It wasn’t far from the banks of the O River to a municipal park at the farthest northern reach of the metropolis of Opal Pools. Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte crouched in the bushes along the edges of the park, watching as people jogged or walked past.
“It just looks like any other park,” Slate observed. “The people here don’t look any different, either.”
“What were you expecting?” Arianna asked.
“I don’t know,” Slate said. “Tentacles or something.”
“Well it’s good they’re only human, because that means we won’t stick out,” Arianna said.
“Right,” Slate said. “We’ll have to leave our things here, though. I don’t want to be carrying the Books with me if we run into trouble.”
“Leave them unattended?”
“Unattended? Pilotte here is keener than the Protectorate. He’ll keep them safe. Won’t you, Pilotte?”
The wulf smiled.
Slate stowed his and Arianna’s gear in a ferny burrow, then gave Pilotte a good scratch goodbye. The wulf curled up in the burrow and closed his eyes for a nap.
The sky had fallen dark by the time Slate and Arianna reached the park exit, at a place called Fern Water. It had been a five-length journey, and they were exhausted. Slate was about to complain, when every lamppost in the park began to glow, instantaneously. The pure, steady light glittered on the path and transformed the park into a glowing dream world.
“What is it?” Slate marveled.
“Instant sunshine!” answered Arianna. “Just like the City of Cra, in the Legend!”
A bit farther down the path was a concentration of the lamps, housed inside a great glass building. Through the impossibly huge windowpanes, Slate and Arianna saw groups of people congregating along what looked similar to the tracks they had discovered along the edge of the river.
“What do you think those people are doing?” Slate asked. “What’s that building?”
“It has rails running through it,” Arianna answered. “Like the rails for that horrible machine we saw. What are they waiting for?”
“Let’s watch and find out.”
After ten minutes or so, a screech off in the distance heralded the arrival of a variation on the metal cart train Slate and Arianna had encountered earlier. This one moved much more quietly as it glided to a stop along the platforms inside the glass building. The great strake then opened its doors, and dozens of people stepped off. Others boarded, the doors shut again, and the machine lurched into motion, gaining momentum until it was lost to the dark forest.
“So people ride those horrible things?” Slate asked.
“Could you imagine? Going that fast, over land? Faster than on the horses?” Arianna asked.
“I think I’d be sick.”
“I bet it would take us into town a lot faster than our feet, though. Obviously, lots of people ride them.”
“If you mean…”
“Come on, you’re not scared, are you?”
“Scared? No, not if you aren’t,” Slate said. “Let’s do it. Let’s board the dragon.”
The two entered the bright, white station and located a rail map and timetable illuminated by a blue ring of lamplight.
“Where do you think we should we go first?” Arianna asked, scanning the map.
“I don’t know… what do you think of… there?” Slate asked, pointing to an orange-tinted area of the map.
“The Historical District,” Arianna read. “It says they have a museum. That would be a great place to learn about the city. I can’t even imagine what a museum here must be like.”
Slate tried to plot the route to the Historical District. “We need a… green…no, an orange…four. No, three. No, four, that’s right, but a green one. We need a green four.”
“No, Slate. It’s a red…five. That’s it. A red five,” Arianna said. “There will be one coming in a few minutes.”
“That’s what I meant,” Slate said. “It says it costs eight stone to ride. I don’t have any stone. Whatever that is.”
“Look, there’s a pictogram of a stone there,” Arianna said, pointing to an advertisement printed along the bottom of the map. “It looks nothing like our goldquartz, that’s for sure.”
“Hmmm. Maybe if we tell them we lost our wallets they’ll let us ride?”
“It’s worth a shot. I can look pretty forlorn. I know you can too.”
“Thanks,” Slate moaned, demonstrating how right Arianna was.
When the red five came, the strangers to Opal Pools waited for the paying customers to board before stepping up to the fare taker, wearing their sorriest faces.
“Sir, my friend and I lost our wallets in the woods...” Slate began.
“Sure, whatever, get in, come on, let’s go,” the man said in a bored monotone.
The doors closed and the car began to roll along the tracks. Slate and Arianna were thrown to the floor, as they didn’t have a firm grasp of anything. They quickly picked themselves up and managed to locate two seats, which they slunk down into in embarrassment. As the train rattled along, the other passengers lost interest. Slate and Arianna stared out of the windows as the land outside flew past in a blur.
Before they knew it, the train had left the countryside and entered a tunnel. Inside the tunnel was another boarding station. Few exited at the stop, though many more got on. At the next stop, even more passengers boarded. The crowding eventually got so bad that Slate and Arianna were pressed into one another and against the train’s windows. To their great relief, Slate at last spotted a sign for the Historical District on a station wall. He and Arianna pushed and fought their way out of the train and into the thick of the city.
The noise previously deadened by the tightly packed confines of the train now blasted their ears, and dazzling lights confused their vision. Storefronts, street vendors, bizarre machines of every kind, street preachers, performers, throngs of people, and everything else imaginable were everywhere. Overwhelmed, the newcomers cut their way through the bustling hordes to a quieter corner of the street, near a restroom and a tucked-away newspaper stand.
“This place is insane,” Arianna said.
“Absolutely insane,” Slate agreed. “And kind of amazing.”
A headline on the newsstand caught Slate’s attention, one boasting ‘The Final Fortress Is At Last Overtaken.’ He was reaching for the paper when the butt of a cane suddenly thwacked it out of his hands.
“You have to pay for that, you know,” said the frowning woman at the other end of the cane.
“But I don’t want to buy it, I just want to read the one story,” Slate said.
“You don’t buy it, you don’t get to read it,” the woman barked.
“Do you take goldquartz?” asked Slate.
“What century do you think this is?” the woman asked.
“Sorry,” Arianna said. “You can keep your paper.”
Slate and Arianna left the newsstand, keeping close to the buildings along the street so as not to get trampled by the thousands of people. Where exactly in the Historical District the two were, was hard to discern. Slate helped Arianna up onto a wastebasket so that she could get a better view of things, and from there she espied the museum they were looking for, just across the way.
The two bounded like frightened jix across the six-lane street, dodging trains, two-wheeled, pedal-driven contraptions, pull carts, pushcarts, and unceasing waves of others. After barely making it through, they charged up the granite steps of the museum.
There were few people at the entrance to the museum, an oasis of calm in the hectic bustle. Etched into the building’s edifice were phrases such as ‘From Raw Material, We Fashion the Future,’ and ‘In Moments of Inspiration, We Become Like the Gods.’ Slate imagined the words must have come from the men and women whose busts lined the porticos around the entrance, as he and Arianna stepped into the museum’s lobby.
Just inside, the body of a ship was on display. A placard informed that the ship was very old and very famous, though it looked much like any other rotten ship. Slate and Arianna quietly slipped past it and the ‘recommended donations’ box, and into the dimly lit museum interior.
There weren’t many people there, and so Slate and Arianna were able to take their time inspecting the various exhibits on display. One entire room was devoted to a person by the name of Dorieaye Khe-tK. It appeared that Khe-tK was recognized as a prophet of sorts by the people of Opal Pools, having been the man to translate the Book of Knowledge and spark the city’s technological explosion with the rediscovery of tynarium power. There were collections of his writings behind thick glass, and a diorama recreating what the museum curators imagined the hovel in which Khe-tK performed his translation might have looked like.
The rest of the museum was more straightforward. There was a room dedicated to technological achievements, such as the first steam-engine motor the city had produced, and early electrical generators, alongside an exhibit on hydroelectric power and some other concepts whose placards assumed the museumgoer knew more than either Slate or Arianna did about their subjects. There was also an entire wing of the museum dedicated to a collection of ancient artifacts, with murals depicting life in the ages before, clothing samples, hunting and farming tools, and artworks. Slate found it funny that the depiction of life almost two hundred years before the present day in Opal Pools looked very much like his early life in Alleste. The last exhibit pointed toward the future of the city, with descriptions of how the trains would be improved, conceptual drawings of beautiful new buildings and shiny new machines to come, and myriad promises of a better life. Finally, a marvelous light-and-sound show dazzled Slate and Arianna more than anything in the museum before it, a display of wall-sized, glowing pictures appearing to come to life and speak. The tiny crowd for the show was shown many different corners of the city quickly, so quickly as for it to almost be sickening to Slate and Arianna. The pair was somewhat relieved when the show was over and they were led to museum’s exit. Or, rather, the museum’s gift shop, which was full of little recreations of the technologies on display inside the museum, all priced very steeply.
Slate and Arianna left the shop when the attendant started to follow them suspiciously. There was a small cafe situated behind the museum, overlooking a public green lined with flowers and willow trees. There, Slate bought Arianna a cup of very expensive glint at a waiter’s insistence, and paid for it in goldquartz, which the waiter reluctantly accepted. The two drank slowly, not wanting to relinquish their table as they people watched. The citizens of this strange new place seemed just like any other people they had met, but faster, and more focused. The whole city was in a great hurry, even in ordering and eating food, even when they put out their picnic blankets on the green and had a game of catch.
Slate and Arianna emptied their cups and were asked if they wanted anything else. The waiter’s tone suggested they shouldn’t, and as the two didn’t have much money left anyway, they shuffled off.
They rode the waves of foot traffic for some time, looking in shop windows and getting shoved this way and that, before happening upon a small booth that advertised ‘Photographs’ on its side in colorful, rainbow print. Stopping to investigate, they were startled by an overly enthusiastic man who popped out of the booth and began his sales routine.
“A picture of the lovebirds for a keepsake?” he asked with a forced smile.
“A what? A picture?” asked Arianna.
“A picture, of the two of you, to show your grandkids one day?” asked the man again.
The two confused visitors just stared.
“Listen, kids, you want a picture or not?” the man demanded.
“A picture?” asked Slate. “Like a painting or drawing?”
“You stupid or something? I said a picture, a photograph,” grumbled the man, glancing around for other potential customers.
“What is a photograph?” asked Arianna, embarrassed.
“What’s a photograph? My stars, you two’ve been living under a rock, haven’t you?”
“No, not under a rock,” said Slate.
“Aw, crap. Listen, you sit in the booth and I snap your picture and then you get to take it home. It’s like a painting, see, but…magic! It’s painted like that,” the man said as he snapped his fingers. “Chemicals reacting to light exposure.”
Slate and Arianna still didn’t have a clue what he meant.
“Okay, I see I’m not working with the brightest bulbs in the garden. You got any money?” the man asked.
“A bit of goldquartz, yes,” said Slate hesitantly.
“Goldquartz? What year is this? You have three pieces?” asked the salesman, still using a condescending tone.
“Yes, I suppose,” said Slate.
“Well, you want something to remember your youth by?” the photographer asked. “I’m guessing you won’t remember too well on your own.”
“Three pieces? Okay, sure,” said Slate, figuring he ought to have some sort of memento from when he and Arianna were in such a strange place.
“Alright, then. It’s like pushing a stonker with you two. Into the booth, go on!” ordered the man, as he pulled back a felt curtain to reveal a small bench inside the booth.
Slate and Arianna entered and sat on the bench, and then the man closed the curtain. Across from where the two were sitting, a hole appeared in the wall, through which they could see the salesman’s squinty eyes. They heard him say ‘Get ready!’ though they had no idea what they were getting ready for, and then a bright flash filled the booth.
Slate jumped up with a shout. “Hey, what are you trying to do?” he demanded as he stormed out of the booth.
“Calm down, calm down,” the man said. “Give me a minute.”
“Are you okay, Arianna?” Slate asked.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she answered. “I don’t know why that cost three goldquartz, though.”
“No, it cost three goldquartz for this, dimwit,” said the photographer, reappearing with a thick sheet of glossy paper stock in his hand.
Slate and Arianna watched in wonder as a likeness of them seated in the booth slowly formed on the paper, their outlines appearing to bleed through out of nowhere, becoming more defined and rich until the paper bore a perfect recreation of their faces, one just as detailed as the most lifelike painting either of them had ever seen.
They were pleased beyond belief with the keepsake, and began to say as much to the photographer, but he had already resumed his sales routine with another couple. The two giddy travelers merged back into the crowds again, careful to shield their new picture as they marveled at it while they walked. They found a spot on a bench, one of the city’s few free places to sit, and pored over every detail of the photo. As they sat, more and more people shuttled by, until the foot traffic became so congested that it almost came to a complete stop.
“What time do you think it is?” Slate asked.
“It’s got to be late,” Arianna said. “You thinking about Pilotte?”
“Yeah. Think he’s okay?”
“Sure of it. I wonder where everyone’s going, though. Excuse me, where is everyone going?” she asked a woman who was passing by with her children.
“The speech is tonight,” the woman answered.
“The speech?” Slate asked.
“About the new weapon, in the great square,” the woman answered, before the crowd shuttled her off.
“New weapon. Should we go hear the speech?” Arianna asked Slate.
“Of course we should,” Slate said. He admired the photo one last time, before he put it gingerly into his pocket and merged with Arianna into the flow of the crowd.
They drifted with the current for a number of blocks before coming to a huge, open space in the middle of the city. The towering buildings of Opal Pools, with their construction cranes and shining lights, soared up all around the public square, all aglow against the cloudy night sky.
Slate and Arianna were lucky to get pushed up against a railing overlooking the very center of the square. From there, they had a clear view of a stone platform decorated with purple cloth and flowers below. A five-piece band dressed in colorful garb played jaunty music at the platform’s steps, as an acrobatic troupe spun and dazzled the crowd with their tricks. Children laughed and ran about, adults spoke in excited tones.
A piercing trumpet call sounded. The crowd let out a great cheer, as a small group cut through the square below to take the stone platform. Amid cheering and applause, a woman approached the podium and began to speak. Her words came at once from all around, loud and clear. Slate and Arianna were extremely confused at first, before realizing the voice was being recreated from a system of small boxes hanging around the audience. The crowd cheered after the woman had introduced herself, and then fell silent as she went on.
“Thank you, Opal Pools. Good evening to you all! It is always heartening to see so many of our citizens together, as it is in our moments of solidarity and confederation that we rise above our individual existence and achieve something greater.”
A round of applause went about the square.
“Of course, it is this togetherness, this unity, which we as a people hold paramount. In the face of those in this world who don’t want us to enjoy it. Some hate us for it. They resent our common vision and the means we use to achieve it, calling our science the work of evil. The old days of a separate peace have come to a close. The empty spaces in Alm are conquered. Those in the west say our inventions will bring us to ruin. They say we are polluting and spoiling the natural world. But while their gross miscalculations and fear see our technology turning toxic the very mother nature that nurtures us, we know better. We can and will improve, we will certainly discover new ways to live in closer unity with nature, but this is a gradual process. For us to brake our progress now would be foolish and harmful.”
The woman paused to clear her throat while the crowd murmured.
“They would tell us that we can no longer follow our destinies. They would hold humanity back from its naturally ordained advance, and deny the power the creator has invested in us to think, reason, and invent. They would deny the revelations given to Dorieaye Khe-tK. But it will not be so. Let me say now that the people of Opal Pools are not, nor will we ever be, warmongers. However, our council receives reports every day about the recruitments in Jaidour, about the factories in Dane being fitted for military production. Are we to ignore these omens? Are we to stand idly back and watch the forces of ignorance march over us, to be remembered as vanished pacifists?”
A collective cry of “No!” went up through the crowd.
“They may have greater numbers, but we haven’t any reason to fear. The headlines have proclaimed it already, you all know the truth: My fellow Opalites, our scientists have breached a tall wall in our understanding. I announce to you today our appropriation of matter itself: the reclamation of particle energy.”
The crowd went wild.
“To be clear,” the mayor continued, “We have cracked open the very building blocks of the universe. We have successfully split an atom of tynarium. With this force unleashed, we will be able to produce enough power to free ourselves completely from dependency on foreign resources. And along with that, we have now the power to make a weapon so powerful that the Gods themselves would stand in awe of its might in their time. If the west wants to test our capability, we will make a show for them indeed.”
The crowd could hardly contain itself at this point.
Slate turned to Arianna and said, “I’m worried how excited people are for a weapon.”
“They’re treating it like a holiday or something,” Arianna said.
“Of course they are. You kids aren’t from around here, are you?” asked a voice from somewhere nearby.
Slate turned around to see a man grinning at him.
“Were you talking to us?” Slate asked the stranger.
“I was,” the man answered. “Y’all new to town?”
“How can you tell?” Arianna asked.
“You aren’t cheering,” the man answered.
“We’ve actually come a long way to get here,” Slate said. “We heard rumors about this new weapon all the way back on Aelioanei.”
“That is a long ways from here indeed. You all really want to know the truth?” the stranger asked.
“It’s why we’re here,” Arianna answered.
“You want to come with me and hear it?” the stranger asked.
“Ummm…” Slate hummed warily.
“Listen, I’m not one of… these,” he said, waving a dispassionate hand at the frenzied crowd.
“Well, what are you, then?” Slate asked.
The man put a finger to his cracked lips and beckoned subtly, backing out of the swarm of people. Slate was reluctant to follow, but Arianna tugged him into action. They had to move quickly to keep sight of the squat stranger as he disappeared and reappeared amongst the crowd. When he reached the thinner crowds at the edge of the square, he stopped to catch his breath.
“Alright now,” he said. “I follow me, if you really want to know the truth.”