Kenny careened through the hallways, sliding on polished concrete as he whipped around corners. More millipede robots stared at him as he passed; some even turned to follow. But he didn’t notice. His ears were too full of the pounding of his own heart.
August don’t go in there August don’t go in there AUGUST DON’T GO IN THERE, he prayed desperately. He had to get back before crazy Trevor Maloy got her to go down that access port and release the nanites. Nanites that just might kill his friend and then go on to destroy civilization as they knew it. Why did I EVER let her talk me into coming on this stupid “adventure”?!
The last turn was up ahead, assuming he hadn’t gotten himself completely lost in his panic. Kenny slid around the corner, expecting the worst—
And found Trevor and August calmly chatting about bugs.
“They’re really gross, aren’t they? All those creepy legs and you just know they want to crawl up your pantleg,” August was saying with a dramatic shudder.
Trevor nodded sagely. “I totally feel ya, missy. At least these droids are too big to do that!” They both laughed, and then Trevor glanced over and saw Kenny, panting against the doorframe. “Hey, Kenny-boy’s back and all suited for duty! You two ready to start this shindig?”
“Ready, sir!” August saluted and clambered a few rungs up the rope ladder that Trevor had attached to the ceiling, giving her access to the top of the sphere.
“Wait!” Kenny shouted, finally able to breathe again. He shot forward, skidding to a stop between August and Trevor. “Don’t do it, August! It’s a trick!”
August stared at him blankly. Trevor looked equally blank. “What?” August asked finally, head hanging to one side.
Kenny glared at Trevor, bristling. “It’s a trick. The robots told me all about it! That pod isn’t some energy thing; it’s full of dust.”
More blank stares. “Um… I mean, it probably is dusty, but…,” August said uncertainly.
Kenny tried not to facepalm. “No, August, dust. Dust Wars dust. The robots said this place is for collecting it, and he wants to let it out!” He pointed an accusing finger at Trevor.
Trevor burst out laughing. “Criminy! Is that the story they fed you?” he chuckled, wiping the corner of his eye. Kenny stared, completely caught off guard by this reaction. Trevor walked closer so he could pat Kenny on the shoulder, which made the boy flinch. “Kenny, Kenny, I told you not to trust those robots. I had a feeling they’d spread some tale about me. They don’t like that I’m messing with their systems.”
Kenny shook his head, suddenly feeling unsteady. “But… they told me…”
August heaved a sigh, leaning backwards on the rope ladder. “Come on, Kenny, if he says the bugs are making it up, then I believe him.” She shot the man an admiring look before frowning at her friend. “Honestly, you really think this place is full of dust? That stuff’s so long-gone it’s practically ancient history! Why would it be under our lake?”
“I…” Kenny stared back and forth between them, flabbergasted. It hadn’t occurred to him that August might not believe him. But could he blame her? Hadn’t he thought it sounded crazy when the robots told him this story?
Trevor gave Kenny a pitying grin. “She’s right, Kenny. This dust stuff is old news. I’m telling you honest: I’m just here to fix the system. Then we can all go home.”
“And… and what if we decide to go home right now?” Kenny challenged, stalling for time while he tried to think of how to convince August and then get them both out of there. The robots filled both doorways now, dozens of them spilling out into the halls.
Trevor shook his head, suddenly urgent. “Bad idea, Kenny! I’m tellin’ you, you two showed up at just the right time. I double-checked the systems while you were changing.” He pointed at the command console. “The system could go critical in a matter of hours; we don’t have enough time for you to go up and come back!”
August gave a small squeak of alarm and climbed a few more rungs. But she stopped halfway up, staring down at Kenny. Waiting. Kenny appreciated that; it was nice to know she wasn’t completely lost on hero-worship for this guy. He just needed a minute to think. If he got this wrong, it could spell disaster for everybody. How on earth had something this big and important been put on a kid like him?
Something was bugging him. Something from earlier. Kenny squinted at Trevor, coaxing the thought to the surface. “So… so the robots are… telling stories?”
Trevor nodded, a big grin on his face. “Yup. Ornery little buggers. They’ve been doin’ the same thing for so long, they don’t like anybody messing with things, even to fix ‘em.”
“But…” Kenny clenched and unclenched his fingers, the words forming one by one as his idea came together. “But you said that the bots brought us here to help you.” Kenny slid a fraction of a step back, brows coming together. “So why would they be making up stories to stop us doing that?”
Trevor’s smile slipped. August looked back and forth between the two guys, clearly troubled. She stopped on Kenny’s gaze. They’d always been able to trust each other; it was why they were best friends, when all the other kids teased August for being too weird and Kenny for being too small. Kenny clenched his jaw, staring up at her with all the conviction he could muster. “Come on, August.” Right or wrong, he was not going to let her go in there where she might get hurt.
With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, August sighed and started climbing back down the ladder. “Okay, fine.” From across the room, the robots made their first noise of the meeting: a small, tinny cheer.
“What?” Trevor jerked, and a flash of something contorted his face – anger? Panic? “No! I need you kids! You’ve got to get in there and change the settings! Everything will be lost if you don’t!”
“No!” Kenny snapped.
But before anyone could continue the argument, a piercing alarm split the air. Red lights flashed in the ceiling overhead. “CRITICAL SYSTEM MALFUNCTION,” droned an overhead speaker. “CRITICAL SYSTEM MALFUNCTION. ALL AVAILABLE WORKERS CONVENE ON SECTOR 1-92G.” The millipede robots in the doorways began to scramble, racing through the room on their way to the mysterious point of failure.
Trevor jabbed a finger up at the lights, his green eyes wild. “See?! It’s what I told you! The system is already failing! We need to get those settings fixed before this whole place dies!”
Kenny stood frozen, bewildered. August was staring down at him, half confused, half terrified by the sounds and the millipede robots, and fresh doubt washed over the boy. What if he was wrong? Maybe Trevor seemed sneaky, but what if the man was right? What if the robots really had lied to him? They were just robots, after all. Giant metal bugs. They didn’t have feelings, or souls. What if I just broke the lake?
“CRITICAL SYSTEM MALFUNCTION,” the overhead blared once again.
“Get in there and change the settings!” Trevor roared at August, who clung to the rope ladder in a rictus of terror.
“Do not do it, Builder August!” cried T135.
Trevor’s eyes bulged, and he whirled on the two robots who had crept close amidst the chaos. “YOU! You malfunctioning tin-heads!” he snarled, all traces of friendliness gone as a dark rage purpled his face. “You keep messing with my plans! Well I’m sick of it! Shut up and do what you’re told like you’re supposed to!”
Kenny stared between the livid man and the meek robots. It was weird to think that robots could be brave; and yet, seeing those two holding their ground in front of this man, who by their own words were programmed to obey Trevor, “brave” was the only word that fit them in Kenny’s mind. As sirens blared, he looked up at August, who still hovered uncertainly at the middle of the rope ladder. She stared in mute shock at the transformed Trevor, so unlike the heroic, friendly man he’d fooled them into mistaking him for.
“Please, Builder Kenny, Builder August,” K740 droned quietly, its head almost ducked to the floor. “For the sake of all Builders…”
“Shut UP,” Trevor snapped. And the robots did. They had no choice.
Kenny’s mind was made up. “Come on, August,” he called over the noise. “Let’s get out of here.” She nodded and scrambled down. Whatever was going on, whoever was right, neither of them felt much like getting inside that pod right now.
Trevor whipped around as August touched the ground. “Where do you think you’re going?” he snapped. “Get back in there!”
August stuck close to Kenny, but a scowl filled her face. “No. You’re acting crazy. We’re going to get our parents, and they can figure out what’s the right thing to do.”
Trevor audibly ground his teeth together. Then a cracked laugh escaped his mouth, and he stared up at the ceiling. “I can’t catch a break, can I? One simple thing, one simple thing I want done, and I can’t even get that? I’ve been down here for months working to get that lake-cursed dust, I’m this close, and some stupid robots have to screw it up for me! Again!”
August’s mouth dropped open. Kenny’s head spun. “You… you mean there really is dust here?” August squeaked. She looked up at the pod in horror. “And you were going to have me let it out? I could have died!”
“Correction.” Trevor took a menacing step towards them. “You ARE going to let it out.” He pasted on a sickly smile. “You’ll be fine, all those stories about the dust attacking people are just myths! I just need you to open the pod, and then I can control it with this.” He rummaged inside his suit and pulled out a boxy, round-edged device that managed to look very old and very advanced at the same time. “With this puppy,” he chuckled giddily, “I can make the dust do whatever I want. I’ll be unstoppable!”
“You’re insane!” Kenny barked. “Nobody can control the dust! That’s why it got so out of control in the first place! It wrecked everything!”
Trevor just shook his head, smirking. “Spoken like a wimpy, unimaginative little kid. Which, I mean, you are, so no surprise there. Well, if you won’t help me out willingly, I guess I’ll just have to give you a push.” He looked at the two robots standing still amidst the chaos. “You two: I order you to detain these kids.” He glared at Kenny, the smile on his face miles away from his eyes. “We’ll see who’s willing to go in first so that the other doesn’t get hurt. Although I think you’ll fit in that hole even better than the girl, Shorty.”
“We may not harm any Builder, Builder Trevor,” K740 chirred, its long arm-appendages clasped together anxiously. “It is against our directive.”
Trevor’s smile turned cruel. “Don’t worry; I can do the hurting all by myself. You just bring ‘em here.”
Kenny and August backed up as T135 and K740 crept towards them. It was obvious that the robots were resisting as much as they were able; their steps were slow, as if pained, and their heads hung low. Kenny stood in front of August. “Come on, guys, you don’t want to do this, right?” he pleaded. “I thought you asked me to stop this guy?”
“We are sorry, Builder Kenny,” T135 said in its tinny voice. “But we must obey all orders from Builders.”
“Yes,” K740 said, its blinking blue eyes fixed on Kenny. “We must obey ALL Builders, Builder Kenny.”
Was there extra inflection in that sentence? Kenny stared at the robots, his mind racing. Their conversation from earlier came back to him in a rush. They told me that before. They have to obey all Builders…
The robots stopped. Kenny stared at them. Trevor scowled.
“What are you doing?” the man snapped. “Get them!” The robots began forward again.
Kenny quickly shouted, “STOP!” again, and the robots halted, their stalk-like upper bodies waving back and forth.
Trevor stomped his foot, almost apoplectic. “What is WRONG with you idiot droids? You’re supposed to do what I say! NOW BRING ME THOSE KIDS!”
Kenny stared at the robots as the pieces came together. This could go on forever, unless he could cut off Trevor’s commands…
It couldn’t be that simple, could it?
“Workers,” Kenny said, trying to make his voice sound deep and official. “I, Builder Kenny, order you to ignore all orders by Builder Trevor.”
The robots froze. Trevor looked dumbfounded. T135 and K740 turned their head segments to each other, bug eyes flickering. “Our directive states that we must obey orders by all Builders,” K740 said thoughtfully.
“But the orders are incompatible,” T135 reasoned. “One must supersede the other, or we will have an error.”
“Does our programming provide a precedence for which directive is to supersede?”
T135’s eyes flickered rapidly as all three humans stared at them in fascination. Then, in an almost cheerful chirp, T135 said, “It does not. This must mean that we are to make the decision for ourselves.” It turned its long body to Kenny, and dipped its head. “I believe I will choose Builder Kenny’s order.”
A huge smile filled Kenny’s face as August slumped against his shoulder in relief. He wanted to hug those droids!
But their joy was smashed a second later when movement in the corner of Kenny’s eye made him look up to see Trevor running. Right at them. With manic murder in his eyes. Kenny and August screamed and scrambled out of the way, causing Trevor to trip over the platform beneath the sphere with a howl.
“Robots!” Kenny squeaked, dragging August upright by the arm. “Can you stop him?”
“We are unable to harm him, Builder Kenny!” K740 cried. But the two millipede robots were moving between the kids and the man, their long bodies snaking back and forth like boa constrictors. “But we will attempt to delay his progress while you determine a way to defeat him!”
August gawked at Kenny as they ran down the hallway leading back to the Central Cleansing hub. His cheeks heated as she gasped, “Defeat him? What are they talking about?”
“They brought us down here so that we could stop that guy,” Kenny managed, having to pause and lean against a wall to catch his breath. His lungs had barely recovered from his last sprint. “But I just want to get US out of here!” He felt a little ashamed at the cowardly route, but what else was he supposed to do? He was just a kid!
The angry roar of an enraged Trevor echoed down the hall behind them, spurring them back to a run.
“So what’s the plan?” August yelled.
“Why are you asking me?” Kenny yelled back.
“Duh! You obviously know more of what’s going on than I do!” She pointed into the distance, where the door was coming up fast. “And last time I checked, this was a dead end unless we want to wait forever for the water to drain!”
Kenny skidded to a stop, smacking himself upside the head. He’d completely forgotten about the room being full of water! And they’d left their gear back in the locker room. So much for escaping back the way we came! Kenny looked around frantically for another route – and gave a yelp when a hatch opened in the ceiling and several of the millipede robots slid through.
“Grab us, Builders!” the new robots cried, waving their spindly limbs. Their back segments clung to the access tunnel above. “We will take you to safety!”
Kenny didn’t need any more urging; he grabbed the five-inch-thick bugs like they were thick, metallic rope, their legs keeping his hands from sliding. He was just beginning to rise when he looked down and saw August. She had flattened herself against the wall, eyes wide and mouth open.
Kenny heard footsteps. Trevor would be on them any minute. He clenched his teeth. “August, grab the bugs!”
“AUGUST!” Kenny drew on every bit of impatience, anger, and fear he’d been gathering over the last ten minutes and mashed it into one fed-up yell: “GRAB THE STUPID BUGS OR I’LL TELL EVERYONE YOU KISSED DAREN LEDBOW BEHIND THE BLEACHERS AT RECESS!!!”
August stared at him, jaw hanging in disbelief. Then she managed a short laugh. With a shudder, the girl reached up and tentatively grabbed onto one of the droids. She gave an, “EEP!” as it latched its legs around her and lifted.
The hatch slammed shut just as Trevor rounded the bend. August and Kenny collapsed against the sides of the access tunnel, breathing heavily. August glared at him in the darkness, her eyes reflecting the faint glow of the robots’ viewports. “You know I’m going to kill you for this.”
“Yeah, well, get in line,” Kenny grumbled. “This was your dumb idea, anyway.”
August blushed and glanced to the side. The bugs were watching them expectantly. She swallowed and nodded to them. “Th-thanks. For, um, saving us.”
One of the robots bowed. “It is our pleasure, small Builder. T135 and K740 have spread word through our network of the necessity to aid you. Come; we will take you to a safe place.”
It wasn’t long before the alarms from earlier shut off; apparently, Trevor had rigged something into the computer system to simulate a malfunction in order to further convince the kids of his story and distract the Workers. And it almost worked, too, Kenny thought with a shudder.
The kids and their robotic guides walked and crawled through a maze of dark access tunnels before they finally reached another hatch that the robots slid from its casing. Kenny and August jumped down, and found, to their surprise, that they had landed on plush carpet.
“Hey, look! It’s our sofa!” August pointed to the side of the room, where, sure enough, the red couch they’d rode in on sat comfortably against a wall, looking only slightly damp. And it was not alone; furniture of all kinds sat scattered around the room in a sort of ordered chaos, many pieces sporting significant water damage. Dressers stood on pedestals; desks sat covered in unfamiliar computer systems; recliners reclined with lamps on their seats. A beanbag chair hung inexplicably tacked to the wall. Kenny and August stared around them, completely flummoxed by this change of scenery.
“Where are we?” Kenny asked.
“We are in the Builder Commemorative Exhibit – Fixtures and Furnishings Gallery,” a familiar tinny voice intoned. Kenny turned and saw with delight that it was T135 and K740. They even held the kids’ scuba gear. T135’s synthetic voice seemed almost reverent as it continued, “Since our inception, we have stored items of particular significance found in the lake, for future preservation and… interest.” It sounded oddly hesitant on that last word.
“Good grief,” said August with a shake of her head. “Who knew people used to use the lake as such a dumping ground?”
“Wait… whose interest?” Kenny asked suddenly. He turned to the robot, raising an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you robots were programmed to collect human junk?”
K740 twitched, clicking its legs together. “Ah… no, it is… perhaps the result of… a quirk,” it admitted, managing to sound embarrassed.
“Ohhhh.” August nodded, earning a puzzled look from Kenny. “Don’t you remember that lesson we had in science class on anomalies in artificial intelligence?” she asked impatiently. “They said sometimes A.I.’s would develop little personality ticks that couldn’t be explained by the programming.” A grin filled her face. “This is kind of awesome. Mrs. Collins told me they’ve been trying to recreate Lost Age A.I. programming since the last Dust War, but they can never seem to get it right!” She glanced sideways at the robots waiting patiently nearby, and made a face. “I just wish the old Builders had made them look like anything besides giant bugs.”
“This form is very efficient,” K740 said stiffly. Kenny grinned. Apparently even robots could get indignant about their looks. Was that another quirk? For not having souls, Kenny mused, they sure pretend really well.
But his smile quickly faded. Interesting or not, they still had the problem of getting out of here. Kenny looked around the room, praying for something that might look helpful. If only there was a way to… “Hey,” Kenny said suddenly. He walked over to the red synth-leather couch, feeling the damp material in his fingers. “How did you guys get this couch out to the lake from in here?”
“The same way we brought it in, of course.” T135’s head stalk bent towards a corner of the room. “Through this unit’s personal teleportation hub. We are capable of programming the destination of the teleporters as we see fit.”
Sure enough, as the kids moved towards the corner of the room, they found themselves in front of a massive glass tube, filled with water. Inside sat a familiar metal platform, with a huge cylindrical machine suspended above it. It hung dormant now.
“But how do you get stuff in and out of there?” August frowned at the perfect cylinder of glass holding back the water. “I don’t see any doors.”
“Oh, that is simple,” K740 said proudly. “The water is drained and the tank retracted into the ceiling. Then we may move our finds about as needed.”
The gears were starting to turn in Kenny’s head. “So that’s how you guys do it. You don’t just move stuff in – you can move it out, too. That means that you can send us out in that thing, right?”
“Of course, Builder Kenny.” T135 dipped its head.
“Yes!” August and Kenny exchanged a high-five. August was already moving towards the control console of the tube, mask in hand. “Okay, so plug in the coordinates for home and get us out of here!” she said excitedly.
Kenny took a step to follow her. But something made him stop. He looked back at the two robots and their group of fellow Worker droids. The robots stood with heads hung low.
“Then you will not attempt to defeat Builder Trevor?” T135 asked sadly.
“What?” August stopped short, looking back at Kenny and the robots. She frowned. “So that was serious?”
Kenny heaved a sigh, shoulders slumping. Guilt washed over him as he stared at the doleful robots. How do robots without faces manage to look so sad? he thought with frustration. “Yeah… that’s why they brought us here, August,” he explained. “They’re programmed to follow orders and not hurt any Builders. If we leave…” He flapped an arm limply. “I guess he’ll just keep trying until he gets the dust out.”
There was a long pause. Kenny’s gut clenched. Come on, they couldn’t really be expected to do anything, could they?
And yet… those gears were turning again. He had an idea. It might be a really stupid idea. It was a really stupid idea. But somehow, he felt he needed to give it a try.
I guess I DO get to be responsible for the whole lake, he thought with a grimace. Talk about ironic.
“So what’s the plan, Kenny?”
Kenny looked over at his friend, wearing her typical determined jaw-firmed look that said she was ready to face anything with him. A rush of relief filled him. At least he didn’t have to do this all on his own.
He turned back to the robots. “Okay. We’re going to give this a try. Here’s what I need you guys to do…”
Trevor Maloy stalked the halls of the underlake facility. Seething. Those stupid kids. Those stupid droids! Somehow that idiot boy’s command about not obeying Trevor’s orders had spread to all of the robots, and none of them would listen to him. He had been so close! All those years of searching for the dust collection facilities. Being laughed at and mocked by his contemporaries, and then running from the law – why was it his fault that idiot Wesselton had gotten in his way? Months spent trying to route a way into the closed system, followed by weeks and weeks of being just short of his goal, blocked by stubborn automatons and impassable access ports. Now he’d finally almost had it done, he’d been within minutes of releasing the dust, and those bugs had to go and ruin everything! He needed those kids; without them, and especially with the droids refusing any sort of assistance, he might never get the holding pod open.
They’d better hope I don’t find them, he thought darkly. Or my dust is going to have kids for dinner. It would be a satisfying way to start his new world. Maybe the dust attacked biologicals, maybe not; but he’d enjoy sending it into that city of theirs. Right after he destroyed this dust-rotted place.
Suddenly a robot appeared in front of him, shimmering out of thin air. Trevor jumped backwards, cursing. “What are you doing, bot? Get out of my way!”
“Certainly, Builder Trevor.” The robot bowed its weird bug-eyed head. “In fact, I have come to show you the way to the small Builders.”
Trevor froze, eyes narrowing. “You… have?” He sneered uncertainly. “I thought you droids and those kids were all buddy-buddy?”
The droid lowered its head in obeisance. “We are programmed to help all Builders, and you are an older Builder. Logic dictates that you would be of primary command. We have seen this.”
Trevor continued to study the robot for a long moment. Then a slow grin spread across his face. “Well, that’s more like it! I knew you dumb bots would get your heads in gear eventually.” How nice to finally get some help from these things! He was still going to have the dust render them into piles of scrap, but at least they could make up for some of their annoying behavior in the meantime. “Lead the way, droid.” The robot dipped its head again and scuttled off down the hall.
The millipede-bot led him on a merry chase through the facility, until even Trevor’s vast knowledge of the place’s inner workings failed him. He’d never even seen this wing before; had the robots been hiding it from him? They stopped at a door, and the robot stepped to the side and bowed again. “The small Builders are within.”
“Perfect.” He stepped through the door, and paused, eyeing the vast and rather random array of furniture. What was with the beanbag?
“Crap!” A familiar kid voice drew his attention, and Trevor saw two heads bobbing towards the back of the room. He raced after them, a hard smile on his face. This was going to be easy. He should have just taken care of things himself in the first place, instead of relying on those stupid robots!
“Time to come out and play, kiddos!” Trevor called, using his “friendly” voice. “I just need your help for a minute, and then we can all go home!”
“Get away from us!” little Kenny yelled. Trevor stopped at an intersection between a television cabinet and a drawing desk, searching for the bobbing heads. He spotted them near the back. They were ducking behind a big red sofa in the corner of the room. Trevor chuckled to himself; no escaping now.
“I’m going to enjoy using the dust, kids.” He sang the words playfully as he stalked forward, suppressing a giggle of delight. “You don’t know how many years I’ve dreamed of this. The most powerful weapon created by humankind, and they just hid it away?” He tutted. “No, no, no, that won’t do. That much power doesn’t belong under a lake.”
“You’re insane!” The girl’s voice. Man, how she screeched. “Everyone knows what the dust did. It practically wiped out civilization as we knew it!”
Trevor spread his arms wide, carefully cutting sideways to block the kids’ escape. “Then we create a new civilization. There wasn’t anything great about the old one, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been lost. This one’s not much better.” A growl reached his throat, the familiar headache throbbing at his temples as unpleasant memories surfaced. “All those so-called ‘peers’ of mine, laughing at real progress, acting shocked and dismayed whenever I made a discovery that really mattered. So what if a few people got hurt along the way?”
The boy slowly poked his head over the sofa. Trevor expected to see fear, but he was bemused by the look of fire in the kid’s eyes. Kenny gripped the back of the sofa in both hands and bared his teeth. “We’ll stop you.”
Trevor almost doubled over with laughter. “HA-haha! You? Two puny little kids? Oh, no, you’re not going to stop me, Kenny-boy. You’re going to help make my empire happen.” His boot clanked on something that wasn’t carpet, but he didn’t plan on taking his eyes off those kids.
Kenny’s eyes narrowed, and he ducked lower behind the sofa. “Then come and get us, creep,” he challenged.
Trevor flashed him a shark smile. “With pleasure.” And he lunged forward.
Three things happened at once. The first was that Trevor landed foot-first on the sofa, about to vault himself over. The second was Kenny screaming, “NOW!” And the third was some sort of glass encloser lowering swiftly around them, clanging against the metal platform that Trevor now realized looked chillingly familiar. Trevor froze, staring around in bewilderment. He glanced at the kids, puzzled to find them pulling on diving respirators. And then he heard it.
The gurgling sound of running water.
It hit in a flood, knocking Trevor and the kids off their feet. Trevor gasped, clawing at the sides of the glass cylinder. Where is the door?! He could see the robots through the glass, dozens of them, just standing there and watching. They wouldn’t hurt a Builder; but, apparently, they didn’t have to save one.
“HELP!” he screamed. He twisted frantically until he saw the kids on the other side of the cylinder, keeping their distance. “I’ll drown!” he pleaded.
Kenny stared at him through the clear diving mask, face like stone. “You’re not going anywhere near that dust ever again, Trevor.”
Cold reality swept through him. A cracked laugh escaped Trevor’s lips, broken by a sputter as he treaded higher in the quickly-filling tank. “So.” His voice was dry and hopeless as a desert. “I guess even kids are capable of murder.” A wistful smile crossed his lips. “Kinda nice to know I was right about us being so worthless.”
“You weren’t right about anything,” Kenny said cryptically. As Trevor felt the top of the tank brushing his head, he thrashed forward in a panic, trying to reach the kids, tear their masks off, live. But the two brats dove, swimming down ten feet to latch onto the sofa.
Water filled everything: his eyes, his ears, his nose. Pretty soon he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, and it filled his mouth, his lungs, suffocating the life out of him. Trevor felt himself slipping, and had the oddest sensation: regret. He hadn’t felt that in a long time.
Then a piercing white flash filled his vision, and Trevor’s consciousness faded to black.
Kenny and August saw the flash of blue-white light, and for a moment, nothing existed. Then they were landing in the middle of the Easton Plaza fountain. Several thousand gallons of water momentarily held the shape of the tank before breaking into a cascade that flooded the road junction. The sofa anchored them down, though. The same couldn’t be said for Trevor, who washed hard against the fountain centerpiece with a sickening whud.
“Hurry!” Kenny ripped off his mask and splashed over to the man, August close behind. They dragged him out of the water, and August started pumping his chest like her mother had taught her. Kenny held his breath, praying. Oh please God, don’t let him be dead, I don’t want to be a murderer—
Trevor gasped and threw up, fountaining not-so-pure lake water into the fountain. August sighed with relief, slumping against him. The man was barely conscious, but his eyes blinked blearily at the sky. Alive.
“What on earth?” The voice was unfamiliar, and Kenny looked up to see a shocked woman standing at one of the entrance ways to the otherwise empty plaza. Water rushed over her ankles from the escaping flood.
“We need you to call the police!” Kenny cried, sloshing towards her. “This guy’s a wanted criminal!” If anything Trevor had hinted at about his past was true, Kenny had a good feeling that there would be an arrest warrant out for him. That would take care of him; he’d never be able to go after the dust again. The woman continued to stare as she pulled out her cell phone and dialed the police. A small crowd started to gather as more people wandered in, wondering what all the commotion was about.
August sloshed over, pulling her mask off and letting her limp brown ponytail flop loosely over her shoulder. A tired smile filled her face – but there was a twinkle in her eyes. “We did it.”
The relief and disbelief flooded him all at once, and Kenny flopped down onto the sofa, staring up at the sky. A small smile tugged at his lips. “Yeah. We did it.” Two little kids had done it. They’d honest-to-goodness saved the lake. Thanks, God. That was kinda cool.
The next couple of hours were a blur. Police came and checked Trevor’s identification, and sure enough, he was wanted for aggravated assault and illegal human experimentation in another state. They quizzed the kids, but not too harshly, interpreting Kenny and August’s short responses and tight-lipped attitudes as associated with the trauma of being chased by a wanted criminal. The sofa was viewed with the most confusion, especially since the kids refused to admit where it had come from.
“I don’t think we should tell them,” Kenny said as they waited in a comfortable room at the police station, wrapped in towels and holding mugs of hot chocolate.
August tilted her head, squinting at him. “But we’d be famous. Discovering the secret to the preservation lake? And all that Lost Age technology? It’d be huge!”
“Yeah, but…” Kenny spun the mug gently in his fingers, thinking over his words. “But then more people like Trevor would know. People who’d want to do bad things with the dust. They might try to take apart the facility or the robots to learn how they work…” He shrugged, hoping she got his point. The thought of T135 or K740 or the other Workers being taken apart like common toasters turned his stomach. “I think maybe that’s why the robots stay invisible when they work on the bottom of the lake. They have to obey Builders, so they avoid Builders who might interfere with their work. Maybe it’s better to just let them do their job.”
August thought about this for a long moment. Then she shrugged airily. “Eh, you’re probably right. They seemed to know what they were doing, even if they did look like disgusting giant bugs.” She punched him playfully in the shoulder. “It’ll be our little super-awesome secret. The Saviors of Preservation Lake!” Suddenly her brows drew together. “I think we’re probably gonna have to keep the sofa, though. I know it technically belongs to the bugs, but I don’t want to deal with the dumping fine we’d get if someone caught us trying to throw a sofa in the lake.”
Kenny laughed. He felt better than he had in ages. They’d outsmarted an honest-to-goodness bad guy, potentially saved the city and/or civilization as they knew it, and made it home safe, just like in his favorite books. Whaddya know. Maybe a little kid like me CAN be responsible for big things once in a while.
August suddenly groaned and slumped over on her side of the station couch. Kenny looked at her in alarm as she lolled her head towards him. “There’s just one problem we forgot about,” she said listlessly.
“My uncle’s speedboat is still out in the middle of the lake.” She put her hands to her face and emitted another low grown.
Kenny stared at her for a long moment. Then he started laughing. August shot him a dirty look; but, after a few seconds, she started laughing, too. Soon they were bracing each other as they laughed until their guts hurt. The receptionist over at the desk gave them a curious look but just smiled and went back to her work.
“Maybe next time,” Kenny gasped, wiping tears from his eyes, “you should let me pick the adventure.”
August grinned at him. “Deal.”
(A/N: And there it is, ladies and gents! Three weeks, a bunch of spontaneously-generating plot twists, a number of headaches, and the satisfaction of finishing a story I rather enjoyed writing. If you’d like to read more of my thoughts about writing this piece, you can read more on my blog, The River Blog.)
(P.S. You can read all of my posted short stories by clicking “Writing Shorts” in the top Menu. If you have thoughts about what you liked or how I can improve this piece, please feel free to share in the comments below. Thanks for reading!)