Toliver followed quietly behind the man who had purchased him. Joe, no Joad, had made him aware of the shock stick he carried on his belt. Toliver’s muscles had been released from their neural block and his hands had been uncuffed. He still wore shackles around his ankles, joined by a chain. It was all so pretech that he didn’t know what to make of it. Even if the shackles had been removed, he wouldn’t have run. The neural block had left him feeling fatigued and listless. Besides, he had no idea where he would go; nothing around him looked even vaguely familiar.
They entered an open-air market and Joad urged Toliver to keep moving. Toliver, for his part, wanted to look around. The market flourished with colors, noise, voices in multiple conversations and haggling. Stall keepers shouted, hawking their wares, each with a unique approach or cadence. Joad stopped at a stall selling clothes. He held up first a pair of pants against Toliver’s legs and then a T-shirt, taking this measurement by eye. Satisfied, Joad gave the merchant something Toliver couldn’t see and tossed him two of each.
“Take care of those. If they get damaged or destroyed, you’ll replace them.” Joad told him. “Before you ask, you earn one credit a week, held by me.” He tossed the items to Toliver for him to carry. “Now, c’mon.” Joad strode off, expected Toliver to follow. Everything about the man looked angry, Toliver thought. He shook his head and picked up his pace.
They made two more stops on their way through the market; business looked brisk. The first stop got Toliver a pair of sturdy work gloves and worn, but serviceable boots. He would rather have had the boots sturdy and the gloves worn. He tried to raise this point, but Joad told him to shut up. The last stop was to get Toliver a hat. A reflected flash caught his eye as they approached. He picked up and examined the hat whose reflecting brim had gotten his attention. Up close, it didn’t look like much. The crown had been stitched together from bits of plastic, pleather and what once might have been called cloth, but the brim might make up for its more homely aspects. Highly-buffed strips of a thin metal had been carefully joined with wire. These in turn were joined to the bottom of the crown, though Toliver had yet to suss how. He tried it on. It felt like it had been made for him; the brim not only reflected the brutal sun, but also bathed his head, face and neck in shadow.
“Take it off,” Joad yelled. “I don’t have the money to cover that.” The merchant saw Toliver’s face fall and went into sales mode.
“It’s not that much and it looks perfect, I must say.” Joad scowled at the man. “You’ve brought me business, so I’ll make you a deal. Normally for a hat this fine I’d charge nine credits.” He paused, sighing. “For you I’d sell it for six.”
“I’m only spending two,” Joad growled, his face turning a dangerous shade of red.
Toliver jumped in. “You said I earn a credit a week. The first month’s yours.”
“You haven’t earned anything, yet. Keep it up and you’ll never get the chance.”
“Joad, relax,” the merchant said, trying to step between the two men with little success. “This one looks strong enough to last a month.” He chuckled at that, trying to break the tension. Joad ignored him, started looking at the other hats.. Toliver didn’t like the implications of the merchant’s remarks, but kept his mouth shut.
“You know that’s not the way this works, Max,” Joad said to the merchant.
“So, who’s to know? If I don’t say anything and you don’t…. Max left the statement hanging between them. Joad had stopped pawing through the merchandise, locking gazes with the shorted man. When Toliver thought he would scream in frustration, he stepped forward.
“Six weeks,” he said. “I’ll pay the full price myself.” Joad rounded on him.
“You don’t know what you’re promising. You’re talking about as yet unearned creds. I’m thinking about my job, my life. And yours, too, if it comes to that.” He took a deep breath, and softened his voice. “Let it go. It’s only a hat.”
“No,” Toliver said, “It’s my hat.”
Joad’s arm flashed out and the back of his knuckles connected violently with Toliver’s jaw, knocking him down. The hat flew off in the exchange, but Max deftly plucked it from the air. Toliver started to get to his feet, but looked at Joad first. The man radiated suppressed fury. He clenched his right hand into a fist and held the shock stick in his left. He clearly wanted an excuse to use either one. Breath exploding from him, Toliver dropped back to the ground.
“That’s the first really smart move you’ve made,” Joad told him in terse, clipped words. Toliver remained down and silent, but he didn’t look away. Joad reached out and snatched a cap fashioned in an earlier style. Knitted plastic crown with a back tie, it sported a long brim, made from something Toliver couldn’t identify, in front. Joad tossed two creds on the table and the hat at Toliver.
“Let’s go,” he said, striding away without looking back. Max helped Toliver to his feet.
“Better not keep him waiting when he’s in this mood,” Max told him.
“Thank you,” Toliver said and turned to follow Joad.
“I’ll try to hold it for you,” Max called after them. Toliver shrugged, and kept moving. Joad set a daunting pace.
They passed many ranches and farms, and Toliver was surprised to see small herds of modified cattle and rows of gmo-plants. They walked for miles, something that did nothing to improve Joad’s mood. By the time they reached the outskirts of Middletown, Toliver wished he’s had time to put on the boots, however worn. Middletown appeared to hardly deserve town in its name. Though, as they drew nearer, Toliver saw that all the streets in the town had been graphened, which continued into the distance at the other end of Main Street. Yet, the whole urb consisted of only the main street and a couple of side streets. Still, as its entrance sign proudly proclaimed, Middletown, Geographically Centered and Gateway to Upper Landing. Studying this more carefully, Toliver realized the main drag consisted of one- and two-story houses, well built and well maintained. These were flanked by a bank, at the near end of town and an Evermat® (Registered Trademark of Everyone’s MarketHoldings, ltd.) at the far end. The rest of the streets fronted large warehouses.
They turned right at the Evermat® and walked at least another half mile before reaching Sawyer’s Lumber Mill and Emporium. Joad led Toliver onto a graphened drive that led to the grandest house he’d had seen recently, though somehow, Toliver didn’t care for it. They turned onto a packed earthen path to the right almost immediately. This led to some solid but plain one-room domiciles. On the left, blocking the view of the main house, a large, jumbled pile of boards and beams sat like a giant game of pick-up-sticks.
“What happened,” Toliver exclaimed before he could stop himself.