What was the matter with this sub-human idiot, Joad wondered? Had he been living alone on a remote asteroid? His internal queries gave him no clue.
“Are you trying to tell me you don’t know about the sabotage to the weather satellite,” he asked?
Toliver turned from the disarrayed pile of lumber to look at Joad and then back to the lumber
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Toliver replied.
“Stop jammin’ my jazz. Your InnerAI® (Registered Trademark of InnerEye Vision, LLC, Inc.) would have updated you?”
“My inner eye,” Toliver asked. “You’ve lost me again”
“Never mind,” Joad growled. “Straightening this mess will be your responsibility. You’ve got two weeks.”
The last statement had an undertone of smugness Toliver didn’t care for at all. He kept his expression neutral, even as he added it to a growing list in his head.
“I suppose I should get started then.”
“Not now. It’s almost time for the evening meal and inspection. You’ll start in the morning. Come with me.”
“How will I know when to start,” Toliver wondered aloud.
“You’ll know,” Joad said with a sly smile. “Now get moving.”
Joad turned and angled toward the house. Toliver followed, silent, trying to assess his situation. Both men were troubled by their recent exchanges. Toliver wondered how everything seemed known or remembered, while he felt lost, out of his depth. Little had made sense after he had awakened lying in the street surrounded by the faces of ragged strangers.
As they drew near the house, the angle Joad had taken revealed a two-story hall or barracks, set back behind the taller dwelling. Joad, lost in thought, navigated by instinct. He felt confused and he didn’t like the feeling. The power he had at the mill, however minor, let him keep his world orderly, everything and everyone where they should be, doing the work he’d assigned them. Something appeared seriously wrong with this strange man, Toliver. He didn’t act as if he was simple or defective, but what he said and asked told a different story. No one anywhere, not on-planet, in the far colonies, or the orbiting Graphene® shielded habitats lived without an InnerAI® (Graphene is the registered trademark and sole property of Sharpened Pencil Unlimited.). However limited their access, they were connected to the electronic world the same as everyone else. What had Sawyer gotten him into?
Outside the building, Joad efficiently removed Toliver’s leg shackles and dumped them into a chute beside the door. He briefly inspected Toliver and then led him through the double doors. Inside, Joad stopped so suddenly Toliver stepped on his heal before he could stop himself. He considered apologizing, but something about the tableau before him held his tongue in check. At five long tables, one hundred people, men and women, were seated, ten to a side. No, Toliver realized, ninety-nine. One seat at the front, before a raised stage, remained empty.
On the stage, a single table covered in a rich, jacquard fabric held focus. On the far side three fems sat, a woman and two teenage girls. All stared resolutely at the empty plates before them, though Toliver thought the youngest, on the end nearer the stage, watched them from the corner of her eye. On the near side of the table, two young men waited, tension in their straight backs and bowed heads. One appeared older than the girl in the middle and the other appeared older than the girl seated at this end. They, too, stared resolutely at their empty plates. Toliver thought they might look anywhere to avoid the attention of the brawny man at the head of the table who stood when they entered. The room echoed in silence. Toliver decided this must be Sawyer.
“Ser Wonderhammer, so good you could join us this evening,” the man boomed in a deep voice. Toliver thought it might be loud enough to be heard in Mudfog. Toliver felt
Joad try to back up, but he didn’t give way. Sawyer’s brow furrowed, his face as dark as a thunderhead. The room itself held its breath. Then, after many silent moments, Sawyer smiled, chuckled like a mischievous boy, and the sun broke through. The people in the room came to life, as if Sawyer’s smile was the energy that ran them. As he thought about it, Toliver decided that was probably exactly the way Sawyer’s Mill worked.
“Come in, come in.” Sawyer’s voice welcomed them now, as it had threatened them when they first stepped into the room. “Joad,” he continued, “bring ser Toliver forward and then you may join us in your usual place.”
As if this were the signal for the meal to begin, bots floated out of the doors on either side of the stage bearing loaded platters and covered tureens. On the stage, Sawyerand the others were served by liveried staff.