“So this is why it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes open,” said Caleb. He held out the branch he’d stripped, drooping with ripe red morsels, as well as the motherboard salvaged from the CPU of a Watcher. “These berries are edible, and these kinds of capacitors can be soldered into your parts as replacements”

“So eat the capacitors?” said Trace, from the back of the group.

“Soldier the berries?” Chip cried. “How do I soldier berries?”

“When is LUNCH?” added Fuse. His voice was higher than the others and warbled, coming as it did from the artificial synthesizer installed in his neck.

Caleb sighed. “Okay, you can go eat. Go gather something and bring it here to eat with what we packed. Bring it to me first. If you poison yourself, don’t come crying to me.”

The kids dispersed. Within a few moments, the grove was filled with shouting and whirring as the kids began to roughhouse, putting their various cybernetic limbs and accoutrements to the test.

Caleb settled into a position in the middle of the group, quietly crunching on his own lunch while keeping an eye on the kids and another on the horizon, for wanderers or wildlife attracted by the ruckus.

“Hey Caleb!” It was Trace, always the babbler. “If Sister is sleeping, can I take her cool prosthetic foot? She doesn’t need it while she’s sleeping. And it’ll make me twice as fast I bet!”

Caleb looked at him. “Give it back.”

“Give what back?” Trace said, awkwardly shifting his weight and trying to conceal something wrapped up in his homeknit sweater.

“Now.”

Trace sheepishly handed over the cybernetic limb, a springy blade made from the cold-forged rotor of a long-downed helicopter. Caleb whistled sharply from between his teeth, the familiar signal for all the children to gather.

Sister hobbled in, bouncing on her one organic leg and red-faced. “Take my foot and I’ll BEAT you with my other one and then reformat your memory so you won’t remember a thing,” she roared at Trace.

“Remember what we talked about?” Caleb said. “Once you’re old enough to change your own britches, folks can only touch you if you let them. Sister, are you old enough to change your own britches?”

Sister looked down at her pants, which she had dyed and sewn herself from an old red parachute that had faded to pale pink. “I sure am,” she said.

“And did you give Trace permission to take your leg?”

“How could I? I WAS ASLEEP.”

“Well then,” Caleb said. “When you touch without permission, you forfeit your own protection. Looks like Sister gets to hoop on you a little bit to teach you a lesson you seem to have trouble learning.”

Sister had just finished reattaching her leg; she quickly bounded off, cackling, after Trace, who had wisely booked it through a nearby stand of pine trees.

“How many legs has Sister gone through kicking butts?” Fuse asked.

“Oh, I’d say about three or so,” said Caleb. “The boys’ll get the idea soon enough.”

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