin's sneaker, it toppled sideways and began running in place. Its warm brown eyes never left his face for a second.
"'The Alldog,'" Cassie continued reading, "'is the perfect pet and particularly good with children. Do not place your Alldog in a strong magnetic field. Some assembly required.'"
This is just great, thought Martin. Here I am, thirteen years old, and Mom and Dad give me a dog. A dog! Everybody knows dogs are for little kids.
He thanked his parents for the degrading toy and took himself off to his bedroom. He was used to Cassie tagging along and invading his privacy. This time, the dog tagged along, too. Martin turned on his light, tossed his school stuff onto the bed, turned on his plasma lamp, turned off the light so that the plasma lamp would show up better, and sank into his beanbag chair to consider his misfortune. The collie tried to join him in the beanbag, forcing him to retreat to his desk chair instead.
Since the plasma lamp didn't illuminate anything, but only brought an odd green and purple glow to the room, Cassie turned on the light again before she plopped down on his bed. "You aren't allowed in my room," Martin pointed out, but he was only observing formalities. At the moment, he wanted an audience.
"You don't like your birthday present," accused Cassie, tossing the Alldog box onto his pillow. The collie's ears lifted, and it raised its head from Martin's knee to fix him with a look of concern.
"I don't want some stupid toy," he said. "That thing's not real. Heck, it's not even a dog. It's just a circuit board attached to a big wad of silver Jell-O. Here, I'll show you. Give me that reset chip." And he got up to poke around in the box. The dog let out a sharp yelp and dove under the bed. By the time Martin had the chip, he couldn't find his pet.
"I don't see where it could have gone," he said, rummaging under the bed. "There's no room down here for something that big." After several fruitless minutes, he tried a different technique. "Dog, come!" he commanded, imitating his mother. "And I mean right now!"
A little cream-colored Chihuahua came crawling out from under the bed, whip tail curled between skinny legs. Its large ears lay against its round head like crumpled Kleenex, and tiny whimpers rose from it at every breath. Its enormous brown eyes practically held tears.
"Oh, how cute!" Cassie cried, and it immediately hopped onto the bed to take shelter with her. "Poor baby! Look, you scared it."
Martin watched the abject creature hide itself in his sister's arms. Then he flung the chip back into the box and reclaimed his beanbag chair. He felt even more annoyed for giving way to pity. David and Matt hadn't. They had reset David's cat.
"I'm not scaring anything," he grumbled. "Computer chips don't have feelings."
The Chihuahua jumped down and came slinking over to him, trying to make friends. "You look ridiculous," he told it. The little dog sat down in the middle of the floor, head hanging and sail-like ears splayed out sideways. It looked as if it had no friends left in the world.
Meanwhile, Cassie was at the box again, pulling out several pieces of Styrofoam in search of the owner's manual. Soon she was tapping buttons on it, bringing up the search screen.
"I think they do have feelings," she said. "Listen: 'The Alldog was developed out of a research project to make tool bots seem friendly. This innovative toy begins with a basic tool bot computer module, layered with an artificial intelligence engine. The AI engine, instructed in canine behavior, is ready to explore its environment with you. It wants to be a good dog. Your responses, as well as day-to-day situations, provide a unique learning environment. As the AI engine seeks success and attempts to avoid failure, it becomes a true individual. No other dog in the world will be like yours.'"
"That's good," Martin muttered. "Just look at the skinny little thing! Give me the—Whoa!"
The Chihuahua was expanding rapidly, like a dog-shaped balloon. In a couple of seconds, a veritable monster lolled beside the beanbag, appearing to take up most of the bedroom. It stood up and towered over Martin.
"Look out!" he cried.
Cassie pressed keys and reviewed several pictures. "It's an Irish wolfhound," she told him. "That's what I'm saying: this computer does have feelings—sort of. It knows you're its master, and the AI part of it wants to succeed. Since you didn't like it as a little dog, it made itself into a big dog."
The wolfhound gazed quizzically down at Martin, its long tail waving gently. "No!" Martin said in what he hoped was a firm, masterful voice. "Bad dog for getting bigger than I am!"
The huge shape crumpled immediately, and the rough coat smoothed out to a satin gloss. In seconds, a trim, compact beagle stood where the massive wolfhound had been. It had a black back, a brown face, and four dazzling white feet. "Okay, that's better," Martin told it, and it danced with pleasure, its white-tipped tail slashing to and fro.
"Jimmy taught us about these tool bot engines," Cassie said. "They're pretty smart, but they're kind of simple at the same time. They have one or two big goals, and they dedicate all their resources to meeting those goals. We're more complicated in what we want to do."
Martin watched as the beagle sprang about, trying to attract his attention. "So all this thing wants is for me to like it?"
"'Loyalty to the master,'" read Cassie from the owner's manual, "'is the single trait common to every type of dog.' You're the master. It's programmed to want whatever you want."
"Sit!" Martin ordered the beagle, and it promptly obeyed. "Beg! Roll over! Up! Down! Play dead!" Silky ears flapping, the little animal performed flawlessly. "Find the square root of sixty-four!" The beagle hesitated for a second and then jumped onto the bed to tap the keys of Martin's handheld.
"Look at that," Martin scoffed. "Real dogs don't do math!" And he headed to the bathroom with his latest game cartridge to find a little peace and quiet.
When he came back, Cassie was in her room. Supportive snatches of dialogue from her Tell Me About Your Day diary module drifted out from under her closed door. Martin turned and tiptoed down the hall. At this hour, his parents were usually discussing their day—or their children. Over the years, he had heard many things worth knowing. He stopped outside the living room, where a jewelry show was displaying the newest sparkles. Dad's voice was barely audible against it.
"I saw the first of them today, Tris," he said. "Coming off the packet from Central."
"The first whats?" Mom asked absently. Your friends won't know it's not a zirconia, the television assured her.
"You know! Just like last time. They'll be everywhere in a few days. I wish we knew what happened to—" He gave a sigh. "I just hope nothing turns up."
"Walt, what are you talking about?"
Martin heard the recliner creak as Dad shifted. "Inspection!" he hissed. "There, I said it. You had to make me say it!"
"Oh dear!" murmured Mom.
"Oh good, you mean," Dad said morosely. "You know the walls have ears."
Martin awoke to the stirring strains of patriotic music. At precisely seven o'clock, every television in the suburb had turned itself on and begun playing the national anthem. By a quarter after seven, families were expected to gather in front of those televisions to take part in the daily vote. No problem was too small for them to consider. They were an intensely democratic people.
"Those blue curtains look cheap, Walt," Mom was arguing that morning as Martin stumbled into the living room. "It's the Presidential Office. It should have dignity. He has to hold meetings in there."
"I like blue," Dad murmured sleepily. He was wearing his brown bathrobe, and the long strands of hair that he usually combed over his bald spot were flopping to and fro. He stood by the television, waiting for the input signal to come on. Then he pulled the keypad out from its shelf below the big screen and typed in his vote. Once it registered, he stepped back with a yawn. "Your turn, Tris," he said. "We'll cancel each other out like we always do."
Mom stepped forward with the brisk air of a woman who had her duty to perform and two cups of coffee inside her frame to help her do it properly. The national anthem never caught her in bed. She had already taken her shower and gotten dressed.
Voting finished, they waited to see the result. At seven thirty, the President came on-screen, handsome and serious, standing at a low podium in front of draped flags.
"Thank you, fellow citizens, for taking time out of your busy day to keep this great country running at its best," he said, looking so earnestly at them through the television screen that he seemed about to reach out and clasp their hands. "In entrusting these decisions to my people, I share with each of you the awesome burden of leadership. Your quick and caring response lets me know that I am not alone."
"He speaks so well," Mom whispered. "And he dresses so well! No one else looks that good in a suit."
"The people have chosen the dark green curtains with the yellow flecks—"
"Yes!" cried Mom.
"—and of course I bow to their will in this as in all else. Those of you who voted for the blue, take heart: your voice will prevail on another day. Be sure to watch this evening at six o'clock, when I present the problem for you to vote on tomorrow. Good-bye for now. As I guide our great nation, I will remember your faithful service."
The screen showed their flag waving proudly for a few sober seconds and then launched into a juice commercial: Grapefruit never tasted so good! Dismissed, they headed into the kitchen for breakfast.
"I don't understand voting," Cassie said as she took out her favorite cereal. "You never vote about anything big."
"That's good," Dad said, reaching for the coffeepot. "That means there's nothing big to worry about."
"But don't you ever get to vote for anything bigger than curtains or holidays? Like the President. I want to know when we vote for him."
"Don't be silly," Mom said, bringing dishes to the table. "Our President's perfectly good. We won't need to vote for a new one till this one wears out. Martin, no dogs in the kitchen." The beagle, which had been glued to Martin's side like an extra limb since he had awoken, reluctantly retreated to the doorway.
"But who counts the votes?" asked Cassie. "We don't even know." She stirred her cereal to make the milk change color. Martin poked expertly at his, causing alternate pockets of orange and blue dye to pool into the milk. Clinging to a cup of black coffee, Dad watched them without enthusiasm.
"Of course we know," Mom answered testily. "A big computer does the counting, right there in the room with the President."
"But we don't know that," observed Cassie. "We never see numbers for how many voted each way. The President could just decide which curtains he liked best and then say anything that—"
"Cassie!" cried Mom.
"Tris, I'll handle this," Dad said, and Mom snatched the milk from the table and went elsewhere. While his father talked, Martin watched his mother slam things around the kitchen. He couldn't believe Cassie had been dumb enough to talk badly about the President. These smart Wonder kids sure could act stupid sometimes. No wonder people called them freaks.
"You see," Dad said slowly, "the President would never tell a lie. He wouldn't do that because he's our leader. We don't talk about that kind of thing. Not ever. We don't even think about that kind of thing."
"Yes, sir," whispered Cassie.
"We don't talk disrespectfully about voting," he went on. "It's the most important thing we do. People who don't vote can't be trusted. When the time comes for job assignments to come over the computer, those people don't get jobs, and then they can't get married. They don't fit in anywhere, and no one wants to be around them. Sooner or later, they leave the suburb, and they don't come back."
I wonder where they go, thought Martin. Off and on, he'd become aware of certain people not in their houses anymore, of kids at school shrugging over someone on their block who had gone missing. But the suburb held several thousand residents, and the adults never mentioned the ones who had left.
"We're very lucky people," Dad continued, on familiar ground now. "Before, things were terrible: everybody getting sick, not enough food, not enough jobs. So they built the suburbs, and our families were the lucky ones who got to live here."
Martin was barely listening. Every lecture ended this way, like a little commercial. We live in the suburbs, we're the lucky ones, we have everything we want. Slurping cereal, Martin tried to imagine the alternative: sitting around outside the steel dome in the blowing waste of sand and poison gas that people said was out there.
"We have everything we want," Dad concluded. "We have an easy life. All the President wants in return is a little help, a little appreciation. That's not much to ask, now is it?"
Cassie shook her head, staring at her cereal as its colors slowly faded to gray. Martin gave her a little kick under the table. How many times had he warned her? If you want to find out about something, don't ask. It was much better to listen at doorways. And that reminded him.
"Hey, Dad, I want to come to work with you today."
Dad's eyelids flickered slightly. "Oh, I don't know," he replied. "Stuck in the loading bay when all your buddies are out having a good time..." He trailed off and looked appealingly at Martin.
Martin looked innocently back. "Come on, Dad, you always want me to go; you know, quality time and all. And now when I want to, you're backing off. What's the big problem?"
Dad swirled the lukewarm dregs of his coffee, stalling for time. If he raises an excuse, thought Martin, I'll just ask more questions. Pretty soon, it'll be obvious he's hiding something, and I know he doesn't want that.
His father must have come to the same conclusion. "All right," he said. "But I want you to promise you'll stay out of the way this morning. Big loads are coming in." He glanced at the clock. "Fifteen minutes till we leave."
Fifteen minutes was plenty of time to pull on the jeans that lay crumpled by Martin's bed and trade his pajama top for the T-shirt he'd worn to school the day before. So what if its logo had faded? It was the softest T-shirt he owned. But Mom would have a fit if she saw it two days in a row, so he prudently covered it up with a sweatshirt.
Martin shut the annoying little dog in his room, but before he got to the garage, it caught up with him again, giving shrill barks of joy at their reunion. That was strange. He walked back to Cassie's room. She was curled up on her bed with her big plush bunny and a coterie of sympathetic fashion dolls.
"Did you let the dog out?" he asked.
Eyes dull, Cassie shook her head, and Martin felt bad for her. "Do me a favor, stay out of Mom's way while I'm gone," he said, tugging a curl to watch it spring back into place. "Mom and Dad are freaked out about something, and I don't want to sit through any more boring lectures."
His tone was kinder than his words. Cassie gave him a grateful look. "Nobody let your dog out," she said. "I saw the door open by itself when I came down the hall."
Martin turned to the beagle, surprised and a little impressed. "Did you let yourself out? I didn't know toys could do that. I think that's kind of cool. Okay, computer dog, you can come with me."
Today was Sport Day, the first day of the weekend, and the streets reverberated with noisy life. Driving the scooter cautiously, Dad wove in and out of impromptu soccer matches, past a pickup basketball game going on around a streetside net, and through the middle of a freeze-tag tournament. Martin glanced back at the little dog trotting after them and began to see the fun of owning something that showed him such devotion. All the way across the suburb, its little paws pumped like pistons; but then, until its batteries ran down, that computer-chip creature never would get tired.
Dad turned down an alley behind the last row of buildings, where the steel dome, braced with its reinforcing network of girders, rose from its concrete bed. Here, it was not the tidy structure that appeared to float above them, but a heavy tangle of crossing I beams, ugly plates, and gigantic rivets, streaked with rust and bubbled with layers of thick powder blue paint. The nearest skylights—great, flat, butter-colored panels—were hazy with many thousands of lines and scratches. Martin squinted at them out of habit, looking for clues about the world outside. Sometimes they glowed brightly, and sometimes they didn't, but he had never seen so much as a shadow move across their translucent surfaces.
"Get the elevator," Dad said. Martin jumped off the scooter, jogged to the tan door set in the back of the grocery store building, and typed his father's password onto the keypad. Martin had been getting the elevator for his father since he was old enough to punch buttons. Coming or going, Dad always seemed to have a vehicle to maneuver or an armful of stuff.
They rode the elevator down, which was the only direction it could go. At the bottom, they were in Dad's world.
Every day, as the suburbanites watched their television sets to alleviate their boredom with a sky that never changed, catchy ads alerted them to new products that they couldn't wait to buy. Shipments of goods arrived at the suburb constantly, and a steady stream of discarded items left. These were loaded into boxes, which were packed into larger boxes, which were put inside enormous boxes on flashing steel wheels, the packets that came and went on the rail lines. There was a packet for every need, from the refrigerated ones that held their food and the double-hulled ones that held the power plant fuel to the plain black packet that came when a local inhabitant died, the one that took a person to meet his maker.
Martin and Dad stepped out of the elevator into the loading bay, a large, utilitarian space lit by banks of fluorescent tubes. Iron rails crossed and recrossed the polished concrete floor, and packets of all descriptions waited on those rails, in the process of being loaded via mechanical carts or overhead cranes. Yellow paint striped the floor, warning people where not to walk, but it didn't matter anymore. Only one human was on the payroll in the loading bay, and he didn't go near the rails. Tool bots did all the hard work these days.
Dad was the packet chief, in charge of making sure that the right loads were hooked up and waiting to leave on the rail lines. He sat at the computer console, reporting on arrivals and departures, as his freight bots assembled the packets, lined them up on the outbound rails, dragged in the arriving packets, and broke their contents down for distribution. Dad held the highest-paying job in the suburb: it required a reasonable amount of brains and attention to detail for a minimum of six days a week. Some people pitied Martin's father because he had to work for a living, but he said he enjoyed having something to do.
Dad tapped a key to bring up the computer screen, checking for the daily schedule. He typed:
SUBURB HM1 ONLINE GOOD MORNING FRED HOPE YOUR WEEKEND IS STARTING WELL
The bright green letters glowed at the output line for a few seconds, and then they moved up, replaced:
SUBURB BNBRX ONLINE GOOD MORNING WALTER THANK YOU FOR YOUR KIND WISHES BUT I PREFER NOT TO DISCUSS PERSONAL MATTERS
Dad sighed. "Fourteen years, and he hasn't unbent an inch. So much for the daily attempt at good manners."
The heavy-duty freight bots were clustering around now, ready for their orders, folded as small as they could be so that their many long telescoping arms would pose no danger to their boss. Dad began reading out the contents to be placed inside the first packet.
Martin scouted around the busy loading bay, looking for the mysterious "thems" that had come off the packet car from Central. A nudge at his knee interrupted him. The little hound was looking up at him, wagging its white-tipped tail. It, too, looked as if it were waiting for orders.
"No, I don't know what I'm after," he said irritably. "I'll know when I see it, though."
He skirted the large, well-lit space, watching as the booms swung loaded crates into yawning containers. Several packets rolled by, screeching and thumping into one another as they slowed to a stop. A quick scan of them turned up nothing unusual.
The dog bumped Martin's knee again, its expression eager. Obviously, it counted on him to come up with some sort of plan. "I know what I'm doing," he told it. But he didn't. He stopped to think. "Okay, we'll see when the Central packet arrives today. Maybe more inspection things will be on it."
He sidled up to his father's console, trying to appear nonchalant. Dad's computer screen informed him that Central's shipment would come in at 8:57 a.m. Martin stepped back just in time to keep the beagle from nudging him again. "Look, computer chip, get your own life!" he snapped.
The dog's soulful brown eyes gazed up at him in unblinking adoration. You are my life, they seemed to say.
"Whatever," he muttered. "I guess we could kill time finding rats." His toy barked joyfully in agreement.
"Rats?" Dad said, overhearing them. "Son, we don't have rats in HM1." But Martin and the dog were already walking away.
Where had Jimmy found his rat? Martin remembered him saying something about the warehouse. They followed a mechanical cart as it rolled down a short hallway and into a large, high room filled with cardboard boxes resting on open shelves. The cart sprouted long stilts to deposit its load on a shelf above their heads, and they edged gingerly past it.
The beagle bounded ahead now, sniffing the cement floor. It led Martin into the produce room. Long flat boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables were stacked into chest-high towers by the door, and nectarines filled the shallow plastic bins of a rolling trolley nearby. Down the center of the room, specialized bots with many long rubber fingers were washing bunches of radishes at a white porcelain trough, and industrial refrigerators lined three walls, humming in a maddening whine.
The dog wove its way through the cardboard stacks, around the bases of the busy bots, and straight into a large mound of vegetable rubbish heaped against the unoccupied wall. By the time Martin reached the pile, it was digging furiously. Bruised lettuce leaves and dried-up orange rinds went flying through the air.
"Stop! Stop!" called Martin. "Get out of that junk!"
His dog emerged, tail wagging cheerfully. Moist brown apple peels clung to its nose and wound around its neck in a festive chain.
"You look gross," Martin told it severely. "Playing in the trash! Stop fooling around and get to work finding rats."
Shedding the peelings with a mysterious swiftness, the beagle sat down and yelped in protest, but Martin made it follow him back into the warehouse.
"Rats... ," he mused, looking down the aisles of cardboard boxes. At a loss, he studied the labels, as if one of the containers might be stamped RATS—SIX GROSS—STORE THIS SIDE UP—DO NOT OPEN WITH CUTTING TOOL.
The dog barked again, shrill and annoying. "Shut up!" Martin said. He glanced at his watch. 8:55. The packet was almost due.
Martin waited for the packet's arrival behind a load of new laundry-sorting machines, with a good view of the incoming rails but hidden from his father. Warning bells clanged as the large metal gates swung open, and the incoming packet rolled in dripping from the humid darkness of the washing room. No human had ever set foot in that room beyond the steel gates. Special machines there decontaminated the packets, so that the poisons couldn't come in from outside.
Just one car from Central today, its corrugated sides rust red. Martin scanned it, feeling disappointed. He didn't see anything strange. No, hold on. The little black box stuck on the undercarriage, right next to a big steel wheel. Had he seen one of those before?
As Martin walked forward to get a better look at the box, a panel on its side slid open, and water came pouring out. No, that wasn't right; it couldn't be water because it wasn't dripping. What liquid moved like that?
The silver substance clung to the bottom of the packet car, flowing along it with gluey sluggishness. A small wave formed, streaming down the big wheel, and puddled around Martin's shoes.
"Cripes!" he yelped, jumping back.
Hundreds of small oval forms were hurrying along, climbing over one another in their haste. They were fat and gelatinous, about an inch long, fringed by many short rippling legs. As they surged across the wide space, they lost their silver color and mimicked the shiny gray of the cement floor. Within seconds, they disappeared, flawlessly camouflaged, their movement nothing more than a vague impression.
"Don't look at them," said a tense voice. Dad was behind him. "Act like you don't see them. We're not supposed to know about them, not really. Or be too nosy."
The mass of busy creatures made Martin shiver. He had the horrible feeling that one had glided up his sock. "What are they?" he asked, hopping on one foot to shake out his jeans leg.
Dad caught his elbow and dragged him away. "It's government business," he answered. "Don't ask about them. And don't tell. Remember, the walls have ears." He glanced uneasily at the invisible swarm. "Eyes, too," he muttered.
Martin followed his father to the computer console, still feeling as if those things were all over him. While Dad reported the arrival of the Central packet W/OUT INCIDENT, Martin rubbed the back of his neck to stop the tickles going up and down his spine. After a few minutes, the prickly feeling went away. "Come on, computer chip," he called to his dog.
"Where are you going?" Dad asked anxiously.
"Back to the warehouse," Martin lied. "We were hunting for rats."
Once they were out of sight behind the laundry machines again, he ducked down and studied the floor. Nothing moved there. The little horde was gone.
"Okay, computer dog, time to earn your batteries," he whispered. "Find me those crawly things." The beagle tilted its head and cocked one floppy ear in surprise. "Yeah, I know what I said to Dad. Just do what I tell you."
The dog obediently sniffed the floor, moving in the direction the shapes had gone. It trotted behind a stack of metal panels and followed a yellow-marked rail line out of the loading bay. A door slid open to let them through, and lights flickered on.
They were in a low room, octagonal and very wide, large enough to hold everyone in the suburb standing in a big crowd. The rail line bisected the space, but the warning stripes were gone; here, the floor was covered with dark gray vinyl embossed to look like stone. The brown paneling had an imitation wood grain pattern, and brassy fixtures held up flame-shaped electric bulbs with lights inside that wobbled back and forth.
This was the room where the black packet waited when one of the suburb's members died. Here, the people gathered, spoke about the deceased, and loaded up the body. Then, as they stood and watched, the packet car rolled off down the rails.
Martin could still remember the day when Granny had taken that trip. He had run after the packet, crying; in his memory, the rails were long bright smears. He had run all the way across the loading bay, following that big, scary box. Then the security horn had sounded its earsplitting blast, and a net of steel mesh had dropped down to catch him. The big gates had swung shut before he could struggle free. Granny had gotten away.
High-pitched yelping interrupted his reverie. The beagle was running in circles. It paused, whimpering, and looked around. Then it trotted toward a custodial bot that was vacuuming the floor nearby.
Bots came in all shapes and sizes. This one looked like a small upturned trash can, ringed at the bottom by a circle of optical sensors. Its vacuum engine hummed away as it rolled repeatedly over a pale spot on the floor. Blocking its path, the beagle emitted a high, vibrating tone from somewhere inside its chest. The custodial bot switched off its vacuum and gave an answering whine, more tinny and even more annoying.
"Whoa! Computer dog, you speak bot!" Martin said, considerably impressed. "I've never seen a pet do that. Do the vacuum guy a favor, then, and tell him that spot's gum."
Moving purposefully once more, the beagle trotted across the room and down a poorly lit hallway covered with old red carpeting that had raveled at the edges. Martin caught sight of a shimmer on the wall by his head. The trail of plump, glistening things was there, moving along steadily, blending in with the beige waffle-weave wallpaper. The creatures reached a door marked AUTHORIZED ENTRANCE ONLY and poured through a crack at the top of the doorframe. In a few seconds, they were gone.
Martin tried the handle. Locked. He fingered the keypad without hope. "Well, that figures," he said bitterly. "This place is all about locked doors, and no one ever does anything about it."
His dog studied the keypad, its brow wrinkled in thought. Then, slowly and carefully, it walked right up the door, its feet making plopping noises. It placed a paw over the keypad, and green numbers flickered across the screen. After a few seconds, Martin heard a click. He turned the knob, and the door swung inward, the beagle clinging to it like a stuntman. On the other side was vast darkness and the drone of machinery. "Unreal!" he whispered.
The beagle dropped from the door and trotted confidently into the darkness, its eyes shining like flashlights. Martin still stood in the hallway. Maybe other pets could talk bot and light up their eyes, although he was starting to doubt it. What he knew without question was that no toy could unlock a door. His Alldog was malfunctioning. And this place—this big, empty, echoing blackness: he had never even heard about it before. It felt eerie, and it might be dangerous. He knew what he ought to do.
But as he hesitated, the beagle gave a shrill bark. We're losing them! the bark said. A rush of adrenaline jolted Martin, and he abandoned the safety of the hall. He heard the door lock behind him as he walked away.
The beagle's lighted eyes played over a network of conduit and ducts hugging the ceiling about fifteen feet above Martin's head. They walked past regularly spaced concrete pillars, enameled tanks, and square utility shafts. Then came an open area, interrupted here and there by more round, rough pillars. Then more tanks and shafts.
As they proceeded slowly, keeping pace with the movement of the weird things above them that only his toy could now see, Martin tried to place this huge, dim void in the context of the suburb he knew. Its rhythm was vaguely familiar. They must be in an access space beneath the houses. As the bot's lights danced faintly across the cement ceiling, waffled by thick support beams, he could distinguish a repeating pattern of pipes, tanks, utility shafts, and electrical lines matching each house. These curved away into the darkness as the houses curved along their streets.
They walked for a long time. How long, Martin didn't know. He couldn't read his watch in the dark. Mom had wanted to buy him a new watch with a glowing face, but Martin had preferred the old one. For the first time, he regretted his loyalty.
It was strange how noisy the place was and how silent at the same time. No sound could die away against the hard surfaces; it bounced around like a superball. The pipes overhead thumped and screeched, fluids boiled in the tanks, and off in the distance somewhere, the power plant's turbines hummed. Even the beagle's toenails made a decisive tap-tap on the pavement, high-pitched and steady, like a clock. It would seem that any more noise could hardly be noticed, but whenever Martin spoke, his voice was so loud that he felt the urge to talk in a whisper.
"Do you know how to get us out of here?" he asked.
The beagle, an indistinct shape in the darkness, didn't appear to answer. Martin could only hope that its tail was wagging reassuringly.
"And don't you think it's funny," he said later, "how much our steps echo? Mine sound like they're coming from everywhere. It's like there are a bunch of us down here."
An angry snarl interrupted him. The beagle was swelling in size. Its barks deepened from shrill to throaty, until a monster bayed savagely beside him, gnashing an impressive set of fangs.
Martin turned and ran into the darkness. Within seconds, he smacked into a pillar. The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the ground, and glowing lights were dazzling his eyes. A big wet tongue licked his stinging cheek.
"You're my dog, right?" he whispered, closing his eyes against the glare. He reached up and found himself petting shaggy fur. "You wouldn't ... hurt me or anything, right?" He felt a long dog muzzle and two tall, pricked, velvety ears that folded beneath his touch. A big barrel chest vibrated as it whimpered.
"You're a good dog," he said shakily, fending off the moist tongue. "You're a good dog—a big dog! Man, you scared me!" He opened his eyes and squinted in the light. "Hey, shine those things somewhere else."
Bracing himself against the pillar, Martin slowly climbed to his feet. "Why did you change to another dog?" he wondered aloud. "Don't do that again, it creeps me out. What were you barking for, anyway? O-o-oh, crap! There's something down here, isn't there?"
They ran all the way back, swerving around pillars and tanks. Martin kept his gaze fixed on his dog's bright eyebeams lighting up the concrete before him, afraid that the echoing clatter of his footsteps was the sound of a dozen monsters. A wall emerged from the darkness at last, and the dog directed them along it. In a few more seconds, Martin found himself standing in the hallway with the disreputable red rug, and the door closed and locked behind him with a gratifying click.
A handsome black-and-tan German shepherd stood beside him. "Wow! No wonder you sounded so mean," Martin said. "You're a tough-looking dog." The shepherd laid back its ears and wagged its bushy tail.
"Did you find any rats?" Dad asked when they walked into the loading bay. He looked up at Martin and whistled. "What happened to you? Did that rat take you out in twelve rounds?"
Martin examined his injured face in a shiny metal panel. A large, shallow abrasion puffed up the cheek. He thought it looked impressive.
"Nah, we didn't find any. I tripped over the dog." It barked in protest, and he gave it an apologetic pat.
"A German shepherd, eh?" Dad said. "Now, that's a good-looking brute." The dog nosed his hand, tail waving politely. "I'm glad you're back. I was thinking we'd go home for lunch a little early. Just let me get the 10:22 out the door."
Martin watched the freight bots closing up the packet car. He was still keyed up from his run. So many days were the same old thing, but today had been loaded with incident. An entire spooky world existed right here inside the regular one, and he wished very much that he could talk about it.
"Dad..." he began. Don't ask questions, his mind advised. You went through a locked door that said AUTHORIZED, and he'll want to know how you did it.
Dad was typing out the contents list. "What, son?" he asked.
"Did you ever see a bot do something it wasn't supposed to?"
"Sure," Dad answered without looking up. "They break all the time."
"No, I mean something they're not supposed to be able to do. Like ... like—oh, I don't know—like open a door by cracking the password."
Dad stopped typing and looked at him hard. "Have you seen this happen?"
"Oh! No, not really," Martin hedged. "It's just that—you know, even if I had ... Anyway, David said he knew a bot that could."
"But you haven't seen it?" his father pursued earnestly. "You need to tell me. Yes or no."
Martin felt a cold nose against his hand. "No," he said, careful not to look at his dog. "I mean, you know—how could I?"
"Did David say he'd seen it?" Dad pressed.
"I dunno. Maybe," Martin said as casually as he could. "I mean, we're talking about David here. Why?"
Dad looked very serious. "Some bots are modified," he said. Alarm bells rang as the big gates swung open, and he typed a message on the console as the packet car slowly moved away. "We don't talk about it, but I think you should know so you can tell me if it comes up again. Modified bots can be very dangerous. Criminals buy them to be bodyguards, assassins—even bombs. Security notices come out from time to time, and we watch for them in the packets. Whenever you see a bot act unusual, you should report it for demolition."
Martin's dog was whining now. He stroked it reassuringly. "Yeah, but Dad, we don't know any criminals. How would a bot like that get in here?"
"Hopefully by accident," said his father. "They're made illegally in the factories, alongside the regular bots. Don't talk about this to your friends, but if David says anything else, I need you to tell me. Ready for lunch now? I'm going to take the new scooter around the outer ring to see how fast it'll go. Those things are supposed to do twenty miles an hour."
Now the shepherd was pawing at Martin, dark eyes anxious. "You know what, Dad?" he said. "I think I'll walk home."
On the way, Martin had a quiet talk with his dog. "You'll have to watch yourself," he advised. "If people are looking, just do toy things. And don't act so guilty all the time! It's lucky Dad didn't figure it out, the way you carried on in there." He ruffled the nervous dog's ears happily. "Man, you are one cool toy!"
As they passed tidy brick houses decorated with their yard work stickers, Martin thought about the shadow world below. What a thrilling place it seemed once he was safely out of it! Its stark utilitarian spaces were almost irresistible. Now that he possessed an illegal supertoy that could take him into that prohibited zone, he would learn all its secrets and become master of its gloom. He imagined himself popping in and out of his friends' houses through a network of hidden doors.
But perhaps this underworld already had masters. Martin fingered his swollen cheek. If nobody else knew about the place, what exactly had his dog seen?
"Hold on! I know what's down there," he said in excitement. "It's the people who disappear!"
Copyright 2008 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division.