Chapter 1: Gnome Man
We have seen the enemy, and he is us. - Walt Kelly (Pogo)
"Houston, Texas - Greg Howe Basklure and his wife were murdered last night in what police report to be the city's first murders of the year, happening short after midnight on New Years Day. Mr. Basklure, a leading corporate CEO for PAX American Resources, had locked the front door for the night, but had failed to remember to check the rest of the house. The Texas coroner's report stated that Mr. Basklure's alcohol levels were high which might have contributed to his forgetting to turn on the alarm system. As soon as the lights went out in his quarters, there was movement in the streets around his property, neighbors reported." SALIGIA TIMES, NEW YEARS DAY
The Collective Lounge was a grand place next to the main parcel service building. Made of brick and glass, famous for it's architecture. Surround by an amphitheater it housed every kind of catering you could imagine. Virtually an all you can eat buffet. It was open to all, and frequented by as much. The walkways that approached the building were wider then the streets that surrounded it on all sides. Seven stories tall, with a solarium concourse separating the main building from the theater. From the outside, it looked like a Roman Colosseum.
It was built in 95, there was a large promenade with a six story-high ceiling that is filled with perfect people-watching seats. It contained replicas of the world's best art along the walls and hallways. Tourist from all over the world use to visited it regularly, it was the best place in the city to be entertained, and feast. Even as the surrounding buildings flooded, it would have been one of the few places in the city below the ground floor that wasn't.
The Collective Lounge had it's own generator, and flood pump.
Before the New Year's black out Levi had returned to the city. He looked into the 'The Fox and Grapes', on the top floor. It was among the best of the cafes within the lounge. All of the walls were covered with black and white photographs, history of the local area. It's style was designed to cater the upper class, but it was the policy of the collective to be open to all. The poorest of the street could could have a glass of wine, and read "The Gentleman's Magazine". At least that was the idea, but it did not work out that way.
He knew that if he entered he would be looked down upon, and drawing attention to himself by his out of style clothing. Hiking boots, and pack sacks were also out of place here. It made him wonder how mankind had made it this far, why were people so obsessed with what they looked like.
As he watched from the entrance he noticed a woman in a high fashion dress sitting alone in the corner drinking a cappuccino. She reminded him of a child's toy, a Barbie Doll is what he thinks they used to call it. He knew by looking at her that she would not have the physical or inner strength to survive what was about to happen.
He wondered what the women from his own community would think of her, it was likely they wouldn't like her at all. Here in the city, the class differences were very apparent, and the preference to which class you were suppose to belong to was upside down he thought.
Instead he went down a level to The Smoking Hand.
The Smoking Hand was a chain of nooks that each had their own theme. This one was normally a beatnik styled cafe. He had never been there that early in the day, the sun was just starting to peak over the horizon, and the place smelled of cinnamon rolls, and coffee. The dark drapes had been pulled back to allow the light from the outside to filter in, and the place looked completely different then the dark smoky interior that he was used to at night. The pictures of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs took on a new aura in the sunlight. He settled down in the corner, and order the house breakfast.
Levi was a renaissance man, his eyes were the most prominent feature of him. His eyes shined, and he had a warming smile. His intense gaze could burn a hole right through you.
"You have stunning eyes," the waitress had remarked, she was playing with her necklace, which had a charm of a gosling on it.
"Thanks, but I'll bet your fiance has even more stunning eyes then myself." Levi commented.
She looked at him in wonder "How did you know I'm engaged? I'm not wearing a ring."
"Let's just say a little bird told me," replied Levi while tapping his own neckline, hinting at her charm.
"You've been to India!" she smiled and went to get his order.
Many who have known him would claim that he could predict the future. If the truth be told, Levi could not predict the future any more then grabbing random passages out of a book could. Levi was a scholar of history, the only reason he claimed that he knew what was going to happen next, was simply because he knew that the one thing we learned from history is that we don't. He had read a lot of books, including the entire Fey Collections.
The lights flickered.
Almost there, he thought. He had been lucky to get to the city before everything fell apart. It was a crazy idea to come here, with what he knew. Somehow nostalgia had taken control, he just had to have one more coffee at the Collective Lounge. It had taken him days to finally get here, and would take weeks to get back, if he was lucky. He wondered if he would have time to walk along the board walk before he would have to leave, he hadn't seen the ocean in years. Not since his father had died, and his mother had sent him to university.
The paper he was reading during breakfast noted the death of a major CEO in an oil company, a murder or two more, and how the price of gas had doubled since last April. It was filled with the usual mass media garbage that had totally missed the point of informing the reader of what was really new. But for the most part Levi couldn't blame them, it was a closely guard secret. It wouldn't be for to much longer.
He flipped through the paper to the market section, precious metals was on the rise, and so were commodities, but almost everything else was just bumping along the same path they had since the last market crash. Oil was the only real marker that something was happening, it was at another high record breaker. He wondered if the greening of North America would have any effect, would there be enough solar and wind power to meet the needs of the city? He knew better then to hope, there wasn't even enough to keep public transit online.
The lights flickered, again.
Levi interrupted his own thoughts, and finished his coffee. He noted that it wasn't completely coffee, the taste of beats came through in the last swallow. Close enough he thought, he didn't have any real coffee on the farm back home anyway. Funny how that sounded in his head he thought.
This was home, this city, or so he thought it was, that was one of the reason he had come all this way. But now that he was here, he felt homesick for the relative safety of the farm.
He had been born here, raised here till his father died. Although his relatives were also here, he would not visit them. He hated thieves. When he had left for university he had every intention to return, but life had taken another turn, and he had ended up on the farm. He had built the farm to withstand the change in the world that was coming, and was planning on remaining there till the bulk of the change had past him buy. But Beatrice had begged him, so he was here instead.
The lights flickered one more time, then went out.
Levi realized how much of a fool he had been to come back to the city of his birth, he thought that somehow he had already burned this bridge years ago, but now he was here again, and during the worse possible time. The lights would never come back. It was a sure bet that the Collective didn't even have any reserve fuel for the generator in the basement.
Most people in the cafe didn't even notice the power was out. Black outs were common as the grid couldn't take the demand. They usually lasted at the most a few hours while the city workers dealt with whatever had gone wrong, and most of the time the were just local, centering out within a few blocks. This time however, Levi knew it was much larger then just a few blocks in some city on the west coast. They had no idea, he thought.
He got up from the table, paid his bill in full with a rather large tip to the waitress, and left. As he walked out of the Collective, he became angry with himself, his calculations had already been off. He had thought that he would have at least a few days before the power grid failed. Now he was in the heart of a dark city, and it was about to get darker with, or without the sun.
Across from the Collective was the main parcel building, every delivery in the city was centralized from there. He watched the people entering to pick up their allotments for the week, and the line was getting longer. He had a few food stamps himself, and wondered if he should stock up on whatever he could get. His pack was already to heavy a burden to bare for the return home, let alone the walk to the other end of the city, but he risked it.
He decided that a free handout might be needed in the long run, and got in line. The man in front of him kept talking to himself, he smelled like rancid meat, and urine. He keep repeating the same words over and over, "Phony Karma ... Phony Karma", and Levi wondered what he meant.
The women in front of him had a small child with her, and was trying to avoid eye contact with the addict. She had a look of despair, and worry. The child was silent, and stood close to her mother, she had been here before thought Levi.
The line grew longer as time passed, and the lights did not return. By the time Levi was halfway to the door to Parcel Building a man came out in an orange cover all suite to announce that there would be no more exchanges for food stamps today, but that cash would be excepted while supplies last. Levi realized that the man was a 'volunteer' from the local prison, and wondered how many others were inside.
The meth addict suddenly started screaming in rage, cut out of line, and ran to the door. He got into a shouting match with the man in the orange coveralls, and it went to blows. People near the front of the line stepped back to get out of the way, but no one tried to help the volunteer. Somehow the addict got the upper hand in the fight, and the volunteer was on the sidewalk at this point, covering his head from the blows of the others feet. The addict was brutal, it was obvious to Levi that he would kill the volunteer.
Levi ran up behind the addict, and gave him a blow with his elbow at the base of his skull, he went down instantly. The other slowly got to his feet and thanked him. He had been lucky that none of the damage was permanent, and offered to let Levi in ahead of the others, even accept the food stamps as long as he kept it quiet. Levi thanked him, but refused, asking instead that the women and child would be allowed to cut line instead. The volunteer agreed and Levi gave the women his own food stamps telling her to get whatever she could for it that would last the longest, and left.
After he had walked out of sight of the Parcel building he turned a few corners to get back in the direction he had to go. He had purposely left in the wrong direction to avoid the chance that the police would want to ask him questions about the blow he had given to the meth freak. He had no idea if he had killed him, no one had checked on him. And he didn't want the police asking to many questions, nor have them search is pack.
He was now heading east along the main street of the city, dirt and mold were the colors that line the street on either side. Building that once housed all kinds of markets were boarded up, or currently being used as squats by the homeless. A few places remained open, but it was going to be short lived. Most shelves were already bare, hardly anyone shopped in this part of town who still had money, and shop keeps didn't see the need to stock up so soon after Christmas, the only reason they were still in business at all was because the banks hadn't bothered to close them down yet.
Beggars lined the sidewalks, holding out cups and hats for some 'spare change', looking like the great unwashed of the dirty 30's. All this didn't faze Levi, the only thing he couldn't stand was the smell. Levi's olfactory was not ready to deal with the scent of alley waste, the place stank. Garbage spilled out in the street, and he wondered if there was a civil workers strike he was unaware of. Even the sidewalks, which should have been cleaned by last nights torrent of rain looked filthy. An over whelming stink prevailed in everything, and he knew it was getting into his clothes.
When he first arrived at the city, he was aware that it smelled different, having been so long in the country, his sense of smell had not bothered to block out any odors, by the time he had walked from the docks to the Collective Lounge he was mildly accustomed to it. But this was beyond what his nose could deal with.
He altered his planned path to avoid the main drag, and continued on. It was a small improvement, but now he was walking past the less social able of those who lived and died on the east side. He wondered if his pack was a sight that invited trouble, and quickened his pace.
Perhaps it to early to early in the mourning, or just dumb luck, but his journey out of the inner core of the city went mostly unchecked until he reached the commercial sector. A few times stranger approached him to test to see if he could defend himself, but a hand placed under his jacket let them realize they'd rather be somewhere else.
It took Levi just over an hour to get the markets in the better half of the city. Here he could spend sometime seeking information on the where to spend the night beyond the city gates. He still had a few hours of walking ahead of him before he reached his query, but at least he'd have the fore knowledge of where to go to next. The way he had come to the city was not an option for the return to the farm, the boat that had dropped him off at the docks was heading south instead. Land was the way home now.
He walked south along the drive looking for an old hangout of his from his younger years. When he found the space where it had once been, he was disappointed, The Flute had been a community center, and a safe haven for the underground. All that was gone now. In it's place was a meditation center, the kind that recommend yoga, and natural health products. He wondered what ever happened to the painting of Che Guevara on the north wall, had someone rescued it, before the community disbanded? He wandered around the drive looking for an alternative source of information, maybe they had just moved. There were bulletin boards scattered along the drive in front of various shops and markets. Most of the notices were requests for information on missing youth, others were about goods for sale. Very few were requests for roommates, or apartments for rent.
Levi continued to scan the boards until he found one that looked promising. It read "Find the center of your being, your inner most desires in the middle of your soul, knock and the door shall be open to you.", and a phone number. Levi memorized the number while pretending to continue to read the boards and walk onto the next board. After walking along the drive, browsing in various shops, making sure he was not being watched, he took out his phone and dialed the number. He hoped that he was in range, with the power out he'd have to rely on an open network powered by solar.
A machine answered the line after a couple of rings and a religious message began about purgatory, Levi didn't listen but pressed the number five on his keypad a few times.
"Operator", a voice said on the other end.
"Oh One, Oh One", Levi replied
"Go ahead", the operator responded.
"Requesting information on safe havens east of the city, walking distance intervals as far as you can give me", Levi said in a lowered voice as not to be noticed by a passerby.
"Standby" was the response.
Levi listened to elevator music while he waited, turning to walk east as he did so.
The operator came back online, "I have the information you requested. There is one safe have just south of the Pitt Gate, it can be found by following the train tracks three miles south of the gate and heading east. There is another along highway seven, directions can be found near the fresh water spring two days out. Look for the signs. If you make it that far, further information can be found by looking for breadcrumbs.", and then the operator hung up.
He continued to walk east for another hour and half. The density of the city began to thin out a little, resembling something like a hybrid between a downtown core, and suburban track housing. It was safer here for the time being as he continued to walk, less people, less undesirables.
He passed a group of people walking the other way, inquiring if the transit was working yet. He replied that it wasn't as far as he knew. He reached a boardwalk. He stopped to rest, and drink. Taking in the view for one last time, he knew he would never see the ocean again in his life. This wasn't the ocean, or the boardwalk he had wished he could visit before returning, but a river that emptied out to it. He was to far east for that now. Still, it would have to do. He rested a little while longer, then continued the last part of his journey to find what he had come here for. Forty minutes later he was walking up the steps of a large white building. Somewhere inside was the person he was looking for, and he would have to convince a complete stranger to come with him on a very long journey.