It never occurred to Justin that the experiences of his that had value were the ones before he left home. For the New St. Louisians, his lifestyle was morbidly interesting. Beyond that, it was motivating. Everyone knew generally what American culture was like and how people lived, but how had everything become so stratified and isolated? It was not the facts that were shocking but the extremity. An outsider’s perspective of his old life revealed a disconnection that made no sense in a world so electronically connected. That the citizens of New St. Louis were looking at the situation from the other extreme was not a part of the conversation.
The cafe reminded him of the central courtyard in Neopolis. Sure, he never got to see it, but this place was close enough to his idea of the courtyard. All around people were huddled in small groups. More screens were on than he had expected. Every once in a while he caught a glimpse of his own face on a monitor. No one in the cafe approached him, they were all too busy looking at the screen to notice the speaker was sitting a few feet away. Justin did not turn on his mobile. He just looked around.
“So what do you think?” Simon asked. He did not look at Justin while spoke, he was scrolling through a message board.
“About going to Nesson? I don’t know, I can see why you would want to, but it could get out of hand.”
“Bah! Anyway, that’s not what I meant. I meant about you going back to the US.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just told you…” Justin had been hypnotized by his surroundings, Simon must have been talking this whole time and he did not hear a word.
“Sorry, you want me to go to the US and do what?”
“Are you listening this time?”
“Sure.” Simon squinted. “Yes, yes I’m listening.”
“How would you like to spend some more time in Neopolis?”
Jackson was not feeling so lucky the last couple of days. Ok, so large political discussions were going on and the future of the city was on the table. Couldn’t people still get in a round or two of blackjack in between debates? The place was empty, save for one teller and himself. He was going to have to send her home and run the place himself if nothing happened soon.
“Rachel, honey, I think…” Jackson’s words were cut short by the hollow banging of steps. He turned to the door. “Mark?”
“Hey Jack! Thanks for the tip on that job by the way.”
“But, why aren’t you there?”
“Well, you know, it wasn’t my scene.”
Jackson saw the slightest flush on Marcus’s cheeks. “This is about a girl isn’t it!”
“What? That was random, even for you Jack.”
“So you’re saying you didn’t run off with a girl?”
“Well, no, that’s not what I said.”
“Maaark! Congratulations, come on, let’s have a drink!”
“Sure, but it’s not like that.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course it isn’t. Let’s have that drink anyway.” Jackson led Marcus to his usual table and poured two bourbons, neat. Mark took his glass, not keen on the drink but not wanting to make demands right now. They clinked glasses and as they put the rims to their lips, the door opened.
“Excuse me Mark, businesses to attend to.” Jackson bounced onto the floor but his shoulders slumped when he saw who it was. “Oh, hey Justin. I really don’t think I can use you today.”
“I know Jack, I just came by to say goodbye.” Jackson did not look surprised. He grabbed the young man’s shoulder and brought him to the table.
“You’re a little young for what we’re drinking son; let me see if I can dig up a beer, I’ll be right back. Mark this is Justin. Justin, Mark.” Jackson walked away, heading for the swinging double doors that lead behind the bar.
“Nice to meet you,” Justin said, sticking out his hand.
“Yeah…” Marcus said. There was something familiar about this kid. Had he met him before? No, he was sure he had not, but Marcus felt like he knew Justin somehow. “You from New St. Louis?”
“Me? No. I guess you haven’t been…”
“Oh! You’re that kid from the speech. What are you doing in a place like this?”
“Jack gave me a job when I was in a tight spot, I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”
“Yeah, back to the mainland.”
“Uhg, better you than me.” Justin nodded his head. Jackson came back with a dented, silver can and handed it to Justin. When Justin popped the tab, a smell like old bread hissed out. The two men offered their glasses in cheers, the can made a metal click.
“Justin! What the hell do you think you’re doing!”
Three heads turned to the door. Allison was stamping towards them, Marcus and Jackson instinctively put their glasses behind their backs.
“Allison?” Marcus and Justin said. She grabbed the can out of Justin’s hand and slammed it on the table.
“It’s, uh, well…” Justin was fumbling to explain the beer.
She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh!” He had momentarily forgotten why he was here. “I was looking for you!”
She let go and explained her last conversation with their parents. “Dad told me mom won’t even get off the couch, you could have at least called them.”
“What about you?”
“Hey, I called.”
“Yeah, twice in three months.”
“Allison,” Marcus stepped in. He understood now why she had wandered out of the restaurant, but he did not understand what she was doing here. “How did you find us here?”
“Mark, I didn’t expect to find you here. I especially didn’t expect you to be getting my little brother drunk.” She walked over to him. Marcus looked sheepish, a little scared. He was sure she was about to hit him, but instead she pulled him close and rested her head on his shoulder. “Thank you for finding him.”
Marcus thought about correcting her, telling her that Justin had only been there for a few minutes, but the feeling of her breath on his neck kept him quiet.
Justin coughed, “So, how did you find me here?”
“Your friends Simon told me what was going on.” Simon and Justin were famous enough now that everyone was interested in where they were. Simon used this to his advantage and drew attention to himself, and his agenda, whenever possible. Justin disappeared shortly after the speech, but finding Simon was as easy as listening to a few conversations and hopping a few train.
“Holy shit!” The door front door was swinging closed. Every eye in the casino looked at the tall, slim figure in the doorway with immediate recognition. There was no way to mistake that hat and those boots. Jackson smiled broadly at one of his favorite customers, Justin waved. Allison caught his hand and pulled him back a step, Marcus stood tall with his hands clinched.
“Earl! So good to see you. You’re in for a treat today. Yours truly is running all the tables today.” Jackson said. He was approaching Earl and preparing to guide him to the blackjack table.
“Hey Jack, that sounds great, but it looks like I already hit the jackpot. Mark, Allison, a mutual friend is looking for you. And Justin, what are you… Ah, now I see it. I thought I knew you from somewhere, Allison is your sister?”
No one responded. Jackson looked back at the three, Allison’s eyes were darting around for another exit. Earl continued, “Links only asked about Mark and Allison. You know, if you had just stayed in Nesson City, Hey!” Justin grabbed Allison’s hand and was running towards the kitchen, she tugged on Marcus’s shirt and he turned to go with them. Before they took more than five steps, they heard screaming. It was Rachel, who was now hiding under her counter. They turned and froze.
“I bet none of you have seen one of these in person before,” Earl said, “but you know what it is. Now, next time one of you starts running off before I’m done talking…” He used his other hand to mime a gunshot.
“Wow, Earl. You’re really playing on this cowboy image. Where’d you get that thing?” Marcus said, shaking but not able to resist a jab.
“Say what you will about Links, he can provide when needed.”
“So, what? You’re taking us back to Nesson City?” Marcus asked.
“Not quite, Links wants to talk to you himself.”
“Really? He wants to talk to us? What do we have to talk about?” Allison said.
“Listen, I didn’t get into the details. I’m sure you’ll find something to discuss. I do know he’s paying well to see the two of you, and surely a New St. Louis celebrity like Justin here is worth something to him.”
“Earl!” Jackson called. He had slipped into the shadows around his table unnoticed. He stepped back into view holding a shotgun. “You know how I feel about weapons in my establishment. Rachel!” Rachel stood from behind her counter. She was shaking all over, but her handgun was steady and pointing at Earl.
“Whoa guys. I didn’t think guns were allowed on this island.”
“Earl, this is a more or less underground casino frequented primarily by outsiders. Frankly I’m surprised you haven’t seen this ol’ girl before.”
“That’s no way to talk about Rachel.”
“No no, you know what I mean. Now put it on the floor and kick it over.”
“Sure, Jack.” Earl slid the gun to Jackson, who picked it up and started to hand it off to one of the three next to him and then decided to place it on an adjacent table instead.
“Now, are you playing blackjack or craps?”
“You know, I can’t shake the feeling that Earl wasn’t such a bad guy.” Marcus said.
“I know what you mean, he probably didn’t mean any of that stuff.” Allison agreed.
“He was pointing a gun at us!” Justin said.
“Yeah, but he is still kind of my friend you know. At least, as close to a friend as I have these days.”
“And,” Allison added, “None of us would be here without him.”
“Where are we exactly?” Justin asked.
“Somewhere in the pacific.”
They had been in the boat for 36 hours and had seen nothing but water. Everyone agreed it was best to stay clear of land until they reached the US. The course was set for northern California, far from the border with Nesson. After Jackson diffused the situation with Earl, Justin took his sister and Marcus to the harbor and explained where he was headed. Allison was not letting Justin out of her sight and Marcus had nowhere to go, so they all headed for the mainland. More specifically, they were on a course for Neopolis. There were a couple of locations on the coast where they could enter the city-network. From there they needed to track down Herman and his group. Justin needed access to leadership in Neopolis and that was the only place he could think to start.
Simon did not give specific instructions, more of a general mission to enlist the Neopolitans in waking up the rest of the country. Links Corp had gradually subdued a whole population and now Links himself was ready to quietly take control. The Neopolitans needed to assist their regular American neighbors. Besides the fundamental problems with allowing a sociopath to take control of a large group, once Links had control over most of the population it would not be long before he set his sights on Neopolis. Here was a settlement, or system of settlements, eschewing all of his technology and consuming none of his products. How long could that be allowed to continue?
Allison would keep up with her brother, but she should probably get in touch with Josh. She had not kept up with The Project while she was undercover, but surely they were following the Nesson situation. Her story was big enough to put her name on the front page of the site and to make The Project a household name. At least it should be big enough, probably few people outside of the ecology circuit would care. Still, if anyone read it she would be happy.
Allison looked to Marcus, she did not understand what he was doing here. He was a paid employee of Links Corp was he not? The thought that a man was following her was flattering, but she did not think this was all about her. The man was a strange isolationist. He had no patience for others, yet he choose to put himself in situations where he would have to constantly interact with people. The man liked to be alone, but could not live the regular solitary life most Americans lived. Granted, the solitary indoor life available in the sprawl was continuously bombarded by social pressure. Holoparties, social networks, friends and family dropping into your holoroom and expecting you to come see them. As a shopkeeper he could be physically near people, but socially distant.
“Hey!” Justin said. He had been lost in his mobile for sometime, trying to plan their next move after landing. The sudden burst made Allison and Marcus jump.
“Yes?” Allison said.
“We should call mom and dad. They don’t know I found you.”
“You think that’s safe?” Marcus asked.
“Why not, we’re in the middle of the ocean. It’s fine.” Justin said.
“Links has much faster boats and could trace the call in seconds if he was watching out for it.”
“Besides, don’t we have more important things to do right now?”
“That’s the whole reason I’m here. There’s got to be a way to let them know we found each other and are ok.”
“Let’s just wait until we’re on land and can get a secure connections.” Allison said. Images of her parents in distress pressed against the sides of her skull, but she had to be practical. If they were worried now, their children being arrested by the Links Defense Force would kill them.
“Fine, but it’s going to be expensive to do in Neopolis.”
“I think we’ll manage.” Marcus said. He had a pocket full of hard money, enough to get them around in comfort for a few weeks. Jackson was quite generous as the three left the casino, but he did make sure to emphasize that it was a loan. ‘Don’t even think about skipping out on me,’ he had said. ‘You won’t have to worry about Links finding you if I get to you first.’ It was hard to tell how much Jackson was joking, but Marcus knew he would have to make some money and get back to New St. Louis before long. He pulled out his mobile to do a few quick calculations, but it was blank. He could not get it to turn on or do anything.
Allison and Justin were already shaking and verbally abusing their devices. What was going on? Marcus ran to check the navigation equipment on the boat. That all seemed ok, but the video wall in the cabin was projecting a white screen.
James and Jennifer Fahr heard the chiming of a holocall. They were just sitting down to plain cheese sandwiches and soup. The both stood so recklessly that their whole lunch nearly flipped onto the floor. When they got to the room, there was no theme. Everything was black. In the center of the room was a large head, something like the wizard of oz. He did not look directly at them, this was clearly a mass message, but how did he get into their house? What was Richard Links doing floating in their holoroom?
Links turned towards them, looking through rather than at them. His eyes were blank but his mouth smiled before he opened it.
“Well, that sounded reasonable at least. What?” Allison’s eyes were murderous. Marcus made a few uncomfortable noises but neither retracted or amended the statement.
“Sure, well he wouldn’t be one of the most powerful men in the world if he sounded crazy.” Justin said. The red was draining from Allison’s face. The white of the screen’s neutral state illuminated her cheeks. Her jaw loosened and she would have said something forgiving to Marcus if the wall had not morphed and brought the smug likeness of Links back to the cabin.
“Hello all.” The wall said.
“Great, what does he have to say this time?” Allison puffed.
“This really won’t take long Helen, or do you have something better to do?” Links was tracking her. Everyone squared up at the realization that this was a private call, not a broadcast.
“Great, I have your attention. Now, believe me, I understand your passion and your distrust of the Nesson project. I don’t think our goals are as different as you may think.”
“Is that so? Do we look like megalomaniacs to you?” Allison said.
“Not at all, and that’s my point. I think you have really misunderstood the situation. Your efforts have been quite effective and your politics are undoubtedly endearing.”
“Misunderstood? I think the fragmentation and diminishing autonomy speak for themselves.” Justin said.
“Alright, let’s just hold the vitriol for a minute. It’s interesting you associate those two things. Let’s think about that for a minute: if our social structures are fragmented, how could autonomy possibly diminish?”
“When you finish filling the power vacuum and reduce life to the consumption of Links Corp products.” Allison interjected.
“That was a rhetorical question. You’re not wrong that I am seeking to create fragmentation. Also, I do enjoy the benefits of running a successful business. However, I think you are a little confused about how autonomy is lost. First, everyone involved in this conversation is unquestionably autonomous. That is because we made a decision to live our lives with choice and purpose. That choice is always available, but some social structures punish autonomy more than others. You know who punishes autonomy? Autocrats.” Links looked at the others. He was glowing with satisfaction. He received blank stares. “Look, it’s simple. Fragmentation inherently provides more opportunity for free action. If you don’t like the mores of the group you find yourself in, you can simply find another group. Think about bands of hunter gathers thousands of years ago; they were probably the freest people who ever lived. Until now at least. I am creating a world where changing your tribe is as easy as changing the channel in your holoroom. We’ve already achieved freedom from work and the most detrimental aspects of class. The last step is freedom from old nationalism, and we are going to get there in our lifetime.” Links paused for comment, but saw only wide eyes and tense lips. All three were standing with closed arms and straight legs. “Anyway, think about it. Consider the true implications of your actions. You’re all young, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’m doing. I also have the resources to employ analysts who can vet my plan. Do what you need to get on with your lives. Just cool it with the revolution. I’ll be interested to see what you all do when you get back to the mainland, if you know what I mean”
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