Something was wrong.
Thirteen-year-old Eli Papadopoulos could feel it.
Just as thunder boomed in the distance, there was a faint bursting sound from somewhere outside his bedroom window. Eli spun his head just in time to witness a tiny spray of sparks falling from the artificial sky. Debris drifted to the ground like faraway fireworks and quickly disappeared, leaving an empty space where some of the pixels had gone out—a dark spot, almost unnoticeable in the five-mile-wide hemisphere of blue light.
Whatever the little explosion was, it was so quick and small in the vast expanse of the protective dome over the city of Providence that anyone might have missed it among the digital clouds if they hadn’t been in just the right position when it happened. But Eli did see it, and for a while he kept staring. Sky malfunctions were supposed to be rare, and yet this wasn’t the first time in recent days that he’d seen something troubling up there.
He felt again the vague dread that had been growing inside him for weeks.
Nobody else in Eli’s room seemed to have noticed anything.
Stretched across the windowsill at his elbow, Eli’s mongoose, Marilyn, yawned. A recent birthday gift from Grand-father, Marilyn was a small, scruffy animal, shaggy and gray, with a short snout, a skinny body, and a long, bushy tail. If she’d observed the unsettling burst of sparks, she didn’t show it. Her eyelids drooped, and after a moment she laid down her head and began to snore quietly.
Not even Dr. Toffler, the surly old instruction robot seated on the other side of the desk from Eli, seemed aware. It continued plodding through the day’s lesson as if nothing strange had happened, droning on and on about project management.
Today’s lecture was even duller than normal.
“Nurturing a customer’s sense of well-being through positive message repetition,” Dr. Toffler was saying, its voice crackling with age, “not only encourages complacency but is also a useful tool that ultimately leads to widespread respect for authority and obedience to rules.” It paused. “Representative Papadopoulos, you’re not paying attention. Please try to stay engaged.”
Eli pointed, startled out of his reverie. “I just saw something break. Up above those silver trees, see? There were sparks, and then part of the dome just . . . fizzled out!”
Dr. Toffler’s slender plastic head swiveled to see. By then, though, everything appeared normal. The dome ceiling shimmered a cheerful blue. The synthetic sun, a perfect sphere of blazing gold and red, was halfway through its daytime journey and now glowed above the shopping mall at the center of downtown. The dark spot had grown smaller, as if the surrounding pixels were adjusting their positions to leave no trace of their missing brothers. Even Eli was having a hard time making it out anymore.
“I see nothing peculiar,” Dr. Toffler said. “I’m sure it was just part of a cloud-vertisement.”
“No, it wasn’t a cloud-vertisement! I’m telling you, something exploded!”
The droid’s head swiveled back, its optical sensors fixing on Eli. Dr. Toffler was so old that the rubber at its joints had almost worn away, exposing the wires that ran up its neck and the steel rods at its elbows and knees. “This wouldn’t be another of your attempts to divert our discussion from the lecture, would it? Your tactics are becoming rather tiresome.”
Eli ignored the jab. As a member of the powerful Papadopoulos family, the family that owned the giant company that managed everything in the domed cities and kept the millions of domed employees safe and productive, he was being raised differently than most kids. Instead of attending a normal school and getting a regular job at age thirteen, as most children did, Eli was tutored at home, years of management instruction so he could help his family run InfiniCorp someday. The problem was, he tended to zone out during Dr. Toffler’s long lectures.
The mongoose grunted quietly at his elbow, still lost in sleep.
“I’m not trying to get out of the lesson,” he insisted, starting to lose his temper with the droid. “I saw part of the sky shatter. Pieces fell to the ground!”
“Sky parts don’t simply burst apart.” It raised its metal hands in frustration. “First it was suspicious sky formations that you believed could only mean the dome was about to crumble to the ground. Now you’ve convinced yourself you saw pixels explode? Really, Eli, enough of this nonsense. Se-nior Management has already assured you there’s nothing to worry about. No more pointless distractions. You have to focus. Mother and Father are concerned about you.”
Eli threw his weight back into the chair. He was aware of his parents’ concern, but he wasn’t making up stories! This time he’d seen something seriously alarming, and it burned his insides that Dr. Toffler wouldn’t believe him. The robot was already starting over, though, and all Eli could do was glower out the window again, his heart pounding and his black hair falling over his eyes. If he went out to the street and found broken sky parts, then nobody could deny that what he’d seen was real. Not that Dr. Toffler was about to let him out of his lesson without an argument.
But Eli made up his mind. This was too important, and he’d had enough of arguing with a machine.
“Excuse me,” he said, getting up from his chair. “I need to take a break.”
The mongoose lifted her head. Whiskers twitching, she eyed him with what looked like suspicion. If Eli hadn’t known better, he would have sworn she somehow knew he was up to something.
Dr. Toffler sighed. “All right. You have two minutes.”
Eli left the room and closed the door behind him. Then he ran down two flights of stairs and straight across the long foyer to the front door. As he slipped on his cloak, he noticed his brother’s Image-Capturing Spyglass on the table by the front door. Perfect! He slid it into his pocket.
He’d seen what he’d seen. He was going to prove it.
For a couple of weeks Eli had been noticing anomalies in the sky—little quirks, mostly, like lights that blinked or random shapes that flickered and disappeared. He’d read an old story about a sea captain who ignored a tiny leak on his boat, and it ended up sinking the whole ship. What if this unexplained sky behavior was the first sign that the protection systems were corrupted somehow? If it turned out that the dome was heading toward a breakdown, it could potentially leave the entire city exposed to the elements.
Yet for some reason nobody else seemed concerned. The family elders kept telling him everything was fine and that it wasn’t his job to worry about these things anyway.
But what he’d witnessed today was different. This time he’d actually seen something break into pieces.
He sprinted down Hope Street. The East Side was teeming with activity. As transport pods whooshed by, InfiniCorp employees on their lunch hour milled along the sidewalks and jammed the shops and restaurants, stepping around the little yellow cleaning droids that swept the walkways. The InfiniCorp logo—a crowd of smiling faces protected in the palm of a strong, gentle hand—was everywhere: on every store window, every trash-disposal tube, every shopping bag. And just below each logo was the company slogan in thick, purple letters:
INFINICORP IS TAKING CARE OF EVERYTHING!
As Eli rounded the corner of Manning, there was another roll of faraway thunder, the last remnant of the storm that had kept him awake the previous night. He’d lain in bed listening to the wind Outside and the metallic hiss of rain against the dome’s exterior. Here Inside, though, the sky seemed as calm as ever, with only a few three-dimensional cloud-vertisements breaking up the vast canopy of blue.
Tired of your nose? read one of them just then, a low-hanging cloud with flashing red words over a sad, long-nosed face. Isn’t it time for a new one?
Higher up and closer to the center of the dome, five digital kids with musical instruments were dancing on a different cloud. Check it out! It’s the new groove from Five Go Splat!
Up ahead he spotted the silver trees below the place where the pixels had burst. The trees were inside an enclosed lot surrounded by a brick wall. DEPARTMENT OF RELIABLE POWER SYSTEMS, read a sign near the top. From where he stood, Eli saw nothing peculiar about the sky, but he was sure he’d have a better view if he went inside the enclosure. All he had to do was find the entrance.
He followed the wall as it turned another corner, but there he froze. Not far, near the arched door in the brick, stood a Guardian, one of the white-uniformed kids who patrolled the streets. A thickset girl with flashing purple eyebrow enhancers, she was watching the pedestrian traffic with one finger pressed to the InfiniTalk in her ear. It occurred to Eli that Dr. Toffler was sure to have realized he’d skipped out on his lesson by now, and the droid had probably alerted Mother and Father. It wouldn’t have surprised him if they’d already sent word for the Guardians to keep an eye out for him so they could drag him home again.
As if to prove his point, the Guardian looked up, and for a moment their eyes met. “Hey, you!” she called. “Stop right there!”
He lingered a heartbeat longer, but then he doubled back and ran. Shooting around the corner again, he scrambled along the wall and into an alley at the other end of the enclosure. He pressed his back against the bricks. The Guardian ran past.
Eli waited a few seconds. Just over his shoulder a sign said KEEP OUT! AUTHORIZED EMPLOYEES ONLY! He hesitated, but only for a moment. The Guardian could be back in an instant, and if Eli didn’t get in there and capture a few images to prove to Senior Management that the dome was breaking apart, it was possible nothing would be done about it until it was too late. What if he was the only one who saw the explosion?
He made his decision.
Grabbing an iron bar at the top of the wall, he hoisted himself up, swung his legs over, and dropped to the other side. Now he was in what looked like a small, tidy garden carpeted with synthetic grass. Much of the center was taken up by the top of a power generator, a metal cylinder maybe ten feet across and three feet high. It hummed softly. Other than that and the trees, the enclosure was empty, although it was lined with artificial hedge on two sides. Eli climbed onto the generator and squinted at the sky.
Being only a few blocks from the city perimeter, the dome came down at an angle here, and the lower surface of the sky floated no more than forty or fifty feet above the trees. He took out the spyglass, switched on the green light, and zoomed in. The individual pixels seemed fine. In fact, nothing at all caught his eye except a perfect, unbroken canopy of light. He climbed down from the generator and walked around, scanning the ground for charred material, any shards of metal or broken glass or melted plastic, any evidence at all that something had exploded overhead.
He found nothing.
Disappointed, he abandoned the spyglass and stared back at the sky from the top of the generator with his naked eyes. He’d been so sure the burst of sparks was real. So where was the debris? Was it possible the cleaning droids could have so quickly discovered the mess and cleared it away? Or had Dr. Toffler been right after all, that it was just a digital image he’d mistaken as genuine? No. Eli could tell the difference. He’d arrived after the cleaning droids, that was all, which meant now he had to go home empty-handed, unable to prove what he was sure he’d seen.
He blew out a long breath. All he could do now was climb over the wall again and head back home. When he turned to retrieve the spyglass, though, to his surprise it wasn’t where he’d left it. He’d dropped it in the grass by the hedge—he was sure of it—and yet there was nothing there anymore. It was gone! He looked around in a panic. That spyglass was special. It had belonged to Father when he was a boy. How could he have lost it in such a small space?
Out of the corner of his eye he saw something move. The hedge shook, and a dark shape shifted inside it. Somebody was in there, and suddenly Eli was sure that, whoever it was, they had taken the spyglass. He stepped forward.
“Hey, what are you doing in there?” he demanded. “Give it back!”
The leaves shook again, but otherwise there was no answer. He crouched and parted the plastic branches. Peering inside, he saw something disappear into the ground—at least, that’s what it looked like. The earth seemed to move, and then there was nothing.
“Who are you? What department do you work for?”
But the shadow was gone. Eli crawled under the leaves, inching forward. Groping around with his hands, he discovered something near the base of the wall. It was a hinged flap, stiff and round. It had been left open, but when he touched it, Eli realized its upper side matched the texture of the ground, as if it were meant to blend in when it was closed.
It was a hidden door. A secret entrance to a hole in the ground.
He peered into it. The opening was just wide enough for one person to fit through. There was a ladder, but it was too dark to see the bottom. He knew he shouldn’t go down there. The company had firm rules about restricted areas, but what was he supposed to do? A thief had taken the spyglass and he had to get it back!
He climbed in.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Crack in the Sky by Mark Peter Hughes. Copyright © 2010 by Mark Peter Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.