Servo By K. Rowe

I hate funerals. Two in two years was too much. Our beautiful, perfect family of five had been reduced to three children. What was worse: our fate was to be decided by the New Philadelphia family planning representative. How could our lives get so shattered?

We hadn’t been allowed to read our parents’ will. Frankly, the three of us never thought we’d have to. Our mother, Ellen, was the picture of health. She was a GEE: Genetically Engineered Entity — supposedly the perfect human. Well, they were wrong on that one. Sure she was smart, beautiful, and to us, perfect, but she had a flaw, a big one that no one anticipated. This flaw, hidden in her perfect DNA, slowly caused her agonizing demise and premature departure from this fair earth.

And now we were standing in the cold April rain while my father was laid to rest. He worked for a tech company called Servidyne that built service robots for household use, or as we called them, bots. His death had been ruled an accident, but for some reason, that didn’t ring true to me. Thomas Blackburn, our father, was a careful man. The authorities investigating his death said he died from an injection of nano-probes. Deep in the back of my mind, I knew something was fishy.

The solemn funeral service concluded and we were ushered away from the grave as his casket was lowered for eternity. I would never again see my father living and breathing. I would never be able to engage him in lengthy discussions of his work projects. He was gone forever. That bothered me terribly.

Grief welled up inside like a raging river forcing at a dam. But I couldn’t show it. As the eldest son, yet middle child, I had to remain the rock in our family. My older sister, Suzette, who would be turning seventeen in a few months, cared more about her vanity and friends than she did much else. Although I saw her weeping a few tears as kind words were said about our father.

My little brother, Rory, was barely ten. He was smart, but immature for his age and routinely got picked on by other kids. His grades were perfect, and no less would be expected for the three of us because we were GEE kids. Our parents had tried the “old-fashioned” way to have children and it didn’t work, so they turned to science. I had no problem with my level of intelligence, it was definitely a plus. Most of my teachers deemed me years ahead of my tender age of thirteen; something I tried not to let go to my head, ha ha!

The world we lived in was a privileged one. Father’s work paid well and we had a beautiful apartment that overlooked the Delaware River. Three service bots kept the family fed, cleaned, and everything running on schedule. That was one definite perk of father working at Servidyne. You might think all that help made our family lazy. Perhaps physically, some, but mentally, it freed us up to pursue higher thinking.

My dream was to create even better bots for people. I knew that made my father proud. But all that was in jeopardy. Our lives now rested with the family planning division of the New Philadelphia government. Admittedly I was scared.

“Come, children,” Mrs. Lowe said, trying to hurry us to the car and out of the rain. We followed her like mindless bots. It was hard to tell what was going through Suz and Rory’s minds; their faces were blank. I felt as gray as the sky above us. The raindrops falling on my face were the tears I would eventually shed. All around us were buildings: glass and steel, modern, clean, and towering. I felt like a microscopic amoeba in my surroundings, a drop of rain in a massive puddle. I was no one.

We sat in the car while she drove us to her place of employment. It was in a tall blue-tinted glass building near the city center. She parked in the underground garage and herded us up to her office on the twentieth floor. Suz and Rory took the two available seats. I choose to stand by the window and look out. There were tears fighting to get out of me, but I continued to hold them back. Maybe tonight I’d have a cry when the others were asleep.

Mrs. Lowe settled behind her desk. She was a young woman who hardly looked old enough to be making decisions about the lives of other people. Her hair was long and blonde; it reminded me of my mother’s.

“Children,” she said in a firm tone, “after reviewing your parents’ will, we have located your closest living relatives.”

“Who?” Rory asked.

She shuffled a few papers. “A Mr. and Mrs. Abe Cranwinkle in Broken Bow, Nebraska.”

I turned from my spot at the window. “Where?”


“What country is that in?” Suz piped up.

“America,” she replied. “Although I had to look it up.”

“Where in America?” I pressed.

“The Outer States.”

“What?!” Suz’s mouth fell open.

“We can’t go there,” I countered. “We’re in good schools and have everything we need here.”

“I’m sorry, children. But these are your grandparents. You’re not old enough to be on your own. You must be placed with a responsible adult.”

I watched Suz’s brow furrow. “Why can’t we stay with our neighbor, Mr. Glomly?”

“Is he family?”


“Then, no. Provisions have been made to place your parents’ assets in trust for you children. A monthly allowance will be paid to the Cranwinkles for your maintenance.”

“You make us sound like bots!” Rory barked.

“Isn’t there any way we can stay where we are?” I said, trying to remain strong and level-headed.

“Afraid not. I have my assistant working on your travel arrangements. If all goes accordingly, you will be leaving for Nebraska in a few days. I suggest you pack what you feel is important.”

“What about our apartment? And the bots?” Suz cried. I could tell she was visibly shaken by this whole turn of events.

“Possessions will be placed at auction and the proceeds added to the trust.”

“But once we leave, how can we ever come back?” I asked. What little history they taught us of the Great Separation was barely enough to scratch the surface. All I knew was once you leave, you never come back. I did not want to live in the American wastelands, I wanted to live and work where I knew what to expect. Out there sounded really scary.

We were sent home via bot taxi. Mrs. Lowe called for one and programmed our address into its computer while still in the comfort of her office. I didn’t figure she was the kind to be out in the weather very long. She didn’t look happy at the funeral.

On the way home, I’d had thoughts about reprogramming the taxi to take us somewhere else. The problem was, I didn’t know where else to go. Home was our sanctuary and refuge, no other place brought us that solace.

“Good evening, children,” one of our service bots said as we trudged into the house.

I paid it no mind; instead, I headed for my room. The clothes I wore now reminded me of my father’s death, and I wanted to be far from them. Once changed, I brought the clothes to a bot. “Incinerate these.”

“But Master Jonah, these clothes are not damaged,” the bot replied. “Shall I clean them for you?”

“No, I want them gone, out of my sight!” I could feel the cracks forming in my mental fortitude. Another few minutes and I might snap. “Just get rid of them.”

“Yes, Sir,” the bot mindlessly replied. I watched it turn and head to the garbage disposal chute. It opened the door and piled the clothes in, then closed the door and returned to its station near the kitchen.

My father had only been dead a few days, buried a few hours, and I missed him like it had been years. I was at a complete loss for what to do. I only knew I needed to do something to keep his memory alive. I headed back to my room, but on the way, paused at the doorway of his home office. Everything was there: desk, computer, digital files, papers, and his old trusty chair.

I crept in. The lights were off, but I knew my way around quite well. I’d spent hundreds of hours in this very office discussing things with my father. He would tell me the advancements they were making on the bots, show me schematics, and one time, took my suggestion and incorporated it into the software. Imagine how proud I felt about that.

Going around the desk, I pulled out the chair and sat down. It was so strange. This was his chair. I usually got one of the spares and sat next to him so I could watch what he was doing. My hand stretched forward and turned on the computer. Technically, I had no right to do that; it was Servidyne property for the most part. But something egged me on. My gut told me his death wasn’t an accident. Did I expect to find the motive buried somewhere in his files? Was there something he was working on that warranted his death? I might never know, but my mind wanted to hear him again.

The screen flashed bright blue and then the desktop icons started showing up. My father kept an audio log of his work. Copies were kept at Servidyne and here at home. I knew the police had confiscated the work files, but did they realize he had a second set? The cursor moved over the icon, it flashed, waiting for me to click on it.

My finger tapped the inteli-pad and I watched the log open. A blank white screen appeared followed by a chronological listing of his log entries for the last six months. I glanced over my shoulder and saw several plastic cases containing data sticks from other years. Somehow I knew they would find their way into my suitcase. I wasn’t going to leave the last shreds of my father around for the cleaners to discard. His words were precious to me, and I was going to preserve them.

I moved the cursor down to the last entry and clicked on it. The screen blinked and then a black box showed with a white arrow on it. I tapped the pad and closed my eyes as the voice of my father filled the room. His voice was deep, commanding, yet ever so loving toward his children. The entry began:

“Log entry for March 29, 2055…Today I suffered a setback. The graphene base for the neuro circuit board failed for some reason and caused the whole thing to catch fire. Good thing I had a fire suppression canister right by. Although I don’t think Mr. Pierce was too happy when I informed him of the failure. I probably set the company back six to eight weeks…And then there is the other problem: the main gyro-servo…I’ve completely redesigned the mechanism to perform on a much lower voltage. But the problem I’ve encountered is that even with the correct voltage, it’s not working when installed into a bot body for testing. It was designed to allow longer time in between charges for the bots, thus creating less downtime. And being lighter, more energy efficient, and an overall better servo, it should have worked like a charm. Instead, all it does is sit there. Maybe I’ll have to build a bot with the old servo and submit that. It may take me a lot longer to perfect the new servo, and I can’t hold up production much longer than I already have…Signing off.”

The audio ended, leaving a low static hissing that enveloped the room. An eerie silence made my heart pound. I’d heard his voice, that comforting voice, and it made me want to cry. My father was a proud man, and to hear the disappointment and frustration in his words pained me. He was a brilliant man, how could a dumb little servo cause him such grief? I’d built them by the dozens at school in electronics class. My instructor was impressed with my skill. How I wish Father was alive now. We could work through the problem and then he’d get recognized at work for his achievements. Instead, he’d be remembered for his past achievements.

I opened the desk drawer and rummaged around. A small box of data sticks was hidden under papers. I took one and inserted it into the computer port. Then I downloaded all the recent files. Father’s ghost was going with me. No one but me would know that I had all the data sticks.

Turning off the computer, I got up and carefully removed three boxes from the shelf. They weren’t big, probably four inches square, but they were all I had of my father. I would guard them with my life. Perhaps over the next few years I can learn from them. Maybe when I’m older I’ll be able to return to the Inner States and get a good job. I fear there is nothing for me in the nowhere land. How could our parents have done this to us?


I gazed out the window of the plane. It was a small one. We’d had to change planes in Chicago in order to get out of the Inner States. Our flight from New Philadelphia had been pleasant. The food was good, and the stewardesses nice. Now we were crammed into this flying tin can that pitched and bucked with every little thermal. I watched the skies change from deepest blue to something of a washed-out sepia. I figured it was what they called pollution. Having never seen it, only heard about it in school, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The land below seemed dusty. I saw circles and squares of green interspersed with large amounts of brown as the plane descended toward our destination. Everything looked flat. Not a hill, not a valley, nothing.

Our family plan representative assured us that everything was taken care of. She’d contacted our only surviving relatives, Abe and Eliza Cranwinkle. They were my mother’s parents. We’d heard about them, but never met them. I often wondered why they didn’t live in the Inner States. My mother never said she came from a poor background. In fact, she never said much about her early life. Was she that ashamed?

We were headed to somewhere called Broken Bow, Nebraska. I’d tried to access information about it on my tablet, but we lost signal after we left Chicago. I suppose I should have done it earlier. According to what I found, we were going to the geographical center of the state. After the Great Separation, the Inner States reorganized and some of them were combined or renamed. The Outer States, for the most part, retained their original identities. Well, except for that place that was once known as California; it had mostly fallen into the ocean after a massive earthquake and was basically uninhabitable. Only the utter scum of the earth lived there in clan-type societies where the strongest survived. The images and accompanying text on our tablets told a chilling story. I’m glad we’re not going there.

The plane touched down and rolled to a stop. I peered out the window and didn’t see much. To my right was the “terminal” with a few hangars and tarmac. To my left was a field that held long stripes of dirt pushed into neat rows. Little green leaves came from the ground. I didn’t know what it was. I assumed it was some sort of food crop. In the Inner States, all our food is brought to us processed. We were told what each food item was supposed to be. Sometimes they all looked and tasted alike.

As the plane taxied to the end and turned around, I saw a property with a few shiny metal buildings. Some were long and rectangular; a couple were round with pointed roofs. I wondered as to their function. The whole landscape stretched on for miles. I glanced over at Suz and Rory, both somehow still asleep. Perhaps all the crying exhausted them. It had been a rough two weeks. I knew I’d have my time to cry, but it seemed I wasn’t ready yet. Someone in the family needed to be mature and stoic. Somehow that responsibility fell on me.

Minutes later, the tiny plane was pulling up to the terminal. The door opened and people started to get up. There were only fifteen of us on the plane, so it didn’t take long. I nudged Rory and Suz. “Hey, wake up, we’re here.”

Rory opened his eyes, yawned and stretched.

Suz rubbed her eyes. “We’re here?” she asked.



I think she was expecting me to give her a rosy statement about the fabulous grandeur of the place. “It’s small, really small.”

She squinted and looked out the window. “This?”


“Oh, no, this won’t do!”

I gave her a shove, trying to get her out of the seat. “It will do; we don’t have a choice.”

Rory got up and collected his things. “Maybe Grandpa Abe has a horse.”

“A horse?” I said. “What do you know about horses? You’ve never even seen one in real life.”

“But I want to.”

“I hear they smell,” Suz said, roughly snatching her bag from under the seat and elbowing her way down the aisle.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno, Rory. We’ll see.”

We walked off the plane and into the brilliant sun. I could feel the dust hanging in the air. And there was a heat to the gentle breeze that I found unwelcoming. So far my observations of the place hadn’t revealed anything exciting. In fact, it was just the opposite.

A man dressed in a blue uniform held the door open as we entered the terminal. Our baggage would be unloaded and brought inside shortly. We felt a cold rush of air. This building had air conditioning! I breathed deeply, feeling the coolness chilling my lungs. It felt wonderful.

There were few people in the terminal. I scanned the area hoping to find someone who resembled a grandfather or grandmother. Having never met them, it was a strange and unnerving feeling. I wasn’t even sure how old they were. I only assumed that they were old.

“Suzette? Jonah? Rory?” a raspy male voice called.

I turned to my right and saw a tired-looking little old man standing about fifty feet from us. He wore a faded red plaid shirt, brown pants, and held a brown narrow-brimmed hat in his hands. Grandpa looked ancient. Most of his hair was gone, leaving gray wisps trailing from the sides of his head, and brown splotches dotted his pale face and head. Wrinkles covered every inch of exposed skin. He must have been a thousand years old.

“Jonah?” he said again.

“Grandpa Cranwinkle?” I said, still leery of him.

“That’s right, Abe Cranwinkle.”

I think he did that to reassure me we weren’t being kidnapped. Somewhere I’d read that kidnapping was a common practice in the Outer States. This place was bad enough; I didn’t need it getting worse. For now, I was the protector of my older sister and younger brother; neither had their wits about them. I was forced to remain calm and logical until such time that I felt everything was safe and sound.

“Hello, son,” he said, holding a hand out to me. “Let’s get you three home.”

“How old are you?” Suzette blurted. Despite her nonobvious high intelligence, my sister had the tact of a rock.

“I’m eighty-seven years old.”

“Why are you so wrinkled up? Don’t you have laser-primming surgery?”

“An old man like me has no use for that sort of stuff.” He motioned. “Come, you all must be exhausted from your journey.”

We collected our bags from the carousel and he guided us out to a large truck-like vehicle. It was yellow, mostly rusted, and covered in dust.

“I’m not getting into that,” Suz protested.

“It’s that or you’re walking home,” Grandpa said, not flinching from her intentional barb.

“That thing is gross!”

“Get in,” he said firmly, putting our bags in the back of the open bed.

“I want to go home, back to New Philadelphia.”

“I’m sorry, this is your home now.” He opened a rear door and gestured for her to get in.

Suz stood fast. “No!”

I was tired and in no mood for an argument from my sister. I reached out and smacked her on the back. “Get in!”

She spun around, her hand reared behind her head ready to strike at me. “Jonah!”

“Let’s not fight, Suz, just get in the truck.”

“It’s filthy!”

I stared her down. “Get in,” I said in a low tone. She regarded me with distaste and let out a little rebellious snort as she climbed into the backseat. I’d won the battle, but not the war.

Rory got into the backseat, and I took up position in the front. We set out from the airport, going what I thought was south. After a few minutes, we entered a small town.

“This is Broken Bow,” Grandpa said. “The population used to be about three thousand, but now, with the feedlot closing, it’ll probably drop more.”

“Feedlot?” I asked, unsure of the term.

“It’s where they bring cattle to fatten them up for slaughter.”

“How gross!” Suz cried from the backseat. “How can they kill animals?”

I turned in my seat. “Suz, you know those hamburgers at the Paradise Café that you love so much?”


“Where do you think they come from?”


“Yes, you are eating what once was a living, breathing animal.”

“Oh! I thought they made those burgers from plant material.”

I shook my head. “Nope.” Was my sister just playing blind to the issue? Or was she really that dumb about life in general? I’d make up my mind later about that.

The truck bumped along a dilapidated road. We seemed to be driving forever. Really, it was only a few miles, but Grandpa wasn’t making any attempt at going much more than forty-five. Finally we turned onto a dirt driveway. Dust rose behind as the truck jostled and rattled. I saw a white two-story house. It was big, square, and had loads of windows. The roof was dark gray and a little of the paint was peeling from the siding. I recall having seen something similar in my history texts when we covered the Great Separation. It called the people who worked the land “farmers” and those who raised animals for consumption, “ranchers.” I wondered what Grandpa did. I almost hoped he was a rancher; I’d been curious for some time about the actual processing of animals for food production.

“All right, kids, here’s home,” Grandpa said, pulling up to the house and shutting off the noisy engine.

“I’m not going to live here,” Suz protested. “It’s horrible!”

Grandpa swiveled around partway in his seat so he was looking back at her. “I’m sorry this is not to your standards, but this is where you will be living.”

I glanced back and saw the expression on her face; she was nearing tantrum stage. “Suz, we don’t have a choice. How about just accepting it?”

“No!” she screamed. “I will not!”

Without another word, Grandpa snatched the keys from the ignition and climbed out of the truck. He walked to the house and opened the door.

“Come on, Rory,” I said, getting out and opening the back door for him.

He hopped down, his shiny black shoes landing on the dusty ground, creating a cloud around his ankles. “It’s an old house.”

“Yes, it is. Maybe we can find some hidden passages or something.”

“Oh, that would be neat.”

I knew Rory liked reading mystery books. Perhaps with the age of the house and promise of adventure, it would soften the blow somewhat; I could only hope. As for Suz, I had no idea how to gain her acceptance of the situation. Time might mellow her somewhat.

When we first entered the ancient-looking farmhouse, I immediately saw disdain on Suzette and Rory’s faces. They were neat freaks, terribly so, and I knew this would not suit them. A thick layer of dust lay on just about everything. For the most part, the contents of the house seemed in their place. There was no dirty laundry strewn about, no leftover dishes scattered on tables and floor. The place was just old. My nose picked up the musty odor of age. I’d never smelled it before, but I knew what it was.

Light filtered through dusty windows giving the entire place a sepia tone. Someone might have mistaken it for warmth, but this old house was far from it. Perhaps we would find that warmth. Maybe it would be in Grandpa’s smile, or a hot meal, or maybe even seeing the sun rising each morning. I wasn’t sure. This was home now and I needed to figure out how to make the best of it.

We were met by Grandma Cranwinkle. She looked nearly as ancient as Grandpa. She wore a blue floral-printed dress and a white lacy apron that was tied around her waist. It definitely reminded me of an image I’d seen in the school texts. Her hair was grayish-blue and hung in large curls about her head.

“Hello, children,” she said in a melodious tone.

I’m sure she was trying to exude as much warmth as possible in this austere environment.

“Hello, Grandma,” I said. It was impossible to hide the discomfort in my voice.

“Ah, you must be Jonah.”

I nodded.

“You look so much like your father.”

“I do?”

“Yes, you have so many of his facial features…And those beautiful blue eyes.”

“Oh,” was all I could manage.

“Grandma, where’s your service bots?” asked Rory.

The old woman brought the tips of her fingers together in front of her chest and pressed them into a steeple form. “You must be Rory.”

“Yes.” He looked around. “Where are your bots?”

“Oh, no, we don’t have those here.”

“Well, who does the cleaning? The cooking?” he insisted.

“I do, child.”

I watched Rory’s eyebrows go up.

“You cook?”

“Yes. This is my house. I don’t live in privileged society as you did. I suppose if I really wanted, I could get Abe to build me one. But truly, I’m happy doing the work myself.”

Suzette decided to throw her weight into the conversation. “Who’s going to do our laundry?”

Grandma regarded Suz, ever so slightly cocking her head and working a smile onto her aged lips. “I’ll teach you.”

Imagine the total amusement that rocketed through me as I watched Suz’s jaw drop almost to the floor. My dear sister, the one with an IQ of 195, was now going to have to deal with housework. I wanted so badly to laugh. Of course I knew there were going to be demands made of me. Being the middle child, I always seemed more flexible to change than the others. In a way, I suppose I was ready to have my eyes opened to the world. Maybe this would help me grow up. My only fear was would I ever return to the Inner States? If I was going to follow the dream of picking up my father’s work, I had to go back.

Grandpa Cranwinkle trudged in the door with the last of our bags. I’d packed reasonably, just one large suitcase and my carry-on bag. Rory had two small suitcases, and Suz apparently tried to pack the entire house into the two largest suitcases our family owned. She also had a weighty carry-on. I’m sure the baggage handlers were cursing under their breath when they loaded her things.

“Okay, children, let’s get you moved in,” Grandpa said, taking my bag and heading upstairs.

We followed him. As I ascended the steps and saw the burgundy and cream vertically striped wallpaper, I noticed photos that hung on the stairway. Were these family of mine? Their faces looked unfamiliar, except when we got to the top, I saw one of my mother. She had to have been in her early teens and wore clothing similar to what Grandpa was wearing. Mother was standing on the ground beside a horse. She held its head by two long strap-looking things. Had she ever mentioned being around a horse? I didn’t recall. Was this why Rory was interested in horses? I figured I’d find out eventually.

Grandpa stopped at the first door at the top of the stairs. We stood on a wide landing that somewhat doubled as a hall. There was deep, dark wood paneling on the bottom of the wall and the burgundy and cream wallpaper carried on its motif up here. He opened it and went in. “Rory, Jonah, this is your room.”

“We have to share?” Rory said, disdain in his voice.

“I’m afraid so. At least until we can get another bedroom painted and ready…We weren’t exactly expecting long-term company.”

“We weren’t expecting to be sent away from our home,” Suz replied. “We were quite happy where we were.”

“I’m sure you were…Unfortunately, life changed which cards you were dealt.”

Suz folded her arms across her chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Grandpa reached in and turned on the light. “It means that your life is now changed and you’re stuck with it.”

“What about the cards?” Rory asked.


“Yes, Grandpa, you said cards. What about them?”

“That was figuratively speaking.”


I almost wanted to laugh. Yes, I love my brother dearly, but his naivety about the world was almost too much. Rory seriously needed lessons on how real life played out. Maybe this would enlighten him.

Our room was nothing fancy. There was white wallpaper with blue flowers, the window treatments were lacy white, and the spread on the bed was similar to the wallpaper. The floor was wood. It seemed lacking in the comfort department. A dark wooden dresser and a trunk were the only other fixtures in the room.

I looked around for a closet. “Grandpa?”


“Does this room have a closet?”

“No. I’m afraid you’ll have to put your clothes up in the attic.”

His statement caught me off guard. “What?!” It was bad enough that I was being forced to share a room with my little brother, but to keep our clothes in another part of the house, that was downright odd.

“It might only be for a month or so. Just until we can get another room ready and then find a wardrobe for this room.”


Grandpa brought his arms out away from his sides, stretched them wide, and then moved them above his head as if to describe something large. “A wardrobe is a large cabinet where you keep clothing.”

“What about a closet? Doesn’t this house have them?”

“Very few. This house is over one hundred years old…Actually, getting closer to two hundred.”

“I bet it’s full of bugs!” Suz said. She’d been keeping quiet as Rory and I were introduced to our living quarters.

“This is a farm; there are bugs, snakes, and rodents like mice and rats,” Grandpa replied nonchalantly. “This is not sterile city living.”

“I hate them all!”

“You’ll get used to them.”

I nudged Rory and we went and brought in our bags. Somehow we’d have to share this small room and put aside our sibling rivalry so we didn’t inflict bodily harm on one another. At home we were blessed with separate rooms, which was a good thing since we didn’t always get along.

“I’ll leave you boys to get unpacked. What you can’t fit in the drawers, I’ll help you put in the attic tomorrow. Dinner will be ready shortly.” He went to the door. “Come, Suzette, I’ll show you to your room.”

I heard them go down the hall. A few moments later, a loud protest came from Suzette. Clearly, she didn’t like her living arrangements. I wasn’t too keen on mine, but Grandpa said it was only temporary. Let’s hope so.


That evening, after a rather unusual dinner, we were getting ready for bed. I heard a panicked cry from Suzette. Fearing she’d encountered a venomous bug or ferocious rodent, I ran to her room and banged on the door. “Suz? Are you okay?”

A moment later she opened the door, her tablet in hand.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It won’t work!”


She handed it to me. “It doesn’t work!”

I poked at the screen; all I got was fuzzy static. “Hmm,” I said, turning it over in my hands a few times as if attempting to find the source of the problem. “I dunno.”

“Make it work, Jonah!”

“Sis, I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”

Grandpa Abe must’ve heard our exchange. He came from their room. “What’s going on?”

I held out the tablet. “Suz’s tablet isn’t working.”

He chuckled. “It won’t.”

“Why not, Grandpa?” she asked.

“There’s no internet here.”

I watched Suz’s mouth fall open. “What??!!” she screamed.

“Our lovely little farm is far away from the Inner States. Internet signal doesn’t reach here.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Suzette put her hands over her mouth, crumpled to the floor, and cried like a baby. My dear sister couldn’t live without her precious net.

Rory heard the commotion and came from the room. “What’s wrong?”

“Have you tried to use your tablet?” I asked.

“No, my battery died and I was trying to figure out how to charge it.” He pointed to the wall. “Where’s the wi-tricity antennas?”

Again Grandpa chuckled. “There aren’t any.”

He scratched his head. “Well, then how do you make the lights work?”

“Wires,” Grandpa said. “This house has wires that bring electricity to everything.”

Rory looked at me. “Didn’t they mention something about that in school?”


“Well, how am I going to charge my tablet?”

“Why bother? It won’t work anyway,” Suz grumbled.


“There’s no internet here. This place is the middle of nowhere. We’re marooned!”

“No internet?” Rory echoed. I could see his face going pale.

“That’s what Grandpa just said.”

Rory slouched to the floor. “No wi-tricity, no internet, no tablets. What are we gonna do?!”

It seemed that I was the only cool-headed one in the group. “Grandpa, how do kids here learn?”

He rubbed his hand across his white-whiskered face. “When you get enrolled in school, they’ll issue you a tablet that has all your learning materials on it.”

Suz stood. “So there is internet here.”

“No. The tablets are pre-loaded with everything you need.”

“What good is that? How will I do my homework and reports? How will I communicate with my friends back home?”

“You’ll adjust…And this is home now.”

She scowled. “This is not home! How could Daddy send us here?”

“Suz,” I said calmly, “Daddy didn’t have a choice. He died. Grandma and Grandpa Cranwinkle were the only relatives alive. We aren’t old enough to be on our own.”

“I’ll be seventeen soon; I want to go back to the city.”

“Eighteen,” I added. “You have to be eighteen to be on your own.”

Suz huffed and stomped off to her room, slamming the door. I looked down at Rory, who was still sitting on the floor in shock. “You need to get to bed.”

“I don’t wanna go to sleep. I hate this place.” He got up and went to the room, closing the door loudly.

Grandpa regarded me. “How come you’re not upset about all of this?”

“I guess I am, kind of. But part of me knows that if I don’t accept this, things will be harder on all of us.”

He put his leathery, wrinkled hand on my shoulder. “You’re a good boy, Jonah, and I think you’ll grow up to be a fine man someday.”

I looked into his tired eyes. “Daddy was a good man.”

“Yes, he was.”

“And I don’t think he died accidentally.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just have a feeling.” I paused for a moment, gave a polite nod, and headed back to the room. Without the use of my tablet, how was I going to hear my father’s voice?

With our first disturbing night in the dilapidated house behind us, I decided to explore a bit. The structure was surprisingly big. Everywhere I went, there was another door. Just when I thought I’d run out of doors, another appeared. Stepping up to it, I smelled an incredibly musty, what I would consider, stench. It seemed to be emanating from behind the door. Did I dare open it? Was there a body hidden back there? The house was pretty creepy.

I reached and grasped the smooth round brass knob. It was worn from probably hundreds of years of use. Giving it a gentle turn, the knob made a loud squeaking sound. I froze, afraid of being discovered in a place I wasn’t supposed to be. My ears heard nothing except wind whistling through the screen on the window to my left.

With a little more effort, I finished turning the knob. It clicked. Then I leaned close, put my other hand against the door and pushed. The door scraped open and I thought the whole world would hear. Again I froze. Nothing. Not a single peep from Grandma, who I was sure had to be just down the hall.

The door opened to near darkness. The moldy reek hit me full force, almost making me ill. I’d never smelled anything that bad in my life. Peering in, I could see little. There was a window in the room, but a heavy curtain was drawn across letting in only a sliver of light. My eyes began to adjust. I ventured slowly. The single ray of light was highlighting the dust particles that hung in the room. They looked like little gnats hovering about.

I stopped in the middle of the room and slowly circled. I was surrounded by books! Books that rarely anyone of our influence would have seen. Everything in our sphere of existence was digital. The only real book I’d ever seen was in school. Our English teacher brought in a tattered copy of someone called William Shakespeare. I remember him as some dead Englishman who wrote odd poems. The teacher was even so brave as to pass the book around the class, letting us all touch and smell it.

That was my first and only experience with a printed book. Now I was in a room surrounded by hundreds—maybe thousands of them. I wanted to take in a deep breath to fill my young lungs with all this information. Did I dare? Mother had always taught us that old things could make you sick. I wondered how, given that we were genetically engineered in a lab to be resistant to most illnesses. I’ve never been sick a day in my life.

My eyes fully adjusted to the dim light. I began to wander around, looking at the books on the shelves. They were all so foreign to me. And it was bizarre to have to crane my head to the side so I could read the titles. With our reading tablets, there was none of that. Everything was aligned to our anatomical comfort.

I reached out and touched a couple of them, feeling the rough, grainy covers. They seemed to be bound in some sort of brown material. With a shaky hand, I slid one from the shelf. It felt heavy despite being only a few inches square. It was much heavier than our tablets. As the book came into my hands, I noticed the edges of the pages were colored in a rather pretty mosaic of colors. I’d never seen anything like this.

Carefully, I cradled the book in my left hand and with my right, drew the hard cover back, revealing a title page. A Christmas Carol was written in funny lettering. Below it was evidently the author, one Charles Dickens. Hmm, never heard of the guy, I mused, turning another page. When I saw the date on the book, I realized why. It had been written over two hundred years ago. Things written before the Great Separation were seldom taught in schools.

I closed the book and gently returned it to the shelf. Then I wandered, looking at a few more. One title caught my eye: I Sing the Body Electric. Such an odd name for a book. I had to see what it was about. This book didn’t appear to be as old as the other, so I plucked it from the shelf. It was smaller, and bound in a soft cardboard-like material. The cover was definitely unique. Splashes of purple and black and what appeared to be a gold-colored woman in profile. Stories by Ray Bradbury. Who was this guy?

With a little less care, I opened to the page where the date would be found. It said 1969, first printing. Okay, so what? Then I flipped to the index. This was such a strange feeling. Our tablets had an index readily available, if you wanted to go to a particular place, you just touched the text and zing! you were there. Books and all this paper seemed such a waste. This was the year 2055, things could change for the better.

As my finger drew down the line of the index, I saw the same name as the book title. It was then I surmised this was probably a collection of what was called short stories. Locating the one that shared the book title, I leafed through the pages until I found it. It didn’t take but a moment or two before I was engrossed in the abstract prose of the author. No book I’d ever read was like this. He minced words, split sentences, and had me by the tip of my brain.

“You like science fiction?” Grandpa said, scaring the life out of me.

I stood dead still, afraid of the punishment that would come from breaching the inner sanctum.

“That’s Ray Bradbury.”

“Uh, yes, I saw that.”

Grandpa approached. “He was one of the greatest sci-fi writers of the twentieth century.”

“Oh,” was all I could squeak.

“Take it, read it, if you want. Just put it back when you’re done.”

“Really? You’re not mad that I’m in here?”

He waved his hand as if to dismiss me. “No, no, these books have been here for years without someone to read them.”

“Have you read them all?” I asked.

“Yes. Some I liked, some I didn’t.”

“Where did you get them?”

“Well,” he said, settling into a brown heavily padded chair. “Because I’ve been around since before the Great Separation, I knew where all the libraries were.”


“Where they kept books—so folks could check them out and read them.”

“Oh,” I said again, taking a seat across from him. I was quickly realizing that Grandpa was a fascinating old man, and I longed to know him better through his stories. “There were no tablets?”

He chuckled. “Not until early in the twenty-first century. Books were all our ancestors had.”

“How primitive.”

“And after things went bad, I rounded up as many books as I could and built this library.”

For some reason, I felt restless, so I got up and wandered around again. “All these books?”

“Yes, I had a couple of truckloads that I salvaged before many burned.”


“Millions of books were lost when the cities burned. I saved what I could…These are some of the last known specimens in America.”

“I read that the war was terrible.”

Grandpa leaned forward. “It divided this country. That why it’s no longer called the United States of America. Now it’s just plain ol’ America.”

“Did you fight in the war?”

“No, but I had a hand in the killing of hundreds of thousands.”


He folded his arms and rested them on his stomach. “I worked for the same company as your father.”

“You worked for Servidyne?”

“How do you think your father and mother met?” He gave a purposeful wink. “Your mother was my daughter.”

I vaguely remembered my father saying something about how they met. But there was a bigger, deeper question burning inside me. “Grandpa? Did you build battle bots?”

“I was one of the chief designers.”

There was fear, wonder, and awe enveloping me. My grandfather had been one of the primary instruments in the death of this country. With his battle bots, he turned the tide of the war and created the dual caste system of today. The rich lived in walled cities of splendor, while the working class and poor toiled to feed them. All my life I had known nothing of what existed outside the walls.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Why were Grandma and Grandpa living here? “Grandpa?”


“If you were a designer, then you were rich. Why did you come out here?”

“After the war I realized there was nothing for me in the city. I wanted to breathe the air as it flows across the land, not cleaned and filtered.”

“So you moved to Nebraska?” I was stunned.

“Yes. The land was cheap, and I have always dreamed of having a farm.”

It was at that moment I fully believed my grandfather had lost his mind. No one leaves paradise for the filth and stink of the Outer States. My mind was blown.


Two days later, Grandpa loaded us up in the truck. He drove to Broken Bow and the local school. As he pulled into the parking lot, we got our first look at Outer States children. They didn’t look so dissimilar from us. Their choice of clothing, however, was quite different. The girls wore dresses in various colors. Most had their hair tied up with ribbons. The boys were outfitted in what Grandpa called “blue jeans.” I suppose it was the fabric of choice for the working class.

He parked the truck and got out. The three of us were rather hesitant. I knew from what little reading I had done on the plane that these children were not GEEs. They had been conceived and born like humans had done for thousands of years. There was nothing special about them. I was confident they were nowhere as intelligent as we were.

“Come, children, let’s get you enrolled in school.” Grandpa led us to the office. Along the way, I could see the kids giving us funny looks. It was as if they’d never seen school uniforms. The three of us were all dressed similarly. We wore white shirts, gray pants, and black shoes. Suz wore a dark gray skirt instead of pants. We all felt quite naked, however, without our tablets. In our society they were used so much they literally became an extension of the body.

Grandpa found the admissions office. He held the door open for us. I entered first. There was a middle-aged woman sitting behind a desk. She didn’t have the most pleasant of expressions on her face. I can’t imagine I did either, considering where we were.

“Hello, Mrs. Bagley?” Grandpa said, closing the door once Suz had shuffled in.


“I’m Abe Cranwinkle. I spoke to you the other day about my three grandchildren.”

“Oh, yes, have a seat.”

I looked around; there was only one chair. Grandpa quickly occupied it and left us standing against the wall.

“As you can see,” he continued, “they come from the Inner States.”

“Do you have transcripts for them?”

“No, they only showed up here a couple of days ago.”

Mrs. Bagley looked at me. “Can you tell me what school you attended?”

I straightened up. “The New Philadelphia School for Enlightened Students.”

“Mmm, you’re one of those, huh?”

Never before in my life had I heard someone berate a GEE. We were held in high esteem because of our enhanced intelligence. Here it seemed, we were going to be looked down upon. My emotions and still tender psyche weren’t ready for that. “Ma’am? Why is being intelligent so wrong here?” I finally mustered the words.

“Because you’re so smart, we don’t have a teaching curriculum for you.”

Rory spoke up. “You mean we’re too smart for school?”


“So what can we do?”

She nervously shuffled some papers on her desk. “I’ll have to make some calls and see.”

I glanced at Suz. From the moment we arrived at the school, I could see her beginning to boil. This was not a place for her, and now it had been confirmed. She began to laugh. The laugh grew louder and more hysterical until it nearly went out of control. I reached over and swatted her. “Suz, knock it off!”

Of course she ignored me. All she could do was laugh and point a finger at Mrs. Bagley. My sister knew she was too smart for this school. And she was probably twice as smart as the woman sitting behind the desk. I secretly think Suz liked that. She had power over these commoners. After a few minutes, her laughter died out.

Rory was nearly as bright. His IQ had been tested at 188. But he used his brain and applied what he was taught. Suz just seemed to let her intelligence seep out along with her stupidity. Such a waste. Strangely enough, I was the dumbest in the family. I was the one with great aspirations, and yet my IQ was only 170. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Back in New Philadelphia, we all wore our IQs like a badge of honor. Sure, I was one of the less intelligent in my class, and I even got teased on occasion. Surprisingly, it was usually Rory who came to my aid. He would tell the class bullies that I’d been dropped on my head as a baby, so the lower IQ wasn’t my fault. Eventually they backed off and left me alone. I wonder how the dumb kids in this school are treated.

“Mr. Cranwinkle, can you give me a few days to figure out what to do with them?”

Grandpa stood and ran his hands down the front of his shirt. “Well, I guess I don’t have any other choice.” He went to the door, opened it, and waved us out.

Once in the hall, Suz piped up, “So, we’re too smart for school!”

“Don’t get so excited, Sis. This may mean we have more housework to help out with,” I said. That answer zipped her lips and made the smug grin on her face rapidly disappear. Touché!

After dinner, Rory and I helped dry and put away dishes. Really, it should have been Suz doing that, but I didn’t mind helping. It also gave me a chance to talk with Grandma and find out more about why they left the Inner States.

“Grandpa told us he’d always wanted a farm, is that true?” I asked.

“It was our dream. As nice as it was, paradise didn’t live up to its name.”

“How can you say that? You didn’t have a want or care in the world. Everything was provided for and you didn’t have to toil physically.”

Grandma lifted a rinsed plate from the sink and handed it to me. “I like to work with my hands. Where do you think all the curtains and lace doilies in the house came from?”

“You made them?!” I was astounded. The only manual labor I’d ever done was to help father put bots together. And while it was a pleasant diversion, I much preferred to use my brain rather than my hands for work. The only exercise my fingers received was typing. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not overweight slouches. School had a rigorous exercise program that kept us fit, and our service bots always prepared the healthiest meals for the family. But when I wasn’t forced into playing field ball or running distance, I preferred to be happily sedentary.

“Is there such an aversion to manual labor in the Inner States?” she asked, handing me another plate.

“You lived there, don’t you know?” I glanced at her, taking my eyes off the plate I held. It slipped through the towel and crashed to the wood floor, breaking into hundreds of pieces. “Oh, sorry.”

She paused and let out a long sigh. I could see in her eyes the remorse of my accident. Without a word, she turned off the water, dried her hands, and began to pick up the broken pieces. “It’s okay,” she finally said, taking a handful of china shards and depositing them into the garbage can.

“Was it old?”

Slowly she nodded. “Almost eighty years.”

“I’m really sorry.”

Grandma went to the pantry and got a broom. Within a few minutes she had the rest of the pieces swept up and thrown away. “These dishes belonged to my mother.”

“Mmm.” I was at a loss for what to say. At home, we didn’t have dishes that were used for any length of time. Usually we ate from containers that were recycled. The Inner States had become the epitome of a reusable society. Solar panels dotted every available surface, cars ran on hydrogen—which was a byproduct of the solar energy conversion process, and our food for the most part was prepackaged for ease of use. There was little in the way of “garbage” in our world. Even outdated service bots were recycled for their base components. We didn’t waste.

“It’s all right, they’re just dishes. The memories I have are locked safely away in here.” She pointed to her head. “Most important thing is the memories.”

I nodded. Maybe she would understand my need to get my tablet running. “Grandma?”


“Do you have some sort of power cord so I can charge my tablet?”

“Why? It doesn’t work here; no internet.”

“I don’t need it for that. I can do things on my tablet without the net.”

“Check in the drawer over there; you might find something that will work.” She handed me the last dish and I made sure to keep a firm grasp on it while drying. Then I handed it off to Rory who carefully placed it in the cupboard. I gave the towel a shake and laid it over the edge of the sink where I’d found it. Without showing too much enthusiasm, I wandered over to the drawer and opened it. There was a jumble of wires, lids, and a host of other items that would probably remain unidentified. My eyes locked onto a cord that held promise. It was horribly tangled with several others, and my fingers worked to untangle it.

Once freed, I inspected the cord. The portion that inserted to the wall seemed correct. It had prongs matching what I’d seen throughout the house. My problem was the other end; it had a strange, wide, flat connection. The physical connections on our tablets were much smaller and not as flat. This was looking like it wouldn’t work.

“Will that do, dear?” Grandma said.

“Probably not.”

“Why don’t you go to the barn and see if Grandpa has something that’ll work?”

“The barn?”

“Yes, he has a workshop there.”

“Are there any animals in the barn?”

She chuckled. “No, no, there aren’t any animals there.”

“Can I go with you?” Rory asked.

I looked out the window and saw it was getting dark. The barn wasn’t far from the house, but it was old and rickety. There was serious doubt in my mind as to the structural integrity of the building. Did I dare go in there?

“Jonah?” Rory pestered.

“Yeah, okay.” I thought maybe there would be safety in numbers. “Come on.”

We headed outside and across the open expanse between the house and barn. In the distance I saw black clouds and a brilliant flash of lightning. Would the storm hit us? I hated lightning.

“What do you think we’ll find?” said Rory as we covered the distance.

“I don’t know. But Grandpa used to build battle bots.”

“No way! Think we’ll find one in there?”

“Probably not. He gave all that up.”

“To be a farmer…”

“Yeah, crazy, huh?”

“They left everything in the Inner States to move here.” Rory stopped at the barn door. It was closed with a heavy latch. I think he expected me to open it.

I stepped forward and worked the latch. There was a good amount of rust on it and I had to rattle and jiggle it in order to get it open. Once the door was unlatched, I grasped the handle and pulled back. The door swung open, creaking loudly. We were met with darkness and an unusual filthy odor. “This is a workshop?”

“I guess.” Rory slowly ventured in, keeping to the side wall. I could hear him fumbling about, probably searching for lights. After a few moments, he found success. The lights came on, revealing a massive piece of wheeled equipment that was parked in front of us. It was painted green and yellow and had larger tires on the rear.

“What is it?”

“I think that’s what they call a tractor,” I said, sidling past in favor of what was behind. I was greeted by several workbenches piled high with a dusty assortment of mechanical parts and wires. Much of it I recognized as being decades old. Little of it held interest for me. I was only hoping to find either an adapter or the correct power cord for my tablet. And this wasn’t looking good.

“Looking for something?” Grandpa said in a loud voice.

Rory and I about jumped out of our skins. I spun around. “Grandma—”

“Yes, yes, I know, she sent you out here.”

I held up the cord with a shaky hand. “I was looking for a power cord for my tablet.”

“Won’t find it here,” he said, approaching. “All this is old.”

“Really old,” I replied.

“Yes. If you need a cord, we’ll go into town tomorrow to try to find one.”

“Thank you. I know I can’t use the net on my tablet, but I do have other things I can make use of.”

“Very well,” he said, “if that will keep you out of mischief.”

“Mischief?” Rory replied, scratching his head. “What kind of mischief can you get into here?”

Grandpa wagged a finger. “Plenty! Now how about you boys get inside and dress for bed?”

“Yes, Sir.” I looked at the parts piled on the counters and something in my brain clicked. As I scanned the dark barn, I saw what I thought was the torso and head of a service bot tucked away in a corner. Perhaps this would warrant further investigation.


The next day, Grandpa took us into town. He made a stop by a bank and drew out some money. His intentions were to purchase new clothes for us so we looked a little less like Inner States kids. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with our clothes, and the ones he bought for us were very uncomfortable. Suz was absolutely appalled by her options for dress. She moaned, groaned, and grumbled the entire time. I, at least, scored the proper power cord to charge our tablets.

Once back home, I attempted to put on the foreign clothes. The blue jeans were stiff and rough against my skin. And the red plaid shirt Grandpa selected was short sleeved and had little pearl colored buttons that I had a difficult time fastening. Honestly, I thought I looked absurd. Why did we have to blend in? Why was it so important to strip us of our identities? None of us wanted to be here, so why were we being forced to change?

I sat on the front porch gazing out over the dusty landscape. A wire fence stretched into the distance, dry weeds were snarled in parts of it. There was no greenery. If Grandpa was a farmer, he sure wasn’t growing much more than dirt and weeds. How could he make a living?

Rory wandered out. He was dressed in our usual clothes. “Jonah?”


“How can you wear that stuff?”

“I don’t know. I figured I’d give it a try.”

“How does it feel?”

I scratched my right thigh. “Itchy.”

“Grandma said it will get better after the clothes are washed a few times.”

“What’s Suz up to?”

Rory plopped down in a white wicker chair. “Crying.”


“I don’t think she’s going to survive this.”

“She will. It’ll take time.”

“Your tablet was charged, so I plugged mine in.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

“What are you going to use yours for?”

“Listening to Dad.”

“What?” Rory leaned forward slightly. “What do you mean?”

“I took all the data sticks from his office…I miss him terribly.”

“So do I.”

“It was the only thing I could think of to keep his memory alive.”

“Would you share some with me?”

“Yes, yes, of course, Rory.” I stood and walked around, the denim material chafing my skin. “I’ll happily share with you.”

“Do you think Dad was murdered?”

Rory’s comment floored me. I’d figured that he’d have accepted what the police told us. This caught me completely off guard. “Why would you say that?”

“Don’t you think so? It seems fishy.”

I approached him, bent over, and rested my hands on the arms of the chair, my face only a few inches from his. “I do indeed.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I’m still not sure, but I have a gut feeling.”

“Me too.”

I drew away, choosing to stare into the distance again. “So what are we going to do?”

Rory shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno.”

“I wonder if there might be clues in those data sticks as to why Dad was killed.”

“I wish he would come back. I miss him; I miss Mom.”

“We all do.”

“I want to go home.”

It was Monday a week later when I heard the phone ring. Grandpa was somewhere on the property, so Grandma answered it. I happened to be within earshot of the conversation. It was Mrs. Bagley. She called to inform them that the school had concocted a reasonable facsimile of our educational level, and that we were to report to school on Tuesday. I couldn’t believe my ears. School in this wasteland? What were they going to teach us? We were already smarter than the majority of the faculty in the school. And they were going to teach us? I prepped my mind for what should be immense boredom to come. What could they possibly possess that could educate us? I wanted to laugh aloud.

Rory came downstairs and found me in the hallway. “Whatcha doing?” he asked.

I took note of his choice of clothing. He wore jeans and a pale blue t-shirt. “You’re not going to believe this.”


“The school called. They want us in class tomorrow.”

“No way!”

“I overheard Grandma talking to them. Supposedly they have something to teach us.”

“Yeah, right.” He nudged past me and headed to the front door. “Jonah?”


“You wanna go check out the barn some more?”

I pondered his invitation a few moments. Having only a brief time in Grandpa’s workshop, I wanted to get a better look, sans the old man. “Where is Grandpa?”

“Saw him go out on that tractor machine. He left about an hour ago.”

Cocking my head, I listened throughout the house. I was fairly confident Grandma was in the kitchen working on dinner—or as they called it here: supper. “Okay,” I said, “but if we hear Grandpa, we hurry back to the house.”

“Why don’t you want him knowing?”

“He may not be happy with us meddling in technology.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want anyone in there.” I went to the door and opened it. “But did you see the head and torso of a service bot in the corner?”

Rory shook his head. “No…What are you thinking?”

“I’m not sure just yet.” Stepping onto the porch I scanned the area. There was no Grandpa or tractor in sight. A stiff breeze blew across the land kicking up dust. Was there no rain here? “Come on, let’s go.” I ran across the open expanse between buildings. Rory was right on my heels. I had a distinct feeling that we were being disobedient. We weren’t normally known for this type of behavior. In fact, exploring things was encouraged by our parents. They wanted us to learn, to grow, to expand our minds. Grandpa seemed perturbed with our presence in the old barn. It was as if he was keeping a secret in there. I had to know.

The doors were open, the tractor no longer blocking our access. We hurried back to the workbench. It was dusty, dirty, and smelly, but I dove in and started rifling through ancient bot parts.

“Do you think Grandpa will notice?” Rory said. He wasn’t too enthusiastic about rummaging.

“He might.”

“Think we’ll get in trouble?”

“Maybe…But do you want to sit here in a wasteland and let your brain rot?”

“No, but I don’t want to get in trouble either.”

I made my way to the corner and unearthed the bot head and torso. “Whoa! Have you ever seen anything this old?” Grabbing a rag, I dusted it off. It was beautiful in a rustic way. This bot had probably been produced quite a few years before Suz was even born. Maybe more. Definitely ancient. I was intrigued. The head was smoothly sculpted. Not exactly like a human head, but gave the idea of one. The eyes were small, a nose was placed on the face probably for aesthetic purpose, and it had a small slit for a mouth. The whole thing was a shiny golden color.

“How old do you think that thing is?” Rory asked.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” I dusted it off better and then tucked the rag in my pocket. With both hands, I grasped the shoulders of the bot and leaned it forward. It was quite heavy. I was looking for the service tag that was usually found on the back just below the neck. There was one, but it was so corroded that I couldn’t read it. “Help me out here,” I said, trying to wrestle the bot to the workbench.

Rory jumped in and with several grunts and groans, we had the bot on the bench face down. I snatched the rag and went to work giving the plate a thorough scrubbing. It probably took five minutes before I could make anything out. This poor bot must have spent most of its life in the barn.

“Now, let’s see,” I said, squinting. “Made by Servidyne Industries…Model 106…Produced May 29, 2022.”

“Wow, that’s old!”

I studied the plate in detail. “Older than Mom and Dad, I think.”

“Was this one of the first service bots?”

“Might be.”

“Jonah, you’ve discovered an antique!”

I’m not sure Rory really understood the term antique, but finding a 33-year-old robot was exciting. What sort of life had it had? Did the memory still work? Was the battery bank still good? Could I even get it to boot up? And how could I hide my work from Grandpa? Something deep inside me wanted to get this bot functioning. But how could I do it?

Searching around the workshop area, I found a screwdriver. With great care, I opened the skull of the bot and peered inside. Rory appeared and leaned over my shoulder.

“What are you going to do?”

I poked and prodded a bit. “I was thinking of removing the memory cells and taking them in the house. Maybe I can figure out a way to charge and run them.”

“You want the bot to function again?”

“I want to see how the bot was programmed.” With a few twists of the screwdriver and some creative wire removal, I quickly had the memory core bank of cells in my hand. It was about the size of a baseball and contained the entire neural net. Newer bots had ones about a third of the size.

I tossed the core to Rory and set about putting the bot’s face back on. As I screwed down the last screw, I looked deeply into the expressionless face of the bot. It said nothing, but spoke volumes to me. Something clicked in my head.

“Grandpa!” Rory shouted.

In the distance I heard the tractor approaching. “Help me get it back to the corner.”

We wrestled the bot back and did our best to clean up from our explorations. Then we slipped unnoticed from the barn and ran back to the house.

“You have the core, right?” I said.

Rory handed it to me. “Still don’t know how you’ll make something that old work.”

I studied it briefly before shoving it down my shirt. “Not sure if I can, but I’ll give it a try.”

We watched as Grandpa drove the tractor into the barn, shut it off, and dismounted. He closed the barn doors and headed toward the house. I nonchalantly nudged Rory and we slipped inside. As we entered, I looked around for Grandma. Not seeing her, we hurried upstairs to our room. With the door shut, I removed the core from my shirt and tucked it under the bed. I’d take a closer look at it after supper.

The alarm clock went off way too early for me. I rolled over and gave it a smack, sending it to the floor. It bounced around a few times before falling silent. Today we would be made to go to school. As I lay there in bed, rubbing my eyes, I wondered just what the teachers would be like. Didn’t they realize this was totally absurd? What could they teach us?

My feet hit the floor and I staggered from bed. Rory yawned and stretched. “Come on, get up,” I said, trudging to the chest of drawers to find something to wear to school.

“Do we have to?”

“Unfortunately.” Down the way, I heard Suz’s door open. She must be making a mad dash for the one bathroom the house contained. That would mean the rest of us had to wait what would seem like hours for her to emerge. At least in Philadelphia, our apartment had three bathrooms, and Suz claimed one for herself. Rory and I didn’t mind sharing, it got her out of our way in the mornings. “Crap!”


“Suz is gonna beat us to the bathroom.”

“Oh,” Rory said in a lackluster tone.

“She’s gonna make us late for school.”

He sat up. “Do you really care?”

I took out a shirt and pulled it over my head. “I suppose not.”

“I mean, what are they going to tell us?” Rory threw off the covers and got up. He went to the window, parted the drapes and looked out. “Nothing here, absolutely nothing.”

We dressed and were just getting ready to head downstairs for breakfast when we heard a ruckus below at the bottom of the stairs. “Children!” Grandma called. “Breakfast!”

I peered down the steps. “Coming, Grandma.”

“Where’s Suzette?”

“Probably still in the bathroom.”

“Tell her to get a move on. You’ll be late for school.”

“She won’t listen to us, she never does.” I scratched my head. How could Grandma have missed Suz? The bathroom was right next to the kitchen. The aroma of something greasy hit my nose. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but it actually smelled good. Taking in a deep breath, I decided that maybe there was food out here worth eating. Supper last night had been something called beef ribs. They were terribly messy, but tasted like nothing I’d ever had in my life. There was a sticky brown sauce that Grandpa called barbeque. It was smoky and sweet in flavor. And we had to tear meat off bones with our teeth! Suz was appalled, of course, and tried to use a knife and fork. All of us just laughed at her. She finally got mad and stomped upstairs to her room. Rory and I didn’t mind, that left more for us.

“Come, boys, get your breakfast before it gets cold.”

Rory and I thundered down the steps, anxious to see what morsels of delight would greet us at the kitchen table. We weren’t disappointed. Grandma had prepared a feast. My rather sensitive nose picked up several tasty scents. I could smell some sort of fresh baked bread, the greasy aroma that met me on the stairs, and something that was vaguely toasty and starchy in nature. My mouth started to water.

“I hope you boys are hungry,” Grandma said, standing at the stove with a plate in hand. We said nothing but took our places at the table. I watched as the old woman opened the oven and removed two round-shaped pieces of bread—or so I thought. She cut them in half and arranged them on the plate. Next she put some rich golden-colored shreddings next to the breads. I was clueless to what it was. And from a cast iron frying pan, I saw her pluck two strips of something that looked like meat. Over most of it, she ladled a sort of creamy white goo. I thought it looked like adhesive. It was thick and had little dark flecks of something in it.

Grandma placed the plate in front of me. I looked up at her, giving my best impression of naivety. Everything smelled good, but what exactly was I eating? She must have sensed my apprehension. “This is a farmhouse breakfast, Jonah.” She pointed to each item. “It has biscuits, country gravy, hash browns, and bacon. I’m sorry, I don’t have any eggs.”

I reached and picked up a strip of what she called bacon. “Never seen this before.”

“They don’t have bacon in the Inner States?”

“This is the first time I’ve seen it.”

“Give it a try, I’m sure you’ll like it. You went crazy on those ribs last night, didn’t you?”

I said nothing but brought the strip up to my mouth and opened gingerly. So far Grandma’s cooking had been enjoyable. I wondered how she’d learned to cook like this. Sticking out my tongue slightly, I let the crispy strip touch it. My senses were assaulted with a salty, greasy flavor that had a smoky hint to it. Ah, I was in love again.

“Well?” she said.


Grandma laughed and went to make Rory’s plate. I knew he’d enjoy too. There had to be some reason that bacon wasn’t available in the Inner States—probably because it was deemed bad for you by the dietary directors, and hence, would not be served to the population. I began to wonder what other delicacies I’d been missing.


We arrived at school exactly fifteen minutes late. Of course Suz was to blame. Besides taking way too long in the bathroom, she complained incessantly about breakfast. Rory and I had destroyed every crumb of food on our plates and asked for more. I think Grandma was flattered by our lavish praise for her cooking. There was not enough bacon in the world.

A teacher’s aide showed us to our “classroom.” It was tiny. I’d seen broom closets in our school that were bigger. The man shoved open the door and motioned. “Take your seats.”

There were three desks lined up in a row facing an ancient-looking television. Where was our teacher? We filed in and sat down. The aide closed the door and left us.

“This is deplorable,” Suz said. “Small, filthy, and with such a tiny window. How can they expect us to learn in this environment?”

I wanted to tell her to shut up, but held my tongue. Instead, I got up and looked at the TV. Did I dare push the power button? Was this our teacher? Some sort of electronic babysitter? As I’d pondered before, what could they possibly teach us?

Suddenly the door behind opened. I spun around and was face to face with a woman who looked a million years old. She even made Grandma look young. Her dress was pale blue with darker blue flowers, and she wore black shoes with a thick blocky heel. To me they barely looked womanly. Her blue eyes were tired, matching the deep age lines on her face. And her hair was white as snow, fairly short, and held a bit of curl.

“Good morning, students. I am Mrs. Graham, your teacher.”

“Hello,” I managed to squeak as I slid back into my chair. There was no room for a teacher’s desk, so she simply took a seat in a rickety old chair in the corner.

“I’ve been told you are from the Inner States.”

We nodded.

“Then this may be something of a wakeup for you.”

“What can you teach us?” Rory piped up.

She studied him for a moment. “A lot, you will see.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

Mrs. Graham smoothed her dress down her legs. She noticed our desks were empty. “Have they not issued you tablets yet?”

“No,” Suz replied. “And Grandpa said there’s no internet here.”

“The local government is working on it. But there has to be a vote to decide to allow it.”

“What’s not to allow? All the information of the world can be at your fingertips.”

“It’s not that easy.” She gestured to Suzette. “And what is your name?”

“Suzette Blackburn. And this is Rory and Jonah.”

“And what brings you here?”

I leaned forward slightly in my chair. “Our parents are dead and they sent us here to live with our grandparents.”

“Abe and Eliza?”


“They came from the Inner States, you know.”

“And what’s the big deal about that?” I wasn’t trying to sound condescending, but my patience was wearing thin. Was this woman going to teach us or not? Perhaps I shouldn’t have cared, but for some reason I did. Education was important to me. And considering what I wanted to do for a living, it was vital. I just couldn’t fathom what I could learn out here.

“The big deal, Jonah, is that technology was the downfall of this country.”

“Not the way we see it.”

“No, no, you’ve lived a different life, and you have different views. But as much as you want to deny it, technology was a contributing factor of the demise of this great country.”

Rory decided to join the conversation. “Was it because of the battle bots?”

Mrs. Graham nodded slowly. “That’s only a small part. But there is much more.” She laced her fingers. “How much have they taught you about the Great Separation in school?”

I straightened up in my chair. History was something I relished and considered one of my best subjects—well, except for advanced computer programming and robotics. “We were taught that the states in the East became wealthy and used their wealth to advance society. They embraced technology, robots, genetic manipulation, and healthy living. The West didn’t see a need for the technology and decided to remain as they were.”

“But why the split? And why did it become violent and cause such a rift?”

“Well, those in the West didn’t like what we were doing. They didn’t like that the government wanted to impose more rules and restrictions for their own good.”

“Their own good?”

“Yes. Why do we need guns? In the Inner States there isn’t much crime. The political council deemed guns were a major cause of crime and outlawed them for our safety.”

The old woman nodded slightly. “Do you really know the cause of crime?”

“Bad people?”

“What makes them bad?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Just the way they are born?”

“Social status. The Inner States, because of their vast wealth and power, forced out those who were not as affluent as the rest of the population. With the poor gone, crime was greatly reduced.”

“The poor had the guns.”

“It wasn’t a matter of guns. The rich wanted the poor out of their perfect world, and that was the excuse they used to bring in the battle bots to put down the uprising.”

“So what’s wrong with having a society of rich? Everyone should strive to be wealthy.”

“Not everyone can be rich. Do you think it was right to force those people out of their homes? Off their land?”

“There seems to be plenty here to go around.”

Mrs. Graham narrowed her eyes. “Do you think it was right to be sent here after your parents died?”

“No!” Suz blurted. “We wanted to stay in our nice apartment and go to our school.”

“But you were made to come here, right?”


“Then you have an idea how all those people felt when they were forcibly displaced.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Isn’t it?”

“We have money,” Rory said.

“If you take away the money, what do you have? Three children without their parents involuntary moved to a place they don’t want to be.”

“I hate it here,” Suz grumbled, resting her chin on her hands. “I want to go back.”

“But you can’t—not right now. How does that make you feel?”

“Horrible. This place is horrible.”

Mrs. Graham nodded. “And there you have it.”

That afternoon, Grandpa picked us up from school. We waited impatiently at the curb while the other kids got on school buses or had parents pick them up. There was no denying it, we were the strange ones. The other kids looked at us like we had some horrible disease and stayed far away from us. I figured we’d never be a part of the school. We would not have any friends, and our social lives would be relegated to hanging out with each other. I was beginning to feel like Suz—I missed the internet.

Yes, the internet. My thoughts wandered back to what Mrs. Graham said. They would have to vote to allow internet into the area. Why were they so afraid? The internet had existed in one way or another since before the turn of the century. Over the years it had grown and expanded, allowing users to discover a near infinite amount of information in the digital realm. What was wrong with it? I figured that everyone on the entire planet would want to embrace as much knowledge as possible in order to make their lives better. Perhaps I thought wrong.

“So, how was the first day, children?” Grandpa said as he opened the doors on the pickup for us.

“Horrid!” Suz griped as she clambered into the backseat. “Absolutely horrid.”

Grandpa said nothing more until we were on the way home. “So what did you learn?”

I looked over at him, and with a very straight face said, “Nothing.”

“Well, it was the first day, so maybe tomorrow you’ll learn something.”

“I doubt that. Our teacher, Mrs. Graham, said the Great Separation was caused by the wealthy forcing out the poor.”

“It was.”

“And you believe that?”

He slowed the truck and turned onto the long dusty drive. “I know it’s true because I had a hand in it. You know I was on the team that created battle bots—”


“And much of the propaganda released was that they were used to quell an uprising of Americans not wanting to submit to the government’s will.”


“But what you didn’t know was that most were poor and couldn’t afford what the government dictated they do.”

“Which was…?”

“To maintain a net income of 300 thousand dollars a year.”

I let out a little laugh. “Oh, that’s nothing!”

“For you, probably not. But many of these people were born the old-fashioned way and weren’t capable of getting a high-tech job that would pay enough. They were forced to be laborers making far less than acceptable. And when the rents were increased to a high rate, they couldn’t afford it. Hence, rebellion broke out because they thought it was unfair that the rich could live there and they couldn’t.”

For a moment I took pause and gave it some thought. “Is that why you left the Inner States?”

We pulled up to the house and Grandpa shut off the engine. “You think I left because I felt guilty about killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people?”

The way he said it answered the question. Yes, he must’ve held a huge amount of guilt. Maybe I didn’t want to pursue this anymore. I opened the door and climbed out, not saying another word. Behind me, Suz and Rory did the same. Perhaps I was unaware at the time, but I had actually learned something.

Going up to our shared room, I sat down on the bed and started to remove my shoes. Since they were new, they hurt my feet something terrible. Back home you normally didn’t have that problem. Shoes were custom fitted so there was no pain in breaking them in; they felt like you’d been wearing them all your life. With the misery removed from my feet, I pulled off my socks and let my feet air out. “Ahhhhh,” I said, giving my toes a good wiggle. The air in Nebraska seemed much drier than back home. It wasn’t like there was a protective bubble over the entire East Coast, but it seemed there was more moisture.

Reclining on the bed, I picked up my tablet and turned it on. How I wished the local news would flash on the screen, or messages from my friends. Yes, my friends…Now I realized how much I missed them. Would they even remember me when I return in a few years? All of us wanted to go back. Suz was probably going to be the luckiest and return first. I bet she’s counting the days until she can get on a plane and leave this place. She wasn’t the kind of big sister that cared much about her siblings. No, Suz was in life for herself, and damn anyone who got in the way of what she wanted.

I suppose I can’t blame her. I want things in life too. But somewhere deep inside I have a duty to my younger brother. Even when I turn eighteen, I’ll probably stay here with Rory until he’s old enough to go back. That might ruin my plans for a career, but it’s how I feel. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t want to be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with only old people watching over me. Sure Grandma and Grandpa Cranwinkle are nice, but would Rory be happy here by himself? He’s only ever known our family unit; someone familiar has always been in his life.

The door creaked open and Rory wandered in. “Hey,” he said softly, climbing up on the bed.

“Hi,” I replied, somewhat attempting to ignore him.

“Can we listen to Dad?”

For a moment I didn’t move a muscle. I felt my heart ache deeply. A tear threatened to well up in the corner of my right eye. I fought it back. Yes, I was perfectly able to grieve now, but I didn’t want to. “Sure,” I replied, reaching over to the small nightstand and opening the drawer. “Gimme a minute.”

Removing one of the little boxes, I opened it and shuffled through the memory sticks until I found a recent one. I plugged it into the port on my tablet and let the computer go to work. Seconds later I had a menu screen prompting me to select an entry date. I scrolled down until I found one that piqued my interest. “Let’s listen to the one from about two weeks before he died.”

“Okay.” Rory kicked off his shoes and got comfortable on the bed. “That would have been mid-March, right?”

“Mmm, yeah, I think so.”

“Seems so long ago.”

I clicked on the date and closed my eyes. His voice soon filled my head.

“March 10, 2055. I’ve made some progress on the new servo. The higher-ups are pleased and looking forward to a demonstration in a couple of weeks. I hope I can get the power coupling sorted out; it’s not performing as it should.

“Perhaps I’ll take one home and see if Jonah can figure out how to make it work. He’s got the mind for these kinds of problems. In a way, I’m glad we had the kids by GEE, because they’re so much smarter than I am. They all have a bright future ahead of them.

“If I could only figure out the reason I keep getting an error signal when the power is applied to the motor, I’d be one step further. Maybe it’s the encoder? The PID controller? Or just a nasty software bug that’s keeping me from getting it to work. All I know is I need to get this fixed and soon…Signing off.”

Rory and I lay there for quite a while before speaking. I finally closed the application and set my tablet on the bed.

“He meant that, right?”

“What?” I replied.

“That they were glad we’re GEE kids.”

“Dad wouldn’t lie, you know that.”

“Does that make you feel good?”

“Yes, of course. Don’t you feel they loved us enough to make us better than they were?”

“I guess so. Just hope what happened to Mom doesn’t happen to us.”

“They tested us, and we were fine, don’t you remember?”

“Vaguely.” Rory got up and wandered around the room. “Want to sneak out tonight and work on the bot?”

“Mmm, I dunno. What if Grandpa catches us?”

“How can we fix the thing without him knowing?”

“True. I’m sure he’s astute enough to notice the dust has been wiped off. And confident he’ll say something when an arm or leg appears.”

“Maybe we can convince him to let us mess around with it—you know, nothing serious. Just to keep us happy.”

“Doubt that,” I said, sitting up and swinging my legs off the bed; from downstairs I heard Grandma hollering at us for supper. “Come on, let’s get some dinner and I’ll think about going out to the barn after.”

“I’ve been noticing Grandpa goes to the library after dinner. Might be a good time to go.”

Supper was delicious. Grandma made some sort of beef roast that had all kinds of vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and something she called celery. Rory and I again destroyed our plates of food and begged for more. Suz picked at hers and finally asked to be excused from the table. I can’t recall ever seeing my sister so depressed. She seriously hated this place.

After helping with the dishes, I decided to engage Grandpa in order to gain his approval for us to work on the bot. Even if we never got it to work, it would still give us something to do. Rory and I were bored out of our minds. Back home we were always tinkering with something Dad would bring home. We loved it, we loved working with Dad and helping him. How I miss him.

I went down the hall and stood at the library door. It was closed, as was customary. Putting my head close, I could hear movement inside. Nerves throughout my body were twitching. I took in a deep breath to try to steady them. That did little to help. And then I had to stop and wonder: why was I so nervous about asking him? The worst he could say was no. Why did I fear that answer?

Raising my hand to shoulder height, I made a fist and knocked on the door. There was no reply from the other side. I wondered if he hadn’t heard me. As I prepared to knock again, the door opened and I was face to face with Grandpa.

“Hello, Jonah,” he said in a kind voice. “Here to get more books?”

“Um, well, I haven’t finished the ones you gave me yet.”

“Why not? I figure you’d have digested them in a matter of days.”

“Oh, I’m reading them, but it’s taking me a while.”

“So what do you need?”

I slid past him and went to the middle of the room. There was a fascination I had with the musty smell of the room. It reeked of knowledge. And in our society, knowledge was power. Those with the greatest minds were revered as some of the most powerful in the Inner States. People worshipped them like gods. “Grandpa…” I said softly.


“Rory and I were wondering—”

“About the bot in the barn?” He sat down in the overstuffed leather chair and picked up the book he was reading. “Yes, I noticed the dust had been cleaned off and some parts have gone missing.”


“You want to make it work again, don’t you?”

“Um, yeah, maybe…But not to be a service bot. Rory and I just want to work on it to give us something to do.”

The old man was silent for several minutes. It appeared as if he was ignoring me in favor of reading the book. Finally he said, “It’s an old bot, I doubt you’ll ever get it running again…And don’t you say a word of this to your grandmother, you hear?”

I opened my mouth to thank him, but the words refused to come out. My throat felt like it was choked off. I couldn’t breathe.

“Run along,” he said, “and be in by dark.”


Rory and I just about trampled each other on the way out to the barn. Both of us tried desperately to fit through the front door at the same time and it didn’t work. After some jostling, grunting, and a bit of forceful elbowing, I cleared the doorway and was dashing across the barren space to the rickety structure.

To this day I don’t know how that old barn remained standing. It was a single story, about forty feet wide and perhaps sixty long. Several shades of red paint attempted to cover its exterior with little success. The roof was galvanized tin and left its own silver color, but with corners that showed rust and its age. There were a couple of windows toward the back of the building, which allowed some natural light into the work area.

I made it to the heavy door first and my fingers worked frantically to undo the latch. Rory ran up behind, colliding with me. “Hey!”


Looking over my shoulder, I noticed Grandpa standing on the porch watching. He was far enough away that I couldn’t see the expression on his face. Something told me he wasn’t pleased with his decision. What was so wrong with two kids tinkering on an ancient bot?

With the door open, we wiggled past the tractor and headed to the back. I found the bot still in the corner, as I had left it.

“This is gonna be so cool,” Rory said, picking up boxes of parts and setting them off to the side, making room on the workbench.

I hefted the bot and brought it over, carefully laying it on the bench. It was far heavier than any of the current production bots. Then I paused for a moment. Something seemed strange about our surroundings and I finally managed to put my finger on it. We were now living in a society without bots. Yes, that was it. When we ventured to town, there were only people on the streets. They drove the cars, they did the shopping, not bots. Why did I not see this earlier? Was I still in a haze over what happened to my father? Perhaps.



“Have you noticed anything strange about the Outer States?”

“Well, it’s certainly not like home.”

“Have you noticed something missing?”

He gave me a quizzical look. “In what regard?”

“I know Grandma and Grandpa won’t have bots doing their work, but have you noticed everyone else?” I watched my brother’s eyes drift upward and to the right, indicating he was in deep thought.

His lips pursed slightly. “No bots!”


Rory looked around. “I wonder if there are laws against having them? Grandma did mention on the day we got here that if she wanted a bot, she’d have Grandpa make her one.”

“Maybe. And maybe they’re illegal and Grandma was just trying to make us feel more at ease.”

“If they are, we could get into a lot of trouble.”

“Only if we make it operational.”

“What’s the sense of fixing it if we can’t make it function?”

I took a step back from the bench, folded my arms, and had a good think. “Maybe we can make it work, but remove the memory core when we leave.”

“It won’t boot up without the core, will it?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

As I surveyed the bot in greater detail, I realized that making it function was going to be a feat of magic. It had no arms, no legs, and much of the wiring through the body cavity looked like the insulation had been chewed off by mice. And where would we get parts? If bots were illegal here, there’d be no place to procure necessities to make it work. The barn didn’t seem a likely place to find what we needed. There were some parts, but they were mixed in with tractor and car parts that littered the workshop.

My drifting thoughts were returned to the real world by the clatter of Rory ascending a ladder that was crudely nailed to one of the posts. I looked up and noticed the barn had a small loft of sorts. “Rory? What are you doing?”

“Exploring!” He scurried up the ladder. “Oh, cool!”


From the edge of the loft dangled a dusty golden arm. “Look what I found!”

I reached up and grabbed it. “Keep looking!”

“I am, I am!”

There was loads of noise above as Rory rifled through boxes. After several minutes, another gold arm was hanging down. I made short work of adding it to the collection. “Should I come up?”

“No, no, I got it. You just keep getting the parts I hand down.”

“Have you seen legs?”

“Not yet. Still have a few boxes to go through.”

“Keep looking.”


More time elapsed. My heart was pounding and I didn’t even realize it. I was excited about this project. Finally something to tie us back to our home, even if it was ancient. The three of us kids were technology driven; we needed to be surrounded by electronic gadgets, bots, and information. It was how we existed.



“Here, I found a leg.”

Above, I heard Rory grunting and straining. “Is it heavy?”


“Need help?”

“Almost got it. Get ready to catch.”

I went to the edge of the loft and raised both arms, hands outstretched. A dusty leg dangled a few feet from my grasp. “Can you lower it down some?”

“It’s everything I can do to stay on my feet and not drop it.”

“Hold on for a minute.”

“What are you doing?”

I hurriedly searched for something to stand on. The last thing I wanted was to have the leg damaged in a fall. I’m sure it was already messed up, and I didn’t want it any worse. A small ladder, about four feet tall, was leaning against the wall. I grabbed it, opened it, and placed it under the dangling leg. Going up three steps, I stretched my arms until my fingers wrapped around the ankle. “Okay, I got it.”

“You sure? It’s really heavy!”

“Let go.”

Rory let go and I immediately realized this was a bad idea. He wasn’t kidding, the leg weighed a ton. My hands lost their grip, the leg bent, and was falling straight toward my head. A definite recipe for a headache. Like an idiot, I took a step back and found there was no ground, just air. Now I was flying backward with a bot leg about ready to crush me as I impacted the ground.

It must have been a spectacular wreck. I don’t know, I think I was knocked unconscious. All I remember was Rory standing over me, the bot leg off to one side, and my head feeling like I’d been hit by a metro train. I was covered in dirt and dust.


“Mmm?” I moaned.

“Are you okay?”

“Not sure.”

“You know, you’re bleeding.”

I reached up with a shaky hand and gingerly touched my forehead. Oh yes, there was blood, a pretty good amount of it. I palpated farther into my sandy brown hair and found more blood. Not sure where that came from, but my head was pounding.

“Grandpa’s gonna be angry,” Rory said, trying to help me up.

“Confident of that.”

“What are we going to tell him?”

As I got my wits about me, I looked around. I was next to the workbench. “We’ll tell him I dropped a part under the bench and when I stood up from getting it, I banged my head.”

“Think he’ll buy it?”

“Probably not.”

The next day at school, I showed up with a bandaged head. Grandma had done her best to treat my injury. Our story to Grandpa was met with some skepticism, but in the end, I think we convinced him. Now I was getting looks from the other students as we filed outside to eat lunch. They must be thinking those GEE kids are physically inept; that we only use our brains, not our bodies. Well, they’re wrong.

I found a suitable bench under a scrubby tree. That was the only shade for most of the “playground” area where we had our noontime meal. I sat down and was flanked by Rory and Suz. We commenced opening our little lunch containers and digging through to see what Grandma packed us. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement coming from the right. Since most of the school kids treated us as if we didn’t exist, it shocked me to see a very large boy approaching. Was he here to bully us?

He stopped in front of me. “What happened to your head?” he asked in a tone of voice that led me to believe that he wasn’t the smartest tool in the barn.

“I, uh, hit it on a workbench at home.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

I studied him for a moment and came to the conclusion that this was probably the dumbest kid in the entire school. He appeared to be close to my age, but was twice my size. His short brown hair lay in greasy streaks on his head, and he had dull brown eyes. “Yes, I’m going to be just fine.”

“Oh, good.” He thrust his hand out at me. “I’m Dagwood Hogg: H-o-g-g, like the big pig, but with another ‘g’ at the end.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said, not readily taking his hand. He kept it pointed my direction until I finally relented. His hand felt rough and meaty. This kid evidently did a lot of farm work. “I’m Jonah Blackburn.”

“Are you guys those GEE kids?”

“Yes, we are,” Rory replied with a mouthful of sandwich.

“Wow, that must be cool. I’d like to be smart someday.”

“It helps being born that way,” Suz snapped as she collected her things, then left.

Dagwood sat down in the space vacated by Suz. “Was that your sister?”

I rolled my eyes. “Unfortunately.”

“She’s pretty.”

“How old are you, Dagwood?”


“Ah, well, Suzette is seventeen.”

“She’ll be graduating this year, huh?”

“Yes,” I replied, trying to eat lunch.

“How come you guys don’t come to class with us?”

“We’re too smart,” Rory said.

“So what do you do all day?”

“Mrs. Graham is teaching us.”

“She’s a nice lady. What is she teaching you?”

“Stuff about the Great Separation.”

“My Uncle Bob died,” Dagwood said, seemingly disjointing the conversation.

“Sorry to hear that,” I replied.

“No, no, he died in that war, the big one.”

“He died fighting in the war that caused the Great Separation?”

“Uh huh.” He fiddled with his fingers. “A ro-bot killed him.”

I decided not to say anything about being tied to the family that built battle bots. This kid was big enough he could do some serious damage if he was sufficiently angered. Instead, I decided maybe his lack of brains but substantial brawn could be beneficial. “Dagwood? Why are you here?”


“Why did you come over to us?”

“Oh, I thought you looked lonely and might like to be friends…I mean I’m not super smart and all, but I thought maybe you wanted a friend because you’re new here.”

“That’s very kind of you. Yes, I’d like that.”

He stood and clapped his hands several times. “Goodie!”

The first bell rang, signifying that we had ten minutes to finish eating and to get to class. “Hey, Dagwood?”

“Yes, Jonah?”

“I gotta eat lunch and get to class. Can we talk after school?”

“Sure, sure. I’d like that.” He turned and took a few steps away before looking over his shoulder. “See you later!”

“Bye,” I said, trying to bolt down my food. I watched him happily jog off toward the humanities building. “That was interesting.”

“That guy is really dumb,” Rory said, finishing his lunch. “And he decides to pick us as friends.”

“No, he may not be bright, but he’s big, and that might be a good thing.”

“Oh, so you think by hanging around someone that’s big and strong, we won’t get picked on?”

“I’m hoping that’s the case, but if not, I’m sure he’d be there to finish whatever fight we end up in.” I stood and brushed the bread crumbs from my jeans. “Besides, it looks like he needs a friend or two as well.”

We headed off to our “broom closet” classroom and found Suz already seated. She had a sour look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Ugh, that boy!”

“What about him?”

“He’s so…so…stupid!”

I sat down. “Sorry to tell you this, Sis, but not everyone in the world is as smart as we are.”

“Why didn’t they do an aptitude battery test on him while he was still a developing fetus?”

“’Cause maybe they don’t have that technology here?”

“What? You’ve got to be kidding!”

About that time, Mrs. Graham shuffled into the room and plopped down in her chair. “Children,” she said in a firm, yet calm voice that was never raised above a normal speaking volume. We fell silent and gave her our attention. “Today we will discuss some of the laws of the Outer States.”

“I have a question,” I said, raising my hand slightly. The question had been burning inside me since last night, and the throbbing bump on my head wouldn’t let me forget.

“Yes, Jonah?”

“Are bots illegal here?”

She sat back in her chair, laced her fingers, and took a long breath. “It was the bots that caused the downfall of our civilization.”

“So are they banned here?”

“Let me put it to you this way: if someone has a need for a bot, for instance, to do some heavy manual labor, they must apply for a permit, pay a substantial sum, be approved by the state review board, and if approved, purchase a license for a bot which must be renewed every year.”

“That sounds like a lot of work,” Rory commented.

“It is. And that’s how the Outer States have dissuaded the commonplace use of bots. If there are people who can perform the task, they should be considered over an inanimate object.”

“But bots can do so many things that people can’t,” Suz piped up. “Like dangerous jobs.”

“Yes, and there are some bots working in the nuclear industry power plants.”

“I meant like cooking and cleaning.”

Rory and I couldn’t help but burst into laughter. I began to wonder who was dumber: Suz or Dagwood. Although I was confident Dagwood had his redeeming qualities, Suz was another story entirely.

“Hey!” Suz retorted.

“Chil-dren,” Mrs. Graham said firmly. She was clearly irritated with our little tiff.

“She started it!” I said, pointing a finger.

“That’s enough.”

The room fell silent for a few brief moments. I looked out the tiny window and saw dark clouds. “Is it going to rain?”

“I hope so. It’s been dry here for too long.”

“Why don’t they just adjust the climactic generator?” Rory said.

“Because we have no such technology.”

“You mean to say they can’t make it rain here when they want?”

“No, Rory, we can’t.”

“Well, that’s silly. No wonder it’s so brown and dusty here.”

“We’ve not had a good rain for nearly five years. And if our crops fail, what will the people of the Inner States eat?”

Suz waved her hand. “Oh, we’ve lots of food there.”

“Yes, perhaps, but do you know where it comes from?”

“The grocery store, of course.”

Mrs. Graham leaned forward slightly. “And where does the grocery store get it?”

I watched my sister’s mouth slowly fall open. She didn’t have a clue.


Black clouds billowed angrily on the horizon as we made a dash for Grandpa’s truck. In my haste to get away from the weather I’d forgotten that I made an invite to Dagwood to meet up after school. Little did I think he’d remember. But lo and behold, there he was, standing near the truck, talking to Grandpa. As we approached, he waved. “Hi, Jonah!”

“Hello, Dagwood.” I opened the front passenger door and deposited my backpack on the floorboards. Rory and Suz were clambering into the backseat.

“I know your grandpa,” he said, pointing.


“Yeah, he helped my daddy with his crops last year.”

“Ah, I see.” There was little of that conversation I cared to hear. “So where do you live?”

Dagwood motioned over his shoulder. “The farm next to your grandpa’s.”


Grandpa thumped the hood of the truck. “Come, children, let’s get home before the storm hits.”

“Gonna be a bad one too,” Dagwood said.

“Need a ride home, son?”

“Gosh, do I! I missed the bus waiting for Jonah.”

“How about we drop you off on the way home?”


Dagwood piled into the front seat. I was left to squeeze into the remaining space on the worn bench seat. Thankfully it wasn’t a long ride. The clouds seemed to be chasing us along the road. As we got to Dagwood’s it almost appeared as if they’d overtake us and the heavens would open up.

Grandpa pulled over at the end of the long drive. “Can ya make it, son?”

Dagwood looked out the window. “Think so.”

I didn’t want to waste any more time. Opening the door, I hopped out, giving him room to make an escape. He did so with little prompting.

“Thanks, Mr. Cranwinkle! See ya, Jonah!” he said, darting down the quarter-mile drive.

Above me, thunder rumbled. I scrambled into the truck and hoped we’d make it home before the rain came. The weather back home was fairly predictable. They would tell you the previous night on the news if it was going to rain. That way you could prepare. In this place there was a definite level of uncertainty about the weather. It kind of frightened me.

Down the long dusty drive we went. Grandpa was actually going faster than usual. I was confident he didn’t want to be caught in this tempest, either. I saw a wicked flash of lightning. The bolt was highlighted against a backdrop of sinister clouds. And not more than a second later, the resounding crack and boom of thunder shook the truck. I could feel my insides rumbling.

“Oh, that was close!” Grandpa said, pulling up in front of the house. “Get on in, children!”

Doors flew open and we disembarked the truck like it was on fire. I barely remembered to grab my backpack and shut the door as I laid eyes on the house and safety. Big raindrops began to fall, creating puffs of dust as they landed. The three of us charged up the steps and to the door. Suz grabbed the knob and hit the door with her weight. It didn’t budge.

“Turn the knob, silly!” Rory said, giving her a shove.

“Shut up!” She grasped the knob firmly and turned. The door popped open.

Rory and I pushed our way past and stumbled into the entryway. Grandma was waiting for us.

“Ah, you got home just in time,” she said.

Another boom of thunder made the whole house shake. We winced in fear.

“Had to drop Dagwood at his house,” I replied, my breath coming short.

“Dagwood Hogg?”


“He’s a nice young man.”

“Oh, uh, right.”

A moment later the whole house was lit by a brilliant pink flash, the accompanying thunder right behind it. The door opened and Grandpa hurried inside. “Might wanna make sure we have a lantern in the storm cellar.”

“Think it’ll be that bad?” asked Grandma.

“Could be.” He took off his coat and hung it on the bannister. “Haven’t seen a storm like this in years.”

The three of us unconsciously and instinctively huddled together. We heard rain lashing against the old wood siding. Never before had I witnessed a storm of this magnitude. Two more flashes of lightning and deafening thunder. “Grandpa?” I said.


“Should we hide somewhere?”

He looked at Grandma and gestured. “Get that lantern going.”

Without a word, Grandma went to the side of the stairs and opened a small door. She disappeared and was gone several minutes. When she finally poked her head out, she waved to us. “Come, children.”

Rory and I made a move for the door, Suz stood firm. “Suz, you need to get into the cellar,” I said, offering my hand out for support and guidance.

“I don’t want to. There might be spiders down there.” She refused my hand, and we decided to get inside the staircase.

Grandpa got his hands behind her. “And there might be tornadoes up here!” He gave her a meaningful nudge, but Suz resisted.

“I’m not going down there!”

I don’t know if it was because Grandpa didn’t like Suz, or he was just trying to get the point across, but he left her where she stood, made his way under the staircase, shutting the door. Rory and I followed him into the dark depths under the house. Suz remained above. I wondered what would happen to her. As we descended the creaky steps, I saw a faint light glowing.

“Shouldn’t we go back for her?” Rory said over the thunder.

“She’s a big girl, she can make up her own mind,” Grandpa said, slowly navigating the last few stairs. “If she wants to stay up there, she can.”

Grandma Cranwinkle was sitting in a comfortable chair. She didn’t seem particularly fazed by what was going on above. On her lap was a knitting project, her fingers deftly working the needles. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was impressed with her skill. An old sofa sat across from her. Rory, Grandpa, and I took a seat.

The whole cellar was momentarily lit by an intense flash. It was then I noticed there were small windows high up on the wall. Fierce rumbling shook the house and I swore I heard creaking and groaning of the ancient beams. Being buried alive wasn’t what I had in mind when it came to dying. I’d hoped that I’d go out quietly, peacefully, and painlessly. This seemed none of that.

Above, the door opened with a loud crash and Suz nearly fell down the steps in her haste to reach safety. I guess the last one was too close. She stopped when she found us sitting on the old sofa.


“Just sit down,” I said. There was no need to hear her excuse.

She immediately complied, wedging herself between Rory and me. I could hear the wind. It sounded like the roar of a jet engine. Things were hitting the side of the house, debris of some sort. Was this a tornado? I slouched deeper into the cushy sofa, feeling the nap of the red velvet. Looking over at Rory and Suz, it appeared they were trying to do the same. Grandma and Grandpa seemed oblivious to what was going on above. I had a feeling that if there was a basement below this basement that all three of us would be down there—spiders or not.

Grandpa lit another lantern and placed it on a little table next to the sofa. He’d picked up a book and was reading. Somewhere lightning flashed and I heard the rolling of thunder as it came our way. The sound always intrigued me. How a noise, produced by an act of nature could crackle, change, undulate, and seem to have a life of its own. And when it hit you, it slammed you with a force that shook you to the very core.

I think we spent several hours down in the cellar. On a few occasions, the thunder hit the house so hard it shook dust from the rafters onto us. Grandpa still wasn’t bothered by it. He simply brushed it off the page he was reading and carried on. When things finally got quiet, we went upstairs, had a quick supper, and then it was off to bed.

* * *


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