Regan stood at the glass door and stared into the cutest little face she’d ever seen. Well, okay, maybe nothing compared to a baby Orangutan, but this was pretty darn cute. The little guy was no bigger than the palm of her hand. What looked like a series of vent holes wrapped around a squarish head in a permanent smile. Eyes resembled peppermint candies, only gray with black stripes instead of white with red. Four legs stretched out, each individual toe pressed against the glass. Suction cups weren’t even visible. How did they make it so he could stick to the glass?
“Are you the little robot Sasha mentioned?”
The bot’s head moved up then down. Regan pulled back. Did he just answer her? Regan slipped outside. “What are you doing over here?” She glanced at Link’s house. Lights on, curtains drawn, she couldn’t tell if anyone was home. The bot side-stepped to the edge of the door.
Oh, no! She couldn’t let him get away. Regan clamped a hand around it. “You won’t hurt me, will you?” She imagined being shocked or sprayed with mace.
Wings fluttered open as the bot attempted to pull away. Regan slipped her fingers under what would be a thorax on a dragonfly. The tail extended straight out from the body. “Stay. Be good until I get you and the transmitter back to Link.”
The buzzing wings continued to move as she stepped into her room and closed the door. Restraining him might damage whatever controls they designed, but she couldn’t let go. What if he freaked trying to get away and broke something, or worse, broke himself? But it’d be so awesome to see what he could do.
Link must have dropped the transmitter in her backpack when they bumped heads. Regan smiled, remembering the way his eyes had fixed on hers. After homeroom, she’d stuffed the backpack in her locker. No wonder Link seemed anxious last period. If only she’d known.
“Okay, you.” Regan turned him so they faced each other. “I’m taking you back to Link, okay?” The bot lifted and lowered its head, eyes focused on her face.
Regan laughed. “You are … I can’t even. Please don’t be mad at me, but I’m putting you in the backpack. It’ll just be for a minute.”
Using one hand, she dumped the books out of the blue and white striped bag, then picked up the flashing beacon. “Is this what you’re after?” The bot stared at the light, still smiling.
“No answer, well, we’ll get to the bottom of this.” She placed the transmitter inside the large opening. “Okay, in you go.” Carefully positioning the robot inside, Regan didn’t let go until she’d zipped all but a hand hole. Then she quickly pulled out her hand and zipped the rest. Immediately, the wings stopped buzzing.
“Bet you’ll get a tracking chip if you don’t already have one.” She slipped the bag over her shoulder and hurried downstairs. Her parents sat at the dining room table off to the left, part of a large open floor plan with high ceilings and white walls.
While they ate soup out of the same two coffee mugs they used for this morning’s coffee, Regan filled them in on the invention.
“And it flew from their house over to your room?” Dad eyed the backpack.
“Yeah. I’d show you how cool he looks, but that might end in disaster. I’ll tell Link you’d like to see it. I need to get over there. He’s probably beyond worried.”
Stepping outside, Regan glanced at Link’s house. Her curiosity over the robot shifted to a nervous excitement. A bit of a mystery, Link was smart and interested in something beyond football. What else did he care about? Family? Sports? Traveling? Would he even talk to her? She barely knew him. Was she crushing on him the first day she met him? For real?
When she and Noah had dated, the only butterflies she experienced came the first time they kissed. Maybe because they’d known each other since junior high. Both athletes, they shared similar friends and hung out in the same circles. It wasn’t until a weekend between sophomore and junior year, when they participated in the same rock climbing excursion, that he started flirting. Then he asked her to homecoming, and they’d been exclusive until he broke up.
None of that mattered now. Once the reality sank in that Noah preferred the ease of moving on versus the discipline in waiting, Regan knew he wasn’t that into her. And maybe she wasn’t that into him. Maybe that’s why there had been few butterflies. No excitement over what sort of conversation would take place, or what tingly sensation she might feel when a pair of attractive eyes met hers. What if she had only imagined the interest in Link’s eyes?
Regan blew out a breath as she climbed his porch steps then knocked on the door. She’d failed to think through her approach. “Hello, your robot came over for a visit. At least, I think it’s yours.” Or no … better yet: “You dropped your homing beacon in my bag. Thought I better return it.”
Regan lifted her eyes to the light fixture hanging from a chain. How did she get herself into awkward situations like this? Because you chose to focus on a boy instead of the business at hand. And you wanted a new adventure.
“Shut up. This is hardly an adventure,” she told herself as the door opened.
Link narrowed his eyes.
Oops. “Special delivery. One crazy American.” With one hand, she thrust the backpack at him while holding up the other in a stop motion. Just in case he had thoughts of shutting the door in her face. “I think this is yours.”
“I don’t have a bag like that.”
She laughed—too loud and too long, but it helped break the tension. The innocence on
his face was adorable. “In the bag, dummy.”
Link took it and pulled on the zipper.
“Wait!” She stepped forward, placed a hand on his chest, and pushed him back in the foyer as she closed the door. “Okay. Now you can open it.”
Link placed the backpack on a bench inside the front door. This house mirrored hers with the open living room and foyer with tall ceilings and white walls. But the flooring was a gray tile with a beige rug covering most of it.
Link looked from her to the bag and back. His hair, a half-bedraggled mess, fell in waves around his face. Interesting, he didn’t have the typical suit and tie vibe. Yet he didn’t come across free-spirited either. So, mad scientist?
“Open it.” Regan said to keep from chuckling over her observation. “I think it belongs to you.” Noticing his socked feet, she kicked off her lace-ups.
His face went dead serious, and he practically ripped off the zipper.
“Easy there. That’s the only backpack I have.”
“Sorry.” He lifted out the robot. The eyes moved and settled on Link’s face. Curious, Regan watched the robot focus then lift and drop its head.
“Is he scanning or what?”
“How did you get him?” Link set the robot down and pulled his phone out of his back pocket, texting as fast as his thumbs would move. “One minute we were in my room, the next … he was gone.”
“Well…” she reached into the backpack and pulled out the transmitter, “I think you dropped this in my bag this morning.”
Link’s mouth fell open, and he looked at her, confused. “You had this the entire day? I was looking everywhere for it. Reese is about to kill me.” He went back to texting.
She held up both hands, pleading innocence. “I just found it when junior showed up fastened to my balcony door.”
“Intriguing.” Link stashed his phone and picked up the robot.
“The homing, AI, and GPS had to work together to find the transmitter.”
“Why is that a big deal?”
“Because,”—he smiled at her—“it means his possibilities for performance are limitless.”
Regan tucked her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. “You guys thought of everything, didn’t you?”
“Link, who’s here?” A thin woman with shoulder length gray hair walked into the living room, towel in hand. “Oh, hello.” Then she gasped and her hand flew to her chest. “Where did you find it?”
“He flew next door.”
She focused on Regan. “Thank you for bringing him back. I’m Wendy Davies, Link’s mum.” She extended her hand. “Can I offer you tea or coffee? It’s least we can do for bringing the robot home.”
“She can’t stay.”
Regan snapped her gaze his way. He had popped the back off the robot and was inspecting the flash drive. Was he seriously trying to get rid of her? She just did him a huge favor by returning the bot, and now he expected her to run off without answers. Regan folded her arms. “Yes, I can. I’ll have coffee.”
Link’s gaze met hers as Mrs. Davies disappeared around the corner.
“You can try to chase me away, but I’m not leaving until I see this guy in action. And you didn’t answer my question.”
“What question?” He frowned.
“Did he scan your face after you pulled him out of the backpack?”
“Yes. We programmed him to recognize our faces and voices. It’s not perfect, or by any means complete, but he knows the difference between Reese and I.”
“That’s amazing. What else can he do … besides track his friend?” Regan pointed at the beacon.
“Anything. Walk, fly…” He stared at the control in his hand, contemplative. “Hey, Roxy…” Link called then placed the dragon-bot on the coffee table, opened a center drawer, and pulled out a small box.
“Who’s Roxy?” Regan walked around the coffee table and sat at the very end of the couch.
“My cat. She loves this. 0x150, power on.”
The bot’s tail and head moved side-to-side as it stood up.
“Ox 150. That’s his name?” Regan folded her arms on top of her knees and studied the little guy who stood motionless as if waiting for orders.
“Zero-X. As in a fictitious space craft from a 1960s comic. My dad used to collect them.”
“Zero-X. 0x. Got it.”
He offered a shy, half-smile before shaking the container. Maybe he wasn’t completely annoyed by her presence. An orange-striped manx came running down the open stairway at supersonic speed and slid on the hard floor, fighting for traction. Regan laughed as it regained footing and pranced toward Link, circling his socked feet.
The robot’s wings opened fully and began to rotate and move up and down. Roxy immediately jumped on the table. 0x lifted into the air and turned. With a visual on the cat, he backed out of reach.
Regan gasped. “Is he doing that on his own?”
Link sat on the edge of a chair nearest her end of the couch and placed the transmitter on the table. “Yes. With the AI, he can manage thousands of variables. Every day, he records new information. Just watch.”
The robot zipped across the room and lowered to the floor. Roxy slipped off the table and attempted to meld into the shag carpet. She crept closer. At the edge of the remnant, the cat paused. Regan and Link both leaned forward. 0x flipped his tail.
“Is he teasing? How is that possible?”
“He’s not capable of teasing. He responds to patterns. This is a pattern. Roxy comes at him, he maintains a certain proximity from her as well as other objects.”
Regan cast him an accusing grin. “You pre-programmed him to move his tail.”
The bot lifted into the air and zoomed across the room.
Roxy tore after it.
Link’s face lit with a full, heart-stopping smile as he lifted one shoulder. “Not until last week. Believe it or not, 0x’s movements were so out of control before that, we couldn’t even work with him indoors.”
“You guys are obviously having way too much fun with him.”
“That’s the goal.” No wonder Sasha was after him. Looks, humility, a brain. Now, a hidden sense of humor. He was so refreshingly different from the guys back home.
“We created 0x to be a toy. A souped-up drone.” He opened the cat treat box and placed several on the floor. “0x150 power down.”
“I think he’s going to be much more than that.”
Link made eye contact without any trouble. “He’s a prototype, so we can program any number of limitations.”
“Good idea. That way you aren’t responsible for robots taking over the world.”
“But if 0x were bigger, I could program him to go to the kitchen and get your soda and chips. He wouldn’t need a human to hand it to him.”
“Are you saying your robot is better than mine? At least mine doesn’t sneak out like a moody teenager.”
They dissolved in laughter as Mrs. Davies brought out a tray with two coffees and a small plate of cookies. “Regan, is your family adjusting well?” She set the tray on the coffee table.
“If adjusting well means eating every meal out of a coffee mug and rolling up in a blanket like a burrito to sleep, then sure, yeah, I guess we are.”
Mrs. Davies and Link shared a look. “I’ll stop by and see your mum tomorrow. We have a great network of ladies who’ll help her get what she needs. Can I get you anything else?”
“This is great. Thanks.” Regan backhanded Link’s knee. “Wanna go outside?”
Link blinked. “Uh…” He opened the robot’s underbelly door and flipped a small switch.
“Of course he does. It’s a beautiful night.” Mrs. Davies winked then walked back toward the kitchen. Heat flooded Regan’s face. Geesh. Was her crush that noticeable?
Link glared at the kitchen and set 0x down. “There, he’s officially grounded.” He grabbed the transmitter and a cookie then walked to the front door and put on slippers. “You coming?”
Regan grabbed her coffee, placed a cookie between her teeth, then picked up her shoes as she followed him outside. “So, what made you and Reese decide to make 0x150?” She spoke around the cookie, sat on the top step, and worked her feet into her shoes.
“Stanford. And hopefully a scholarship.”
Whoa. Stanford. “Have you been accepted?”
“Accepted but the scholarship application is still in process.” He glanced at her and frowned. “The scholarships are limited. If you hadn’t found 0x, it might have all ended. For Reese, too.”
“Why? Can’t you go to Stanford without a scholarship?” She shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth.
“Stanford’s not the only school I’ve been accepted to but it is the most expensive.” He spoke matter of fact. “Mum and Dad would rather I stay in the UK, so without the scholarship, I won’t be going there.”
“Go somewhere else. There are better robotic schools than Stanford.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Silence fell between them. He stared at the night sky to a point far, far away. He didn’t want to talk about it. There was a reason. She heard it in the silence and saw it in his eyes before he looked away, but not wanting to butt in where she didn’t belong, she pushed her shoulder into his. “Then I guess you better keep a closer eye on 0x.”
“You mean a closer eye on the beacon. Whoever has that can call the robot.”
She grinned. “Then guard the beacon with your life. Don’t get distracted by girls in physics class.”
He rolled his eyes and blushed. “What are your plans after high school?” He ate the remainder of his cookie.
Now who felt shy? Her plans sounded lame next to his. “Maybe travel. I’m not sure what I want to study … or if I want to go to college.”
“Don’t you want a career?”
She sipped her coffee. Surely there was something else to talk about. “Haven’t you ever thought about just experiencing life? Have fun before you have to get so serious?” Dumb question since she was talking to the most serious guy she’d ever met.
Link shook his head. “Guess that makes me pretty boring.”
“I haven’t been bored yet.”
He blew out a half-chuckle. “What sort of experience are you looking for?”
Regan let her imagination fly and angled her body toward him, accidently bumping his leg with her knee. “First, I want to scale the Great Wall.”
His eyes widened. “Do you rock climb?”
“We had some fun places around Phoenix. A friend told me one time how they climbed the Great Wall. He said it was a cool experience. I mean, how many people can say they’ve done that?”
“Probably not many.” He picked up the transmitter off the step beside him. “You should talk to Reese. His brother owns a tourist company that takes people on Great Wall excursions.”
Regan’s face lit up. Link didn’t know any other person who expressed themselves so openly, and he liked it. Most girls were puzzles he didn’t have time to figure out, but Regan wore her emotions on the surface.
“Reese knows a lot about China. Part of his family has lived in this area for a long time.”
“But he’s not local or he wouldn’t be in our school, would he?”
“He’s from Taiwan, but he has Chinese grandparents and an aunt and uncle who live nearby.”
Link wanted to ask Regan more questions, dig into her life, but his best friend’s face kept infiltrating his thoughts. Right after Physics class, Reese made it clear he was into her. Link studied the transmitter. He should call Reese, but he wasn’t ready to end his time with Regan. It probably wouldn’t happen again. Especially when she learned Reese was into hiking and all that outdoors stuff.
“Do you have family in England?”
“Two aunts and a handful of cousins. Most are younger than me. Mum’s parents are still living. How about you? Did you leave a lot of family and friends behind?”
“I don’t feel like I left anyone behind. This is a refreshing change.”
“Refreshing until the smog rolls in.”
She studied the sky, not a single star visible under the city lights. “I have one sister, though. She’s older and I could have lived with her and finished my senior year in Arizona, but … I had a recent break up and, I don’t know, now I’m looking at life a little differently.” She sat up straight. “All my life, I’ve been chasing other people’s dreams. I’m sick of performing. I just want to be me, but I’m not sure who that is.”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Sorry. That sort of just tumbled out.”
“You don’t seem like a person who allows others to dictate her life.” He draped his arms over his knees.
“Not anymore, but I grew up in the shadow of an over achieving sister. We participated in all the same clubs and sports. Everyone expected me to be her.”
Too bad he couldn’t retract what he said earlier. “I’m sorry if I offended when I questioned you about a career.”
Regan grinned and pushed at his arm. “Aww … what a sweet guy. I knew it. That’s why you didn’t scare me away earlier. I think tonight’s the first time I actually said what I felt. I didn’t care if you judged me or had an opinion. Moving here has liberated me to become my own person.”
“Glad I could help.” Too bad he couldn’t talk about what was on his mind. The nightmares, the ghosts, the ever elusive—. The transmitter beeped and then a button on top blinked red.
“It’s Reese. He’s waiting for me to call. The red light means it’s an emergency, but he’s only waiting for an update on 0x.”
“You should call him. I’m very sorry about the mix up.” Regan drained her cup and handed it to him as she stood.
Wait. Why was she leaving? He didn’t need to call Reese yet. She didn’t need to go.
“Thank your mother for me.”
Do you want to come back for coffee again tomorrow? Want to see what else 0x150 can do? The words were ready to spill out, but she hurried down the steps.
Then she stopped and turned. “Hey, do you want to hang out sometime?”
Definitely. But how would he explain it to Reese? Regan obviously took his hesitation as a no, stuffed her hands in her back pockets, and backed up a step.
“Sorry. Forget I said that. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”
She took off at a fast walk, climbed her porch steps, and without a wave or second glance, disappeared inside her house.
Link pushed himself off the step. He made the right decision. His friendship with Reese was too important to jeopardize over a girl. Especially a girl who’d eventually find him boring. He closed the door a little harder than normal.
“Regan seems nice.” His mom came from the kitchen area, toting a laundry basket.
“She is.” Link picked up 0x and walked toward the stairs.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine.” He didn’t stick around for more questioning. In his room, he dropped into his desk chair and fired up his computer as he called Reese.
“Man, where’ve you been? I hit the emergency button, didn’t you see it?”
“You’re not going to believe what happened.” Link filled him in on the details he couldn’t fit in the earlier text. “I left the balcony door open.” He stood and walked over to it. “I have a curtain hanging over it, but 0x maneuvered around it.” Link examined the curtain then shut the sliding glass door and locked it.
The silence was deafening and Link understood. There was so much to assess. This meant 0x’s potential was limitless.
“Regan came to your house?” Reese broke the silence. “Did you find out if she might want to hang out sometime?”
Link dropped in his chair and stared at the sleeping bot on the corner of his desk. “No, conversation didn’t get that far, but I did find out she’s into rock climbing. I told her about your brother’s business and that she should talk to you.”
Perfect. He needed to forget about Regan. The sooner the better. “Why did you press the emergency button?”
Reese’s voice became serious and soft. “Can you meet tomorrow before school?”
“I think so. Why?”
Reese paused as if contemplating how much to say. “I think someone tried to hack my computer.”
Not the first time. Bullying at their school took on a unique disguise. “Can you tell what files they tried to access?”
Reese whispered. “I don’t want to talk over the phone. I’ll fill you in tomorrow but let’s plan to meet around 7:00. You know where.”