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SATURDAY 3:14 P.M.
Disheartened after leaving Erika, Robbie headed for the phone as soon as she got home and dialed her mother's apartment in San Francisco. Her father wasn't back, yet, and she needed to talk. Gail Stevenson answered on the fourth ring, just as Robbie was about to hang up.
Hearing the weariness in her mother's voice, Robbie winced. "Hi, Mom. Did I wake you up?"
"Yes, but I'm glad you did, Robbie. I have to be back at the hospital at four-thirty. I'm working the night shift this weekend." Gail yawned. "How are you?"
"I'm okay, but -- " Robbie sighed. "I could use some advice about a situation with Erika."
"Always glad to help. What's the problem?"
Robbie quickly explained. "I'm no expert on poetry, Mom, but I don't think 'Destined to Dust' is as good as Erika thinks it is."
"'Destined to Dust'?" Gail asked with a hint of incredulity. "Sounds like a poem about being doomed to do housework."
"No kidding. And what if she totally freezes on stage? Not to mention getting laughed off because she insists on wearing this totally awful dress that makes her look like a geek wannabe."
"I understand why you're worried about her, Robbie, but Erika must have a reason for wanting to do this."
"Well, yeah." Robbie sighed. "She said something about being in the spotlight and teenage fame."
"Everyone wants to be good at something," Gail said. "And to be noticed for it."
"I know, but I've got this awful feeling Erika's reading is going to bomb. I Just don't want her to get hurt."
"I see." Gail sighed. "It's hard not to say anything when you only want to help."
Robbie smiled. "Like that timeyre." Josh fished a small, flesh-toned plastic earplug out of his pocket.
"Isn't that a hearing aid?" Robbie asked.
"Yep. It was in a box of miscellaneous stuff I got at a garage sale last month." Josh handed the plastic nodule to Allen and smiled smugly. "Just another piece of worthless junk that turns out to be a vital component for one of Allen's Xelan devices."
"Right now I need a high-frequency sonic detector." Allen popped open the hearing aid and studied the intricate internal design. "And this can be modified to satisfy my requirements."
Emotionally drained after shopping with Erika, Robbie sat on the floor and dropped her chin in her hands. She really didn't need to hear any more bad news, but more often than not, trouble was brewing when Allen decided to build a Xelan anything. "Why do you need a high-frequency sonic detector?"
"To trigger this wrist alarm in the event the Arubii signaling device in the museum is activated."
Robbie frowned. Allen and Josh had told her about the Arubii after the toy robot roundup the night before. The ancient aliens had sent out robot ships to colonize planets that did not already have intelligent life. When the robot ship received an all-clear signal from an exploration scout, the robots would land and build an Arubii city so it was ready when the insect people arrived.
But the Arubii had disappeared from the galaxy thousands of years ago.
"Hold on." Robbie waved to signal a time-out. "How can the Arubii be a threat if they're gone?"
"The Arubii aren't the problem." Josh handed Allen the wire with the stripped end and shifted position. "The Arubii robot colonization ship is the problem."
"Why?" Robbie winced, dreading the a nswer.
"An Arubii robot scout obviously came to Earth a hundred thousand years ago," Allen said, "give or take a few thousand years. I know because the Mojave Diamond in the museum is an Arubii signaling device."
"Seriously?" Robbie glanced at Josh, then back at Allen.
Allen nodded, then resumed his work.
Josh leaned forward. "And Homo sapiens didn't exist a hundred thousand years ago."
"So?" Robbie was just getting more confused.
"So," Josh continued patiently, "Earth would have been perfect for an Arubii colony because there wasn't an advanced intelligent life form here yet."
Allen jumped in. "The signaling device must have malfunctioned when the scout activated it because the Arubii robot ship didn't land. Humans would never have evolved beyond Homo erectus if it had."
"Because the Arubii would have overrun the planet," Josh added for clarification.
Robbie's eyes widened. Allen had told them some startling stories about galactic history, but this one was especially disturbing. It was mind-boggling to realize that human existence had turned on a quirk of fate because an alien device had not worked properly.
"I still don't understand how that relates to Earth now," Robbie said.
Josh cast a nervous glance at Allen.
Robbie's stomach tightened as Allen slowly looked up again.
"It's a problem because the Arubii robot ship may still be out there."
"Probably orbiting Saturn, which isn't too close or too far away," Josh said. "According to Allen's calculations based on Arubii operations from the past."
"As documented by the Elders who traveled through the galaxy while the Arubii were expanding their territory." Allen picked up a tiny screwdriver and made an adjustment to the hearing aid.
Robbie's mouth fell open. "But that ship couldn't possibly still be functional after all this time, could it?"
Allen sighed. "I'm afraid it could. Arubii technology was extremely sophisticated and durable. They built things to last."
"Okay, but why would the ship still be in our solar system after all this time?" Robbie asked aghast. "It doesn't make sense."
"It does if you're a robot," Allen explained simply. "Time doesn't mean much to them."
"Right." Josh nodded. "Robots are like computers. They don't take any action until they get the next command and the robot ship hasn't gotten any instructions since they sent the scout probes down a hundred thousand years ago."
"We don't know for sure that the robot ship is still out there, but it's reasonable to assume that it could be." Allen looked at Robbie pointedly. "And Delport could not survive an Arubii robot invasion."
"But there's nothing to worry about as long as the robot ship doesn't get a signal from the Mojave Diamond." Josh handed Allen the wire with the stripped end.
Robbie watched uneasily as Allen attached the modified hearing aid to the modified wristwatch. "What are the chances of an Arubii robot invasion happening tonight?"
"My best guess?" Allen shrugged, then smiled. "Almost none."
"How certain are you of that? I've got plans tonight and saving the world again just doesn't fit into my schedule." Robbie didn't want anything to prevent her from attending Erika's poetry reading.
"I don't think saving the world is a problem -- not tonight anyway." Allen chuckled. "The plaque in the museum said the Mojave Diamond was found in the California desert in 1927. It changed hands several times before it was donated to the Delport Historical Museum fifteen years ago. If it hasn't been accidentally activated in all that time, I doubt that it ever will be."
Robbie shifted uncomfortably as Allen popped the casing off the back of the watch. "Then why are you building an alarm?"
"Just in case." Allen inserted a tiny new battery in the hearing aid and snapped the plastic casing over it. "If the crystal starts broadcasting, I want to know."
"If the crystal starts broadcasting, Delport is in big trouble." Josh stood up and began putting the pile of gizmos and gadgets back in a clear plastic storage bin.
"How big?" Robbie asked anxiously.
"Complete annihilation," Allen said calmly. He put the small screwdriver and a couple of lengths of wire in his pocket.
Josh stomped on an empty paperclip box. "Flattened."
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