Robots vs. Fairies
BUILD ME A WONDERLAND
by Seanan McGuire
One of the pixies in the Mother Tree was banging its tiny head against a branch, wings moving fast enough to create a grinding metallic whine like the buzz of a giant robot cicada. Clover hoisted herself onto the branch, tugged her chain-mail glove into position, and reached the pixie, pinning the still-vibrating wings to its back. It didn’t react to her presence. Toys never did.
Carefully Clover lifted the pixie from its branch and raised it to her face, getting a look at the damage. Scuffs marked the plastic pseudo-skin covering its once pretty face. Its eyes rolled wildly, generating a softer whine than its buzzing wings. The servos would overload soon, and permanent damage would follow. Or fire. Sometimes the eye servos caused the pixie heads to catch fire, a nasty form of mechanical failure that always seemed to occur when there were children watching. Every. Single. Time. Get a little kid with eyes full of wonder and a heart full of childish innocence into the Pixie Glen, and one of the buzzing assholes was virtually guaranteed to go up in flames.
The voice spoke in her left ear, filled with static and almost as annoying as the whine from the pixie’s wildly rolling eyes. The urge to ignore it was strong. The urge not to deal with the consequences of ignoring it were stronger. “I got it,” she said, trusting the microphone to pick up her voice. “One of the G-3 pixies slipped a couple servos. Poor thing’s in full meltdown. I’m bringing it back to the shop.”
“Bring it back fast. Boss man’s coming for a surprise inspection.”
Clover swallowed a groan. It stuck in her throat, a great knot of exasperation and dismay. “How do we know he’s coming if it’s a surprise?”
“He always forgets that the deer in the Enchanted Forest have cameras in their eyes. He was checking their teeth.”
“What, again?” Clover returned her attention to the pixie. “Cover for me.”
“Clover—he’s got a stranger with him.”
Clover said a couple of words that weren’t supposed to be allowed in Pixie Glen, much less in the all-sheltering embrace of the Mother Tree. She concluded with, “I’m on my way,” and began her descent, still clutching the broken pixie in one hand.
She was almost to the bottom when the damn thing’s head burst into flame.
* * *
The nearest maintenance door was more than twenty yards from Pixie Glen, concealed in the rocks making up the back of Mermaid Grotto. The park’s original plans had an access door on the back of the Mother Tree, but Mr. Franklin had put the kibosh on that.
“Children will want to circle the tree, to gaze in awe upon its denizens!” he’d said, in his booming, all-for-the-children tone. “Make it a full-spectrum experience, accessible from all sides, with no chance of an unsightly seam to spoil the illusion!”
“Okay, that’s a great idea, we love it, but you do understand that a
structure involving over two hundred miniaturized animatronic figures, some of which are attached to independent micro-drones, is going to require a lot of upkeep, right?” Adam had been the voice of reason on the engineering team back in those days, when the Fairy Dreamland expansion had still been mostly blueprints and arguments about whether or not they could have a unicorn petting zoo. “If we don’t have a maintenance door in the Tree itself, every time there’s a mechanical error, we’re going to have to shut down the whole Glen. There’s not going to be any functional way around it.”
“Then find a way to keep them from breaking,” Mr. Franklin had said, and that had been that: no maintenance door in the Glen.
Every time Clover had to walk those twenty yards with a burning pixie in her hand, she hated the man who owned her home and place of work just a little bit more.
At least the Park was closed for the night, offering respite from the usual need to scuttle along with a smile on her face, a spring in her step, and a deep loathing of humanity brewing in her heart. Clover made her way to the door, swiped her ID card, and stepped through into the dim, humid hall. She relaxed, taking a breath of good, earthy air. Humans and their weird fetish for open spaces. Air that hadn’t been boxed up for a while had no character.
Mr. Franklin didn’t like how dark the maintenance tunnels were. At least he’d accepted it after he was told, over and over, that too much light would attract the attention of park guests, killing the illusion of effortless perfection. He still hadn’t been happy about it. Clover suspected the old man would have gotten rid of maintenance entirely if he’d been able to, living ever after in his kingdom of obedient, never-breaking robots. She smirked as she walked. Wouldn’t he be surprised if he knew how impossible, yet achievable, his goal really was? It was a paradox. She loved those. They broke people in the most entertaining ways.
Her smirk died as she stepped around a curve in the hall and
into the brighter lights of the maintenance lounge. What looked like two-thirds of the night crew was there, some with fantastical beasts or magical creatures spread out across their workbenches, others wiping grease off their hands and trying to look like they enjoyed the lights being up.
Clover walked briskly to her own workbench and dropped the headless pixie into a jar. It would stay there until its battery wore down and its wings stopped flapping. It wasn’t efficient, but those wings were like razor blades, and the off switch was—naturally—right between them.
“Hell of a design flaw,” she muttered sourly, and capped the jar. Letting the pixie run itself down might preserve her fingers. Clover liked her fingers. Disfigurement for the sake of her art was not something she considered particularly interesting, or particularly desirable.
Some of the older engineers thought differently, thought a missing finger or a truncated thumb was a mark of commitment to the work. They were relics of a different time, and while it might take a while for them to settle into comfortable retirement, she was willing to wait. The second the last of the old guard hung up their tool belt, the safety regulations around here were going to change.
“What’s the emergency?” she asked, turning to the nearest engineer.
Violet—the youngest bar one of the Park’s current engineering team, still bright-eyed and full of endless faith in the future—looked at her with wide, worried eyes and said, “Mr. Franklin is coming.”
“Yeah, I know that. That’s why I was called out of the Glen.”
“The man he’s bringing with him has a clipboard.”
That was more unnerving. Men with clipboards came in three flavors: lawyers, accountants, and efficiency experts. Lawyers could be convinced to back off with magic words like “safety regulations” and “adherence to legal requirements.” They didn’t understand what went on in the tunnels crisscrossing the body of the Park like veins, pumping the life and vitality that was just as essential to the survival
of the whole as blood was to a living thing. Accountants were harder, requiring access to supply sheets and maintenance logs that weren’t necessarily as accurate as they should have been. Thus far, the faked-up versions created for the Park shareholders had always been good enough to keep an audit at bay. But an efficiency expert . . .
No efficiency expert could possibly understand the complexity of Mr. Franklin’s grand dream, because Mr. Franklin didn’t understand it himself. He’d put out the word that he was looking for miracle workers, and when a family with the relevant skills had answered the call, he hadn’t looked too closely at their résumés. Just the things they could do, the wonders they could cobble together at his command. He’d been asking the engineers for increasingly impossible things over the years, unicorns with eyes that glistened bright as any living thing, pixies that flew independent, unpredictable spirals around their tree. And they’d always found a way to do it, meeting his demands without hesitation or complaint, because they needed this place as badly as he did. They needed it to work. They needed it to thrive.
They needed it to do those things without attracting the attention of men who would look at their paradise of rainbows and moonbeams and see only the hidden costs of each hologram and servo. They needed the freedom to be inefficient. Inefficiency was where the magic hid.
Footsteps from the hall preceded the arrival of one of Clover’s cousins, who hissed, “They’re coming,” before jumping into position at his own workbench, grabbing for the nearest screwdriver.
By the time Mr. Franklin and his clipboard-wielding companion stepped into the maintenance room, all the engineers were hard at work. Clover’s pixie was still winding down, so she was oiling the segments of an animatronic python, its scaled exterior hanging over the edge of the table like a discarded glove. Violet was polishing a unicorn’s horn. All over the room, similar scenes of busywork played out, each orchestrated to make a visual point
about how absolutely vital the engineering staff was to the Park.
“Hello, everyone!” boomed Mr. Franklin, voice overly loud and jovial. “I wanted to stop in and see how the work was going!”
Clover wasn’t the only one to wince: the man with the clipboard did so as well, trying to conceal his discomfort with a grimace. He was taller than Mr. Franklin by an easy six inches, tan, with sun-streaked brown hair. He didn’t look like an accountant.
Please be a lawyer, she thought—possibly the only time that thought had ever formed while on the grounds of an amusement park.
“We’re always happy to have you, boss,” said Adam, putting down his wrench and stepping forward. He was smiling, but his eyes were sharp as he asked, “Who’s your friend? We aren’t prepared for a tour right now—there might be some proprietary technology on display in the private work areas.”
“There always is, because most of my park is proprietary,” said Mr. Franklin, a chiding note creeping into his voice. He didn’t do any of the heavy lifting for the Park—just provided the money and the increasingly difficult design challenges that delighted him and frustrated his engineers. “Remember that, when you’re deciding what to leave out in the open.”
“Of course, Mr. Franklin,” said Adam apologetically.
He must have sounded conciliatory enough, because Mr. Franklin smiled and said, “No harm done. This is Mr. Tillman.” He indicated the man with the clipboard. “Mr. Tillman is an efficiency expert. He’s going to be with you for the next several days, making notes on what we can do to improve the overall experience of our guests. Remember, a working park is a happy park, and a happy park can’t help but be filled with happy people.”
It was a testament to Mr. Franklin’s general air of obliviousness that he didn’t notice the way the mood in the room darkened the moment he said the words “efficiency expert.”
On Clover’s workbench, the pixie caught fire again.
* * *
She supposed it was inevitable: If someone was going to be assigned to babysit the efficiency expert, why not pick on the girl with the fire consuming her workbench? She’d been a soft target, too busy beating out the flames to defend herself. By the time she’d realized what was happening, it had been too late for any of the easy excuses, and the hard ones could have resulted in Mr. Franklin realizing how nervous they all were. Not an acceptable outcome.
“This is what we call the Enchanted Garden,” said Clover, gesturing at the moss-draped trees with their glittering bark and veils of brilliantly colored butterflies. “Note that the butterflies are currently stationary. Mr. Franklin wants us to have them flying independently by the middle of next quarter. We’re working on miniaturizing the necessary servos, and we hope to be done by Christmas.” Because we’re so damned efficient, she thought fiercely. You’re not needed. Go home.
Once the servos for the butterflies were officially ready, they could “upgrade” the pixies. Mr. Franklin would be shocked by how much more freely they flew, and how much more rarely they caught fire. Most living things were substantially less subject to spontaneous combustion than their robot counterparts.
“How many people pass through the, ah, Enchanted Garden daily?”
“On a busy day, anywhere from ten to thirty thousand. We have a flow-through on the Park as a whole of between fifty and one hundred thousand people, more at the major holidays. Capacity for ticketed guests is two hundred thousand, which assumes one child below the age of ticketing for every four adult or older child guests. We’ve had to close admissions for fire safety reasons five times in the past year, due to overcrowding.”
Mr. Tillman made a note on his clipboard. Clover decided to hate the clipboard. “So what I’m hearing is that under one-third of guests will pass through the Enchanted Garden on an average
day. What do you estimate the cost expenditure for these, ah, ‘independently motile’ butterflies to be?”
Clover forced herself to keep smiling. If she started scowling, she wasn’t going to be able to stop. “After we finish initial research and development, ten dollars per butterfly, plus maintenance costs.” Minus forty dollars per pixie in maintenance costs, since the pixies wouldn’t need it anymore.
“And do you genuinely feel that this will improve the experience of the average park guest so measurably that it should remain a priority?”
“Mr. Franklin wants it.”
Normally, that answer could shut down or derail any criticism: Mr. Franklin wanted it. Mr. Franklin was beloved by children and adults alike, thanks to his innovative movies, his lines of affordable and amusing toys, his breakfast cereals, for fuck’s sake, and, most of all, his Dreamland. His glorious park that elevated the mundane into the magical, allowing people with the cash and the vacation time to spare to escape their everyday lives for something extraordinary. Mr. Franklin was a jerk and a bigot who didn’t understand that he couldn’t always get his own way, but no one questioned what he’d built, and no one really wanted to argue with him.
Mr. Tillman was apparently no one. He made another note on his clipboard. “I see. What are these flowers?”
Crap. Clover hurried to put herself between the efficiency expert and the trumpet flowers he was gesturing at. “Specially treated plastic. They look real, they never wilt, and they put off a soothing aroma that keeps children calmer. It’s reduced shoving incidents in the Mermaid Grotto and Unicorn Meadows by seventy percent.” Which was important. Unicorns were essentially sharp, vindictive horses that didn’t care whether the person pulling their tails was a paying guest or not. Preventing goring incidents was key.
“What about guests with allergies?” asked Mr. Tillman, suddenly
scowling. “Have you considered that these flowers might be leading to health issues?”
“Uh . . .” Clover froze, finally squeaking, “No?” Because they weren’t plastic, and no one human had ever been allergic to a Dryad-cultivated flower. But there was no way to say that.
“This is environmentally very unsound. I’ll be discussing this with Mr. Franklin. Now, take me to”—he glanced at his notes—“the Mermaid Grotto.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” said Clover, suddenly all smiles again. No one could look at the Mermaid Grotto and fail to understand the enchantment and wonder that permeated this place. It just wasn’t possible. “Follow me.”
* * *
Mr. Tillman specialized in the impossible. He stood impassively in the underwater viewing area, making notes on his clipboard while Technicolor fish swam by on the other side of the glass, playing peekaboo through the forest of rainbow kelp. Wingless pixies with sea-horse tails rode on the backs of majestically gliding tuna. Clover shifted her weight from foot to foot, hoping Mr. Tillman wouldn’t ask her any finicky questions about how the submerged pixies were mechanically possible. The answer was simple: they weren’t. She just had no way to explain that.
He didn’t ask. Instead, he looked up, frowned, and asked, “Why is this place called ‘Mermaid Grotto’ if there are no mermaids?”
“Oh, there are mermaids,” she said, so relieved by the question that she forgot to be cautious about her answer. “This time of day, they’re usually up top, watching the sunset.”
Mr. Tillman blinked. “Watching the sunset? I was under the impression that there were no live performers in this part of the Park. The insurance rates for keeping women in the water—”
Crap. “It’s a function of the rudimentary AI that drives them,” she said, hoping she sounded believable. “They move toward light,
which allows them to surprise and delight our guests during normal operating hours. Once we bring the lights in the tunnels down to nighttime levels to save power, the mermaids go up. After the sun sets, their maintenance routines will kick in and take them back to their berths for the rest of the night.”
“I’d like to see them.”
Of course you would, thought Clover. “Right this way,” she said, and gestured for him to follow her along the tunnel—cleverly sculpted to look like it was carved from a living coral reef—to the stairs. “One moment.” She flipped a molded “shell” open, revealing a control panel, and punched a series of buttons. Lights came on in the stairwell. More importantly, at least for her purposes, the decorative pearls up on the viewing platform would be starting to glow. The mermaids would know someone was coming.
Mr. Tillman didn’t say anything as they climbed the stairs, but she knew he was watching her, and worse, she knew he was taking notes.
The stairs wound through the Grotto in a gentle spiral, shallow enough for children and older guests to climb easily, with viewing windows cut out at every interval, allowing people to have something to look at if they needed to stop for a brief rest. Clover tried to keep him moving whenever they encountered one of those windows. The last thing she needed was for the efficiency expert to start asking questions about the fish—and he would ask questions, if he got a good look at some of them.
This isn’t going to work, she thought desperately. Mr. Franklin is going to catch on, and we’re going to lose everything we’ve made. We’re going to be driven back into the world to die. She glanced at Mr. Tillman, trying to read his expression.
Mr. Tillman’s face gave nothing away. Whatever he was thinking, he was keeping it to himself.
The tunnel shifted as they neared the top of the stairs, turning
translucent, less like coral and more like the delicate shell of a chambered nautilus. It was designed to let ambient light through; during the day, the whole structure seemed to glow. Clover didn’t point any of those things out. This was a standing structure, and its costs had already long since been absorbed by the Park’s overall budget. Unless Mr. Tillman was going to call for closing the Mermaid Grotto entirely, the schematics of the entryway didn’t matter.
They stepped outside, onto the viewing platform. The ground here was textured rubber, designed to look as much like sand as possible while providing a no-slip surface for the guests. A coral “wall” surrounded the central pool, tall enough that even the most ambitious of climbers would be caught before they could go over, low enough that all but the youngest guests could see the water. Holes were drilled toward the base for the very youngest, providing them with a mermaid’s-eye view. Pearls glittered everywhere, embedded in the walls on all sides, gleaming like stars.
At the center of the pool was a faux-coral island, colored pink and orange and purple, like some sort of childhood dream. And on the island were the mermaids.
There had been a few complaints about the Park mermaids. That they were “difficult to tell apart,” which made it harder for children to find their favorites: all eight had skin in varying shades of blue, with tails scaled in shades ranging from pearly gray to deep purple. Their hair was uniformly white, and their faces, while pretty, were not quite human. They fell solidly into the uncanny valley for many adult guests. The children loved them, and couldn’t spend enough time standing in the Grotto, staring openmouthed at the figures darting through the water.
Even Mr. Tillman seemed taken aback when he saw them, stopping in his tracks and staring. He recovered quickly, however, and demanded, “What are those? They don’t look like Franklin Company mermaids.”
“Skin tones don’t hold up well underwater; they start to look artificial within a week, due to algae buildup,” said Clover. The mermaids continued to lounge on their island, although several cast barely concealed looks at the pair. Stay where you are, Clover prayed. “And the hair is made up of microfilament wire. It moves in a natural way, without getting tangled the way that real hair does.”
“You could save a great deal on maintenance costs by replacing the microfilament with molded plastic,” said Mr. Tillman, making a note on his clipboard. He still seemed oddly shaken. Maybe he was one of those humans who’d seen a mermaid when he was young and had never quite managed to forget the experience. “Most amusement parks of this size use sculpted hair for their animatronics, to avoid the expenses that you’ve been incurring.”
Clover’s heart sank. She tried not to let it show as she said, “Most amusement parks don’t put the focus we do on realistic animatronic interactions. When children leave Dreamland, we want them saying that they’ve seen real mermaids, not that they saw a pretty robot that swam like a fish.”
“But they are pretty robots. Whether they swim like fish, I couldn’t say, since their AI is apparently inadequate.” Mr. Tillman fixed her with a cool look. “Don’t forget that what you’re crafting here is not reality, Miss . . . ?”
“Clover,” she said. “Just Clover. If you’d follow me, please?” She turned on her heel and stalked away without waiting to see whether he was coming. Mr. Tillman glanced back at the mermaids, apparently unsettled, before hurrying after her.
The mermaids turned and watched him go.
* * *
In short order, Mr. Tillman declared the Unicorn Meadows “a waste of both space and resources,” the Mythical Creatures Petting Zoo “unrealistic and unhygienic,” and the Sphinx’s Library “a dull accident of overambitious design.” Privately, Clover thought he would
have found the Library substantially less boring if the resident sphinx had been awake, but as she’d get in trouble if she didn’t bring him back alive, she hadn’t pressed the alarm.
Finally they were approaching the Pixie Glen, and Clover’s last chance to make this soulless bean counter understand the wonder the Park was designed to invoke. If he didn’t understand when he saw the Mother Tree, he was never going to.
They passed through the curtain of branches that kept the pixies from getting out and spilling throughout the Park, and stopped. Clover snuck a glance at Mr. Tillman’s face and was relieved to see him wide-eyed and staring at the brightly lit little figures flitting around the tree. None of the pixies were on fire, even, which was a nice change.
Then his expression hardened. “It’s the butterflies all over again,” he said. “Why do they need to fly so far from their base? They’re adding nothing to the area, but the expense has got to be—”
Clover couldn’t take it anymore. “Are you kidding me?” she demanded. She spread her arms, trying to indicate the whole Glen at once. “How can you stand here and not see how magical and important this place is? Our guests come here to get their sense of wonder and joy renewed.”
“Yes, and if we take out three of these attractions, the guests will be able to have their sense of wonder and joy renewed by a seven-story drop and a high-speed roller coaster. Attendance is down. I’m going to find ways to fix that. Unicorns are not the answer.”
If you’d said that while we were still in their part of the Park, you’d be finding out just how much of the answer a unicorn can be, Clover thought, almost dizzily. Aloud, she asked, “Is that what you’ve been writing on your little clipboard? That we should be ripping out our attractions and replacing them with some mechanical monstrosity that will break down all the damn time, just because it might give
guests a thrill?”
“Yes,” he said calmly. “It would give them a thrill and increase attendance figures. You’ll have to lose a few of these . . . twee little make-believe attractions, but the number of people who see the remaining attractions should skyrocket. I’d expect you to be pleased.”
Clover stared at him, mouth opening and closing like that of a beached fish. Finally she did the only thing she could think of: pulling the large wrench from her tool belt, she swung it in a hard arc, catching the efficiency expert just behind the ear. His glasses were knocked askew by the blow. He had time to give her a baffled, betrayed look, and then he was falling, hitting the rubber-enhanced concrete path before she had time to consider the consequences of her actions.
Clover clapped her hands over her mouth, the wrench hitting the path next to the body of the efficiency expert. The efficiency expert, for his part, lay there silently bleeding.
“Oh no,” she whispered, voice muffled by her fingers. “What did I do?”
A group of pixies flew by, wings chiming like tiny bells. Clover’s expression hardened. She’d done exactly what she had to do, and she would do it again. She stooped, picking up her wrench and shoving it back into her belt. Then she grabbed Mr. Tillman by the ankles and began dragging him toward the entrance to the maintenance tunnels.
The park was more important than attendance figures. The park was their hope for the future. It was time for the “efficiency expert” to learn that for himself.
* * *
Adam jumped to his feet when she dragged Mr. Tillman’s body into the maintenance lounge. Mr. Franklin was asleep at one of the open workstations, snoring gently. There was a tumbler half-full of dark-purple mermaid wine still clutched loosely in his hand.
“Good,” said Clover, dropping Tillman’s feet and blowing her hair out of her eyes. “He should be out for hours. We need to take this fool apart.”
“Clover.” Adam stopped in his tracks, waving his hands helplessly. “When I told you to show him around, I meant . . . show him around. Not kill him.”
“He’s not dead,” she said dismissively, and kicked him in the leg. “Though he might as well be. He has no sense of wonder. Do you know what he said to me? He said we needed more roller coasters. Roller coasters! He called the Mother Tree a ‘twee little make-believe attraction’! He wasn’t even impressed by the mermaids! We need to make him go away.”
“We can’t make him go away,” said Violet, moving to stand next to Adam. “Mr. Franklin will notice.”
“So we replace him!” Clover looked around frantically, finally grabbing a hammer. “We’ve replaced security guards with animatronics. Why not an efficiency expert?”
“Well, first, the security guards don’t need to do anything—the unicorns handle security fine by themselves,” said Adam. “Second, we had weeks to follow and study them before we did anything. We don’t know whether he has a family. We don’t know whether anyone would notice.”
“We don’t know whether he’s human.”
Clover and Adam both turned to gape at Violet. She was kneeling next to Mr. Tillman, apparently trying to check the severity of his head wound. She had succeeded in removing his wig, revealing a flesh-colored wig cap held down with bobby pins . . . and the sharp, previously concealed points of his ears.
Clover gasped. Adam paled.
“The elves have found us,” he said. “That’s it. We’re done. We might as well pack it in right now.”
The look on Tillman’s face when he’d seen the mermaids . . .
Clover took a deep breath and put her hand on Adam’s arm. “No,” she said. “He didn’t know.”
“When he first started seeing things he couldn’t explain, he was surprised. He tried to cover it, but I saw. He didn’t know. He’s here for the same reason we are.” She looked at Tillman again, trying to see him not as a human invader, but as a fellow refugee from the crumbling moonlit palaces of another world. “He’s running.”
“He’s also waking up,” said Violet, straightening and stepping back, Tillman’s wig still clutched in her hand. “Adam?”
“Let’s see what he says,” said Adam.
They waited, listening to Mr. Franklin’s snoring, as Tillman opened his eyes and sat up, reaching groggily to touch the back of his head. He froze when his fingers hit the plastic wig cap instead of his artificial hair. He looked up.
“Hello, elf,” said Adam.
Tillman gaped for a few seconds before pulling himself regally upright, looking down his nose, and saying, “Kobolds. I should have recognized your work the moment I stepped into these tunnels. Does Franklin know?”
“Nah,” said Clover easily. “He thinks we’re a family of mechanical geniuses who’ll work for peanuts as long as he’s willing to let us handle our own HR paperwork. He thinks he has forty of us working here. He has a hundred and sixteen. How’s your head?”
“Sore.” Tillman glared at her. “No thanks to you.”
“Hey, all the thanks to me. I could’ve killed you.”
“We’re still discussing it,” said Adam. He crouched down, glaring at Tillman. “Why are you here? Who sent you? Did you tell anyone about us? We’re not going back.”
“We wondered where you’d gone, you know.” There was a defeated note in Tillman’s voice, like he was confessing something shameful. “You all vanished in a single afternoon. That must have
taken planning. Preparation. Cooperation. Not the sort of thing we expected from you.”
“Maybe you should have,” said Adam.
“Clearly,” said Tillman.
Violet, who was too young to remember what it had been like beneath the Hill, frowned. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“We used to work for the elves,” said Adam, not taking his eyes off Tillman. “They thought they were better than us, when all they really were was tall.”
“We’re still tall,” said Tillman wryly. “We never understood why you left.”
“Then you’re not just tall; you’re blind,” said Clover. “We left because you wouldn’t listen when we said we needed a better plan than ‘huddle under the Hill and hope humanity will go away.’ The mermaids couldn’t leave the oceans. The unicorns were dying. Don’t even get me started on the manticores. We needed to move, and so we moved, and left you behind.”
“You haven’t answered my question,” said Adam. “Who knows you’re here?”
“Everyone,” said Tillman. “I’m here with full authority from the Queen.”
Clover threw her hands up. “I told you that you should have let me kill him.”
“She doesn’t know you’re here.”
All three kobolds turned to look at Tillman. He shook his head.
“I wasn’t looking for you. To be honest, no one is. We haven’t the resources anymore. I’m here because we’d heard that the management was wasting all their time on low, simple places, animatronics and machines. We thought we could show them something better.”
“Roller coasters,” sneered Clover.
“Yes, supported by elf magic, capable of ignoring the laws of physics. We thought that might be enough to buy us a new home.”
“A new home?” asked Adam.
“Our palaces are collapsing.” Nothing in Tillman’s words sounded like a lie: they were spoken quietly, calmly, and with an utter lack of haughty pride. He was telling the truth. Whatever good it might do him. “The first one fell a year ago. Long after you’d gone. I suppose, in part, we could blame you; you’d always done the maintenance, and we didn’t have any idea how to keep the foundations strong in your absence. But really, it was our fault. We should have learned how to maintain our own infrastructure.”
“That sounds almost like humility, elf,” said Clover.
Tillman looked at her blandly. “Maybe it is,” he said. “The collapse is coming faster all the time. I’m here because we hoped that this might be a place where palaces could be built.”
“Most of our attractions are biological at this point,” said Adam. “We’re replacing the mechanical pieces with the real thing a little more every quarter. The last animatronic unicorn will be retired this winter, when the herd from Scandinavia finally gets here. All the mermaids are real. About half the pixies.”
“The other half are probably on fire right now,” said Clover. “We’re wasting time we don’t have. We need to get rid of him.”
“Please,” said Tillman.
The kobolds stopped. Even Clover.
“What did you say?” asked Adam.
“Please,” repeated Tillman. “We need you. We need a place to go. There’s room for us all here, and we can help. We know where the dragons sleep, where the last of the yeti are hiding. We can bring them to you, and we can all be safe and protected, hidden by a veneer of plausible deniability. Please.”
Adam and Clover exchanged a look.
“We’re not going back to doing whatever you say,” said Clover. “We’re free now. Independent. We have health insurance.”
“At this point, all we want to do is survive,” said Tillman.
“All right,” he said. “This is what we’re going to do. . . .”
* * *
“This new staffing agency Mr. Tillman found for us is amazing,” said Mr. Franklin, radiating contentment as the pixies swirled around him. “They fit right into our culture, and they work without complaint. I can’t begin to say how happy I am. I told you an efficiency expert could help us.”
“I guess so,” said Clover.
“Thank you again for being willing to show him around. I’ll think of a suitable reward.”
“Just keep the doors open,” said Clover. “That’s all any of us could possibly ask for.”
Mr. Franklin smiled at her benevolently. “My dear, this park is going to last forever, and you’re going to build me a wonderland.”
“Good,” she said.
In the tree behind them, another pixie burst into flame.