Link pushed the hair out of his eyes and picked up the robot, assessing it for injury. The little guy was almost as real and incredible looking as his Manx cat. Only smaller with the boxy head of a dragon, the tail of an owl, and the wings of a dragonfly. Better than a cat, the bot didn’t require feeding or a litter box change.
“This should slow him down and account for the absence of wind resistance while he’s indoors.” Reese, Link’s best friend, stood behind the lab table at his laptop and input the algorithms, adjusting 0x150’s indoor wing movement while Link fixed the window shade. While they’d previously programmed all possible weather conditions the robot might encounter outside, they were still tweaking indoor commands.
Link opened the small USB compartment on the abdomen and handed the drive to Reese. The artistic components used to give 0x150 lifelike qualities—the design, the outer shell, the eyes and moving body parts—had been his design, created with the assistance of his dad’s colleague who specialized in plastics engineering. This little guy was by far the best invention he and Reese had come up with, even outranking the super smart, supercharged radio control cars they’d built the summer before grade eight.
Senior year hadn’t started yet, but thankfully the physics teacher had given them permission to work on 0x150 in the lab where they had privacy, space, and easy access to parts and tools. By the end of the year, they hoped for an actual product they could patent and maybe even sell … after they locked down the scholarship at Stanford.
The science behind the dragon’s existence would seal a future Link and Reese had mapped out with equal precision. Create a product so magnificent they would secure the robotics scholarship and embark on a future designing a variety of AI toys. They had worked hard to limit the variables that could interrupt their lives, but the future wasn’t entirely predictable. The uncertainty haunted Link. While his parents and guidance counselor forced him to create a Plan B, he had no intention or desire of utilizing it.
Reese ejected the USB and handed it back to Link as Mr. Oakley pushed through the lab door. “Thought I’d find you boys here.”
“You’re just in time, Mr. Oakley.” Reese pushed up his glasses and waved him in. “Link and I are about to make 0x150 fly indoors. If this works, we’ll be able to test his indoor AI capability.”
Link carefully snapped the compartment door in place and positioned the robot on the floor. “Where’s the beacon?” He spun in a circle, searching the area then checked his backpack. “Got it.” He held up the transmitter then walked to the far end of the room. Mr. Oakley folded his arms and leaned against a table off to the side.
Reese cleared his throat. “Indoor homing while in flight. Trial two.”
Link watched the robot, heart pounding. Please don’t let him break a window in front of Mr. Oakley. Once the update finished, the bot’s eyes and tail moved side to side while the head lifted upwards, an indication all systems were go.
“Beacon on?” Reese asked.
“Yes.” Link tipped the transmitter, allowing Reese to see the strobe.
The wings began to flutter, picking up speed, rotating and lifting the robot straight up off the ground.
“Come on,” Link whispered. 0x150 hovered at eye level. Good sign. With eyes on Link—or rather on the transmitter—the bot assessed the distance to the beacon while calculating the necessary speed to travel safely inside a confined space. “Yeeessss.”
With the barely audible flight sound of a super lightweight drone, 0x150 moved forward at a speed of approximately three miles per hour until it stopped and hovered in front of Link’s face. Link grinned. “Good job, 0x150. Sit down.” The dragon lowered himself to the ground.
“Yes!” Reese spun in a circle and threw his arms in the air Rocky-style. “We did it!”
“0x150, power down.” Link laughed as Reese ran over, picked up the bot, and smacked a kiss on its head.
Reese fist-pumped the air. “0x150 … 0x150 … 0x150.”
Mr. Oakley watched on. “Great job, guys. Reese, is that beacon something your dad’s company worked on?”
“The infrared components came from there, but Link and I juiced it up with some other stuff.”
“Let’s put it all together and see how the indoor flight works with the AI.” Link turned to Mr. Oakley. “We’ll need a hand … if you’re willing.”
Their teacher grinned. “You think I would miss this?”
“See you after school, Mom.” Regan closed the front door behind her and sucked in a deep breath. For once in her life, she welcomed the normalcy of school. There’d been way too much change lately. Life just needed to … stop, already.
But that wasn’t going to happen until she located the bus stop at the entrance of their compound. Where was the entrance? She should have paid more attention when their driver brought them home from dinner last night. On a scale of brilliant to total eclipsed, her fogged brain existed somewhere around dim-witted.
With no sidewalks, Regan’s house steps ended at a pad of concrete next to the quiet street. Cars sporadically lined both curbs. Most of the garages were only single car even though the houses were massive with multiple balconies. Every lawn was meticulously groomed by the aged groundskeepers. Even now, two men in rice hats swept the street with fanned-out brooms made from bamboo. The swish, swish made a repetitive, comforting sound that she’d come to enjoy waking up to.
Almost every day last year, Regan had ridden to school with her boyfriend, Noah. Ex-boyfriend now. Almost a month to the day. But, she couldn’t allow her thoughts to go there. She needed to focus. First, find the bus stop. Next, get on with her senior year.
Final year. A new school. In Beijing. The absurdity of such a dramatic change felt appropriate since she had no idea what she planned to do after graduation. She could have stayed behind in Phoenix with her older sister, but passing up a once in a lifetime adventure to live in China and experience a different culture seemed wrong. Noah hadn’t seen it that way. He couldn’t believe she’d consider leaving him. To him, it meant she didn’t care about their relationship. So untrue. Noah wouldn’t even attempt to look at life through her eyes, let alone consider a long-distance relationship. Showed how committed he was.
Stop thinking about him.
She flipped her hair over her shoulder and resisted the urge to rub her gravelly eyes. Yawning, she focused on her neighbor’s front door, opening as she passed by. A tall blond with chin length hair stepped out. He reminded her of that guy who played the joker in Batman. What was his name…? The actor was also in that old movie Ten Things I Hate About You? His name started with an H or something. This guy had the same lanky build and wore jeans and a white T-shirt with writing on it. Considering the backpack he tossed over his shoulder, Regan assumed he was also headed to school. She paused in the middle of the street.
When he turned and saw her, he hesitated. Eyes glued on her as if she were a dangerous animal.
“Hey.” She offered a wave, hoping to deter him from running back inside.
He started down the steps, slow at first, then picked up his pace, joining her in the street. “Good Morning,” he said and kept walking.
“You going to the bus stop?” Even though she was five-six—not short by anyone’s definition—she had to walk fast to keep up with his pace.
“Mind if I tag along? It’s my first day. I’m sort of lost.”
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and nodded again. The awkward, silent type. Combined with the geeky shirt of an equation, the symbol for pie, and the words: it was delicious, she thought they would get along.
“You’re American?” he asked. Wow. His accent gave her warm fuzzies. When he glanced at her, his gaze landed on her hair then skimmed her face before returning to the road. Heat touched her cheeks. She’d been told her dark brown hair was her best quality. She agreed since it hung with enough natural curl to only require a quick run-through of a brush. Saved her time.
“I am. You?” They rounded a corner. Tall hedges bordered both sides of the street, enclosing the front yards with miniature trees.
“I’m from the UK. Britain to be exact. Are you going to ISB?”
“The school. International School of Beijing. It’s where most Americans go.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, I hadn’t heard it called ISB. I am … going there.” What was happening to her brain? Apparently, encounters with geeky charm and English accents befuddled her. Who knew?
“ISB uses the blue busses. The red and green belong to the other schools.”
“Ah, good to know. Thank you. I’m Regan, by the way.” She held out her hand. He glanced at it, swallowed hard, then wrapped a hand around hers. “Lincoln. My friends call me Link.”
Link’s brown eyes actually found hers, and was that a hint of a smile? Her stomach did a little flip, sending off a pleasurable vibe. She squeezed his hand tight then let go before her brain shut down completely.
“So, do you get on a red, green, or blue bus?”
“Blue bus, same as you.”
Regan blew out a breath. “Thank goodness. It’ll be nice to know someone.” She placed a hand on his bicep. “Will you at least point me in the right direction?” She felt him stiffen and dropped her hand. Stupid. Not everyone liked to be touched.
On the bus, a couple middle school girls begged her to sit with them. While she wanted to sit with Link and feel more of that tingly, off-kilter sensation, flirting with a guy she’d never see again after the school year ended was a horrible idea. Apparently, Link thought so, too. By the time she left the bus and entered the school, he had disappeared.
Chalk one up to Mom who had insisted she tour the school last Friday after the orientation. Regan had a decent idea where to find her homeroom, which also happened to be the same room and teacher for her first period physics class. Easy peasy. Until she saw Link and the open seat next to him and felt the magnetic pull toward his lab table.
She walked over and observed the excited conversation between him and a spikey-haired guy sitting on the opposite side of the table. Both focused on what looked like a two-way radio in Link’s hand.
“Okay if I sit here?” Regan interrupted. They glanced at her then fell silent. Link averted his gaze out the window. Okay. So, he wasn’t into her. No big deal. Friends it is.
The other guy pushed up his black-framed glasses. “Absolutely.”
Regan smiled at him and placed her backpack on the floor next to Links. “So…” she leaned in close, “you didn’t tell me you have superpowers.”
Link spun the radio in his hands and offered a quick glance her way. “What do you mean?”
“The way you disappeared with warped speed when we got off the bus.”
“Oh, um…” His face went beet red. “I disembarked quite a bit sooner than you did.”
“You two already met? I’m Reese Wong.” He shoved his hand across the table and had no trouble making eye contact.
“Regan Hepburn.” She shook his hand. “Link and I are neighbors.”
Reese shot Link an accusing glance.
“And I’m Sasha.” A golden blonde, blue-eyed beauty, slightly out of breath, dropped her pink backpack on the table opposite Regan.
Link groaned quietly as Sasha spoke. “I’m sitting with you guys. I have to pass this class and you have to help me.” Words marked with a German accent, Sasha smoothed down her pale pink chiffon blouse over the top of her jeans, and focused on Regan. “You chose the perfect table. These guys are the smartest in the class. Probably the school. They built a robot that uses artificial intelligence.”
“How does she know that?” Reese shot another glare at Link who shrugged.
“I know everything. It’s my job.” Sasha focused on Regan. “I’m the senior editor for our school paper. These guys are really careless about their privacy, so it’s been easy to follow their progress.”
Reese looked offended. “We are not—”
“Is that the controller?” Regan pointed at Link’s hand.
“Not exactly,” Link said. “It’s a homing device, but it has many other capabilities.”
“Seriously? Can I look at it?”
“You like robotics?” This from Reese who leaned his forearms across the table and studied her with a little too much interest.
“Yeah, but I’m into simple stuff like a K’nex robot that can carry a can of soda across the room.” Regan laughed at herself, but Reese stared at her like she’d invented the next smart phone device.
“You mean like a robot that brings the soda to you?” Reese said.
“Well, yeah, as long as someone else puts the can on the robot. It was great when I broke my ankle and couldn’t get off the couch.”
“Brilliant.” Reese climbed back on his stool.
Not really. She knew how to follow instructions. Big deal.
Sasha pulled out her laptop and dropped her backpack to the floor. “That’s very American, isn’t it? No practical reason other than to bring you junk food. I suppose your robot could bring you potato chips, too.”
Regan didn’t miss the chilled tone but the words cracked her up. “Well, yeah. The robot had a platform that could—”
“Okay, class. Let’s get started.” The teacher moved to the front of the room. Regan bent over to grab a notebook out of her backpack as Link bent down. They bumped heads.
“Ow.” She laughed and rubbed the sting out of her brow.
“Sorry. I’m sorry.” He fought a smile. This time, only an inch away, those brown eyes met and held hers, causing a shift in her world. Oh, boy. She’d have to figure out a way to ignore hot guys with even hotter accents so she didn’t leave China feeling more confused than she did right now.
At lunch, Sasha sat down across from Regan and apologized for her rude comment in physics.
“I thought it was funny.” Regan shoveled in her salad. “Were you trying to criticize me?”
Sasha huffed. “American girls get all the attention from the guys. It gets old.”
“I’m not looking for anyone’s attention.” Regan glanced around the cafeteria. “But you must be. Which one do you like?”
Sasha’s face turned a soft shade of pink as she leaned in close. “I’ve been trying to catch Link’s eye since last Spring.”
Figures. Good luck with that. Regan recalled the groan and actually felt bad for Sasha. Rejection in any form hurt. “He’s so shy. Is he even interested in dating?”
With knife and fork, Sasha meticulously cut her noodles into small pieces then mounded them in center of her plate. “I don’t know why he’d be shy with me. I talk to him all the time.”
Maybe that was the problem. While she wasn’t looking to move in on Sasha’s love interest, Regan wasn’t about to give her relationship advice any more than she would avoid Link. They were neighbors after all, and there was something intriguing about him. Worth exploring even if they were only friends.
But later in the day, when she followed Link into last period English and said hi, he brushed her off as if they’d never met. She sat behind him and watched as he fidgeted with his backpack a couple different times then finally got up and stormed out of class right in the middle of a lecture. He wasn’t on the bus ride home either, so Regan walked alone.
Exhausted and still jet-lagging, Regan ate an early dinner while dispensing details to her mom, then she went to her room and collapsed on her bed. She had a ton of homework but a nap was priority.
A noise woke her. Fearing she slept too long, Regan jerked up and glanced at her phone. Only an hour had passed, but the sun had set and the street lights turned on.
A whack came from the balcony. She scanned the glass doors and zeroed in on the thing making the noise. What the…? Plastered against the glass was an odd grayish-silver creature about the size of a pigeon. Only it climbed the door like a lizard. Fascinated by the idea of an odd Chinese reptile-thing, she crept over. It looked like … No. It can’t be. She scanned the balcony and pressed her forehead against the glass, trying to peer next door, but could only make out rooflines and treetops.
From her backpack came a static noise then a muffled voice.
What? Was? That? As if a bomb had been planted, Regan slowly opened her bag and peeked inside. A light strobed through the lining of a compartment she never used. Regan reached in and pulled out Link’s homing beacon.