Part #3 of Zeroes series by Scott Westerfeld
First published by Allen & Unwin in 2017
Copyright © Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti 2017
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Cover photo by Victor Deschamps / Stocksy
Text design by Astred Hicks, Design Cherry
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FOR EVERYONE STILL
MASTERING THEIR POWER
SEVENTY-FIVE: ETHAN THOMAS COOPER
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
SO MANY ENEMIES.
SO FEW RULES.
‘DON’T GO ANYWHERE WITHOUT ME,’ THE GUARD SAID WITH A LAUGH.
The door slammed shut, and Nate was alone in the interrogation room.
He sat at the long table, staring at his shackled wrists – the handcuffs looked different today. The metal was a duller shade of gray than usual, the mechanism of the lock a little larger. A scrap of change in the dark ocean of sameness that was Dungeness Federal Prison.
Nate sighed, let his hands clank back to the table.
The worst part of interrogations was waiting for them to start.
They always brought him here an hour early and left him alone. To his right was a one-way mirror, but he felt no attention leaking through. Not yet. There was no clock, only the patterns of the prison stretching away in all directions, a shimmering grid of desperation felt through concrete walls.
This place was designed to enforce isolation. No common eating area, and the inmates were brought to the exercise yard one at a time. At first Nate was worried the feds had learned how to starve crowd powers, until his lawyer told him that that all supermax prisons were built this way.
They couldn’t let Nataniel Saldana form a gang, after all. He was a terrorist as well as a murderer.
Some days it felt like his power was withering. His tendrils of charisma, hungry for obedience, attention, worship, spent the long days seeking a crowd to influence, and found nothing but stray wisps of connection. The supermax was a concrete-and-steel labyrinth, with locked doors at every junction, but in Nate’s mind it was a desert dotted with broken souls.
Sometimes he thought about flipping his power inside out and disappearing completely. But the cameras would still see him. The doors would still be secured by implacable machines. Even in this locked room, Nate was shackled to the table.
Invisibility was no escape. He needed to charm his way out, in front of a judge and jury. Which meant keeping the Bellwether half of his power alive.
He waited, hoping for an audience.
At last the door opened.
‘You always look so happy to see us,’ Special Agent Solon said.
Nate couldn’t hide his relief – his interrogators had brought a crowd. Along with Agents Solon and Murphy, a new guy took up a position in the corner, a briefcase at his side. And of course Nate’s defense lawyer was always here.
As a bonus, four people were filing in on the other side of the one-way mirror. Nine altogether. More than enough to hit the Curve – a rainstorm on thirsty ground.
He felt his power rejoice.
But what did all these extra people mean? Had something happened out in the real world?
Had his friends been caught?
‘I’d like to start by pointing out – again – that my client is a minor, and that no parent is present.’ Nate’s lawyer, Cynthia Rodriguez, always led with this.
Agent Solon offered his usual response, pulling a card from his wallet to read an excerpt from the Crowd Psychosis Emergency Act. ‘May detain such persons, regardless of age…’
Nate ignored the familiar words, flexing his hungry power, coaxing in the shafts of attention beaming through the one-way mirror. With his hands chained to the long metal table, he couldn’t use his usual gestures. But those had all been empty bombast, he realized now, suited to the politician he could no longer be. He’d learned to adapt, guiding the crowd with twitches of his fingers, the movements of his eyes.
He drew the room’s energy to himself, waiting for whatever the interrogators’ questions would reveal.
Solon finally got to it. ‘Let’s talk about the Faraday shielding in your nightclub.’
‘What about it?’
The new guy at the end of the table smiled at this, but didn’t say anything. He was older, Asian, with a lively gray mane that made Nate think of Albert Einstein on a good-hair day.
‘In a nightclub?’ Solon said. ‘Why did you feel that was necessary?’
Nate felt a stir from the observation room. Maybe the feds had run into another Zero like Chizara. Someone who needed protection from the stings of technology.
But then Murphy leaned forward. ‘Did you think you were being watched by the government? Or some unknown force?’
Nate sighed inwardly. They were going for the paranoia angle again.
So often, his interrogators seemed to be arriving at the truth of the Zeroes. But every time they grew close to grasping crowd powers, the specifics seemed to overload their brains, and they fell back on theories about crazy kids. This blind spot kept Nate’s secrets safe, but also made it hard to extract any news about the outside world.
Sometimes Nate was tempted to tell them everything, just to stir them up. Maybe that would get a few more people in here.
But it was too soon to play that card.
‘We wanted people to enjoy the music,’ Nate said. ‘Instead of staring at their phones. Teenagers, you know?’
Cynthia Rodriguez looked up from her own phone and raised an eyebrow at him. The new guy didn’t move, but the glittering line of his attention sharpened in the air.
He knew something about signal blocking.
‘You wanted people to listen to the music,’ Solon said. ‘So was this at the request of your club’s DJ, Kelsie Laszlo?’
‘I can’t remember.’ Nate smiled – they didn’t even have the right Zero. ‘And Faraday cages aren’t illegal.’
‘No, but killing cops is,’ Agent Solon said, and slid a photograph across the table.
It was surveillance footage, a hospital corridor. It showed Kelsie in a hoodie, her face plain even in the grainy resolution.
‘Not sure who that is,’ Nate said.
‘Witnesses confirm it was Kelsie Laszlo,’ Agent Murphy said. ‘She was visiting one Frederick ‘Fig’ Larson, who was present at the crowd-psychosis killing of Officer Marcus Delgado.’
It wasn’t a question, so Nate didn’t answer.
‘Witnesses also place this person at that murder,’ Murphy said, sliding over a police composite sketch – Kelsie again, or close enough. ‘She was the instigator.’
Nate shrugged, but his mind was racing. The interrogators hadn’t asked him much about Kelsie before, and he’d hoped they thought of her as peripheral to the group. She’d only known the rest of them since summer.
But now she was connected to the murder of a policeman.
Fig must have kept quiet about her being there the night Swarm had killed Delgado, or they wouldn’t be bothering with sketches, would they? The criminal code of silence.
The question was, had they caught her yet?
Nate twitched a finger, drawing the agents’ attention taut, making it brittle and anxious to please.
‘I never liked Kelsie,’ he lied. ‘She wasn’t really part of the group. If there’s anything I can do to help you catch her, I will.’
Cynthia Rodriguez spread her hands. ‘As always, my client is ready to cooperate.’
‘Do you have any information about her whereabouts?’ Agent Solon asked.
Nate leaned back and said nothing, satisfied. He’d won already, and he’d hardly had to use his power at all.
‘Let’s talk about something else,’ he said.
Agent Solon frowned. ‘But you just—’
‘He got what he wanted,’ the new guy cut in. When the other agents looked at him, their attention fraying with confusion, he went on. ‘He’s not going to help you find the suspect. He just wanted to know if she’d been apprehended yet, and you just confirmed that she’s still at large.’
Nate didn’t argue. He was happy to take credit, even if the man had figured him out.
This new guy was smart. He spoke with a relaxed assurance and an accent Nate couldn’t place, a southern lilt.
Nate had to be careful here.
‘It’s just that I can’t help you,’ he said. ‘I never knew her very well.’
‘Maybe I should take over,’ the new agent said.
Solon and Murphy glanced at each other, as if they had a choice in the matter. But the attention coming through the one-way mirror had swung to the new guy, and his dominance filled the room.
‘Be my guest, Agent Phan,’ said Murphy, putting his pictures of Kelsie back into a folder. ‘Might as well try the hocus-pocus. Nothing else ever works with this kid.’
‘Hocus-pocus?’ Nate said, looking at his lawyer.
She straightened in her chair. ‘If you’re thinking of employing any nonstandard interrogation techniques, I will remind you again that—’
‘Nothing unusual,’ Agent Phan said, reached into his briefcase and dropped a photocopy on the table.
When Nate saw what it was, his hands jerked in the shackles with a clink. A page from his notes on the Zeroes, the folders filled with their powers, their personalities, the results of his experiments – everything Nate had learned over the years. All in the feds’ hands now.
He’d thought keeping the notes on paper, out of his computer, was safe.
Idiot. The feds must have pulled his entire house apart.
Phan was smiling. ‘Very meticulous work.’
‘Notes for a story,’ Nate said with a shrug. What a nightmare for his mother, having federal agents rummaging through her home.
His mother. The guilt of what he’d done to both his parents threatened to drag his power down. It took a force of will to draw himself back from despair.
‘A story?’ Phan nodded at the door, and the other agents got up and left. ‘We’ll see about that.’
Nate glanced at the one-way mirror, for a moment worried that Phan knew enough to empty the room. To rip away the Curve now, when he needed it most.
But then he felt something from the other side of the glass – a growing weight of attention on him, new bright beams pushing through.
A crowd was forming back there, a big one.
Maybe this new guy wasn’t so smart after all. Nate’s power was building again, hard and bright inside him. He was going to crush this Agent Phan.
Then the door opened, and someone else came in.
Nate could only stare. It was a white girl, pale, with dark hair, wearing ratty jeans and an FBI raid jacket over a T-shirt.
Her attention glittered at Nate, wary and contemptuous. Then she glanced at the one-way mirror, as if waiting for the growing crowd to settle. That, and the fact that she was Nate’s age, could only mean one thing.
She was a Zero.
WHO THE HELL WAS THIS GIRL?
She wore same expression as Nate’s parents on visiting day – discomfort in this brutal pile of steel and poured concrete. She wasn’t as hardened to the supermax as the FBI agents and Nate’s lawyer.
But as her attention darted around the room, taking in the coffee cup rings on the table and the shackles on his wrists, she relaxed a little. Like she was familiar with interrogation rooms.
She wasn’t dressed in the standard Fed business attire. Even the raid jacket looked too big for her. So she was new to her job. Which was what, exactly?
What’s her power?
Nate flexed his fingers, gathering the attention of the crowd in the adjoining room. He had to be ready for anything.
The girl sat down at the table.
‘There’s a lot I’d like to talk about,’ Agent Phan said, his attention dropping to a photocopied page. ‘But let’s start with something pressing. Do you know anything about Eureka?’
Nate blinked. He didn’t, but if he strung Phan along, the questions might reveal something.
‘Is that the code name of a secret project?’
Agent Phan smiled. ‘
Nate kept his expression under control. ‘In winter? That’s odd.’
Phan nodded. ‘Yeah, odd. And it was a very considerate blackout. Every electrical device was drained. Cars, cell towers, even people’s phones went dead. Like an EMP hit the town, except the hospitals and schools were untouched. And somehow the traffic lights kept working for an extra thirty seconds, while all those cars coasted to a halt.’
Nate nodded mildly as his mind turned this over. If Chizara could take down a whole town so smoothly, her skill had grown in the last month. Or was it another Zero with the same power?
No. Twenty miles from here was too close for just some random Crash.
‘I don’t know anything about—’ he began, but something swelled in his throat, choking off the words.
His friends, who he hadn’t seen for weeks, and who he wondered late at night if he’d ever see again, were so near.
‘What’s that again?’ Phan asked.
‘Crash,’ Nate said.
He swallowed, unsure how the word had slipped from his mouth.
His friends were planning something, probably something stupidly risky. This wasn’t the time to give anything away.
‘The same Crash as in your notes?’ the girl asked.
Nate stared at her. Her attention was a bright lance of unblinking fire. The kind of focus that had been honed with deliberate practice.
But it shimmered with nerves – fear, even.
Why was this girl afraid of him?
‘Sounds like the whole town crashed,’ he said. ‘That’s all I—’
But that wasn’t all he’d meant, and that made it hard to say, even to think.
‘You think it was Chizara Okeke,’ the girl said.
And finally Nate felt it in her stare, the weight of the crowd. It poured in from the next room, the gnawing demand that he spill his guts.
Forcing out the truth – that was her power.
‘She’s my friend,’he said. Yes, that was true, and for a moment the burden of answering her lifted. Relief flooded him.
Until she spoke again.
‘Not Kelsie? Riley? Or Ethan?’
Trying to distract himself, Nate noticed that her accent was like Phan’s, a lilting southern drawl.
‘I’m not sure this line of questioning is—’ Cynthia Rodriguez began.
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