THE WALLS HAVE EYES
A month ago Martin Glass had been a regular kid under the steel dome of Suburb HM1, a boy who loved his computer games and hated school. But that had been before his thirteenth birthday, when his parents had given him Chip. The German shepherd could do illegal things, and he had taken Martin to places where no one was allowed to go. There, Martin had learned what happened to the people who didn’t do what the government wanted. They were put on the televised game shows, where they played until they lost— and died.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Martin’s six-year-old sister, Cassie, was in danger. Cassie was a Wonder Baby, a new and improved model of child. Because of Martin’s discoveries about the harshness that lurked below the comfortable surface of his society, he had been very suspicious when a fast-talking stranger had taken Cassie and the other Wonder Babies out of the suburb. Even though the stranger had promised to take care of the little children, something hadn’t felt right. When Martin had learned a few days later that the government wanted to ban the Wonder Babies as unsafe consumer products, he had been furious and very worried. He had decided to find out if his sister was all right.
Martin’s dog Chip had helped him escape from the suburb, and Martin had found Cassie, safe in a secret school run by
the young scientist, Dr. Rudolph Church. Rudy was the prototype for the Wonder Babies, and he thought of them as his little brothers and sisters. When the government had decided to destroy them, Rudy had left his lab to rescue them.
Martin didn’t fit in with the supersmart Wonder Babies, and he didn’t get along with most of the other geniuses from Rudy’s lab. But he had met someone he did get along with: Theo, the prototype for his own product line. When she had invited Martin along on an adventure to find a safer location for the Wonder Baby school, Martin had agreed to go.
Martin and Theo spent the afternoon in the cafeteria, packing their backpacks and preparing for their trip to find a new school for the Wonder Babies. Theo’s approach to packing was considerably more thorough than Martin’s had been. “We both need medical supplies,” she said, dividing up the piles, “in case a pack gets lost.”
“I guess that’ll be yours,” Martin said. “I’m not gonna lose my pack.”
“What if it falls in a river? What if wild animals grab it? You remember that it’s dangerous outside, right?”
Martin’s imagination glossed over the dangers of the untamed wilderness and lingered on the exciting elements instead: beautiful birds, fascinating insects, and the constantly changing scenery. “Sure, I know. So, where do you think we’re gonna find a new school, anyway? This one looks pretty good to me.”
Theo picked up a small round mirror and squinted into it. Then she swiveled it so Martin caught a glimpse of her stubby nose and bright hazel eyes. “It’s too good,” she said.
“It’s perfect, in fact. That means any agent with access to top secret maps will eventually notice this facility and come here to check it out. We need something we can build or develop ourselves.”
“Build where?” Martin asked.
Theo was counting out energy bars. “I have ideas, but we shouldn’t discuss them,” she said. “There could be bugs even in here.”
Martin glanced at the bland white walls, at the ceiling with its broad square panels and big institutional lights. He didn’t catch the glitter of light bouncing off tiny glass spying devices, but his spirits sank at the thought. He pictured one of those small gelatinous blobs gliding along the baseboards, distributing its hidden load of bugs. Would he ever get to a place where the walls didn’t listen and watch?
“Maybe whoever sets the bugs doesn’t care about looking for you,” he said. “They were gonna recall the Wonder Babies and take them away from their parents. You guys did that, so now they don’t have to. It’s like you did them a favor.”
Theo grinned. “I’d like to tell the suits at Central that. ‘We were just helping you out!’ But listen, it was somebody’s job to collect those little kids. If I know this government, somebody’s still trying to do it.”
“What do they want with them?” Martin asked. “What would they do with a bunch of preschool geniuses?”
“Nothing good,” Theo said. “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.”
Dinnertime came, and the cafeteria filled with savory smells. Then it filled with hundreds of adorable little children
in blue T-shirts and jeans. Cassie pelted over to him and threw her skinny arms around his waist. “You’re still here! My teacher told me I could have dinner with you.”
Martin hugged her back. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” he said.
“I know. You and Theo are going to search for our new school. But you’ll be back when you find it. This is my big brother,” she bragged to the nearby children. “He came all the way out here to visit me.”
Martin sat down to share a meal of vegetable soup and cheese crackers with her.
“There sure are a bunch of you Wonder kids,” he said. “You wouldn’t all fit in our school back home.”
“This isn’t even half of us,” Cassie told him as she licked the salt off her crackers. “We eat in shifts, and the toddlers have their own cafeteria. They take naps in it too.”
“How do they get enough food for this crowd?”
“They steal it off the packet lines.”
“Man! I bet that makes the packet chiefs mad!”
Cassie selected the middle cracker from the stack on her napkin and balanced a piece of sodden zucchini on top of it. “Rudy says we’re not supposed to worry about it. He says children should just play and learn. I’m learning a language people used to speak before our language developed. Do you want to hear some of it?”
“No!” Martin said. “That’s just nuts. Who cares how a bunch of dead guys talked?”
Cassie shrugged. “I do. Will you be here for breakfast?”
“No. Theo wants to get an early start.”
“That’s good. You’ll find our new school faster,” Cassie said.
“Then we won’t have to keep tear gas masks in the classrooms anymore and waste time on evacuation drills.”
Martin was too shocked to comment.
One by one, the teachers called their classes to turn in their trays and line up. The aisles between the tables were packed solid with the waist-high mob, and Chip crawled under the bench to escape being stepped on. A teenager with a wispy goatee clapped, and Cassie stood up. “That’s Pascal, my teacher,” she explained. “He was supposed to get his own product line last year, but the government wouldn’t let them start incubating the babies. Pascal says they knew then that they were in trouble.”
Martin didn’t think Pascal looked like much of an improvement over regular people. He was a little too handsome, like a singer for a boy band. Not like William. Now, she was an improvement! But Martin remembered William laughing at him and scowled.
“Don’t be sad,” Cassie said. “I’m sorry I have to leave, but Pascal says you’ll be back in five days. That’s not very long.”
Martin started to tell her that he wasn’t scowling about her, but then he stopped himself. He had already made her cry once today, and besides, he didn’t want her to know the real reason. So he let her give him another hug and tugged the golden corkscrew curls on her head.
“You’re right,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Bye, Chip,” Cassie said, and the German shepherd poked his head out from under the table to have his ears scratched. “Take care of my big brother for me.” Then she joined the students lining up next to Pascal and marched out of the cafeteria.
The next shift of Wonder Babies swarmed in. Martin spotted Jimmy talking to some boys from his class. If it hadn’t been for the piebald rat on Jimmy’s shoulder, Martin wouldn’t have recognized the tanned, happy boy as the harassed child he had rescued from a beating. They’re so pretty, Martin thought, but it went beyond that, in a way he couldn’t put into words. Maybe they really were new and improved human beings.
Martin wandered over to Theo and their backpacks, thinking about Dad. Dad had convinced the parents of his suburb to send their Wonder Babies to the school, but only because he thought he was helping the government get rid of them. Dad had sold out his own daughter to keep things cozy for himself, and Martin was the only one who knew.
“Whose murder are you planning?” Theo asked as Martin walked up.
“My dad’s,” he muttered.
“Been there. I had sixteen dads, you know. The plans got very elaborate. Okay, we’re finished here. I need to go review some codes for Rudy. We’re this close to hacking Central’s com protocol so we can intercept messages about us.”
“Do they really need tear gas masks?” Martin wanted to know. “The little kids, I mean?”
Theo paused to study his face before she answered.
“Oh, you know how it is,” she said lightly. “Better safe than sorry. Listen, tell Sim when he comes by to get you a place to sleep. But don’t let him put you in the dorm, or you’ll be up all night listening to chess problems. Lordy! I do hate chess!”
She left, and Martin loitered in the cafeteria. She didn’t answer my question, he thought. Even Theo doesn’t tell me things.
The second shift of Wonder Babies turned in their trays and left. With nothing else to do, Martin checked his knapsack again. The fact that this was a school deterred him from wandering the halls. Wandering school hallways got you yelled at. The bare room and white laminate tables depressed him. Did schools ever look nice?
“I thought I’d find you here.”
William stood in the doorway. She was as gorgeous as ever, and now Martin knew she was terrifically smart as well. “Sim says you’re leaving in the morning,” she said. “Off with Theo to find a new site for the school.”
Hey, maybe she came to wish me luck, Martin thought. I should say something. After all, she’s a teenager like me. But he didn’t, because she wasn’t. She might be his age, but she was a genius like the rest of the prototypes. He remembered how she had performed an experiment on him to see what he’d do if she swiped his shoes. She seemed to like making fun of him.
“I was hoping you’d do me a favor if you have the time,” William said. “Can you help me with a tool that’s out of reach?”
“Oh, sure,” Martin said. “Come on, Chip.”
William led the way through the empty, impersonal corridors to her office. Following William was rapidly becoming the best part of Martin’s day. Her shiny brown hair looks just like when syrup meets butter, Martin thought, and there isn’t a more beautiful sight than that.
The office was an even greater disaster now than it had been earlier. Martin stepped gingerly around a cardboard box
full of old circuit boards. Chip sniffed at them and gave an unhappy whine.
“It’s okay, boy,” Martin told him. “They aren’t anybody you know.”
William waded through the piles and stacks to a shelving unit in the far corner. “Up there,” she said as she stood on her tiptoes in her high-tops and pointed to an object on the highest shelf.
The object she wanted was about a foot square, wrapped in a hard case of dusty green. From its front protruded many short metal bits that gave it a snaggletoothed bulldog’s grin.
“What is it?”
“An antique,” she said. “A typewriter.”
“Is it heavy?”
“That depends on your idea of heavy.”
Martin stretched as far as he could, but he could barely brush the typewriter’s bottom edge with his fingertips. He decided against dislodging it and walking it off the shelf inch by inch; his idea of heavy was an object capable of bashing his head in, and this one looked as if it could. He glanced around. The office chair rolled, so that was no good. He picked his way back through the mess and began moving boxes off the chair by the door.
“What are you doing?”
Martin gestured at the chair. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“You’ll get those out of order,” William said. “I have a system.” And she frowned when Martin laughed. “Anyway, you don’t need that chair. Think! You have another way.”
Now it was Martin’s turn to frown. “I don’t need to think, and I don’t need another way. The chair’s my way, so if you don’t want me to move it, it looks like you and that typer thingy are out of luck.”
William nodded as if he’d just confirmed her suspicions about something. Then she went to the door.
“Sim,” she called, “would you come here for a minute and fetch me down the typewriter?”
The bent old bot hobbled to the doorway. His mild blue eyes brightened when he saw Martin. “Oh, hello, new student. Taking a little instruction, I see.”
William’s laugh annoyed Martin much more than it should have.
With some difficulty and adjustment of his gray robes to avoid toppling papers, Sim made his way across the room. Then he reached up one skinny arm. It stretched to an absurd length in a sudden movement that made Martin’s stomach flop over. Foot-long fingers fanned wide and plucked the cumbersome object from the shelf.
“Here you are,” Sim said, turning toward them with the typewriter in his arms. “Where would you like me to put it?”
“Just put it back,” William said. “I don’t need it today.”
The old man lifted it back into place with the same impossibly elastic ease. Then he turned to go. “Pay no mind. I’m just a bot,” he said sadly to Martin as he passed. “It doesn’t matter if I
understand what’s going on.”
“So this was another one of your experiments,” Martin fumed when Sim was gone. “Look, if you wanna laugh at me, go ahead and laugh. You don’t need an excuse.”
“I’m not laughing at you,” William said. “I thought we might both learn something. When you couldn’t reach the typewriter, all you needed to do was ask your bot to take it down. Why didn’t you think of that?”
Martin swiveled in place. Chip stood behind him, up to his pasterns in paper stacks. When his dark eyes met Martin’s, his ears folded back in a friendly greeting, and his tail set up a confetti whirl.
“Stop it! Stop him!” William cried. “He’s messing up my system!”
“Oh, forget your system,” Martin said, ruffling Chip’s ears. “A dog’s gotta wag.”
“He doesn’t wag because he’s a dog,” William said. “He wags because you want him to. He’s a modified bot—a super-machine. His programming must be extensive. You’re keeping him from reaching his full potential by encouraging him to be a dog.”
Martin turned on her. “What is it with you people? Why do you keep harping on about him not being a dog? Let’s go, Chip. You’re messing up her system.”
William followed him out into the hall. “Maybe he’s an important machine,” she said earnestly. “A much more powerful bot.”
“He’s powerful like he is,” Martin said as he turned the corner. The sterile hallway stretched out before him, its floor tiles yellow-green and bilious. The sense of being back at the school sapped his spirits. Where was that cafeteria, anyway?
William persisted. “But he could be so much more!”
Another corner, and floor tiles that were blue with brown flecks. He was on the right track now. Down the hall, a door stood open, with white wheeled trestle tables beyond it. Martin spotted his knapsack with a feeling of relief. I can’t wait to get out of this place, he thought.
“Chip’s my dog,” he said. “Maybe that’s not good enough for you, but it’s good enough for me. If you think I’m gonna let you change him into some kind of monster battle bot, you’re out of your mind.”
“I don’t know if he’s supposed to be a battle machine,” William said. “We need to find out what he is.”
Chip gave a yelp and dashed past Martin. Martin turned to see what had scared the dog. William was holding a reset chip in her hand.
“No way!” Martin said, snatching the chip from her. “Nobody resets him. He hates it.”
William sighed. “You’ve anthropomorphized him.”
“Whatever.” Martin made his way over to the supplies and tossed the chip into his knapsack. “You had all afternoon to check him out while he was charging, so don’t think I’m gonna feel bad for you now.”
“But I didn’t,” William protested. “I was in class. Rudy told Sim not to release your bot to you, but when Sim heard Rudy praise you for being a credit to your designer, Sim decided he didn’t need to obey the release order anymore. Sim has design flaws. He doesn’t always do what he’s supposed to.”
Martin thought of the schizophrenic welcome the old bot had given him at the tunnel entrance. “Yeah, I kinda noticed,” he said.
“Rudy built him when he was ten,” William went on. “I would have done a better job. So I need to see your bot now.” She hesitated. “Please? It’s very important.”
Martin snorted. “Not to me.” He regretted this statement almost at once.
“Well, isn’t that wonderful!” William snapped. “We ask you for help, and do you want to help us? No, you’d rather coddle a machine!”
“I am too helping,” Martin said. “I’m going out there to find a new place for your school.”
William rolled her eyes. “Oh, right.”
Disappointment bubbled up in Martin’s throat, hot and thick. I knew it, he thought. I knew these geniuses didn’t need me around.
“I get it,” he said bitterly. “Theo doesn’t need me along on this trip. No wonder she won’t tell me anything. She’s just gonna look after the defective kid and give me something to do, and I bet you all think I’ll just slow her down. Well, tell her thanks, but I don’t need a babysitter. I’ll be fine on my own.” He grabbed his knapsack and headed for the door.
with you?” William demanded, tagging after him down the hallway. “We’re all in danger here! Why do you have to make everything into a fight?”
Martin didn’t have a good comeback for that, so he ignored it. He pushed through the double doors that opened onto the valley and walked out into the twilight. William stopped at the doors. As far as Martin was concerned, she might as well have stopped a million miles behind him.
Loneliness swept through him. He didn’t know where to go
or what to do. But Chip trotted beside him, ears pricked and tail wagging. Great, we’re going somewhere
, his dark eyes said. You know best. What’s the plan?
Martin thought about the people he loved. Cassie was happy with her school friends, and she had Rudy and Theo to look after her. His friends David and Matt probably whispered about how he had disappeared, but they didn’t need him. They had each other for company. He pictured Dad at his console with his freight bots, and Mom at the kitchen table. Mom, left all by herself. Of course! He had his plan.
“We’ll go rescue Mom,” Martin told Chip. “She hates it in that suburb, and she’d love it outside. Anyway, she shouldn’t be stuck with Dad anymore. She’d hate him if she knew what he did.”
“We’re in danger here every minute,” William yelled after him as he started off. “Every minute! You know that!”
Martin turned and gave her a sarcastic wave good-bye. “Yeah, well, you’ve made it pretty obvious that I’m too dumb to know much of anything. But you’re the smartest person on the planet. You’ll be just fine.”