Out of breath from climbing stairs, you finally reach Level 8 of Ivory Tower. Down the hallway, past a tattoo parlor, Deadline Delivery’s neon sign glows red. The word Dead flickers as you approach.
It’s two minutes past seven in the morning – is Deadline Delivery’s dispatch office open yet? Yes, through the mesh-covered window in the steel door, Miss Betty is slouched behind her cluttered desk. You knock and smile as if you want to be here.
Miss Betty turns and scowls at you. Nothing personal – she scowls at everyone. She presses a button and the steel door squeaks and squeals open.
“Good morning, ma’am. Got any work for me today?” you ask.
She sighs, scratches her left armpit, and taps at her computer. Then she rummages through a long shelf of packages and hands you a plastic-wrapped box and two grimy dollar coins. “Urgent delivery,” she says. “Pays ten bucks, plus toll fees.”
Ten dollars is more than usual. Suspicious, you check the box’s delivery label. “390 Brine Street? That’s in the middle of pirate territory!”
She shrugs. “If you’re too scared, there are plenty of other kids who’ll do it.”
Scared? You’re terrified. But you both know she’s right – if you don’t take this job, someone else will. And you really need the money – you have exactly three dollars in the whole world, and your last meal was lunch yesterday. “Thank you, Miss Betty.”
“Uniform,” she says, pointing to the box of Deadline Delivery caps.
You pick up the least dirty cap. What’s that stink? Has something died in it? You swap it for the second-least dirty one and put that on. You’d rather not wear any kind of uniform – sometimes it’s better to not attract attention in public – but Miss Betty insists.
The steel door squeaks and starts to close, and you hurry out. Miss Betty doesn’t say goodbye. She never does.
After stashing the package in your backpack and the toll coins in your pocket, you hurry down the stairs to the food court on Level 5. Time to grab a quick breakfast. This might be your last meal ever, and there’s no sense in dying hungry. This early in the morning, only Deep-Fried Stuff and Mac’s Greasy Spoon are open, so there’s not a lot of choice.
In Mac’s Greasy Spoon, Mac himself cuts you a nice thick slice of meatloaf for a dollar, and you smile and thank him, even though his meatloaf is always terrible. If there’s any meat in it, you don’t want to know what kind. At least it’s cheap and filling. After a few bites, you wrap the rest in a plastic bag and put it in your pocket for lunch.
You walk back down the stairs to Ivory Tower’s main entrance on Level 3. Levels 1 and 2 are somewhere further down, underwater, but you’ve never seen them. The polar ice caps melted and flooded the city before you were born.
From beside the bulletproof glass doors, a bored-looking guard looks up. “It’s been quiet out there so far this morning,” she tells you, as she checks a security camera screen. “But there was pirate trouble a few blocks north of the Wall last night. And those wild dogs are roaming around again too. Be careful, kid.”
The doors grind open, just a crack, enough for you to squeeze through and out onto Nori Road. Well, everyone calls it a road, although the actual road surface is twenty feet under the murky water. Both sides of the so-called road have sidewalks of rusty girders and planks and bricks and other junk, bolted or welded or nailed to the buildings – none of it’s too safe to walk on, but you know your way around.
Just below the worn steel plate at your feet, the water’s calm. Everything looks quiet. No boats in sight. A few people are fishing out their windows. Fish for breakfast? Probably better than meatloaf.
Far over your head, a mag-lev train hums past on a rail bridge. Brine Street’s only a few minutes away by train – for rich people living up in the over-city. Not you. Mac once told you that most over-city people never leave the sunny upper levels, and some of them don’t even don’t know the city’s streets are flooded down here. Or don’t care, anyway. Maybe that’s why there are so many security fences between up there and down here, so that over-city people can pretend that under-city people like you don’t exist.
There are fences down here too. To your left, in the distance, is Big Pig’s Wall – a heavy steel mesh fence, decorated with spikes and barbed wire and the occasional skeleton. The same Wall surrounds you in every direction, blocking access above and below the waterline – and Brine Street’s on the other side. The extra-dangerous side.
Big Pig’s Wall wasn’t built to keep people in – no, it’s to keep pirates out.
The heavily guarded Tollgates are the only way in or out, and to go through them, everyone has to pay a toll to Big Pig’s guards. A dollar per person, more for boats, all paid into big steel-bound boxes marked Donations. Big Pig has grown rich on those “donations”. Not as rich as over-city people, but still richer than anyone else in this neighborhood. Some people grumble that Big Pig and his guards are really no better than the pirate gangs, but most locals think the tolls are a small price to pay for some peace and security.
Then again, you happen to know the Tollgates aren’t the only way in and out – last week, you found a secret tunnel that leads through the Wall. No toll fees if you go that way – two dollars saved. You finger the coins in your pocket.
It’s time to make a decision. How will you get to Brine Street? Do you:
Go the longer and safer route through a Tollgate?