“What if continuously pushing you to tap into the Source kicks in that hive-mind mentality that Eaton talked about?”
Ice encased my insides. “I’ve considered that. I know Luc has to have thought about it, too, but it’s a risk we have to take. The only other option is to do nothing, and I can’t do that.”
“We need something in case I do turn into—”
“A robot programmed to return to the Daedalus?”
Shooting her a look, I nodded. “Maybe we can get ahold of an elephant tranquilizer?”
A thoughtful look crossed her pretty face.
My eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t being serious.”
“But a tranq may be an option.”
All I could do was stare at her. “How about you think of something positive?”
Her laugh was soft, and it quickly faded in the wind swirling down the wide sidewalk. “When I think of one, I’ll let you know.”
“But I’d better not hold my breath?”
“You said it, not me.”
Up ahead, the ranchers and overgrown lawns gave way to what might have been a city park at some point. Among the tall reeds, I could just make out the shapes of benches and what might have been picnic tables. Thick vines obscured the sign at the entrance we walked past, and it was about then when I smelled … roasted meat, and then the breeze carried the sweet and spicy scent of cinnamon.
Despite all that I had just eaten, my stomach lumbered awake. “Something smells amazing.”
“Fire-roasted chicken, and I’m praying to God it’s those cinnamon-crusted pecans Larry and his wife make. Those things are like candy crack.”
Larry and his wife?
My steps slowed as I heard people for the first time since we’d arrived. The low hum of conversation, of laughter, was the first proof that everyone wasn’t lying and this wasn’t a ghost town.
Curious, I got my feet moving at a faster pace. At the end of the street, we came to what had to have been a busy intersection before the war. Across the grassy median, behind a row of palms, was a shopping center.
Stores stacked on top of one another, most of the signs having long since fallen away or eroded to the point where only letters instead of words were legible. There’d been a nail salon once, kitty-corner to a liquor store. All that remained of the urgent care was the blue cross above shuttered double doors. Larger stores still clearly branded. The red letters of a now very useless electronics store were visible next to one of the pet store chains, and in their parking lots were dozens of stalls and people milling about, all under rolling canopies colored red, blue, and yellow.
“This is the market,” I stated, donning my Captain Obvious hat. Now I knew where all those cars had been the afternoon before.
“Yep.” Zoe was grinning at my wide-eyed face. I couldn’t help it. There were so many people.
Hundreds of them.
And as I stood there, too far away to see faces or eye colors, instinct was flaring alive in me, telling me what I couldn’t see but I could sense. Humans, lots of humans, and among them but not many were brighter … life forces. Luxen.
What in the hell kind of thought was that?
“This is how Zone 3 stays alive,” Zoe was saying, yanking me from my thoughts. “Well, one of the ways. Food is traded here, along with supplies and other stuff. Actually, lots of random stuff. Last time I was here, someone was trading stuffed animals—you know, not the real stuffed animals, but the kind kids play with.”
Blinking, I refocused on Zoe. “How? With money?”
“There’s no need for money.” She tugged on my arm, pulling me into the empty street. “Come on.”
Confused by the prospect of there being no need for money, I asked, “Then how do people buy the things here?”
“Labor can be traded for food. Like if someone needs repairs on the house or help working one of the crops. Some people trade goods, but there is no currency,” Zoe explained as we crossed the street, entering the market where the cement had cracked and little white-and-purple flowers had begun to grow. She kept her arm looped with mine. “And they make sure no one goes hungry, even if they are too old to barter with labor or have nothing of value to trade. That’s what today is. On Wednesdays, the food is free to those approved to enter, and they can take as much as they need.”
“And there’s enough food for that?”
Zoe nodded. “It’s kind of amazing how much work can be done and the amount of food that can be grown when you’re not sitting inside watching TV or messing around on social media.”
“Or when your next meal actually depends on you getting out there and growing something,” I added.
“That, too.” Zoe squeezed my arm as she stopped. “In a way, Zone 3 was lucky. A lot of farmers refused to leave during the evacuations. Their farms were their entire livelihood, and they couldn’t just uproot and start over. So, there were people who knew the land and how to ensure an abundance of all kinds of crops. And those who were moved here have all been willing to learn.”