39 - The Four Riders

If you have insider information, some nugget of insight that the world is going to end nowish, well, do you let slip the owls of truth, the parliament of truth? The Observer struggled with this paradoxical quandary, as they dumped the lev-bike. They had rented a whole shuttle to themselves at the Sodden departure station that Au and Archie were now familiar with. No stops until Old Jardinian. “You can relieve yourself out the window,” Au told Archie, though with a more vulgar expression, himself guiltily looking up from guzzling the better part of a six-pack he’d found in a vending machine. His subconscious had picked the machine out, and his chemAR had drawn attention to it with a bright highlight. He had heard the sound each machine of this particular brand emitted, specially designed to attract the attention of the working class market. It had accompanied all of the advertising media. So, he’d gotten thirsty. After all that dust - how could he say not?

Impecca, meanwhile, was in awe of the mass of people, at least compared to anything else she’d experienced. She had no fear of starting a conversation. They had to drag her along. She was too nice and curious to be left alone in an unfamiliar land, let alone the Sodden departure station. Au knew that these losers, quite literally, gambing or otherwise, leaving Sodden were statistically more likely to be not good people, as Jards went. It was good that Au had the money to rent a shuttle. A regular transport shuttle from Sodden was likely filled with desperate contract workers who had lost a lot of money, or even worse, lost their boxhomes. Besides, there was as good a chance as any that her money would be worthless soon. She’d sprung for the whole luxurious offering when renting the thing, and after their romp through the desert, felt well-earned for a foursome of soon-to-be questing heros, if a bit self indulgent.

Now, the ethos that heros are deserving of luxury was long an Industrialist mantra, but she let herself get away with here. After all, who might be left to judge her when it had all played out? Nothing to do now, but pray that they reached the temporal fields in time to facilitate some sort of result, and eat fresh sodden lobster and Jungle-yak butter. Yum. As the journey continued through the jungle from Sodden towards Old Jardinian, meeting up with the main C-rail line, Archie filled the time not thinking about the Night Jaguars. The Observer, more productively, quizzed Au about the temporal fields. She told him all she’d known about the secretive project. The project that had ended up having far reaching implications for Old Jardinian society, even before the encroachment of the smudge, and this ascension of the Alovians.

As Au, and any other from Old Jardinian above five with even a passing interest in local geography knew, the area outside Old Jardinian was called Rimm. It was dominated by the ever-expanding Acropolis agricultural company. One family farm after another had fallen over the centuries to the advances of the giant farming and food production conglomerate. As if this wasn’t enough, in recent years, the desperately thin sector of family farms was menaced on the other side by a new player.

“We all heard about your refusal of the mark, in one way or another. The official explanation was that you couldn’t take the pressure of following in such vaulted footsteps.“ Austera began the tale.

The Observer snorted with derision and discomfort alike; try as one might to dissociate, this was a legacy that would pain even the least egocentric Jard.

“Quietly, although we students eventually heard one way or another, someone else was given the mark. I don’t even remember the guy from our classes, they say he was quiet and studious and a bit of a loner. Hoggum Diffen was his name. His company rose to prominence, undercutting energy prices with such savagery to drive everyone else out. And the people loved it. They got power at an unheard of rate. And so did the industrialists, besides those who got pushed out, and now couldn’t find a sympathetic ear in Old Jardinian, because again, energy was so cheap. The fact that the guy led such a mysterious life, that only served to enhance his legend. A true people’s hero, letting his output do the talking they said, and still say.”

Au continued. You should see the statue they put up for him. He refused to sit for the traditional modelling, so they put some welding goggles on some shirtless hunk and slapped it up in the middle of the grand kilo.

And of course, people respected his eccentric preference for isolation, as long as the energy prices kept dropping. There were whisperings of some shady play with regards to the family farms that now housed his metropolis-sized temporal fields, but nothing stuck, after all, he was the people’s champion, humble beyond compare, not to mention generous, selling his energy at a price far below what he could have charged.

“Has he taken over the Asmina-Yurk family plot?” The Observer questioned worriedly.

Au looked at him oddly, “I have no idea. You’ll have to ask when we get there.”

They disembarked in Old Jardinian, leaving the rented shuttle in its berth for someone else to deal with, deposit be damned in this time of impending crisis. A couple grubbins scampered on to clean the refuse, making secret signs to the glorious, forthcoming Banana. Or maybe they were going to call each other. Anyway, the lobster bits and other extravagances remained from the foursome’s brief window of breath-catching on this ever-forward and quite possibly futile march against the encroachment of the smudge.

In the few brief moments between stepping out of the station, and getting into a lev-taxi, Impecca was awed at the architecture. The spires, domes, and the flora that enveloped them were beyond even her expansive imaginative capabilities. Her frontal lobes chastised themselves for never thinking on this grand scale.

“Most of the overgrowth had happened when Acropolis started applying air-moistening tech, some sort of weather control. It is a bit inconvenient…” Said Au, by way of explanation, as she gestured out at the grand kilometre.

Someone rushing about in business wear, looking at his projected wrist interface tripped over a vine that hadn’t been cleared off the walking path yet. His hot beverage hovered for a moment in the air where his hand had just been, and then splashed over the poor fellow’s legs as he lay flat and cursed with substantial imagination.

“But”, continued Au, smothering something like a laugh, “Acropolis has doubled their food output, and lowered the prices. The air has never been cleaner. So the people don’t mind. In fact, a whole public works division was created to manage the growth on the walking spaces, creating some new opportunities. Jards so do love to feel useful”

They ducked into a lev-cab. It was the same driver that had delivered them to the station. “New ride, eh,” she looked accusingly at the driver.

He had a disposable tabloid screen on the dash.

“Taxi Driver last to see Alden Carnibus, dead or just pretending?” read the headline, with an old looping video of a hungover Alden looking uncomfortable in the sunlight in the back of the levitating car.

He swiped at it guiltily. It took several tries to knock onto the floor, as Au gave him the patented stare that she had normally used for Alden’s expense reports.

The driver was certain his thinning hair had been singed by the time he settled himself. He carefully brushed around with his fingers to make sure everything was alright up there. They were still staring at him. He turned redder still.

“Ah. Anywhere in the city my (suspicious pause) friends, this one is on me.”

The word “friends” just didn’t sound sincere here, Au thought, and sent back another of her severe looks. “Rimm, temporal fields if you would.”

The four were crammed sweating into the back, as they drove at a breakneck pace through the city, spinning ‘round fountains and pedestrians. Tourists leapt out of the way with tacky attire flowing, while the locals sidestepped warily but unafraid. The driver had a notion that Au wasn’t feeling particularly patient today; he’d deal with the fines later. He could tell that Au was the kind of person who might ruin your career, and was probably eternally considering how to do it, just in case.

Impecca continued to be awed at the grand statues lining the boul’, and the grand, though occasionally tackily branded, buildings far off from the pathways choked with people and flora alike.

Archie’s chemAR popped up explanations of the sights again, and he lost himself in a bit of local history.

This was the first time that the Observer had been in town in five years, and well, it hadn’t changed much - except there seemed to be more of everything, more lights, cars, people. This was perhaps due to the cheap, though now known to be existentially expensive, energy that they were about to disrupt.

And through Old Old Jardinian they went, the lev taxi ducking through low stone gates to reach the fields of Rimm that tickled the sloping extent of the city.

They made it to the gates of the temporal fields.

On the half-hexagon arch encasing the robust carboplast gates read, “Temporal Fields + Lab”.

In smaller, less decorative type, underneath, it read “Trespassers will be maimed horribly, if not killed entirely. All “Wanderers” will indeed be “Lost” It was not inviting, as such.

The taxi stopped a few tens of meters in front of the gates. It stopped, because the driver put his hands up. A guard was pointing some sort of device at them, probably lethal, certainly unfriendly, and likely designed to produce generous collateral damage. Though you couldn’t be sure;It might have just been for show. Castle Inovata generally avoided selling their most dangerous assets, in case they were used against Castle Inovata guarded establishments. This would be bad for business, and possibly employee moral. Someone had come away from the PEMB conference near Breezdale with that nugget of wisdom.

_Positive Employee Morale on a Budget_ was indeed hosted yearly in a debilitatingly expensive beach villa / conference center / bowling lane extravaganza, situated on the tip of the “tail” of the landmass that looked not unlike a monkey. The same monkey that gave the region its name. It was in good form for an established Industrialist to show face, at least for the coconut bowling jamboree.

Au fearlessly walked up within shouting distance, figuring she could bribe her way in. To the guarded gate that is, not the conference. Avoiding a catastrophic disaster scenario was about as good for morale as it got. She had figured she could bribe her way into the walled research complex, but a firm shake of the head, and an intrusive glare back informed her that she in fact, actually could not.

The others followed, for moral support. Archie first, then The Observer. He had been lost in memory for a moment. Was this the same farm at which he had been raised? He tried to remember the field full of friendly cows, seen from under a straw hat at sunrise. He caught himself tipping a phantom hat back. It looked different now, at least the bit in front of the imposing segmented wall angling outwards, and studded with warning lights. The soil was cracked and broken, devoid of any crops or grazable snacks.

Impecca followed, having been caught up in the views of the surrounding countryside. When she reached the group, a clicking sound was heard. As if spurred on by Impecca’s presence, the door slowly shuddered open. The group ran in, as it was bad form to look too hard; gift horse, teeth, etc.

The guards, eternally forbidden from turning around by their reclusive employer, labeled it under “strange” and went back to menacing traveling farm workers who got too close, and firing warning shots for the general heck of it.

The four travelers were greeted by long lines of machines, looking like cylinders but humming. Smarmy hazes around each gave the impression of something moving by, really, exceedingly fast.

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