Ulla Vangelis – Leslie
Reggie Carlisle – John (Beta)
Trae Mowaka- Jesse
Jack Nash – John (Prime)
GM- Tod Foley
Trae tosses the canister and lid to Ulla. It’s a nano-containment device, with a molecular-bonded interior lining. Examining the interior of the lid, she’s shocked to find a message embossed into the metal: “YOU WILL RETURN WHAT YOU HAVE TAKEN.” She shows it to the others. “How were they able to control a break in reality… to send me this?”
Trae – “Experiments in cross-universal travel?”
Reggie – “But they knew exactly where we were…”
Trae – “Yes, that’s troubling.”
Nash to Ulla – “Did you steal something? I mean… No judgment…”
Ulla comes clean and tells them about the experimental implants in her head. She was “designed,” she explains, to function as a first-generation cyber-assassin for Wolfram. The system in her head is worth billions. She actually performed several missions for them — including one that took out an important lieutenant of their enemy “The Fate Broker” and his army of “whisperer” informants — but eventually she grew tired of their mistreatment and fled. Even Ulla isn’t aware of the full extent of her capabilities, but among them are full-spectrum vision, and a sort of “cyber-clairvoyance” that she’s always found painful and disorienting.
They continue walking eastward, talking as they go. Ulla is experimenting with her new senses, mastering the use of this nano-swarm like a new skill, and becoming hyper-aware of things in her general area. She discovers she can “position” her nano-swarm around a particular location, and get a good sense of what’s there without causing herself any headaches or nosebleeds.
Reggie swishes around to ask Trae if he has any theories about what’s going on. Traes says he has a few potential solutions, but he’s not ready to “workshop” them yet. Nash raises his finger sternly: “We’re not killing Ulla, Trae,” he says. “That’s off the table.” Trae blinks and nods quietly. The group moves on while Trae jogs back to get his gun, which he had dropped in his dive for the canister. Nash sidles up to Ulla to put her at ease. “Hey, it’s nothing to worry about,” he says to her. “We’ve just found we have to be very specific when talking to Trae. I’ve laid down the law.”
Several meters behind them and without being seen, Trae holds his weapon out at arm’s length, and he locks an augmented exclamation point as a target on the back of Ulla’s head.
Ulla becomes aware of two things simultaneously: (1) that Trae just aimed a gun at her for a second, and (2) that there is a group of people about 300 meters ahead: they’re a little bit below ground, and they have a fire burning. She files the former fact for future reference, and tells everyone about the latter. Trae sends a drone ahead and locates an underground door with a short flight of stairs leading down to it. Nash and Reggie decide they’ll go in first. Trae and Ulla get into position, and Nash knocks on the door.
The door cracks open a bit and a large gruff man in a mining helmet stares out at them, a small child grabbing his leg. The man pulls a cigar out of his mouth and barks into Nash’s face: “PEOPLE OR STATE?”
Surprised, Nash assures the man that they have nothing to do with any city or state, so… “I’m gonna say people. Hey, we’re kinda lost out here…?”
“Not anymore you’re not,” says the man, opening the door for them and shaking everyone’s hand. “My name’s Exo, and I run this place. You can stay as long as you need, maybe even find a job.” He leads them down a set of rickety stairs to a massive subterranean complex, all recycled wood and scavenged machinery, with dirt floors and numerous people milling around. “Welcome to Tube City,” he says.
Exo leads them deeper into the complex. They pass a few little shops, living quarters and workspaces; children run around playing, people lug heavy containers up and down the tunnel, some are cooking and baking, and up ahead the sounds of engines can be heard. A workshift is just ending, and a crew of miners comes up the tunnel toward them, some of them riding on a small tractor. The foreman of the off-duty shift introduces himself as “Blinky,” and says he can put them to work.
Ulla asks what exactly they’re working on. Exo looks at her. “Why the tunnel, of course! We’re gonna finish the job we came here to do!” He explains that they “hit a few snags” when the city abandoned the project: “We had some bad times, and I’m not proud of it, but we’ve come together, and we’re moving ahead. We’ll be there in a year, maybe two. Are they ready for us? NO!” He rallies the others up around him, shouting “People over State!” Fists are raised, slogans are chanted. The whole thing feels very political.
Trae is interested in finding a way into the city from here. He inquires about any smaller tunnels they might have found. Exo tells him there are some, maybe big enough to send a child through. He doesn’t advise exploring them, but he says “it’s a free underground.”
Nash asks Exo what they plan to do when the tunnel is completed. Exo tells him that they’re already in touch with some people who’ll be helping from inside. “When we finally break through, it’s Revolution Time, son.”
Trae asks who those people on the inside might be. Exo laughs at him, and hands them off to Blinky. “Get these people a meal,” he says. “For one night, we can afford it.” He walks away. Blinky takes them back up tunnel to a small eatery with picnic tables and benches, where they have some lizard stew and hardtack crackers. Blinky introduces them to everybody who comes in. There’s Nightowl and Frenzy, Tooth, Nocturne, Risk, Fallen, and the smallest kid, whose name is Whisper.
Ulla waves the child over and offers them a small ring of copper wire. The kid takes it and hides behind someone’s leg, never breaking eye contact.
Blinky explains how the job of digging the tunnel was a lot easier when they had the old automated equipment and AI, but now they’re doing it “the old fashioned way: a lotta shoulder and back work.” Nash is still curious about why they’ve decided to not only complete the tunnel, but overthrow the political system of the city. Blinky gives a long speech about the historical suffering of humanity and the planet under the corporate hands of the “Neoliberal Agenda” that began early in the 21st century. “This revolution is long overdue,” he says. “It ain’t enough they control all the people and all the land… they want to control everything down to the microscopic level! They want to control reality itself! Well, look what they’ve done now: they’ve gone and fucked up reality, and it’s time to put an end to it. PEOPLE OR STATE.”
Before Blinky goes off to get some sleep, Trae asks him about the smaller tunnels Exo had mentioned. The foreman says they keep those tunnels sealed for a reason. When Trae presses the issue, Blinky tells him flat-out: “I think you oughta stay away from those tunnels.” He then departs.
The group quietly discusses what seems to have happened in this place. They conclude there was some violence when the city backers pulled out, and that those who remain here today are the faction that “won” that conflict.
Ulla notices that Whisper is hiding behind a nearby table, still apparently fascinated by Ulla herself. She coaxes the kid over and begins asking questions in a soothing voice. The kid listens intently and moves slowly closer, but doesn’t speak. Finally the child is close enough to touch Ulla’s knee, and leans in close to her ear. “I like you,” says Whisper — snugging in even closer until their lips are grazing her ear — and then: “Please take me away from here.”
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