- LI: Sophomore Year #13 – Steam Complex Chp. 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #14 – Steam Complex Chp. 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #15 – Steam Complex Chp. 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #16 – Out of the Past Chp. 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #17 – Out of the Past Chp. 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #18 – Operation: Fuzzy Cheer Part 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #19 – Operation: Fuzzy Cheer Part 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #20 – Operation: Fuzzy Cheer Part 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #21 – Student Union Part 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #22 – Student Union Part 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #22 – Student Union Part 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #23 – Student Union Part 4
- LI: Sophomore Year #24 – Student Union Part 5
- LI: Sophomore Year Annual #5
“Welcome to the Verdancy Open House.”
The clean-cut white guy in his twenties actually offered a small, polite bow that almost mad Annette snort in derision. He introduced himself by name, but she wasn’t listening, having already labeled him Fine Young Man in her head. Typical college kid hired on for the event, trying too hard to impress for a job he was never going to be offered.
She knew the type. It seemed like every place she’d landed in before Archenauex’s school was full of them. Interns. Some cared, most didn’t. For them, she and the others like her were just a means to an end, either for a little college credit, or for the younger ones, something to put on their transcript.
Fine Young Man led them into the building, his eyes flicking nervously to T. Alvin Warren and the other obviously armed security personnel as he did. The entry hall was dominated by a gigantic scale model of some sort of domed structure suspended above the floor on pylons with elevators that would carry people up to a set of walkways above it.
Again, Annette didn’t care, but she caught something about it being a ‘next generation’ greenhouse, which made her wonder what was so wrong with the greenhouses they had. And also, wasn’t the world too warm? Wasn’t the major problem, what with the flooded coastlines and such? She had a vague idea that that was what all the giant tower that looked like radiators all over every major city were all about. So why did they need greenhouses to keep plants warm if everything was too warm already?
The open space below the model was ringed by exhibits, which Fine Young Man summarized in typical boring fashion. Just a glance told her Kingsbury was enraptured. Unsurprising given that he cared about nothing else. The girl Rapunzel loved to torment for being quiet and never wanting to show off her powers—Maya, right?–was similarly in awe. Annette couldn’t see the attraction.
There are at least eight types of corn. Corn for god’s sake. Some of it was supposedly meant to require less water (again, if there was so much flooding going on, why was getting water for crops an issue?) and another type needed fewer insects to pollinate it. And yet, just a few exhibits down, there was a swarm of robotic wasps designed to pollinate any crop, so that was pointless too.
She rolled her eyes and followed the group as Fine Young Man guided them to a much larger glass elevator behind the model, which took them up to the main floor. Here, the less rustic designs were mounted on daises while people in expensive clothes circulated around them, pretending to be interested in the same way she wasn’t.
Fine Young man then told them to enjoy themselves and headed back to the next group. Even as the rest of the group started to break off, the various chaperons and security people stuck close to them, but just far enough to give them at least a little breathing room.
When she didn’t move, it became clear that the task of watching her fell to ‘Ms. Carroll’. Not exactly a shocking development that her ‘guardian’ would be the one following her, but it was still annoying. Especially when (again, unsurprisingly), the woman decided to break the breathing space rule the others seemed to be following. Especially when she crossed the space between them without her notice, ending up standing just a few inches from her in an instant.
“You’re interesting in clothes, aren’t you? There’s some project about silk over there.”
“Silk comes from worms. Excuse me if I don’t want to see how the sausage is made on that account.” Annette replied in French. “And here, they would be giant worms or robot worms, or something equally horrific.”
Ms. Carroll rolled her eyes. Just make an effort. If you look at even half of what’s here and don’t find anything that interests you, I’ll leave early with you. Deal?”
That made Annette raise a questioning eyebrow, which in turn earned her a glare. “Voice has been telling me that teenagers react better to compromise than threats. Consider this an experiment before the threat return full force.”
Whatever the relationship was between ‘Ms. Carroll’ and Stephan Arceneaux, Annette couldn’t parse it. Her former host was a soft man, too caring and unwilling to simply use his compelling power to force people into doing whatever he wanted or needed them to. Meanwhile, ‘Carroll’ was unyielding and cold, like a woman cast out of iron.
And yet with ‘Carroll’, Archenaeux found his spine, being frank and even putting his foot down, if not using his powers on her. At the same time, ‘Carroll’ used a softer touch, considered his feelings and desires, and even listened to what he had to say.
It was confusing to say the least, but she wasn’t about to let an opportunity go by. “Agreed.” she said in English, and moved farther into the room.
A waiter passed by with a tray of champagne and she grabbed a glass. When no admonishment came, she took a sip and wandered over to one of the objects on display. It looked like a robotic vacuum cleaner, except hovering six feet in the air. A half dozen blue-glowing domes extended from its rounded top, and vents around its circumference constantly sucked in air. A constant, light rain fell from its concave underside, saturating a plot of grass mounted on the dais below it.
She frowned at it. A tiny sort-of weather machine was something interesting, but once again, she wondered who would want something that watered things when floods were the big issue. A touch screen set on the rail caught her eye and she decided to at least make a show of it for her guardian.
It turned out to the surprisingly informative and put some of the things she’d scoffed at into perspective. The floods were from sea levels rising, meaning they were ruining land with salt water, and other places of the world, like the American west was suffering in periodic and dangerous droughts. Even if the warming of the planet had been halted, it couldn’t be reversed, and so companies like Verdancy were still playing catch-up trying to adapt to what have already come before.
She looked back up at the hovering robot. A weather machine.
And… he had no idea how it worked. But she imagined it would require many boring lessons she didn’t care about. So she took another sip of champagne and headed off. This was the kind of things she was happy to leave to the Science Club.
“This is so amazing!” Maya was the most animated that Eddie had ever seen her and it made him smile to see her not shrinking away from everyone and everything like she was afraid. In fact, she’s even grabbed him by the hand and dragged him through the crowd on an occasion or two.
“Ohmigosh, look at this.” Her attention had now fallen on an insane looking thing that appeared to be a metal snake measuring ten feet long made of curved blades of various configurations. Its segmented body also had rubberized tracks on them, and its head was shaped like a four-bladed hunting arrow fronted by a drill.
Eddie rubbed the back of his head. “I… have no idea what this is.”
“It’s an automated aeration machine.” Maya explained, hurrying to look at the screen describing its uses and the needs it met. “It’s like a gigantic, heavy-duty earthworm: designed to burrow through dry, hard-packed ground to aerate it and get it ready for irrigation. Normally, you would need huge machines to do that, but now someone could set one of these to till up acres and acres of normally unfarmable land at a time!”
To Eddie, it looked more suited to inspiring metal album covers, perhaps with a skeleton riding it while volcanoes erupted in the background with lightning striking all around. “What’s with all the swords?”
“Those are just tiller blades,” said Maya, still reading. “As it moves, they spin, cutting through dirt and rock and chopping them into smaller pieces.”
“Wouldn’t want to run into it in a dark alley.” Eddie laughed at his own joke, trying to cover over his general ignorance. He honestly got why a farm would need a rainmaking machine and genetically engineered plants, but where do tearing up the ground come in? He decided that was probably a stupid question and just went with the joke.
Maya laughed too, surprising him with how hearty it sounded compared to the usual shy giggle he elicited. Totally worth the constant danger of making himself look foolish.
“I don’t think it would really be that dangerous above ground,” she said after some though. “All those blades spinning on top of the ground would just make it roll around like crazy and never get anywhere.” She was about to say something else when something else caught her eye. “Oh look, spiders engineered to produce clothing-grade silk!”
They were about to head off again, when a commotion from downstairs caught their attention as well as everyone else’s near the balcony overlooking the entry call. People were shouting, yelping, and a few were even screaming down below.
Maya froze in place, causing Eddie to bump into her. “What was that?”
“Tammy’s plan working?” Eddie asked, craning his neck to see. He was too far away to see down into the entry hall though, so it was pretty much a waste. “Maybe those Generations Project guys are trying something. Shouldn’t we be making our way over there to… y’know… foil them?”
“Um…” Maya squeaked, “I mostly just went along with it to get into the Verdancy Open House.” She lowered her head. “I was betting on them not being dumb enough to attack with so many witnesses and institute security.”
Eddie put his hands on her shoulders, feeling her shiver. “But they did show up. We did this to get them here and now that they’re here, we need to do something… right?”
“Isn’t that what the security people are for? Mr. Warren?”
He blinked. She, of course, had a point. This was why the Institute had security and why said security was with them on the trip. There would be cops on the scene soon too, plus the guards hired by Verdancy. There was no reason for a bunch of teenagers to get involved with it even if they were the targets.
However much he wanted to get in on the fight (if there even was a fight), he wasn’t needed. In fact, given that ‘Shy Maya’ was back in full force, Maya needed him more than anyone else in the building.
Stifling a sigh at not being able to play the hero, he gave Maya’s shoulders a squeeze. “You’re right. Let’s got find Mr. Warren.”
He steered her in the opposite direction from the balcony, but moments later, the sounds of panic started to come from their level, along with a tinny buzzing.
“Bees.” Someone said in a shocked and awed tone, “My god.”
Something so non sequitur and bizarre made both of them turn around. What they found was a wave of people fleeing from the balcony where they’d been gawking. Tiny shapes were rising up from below, forming a dark cloud of hundreds, if not thousands of minute bodies.
“That’s…” Eddie murmured.
Maya’s eyes widened. “Those aren’t bees.”
“They’re not bees,” she said urgently, “Those are the pollination drones from the first floor.”
Eddie watched the people running away, slapping at their tormentors and shrieking apparently in pain. “So…” he started hopefully, “not dangerous?”
“N-no, they’re dangerous. They’re shaped like hornets for efficient flight and energy usage, so predators like birds and frogs still go after them, so they have defenses.”
“What kind of defenses?”
“They dissipate heat through their outer shell so they’re incredibly hot on the outside. And also, they still have stingers.”
That was a subject he knew something about, so he guessed, “They don’t lose those things when they sting someone, do they?”
Maya shrugged, still watching the attack. “If they did, it would waste a lot of money and material for no good reason.”
“So to recap, it’s a swarm of robot hornets that stab people with hot knives.”
“Pretty much,” said Maya in a small voice that was thoroughly divorced from her normal timidity. “They’re not unstoppable though. The last time I read about them online, they had overheating problems, the hive lost contact with individual members too often under too many conditions, and they’re always going to be fragile until someone comes up with a super-light metal stronger than what we have now.”
People were starting to stream past them now, completely ignoring the pair. Eddie could see the drones now and they looked every inch the ‘evil cyborg hornet’ concept, complete with a single, glowing green ‘eye’ in their thoraxes.
And despite his luck, they were most definitely heading their way.
“Overheating? I know it’s a lot to ask, Maya, but maybe you could take care of them?”
This time, Maya shivered visibly. “I-I can’t. There’s too many people nearby. I could seriously hurt them… or worse. We should just go get Mr. Warren. I’m sure he’ll have an idea what to do about it.”
Eddie, however, had been watching the drones while she spoke, and a terrifying realization hit him: the drones were only attacking people until they ended up pointed toward himself and Maya. From then on, they made straight for them, only diverting to dodge people who got in the way.
“I don’t think that’s going to be an option,” He used her shoulders to gently steer her away
“Because I think they’re after us! We’re going to have to run and figure out what to do about them if we can’t blow them up. Any ideas?”
They were moving through the crowd now, heading for where Eddie last saw Mr. Warren. All the while, he searched for someone trying to sneak up on them. The drones had to be a diversion so they could kidnap someone, he reasoned.
“I don’t know.” Maya was also looking around nervously. That is until she spotted someone whose very presence gave her an idea. “Alice!”
“Alice is over there! She’s really good with computers!”
Eddie looked behind him and saw at least a half dozen drones circling overhead. “I don’t get what difference that makes.”
Maya grinned and grabbed his arm, pulling him in the direction of Steampunk. “Because she can reprogram the hive!”
To Be Continued…