”NetPass sold here!” A bearded man, dressed like a circus ringmaster, stood at a raised podium. He brandished a cane in one hand and a handful of thin cards with the other. “NetPass sold here! Enjoy the NewNet! Feel connected for the first time since the collapse.”
“How did we sleep through this?” Enoa shouted over the deafening crowd. Ten stories of the crawler’s interior contained a tiered marketplace with over one hundred stalls, stores, restaurants, performance spaces, and other attractions. All eager to separate passersby from their money. The hallway from the docking bay led down into the Solar Saver Mobile Market Bazaar, only one floor beneath the Aesir.
“This crawler has great soundproofing,” Orson said. They looked around their current level of marketplace. Other than the broadband salesman, there was a ramen shop, straight out of Kyoto; a stall selling handmade shoes; a glass blower in a heat-sealed compartment, dressed in a quilted suit; and a lawyer, promising legal consultations relevant in all former united territories.
“I wonder if all ten levels are like this.” Enoa approached the high-railed wall that ran along the far edge of their level of marketplace. She stood on tiptoe to look over. She saw a dizzying display of lights and motion, all extending vertically downward, a mass of compact bodies, moving like schools of fish between businesses and attractions.
Someone ran into Enoa, pressed into her bodily, with their full weight. “Hey!” She yelled and fell against the glass wall, a perfectly stable and safe structure, but no less unnerving. Enoa spun around and caught sight of the culprit, a teenage boy, eyes consumed with something he was watching on a small tablet. She stepped forward, ready to confront the unconscious teen. “Watch where you’re…” She stopped speaking when a second person almost slammed into her, this one a middle-aged woman.
“Maybe find an internet café.” Orson caught the woman by one shoulder. “You almost ran into my friend, here.”
“What’s wrong with you, grabbing someone?” She shouted at Orson before pulling away from him. “Freak.” She stepped back into the flow of traffic, once again consumed by her phone.
“Are you okay?” Orson stood beside Enoa at the railing.
“Yeah.” Her cheeks flushed. “I was just as distracted as the guy who hit me or that lady. I’m like one of the mouth-breathing tourists at Wintertide. I need to watch out before I stop and stare at things.”
“It’s rarely safe to stare.” Orson nodded. “But this place is definitely an eye-opener. And in your defense, at least it’s unique, unlike whatever five-year-old, buggy websites those people are looking at.”
“No bugs on the NewNet!” The Ringmaster called to them. “And better security than the old net. Private passcodes per device, encrypting and re-encrypting every twelve hours. Only key-holders have consistent access.” The Ringmaster waved the cards toward the two of them. “Only one fifty-nine, ninety-nine.”
“What’s worth seeing, these days?” Orson asked.
“Only the latest in the worlds of sports, music, and all entertainment!” The man twirled his cane. “The Rock-shock gaming tournament begins tonight, with a few friendly wagers, and the booked Ocean Dancer performance is streaming on the Saver Home app. What thrills are you missing in your life, traveler?”
“I get all the thrills I need, and more,” Orson laughed. “Thanks for the sales pitch. My free business advice, for you – provide seating. It’s only a matter of time before a fight breaks out when one of your customers smacks into somebody meaner than us.”
“And what about you, miss?” The Ringmaster beamed at Enoa. “You seem like someone who can enjoy the new wonders of the rebuilding world. What interests you? We’ll find it on the NewNet!”
“I’m interested…” she said. “But I’m not looking to make a purchase that big, right now. Maybe some other time?” She smiled back. Orson had already begun to walk away.
“Uh.” The Ringmaster looked both surprised and dejected. “Of course!”
“Thank you!” Enoa followed after Orson. “Do you think it’s legitimate?” She lowered her voice, once she was out of earshot of the Ringmaster. “I could keep up on what’s going on, back home. The local cable company had a limited network so we could still send emails to each other around the county, but I never heard about a new national or even bigger network.”
“I have no idea.” He shouldered his way through a crowd of young adults, all clustered together, talking, and staring at their assorted devices. “I don’t know much about the logistics involved with maintaining a real internet, much less staying secure. I haven’t been online in about a decade.”
“A decade?” Enoa worked to keep close to Orson. The crowd on the outskirts of the NetPass sales area moved at a frustrated, frenetic pace. “What kept you away?”
“Well,” he said. “After I was tracked from one side of the country to the other by the Blitzkrieg, I got pretty paranoid.”
“Oh,” Enoa said. “If Nimauk Valley Cable still isn’t connected to anything beyond our region, this NewNet won’t help me.”
She considered asking Orson more questions, logistics mostly, but she lost her chance. The path around that side of the bazaar took them through a boisterous audience surrounding a small band of men and women, singing with a unique guttural technique Enoa had never heard before. From the sound of the intense vocals, the band’s amplified accompaniment, and the crowd’s cheering, Enoa heard nothing else, so did not speak.
Orson stopped beside the railing, a distance from the music. He drew a map from his pocket and unfolded it, facing inward toward the massive atrium between the bazaar’s tiers.
“Where’d you get the map?” Enoa asked.
“I printed it.” Orson traced his finger along the map’s surface. “It’s the official security map I got in the transmission from Pops.” Enoa leaned over to see it. The map was disorienting. It presented small color-coded squares, one for each tier of the crawler. Tiny numbers labeled each tier, which corresponded to written descriptions of shops and attractions. All of the writing was magnifying-glass miniscule. “I want to find the fastest way up to the Commodore’s Lounge.”
Enoa gave up on seeing the map and let her attention wander to the middle of the tiered marketplace, where a thick column with yellow and red light fixtures took up the center of the open area. She didn’t know whether this column was an architectural support or if it housed some form of machinery necessary for the crawler. Light fixtures glowed along its length, fluctuating between more colors, yellow and blue and green. Every third level, supporting beams extended from the column and out toward the balconies.
“How many people are in here?” Enoa could not believe the sheer power of the sound, even after time to get used to it.
“A couple thousand people, sometimes,” Orson said. “More when it isn’t moving. It has all kinds of weight sensors.” He drew out a chipped number two pencil, only inches long. He circled two spots on the map and drew a line between them. “Alright, I’ve got it.”
“The Commodore didn’t give you directions?” Enoa followed after him when he started walking.
“No,” he said. “And I didn’t ask. I’m working to protect this place. I need to see it, and finding my way around is good for business.”
“Are you tactical about everything?” Enoa balked at the idea of thinking that way, thinking constantly about everything, every moment. Was this her future, necessary to survive on the road?
“Not everything.” He grimaced. “But thinking ahead is the best way to avoid crap.”
They walked around a group of children watching a puppet show, ‘supervised’ by their phone-absorbed parents. They skirted the edge of a crowd gathered outside a tiny honky-tonk, competing for seats before the scheduled bluegrass set started. They maneuvered between two rival Manhattan-style hot dog carts.
They took an elevator to a higher level, an interior lift that offered a wide view of the many tiers of teeming civilization. They arrived at an area above the bazaar, with wide, glass windows, set between the external solar panels, offering a view of the perpetual traffic jam outside, following the Solar Saver crawler, following new nomadic society.
Orson led Enoa through this wide-open, tiled space, an area that looked like the lobby of an exotic hotel or a ritzy restaurant foyer, a place for the elite and the conspicuously wealthy. This space was empty, except for an ornate fountain, with figures in the design of mythic characters from the world over, a centaur, a Valkyrie, a Loong, but nothing indigenous. Enoa was unsurprised.
These mythic figures stood in the shadow of an elegantly-curved staircase. It was built to appear as if the folkloric characters were holding up the stairs. Enoa followed Orson to the foot of these steps, where two armed guards in generic black security uniforms stood. One guard appeared male, the other female, and they were of obviously different ethnic backgrounds, but they stood in the same straight-backed posture and wore the same blank expression on their faces.
The guards took one look at Orson and parted for him. Enoa followed him, and they did not stop her, but she snuck a wary glance at the woman and noticed a small, stylized patch on her shoulder, in the shape of a haloed sun.
“I don’t care how many trade ports they have.” A man yelled somewhere beyond the top of the stairs. “If the ports don’t have anything to send down the river, why should we accept the Mississippi Alliance dollar? They can take their pick, join the Gulf Alliance or the Lakes.”
Orson and Enoa reached the top of the stairs at the same time and saw another wide, open level, this one filled with tables for seating and tables with food. The diners, mostly older and dressed far better than either traveler, were seated family style, around a large table. The shouting man stood. He wore a suit, but no tie. Both of his meaty hands were pressed onto the table.
“I’m tired of our crawlers being trapped by the Mississippi.” A woman replied from the head of the table. She trailed off when she caught sight of Orson and Enoa. She smiled at them. “Let’s table this discussion. We finally have some good news.” The woman stood. She wore the same black uniform as the security at the base of the stairs, but hers had gold-colored bars on the shoulders. “The Wuyar Archer situation will be resolved before we reach Chicago, right, Captain?”
“I’m looking forward to digging into the mystery.” Orson walked forward to meet her and offered a handshake. “Captain Orson Gregory of the Aesir.”
“Commodore Anais Augustin.” The Commodore shook his hand. “It’s great to have you aboard, Captain.”
“I’m happy to be aboard,” he said. “I’m sorry if I got the time wrong.”
“Actually, you’re right on time.” Augustin nodded. “We had other business to talk about first and the food was ready early. We’ll make sure everything is resupplied for you and your guest.”
“Thank you,” Orson said.
“You’re welcome. I’m looking forward to observing you work. Mr. Darlow has been raving about you and your exploits for as long as I’ve known him.”
“Pops is nothing if not devoted to marketing,” Orson said. “It’s been very rewarding having him promoting me to anyone who’ll listen.”
“Pops.” Augustin chuckled at the nickname. “If half of what he says is true, you should be more than suited to getting to the bottom of this situation. Although.” She glanced at Enoa. “He left us under the impression that you typically work alone.”
“I typically do,” he replied. “This is Enoa Cloud.” Enoa stepped forward and also accepted a handshake from the Commodore. “She’s working with me on another investigation. We had an existing agreement when I heard from Pops, but Enoa was kind enough to let me, uh, detour from our business so I could help you. You don’t seem to have much time to resolve your archer problem.”
“Thank you for allowing a ‘detour’.” The Commodore nodded to Enoa. “I hope we haven’t complicated your own business.”
“Uh.” Enoa hadn’t expected to be put on the spot. She noticed that the entire length of the table was staring at her. “Not at all.”
“Captain, Mr. Darlow told us about your handiwork against the sinkhole ransom plot, in the Black Hills.” Another woman called from the table, on the Commodore’s right-hand. She wore a jade-green dress that matched her eyes and her auburn hair was twisted into an intricate braid. “I actually wrote to Pastor Mallory before Anais committed to offering you the job.”
“The pastor is very eloquent,” Orson said. “I’m sure I couldn’t hope for a better job reference.”
“This is my wife, Adelyn Castillo.” The Commodore gestured to the woman. “She’s responsible for our deal with Mr. Darlow’s new business outside Chicago.”
“I own a restaurant very close to the theater complex Mr. Darlow is building,” Castillo explained. “It’s pure luck, really, that I met him at all, so having you here seems very fortuitous.”
“Nice to meet you.” Orson approached the table and shook Castillo’s hand. “If you can put up with Pops, I shouldn’t bother you too much.” Enoa followed after him, unsure whether she should trail along, shaking everyone’s hand, or whether she should simply wait to be seated.
“He said the same thing.” Castillo laughed. She offered Enoa a handshake, as well, much to her relief.
“I didn’t realize Pops was building so close to other businesses,” Orson said. “He usually likes to have breathing room around his properties.” He leaned toward Enoa. “Pops owns drive-in movie theaters all over North America, and he’s started building more.”
“Space is at a premium in our neck of the woods,” Castillo explained. “Which is usually bad luck, but now?” She smiled.
“Can we move the introductions along faster?” The loud man asked. “At this rate, we’ll waste our entire bloody afternoon before anything’s settled.”
“It’s important we take our time to greet Captain Gregory.” Another man spoke from further down the table, young, fair-haired, wearing a rich navy suit. Enoa recognized his voice, Thomas, the man who had spoken over the comm, the day before.
“Not everything is PR, Tommy.” The loud man laughed. “Some of us have business that doesn’t involve worrying what every pleb has to say about decisions they don’t understand.”
“Thomas,” he replied. “Only Thomas. You know that.”
“Oh well, if you…” the loud man began.
“Enough,” Commodore Augustin interrupted. “We have plenty of enemies already without getting at each others’ throats.” She turned back to Orson. “You’ve already spoken to our Communications Director, Thomas Nicks. Our passionate friend is Arnold Chambers. He owns the firm that manufactures most of our equipment.”
“Glad to have you here, Gregory,” Chambers said. “I’m usually happy to have my customers coming back again and again, but I’m getting sick of seeing my time and work blown to hell every other week. Although, if it keeps going on and you fail, Captain, we might finally see Yoshito scowl hard enough to make his eyebrows touch.” He pointed down the table.
“Arnold,” Augustin said. “No amount of financial support gives you the right to treat everyone with such disrespect. Or should I provide Yoshito some revenge for your cheek by having you removed.” She locked gazes with the man until he shrugged and sat down. “Orson Gregory meet Yoshito Morita, our head of security.”
“My experience is strictly corporate security.” The white-haired Chief Morita greeted Orson. “And it should be a unique opportunity for my team to work with someone whose own experience is so… eclectic.”
“I have been involved in some challenging situations,” Orson said. “Would it be possible to meet with you and your team, later today? I don’t want to get in the way, but the sooner I’m up to speed, the more help I’m likely to be to you and your people.”
Enoa was quickly lost in names and credentials, as Orson made his rounds through the notable Solar Saver personalities. He maintained his cheerful greetings, shaking hands, and making small comments to the lawyers, land owners, technicians, scientists, and investors, that kept the Solar Saver operation in motion. Enoa was left wondering again whether this was his natural behavior. She wondered what she’d have to learn to thrive, or even just to survive, away from home.
Enoa, for her part, followed after Orson. Some offered her handshakes, as well. Some did not, and she was somewhat lost as to what was appropriate behavior, in her situation. She’d never been exposed to this sort of social event, in her remote small town.
“Great!” Augustin said. “Now that we’re all acquainted, let’s enjoy the rest of our meal and put business aside, for the time being. The catering should be back soon.”
But before more food arrived, a young woman in a security uniform appeared at Chief Morita’s shoulder. Enoa had no idea where the officer came from, but whatever she told the security chief prompted an urgent response. Both the officer and Morita walked to the Commodore, before whispering to her in low tones.
“We’re going to need to recess for now,” Augustin said. “I’ll see to it that food is delivered to you. Captain Gregory, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your services may be required, immediately.” Orson walked back along the table toward the Commodore. The rest of the guests quickly stood, gathering food and jackets and other belongings. They exited the room, headed for the stairs or hidden elevators, designed to blend into the walls.
“What’s happening?” Orson asked.
“We were about to pass through a small forest, but someone cut down almost thirty trees to block the highway,” Augustin said. “We need to bring the whole caravan to a full stop to clear our way. I have to assume this was archer-related. I want all civilians in their vehicles or designated areas. I’m not letting the archers vanish again. Lockdown until the road is cleared, or until we confirm the archers are behind this.”
“I’m going home.” Adelyn Castillo spoke softly, but Enoa was close enough to hear. “Be safe.”
“I will,” Augustin replied. They embraced. “Of…”
“Commodore!” Chief Morita called from the window. “We have projectiles over the caravan. I’m mobilizing all ground forces.” Enoa turned to the window in time to see the growing cloud of smoke, expanding in the air, outside. Like the message of the day before, it reshaped into words.
ORSON GREGORY. WE NEED TO TALK.
“Prepare the fans again.” Morita drew a radio from his hip. “But first, get a sample of the smoke, if you can. We need to know if it’s toxic.”
“They have more to say.” Orson joined Morita at the far window. Enoa followed after him, suddenly aware that the room had emptied, save for security personnel, Orson, Augustin, and herself. Three other projectiles flew up from the crowd outside, bursting into more clouds of smoke.
MEET US AT OUTRIDER EAST.
THEN WE’LL FIND YOU.
WE’LL SHOW YOU THE TRUTH.