The issue is with Apple MacBook Air "Core i5" 1.6 13" (Early 2015).
It had not been backed up in a while but an update to High Sierra was attempted. The update failed and now a regular boot or safe mode boot leads to the "question mark folder". Booting in recovery mode or web-recovery, then attempting to update the OS leads to "Downloading installer information to the target volume failed."
At this point the main concern is to recover the files. In terminal I can see that the files are there, but I can't mount an external drive to copy them. There is power at the USB ports but nothing shows up in Disk Utility ( or "diskutil list").
I made a bootable USB with El Capitan on it, and when I boot from that, the USB ports work. But now the SSD won't mount, so I can't recover anything. Running "diskutil list" shows the SSD as disk0/disk0s1/disk0s2, but only disk0/disk0s1 can be mounted (of course disk0s2 is the partition I need to access). disk0s2 is APSF, and I don't think its encrypted.
How else can I get one of these disks mounted?