Crystal keepers, p.4
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       Crystal Keepers, p.4

           Brandon Mull
 

  “What’s the shaping like in Zeropolis?” Jace asked.

  “Their shapers are called tinkers,” Mira said. “They shape useful materials. They manipulate energy. And they use those resources to create all sorts of things.”

  “The pros call themselves technomancers,” Joe said. “They can replicate just about anything we had in the world I came from. And they do lots of things we can’t.”

  “Computers?” Cole asked.

  “Yeah, but they limit access to some of that stuff,” Joe said. “They don’t always push as far as they could. Some supercomputer went haywire a long time ago. It trashed the city. They don’t want a repeat. Also, the Grand Shaper, Abram Trench, worries about keeping control, so he heavily restricts the use of lethal weapons and communication devices.”

  “What’s a computer?” Jace asked.

  “It’s a machine with lots of abilities,” Dalton said.

  “It can almost think,” Cole added.

  “It’s like a really complicated abacus,” Joe deadpanned.

  “This place sounds strange,” Jace said.

  “To you most of all,” Joe agreed. “For Dalton and Cole, some parts of it will almost feel like home. Can we go? I’d like to get settled and plan for tomorrow.”

  “Okay,” Jace said.

  Mira went to Hina. “Thank you for guiding us here,” Mira said. “And for waiting around in case we need to escape.”

  “I’m on an errand from my master,” Hina replied. “I would not disappoint him. I wish you good fortune in finding your sister.”

  Joe extended an arm eastward. “This way, right?”

  “Correct,” she said.

  They started walking with Joe in the lead. Cole fell in beside Dalton.

  “Cole,” Hina said. “A word?”

  They all paused. Cole looked back at her, feeling slightly suspicious. What did she want? What if she put on the bear mask and kidnapped him? Trillian had shown interest in his abilities, and Hina had all the masks now. There wouldn’t be much the others could do.

  “It’ll just take a moment,” she assured him. “You can catch up.”

  “Okay,” Cole said, with a nod at Joe.

  The others started walking, but Dalton lingered.

  “What is it?” Cole asked, taking a couple of steps toward Hina.

  “My master has a message for you,” she said.

  “Okay.”

  “When you stood on the Red Road, he could sense that your power is blocked. He wanted me to tell you that it may not be easy, but you can get it back. I was asked to recommend that you accept none of the apparent limits to shaping here in the Outskirts. And he wanted me to convey that although your current focus is to get home, the Outskirts may not survive without your help.”

  For a moment Cole forgot to breathe. How could the fate of the Outskirts depend on him? It was absurd, right? This place was his prison. It would be hard enough to find his friends and get home. Maybe impossible. What game was Trillian playing?

  Cole glanced over at Dalton, who could hear the conversation. His friend raised his eyebrows.

  “That’s all?” Cole asked.

  “Yes,” Hina said.

  Cole gave a disbelieving laugh. “How am I supposed to save the Outskirts?”

  Hina gave a slight bow. “I have shared his message.”

  “Okay,” Cole said, suddenly wishing he could speak to Trillian again. Why would the torivor leave something so important so unexplained? Did Trillian want to lure him back to the Lost Palace? Might he have good reason to do so? Did the torivor know techniques that could help him regain his lost ability? How sure was Trillian that the Outskirts needed his help? Was it just a manipulation? Was it because Mira needed him? “Thanks.”

  Hina sat down cross-legged, the masks on her lap.

  Cole jogged away with Dalton, hurrying to catch up to the others as questions continued to occupy him.

  CHAPTER

  4

  POST 121

  No marker announced the border between Elloweer and Zeropolis, but Cole knew they had crossed when electric tingles raced through him and his ears popped. “Feel that?” Cole asked the others.

  “Yep,” Dalton said, rubbing his ears.

  “Welcome to Zeropolis,” Mira said.

  “I didn’t feel squat,” Jace said.

  “Nobody ever accused you of being sensitive,” Cole said.

  “I didn’t feel much either,” Joe said. “Maybe a little tickle.”

  In a corner of his mind, Cole had wondered if the crossing might help undo the changing Morgassa had worked on him before she died. Was it unreasonable to hope that whatever blockade she had raised to divide him from his power would be destroyed by leaving Elloweer? But as he searched inside, he still found no hint of his ability. His power remained out of reach.

  “Weird,” Dalton said. “I can’t make a seeming.”

  “Did you expect to be the only exception?” Jace asked.

  “No,” Dalton said. “It just cut off so suddenly. I can still feel my power. It’s there. But if I try to make a seeming, I can’t even manage a spark. It’s frustrating.”

  Jace pulled his little golden rope from his pocket. “Is it kind of like having a really cool weapon that no longer works?”

  “Pretty much,” Dalton said.

  “I think we all get the feeling,” Jace said.

  The trees thinned and prairie land came into view. As the group exited the forest, there was no missing Post 121. The outpost was much larger than Cole expected. He had pictured an isolated monorail stop with a few buildings and some mules. Instead, the community spread across the prairie for quite a distance, a windswept jumble of low, fenceless structures.

  The strangest dwellings looked almost like playground equipment—tubes and globes of colored plastic joined together in odd combinations. There were also boxy apartments made from concrete blocks, flimsy shacks composed of tin panels, earthy structures of adobe and plaster, patchwork pavilions of weathered hides, log cabins, canvas tents, and shanties cobbled together from scraps of wood and metal. The styles varied at random. With few trees or bushes in view, the only landscaping seemed to be the natural dirt and brush of the prairie.

  Above the sprawling mishmash of haphazard architecture, the monorail track and station stood out as the glaring landmarks of advanced civilization. Shining like polished platinum, the lofty track overshadowed the chaotic neighborhoods, its metallic whiteness gently curving away into the distance, supported by pillars at regular intervals. The station also looked very modern, a lustrous construction of glass and metal.

  Besides the monorail track and station, not many structures in town surpassed two stories. Joe explained that the large, weathered, egg-shaped building was the power facility, where the main energy crystals for the outpost were housed. He also mentioned that the two cylinders on the hillside were water towers. A few windmills of varied design poked up here and there. Cole’s favorite kind of looked like an upside-down eggbeater.

  The closer they got to the outpost, the more vehicles came into view. One looked like a cross between a dune buggy and a monster truck, rolling around on swollen tires. Another was a motorcycle with wheels as wide as overturned barrels. A spiderlike contraption prowled around on slender legs, while the driver sat atop the body yanking levers. Some vehicles had treads like a tank. The roads Cole saw were rough pathways carved by frequent travel. Without decent roads, he supposed the vehicles needed to be hardy.

  “It looks like people made stuff out of whatever they could find,” Dalton said.

  “True enough,” Joe said. “The outposts only get materials from the city by monorail. Anything else they make themselves. The tinkers can get pretty creative.”

  Cole glanced back at the woods, where Hina waited unseen. He wondered if he would ever make
it back to Elloweer. Not for some time, he decided, since he knew Jenna wasn’t there, and he had already rescued Dalton. He might have to go back one day to free Jill. And if he got totally stuck finding a way home, it might be worth risking another conversation with Trillian.

  “We’ll have to change our money,” Joe said. “Some of the outposts will do business with ringers, but once we hit the city, it’s all credits.”

  “Like credit cards?” Dalton asked.

  “Kind of,” Joe said. “Your credits are linked to your ID card. It’s one of the instances where the Grand Shaper allows computerized communication. I think he does it so he can freeze anyone’s money whenever he wants. It’s a powerful control tactic.”

  “Then we should keep some ringers just in case,” Jace said. “We can always transfer more to credits later.”

  “You’re thinking like a survivor,” Joe complimented

  “Don’t jinx me,” Jace said.

  Cole patted his chest, where he had tied his ringers. They jangled softly. It was a convenient way to store the little rings that served as coins in the Outskirts. As a group, they had a lot of money. Before parting with the Rogue Knight, he had restored all of the ringers he had taken from them when he robbed the wagon train. It meant they should be able to afford some comforts in the city.

  “I want to get a spider car,” Dalton said. “That thing is cool.”

  “Too wobbly,” Jace said. “I’ll take one of the big ones with the treads. What powers them?”

  “The same source that powers most of Zeropolis,” Joe said. “Harmonic crystals. Also called dynamos, juiced crystals, energy crystals—whatever the name, they’re crystals that can store and share vast amounts of energy.”

  “Electricity?” Cole asked.

  “That’s one way to picture it,” Joe said. “I sometimes think of it that way to help me relate. Like electricity, the energy from the crystals can be used to generate heat, motion, light—all sorts of effects. It could be converted into electricity, but that’s not usually useful, because it’s already in a purer state. Less volatile. And it doesn’t need wires.”

  “Wireless electricity?” Dalton exclaimed.

  “That’s the idea,” Joe said. “Once harmonic crystals are linked, they can share power with one another across great distances. Most of the crystals in Post 121 are linked to the power facility, where sparkers keep a central crystal juiced.”

  “Sparkers?” Jace asked.

  “Tinkers who specialize in generating energy,” Joe clarified. “It’s a form of shaping.”

  “This place is weird,” Jace said.

  “You’ll like some of the conveniences,” Joe promised.

  Cole fell into step beside Mira. “You seem quiet.”

  “Huh?” she replied. “Oh, I was thinking about Costa. My only memories of Zeropolis are as a kid. Everything seemed so big and fancy. Foreign. It’s intimidating to think of finding Costa there. The city is enormous.”

  “The outpost is bigger than I expected,” Cole said.

  “Maybe. But just wait. The city is by far the biggest in all the Outskirts.”

  Cole thought about that. Even compared to the cities back home, Carthage had been impressive. So had Merriston. He wondered how Zeropolis would compare against major cities like Phoenix or Los Angeles.

  “I wish Honor were here,” Mira murmured.

  “She’d be a big help,” Cole said.

  “Not just that,” Mira said. “I’ve waited sixty years to see her, then once we finally find each other, we hardly get to spend any time together.”

  “She’s looking for Destiny,” Cole reminded her.

  “I know,” Mira said. “It’s important to find Tessa. Honor is doing what she always does—her duty. And I’m glad she’s doing it. It just would have been nice to see her for a while. Imagine if right after you found Dalton he had to take off.”

  “I get it,” Cole said. “That stinks. I’m sorry.”

  “It’s not your fault,” Mira said. “I get it too. Sometimes you do what you must. I just miss my sisters.”

  “We’ll find Costa,” Cole said. “That’s something you can look forward to. Maybe this time you won’t have to split up right away.”

  “Wouldn’t that be nice?” Mira said wistfully. “What if we weren’t the mascots for a revolution? What if we were just a normal family?”

  “You might never know,” Cole said.

  Mira gave him a sharp glance. “Too true.”

  They began to pass some of the buildings at the fringe of the outpost. The people they saw didn’t pay them any mind. Cole was surprised to see a guy wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket.

  “Is that guy in jeans?” Cole asked Joe.

  “Yeah,” he replied. “They make synthetic denim in the city. It’s everywhere. They do plenty of things their own way here, but they borrow a lot of ideas from Earth.”

  “Are there many Outsiders?” Dalton asked.

  “That could be part of it,” Joe answered. “I’ve met several. But they also have ways of keeping tabs on our world. Some people in Zeropolis can connect to our Internet.”

  “The Internet back home?” Cole asked in astonishment.

  “They call them thruports,” Joe said. “Technically they’re illegal. But I know some of the government people use them. And so do some of the Unseen.”

  “I could e-mail my family?” Dalton asked.

  “You could,” Joe said. “But they won’t open it.”

  “How can you be sure?” Dalton countered.

  “I’ve tried,” Joe said wearily. “I tried and tried. It never worked.”

  “Who were you trying to reach?” Cole asked.

  Joe bit his lower lip. “You remember I told you I left Zeropolis for a reason? I volunteered to go warn Mira?”

  “Yeah,” Cole said.

  “The person I e-mailed most ties into that,” Joe said. “You deserve the whole story. What happened could make this more dangerous for all of us. And I learned some things you ought to hear. But not here. Later. For now, let me go change some money to credits. I’ll buy us some clothes that won’t stand out so much in the city. You guys go check out Gizmo Row.”

  “What’s that?” Jace asked.

  “Every outpost has one,” Joe said. “They’re named after the big one in the city. Gizmo Row is where the tinkers peddle their inventions. Some of the stuff can be useful, and in an outpost near the border, some of the tinkers might be willing to trade in ringers. It should help you kill some time and start to get a feel for Zeropolis. It’s also a place where strangers fit in just fine. Just don’t buy anything too expensive. And don’t let them take you into a back room. We don’t want black-market gear. Not now at least. All we need is to get arrested for buying restricted tech before we even reach the city.”

  “Okay,” Dalton said. “Where do we find it?”

  Joe pointed over some of the nearby rooftops. “See the sign on that pole sticking up over there? Blue circle with a sun in the center? That marks Gizmo Row. Head that way. I’ll go over to the monorail station and see if I can find a place to turn some ringers into credits. It’ll also give me a chance to make sure my fake ID works.”

  “What if you get nabbed?” Dalton asked.

  “It should be fine,” Joe said. “I’ve used Walt Boone before.”

  “If he gets nabbed, we’ll bust him out,” Jace said.

  “Well . . . ,” Joe said. “I appreciate the loyalty, but only if you find a real opportunity. Our top priority is keeping Mira safe. Second is finding Costa. If it comes to it, I want you kids to leave me behind. I wouldn’t be able to stand the thought of you getting into trouble trying to help me.”

  “Let’s just try to stay out of trouble to begin with,” Mira said, giving Jace a stern look. “That means not creating any of our o
wn.”

  “Don’t look at me,” Jace said with a smirk. “I don’t start fights. I end them.”

  “You heard me,” Mira said.

  “Once you get there, don’t leave Gizmo Row,” Joe said. “I’ll come find you.”

  “Unless you get arrested,” Dalton said.

  “Right,” Joe said. “Unless I get arrested.” Turning, he started toward the monorail station.

  Picking up his pace, Jace marched toward the Gizmo Row sign, following a narrow footpath. Mira caught up to him. Cole and Dalton walked together.

  “Think we’ll find Jenna in Zeropolis?” Dalton wondered.

  “I can only guess,” Cole said, looking around. “You know all the kids who were sent with you to Elloweer, so she’s not there. I started out in Sambria, but never really searched it. She could be in any kingdom besides Elloweer. That means we have a one in four chance she’s in Zeropolis.”

  “Unless she stayed in Junction, between the kingdoms,” Dalton said.

  “You all went there at first,” Cole said. “Did anybody stay?”

  “Not that I know of. I’m just trying to cover all the possibilities.”

  “Hopefully some of Joe’s contacts here can help us,” Cole said. “Maybe they can search for her ID card or something.”

  “It would be nice to catch a break,” Dalton said.

  Up ahead, Mira laughed at something Jace had said, patting him on the arm.

  “He’s in heaven right now,” Cole said.

  “Jace?”

  “He has the biggest crush on her.”

  “She’s pretty great.” Dalton paused. “Does it make you think of Jenna?”

  Cole inhaled sharply. He usually tried to downplay his feelings for Jenna in front of Dalton, though his friend seemed to see through it. “Yeah. Not that it really matters how I feel about her. She’s my friend. She was kidnapped. I want her safe.”

  “What if tomorrow we find out Jenna isn’t in Zeropolis? Do we stay and help Mira, or do we move on to the next kingdom?”

 
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