In Cake Literary’s upcoming middle grade novel Last Gate of the Emperor—from co-authors Kwame Mbalia (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky) and Prince Joel Makonnen—a young boy living in a technologically dense near-future grapples with the reality that while the world’s arguably become a more advanced and developed place, its bounty still isn’t exactly available to everyone.
Like most people living in Addis Prime, Yared Heywat spends many of his days trying to abide by the city’s rules and finding ways to keep his mind and imagination busy, something which tends to lead to him getting into trouble. But Yared’s thirst for adventure is also what makes him one of the city’s better players of The Hunt For Kaleb’s Obelisk, a secretive augmented-reality game popular among an underground community of gamers.
When Yared decides one day to use his actual name while logging into a session of The Hunt For Kaleb’s Obelisk, the game’s dangers become all too real for reasons that he can’t understand, and Addis Prime comes under a sudden attack that leads to the disappearance of Yared’s uncle Moti. But in Moti’s absence, Yared begins to realize that the myths and tales his uncle used to regale him with might be the key to figuring out how his actions in the game are beginning to have real world impact.
Inspired by a love for his parents’ home country, Last Gate of the Emperor draws upon Ethiopia’s history and folklore to weave an Afrofuturist tale about escaping into worlds of adventure and wonder through the power of technology—something many can relate to in this age of having to live and work online in order to survive a pandemic. Last Gate of the Emperor might be aimed at younger readers, but after taking a look at the exclusive excerpt from the book below, you might just end up considering picking the book up for yourself.
Out of all the woredas in Addis Prime, the Gebeya was my favorite. Hundreds of vendor stalls sold everything from berbere spices to handwoven gabis to keep your bed warm to exo repair parts. Merchants leaned out, shouting prices for the latest Zenaye Artificial Intelligence Operating System, or trying to lure customers in to try on the newest netelas to wrap over their hair, or admire habesha kemis to wear to weddings. Drones hummed and hustled past, carrying orders to happy customers.
A talented troublemaker—I mean a poor, disoriented boy—could get lost inside the place for hours.
Oh. And the best part?
That’s right. The Gebeya was a three-dimensional, sphere-shaped shopping mall, and the only airborne woreda in all of the city. No one I asked could tell me exactly when the Gebeya had appeared. I guess one morning it was there and all the adults just kept it moving. Weird. But cool! Five giant thrusters, each larger than my entire school, kept the collection of stores afloat. They were called Menelik drives, after some historical legend. The whole assemblage was anchored together by catwalks and bridges, and held in a loose orbit around a carbon-fiber mesh core.
The drones buzzed through, like mosquitos around a giant elephant. Soon I would, too. The game would layer over the whole thing. It was the greatest three-dimensional filter ever, making the chaos of the market—with its miles upon miles of shadowy corners and tight corridors and hidden nooks—into an obstacle course to beat. Only the best could navigate through it all, and that would be me.
Besa swished her tail as I peeked out of the hovercan, trying to find the right moment to climb out. Bodies swarmed around like a kicked beehive. If someone spotted me climbing out of a hovercan in the middle of the day, they could make a few birr by alerting the Authority securi-drones. Snitches got paid well in Addis Prime.
“Selam, friend!” a robotic voice blared from behind me.
I whipped around. Besa growled and dropped into a low crouch, a sure sign she was about to pounce.
Bobbing in midair in front of us was a spinning pyramid the size of my head. Bright silver with horizontal gold lines, the object glimmered like a star that had fallen to earth. It was beautiful. Splendid. An absolute treasure.
I hated these things.
I rolled my eyes and threw a slimy fish bone at it. “Go away, bot. I don’t need help.”
The tutorial bot twirled and emitted a glow from its golden lines, continuing as if I hadn’t said anything at all. “Selam, friend! You’ve indicated interest in joining the Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk. Would you like to learn how to play?”
I groaned. I’d forgotten that level-one participants had to run through a tutorial. Great. Besa sat on her haunches and cocked her head at the floating annoyance. I blew out a puff of frustration and tried to ignore it. Tutorial bots were only useful if you’ve never played the most popular game in the world since Solitaire 7.0. The floating pyramids could be found in-game to check your inventory, request assistance from a game admin, or even log a complaint against another player. But until the game started, they were long-winded nuisances, popping up where they weren’t wanted and getting in the way.
“No,” I said loudly. “I don’t need to learn how to play. Go away. Please.”
The bot twirled. “Excellent! You’ve selected ‘Learn how to play’!”
“Teff of the saints! Go away!”
No such luck.
“King Kaleb,” the bot began, “was a great king of Old Axum many centuries ago, but his grave was lost to history. It’s said that whoever finds the obelisk that stands above it will be granted access to the treasures of Axum.
“The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk is the world’s greatest battle royale,” the bot droned on. “Contestants must find the monument to the king while staying ahead of the Invasion, the ever-shrinking ring that reduces the competition area. You are allowed one approved in-game utility item. Two hundred and twenty-two players will compete to find golden talismans within each playing field before the time for the round runs out. No talisman, no entry to the next round. In the fifth and final round, the top-two contestants will seek out one final golden talisman. Whoever holds the talisman when the timer runs out will be awarded top honors, including a prize of fifty thousand birr and the title of Addis Prime champion in the Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk.”
The bot paused, twirled, then asked cheerily. “Would you like to hear the tutorial again?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, something I’d picked up from Uncle Moti when he was frustrated. “No. Please, no.”
“Excellent! You’ve selected ‘Hear the tutorial again’!”
“NO, YOU RUSTY PIECE OF SCRAP! I DON’T WANT TO HEAR—”
“King Kaleb was a great king of Old . . .”
Ignoring the bot, I turned to Besa. “Forget it. Time to authenticate. Let’s get this party started.”
I rubbed my medallion for luck as Besa opened her mouth wide, wider than what might seem possible. From it emerged a projection that covered the opposite wall of the hovercan again. The HKO logo phased into view, a golden tower inside an ebony circle, before disappearing. My home away from home appeared on-screen, the place where everyone knew me and I wasn’t constantly the new kid, reintroducing myself like a broken holovid. I had friends in the HKO. I was respected. Some days, that’s all I had to look forward to.
“Authenticate,” I said. I hesitated for a second, then sighed. “Yared Heywat.”
The screen grew fuzzy. I held up both hands, not blinking. My fingerprints and eye pattern appeared in a laser grid, disintegrating into a string of characters too long to read. Then the whole screen went black. I relaxed as a familiar voice echoed around me.
I grinned. I couldn’t help it. Uncle Moti helped me program my Zenaye system and even found a voice recording for hands-free interaction—it was one of our first projects together. For some reason, the voice made me feel comfortable. I didn’t use it a lot because it wasn’t technically legal for a minor to have one. And besides, Besa got jealous easily. I only used it to help me navigate some of the more difficult situations I found myself in. Like waking up on time. Or remembering passwords.
“Super Yared the Great,” I said.
“Second voice authentication?”
“Yared the Indomitable.” I peeked outside again. No one was coming. Yet. Behind me the tutorial bot had finally stopped talking and was spinning in a slow circle.
“Third voice authentication?”
“Yaaaaarreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed is number ooooonnnnnneeeee,” I sang.
Look, you have to believe in yourself before anyone else can.
I started to wiggle my fingers in anticipation. As I waited, a pair of glasses popped out of a hidden compartment on Besa’s leg. I slipped them on and a layer of wonder appeared over the drabness of Addis Prime.
The game filter.
“Yes,” I whispered.
Outside the hovercan, wire frames of light in all different colors lay across everything I could see. Vendor stalls and tiny cube homes became lush forests and glamorous towers. A drone carrying a packet of niter kibbeh suddenly became a miniature warship, howling through the air as it chased down its target. And at the top of the Market District, lording above us all, was a gleaming black obelisk with gold-trimmed corners and a golden pyramid at the top. Three rings spun around it in opposite directions, with more in-game turret bots floating around them, their black hulls bristling with cannons.
Tiny pixels swirled at the base of the obelisk like sand, twisting and writhing into shapes that turned into letters. A title. One I’d seen a hundred times. No, a thousand. The title screen for my favorite game, the favorite of all of Addis Prime.
The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk.
I rubbed my hands as the authentication processed. The screen flashed red for a minute. My name appeared in bold. YARED HEYWAT, INACTIVE. ACCOUNT FLAGGED.
I pushed the button again, and the screen went green and the alert disappeared.
YARED HEYWAT, ACTIVE.
The HKO logo returned. “Welcome,” said the cheery voice from Besa’s speaker. “Prepare to join the Hunt!”
I grinned. It was time to play.
Excerpt from Last Gate of the Emperor by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen reprinted by permission. Copyright Scholastic.
Last Gate of the Emperor drops on May 4, 2021.
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