As they entered the large building, three lights inside flickered on, illuminating tall racks stretching out of sight into darkness, packed to the brim of various machinery and parts.
A mechanical voice sounded out from an unseen location. “Sharp, Tunnel, my boys, welcome back. You got my fixer?”
Sharp waved the device in the air at one of the lights. “Got it right here, along with a DVG light writer.”
Only now did Lasko realize that the lights were bobbing up and down; they were floating in the air, disc shaped lights, with all three machines broadcasting the disembodied voice.
“I see, I see. I’ll take a look at it. Bring yourselves on back to the workshop.”
The lights started moving towards the back of the warehouse, through two of the racks, when the machines stopped and focused their light on Lasko.
“And tell that young ranker not to touch any of the merchandise; he’s not registered in my system yet.” Lasko was indeed contemplating taking a closer look at the racks. “Don’t blame me if somebody loses a hand.”
The lights began moving down the corridor once again, prompting the three boys to follow. The voice continued to talk, echoing throughout the silent warehouse.
“I got plenty of replacement hands, though, if that’s what you’re here for.” the voice cackled. “Some of them are pretty current gen too! Got one that’ll feed you food and water intravenously. You’d never have to eat again!”
Sharp shook his head. “Ignore him.” he said to Lasko. “That junk’s worthless.”
“Excuse me.” said the voice in a peeved tone. “I’ll have you know that in a certain age bracket these things are very popular. Plus, they’re very reliable. They use them for the droolers, after all!”
They finally came to a brightly lit area, covered with piece of dismantled machinery and various tools that Lasko did not recognize. All in all, though, it gave a similar feeling as a mechanic’s garage… the robotic lights floated to a nearby rack filled with many other similar looking drones. They took their place on the rack and deactivated, their lights turning off.
“Over here,” a dry voice called out, and the trio cautiously made their way across the floor littered with various parts.
They came to a large unrecognizable machine, lifted off the ground by a large lift. Two legs sprawled out from underneath it, each foot covered with a thick boot.
The person scooted out from underneath and peeled off a set of strange looking goggles, revealing a middle aged face, a pair of crinkly eyes, and a mop of wiry grey hair. A pair of thin lips tilted upwards slyly, and the man acknowledged the two scavengers with a brisk nod.
“Hello there boys. What do you have here?” the middle aged man wiped greasy hands on his grey jumpsuit. His eyes looked over Lasko, sizing him up; the man seemed more interested in the mysterious man that the two boys had brought, rather than the salvaged “DVG writer.”
“Young ranker, level looks to be about the mid-twenties. No faction or slaver markings.” The man took quick inventory of Lasko’s features. “He isn’t from around here, that’s for sure. Is he from Upper?”
“That’s what we thought,” chirped Tunnel.
“Where did you find him?” Leonard asked, his hand reaching out to touch Lasko’s makeshift gown. He lifted the hem a little bit to peek under.
Seriously? Lasko thought to himself. What do I do? Am I supposed to just let him look? At my junk? To his immense relief, Sharp swatted Leonard’s hand away.
“Here’s the fixer.” The boy tossed the device to Leonard, who caught it easily, examining the device immediately. Finding its condition to his satisfaction, Leonard placed the device in his pocket. “How much will you give for the DVG writer?” the boy asked aggressively.
“All business, as usual.” Leonard muttered. He walked over to the cart, and pressing a few levers, the newly fixed control panel opened with a hiss. He began to tinker inside, talking to himself as he did.
“Sixth generation light writer, not standalone, and no printing capabilities. Fair condition, and functionality?” He whistled and slapped his hand against the device. With a loud clanking sound, a large clamp on a swiveling arm detached itself from the ceiling, reaching down and grasped the salvaged piece of machinery, lifting it off of the floating cart and rotating it, until Leonard motioned for it to stop.
“Plug it in, and test.” He said offhandedly to the empty air. But a loose cable snaked its way from the clamp, and after some searching, plugged itself into an inconspicuous hole on in the open panel. The machine whirred to life.
A different area of the boxy machine slid open, revealing a compartment the size of a large suitcase. The man grabbed a loose screw from off of the littered floor and tossed it in.
“What’s max capacity?” the middle-aged man said, and then after a brief pause, continued talking to the air. “30 theta-secs per gram? Fine, set consumption to max capacity, and start her up.” The man slammed the compartment door shut.
There was a rumble, and the machine became alive, shaking noisily, as it carried out its mysterious function. After a few quick seconds, the machine quieted down, sounding a faint ding, and the compartment door slid back open. Lasko careened his neck to look at the contents, expecting something incredible.
Huh? Lasko was confused. Nothing had visibly changed. The only thing that lay there was the small screw.
Leonard reached in and drew out the small piece of metal, holding it up in the air. The man snapped his head goggles back into place, and brought his free hand to fidget with something on his belt. Then there was a sudden searing light, coming from Leonard’s hand, blinding Lasko’s vision.
Undeterred, the man kept mumbling to himself. “Lumen output 4,458 lumens per gram, not great, but still pretty good. Must be an older generation DVG converter.” The light faded, and Lasko opened his eyes to see the man flip up his goggles with an unimpressed look on his face. He tossed the no longer bright screw to Sharp, who caught it with one hand.
“I’ll give you fifty units for it.” Leonard said with a flat face.
Sharp instantly protested. “Fifty? This machine is worth at least five hundred!”
“It might have been worth one thousand, if it was a relatively recent generation light DVG writer, which it is not. This machine is probably fifth generation at most. The thetan conversion efficiency is going to be lower than everything else you can find inside of the Gate.”
Sharp scowled, but didn’t say another word, and the older man continued.
“Which means that the only place we can sell any converted material is here on the hex.” He shrugged. “Market for these aren’t too high, but I’d at least recoup the cost by selling to the engineers over on the west side. But that’ll be a lot of time and effort. Take the price or don’t.”
Leonard, apparently done talking about the machine, took his attention from the conflicted Sharp back on Lasko. “So tell me, where did you find this ranker? The fixer seems to have done its part properly.” He looked Lasko up and down slowly, making Lasko uncomfortable again.
“He’s not a ranker.” A small voice sounded out.
Leonard ignored the sentence at first, finishing his visual examination of Lasko; then he blinked, and then looked down at Tunnel, who was standing quietly beside Lasko.
“What did you say, Tunnel?” Leonard said, cleaning out an ear with a finger. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
“He’s not a ranker.” Tunnel repeated.
Leonard looked at him, and then back at Lasko, confusion on his face. “What do you mean? He looks to be ranked at twenty something levels to me…”
Tunnel shook his head. “Lasko don’t got no levels.”
Leonard looked at Lasko in bewilderment. When Lasko shrugged, the old merchant burst into laughter and ruffled Tunnel’s hair.
“Sonny boy, that’s a good one. There’s no way that’s true, someone of his age has to have levels. It’s a fact of life!”
Tunnel shook his head again stubbornly. “We ain’t lying. We tested him, and he don’t got none.”
Leonard looked over at Sharp with mirth. “What are you teaching this poor child, Sharp? He’s got some crazy ideas, this one.”
Sharp looked a bit embarrassed, but confirmed Tunnel’s statement. “We tested him, like Tunnel said. Reader didn’t pick up even a blip.”
Leonard scoffed, and then bent down, looking Tunnel in the eye. “Hey Tunnel. There are some things in life that are just plain impossible. Like having no levels.” He roared again with laughter. “No levels. Sharp, I thought you were smarter than that. Gotta get yourselves a new level reader!” He paused. “Tell you what, I’ll sell you one for cheap,” he said, before erupting again with laughter.
Sharp flushed, and said nothing. But Tunnel spoke up, his voice rising up in anger. “The reader was working fine, he got no levels, you old drooling fart!”
Leonard stopped laughing at the spoken insult, eyeing Tunnel challengingly. “Boy, I didn’t think you were this dumb.” He jabbed a finger towards Lasko. “If I give this ranker a read, and he pulls a number, what would you give me?”
Sharp paled, and reached out to Tunnel, shaking his head, but it was too late. Tunnel shook the older boy off and shouted. “One thousand units. But if you’re wrong, you pay a thousand units.”
“Deal!” Leonard shouted, and shook Tunnel’s outstretched hand. He turned and smirked at Sharp stunned face. “Consider it an education fee, Sharp, my boy. Someone’s gotta teach him how the world works.” He headed to a nearby door in the very back. “Come on this way.”
Tunnel quickly ran after the man, while Sharp just stood there despondently, a blank look on his face. Lasko nudged him, worried. “Is that a lot? One thousand units?”
Sharp let out a dead laugh. “It’s a hell of a lot. We only have five hundred units back home, and it took us two whole years to save that much.”
Lasko furrowed his brow. “But that Leonard won’t follow through on the bet, right? I mean, Tunnel’s just a kid.”
Sharp shook his head, already defeated. “No way. Leonard’s like a rock when it comes to deals. If you break a promise, Leonard will cut you off. I’ve seen him do it. He calls it, “business principles.””
Sharp mimicked Leonard’s voice. “I don’t do business with liars.”
Sharp began to walk after the two. “Shit. Come on, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Let’s get it over with.” He cursed again, kicking at the ground. “Damn-it! I’m going to kill that dumb kid.”
Lasko followed with a heavy heart. Without meaning to, he became the object of burden yet again to his two rescuers. He resolved himself to make it up to them, but he wasn’t sure how he would do it. He didn’t even have any personal memories from the past.
Was there anything that he could do in this new world?
“Hurry up!” Tunnel shouted from the back room impatiently.
Lasko and Sharp entered the room, both with disheartened. It was clear that Sharp was already convinced that Leonard would win the bet. After all, it was the experience of a seasoned adult against the opinion of a kid with a naivety that Sharp was all too familiar with.
As the two observers walked in, Lasko looked around. It was a narrow room, but a lot more organized than the messy jumble out in the warehouse. The walls were lined with counters, with various tools hanging neatly from the wall. One wall had a large white board, covered with different diagrams and machine schematics.
“Over here.” They were waved over by Leonard, who was handling a grey metal box. It had a fairly large hole in the side, with all the other sides were smooth and unmarked. It looked completely different than the old calculator that the boys had used to measure his level before.
The man caressed the box lovingly.
“This baby is a sixth generation reader, but the current generation reader is pretty much the exact same thing. You know why? Because the old one was so great, they couldn’t do anything to improve it!” He cackled. “There isn’t anything more reliable.”
He thrust the box, hole-side first, towards Lasko. “Stick your hand in there.”
Lasko complied, a little nervous. Ever since the fixer, he had been reluctant to be the subject of any ominously shaped devices.
He slowly stuck the hand in the hole, feeling around with his fingers. Upon crossing the threshold of the opening, his fingers almost immediately grazed a cool gel-like substance, and he quickly withdrew his hand on reflex. Leonard laughed a bit mockingly.
“Just stick your whole hand in there. It won’t hurt at all, don’t be so scared.”
Upon Leonard’s guarantee of no pain, Lasko put his hand forward with much more confidence. He gently pushed his hand into the gel, and it easily enveloped his hand, giving him the feeling of having stuck his hand into thick mud or clay.
Upon his hand entering, the top surface of the box lit up; what looked to be smooth metal now had a display on it.
Words floated on the display in bold black lettering, flashing slowly.
Leonard rubbed his hands together, looking very excited. The gleeful merchant was totally convinced that the bet that they had struck was as good as won. Then a frown appeared over his face.
“Why is it taking so long?” the man said. His face brightened as characters lit up on the display, but then it darkened almost immediately.
“Huh”? Leonard looked at the screen with a confused expression. He tapped the display.
Tunnel stood on his toes to peek at the result. A delighted grin spread over his face and he stared quite smugly at Leonard.
Leonard pulled the box back towards himself, inserting his own hand into the hole. 58 popped up on the display in large numbers. He shoved the box towards Lasko again.
“Try it again.” The old man commanded willfully.
Lasko gladly complied, an hopeful feeling replacing the trepidation that he had previously felt at the thought of losing the bet.
The word flashed across the screen again. A big fat [ERROR].
Leonard’s eyes bulged. “This… this can’t be…” he stammered.
Lasko looked over at Sharp, who had a similar look of shock on his face.
Tunnel began hopping up and down in excitement. “We were right, we were right! I knew it. Now you got to pay us a thousand units!”
“Hold on a second,” Leonard said quickly. “We have to double check the results. Can’t just measure once, ha-ha.” He quickly rushed to the wall, taking the box with him.
Somehow Lasko doubted that the old man would have double-checked the results if a valid number had popped up on the screen.
An error, huh? Does that really mean I don’t have any levels? Just what are these levels everybody keeps talking about? How do you get them? From what Lasko had experienced so far, it seemed that everyone in the future had some.
Leonard shouted at him, interrupting Lasko’s thoughts. “Hurry up and get over here!”
The old man was standing next to a larger container. There was a door that Lasko unhinged with some difficulty, revealing that it was some type of holding tank, filled with a strange viscous transparent liquid that was definitely not water.
“Get in here, this will give us a more accurate test.” He eyed Lasko suspiciously, his initial panic faded a little bit.
Lasko eyed the tank. He did not want to go in there. But Tunnel pushed him from behind. “Come on, hurry up and show this dumb old man.”
As they plodded towards the tank, Sharp followed behind, his tense eyes betraying his inner emotions of nervousness and excitement.
Lasko began to take off his gown, but Leonard snapped at him impatiently.
“You don’t need to do that, just get in there.”
Lasko stuck one leg into the fluid. Whoa. Expecting to feel the cool feel of liquid, he was surprised as the man watched his leg slide smoothly under the surface of the fluid. It didn’t feel wet at all, and there wasn’t even a noticeable temperature difference. He slid the rest of his body in.
Apart from a very slight sensation, he could barely feel anything. It was quite unique. Like I’m bathing in air, Lasko thought to himself.
BANG. The lid shut, and almost immediately the liquid around him began to shine. Then almost immediately there was an audible pop, and smoke began to fill the enclosed space. The shining liquid instantly reverted back to its previous dull state.
“Hey, hey, open up!” Lasko said, panicking.
He banged on the door, which was opened quickly by Tunnel and Sharp. Lasko scrambled out; as he rose from the liquid, the drops just flowed instantly from his body back to the pool. Standing outside, he was left as dry as he was before he entered.
Leonard was staring blankly at the smoking machine, looking completely defeated.
“Dude.” Lasko said angrily. “What was that?”
Leonard responded meekly. “I don’t know, you broke it somehow…”
He looked at Lasko with very different eyes; before they were filled with curiosity, but now it had somehow evolved into this weird wild obsessive look. “This has never happened, ever, as far as I know.”
Lasko took a step back. “Uh…”
Leonard took a step forward. “Where did you say you were from exactly?” He took another step forward.
Tunnel stepped in between them, a wide grin plastered on his face.
“So?” The boy said eagerly.
A frown appeared on the grey haired man’s face, and he straightened himself up, giving a cough. “Well, looks that you were right, somehow. Level readers don’t work on this guy.”
He squinted at Lasko. “But I’ll only pay up after a full body scan.”
Now Tunnel was frowning. “What do you want that for?” he said suspiciously.
“To make sure he isn’t some kind of fancy, new generation robot.” Leonard answered.
Tunnel’s eyes widened, and he looked at Lasko with a questioning gaze filled with wonder; Sharp stepped in quickly.
“No, he ain’t no robot. He was hurt and bleeding before; the fixer fixed him up.”
“Well, we’ll know for sure when we give him a scan, now, won’t we.”
Leonard pulled Lasko’s arm over to a large screen supported by an adjustable arm. He snapped his fingers, and pointed at Lasko. “Glinda, scan this stranger.”
To Lasko surprise, the arm instantly obeyed, deftly maneuvering the screen in front of Lasko’s chest, and flickered on.
“Whoa.” Lasko breathed.
The screen was some kind of x-ray-esque machine, except that it was in color, and it seemed to revealing just past the first layer of skin, with blood vessels and red muscles rippling. It was like an anatomy mannequin, just… moving.
“Glinda, isolate major organs.”
The screen flickered, and the muscle dissolved, showing a mass of red and pulpy pink. Lasko stared at a pulsing chunk of flesh.
“Is that… my heart?” he whispered. As Lasko spoke, he saw his lungs compress sharply.
“Yes.” Leonard said disappointedly. He snapped his fingers again, and the screen returned to its original position, flickering off. The man stood there for a while, looking distantly at Lasko, while scratching his short grey beard.
Tunnel tugged on Lasko’s gown “Hey Lasko, what does ‘dude’ mean?” the boy whispered curiously.
Lasko was taken aback. How do you explain the word “dude”? “It means, ‘man’, or sometimes, ‘hey man’, he finally said. “Oh…” Tunnel nodded.
“What does drooler mean?” Lasko asked in return. Tunnel giggled a little bit. “You don’t know?” Lasko shook his head.
“I’ll show you later,” Tunnel promised. Just then Leonard snapped out of his daydreaming.
“Well kid, it looks like the impossible has happened, and you turned out to be right,” the man said slowly.
“You owe me one thousand units.” Tunnel said gleefully.
“I owe you a thousand units.” Leonard agreed reluctantly.
He snapped his fingers. “Glinda, fetch me a thousand units from the safe.” He sat down on a nearby stool dejectedly.
Tunnel leapt up into the air. “Whoo!” he exclaimed. He ran to Sharp and attempted to tackle the boy who had a blank look on his face.
Tunnel began to excitedly jump around Sharp, whose face began to mirror Tunnel’s wide smile, as comprehension dawned upon the older boy.
“We’re rich!” Sharp grabbed Tunnel’s shoulders and they paraded around the amused Lasko.
Lasko chuckled, but then his eyes widened as Tunnel jumped onto Lasko’s back, enveloping him in a bear hug. Getting into the mood, the man began to celebrate as well, but at that point Sharp stopped parading around and gave his characteristic scowl. Just then one of the light robots came flying into the back room. It was carrying a large glowing blue sphere with two thin metal arms, which it deposited into Leonard’s outstretched hand. Tunnel dropped off of Lasko, staring in awe.
Leonard waved away the floating robot which returned on its way out of the door, and tossed the sphere to Tunnel, who caught it awkwardly, fumbling a bit. The three stared at the glowing ball with wide eyes.
So these are units. Lasko thought to himself in wonderment. He just realized what the small pile of blue glowing cubes were in Sharp’s locker.
“Well, I hope you’re going to buy something.” Leonard said glumly. “You might as well, since I’m the one paying.”
Tunnel lit up again. “Yeah! Lasko, you earned this money, you want anything?”
Lasko thought carefully. “Some clothes might be nice.” He said, looking down at his strange gown.
“Dude! We can get some new-gen threads.” Tunnel used the word that he had just learned.
Sharp shook his head. “He can’t use that stuff, remember? He’s got no levels.” “Oh yeah,” Tunnel said dejectedly.
“Some normal clothes will be fine,” Lasko hurriedly said. “Don’t want anything fancy.”
“Just get him a standard gear set for now.” Sharp said. His face looked like he was resigned to the fact that Tunnel was going to let Lasko spend some of the units. “Maybe he’ll get some levels now that he’s out of that box.”
“Box?” Leonard’s head popped up. It looked like he had temporarily regain his interest in the mysterious Lasko. “What do you mean ‘out of a box’?”
“We found him in a metal box out in the trash fields.” Tunnel said nonchalantly, as if it was a completely normal thing. “We think he’s from Upper, but he says he don’t know where he came from.”
“A metal box?” Leonard pondered. He looked at Sharp. “What generation machine was it?”
Sharp shook his head. “It wasn’t any generation. It looked like one of those old-tech trash that no one uses anymore.”
“An old-tech metal container…” Leonard wondered to himself, but his thoughts were interrupted by an impatient Tunnel.
“Hey, let’s go the catalog already!”
“OK, OK. Come this way.” Leonard led the group out of the room. Back in the warehouse, Leonard snapped his fingers. “Glinda? Bring the register!”
There was a crash, somewhere in the crowded dark warehouse, and a slow whirring sound slowly approached them.
Lasko nudged Tunnel. “Who’s Glinda?”
Leonard overheard the question, and chuckled proudly. “Glinda is the warehouse! She’s the program that I got running this whole operation. She’s not as smart as the AI you’ll see in the Gate, but she gets the job done.”
He winked at Lasko. “Programmed her myself. She talks to me through this ear piece.” He tapped his ear. “You want to hear her?” Without waiting for an answer, he shouted. “Glinda, give us some guides, will you?”
Four of the floating light robots detached themselves from the rack with the others, and floated over, one robot hovering some distance over each person.
“Glinda, go ahead and broadcast. Tell us a little about yourself too.” Leonard ordered.
“Yes Leonard.” a female voice said, from the floating robots above them. “I am the AI that Leonard has programmed to monitor and manage this warehouse. I was created exactly 7351 days ago. I handle all unit transactions as well as the usage, testing, and maintenance of machinery.”
A red boxy figure on wheels emerged from the darkness and approached them. It had a large console placed on the front. The red had been scratched off and the sides dented in several locations; it looked just like a 21st century DVD rental vending machine, Lasko thought to himself.
“The register is now at your location.” Glinda stated.
“Yeah, we see it.” Leonard walked over to the refrigerator sized machine. “Come over here Lasko, if you’re going to be a customer, we need to register you with our system.”
Lasko followed him, and stood there watching Leonard begin to interact with the console. A figure of a hand appeared on the screen.
“Put your hand on the screen to begin the registration process.” Glinda stated.
Lasko stepped forward and complied, with no hesitation. He wasn’t expecting the jolt of electricity that shocked him.
“OW!” Lasko yanked his hand away. “Geez, you just can’t let your guard down…” he muttered under his breath.
“Male, height 1.81 meters, weight 78.01 kilograms. Blood type AB. Age estimated at 29 years based on bone development.” Glinda’s voice stated dispassionately. “Waist 99.4 centimeters, chest 112.5 centimeters, inseam…”
Lasko was quite impressed, despite his anger at getting shocked, but Tunnel pulled him away hurriedly from the register, Glinda’s voice following behind them from above.
Tunnel led Lasko over to a weird looking chair; it was sleek, with a tall backrest, and it sat right in front of a large monitor. It looked like a NASCAR racing video game from an arcade. Except that it didn’t have a steering wheel.
Something occurred to Lasko. It’s strange how I can know what things are or what they look like; yet not have any memory of having seen them or used them…
“Get in.” Tunnel urged, and Lasko climbed into the chair nervously, half-anticipating getting another painful experience. Why do all these new futuristic devices had to hurt so much?
The other three gathered around his chair, looking on the screen.
“Glinda, turn on the catalog.” Leonard said.
The screen winked on. Whoosh. Hundreds, no thousands of spheres appeared on the screen, each rotating and spiraling in different directions.
“Welcome to the catalog.” Lasko heard Glinda’s voice sounding… in his head? Or perhaps right into his ear? He couldn’t tell.
“The Catalog is a current, up to date list of all products available at Leonard’s Storehouse. Since you are a first time user, I will now explain how this system operates.”
One of the spheres zoomed in, and as it got closer, Lasko realized that each sphere was comprised of countless dots. As the zoom increased further, the small dot expanded into a transparent plane, comprised of various rectangles. In the largest box, there was a floating, 3d model of one of the floating robots. The other boxes had lists of characters, a description Lasko quickly realized. He noticed a number value in the top right corner. 250 Units… a price?
“Each one of these dots represent a product, which are relationally linked in spheres.” The dot zoomed back out to the floating spheres, which partially intersected with some others. “These spheres are represented graphically on this interface.”
Each dot was a product? There must be millions! How did they fit it all into this warehouse? Lasko thought to himself.
Glinda instantly spoke, answering his question like she could read his mind. “Many of these products include printable objects, which will be created upon purchase.”
“Ugh, the intro is always so boring,” Tunnel said.
“Yeah,” agreed Sharp. “Just skip it.”
Skip? Glinda immediately responded again. “Would you like to skip the tutorial?”
“Oh… yes?” She must have picked up Sharp’s comment.
“Tutorial has been skipped. If you require assistance, just say ‘Glinda, I need help.’ I hope you have an enjoyable shopping experience.” Then the voice vanished.
“Now what? How do I use this thing?” Lasko asked the two boys.
“First you have to say search.”
“OK. Search.” A small notification icon appeared, -…searching, reading broadcasting imagery…-
“Now think hard about what you want to buy.” Tunnel said. Lasko was confused.
“What next?” he started to ask, thinking of a pair of pants similar to what Sharp and Tunnel were both wearing. He was interrupted by Glinda’s voice.
“Image matched to a category. Clothing, cargo pants.” The screen zoomed into a floating sphere, focusing in on a small dot. To Lasko’s amazement, it expanded into a diagram, and a pair of cargo pants popped up on the screen.
“It can read my mind?” Lasko exclaimed in shock, finally realizing that Glinda’s eerie interjections had not been a coincidence.
“It’s a pretty ranker system, eh?” Leonard asked, preening. “She’s a top of the line system, ain’t she?”
Sharp rolled his eyes. “Maybe two hundred years ago.”
Leonard glared at Sharp, who ignored him and nudged Lasko. “Hey, say ‘custom kits.” Lasko complied, and a list of options appeared on the screen.
“Pick this one,” Sharp pointed at the screen. Lasko squinted at the screen.
“Scavenger Kit?” he said tentatively. In a flash, the screen was populated with lots of small floating 3d models. Lasko spotted, a multi-tool, goggles and a few other gadgets that he recognized from Sharp’s own utility belt.
“I made this kit setup,” Sharp said a bit nostalgically. “If you got no levels, you might not be able to use the stuff on your own right away; but we can charge them for you until then.”
“Cool.” Lasko said. The three other’s looked at him oddly. It took Lasko a minute to realize that they didn’t understand what he meant.
Is ‘cool’ not used anymore? He quickly corrected himself. “I mean… ranker?” Tunnel smiled at him and nodded.
Suddenly a thought occurred to Lasko. “Leonard, does this thing have any books?” Leonard’s face stiffened, and he gave Lasko a hard look. Then he leaned forward. “Glinda, transfer the cargo pants and the scavenger kit to the purchase menu.”
He pulled Lasko out of the chair. “You really don’t come from around here.” The grey haired said slowly. “The catalog doesn’t have any books. In fact, in the entirety of my life, I’ve never heard a single person say that word before, other than myself. Don’t you know that a book hasn’t been made for five hundred years?”
Lasko was surprised. “No, I didn’t know that,” he said that honestly. Wow, books don’t exist anymore?
“What’s a book?” Tunnel asked Sharp. Sharp shrugged; the older boy didn’t know either.
“A book is what people had instead of vision-broadcast, way, way back in the day.” Leonard informed them, not taking his eyes off of Lasko.
“Oh…” Tunnel and Sharp nodded, apparently understanding the comparison.
“And of all people, why did you ask me for a book?” Leonard’s gaze grew sharper.
“Uh…” Lasko wasn’t sure where this was going. He glanced at the Catalog. “It just seemed like the Catalog had everything.”
“Huh.” Leonard thought that over carefully. “You’re right, the Catalog does have everything.” He laughed, the suspicion disappearing from his eyes. “Except for books.”
He gave a crafty grin towards Lasko. “But you’re lucky. You just asked the only person in the hexes that has any idea of what you are looking for.”
Leonard snapped his fingers. “Glinda, bring me a copy of the H.W.L archives from the vault.”
“Understood.” The female voice said. One of the multi-purpose robots came off of the shelf and flew off into the darkness.
Leonard went into the back room, his own floating guide robot trailing after him. The two boys and Lasko looked at each other with questioning gazes. Sharp shrugged and he sat in the chair and began to browse the Catalog. After a while Leonard returned, carrying what looked to be a set of skiing goggles. Almost at the same time, the first robot re-appeared from the darkness, carrying a small case in its mechanical arms.
The robot floated downwards, depositing the small box into Leonard’s outstretched hand, before it returned to its place on the shelves. Leonard walked over to the three, and handed Lasko the skiing goggles. “Hold on to these.” He opened the case, and extracted a tiny grey disc, about the size of a quarter. “This is a memory disk containing my entire collection of ancient books and media.”
“Where did you get this?” Lasko asked him, surprised. Leonard grinned.
“I’m a little bit of a history enthusiast, I guess you can say. Learning about the past is my hobby. Not much else to do around here.”
The old man stomped his foot on the concrete floor. “This warehouse goes down about half a kilometer. That’s how far down the true earth’s surface is, buried under all the trash. There’s quite some amazing things buried down there, although most of it is junk.”
“One day, after digging around for years, I found an ancient building that contained a lot of dusty ancient data storage devices. Turns out, the building was something that they used to call a library. Apparently civilization had a whole bunch of these back then. They would store copies of books just for anyone to use. I didn’t find any actual ‘books,’ but I picked up this.”
He held out the small disk so that Lasko could take a better look. “This here disk holds everything that I found in their ancient databanks. It’s priceless. So I’m giving it to you.”
Huh? Sharp and Tunnel both froze with stupefied expressions. “You’re just giving it to me?” Lasko asked incredulously.
“The data? Sure. When I said that it’s priceless, I meant it. Nobody in this world wants this stuff. It’s ancient, old news. It’s got no value. People around here are only interested in the latest tech.” He tapped the goggles that Lasko was holding in his arms. “But the visual-device that you need to read the data? That’ll cost you 150 Units.”
“150 units?” Lasko looked at Tunnel and Sharp, both of whom now sported faces that said ‘oh, it was just another sales pitch.’ Lasko wasn’t sure, but if a thousand units was a fortune, one hundred units must be a pretty hefty price tag. Tunnel looked pretty excited though, and he nodded his head vigorously.
Sharp stood up with a frown. “Hey, we can’t waste the units on that kind of stuff. We don’t got the time to be watching virtual-vids anyway.”
“I thought you said that we could buy a visual platform when we got the units,” Tunnel interjected, looking confused.
“Yeah, but we can’t just be spending all of it right away… we gotta be careful and use it slowly.” Sharp said. His voice seemed determined, but Lasko got the feeling that Sharp was also trying to persuade himself.
“Tell you what, you buy this visual-device, I’ll throw in the old fixer in for free.” Leonard was really trying to make the sale. “That’s quite the deal. You won’t ever have to come running back here for a quick health fix anymore. That’ll save you the occasional four hour trip.”
Sharp hesitated. “Well, I don’t know…”
In his mind, Lasko begged the young boy. He really wanted to figure out as much information has he could about the past. Tunnel also looked at Sharp with hopeful eyes.
Finally the young boy reluctantly nodded his head. “I guess we can splurge a little bit,” Sharp said. But he gave a harsh look at both Tunnel and Lasko. “But no more big spending until we make up the units.”
Lasko and Tunnel both nodded eagerly. Lasko made another mental note about Sharp. Smart, cutthroat, and frugal. Lasko supposed that the kids had to become that way living on their own.
I wonder how many hardships that these two have been through up until now… Lasko wondered.
“Alright!” Leonard rubbed his hands together eagerly. He was happy to regain at least a portion of the large loss that the merchant had suffered that day. The man snapped his fingers. “Glinda? What’s the unit total for their purchases on the Catalog?”
The robotic female voice responded. “25 units.”
“So including your DVG writer, which I quoted you at 50 units, subtracted from the cost of the visual device, we come up with a total of 175 units.” Leonard pulled out an object that looked like a metal straw. He pressed a button, and a little holographic display appeared, floating above it in the air and displaying triple zeros. Leonard pressed a few more buttons and the number 175 appeared on the display. He held his other hand out to Tunnel, who promptly handed him the large chunk of units.
Leonard stabbed the device into the mass, and with a beep, the mass began to shrink in size, and the numerical display decreased as well. At the same time, a quickly growing sphere of the glowing blue stuff appeared at the other end of the straw.
After the new ball had grown to about a fifth of the size of the original, the display zeroed out with another beeping alert, and Leonard deftly twisted his units off the top of the device.
“Happy to do business with you,” he said briskly, and with a yank, pulled the device out of Tunnel’s nine hundred.