It was a beautiful Saturday morning in Terabyte Heights. Birds sang in the trees, and sunlight beamed through the kitchen window on George Gearing and Jackbot, who sat together at the breakfast table, playing a lively game of User-Virus-Firewall.
George whipped his hand out from behind his back, curled into a claw to represent Virus. Jackbot’s metal pincer whirled around at the same instant, holding up a cardboard cutout of a hand with all five fingers straight up.
“Firewall blocks Virus!” Jackbot crowed. “I win!”
“All right, all right,” George said. “One more time!”
I bet he’ll do Firewall again, George thought. He probably thinks I won’t expect it because he’s just done it. I’ll get him with User!
He thrust his hand out, two fingers pointing down like little legs—only to see Jackbot turn around holding the cardboard cutout of the claw hand.
“Ha!” Jackbot cried. “Virus annoys User! I am the champion!” Jackbot did a victory dance around the kitchen and bowed to his imaginary fans. “Want to go again? Best out of thirty?”
“No, thanks,” George said, sagging into his chair. “I think I’ve had enough humiliating defeats for one day.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault you made me a genius,” Jackbot said.
From the other side of the table, Uncle Otto looked up at them with a scowl. “Could you two please stop bickering and give me a little peace and quiet?” he asked. “I’m trying to concentrate here!”
Otto was hunched over, holding a small electric motor in one hand while carefully loosening the tiny casing screws with the screwdriver attachment of his robotic arm. It had been several weeks since Otto had been released from the hospital, and he was finally getting used to his new prosthetic.
“Couldn’t you fix that later, when we get to the junkyard?” George asked.
“I could,” Otto replied, not taking his eyes off his work. “But this is the motor for the air conditioning unit in the truck, and it’s supposed to be hot today.”
George smirked. That wasn’t the only reason his uncle couldn’t resist tinkering. Otto had always distrusted modern technology, but once he’d been fitted with his new arm, things had changed. Otto loved it and all of its various attachments. He used them every chance he got.
George rose from the table to grab a glass of orange juice and a couple slices of bread. He turned to Jackbot and held out the bread in front of him. “Will you do the honors?” George asked.
But before Jackbot could answer, Otto reached over and grabbed the bread from George. “Allow me!” he said. Otto squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating hard. A moment later, the screwdriver attachment in his arm retracted, and was instantly replaced by a blowtorch. Grinning with pride, Otto then proceeded to wave the blowtorch over the slices of bread in a complex design. Finally, he handed the toasted bread back to George with a flourish. “There you go, kid! Eat up!”
George studied the design on the toast, puzzled. “Is it supposed to be a dinosaur?”
“Or perhaps an ancient Viking rune of some sort?” Jackbot guessed.
Otto glowered at them. “It’s a smiley face, you boneheads! Gee, talk about giving a guy a hard time . . .”
George grinned and took a huge bite of toast. “It’s perfect, Otto,” he said through a mouthful. “Thanks.”
“Say it, don’t spray it,” Jackbot said, holding up his Firewall hand to block the crumbs.
Just then the doorbell rang. George zigzagged around Mr. Egg and the dishwasher-bot, who were bustling around in the kitchen, ran down the hallway, and opened the door. He found his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Glitch, standing there. Her gray curly hair sprung out from her head in an even wilder fashion than usual, like a star going supernova. Her eyes looked puffy and red, as if she had been crying. A robot with a TV screen for a head stood by her side. George knew the robot well—it was Hector Protector, Mrs. Glitch’s glitchy security-bot.
“Good morning,” George said. “Is everything all right? Does HP need fixing again?” The old robot was always breaking down in weird ways—a couple of months ago he had started hanging upside down from trees, and another time he had kept saying everything backwards. Each time, Mrs. Glitch had come to George for help.
“No, no, it’s—it’s not that,” Mrs. Glitch said, shaking her head. “He’s fine—just peachy. Aren’t you, Hector?”
“I am fine,” HP said expressionlessly. He’d been made before the voice intonation programs were improved. “How are you?”
“I’m, uh, great,” George said, confused. “So . . . if nothing’s wrong with HP, what can I do for you?”
Mrs. Glitch took a deep, steadying breath and said, “You have to take him, George. I can’t keep him anymore.”
George was shocked. “You’re giving him up?” he exclaimed. “But you’ve had HP for years!”
“Seven years, two months, and twenty-one days,” HP confirmed flatly.
“I don’t want to get rid of him,” Mrs. Glitch said, her voice quavering. “But I’m the only person on the block who still has a robot—besides you, George. People are starting to give me dirty looks! Everyone else has deactivated their bots. I mean, I can’t really blame them. After what happened, how do we know that TinkerTech products are safe?”
“Of course they’re safe!” George said. “Except when Dr. Micron made all the robots into crazed killers . . . and then when he turned the MOD devices into deadly mind-control machines . . .”
Mrs. Glitch raised an eyebrow. “Does that sound safe to you?”
“Well, no,” George said. “But Micron’s locked away in prison. With Professor Droid reinstated at TinkerTech, I bet everything will be back to normal in no time.”
George sounded more confident than he felt. He’d been watching the news with everyone else during the last couple of weeks. Since the MOD debacle, TinkerTech had been shut down, and Professor Droid was under investigation by the police. It was all bad news for George—no TinkerTech meant no apprenticeship. Until everything blew over, George was stuck back in school.
Mrs. Glitch sighed. “I hope you’re right, George, but until then, I have to get rid of Hector. And I can’t bear to deactivate him. Could you look after him at the junkyard for me? I know he’ll be safe there.” She patted HP’s metal sh...