The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Andreas stepped out of the inn, a little worse for wear. The glass and steel structure behind him, heavily tinted from the outside, but he could see all from the inside, already took away one hundred of his dinar. And that was for two days stay! Tomorrow, he will have to drag Katrina back down to the city below. For today, he will just have to let her run around, and make sure she does not spend to much. She has no money, so naturally it will drain Andreas’s coffers.

Some of his money was already put to good use. A new outfit, a nice dark blue suit and pants, along with a white stripped shirt. The clerk called it ‘all the rage’, but that was not why Andreas bought it. Considering the other colors sold there, blue was the only color he would be caught dead in. One of the other colors in mind was exactly what Katrina picked out. Of all the colors she could chose, she went with pink, and a rather bright one at that. He should be pleased she had sense enough to buy a denim vest to go with her blouse. Most outrageous of all, she did not get a skirt, but denim pants to match her vest. For a Navenian, it was a rather radical approach. For a Tropican woman, pants were the norm. After all, everybody was the same on that island.

Andreas took a look across the hub as he waited for her. Half of this hub comprised of the inn they stayed. Katrina beat him to the bed this time around, but he did not mind. He will just have to get even next time. Across from the inn stood three houses. Each were built from red brick and had tidy little lawns. Andreas noticed many houses on the hubs of Dream City. A few hubs were nothing but apartment blocks standing several stories high. No fountain or park sat in the middle of this hub; nothing but street.

“I’m ready for another day,” Katrina said as she joined Andreas. She took her time finishing breakfast, according to her it was the first decent one she ate since they met. She did not have quite as much venom in her voice as before, but she still resented him for all that happened.

“You’re wearing that?” Andreas mused, pointing at her pink shirt. It was quite an atrocious color.

Katrina sniffed. “What? It’s genuine Dream City fashion,” Andreas did not buy it. “Besides, I’m tired of riding that Steelhorse wearing a skirt. These pants will make it easier– speaking of which, better remember to stop by the dry cleaner.” She was more than refreshed. The inn’s room offered her a chance for civilized luxuries– like a nice hot bath.

Andreas decided not to tell her about the Steelhorse, and how it would not be traveling with them to Tropico. No point in saying that, after all Andreas had yet to meet a woman who would listen. Besides, he had more important thoughts on his mind. “I’m off now. Meet you back here by lunchtime.”

Katrina looked at him in surprise. “What’s this all of a sudden?” Did he plan to take off and just leave her? “Where are you running off to?”

Andreas shrugged. “I have something I need to take care of–“ and he let his words trail off.

Katrina nodded with a skeptical eye. “Uh huh. Is this something that I’m better off not knowing about?”

Andreas smiled. “Now what makes you think that?”

Katrina sighed. “I knew it. You’re off to go commit some nefarious deed. Fine, go, but don’t expect me to post bail.”

Andreas did go, and did not look back. He was not off to go rob some bank or bump off some rival. He would rather not mention his plans to Katrina. Truth was, a flier caught his attention in the inn lobby. Somewhere in the general vicinity, a little lost dog wandered aimlessly. A sick one at that. It tore at his heart to see the poor fellow missing. ‘Lost Dog; goes by the name of Sunshine; missing since the third of the week; if you find him please call, he needs his medicine; reward offered’.

Andreas was not interested in a reward. Just finding that sick pup would be reward enough. He knew about the little guy, especially when he was sick. It reminded him too much of Gus. No, he was not doing this to try and atone for his own failure, he was doing this because it was right. Because he knew what it was like to loose someone dear to him. He also knew that the rest of the world did not care, that life itself was a harsh mistress that spent the better part of one’s existence trying to kill that one.

In the end, she wins.

Andreas took his time strolling across one of the park hubs. Only a couple of small shops lined its edge; one sold gellato, the other soda. He wondered if anyone else was looking, or if they even noticed. The dog was only ankle high, or a little taller. He seen plenty of these small canine back home. Back in Tropico, little dogs were kept to defend gardens from hobblers. They also chased off the large, and more carnivorous falconeers. Though the predatory towneforms were significantly larger than small dogs, they avoided the beasties. Shrill barks invoked pain into their heads– along with other species.

Did small dogs in Dream City chase aquatic creatures whenever they came to shore? Maybe the penguins, but the river otters might chase back. Andreas did spot one such otter near the ledge of the hub. The aquatic weasel lay lazily in the sun, without a care in the world. Andreas left that hub and headed towards the next. He was delayed momentarily by one such penguin that waddled across the causeway. Natives to Dream City did not even pay him any attention, whereas tourists talked amongst themselves at the odd sight. It reminded Andreas of an episode back home involving a gaggle of tourist and a sea turtle.

The next hub he visited was split between individual houses, at least five rooms each. Six of these houses rested on the hub, dividing it into six mostly even parts. All had the short grass lawns, something unheard of back home. If anyone had spare land, they planted food, not something as useless as grass. Well, unless one tended a herd of goats or cattle– no such animals here. However, there was an unusual amount of trees. He spotted pears and oranges hanging from several of them. The others he guessed were elms. He did not that not a single towneform plant lived on this hub, or very many other ones for that matter. Humans of all species always had an affinity to green; some speculated that the plants of the legendary homeworld were all green. Made sense, since he had yet to see a non-green Terraform plant.

Numerous birds frolicked in the undergrowth. They chirped and they sung, and a few of those flew off in a hurry. Something made plenty of noise in the shrubs. At first, Andreas assumed it was just an otter causing mischief. He did see a flash of fur, of light colored cream fur. An albino otter? Would not be unheard of, but certainly an oddity. Andreas decided to take a closer look. He stopped short of smashing through the underbrush. It was better to just wait.

A minute later, a wet black nose stuck out of the shrubs. The rest of the dog followed, a light creme colored canine with a curly wagging tail. He looked up at Andreas with a sappy and friendly expression.

“Well hello there,” Andreas said, looking down at the dog. He squat down to take a closer look. In response, the dog jumped up, placing his paws on Andreas’s knees. Andreas took the tag dangling from his collar between his fingers. “Sunshine is it?”

The dog’s ears perked up at the sound of his own name. His was a friendly one. So friendly that it was surprising somebody had not already picked him up. For one missing for the past couple of days, he did not seem worse for wear.

“Raiding nests have you?” Andreas asked rhetorically. He knew of plenty of small bird-eating dogs back home. Andreas gave the dog a pat on the head. “Come on Sunshine, let’s go find your human.” Andreas picked up the dog, who gave no resistance, and carried him away from the shrubs. He found the lost dog, easier than he expected. Now if only he could find a payphone that easily.

Less than an hour later, Andreas waited on a bench with its back towards a marble fountain, when an middle age woman approached him. She looked a little on the tired side. She lacked much of the fashion Andreas had thus far seen in the city, but she still wore a dress suit made of green silk. Andreas guessed she was a manager at one of the above-ground banks, or perhaps employed at one of Dream City’s many offices.

A bright smile exploded onto her face the moment she spotted the dog. “Sunshine!” The dog instantly responded to her voice. He broke free from Andreas’s pet and leapt from his lap. Yes, by the way he bolted towards this woman, she was no doubt his human. Andreas did display a slight smile at the sight of dog and human reunited. The dog wiggled like it was going out of style. So full of life, and his goofiness reminded Andreas of someone– one he would rather not think about.

“Thank you for finding Sunshine,” the lady told Andreas. She began to rummage through her handbag, searching.

Andreas did remember the word ‘reward’ in bold letters. “There’s no reason to bother with reward,” he told her. When she gave him a shocked look, Andreas knew he guessed correct.

“Are you sure?” she asked as if she never encountered selflessness in her life. Given the wealth in Dream City, that was not too shocking. “It’s really no problem–“

Andreas brushed the thought aside. “Positive. Just take Sunshine home and make sure he takes his medicine.” Andreas was a made-man, and did not need an award. He probably made more money in an astro than most made in a year. Well, in Tropico anyway.

The lady continued to express her gratitude, to which Andreas only nodded. No, there was no trouble. No, he did not need any reward. No, he certainly was not a generous and nice man. She went on for a few minutes before thanking him one last time and departing. Just seeing that sappy look on the dog’s face, the one of overjoy was reward enough. Well, that and knowing a sick dog would not die alone on the streets. That much less guilt to keep him up at night.

Katrina kept her distance, even after Andreas stood from his bench and continued on his way. Did she hear correctly? He turned down a reward. So this was his ‘business’, finding a lost dog. Just when she thought she figured out the gangster, he went and did something like this. She always had him pinned down as a cold-hearted killer– or at least cold-hearted enforcer. He certainly acted cold in the emotional department. Apart from those few moments she saw him with that little dog, she never saw a warm smile off his face.

Why would he go through so much trouble for a lost dog? Surely somebody would have found him and reported him. One thing she could count on back home was somebody reporting anything missing or out of the ordinary. The People were good at that. Katrina could always count on a neighbor to report anything or anyone unusual around her home. In Dream City, it was quite different. Here, everyone went out of their way to mind their own business. Katrina never imagined this city would act so alien.

Then again, she never would have imagined Andreas with a heart. She never understood exactly why he freed her from the Knight’s office. The obvious answer would be the old man-woman cliche. She rejected that; all she and Andreas did was argue. While Katrina walked away from the hub, she came across the same flyer that attracted Andreas’s attention. She read it carefully, hoping for answers. It said the dog was sick. Sick and lost. Even she started to feel sorry for the formerly-lost pup. Perhaps that was why Andreas went searching, he felt sorry too.

Perhaps that was why he rescued her. Andreas felt sorry (not to mention responsible) for her captivity and tried to set things right. Some right– Katrina was now exiled from her home as long as The Party rules, which might as well be forever. Thinking about exile only brought her mind back to the here and now. She would meet Andreas back at the inn in a couple of hours. For now, she better start looking for work. As soon as she finds a prospective position, she will rush back and pick up her dry-cleaned work clothes and try and seize it. There was no reason why she should not find work, after all Dream City was turning out to be a city full of exiles and refugees.

When night fell on Dream City, and the lights of the lamp reflect off the calm waters, the locals came to life. Andreas found the crowds much thicker once the sun sets. Still was nowhere near as crowded as the streets of Tropico City, but it was enough to bump elbows. Thus far he managed to avoid a few of the locals, but only barely, and only because he was paying attention. He did notice a few collisions involving both parties not paying attention.

He would prefer not to be out. Andreas would sooner avoid the rush than dive on in, but he allowed Katrina to talk him into visiting the theater. She still wore her new clothes, her bike clothes, and was starting to feel inadequate. Most of the women, sapien and elves, wore fancy evening dresses. By the looks of their clothing, each of them were wealthier than Andreas and Katrina combined. Katrina scowled at that– the combined wealth equaled zero plus however much Andreas was worth. Up until this morning, she would have not thought him worth much.

As they approached one of the movie house hubs, they came across a well lit bridge. Andreas could not help but look down to see the frenzy in the water. At first, he thought either penguins or otters were hunting. Neither air breather was to be seen. Instead, a whole school of goldfish caused the water to boil and froth. Andreas was impressed by some of their sizes. Unlike their aquarium kin, these olive colored carp were as big as some of the predators living in the same waters. However, like their kin, these big goldfish begged just the same.

“Must be dinner time,” Andreas said. Several fish eyed him, almost demanding he throw down some scraps.

Katrina smiled at the charming little fish. “I’ve heard stories about how fishkeepers can hand feed goldfish.”

Andreas glanced at Katrina, then at the fish, and back at Katrina. She could see the sarcasm boiling in his eyes. “Sure, and if you stick your hand down there, they’ll grab it, pull you in and try to gum you to death.” Katrina laughed, but Andreas was partly serious. Some fish looked like they would jump up and take a raccoon who might plan on taking a smaller fish.

Sure enough, these fish were accustom to handouts. Several sapiens passed Andreas and started tossing what looked like bread into the lake. Andreas sighed at the sight. They must truly be wealthy if they can waste food like that. Back home, he would get scolded if anyone caught him tossing bread to ducks. That, and Sentry was liable to eat the ducks if he saw them.

The theater took up half the hub and then some. What must be the main show room stuck out and away from the hub, floating on its own set of pontoons. Andreas wondered what was playing on that screen. The theater housed five screens, and showed five different shows. Signs sitting on the street displayed the shows. Four of them were immediately dismissed by Andreas, but the fifth caught his attention. He had no idea they made that book into a movie.

Andreas stopped by the sign and looked up at the theater. They included a promotional poster, and Andreas was trying to figure out which character each actor portrayed. He would find out shortly; it was not every day he got the chance to watch one of the greatest books in recent history.

Katrina came up along side him, her eyes scanning the poster. “He Flew In?”

Andreas nodded. “Screen number three.” So it was not on the main screen, that did not matter. “A definite must see.”

“I don’t know,” Katrina said doubtfully. She started to gravitate towards the next poster. “This one here–“

”–I am not watching,” Andreas finished for her.

Katrina planted her hands on her hips. “It doesn’t interest me.”

Andreas gave her a shocked grimace. “How can you not like it? He Flew In’s one of the best book written in the past fifty years. Only North to Oblivion was better, and that’s just because it’s the sequel.”

Katrina frowned. Figures he would pick the crime story. Katrina never read either book; neither were allowed since The Party took over. “Sounds a little low brow to me. Next thing you’ll be telling me is the genius in the Onion Seed saga.”

Andreas blinked. “What’s wrong with Onion Seed?” Andreas shook his head.

Katrina sighed. “It’s just flashy lights. Now, how about this film,” she said pointed back at the poster she liked. “It looks like a touching one.”

Andreas scowled at it. “I’m paying, and I’m watching He Flew In. If you don’t like it, feel free to wait back at the inn.”

Katrina threw her arms into the air. Was this the same Andreas who went well out of his way to save a puppy? Talk about split-personality. Maybe he just liked dogs and could not stand his own species. “Fine, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it.”

“You might,” Andreas offered. “Especially the ending–“

Katrina thrust her palm into his face. “No, don’t tell me. I want to find out on my own, so don’t go spoiling it!”

“Spoiling it?” Andreas laughed. “The book’s been out for thirty calender years! Before either of us was born. It’d hardly be a spoiler.” Andreas heard that line before. ‘Don’t tell me how it ends’ somebody exclaims. Andreas could only snort with ridicule. Not his fault they have not read the book yet.

“No matter. I still want to be surprised,” Katrina told him. “And one more thing; I expect popcorn.”

“Whatever you say,” Andreas replied, gesturing towards the theater doors. When Katrina went off ahead, Andreas added a few words beneath his breath. “Fill your mouth with something other than words for a change.”

“What’s that look for?” Katrina asked between bites of a fruit kabob.

Andreas continued looking smug. “I told you so,” he said. Andreas faced towards the middle of the hub, towards the local fountain as he leaned against railings.

Katrina faced the opposite direction, facing the smooth waters that made Dream City’s foundation. “I’ll admit, it was far more intriguing than I expected,” she spoke the words with great effort. She did not want to admit Andreas was right– at least not to him.

Andreas loved the noir genre. “The book was far better, but not a terrible adaptation.” Andreas went on to point out many details. The protagonist, a private investigator, seemed so much more realistic than the goodie-goods seen in so many movies. Andreas could not stand such self-righteousness. If anyone like that tangled with the mafia in the real world– well it would be a short story.

Katrina was left unsettled by the protagonist. The movie was monochromatic, but not black and white. That was how life was suppose to be, either right or wrong. In her mind, she saw the good guys doing bad things and the villains doing good things. At least she thought they were villains. “See anyone you know?”

Andreas frowned. “Hardly.” The gang in the movie was part of the Marasuanian Mafia, a predominantly sapien enterprise. Golden Hammers had no qualms or disputes with them– otherwise Andreas would have woken up dead by now. “But, like the book, the movie does portray gangsters rather accurately.”

Katrina knew what that meant. Not all were petty thugs and ruthless killers. She learned that just by being in Andreas’s company for so long. Oh how her life fell. One day she was a teacher in a respectable school, the next a fugitive. She took her gaze out across the water and lost herself in thought. She could see the ancient dam sticking up above the lake. Hundreds of cars drove on the autoway built atop it. Their lights fluttered too and fro like so many fireflies.

The fireflies were easily lost in the orange glow beyond the dam. Unlike Dream City, the Port of Dreams had thousands, if not a million lights blazing at full power. It cast an eerie glow on the horizon. Only one beacon broke the haze, and that belonged to the only building visible from Dream City. All one hundred stories of it. Many lights were still on in the office. It was a constellation of lights across the dark mirror. She turned her own gaze upwards, to see what few stars shone through Dream City’s glow and the port’s burning flames.

“Sure is peaceful,” Katrina spoke softly, not wanting to break the tranquility. Aside from the chatting of nearby people, and the distance hum of autos, the world within earshot was silent. “I wish more stars were out.”

“They’re there. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they cease to exist,” Andreas teased her. He knew enough about life to realize he did not know nearly enough. That gave him an advantage over those who did not know even that. “There’s Capelleon,” Andreas pointed away from the orange horizon, towards the north.

Katrina turned her head to see the sparkling white light, the brightest in the sky. “Beautiful, yet sad. To be all alone in the night–“ Katrina knew how that felt. She was alone in a strange land– will be once Andreas heads back to Tropico. She knew she better get a job before then. Otherwise her options were grim to none.

Capelleon did make her think about teaching. She taught only briefly about the only other planet known to orbit the sun. From what telescopes and observatories could tell, Capelleon was farther from the sun, and took a little more than a calender year to complete its orbit. It also was but a fraction of Towne’s size and lacked any air. It was also deadly cold, and said to have a surface covered in coal and diamonds. For a world made of carbon, it sure did reflect a lot of light.

Andreas looked up and yawned. He still had a little fatigue left over from the great escape. Would he ever be able to sleep all that off? Perhaps, but not until he lay on his own bed– and that was a good thousand kilometers away and then some. “I think I’ll call it a day. You better get some sleep too, cause it’s going to be a long walk tomorrow.” Thinking about walking all the way back down to Port of Dreams made him wonder if the Steelhorse was still there. It was stolen once, and could just as easily be again.

Katrina looked back towards the dam, and the glowing city below. She dreaded returning to the world below. With no luck securing a job, much less finding one, she had little choice but to comply. Well, Port of Dreams was a much larger city with more opportunities. She will succeed, for the other options included much destitution. “Very well,” she said, finishing the last bite of her fruit kabob. When Andreas told her goblins made this snack, she hardly believed him. After seeing so many of the little green men peddling frozen fruit kebabs, she decided it true. They might be very alien, but they sure made some good food.

“That’s the spirit,” Andreas caught her less than enthusiastic tone. “Now come on. And don’t even think about sleeping in. You do that, and I’m going to roll you down the stairs,” he finished with a laugh. Katrina remained silent. She still had trouble telling when that man jested and when he was serious. Best not take that risk. Resigned to her fate, she took one last look around the theater’s hub and took off after Andreas.

As soon as breakfast vanished, Andreas had to drag Katrina from the inn. He made sure everything was packed before he went to bed the night before. They had so little on them; a change of clothes each, and a brush, and not much else. Andreas just threw it all into one bag, much to Katrina’s annoyance. The bag was another souvenir. It was the type of pack one carried on their back. What few youth Andreas did see wore them, and carried their school books in them. It struck him as a good idea, not that he knew much about school books. Back when he was their age, Tropico had recovered from the revolution and was still piecing itself back together. Even today there was not enough money in the schools to afford a book for each student.

Without delay or detour, Andreas lead the way towards the long stairway. He watched with little interest as the organic cityscape flowed past. He did look at a certain patch of shrubbery with a slight smile. He could not help but wonder how Sunshine was faring. Hopefully the little bugger had not loosed himself on the world again. He just did not know what was good for him.

Andreas’s next thought came when he made a close approach towards a crowd in the middle of one hub. Unlike most hubs, this lacked a fountain. It was an oddity in a city that loved water. “I wonder what they’re so excited about,” the voice was Katrina’s. Andreas was not overly curious. It was probably some showmen trying to make a buck. He has seen corner shows in Tropico City.

“Can’t be that important,” Andreas said, determined to pass on without another glance.

Katrina reached out and grabbed his arm. “I want to find out.” She dragged him back and began to pull him through the crowd. Dozens of well dressed and groomed locals parted with little resistance.

When Andreas peered ahead, he found himself disappointed. This was no salesmen. Instead of an impoverished peddler or traveling medicine show, Andreas saw a young woman wearing white robes. Her hair was a light blond, nearly matching the robe, and her face was nearly as pale. The only real color were her eyes, a piercing blue. She stood before several cardboard boxes. The boxes stood open side down, and were probably empty. At least the only one standing on its side showed as much.

“If I can have your attention please,” the robed woman called out. She lifted her right hand, and a glint of light caught the crowds attention. “Here I have one mythral ring made from white dyamascus. And over there I have several light boxes, capable of flying in a strong wind.”

Mythral– Andreas knew what that was from his magazines. It was an alloy made from iron and dyamascus. There were many theories about dyamascus, and the newly coined ‘Ultima Radiation’ that it emits, but one thing was known. The element gave its wearer or user strange powers, mind-over-matter powers. The users called themselves mages. Andreas never seen one before; dyamascus was the rarest of elements on Towne, and only one known source was a long ways west of Tropico.

Neither he nor Katrina ever seen mythral, and she heard little about it. There were rumors, very hushed rumors, that Doctor Hawk studied dyamascus and its ultima radiation. The thought of the doctor made her glance over at Andreas. His office was the one he and those dwarven gangsters raided. They took a lot of books and notes. If the rumors bore any truth, did Tropico now have those notes, or did the Golden Hammers keep it for themselves? Knowing gangsters, they must have sold it to the highest bidder.

“With a word and a flick of the wrist, I shall send these boxes flying in the wind,” the white mage declared. The crowd responded with a round of muttering, most of it skeptical to say the least. A few actively ridiculed her about the very idea of a mage in this modern day. What was once called magic, centuries before and then some, was now more thoroughly understood scientifically. It was not mystical force or supernatural power. It was but energy radiated off certain elementary particles. One even invoked Ultima Theory.

“Just because they change the name doesn’t make it any less real,” the mage called back. She preceded to chant out a couple of words. Andreas could not make out the words, but he felt a static charge in the air. The mage focused her words and thoughts, and channeled the static air into a funnel. Before the onlookers eyes, a gust of wind flew from her fingertips and sent boxes flying into the crowd.

Several onlookers ducked to avoid flying cardboard, a few were too slow. Katrina squealed as one headed towards her and Andreas. The only one in the crowd, other than the mage, who was the least bit cool was Andreas. He stared down rival gangsters and worse in his days. He was not about to jump out of the way of a stupid box. He did not even blink as a slice of cardboard flew millimeters above his head. He just stared blankly at the mage.

The mage caught her breath as the crowd reorganized itself. Katrina righted herself, trying to recompose her dignity. She looked with concern at Andreas. “Are you alright?”

Andreas gave her a neutral stare. “On please, it was just a box.”

At hearing Andreas calmly speaking, Katrina realized just how silly she looked. Ducking from a box– it was ridiculous. She experienced worse over the past week. Having survive capture and pursuit by one of the Knights, and making it all the way to Dream City, for what? To get jumpy at the sight of flying cardboard. The mage’s power did surprise her– and everyone else. Well except Andreas, but she knew he always held his cool.

While the crowd began to rebound, Andreas began making his way out of the mess. Yes, all the onlookers are fascinated by the little magic display. Admittedly, it was interesting to watch, but he had not the time. Besides, he could just pick up next astro’s science journal and read all about ultima radiation. It required a little effort to disengage Katrina’s interest in the mage. After pulling and tugging, he finally got the message through. A good thing too, he did not fancy having to carry her away.

“Come on, you can see plenty of street shows down below,” Andreas told her, leading her back down to the open labyrinth known as Port of Dreams.

Katrina took one last look at the crowd. She did not want to leave Dream City, but Andreas was right. The much large city at the foot of the dam offered a farther range of opportunities. If she could capture a job there, then she can work her way back up here. A house it Dream City, now that was a goal she could shoot for.

Katrina leaned back in cushy leather chair and let out a long sigh. “No luck today?” Andreas asked, looking up from the paper long enough to see the grimace of defeat upon her face.

“Who would have thought finding a job would be so difficult,” she muttered to him. She never had to look for one before; she was handed a position as teach in The State’s colony of Shownastadt.

Andreas nodded. No, she never had to look. She was appointed, commanded by the government that oversaw every aspect of her life. Those living under oppression had the most trouble adapting to choices. Those who were born free, or as free as one was on Towne, enjoyed it– while those given it seldom know what to do with it.

Katrina leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling. The room had a tiled ceiling, one made of thousands of tiny white squares. It was the only part not really decorated. The walls were lined with paintings, the curtains hanging from windows shouted all sorts of bright colors, and the carpet richly woven. Even the beds sported blue and white covers. Beds– this was the first room they found where one or the other did not have to sleep on the couch. That other was usually Katrina. She cursed Andreas for that; how can a man be so companionate to a dog but treat his own species so indifferently?

Katrina looked over at Andreas, and watched him knock back a drink of golden liquid. “What is that?”

“This?” he held up what he was reading. “Why this is called a newspaper.”

Katrina glared at him. “The drink!”

Andreas looked into his glass. “Rum, good old fashion Tropican Spiced Rum. Better than the stuff at the pubs back home, that’s for certain.”

Katrina just stared at him for a moment. She never seen any alcohol before, at least not so close. Rum– was that not distilled sugar? “Isn’t that toxic?”

“Indeed,” Andreas said, taking another drink. “But it’s a step up from the water back home. Only way you can drink that is after boiling and filtering it. Unless one went up into the mountains and took it out of a fast running creek, otherwise the rest of it’s too slow moving and stagnant for human consumption.”

“And everyone drinks rum?” Katrina asked.

Andreas nodded. “When they can. If not, then they have some awful home-brewed stuff, or they just boil water the best they can. Or fruit juice, plenty of oranges and lemons growing there.”

“Like Tropican Punch?” Katrina asked, remembering his fondness for that drink.

Andreas laughed. “You wouldn’t believe how hard that stuff is to find in Tropico–“ Andreas went on and on about Tropican drinks for several minutes. Katrina listened, actually finding herself interested. For all she was taught about Tropico, she would have thought it a dark and depressed place, one dominated by megalithic bureaucracies, and where the people lived in grass huts. It was a place where communism had crushed the natural growth of humanity and where mutants and defects infest every nock and cranny. She never once considered how much The State was like that, minus the non-sapiens and genetically challenged.

Yet when Andreas spoke of Tropico, he spoke of it the same way Katrina thought of home. As a happy place, a bright place and above all, a safe place. What was it really like? The tropical paradise so many spoke about, or a destitute swamp. It rains a lot during the wet season, and that was all she knew for certain. Before she ever crossed paths with Andreas, life was so simple and straightforward. There was right and wrong, black and white. Then along came this gangster and everything turned into a billion shades of gray.

“I’m starting to have doubts about all this,” Katrina said softly. Not so much to Andreas but more as to think aloud.

“A little late for that,” Andreas replied without sympathy. He was like that a lot; one moment sympathetic and the next cold and calculating. Katrina came to expect it out of him now, though it still burned her.

“This is all your fault, you do realize that,” Katrina told him, and not for the first time.

Andreas shrugged. “If I had a time machine, I’d go back and fix my life– That way I’d never come into Golden Hammer employment– among other things– and you wouldn’t be in this mess.” Katrina only stared coldly at him. Yes, he would fix his life first and foremost. “Look, Katrina, I can’t undo any of it,” he sighed with a mix of frustration. There was plenty he wished he could undo. “All I can do is set you up with a little bit of money, hopefully enough to last you until you land a job. Maybe I can pull some strings with my people and get you work–“

To this, Katrina instantly and violently shook her head. “Not a chance. I am going to make my money honestly! I don’t want any underground references on my resumè.”

Andreas shrugged again, “Suit yourself, but I am leaving in a couple of days. I got my own life to get back to, and a mess to straighten out. No doubt my people are going to know where I’ve been hiding this past astro. So you decide what you want and I’ll try to help you out.”

That was his final word. Katrina decided to just let him have the last word. She was too tired to argue. She did not even know what to argue about. What did she want? Aside from waking up and realizing the past couple of weeks were just a bad dream. She did not even know what she wanted anymore. There was just too many choices and so little time, or in case of jobs, too few choices and all the time in the world.

Now what she needed was a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. She would wake up, hopefully back home (though she was not holding her breath on that), and forget any of this ever happen. She laughed at her own foolish thoughts. More likely, she would wake up, trade an insult or two with Andreas, and head back out into the mean streets and try her luck again. She knew not if she would succeed, and that hurt most. At lease back home, she always knew what lay ahead. Out here in the ‘real world’ as Andreas called it, she had no idea. Not knowing was the hardest part.

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