The Sofa In The Lake – Revamped

(A/N: I posted the original version of this story back in 2017, in answer to a challenge I gave readers to give me an unlikely prompt. The prompt I received was “A piece of civilization in an utterly absurd place (like a vending machine in the sewers or something)”. The story ended up growing to surprising lengths, especially for theshort amount of time I had to write it in!

Now it is several years later, and I have expanded this story – some cleaning up here, SEVERAL additional scenes there. It expanded from three parts to five, but I’ve included all of them here in one post for your convenience. I hope that the result is an even stronger version of a story I am told was already a fun read. So whether you’re a returning or a new reader, I hope you’ll enjoy! And please leave your thoughts on any other ways I could improve; who knows, maybe it’ll be published someday!)


Part 1

Lost in the dark.

The batteries of his headlamp had long since failed, and still he scrabbled through blackness and rare half-light. Once or twice he thought he heard movement in the distance, but it quickly faded, as if any other possible denizens of the dark did not wish to make contact. The bitter loneliness filling his days made him wish more and more that they would. Even rats would be a welcome addition to his stores.

So many dead ends, but these pipes had to lead in. They had to. He would find a way, even if it took him to the brink of starvation.

At least there was plenty of water.

He crawled further through the dark and the damp, driven by desperation and stubborn focus. Everything would be set right at the end of this nightmare. He would make sure of it.

He just had to find the way in.

———

“There it is.” August pointed down, her eyes nearly squinted shut. “I’m telling you, it’s the same one.”

“No way.” Kenny leaned over the steel railing of East Lake Bridge, peering into the clear water below. Drifting along the bottom, leagues down, was the tiny but unmistakable form of a bright red double sofa. At least, they assumed it was red; the blue tint of the water turned it purplish. Kenny nodded slowly. “Yeah… okay, that does look like the one you told me about last week. But, come on, why is a sofa moving around the bottom of preservation lake?”

They paused as a high-speed hover transport sped past, buffeting them in its windy wake as it zoomed down the miles-long bridge. The spires of Easton poked like glimmering crystals out of the mountain-guarded valley half a mile away; few of the city’s residents liked to walk much more than a mile or two out onto the bridge. It was another twenty to the other side of the preservation lake, and anyone going that far could hop on the transports for a few cindos. But quirky August liked coming out here to search for “mysteries in the deep,” as she called them, and Kenny frequently tagged along.

Today he was especially glad he had; this could be the most interesting thing they’d ever spotted. And he needed something interesting to get his mind off… other things.

The preservation lake had no official title. Created ages ago – before the last Dust War ruined local historical records – it was prized for its clear, clean water, fed from an unknown source and kept clean by unknown means. Anything thrown into it inevitably disappeared, although sometimes people claimed to recognize garbage that turned up in the city’s fountains. You still weren’t supposed to just drop things in, of course; anyone caught dumping was severely fined. The idea of anyone dumping something as big as a sofa into the precious lake seemed almost blasphemous.

“Maybe it’s too big to clean out,” Kenny mused. “I bet it’s moving because whatever cleans the lake is pushing it along.”

“But why wouldn’t it get stuck?” August asked, brow furrowed. She leaned farther over until her wavy brown hair fell along either side of her face. “You’d think there’d be a drain or something, and if the sofa doesn’t fit, it would get clogged. But if that’s the same one, it’s just circling back around.”

Kenny nodded, his thoughts circling like the couch that floated along the bottom of the lake. Actually, it must be going really fast if we can see it moving this far away, he realized. “So what should we do? Report it?”

August turned to stare at him for a long moment. Then a slow, sly smile filled her dark face. “Why would we do that?”

Kenny blew a coppery lock of hair out of his face and rolled his eyes. He’d had a feeling this was going to turn into one of her little adventures.

—-

Few people tried to dive in the preservation lake. Sure, they’d boat and swim and surf, the water was a comfortable temperature, and there was something to be said about hanging suspended in a vast inland sea of water so clear you could make out the drop-offs on the opposite side. But many Eastonites bore the silent fear that they might be swept up in whatever forces cleaned the lake if they ventured too deep, never to be seen again. Others concluded there wasn’t much point to diving in a huge lake with nothing to see but flat, sandy bottom for miles. There weren’t any fish or coral or interesting caves, aside from natural indents carved out of the shore by tidal forces. And, of course, there were the rumors of mysterious, untraceable flashes in the deepest parts of the lake. Better not to risk it, they murmured, and stayed on top of the water or out of it completely.

But enough tourists and treasure hunters with an interest in finding the mysterious technology that fed and cleaned the vast, pristine lake visited Easton to feed a small chain of scuba-diving rentals. And of course August knew somebody who would allow a couple of kids to borrow a boat and some gear for an unsupervised day out.

August waved to her Uncle Jim as she and Kenny walked out of his tiny shop north of the bridge, hitching streamlined air tanks comfortably against the smalls of their backs. It was a short walk down to the pier where a few other divers and sightseers stood around, some taking pictures. August headed straight for her uncle’s speedboat. “Come on; this’ll be faster than swimming all the way down to the bridge.”

“Assuming it’s still by the bridge,” Kenny pointed out, eyeing the speedboat skeptically. “Do you really know how to drive that thing?” It wasn’t unheard of for a middle schooler to learn how to pilot a boat in their lake-dependent community, but the idea of August being in control of a large motorized vehicle of any kind did not fill Kenny with confidence.

“Pilot. You pilot a boat,” August said primly, swinging her leg up over the side. She tossed her fins and facemask gently onto the plush seats. “And yes, I can. Now stop being such a baby and get in.”

Kenny scowled. She knew he hated nicknames that even vaguely referenced his shortness. Or his hair. But it worked, and he climbed in.

The soundless engine soon pitched them forward, away from the shore and out onto the endless crystal blue. Kenny watched the bridge approach, like a giant steel-blue millipede crawling sideways in their direction. What would they find when they reached the sofa? Maybe the answer to the lake’s secrets? They didn’t have enough air to follow the sofa the whole way around the lake, and besides, people had tried that before. “Seeker” objects disappeared at random points all along the lake bottom, and tracking technology would abruptly cut out, with nothing in sight to explain the malfunction or the disappearance once people came to investigate. They never disappeared until nobody was watching the object, either. It was a mystery that most Eastonites had given up on solving, but still… to be the one who found the answer… Kenny’s neck prickled with excitement at the thought.

Okay, maybe August wasn’t the only one who liked going on adventures.

Small waves chopped the surface as they drifted close to East Lake Bridge. August cut the engine, letting the boat settle to a stop. “See if you can spot it, Kenny,” she commanded, already pulling on her fins and mask. Water slapped the hull as Kenny leaned precariously over the side of the bobbing boat, spying for the tell-tale blip of purplish-red. It was difficult to see anything amidst the ripples, and it had been so deep to begin with… but…

“Oh!” Kenny’s finger shot out, almost dipping into the water. “I see it! Take us a little more that way!” Sure enough, a few hundred feet further along the bottom than when they’d been on the bridge, the peculiar double sofa drifted. August sent the boat skimming forward until Kenny told her to halt. They gathered at the edge of the boat, staring down at the mysterious piece of drowned furniture.

“What do you think we’ll find?” Kenny whispered. It felt like an appropriate moment for whispering.

August shrugged, trying not to show her uncertainty. She failed, because she was still unconsciously chewing her lip, a sure sign. “Probably just a sofa,” she said with false confidence. “Come on, let’s get down there!”

“Are you sure we shouldn’t have reported this?” Suddenly the prospect of diving into the depths to investigate this mysterious sofa made Kenny’s neck prickle. Even as they watched, he could just make out that it had progressed another few feet. Something was down there. Something with the power to move a sofa of considerable size.

And there were all those conspiracy theories about the lake taking people out of the water along with the garbage…

August fixed him with a deep glare. It was the glare she always used when she angrily refused to acknowledge she was nervous. “Look, I told Uncle Jim about it! He didn’t seem worried, people go after lake junk all the time. And if we’re not back in an hour, he’ll know where we went, and they’ll send people looking for us.” She snapped her fingers and stepped back to the dashboard, flicking a switch. “There, I’ve set the signal beacon. See?” The slim girl grinned wide, slugging her best friend playfully on the shoulder. “We’ll be fine! Now let’s get down there and see what’s up with this crazy couch!”

Kenny exhaled slowly. She was probably right. What could really happen in the preservation lake, anyway?

Within minutes, the two tweens were tipping backwards over the side of the boat, into the warm, blue water.

Kenny took a few deep breaths through his clear facial mask, reassuring himself that he could breathe. Their oxygen tanks were full and good for four hours. August’s voice sounded in his ears, as clear as if she stood next to him on shore. “Equipment good to go?” Kenny gave her a thumbs-up and repeated the phrase back, receiving a thumbs-up in return. Safety checks completed, the kids activated the small jet fans on their packs and zoomed gently into the depths.

Surrounded by the endless blue of the preservation lake, Kenny felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of awe. This must be what birds feel like, he decided: floating weightlessly through the air, blue above and blue below. He was just a tiny speck in this lake, probably unnoticeable even to someone looking straight down into the water. And yet, something kept this entire lake pristine – preserved. It had to be powerful, some lost technology that Kenny couldn’t hope to understand.

Not that he expected to. He was only a kid, after all – just one of many people who blindly trusted the lake with their lives and livelihoods every day. Even if he and August did happen to discover the way this lake worked, nobody would expect kids like them to be responsible for something so big. Especially not him.

Still, it was an oddly comforting reminder: he might be small for his age, but everyone was small compared to the lake.

“Coming up on the objective,” August said importantly into his ear. Kenny shook off his reverie and watched with fresh apprehension as the mysterious sofa loomed larger and larger in their view.

The kids hit the bottom of the lake with a light stirring of sandy material, each flicking off their jets. A few feet away sat the sofa. Just as they had assumed, it was a double-wide, one of those big types that could hold five people with reasonable comfort. And it was red. Some sort of man-made material, Kenny guessed; it looked slick and unbothered by its watery surroundings, and was moving sideways, putting Kenny in mind of a giant couch-shaped crab. But the truly strange thing was how it floated just above the bottom of the lake, moving along at a fast clip. The kids swam to catch up, latching onto the armrest so they would be pulled along.

August flipped upside down, gently paddling her fins as she peered under the sofa. “Well, this makes no sense,” she declared.

“What do you see?” Kenny gingerly squished the red material under his fingers, eyeing how it moved. Definitely synthetic leather of some kind.

“Nothing!” August flipped herself back upright, clearly baffled. “It’s just… floating! It should be sunk to the bottom, but there’s five inches of empty space between the legs and the ground.” A thoughtful frown crossed her face, and August tried to put her fins down. She looked disappointed when they dragged up a billowing curtain of sand instead of stopping a few inches from the lake bottom.

“Weird.” They let themselves be pulled along for another thirty seconds. Kenny’s arms were beginning to feel the strain. On impulse, the boy dragged himself over the armrest and plunked onto the couch cushion. He had to grip the armrest and hold himself on to prevent his natural buoyancy from separating them, but all in all, this was a much more comfortable ride. He and August grinned widely at each other, and soon, she was seated beside him.

The couch continued to drift as they sat together, giggling. “Now this is the way to see the lake!” August laughed. She playfully kicked up another wave of sandy lake bottom. “We should rent out this sofa as an undersea tram! I wonder how long it takes to go around the whole lake?”

“Probably a few day—”

The sofa abruptly picked up speed. Kenny’s stomach flip-flopped as water rushed past at a much greater clip. He glanced over at August, who looked more surprised than worried.

“Should we get off?” he asked, gripping the sofa tighter.

August hesitated. It suddenly occurred to them both that they had been moving steadily away from their boat – and the beacon. And now they were going faster. It wouldn’t pay to get themselves stranded way out in the middle of the lake without transportation. But she shook her head. “No, I want to see where it goes. Maybe we’ll finally discover what cleans the lake?” She bubbled a nervous laugh. “And at this rate, we might just loop the whole lake in an hour and come back!”

That was starting to seem like a distinct possibility; the sofa continued to pick up speed. The kids dug their hands down into the cracks between the cushions, gripping the understructure of the sofa to hold on. Kenny’s stomach flutter grew stronger the faster they went; if they lost their grip going at this speed, they could be stranded out in the middle of nowhere…

The sofa slammed to a stop, nearly throwing the kids through the water. Kenny jerked his head up just in time to see a circle of blue light flash overhead, and then they were consumed by darkness.

Part 2

            Falling through the final opening was like being born anew. He lay for a long time in the glow of artificial light, weak from hunger, skeletal hands clutching the floor. The sense of massive space after so long in tight tunnels terrified his senses, leaving him curled pathetically in a puddle and unaware how close he’d come to missing the walkway and plunging to his death far below.

            Then the servants came.

            They were kind, attentive. Food was brought – musty, hardy food preserved for who knew how many years, left behind by previous masters. But it was food, and any food tasted glorious after what he’d endured. They tended to his needs, gave him accommodations, showed him more of the place he had sought so long. Wonders of a forgotten age lay at his fingertips.

It was like being in heaven. For a time, he smiled again, filled with energy at the sense that the fulfillment of his purpose was now in reach.

            How soon this place would reveal itself to be yet another kind of hell.

—-

Darkness. Cold. A strange sense of displacement, somehow staticky and numbing all at once. Unwanted memories flashed across Kenny’s mind’s eye, as if eager to give purpose to the terrifyingly mysterious sensations:

“Let me out!” He pounded on the locker door, panic closing in like the walls of the tight space. Rough cackling bounced off the metal, and a bigger fist pounded back.

“You fit real good in there, Penny Kenny! Like a penny in a piggy bank!” Another round of bangs and laughter from Tanner Calhoun. “Too bad this bank’s only got room for one little penny. Maybe someday you’ll grow up and be worth a whole nickel!”

Kenny tried not to cry, but the feeling of being so helpless and small crushed in on him along with the darkness…

“Kenny? Kenny, are you still there? Kenny!”

Kenny gulped air through his mask, surfacing from his panic like a gasping fish. The staticy numbness was fading, but the dark was still there, and a watery glove gripped 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 wheezed, shaking off ghostly images of a sneering face shoving him into the locker. He felt around 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 breath through the nose, hold it a few seconds, then slowly out through the mouth. It seemed to work; 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 black. 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 by a strong current. The water was draining, Kenny realized – they must be in a room closed off from the rest of the lake. He shivered in his wetsuit, sending a prayer up to Jesus. Mom and Pop always said that was the thing to do when you were scared, although it didn’t make him feel much better right now.

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 seven 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. Heated bubbles streamed violently through the water, popping on the surface as huge robotic arms gently plucked up the new arrival and carried 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 certainly big enough to accommodate their sofa. At least those big, mechanical arms didn’t appear to be moving their way.

August’s whisper reached his ears as the water level continued to drain towards their heads. “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 them 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.

Another prickle of unease ran over his skin. How ARE we going to get out of here?

“It worked!” said a tinny 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 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 the special effects from an old science-fiction show, two shapes materialized out of thin air: long, segmented bodies of steel plating, reflecting a bluish sheen in the room’s fluorescent glow. 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 reared halfway up, making them look 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 leaned 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 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 huddled. “They’re not bugs, August,” Kenny soothed. “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, 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 the high platform.

A man moved towards their platform on the floor below. They could tell he was a man because he had pulled off the helmet of his white hazmat suit and held it tucked under his arm. The water hadn’t quite finished draining, 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? You better not be—”

The man stopped short, head cocking to one side. 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 he could tell, the robots had sort of abducted him and August by 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 moments ago.

Kenny watched the brown-haired man scowl up at them. He had a stubble-covered chin, as if he hadn’t shaved in several days. There was something oddly wild about him, and Kenny wondered worriedly what would happen if he became 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 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 where they stood 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 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 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 bots! Welcome to the Preservation Underworks, as I call ‘em.” To Kenny’s surprise, the man stuck out a hand, shaking Kenny’s in a firm grip. He did the same with August, who shyly accepted his help in getting down from the platform. “The name’s Trevor,” Trevor continued, sounding more jovial by the minute. “And who might you be?”

“I’m August, and this is Kenny,” 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 twisting 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. “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 think this over, running a hand through his messy hair. “Weeell… I wouldn’t say exactly dangerous… but they are robots. 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. I learned that the hard way when I got here,” he added in a lower, angrier tone. But his smile returned quickly as 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 robots.

Kenny wished he could feel as reassured. Something about this place felt… off. The boy looked back up, towards the peculiar machine that had transported them here – wherever “here” was. They probably weren’t getting out that way, so this stranger might be their best hope of getting home. Plus, well… he was pretty curious about this place.

Kenny snapped out of his musings to find 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 abruptly 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 and thick fog 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 machines target garbage in the lake and bring it down here to be processed. The water’s to keep ‘em cool so they don’t overstress the system, and to cycle out water brought in by the beams.”

Kenny might have been freaked out by the implications of them not making it in “unscathed,” but suddenly some very big and exciting puzzle pieces were clicking together in his brain. “So that’s why no one’s ever seen where the trash goes!” he cried. “They wouldn’t see long-range teleportation underwater!” And that would 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!

Trevor rolled his shoulders, 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 bots 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 robots 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 the four-point cities’ sewage systems 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.”

Kenny and August exchanged dazzled smiles, August bouncing with every step. Kenny almost joined her, forgetting the spooky watching eyes of the robots for the moment. This was the biggest discovery of the century, and they had made it! And now they had an adult to help them get home, where they could tell everyone and be heroes.

Things were definitely looking up.

Part 3

He’d tried to tell the others.

Months of sharing his findings with the scientific community, explaining the significance, wheedling for funds and backing and resources. But they wouldn’t accept it. They wouldn’t accept him. Their scoffing became a mocking mantra in his ears, their dismissals of his lesser degrees and supposed inexperience and low-class background a torture that taunted him day and night. Even his closest friend and colleague had caved.

“Even if you’re right, it’s too dangerous,” Wesselton had said with a false frown of sympathy. “Wouldn’t it be better to leave well enough alone?” But his friend’s eyes spoke the truth: he was just as convinced as everyone that the idea was insane.

He’d finally given up – on their support, not on his mission. He would make his own plans. Then they would see.

How ironic that his friend had finally believed him on the cusp of his plan’s completion, and that this discovery finally sundered the last threads of their friendship. Words shouted. Blows exchanged.  He’d had to take what he could and go, bloody new memories snapping at his heels, but it would all be worth it in the end. The righteousness of his goal would keep him going, even if no one took his side. When had they ever, anyway? He had always been alone.

Now he was here. He was so close to changing everything for the better, finally fixing the damage others had done. He would show them all what he was truly worth.

But why wouldn’t they LISTEN to him?!

—-

The kids followed their strange guide out of the teleporter room and 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 strangely attached to it – it was a vaguely familiar object in a wholly foreign new world.

“So… who are you?” Kenny jogged to catch up to August and Trevor. He was only about chest-high to the scruffy-haired man. Kenny straightened and raised his chin, 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 cool, making both kids shiver in their wet 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 the kids over 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 from it into 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 felt 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 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 reassured himself. Learn to relax, Kenny! Trevor seems like he has everything under control. He hurried to catch up with August, who was already circling around the giant sphere.

Liquid churning sounds echoed thickly through the metal. Kenny put out a hand, 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 real 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 here?

“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 with 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 running 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; even kids like Kenny and August understood that they’d be vulnerable to any disease or pollutant that got into the water system without the lake’s special qualities. And what about the rest of the cities surrounding the massive lake? Kenny had visited other cities that relied on normal water systems, and while, yeah, it was cool to be able to fish, the thought of their beautiful blue lake turning into the same brown, opaque stuff he’d seen 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. 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 and gave a dismissive wave. “They’re part of the system, Kenny m’boy; the whole operation is slowly deteriorating, just like any other computer system. 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’ mindless bots.” 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 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 reset the programming back to its original configuration, we can get this whole 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 to face him. His intense green eyes made Kenny feel caught in a high-beam searchlight. “That access tunnel is mainly for the bugbots; 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, his face darkening. “But you two!” Trevor grinned brightly, spreading 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!

To think that being small would actually be a good thing for once…

“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. “What do you want us to do?”

Trevor clapped his hands together, barking a laugh that echoed in the large room. “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 fantasizing about his upcoming heroic act to consider it more closely. A thrill of excitement marked their small group as they trooped down another hallway, traveling further into the vast complex.

The Builders hadn’t cared much for interior decorating, considering the gray, Spartan nature of the structure. But Kenny and August couldn’t help craning their necks and making awed exclamations as they passed windows that looked out onto more massive sphere- and water-filled rooms; glowing incinerators and blinding teleportation beams; control rooms and conveyor belts on a massive scale. Many of these rooms held more of the insectoid robots, operating controls or replacing parts or 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 their society’s most advanced detection technologies. The Lost Age must have been truly amazing, Kenny decided. Seeing it for himself only made him that much sadder that the Dust Wars had destroyed it.

They entered a small chamber that resembled a locker room, with aluminum cabinets along the walls and benches between. Trevor rummaged through the cabinets with a long stream of grunts and mutters, until finally he withdrew two smaller, but still too large, white suits. “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 up till now. “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 get to help him! This is the best adventure ever!

That niggling thought at the back of Kenny’s mind reared its head 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 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!”

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 robots. “…Okay. But 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. We and our fellow Workers 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,” its mechanical voice took on a note of urgency as it stepped 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 to remember what they’d just talked about in class today. Why hadn’t he paid more attention? “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 a 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 totally crazy! You’re saying 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 with fresh doubt. “But… no, that doesn’t make sense. How could they get all of the dust to this one lake when they couldn’t control it? I thought those things popped up all over the world – that’s why they were so hard to fight off,” he pointed out skeptically.

“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 and sea for the minute signals of individual 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 Kenny like a blow between the eyes. “This whole lake is like a giant fly trap for the dust!”

“Exactly!” T135 enthused. Then it asked K740 in a tinny whisper, “What is a fly trap?”

Kenny ran out the door of the locker room and over to a big window looking into one  of the massive workrooms they had passed. 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 the world.”

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 confirmed 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, we have a superior order to never 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 also a Builder; he cannot order you not to stop him!”

“What?!” Kenny yelped, jolting away. He didn’t realize he was backing up until he hit the glass window, transfixed by the round blue eye ports that watched him 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, three times 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 couldn’t even stand up to a bully, much less a full-grown maniac! How could he hope to stop some 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!!!”

Part 4

The robots acted so accommodating in every way except that which was most important. He had to make them see reason. But how did you reason with machinery? They were only metal and electrical currents, doing what they’d been programmed to do untold ages ago – unswerving, unthinking, unfeeling. For all their assurance that they were at his command – and all the seeming proof when they would obey his orders without question – they wouldn’t do what he needed most. In fact, he soon realized, they were actively plotting against his purpose. For all their soulless automation, their digital minds were capable of devious schemes.

They would probably continue with their tired programming if the very building were collapsing around them. Never mind if the entirety of the human race were in danger. Never mind what he could do with the treasure they guarded. The world above these robots’ heads was full of brokenness and injustice that could so easily be solved with the technology they safeguarded, and they didn’t care. Even the technology he sought had turned against him. He was truly alone.

It didn’t matter. It couldn’t. All the pain and humiliation would be worth it when he had what he needed.

With disappointment, but not despair – he’d come too far to despair now – he changed course. If the bots acted against him, he would simply make schemes of his own. 

Weeks passed, then months. He became intimately familiar with the complex and its workings, so knowledgeable of the lost technologies composing it that they began to feel mundane. But there was no other way to reach his goal. He was at a stalemate.

Until the robots brought the kids. Another tricky scheme of theirs, but this time, one he could turn to his use.

Suddenly, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly, he saw the completion of months, years, of darkness and research and labor. Soon he would be in the open, free of this blasted place and able to show the world what he had accomplished. Then it wouldn’t matter anymore that they hadn’t listened to him.

He’d shut up their mockery even as he set the world right – once and for all.

—-

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 got her to go down that access port and release the dust. Dust 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 limbs, and you just know they want to crawl up your pantleg,” August was saying with a dramatic shudder.

Trevor nodded sagely. “I feel ya, missy. At least these bugs 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 cable ladder that Trevor had somehow rigged 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. “Good grief! Is that the story they fed you?” he chuckled, wiping the corners of his eye. Kenny stared, completely caught off guard. He flinched when Trevor walked up to him and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. “Kenny, Kenny, I told you not to trust those robots. I had a feeling they’d spread some crazy story 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 cable 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 and protect the lake, hopefully with the end result of taking knowledge of this technology back to the surface. It’s what I’ve been working on for months.” A faraway look entered his eyes as he gazed upwards, towards daylight far, far beyond their heads. “And when we’re done, I can finally go back,” he murmured wistfully.

“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 someone 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 relieved smile on his face. “Yep. 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 by the evidence of Trevor’s own storytelling abilities. 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. It’s not safe.” 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, 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. 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, for the two holding their ground in front of this man – a man who, by their own words, they were programmed to obey – “brave” seemed the only word that would fit. As sirens blared, Kenny looked up at August, who still hovered uncertainly at the middle of the ladder. She stared in mute shock at the transformed Trevor, so unlike the heroic, friendly man he’d been for them until this moment.

“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, those stories of dust attacking people are only 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. Some parts and pieces looked newer than others, suggesting Trevor’s own modifications. “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 stupid, unimaginative little kid. Which you are, so no surprise there.” The insult struck Kenny like a slap to the face. Trevor took a menacing step forward. “The dust didn’t wreck everything, kids. People did. Stupid, ignorant people took their own amazing technology and destroyed themselves. But the dust did something good, too: it made people get over their stupid squabbles and work together. And out of the ashes, we rebuilt. We made things better. Society learned how to live in peace!” Fevered light filled his face. “And then people started ruining it all over again. Bias and bigotry and ignorance and cruelty are taking over just like before. I should know.” He took a menacing step towards the children, a sickly smile on his face. “But if the dust could give the world a fresh start once, imagine what I can do when it’s mine to control!” he declared, raising his strange device in triumph.

A look of horror passed between Kenny and August. For all the books he’d read, Kenny had never quite believed in the concept of a supervillain. Now he knew with a stomach-dropping certainty that he was staring one in the face. And there were no superheroes standing by to save the day.

“We’ll… we’ll never help you,” August quavered, and Kenny admired her courage for doing even that much. He felt rooted to the floor.

Once again, that nasty smile twisted Trevor’s lips. “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. “You’re one to talk about bad people, Trevor!” Kenny yelled desperately, his voice cracking at all the wrong moments. “You’re the one trying to hurt a couple of little kids!”

For the briefest moment, something other than cruel triumph flickered across Trevor’s face. It was so very brief, but the friendly Trevor from earlier seemed to be making a grasp for the surface. “I never set out to hurt kids,” he grunted quietly, and then darkness reclaimed his features. “But I’ve put too much work into this. My plans are going to fix the world, and that’s bigger than you two.” Coldness filled his eyes as the bots continued their creeping progress towards Kenny and August. “I’m not going to let anything or anybody stop me now.”

Kenny shifted in front of August, searching desperately for some way to escape. His attention returned to the millipede bots. “Come on, guys, you don’t want to do this, right?” he pleaded. “I thought you asked me to stop Trevor?”

“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 a bit more 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… Understanding came in a flash, and he grabbed onto the idea in hopeful desperation.

“Stop!”

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 bots? 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. A small eternity passed, until finally 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 these robots!

But their joy was smashed a second later when movement caught Kenny’s eye, and he looked 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 dancing boa constrictors. “But we will attempt to delay his progress while you determine a way to defeat him!”

As the kids raced down the hallway leading back to the Central Cleansing hub, August gawked at Kenny. 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 words, but what else was he supposed to do?

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 further urging; he grabbed the five-inch-thick bugs like they were thick, metallic rope, their legs keeping him 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 in silent terror.

Kenny heard footsteps. Trevor would be on them any minute. He clenched his teeth. “August, grab the bugs!”

“N-no!”

August!” Kenny drew on every scrap of impatience, anger, and fear that had been building in his chest and mashed it into one final, fed-up scream: “Grab the bugs or I’ll tell everyone you kissed Daren Ledbow at recess!!!”

August stared at him, jaw hanging in disbelief. Then she barked a shaky laugh. With a shudder, the girl reached up and tentatively grabbed onto one of the robots. 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.”

Part 5

It wasn’t long before the alarms shut off; apparently, Trevor had rigged 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 sounded 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. “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. Was that another quirk? For all that robots aren’t real people, Kenny mused, these ones sure act like them.

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 couch, feeling the damp synth-leather with 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 explained 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 bots. 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, he and August couldn’t really be expected to do anything, could they? Their enemy was bigger, stronger, smarter. He could kill them.

He could kill everybody. Somebody has to stop him.

Kenny’s gut flipped again, but not just with guilt. An idea was forming in his head. It might be a really stupid idea. It was a really stupid idea. But deep inside, Kenny knew he couldn’t leave without giving it a try.

Good grief, I think I AM responsible for the whole lake now, he thought with a grimace. That is terrifying.

“I’m with you, Kenny. We can do it.”

Kenny startled, looking at August in surprise. “But you don’t even know my plan!” he blurted, not even bothering to question how she had guessed that he’d been thinking up one.

August grinned, white teeth shinning against brown skin. “It’s your plan, Kenny. You’re super smart, and you already stopped Trevor once with that cool ordering trick! And you’ve got me to help you pull it off.” She gave him a big thumbs-up. “I trust you. Now let’s be heroes and save the lake!”

Kenny stared at his friend. He could tell she was as scared as he was. But she wore that determined, firm-jawed August look that said she was going to stand by him no matter what. A rush of relief filled him. At least he didn’t have to do this all on his own.

It was amazing how much that little bit of knowledge gave him courage.

He turned back to the robots. “Okay. We’re going to give this a try. Here’s what I need you guys to do…”

And all the while as he talked, the same prayer repeated in the back of his mind. Please, please, Jesus, help us get this right!

—-

Dr. Trevor Maloy stalked the halls of the underlake facility. Seething. Those stupid kids. Those stupid bots! 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 mocked by his contemporaries, and then running from the law – he’d just been defending himself! That idiot Wesselton hadn’t believed Trevor any more than the rest, and when he finally did… A flash of pain and panic rushed through Trevor at the bloody memory, but he drowned it out with his long-nursed righteous anger. None of them understand. He got what he deserved!

Weeks spent routing a way into the closed system, lost in the dark and the cold. Then months of being just short of his goal, blocked by stubborn automatons and impassable access ports. Now he’d finally reached the cusp of victory. 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 if the robots refused any sort of assistance, he might never get the holding pod open.

He might never get the new world he so desperately needed.

They’d better hope I don’t find them, he thought darkly. Or my dust is going to have kids for dinner. A small flicker of guilt at the thought was quickly smothered. Maybe the dust attacked biologicals, maybe not; but he’d enjoy sending it into that corrupted 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 bugs and those kids were all buddy-buddy?”

The robot 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.”

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 trouble in the meantime. “Lead the way.” The robot dipped its head again and scuttled off down the hall, Trevor quickening his pace to keep up.

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 seen this wing of the facility before; had the robots been hiding it from him? They finally stopped before an unfamiliar 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 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 in the first place, instead of relying on those stupid robots!

“Time to come out and play, kiddos!” Trevor called, using his “friendly” voice. He could barely remember when it had been his normal voice, back before disappointment and jaded reality had stolen his joy. “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. “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. Not when I have the power to control it.” His fingers rubbed the familiar groove along the device in his pocket – his magnum opus, the solution even the Lost Age ones couldn’t find. They had been fools, but he would finally use their greatest tool the way it was meant to be used.

“You’re insane!” The girl’s voice. Man, how she screeched. “Everyone knows what the dust did. It practically wiped out civilization as we know it!”

Trevor spread his arms wide, carefully cutting sideways to block the kids’ escape. “Then we create a new civilization. There wasn’t anything too 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.

“All those so-called ‘peers’ of mine,” he spat, staring into the dark memories again, forgetting for a moment the kids, the robots, everything except his hate. “Laughing at me. Saying I was crazy, then denouncing me when I made a discovery that really mattered. Look at all of this!” He swept his arms wide, enveloping the beautiful, cursed complex surrounding them. “Technology of the Lost Age! The power to make everything the way it should be! And I’m the one who found it! I’m the one who should use it,” he snarled, voicing dropping dangerously. “Nobody else understands, no one’s willing to do what’s needed. But me – I’m going to set this cesspool of a world right. Even if it means starting with a clean slate.”

The boy and girl slowly poked their heads over the sofa. Trevor expected to see fear, but he was bemused by the look of fire in the kids’ eyes. Kenny gripped the back of the sofa in both hands and bared his teeth. “We’ll stop you.”

Trevor blinked, then 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 new world happen.” His boot clanked on something that wasn’t carpet, but he didn’t plan on taking his eyes off those kids.

August’s eyes narrowed, all adoration gone. “Then come and get us, creep!” she challenged, and the kids ducked back behind the sofa.

Trevor flashed them 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 third was a glass enclosure 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 rush of 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 came out dry and hopeless, a tiny desert amidst the flood. “I guess even kids are capable of murder.” A crooked smile crossed his lips. “S’pose I should thank you. Proving I was right about this world being too far gone,” he spat.

“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. 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 beyond a staticky numbness. 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 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 entranceways 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 about his past was true, Kenny had a strong feeling there would be an arrest warrant out there already. Being in jail would ensure he never went after the dust again. The woman continued to stare as she pulled out her cell phone and dialed the police. A small crowd gathered as more people wandered into the square, 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.”

Relief and disbelief flooded him all at once, and Kenny flopped down onto the slick sofa, staring up at the sky. A small smile tugged at his lips. “Yeah. We did it.”

The next few hours passed in a blur. Police came and checked Trevor’s identification; Kenny and August overheard something about aggravated assault charges and a scientist in a coma. The implications combined with the memory of Trevor’s frightening intensity renewed his shivers.

The sofa was viewed with the most confusion, especially since the kids refused to admit where it had come from. They quizzed the children, 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. And Trevor was of no help, still half-conscious and groggy. His only moment of lucidity came when they were boarding him into the ambulance, when he looked towards the kids with a flash of bright-eyed clarity.

“You didn’t… kill me…?” he muttered, barely loud enough for Kenny to hear. A policeman stepped towards him aggressively, barking for him not to talk to the children. But Kenny held his eyes until the doors of the ambulance closed. The hate had been replaced with bewilderment.

Maybe we’re not the only ones who learned something down there, he hoped as the police car drove them away.

—-

 “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. Their parents were on their way to pick them up, which would no doubt lead to a fresh round of questions and tears and shouting. He was going to enjoy the brief peace and quiet while it lasted.

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 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 throwing a sofa in the lake.”

Kenny leaned deeper into the damp sofa and laughed. They’d outsmarted a genuine bad guy, potentially saved the city and/or civilization as they knew it, and made it home safe, just like in his favorite books. Maybe he or August could even share the story as a book of its own someday.

But right here and now, the prize he treasured most was the glowing warmth in his chest. He’d done something that mattered. Little Kenny Calgary had been asked to do something huge, face a threat far bigger and meaner than anything he’d faced before or probably ever would again – and it had turned out alright. For the first time in a long time, Kenny felt able to believe that quiet, comforting voice whispering to his heart.

“You’ve worth far more than a penny, Beloved.”

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.

“What’s that?”

“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; then 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 off his cheeks, “you should let me pick the adventure.”

August grinned at him, blue eyes sparkling. “Deal.”

END

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