Annie and Trevor Arkly, the officers that were “escorting” Olivia through the Hub, had been leading her through the streets for what felt like hours. They were deep within the city now, far from the docks, and Olivia was beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic. The buildings reached higher into the sky than anything in the Lower Levels, and their shadows eclipsed the artificial sunlight so that it was constantly shaded. There was steam rising from the storm grates, and she heard people shouting to one another and buzzing horns as they sped past on bicycles and mopeds. The way the sounds reverberated off the concrete walls made the city itself feel as though it were a living entity, and she had been swallowed up.
“Some of the wealthier folks have steam powered cars,” Annie said as a particularly large vehicle sputtered past them. “From what we’ve been told, things in the Hub are a little less orderly than they are in the Lower Level.”
“So I can tell,” Olivia replied. “You have tall ships, steam powered cars, and flying machines powered by glowing crystals.”
“The Intrepid is originally from your World Ship,” Trevor corrected her without delay. “It brought a single power crystal with enough energy to power an entire city. They called it the Evercrystal. It powers the entire city and is one of only three ever made. They’re impossible to create on this World Ship. All of the other power crystals lose their charge over time, but the one powering the Hub recycles its own energy generated and uses that to generate more. It’s supposedly an almost endless source of power.”
“Good to know,” Olivia said, listening, but not really listening. There was simply too much to see all around her to talk about the greater intricacies of power crystals. Thankfully, before Trevor got too far along, Annie pulled on Olivia’s arm to get her attention. She saw the officer gesturing to a nearby food cart.
The vendors quickly offered up a variety of options, and Annie simply pointed at a few pictures. They watched as the vendors cooked and packed their food in paper containers and handed them over with welcoming smiles, followed by surprisingly high levels of gratitude when Annie offered them payment.
“This cart always has the best stuff,” she said, handing Olivia one of the containers.
Olivia opened the box and saw what could only be described as white pellets mixed with an assortment of vegetables. At least, she assumed they were vegetables. Whatever they were, they smelled like heaven.
“Dig in,” Annie said, passing a fork. “Tastes best when it is fresh.”
Trevor practically shoveled the cooked food into his mouth. He took a few moments to break for a drink, then finished up his meal before Olivia made a dent in her own. He wiped his mouth, looked at them both, then smiled. “Sorry, I eat a bit fast.”
Olivia nodded, her mouth full of this divine meal, and she took the time to really savor the flavors. It was unlike anything she’d ever tasted in the Lower Level, and she was already wondering how jealous Nancy Rizzo would be to learn that Olivia had discovered the next big hit food for the town.
Annie, who was also making great progress on her food, started pointing out the next intersection ahead. Olivia could see an opening there, and she was curious what it might be. “Up ahead is one of the gardens where many of the Solstice celebrations kick off.” Annie paused to chew some more. “They do a great fireworks show, if not a little small, but the lack of flair means most folks visit the larger events. You’ll love the view here. Do you guys have fireworks in town?”
“We do,” Olivia said. “I’ve heard our options pale in comparison.”
As they were nearing the end of the street, Olivia noticed three individuals stepping out into the crosswalk. It was odd, mostly because they seemed to be positioning themselves as a kind of blockade. She frowned, trying to focus on the three, but then she noticed something else. The hustle and bustle on the street had halted. Even the food vendors they had just visited were gone.
Trevor stopped, his body tensing. “Okay, it’s time to go,” he said, turning them back around.
“No need to rush,” a figure, one of the three blocking the road, spoke. Olivia glanced back at him. He wore a black outfit, his face mostly obscured. He had weapons on his back, and in that moment Olivia realized she was way out of her league. The man confronting them wasn’t holding the weapons, but there was a potential for danger, and that was something Olivia hadn’t really considered before.
Annie stepped wide, so that Trevor was on one side and she was on the other.
Olivia turned back to see two more folks had blocked them from the other end. They wouldn’t be able to avoid a confrontation.
“Guys,” the man in black continued. “Come on. We’re not here to hurt anyone.”
“Why are you here?” Trevor asked, his voice on edge.
“We just wanna talk,” the man said.
“We’re not interested,” Trevor replied. “Annie… run plan beta three.”
Trevor dropped something from his right hand. Olivia wasn’t sure what it was, but it suddenly exploded in a blinding light. She heard footsteps, and then she felt Annie slamming into her, practically throwing her across the road.
“Run. Now,” Annie said. “Use the light as cover. Hold tight.”
Annie held Olivia’s hand with an iron grip. She darted along, turning this way and that, and Olvia followed, holding on for dear life. That was really all she could do at this point. For the most part, she was still blind from looking at whatever it was that Trevor had dropped.
“We will go to Wilkin’s Hotel,” Annie explained as she ran. “You’ll be safe there until we can call for backup.”
“Who are these people?” Olivia asked.
Annie stopped, and Olivia nearly crashed into her. While her vision was still blurry from the explosion of light, Olivia could see that two figures had blocked Annie’s path. She grunted, then turned to see another man waiting at the other end.
“I’ll take the one. Charge with me, then run past. Keep going,” Annie said. “Do you understand? Keep running.”
“I don’t know where to run,” Olivia said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Annie replied. “Just run until they stop chasing, then hide until morning. We’ll find you.”
With that, Annie charged forward. She held out a small black object that quickly snapped open to form a metal baton. She got a few good hits in, and the unfortunate victim was shocked by her aggressive assault. Olivia seized the opportunity. She rushed past, cutting down the next street and into another alley, hoping that this time she might lose them.
She rounded a few more corners, finally reaching a street where several food vendors were still operating. The sense of safety in numbers allowed her to relax for a moment. Then, the vendors started to scatter, and she knew she was still being followed.
She turned to see two more mysterious figures standing there. These two weren’t dressed the same as the previous assailants. They had no weapons, and their faces were better covered, more intentional somehow.
She had nowhere to run. She felt like she might die from the anxiety.
Then, a new voice broke the silence, ringing with a strength and clarity that echoed in the alleyway. “Well now, what’s this all about?”
She looked to see that one food vendor remained. He was older than most of the citizens Olivia knew, but he looked fit and he carried himself well. He was stepping out into the street, approaching her, but his eyes were on her pursuers. ”Are you all right, young lady?”
“Get on along,” one of the figures said to the old man. “No need to meddle.”
“My good man. This is the Sentret district. We don’t stand for folks chasing young women through the streets. So, unless you want to buy some of my food, I suggest you be on your way.”
“Do you have any idea who you’re talking to, old man?”
“I suspect so,” the food vendor replied. “You’re young, built like a tank, and you can’t be more than seventeen. You’re one of the Chen boys.”
The pair froze in place.
“Ah,” the old man said, chuckling. “So it’s both of you.”
“It doesn’t matter if you know who we are. We’re taking the girl with us.”
“No,” the old man replied. “You are not.”
The pair shifted their stance, and Olivia knew they were about to attack. She took a defensive stance, something that David Nash had taught her years before, and prepared to fight them.
The old man, watching her prepare, shook his head. “That’s not necessary.”
She was confused, but before the two attackers could even reach them, blue sparks arched across the alley and zapped them both. They clenched up and fell over, writhing on the ground in what looked like quiet agony.
“Electrical deterrent,” the old man said. “It won’t stop them for long, but it’ll give us plenty of time to get where we need to go.”
Her eyes lingered on the two. She suddenly felt sorry for them.
“They’ll be fine,” the old man added, as though reading her mind. “Come on, the sooner we go, the better.”
The older man led Olivia on quite the journey. He used the main roads, out in public view, but they moved quickly, this way and that, and sometimes she felt like they were retracing their steps.
He led her down one street that was bustling with activity, into an older looking building, and then through a damp and dark tunnel that went into another abandoned building. Finally, he opened a door and they arrived in a small room with a tree growing in the main living area. Its branches were long enough to reach through the apartment windows and into the open air outside.
“Welcome to my refuge,” the old man said, smiling at her. “It’s not much, but it keeps me off the radar of folks I would rather not meet.”
“Obviously, thank you for saving my life,” she started. “My name is—”
“I know who you are,” the old man replied. “You know me too, I imagine.”
Her eyes went wide. “You…. Impossible. Are you Anton Mertens?”
“That’s right,” he said, smiling.
“I came to the Hub to find you. David said you were missing.”
He nodded, stepping over to a cabinet and pulling some cups out of a cupboard before pouring them both a drink. “Missing isn’t the right word. Hiding seems too cowardly. Perhaps it is best to say that I’m taking some well-deserved time off.”
“Did you take my memories?” Olivia asked, her voice heavy and clear.
Anton winced. He didn’t answer, but the way his eyes didn’t rise to meet her own gave her the answer she was looking for.
“Is Ronin my father?” she asked, moving on to the next question.
Anton gave a firm nod. “He is, indeed, your father.”
Olivia groaned. “How is that possible? He seems only a few years older than me.”
Anton set his drink down and rubbed his face. “Unfortunately, Olivia Sun, to fully understand the story of your father, of your memories, of all of it really, you’ll need a great amount of time to hear me out.”
“Then let’s go,” Olivia said. “I’m listening.”
“No,” he said, waving a hand. “We’ve had a busy evening, and I’m confident we are both much more tired than we might think. Now, we should get rest. In the morning, we can get food. After that, we’ll have a talk about the story you need to hear.”
Olivia wanted to refuse. She wanted to demand immediate answers, but she was tired and hungry, and in the intensity of the event that had steered her to Anton, she had lost track of a great many of her questions.
“My mind is reeling,” she said, honestly. “I don’t know that I can sleep right now.”
“Have some of this fine tea,” Anton said, offering her the cup.
She smelled it, then took a drink. It wasn’t her favorite, but it helped soothe her stomach. She took a few more sips, then found a comfortable place next to the tree in the room and tried to relax.
Whatever Anton had put in the tea worked really quickly.
Her mind stopped swirling, her thoughts became tranquil, and before she realized it she had fallen fast asleep.