After two days of managing the store, Allison was developing a sort of rhythm. She learned from which customers to expect a problem and what it took to satisfy them. She found that assigning herself the title manager automatically garnered an air of authority. From some people anyway. The population of the island being what it was, she was looked down upon by many. Forget the fact that she held the resources here, many could not forget how wealthy and powerful they were at home. They were still wealthy in a way, but now their fortunes rested on the good will a few states felt towards Links.
Allison was young, but she understood the fragility of currency by fiat. Perhaps Links had a hidden resource, besides access to over sea trade routes, but how long could he expect to hold those with little more than a private security force. How long would the residents of Nesson City be satisfied in their non-relative wealth? If everyone here was rich, how could anyone be? Sure, they were still wealthy in a global sense, but at some point, they would have to tire of being around a population of equal means. At least Marcus and Allison were around to take their money and make them feel elevated.
A shift was occurring, she knew. One long overdue. Corporations were no longer content with implied power and control. They were seeking the explicit power that older governments had lost long ago. Links, she was sure, would only be the first. There was something lurking under all the chaos surrounding this city. There was intentionality; she just could not pinpoint the direction. She knew Links was the source though, for all his vitriol about attacks and sovereignty, he was in control of the situation. Maybe she had been around the Ecologists too long, she was starting to adopt their paranoia.
No one noticed though. The news covered little of what was happening in Nesson. That the settlement had actually seceded was buried under reports of eco-terrorists and relations with Pacific nations. She had enough first hand material to expose a hidden world to the general public. How would she get the story out though? The news programs were clearly not interested and dropping the story into the social sphere would be like shouting into a waterfall.
While she managed the store, her mind remained on her role as journalist. She needed to use the information she had, but simply reporting it was not the way. All this time undercover, how could she make it useful?
“Excuse me,” a middle-aged woman without a wrinkle visible on her stretched skin, nor a hair out of place in her light brown hair interrupted Allison’s thoughts. The woman looked at her nametag. “Uh, Margery, where would I find fresh flowers?”
Margery was Marcus’s idea of an alias. “They’re down with the groceries m’am.” Allison walked her to the edge of the second floor, which overlooked the ground floor and pointed to a small display of flowers. The woman thanked her and walked to the escalator. As Allison’s eyes tracked back to the second floor, they stopped on two men at the front door. She did not recognize them, but something about them was out of place. Both wore suits, not suits for the sake of style, but with a look of obligation. One was older, one younger, but both had similar dark hair and a cinnamon complexion. They were standing still, but their eyes were scanning the store.
“Connie, can you identify the two customers at the door?”
<Certainly, Allison. That would be Agents Diaz and Ali of the FBI.>
Allison’s nostrils dilated, but she stood still. She knew Connie was behind this. It was the first time she had called her Allison since last week when she called her family. How could a computer want her gone so passionately? It did not matter now. She had to go. Calmly as she could, Allison walked away from the front and to the apartment. She would grab her bag, throw in what food she could carry and some basic supplied. She gave herself two minutes to pack before she would climb down a fire escape at the back of the building.
Marcus was in the kitchen of the apartment when she walked in. “What’s up?” he asked before turning towards the door. She went to her room without answering but he turned in time to see her tight lips and red face. He followed her and saw her throwing things haphazardly into a duffle bag. “Going somewhere?”
She looked up eyes glassy and blurted, “Yeah, sorry, it’s time for me to leave.” She did not stop moving.
“What happened? I know the customers here are a bit of a handful, but I thought you were getting comfortable. You’re really better at it than I am.”
“Oh it’s not the customers, ask that Connie of yours. I’m sure she will be more than glad to explain.”
“Connie! What’s going on?” No response.
“Huh, I guess not.” Allison was angry enough to cry now and moving blindly. She was done packing and tried to walk past Marcus quickly but stumbled. He caught her. At the mention of Connie he remembered her insistence of notifying the security force.
“OK. You have to go. I get that. But you know what? I’m kind of tired of this place anyway. I might just come with you.” Allison opened her mouth but Marcus kept talking, “Now listen Helen, I’m coming along like it or not. Besides, I know just the place.”
Allison and Marcus were able to leave Nesson City with the help of a borrowed motorboat. Neither of them recognized the vessel as belonging to any island residents, but they were glad to find it. Marcus did not mention their destination once on the way out or on the boat. Perhaps it was fear that his computerized helper might find out where they were going, though in truth it would be far easier for Connie to track the boat by GPS than to eavesdrop. Besides, she had what she wanted, which was Allison off the island. Maybe she would preferred Marcus stay. Surely, she would get along with the next owner.
Perhaps Marcus did not mention their destination because it sounded unrealistic. How could they be expected to find it without any real navigation skills or a knowledge of these waters? He pointed the ship out to the open ocean, choosing direction by a sort of instinctual memory. Their surroundings were uniform: water, waves, wind. Something felt familiar though, like traveling on an old, overgrown path. He could not see the correct direction, but he could feel it.
Allison was not worried about their ability to find land. They had food enough for weeks, and what better place to hide from the authorities than the middle of the ocean? Sure, there were a lot more comfortable places, more interesting places, but she was sure to stay hidden here. Poor Justin, she thought, roaming the country trying to track her. He could not find her out here. No one would find them out here. Maybe someday they would see each other again and she would explain that he never found her because she was nowhere.
“Land, ho!” Marcus screamed, jarring Allison out of her head. Her heart sped for two beats before she felt her stomach drop. So much for being nowhere.
“What? Are we pirates now?” She infused a sardonic tone, more to brighten her own mood than joke with Marcus.
“It seemed appropriate. Anyway, look over there.” He pointed at a vertical line rising over the horizon. The shape was familiar and she knew immediately where they were headed.
“Shh.. Yes. We’ll talk about it on land.” The land in question was not visible for another several miles, but the dense snarl of skyscrapers resolved as they drew nearer. They did not speak until they landed in a crowded little harbor. They moored the boat and hailed a water taxi.
“How are we going to pay for this?” Allison asked, causing the driver to turn around.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a stash of hard currency,” Marcus said as much to the driver as to her. The driver turned around after they finished loading their meager luggage and sped away to New St. Louis.”
The streets were uncommonly navigable. Signs and fliers were plastered everywhere. New St. Louis cannot afford to remain insular. Special election on the formation of The Territorial Defense Committee, The signs read. Through the windows, they could see every bit of indoor space was crammed and the windows fogged with conversation.
Something was wrong in the Harbor when they arrived. Normally it was a hive of Links employees on leave and New St. Louisians on a bender. As they stepped off the taxi, they watched a ferry departing half full. On land, there was little activity. Marcus looked at the entrance to Jack’s as they walked past. It was open. He noticed Allison looking as well. Did she know Jack’s? Neither spoke about it. This was not exactly a gambling atmosphere. Marcus walked on as if he knew where to go, but honestly he did not know this city outside of the Harbor. He saw the path into the proper city, but he felt a pull at his hand as he started to walk towards it.
“Over there.” Allison said, pointing at a sign featuring something like a hand painted cornucopia. The sign was in a pidgin Marcus did not understand, but it had to be a restaurant.
“I guess I could go for something to eat.” Allison did not respond, she continued to drag him towards the sign. Inside, a family was sitting at a round, unfinished wooden table, watching a screen projected on the top. Marcus did not see many screens in New St. Louis. It was certainly odd for a group to gather around one. A girl, maybe sixteen, wearing a yellow dress and clean tan apron turned her head. She was dressed for work, but the expression on her face said she was not expecting customers. Her eyes softened when she looked at Helen. She waved them over and stood. Marcus was expecting to be lead to a table for two, but instead she swung two more chairs around to the table where she sat. The family did not take their eyes off the screen, but scooted their chairs to make room. The waitress took them by the shoulders and lead them to their seats.
On the screen a young man was speaking. The frame was close; they could only see his face and shoulders. Something about him made Allison think about Justin.
“… The threat is not exactly territorial. No one is coming in here to kick us out, take our homes, or explicitly tell us what to do. There is a real threat though…”
“But the Nesson situation is a real threat. We’re too close to the conflict.” An older male voice interjected in the background.
“We could easily be absorbed.” A woman’s voice added.
“Sure, sure. I understand that immediate concern,” the young man said, “but Links is not explicitly interested in taking over New St. Louis. Whatever he does here, or intends to do here, it will be to create fragmentation and disorder.”
“To what end?” someone called.
The camera zoomed out to show a large, crowded oval table surrounded by windows. A clear blue sky surrounded the gathering.
“It is much easier to consolidate power if you can create a power vacuum. Now, I don’t know what kind of world Links is trying to create, but I am now convinced that the fragmented structure of the world is intentional.”
“Right, when was the last time you spoke to anyone outside of New St. Louis? Any of you? Probably never, and this settlement is not that old. Two, maybe three generations live here. Everyone here has connections to another country, mostly the United States, within living memory, but no one communicates outside of New St. Louis. The rest of the world may as well not exist. To most of the world, this place does not exist. I am not here to judge if that is right or wrong, but there is a danger.”
Allison saw someone creeping into frame, the young man was motioning for someone to come closer. The person sitting closest to the speaker looked over his shoulder, got out of his chair and offered it to a boy. A boy about sixteen, the young man leading the meeting said something by way of introduction but Allison could not hear. The world had turned silent around her, she could not connect what she was seeing with the context.
“Thank you Simon. Hi, my name is Justin Fahr. Until a few weeks ago I lived in the US sprawl. I can’t pretend to know about international politics and how things work around here, but I think if I explain how I got here, you might understand what fragmentation means.”
Justin had memorized his speech. There was no way he could stand in front of so many people, and so many cameras, if he did not practice until it was automatic. It was now so ingrained that he found himself telling a practiced story but his thoughts were on the last few days in New St. Louis.
“Hey, Justin! So glad to see you today!”
“Hi Earl, big win?” Earl had stood in his typical cowboy get-up wearing a not-so cowboy like grin. Justin looked at him from behind a cage. He was wearing the same dark pants, red tie, and black vest the rest of the tellers wore. A uniform they called it. Whatever it was he, when he first started wearing it he’d never been so itchy and uncomfortable in his life. After he got over the restraint of it, he kind of liked the look. He felt like he was living in the twentieth century.
Earl had been in all day the last two days. When he saw Justin, he seemed to know he was new and gravitated towards him. He apparently made a point of getting to know all the cashiers. The large, conspicuous man took his winnings, enough to feed a man for a month or gamble for two days.
Justin had started working at Jack’s after a winning streak of his own. He won enough off one discarded coin to take out his own room and buy a rail pass. When Simon disappeared with little more than a note, Justin returned to Jack’s to see if he could duplicate his success. Of course, he lost everything.
The owner, Jack, noticed Justin, could pick out that he was an outsider from the moment he saw him. “I see we’ve cleaned you out my friend.” He said to Justin, taking a seat at the table that just took Justin’s last chip. “Perhaps you need a new line of work. Gaming doesn’t seem to suit you.” Justin took the job, and found he liked it more than expected. His first day was a whirlwind, but he learned quick. That was the day he met Earl, who warmed to him quickly. The man eyed him suspiciously, “Do I know you, son?” he asked. “You sure? I swear I’ve met you before,” he responded when Justin shook his head.
The second day, something changed. Earl was there all day, and the place was not exactly empty, but overall it was slow. There were worried looks on some faces and a lot of people were leaving early. Not long after Earl left, Jack gathered the Cashiers and let them know they were closing early. Jack’s did not normally close for another three hours, but the place was already deserted. Justin changed into a t-shirt and shorts and walked out of a back door. In the alley there was a shadowy figure leaning against the opposite wall, surrounded by fliers that had to have been posted that day.
“There you are!” Simon called.
“Here I am? Where have you been?”
“Didn’t I leave a note? Anyway, something’s come up. I need your help.”
“Yeah, you’re perfect for the job. There’s a meeting tomorrow, I need you to come with me.”
“But I have work here tomorrow.”
“Jack will be fine. Besides, I already talked to him. He’s a very understanding guy. I really don’t expect much gambling will be going on tomorrow anyway.”
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