The Tablet of Scaptur

In the 23rd century, there is a radiant world of endless summer where peace is maintained through emotional surveillance performed by a peculiar device called the Intercept. When Violet Crowley, the sixteen-year-old daughter of New Earth’s Founding Father, is smuggled an artifact covered mysterious markings, it’s up to her and her friends to decipher the message. “The Tablet of Scaptur” is a standalone story set before the events of The Dark Intercept (available now from Tor Teen).

 

 

October 2293
New Earth

 

The rock was about the size of a coffee cup. Its surface was rough and its color varied between vivid red and dusky rust, split at intervals by what looked to be short fissures of ashy gray.

“But they’re not really fissures,” Violet pointed out. “I thought so at first—but I was wrong. They’re markings. Like—like some kind of language.”

Her friends stood all around her. They leaned in toward the object she held in her hand. They, too, could now see that something strange and mysterious had been chiseled deliberately and painstakingly onto the rock. The more times she turned it over, the more the tiny carved symbols seemed to proliferate, almost as if the very act of observing them was prompting more to be born—which was, Violet knew, a ridiculous, preposterous, totally impossible notion.

And yet.

“Here—let me see it.”

She handed the rock to Rez, who had made the request in his usual impatient tone. Steve Reznik was a genius—he would tell you so himself if you didn’t pick up on it right away—and geniuses apparently didn’t have to bother with silly trifles such as politeness.

Rez examined the rock with a pinched, diligent focus, a rigorous attention that caused the skin on his forehead to crumple up and his lips to make a thin tight line. He shifted the rock from one palm to the other, and then back to the original palm.

He grimaced. He grunted. He returned the rock to Violet. He didn’t say so—he would never admit such a thing—but he was stumped, too.

“My turn,” Shura said. “I’ve already looked at it about a million times, but there’s no harm in trying again.”

Violet passed the rock to Shura.

They had gathered in Danny’s living room. The room was awash in the muted light of fall—a moody, melancholy shade that was created by the Color Corps in Farraday, one of the six cities of New Earth. The inside of Danny’s apartment, like the apartments all around it, and the apartments around those apartments, was a square white box. Space was carefully rationed on New Earth, for the same reason that recycling was mandatory. This was a world that hovered in the sky above the ruins of Old Earth, a world requiring constant calibrations and crucial, orbit-sustaining balances.

Danny’s home was clean and neat, but it had no personality, no soul, no distinguishing characteristics, nothing to indicate that he cared at all about putting his individual stamp on it. Violet couldn’t blame him. He was a cop with New Earth Security Services, and he didn’t spend much time here. Today was a rare day off.

Everyone wanted a turn with the rock. Present were Violet, Shura, Danny, Rez, and Rez’s seven-year-old sister, Rachel. Violet had only been around Rachel once or twice before, but she’d heard lots of stories about how smart she was. Scary-smart, in fact. Rez had been taking her to school that morning when he received Violet’s group text on his wrist console, coded URGENT:

MTG @ DANNY’S NOW

Rez had known right away that it was important. Violet never summoned them that way. And so he’d grabbed Rachel’s small hand and hopped off the tram two stops before the one nearest to her school.

Rachel didn’t ask any questions; she was too excited. She had long dreamed of hanging out with her big brother’s friends, but had never been allowed to. This was her golden chance. She knew that Rez would somehow cover for her with the school authorities. He’d either come up with a clever story, or maybe he’d hack into the Attendance Center and change the notation beside her name for today’s date from “Absent” to “Present.” It would be a snap for her brilliant big brother. She had overheard someone say that Rez had a “once-in-a-generation mind.” Rez, of course, had corrected her when she told him about it: They should have called his intellectual capacity “dazzling, astonishing, and world-transforming” and left it at that.

Shura dug at the rock with a pink-painted fingernail.

“Hey, watch it,” Danny protested. “You might chip off a marking or something.”

Shura shook her head vigorously. Her straight black hair swished back and forth across her narrow shoulders. “It’s way too hard for that,” Shura said, a bit defensively. She handed the rock to Danny. “See for yourself.”

He accepted it in his joined-up palms with a careful reverence, as if he were being trusted with a religious relic. Instead of moving the rock, he moved his head from side to side, examining the facets. Then he, too, tried to scratch at it with a thumbnail.

“You’re right,” Danny said. “Nothing’s flaking off at all. Not a single grain. That’s the hardest rock I’ve ever felt. And those marks—I don’t have a clue what they mean.”

He turned to Rachel, having noticed her eager face and small, outstretched hand, and passed her the rock. She looked intently at it for a second or so, then reached up and deposited it back into Violet’s waiting palm. It had traveled all the way around the circle.

Like the rock itself, they were right back where they started from:

They had no idea what the symbols meant. They only knew that in the few minutes that had elapsed since they had all arrived here, something about the rock and its markings tugged at them, individually and collectively. The mystery was like a fever they had all caught on contact. They shared a fierce desire to tunnel below the surface of things and dig out the why.

Even here on New Earth, where most people kicked back and relaxed, reveling in the good fortune of having escaped the danger and tumult of Old Earth, content to let the Intercept keep them safe, the four of them couldn’t sit still.

Well, five, Violet corrected herself, looking down at Rachel.

Violet had been absolutely right about her friends. The moment they glimpsed the rock, they had to know what the symbols meant. They had to figure it out. It didn’t matter if Rachel missed a day of school, or if Violet and Rez were late for their afternoon shift at Protocol Hall, or if Danny got no rest on his off-duty day, or if Shura’s mother kept sending her constant texts asking where she was.

They had to solve the riddle of the rock.

 * * *

“I know you don’t want to go over the story again, but Rachel and I were the last ones to get here,” Rez said. “How’d you find this thing?”

Danny and Shura sat on the battered brown couch. Rez called dibs on the shabby green armchair, which meant Violet and Rachel were stuck with the carpeted floor. Violet didn’t mind. She preferred the floor. First she stretched out on her stomach, balancing her chin on a fist, and then she crunched up into a cross-legged crouch, and then she leaned languidly along one side of her body, propping herself on an elbow. Violet liked to change positions frequently. She needed to move while she was solving a problem. Sitting still was like thinking the same thought over and over again.

Before she retold the story of how she came to possess the rock bearing the peculiar symbols, Violet took a second to savor the fact that she had friends like these, friends who dropped everything when she needed help, friends who were smart and resourceful and up for an adventure, friends who didn’t judge her.

The non-judging part was important because she came with what might politely be described as “baggage.” Her father, Ogden Crowley, was president of New Earth and some people didn’t like him, which apparently meant they couldn’t like her, either. Politics divided people, Violet had learned. Not everybody thought it was a good idea to create a new civilization high above the decaying surface of Old Earth, no matter what the advantages were, and no matter how dark and dangerous Old Earth had become by the twenty-third century.

There was even more trouble when he installed the Intercept, a technology that kept the population of New Earth secure.

Violet looked at the people in the room, one by one, and remembered all over again how much they meant to her. And as she remembered, she saw the little blue flash in the crook of her left elbow. The Intercept had just scooped up her affection, in the same way that it could scoop up her fear or her hate.

There was Shura, a painter who planned to go to medical school. She and Violet had been best friends since they were little girls.

There was Rez, who worked with Violet at Protocol Hall. The two of them were part of the large team that monitored New Earth twenty-four/seven. Through the chips implanted in the crook of everyone’s left elbow, the Intercept harvested emotions; those emotions were then filed away in the vast humming archive beneath the streets of New Earth.

There was Rachel, who seemed to be a lot nicer than her brother, Rez.

Then there was Danny Mayhew. He was eighteen—three years older than Violet, Shura, and Rez. He was the only one who had his own apartment; the others still lived with their parents.

Violet’s attention returned to the rock. She had placed it in the center of the coffee table. It seemed to throb with the fierce force of its mystery.

“Okay,” she said. “Here’s how we got it.”

 * * *

“Shura and I were hanging out,” Violet went on, “and we were going out of our minds with boredom. First we went to the park.” Perey Park was a beautiful green square in the middle of Hawking, capital city of New Earth. “But we were still pretty bored. Hardly anybody else was there and nothing much was going on. So I said we should check out the Old Earth History Museum. I hadn’t been there since third grade. And there’s always a bunch of new exhibits.”

“My class went there once,” Rachel cut in. “It’s great.”

Rez shot her a dark look.

“Sorry,” Rachel muttered. She’d forgotten the Rez Rule: She could tag along but she could not, under any circumstances, participate in the conversation. She was a kid. Not equal to him and his friends.

“So we took the tram over to Higgsville,” Violet continued. She didn’t want to override Rez and tell Rachel that it was okay to talk—Rachel was his sister, and his responsibility—but she felt sorry for the little girl and so she gave her a quick nod. The nod was her way of saying: That’s just Rez.

“It was almost closing time,” Violet said, resuming her story, “and Shura and I had to be quick. We raced around the first three floors to see everything we possibly could. There’s tons of new stuff.” She took a deep breath, then plunged headlong into delighted recollection. “They’ve updated the interactive timeline and it’s great—it shows what happened to Old Earth, starting with the rise of the oceans at the end of the twenty-first century, and then it explains the Water Wars and the Mineral Wars. Terrible, sure—but fascinating. They’ve got this cool thing where they change the temperature in the spot where you’re standing, so you think you’re actually feeling the ozone layer being shredded from greenhouse gases, molecule by molecule. I mean—right on your own skin. And then there’s this new exhibit on how New Earth was built. A hologram of the Chief Engineer takes you through all the steps and explains how they keep New Earth suspended above the planet—and how they create an atmosphere without having a dome that covers the whole thing, which everybody was afraid they’d have to have. Can you imagine how creepy that would be? Living inside a dome? I mean, we’d probably feel like bugs caught in a jar. My dad said that’s what he and his friends used to do back on Old Earth when they were kids—catch bugs in jars and poke holes in the lids to let some air in.” She shivered. “Even if we could breathe, we’d probably feel like we couldn’t.”

Violet paused. As her excitement grew, she spotted the telltale blue flash in the crook of her elbow—which meant that the chip was communicating her excitement to the Intercept, and the Intercept was adding it to her file. Annoying.

“Anyway,” Violet went on, “we hear the closing chimes so we start back down the staircase. It’s this ginormous swooping thing—really wide, with this fancy wood and—” Another blue flash. She swallowed hard and counted to three. When she started talking again, she used a calm, even tone. She didn’t like giving the Intercept any more information about her than it already had. “We’d just gotten down to the main floor when we hear a click. A door in the wall next to the staircase sort of falls open. Just an inch or so. The door is marked ‘Authorized Personnel Only.’ It looks like maybe somebody’s gone in and hasn’t pulled it shut behind them. And so—”

“Let me guess,” Danny said, interrupting her. “You ignore your big chance to go somewhere you’re not supposed to go and instead you turn right around and leave the building. Just like they told you to.”

He laughed. Everybody else did, too, including Violet herself. There was about as much chance of her passing up the opportunity to snoop as there was of Rez getting less than one hundred percent on a math quiz.

“Um—no,” Violet said. “So I sneak in. Shura’s right beside me—like a best friend should be.” Shura nodded and gave her a thumbs up. Violet grinned and continued. “We’re in this long, long corridor. All the doors are closed—except for the one we slip through. The doors say things like, ‘Archives’ and ‘Metallurgy Lab’ and ‘Communication Technology of Late Twentieth Century’ and ‘Planetary Artifacts.’ It’s pretty clear this is the backstage of the museum—the place where the scientists and the curators and the researchers hang out. Most people never get to see this—which is exactly why I had to stay and explore.”

“Right,” Danny said. “Like we all know—if you want Violet to do something, just tell her she’s not supposed to do it. That’ll guarantee she does it.”

He was still teasing her, and Violet knew it, and she didn’t mind. Not one bit. In fact, she kind of liked it. She didn’t know very much about Danny, but sometimes she found herself . . . thinking about him. So far, her Intercept chip hadn’t registered when she heard his name or saw him across a room. But she had a funny feeling that it was only a matter of time before it did. She just hoped that if it happened in public, she’d have a chance to pull down her sleeve. Otherwise—awkward.

“And so,” Violet said, reaching up and giving Danny a playful whack on the knee, “we walk along for a while longer, hoping we’ll come across an open door so we can see what’s going on in there. Suddenly a door slams. We whirl around. A woman’s rushing past us. She’s wearing a white lab coat. She’s got this white hair flying all over the place. She looks scared. And just before she gets to the door at the end of the corridor—where we came in—a bunch of cops come running out of another door. They grab her and start pulling her back. She’s like, ‘No, no, no! Let me go! I won’t say a word! I promise!’ This cop tells Shura and me to mind our own business. They just keep dragging the woman away from the door and—”

“They couldn’t have been cops,” Danny said. “No way. Cops would’ve identified themselves. Told her what she’d done wrong. And they wouldn’t have roughed her up. If she didn’t cooperate, the Intercept would have interceded. They must’ve been private security for the museum.”

“Whatever.” Violet shrugged. “Anyway, while they’re trying to get her under control—there’s a lot of flailing and shouting and confusion—and I realize that she’s making a big fuss to distract them, so they won’t see her reaching for something in her lab coat. Next thing I know she’s pushing something into my hand and I stuff it in my pocket. I start to say something to her, but Shura pokes me with her elbow. And she’s right. Best policy is to keep my mouth shut.”

“So that’s when you first saw it,” Rez said.

Violet nodded. “Yeah. The cops—” She stopped, giving Danny an obliging nod. “Okay, the museum guards—don’t see her give it to me. They’re too focused on not letting her escape, I guess. We’re like, kind of invisible. Anyway, the moment they clear the corridor, we get out of there as fast as we can. We run out the front door. Down the long steps. We’re halfway to the tram stop by the time we even take a breath.”

“And then,” Rez said, “you did a thorough examination of the rock.”

“Yeah.”

“And what did you think?”

“I thought, ‘Why did I just smuggle a dirty rock out of a museum because a crazy person wanted me to?’ And then I looked more closely at the cuts. Saw they were marks. So maybe it’s art, right? And the marks are some kind of abstract expression. That was my first instinct.” She made a face, discounting her own theory. “Right. So a scientist as renowned as Dr. Vivian Terrell would risk her career and her freedom over some artwork.”

“Wait,” Danny said. “How’d you find her name?”

Shura answered his question. “I checked the museum employee roster on the tram ride back to Hawking. Wrist consoles are good for more than just texting, right? Anyway, her picture was right there on the website. Dr. Vivian Terrell specializes in Martian geology. Unmanned trawlers go to Mars all the time to get the minerals we need here. She’s in charge of analyzing whatever they bring back.”

“Cool job,” Rachel broke in. This time, she was oblivious to Rez’s cold stare. Instinctively, Violet’s eyes glanced at the crook of Rachel’s elbow. She saw a small blue flash. Proof positive of just how excited the little girl was at the thought of Mars.

“I read,” Rachel said, “that there’s evidence of a lost civilization there. An underground colony, maybe, that disappeared billions of years ago, in the same way that the dinosaurs had vanished from Old Earth a long, long time before human beings showed up.”

“That whole Martian colony business—it’s pure speculation,” Rez said. His tone had a kind of sneering dismissal in it. From anybody else, the tone would’ve seemed mean, but they knew it was just Rez being Rez. He was focused, and a focused Rez was a formidable force. He wanted to get back to the rock. “So what do we know for sure?”

Violet replied, “Well, we know that somebody at the museum really, really wants to keep the rock a secret. But why?”

“Right—why?” Shura said. “I mean, trawlers bring minerals back from Mars all the time. Tons and tons of them. Why the fuss over this little thing?”

Rez summed it up. “Yeah. What’s the big deal about one rock?”

Danny stared at the rusty red object in the center of his coffee table. The markings covered every inch of it, traveling up and down and sideways. They looked as if they were trying to say something.

“It can’t be just the rock,” he said. “It’s gotta be what’s on the rock.”

 * * *

They spent the rest of the morning trying to decipher the message. Using the TranslatePro app that Rez had created the year before for their wrist consoles, they ran the markings through every language database they could find. There were 26,347 languages and dialects available on the app. The languages came from the misty history of Old Earth as well as from the quirky new languages created in the early years of New Earth, including exotic computer codes.

Nothing worked.

The markings were not part of any known system of communication.

At noon they decided to take a break. They were tired and frustrated. Violet carefully placed the rock in her backpack, and she and Rez left for Protocol Hall. They stopped on their way to deposit Rachel at school. Rez’s story about a delayed tram transfer seemed to satisfy Rachel’s teachers, but the truth was, the teachers didn’t ask too many questions—probably because Rez was still admired at the school as the smartest student they’d ever had, with Rachel now running a close second, and the teachers still called him when they had technical issues with their consoles. Shura finally answered her mother’s texts and headed home. And Danny left his apartment right behind them. A mandatory meeting for all hands had been called at the police station.

It was night now. Violet had walked home from Protocol Hall through the dark, warm streets of New Earth. Her backpack, slung across one shoulder, had thumped rhythmically against her hip the whole way, keeping time with her steps. She had felt the rock’s presence close to her, buried securely in the backpack. She had stopped only once, to pick up a rock she saw by the side of the street. She looked at it, and she thought about the vast difference between this average, ordinary rock in her hand and the one in her backpack that had come all the way from Mars.

She and Rez hadn’t talked about the rock during their shift that afternoon. They needed to focus on their jobs. But they had all agreed to meet again tomorrow morning and bring any new ideas.

Violet stepped into the front hall of the apartment she shared with her father. She realized she had a choice to make. She hesitated in the threshold, fingering the strap of her backpack where it looped over her shoulder.

Should she tell him about what had happened at the museum?

Ogden Crowley shifted in his chair. He hadn’t heard her come in—his work always took his total attention—but all at once he sensed her presence. He looked up, turning his head so that he could see her.

“Violet—hello, sweetheart. How was work?” That was always the first thing he said.

“It was okay.” That was what she always said back to him.

And in the next instant, she made her decision. She wouldn’t tell her father about the rock. The omission created a sort of queasiness inside her. She wasn’t lying, exactly, but neither was she telling him the truth. Which was a kind of lie.

Wasn’t it?

If her mother were still alive, it would all be different. She could tell her mother the truth about anything. Her mother would understand. Lucretia Crowley had been a rebel, too. She’d followed her conscience, even when that decision took her away from her family—and even, Violet thought, as the familiar lump formed in her throat, when it caused her mother’s death.

“Violet? You’re frowning, sweetheart. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Dad. Just tired. Long day at work.”

“Okay,” her father said. “Well, get a good night’s sleep.” He held up a sheaf of papers and rattled it. “I’ll be working for a few more hours.”

Violet knew from experience that “a few more hours” really meant “all night.” He hardly ever slept these days.

“Good night, Dad.”

 * * *

Before she got in bed, Violet checked her console one last time. There was a message from Shura, telling her about a new painting she had started working on that night, and messages from two other friends, minor ones, passing along small tidbits of gossip: a breakup, a new job, an argument with parents that resulted in a weeklong grounding. Violet didn’t bother to answer those. Shura, Rez, and Danny were her core friends. Other people came and went in her life. And gossip bored her, especially when she had a delicious mystery to solve.

There was no message from Danny. Disappointing, but not surprising. You never get the message you are hoping for the most.

The most? The thought took Violet by surprise. A more intense version of her feelings for Danny had sort of sneaked up on her. She dared herself to check the crook of her left elbow.

And there it was: a very tiny, very brief, but still visible flash of blue.

I’m in trouble now, Violet thought. But the notion wasn’t altogether unpleasant. She had no idea what to do about it, and so she switched off the lamp next to her bed and turned on her side and scrunched up the pillow under her ear.

She didn’t close her eyes right away. At night her room glowed, but not from lamps. It glowed with the power of Shura’s paintings, six of which Violet had arranged around the edges of the room, leaning against the walls. Shura had given them to Violet as birthday and Christmas gifts over the years.

She couldn’t see the paintings, because there was no light, but she could feel them. And feeling, Violet had come to learn ever since she’d started living with her best friend’s art, was another kind of seeing.

Her thoughts returned to the rock, to those bizarre marks that didn’t match any existing language. Part of her wondered if maybe the marks meant nothing at all. Maybe it was just gibberish.

Maybe there really had been a civilization on Mars. And maybe a kid who lived there—somebody like me, Violet thought—had been bored one day, just as bored as she and Shura were last night. And so to pass the time, maybe this Martian kid had sat down and carved a bunch of nonsense syllables on the side of a rock. Maybe that was it. And now, a few billion years later, Violet and her friends were trying to figure out something that couldn’t be figured out because it was . . . nothing. Some long-dead Martian kid’s idea of a joke.

She turned over on her other side and brought her knees up to her chest, trying to find a comfortable position so that sleep would come.

Somehow the Martian-kid-with-a-chisel-and-a-lousy-sense-of-humor theory didn’t sound right. The writing on the rock had to have a meaning. It just had to.

She flopped onto her back again. She couldn’t settle down. Her thoughts were spinning too quickly.

She’d checked her console earlier, and found out that Mars might have had an atmosphere four billion years ago, give or take a few million years. An atmosphere could mean life. And life could mean—people. But if it was a four-billion-year-old language, how would she and her friends ever be able to translate the—

Her console beeped.

She sat up in bed and snatched it off her nightstand. Maybe it’s Danny, she thought. The excitement made her feel like she’d swallowed a hyperactive butterfly.

Her heart sank a little when she saw the caller ID:

It was Rez.

“Hey,” Violet said.

He didn’t bother with a greeting, which was Pure Rez. Greetings were for lesser minds.

“She did it.”

“What?”

She did it.” Rez was practically shouting. Violet turned down the volume level on her console. She didn’t want her father to know she was still up.

“Who did what?” Violet said.

“Rachel. She solved it. She knows what the rock is all about.”

“What? How did a kid—”

“I don’t know. But she did it. She cracked the code.”

“So what do the marks mean?”

“I don’t know that, either.”

“You don’t—”

I said I don’t know!” Rez’s voice sounded hoarse with frustration. “She won’t tell me.”

Now Violet was thoroughly confused, but she was still elated. Somebody had translated the writing on the rock—even if it was a seven-year-old.

Wait. A seven-year-old?

“Um, Rez?” Violet said, trying to keep the skepticism out of her tone. “How do you know if—well, if Rachel is telling you the truth? I mean—kids lie sometimes. And this is pretty farfetched. How do you know she really did it?”

Rez snorted into the phone. “Because,” he said, “she’s my sister. And that means she’s brilliant.”

Pure Rez.

But he had a point.

“So what do we do?” she asked. “How do we get Rachel to talk?”

“Oh, she’ll talk. Just not to me.” Rez sighed deeply. “She says she’ll only tell one person.”

“Who?”

“You.”

“Why me?” Violet said.

“She said you were nice to her this morning. When we were at Danny’s. Nice.” He made a noise in the back of his throat, scoffing at the word.

“And she won’t change her mind.”

Rez laughed. He didn’t laugh often—Violet could only recall two other times when he’d done so much as chuckle—and it surprised her. She liked his laugh.

“Hey—one more time, she’s my sister. Given that fact, what do you think the chances are she’ll change her mind?”

“Zero.”

“Bingo.”

“So what do we do next?”

“There’s no ‘we’ here, Violet. Rachel wants to meet with you alone. Can I bring her over to your place?”

“Your parents are okay with you taking her out this late?”

“They’re not home. I’m in charge. My dad’s got a big project over in L’Engletown. And my mom’s doing site work for a new tower in Mendeleev Crossing.”

“Okay,” Violet said. “I’ll think of something to tell my dad. Come on over.”

“He’s still up? It’s almost midnight.”

“Oh, yeah.” She could see, in the line under her closed bedroom door, the light from the living room lamp. “He’s up. Like always.”

 * * *

“So—Dad,” Violet said. “Rez and his little sister need a place to hang out for a few hours. There’s a lot of noise in their building. That’s okay, right?”

Her father murmured an affirmative. He didn’t look up from the massive pile of papers in his lap. Violet could’ve told him that aliens from a zombie planet were making peanut-butter-and-brain sandwiches in the kitchen and he would’ve muttered, Okay, sweetheart, sounds good.

A few minutes later Rez and Rachel arrived. They’d had to get through the gauntlet of guards that protected the presidential residence, an experience that left Rez irked. Violet shrugged. Nothing she could do about it. She led Rez into her father’s library and patted the seat of a big comfy armchair. Rez had already summoned a book on his console and in two seconds was deep into his reading.

Violet and Rachel settled down in Violet’s bedroom. They sat on the bed, in the middle of the messed-up sheets, facing each other with the rock between them. Rachel was in her pajamas; Rez had simply bundled her up in a jacket and hustled her out of their apartment.

“So,” Violet said. She pointed to the rock. “You figured out the message.”

Rachel nodded. Her hair was matted on one side. There was a dried cereal stain on the sleeve of her pajamas. She was clearly tired, but her eyes, while ringed with dark circles, were still bright.

“What I don’t understand,” Violet added, gently probing, “is how you did that without looking at the rock again. I’ve had it since we left Danny’s apartment.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said. “But I’d already seen it.”

“Once.”

“That’s all I needed.”

Right, Violet thought. She’s Rez’s sister. An eidetic memory was a given.

Violet was trying to be patient, but she felt as if she was going to burst wide open unless she got right to it. “Okay, Rachel. So what do the words on the rock mean?”

“They’re not words.”

“They’re not?”

“Nope.” Rachel had pulled up one leg of her pajamas, exposing her knee. She started to pick at a scab there.

Violet could barely contain herself. “If they’re not words—then what are they? And what does the message mean?”

“They’re musical notes. And lyrics. It’s not a message—it’s a song.”

 * * *

Later, Violet would be struck by the exquisite simplicity of it. And by the fact that when you think you know what you’re looking for—like a message made purely out of words—you’re pretty much guaranteed not to find it. You have to look without expectations. And with new eyes.

The eyes of a seven-year-old.

“When I first went to bed tonight,” Rachel said, “I couldn’t sleep. I kept picturing the rock. It was like those markings were stamped on my brain. And then I realized that there were twelve unique symbols—and another twelve that seemed to be slight variations of the original twelve. These twenty-four marks were arranged in different patterns across the rock.

“Twelve and twenty-four. Twelve and twenty-four.” Rachel’s eyes were bright. “The numbers sort of danced around in my head. I knew them from somewhere. I was sure of it. And then it hit me. There are twelve musical notes—A, B, C, D, E, F, G and then five sharps and flats that fit between the five. That makes twelve. You add the minor scale—twelve plus twelve—and that makes twenty-four. Those are the building blocks of all music. It’s the alphabet of song. I don’t know what instrument a Martian would’ve played it on—but it’s a song. Music is music. Notes are notes. Sounds are sounds. Doesn’t matter if they were written down a few billion years ago or last week. Doesn’t matter if they come from Mars or Neptune or Pluto. A song is a song.”

“So it’s just a melody,” Violet said. She was disappointed. “No words.”

Rachel gave her a puzzled frown. “Of course there are words. I’ve been singing the song in my head the whole way over here.”

Violet was now excited beyond belief. She didn’t need to look down at her own left arm to see the quick blue flash. She felt the hot crackle.

“How’d you translate it?” she asked Rachel eagerly. “How’d you figure out what the words mean?”

“The same way people have been cracking codes forever,” Rachel replied. Unlike Rez, she didn’t sound snobby and superior. She sounded earnest. “You look for patterns. Repetitions. For instance, if you see a certain symbol showing up in a certain spot more often than other symbols—and if it’s followed by another symbol more often than by any other symbol, you can start to make words. Deduce meanings. The truth is,” she said, somewhat sheepishly, “code-breaking isn’t really about breaking codes. It’s about probability theory.”

“Not following,” Violet admitted.

“Okay. Let’s take the English language. Once you know the probability of each letter being used in a sentence, you can break pretty much any code. ‘E’ is the letter used most often. So you look for a symbol that’s used a lot. Chances are, it’s an ‘E.’ Then you start factoring in the probabilities of which letters would follow an ‘E.’ And you go from there.”

“But this isn’t English. It’s Martian.”

Rachel shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Math is math. Probability is probability. Clusters and juxtapositions of symbols, points and counterpoints—it all started to make sense. I got the chorus first and then the verses. There are a ton of verses.” She sighed. “If I’d had a computer handy I could’ve figured it out much faster. But my mom doesn’t let me take a computer to bed. She says I won’t be able to settle down. So I had to run the numbers in my head. Thousands of calculations. It took me over an hour.”

“A whole hour? What a slacker.” Violet grinned. Then she picked up the rock. Back to work. “Show me.”

Rachel pointed to a squiggle. “This is the title. Now, it would’ve been easier if she’d just called it ‘The Song of Scaptur,’ but they didn’t call their songs ‘songs.’ They called them ‘tablets.’ She called this one ‘The Tablet of Scaptur.’ ”

“‘She’?”

“Scaptur. I think she was a kid. She lived on Mars four billion years ago. That’s the date on the songbook—four billion years ago. She liked to solve puzzles just like me. It’s all there on the Tablet. She has a little section at the beginning where she sings about herself. And after that,” Rachel said, frowning, “the song gets really serious. I think that doctor at the museum knew what the song said. The one who gave you the rock. The scientist. But she probably made a mistake—she told the other people at her workplace. And they wanted to take the rock from her. So she ran. They caught her—but not before she gave it to you.”

Violet was trying to act casual, but she was so excited that she was almost vibrating. She had to make herself settle down so that she could speak. She didn’t need to look at her left elbow; she knew her chip was sparking like crazy.

“What does the song say?”

The little girl’s frown deepened. She started to pick at the scab again.

“Do I have to tell you? It’s kind of sad.”

Violet tried to tamp down her surging impatience. She’d done a little babysitting, and she knew that dealing with kids could be a pain in the butt.

“I really wish you’d share it with me,” Violet said.

“Okay.” Rachel nodded. “The song is about what happened on Mars. A long, long time ago. The planet was in big trouble. There were wars. All the time. And a lot of people died. But the saddest thing is that they did just what your dad did. They built a city. Up in the sky. Right over the planet.”

“But that’s a good thing. Why would it be sad?”

Rachel’s voice lost its brightness. “Because it didn’t work.”

Violet was stunned. “What do you mean?”

“That’s what the song says. Scaptur wrote it from inside a cave that was way, way, way down below the surface of the planet. Everybody else was gone. She was all alone.” Rachel swallowed hard. “New Mars failed. After a few centuries the whole thing came crashing down onto Old Mars and people were killed. Millions of them. They thought the new world was going to last forever—but it didn’t.” The little girl blinked. “Do you think that’s what will happen to New Earth? Will we go crashing down, too?”

Before Violet could reply, her console chirped. The caller ID made her take a deep breath. She hated to interrupt Rachel, but she had to answer it.

It was Dr. Vivian Terrell.

 * * *

“Violet Crowley?”

“Yeah.”

A long, ragged sigh from the caller. “Good. It’s really you. I’m in hiding, but I’ve been trying to track you down. When I gave you the Tablet yesterday at the museum, I didn’t know who you were. I only knew I couldn’t let them have it. I owed it to Scaptur to keep it out of their hands.”

The Tablet, Violet thought. And Scaptur. So Rachel was right. Dr. Terrell had figured it out, too. She knew that the odd markings weren’t just words. They were song lyrics.

“How did you find me?” Violet asked. She looked at Rachel; the little girl was fiddling with her scab again.

“One of my colleagues—he’s on my side, but they don’t know he is—saw you and your friend as you were running from the museum. He scanned the pictorial data base. My God—you’re Ogden Crowley’s daughter! What are the odds that I’d end up giving the Tablet to the child of my worst enemy?”

Enemy?” Violet said, instantly defensive. “No way. My dad loves the museum. It was his idea to start it.”

“He may love the museum, my dear, but he’s not too crazy about the research division right now.” Terrell gave a low, bitter chuckle. “If he had his way, I’d be on a one-way trip to Old Earth. I ought to hang up—but I can’t. Because you have what I need. I’ve got to trust you.”

“Look, my father isn’t such a bad—”

“Never mind,” Terrell said, cutting her off. “Can you meet me somewhere? Talking on a console isn’t really safe.”

Violet hesitated. She didn’t know this person. And based on what Terrell had said about her father, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to.

But she really, really wanted to know more about the Tablet of Scaptur.

She had to know why people were so afraid of a small red rock.

“Okay,” Violet said. “Where?”

“The foundry,” Terrell said. “And make sure you bring it.”

Terrell had probably chosen that location because it was deserted at night.

“Okay,” Violet said.

“And come alone.”

Violet took less than a second to make her decision. “I can’t do that.” She looked over at Rachel. If anybody deserved to be part of the action, it was this little girl. Yes, it might be perilous. And Violet knew she’d never forgive herself if something bad happened to Rachel. But she’d also never forgive herself if she didn’t take her along. Rachel had figured out the Tablet. She deserved to be part of this adventure, no matter how dangerous it might prove to be.

“What do you mean?” Terrell said.

“I’m bringing a friend.”

 * * *

The road leading to the foundry was wide, dark, and scary. Large shapes hunched ahead of them, spaced out across the night-drenched horizon; these shapes were the giant vats in which super-heated liquid roiled and churned. Violet had visited here a few times with her father, when he was inspecting the infrastructure of New Earth. He had explained to her about the immense heat and how it reduced machine parts to a seething red goo, out of which brand new parts could be created. The foundry, she had often thought, was a perfect symbol of New Earth itself: A place where the old became new again, the physical embodiment of a second chance.

If only it wasn’t so shadowy and bleak.

Violet held Rachel’s hand as they walked. She pretended it was for Rachel’s benefit but it was really for her own. She felt goosebumps popping up along her arms, even though the autumn air wasn’t cold. She wondered if she should’ve called Shura or Danny for backup.

No. She had made the right decision. This was her mission—hers and Rachel’s.

It had been hard enough to keep Rez from coming with them. Before they left she’d sent him a text from her bedroom, explaining that she needed to check something at Protocol Hall. She and Rachel would be back very soon.

I’ll come with u, Rez had texted back. Naturally.

No, Violet had replied, her thumbs flying madly over the console keyboard. Just keep hanging out in the library. Dad can’t know I’m going out this late. Cover for us.

And then she and Rachel had slipped out of the apartment through the side door, Violet in her T-shirt and jeans, Rachel in her pajamas and jacket. Violet had long ago perfected her technique for eluding her father’s security detail.

They boarded a twenty-four-hour tram for Farraday. A few minutes later they arrived at Foundry Road, a wide dirt pathway marked by the crisscrossing tire tracks of enormous vehicles. The road ended at the foot of one of the giant, open-topped vats. The heat from the churning liquid within it seemed to seep out of the sides in invisible tendrils.

The only light came from the uprushing glow of the molten steel as it moved restlessly in the vats. Sometimes an especially big wave heaved and then splashed down in a flurry of red-gold sparks, casting a magnificent radiance that temporarily lit up the foundry yard.

“Over here.”

The whisper startled Violet. She flinched so violently that the backpack she was wearing almost slid off her shoulder.

Dr. Vivian Terrell slipped out of the shadows. She was wearing the same clothes she had been wearing the night before, when Violet first saw her in the corridor of the museum. But those clothes were wrinkled now, and torn in some places. Her hair was even wilder than it had been before—which Violet would have sworn was impossible.

“How did you get away from the guards?” Violet asked.

Terrell smiled. “I’m old, my dear, but I’m nimble. They locked me in my office while they waited for instructions about what to do with me—and I climbed out the window.” Her eyes narrowed. She looked suspiciously at Rachel. “Who’s this?”

“My friend,” Violet said. “She figured out the rock, too. The Tablet of Scaptur.”

Terrell was surprised. “That’s impossible. It took me almost two months of work and a dozen of our most powerful computers to—” She shook her head. “Okay, so it must be true. Otherwise you wouldn’t even know what to call it.” She gave Rachel a rueful smile. “How old are you, kid?”

“Seven.”

Seven.” Terrell sighed. “All right, then. Give me the Tablet.”

Violet made no move to retrieve it from her backpack.

“Come on,” Terrell said impatiently. She held out her hand, palm up. “This has gone on long enough. The Tablet—I need it now.”

“I have some questions first,” Violet said.

“Make it fast. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“How did the Tablet get to New Earth?”

Terrell shrugged. “The best I can figure is that the rock got stuck in the treads of one of the Mars trawlers. All I know is that when the trawler was being unloaded, it fell out. One of the workers saw it and brought it to the museum. Nobody knew what the markings meant. Not until I got hold of it, that is.” Her voices glinted with pride. This was her field of expertise. “Sometimes, objects that are buried very, very deep will gradually work their way up to the planet surface. It can take millions and millions of years.”

“Once you figured out that the marks were a song, and what that song meant,” Violet said, “who did you tell?”

“My supervisor. That’s when all the trouble started,” Terrell declared. “Next thing I knew, my colleague texted me that a bunch of armed guards were coming for me down that corridor. I tried to get away—you saw that part—but they grabbed me. I was lucky to be able to keep the Tablet away from them the way I did. I still can’t believe you happened to be there.” She held out her palm again. “But I want it back. It’s mine.”

“Two more questions.”

Terrell rolled her eyes. “What is it with you, anyway? Your little friend has already told you what the song says. Why does it matter who’s after the Tablet? Or why?”

“Two more. Or no deal.”

“Fine. Two more. But that’s it. I’ve got to get out of here. They’re probably coming closer every minute.”

Violet put an arm around Rachel’s shoulder. The little girl had trembled slightly; Violet had seen the movement of her small body and wanted to comfort her, to gather her in.

“Who did your supervisor tell?” Violet said. She was stalling, reluctant to ask her real question: Did my father know?

“I can’t tell you for sure,” the woman replied, “but given the number of guards they sent—I think it’s a pretty good bet that somebody pretty important knows.”

Maybe somebody as important as my father. It was so disappointing to think about—to imagine her father authorizing a relentless hunt for an old lady. Being part of a cover-up.

“And the last thing I need to know,” Violet went on, “is why.”

“Why what?”

“Why do they want you to hand over the Tablet? Why are they hunting you down? Why don’t they want anybody to know about it?”

Terrell hesitated. She licked her lips. Violet realized that the woman was probably thirsty—and hungry, too—from her effort to elude the security guards.

“To begin with,” Terrell answered, “that’s really three questions, not one—but I’ll let it slide. It’s been a long night.” She licked her lips again. “Look. The authorities have to keep the Tablet a secret. They don’t want the people of New Earth to know about the song. They want us to believe that New Earth marks the very first time anybody has tried this—the experiment of elevating a new civilization over an old, dying one.” She laughed a hard, cold laugh. “Well—guess what? The Martians did try it. Billions of years ago. That’s what Scaptur’s song is all about. It’s about the dream of a new life—a dream that became a nightmare. Because New Mars didn’t work. Oh, it worked for a while—but then it disintegrated. New Mars fell apart. It crumbled from its own weight. The song tells the story.” She took a deep breath. “Shouldn’t the people of New Earth have all the facts? Shouldn’t they know what they’re in for? Shouldn’t they hear the song?”

Violet thought for a moment. “It might just be a fable.”

Terrell frowned. “If it’s just a fable, then why are the New Earth authorities so determined to hush me up? Something tells me they already know—or maybe they just have a good hunch—that somewhere else, right here in our very own solar system, this solution was tried before. Suspending a new world over an existing one. So—look, Violet. I need you to give me the Tablet. Without it, I’m just a nut with a crazy theory. But the Tablet proves my story—that there was once a New Mars. Just like New Earth. And New Earth may suffer the same fate as New Mars.”

A wave of supernova-hot liquid in a nearby vat heaved up in a glittering curl and then fell back again, creating a cloud of steam and a corona of light that hissed and flared against the night sky. Terrell seemed to tremble at the proximity of the heat, a heat that could dissolve human flesh every bit as quickly as it liquefied steel and iron.

“Okay,” she said. “Come on. It’s time. Give me the Tablet.”

Violet didn’t move. The Intercept, she knew, was collecting her emotion and filing it away. Fortunately Terrell didn’t know what that emotion was.

“Give me the Tablet,” the woman repeated.

Violet continued to stand there. She still didn’t reach into her backpack. Instead she shifted the strap further up on her shoulder. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t? People deserve to know that New Earth might fail.”

“Anything can fail,” Violet said. “But if the Tablet’s song is made public, people will believe that it has to fail. That it’s somehow ordained. Predestined. That there’s no hope.”

“Give me the Tablet,” Terrell said for a third time. Her voice was harsh and urgent now. “Give me the Tablet.

In a flash, Violet’s hand dived inside her backpack. She pulled out the rock. Gripping it, summoning every bit of strength she had, she tossed it up in a high, wide arc, aiming for the vat. The Tablet of Scaptur looked as if it might not make it over the rim—but a brief wash of phosphorescent bubbles splashed up, proving that it had landed inside the vat, there to be instantly melted down by the cataclysmic heat.

Nooooooo!” Terrell cried out, the word rising into a shriek. She had lunged toward Violet as the rock was flung aloft, but missed snatching it back by inches.

Now that it was over, Violet pulled Rachel away from the woman, to keep her safe. But there was no need. Terrell wasn’t dangerous. She was filled with grief, not fury.

“Why did you do that?” Terrell said in a sorrowful voice. “It’s gone now. No one will know the fate that may await New Earth—the same fate that befell New Mars.”

“Exactly—the fate that may await us,” Violet countered. “Not the fate that does await us. If Scaptur’s song is sung, people will lose heart. Quit trying. And that will guarantee that we follow in the footsteps of New Mars.”

“You’ve destroyed a piece of history,” Terrell said. She almost wailed the words.

“I had to. We live by our dreams—my father taught me that—and if dreams are taken away, then hope goes away, too. Don’t you see? Doubts can doom New Earth faster than anything—faster than a failure of the wind turbines or a glitch in the gravitational balancing apparatus. A loss of hope would be more catastrophic than a direct hit by an asteroid.

“All that kept my father alive during his dark, terrible days on Old Earth,” Violet went on, “was hope. Hope fueled by dreams. And then he used those dreams to make New Earth. Other people deserve to have dreams, too. Right?”

Terrell didn’t seem to be listening. By now she had wandered away from them, head down, muttering to herself. She might have even been weeping. Soon she vanished in the darkness that pooled between the giant vats. The geologist would, Violet assumed, return to her job at the museum. She was surely safe from the retribution of the authorities—because to accuse her of stealing the Tablet would be to admit that the Tablet had existed in the first place.

“Come on,” Violet said to Rachel. “Let’s get you home. You’ve got school tomorrow.”

The two of them trudged slowly back toward the tram stop.

“She’s right, you know,” Rachel said.

“What do you mean?”

“Dr. Terrell. What she said about history. You destroyed it. Forever.”

“Did I?”

Rachel stopped.

Violet stopped, too. She looked around carefully in all directions, making sure they weren’t being observed. Then she drew an object from her backpack. It was covered with red marks.

“This,” Violet said, “is the real Tablet of Scaptur. What I threw in the vat just now was an ordinary rock. I picked it up in the street today.” She could trust Rachel. She didn’t know how she knew that—but she did.

Astonished, Rachel blinked her eyes several times before she was able to speak. “The things you talked about back there—the dreams,” the little girl said. “And about how the Tablet’s song would make people lose hope and—” She paused to catch her breath.

“That’s all true,” Violet said. “No one will ever hear its song. I can’t let them.”

“But why didn’t you just get rid of it back there?”

The road was dark, yet each time a giant wave of molten steel rose and fell in the mammoth vats behind them, their faces were briefly lit up by the golden glow. Rachel’s expression was one of confusion. Confusion was an unlikely state for this kid. First time for everything, Violet thought, recalling the girl’s stunning brilliance, her ability to solve every problem set before her.

Except, apparently, this one.

“I don’t know, Rachel. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t destroy the Tablet. I just . . . couldn’t. But I also couldn’t let Dr. Terrell know that it still exists, because she’d always be trying to get it. And once she had it, she’d tell the people of New Earth what the song said—which would hurt my dad. Undermine everything he’s worked for.”

Violet didn’t say so to Rachel, but more and more these days, she had begun to have similar doubts about the Intercept. She wasn’t sure it should exist—but she couldn’t be against it, either. Not openly. She wouldn’t go against her father.

But was it right for the government to keep a record of everyone’s feelings? Shouldn’t feelings be private? Ogden Crowley said the Intercept kept New Earth safe. Did that make it right?

Violet reached down and slung an arm around Rachel’s shoulder. They started moving again toward the tram stop.

“Time to go home,” Violet said.

The Tablet of Scaptur, she realized, was the first big secret she had ever kept from her father.

And then she realized something else. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew: It wouldn’t be the last.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Julia Keller
Art copyright © 2017 by Micah Epstein

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