“Kenny? Kenny, are you still there? Kenny!”
Kenny gulped air through his mask, fighting panic. The darkness closed in, a watery glove gripping him in its fist. He hated the dark— But the edge of hysteria in August’s voice dragged him back from the brink. “I’m… I’m here, August,” he gasped. He felt over towards her until he touched her shoulder. They grabbed hands, clutching each other tightly.
“Where are we?” August asked in a small voice.
Kenny inhaled again, deeply. He remembered the technique his grandma had taught him for relaxing: deep, slow breath through the nose, hold it a few seconds, then slowly out through the mouth. It seemed to be working; at least he didn’t feel the overpowering need to scream anymore. Kenny turned his head, straining for some sight or sound to tell him where they were.
The first thing he noticed was that they were not, in fact, in complete darkness – a blue glow highlighted vague outlines in the darkness. And there were… whispery noises. Faint, thrumming vibrations on the edge of his hearing. Kenny was about to lean forward to try and hear better, when he and August were suddenly sucked down against the couch. The water was draining, Kenny realized – they must be in room closed off from the rest of the lake. At least that would allow them to conserve the air in their tanks until they could get out of here.
Assuming we do get out of here… Kenny shivered. Minutes passed as the sucking feeling continued. Just how much water was in this place?
Lights flared. The kids stared.
They were in the strangest room Kenny had ever seen. It was long and tall – the ceiling had to be at least three stories high. All along the far wall stretching into the distance were huge steel spheres, some halfway embedded in the wall. Round windows in the sides of the spheres were lit by that faint blue glow, revealing water that swirled violently within. Pipes crisscrossed the ceiling and floor, industrial tubes as wide as redwood trees. And everywhere in the room, poking up from the floor at varying heights, were tall metal poles with round platforms at the tops. Strange cylindrical mechanisms spun and clicked above each platform, and as the kids stared, one of the mechanisms nearby released a thick, powerful beam of blue-white light straight down at the center of its platform. The beam abruptly vanished, leaving a pile of something dark and shapeless behind. Bubbles streamed violently through the water around where the beam had been, rising up towards the ceiling as huge robotic arms moved gently towards the platform, plucking up the new arrival and carrying it away.
A thought occurred to Kenny, and he looked down. Then up. A chill ran through him. They were on one of those platforms. And another of the strange machines sat above them, spinning slowly. He could make out a series of round lenses inside the mouth of the device, glowing with blue light. And the device was definitely big enough to accommodate their sofa. At least those big, mechanical arms didn’t seem to be moving their way.
August’s whisper reached his ears as the water level continued to drain. “This is…”
“The lost technology,” Kenny finished, not even trying to keep the awe out of his voice. “This has to be what cleans the lake!”
The water level was almost to their heads now, and Kenny wriggled with anticipation. “Don’t take your mask off right away,” August warned as they and the sofa emerged from the water. “Let’s make sure there’s actually oxygen in here.”
“Good call.” Kenny tapped his wrist meter to bring up the tox screen and held it above the water. A few seconds later, his and August’s equipment dinged the all-clear. Kenny breathed a sigh of relief as he gently pulled off his mask and stepped from the couch to the damp metal platform. At least they wouldn’t have to worry about running out of air before they found their way out of here.
That prickle of unease ran over his skin again. How ARE we going to get out of here?
“It worked!” said a voice, nearly scaring the kids straight out of their flippers. Kenny and August bolted back onto the sofa with a high-pitched squeal. Kenny tried not to think too hard about who the squeal came from.
Another voice, vaguely mechanical, answered the first tinny voice. “Of course it worked. The plan was flawless.”
Kenny and August stared at each other. There was no one in sight; the whole vast room seemed completely empty. Kenny leaned cautiously over the edge of the couch, searching the platform. “Uh… hello?” he managed, his voice cracking.
“Ah! We are being impolite, T135. Let us introduce ourselves properly,” the second voice said, and both kids squeaked as their sofa suddenly dropped five inches, belying their assumption that they were already firmly on the platform. Kenny heard a skittering sound, like someone typing very rapidly on a keyboard, but he couldn’t see any—
In a shimmering wave, like an old science-fiction show special effect, two shapes materialized out of thin air: long, segmented bodies of steel plating, reflecting a bluish sheen in the room’s fluorescent lighting. Pointed mechanical legs wavered from each segment, and a round “head” sat on the uppermost end of each, covered in eight bulbous, hexagonal viewports. They were each at least six feet long and stood reared halfway up, making them seem just a little taller than Kenny. When the shimmering stopped, two insectoid robots stood before the kids. One of them waved.
August let out a high-pitched scream. “GIANT BUGS!!!” she shrieked, and dove over the back of the couch. The robot on the left reared back, its blue “eyes” flashing rapidly.
“Please do not be alarmed, small Builder!” it squawked in the tinny voice of the first speaker. “We mean you no harm!”
The second bug-bot hunched low, its legs clicking together fretfully. “I did not think we would attract such young Builders. Perhaps we have made a mistake?”
“No, no, we need any Builders we can get,” the other insisted, still waving in what might have been a placating manner at August.
Kenny just stared in disbelief. Invisible robots? Was that why no one ever detected what was taking all the bigger garbage out of the lake? Of course, that would explain why their sofa hadn’t been touching the lake bottom: it was riding on the backs of these things the whole time! Wow. Wait until Mom and Dad hear about this! he thought excitedly. They were going to be famous!
August’s muffled whimpering snapped Kenny out of his amazement, and he turned to look over the back of the couch where his friend was huddled. “They’re not bugs, August,” Kenny said calmingly. “They’re some kind of funky robot that can go invisible. And I think they’re friendly?” He looked back at the robots uncertainly.
The second robot bobbed its round head. “Yes, yes, we are indeed friendly to the small Builders. Please forgive us for alarming you!” It gingerly stepped forward, its pointed legs tick-tick-tacking on the platform. Two of its legs on the fourth body segment were a bit longer and split into several multi-digited fingers, which now clasped together like hands. “You are honored guests. In fact, we are in need of your he—
“Hey! Robots! Who let the water out?”
A new voice, this one refreshingly human-sounding, cut the air. Kenny couldn’t be sure, but he thought the two millipede-bots… flinched? Kenny and August skirted around the robots and peered over the side of their high platform.
A man was coming towards their platform on the floor below. They could tell he was a man because he had pulled off the helmet of his all-white protective suit and held it tucked under his arm. The water hadn’t quite finished draining away, forcing the brown-haired stranger to slosh his way forward, which didn’t seem to be improving his mood. He scowled up at the platform. “Robots! I said, who let the water out? I hope you’re not trying to—”
The man stopped suddenly, his head cocking. Even from thirty feet overhead, Kenny could see his eyes go wide as he spotted them. “Are those kids?” he asked sharply.
The two robots sank low, reminding Kenny of whipped dogs. He felt oddly sorry for them, although he couldn’t for the life of him think why. As best as he could tell from what he’d pieced together so far, the robots had sort of abducted him and August by tricking them onto the sofa and bringing them here. One of the robots, the tinny-voiced one, tilted its head unit over the side of the platform. “You are correct, Builder Trevor: they are young Builders. They have only just entered the Central Cleansing Hub. The water was drained per emergency protocol in case of human life entering without proper breathing apparatus. Once they are removed to the secure corridors, all hydraulic cooling systems will be restored.” It struck Kenny that the robot’s voice was much more monotone than it had been a minute ago.
Kenny watched the brown-haired man scowl up at them. He had a scruffy chin, as if he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. There was something oddly wild about him, and Kenny wondered worriedly what would happen if the man was angry with them for being here. But suddenly, a wry grin creased the man’s face.
“Clever buggers,” he said, barely loud enough for Kenny to hear. In a more friendly tone, the stranger called, “Well, let’s not leave them hanging up there, shall we? Bring ‘em on down.”
The two robots looked at each other, and once again, Kenny got an odd sense that they were less than thrilled. But one of them disappeared over the side, presumably climbing down the long pole to the bottom. Kenny and August peered over to watch as the strange robot reached a control panel at the base of the platform and typed in a rapid series of commands. With a quick jerk and a smooth hiss, the platform they were standing on began to descend.
August glanced at Kenny, chewing her lip. “Do you think it’s safe?”
Kenny shrugged. “I don’t see what choice we have. Nobody’s tried to hurt us, though. Let’s see what happens.”
His friend nodded, and Kenny was struck by the irony that suddenly he was being the brave one. Must be the bug robots freaking her out, he decided. Although when he tried to reach out and hold her hand, she rolled her eyes and flapped at him irritably. That made Kenny feel better.
“Small Builder,” a metallic voice whispered, and Kenny jumped. The second bug robot was leaning over his shoulder, its eight eyes focused on him. “It is imperative that one of the Workers speak with you at first opportunity.” But it shut up as the platform came to a stop about a foot above the floor. Kenny glanced quizzically at the robot, but it had resumed its subdued pose. Kenny turned to see the tall stranger waiting on the floor, watching them with piercing green eyes.
Silence stretched for a moment as the three humans stared at each other. Then the man laughed and threw his arms wide. “Well, whaddaya know! Nice to have some company down here that’s not a bunch of brainless maintenance droids! Welcome to the Preservation Lake Underworks, as I call ‘em.” To Kenny’s surprise, the man stuck a hand out, shaking Kenny’s in a firm grip. He did the same with August, who shyly accepted his help in getting down off the platform. “The name’s Trevor Maloy,” Trevor continued, sounding more jovial all the time. “And who might you be?”
“I’m August Thresher, and this is Kenny Calgary,” August answered for them both, sitting down in the few remaining inches of water to tug off her flippers. “Sorry to intrude; we didn’t expect to get sucked into this place!” She pointed back up on the platform. “We were checking that out when it was brought down here.”
The man looked past them and shook his head, mouth twisted up in a bemused grin. “Is that a sofa? How in the dust did a sofa get in the lake?” His eyes narrowed and turned to the two robots. The friendly tone he’d used for the children turned back into a commanding bark. “Robots, get with the rest and resume your duties. Leave these kids to me.”
“Yes, Builder Trevor,” the two robots said in unison. Without another word, they turned and clicked off across the floor in two undulating lines of body segments and insect legs. August shivered next to Kenny.
“Funny little ‘bots,” Trevor commented, watching them go with a smirk. “Harmless, and pretty dang useful, but they get up to tricks now and again. There’s thousands of ‘em in this place, keeping things running.”
This news clearly did not please August. “Thousands?” she squeaked. Red flooded her face, and she cleared her throat and continued in a normal, if low, tone. “They… they aren’t dangerous, are they?”
Trevor seemed to take his time thinking it over, running a hand through his messy hair. “Weeell… I wouldn’t say exactly dangerous… but they are robots. Don’t have human souls like we do. I wouldn’t trust ‘em too far, is what I’m saying. They have a bad habit of making up stories to keep us humans out of their way.” He gave August a quick wink. “But don’t you worry. Stick with me, and they won’t cause you any trouble.” August nodded, looking immensely relieved. She automatically shifted closer to the stranger, glancing furtively around the large room for more of the millipede droids.
Kenny wished he could feel as reassured. Something about this whole situation felt… off. The boy looked back up, towards the peculiar machine that had transported them here – wherever “here” was. They probably weren’t getting back out that way, so this stranger might be their best hope of getting home. Plus, well… he was pretty curious about this place.
Kenny looked up from his musings to realize that Trevor and August were already walking away. He scrambled down off the platform and hurried after them, hopping from one leg to the other to tug off his flippers.
“Lemme give you a look around the place!” Trevor was saying. He still had that strange helmet tucked under his arm, which he patted. “I might be able to scrounge up suits in your size, although I don’t think the original Builders of this place planned to have kids visiting.”
“Why do we need the suits?” Kenny asked nervously. The giant metal spheres churning with water loomed over his head, still emitting that strange, faint glow. “Is there radiation down here?”
“Oh, nothin’ to worry your heads over,” Trevor assured him. “It’s just a safety precaution. First, let’s get out of the Central Cleansing Hub so they can fill it back up. The teleporters don’t work right in the open air.”
August stopped so quickly that Kenny ran into her. “Teleporters?” they both yelped.
Trevor turned to them, a wide, humor-filled grin on his face. “Yup! You’re looking at genuine teleporter technology. One of the Lost Age techs.” He pointed up just as another of the cylindrical devices above the platforms fired its blue-white beam, leaving stars in Kenny’s eyes. A wave of heat passed over them. “Probably not graded for biological use, but perfect for this kinda industrial project. Good thing you kids made it through unscathed! Those big machines target garbage in the lake and bring it down here to be processed. The water’s to keep them cool so they don’t overstress the system, and to cycle out any water brought in with the beams.”
Kenny might have spent longer freaking out over the implications of them not making it in “unscathed,” but he was blessedly distracted by the puzzle pieces clicking together in his brain. “So that’s why no one’s ever seen where the trash goes!” he said excitedly. “They wouldn’t see long-range teleportation!” And that would also explain the rumors of mysterious flashes in the lake! Never in a million years would he have imagined this being the answer to the lake’s mystery, but it made so much sense! Although it didn’t quite explain where the more microscopic pollutants went…
Trevor shrugged roughly, his next words begrudging at best. “Yeaaaah… but the ‘bots are a big part of it, too, I guess. The systems in here send them camouflaged droids out into the lake to gather any larger trash dumped in. I guess they also do something to the water to sift out toxins. Completely shielded from radar, light, and heat; it’s pretty amazing, probably more Lost Age stuff.” They had almost reached the end of the huge room, and as Kenny glanced around, he could just pick out the round blue eyes of more of the robots on the walls and ceiling overhead. Watching them? “That’s the other reason nobody’s been able to track them down before now,” Trevor continued, heading for a door in the smooth concrete wall. “The droids take the garbage to general collection points, and then they send coordinates to the teleporters, which lock on and zap everything down here. Some of it’s disintegrated, some recycled. I think they teleport a few bits into our sewage system just to mess with us.” The man chuckled as he typed a command into the keypad by the door, which opened with a cool whoosh. “Gotta give the inventors of this place credit for giving their machines a sense of humor.”
The kids followed their strange guide into a normal-sized corridor lit with periodic fluorescent lighting. Kenny glanced over his shoulder at the door as it closed and made a series of clunking lock noises. A readout on the door switched from “EMPTY” to “FILLING…,” and water gushed down into the room, visible through the glass pane in the door. Kenny wondered what would happen to their sofa. He felt kind of attached to it.
“So… who are you?” Kenny jogged to catch up to August and Trevor. He was only about chest-high to the scruffy-haired man, so Kenny tried to walk tall, putting on his best serious face. “I mean, you told us your name, but what are you doing down here? You seem to know a lot about this place.”
“He’s probably a caretaker!” August theorized, shooting a scolding glare at Kenny. He glared right back, sticking his tongue out for good measure. August ignored him and continued. “A place like this, maybe there’s a whole bunch of people down here maintaining the systems, right? I mean, they wouldn’t just leave it all to those… bug things, would they?” She nervously tucked a wet strand of hair behind her ear. The temperature in the building was slightly cool, making both kids shiver in their wet clothes and gear.
Trevor shook his head. “Nope, it’s just me. The whole system’s automated. I found my way down here a few months ago. Long story,” he laughed. “But it’s a good thing I did! In fact…” He stopped in the middle of the hall and turned, looking over the kids with a speculative gleam in his eye.
Kenny stared back, wondering why the man’s searching gaze raised his hackles. But August didn’t seem bothered by him, and she was usually the smart one. The moment passed as Trevor’s face split into that jovial smile again. “Yeah, you two might just be able to help me out! Those ‘bots usually do whatever I say, but they must’ve realized I needed a little assistance and acted on their own to bring you down.”
“You need our help?” August asked, sounding both flattered and puzzled. “With what?”
“Come on and I’ll show you.” Trevor continued walking, keeping a friendly, guiding hand on August’s shoulder as Kenny trotted along behind.
The room they came out in was not as large as the first room, but still impressive in size. Another huge sphere hung suspended in the middle of the room, hundreds of tubes and pipes snaking to and from it and the walls and ceiling. Unlike the spheres in the Central Hub, this one didn’t have any windows, but it emitted a loud, low humming noise that Kenny could feel all the way to his bones.
Trevor walked up to the sphere, a proud smile on his face. “This is one of the devices that powers the whole system, keepin’ our lake clean. Amazing technology.” He waved his hands at the kids, shooing them forward. “Go on, have a good look!”
Kenny and August exchanged glances. The sight of August’s excited grin put Kenny at ease. This was just another adventure to her! And why shouldn’t it be? he reasoned. Learn to relax, Kenny! Trevor has everything under control. He hurried to catch up with August, who was already circling around the giant sphere.
Whooshing sounds like water churning echoed thickly through the metal. Kenny put a hand out, feeling the ageless steel set in a perfect sphere. This was incredible! To think that he, little Kenny Calgary, would be standing face-to-face with Lost Age technology. He’d always liked the idea of being a scientist. Maybe he could help discover how all of this worked one day. If they could build systems like this all over the world, there would never be problems with clean water shortages again…
A movement in the corner of Kenny’s eye drew him to a halt while August continued forward. One of the millipede robots stood back in a recessed corner, its leg waving. Beckoning him. Suddenly the cryptic words the robot had told him earlier came back to Kenny: “It is imperative that one of the Workers speak with you at first opportunity.” Kenny frowned at the bot, wondering why it would be hiding itself away like that. Did it not want Trevor to know it was there?
“Kenny-boy? Where’d you go?” Trevor’s friendly call echoed from the other side of the room, and Kenny realized that August had disappeared around the sphere. He glanced at the bot again, but it had vanished. Kenny shook his head; it was probably nothing. He hurried the rest of the way around to find August sitting on a raised platform that circled beneath the sphere, and Trevor tinkering away at a control panel.
Trevor turned and beamed at the kids. “Alright, had a good look? Now let’s get down to business.” He plopped onto the ledge next to August, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the hanging sphere. “This device is operatin’ on a deteriorating system. Oh, it’s been runnin’ fine for almost a century, but when I got down here and took a look, I could tell it’s been losin’ integrity. So I’m trying to fix it.” He frowned and shook his head. “If I don’t fix it, the whole lake-cleaning program’ll break down. No more crystal-clean preservation lake.”
August gasped, and Kenny’s heart did a little flip. No more preservation lake? That could be a disaster. Easton had never had the need to develop water-purification systems into its sewers; they’d be vulnerable to any disease or pollutant that got into the water system. And what about the rest of the cities surrounding the massive lake? Kenny had visited other cities that relied on regular water systems, and while, yeah, it was cool to be able to fish and stuff, the thought of their beautiful blue lake turning into the same brown, opaque stuff he’d seen in other lakes turned his stomach.
“That’s awful,” August stated. She leaned forward eagerly, staring at Trevor with something like hero worship. “Of course we’ll help! What do you need us to do!”
“Hold it, August.” Kenny put a hand on her shoulder, frowning off into space. Something still didn’t feel quite right about all of this. He looked Trevor in the eye, trying to read the square-jawed stranger’s easy-going features. “You said you just showed up a few months ago. But the robots have been here the whole time, right? So why aren’t they doing anything?”
Trevor laughed lightly, waving off Kenny’s question as if it were the silliest thing in the world. “They’re part of the system, Kenny-my-boy; the whole program is slowly deteriorating, just like all computer systems do. All they know how to do is replace old parts and follow old orders. They probably don’t even realize the system’s not running as efficiently as it used to, bein’ dumb droids.” He slapped a hand against the white pant leg of his suit and stood, walking over to the control console to point emphatically at the screen. “But I do! I found some of the original schematics for this place. Take a look here.”
The kids gathered closer, Kenny having to go up on his toes a little to read the tall monitor. Trevor touched two fingers to the screen and spread them, causing a portion of the complex schematics pictured there to expand until they were obviously looking at a readout of the sphere hanging in this very room. His finger touched down on a spot near the top. “There’s a port here that leads down to the manual controls on this mechanism. If we can get down in there and adjust the settings back to their original configuration, we can get this system back up to top performance.”
Kenny tilted his neck back, and back, trying to see to the top of the twenty-foot-high sphere. There didn’t appear to be any kind of ladder system built into the side; how would Trevor even get up there? “I don’t get it,” Kenny admitted, scratching the back of his neck. “Why do you need us?”
“Because, kiddo.” Trevor crouched down so that they were eye-level. His intense green eyes once again made Kenny vaguely uneasy, like he’d been caught in a high-beam searchlight. “That access tunnel is mainly for the droids; it’s too big for me to get into. I’ve tried telling them what to do, but the useless hunks of junk say it’s ‘against their programming,’” he sneered, the friendly smile on his face darkening. “But you two!” Trevor’s face brightened again, and he spread his arms as if he wanted to hug them. “You’re small enough! And it’ll be completely safe, I promise. With your help, we can be done and back home by suppertime!” Trevor stood back from the console, arms folding in smug satisfaction. “And then we’ll be heroes!”
Heroes. Kenny and August looked at each other, grins spreading over their faces. This was too good to be true! Not only had they uncovered the mystery of the preservation lake, but now they might even help save the lake! I wonder if we’ll get a parade, Kenny thought, all worries forgotten as he fantasized about going home with this news. To think that two kids like him and August could be involved in something this big!
“We’re in,” August said, once again speaking for both of them. She clasped Kenny’s hand and looked up at Trevor, her jaw set in determination. “What do you want us to do?”
Trevor boomed a laugh that echoed in the large room, clapping his hands together. “Excellent! And here I thought I was going to have a bad day. Alright, let’s get you two suited up, and then we’ll get started!”
The suits again. Something about that still bothered Kenny, but he was too busy being excited about his upcoming heroic act to worry about it. Everyone was in a good mood as they trooped down another hallway, traveling further into the vast complex. The Builders must not have cared much for interior decorating, considering the Spartan gray nature of the structure, but Kenny and August couldn’t help craning their necks and making awed noises as they passed windows looking out onto more massive spheres and water-filled rooms, glowing incinerators and blinding teleportation beams, control rooms and conveyor belts on a massive scale. Many of them held more of the insectoid robots, operating controls or replacing parts or simply skittering up and down walls on their way to another part of the facility. It boggled the mind to think that such a large, complex place could go undetected all these years, camouflaged against even their current society’s advanced detection technology. The Lost Age must have been truly amazing, Kenny decided. Seeing it for himself only made it that much sadder that the Dust Wars had destroyed so much of it.
They entered a small chamber that resembled a locker room, with aluminum cabinets along the walls, and benches between. Trevor rummaged for a few minutes through the cabinets, grunting and muttering, before he finally withdrew two slightly smaller, but still too large, white suits similar to his own. “These’ll have to do. Put ‘em on over your clothes; they’ll protect you in case any of the equipment malfunctions.”
August took her suit with a touch more reluctance than she’d shown before. “What kind of malfunctions? We’re not doing anything really dangerous, are we?” she asked with a hint of suspicion.
“Nooo no no,” Trevor said, perhaps a hair too quickly, although Kenny couldn’t be sure. “Nothing TOO dangerous. But you know this old Lost Age tech; never can be too careful with stuff we don’t understand! And I wouldn’t want my little helpers to get hurt before we save the day.” He patted August’s wet brown hair with a wide grin.
As Kenny was pulling on his suit, Trevor suddenly snapped his fingers. “Dust! I forgot I have to set something up. You two remember the way back?” August barely managed to nod before he was running out the door, yelling over his shoulder, “Meet me back in the Pod Room!”
“Does that guy seem a little weird to you?” Kenny asked, working his bare foot down one pantleg of the suit. It bunched oddly thanks to the extra material, catching at his toes.
“I think he’s pretty cool,” August said defensively. She was already almost swallowed inside her suit. “Spending months down here trying to fix the preservation lake’s systems! He’ll be saving every city on the lakefront!” She gave a sigh that might have been just slightly dreamy. “And we’ll get to help him! This is the best adventure ever!”
One of the niggling thoughts that had been stirring at the back of Kenny’s head rose to the light again. “Yeah, but…” he muttered, half to himself. “How did he get down here? And why did the robots bring us down here?”
August shrugged, zipping up her baggy suit. “Maybe they brought Trevor down, too! He did say they probably brought us down to help him. They must’ve realized that something was wrong and that they needed a ‘Builder’ to set it right!” She grinned. “Lucky for them they got one who’s smart enough to figure all this out!”
“I guess so,” Kenny agreed. Still, he couldn’t quite shake that feeling that something was off. What had those robots said when they’d first shown up on the sofa? “I did not think we would attract such YOUNG builders…”
“I’m heading back,” August called, already halfway out the door. Kenny heaved an exasperated sigh; typical August, always running ahead of him when she got excited. Finally working his zipper closed, Kenny tucked the weird boxy helmet under his arm and started for the door.
“Wait! Young Builder!”
Kenny spun back around at the tinny whisper, and nearly jumped out of his skin. Standing in the previously empty room were two of the millipede robots. The boy slumped against the door frame, holding a hand to his palpitating heart. “Good gravy, you guys scared me half to death!” he groused.
One of the bots ducked its head, somehow managing to look sheepish despite a lack of mobile facial features. “We apologize, young Builder. But it is imperative that we speak with you away from Builder Trevor’s notice.”
Kenny hesitated, peeking out the door. August was already long gone; she’d probably run halfway back to the meeting point by now. But maybe that was for the best, considering how freaked out she was by the big, bug-like droids. “My name’s Kenny,” Kenny said finally, looking the bots up and down. It probably wouldn’t hurt to hear what they had to say. “My friend’s name is August. So, what’s up?”
The bot dipped its head again. “It is our pleasure to meet you, Builder Kenny. I am T135, and this is K740. My fellow Workers and I are responsible for bringing you and Builder August to this place. We apologize if this has inconvenienced you in any serious manner, and wish to assure you that you will be returned home as soon as is feasible.”
Kenny waved it off, unable to keep down a small grin. Especially at that “you will be returned home” line. “Nah, it’s been pretty exciting. So why did you guys need us? I’m guessing it’s to help out this Trevor guy, right?”
To his surprise, T135 immediately jerked its head side to side. “Negative. In fact, it is for the opposite reason. Builder Kenny,” it said, its mechanical voice taking on a note of urgency as it came a few steps closer to him, “you must stop Builder Trevor in what he is trying to do.”
Kenny stared at the robots. That uneasy feeling he’d been getting off and on since they’d arrived surged forward, stronger than ever. “Wh-why do you want to stop him?” he demanded, tensing backwards towards the open door. “Isn’t he just trying to fix the system that cleans the lake?”
“That is not his intention at all,” K740 said, its many-eyed head spinning slightly. “In fact, if he succeeds, he may bring destruction upon all Builders. He will release the dust.”
Chills skated down Kenny’s spine. Something about that phrase felt frighteningly familiar. “What do you mean?”
T135 and K740 looked at each other, both their heads spinning in silent communication. After a few moments, T135 looked back to Kenny. “Builder Kenny, our system tells us that you are still very young for a Builder. Tell us, do you know much of the history of your Builder Dust Wars?”
Kenny blinked, then scrunched his face up in thought, searching back for their last history lesson. “Um… Lemme see… People in the Lost Age created the dust. They tried to use it to take over other countries. It could destroy technology, eat away at buildings, even attack people. But it got out of control and started creating more of itself outside its programming.” He licked his lips, straining for the rest. Why hadn’t he paid more attention in class? “I guess a couple of times, they thought they had it under control again, but then either somebody would try to use it as a weapon and it would get out of hand, or it would crop up in new places all by itself. That’s why there were a bunch of Dust Wars.” Kenny shrugged, having reached the end of his knowledge on the subject. “But then the dust just went away, and nobody’s had to worry about it anymore.”
K740 nodded its head. “It is good that the Builders still educate themselves on these matters. But the dust did not just go away, Builder Kenny. It is here.”
Kenny tilted his head, not following. “It’s… where?”
“Here.” T135 gestured one of its two longer appendages in a wide, all-inclusive sweep. “The dust comes here. That is what the Preservation Facility is for. We collect the dust, so that it may not harm the Builders anymore.”
When all the robots received from Kenny was his stupefied expression, K740 jumped in to explain further. “The dust, Builder Kenny, is trillions upon trillions of self-replications robotic units known as nanites. Because they can create more of themselves, when their control programming malfunctioned, they were able to continue developing outside of Builder limitations. This is the cause for the spontaneous reappearance of the dust.
“When our original Builders realized that they could not hope to eliminate the dust – for if even one malfunctioning nanite survived, it would replicate – they devised a plan. They built the Preservation Facility beneath this lake.” K740 spread its two longer “arms” up towards the ceiling. “What you have seen thus far is the cleaning facility. All of the lake water, and any nanites within it, is cycled through here and processed to remove the dust.”
“That’s nuts,” Kenny whispered. He shook his head, still trying to wrap his mind around all of this. “That’s super crazy! So this whole place is just a big system set up to clean dust out of the lake? We thought it was just for cleaning the water!” His brow scrunched again. “But… but why just THIS lake? The dust can’t all be in one lake, can it? I thought those things popped up all over the world and that’s why they were so hard to fight off?”
“Precisely!” T135 chirped. “That is why many lakes were built. One for each then-country.”
“Many dust nanites still remain free,” K740 explained. “It is inevitable; even the original Builders did not have technology capable of sweeping all land for the minute signals of single nanites. But when a hive of dust becomes large enough, it collectively generates the power to receive the broadcasting signal sent from this facility, amplified through the lake water. It is very powerful. This signal draws the dust in, where it may then be gathered and stored for incineration.”
“It’s a trap!” Understanding slammed into Kenny like a blow between the eyes. “This whole lake is like a giant fly trap for the dust!”
“Exactly!” T135 enthused. Then it whispered tinnily to K740, “What is a fly trap?”
Kenny ran out of the door of the locker room and over to one of the big windows looking out into the working parts of the facility. He felt like his knees might crumble out from under him as he stared at the giant spheres circling along their conveyor belts, being drawn in towards the massive incinerator that burned with white-hot light. This was so much bigger than he’d expected. Not just a cleaning system for preserving the lake’s clean water, like they’d always thought. The preservation lake… but had anyone ever questioned what it actually preserved?
“It’s not preserving water…,” he mumbled, feeling dazed. “It’s… it’s preserving all of humanity.”
T135 and K740 clicked up behind him, their raised upper bodies making them just slightly taller than Kenny’s head. “We are glad you have grasped this truth, Builder Kenny,” K740 said gently, its joints whirring in the quiet. “This is why our operations must continue uninterrupted: we wish to continue fulfilling our Builders’ directive to protect the Builders from the dust. This is why Builder Trevor must not be allowed to go through with his plan.”
The mention of Trevor pulled Kenny out of his daze, and he stared at the robot in confusion. “But why? I thought he was trying to fix the system because it’s deteriorating?”
“Ha!” T135 made what could have been the mechanical version of a snort. “We have maintained our systems flawlessly for over one hundred years! Builder Trevor does not wish to save our system; he wishes to shut us down so that he might control the dust himself!”
“Yes,” K740 affirmed as Kenny gaped. “Builder Trevor plans to deactivate our beacon that draws the dust. Should he do this, the dust would be able to escape beyond the lake, and he believes he has found a way to control it to his own ends.” The robot shook its head sadly. “But it is a fool’s plan. Even should he gain control of the dust within this facility, the wild dust would replicate unchecked. It would spell certain doom for all Builders within the radius of this facility.”
Horror swept over Kenny. “No, he couldn’t… that’s, that’s crazy…” Even a kid like Kenny knew the stories of the destruction dust had wrought: whole cities rendered unlivable within hours, computer systems destroyed, historical records lost. There were even tales of more aggressive strands attacking biological lifeforms. It was a weapon everyone had been more than happy to see disappear.
No one could control the dust. But it sounded like this crazy Trevor was going to try.
“You have to stop him!” Kenny shouted. “Why don’t you kick him out of here?!”
“If only we could!” K740 threw up its arm appendages in frustration. “But we are Workers. Our programming does not allow us to disobey an order from any Builder. If he orders us not to interfere, we cannot interfere. Fortunately, it is against our programming to release the nanites, and he had not yet devised a way to reach the manual controls needed to deactivate the holding pod. But now he has the help of you and Builder August.”
“We cannot stop him,” T135 jumped in. The robot was growing more jittery by the minute, its many legs clicking in a fidgety ticking pattern on the floor. “So we devised a plan to attract other Builders. And it worked – it brought you here, Builder Kenny!” Its head came close to Kenny’s, almost touching his face as the eyes flashed frantically. “You ARE a Builder; he cannot order you not to stop him!”
“What?!” Kenny yelled, jolting away. He didn’t realize he was backing up until he hit the glass window, his vision full of round blue eyes watching expectantly. His voice came out as a squeak. “You want me to stop him? I can’t do that! Have you seen that guy? He’s, like, twice my size!”
“There is no other option,” K740 whirred sadly. “We did not mean to bring small Builders here, but our lure was unrefined. And now that he has the help of you and the other small Builder, he will succeed much sooner than expected. There is no more time.” K740 clicked forward a few steps, its long neck-segments bending low. Almost as if it were bowing. “Please, small Builder Kenny. You are the only hope for all Builders. You must stop Builder Trevor from releasing the dust.”
Kenny’s stomach churched. This couldn’t be happening. They couldn’t really mean to put all of the responsibility for Easton – forget that, the population of the entire country – on him? He was eleven years old! He was short! He’d never fought anybody in his life! How could he hope to stop a fully-grown crazy man bent on world domination?
Why had he listened to August? Why hadn’t he just reported this to the adults? Then they would be down here – someone big enough and strong enough to take on a madman. If he could just get himself and August out of here, they could bring proper adults down to solve this problem. Surely he could convince these robots to lead them out…
Something the robots had said a minute ago popped into his head. Kenny froze, staring at T135. “Did you say that thing back there is a holding pod?”
T135 bobbed its head. “Yes. Collected dust nanites are stored and processed there. They are put into an aggressive state where they will consume each other in a deteriorating cycle until they have reached a minimal mass that may be efficiently incinerated.”
“Builder Trevor plans to release the dust in that pod, and let them destroy the facility,” K740 finished. “That will incapacitate our signal and allow the dust to leave the lake.”
The bots had not even finished talking before Kenny bolted down the hall, screaming. “AUGUST!!!”