The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“I hope you’re happy now,” Andreas told Katrina while his hands were firm on his hips. “I missed my boat.”

Katrina shrugged. “Couldn’t really be helped.”

Andreas glared at her, “I only missed it by five hours!”

Katrina sighed. She looked out across the bay. The entire shoreline was lined by either factories, highrises or condos of the Port of Dreams. Her eyes always slide towards the north. Steep cliffs and slopes flanked a mighty water fall cascading over an ancient dam. She knew what sit up in that reservoir. The city down at sea level was a far cry from any she ever seen. Buildings of steel and glass, and factories that belched only minute amounts of smoke, they were all far in advance of back home. Even the thousands of brick apartment blocks made Shownastadt look dead in comparison.

Dozens of ships and hundreds of boats all bobbed up in the bay. Unfortunately, not a single one headed for Tropico. A few were pulling in from the island nations, carrying fruits of its labor. Coffee, cigars and rum, only the former was legal in The State, as long as it was not Tropican. The others, those were prohibited under all circumstances, though Katrina thought it pointless. Who would want one of those nasty Tropican Cigars anyway? And the rum– why was that nothing more than fermented sugar?

Andreas paced around the dock. Even these were not the run-of-the-mill docks on the Jaipur River. Not even the least bit; these were solid structures of concrete. Many had their own cranes to lift the monestrous containers off barges. The most Katrina saw back home were primarily wooden. Grant it, not many freighters traversed the river, not when rails were so plentiful. As busy as this port was, these particular wharves were vacant. With no passenger ships scheduled for the week, only a few worked the terminal.

“Ten days,” Andreas muttered as he paced. Ten days, almost half an astro. “I’m going to have a bounty on my head by the time I get back.” He hoped it was an exaggeration. After all, he did pretty much walk off the contract to spring Katrina. Sure, he had a good reason, and all the dwarves would understand,– but this was not a personal fraternity, this was a business. Hopefully all the benefits he offered would outweigh this cost. If not, then the bosses might just take out a hit on him.

“Guess we’ll just have to wait,” Katrina said in a neutral tone. She was not exactly disappointed, after all, the great Dream City lay within grasp. If they were not going anywhere, might as well make the best of it. She was uncertain what that best would be. Andreas was not made of money, and she did not even have a dinar on her.

Andreas eyed her curiously. He would have assumed her words would be ‘you’ll have to wait’ as opposed to we. Maybe she would go to Tropico after all. Andreas could not promise anything, but he could help her start over. Or maybe it was something a little closer she had in mind. After Yarasov, the two argued about Dream City and Port of Dreams. One wish to head one way, the other– well the other.

One thing was clear. No matter which way they went, they could not do it on looks and charm alone. “Half an astro– I better go pay a visit to the bank.”

Katrina looked around. She had no idea where Andreas planned to find one. Up in Dream City, that was where the financial industry lay. “You better, unless you want to camp on the dock.”

Andreas shot her a grin. “You know, I just might do that.” Not by choice either. If his bank account was cleaned out, then what else could he do.

When Andreas said bank, this was not what Katrina had in mind. At first, she thought they were going down to catch the subway. The entry was rather sparse and dull. No schedules, no advertisements, and no passengers climbing or descending. It looked closed down, though maintained with care. She did notice many of the surface dwellers avoided the terminal. Very strange, especially considering the docks lay nearby. Thousands worked the docks, surely not all of them could own autos. Those who did not, had to find alternative routes.

Once down into the terminal, Katrina understood why it looked closed. It was. Rather, it was officially closed. Rails below were long gone, and only half the lights worked. It was not by random failure either; somebody deliberately left the odd row of lights off. Dim red light bathed the whole terminal in a sinister way. Katrina felt uneasy down below, and stuck close to Andreas.

Though closed, the place was far from empty. Sapiens and pygmaeus mingled as they entered and exited various shops. The shops looked new, looked added. They were built after the terminal closed, and not hastily either. These storefronts were symmetrical, clean and assembled with surprising pride. It was almost a small town’s commercial district, albeit underground.

In Andreas’s line of work, underground took on two meanings; literal and implied. These plainly illegal and off-the-record businesses were definitely underground. Certainly the authorities must know about this place. If so, they did not appear to care. She followed Andreas through the crowds and into a pleasant brick storefront. There was no sign above the door or on the window. The only obvious marking came in the form of a tool hanging on sign post– a hammer painted gold.

The interior looked much like Katrina’s former bank, like many banks. Minus the decoration of course. This underground bank was staffed by dwarves, and they made their workspace very utilitarian. Andreas headed up to the counter. Three booths sat evenly space apart. Behind each, stood a surly looking dwarf and plenty of machinery. One was immediately recognized as a form of teletype; a machine that delivered information from afar, and fast.

The dwarf was as far from friendly as Capelleon was from Towne. A polar opposite of Katrina’s teller. He glared at Andreas as he leaned against the counter. “What do you want?”

“What do you think?” Andreas replied, drawing a card from inside his travel worn jacket. He handed the plastic rectangle to the dwarf.

The teller eyed it over. “How much you worth?”

“Plenty,” Andreas said with a smile. At least he would be as long as the account was not already closed out. “Just punch it in and find out.”

The dwarf snorted, a very common response for the pygmaeus species. His snort relayed a great deal of skepticism. “We’ll see about that.” Andreas knew what that meant. As the dwarf rang up Tropico, Andreas knew a negative answer would not bode well for his health. On the outside, he was cool as can be, on the inside– his stomach was churning. In a few minutes, he would find out his position.

Those few minutes, as data flowed from machine in Port of Dreams to its alternative in Tropico City, stretched on longer than they should. He took a couple of glances at Katrina, who seemed both bored and nervous. That did not surprise him. How many times in her life had she seen so many non-sapiens in one place at one time. This was all new to her, and if his account was dead, the newness would not last.

The dwarf came stomping back with a length of ticker tape. Andreas could not see what was on the tape, but the approving expression worn by the dwarf said plenty. “Ok, you’re worth something after all.” He glance up from the tape and took his first notice at the red-haired sapien behind Andreas. “Whose the Sheila?” The dwarf recognized Andreas as one of his own, but Golden Hammer Enterprises had no lady ‘field operatives’.

“She’s with me,” Andreas told him. “And that’s all you need to know.” He spoke up to the teller. Sure, Andreas was made, but the teller’s status was higher. Only the most trusted of associates were allowed to handle money of the Dwarven Mafia.

The dwarf frowned. “She good at keeping quiet?”

Andreas gave him a wiry smirk. “You ever met a woman who was?”

Some things crossed species lines, and this was one. The dwarf could only answer with a boisterous, and very unprofessional laugh. “Alright, how much you want?”

Andreas paused to contemplate. “Just give me a thousand.”

Katrina’s attention was peaked. On thousand dinar! She only made half that much in a whole astro from her teaching job. It sounded like a sizeable sum, but how long would it last in this city? Long enough to visit Dream City anyway. With a ten day wait and plenty of cash, Andreas had no real reason to say no– well, except to be a jerk.

The dwarf stumbled away for a few seconds. A few seconds were all he needed to crack open his safe. He grumbled to himself as he drew a bundle of bills from its safe place. “There you go, one thousand dinar in twenty notes.”

Andreas took the bundle and began to thumb through them. He simply browsed the count, not making a definitive effort. To do so might insult the dwarf, but not likely. One who worked in an underground bank was use to not being trusted. Andreas then took up a nearby pen and put it to use. The dwarf gave him two forms to sign. Just with the cash, Andreas looked over the forms. “Looks in order,” he said, swiftly signing his name. “Good day to you.” All business.

The dwarf snorted. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Andreas took in a deep breath. It was nice to be in open sky again. Though he worked with and for dwarves, he did not care much for the underground. The fresh sea breeze brought back memories of home, though not a place in Tropico looked this wealthy. Port of Dreams had half as many autos as inhabitants, not to mention radios and telephones. The auto count was not that pleasing, but still impressive. Andreas found the traffic heavy, but not as sluggish as Florastadt. Odd how a much larger and heavier populated area had better traffic flow. Then again, Port of Dreams was built with autos in mind.

“Where are we headed?” Katrina asked him, with a somewhat hopeful tone.

“The autoway,” Andreas told her. “You want to see Dream City, fine, we’ll drive past it. You’ll get a clear view from the dam.” At two hundred meters in height, they would receive a good view of everything.

Katrina jabbed him in the back. “Drive by! You can’t just drive by.”

“Have to,” Andreas replied. “The only way to get to the opposite side of the harbor is over the dam.”

Though she held on from behind, Andreas could still feel her glare. “You can’t honestly say, that after coming all this way you don’t want to visit Dream City.”

She was right. Andreas would not mind visiting Dream City. Who would not? Cities on water were uncommon, but not unheard of– but a city on a two hundred meter deep lake. Now that was something. “No, but I can say that I wouldn’t mind being on my boat right now!”

Katrina sighed. He was so difficult, so she tried a different approach. “Tell you what, you can either go there, or spend the next week listening to ‘Can we go to Dream City?’ ‘Can we go to Dream City?”

Andreas began to wonder just why he put up with her all this way. Now that she was safe, he could just drop her off on the next corner. No, Andreas decided better. “You want to play tourist, fine!”

Katrina gave him a pat on the shoulder. “See how much nicer it is when we think alike.”

“You mean when I do what you say,” Andreas corrected with a mutter.

If Katrina heard, she gave no indication. “Get a move on. I hope you know the way.”

Backseat drivers– “Yeah, yeah, I’ll just follow the signs.” If the autoway and arteries had one thing in plenty, it was big green signs with direction arrows on them. Andreas tried to shoot his own glare via the mirror, but could not catch her gaze. She was in an oddly good mood today. The fact that Andreas was loaded and she was going to her dream destination contributed to that.

“You know, just because you missed your boat, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself,” Katrina informed him. It was that same tone she used when she taught.

Andreas wanted to glare even harder. “I’d enjoy myself a lot more back home.” Not to mention joyriding while he should be back working was not a good thing. The dwarves will certainly notice his withdrawal. Still, a thousand in Port of Dreams would not make them suspicious. After all, they knew the ship schedules same as anyone.

Katrina grew a little more exasperated. “Oh, just shut up and drive.”

Andreas did exactly that. He cruised the crowded autoway long enough to spot a rather spacious parking lot at the base of the cliffs and ancient dam. The paved space stretched for at least a whole square kilometer. Though many autos crowded near the cliff, the periphery was wide open. Andreas was not to picky about parking, after all this was not his Steelhorse. Though, seeing just how many stairs they must climb to reach the top– Andreas decided to get as close as possible. Not so much for his sake, but so he would not have to listen to Katrina gripe.

He was not even sure why he put up with her so long. He long since fulfilled his responsibility to bail her out, at least that was what he told himself. Abandoning her at the nearest stop was not much of an option. Abandonment was one experience nobody should have to go through. So then what? Take he back to Tropico? She already made her feelings clear on that place. Perhaps over the next week, she might find some opportunity for herself in Port of Dreams, or Dream City itself. If so, then Andreas can part knowing he fulfilled his duty. If not–

Andreas would worry about that later. Odds were, Katrina would fall in love with Dream City and decide to stay. She was certainly in a hurry to get there. He watched as her higher pace rapidly expanded the distance between the two. She best not get herself lost. Dream City is safe enough, but the Port of Dreams had all the same perils as any big city. A made man had no worries; even if a gangster is sent to the big house, he had little worries. Crossing any of the mafia companies or families had a way of making one quite dead.

Now Katrina, a single lost woman, she could fall victim. She had nothing of monetary value, which took any shield she could wield away. Without payment or bribing, there was no telling what the common scum would do to her. The Knights were preferable; at least they simply shot somebody and eliminated that perceived threat. His line of work put him into contact with small time crooks, though mostly that was negotiating with a hammer as the dwarves would say.

Once at the base of the cliffs, Andreas looked up at the stairs switching back and forth along the cliff face. Railing at the first step was high, coming up to Andreas’s chest. Safety was a serious concern, deadly serious. Though the cliff was not sheer, rather just really steep, the fall would not be survivable. The last twenty meters of the cliff was a sheer drop onto several building roofs. He paid no attention to those buildings; they were locked up with few windows. Not a very pretty way to run a business, so they must be utilitarian in nature, such as several lieus.

Andreas took another look at the long walk upwards. He started to reconsider the whole journey. Perhaps driving the autoway up to the top and trying to find an offramp was a better idea. Only two such ramps existed, on either side of the reservoir. Both were always packed with traffic, and besides, there was little parking along the lake anyway. Dream City absolutely forbade any vehicles. It was a floating city after all, and the only traffic it could handle was of the foot.

Upon closer investigation, the stairs appeared more carved than built. They were the same stone as the cliff. Oddly enough, it reminded Andreas a lot of concrete, only tougher. There was no way normal concrete could handle the wear and tear of thousands of feet every day. That reminded him of the stairs in Tropico’s capital building. The marble structure was two hundred years old, and he could tell. Two grooves on each step displayed where countless feet rubbed away over the decades.

Katrina soon joined Andreas’s gaze, tilting her head up as high as it would go. “It’s a lot higher than I imagined.”

“We can always turn back,” Andreas told her.

Katrina frowned. “Not a chance. This will be no different than a country hike back home.” Besides, everyone else was climbing. Though the stairs were not crowded, they did have plenty of traffic, perhaps a few persons per flight of stairs.

“A journey of ten thousand kilometers begins with a single step,” Andreas told her.

It was not exactly encouraging, but she took her first step on the long climb to Dream City. One step, followed by another, and another, and another. Before she knew it, Katrina was on her way. Each step brought her that much closer, but she had the feeling this was going to be an all day walk.

At around fifty meters, the two decided to take a break at one of the many rest stops on the stairway. The area was a rather large courtyard-like setting just sticking out of the cliff. Along with dozens of tables, several concession stands littered the area. There were sandwiches, hot food and cold drink, just like what Andreas would expect from a fair or carnival. A carnival without all the ruckus. Certainly, this high above the parking lot was not a place to be playing around.

Sure enough, he saw few in the way of children. Plenty of short people, either pygmaeus or the truly alien goblins. Maybe not a goblin, Andreas was not so keen on telling the two species of gobli apart. Aside from staying out of bright lights, there was little to differentiate gremlins from goblins. The two gobli he spotted, both drinking down human sodas, wore heavily tinted sunglasses. Andreas never found the red sun, for all its diameter, overly bright.

He could tell his own companion was thinking something quite different. Katrina did not care whether the little green men (or maybe women– hard to tell with mammal-like reptiles) were diurnal or nocturnal. Her expression showed genuine disgust, yet fascination. Clearly she seldom to never saw them in Shownastadt, or The State before that. Naveina was not a place to live if one was non-sapien. They did not care if fellow humans or the gobli embraced their culture or merged into the melting pot.

Speaking of which, Katrina certainly appeared to enjoy her frozen fruit kabob. That was a goblin dish. Despite the fierce looking sharp teeth in their mouths, gobli only used those for slicing plants. They had little to no meat in their diet. They ate pretty much the same produce humans did with some exceptions. There was a spice that acted like a narcotic to them, but Andreas could not recall its name. A couple of the crops gobli grew were rather toxic to humans– or at least their livers.

Katrina was not the only one enjoying fruit kebabs. Chirping little hobblers bobbed up and down, almost begging treats off the humans. The green birds, with blue crests upon their heads, sat perched upon the guard rails. Andreas was familiar with the five hundred millimeter tall birds; they lived in Tropico as well. Like most Tropicans, he saw the hobbler as a pest. The little herbivores were known for poking through gardens in the poorer neighborhoods.

Katrina knew nothing of that. All she knew was the little towneforms were cute. Sure, all fun and games until they take a chunk out of your finger. They hounded travelers, but Andreas noticed they stirred clear of the vendors. No doubt they would give the hobbler a boot or brick for his trouble. Better to try the tourist, and maybe get a handout.

“Aren’t they just darling,” Katrina said after finishing her snack. She was too hungry to give out any free bits.

Andreas snorted. “So cute they make me sick.”

Katrina shot him a sideways glare. “How can anyone not love them?”

“Simple,” Andreas explained. “When one is poor and relies on a garden to survive, one does not appreciate flightless birds pillaging their foodstores.”

As predicted, Katrina never considered that. Not surprising. Though mice also pillage, Andreas considered the little creatures cute, with their squiggly noses and big flapping ears. She turned a thoughtful gaze back to the hobblers. After receiving nothing from her, they moved to overlooking a different table. Not only were they pirates, but ungrateful pirates at that.

After a few more minutes of rest they continued their ascent. For all of the climb, not a single shred of shade covered any stairs. They were some umbrellas covering tables at the rest stops, but aside from that it was nothing but wide open sky. The throbbing red sun hammered down on all who traversed the trail. The only reprieve came when passing beneath the first of the autoway’s switchbacks. Shade was a little cooler but a lot noisier, as hundreds of autos drove overhead. Along with the noise, the stench of exhaust drifted down from so many autos rumbling forth.

Resting beneath the underpass was a sight Katrina never thought she would see. Five trim and slim humans stood in the shade and talked amongst themselves. Their figures were a little too perfect to be natural and their faces appeared carved from marble. There was a definitive air of beauty around them, along with a layer of arrogance. Katrina’s eyes narrowed as she walked pass them. They were the rarest of human species, and the most loathed. They were elves, and by their accents probably elves who escaped from Alpina.

Katrina could not help but feel hostile. Almost all her life she had been ingrained by The Party’s doctrine. They blasted anything not sapien, but came down hard on elves. Unlike pygmaeus and giganticus, Homo aurumus wanted almost nothing personal to do with anything that was not them. They had plenty of business dealings, and hoarded all they acquired. They were a generally secretive and reclusive species, often sticking with their own neighborhoods, their own stores and own cafes.

Where Katrina looked on with contempt, Andreas barely noticed them. He seen plenty of elves back home. With half the continent embroiled in war, Tropico often seemed the safest place for refugees. Unlike Katrina, Andreas saw a stubborn and hardy people. One of the elves even had a large basket on his back filled with goods. No doubt he headed for the bazaar, probably planning to set up to sell tomorrow. He was not the first merchant to be seen either; the two passed hundreds of merchandise laden peddlers on their long climb. It was bad enough when it was one’s own two feet, but to add a basket or hand cart to those feet–

It was enough to make everybody want more road access to Dream City, but that would do little good. The bazaar atop these stairs was in no way connected to the roads. More over, no vehicles were allowed in the floating Dream City, though both shores of the lake were filled enough. Even that was tame by Port of Dreams standards. As much of his life in the company of dwarves, Andreas could not help but think of the gnomish axiom; there has to be a better way.

The Port of Dreams was now in clear view. The entire circular harbor lay out across them, offering a wonderful panoramic view. This high up on the trail, only a few buildings towered above them. In fact, only one would tower above the ancient dam and Dream City. Andreas never caught the name of the building, but it was a glass and steel monolith reaching up for one hundred stories. Even at four hundred meters, it was not the tallest building in the world. Andreas believed that honor belonged to a tower back east.

Katrina was not so concerned about the view below. That was nothing but cityscape surrounding a boat infested bay. What concerned her was the sweat building on her brow. She had not sweat so much even in the western stretches of desert, where temperatures soared to over three hundred thirty. Of course there she had the wind blowing in her hair and did not have to hike two hundred meters up a steep climb. What she wanted more than anything was it to rain.

Not too much rain, not to the point of turning the stairway into a waterslide. No, she just wanted a little drizzle and an overcast. That would hit the spot. With nothing but pulsing sun and clear pink-red sky above, it was hard to seek relief from the heat. It was worse here than back home. In Shownastadt, only a river supplied the humidity, but here– Here the entire ocean gave forth its vapors. The mugginess threatened her climb. It was almost as if the atmosphere wanted her to stay down.

After another hour of climbing, the stairs finally began to level out. No longer did they zip back and forth across a vertical face. Instead, they went straight up the gradually reducing slope. Katrina felt a boost of energy from the sight. She was within reach of the top. Climbing the stairway to Dream City was an achievement all of its own, one she would rather not have to take again. Andreas must have chose this route in an attempt to keep her from reaching the top. For some reason or another, he just had little enthusiasm for going there.

Andreas also had little money. A thousand dinar was a fine some that any average worker would have taken, but it would not last a week in Dream City, even factoring in Marasuania’s highly valued currency. Everything up there was at least twice the cost as it was down below. Tropican politicians often blast the city. Being socialist, they often sited the division of rich and poor as being geographically obvious. The wealthy live above the dam, either in Dream City or the more middle-class areas on either shore. The poor live downstream, in smog infested land– the latter being figuratively speaking. Thanks to breezes from the sea or the land, not to mention rain, pollution is quickly dispersed.

“We made it,” Katrina said as she traversed the last steps up towards the bazaar. It was a long climb, and now rewarding. She never tackled anything so difficult in her life. “Sure is high up.”

Andreas walked behind her. “Don’t look down.” Andreas glanced over his own shoulder, seeing a train of humans and gobli following him. Below, bustling city engulfed the Port of Dreams. He spotted a few autos down below, but at two hundred meters, auto and pedestrian alike looked like bugs. Buildings and housing too appeared little more than scale models. The scene was something a model-train enthusiast would appreciate.

The only down side of the view came from the glass and steel towering over the rest of the city. Sunlight bounced off the highrises and bombarded climbers. Glare from below, glare from the horizon and glare from above. Katrina was right, this view would be more enjoyable with an overcast. He did look out across the ocean, hoping to spot his missed ship. Even at Towne’s large size, that ship would have crossed the horizon some time ago.

He spied plenty of other ships; passenger, cargo and naval. Only a few of the latter could be spotted. Three of them were crammed full of towers, stacks and guns, but one had little of anything. Aside from a tower along side its left, the ship’s deck was flat. Well not flat; several machines were crammed at the aft. Aircraft by the looks of it. Tropico had one of those, but not nearly as large as Marasuania. Then again, everything Tropico had was small by comparison. If Marasuania decided to get into the war, The State would feel the pain.

With only a few steps left, Katrina smiled at the wide doorway. “Shade,” she whispered with delight. Walking out in the sun for so long was torture. Grant it, she did not burn like she would have during a flare, but even a calm sun was a harsh one. She charged into the pavilion without hesitation.

Andreas soon joined her. It was nice to get out of the sun, even if it was what astronomers called a ‘red dwarf’. Did not look that small to him, but Towne orbited close. Many other stars he might see at night were far brighter than the sun. He tried to imagine how inhabitants of worlds that may or may not orbit those stars dealt with the sunlight. One thing was sure, anything as close to those stars as Towne was to its would be incinerated. That red sun was bright enough, Andreas did not want to think about an orange or yellow sun.

The bazaar was a novel prospect to Katrina, but it was something Andreas was familiar with. Back in Tropico, many such markets littered the streets of the cities. Sure, those all were outdoors and sold only the barest of merchandise, but Andreas recognized it all. Andreas’s attention was not first turned on the stalls and blankets scattered across the concrete floor, but instead to above. Whomever built this place looks like they left the job undone. Above he could see a vaulted roof, were wooden beams came together at a sharp angle.

The interior walls, all two of them, did not continue to the roof. Instead, they reached up four meters and stopped. They were more partitions than actual walls. Three archways were carved from the walls, and none had doors swinging on them. None were painted for that matter. They were simply covered with wooden panels. A simple design for a simple people. By the looks of some, they were poor simple folk at that.

Andreas did not care much for the goods on sale. One stall he walked past had a variety of tools, all forged from steel. The fact all were made of iron alloys surprised Andreas. Iron was rare, along with any element heavier than it. Most of those heavy metals were reserved for buildings and ships, seldom wasted on tools. Besides, the metal rusts easier than aluminum or titanium. The thought of trying to drag all that up from below made him shudder. The stall next to it had stacks of wool and linen, along with already made clothing. A few lookers but he could not spot any buyers. The sounds of haggling echoed through the halls. That was a familiar sound, for he did plenty of that in his own marketplaces.

Another stall– or rather square blanket spread out across the tarmac– did catch his attention. Books, and lots of them. He knew how much a box of those weighed, and certainly did not envy the one who hauled those up the stairs. By the looks of their paper covers, the books were used, some heavily. Might be a good idea to pick one or two up before his boat came back. The trip home would be long and boring; no luxury liner for him.

Andreas found that he had to hustle Katrina along. Though she wanted to reach Dream City, her eyes wandered from seller to seller. He had to keep close too. What started as a trickle at the entry quickly backed up once deep inside. Four species of humans and two of gobli were too many species to cram into one building. All sort of merged together, not unlike the great herds across the Sevestapoli. They bumped and collided, bouncing off each other. Some were polite, while others grumbled.

The two continued until they reach the final partition. Unlike the other two, this one was only half goods. The other half was food and drink. Both could use a break, as Andreas suggested. “Let’s take a break.”

Katrina stopped, and looked back curiously. “We’re not that far,” she said, pointed to the lighted exit up ahead. “You can just walk a little farther and we can get some proper food.”

Proper and more expensive. “Fine, walk farther later. The city’s been here for quite some time, and I doubt it’ll up and leave any time soon.”

Katrina turned her back to him and acted to leave. “Well I am going to see it now.”

“Then it’s been nice knowing you,” Andreas said with a wave as he headed to check out the food.

Katrina immediately about-faced and shot him a fierce glare. “Why must you be so cold?”

“For the same reason you’re so unreasonable,” Andreas replied.

Katrina scoffed. “I’m unreasonable?”

Andreas smiled. “Glad we can agree on that.”

Katrina did not share his humor. “This coming from the most difficult and stubborn man on all of Towne.”

“That’s why I’m still single,” he said, this time a little cooler.

Katrina found herself cut off. It was hard to come back on a line like that. It was harder still to continue arguing. She knew him for only a short time, but that was long enough to know he would not budge when he believed himself correct. Whether or not he was– that was another story. “Fine, be that way.”

Instead of stomping off and forgetting she ever crossed paths, she plopped herself down at the nearest table. It was a fairly plain metal mesh table, aluminum unless she was wrong. Both aluminum and titanium were prime metals around the world. They were also hard to separate from their base molecules. That required monestrous amounts of power– which the ancient dam just happened to provide. Dozens of smelters in Port of Dreams churned out the pure metals tonnes every day.

The chair was harder than those at the rest stop. It too was made of a mesh. Katrina struggled to make herself comfortable. Too hard, so bad that maybe it was a better idea to strike out on her own. Just where she would go and more importantly, what would she do for a living, kept her from acting. She did not like feeling so helpless, not one bit. She hoped somewhere out in the city lay her second chance. Either way, starting over will not be easy.

A few overheard the two trade words. Andreas received no trouble, but a few scowls went Katrina’s way. Her accent was strictly Navenian, and The People were not exactly what one would call popular. A couple of elves glared at her viciously. Katrina was oblivious to the attention, but Andreas caught it. Those elves must be from lands overran. Those unlucky enough to stay behind were removed. Removed to where, nobody knew– though the People’s Government in Tropico had their propaganda version. It included engineering super-humans and ‘purging’ the rest. After all, The Party did desire to purge its lands of all non-sapiens. Andreas was weary about taking that mission statement literally.

After a minute, Andreas sat at the same table. He carried a plate of chips, that is deep fried strips of potato, and sat it down in front of him. He dug in without hesitation. It was alright, but not the best chips he ever ate. It was missing something, probably in the batter. That is assuming they did not just dump it in grease.

Katrina watched him eat with little delight. “Aren’t you going to share?” she asked after a few impatient seconds.

Andreas looked up at her, as if he just now noticed her presence. “First you don’t want any, now you do. Will you make up your mind?” He did not wait for an answer. Instead, he pushed the plate forward, making his offering.

Katrina took one of the chips, and examined it carefully. It was unlike anything she ever ate before. Where did it originate? What was its ingredients? Above all, what did it taste like? The latter was easily answer. She took a bite out of the chip, and analyzed the flavor. “Salty,” she commented after she finished the chip. She then tried best to wipe the oil off her fingers. “And greasy.”

Andreas nodded. “Sure is. I tell you, the People’s Pub cooks up a superior batch of chips.”

Despite Katrina’s original complaint, she ate several more of the chips. She ate far slower than Andreas, who put away the plate in a matter of minutes. With his hunger put to rest, he was ready to get moving. Time to see what this Dream City really looks like.

Katrina gasped at the beauty before her. She heard stories and seen picture, but never imagined Dream City to be so splendid. Across the bluest lake she ever saw, hundreds of floating hubs sat on the glassy surface, connected by hundreds of more bridges. She walked slowly across the causeway, enjoying every second. What was this way made from? Highly polished cement or marble? She could not tell. The causeway, despite all its traffic, was perfectly smooth and without blemishes.

Though far many more walked the causeways that climbed the stairs, the whole road seemed less crowded. Most of the people, of every species, were leaving the floating city and visiting places on the mainland, whether it be the bazaar or beyond. Only a few headed back out to sea, so to speak. By just walking down the causeway, Katrina felt suddenly inadequate. She had been wearing the same dirty clothes since setting out from Shownastadt.

“The first thing I’ll do is buy some new clothes,” Katrina declared.

Andreas followed closely behind. “Sounds like a good idea. Maybe visit the dry cleaner afterwards.” His suit had seen better days. He headed towards the city without her level of enthusiasm. He did see the aesthetics of Dream City, and certainly the design. His buddies in the Golden Hammers would certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship that went into Dream City– even if it was not built by pygmaeus.

Dream City came into being when humans came back to this land after a long absence, thousands of years ago. They came to farm the plentiful land by the reservoir. Unfortunately, every predator imaginable hung around the giant watering hole. Though most feared man, the roadwalker was a definite exception. Those giant birds would tear apart a hut without thinking twice. In order to stay safe, let still farm the land, the settlers were forced to live on boats. That in itself was a danger, since crocodiles used to live in these waters. One will occasional wander down river even to this day, but not stay for long. They either met a grizzly end, or were scared enough to never show their faces again. Those that used to live by the dam were wiped out by the settlers.

Over the centuries those simple boats evolved into glass and steel platforms floating on pontoons of helium. Now days, the most dangerous animals in the water are likely the meter long goldfish that frenzy for food. And in time, a wall went around the mainland portions of Dream City. Roadwalkers and other monsters of the night still roam the adjacent lands, but they long since learned the city was more trouble than it was worth. Andreas tended to agree, but since he was already here he might as well take a look. Besides, his boat would not arrive for quite some time.

The causeway brought them to the first of many hubs, circular platforms that held all of Dream City’s buildings. This one did not. They passed beneath a sign reading ‘Welcome to Dream City’. This city limits hub was ringed by dozens of benches, all facing toward a large fountain dominating the platform. The fountain was three layers high, not counting the pond at its base. At the highest level, bronze dolphins squirted water into the air. All three levels overflowed with water pumped up from the reservoir. The effect was a waterfall taking up every degree of a circle.

“Simply amazing,” Katrina said in awe as she stared at the city sculpted from crystal and marble.

“Now that you’ve seen it, we can leave,” Andreas told her, though he did not carry much seriousness in his voice.

Katrina ignored him. “Now I just need to find a nice little boutique. I wonder what sort of clothes they’ll be selling this astro.”

Dream City did have a fashion elite, who liked to retire wardrobes at lease once a week. Andreas guessed some folks just had nothing better to do with their money. “Just stay away from the shoe stores,” he told her dryly. The last thing he wanted was for this woman to go off and browse the shoes. She would be there all week.

On cue, Katrina looked down to her shoes. They were once dressy, but after so much time on the road, they looked a little worse for ware. Not to mention not particularly comfortable. “I better get some new shoes too.”

Andreas groaned. Figures. At least she would not hassle him for the rest of the week. “Why not save that for another day. Let’s just get some close and find a place to stay.”

Katrina sighed, now realizing just how worn her body felt. “Very well, but I do expect some decent food later.”

“Expect all you want,” Andreas told her as he picked up his own pace. He passed Katrina before she could shoot him another glare. She had plenty of practice over the past few days. Before she could even say a word, Andreas cut her off. “Come on. I’d like to find a place before tomorrow.” After climbing for the better part of the day, he was dead tired. He was in no hurry to explore the city. Why rush when one shall have nine more days for the task.

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