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...