Read an Excerpt
MY DAD IS half machine. My brother has a prosthetic leg. And one of my best friends here in Bot Territory is a robot.
I never thought I’d say this, but in just three months I’ve gone from thinking robots were the enemy to feeling like I need a robotic hand just to fit in.
When I tell my friend Vee this, she snorts and then starts gagging on the pizza pop she’s eating, which causes Merril, the giant, barrel-chested bot cook, to swoop in and give Vee the Heimlich. Overhead, our building’s new alarm system starts blaring through the speakers. “Human choking in dining room. Foreign object lodged in throat.”
Merril moves to wrap his arms around Vee, but she dodges him and says, “I’m fine, jam it!” before trailing off in another round of coughs.
“Human choking,” the alarm says again and I run to the control panel installed in the wall near the elevator. I punch in the code Scissor taught me and the system quiets.
When I come back into the dining room, Merril is still standing there staring at Vee like he’s prepared for her to spontaneously choke on her own spit. He’s worried, even though the chicken tenders he’s frying in the kitchen are burning.
Vee is more important. For most of the bots I’ve met, it’s the same thing. They care more about their human friends than they do anything else.
“I’m fine,” Vee says again, and Merril finally saunters off, his footsteps ting-ting-ing against the concrete floor. Scissor, our mechanic robot, has been bugging him to let her upgrade his feet, since a lot of bots are turning to silicone foot pads so their steps aren’t so loud. But Merril says he likes the sound.
“I hate that new alarm system,” Vee says.
Scissor installed the system a few weeks ago, after my dad requested it. It keeps constant watch over the entire building, and all of its inhabitants, robot and human, just in case something should go wrong.
It’s my dad’s way of being overprotective, which is nice and all, but also annoying.
Vee and I sit back down with our remaining pizza pops. We’re at the big dining room table in the middle of my dad’s building. Everyone calls the building the Fort. It has all these cool nooks and crevices. And there are rope bridges. It’s pretty much the best place ever. A lot better than the tiny house my older brother, Po, and I lived in, back before we moved to Bot Territory with Dad.
Even though I’ve only known Vee for a few months, I consider her my best human friend on this side of the border. Since moving to Bot Territory from the United Districts, my life has changed a space ton. LT, my bot friend, says my life is kinda like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, because it starts out being ugly and lumpy and kinda hideous, and then it wraps itself in a cocoon and becomes a butterfly. He didn’t say it in those words, but I know that’s what he meant. And anyway, I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. It’s Po who got the wings, if we’re continuing on with the whole metaphor business.
Which is even more obvious by the RIDER magazine sitting on the table in front of Vee. Po’s face is on the cover, and the animated image transitions from a smiling Po, to a smiling-bigger Po, to a serious-faced Po. The headline below him reads: “St. Kroix takes the world by storm, one freedom speech at a time.”
When RIDER magazine called to ask him for an interview, Po couldn’t stop talking about himself in the third person for weeks.
Like he’s so important.
Vee sets her elbows on the table and leans toward me. “Let’s go back to that thing you were saying. You know, that thing about how you wish you were part robot.”
“I was kidding!” But secretly I wasn’t. Fact is, lately it seems like everyone I pass in Line Zero, the town in Bot Territory where I live, has a robot part. It’s like the thing to do here. You go to the upgrade shop, you pick out what you want from the display, and a week later you’ve got a robot arm or a leg or an optical implant that can sync to your Link. I heard you can even make phone calls on the implant.
It’s pretty wrenched if you ask me.
But then you’re stuck with the upgrade for the rest of your life. It’s not like they can reattach the arm they took off. Which makes me wonder what they do with those arms.
“Think about it,” Vee says after taking a gulp of juice. “What if you were picking your nose and put too much force behind it and accidentally poked yourself in the brain?”
“Like that’s even possible.”
“It could be.”
“Theoretically, it is,” Merril says, and Vee gives me a smug grin, so I stick out my tongue at her.
“What’s the plan for today?” she asks a second later.
I chomp on my pizza pop. “I don’t know. We could harass Po and Marsi.”
Vee rolls her eyes. “I am so sick of those two slobbering all over each other.”
I grimace. “Using the words Po and slobbering in the same sentence gears me out.”
“It gears me out too.” Vee looks over her shoulder at Merril in the kitchen, then lowers her voice when she turns back to me. “Listen. I heard Po telling Marsi that he has a Meta-Rise meeting this afternoon in the old library downtown.”
At the mention of the Meta-Rise, I sit up straighter. “And you waited until now to tell me?”
Vee tilts her head, which makes her hair glow orange in the sunlight pouring through the window. She dyes her hair with special dye so that the color changes depending on the light that surrounds her. A few minutes ago, it almost looked green.
“The meeting isn’t until one o’clock,” she says. “I had plenty of time to tell you.”
My dad calls the Meta-Rise the bot/human alliance. It’s this group of people and bots who believe in living together peacefully, unlike the UD, which still believes robots are the enemy, that they’ve become too much like humans. Robots aren’t allowed in the UD. They’re terminated upon capture.
My dad, Robert St. Kroix, is the leader of the Meta-Rise. He’s the best man for the job, not only because he’s top gear, but also because he’s half man, half robot, and if anyone can understand both sides of the conflict, it’s him.
Vee and I want to be members of the Meta-Rise, but our dads think we’re too young.
“So,” I whisper back to Vee, “are we going?”
“What do you think?”
She nods, and her ponytail swings forward. “That’s the right answer, FishKid.”
I frown. “Why can’t you call me Trout like everyone else?”
“Because where’s the fun in being like everyone else?”
“I’ll tell you what’s not fun. Being called FishKid.”
“Oh, but it’s such a cracked name. Hey, what do you think they’d call you if you got a robot part? FishBot?” She bursts out laughing. “That’s even better. I fully support you upgrading.”
I grumble as we leave the kitchen.
THING ABOUT VEE is, she can get just about anywhere, but it doesn’t usually involve a door.
Thankfully, I’m good at climbing.
I find a foothold in the old pitted brick of the back of the library and push myself up. There’s a ladder—a rusted fire escape—but the bottom half rusted off probably a bazillion years ago, so I have to scale the wall halfway up to pull the rest of the fire escape down.
“Hurry,” Vee says. “It’s almost one o’clock.”
Sweat beads on my forehead as the sun blasts down. I’m drenched, and we’ve only been outside for less than twenty minutes. The temperatures have been in the high nineties the last week. I call it sweaty-armpit weather. Scissor calls it whir weather, because of the constant whirring noise the bots’ cooling systems make.
“I am hurrying,” I call down.
I navigate another three feet and reach for the ladder. I’m able to grab hold of the last ladder rung and throw myself onto it. Rust flakes off the metal, raining into my hair. My added weight dislodges the ladder and then I’m falling.
When the ladder reaches the end of its rail, it snaps back, and jerks me loose. I sail to the ground, hitting the pavement with a thud.
I only dropped about four feet, but that was four feet too many.
“Ouch,” I moan.
Vee peers over on top of me. “There you go, falling again.”
I roll onto all fours. “You’re welcome for the ladder.”
“Thanks for the ladder,” she mock-echoes.
Vee positions an empty crate beneath the ladder, to give her another foot of height, and latches on to the bottom rung. From there she pulls herself up without much trouble.
We make it to the roof in hardly any time at all. The air up here is even hotter, if that’s possible, so that it feels like I’m swimming in it. The humidity sticks to my skin. I’m from 5th District, what used to be Colorado. Line Zero is in what used to be Louisiana. I’m not used to the southern weather yet. Maybe I never will be.
“Now where?” I ask, wiping the sweat from beneath my nose with the back of my hand.
“Over here.” Vee leads me to a door on the far side of the roof and slowly, quietly, pops open the latch.
We enter into a stairwell and press our backs against the wall and listen. It’s silent for a long time, so we head down.
“Which floor are they on?” I whisper.
“Second floor, I think.”
When we reach it, we pull the door open and peek into another hallway. I see Po come off the elevator and head left.
I shrink back, but hold the door open a crack so it doesn’t click closed, alerting Po.
“That was close,” Vee says.
I nod, wait a beat. “So, I take it we go left?”
Vee snorts. “You would make a terrible spy.”
“If we go left, we’ll walk right into their meeting, and if we do that, our dads will kick us out.”
“Then how are we going to listen to the meeting?”
The smile that spreads across Vee’s face makes her look like a maniacal clown. “Follow me, gearbox, and I’ll show you.”
• • •
When the hallway is clear, we sprint to the right, keeping close to the wall, in case we need to duck inside another room for cover. We make it around the next corner and Vee points us to the right again.
“Third door on the left,” she says.
The door is unlocked. We go inside and find a surveillance room.
“Are you kidding me?” I say.
“What?” Vee looks confused.
“This is the worst place to hide out when listening in on super-secret meetings.”
Vee takes a seat in the old swivel chair in the center of the room. The gears inside shriek as she turns around. “You’re forgetting I’m Parker Dade’s daughter.”
Parker is Dad’s closest friend and is in charge of planning escape and rescue routes from the UD to Bot Territory.
“So?” I answer.
“So, I know how my dad operates. He would have checked here first thing, to make sure the system was down. The library has been empty for a while, so it’s not like there was going to be anyone coming in and out. Dad would have checked the security system, and once he was sure it was off, he would have given your dad the okay.
“Which means we’re free to hang out as long as we like and”—she presses a series of buttons on the control panel and the monitors embedded in the wall come to life—“listen in on the super-secret meeting.”
The audio system boots up and I immediately recognize Dad’s voice.
“Thanks for meeting us here,” he says, and I find him on the farthest monitor on the left. He’s in a room surrounded by empty bookcases, standing at the head of a rectangular table. Each seat at the table is occupied by someone from the Meta-Rise. There’s Parker and LT, and the rest of Dad’s security team, as well as Jules, Cole, and a few others I don’t know.
Po is sitting between Jules and Parker, picking at a gouge in the table, looking bored. I would give anything in the world to be in his spot right now. I want to be a member of the Meta-Rise so badly, I dream about it in my sleep. And here Po is, automatically granted access to the secret meetings, and he doesn’t even care. Sometimes I hate how easy everything is for Po.
I mean, yeah, okay, so he lost his leg in the war, but somehow, in the two months that we’ve been in Bot Territory, even the bum leg has made Po more wrenched. There’s even a “Po St. Kroix” upgrade at the upgrade shop. People pay a lot of creds to have a bum leg just like my brother.
Which is just dumb if you ask me. Out of all the upgrades you can get, why would you pay creds for a bum leg?
“I apologize for the secret location,” Dad says. When he turns his head, the half of his face that was replaced with a metal plate gleams in the overhead light. “I wanted to be sure we weren’t interrupted.”
I wonder if he suspects Vee and I are desperate to know what’s going on At All Times. And if he moved the Meta-Rise meeting to the library hoping to avoid us. He caught us eavesdropping a week ago, when the Meta-Rise met to discuss the UD’s recent movements, and President Callo’s latest speech.
Jules, Dad’s tech advisor, said Callo is trying to do damage control after the UD attacked Edge Flats, Texas, two months ago. Callo blamed it on Sandra “Beard” Hopper, who was the head of Congress at the time, but Vee and I secretly wonder if he knew about the attack all along. The UD doesn’t want to live peacefully with robots, and I think they’re willing to do anything to keep bots as nothing more than machine slaves.
Beard was going to pin the blame for the attack on Dad, and the Meta-Rise, hoping to turn the rest of the UD against robots for good.
Thankfully, we stopped the attack before it got really bad, and ever since then Callo has been trying to make it sound like he’s neutral on the whole thing.
“As you all know,” Dad goes on, folding his arms across his chest, “we’ve been hearing from some of our outlying sources that Old New York has been busier than normal. And”—he glances at Parker—“from what we’ve dug up, it seems to be true. We recently received a report that ten thousand ThinkChips were purchased on the black market and shipped into Old New York last week.”
Voices rise around the room, but Dad talks over them. “I don’t want anyone alarmed yet. That’s why we haven’t spoken about it publicly, but . . .” Dad trails off and LT stands.
He’s a few inches taller than Dad, with sharp shoulders, wide eyes, and a dented, scraped chest plate the color of mushed peas. The rest of him is plain robot-grade melorra steel. He doesn’t have a lot of the flashy upgrades most other robots do. I like that about him.
LT clears his throat. “One of our allies in ONY has confirmed Ratch is present in the city, though we have been unable to identify if he is connected to the ThinkChips.”
Hearing Ratch’s name makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Ratch was LT’s best friend, and part of Dad’s team. Until he turned on us in the middle of City Hall in the UD when we were trying to rescue Po. I still have nightmares about him, about his glowing band of orange eyes staring at me, like he’s using his robot powers to see through my skin, to my bones, to see my human weaknesses.
“We have been able to confirm, however,” LT goes on, “that Ratch is plotting some kind of attack on the Meta-Rise.”
Murmurs spread through the room.
Vee and I glance at each other, wide-eyed.
“We do not know what kind of attack it will be,” LT goes on, “or when it will take place. What we do know is that it will most likely be aimed at the Meta-Rise leader.”
All eyes turn to Dad.
The blood drains from my face. My heart ka-thumps in my ears. I look at Po, to see his reaction. He doesn’t look surprised at all. It’s like he already knew this secret.
“Why you?” Cole asks Dad. “Why attack the Meta-Rise at all? We’re on the side of the robots.”
Dad pulls in a breath and shoves his hands in his pants pockets. “Most likely he wants to show the robot race that I’m weak.”
“Which you aren’t,” Po says, but directs it at the room.
“We have a defense already in place,” Dad says. “We have some of the best security, and the best tech team. Ratch isn’t getting anywhere near us. You can count on that.
“I just wanted to be sure you were all aware of what’s going on. I wanted you to hear it from me first. And if you gain any new information, or see anything suspicious, please contact me immediately. For the time being, please do not disclose anything you’ve heard here, or what you may hear out there.”
After Dad answers a few more questions from other members, he calls the meeting to an end. Everyone except Dad, Parker, LT, Jules, and Po leaves the room.
Jules is the first to speak after the door is shut behind a departing Meta-Rise member. “So what do you really think about all this?”
“What do I really think?” Dad echoes as he paces to the window and peers out. From the angle of the camera, I can only see him from the neck down, but I can hear the worry in his voice when he speaks.
“I think we need to watch our backs,” Dad answers. “Whatever Ratch is up to, it won’t be good.”
“THIS IS BAD. This is bad. This is bad.”
I keep repeating the same phrase over and over again as Vee and I shuffle toward home.
“Hey,” she says, hooking her arm through mine to spin me toward her. “This is your dad we’re talking about. Robert St. Kroix. Leader of the Meta-Rise. Ratch is cracked if he thinks he can threaten your dad and get away with it.”
My breath is coming too quickly, like I’m a bull about to charge. Except, instead of being steaming mad, I’m a blubbery mess of panic.
“What if something happens to my dad?” I say, echoing the same fears I had two months ago when the UD was trying to get my dad to turn himself in.
Vee puts her hands on either side of my face and forces me to look at her. Her hair is dark blue now, and her eyes are big and bright in the sunlight. “Nothing is going to happen to him.”
I nod, but I don’t know if I believe it. What if there’s something Dad knows that he’s not telling the team? What if he told Po? What if they’re trying to keep it from me?
Later, after Vee has gone home, I go into town to find Po. Even though my brother is good at keeping secrets—after all, he kept the secret about Dad being alive and living in Bot Territory from me for a long time—I think I might be able to guilt him into sharing something about Ratch and the ThinkChips, if there is any more to know.
The streets are bustling with activity, since it’s a weekend, and the sun has gone down enough to allow the temperature to cool off. I pass a group of people and bots walking down the sidewalk. The people are eating ice-cream cones, and the bots are guzzling Life Water—the preferred drink of robots. I don’t know what’s in it, but my dad drinks it, so it must not taste too bad. Dad still has human taste buds, even though his stomach has been replaced with a robotic system.
Dad was injured during the wars. LT and Ratch rescued him, and Scissor put him back together. A lot of his human body had to be replaced with robot parts, in order to save him.
At first, when I saw him, I geared out. But then I realized Dad was still Dad, and I was just happy he was safe.
I pause for a streetlight at the next intersection. Several hover cars whiz past on the rails. A few kids on hoverboards fly by in the hoverboard lane, their eyes hidden behind riding sunglasses. The glasses are a single band that stretch across their eyes. The lenses are mirrored, and when the kid closest to the curb zooms past me, the glasses catch the reflection of the orange brick building behind me. For a second, the glasses are nothing but a band of orange and I’m immediately reminded of Ratch and his band of eyes.
My stomach drops to my feet.
Ratch is here, my brain says. He’s here to hurt Dad.
I take a step back, run into a robot, whose spindly machine hands wrap around my arm to steady me. I suck in a breath, jerk away, slam into a woman, bounce back, then topple over a bench.
Before I know it, I’m staring at the darkening sky overhead, blinking back tears of pain. I whacked my side on the bench’s seat, then smashed my hip when I finally hit the sidewalk.
“Are you all right?” a robot asks.
The woman I ran into peers down at me. “Are you okay? I didn’t see you coming!”
“I’m fine,” I say, but my voice shakes. I manage to roll onto my knees and just as I’m pushing myself to my feet, a hand latches on to me and helps me up.
“You okay, little bro?” he asks.
Whispers spread through the growing crowd. Back in Brack, whenever someone whispered around me, I knew it had to do with one of two things: Either it was about my missing dad and my dead mom, or it was about how I was a total drain clogger.
But now I know it has nothing to do with the first thing. Because here my dad is a hero, and my brother is too. It could be that everyone watching thinks I’m lame, but somehow I don’t think that’s it either.
Because they’re all staring at Po.
In the months we’ve been in Bot Territory, he’s changed a lot, but for the better. Back in Brack, he worked long hours, and never ate right, so he was skinny, like me. He never did much with his hair because we couldn’t afford to go to a place to get it cut, so Po just let it grow out, and then buzzed it off with a clipper at the beginning of every spring.
Our clothes were secondhand, bought from whatever thrift store we stumbled into.
But now . . . now my brother is wrenched.
Not only does everyone in Bot Territory look at him like a megastar, because of his freedom speech after the attack on Edge Flats, but they also admire him because he’s the son of the leader of the Meta-Rise, which makes him kinda like a prince. Next in line for the throne and all of that stuff.
He’s gotten a ton of new clothes lately. Stores just send him stuff for free, because they know if Po is spotted wearing their brands, everyone else will buy those clothes too, to look like him.
Today he’s wearing River jeans. They’re adjustable, so he can wear them either fitted or baggy with the press of a button. Now they’re just slightly baggy, and tucked into untied black combat boots. His T-shirt has embedded neon threads in the collar, and with the sun setting, the threads are just starting to glow neon green, illuminating his face.
His hair has been cut recently, but it’s sticking out every which way, like he just rolled out of bed and didn’t bother fixing it. I know that’s not true, because he took up the bathroom for an hour messing with his hair and whatever greasy paste he was putting in it. It smelled like roses and fresh-cut grass. Basically like an old lady mowing the lawn.
So, even though I just fell flat on my butt in the middle of town, it isn’t me people are paying attention to, it’s my brother.
“I’m okay,” I repeat, even though my butt feels like it’s on fire.
“You sure?” Po asks. He nods at the park across the street. “I was sitting over there when I saw you stop for the streetlight. You looked like you were gearing out.” He narrows his eyes, like he’s examining me. “What happened?”
“Nothing. I’m just clumsy. You know that.” Which is true. Even though I hate admitting to it, it’s the best excuse I got. I’m not going to tell Po that for a second I thought I saw Ratch, that I was afraid he was here to hurt Dad.
Po shoves his hands in his pants pockets, which makes his new arm muscles look bigger. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a bunch of girls whispering and giggling and pointing at Po.
My brother’s new fame makes me want to gag.
Especially when girls do this kind of thing, and act like he’s a rock star, like the pop singer Tanner Waylon.
I suddenly don’t feel like talking to Po, or to anyone, no matter how much I want to know about Ratch and his threat.
“I said I was fine,” I say again, and turn around and bolt for home.
ON MONDAY, I drag myself out of bed just in time to eat a quick breakfast before school. I didn’t come out of my room much the rest of the weekend, mostly because I was embarrassed about what happened in the town center, and maybe a little bit annoyed at Po for being . . . well, Po.
And, even more annoying than Po being Po was the fact that Dad went about his business for the rest of the weekend like nothing at all had changed. Like one of the most cracked robots hadn’t threatened his life.
I plop down across from Marsi at the table, trying to ignore my brother’s jokes about me being a vampire, and the sunlight burning my flesh. Marsi hands me a packet of brown sugar and I tear it open, dumping the whole thing on top of my oatmeal. Next, she slides the pitcher of milk my way and I add a splash before stirring it all together.
Po groans. “You’re babying him, you know.”
“I am not,” Marsi argues.
“Yeah, she is not,” I say, but secretly I know she is. I don’t like it when Po or my dad treats me like a kid, but when Marsi does it . . . well, it’s like the mother I never had. My mom died when I was only two years old. I don’t even remember her. Sometimes I have to stare at a picture of her for a few minutes just to remember what she looked like.
Po shakes his head and turns away from us, grabbing the nearest SimPad. He prompts it, and taps in a quick command, bringing up the local feed. It plays a mixture of news reports and pop culture shows.
When the holo projector starts up, it displays a 3-D image of the baseball game that went on last night in Ripley Park. It’s a robot and human league, with most teams made up of equal parts of both. The feed replays the winning hit madeby a girl a few years older than Po. The bat slams into the ball and the ball goes sailing across the field, disappearing out of sight. The crowd cheers.
Po sips from his cup of coffee as the feed switches to a new story. I look away, shoveling in the rest of my oatmeal, when Po spits lukewarm coffee all over the place and bursts out laughing.
“Hey!” I shout. “Why did you do that?”
He can’t stop laughing enough to talk. Marsi sighs and gestures to the SimPad.
I look over. There I am, in tiny 3-D holo form, slamming into a bench and falling to the sidewalk on my butt. The feed replays the footage again in slow-mo, which makes my face look like it’s made out of cheese curds.
Someone recorded me falling Saturday night in the town center. And now they’re playing it on the news.
I groan. “Great.”
The footage zooms out and narrows in on Po running across the street to rescue me. The girl who hosts the show says, “Ladies, just watch. Watch and weep.”
The footage slows down again. Po’s hair blows in the wind. His face is illuminated with the neon implants in his shirt. His arms are pumping by his sides. Whoever edited the footage added a dozen red hearts above Po’s head and they trail after him like a cloud of butterflies.
“Where has this boy been my whole life?” the host says. “Po St. Kroix, if you’re listening, call me!” The footage cuts out and the live cameras flick to the host. In 3-D holo form, it’s like she’s smiling right at Po from the center of our dining room table.
“Ugh,” I say, and prompt the SimPad to hibernate. “I don’t know why they think you’re so special.”
Po grins. “When you got it, you got it.”
Marsi chuckles and points at the front of his shirt. “If only they could see you now.”
Po looks down. There is a dribbled coffee stain down the front of him. Now I’m the one laughing. Marsi winks at me.
“You two really like ganging up on me, don’t you?” Po says.
“Uh, yeah,” I say.
“Yes,” Marsi says.
Po shoves away from the table and disappears down the hallway, probably to change his shirt. Marsi goes to the kitchen and comes back a second later with a wet rag to help me clean up. Thankfully, Po’s blast of coffee didn’t hit my clothes.
“Thanks,” I say.
She ruffles my hair as she leaves. “You’re welcome, Aidan.”
I grin. Hardly anyone calls me by my real name. It sounds cool when Marsi does it. Like I’m more than just Po’s little brother. More than just a kid.
• • •
I make it into class thirty-three seconds before the bell rings and drop into my seat next to Vee. Today, her hair is tied back in a high ponytail. The sides of her head have recently been shaved, giving her a really long Mohawk. In the sunny classroom, her hair is bright pink with strands of copper. When she waves at me, the square wire bracelets on her wrists clack together.
“Cutting it close,” she says.
Our teacher, Kenpo, walks in and calls hello. He’s a robot with a head shaped like a fish, with big, protruding eyes. His lips too are big, his nose small in comparison. Vee calls him my robot soul brother, because I’m nicknamed after a fish, and because our teacher looks like one.
Soul brother or not, I like Kenpo. Vee says he’s new to the school this year, but he seems like he’s been teaching forever, like he knows how to make lessons fun. He has a laid-back teaching style, unlike my instructors back in 5th District, who liked to talk for the entire hour of class and then assign a space ton of homework.
When Dad first told me I had to sign up for school in Line Zero, I was mega annoyed. I guess a part of me had thought (or hoped) that school didn’t exist in Bot Territory, and if it did, it was optional. I guess some things never change.