Computers have failed, electricity is extinct, and the race to discover new lands is underway! Brilliant explorer Alexander West has just died under mysterious circumstances, but not before smuggling half of a strange map to his intrepid children—Kit the brain, M.K. the tinkerer, and Zander the brave. Why are so many government agents trying to steal the half-map? (And where is the other half?) It’s up to Alexander’s children—the Expeditioners—to get to the bottom of these questions, and fast.
Amerigo Vespucci and I had gone out to try to find some flour when the Explorer with the clockwork hand caught up to me in an alley behind the market stalls.
I was going as fast as I could, striding along, trying to stay warm in the damp spring air and trying to keep away from the watchful eyes of the agents. The parrot, whom we called “Pucci,” was riding on my shoulder, mumbling nonsense words into my ear as we went. He could be a pest, talking away in his scratchy voice and shrieking when you least expected it, and sometimes he was aggressive. I’d tried to leave him behind, but he’d snuck out of the house, and now he was laughing and mocking me from my shoulder.
“I wish I knew what you find so funny about life,” I told him.
Illustration by Katherine Roy
Ever since I’d arrived at the markets, I’d had the feeling that someone was watching me. It wasn’t anything specific; I was used to the constant surveillance of the agents who were posted everywhere, especially in public places. But there was something else, too, a sense that I was being tracked stealthily through the streets and alleys, as though I were a rabbit followed by a hungry fox.
There had been a three-month shortage of flour because of a drought out west and the uprisings in the new Simerian territories, and we’d heard a rumor that one of the off-market grocers had gotten a shipment in from somewhere. The off-market stalls sprung up in most towns and cities when there was a major shortage, and the government looked the other way until the regular supermarkets were stocked again. Lately it had seemed like the stalls were always there, hawking days-old meat, crates of oranges, dramleaf cut with grass or herbs, and other exotic products from the New Lands, sold by the traders and merchants who didn’t like the price the government was willing to pay. There was a big picture of President Hildreth up on the side of one of the buildings, and I watched as a man walking by looked up at it and then spat on the ground.
I stopped to look at a stack of cages on one of the tables. Pairs of pale green birds sat listlessly inside. Argentine Lovebirds, read a sign underneath. I felt Pucci tense up on my shoulder. He was a Fazian black knight parrot my brother, Zander, had rescued from a cat a couple of months ago. The black knights were a species known for its intelligence and ability to be trained to complete tasks, and a lot of people had brought them back as pets after they’d been discovered during the exploration of Fazia. Pucci, like a lot of the birds, had had his legs and feet removed and replaced with metal talons that could hold smoke bombs and other weapons used in crowd control in the new territories. We didn’t know where he’d come from or how he’d ended up in the clutches of a stray cat in our yard. But despite his bad temper and unpredictability, we’d grown attached to him. He already knew a lot of words, and Zander was trying to teach him more. As I felt him tense up on my shoulder, I knew what he was going to do.
“Pucci, don’t—” But I was too late. He hopped over to the poor, staring lovebirds and chortled something in his strange voice. Whatever it was, it caused the whole row of them to start flapping wildly and squawking, rocking the flimsy cages.
“Get that thing away from my lovebirds!” the old woman standing by their cage yelled at me. I whistled and, thankfully, Pucci sailed back onto my shoulder, chuckling at the awful screams the lovebirds were making.
“That was just mean,” I told him, and he cackled evilly.
“Get it here! Juboodan whizrat fur,” a man called from one of the stalls. “Warmest fur you’ll ever wear!” I wandered over and looked at the pile of thin, pale brown pelts stacked on his table.
“That’s not whizrat,” I said, loud enough for a white-haired woman looking through the pile to hear. “It doesn’t have the undercoat. And whizrat fur is reddish. That looks like woodchuck or nutria.”
The man scowled and made a rude gesture as the woman dropped the furs and walked on. I shrugged. “It’s not whizrat,” I told him.
The voices of the market hawkers echoed around me, boasting and selling. I kept going, my head down, looking over the items for sale, the lines already forming for cooking oil and sugar. People were shoving each other for their places in line.
It was still new to me, the rawness of the markets. We hadn’t had to deal with the shortages before Dad’s death. As an Explorer of the Realm, he’d gotten deliveries of all the hard-to-find goods coming in from the territories and colonies. But the deliveries had been drastically cut six months ago, and now my brother and sister and I waited with everyone else. I checked my watch. It was still early and if I took a shortcut through the alley and got in line ahead of the crowds, I might have a chance of a pound or two of the flour.
I was halfway down the alley when the man caught up to me. I sensed him before I heard him running behind me, but there wasn’t anything I could do. Suddenly he was pushing my face into the brick wall and jamming something against the small of my back. I’d been mugged in the marketplace once before, and I knew what a pistol against my back felt like. I didn’t think this was a pistol, though; it wasn’t the right shape. Pucci squawked and rose into the air, alighting on a nearby windowsill. I couldn’t help but think that if it had been Zander, the parrot might have tried to protect him or raise the alarm.
“Quiet,” the man growled.
I could smell the dramleaf on his breath. He was a chewer, like a lot of the population had been since one of the early Explorers had found dramleaf in the Deloian hills. The scent was sweet and spicy, like the clove oranges my mother had made for us at Christmas. She had died when I was four and this was one of the only things I remembered about her.
“Don’t call for help, son,” he said, his mouth pressed against my right ear. “I’ll have to hurt you if you scream.” He had an accent—German, maybe, or Eastern European—but it was faint, like it had been some time since he’d lived there.
My right cheek stung where it had been scraped on the brick, and I could smell his strong body odor. It had been a while since he’d had a bath, too. I was scared, but I forced myself to breathe and focus on what I could see of my attacker. He took his right hand off the back of my head and rested it on the brick in front of me. It was a clockwork prosthesis, a shining brass and Gryluminum fabrication, everything articulated so that it would move just like a real hand. A lot of Explorers who had lost limbs or body parts on their expeditions had them replaced with the clockwork fabrications. I could hear all the little gears and mechanisms in the prosthesis click and whir as he moved his hand. I recognized the knife utilities set into the fingernails.
His jacket sleeve, made of some kind of reptile hide, rode up a bit and I could see where the prosthetic met his forearm and, a little bit higher, on his skin, a small red tattoo of two overlapping globes.
“I don’t have any money, but you can have the copper in my coat pocket,” I whispered, trying to show him I wasn’t going to scream. We were all alone in the alley. No one would hear me over the noise of the market. There wasn’t any point.
“No,” he said, “I don’t need copper. Turn around. Slowly now.”
I felt the pressure on my kidneys ease up, and I turned around as slowly as I could, buying myself some time. My glasses had slipped down on my nose and I pushed them up so I could see him.
His jacket, along with his broad-brimmed hat, was made of Krakoan alligator hide. I recognized the shiny hide now, with its odd colors that always reminded me of an oil slick on a puddle. Dad had had a similar hat, complete with the razor-sharp thorns that studded the brim and turned it into a weapon when thrown.
This man was wearing the government-issue leather Explorer’s leggings that Dad had worn, too. They were made of tough cowhide and were covered with cargo pockets. The government gave every Explorer a black cowhide jacket, but Dad had preferred to wear a vest he’d made himself from Krakoan alligator and other hides he’d found on his travels. The sleeves of this Explorer’s jacket were studded with various metal gadgets embedded in the leather, just the way Dad’s vest had been.
Explorers had made a science out of customizing their jackets and vests with the little gadgets. One might be a knife that could be shot from the sleeve by pressing a button. Another might be a chronometer, protected by a bubble of reinforced glass, or an instant umbrella that would form a shelter over the wearer at the first sign of a tropical storm. Dad had broken his leg on an expedition a couple
of years ago, and he’d had a little cane that shot out of his vest when he needed it.
“Look down,” the Explorer growled.
I did as he said and saw that I’d been right. It wasn’t a pistol that had been jammed against my back, but rather a rectangular object, wrapped in greasy brown paper and a metal cord. He was offering it to me. My hands were shaking but I managed to take it from him. It was heavy, about the weight and shape of a printed book.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Christopher,” I whispered. “Christopher West.”
“How old are you?”
“Your dad was right. You don’t look much like him.”
I looked up at him in surprise. What did he mean? Had he known Dad? “I look… look like my mother,” I stammered. “The way our mother looked.”
“He said that. But he said your name is Kit.”
“That’s what people call me.”
He watched me for a minute. He was sunburned and skinny, with sharp cheekbones, a week or so of beard growth, and tired-looking, wolflike green eyes underneath the brim of his hat. He had the look about him that the Explorers always had when they were just back from an expedition. Dad always said that no matter how many baths you’d had, it was like you were covered with the dust of the other place for a couple of weeks after you returned.
“This is from your dad, from Alex,” he said finally, in a rough, low voice.
I stared at him. I knew I’d never seen him before, but I tried to remember what he looked like in case I needed the knowledge later. His hair was very blond, bleached by the sun and long enough to peek out from under his hat and hang over the collar of his jacket. He held the arm with the clockwork hand awkwardly at his side, as though he was still getting used to the feel of the prosthetic. Some gadget on his jacket started clicking and beeping in a low, insistent way and he turned to check both ends of the alley before flashing me a quick, grim smile.
“Sorry about the scrape,” he mumbled and then he was gone, leaving behind the faint smell of dramleaf and something else, too, a scent I decided was the scent of unfamiliar dust.
The words were out before I remembered there was no one to hear them. “But he’s dead,” I called into the sudden emptiness of the alley. “He disappeared in Fazia six months ago…”
Pucci lighted on my shoulder again, clucking and murmuring to make sure I was okay. His metal feet were cold against my skin. I looked down the length of the alley, but the man was gone and the only thing I could hear was the sound of the marketplace beyond. I wasn’t more than twenty steps from a hundred other human beings, but I’d never felt so alone or missed Dad as much as I did standing in that cold alley, my own voice echoing off the walls around me.