This wasn’t the family Inez would have chosen for herself. But, then again, neither was the family she had left behind that fateful day at the beach. (That stupid asshole lifeguard.) At least her real family had known they had to make choices together in order to survive. It was just her luck that she’d be stuck with a group that still had to learn that. She’d watch out for them, though. And, whatever else happened, she would make sure they stuck together.
Even if she wanted to throw one of the members of her new family off the nearest building. That particular bag of dicks, Holden, still sat hunched over in the corner of the room. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. She felt a twinge of guilt. Then she pushed it away. She had shit to get done.
Most everyone had scattered for supplies, but Teddy and May were still here. Teddy because he wasn’t particularly concerned. May because she was getting that look on her face—the stage past panic, the shut-down look that comes when the brain and body just can’t take any more stress. The group couldn’t afford to drag any dead weight in the upcoming flight.
“May,” Inez shouted over the sound of the warning sirens. Even though she had to shout, she was careful to keep her tone businesslike and nonconfrontational. “I’m glad you’re still here. Could you see to inventory as everyone comes in? Make sure they aren’t forgetting anything essential.” Inez paused for effect. “How do you think we should organize it? By type?”
May blinked, then her delicate eyebrows came together thoughtfully. “No. Evenly distributed. That way if we lose a pack, we haven’t lost all our medical supplies or weapons or whatever it had.”
“Good call!” Inez watched as May moved to a better area of the room for staging. Hyrum was back first—Inez suspected he had a ready-to-go pack at all times, anyway, because he was always brightly chirping something about “Be prepared!”
“Hyrum,” she said. “You and Alex get to work on the food machines. Pump out as much as you can between now and when we leave.” Alex, the weird silent kid, always skulked near the food machines anyway, as though afraid to let them out of his sight.
As they got started on stockpiling food, Nevaeh and Cole returned. Between them they lugged several bulky packs. “Med supplies,” Nevaeh said. There was a tone of vague disapproval directed at Inez. Probably because of the way she had treated Holden. Inez shrugged it off. She didn’t have time for Nevaeh’s reproach.
“Over here,” May said, hands on hips and all business. Good. Inez had nothing to worry about when it came to supplies. Which left . . .
“Hey.” Inez nudged Holden with her foot. His expression was equal parts despair and defiance. “This would have been a lot more pleasant to organize without the ear-splitting sirens going off the whole time.” She held up the smooth black disk he had given her. It fit neatly into the palm of her hand. And, according to the AI, it carried everything they needed to find their future. The reason they were here. Maybe a way for them to get back, even. So that wasn’t massively nerve-racking or anything.
She turned it over in her palm, studying it. “Don’t suppose this came with one of those car remotes, so we can turn off the panic function?”
He almost smiled. She almost wanted him to.
“So, the tunnels.”
“I can lead us,” he said, a hint of hope creeping into his voice.
Like hell you can , Inez thought. “No, you can show all of us how to use it. As you’re so fond of reminding me, I have no idea what we’re up against with the killer robots. Thanks to you, we might not all make it out alive. So the more brains that know the way, the better.”
The sirens were a clarion call through the darkness. Though perhaps carrion call was a more apt description. Along the borders of the city, creeping with all the twitching grace of hundreds of years of metallic madness, the caretakers came. Some tested the failing defenses. They fell back or fell down or, in one case, fell through.
Others settled in patiently. So many things to accomplish. Red eyes fixed on the center of the city, on the tasks to be accomplished there.
At the northern end of the city, five caretakers had been waiting three hundred years to get back in. Tonight, they would be able to work. If machines could feel, they would have wept for joy. Three hundred years they had kept their vigil. Three hundred years they had waited. And now, at long last, they could again transport waste materials out of the city.
A hulking caretaker found them there. Its five eyes, wired in odd places, some half hanging off, pulsed as it ripped them apart. Piece by piece by piece, with precision anything but surgical. Then, emitting a sound almost like a child humming, it began to sort through the parts of them it would use to decorate itself. It had another job tonight, and it wanted to be in the best shape possible for hunting vermin.
On the eastern end, within view of the park Umta had made...