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Authors: Tony DiTerlizzi

the search for wondla

S
IMON
& S
CHUSTER

presents

SIMON & SCHUSTER BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020
www.SimonandSchuster.com

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events,
real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2010 by Tony DiTerlizzi

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
is a trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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.

Book design by Tony DiTerlizzi and Lizzy Bromley

Logo design by Thomas Kennedy

The text for this book is set in Adobe Garamond and Lomba.

The illustrations for this book were rendered with Staedtler Pigment Liner pens on vellum paper and were colored digitally.

Manufactured in the United States of America

0810 QUT

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

DiTerlizzi, Tony.

The search for WondLa / Tony DiTerlizzi. — 1st ed.

p. cm.

Summary: Living in isolation with a robot on what appears to be an alien world populated with bizarre life forms, a twelve-year-old human girl called Eva Nine sets out on a journey to find others like her. Features “augmented reality” pages, in which readers with a webcam can access additional information about Eva Nine’s world.

ISBN 978-1-4169-8310-1 (hardcover)

[1. Science fiction. 2. Human-alien encounters—Fiction. 3. Identity—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.D629Sd 2010

[Fic]—dc22

2010001326

ISBN 978-1-4424-1303-0 (eBook)

Contents

PART I

Chapter 1: Alone

Chapter 2: Skills

Chapter 3: Secrets

Chapter 4: Boom

Chapter 5: Aboveground

Chapter 6: Omnipod

Chapter 7: Life-forms

Chapter 8: Stuck

Chapter 9: Slice

Chapter 10: Run

PART II

Chapter 11: Wounds

Chapter 12: Sand-snipers

Chapter 13: Sanctuary

Chapter 14: Ashes

Chapter 15: Counterclockwise

Chapter 16: Puzzle

Chapter 17: Doors

Chapter 18: Sustenance

Chapter 19: Forest

Chapter 20: Water

Chapter 21: Fog

PART III

Chapter 22: Lacus

Chapter 23: Weave

Chapter 24: Gifts

Chapter 25: Jump

Chapter 26: Far Away

Chapter 27: Messages

Chapter 28: Artifacts

Chapter 29: Markings

Chapter 30: Hope

Chapter 31: Okay

Chapter 32: The Goldfish

Chapter 33: Reunion

PART IV

Chapter 34: Great Migration

Chapter 35: Turnfins

Chapter 36: Breathless

Chapter 37: Signal

Chapter 38: Ruins

Chapter 39: Ground

Chapter 40: Darkness

Chapter 41: Truth

Chapter 42: WondLa

Epilogue

Regional Map of Orbona

The Orbonian Alphabet

Acknowledgments

If you want your children
to be intelligent,
READ THEM FAIRY TALES.
If you want them to be
more intelligent,
READ THEM MORE FAIRY TALES.

PART I

CHAPTER 1: ALONE

Eva Nine
was dying. The tiny scarlet dots on her hand mirrored the glowering eyes of the snake that had just bitten her.

Sitting down on the prickly ground of dead brown pine needles and small cones, she felt the curdled coil of nausea wind its way up her throat from her stomach.

She dropped the sweaty handful of moss that she had scooped up from the forest floor.

“Kindling,” her Omnipod had instructed her earlier in its chirpy voice. “Find a flammable substance such as dry twigs or moss to begin your fire.” The large gathering of boulders Eva had found had seemed like the perfect place to make a shelter for the night, and the surrounding area was blanketed in ashen puff-patches of reindeer moss. As she had knelt down to gather a clump, Eva had realized there was a rust-colored, mottled snake just next to her, sunning itself in the fading light. She’d realized too late, though, to avoid its bite.

Now, with trembling hands, she fumbled through her dingy satchel to retrieve her Omnipod. The handheld metallic device was flat, like a magnifying glass, with a small circular hole in the middle of it that resembled an eye. Eva’s heart pounded, as if trying to escape her chest. She swallowed, interrupting the hectic meter of her breathing. The shoulder patch on her tunic blinked off and on in warning.

“This is Eva Nine,” she whispered into the Omnipod. “Initiate I-M … um, I-M …”

Eva closed her eyes and concentrated. She put the device to her forehead, as if the Omnipod would whisper to her brain the command she needed.

“Greetings, Eva Nine. How can I be of service?” the device chirped.

“I … um …” Her hands shook. “I need you to initiate Independent Medical—”

“Do you mean Individual Medical Assistance? IMA for short?” the Omnipod corrected her.

“Yes,” she answered, licking her dry lips and trying to hold her insides in.

“Is this an emergency?”

“Yes! I need help right away!” Eva yelled at the Omnipod.

“What is the nature of your emergency?”

“S-snake bite,” Eva said with a gulp. The nausea lurked just under her tongue, ready to leap out.

“Hold, please. Initiating Identicapture.” Eva watched as three tiny lights on the Omnipod flickered in a rhythm around its central eye. “Begin Identicapture of said snake. We need to determine if it is a poisonous species or not.”

Through glassy eyes Eva scanned her immediate area; she could no longer focus on the terrain around her, let alone find a snake disguised as the forest floor. Her eyes rolled up into her head. Her breathing slowed. She let the Omnipod slip from her fingers.

Eva fell back, like a slain giant collapsing in a miniature forest of moss. She looked up at the fading light of the cobalt blue sky. Her Omnipod lay alongside her as it repeated, “Please begin Identicapture.”

All Eva could whisper was, “Dead. I’m totally dead.”

A voice from the heavens echoed through the landscape. It was a kind and graceful voice, like the sort she’d heard coming from a beautiful woman in an old movie.

“Eva. Eva, dear, please get up,” the voice said. Just like in an old moving picture, Eva could also hear the slightest bit of static hidden in the dulcet intonation.

The pine trees seemed to whisper the girl’s name as the cool of evening blew in. Somewhere in the distance a whip-poor-will beckoned the night. Eva cracked open her pale green eyes into little slits.

“Eva Nine,” urged the voice, “get up.”

The girl rolled onto her side. Lying on the forest floor, she examined the tuft of moss in her hand. She saw that the delicate network of stalks really did make it look like a shrunken tree, albeit a washed-out lifeless one.
How does such an insignificant plant survive in a big world?
she wondered.
What is its purpose? What is my purpose?

“Eva, please—”

“I’m dead,” Eva announced to the sky. “Or couldn’t you tell? I’m gone. Deceased. No more. Deeeaaaaad!”

She turned her attention back to the little moss tree and pouted. “It’s not like you have to worry about that,” she muttered.

The clump of moss in her hands vanished, dissipating into a cloud of light motes. Eva curled up into a ball, shutting her eyes as the world around her also evaporated into nothingness. Emptiness.

The voice was right next to her now. “Eva, what happened?”

“Leave me alone,” the ball replied.

“You were not paying attention,” the voice said with a sigh. “You had a ninety-eight percent chance of discovering the snake, had you done a simple LifeScan sweep. It was right there in plain view.”

Still curled in a ball, Eva said nothing.

“Of course, I have to mark you as a failure on this particular survival skill test. We shall try it again tomorrow. All right?” said the voice.

A warm hand brushed Eva’s half-braided dirty-blond hair. At last Eva stood up.

Two dark orbs, emitting an amber glow from deep within, reflected Eva’s own face in a distorted fashion, like a fish in a fishbowl. Large automated eyelids clicked open and closed in a lifelike manner. Several other eyes, small and unblinking, studied the girl, recording endless data and sending it to a computerized brain. A brain that was contained in two metallic canisters mounted on the back of a head—the front of which displayed a mechanized silicone-rubber face.

“What is going on with you, Eva?” the automated lips mimed. “This test should have been effortless for you to pass. Is everything all right?”

One of the robot’s telescoping arms extended from a carousel of several additional arms folded up around the cylindrical torso. Four wiry fingers, also tipped in silicone rubber, rubbed Eva’s shoulders in a reassuring fashion.

“How is your concentration?” the robot asked. “I noted that you did not rest a full ten hours last night, which indicates that you may not have achieved enough REM sleep. That can have quite an effect on your performance.”

“Not now, Muthr.” Eva shrugged the robot off. “I need to be alone.”

She crossed the wide squarish white room and headed for the low doorway. Buff-colored rubbery floor tiles absorbed the sound of her plodding footsteps. Though the chamber was only dimly lit, there was still enough light coming from the holo-projectors mounted around the ceiling to show that the room itself was empty of anything … except for the human girl and the pale blue robot.

Eva sulked as she shuffled into the main hub of her living quarters. When the large doors to the holography chamber slid shut behind her, a pastoral scene was projected onto them in vivid detail. Cottony clouds drifted aimlessly across a brilliant azure sky over distant lavender mountains. This gave the effect that the entire hub was like a grand outdoor gazebo, displaying a magnificent vista in the round—though one projection was not working properly and flickered into a corresponding nighttime scene, ruining the illusion.

“Welcome back, Eva Nine.” The intercom spoke in a relaxed tone. Its words reverberated throughout the octagonal chamber. “How may I help you?” Water trickled in a distant stream, and songbirds sang, filling the vestibule with ambient sounds coinciding with the scenery.

“Hi. Please open bedroom doors, Sanctuary,” Eva said, stomping across the hub toward the far window. Projected on it was a spectacular view of a misty waterfall cascading down from a colossal mountaintop. The cast image crackled when the girl passed through it, as through a holographic curtain, into the open doors of her dimly lit bedroom.

“Close doors, please.” Eva flung her jackvest onto her medi-seat. She sat down on the edge of her foam bed and kicked off her sneakboots. As she flopped back onto the oval mattress, Eva stared up at the myriad of pipes and exhaust shafts that wound through her white ceiling. There were water stains on the corner ceiling tiles of the small room, like large ochre flowers blooming from the pipes. One of the overhead lights flickered in an annoying, erratic tempo.

With her hands behind her head, Eva rubbed the raised round mole on the nape of her neck. The warmth of her electric bed permeated through her tunic in a comfy sort of way. Her eyelids drooped, and she had begun to doze off when her bedroom doors slid back open.

“Eva, you forgot your equipment satchel and Omnipod back in the holo-chamber,” Muthr said, rolling into her room balanced on a single tread-worn wheel. “Honestly, dear, how can you expect to pass your training if you do not take care of your things?”

“Muthr!” Eva continued staring up at the stained ceiling, refusing to look Muthr in the eye. “Just leave it. I’ll put it away later.”

The robot picked Eva’s dingy jackvest up from the chair. The discarded garment had been perfectly hidden among the stuffed toys, dirty clothes, and electra-papers that were strewn about the room. “Put it away as you have done with the rest of your belongings? I sometimes wonder—”

“Please, Muthr, I just want to be alone for a while,” Eva barked at the ceiling.

Muthr hung the jackvest on the empty row of coat hooks lining the wall. “Dinner is at eighteen hundred hours. Please be timely, Eva,” Muthr said. After Muthr rolled out of the room, the doors slid shut behind her. Eva reached under her head and grabbed her pillow. As she squeezed it over her face, she screamed.

CHAPTER 2: SKILLS

I am making
spinach and strawberry salad,” sang Muthr as Eva walked into the kitchen and flopped down at the booth.

The eggshell-and-cream colors of the kitchen walls and numerous stacked cabinets did little to make the compact room appear cozy. A scratched, scuffed oven dominated the far wall, with a large exhaust vent growing out and up through the ceiling. Mounted next to it was a sink that had a variety of faucets and taps dangling over it like metallic-ringed tentacles. Eva picked at a dried bit of food on the steel tabletop.

“I am so glad that we were able to fix the irrigation system in the greenhouse last week. Our crop production is already up seventy-six percent,” Muthr said, setting a bowl full of strawberries in front of Eva. “Here, you can cut these up.”

Eva picked up a strawberry the size of her fist and grabbed a knife from the knife block.

“That is a filet knife,” Muthr pointed out, gingerly taking the utensil from the girl. Another wire-veined hand handed Eva a small chef’s knife. “This should work fine.”

Eva placed the immense strawberry on its side, ready to slice.

“Are you not forgetting something? Are your hands washed?” Muthr asked, still facing the sink, where she was now washing spinach leaves. Eva rolled her eyes and joined her.

At the sink Muthr prepared the food in her usual efficient manner. One hand passed a clean wide, wavy spinach leaf to another, which then placed the leaf on a cutting board. There, a third hand cut the spinach up into perfect squares. “I have been thinking,” the robot said, “we need to back up and review some of the basic procedures before we continue with our outdoor training.”

Eva dried her hands on her tunic, leaving damp splotches along the hem. “R-review?” she sputtered. “How long is that going to take?”

“If we start tomorrow, several more weeks—or twenty-four more days, to be exact,” Muthr answered, scraping the chopped spinach into a steel salad bowl.

“Twenty-four days?” Eva said, shocked. “Why don’t we just go out and do some of these exercises for real? I’m sure I’d do a lot better.” She lopped the green star-shaped top off a strawberry and sliced the fruit.

“You know good and well that you are not yet ready,” Muthr replied, opening a large cabinet door. The cabinet was stocked full of marked containers of different sizes meticulously arranged as in a giant spice rack.

“I am ready,” Eva said. “I know more than you think.” She slid the quartered strawberry next to the bowl and grabbed another, even larger than the first. “And besides, maybe if we explore, we’ll find … you know … others.”

“‘Others’?” repeated Muthr. She paused and rotated her head. With her large eyes, the robot looked like a mechanized owl observing Eva. “What others are you speaking of?”

“You know … others. Humans, like me,” Eva said, keeping her gaze focused on cutting the ripe red fruit.

“Eva Nine, we have been over this numerous times before.” Muthr grabbed a hanging pot above her. When she placed it under one of the faucets, water automatically began to fill it up. “And, as I have told you before, there are no indications of others down here like you. That is what makes you so special.”

Eva mouthed the last line in perfect unison while she lopped the top off another strawberry. “But I think that’s why we need to leave. To explore and find out for sure,” she countered.

“You failed the simplest of tasks today—a LifeScan sweep. You are not yet ready.” Muthr returned her attention to her cooking. “Stove top, burner one, heat level six, please.”

“But I am so cooped up in here,” Eva said in a despondent tone. “Can’t we go out for just a little bit?”

Muthr replied, “You will in time, my dear. Now—”

“I don’t think you understand, Muthr. I—”

“I do understand. Now please pay attention. Focus on what you’re doing.” Muthr’s tone was stern.

“How can you understand?” Eva slapped the knife down onto the tabletop with a loud clang. “You’re not me! You can’t get bitten by a snake! You … you’re not even human!”

The kitchen was silent except for the clicking of Muthr’s blinking eyes. She studied Eva with her deep dark orbs. The pot on the stove began to burble softly. Somewhere high above, an exhaust fan hummed as it sucked the heat up and out of the room.

Eva sneered at the robot, waiting for a reaction. She wondered what Muthr was thinking with all of those zeroes and ones coursing through her electrical nervous system. It was then that Eva realized that she was bleeding.

“Eva!” gasped Muthr, wheeling toward her.

“I just nicked myself with the blade. That’s all,” Eva said, putting her thumb into her mouth. As she lapped the tiny wound with her tongue, she could taste her blood. She could feel the pulse of her own heart.

“Now, that is not the way to address a minor cut, Eva.” Muthr rolled closer, extending a rodlike arm. “Let me see it.”

Eva pulled out her thumb and allowed Muthr to study it. At the same time, dinner preparations resumed, as Muthr dropped several pills from the cabinet into the simmering pot of water. The small kitchen began to fill with the scent of roasted chicken.

“This is exactly what I am talking about,” Muthr said. “Now, what you need to do is sterilize the site. Then place a small medical sticker on it so that it may heal without infection and with minimum scarring.”

“I’ll be fine, Muthr. It’s just a tiny cut.” Eva yanked her hand back. “I’ll live.”

“Eva, please just—”

“Fine!” Eva yelled. She stormed out of the kitchen, muttering under her breath, “It’s not like you’ll ever die.”

She walked out to the hub, manually activating an adjacent door, which led to the supply room. As the door slid shut behind her, Eva walked past the labyrinth of shelves containing all manner of household items: electro-gaskets, holo-bulbs, lumen-packs, various cleaning products, and hydration kits.

“Hello, Eva Nine. May I help you find something?” asked the calm tone of the Sanctuary over the intercom.

“I’m okay, Sanctuary,” Eva replied, stopping in front of a rack holding medicinal supplies. “I’m just looking for a small medi-sticker.”

“Medical sticky bandages with SpeedHeal ointment are located on the bottommost shelf,” the Sanctuary said.

“Thanks,” Eva said, pulling open a metallic bin. She grabbed two, pocketing one of the medi-stickers in her tunic. She ripped open the plastic packet with her teeth and placed the medicated sticker over the congealed blood spot on her thumb. Pausing in the shadowy aisle of shelves, Eva listened. Through the ply-steel walls she could hear Muthr humming as the robot set the table. Eva walked to the very back of the storage room and stared at the faint outline of a sealed doorway.

A doorway she wasn’t supposed to know about.

“Eva, dear?” Muthr’s harmonious voice came in over the intercom. “Did you find the medi-stickers?”

“I did,” Eva replied, though she knew the question was pointless. Muthr and the Sanctuary were linked. “I just want to grab some other things, um … electra-paper … to write notes for tomorrow’s class.”

“Good thinking,” Muthr said. “Dinner is ready!”

Later that evening Eva relaxed in her cozy electric bed, watching her favorite holo-show,
Beeboo and Company
. Muthr entered her faintly lit room and moved through the clutter on the floor. “I thought I asked you to pick this up,” she said as she approached Eva.

“Come in,” Eva said sarcastically while she watched brilliantly colored cartoon characters cavort about her bedroom. A blue raccoon was trying to help an orange octopus build a home using sticks and rocks, but the house kept collapsing. A cat wearing a silver suit emblazoned with a logo for the Dynastes Corporation giggled, announcing, “You two need building blocks!”

“Pause program, please,” commanded Muthr in that cheery tone of hers. “I made some notes of my own and thought you might want this,” she said, handing Eva an electra-paper.

As Eva studied the semitransparent sheet, faint lines of text scrolled up to meet her roving gaze. “This is just a list of the six basic survival skills,” she said. Eva looked up at Muthr, causing the text to stop scrolling. “We’ve gone over this before.”

“Well, we need to go over it again until you get it right,” Muthr replied.

“What?” Eva said, aghast.

The robot put a hand on her shoulder. “I am going to quiz you on what each of these skills means tomorrow,” Muthr said. “Pass this quiz with a perfect score, and we can continue with the fire-starting exercise right where we left off today. All right?”

Eva looked back at the list. “We won’t have to start all over again?”

“We will not have to start all over again
if
you pass tomorrow’s quiz,” Muthr said. “You have a ninety-nine percent chance of doing this, so I expect you to perform exceptionally.” Muthr turned away, rolling out of the room. “Good night, dear.”

As the bedroom door slid shut, Eva could hear Muthr command the Sanctuary to power down for the night. She looked at the list, the words faintly glowing on the electra-paper:

SIX BASIC SURVIVAL SKILLS FOR HUMANS

1. Trust Technology

2. Signal Others

3. Find Shelter

4. Create Fire

5. Procure Food and Water

6. Know First Aid

Eva slid out of bed and threw a blanket over the life monitor peering down from above. She pulled on her sneakboots, then grabbed her satchel from the nightstand. As she did so, her Omnipod was knocked onto the floor. Jostled, it projected a life-size hologram of a girl in workout attire. Her face bore an uncanny resemblance to Eva’s.

“No, no, no!” gasped Eva, reaching down for the device.

“Who’s ready to warm up with some jumping jacks?” the hologram girl asked in a far too cheerful tone. Eva whispered to the Omnipod, “Deactivate Gym Buddy!”

“Deactivating,” the device whispered back. The hologram evaporated, leaving a whitish glow illuminating Eva’s face. “Is there anything else I can assist you with, Eva Nine?” it asked.

“Just a sec,” Eva replied, slipping her bony hand through the Omnipod’s wrist strap. Watching her door, Eva waited to see if the noisy outburst had attracted Muthr. Finally, she told the Omnipod, “Please command the Sanctuary to discontinue tracking my location and reporting to Muthr until instructed otherwise.”

“Tracking of Multi-Utility Task Help Robot zero-six discontinued.”

Eva opened her bedroom door and stepped out into the main hub. From under the soles of her sneakboots, she could hear the squish of disinfectant seeping up from the floor tiles as the Sanctuary began its nightly cleaning. The stinging scent of cleaner hung in the air, causing Eva’s eyes to water and the inside of her nose to burn.

She snuck along the perimeter of the hub on a path farthest from Muthr’s quarters, the control room, in hopes that the ever-vigilant robot would not hear her.

Thankfully, the door to the supply room was malfunctioning and could no longer be voice activated. Eva tapped a glowing green button, and the doors slid open with a low hiss. Eva froze, waiting for the doors of Muthr’s quarters to slide open in response. What would she tell her if she were caught? Medi-sticker, she thought. The old one fell off in the shower tonight.

Eva slipped into the supply room, her body heat activating the overhead lights. Watching the door slide shut, she brought the Omnipod close to her mouth.

“Omnipod, please instruct the Sanctuary to open the back hatch in the supply room,” she whispered into the device.

“Doorway opening.”

The door in the back of the room slid open with a hiss. Eva’s silhouette stretched out into the dank, murky darkness. Eva whispered, “I’m on my way.”

CHAPTER 3: SECRETS

Eva pressed
a glowing red button, causing the door to slide shut behind her. She ran her fingers over a logo, an emblem stamped into the ply-steel composed of the letters
HRP
.

The Omnipod entered lumen mode, and the device created a strong beam of light from its central eye. As Eva made her way down the long, winding corridor, she thought back to her first discovery of the secret hallway… .

She’d been five years old, playing hide-and-seek with Muthr.

Eva’s favorite place to hide had been the empty cabinet under the kitchen sink, but she had grown some and could no longer fit under there.

Instead, Eva had found her way into the very back of the labyrinthine supply room and had hidden behind the last shelf full of nutriment capsules. Giggling, she had leaned against the back wall, sliding into the shadows and awaiting the sound of Muthr’s playful voice. On the cold surface of that wall, Eva had felt the unmistakable seam of a doorway.

Muthr had found her moments later trying to get the Sanctuary to open it. The robot had told her it was a malfunctioning door that had been sealed off long before Eva Nine had been born.

Eva had soon forgotten about the mysterious door, until the day she’d made the other discovery.

Putting a pair of rolled-up woolen socks away in her dresser, an eight-year-old Eva had found something scratched into the metal on the
inside
of the top drawer. Printed in blocky lettering was: “CP01: OMNISCIENT: FLOOR PLAN.”

Eva had puzzled over this cryptic code for days. She’d wondered if she should go and ask Muthr about its meaning. She’d pondered this idea, but had hesitated, for it was also at that time that Eva had started to realize that she and Muthr were truly not the same. This observation had led to a notion that had itched at the back of her mind: She wasn’t being told everything.

There were other humans depicted in the holo-shows and programs that she watched—but none living in the Sanctuary. Where could they be? When she had asked Muthr, Eva had received the same response: “There are no others like you. That is what makes you so very special.”

Eva had returned to her dresser and stared at the words written inside the drawer.

That was when she’d asked her Omnipod what a “floor plan” was.

The device had prattled out a lengthy definition, projecting lavish holograms of various architectural layouts, then had asked if she wanted to know more. She had not.

Eva had then asked what “omniscient” was. The Omnipod had answered that “omniscient” was an adjective derived from a seventeenth-century word meaning “to know everything.”

Finally, Eva had asked what “CP01” was. Here, the Omnipod had had no answer. It had replied that the letters and numbers could be some sort of code, perhaps even for another computer or device.

Still puzzled, Eva had looked at that cryptic message day after day, trying to determine its true meaning. In time, she’d forgotten about it. A year later, she’d been removing her old clothing, which no longer fit, from her dresser drawers.

Once again, she’d spied the secret words.

“Show me the Sanctuary’s floor plan,” she had instructed the Omnipod when she was nine years old. Once again, a dazzling hologram had floated up, expounding in great detail about the different chambers of the girl’s home. Immediately, Eva had realized that there were holes in this hypnotic display—pieces of the Sanctuary that were missing. The Omnipod hadn’t been showing her everything.

Eva had asked to see the Sanctuary’s
entire
floor plan.

The Omnipod had asked for a username and a password.

Eva had replied, “CP01. Omniscient.” …

She now approached the halfway point of the long hallway. The humidity had increased as she’d trekked farther down the winding corridor. Moisture clung to the walls, and small fungi dotted the ceiling in places.

“Almost there,” whispered Eva, her voice echoing through the darkness. When Eva had first wandered into this new, uncharted area, she’d been thrilled and terrified all at once. Now she moved without hesitation. Her destination was just ahead… .

She remembered a time when she had realized there was more to the world than just her life in the Sanctuary. When she’d been six, she had asked Muthr about it as she’d sat down to breakfast. “Why aren’t there trees in our house?”

“Because trees cannot grow here,” Muthr had replied, dropping a pill into a cup of water. It had fizzed as it had plunged to bottom of the cup, disintegrating.

“But we have plants in our greenhouse. And my programs show trees. Big, enormous oak trees, growing in large forests,” Eva had said as she’d slurped up her drink. Muthr had told her the taste was like freshly picked oranges.

The robot had put an arm around her, “Well, Eva, there are trees. But they cannot grow here, where we live. They grow … above us.”

“Can we go and see them?” Eva had been excited at the idea of exploring a big forest towering right above them. “We could play hide-and-seek and have a picnic.”

“All in due time,” Muthr had replied, setting a bowl of oatmeal-flavored mush in front of her.
All in due time… .

Eva finally arrived at the end of the hall. Another door, identical to the one she had opened in the supply room, stood shut in front of her, its manual control panel darkened from water damage. She knelt down, adjusting the light on the Omnipod from a solid beam to a soft, luminous glow.

The area surrounding the door was lined with a collection of odd and unusual objects that had been placed carefully in little organized rows leading to the door. The items ranged from clothing—shoes and crisply folded tunics—to toys and games, such as an animated rattle and a giggling ball. All had one thing in common: They were items that belonged to Eva that she was not yet ready to discard. She sat down facing a group of dingy stuffed animals at the head of this arrangement and opened her satchel.

“Hi, everybody!” Eva addressed the toys and objects huddled at the shadowy door. “Sorry it’s been a while. I’ve been so busy with my exercises and stuff. How are you?”

The toys did not reply.

“Good. Good,” Eva replied. “Oh, me? I’m all right … I suppose.”

She showed her bandaged thumb to the toys. “I got cut—see? Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks for asking. It happened while I was prepping dinner. No, no, don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” She rubbed her bandaged thumb against her forefinger. “But I totally flunked my fire-starting test today. I got bit by a snake and died. Can you believe it?”

The silent collection stared back at her.

Eva winced. “I know, I know. I think Muthr wanted me to fail and put it there on purpose—so I just dropped dead. I thought she was going to blow a gasket!” Eva chuckled. The hollow laugh echoed on the damp walls surrounding her.

She sighed, slumping into the shadow outside of the Omnipod’s glow. Her eyes downcast, Eva spoke in a melancholy tone, “What am I going to do, guys? It’s not that I want to fail these exercises. I want to pass them. I mean, the sooner I pass them, the sooner I can get out of here… . I’m sorry. You’re right—the sooner
we
can get out of here.” Eva stared at the glowing faces of her old toys, illuminated by the Omnipod. “I just … I just want to have friends. Not that you guys aren’t great friends and all. But, you know.” Eva picked at a loose string of climatefiber hanging from her sock. “I want to meet people … like me.”

A muffled banging sound reverberated down the hall from the direction of the Sanctuary. She stopped talking and listened … but now all was silent.

She addressed the toys again. “What’s that? No. Now I have to take a quiz tomorrow to see if I still remember my basic skills. My basic skills! It’s like Muthr doesn’t want me to leave at all. It’s not fair.” She pulled the electra-paper out of her satchel. Its pale glowing lines flickered in the darkness as Eva rolled up the sheet. She slid it carefully inside a small sneakboot standing loyally with its mate next to the stuffed animals. “Guess what? Here’s what the quiz is on. I wanted to make sure you all had the list too.”

Eva’s eyes rested on a small, thin item hiding in the organized hoard. She plucked it up carefully and examined it closer. It was a blackened, crumbling, flat piece of material—different from anything else she’d ever held before.

When she’d first discovered this item more than a year before, Eva had tried to identify it with her Omnipod, but the device had concluded that, “There is insufficient data. Not enough information to make an identification.” Eva had determined that it was likely a small piece of tile or even paneling, possibly a sign of sorts, as it was square shaped. On it was an image (a broken one, since it no longer moved) of a little girl holding hands with a robot and an adult.

The only item in Eva’s secret collection not given to her by Muthr.

The only item in her secret collection not identifiable by her Omnipod.

An item another human had left for her, here, by this sealed door.

Proof.

She couldn’t make out who exactly the adult in the image was. The scorched damage obscured the face in soot. However, she could see two letters on this worn piece of paneling:
L
and
a
. There was a second, smaller piece to this puzzle, which she had discovered as well. Eva had glued this missing fragment to the top of the panel. It, too, had fancy letters printed on it: “Wond.”

“WondLa,” Eva had dubbed it. She studied the picture in her hands. The girl was smiling. The robot was smiling. Eva was certain the adult was likely smiling too as they all walked together in unison through a field of flowers. Moving as one. As friends. Exploring the forests above.

But Eva’s robot would not allow her to explore. She wouldn’t even let her leave the Sanctuary.

A Sanctuary that had been connected to another Sanctuary.

A Sanctuary that had been connected to
many
other Sanctuaries.

Eva had seen the omniscient floor plan.

However, like the door before her that led to the adjoining Sanctuary, they were now all closed off to her.

“I don’t know why Muthr doesn’t want me to have other friends,” Eva said as she returned the WondLa back to its place. “But she’ll never find out about the WondLa, or us … until it’s too late.”

Lifting the Omnipod up from the floor, Eva scanned the collection of unmoving toys. The soft light illuminated their blank faces. She paused on one, a grungy Beeboo doll.

“I brought you a medi-sticker too,” Eva said as she ripped open the little packet with her teeth. Eva placed the sticker on the doll’s soiled paw. “I don’t want you to get an infection when we escape from here.”

As she stood to leave, a tremendous shock wave rattled the entire Sanctuary, raining dust and debris from the corridor ceiling down onto Eva Nine.

CHAPTER 4: BOOM

The omnipod
light danced wildly about the secret passageway as Eva rushed back toward the Sanctuary. She activated the door controls as another loud reverberation rocked the walls, causing her to stumble through the open doorway and back into the supply room. The shelves inside vibrated with each rumble, and several containers of disinfectant fell to the floor. Holding on to the shelves, Eva snaked her way to the front of the room just as the door hissed open. Standing in the entrance was Muthr.

“There you are!” exclaimed Muthr. She thrust Eva’s jackvest and a large food container into the girl’s hands. “I have been looking everywhere for you. Do you have your Omnipod?”

“Yes,” replied Eva, holding up her right hand, the device hanging from her wrist.

“May I have it, please?” Muthr asked.

Eva handed the Omnipod to her. Immediately its tiny lights began flickering in rhythm to a tiny light on Muthr’s torso. “What is that?” Eva shouted over another tremendous bang. The sound was coming from above them. All the lights in the Sanctuary flickered.

“Is this another exercise? Or a drill? Because—” A shrieking siren cut her off, a noise Eva Nine had never heard before. With large eyes—frightened eyes—she watched the robot. Muthr was silent and stoic, but lights blinked in rapid succession all over her head.

“Muthr, what’s happening? What is the Sanctuary telling you?” Eva asked. She huddled close to the robot as another shock wave boomed overhead.

Muthr blinked out of her trance and addressed Eva. “An intruder has breached the Sanctuary’s doors and is now descending to the main entrance. Come now. We have only minutes to get you to safety.” With that, the robot spun around and wheeled out into the main hub. Eva hopped along behind her, slipping her jackvest on over her beige tunic. The Sanctuary shook again.

“Kitchen doors, open, please,” Muthr commanded, and she barreled through the adjacent door.

“Wait—the kitchen?” Eva stopped in the doorway, confused. “Why are we going into the kitchen? Shouldn’t we head to the control room?”

“Not now, Eva, dear.” Muthr grabbed Eva by the wrist and yanked her inside. The robot slid open a small hidden panel near the doorway and began typing a sequence of numbers into a security keypad. The kitchen doors slid shut and locked. Over the sound of the alarm, Eva could hear the other doors in the Sanctuary lock as well. Next, the ambient sounds of the central living hub, along with every appliance within the Sanctuary, powered on with the volume at maximum level.

“This noisy diversion will not buy us much time, so we must be quick,” Muthr said. She looked directly at Eva and placed two hands on her shoulders. “Now, listen very carefully to me, Eva. You must
leave
the Sanctuary and head up to the surface for safety. This intruder is clearly not benevolent, and I will not have any harm befall you.”

Eva gasped. “Leave? Now? I mean, I want to, but—”

Muthr’s voice remained calm while explosions tore apart the Sanctuary outside the kitchen door. “Do not worry, my child,” she said. “I will be all right. I know we were not finished with your exercises. However, you—”

“Room two fire sensor has detected smoke,” announced the Sanctuary over the intercom speaker. “Please seal off the room and begin extinguishing sequence.”

Muthr wheeled Eva over to the cooking exhaust vent, and began removing the corner screws from the intake grill at once with all four of her arms. “Eva, inside here is a ladder that will take you directly to the surface.”

Eva blinked, dumbfounded.
There was an escape hatch right here in the kitchen all this time?
The floor plan on the Omnipod had shown only one way out, and that was through the robot’s quarters.

A loud sonic vibration, just outside in the central hub, rattled the walls of the Sanctuary. A mighty explosion erupted, as if a door were being blown to pieces.

Eva backed away from the kitchen doorway a bit, and bumped into Muthr, who had now removed the grate. She set the grate down and continued with her instructions. “I have been closely monitoring the nearby terrain. If the reports are correct, we are concealed in a densely wooded area near a river. Once you reach the ground level outside, you need to run from here as fast as you can and find a place to hide among the trees.” Muthr supported Eva as she climbed up onto the stove top and stepped inside the exhaust shaft. It smelled smoky, like burnt toast. “Stay put until daylight,” Muthr said, “and above all, do not let this intruder spot you.”

Kneeling down in the exhaust shaft, Eva looked at Muthr. Her heart was pounding in tempo with her rapid breathing.

This is not an exercise.

“Rooms three and five are also detecting smoke,” the Sanctuary’s intercom spoke in its eerie, calm tone. Another explosion interrupted its report, “—begin extinguishing sequence.”

Room 5. That’s my room.

My life is in there. My clothes … my bed … my entire holo-show collection.

Room 5 was where Eva had dreamed up countless plans of how she was going to find others, just like her, and bring them back safely to her home. Friends and family would live with her and Muthr in the Sanctuary, just like the picture depicted on the WondLa.

Another explosion rocked the kitchen.

“Eva, I need you focused and alert,” Muthr said, handing her the Omnipod. “Remember what we have studied and all that you have learned.” The robot lifted up the grate and began screwing the bolts back in. “Trust technology, and
do not
return unless you hear word from me. Understand?”

Eva nodded as it dawned on her what was happening. Her eyes started to sting. This scenario wasn’t on any list. Sure, she had wanted to explore the surface, but not this way.

Not alone.

“Room six fire sensor has detected smoke,” reported the Sanctuary. It might as well have been greeting Eva, its tone of voice was so calm. “Please seal off the room and begin extinguishing sequence.” Static fuzzed over part of the announcement. Despite the growing heat from the fire outside, Eva’s entire body trembled as if she were chilled.

“Muthr! You … you have to come with me!” yelled Eva. The smell of smoke now drifted into the kitchen. “Please!” She panicked. “There’s room for you in here! I can help you up! Don’t leave me!”

Muthr put her hand on the grill. “Eva, listen. Listen very carefully to me.” Eva curled her fingertips around Muthr’s, gripping so tightly that the blood rushed out of them. The robot continued, “I have shut the exhaust fan off, but it is on a timer. It will restart soon, so you have to hurry. When you get to the top of the vent, there will be a wheel. Turn it counterclockwise to open the hatch and climb out.”

Smoke wormed its way into the kitchen from under the door, carrying a nauseating stench of smoldering metal and melted plastic. Outside, Eva could hear a loud hum followed by a piercing sonic vibration. The kitchen door buckled from the explosion, but did not open. Muthr spoke in that slightly distorted melodious voice. “Eva, I love you very much, and I hope that I will see you again,” she said, “but you must go, NOW!”

Muthr moved away from the grate. Eva pounded on it, screaming, “No! No! No!”

A metal covering slid down, sealing the exhaust vent shut. Eva could hear a tremendous explosion and the kitchen door blow open. Frightened, she sat frozen at the bottom of the vent for the longest minute of her life. She listened to the rummaging and pilfering going on beyond the grate covering in what had once been her kitchen—what had once been her home.

Eva thought of Muthr. She thought of her old friends hiding in the secret corridor.

She started climbing her way up toward a distant flickering light at the top of the shaft. It seemed like miles away, and the light above turned into a tiny star shape every time tears streamed out of her eyes.

Panting, Eva was approaching the nonmoving exhaust fan. As she neared the large unit, she could hear it chirp in a steady electronic beat. From below, Eva studied the fan’s wide greasy blades, encrusted with gray clumps of filth, as the chirping sped up in tempo.

The fan is on a timer
—Eva recalled Muthr’s instructions—
you have to hurry
. She grabbed hold of the fan’s central motor and pulled herself up past the flattened blades. The chirping sped up yet again. Sitting atop the large cylindrical motor, Eva caught her breath. The chirping became a rapid beep. Eva stood on top of the unit and could see a wheel-shaped handle above her lit by a single utility light. Grasping the wheel, she tried to turn it.

It did not budge.

“Turn, turn, turn,” pleaded Eva.

The chirping stopped and the fan’s motor started up again. The vibration jolted Eva so much that she almost lost her footing. The toe of her sneakboot thrummed as the blades whacked at it.

Another sonic shock wave echoed its way up the shaft, and Eva shrieked. The wave was followed by a rending sound at the bottom of the shaft, and metal clanging. The grill covering had been removed, and smoke now began to wind its way up the exhaust vent.

Sensing the additional heat, the fan spun even faster. The entire unit vibrated, groaning under the additional weight of Eva on top of it. Through the fumes burning her vision, Eva risked looking down. Below, she could make out the glow of fire coming in from the kitchen grill, growing like an angry orange-red snake up toward her.

Vertigo tried to topple Eva. She refocused on the wheel, pulling on it with every bit of strength that she possessed until it finally let out a low squeak and moved ever so slightly. The smoke was now so dense that Eva could no longer see her own hands in front of her. She coughed as noxious vapors filled her lungs. Mucus ran from her nose into her gritted teeth.

“Come on!” she yelled as she blindly pried the wheel loose from its frozen position. At last the wheel spun freely just as the old, rusted bolts holding the fan unit below her gave out, one at a time. With each turn the top vent of the shaft opened a little more, sucking up the fire and its smoky breath. The fan came loose from the shaft walls, plummeting down to the flames below. Hanging from the wheel, Eva pulled herself up and grasped the edge of the vent opening. She squeezed her lithe body through the vent, and then tumbled down to the ground below.

A ground Eva Nine had never set a foot upon in all twelve years of her life.