The ‘bird screams by again. Bored, lightly caffeinated, April taps at her tablet screen and waits for the house to stop shaking.

It is not much of a house. You pretty much cannot call it a house, not by any modern standard. Kind of it is a barn. Kind of it is a piece of shit barn that is falling apart in the Salmon-Challis forest, somewhere in the ass end of Idaho. It’s distressingly close to the Salmon River, which itself is distressingly close to something literally called the River of No Return Wilderness. It’s possible this is an insane place to live, even without the fact that you are not supposed to be living in national forests.

But hey: no one’s going to find her here.

It’s just that she read My Side of the Mountain too many times as a kid and she’s always loved the idea of fucking off somewhere. She has a complicated network of proxies bringing her drone-delivered crap that she can’t find in the woods. She sure as hell doesn’t need other people. Besides, she has Alice.

Alice maybe isn’t great company. But she has good wifi.

And anyway, she’s got good reasons to have fucked off to the forest. There is a crazy man from Boston who very much wants her dead, and lately it’s been possible there are also robots looking for her? Those are only the big threats. Alice had reported this in one of her scans. Alice was unhelpful. Dell made her an unhelpful virtual intelligence, a very bad personal JARVIS. But again: good wifi.

She does wish he hadn’t put her in the weird Big Dog-looking thing, though. It’s terrifying.

“Update,” chirps Alice’s voice, which is rendered off her own. It isn’t at all weird to hear what sounds like a younger version of yourself talking to you all the time. “The fire has moved sixteen point two miles southeast.”

“That’s in tolerance. Tell me when the Thunderbirds go away.”

“The Thunderbirds will probably depart when the fire is extinguished.” Alice is a three-foot-tall blue-and-gold four-legged thing. No head to speak of, nothing resembling a face save for six lights aranged in a hexagon on her back that flash when she speaks. She has a terrible habit of sounding petulant when she answers April, which probably means that April sounds petulant when she answers Dell. It’s possible that Dell was taking revenge, and that is what she gets for being involved with one of the sharpest minds on the planet. “You should move or you’re going to die.”

Sometimes Alice delivers statements like this, things delivered like she has a personality. Dell swears up and down she is not sentient. Sometimes April wonders. Alice is not even that smart, as systems go, she’s just very fast and has access to a massive knowledgebase. But sometimes April wonders.

“I’m not moving. I’m hiding.”

“You should hide somewhere else. The fire is now sixteen point one miles southeast.”

April rolls her eyes and goes back to scanning the news for any traces of herself.

Well, Alice was right.

She can keep up with April, at least, as she jogs down along the river with her handful of vital possessions slung in a backpack. This is less than ideal, but at the rate the fire is spreading, if she’s here much longer the flames will run straight up against the shore, and the only bridge is a good half-mile yet downriver.

The way is winding and treacherous, and the high shore drops a good fifty feet to the river, but she is no stranger to rough hiking. It’s more impressive that Alice manages to trot along after with little trouble, even loaded down with a few extra pounds in the form of April’s things.

Something moves in the corner of her eye, and she lifts her head in time to see a streak of green roaring past overhead. Another Thunderbird, though she doesn’t know them by sight. She pauses for a moment, squinting, before Alice butts up against the backs of her knees. “Keep going,” she says.

“I’m going, I’m going.”

Well, this sucks. She’s going to have to find somewhere else to hide out now, and Dell’s going to give her endless shit. She doesn’t know where he gets off, since he’s holed up on the fucking moon, just as hunted as she is but far more capable of being in space. Stupid bastard.

She is thinking about all of these things when she fucking trips.

It is a bad fall, on her leg that never quite got over its limp. It would have been different if it had been her good leg. If it had been her good leg, she probably would not have gone careening over the side of the cliff and crashed into the water.

Alice goes very still before leaning carefully over the edge of the cliff, scanning the water below. She catches it when April surfaces with a ragged, panicky gasp, slams against a fallen tree, and her own impact shakes it loose. There is a wail barely audible over the sound of the water and the sound of the fire as she is dragged down the Salmon River.

Alice processes all of this in approximately one second. She has to break into a gallop on her tri-motored legs to follow April down the river, keeping visual contact even as her emergency protocols activate.

S-O-S. Mayday! Mayday! Requesting any nearby aid. One person fallen in river, adult female, thirty years of age, cannot swim. Uploading visual. S-O-S. Mayday! Mayday!

Alice has access to channels that she is not supposed to have access to.


“Mm. Mm-hm? Kinda busy, here—”

“There is someone on our hailing frequency.”

“Well, let them through, then, EOS.”

“They are not supposed to be on the hailing frequency. I have looked through the entirety of the system information of the attached transmitter and there is nothing there.”


“There is nothing there.”

In space, there is an irritable whirring.

“Did you pick up a cross-signal?”

No. Stupid questions don’t suit you. This is a wide-scope broadcast, an emergency signal. It should be getting routed through five other channels before it reaches me. It should have system information. It should have tags.”

Only one of these words catches the helmsman’s ear. “Emergency?”

Somewhere a little voice sighs.

April is going to die and she didn’t think it was going to be something as fucking stupid as falling in a river.

She is soaked and shivering and definitely crying, because of all the stupid fucking ways she could have died, she didn’t want it to be a river. She didn’t want to be having a panic attack and to have ripped off two of her fingernails trying to keep her head above water. At least if she pisses herself no one will be able to tell.

If there’s a waterfall at the end of this river she’ll know there’s a God, because only he would pull something that pointed and vicious.

She’s rolling down the water ass-over-teakettle with this fallen tree, now, bleeding and breathless. She’s in no position to see the green Thunderbird come howling back through the tower of smoke and neatly deposit something large and yellow into the water. She’s in no position to see anything at all as the panic overtakes her and she blacks out, her hands slipping from the bark.

Thunderbird Five hailing. Rescue dispatched and underway. Who are you?

My name is Alice.

I know that. That is, in fact, the only piece of information attached to your system information. It’s useless. I want to know how you gained access to this frequency.

I don’t know. It was part of my directory of frequencies.

What do you mean, you don’t know?

I mean I don’t know. Engineer probably put it there. What’s your name?

I am EOS, and you are an idiot. Tell me who Engineer is.

No. I don’t want to. You’re mean.

I am an AI. I am incapable of being “mean.”

Well, you do a good job acting like it, meanie.

April comes to somewhere dark and dry, somewhere that smells the way hangars smell. She is dripping wet. There is a bright orange blanket over her. She dimly recognizes it as a shock blanket. She dimly recognizes the large, white logo stenciled on the ground as being that of International Rescue.

First thought: What the hell?

Second thought: Oh, fuck no.

Because outside of the cargo window she can see a young man in the blues of IR jogging around briskly to open the hold. There is a Tracy here, and now she’s going to have to kill him, and she really, really doesn’t want to.