Nesson is a biweekly serial novel about living with technology, sprawl, and consumerism in the near future. Learn more or start from the beginning.
It was a long drive from California to Hawaii, not at all helped by the lack of freeways. Helen had plenty of time to think, locked in a car with three like-minded, but higher-ranking youths. It was strange, she thought, to have a hierarchy. Her cell-leader explained that they were against the government, not authority altogether. “What’s the difference?” She asked once or twice; she got little more than question begging. Sure, the chain of command made since when they were organizing horticultural activities and raising buildings, but what was the point of putting Mike in charge of this trip?
Nesson was impressive. She could not help but admit it was an engineering feat; they were able to cruise along dry land where once there was not but ocean. Before the sprawl spread to the pacific, it was always something of a wonder to her that Hawaii was a state. She knew that at some point the island was historically and geographically isolated from North America. It was in no way proximal to the US; Alaska was at least accessible by land and Puerto Rico was reasonably close. Was it something about a war? Whatever the reason for statehood, the geography of it was hard to grasp. Of course, for Links Corp, Hawaii made an anchor for the Nesson development.
The three-day ride meant meandering through subdivisions, Midwestern conglomerations of large houses on several acre plots. The houses were plopped in the middle of the pacific and were accessible by bullet train. Deep gray alloy rails pointed directly from settlement to settlement. Helen imagined that, viewed from the sky, they would look like old stylized interstate maps. They ran along the coast never interrupting the flow of traffic on the interior of the island. Was it an island? On a map, it looked more like a tether linking America’s fiftieth state to the continental forty-eight. Not a string pulled taught, mind you, but a loose wiggling worm, as if Hawaii were on the world’s longest leash.
While the train tracks came in and out of view, Helen longed to be propelled faster to her destination. Progress was slow in a manual driven car on neighborhood roads. Helen rode in this fossil of a vehicle practically pressed into the other passengers; the experience was a world away from the mobile living rooms that normal cars were. What few car trips she had taken were in auto-driven busses that could sleep a family of four comfortably. Alas, such cars depended on technology that made them easily tracked. Of course, a rail ticket, too, is traceable. There was no question about how they would have to travel, but still, shaving a few days off the trip would be nice.
The idea of the post Hawaii travel was too much. She had never been on a boat, not outside of a holoroom anyway. She certainly did not know how to swim. The thought of floating in the middle of the ocean filled her with a sort of dread. Sure, she wanted to protect the ocean; it did not mean she wanted to be on it.
Helen’s companions were three men, or more accurately large boys. Only one surpassed her twenty years, and that could only be by a year or two. Before her involvement in Ecocomunism, Helen imagined it as a romantic movement. Traveling to the commune wearing a sturdy button-down shirt, old jeans, and a canvas pack on her back, she imagined sitting around tables discussing philosophy and politics for hours. What work she imagined was joyful playing outdoors and more conversation while placing perfect seedlings in rich soil. What she found was people as passionate as she imagined, but not the tender joyful culture. It turned out that making a subsistence living was hard work. For a bunch of kids raised indoors, there was no romance in the sweat, mud, and blood it demanded.
She found little personal romance either, especially in this car. The high school sweethearts seated behind her were nauseating and the group leader was too in love with politics to be interested in anything else. Is this why she rushed through college? To live on a farm pulling weeds for a few months before packing into a car with a bunch of anti-establishment guys who did not make it through high school, supposedly because it was too “authoritarian.” She had better be fast tracked after this assignment.
“Hey! Hey Helen. Wake up!” she was shaken out of her trance by Patrick. The slow rhythm of houses and ocean views outside of her window must have hypnotized her.
“Let’s get something to eat!” Al was saying as he pulled her by the arm and towards a waiting restaurant.
“Oh no! You’ve got to be kidding me. Mike, are we really going to a Slathers? I can’t believe they’re even out here.” Helen said. She was turning green.
“What do you mean? We never left California, why would the businesses be any different?” Mike answered, almost amused by her disgust. “Anyway, think of it as research, a sampling of Nesson County’s finest fixings.” He attempted a twang, but having no exposure to whatever rustic dialect he was imitating, his voice came out more stiff than usual. They boys entered while Helen took a moment to submit to the situation. The building itself was generic, prefabricated but the facade was redbrick and rural. The food she knew would be the same generic reality hidden behind a Classic American veneer. Yeah, definitely need a promotion when I get back, she thought.
Inside, the restaurant was spacious and vacant. Dining out was not exactly uncommon, but demand only allowed for maybe one restaurant per twenty-five mile radius. Slathers had long ago cornered the market and was essentially synonymous with the word restaurant. The food was actually significantly worse than what the average family could replicate at home, but there was something about the experience of going out to eat that had not yet worked itself out of the American psyche.
Helen pushed the wilted lettuce and watery tomatoes around on her plate. The side salad was her only option on the menu and even then, she had to ask them to leave off the chicken. The server gave her an odd look and said she would have to check with the “Chef” about that. “I can’t believe you guys are eating all that,” Helen was pointing the prongs of her fork at each of their plates in turn. “Won’t you be sick?”
Through a mouthful of ribs Al replied, “Research.”
“Best not to draw attention to ourselves. Eat like the Romans do, or whatever.” Mike said. He punctuated his sentence with the screech of his knife hitting plate after sawing through a half inch of steak. Helen only sighed and turned her head to the next table. What she found was a middle age couple, chins glistening while chewing fried something or other, looking perplexed at her plate.
Patrick dabbing grease off his chicken breast said, “yeah, Salad Queen.”
Leaving Slathers Helen saw a train pass behind the restaurant, heading for the continent. Despite running through several populated areas, the train rarely dropped speed below two hundred miles per hour. It was close enough that, despite the friction free propulsion technology that allowed the train to glide just above the rails, the disturbance in air pressure made the non-functional shutters nailed to the restaurant vibrate against the imitation wood siding. She could see the faces of several passengers, or rather the blur of their faces. The windows were something of a relic; no one looked out from them. They were staring at screens and gesturing at their mobiles. The walls could easily have been video walls, but trains, much like cars, kept windows because the abstract concept of a vehicle required them. A few companies tested windowless cars, but the prospect of entering solid metal boxes proved unappealing.
Helen was thankful for these near emission free trains. Thanks to these and the energy advances of the past few decades, air quality around the world was finally improving. Still, environmentalism was about more than pollution, as was often discussed back on Open Acres. The Ecocommunists believed that advancements in renewable, clean energy were a threat to existential sustainability. The very foundation of what it means to be human had eroded, smoothed by decades of easy living and passive entertainment. Saving the species meant roughing up those polished edges and bringing struggle back into everyday vocabulary.
The ends to which the residents of Open Acres were employed gained Helen’s sympathies and allowed her to distance her moral sensibilities from their questionable actions. Perhaps if the world would stop producing the likes of Richard Links there would be no need for this, as the media branded it, ecoterrorism. Helen watched the end of the train. It left only a soft hum, slightly lower pitched than the one that preceded the train. She could not stop the longing she felt for those plush seats and electric diversions.
The others were in the car waiting, had been for several minutes. “Come on Helen! Hawaii awaits.” She did not know who called her, but she woke from her daze. They would not make it to the original chain of islands that once defined Hawaii until tomorrow night, but they would cross the state line by late that evening. Deciding the new state lines had been easier than anyone predicted. Anyone except the developer, Links. In a statement before the Senate, he expressed his opinion that until two landmasses met, anything protruding originally from a given state should be the property of that state. E.g., when Helen and her associates crossed the state line, they would transition to development that had originally extended from Hawaii, even though now no one could tell the difference. It appeared as a continuous bridge between states.
The arbitrary nature of such a standard was address by plenty of politicians and pundits. What if a developer started in California and built a strip of land northward until hitting Canada, following the coast and effectively land locking Oregon and Washington? Link’s answer boiled down to, “so what?” Let the states do what they must to extend their territory. The Ocean was the new frontier and the phrase “Manifest Destiny” should regain its positive connotation. So far, there had been little conflict because only Links himself had enough resources to develop new land. The question of how future international situations might be solved, should some other nation start dumping trash in the ocean and letting its people live on it, had not been answered.
Helen’s awareness of conversation around her gradually increased as Patrick snapped his fingers in her ear. “Yoohoo, what’s your deal Helen? You’ve been spacing since we left the restaurant, did you not eat enough or something?”
Al turned to Patrick, “What are you talking about? She’s been like this the whole time, right Mike?”
“Wha..? Sorry wasn’t paying attention.”
“Well at least he’s driving, that’s some kind of excuse.” Patrick said.
“Whatever, they’re both a drag.”
“Hey!” Helen said, not sure why she was offended.
“Where are we staying tonight, Mike?” Al asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like where are we going to stop? What kind of hotel. What city or whatever?”
“I’d assumed one of you would drive when I got tired. Anyway, a hotel is traceable.”
“Uh. Drive?” Patrick let out a little whine, “I don’t have a license.”
“Yeah… Neither do I,” Al said.
“Are you two serious? Driving without a license should be the least of your worries. Do you think I have a license?”
“I can drive,” Helen said.
“Finally some reason! I’ll be fine for a while though.”
“Really Helen? Have you driven before?” Al Asked.
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything…” In fact, Helen had driven once. For many teenagers, it was something of a rite of passage to enroll in Driver’s Ed upon turning sixteen. The course consisted of three hours covering the history of automobiles and fundamentals of manual driving followed by two hours to practice driving circles around the school. For many students it was the only time they sat in a classroom with other students outside of a Holoroom.
“Great, we’re all going to die.” Al said.
“Shut up Al.” Mike and Helen said simultaneously.
Al sat looking dejected and bored; Helen could hear his feet shuffling on the floor mat. After a few minutes, his face brightened and he called out, “Hey Mike? Can we smoke in here?” as he withdrew a long mentholated cigarette.
“What? No!” Helen answered.
“See, no fun,” Patrick said.
“How about you can smoke while you’re driving,” Mike said into the rear view mirror.
“Uh, I don’t think you want me to smoke this while I drive.”
“What,” Helen said, “you can’t hold a cigarette and drive?”
“Well, it was a cigarette.” Al said.
“You idiots,” Mike said rubbing his face.
“Ooh, how’d you do that?” Helen asked, “Can I look at it?” Al handed her the white paper tube looking both proud and suspicious, a look that turned to shock when the repurposed vessel flew out the window. “Oops!” she said.
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