An odd-ball feature of the book Star Time was a pair of short stories after the events of the main novel were finished. The one that follows is a bridge between the events of Star Time and the characters and events that are chronicled in Kingdom of the Hill Country. It takes place eight years after the Star.
"But why do you accept burned-out computers in payment?"
April shrugged. "I dunno. Hodges sets the rules." For an eight year old, she ran the office well.
Keith Franklin was old enough to have grown up with web browsers and search engines. Although he was grateful for the International Information Service, since it was much better than nothing, it was frustrating to have to walk to the office and fill out his request on a piece of paper and then wait for days before he received an answer.
"He builds things, back at the company," she offered. "Radios and stuff."
He smiled. "I guess that make sense. So you've been allowed in the Whiting building?"
She raised her nose, "I was born there...almost. When the Star happened, we moved there. Daddy made things and Mom helped out with the garden and stuff."
"You were lucky then. I was twenty then, and I had to live in a school building for two years, with like a hundred other people. It was dirty and smelly when we couldn't go outside because of the Star, and then when the City of Austin couldn't feed us anymore, it just turned us loose to find something on our own."
She nodded, it was a story she'd heard many times before. "My Granny set up the IIS. She owns it. Hodges makes it run, and I mind the store." She spread her skirt like a princess and sat back down on her stool behind the bench.
Almost on cue, the door opened and a heavyset man wrapped in a long coat and a broad-rimmed hat entered from the rear door.
"Hodgie!" April smiled.
Keith nodded, "Mr. Hodges."
Rumor had it that the man was ultra sensitive to the sunlight, or that he was scarred from the city-wide fires that had occurred when the Star had flared up and destroyed the Techno civilization. In any case, he was reclusive.
"Mr. Franklin. I'm glad to see you. Would you care to come to my office?"
April and Keith exchanged looks. She shrugged.
"Certainly." He followed the man into a large pre-Star decorated office with a small desk, but with file cabinets lining the walls and free-standing in a second row as well.
Hodges went to one of the file cabinets. "Have a seat," he said.
Keith sat in the lone visitor's chair. Hodges spread a small stack of papers on the desk.
"It has come to my attention that you are providing a courier service, acting as an agent for twenty-three other companies and individuals?"
He nodded. "Well, yes. Twenty-eight, actually, but a couple of them have never requested anything from the IIS. I also carry messages between companies, as well as small packages. Anything I can carry on my bicycle."
Hodges showed no expression, from what Keith could see of his face. The man always wore the floppy hat even indoors. He hoped he wasn't violating any IIS rules by what he was doing. It was a big part of his income.
"You understand that the IIS is nothing like the old Internet?"
"Right. It's all wireless, I understand."
"Yes. Since all the long distance cables and microwave links and satellites are all long gone, the only way to maintain long distance communication is short wave radio. The IIS has evolved from the packet radio system that existed before the Star. It's not TCP/IP. It's not the web. And particularly, it's not free."
"I know, sir."
Hodges nodded. "It is a common misconception among the older users that the IIS is simply charging to use the old free system simply because we have the only computers. Charging high because we have a monopoly. I need you to understand how it really works, because I wish to make you a business proposition."
Cujo heard the footsteps echoing down the hall. He picked up the pistol he kept in his desk, more out of habit than out of fear. It had been years since thieves had climbed the mountain up to the observatory. But being the last astronomer in the place--maybe the last astronomer in Australia, kept him on his toes. People from the town of Coonabarabran down below usually called on the ancient hand-cranked phone before they made the climb up to visit the last remaining Techno wizard.
He saw Larry Kelly walking the halls like he owned them, which in some part, he did, Cujo hurriedly hid the gun to avoid having to explain it.
"Hey! Larry, what are you up to today?"
A big smile broke over the weather lined face, making the farmer look more like the astronomer he used to be.
"Hi. I had a horrible urge to come up here and see if you'd cracked any of the mirrors."
The big, long-haired astronomer visibly shuddered. "Don't say things like that! But you'd have to remove the covers to check. Just about everything is mothballed. At least as well as I can. It was like the end of the world when we used the last of the film. I can still look through the eye-piece and sketch the Betelgeuse nebulae. I do, sometimes."
They pulled up chairs. "So, no luck on getting a sponsorship?"
Cujo looked over at the radio room. "No, and I'm thinking I'll be spending the rest of my life in there, passing messages and answering questions."
"So you're the search engine for the world now?"
He laughed, "Hardly that. IIS is pretty well organized. But a lot of the queries come up for auction and it's an easy way to make Information Credits."
"Can you spend those?"
"Larry, you'd be surprised. The Sydney station has a thriving exchange rate between dollars and ICs. And they're the only real international money right now. If I wanted to buy something from the US, I'd exchange east coast Aussie dollars for ICs, make the arrangements over the IIS net and the other side would convert Info Credits to their local currency."
"And then wait for a clipper ship to deliver it?"
Cujo nodded, sadly. "We used to think we were isolated from North America and Europe before. There are ships--I've seen the arrival manifests. But it's back to the transportation days, or worse. The best sailing ships still in play used to be recreation for the wealthy. They're not designed for shipping. No cargo space."
Larry smiled, "But you can still buy information."
Cujo saw the smile. "Okay, you've just been playing me. I've got your latest journals. Which brings up another question. Can Coona scare me up another printer? Cathy's home grown toner works, but the drum is getting a little scarred from using it. I could do with a fried laser printer of the same model, as long as the drum is still intact."
"I'll pass the word. The last rail shipment through in the Spring brought us more paper, but it would be a shame if we had to go back to the days when we hired a typist."
The big man got up and returned from the radio room with a thin stack of pages. "What is this stuff?"
He handed it to his friend.
Larry glanced through the printed sheets with a frown on his face. "Growing crops and raising kids is a full time job, but I have my hobbies." His frown turned dark on the last sheet.
"The price is going up."
"What is it?"
"Genetic engineering stuff. You lose a crop to wheat wilt and you start thinking what you could so with a little better strain, one a little more disease resistant."
"That's your new hobby?"
Larry smiled sheepishly. "Yeah. It costs the world to get semiconductors, but anybody can blow some glassware. The world was on the cusp of a real genetic breakthrough when the supernova happened. We already had cloning and the procedures had simplified to the point where small labs could produce real innovations." He gestured with the papers. "That's what I'm reading up on. The genetic revolution is still going on. And these people are really making headway."
"Hence the price increase."
"Right. The old academic in me is appalled at the idea that every scientific paper has a price tag attached, but I'd rather have the progress than let it die from lack of funds."
"You out of ICs?"
"Pretty close, and I'm not begging. I'll write up something interesting and informative about East Australia or something."
"Don't get too wordy. These old fingers are getting sore with all the typing I'm having to do."
"Hire someone. I'll put out the word around town. I bet everyone over sixteen knows how to type, or used to."
"Get someone pretty."
Cujo put out his hand. "Seriously, Larry. Let me buy your journals. I'd rather you discover something fabulously valuable with your test tubes than read yet another history of a struggling town. They're a glut on the market. Cut me in on a little share and call it even."