Read an Excerpt
1. The pickup truck lurched sideways as Uncle Otto jerked the wheel, throwing George against the door. “Out of the way, you metal moron!” Otto yelled, as they narrowly missed a mail-bot on the sidewalk. “Look out!” George shouted. A robot-driven bus was heading straight toward them, its electronic horn blaring. Otto braked hard with a screech of rubber, then swerved the truck back into its lane. “That was close!” George said from the passenger seat, his heart pounding. “Lucky for us I have good reflexes,” Otto said. He was wearing his usual dingy work shirt and jeans, which were dotted with engine-oil stains. “With all these robot drivers nowadays, sometimes I feel like I’m the only one on the road with a real brain in my head.” “Yes, an archaic one,” muttered George’s personal robot, Jackbot, from the backseat. “Obsolete, outdated, old-school.” George snorted a laugh. “What was that, tin man?” growled Otto. “Nothing,” George said quickly. If Otto and Jackbot started going at it, they’d never get where they were going. “But have you ever considered that maybe it’s time we got a smartcar too? Everyone else has one.” Otto gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. “You think I’d let a bunch of wires and batteries drive me around?” he said. “Ha! Not in a million years. Trust me, George. Robots aren’t the answer to every problem. I remember the days before all these tech geeks showed up—back when Terabyte Heights was just a little town called Termite Heights. Everything was so peaceful then . . .” As Otto droned on about the joys of pre-robot life, George stared out the window and watched the town flash by. Goosebumps rose along his arms as he realized they were nearly at TinkerTech Headquarters. It was the first day of George’s apprenticeship, and he still couldn’t quite believe it was happening. All his life he’d dreamed of working in the cutting-edge robotics workshop there, and today his dream was coming true. He’d be partnering with the greatest technological minds in the country, helping design robots that could think for themselves—just like he had with Jackbot. Plus, he’d be away from school for a while, which meant no more run-ins with his enemy Patricia Volt and her league of supersnobs. She’d never quite forgiven him for driving the garbage truck that demolished her house, and George was convinced that she was still plotting revenge. “. . . Used to be you could take out your own trash without some recycling robot giving you a lecture,” Otto was saying. “You could roast marshmallows on an open fire without one of those panicky metal fire marshals coming along with a fire extinguisher . . .” A traffic-bot strode into the road ahead, holding out its metal hand. Its eyes flashed from green to yellow. But instead of slowing down, Otto pressed his foot on the gas and the truck sped forward. “Um,” said George, clutching his seat belt. “I’m getting you to TinkerTech on time if it kills me!” Otto said. “It might kill all of us!” Jackbot cried. The traffic-bot leaped out of the way as they surged by, shouting “VIOLATION!” and spewing pink tickets from its mouth. “Oh, relax, George,” Otto said. “I haven’t had one accident in thirty years.” “Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Jackbot said. Thankfully, Otto did stop at the next light, but only because there was a traffic jam ahead and he didn’t have much of a choice. George checked his watch. Despite scolding Otto for his dangerous driving, he really didn’t want to be late. They were stopped next to a 3D hologram ad of a young woman in a business suit, with huge shiny eyes and a small white bud tucked into her ear. She beamed, displaying dazzling teeth, and said, “I’m connected. Are you?” Next to her, a slogan hung in the air: “IT’S MODEST. IT’S MODERN. IT’S MOD™, TINKERTECH’S NEWEST INNOVATION. GET CONNECTED TODAY!” “Wow,” said George, staring dreamily at the ad. He’d been hearing about the MOD for months—maybe he’d get to try one out before it went on sale! Otto shook his head dismissively. “Some new gizmo, huh?” The traffic started rolling again. “Not just any new gizmo,” said George. “It’s probably the coolest thing since the microchip. MOD stands for Multifunctional Ocular Device—it’s a wireless eye and earpiece combo that allows the wearer to access data just by thinking of it. It’s like your whole body becomes one big computer, with your eyes as the screen and your brain—” “My brain wouldn’t touch that thing with a ten-foot pole!” said Otto. “It would probably fry me like an egg. If you want a burnt-up brain, my boy, that’s your choice—but you can leave me out of it.” Whatever his uncle’s opinion on the topic, there was no way George was going to get left behind. He’d been saving from his weekend work at Otto’s junkyard, and would be lining up with everyone else to buy his MOD in a few days. How could he resist? The MOD was revolutionary. The user wore what appeared to be a special pair of contact lenses but was actually a tiny screen implanted with nanotech circuitry. With just the power of thought, information could either be displayed visually or relayed through the earpiece. It was the gadget to end all gadgets. And fried-egg brain or not, George was getting one. A buzz came from George’s pocket. He pulled out his battered old smartphone that Otto had finally gotten for him and saw a picture of Anne on the screen, with her white-blond hair and blue eyes. She was smiling and giving him a thumbs-up. “Knock ’em dead at TinkerTech, George!” the text underneath said. George smiled. Not only was it great to have a friend who wasn’t composed of screws and bolts, but being pals with the daughter of Professor Droid, the president of TinkerTech, had its perks too. “Thanks,” George texted back. “I will!” Finally, Otto pulled up to the soaring glass and steel offices of TinkerTech HQ—and not a moment too soon. The truck belched a cloud of black smoke, which drew hostile glances from the workers who were heading into the building. “Mark my words, George,” said Otto. “The machines are taking over.” George sighed and unbuckled his seat belt. “Oh, don’t be so paranoid,” he said. “You think I’m wrong?” said Otto. “You’ve got a short memory, then.” He gave George a meaningful look. George’s smile faltered. Not so long ago, the machines nearly had taken over. The last deputy head of Robotics at TinkerTech, Dr. Charles Micron, had turned out to be a criminal mastermind, and nearly conquered Terabyte Heights with his army of bloodthirsty robots. Luckily George, with help from Jackbot and Anne, had managed to foil his evil plans. Micron had escaped, however, and hadn’t been seen in Terabyte Heights since. “Get in there and show those bots who’s boss,” Otto said, slapping George on the back. “Thanks for the ride,” said George, as he and Jackbot climbed out of the truck. “And George!” Otto called through the open window. “Be careful, okay?” “Sure,” said George. He waved at his uncle as the beat-up truck pulled back into traffic, causing the blast of several horns. Otto might be a bit of a grouch, but George knew deep down that his uncle cared for him. After all, he’d looked after George since the day his parents had died eight years ago. They’d been driving a smartcar that day. It had malfunctioned and careened over the edge of a cliff. Come to think of it, that was a pretty good reason to hate them. “Earth to George—come in, George,” said Jackbot, waving his pincer in front of George’s face. George blinked. “Oh—sorry,” he said. “I was just thinking about my parents.” He stared up at the gleaming tower. They’d once worked here too. Until recently George had thought they were just lowly file clerks, but now he wasn’t so sure. He reached into his pocket for his lucky marble, a gift from his father just before the accident. George remembered that moment well—“Keep this safe, Georgie Porgie,” his dad had said. “Keep it safe for your good old dad.” When George had first entered TinkerTech a few weeks ago, he’d thought that was all it was—a little souvenir of the parents he had lost. But now he knew differently. Inside TinkerTech the marble had glowed blue, and displayed a message within its swirling surface: “Project Mercury.” George knew this was somehow connected with his parents, and he’d vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery. The problem was that the one person he thought could help him was not only his worst enemy, but also halfway across the world by now. Dr. Micron. Jackbot rested his claw on George’s shoulder. “Ready, amigo?” George nodded and ran up the steps to the front doors, which were guarded by a very large robot dressed in a black military-style uniform. The robot had big square feet and a big square body and a big square head. They’d obviously improved security since all the trouble with Micron. “Good morning,” boomed the squares. “Identify yourselves, please.” “Hi. I’m George Gearing. I’m here to start the apprenticeship?” “And I’m Jackbot. I’m here to keep him out of trouble.” The security-bot took a gleaming silver gun from its belt and pointed it straight at George’s face. “Hey!” said George, flinching. “What are you—?” The robot waved the gun past George’s eyes, but it only beeped. It wasn’t a gun at all, he realized. “Your iris pattern indicates that you are George Gearing,” the robot stated, reholstering the device. “You may enter.” “Thanks,” said George. He started to walk in with Jackbot, but the security-bot raised the scanner again, this time at Jackbot’s head. George’s personal bot rocked back on his heels. “In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have irises,” he said. “The scanner is now configured as a gun,” said the security-bot. “Do not attempt to enter the premises or you will be annihilated.” “Charming,” said Jackbot. “No, wait,” said George. “Jackbot is my personal bot. He’s coming with me.” “Negative,” said the security-bot. “Only authorized personnel may enter.” “But this place is full of robots!” said George. “You’re a robot yourself!” “I am an authorized robot,” the security-bot said, and George was sure he detected a note of smugness in its voice. He couldn’t believe it. TinkerTech would be a giant pile of rubble if it hadn’t been for Jackbot! George couldn’t have defeated Micron without his help. George was about to argue with the security-bot, but Jackbot stopped him. “Go without me,” he said. “You don’t want to be late.” “But—” “Go on,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll go read a book in the park or something.” George smiled sadly. Jackbot had already read thousands of books online. His processor was so powerful, it had only taken him about a day and a half. George thought his overuse of movie quotes was bad—but the random performances of Shakespearean monologues were worse. “Look, I’ll talk to Professor Droid,” George said. “Get this sorted out. Stay close.” He left his friend and hurried through the front doors into the atrium. When he cast a look back, Jackbot was standing with his head hung low. George took a deep breath and tried to focus on the moment. He was finally here. TinkerTech! And this time, he wasn’t being arrested or chased by homicidal robots! He took in the gleaming glass and steel walls, the scientists in their crisp, white lab coats, and the sounds of bleeping, clicking robots—and sighed with happiness. He was so busy enjoying his surroundings that he wasn’t looking where he was going, and walked right into someone. “Oof!” he said, and landed on his backside. A pocket tablet landed next to him with a crash. “Omigosh,” George gasped. “I’m so sorry!” “Young man, watch where you’re—Oh, George, it’s you.” George looked up to see a tall, silver-haired man standing before him. It was Professor Droid—Anne’s father and the founder of TinkerTech. He was the reason George had the apprenticeship in the first place. George and his friends had saved his life after Dr. Micron kidnapped him—and Droid was so grateful that he had rewarded George with the apprenticeship. Droid didn’t look so grateful now, though. His expression was stern, and the crowd of scientists behind him all stopped and stared at George like he was some kind of contagious computer virus. George felt a blush rise to his cheeks. He picked up the smart tablet, noting with horror the spider web of cracks across its screen. “I—I think it might be broken.” Professor Droid looked at George as if not really seeing him. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, taking the tablet back from him. George realized this wasn’t the best time to bring up Jackbot’s security clearance, but he might not get another chance. “Professor, if you could spare . . .” “Sir,” interrupted a white-coated man. “As I was saying about the bug. It’s almost impossible to identify—” Droid held up a hand to silence the scientist. “Enough excuses!” he said. “The MOD launch is in three! Days’! Time!” His voice was rising in volume, and he punctuated each word with a stab of his finger. “If it doesn’t happen, our share price will continue to plummet and the reputation of TinkerTech may never recover. You know how nervous the investors have been since that whole Micron disaster! We need this project to be an unqualified success. Do you understand me? So do your jobs, find the bugs, and squish them.” The scientists were trembling as Professor Droid finished his speech. George had never seen him angry before, and he realized for the first time how stressful it must be to run a business like TinkerTech. It wasn’t all simply playing with circuits and developing cutting-edge technology. The professor strode away without a backward glance, his gaggle of helpers trailing behind him. George wandered toward the reception desk. Usually, the atrium of TinkerTech would be buzzing with robotic birds, but now there were lots of construction workers on scaffolding, still repairing the damage that Micron and his evil robot, the Caretaker, had caused. The robotic receptionist watched with a cold smile as George approached. He shuddered. The last time George had seen her, she had been under Micron’s control, and had tried to kill him with a stiletto heel. Thankfully, this time she seemed to be working perfectly on her own. “Welcome to TinkerTech, Mr. Gearing,” she said smoothly. George stood a little straighter. He wasn’t used to being addressed in such a grown-up way. “If you take that elevator to the fifteenth floor”—she pointed with an elegant robot finger across the atrium—“your mentor will greet you.” “Thank you very much,” George said. As he waited for the elevator to arrive, George wondered who his mentor would be. He had hoped to work directly for Professor Droid, but that obviously wasn’t going to be the case. He tried not to let disappointment get the better of him. There were plenty of other robotics whizzes at TinkerTech, and he was sure to learn something from whoever was training him. The elevator doors opened. It was empty. “Hello, George!” said a bubbly voice. “Come on in!” George did so, with another tickle of unease. Even the elevators had tried to murder him the last time he was here. “Fifteenth floor, please,” he said. “Well, sure thing, old buddy!” the elevator replied. The doors closed and it began to rise. “Lovely weather we’re having,” the elevator said after a moment. “You think so?” said George, surprised. “It’s kind of overcast today.” He watched the floors change. Four . . . Five . . . Six . . . “Oh, I like clouds, don’t you? They look like puffy little lambs in the sky!” “They’re all right, I guess,” George said, thinking that whoever had programmed this elevator had gone a little overboard with the personality chip. George almost would have preferred the psychotic one. “Oh, pooh!” the elevator said. “Another gloomy apprentice! She didn’t appreciate the pretty clouds either.” George blinked. “Hold on. What other apprentice?” He’d assumed he was the only one. “Well, we’re here, Mr. Party Pooper,” said the elevator, ignoring his question. “Ping!” The doors slid open and George’s heart sank to his knees. Because there, dressed in an electric blue business suit and tapping at a smartphone, was Patricia Volt.