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.
Julia Keller's "The Tablet of Scaptur" is a standalone story set before the events of The Dark Intercept.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Julia Keller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, is the author of many books for adults and young readers, including A Killing in the Hills, the first book in the Bell Elkins series and winner of the Barry Award for Best First Novel (2013); Back Home; and The Dark Intercept. Keller has a Ph.D. in English literature from Ohio State and was awarded Harvard University’s Nieman Fellowship. She was born in West Virginia and lives in Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
A prequel story to The Dark Intercept
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.
"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."
"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?"
Excerpted from "The Tablet of Scaptur"
Copyright © 2017 Julia Keller.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About the Author,