The group stood still and lowered the duffel bags and packs onto the ground slowly. “Now, everybody step away from the bags. Head forward, no turning around. WALK!” They did as they were told, stepping away from the precious merchandise. “Everybody get down on the ground, face down, don’t turn, don’t look around, don’t make any sudden moves. I’ve got marksmen with crossbows pointed at you, so if you move, well … you know, an arrow through the heart.” There was nothing they could do. There was no way of knowing whether the voice was telling the truth or bluffing. They were forced to comply. The sounds of shuffling, unzipping and rezipping, and movement could be heard behind them but nobody could see what was happening. After a few minutes there was silence.
In a hushed tone John said to Po, “I think they’re gone.” Slowly, he snaked his neck around, and saw nothing. Immediately, he jumped up, “They’re gone. Get up, spread out, see if you can see them. They must have left some tracks.” Po hurriedly looked around, Jayk and John did as well, but they saw nothing; no footsteps, or drag marks, not even anywhere foot steps might have been brushed over. John bent down and touched his fingers to the ground, picked up some sand, and let it fall from his hand, then looked to the rocky crag faces. “They knew this area very well. And they had to have known we were coming this way.” He said as a sour thought manifested in the pit of his stomach. “Who knew we’d be coming this way?” They all looked at each other, and in disbelief looked at the lifeless body of Ideo in ROGER’s arms.
“She did.” Dade said conspiratorially.
“No! I’ve known Ideo for a long time. She’s not responsible for this.” Po defended her.
“I’ve known her for a long time, too. But that doesn’t mean a thing, Po. She’s always been a loner, she never really fit in. I don’t trust her!” Dade said accusingly.
“That doesn’t say much. You don’t trust me, either.” Jayk fired back.
“That’s right. I don’t. And, I’m usually right about these things!” Dade responded. “She was the only one who knew we’d be traveling this way! She probably led us here! I bet this isn’t even the way to Solos … I bet there isn’t even a Solos! She probably led us straight into a trap!”
“You don’t know that. You’re just letting your anger talk for you.” Jayk said defensively.
“Come on, Jayk, don’t be naïve! This was all her idea! I’ve never even heard of this Solos place anyway! This has all been a trap from the very beginning!” Dade said, getting louder and more certain.
“Alright, alright, calm down. We don’t know anything for sure. And, until we arrive at Solos and let the truth bear itself out, it’s all just opinion.” Po reasoned.
“We’ll never make it now. They took all our supplies. If there’s not a city, we’ll die out here!” Dade argued.
“Why would Ideo bring us out here to die, that’d be suicide. It makes no sense.” John said, “What actually does make sense is that somebody saw the bag we left behind and tracked our movements until we got to the rocks, a place where they could make an escape without leaving a trace. It also gives them a clear shot. It’s called a box trap, and it’s highly effective.”
“Do we have any food or water left?” Po asked.
“I have water.” John replied.
“So do I.” Jayk chimed in.
“Ok, so we have enough water if we ration it. According to the map Ideo made, this ridge is about a day’s hike from the outer limits of the city, which is located in the valley. She said we’d see the abandoned structures of the city before we got to the entranceway. That will be proof she was telling the truth.” Po informed them all. “Let’s get moving. Without the cargo the trip should be quicker and easier.”
They struck off once again in the direction of Solos. This time with a little more suspicion than before. Dade caught up with Rensa and spoke to her separately in sotto voce, “I’ve been against this from the very beginning.”
“I know.” Rensa replied.
“Well, don’t you agree with me? We’ve got to do something. I’m not going to die out here.”
“Where are we going to go, Dade? Let’s be reasonable for just a moment. Think about it. She wouldn’t drag us out here to die, killing herself in the process, what’s in it for her? I know it looks like she’s responsible in hindsight, but planning something like this for months, even years … Dade, it’s lunacy.”
Dade was wrapped in silence as he walked beside her.
“Let’s just wait a day, do that for me. If the city doesn’t exist, then I’ll kill her myself.” Rensa confided to Dade.
“Do you really think it was Ideo?” Sarah questioned John.
“I doubt it. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve never found her to be dishonest. Now, Dade, if you told me it was him … I’d probably believe you. But, Ideo? No, not at all.” John stated confidently.
“I agree. Ideo was genuinely concerned about making this trip and seeing her family again. She was almost against it.”
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” John said.
“You want to tell me that story now?” She asked him, smiling coyly.
“Are you ever going to stop asking me?”
“Fine.” He said, cutting her a narrow look with his eyes. “There was this man…”
“No, make it sound like a genuine fairy tale.”
“You mean, like, with once upon a time?”
“Yes.” She said cheerily.
“Fine. Once upon a time there was this man who loved his wife very much. Then one day the wife became ill and died. The man went to the shaman for his village. When he arrived, he entered a wigwam and saw an old man. “Why did you come?” the old man asked. The man explained that he loved his wife so much that he wanted to bring her back. The shaman prepared an acorn for him and told him to burn an item that belonged to her and then plant the acorn in the ground that same night. If you don’t burn the item that belonged to her when she comes back to life, her spirit will not recognize her body and she won’t know who you are. You must do this exactly as I have instructed you. The man went home that night and found her pony tail that he had cut off after she died. This was traditional in their culture. They would weave the hair into a bracelet or necklace or some other jewelry in order to carry the person with them forever. He was reluctant to burn it, so he decided to just plant the acorn instead. The next day he found his wife alive and standing in the field, disoriented. When he tried to speak to her she didn’t recognize him and she screamed, recoiling in fear. This hurt the man very much, worse even than the pain of losing his wife, because now his wife was afraid of him.”
“What did he do?” Sarah asked.
“He went back to the shaman who promptly admonished him for disobeying his instructions. He told the man that he must find the woman and kill her, and this time perform the ceremony exactly as he was told. The shaman gave him another acorn, and explained the ritual to him again. This time the man did as he was told, and the next morning he found his wife waiting for him. They were together again and happy.”
“So, what was the moral of the story?”
“It’s just a folktale, they don’t have morals.” John replied.
“Oh come on, there has to be a moral.” Sarah insisted.
“Alright, I suppose the moral would be … be sure to follow the instructions.”
“Especially when bringing the dead back to life.” She added.
“That’s for sure.” He agreed.
They continued walking. As the sun began to set it was difficult to see much in front of them. It was a new moon and the landscape was bathed in darkness, the only light appeared from the stars. The group moved slowly, only stopping to relieve themselves; most of them determined to prove Dade wrong. Jayk had the best eyesight of all of them, because he was the first to see it. Just a glint, like the twinkling of a jewel lost in a riverbed. “I see something!” He cried out.
“I see it too! A reflection coming from that direction.” Sarah pointed in the direction of the light source.
There, in the valley alone, lay the Free City of Solos exactly where Ideo said it would be. They took off at a full sprint. As they came upon the area it was silent as the grave. Buildings, old businesses, churches, and homes were either boarded up, defunct, empty, or otherwise completely unoccupied. They were covered by debris that, from above, made them indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. It was virtually impossible to tell that anything existed there, camouflaged as it was. Inside, it was a very different story. Below, in the old city’s sewers, lower parking levels, abandoned subways and catacombs lay a bustling metropolis of raiders, scavengers and rebels, all subsisting off one another. It was a tight-knit community whose survival depended on their ability to remain anonymous. The underground city was a mosaic of trading posts, restaurants, casinos, fighting pits, bars, brothels, homes, even a library and hospital.
They made their way to the entrance, which Ideo had clearly marked on her map. It was an abandoned subway turnstile that had been broken to allow travelers in without the need of any token. Once inside they moved deeper into the bowels of the station, following her instructions they walked toward an old electrical subsystem once used by technicians and maneuvered down to a steel door where a single man stood waiting.
“Who are you here to see?” The man asked.
They didn’t know what to say, or who to ask for. Without Ideo’s help they were lost.
Remembering what Ideo said to him, Po stepped forward and replied, “We’re here to see Sun Yi at the Red Fin.”
The man stepped aside, opened the door and allowed them to enter. They were immediately struck by the sound of civilization, the clanging of pots and pans, the barkers crying out their specials, a mob of barefoot children running past them howling with laughter, it was the sensation of life in all it’s noise and chaos. A cacophony of human activities. They had reached it, finally.
Po was quick to warn Sarah, “Keep your coat on at all times, especially in here. If someone were to see what you’re carrying it could be very bad for you, for all of us.” Sarah nodded in agreement and used her right hand to further pull the oversized coat she was wearing over her left arm to completely conceal the alien device.
“I was wrong.” Dade said admiringly, taking it all in, the sounds, the smells. “I admit it, I was wrong.”
Rensa smiled broadly and took his arm in hers. “Told you! Oh ye of little faith!”
“Oh, don’t give me that. You were ready to kill her as fast as I was.”
“I said that to calm you down. I never had a doubt in my mind.” Rensa said positively.
“We came here to find the Red Fin, so let’s get to it.” Po reminded them.
They began immediately questioning the locals who pointed them in the direction of where they needed to go, all trying to ply their wares: clothing, hats, daggers, eyewear, foodstuffs… it was a bazaar of monumental import, hidden in plain sight. The Red Fin was a traditional Japanese house of Ramen, that served noodles in broth with vegetables and herbs. It was a tiny restaurant, a literal hole in the wall, that sat no more than forty people comfortably and was owned by Ideo’s mother. Once found, they brought Ideo into the small eatery and inquired about Sun Yi. From the back, a tiny little woman teetered out wiping her hands on an apron around her waist. She recognized her immediately, and ran to her daughter. She spoke in Japanese to another woman who took off running out of the building.
“Where did you find her? Is she alive?” Sun Yi begged ROGER for answers.
“She is stable, but she’s been out a long time, almost too long. We need medicine that I don’t have, epinephrine or adrenaline.” ROGER said.
“I can give her Hawthorn or Gotu Kola, but we don’t have what she really needs. Someone will have to find it.” Sun Yi stated.
“What does she really need?” Jayk asked.
“Raceweed. It’s a powerful herb. The root is poisonous, but when made into a tea stimulates the heart. That’s what she needs now.” Sun Yi instructed.
“How do we find this Raceweed?” Po asked.
“It used to grow wild. Now, I haven’t seen it in years. Maybe it doesn’t grow any more. But that’s what she needs.” Sun Yi said desperately.
Po consulted with ROGER and Jayk separately, leaving Ideo in her mother’s care. “How does she know this herb is what her daughter needs?”
“The only thing I can determine is that she has given it to her daughter before. Ideo may have a condition we don’t know about, perhaps a heart or lung condition that doesn’t present itself immediately.” ROGER suggested.
“If she says that herb is what Ideo needs, then that’s what she needs. I’ll try to find it.” Jayk offered.
“Ok. The rest of us will have to find a way to make up for the lost items we had planned to barter with.” Po said as he turned back to Sun Yi, “You mentioned something about finding Ideo?”
“Yes, she disappeared years ago when she was just nineteen. Her father and I have been looking for her ever since.” Sun Yi explained.
“I’ve known Ideo for several years now. She’s been living with us in a defunct military bunker a few hundred kilometers from here to the west. She’s been a very valuable asset to us. We’re grateful to have her.” Po stated, speaking very highly of Ideo and her importance to their effort.
“I’m more grateful to have her home. Her father will be happy to see his only daughter as well, I’m sure.” Sun Yi continued, “Thank you for rescuing her, and taking care of her for us.”
“You’re welcome, but I should tell you, your daughter doesn’t need anyone taking care of her. She’s a very strong woman.” Po said, “We have to leave her with you, but we will return. Hopefully, with the medicine she needs.”
“Thank you.” Sun Yi bowed ever so slightly and looked at all of the weather-beaten travelers and decided they needed to eat, “Please take some food, my Ramen will give you energy for your travels.”
Po thanked her and they all took a seat at a small table in the crowded restaurant. While they waited for their meal they decided on a plan to resolve their issue of the loss of their gear and tech. “We should split up, we’ll cover more ground that way.” John suggested. “There’s got to be something we could do in this city to make money.”
“Ideo mentioned a man named Gunther who runs a fighting pit, didn’t she?” Po asked John.
“He was going to be our contact for the weapons. She wanted me to train some of his fighters, to give them some pointers.” John said.
“Ok, I’ll look for Gunther. ROGER, you come with me. Rensa and Dade you guys see if you can find a contact for medicine, antibiotics, painkillers, etc., John, you and Sarah see what you can come up with.” Po said.
“I’ll look for the herb.” Jayk said, “Somebody’s bound to know something about it around here. After all, Ideo said we could find anything we wanted in Solos.”
“We can meet back up here tonight.” Po suggested.
The Ramen and vegetables arrived and they all ate. The soup was incredibly good. Better than anything they’d ever had. They devoured the meals and were truly energized by them, just as Sun Yi said they would be.
“Sun Yi, this soup is just as amazing as you said it would be. How on earth do you make it?” Po asked.
“It is a traditional Ramen that takes days to prepare. The pot it is cooked in has never been cleaned preserving and infusing the flavor. We simply add more ingredients every day, a little bit of this, a little bit of that to create a delicious and robustly flavored soup that would rival that of any 21st-century kitchen.” Sun Yi said proudly. “The ancient art has been passed down in my family for generations. Though, I fear it may die with me. Ideo is not interested in cooking. It’s too domestic for her.” Sun Yi said disapprovingly of her daughter’s choices in life.
Once they had all finished, they decided to leave Ideo in her mother’s capable hands, and search out what they came to find. It was easy to get distracted in a place like Solos. The fact that Po had set a timeline for them to be back that night helped. Through the crowded serpentine paths created by the rows of small shops and stalls they made their way across the labyrinthian city. A complex maze lit only by fires, gaslights, lanterns and lamps Solos had earned its name: the city of ten thousand candles. But, right now they were looking for the other thing the city was known for, it’s denizen of pirates, scavengers and merchants who knew how to get whatever a person wanted. They had split up and all found themselves at different spots throughout the city. Dade had discovered a casino, where his talents put him uniquely suited for gambling. He would be able to earn some money to help buy what they needed. Rensa had discovered a brothel. A child of the demimonde herself, she would be able to gather information from some of the staff. Po and ROGER were on the trail of the fighting pits. And, John and Sarah found a bar where they could strike up conversations with the locals and travelers hoping to get some information themselves. Leaving Jayk alone to scout out the lifesaving herb Ideo needed to survive.
Jayk was running his fingers across the silk and woolen clothing at one of the stalls in the city. Having hunted virtually all the animals into extinction, the inhabitants had been forced to resort to the extremely tedious process of unthreading the fabric from clothing leftover after the Dark Epoch, clothing that had previously been manufactured by machine, and then rethreading it. This process of reweaving would produce an entirely new garment. Solos produced some of the finest basket weavers the world had ever known. As a result, the wealthier citizens of Solos found themselves to be lavishly clothed in extremely stylish and sophisticated raiment. Long coats and top hats, silk neckties and vests, the dress in the free city could compete with that of any 19th-century French haberdashery. From gaslights and steam-powered clockwork mechanisms, the city was abound with gadgetry and contraptions that would make Rube Goldberg jealous. Around every corner and behind every door there was something that fascinated Jayk. He was marveling at the ingenuity of a clever device when he heard an old man crying out in pain.
“Ohhhhhh …” The withered old man complained. “Ohhhhh …”
Jayk came over to the man and crouched down beside him. “What’s wrong? Are you hurting?”
“Oh, what do you care?” The old man said and spit at Jayk’s feet.
“There’s no need to be rude. Maybe I can help.” Jayk replied gently.
“There ain’t nothing you can do! Now, move along!”
“Do you need medicine? Are you hungry?” Jayk pressed the old man for an answer.
“Why don’t you leave me alone? What’s wrong with you? I’m tired and hungry, and I want to be left alone! Just let me complain in peace!” The old man argued. “You want me to go away, but I won’t! Let them see what they’re doing!”
“I don’t understand, but I can at least get you something to eat. Will you let me do that for you?” Jayk said as he reached for the old man’s arm and gently helped him to his feet.
“Fine! You can buy me a meal, but after that leave me be!” The old man argued, but went along with Jayk just the same.
The pair of them came to a stall with a few rusty tables and chairs set out for patrons. Jayk sat the man at a table and went to order him something to eat. “Excuse me, I don’t have any money, but maybe I could barter something with you?” He said reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a gold coin with an eagle imprinted on it, rescuing it from some lint and dirt. “This is very rare and valuable. My mother gave it to me. It’s all I have to remember her by.”
The cook took the coin in his hand. He flipped it over, examined the inscription, then looked at Jayk and said, “What am I supposed to do with this? Useless hunk of metal!” He looked Jayk up and down and said finally, “Your sword. Let me see it.” Jayk unsheathed his sword from his back and presented it to the cook. “Now, this has some value. Nicely balanced. I’ll give you a meal, and you can rent the bed upstairs for the week in return for the sword.”
Jayk thought about it for a moment and looked back at the old man, who was forlorn and miserable, and said over his shoulder to the cook, “Throw in meals for the week and you’ve got a deal.” He agreed and they shook hands. Jayk removed his scabbard and handed it to the cook. “For the sword. Keep it covered.”
The cook came out with the meal and offered it to the old man. “This your father?” The cook asked.
The old man took offense to that saying, “Hell no! Do you think I’m as ugly as he is?! If he were my son, I’d have shaved his head and taught him to walk backwards!”
“No, he’s just a friend.” Jayk smiled, stifling a laugh, as the cook headed back to the kitchen.
“This don’t make us friends! If it’s friends you want, better go to a brothel. With the looks of you, you could only buy friends, or rent them by the hour!” The old man chided him between slurps of soup and chunks of stale bread. “That what you want? A friend?”
Po and ROGER wandered the narrow streets and winding paths marveling at the depth of the city. “How could a city like this survive for so long without being detected by the enemy?” Po asked.
“I suppose it’s like Ideo said, anonymity.” ROGER reminded him.
Po stopped at a stall and looked at some of the scarves that were on display. “This is some fine work.” He remarked. The shopkeeper nodded, thanking him for his kind words. “We’re looking for someone by the name of Gunther. Do you know where we might find him?” The shopkeeper’s smile ran away from his face and he demanded they move along. The two of them moved down the street a bit before Po said quietly to ROGER, “This man Gunther is either not well liked, or the people who associate with him aren’t. Either way that puts us at a disadvantage.” Po said, “Finding him could be quite difficult. Perhaps we should just inquire about the fighting pits themselves, and go from there?”
“Agreed.” ROGER concurred.
They walked on a little while longer passing a few bars before stopping at a casino. “Somebody in there should know something. And I doubt the name would be as offensive.” The pair walked inside and went up to a man behind a cage asking, “We’re looking for the fighting pits.” The man simply pointed his finger to another man dressed in a suit and tie with a red sash around his arm. He was a beefy man with a thick neck. “Thank you.” Po said kindly and went up to the well dressed man. “We’re looking for the fighting pits.” He began.
The man looked them both up and down critically before asking, “You looking to fight or watch?”
“We’re looking for Gunther. Someone told us he may be able to get something for us.” Po replied.
“Well, I can take you there, but I doubt he’ll speak to you unless you plan on fighting. He ain’t much for conversation.”
“You just get us an introduction with him and we’ll take care of the rest.” Po said. The man led them out of the casino and around a back way behind the main thoroughfare, down some rickety steps to a doorway that led to even more rickety steps which opened into a large hall with a caged ring that was raised on planks. The room was lit from above by gas lamps and had a dais off to one side that was presumably used for well-to-do patrons. There were two men going at it in the ring. Both were bloody. Several men stood at the base of the arena chatting and watching, one kept shouting at the men.
“If I see this kind of show tomorrow night, you’ll both be working the road hawking herbs and roots!! Half of fighting is the show!! So stop kissin’ each other and fight!!” The heavyset man in the dress shirt said. His sleeves were rolled back displaying two large forearms with thick cords of muscle and matted with dark fur.
“Wait here.” The guy who brought Po and ROGER down to the arena said. He went up to the big man and said something unintelligible.
The big man shouted to the two of them. “You two here to fight?” He turned and looked, inspecting ROGER with a pair of deep set eyes. “No, ‘course you aren’t. Not you anyway. Maybe the bald one. That it, come to fight have ya?”
“You Gunther?” Po asked.
“I am. Who are you?” Gunther replied.
“We were told you might have something we need.” Po stated.
“And what would that be?”
“Weapons. And lots of them.”
“Maybe. What you got for me?” He continued looking at them both. “You gonna make me keep shouting?” Po and ROGER came up to Gunther who motioned for the men around him to let him speak in private. “This better be good.”
Despite the old man’s insolence Jayk found him amusing. “No. I’m not looking for friendship. I’m actually looking for a rare herb. But, I doubt you’d know anything about that, you old curmudgeon.”
“Oh yeah? I know plenty! You think because I look like this I don’t know nothin’? Fancy that coming from your ugly mug!” The old man ridiculed Jayk dribbling soup into his beard.
“No. This is very rare. I’ll just help you out and then I’ll be on my way.” Jayk sensed he was getting under the old man’s skin. Perhaps he did know something useful.
“Oh yeah? What’s the herb?” The old man wanted to know.
He had reeled him in. Now, to see what the old man knew. “Ok, it’s called Raceweed.”
“Ha! Raceweed, huh? ‘Course I know about that! I’m no fool!”
“Do you know where I can find some?” Jayk said leaning in close.
“I do. But, it ain’t around here. Grows wild, out in the wastes. Too dangerous for the likes o’ you. I doubt you’d be able to find it. Even if I drew you a map.”
“Try me!” Jayk said, narrowing his eyes and handing the man some paper and charcoal.
Jayk found John and Sarah at a bar having some drinks and laughing with each other. He put his arm around both of them smiling broadly. He wasn’t even bothered by the fact that Sarah was chatting it up with his rival for her affections. “Problem solved!” He said proudly.
“What’s got you so happy?” Sarah asked him.
“I’m gonna need your help. I bartered my sword.”
“Your sword? Oh Jayk, you didn’t!” Sarah said.
“It’s alright. I helped someone out, this old man, a real bastard.” He said with a faraway look in his eye, then shook his head. “But, that’s not the point. The point is, he knew where to find the herb! I’ve found a source for the Raceweed.” He beamed. “But, I’ll need your ‘secret weapon’ if we hope to find it.” He said, whispering the words ‘secret weapon.’
They both turned toward him and Sarah said, “You’ve found it? But how? Where is it?”
“I’ve got us a map. Hurry up, finish your drink and let’s get going!” Jayk said to her.
Sarah looked at John, “Oh, well you’ll have to come with us!”
Turning to John, Jayk said, “I suppose you can come, too. You’ve got pretty good survival skills.”