Justin asked for travel and got it. Lloyd connected him with a kind of caravan. It would be continuous movement, and the itinerary was westbound. The travel was slow though, and the days long. When Lloyd, the career counselor, described the job, Justin daydreamed through the job responsibilities and particulars of the schedule. While Lloyd talked, Justin imagined himself arriving in California after a restful, free ride. Probably he would step off the train, go to a nearby diner for lunch and find Allison waiting tables. Her hair would be dyed and oversized glasses would hide her face, but he would recognize her. Before Justin could tap his sister’s shoulder, Lloyd was pushing him out of the door and shoving a train ticket into his hand.
Apparently, he was already running late. Justin ran to the station. This one was rather small, simple by Neopolitan standards. Inside, Justin could see four trains idling while porters pitched luggage in the berth. Justin’s ticket had a destination but he could not figure out what platform he needed. He darted from platform to platform in a nervous sweat. What exactly was he supposed to be doing here?
Justin was looking for an available porter when the oldest looking young man he had seen in his life began to approach. The man wore a suit that was just a little too large with high-waist pants. His hair was dark but brittle and thinning in the front. He looked tired and irritated.
“Are you the new steward?” The man asked, tapping his heel as if ready to pounce. Justin did not know what a steward was exactly, but that seemed like a title Lloyd may have mentioned. The man did not wait for a reply before turning towards a train and departing with long fluid strides. Justin did a little jog to catch up and followed at his heels.
Justin’s role as “steward” was acting as an assistant to this man, Herman, who was one of the lower ranked members of the traveling party. Herman liked to project a diplomatic image and emphasize his place in the Neopolitan inner circle. To be fair, the man was present for closed-door meetings that had a direct impact on a complex but esoteric network of cities. Still, he could stand to be more humble about it. For someone so well connected, Herman really did not have a lot of useful information. What little he gave was either obvious or irrelevant.
They were traveling to meet officials at several other Neopolises. This meant they were traveling west, but it also mean many stops. With each stop, Justin felt like he was losing Allison’s trail. He hoped to be further west by now; he said as much to Herman who actively ignored Justin’s personal goals. Sure, he was further west than he had been, but not by much.
They had to meet in person. All this traveling, stopping, and lost time and each meeting only lasted an hour or two. Justin asked Herman why they all did not just Holocall each other. His response was that of a man who thought he was the butt of a joke. When Justin’s face did not break into a smile, Herman sighed.
“Don’t they tell you anything in the burbs? Holocalls are monitored.”
“Monitored? What, like all of them?”
“Surely, besides, there is something to be said about really looking a person in the eye.”
“So. It’s like we’re on a sort of secret mission?”
“Who said that?” Herman hissed.
“No one, just inferring.”
“Well, infer less. We are not on a secret mission.”
“What are we doing then?”
“None of your business.” There were three other men above Herman with a team to wait on them. Justin did not interact with any of them. Not that Justin was against working with them, but there seemed to be an understood mistrust. He got the feeling that Herman only spoke to him because he had to. This was the least amenable bunch of Neopolitans he had encountered. Over the previous few days, Justin became accustomed to a friendly paternalism. Everyone he encountered offered help before he said a word. Now stuck with this delegation, he was close to the inner workings of Neopolis while being intentionally isolated.
They traveled between cities by train, like the rest of Neopolis. However, they had their own car at the rear where no one had any reason to walk through. At each stop, they disembarked and left most of their luggage and supplies on the car. Or was it cars? Justin did not think it was actually the same car moving from train to train, but every time they boarded a new train, it was all waiting for them. They was probably someone was moving their stuff from train to train. He never saw this happen, but he assumed. Everything was always exactly as they left it and the north-facing window always seemed to have the same scratches. It was easy to believe it was the same car, but it was not realistic for them to move the whole thing, was it?
“Wha?” Justin emerged from a daydream.
“What are you spacing about? I just asked you like three times to go find me a cup of coffee.”
“Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about how our stuff gets from train to train, always put back in the new car just the way it was.”
Herman starred for a moment. “Go get my coffee would you?” As Justin walked to the kitchen car, he looked at the desert landscape outside of the window. The cities were getting further and further. Each one was smaller than the last. These were more outposts than living cities. Occasionally he would see the outlines of houses in the distance, rippling in the heat vapors. The Neopolitans seemed to avoid this part of the country. To everyone else, harsh climate was no deterrent. Households dotted the landscape in the same diffuse pattern. The residents of those far off houses did not step outside during an average week. It was not uncommon for doors to be stuck from underuse. One of those houses baking in the boiling air contained a family sitting in climate control, probably with scenes of a more temperate place on the walls. Though he was not long separated from that life, he felt a sort of disgust now. He had fallen for Neopolis quickly and uncritically. If only it would admit him and remove his sprawler label that repelled his colleagues.
The train was slowing. No one told him where the stops would be, but he had developed a feel for how the train behaved. He could tell the difference between slowing for a crossing and for a real stop. Justin hurried to the kitchen car. It was vacant, but full of covered trays and pitchers of liquid. He grabbed a paper cup and filled it with tepid black coffee. No cream, no sugar. He took long strides back to the rear car and balanced the full cup.
Herman was discussing something with the three other men. He set the coffee in Herman’s cup holder and watched. They seemed aware of the stop and were planning something. Justin never saw where the delegation went or who they met. Not that that mattered much, the local politicians would not talk to him anymore than this bunch would. His main tasks while in town were to feed himself and be on the new train in time for their next departure, usually three to six hours from disembarking.
As the train slowed to a complete stop, Justin looked for the Neopolitan skyline. Each branch was a little different, but there was a general pattern they all shared. He was not seeing any signs of civilization, only desert. It was not until disembarking that he saw what constituted Neopolis 89001. It was a single, forty-story tower.
Justin sat in a little cafeteria on the tenth basement level of the tower. This was the only place he could find to feed himself on his meager salary and what little virtual credit he had available. He chewed a mouthful of cold deli sandwich, which he would soon chase with room temperature pasta salad. It was modest fare, sure, but the mystery of his surroundings seemed to elevate the meal just a bit.
The tower, tall as it was, had much more to it than Justin’s first glance estimated. Below gound the settlement descended just as many stories as it had above ground. It extended its breadth, by how much Justin was unsure, but by more than double or even triple. What lay in this subterranean space besides mediocre food? Would anyone live underground like this? He looked around. No table in this food court, at least twenty of them, was vacant. Nor were they full. Solo diners such as himself occupied most. There were bound to be other restaurants, Neopolitans loved to dine out. Usually outdoor seating was preferred, but probably they were ok eating inside when it was one hundred and four degrees outside.
Why not live down here? The way he lived his life up until now, he never would have known the difference above or below ground. Between holorooms and video walls, one could go anywhere without leaving the house. Few ever did leave. His parents would take him on some occasional, obligatory road trips. These were to outdoor venues so well manicured and climate controlled that he may as well have been in a holoroom.
The Neopolitans loved being outdoors though. He could not imagine why they chose to live in a place like this. Their choices were dangerous heat or staying shut inside. Certainly they had found a way to adapt, but why bother? Why go through such effort to build in the desert? Was it just because they could?
Herman and his colleagues were on some upper level, above ground. Surely they had sweeping views of parched land and perhaps some ways off, houses of sprawlers. Would such a sight enrage them? Invoke feelings of superiority? For Herman, probably the latter. Justin watched the line flow past the counter. Most people left with their food in paper bags, but some here and there turned to the tables with a tray in hand. One young man with a meal before him strikingly similar to the one which Justin now was eating, turned to find no empty tables.
At each table was a diner trying his or her hardest to avoid eye contact, at every table except Justin’s. Justin had not spent enough time in crowds to learn stranger avoidance, or even that strangers should be avoided. The young man took Justin’s candid look as an invitation and settled himself directly across from him. The young man was dressed in a slim cut, tan blazer over a white shirt. His collar was open and he wore no tie. He was not tall, nor was he remarkably short. Likewise he was neither particularly thin or heavy. The only remarkable thing about him was a shock of platinum blond hair. For several minutes, they ate in silence, refusing to acknowledge the existence of company. For Justin’s part, he had grown accustomed to being ignored; it did not occur to him that it might be odd that the person three feet away would have nothing to say to him.
There is a certain awkwardness of motion in such social silence. It is as if the very movement of the hands make unpleasant swishing in the air. The act of chewing was unbearable. Justin could not believe the flexing of his jaw could be so loud. The cacophony of quiet came to a head when the young man knocked over a saltshaker.
“Oh, sorry.” silence broken.
“No problem.” Justin said, this time not averting his eyes.
“Say, I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m traveling. Here on business I guess you’d say.”
“Hm. Travelers aren’t something we see around here too often. Especially not down here. Which Neopolis did you come from?”
“Well, I left from 46052, but that’s not really where I’m from.” The young man said nothing, waiting. “I guess you could call me a sprawler.”
There was a barely perceptible widening of the eyes before the young man’s face turned back to friendly. “By the way, name’s Simon.”
“So, sprawler eh? How did you find your way out here?”
“Kind of a long story. Basically, I’m trying to head west however I can. Don’t you see other sprawlers here? I saw their houses not more than a few miles away.”
“Out here? They never leave those houses. I don’t blame them, they’d fry in thirty seconds if they did.”
“And you wouldn’t?”
“It’d take at least a minute. No seriously, few people here ever leave the tower. The subterraneans barely go up either.”
“So you haven’t seen much of the outside?”
“Me? I’m a sort of traveler myself. You say you’re heading west?”
“I am.” Justin let an edge of interest creep into his voice.
“About as far as I can, without coming back to where I started that is.”
“You don’t say. Well Justin, I just might be able to help you.”
Simon asked Justin to meet him that evening. He had to leave that night and could use a traveling companion. Where were they going? West was all Simon would say, and for now that was enough. Justin was supposed to meet his employers on another train that evening. The decision to abandon them was easy. For one thing, Justin was still a teenager and had no feelings of obligation. Perhaps that was not true, he was pursuing a sort of family obligation, but work was a new and unfamiliar concept; the idea that he needed to inform these people that he had only known for about a week and that barely paid him enough to eat, it did not occur to him.
Also, Justin liked Simon. He was closer to his own age in appearance. Definitely similar in spirit. Though he was pale from being indoors for a long period, much like Justin, he had a dark complexion beneath the top layers of his skin. It was hard to say whether this was natural or the product of long past adventure. The latter seemed more likely for some reason. Simon had an engaging way of speaking; a familiarity as if he had known Justin for years and his offer of assistance was nothing unusual.
Justin failed to appear at the train station and instead met Simon at an agreed location. Justin was waiting in what was essentially a public park. It was still underground but closer to the surface than the cafeteria. It was close enough that sunlight could be allowed in through what looked like air vents. Where these beams of light fell were plants and even a tree or two. Between the planters were brick walks ways of alternating red and green color. Families roamed the aisles and sat on the edges of the planters talking. Some individuals jogged or strolled. In the center of this (was it a room?) there was a lawn of even dark green grass. It was perhaps a quarter or half acre, Justin did not really know how to judge lot sizes, all illuminated by sunlight. There was no large hole in the ceiling; rather, some system had been rigged to reflect the light from several vents. These light vents dotted a concrete ceiling painted in blue and white, not a realistic representation of clouds and sky but suggestive of them in broad flat streaks. The effect of this environment, though less real in appearance than a holoroom park scene, was more real in texture.
Justin found Simon walking zig-zags around the planters and approached him. “Nice park.” Justin said flatly but honestly.
“This? I suppose so, but it’s nothing compared to the central courtyard.”
“Yeah, the whole center of this tower is open down to the deepest basement. It takes an ocean of mirrors to light the whole thing and to feed the hanging gardens,” Simon saw the look in Justin’s eyes, “too bad we don’t have time to go today. Maybe another time.”
Justin felt bitterness rising in his throat. Why did Simon not choose to meet in the central courtyard? Now not only did Justin know he was missing a spectacle, but this place that had seemed grand a moment ago looked ordinary compared to the image in his mind.
As if reading his mind Simon placated him, “Believe me, as amazing as it is, there is a certain power in these ordinary places, these places where people really live. You should always choose these places when you can.”
“Sure,” Justin said, but he was not convinced. He had left a place where people really lived. Most of the country lived in the kind of place he grew up, there was no power in places like that was there?
“Alright! Are we ready?” Justin picked up his pack and nodded. Simon walked ahead, quickly and Justin followed unable to focus on anything he passed. His attention was on keeping up. They opened a few doors, passed through some low traffic hallways, and after a few twists and turns were in a sort of tunnel. They found their way into a utilitarian steel tube of a passage way. It was completely alien from the park he had just left, but only a few minutes’ walk away.
Simon did not slow down or bother to comment on their location, he kept moving. Justin started to run low on breath, panting a little. Had they traveled so far? It felt like they had traveled much further than the breadth of the tower, but there was no sign that they had left it. Was it larger than it appeared? Justin slowed his pace while he thought and Simon was getting too far ahead. Justin started to jog a little to catch up but a slight pulling on his ankle stopped him. He looked down to find he was stepping on his shoelace. He fumbled as he tried to hasten the retying. He looked up and cursed when he did not see Simon any longer. How could that happen? He pressed his hand to the floor to push himself back up and that is when he noticed the slightest incline in the path. Looking back, he saw where his breath went. He had been climbing! Little by little sure, but quite a height when added up. They must be almost… what floor did they start on again?
There was no time to calculate, Justin sprinted up hill. The light was changing. The blue tinted bulbs were giving way to a yellow white glow. They mixed for a moment to make a royal hue before the yellow overcame the blue. A relief washed over him when he saw Simon ahead, standing in front of a dead end and a ladder.
“Just about there.” Simon said. There was an airiness to his own voice, not so much as Justin’s labored wheezing, but it was nice to know Simon was not immune to the climb. They reached the ladder and Justin looked up to see a hatch. He did not need to ask, Simon explained. “This is a rainwater collection tube. It’s safe to travel most of the time, but look out when it finally does rain. Shall we?” Simon put his hand on the rungs and climbed.
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