Please note, there was a special bonus chapter posted yesterday focusing on Joselyn’s two Edge visions. If you haven’t read that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.
After getting settled in, we were released in our teams and allowed to explore the underground tunnel that made up J Street. We couldn’t go up into the main city just yet (well, the older students could, the first years like us were the only ones who couldn’t), but we could walk around down here and sightsee a little bit before the special dinner that Gaia had apparently arranged.
Freshmen like us were the only ones staying at Mrs. Brickswell’s inn. The older grades had other arrangements. Still, even though there were only about a hundred of us there instead of three or four times that number, the lobby was pretty crowded as Columbus, Scout, Sands, Avalon, Doug, Sean, and I made our way out.
The seven of us were one too many for a regular team, but it was close enough. Gordon and Jazz were staying at the Atherby camp for the time being, neither wanting to advertise their return for Crossroads just yet (if ever, I still wasn’t sure how that was going to go). And Roxa had refused to use the choker to hide who she was so that she could come back to Crossroads, choosing instead to stick with her pack. Which I couldn’t honestly blame her for.
Which left the seven of us to be a team finishing out the year. I hoped it stayed seven by the end. And that was a thought that I’d immediately wanted to drive a stake into my brain (a weirdly violent thought in and of itself) for having. You’d think I’d learn at some point.
Stepping out of that deceptively small-looking building was like emerging into another world. The street was even busier now, with people rushing back and forth in every direction. And not just walking either. I saw some floating or flying, and others who were literally running through the crowd, apparently using intangibility powers. Or others who were shrinking down to get through it. I even saw one guy using a flying hoverboard like Gidget’s alternate form to go over people, and another who surrounded herself with some kind of blue bubble, sank into the ground, then popped back up on the far side of a particularly crowded spot before dismissing the bubble.
“Claustrophobic, Miss?” The voice caught my attention, and I blinked over before looking down as my eyes finally found a young boy. He looked to be about nine or so, with brown hair and these big eyes. In his hands, the kid was holding a box full of what looked like sunglasses.
“If any of you are claustrophobic,” the boy continued, “my mom’s glasses can help! Only six enners each, an’ she makes them herself! Go ahead, try one!”
He was so enthusiastic about it, I kind of wanted to see what he was talking about. Still, I looked to the others first. What do you think, partner?
Sands, Scout, and Sean all gave me encouraging nods, so I picked up one of the sunglasses. There was a design on the rims, and I squinted at it.
I think it’s safe, Tabbris hesitantly assured me. It’s just a vision spell, um, as far as I can tell. And look, there’s other people wearing them.
So, I shrugged before slipping the sunglasses on. As I did so, the boy advised, “Activation word’s Trolley.”
“Okay, uh, trolley?” I started. As I said the word, nothing happened.
Sands laughed. “No, Flick. Put your hand on the glasses and say the word while you give it a little oomph. Like any other enchanted item. Most of the spell’s been done already, you just need to turn it on.”
That made a lot more sense, and I blushed a little while following her instructions. With my finger against the rim of the glasses, I spoke the word again while pushing a little energy into it.
The second I did so, the tunnel suddenly looked different. Actually, it didn’t look like a tunnel. The rock walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving open sky above. There were even birds up there. And as for the walls, they were replaced with what looked like an entire cityscape. Buildings rose in every direction. Everything looked so open.
Gasping, I took the glasses off. Back to a rock tunnel. Then I put them on again. Entire city.
“Oh, that’s cool. Makes it look like we’re above ground.” Handing them off to the others to try, I looked to the boy. “Your mom makes those?”
“Like I said,” the kid confirmed, “it’s for the claustrophobic ones. Mom’s really good with the vision spells like that. She sells other ones, but these are for the tourists. Six enners, an’ if you need a recharge after they’re out, it’s just one per.”
“Well, see, I don’t exactly know what–” I started to say that I didn’t know what an enner was, but Sands stepped past me. “I’ve got it,” she promised. “I don’t think we need them, but they still might be a cool toy.”
I had a lot of questions, including what she was giving him. But even as my mouth opened to ask, something else caught my eye. Just across the street there was a man with several cyberforms around him. One was a monkey sitting on his left shoulder with its metal tail curled around his arm, while his other shoulder was occupied by another that was some kind of cat. At his feet were three more cyberforms: a Saint Bernard, a raccoon, and a lizard that was skittering around the other two.
“He’s got a lot of little friends,” I pointed out while reaching into my pocket to take out Jaq and Gus so they could see. “What do you think, guys, builder or collector?”
Avalon, who had stepped up beside me to see what I was looking at, remarked, “Builder. Definitely a builder. Or someone he knows is. Either way, he’s probably selling them.”
My mouth opened to ask something else, but the man had spotted us watching him. Pointing, he came closer while giving us a broad smile. As he approached, I took a second to examine him more than all his distracting metallic animals. The guy was just under six feet tall, with long clearly dyed red hair that had been tied into a bunch of braids. His skin was very dark, and he wore a gray trench coat over a black shirt and cargo pants. His eyes, I noticed, were very bright, almost neon blue. Clearly unnatural, but I didn’t know if it was a power, a spell, or just contacts.
“I knew it,” the man announced as he neared us. “I knew it, knew it, knew it. I always recognize my own work. Doesn’t matter if it’s two inches away or a mile, I can always spot my stuff.” Looking up to me then, he added, “Name’s Broker. Least that’s what they call me. See it’s funny, cuz I make things not broke. And then I sell them.”
Jaq and Gus were chittering, dancing around on my hand and arm. They didn’t seem upset or worried, though. Instead, the pair were clearly excited.
“Err, you built these guys?” I asked curiously, my eyes shifting toward the other cyberforms. The monkey on the man’s shoulder was watching me closely, its intelligent eyes almost unnerving. On the other hand, after what happened with my mother, I kind of had a thing for trusting monkeys.
“Built them?” the man echoed, shaking his head. “Nope, sorry. I just fixed them up. Found them after a battle all smashed to pieces, so I put them back together again. Took a good long while and we really got to know each other. Didn’t we, Bill?” As he spoke, the guy put a hand out close to Jaq so that the little mouse could sniff it.
“Bill?” Belatedly, I understood. “Let me guess, that one was Ted.”
With a grin, Broker nodded. “Righteo. You probably call them something else. But then… you weren’t the one I sold them to. Least not unless you went all in on a shapeshifting power.”
Flushing a little, I shook my head. “Nope, that–err, here.” Extending my hand, I urged my little mice friends, “Go ahead and see him, guys.” As they hopped over and ran up Broker’s arm to chitter at him, I went on. “The guy you sold them to, was his name Doxxer?”
“Doxxer? Nah.” Broker shook his head while offering the mice a few small bits of metal that they happily gobbled up. “But that sounds like a Garden name, and I did sell them to one of their guys. Them and a few others.”
By that point, Sean and Vulcan had come closer, the latter moving to sniff the Saint Bernard, which sniffed him back. The two cyberform canines circled each other curiously, before each gave a happy bark. Vulcan lowered his head and the lizard scrambled up onto him. Then he snapped his head up again, sending the lizard flying to land on the other dog’s back. The lizard moved up to the Saint Bernard’s head then, which lowered itself down a bit before snapping up to send it flying back over to Vulcan. They continued in that vein.
“So, what do you call them?” Broker asked idly while scratching under their noses.
“This is Jaq,” I started, “and that’s Gus.”
“Ooh, went with Cinderella, huh?” He grinned at me, showing a full mouth of glittering golden teeth. “Nice choice, they’re even actual mice.”
Impressed by the fact that he actually gotten that reference, as well as the one about Bill and Ted that he made earlier, I remarked, “Were you actually born into the Heretics? Because you seemed pretty pop culture savvy.”
“You should see my Spongebob collection,” Broker teased with a wink. “But no, I was born and raised a Heretic. I just happen to really like keeping my head in the Bystander world. But not so much that I don’t need to make a living in the Heretic way. So, what do you say I give you a little upgrade for these guys? Since you’re so nice to them, I’ll even throw in a discount. Won’t cost you nearly as many enners as it would if you took them into a shop.”
My mouth open to questions that term again, but Columbus beat me to the punch. “The kid over there said that word too, what’s an enner?”
Sands, who had returned from buying the glasses, answered that one. “Enner. Short for energy. It’s how Heretics out in the real world barter for goods or services. We needed a currency that actually mattered to us, you know? So they made up enners. Basically, they are these blank cards that you put your energy into for spells. It’s not a spell by itself, but you put the power into it and the card holds it. When someone else takes the card they can use that energy to power their own spells. It’s effort and energy from yourself that you put into a card. That’s why they have value, because people like to use them for magic that they don’t want to spend the effort on themselves. Or for things that require ongoing power or recharging.”
Okay, that made sense. Still, I had to shake my head. “Sorry, as you could probably guessed from that, I’ve never even heard of these things before. So I definitely don’t have any.”
But it does sound like stuff that you’d be really good at making, I pointed out inwardly, sensing Tabbris’s embarrassment.
Sands shrugged. “Mom was showing Scout and me how to make them while we were on our trip, so I’ve got a few still, but probably not enough to get cyberform upgrades.”
“I’ll take care of it.” The announcement came from behind us, as Deveron approached. He gave me a wink. “Consider it an end-of-year mentor gift. So what kind of upgrade are we talking about here?”
Broker gave Deveron a broad, literally golden smile. “Oh, I think I have something perfect in mind. I see you’ve already had someone do some work on them,” he added to me. “Looks like Nevada’s work, right? I heard they brought her on to take up Zedekiah’s old job.”
Expression sobering then, he quietly lamented, “Too bad about him. He was a good guy. Taught me a lot. I uhh–” He swallowed hard, seeming to get lost in memories for a moment before shaking himself. “Err, right. Improvements. I imagine you don’t want to lose them for even a few days?”
Biting my lip, I nodded. “I kinda need my little buddies. And considering how often things seem to blow up, not having them for a few days out here is… probably a bad idea.”
“Ah,” Broker replied dryly, “you’re one of the busy students, huh? Yeah, that tracks. I do have something though. It’s more of a programming update and a new toy for you. See this–ahh, where the hell did I…” Patting down his pockets, the man paused before snapping his fingers as he looked toward where the monkey had joined Vulcan and the others. “CG, run back and fetch the case, would you?”
Briefly saluting with his tail, the mechanical monkey launched himself up straight from the ground to Broker’s arm before leaping from there to a passing man’s shoulder, making his way over and through the crowd quickly.
While waiting for him to get back, I looked over to the others. Doug had picked up the lizard, which ran all the way up his arm before leaping over to where Avalon was. For her part, the girl reacted by picking him off her arm by his tail. She held him up close enough for me to get a good look. I wasn’t an expert in lizards or anything, but he basically looked like a silver gecko.
And then his tail broke off. As Avalon was holding him up by it, the tail abruptly snapped right off, letting the rest of the little lizard fall to land on her other arm.
No, it didn’t break, see?
Tabbris was right, I realized. The tail, like a normal gecko’s, had popped off by design. In this case, however, it was slightly different. Mainly because as the lizard landed on Avalon’s arm, he popped up onto his two back legs before snatching his tail from her hand. The tail itself had flattened in that time, sharp metal edges appearing along the sides.
The way the lizard held his suddenly sharpened tail, it was like–
“It’s a sword!” That was Doug, blurting out loud. “His tail pops off and turns into a sword?”
As if to confirm that, the lizard danced back and forth on Avalon’s arm, swiping his tail-blade like a swashbuckler while making a challenging noise.
“Yup,” Broker confirmed, “Porthos is a bit of a show-off. Here, I’ll put him away.” He started to reach for the lizard.
“I’ll take him!” Avalon’s words came in a blurted rush, apparently before she even knew she was going to say it. She reflexively drew back from the man’s reaching arm, already flushing a bit. “I mean… what do you want for him?”
“Oh, kid, uh…” The man looked a little uncertain. “Full Cyberforms are pretty expensive, even little ones. I’d give you the best deal I can, but I couldn’t let him go for less than a thousand. Even that’s just a little over covering time spent fixing him up.” He genuinely looked regretful that he couldn’t just give her the cyberform, which I understood completely. Granted, she was my girlfriend, but still. Seeing the way she was actually interested in the little guy made me want to buy him for her myself, and I still didn’t have any of the so-called ‘enner’ that they used.
I saw the other girl warring with herself a bit, but even as her mouth opened, Deveron spoke up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that one too. Still your mentor too, right?”
“I don’t want you buying things for me,” Avalon reflexively snapped, though she seemed torn.
Deveron, for his part, clearly understood. “You’re not. You know what the money is. Make some, save them up, pay me back when you can. But it’s stupid to wait until you have it, then try to track him down again and hope he’s still got this specific one. I’ll put down the money now, you work it out when you can.”
She still looked conflicted, but let it go as she stared at the lizard on her arm. Porthos, as he was apparently called, had reattached his tail and fallen back onto all fours to look back and forth between Avalon and Broker while making a soft noise that sounded like a curious chirp.
“Pretty loaded for a student yourself there, Mr….?” Broker prompted curiously.
“Adams,” came the response. “Deveron Adams. And let’s just say I know how to do favors for people.”
“Hey, works for me.” Shrugging, the cyberform salesman and repair guy looked to Avalon. “I’ll take you through the bonding process and show you how to convert him to his handgun form. If you want to change his name, we can do that too. And for you…” His eyes moved to me then. “Here.”
Reaching down to the case that the monkey had brought back by that point, Broker produced some kind of metal bracelet. “Here’s the deal. I install a programming update to your little friends there. Then you put this thing on. See how it’s got a red button on this side and a blue button on the other? You press the red button while saying one or both of their names, and it’ll take them from wherever they are and instantly transport them to your hand. Which is kind of neat, but kind of a parlor trick. The real treat is the other half of it. That blue button, you press that and say one of their names and it’ll transport you to where they are. You know, provided it’s within about a mile. Sorry, the range is a bit limited that way.”
My eyes had widened by that point. “You mean… I could send them into a place I couldn’t get through, then transport myself to them?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Broker confirmed. “Actually, that’s the other part. You hold both buttons down together and say one of their names and you’ll be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. You know, so you know what you’re getting into. You can give them orders that way too.”
“Wow, that’s… wow.” My mouth opened and shut. “Yeah, that does sound useful.”
“I thought it might,” the man replied with a wink. “Okay, so that’s one update for you, and Porthos here for you. Anyone else? Should we see how much of a dent we can throw into Mr. Adams’ wallet if he’s so accommodating?”
Douglas and Columbus both raised their hands, the former speaking first. “I don’t–uhh, I don’t think I need Deveron’s help. Not buying a cyberform or anything. Actually, I was going to ask if you’d help me with an idea I had for my construct-pen. I had a few ideas, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I could pay you for your time.”
“Hey, you got it, kid.” Broker gave him a thumbs up. “We’ll see what we can do. And you?”
“I’m not actually… buying anything either,” Columbus replied carefully. “I was… you know Harrison Fredericks, right? I was wondering if you could… introduce me. I just… I’d kind of like to talk to him sometime. On his schedule. If–if there’s anything you could do.”
“Huh.” Broker looked hesitant. “Let’s… tell you what, I’ll go ahead and pass the message along. Fredericks and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together anymore, but I can talk to him. I’ll see if he’s got any time to meet with you while you’re here and let you know.”
I had no idea why Columbus wanted to talk to Harrison Fredericks. Still, I wasn’t going to question him about it right there. I could tell, however, that the others were just as curious.
“Right, if that’s all settled,” Broker gestured. “Why don’t we step back over here to my shop and we’ll get you sorted out. I’ll fix up the lovely ladies with their new toys, and then we’ll see what we can do for… ahh…”
“Doug,” the first boy in question supplied for him. “My name’s Doug.”
“And Columbus,” the other added.
“Doug! Doug and Columbus.” Broker snapped his fingers, blinking over at Vulcan. “And this one?” Looking to Sean, he added, “Are we sure we don’t want any kind of update? Eh, come on, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’ve got a few options, I’ll show you around the shop and you can decide. Some of the big ones might take a bit, but they’ll be worth it.”
Sean looked uncertain, resting his hand on his dog’s head. But in the end, he shrugged and joined us as we followed the man.
“You know,” I started with a glance toward Avalon and her new little lizard friend, who was riding on her shoulder. “If you’re gonna rename him, you should really go with Ahhh!”
“Ahhh?” she echoed, frowning before a look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, no.”
“Because then,” I continued with a grin, “when I introduce both my girlfriends’ pets–”
“Don’t say it,” she warned.
“People’ll think they need to bless me–” I pressed on.
“I’m warning you.”
“Because I’ll say–”
“One more word–”
“…. God damn it, Chambers.”