The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened into a dark-paneled lobby. There were two swinging doors on the other side. We walked through the doors and were faced with the Border Control. The guards smiled. Their semi-automatic rifles smiled, too.
There were three guards on duty so each of us walked toward one, chatted a bit, proved that we were ourselves to a minion of a government that knew where we were every moment of the day, and walked on through into the surface world.
The lobby past the guards contained half a dozen elevators. We piled into the first that showed up. All the buttons were lit up. Clarice pushed the button for the garage, then pushed the lobby button and the elevator lurched upwards.
We first stopped in the parking garage, a tinted car already waiting for Clarice, who slid into it and swung the door closed with a practiced motion, all done while the elevator was still irised open. Her handbag had a picture of Mickey on it and Clarice carried a Disney towel over her arm.
“Lots of travel, eh?”
“She likes Florida,” Mark replied with a shrug.
We walked out of the elevator into a dingy hotel lobby in downtown Edwardsburg, crossed the lobby and exited into the quiet night life of the city. We walked a few blocks from the hotel, in the direction of the bar, and ended up at an intersection.
Mark pushed the walk signal button and we waited.
“Always this cautious? There’s not a car in sight…” I drawled and walked through the intersection, an angry hand protesting in bright orange.
Mark stood at the walk signal and smiled. “You and Clarice, you’re just the same. Do I attract that sort of woman?”
I laughed. Had a good feeling about this one.
We entered the bar, Hector’s, and headed for the back, the part of the place that had low lighting, broken speakers, and comfortable booths. We crammed ourselves onto a bench in the back, the table separating us from most of the bar, a corner that we crowded light out of.
Mark tapped at the menu, then looked in my direction and gave a twitch of the eyebrow. I shrugged and fished a pack of cigarettes out of my purse.
“Tell me about yourself, Mark,” I said once he’d finished with the menu. Took a drag of a cigarette and passed it over to him. Mark had a small drag, probably to be polite. I smiled at that.
“I want to hide our internet access from the Surface,” he replied.
“Sure, who doesn’t, but how are you planning on doing that? And isn’t that why we use Tor?” I asked. He wasn’t dealing with an idiot here.
We talked about the clandestine nature of our society and its incompatibility with certain existing technologies, such as the internet. Sure, there’s anonymity, but usually the privacy-conscious are hiding merely themselves, a lone pinpoint in a sea of metadata. Hiding an entire country is a different game entirely.
“Look around,” Mark waved at the half-filled bar.
I did and tried to identify the patrons. It was mostly locals, in pairs spread out enough to afford most tables a modicum of privacy. A group of Saint Florian workers dominated the pool tables, a few couples were having dinner and drinks, some loners were watching the game on the TV. We had the prime people-watching spot. The bartender noticed my glance and waved, inquiring if he was needed. I shook my head and had another sip of the vodka cocktail Mark ordered.
“Looks like a quiet weeknight.”
“Sure, but only because we’ve made it that way. The bartender and most of patrons are archs, the locals are long-term archs on security or nurture duty, and the odd outsiders”, Mark nodded toward a table of two, a man and a woman sitting comfortably close to each other, half-flirting, “have the wool pulled over their eyes. Otherwise they might start to wonder about the strangers coming out of the Burlings Hotel at odd times. Might see a tourist with an ostentation pink luggage maneuver themselves out of the lobby, without having seen them arrive in the first place.”
“Paranoia?” I knew where he was going with this, all of us did, of course, but I liked listening to Mark talk.
“Stakes,” Mark replied. “The stakes are too high. If we get found out, by a random tourist who passes through town and notices some strange behaviors, that puts the whole effort in jeopardy.”
“Ok, so you’re figuring out how we can come and go online, the same invisible way we make our aboveground excursions?”
“Nutshell, yeah. And Clarice is attacking a similar problem from the atmospheric side. How do we keep the environmental impact of half a dozen cities secret?”
“Seems like half of us are working hard to keep the archive out of the history books.”
“The pre-apocalyptic ones, aye, while the other half makes sure that there are post-A history books. We’re setting up humanity’s backup, and my job is to not let anyone know.”
I wondered if he was happy about that, if he found joy in his job and the growing realization that his was a not too small a role in humanity’s future.
“Do you always talk that way about our purpose?”
“I talk this way about things I’m passionate about, sure.” Mark finished off the rest of his beer and made his way to the bar to get us a new pitcher.
We talked most of the night, packed away a couple of pitchers and who knows how many shots. Closed the bar, yet again.
Mark was doing a very poor job explaining the concept of a simulatable universe, and I similarly did a terrible job of following in my own inebriated state. We walked out of the bar and headed toward the hotel, stumbling as we went, holding on to buildings and signs and newspaper kiosks. We were drunk.
We got back to the hotel and instead of heading back home – a non-trivial process that would take a while, and navigating the railways was not something either of us was looking toward – got rooms for the night.
I turned on the conference wall and called Gene. He was still at his game board, so for a while I watched him strategize and we talked about Mark. I fell asleep with the call still going in the background, my husband hunched over a replica battlefield, singing sweet nighttime melodies.