For two days, Justin had seen nothing but water and waves. There was some aquatic life now and then, but his surrounding were overall homogeneous. He adapted quickly to life aboard a boat, the ocean was alien yet comforting. Though they had a definite destination and Simon pointed out the direction every few hours, Justin was unprepared for the sight on the horizon. Even the descriptions Simon gave were inadequate. There it was, a place of obscurity and legend. So he was told anyway, this was the first Justin had heard of New St. Louis.
The trip here was dull, dull in a way entirely new to Justin. The desert was not so dull. The ocean for all the life below the surface and for all the movement did little to excite him. Even the lead up to their transoceanic voyage was a letdown. They got into Nesson with little more than a nod from Simon to a ferry operator. They drove their car straight onto a small boat and, about an hour later, drove straight into the succeeded state of Nesson. Ok, so Justin had to admit, manually driving a car onto a boat was kind of cool. Still, it seemed like it should be more difficult. Simon’s ability to land them in a rogue state with so little excitement was curious. The next day they were driving through abandoned neighborhoods that looked much like Justin’s own neighborhood. The majority of the population, it seemed, fled back to the US after Links separated. Simon claimed that some people remained, the most extreme loners and possibly people hiding from who knows what. Also, he claimed, a sizable population lives at the end of the line, disconnected from the rest of the development. That however, was not their destination.
If Neopolis was crowded, New St. Louis was a solid wall. People, buildings, and vehicles pressed together to form something like sedimentary rock. Layers on layers. Justin could look out of the window of his room and see almost directly into the neighboring building. If the window opened, he could probably reach over the twenty or so stories and knock on the window before him. If he looked down, he could see little alleyways through which people traveled. Two by two on foot. Occasionally, he would see the tram glide over the street and straight through the buildings. It was not as fast as the interurban trains of Neopolis, but still rather fast for something moving through such an environment. Even the air seemed viscous with activity.
“Where do those trains stop?” Justin wondered aloud. Simon sat up from his bed; Justin thought he had been napping. “There are stations in the buildings, quite frequent stops actually. You have to ring a bell and the conductor will let you off.” This sounded strange to Justin whose only experience with public transit involved set stops at large stations spaced far apart.
Justin and Simon were sharing a room about the size of a closet but somehow still furnished with two beds and a desk. Justin initially lamented the desk, but Simon spent a fair amount of time at it writing in a little black book. He tapped the eraser on the armrest of his chair between bursts of handwriting. That desk took up entirely too much room, could people not write in bed if they really had to write? Between the furniture and their bags, not much of the floor was visible. The cost of lodging here was ridiculous, Simon explained. Obviously, space was at a premium, but surely they could do better than this. He could not complain about a free place to stay though. Even if he had any money left, he doubted he could use his credits here.
Deciding what to do next or where to go was becoming harder by the day. Justin was already further west than he had imagined he would go. How to pick up his sister’s trail from here? He thought about the island of New St. Louis. She could be here only a few hundred feet away and his chance of finding her would be slim. Not that he thought she was here.
His original idea was to follow Simon until he could not or he got some sort of lead. Once they were in New St. Lewis, it turned out Simon had things to do and no Justin could not come. He would be back though. Justin tried to focus on a new plan, but his thoughts were easily lost to the wonder of this place. The amount he could discover in this building alone!
Simon left in the late morning, effectively doubling Justin’s personal space. He was alone for the first time in days. What would he do with such precious private time? With two large steps, he was in the bathroom squeezing between the shower and the commode so he could look in the mirror. He pushed his cow licked hair around and admired his new tan. Tan might be a bit strong, but it was a large change from the translucent white he had been most of his life. Justin started to walk back into the room, tripped over Simon’s bed, turned around, and walked out.
The hallway outside his room was eerily vacant when he stepped into it. The curious lack of other people ended abruptly when the elevator door opened for him. A single glob of persons stood before him, shoulder-to-shoulder flesh against flesh. How could he fit? Too late. During his hesitation, the door slid shut and Justin pressed the button again. A minute passes and another car fuller than the last appeared. This time Justin pushed his way in, swimming through arms and legs, no one acknowledging the personal contact. The rest of the way down only a few more squeezed in. At the tenth floor most of the car exited and by the fifth the second to last was disembarking. It was a young girl, sixteen maybe, with a kind face. She turned to Justin and was about to speak, but instead let the door close between them with Justin alone in the elevator. Strange, he thought, that no one else is going to street level.
Justin prepared his eyes for sunlight as the elevator doors opened, but was met with shadow. There was nothing to speak of in the building down here, just a set of double doors and a cramped foyer. Outside, ground level was dark alleys and scattered, forgotten refuse. Rather than returning to the building to find out where everyone else went, though, he walked on into what he thought of as a kind of limbo. It was relatively vacant here, not that there was no one around, but he could walk a straight line without bumping into someone. The people here all seemed in to be in a kind of hurry, as if they only came down here to expedite a journey. Justin saw a couple of small kiosks selling conveniences: Snacks, netpaper, actual newspaper, cigarettes. Justin did not recognize the cigarettes at first. They were prohibitively difficult to come by in the US. From what he understood, only extremely wealthy people even bothered to smoke. Here though, he saw a middle-aged man in clean but worn clothing and a tired gate walk up to a kiosk to buy a pack of cigarettes. He did not seem particularly wealthy and, frankly, the packaging gave no impression of luxury. Justin considered buying a pack out of sheer curiosity. He did not bother to inquire about them though; he had no money with which to buy them.
He was becoming conspicuous. People turned their heads as they walked past. The looks were puzzled, annoyed. They were looks given to children running wild with no parents to be found. It was the look his mother gave when his father stood with the refrigerator door open too long. Perhaps Justin looked like an outsider. No, the looks were because he was not moving. Idling was not acceptable here. It was at least unusual; so, he moved.
He moved to move, not to get anywhere in particular. It was the sort of aimlessness he applied when he first left home. Before long, he found himself in a maze of solid walls. The buildings loomed over enclosed paths; he felt as if he were spelunking. Occasionally a path would cross his own, giving him a momentary choice before he was enclosed again. He did not keep track of where he turned and was lost before he thought of questioning where he was. Before panic could creep in, he heard a murmur and saw a glow projected on the walls of this urban cave. The hiss of voices grew louder until his path, after he turned a gentle corner, opened to a large square with a view of a harbor. He was on the edge of the city, at the coast. This was not, however, the side of the island through which he and Simon entered. There was something rougher here. The word ‘salty’ came to mind. Here and there, neon signs flushed outlines of money, women, and beverages. There were smaller buildings, four or five stories. Compared to the rest of New St. Louis, this place felt practically subterranean.
Justin had read about red light districts in old novels. Usually they led young men astray or old men into financial ruin. Sometimes people had fun in these stories, but there was always a consequence. There were countless opportunities to visit such places through holorooms with no ramifications. Well, none except for those that that became addicted to the simulation. But really, any sim could ensnare. It had not occurred to Justin that neighborhoods like this could really exist.
What stopped Justin from testing his fate in this new world was not prudence but poverty. He had to content himself to watching the crowds, which had no problem idling here. Some small groups were laughing and shouting as they left one building and entered another. Some single men looked at doors with uncertainty. There was the occasional woman. All were suspiciously attractive and enamored with their hosts. Their faces were all bright, but their eyes were dark and heavy. How did a young woman end up in a place like this? He froze.
A girl on the run would need money and a place to hide. What if? No. Allison was not the type. She would not sell any part of herself, not even her time or attention. A place like this would offend all her principles. He did not think his sister a prude, but this would not be a place for her. But where was her place? What about these other girls? Is this really their place? Did they have parents and siblings that wondered where they were?
Justin was distracted from his thoughts on social justice when a flicker hit the edge of his retina. A small silver coin illuminated by blinking lights winked at him. It was only a step away, laying in a crack in the concrete, pointing his vision at Jack’s Casino.
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