Trinidad and Riley were invited to stay until the caravan arrived. In exchange, Riley would get some experience “fishing,” a euphemism that simply meant: digging through the garbage. The modest sofa in the living room area had been turned into a makeshift bed for Trinidad, and a collection of variegated pillows had been arranged on the floor for Riley. Together they would travel with the traders along the Spice Road once they arrived. “Get some sleep Riley. Tomorrow Ramesh is going to teach you how to fish like them.” Trinidad said smiling. << A fishing rod with a line >> “No, not like that. They use a net to capture the leftovers from the sewers. It’s more like hide-and-seek.” Riley was having trouble keeping his eyes open after such an exhausting day and before long he had fallen into a deep sleep. Trinidad started dozing off soon after, and immediately she began to have a transcendental experience. She left her body and was transported to a strange city. Traveling underground, her non-physical body passed unhindered through the steel and concrete. She discovered rows of small shops and trading stalls, eateries and casinos, and thousands of lamps and lanterns that lined the cavernous walls throughout the area that lit up the city. It was noisy, full of people coming and going, each one trying to buy or sell something. As she passed through the crowded warren of passageways, rooms and side streets, she came upon the same group that she had seen before. She could barely make out their voices at first, but the closer she got to them the more distinct they became. They seemed to be discussing the city and its inhabitants, and as they did she listened in on their conversation. 

“We met with Gunther today. Got a feel for his operation. There was an exhibition bout to prove my sincerity. And, my ability.” She overheard Po describe. 

“That explains the bruises.” Dade said. 

“And the cut over your eyebrow.” Rensa pointed out. 

“He told us about a championship prize fight taking place in a week that I could attend. Good pay. Barter coin, but it would give us the money to get the weapons and medicine we need. What did you guys find out?” Po asked. The dusky candlelight drew slender shadows that appeared to argue animatedly across the walls of the room they occupied.

Dade turned to Rensa, “Do you want me to go first?” Rensa tilted her head and deferred the floor to him open handedly. “Ok, I’ll go first. So, there are five rival gangs in Solos. The Hotheads, a.k.a. the Reds, they’re Gunther’s men, known by the red sash they wear either on their arm or their leg.” 

Po interjected looking at ROGER, “They must have been the ones we saw at the pits today.” 

“They run pretty much everythin’, fingers in a lot of pies, but concentrate mainly on gamblin’ and runnin’ numbers. They set the spreads on all the fights. Then there’s The Tommy Guns, arms dealers, smugglers, next to the Reds they’re the biggest gang with the most influence, their leader, Billy Black, carries an actual Tommy Gun. No bullets, of course, just for show. After that we have the Gents, they run the brothels, providing protection, extortions, collections, etcetera. They call themselves the Gents because they’re always dressed to the nines, real top hats and tails these guys. Some guy calls himself Fat Jack’s their topman. Then we have the Bullriders, no tellin’ how many of them there are. These guys are mainly offgrid, they handle protection for the traders, bootleggers and smugglers along the Spice Road.”

Po stopped him, “Spice Road?” 

“Some network of merchants and smugglers who cross the wastes carrying trade goods, mainly food and herbs, hence the name ‘Spice Road.'” Dade explained.

Po nodded in acceptance. Trinidad’s nonphysical body stood in rapt attention as Po and the others discussed the Spice Road and their own plans for the following week. Once she returned to her physical body she would have to determine where this city known as Solos was located, she decided.

“Those were probably the guys we ran across on the way here, come to think of it.” Dade looked away thoughtfully and then shook it off. “Anyway, finally there’s the Po Boys, led by a guy named Randall, small-time thugs who deal in anything they can get their hands on, bootlegging, trade goods, weapons, trying to make a name for themselves. They handle everything east of the subway and south down to the steel district.” He finished, looking quite pleased with himself. He turned to Rensa, “So, how’d I do?” 

Rensa began a slow clap, but then stopped, deliberated for a moment and replied, “You put on a pretty good show. Only, you missed one. There’s actually six rival gangs in Solos. You overlooked the Hackmen, known as the fixers, they’re problem solvers, intimidation, debt collection … hitmen. Basically, if you need something fixed, a problem solved, you call them. Run by a man name of Ivan.” Rensa drew an arcing motion with her hand and simulated a dive bomb sound as she brought it crashing down onto the table, then mimicked the sound of an explosion. 

“Very funny.” Dade said unamused. “How’d you get all that information from only visitin’ one brothel?” 

“Men tend to be free with their words in the presence of an attractive woman.” She said confidently. 

“Then, why’d they talk to you?” 

“Alright you two, break it up.” Po said, cutting them off.

Trinidad’s nonphysical body snapped back into her physical one and she was startled awake from her sleep. “Looks like I’ve got at least a week to catch up with them.” She said to herself. Trinidad’s experiences had begun when she was a small girl. Born blind, she recognized immediately that when she would sleep she was able to leave her body and travel anywhere she liked and enjoyed the ability to see everything around her. Some of her sleeping moments were visions: things that had happened years ago, or things that had yet to happen; and some were transcendental experiences: events that were taking place at that very moment. As she got older and more accomplished with these experiences, she began to be able to tell the difference. In the average person’s dream, whenever they need confirmation of a circumstance or an occurrence that had taken place prior to the current dream state, a memory can always be conjured up confirming one’s beliefs. The memory being a confirmation that something did, in fact, take place. Owing to the fact that dreams are the narratives of the subconscious mind speaking to the conscious mind in pictures, these memories are quite often completely fabricated. However, when having a vision or transcendental experience, the scenes unfolding are not fabrications, but are instead the actual events themselves. An accomplished prophet, like Trinidad, knew the difference.

Later that next morning Trinidad explained to Kabir the place she had seen in her vision. He said it reminded him of a city he had once visited with the traders called the Free City of Solos, thus confirming her experience. It was a large underground barter town, he explained, that acted as a central hub for merchants, traders and smugglers. Once she had secured passage with the trade master, she would make it known to him that her desire would be to reach the city.

Leo presented himself to the council of elders caparisoned in brilliant vesture. He moved gracefully to the rostrum where he planned to explain the situation he had just been made aware of to the men and women of the clergy. As he did so he made sure all eyes were on him when he made a grand display of removing his persona. Shock spilled through the crowd as the murmurs of the people could not be contained. Leo began, “My dear clergy, I would like to begin by thanking you for attending this emergency convocation. I know you probably all have somewhere else you’d rather be, so I’ll make this brief. There are spies among us. Like the rot at the center of an apple eating away at the core of our city. I had thought the problem could be contained by doing away with the heretic witch who was responsible for the death of our last Chief Cleric, may Hiassem accept his soul.” He paused, making sure he had everyone’s attention, and waited for the proper word to be spoken by the clergy.

“Omaha.” Came the resounding response from the masses.

Leo continued, “But just in the past few hours I have been apprised of the direness of the situation. Trinidad’s poison has infected even the highest positions within the holy guard. We cannot even trust those who are sworn to defend us. As a result, we must weaponize the faith ladies and gentlemen, and root out this infection that is acting as a cancer eating at the body of our people. The witch Trinidad has escaped the confines of the city, and is already amassing enemies from the wastes to destroy us.” Leo looked around the room to ensure that everyone was listening. “Now, we must remember that we are only safe from the alien occupation as long as we stay within the city’s domed enclosure. If anything threatens that, they threaten not only our spiritual lives, but our physical safety as well. And, I cannot let that happen!” Leo became more impassioned during his speech, arousing the attention of all the people. “An effort to find Trinidad must be established, as well as arresting her coterie and all who shelter them! We must regain control of this city! Starting now, I will be the soul ruling body, and all my decisions will be the word of Hiassem. With a more centralized governing body moving forward, the fear of my plans and activities slipping out will be minimized. We cannot trust anyone, as even our brothers and sisters of the faith are suspect. Until we are able to quell this uprising, bring everything to me and me alone. We will rid ourselves of this virus, and return our city to the shining beacon of spiritual growth and power that it was founded upon!” He looked around and saw that he had the eyes of everyone on him when he finally said, “Omaha.” And bowed his head.

A cacophony of “Omaha’s” filled the auditorium, and Leo’s first speech as Chief Cleric had been delivered. He was a startlingly powerful speaker, and strong leader. There was no denying that. And he would weaponize the faith, crushing anyone who opposed them and the safety of their people. The only problem was… nobody opposed them, or their safety.

Among all the pomp and circumstance of his speech, everyone seemed to forget that Leo had removed his persona, and never replaced it. And, now that he was the acting leader of a militarized religious order, anybody who might have had something to say about it went silent out of fear they might be counted a heretic. The new Chief Cleric had radicalized his followers and begun ruling the ecclesia with an iron fist.

Just outside the city, in the cottages nestled along the outskirts, Trinidad and Riley were completely oblivious to the organization of fanatics, inside the city, who were preparing to arrest her followers and launch a campaign to discover their whereabouts. It was a relatively peaceful day with Ramesh and Kabir teaching Riley how to cast a net in order to trap garbage and other debris that had escaped the rocks below the sewers and had flowed out into the shallow riverbed. Riley smiled and clapped to alert the Sharmas of a particularly nice haul. Sometimes Ramesh would pick something nice out of the rocks, and toss it toward the river just so Riley’s net could capture it. This act alone provided more entertainment for him than all of his days spent in the city combined. Riley’s laughter was infectious, and Ramesh was beside himself with pleasure at the little joy he could offer the boy. Trinidad had taken a liking to Safi and stayed in the house while the boys were outside. She watched everything through Riley’s eyes, however, so she didn’t miss a thing.

“Did you live anywhere else before you lived in the big city?” Safi asked Trinidad.

“Oh yes, I lived in many places before I came to Sid Mantelis.” Trinidad said. “Once, I lived with a monarch in a beautiful palace.”

“What’s a monarch?”

“It’s like a king, or a leader.” Trinidad explained.

“Where was your favorite place?” Safi wanted to know, determined to find out as much about the elder prophet as she could before Trinidad had to leave.

“Oh, I guess I’d have to say… a little place with my parents when I was around your age.”

“You were my age? That must have been a long time ago.” 

“Yes, it was. A very long time ago.” Trinidad said thoughtfully, smiling to herself.

“What was it like?” Safi asked.

“Well, it had plants all over the house, inside and out. And a small garden in the back. My mother loved to read to me, so I remember that being very special.” Trinidad reminisced with her new little friend.

“I have some books in my room. Do you want me to read something to you? I have one about a ship and a lion, and one about a dragon and a wizard, or one about magic people who live in a school for magicians.” Safi was excited to share her stories with Trinidad.

“That would be lovely, dear. A good story sounds nice. I haven’t been read to in many, many years.” Trinidad confessed.

“Ok, let me get my books.” Safi got some books and brought them into the living room and sat on the comfy sofa next to her new friend. The first book was about dwarves who fought a dragon. Safi read as Trinidad filled her imagination with the wondrous story. She was transported away from where she was, as a good book so often will do, and for a brief and tender moment she forgot the state of the world, and her place in it.

Ramesh and Kabir were gathering their nets for the day, and helped Riley bring in his haul. The sun was going down in the west painting the sky with red and orange lights. In the east, the sky was already a deep blue with hints of rich purple. As the men brought in the nets Napreet came out of the house, where she had been preparing dinner, to help them.

“You boys got quite a nice haul today!” Napreet commented, “Maybe you should take Riley with you every day.” She said, smiling at Riley.

Riley beamed with pride at his bounty.

They brought the nets into the house and Napreet began separating them while the men changed out of their dirty clothes and got washed up for the evening meal. With Riley back in the house, Trinidad could see to help with whatever needed to be done. They all worked together making a fine little dish, complete with an apple dessert topped with shaved cinnamon.

The days went by quicker than expected, and when the traders came into town Safi was so distraught at losing her new friend that she cried upon hearing the news that they had arrived.

“Just one more day, please! I’ll be good! I promise, please mama!” She begged her mother to let Trinidad stay, her lower lip trembling sadly.

“It’s not about you being good or bad, Safi, it’s time for Ms. Trinidad and Riley to leave.” Napreet explained to her daughter who was beside herself with grief.

“I have to go, my dear Safi. One day, we’ll meet again. And when we do you can read to me the one about the magicians. Won’t that be nice?” Trinidad said, taking Safi in a warm embrace.

Safi choked on her tears and mumbled her acceptance hugging her tightly as she buried her face in the folds of her gown. Nothing like Trinidad had ever come into Safi’s home, and perhaps never would again. And the love Safi shared with Trinidad was gentle and pure if only for a short amount of time. Kabir had spoken with the trade master and he had agreed to allow Trinidad and Riley to travel with him provided she and Riley carry a pack and do exactly as they were told. The road was long and treacherous, filled with more danger than they could anticipate. They would have to be on their guard. Trinidad and Riley were given ghillie suits that were camouflaged to resemble the natural environment, and explained that if they saw a spotter raise the red flag that they were to cover themselves completely and drop as low to the ground as they could. From above, the alien airships would only see what appeared to be an outcropping of rocks or bushes and would continue on their way. They said their goodbyes and joined the caravan on their way to Solos.

The caravan Trinidad and Riley had joined consisted of about sixty travelers, the trade master, and several spotters who patrolled the areas around the caravan and protected them by vigorously waving a red flag if they saw an alien airship approaching. Instead of maps, which would give away their trading posts, the trade masters along the Spice Road used a system similar to Dead Reckoning. Traditionally used for ships or aircraft, the trade masters determined the course and direction of their destinations based on celestial observation, a mental record of previous trips made, the distance traveled, and the estimated time since starting the trip. The traders rarely followed the same trade master, generally traveling with whoever was available, and the trade masters frequently altered their routes to avoid detection. Often, trade posts would be closed; some would get discovered and be forced to move or shut down; this meant it was important for the trade master to remain flexible. It was very difficult to be a trade master because the routes were almost never the same, being in a constant state of modification, making it vitally important that the trade master stay up to date with the latest courses to avoid wasting time and resources. They tended to travel in packs of between fifty to a hundred people and carried thousands of pounds of goods daily. The trade posts consisted of cottages, tunnels, caverns, and underground barter towns like Solos. The traders themselves carried dried spices, peppers, fruits and vegetables, herbs, roots and other items that could be traded easily, mostly perishable goods, all by foot. The Spice Road provided the last remaining inhabitants of Earth with a small amount of pleasure, food, which had become the most valuable commodity on the planet.