It was hot. Unrealistically hot. When Simon opened the hatch, Justin could swear hot air penetrated the shaft before sunlight entered. It was a short climb out, maybe ten rungs up the ladder. They emerged in the middle of the desert with the tower some distance away but still visible. Somewhere in that tower Herman was searching for him, surely growing angrier by the moment. Perhaps not, perhaps he would not even notice. Either way, the train would be leaving soon without Justin.
There was a road here, but no sign of rail. They must be on some other side of the tower he reasoned. The road was cracked and had a thin layer of sand coating it, but still looked navigable. Unlike the roads in other parts of the country he had seen from trains, this one had no flora poking through the cracks. The plant life here was in no way hardy enough to grow through pavement.
Parked to the side of the road was something Justin had not seen much lately: a car. Without explanation, Simon began to approach the vehicle.
“You have a car?”
“It would seem so,” Simon said as if this was news to him.
“Not very, well, Neopolitan of you is it?”
Simon shrugged, “sometimes I need to get to places where trains don’t go.”
“Where? Like the sprawl?”
Simon shrugged again, “Get in,” he said. Justin had not argued about free rides yet and was not about to start now. “It’s solar if that makes you feel better.”
“You mean electric? Aren’t all cars?”
“No, most cars charge using whatever the nearest power plant uses to churn out electricity. This baby is all solar.”
“No plug?” Justin asked.
“No plug.” Simon confirmed. The source of electricity was not something Justin thought about much. He knew the switch to renewable energy happened before he was born.
“But all electricity is made from renewable resources, what’s so special about a solar car?”
“Well, for one thing I never have to stop to charge.”
“You drive far enough to discharge a battery?”
“Often, yes. Also, I like the idea of not depending on someone else to charge my battery.”
“I bet you do!”
“Nothing, nothing. Are you going to open the door or what?” Inside the car was small but comfortable. Back home the few times the family left the house involved packing into what was affectionately called the ‘family bus.’ Something was off in this little car though, besides the size.
“Hey, why are the seats all facing forward?” and only four of them with no floor space between? That part he kept to himself.
“So I can drive.”
“Drive? You drive? Why?”
“I like it, what can I say?”
“I didn’t know you could do that. Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Look around, what could we hit?” They both observed the miles of flat sand.
“OK, but what about when there’s traffic?”
“Well, none of the robot driven cars would ever let me get close enough to be a danger. Besides, people used to drive themselves all the time, for like a whole century.”
“Yeah, and a lot of people died.”
“Oh yeah, that reminds me, you should buckle up,” Simon pointed at Justin’s seat belt. Justin fumbled with it for a moment before he clicked the buckle home. The only time he ever had to use a seat belt was when the car warned of an emergency situation, which was never.
Simon pressed a few buttons. Justin heard a faint whine of current passing to the engine. Simon fastened his own belt and seconds later, they were traveling almost as fast as the trains. They began to pass houses. These were spread just a bit further apart than his own neighborhood. He guessed they were a mile apart driveway to driveway.
“So, what’s the next stop?” Justin asked, more to make conversation than out of real curiosity.
“The ocean my friend.” This surprised Justin, no stopping in little cities or offices on the way? His idea of travel was limited to the experiences of the past month. Trains stopped everywhere. His family car trips were always somewhere relatively close. The destination of the walk he took away from home was wherever he might find a place to rest.
“How long is that?” He asked.
“Ooo, five, six, seven hours? Something like that.” Justin could not believe it could be so easy. He expected several more days to make it that far, and then had no idea where to go from there.
“So, when we hit the ocean?” Justin asked. Simon made some hand gesture that suggested something aquatic.
“What? We’re swimming?!”
“No, no,” Simon laughed, “sailing, or boating rather. No sails involved.”
“West,” Simon saw the next question coming, “Don’t worry about it for now. Trust me, you’re going to like this trip. It’s a long drive and an even longer boat trip. Why don’t we pass the time and you tell me where you’re trying to get.”
Justin made some awkward noises. How much should he tell this man, about whom he knew nothing? Allison was a fugitive after all. He decided to be general about it. “I’m trying to find my sister, she left home several months ago and we recently lost contact with her.”
“So your parents sent you to find her?”
“Ah, so a run away?”
“No, I’m going back, when I find her.” Simon Chuckled. “What?”
Simon shook his head. He is not going home any more than his sister is, he thought. “You must be a good brother, what are you going to say when you find her?”
Justin originally thought he would tell her to come home, that their parents were worried. He almost told Simon that was his plan, but the words would not form. He sat silent. Simon smiled.
Justin thought he was used to long car trips. The family trips to the nearest theme park or to a local historic sight were always at least a couple hours one way. It turned out that a six-hour car ride was longer than he thought. Surely longer than any other six hours he had spent. This included the walk from his home to Neopolis.
Simon was more accustomed to this sort of travel; he had many unusual ways of passing the time. There was a game that required finding something in the landscape for successive letters of the alphabet. A-Armadillo! Justin had never seen one live but he could point it out easy enough. B-Blacktop etc.
“C-Car,” Justin said.
“No, you can’t use the car, we’re in the car. It has to be something else, otherwise…”
“No, car! There!” Justin stuck a finger in the direction of a lone car on the horizon. At least, it was lone up until then. It was traveling in their lane and they were gaining on it.
“Oh, so it is,” Simon said. He began to describe another game that involved license plates, which was quite difficult in the desert he admitted, but was cut off by a panicked Justin.
“Look out! You’re going to hit them!” It took no time at all to approach the other vehicle, more of the bus type that Justin recalled from family trips.
“Don’t worry, watch this,” Simon accelerated and before they came any nearer, the other car changed lanes. It languidly timed its merge just right to not be hit and re-entered the lane just a couple of feet from their bumper. “See, robot cars always get out of the way.” Justin had never experienced such a thing. Autodrive cars always worked together so that changing lanes was safe and efficient. He knew there were evasive maneuvers they could perform, but had never even heard of one needing to be done. Then again, would he have noticed if the family bus made a move like that? He looked back at the large vehicle they had not almost hit and saw the family inside, ant like but visible, lounging relaxed and either snoozing or playing games. They certainly were not worried about a reckless manual driver.
“Really? You can use that?” Justin asked, forgetting about the other car.
“Sure, why not?”
“Aren’t we in the desert as much as we’re in the car?”
“I would say the desert is outside the car myself.” Simon said in a philosophical tone.
“Whatever. So how much longer again?”
“Geeze kid, it’s only been two hours.”
“Yeah, but there’s nothing to mark the time. Hundreds of miles of desert look the same, the houses all look the same, at least the ones close enough to see. All their driveways look the same. I bet the next car we see will look the same as that last one we saw.”
“Most likely,” Simon said, “I didn’t make the sprawl my friend. I just have to drive through it. It’s actually kind of exotic to me, I could see the appeal.”
“Bleh,” Justin intoned.
“No really, all the space, the privacy, I get it.”
“But what about other people, you don’t think it sounds lonely?” Justin said.
“Didn’t you have friends? I bet you saw each other all the time in Holorooms.”
“Sure, but it’s different. You can see anyone anytime you want, but since I left I’ve realized how different that is from being surrounded by people in person.”
“Some people, or rather a lot, must not care about in person interaction.”
“No, I guess not.” They sat in silence for some time.
“E-Eleven.” Justin was point at a small road sign.
“Would you look at that, a mile marker. Haven’t seen one of those in a while.”
“A what now?”
“Nothing, they’ve ceased to have any meaning. In theory we should be eleven miles from somewhere, but as you can see,” Simon pointed at the horizon resting on miles of flat land, “There’s nothing around here. There was nothing around for another couple of hours, several hours by Justin’s reckoning.
“M-Mountain,” Simon said. Justin had been dozing and saw neither the mountain nor the wry smile on Simon’s face.
“We already passed M… We already finished the game,” Justin focused his vision ahead and sat up suddenly, “Oh, you mean mountains!”
“Indeed, I do. Which also means a leg of our journey is almost complete.”
“A leg? Just how many legs are we talking here?”
“Don’t worry, you’ll find the rest of the trip much more” Simon paused for a moment, “entertaining.”
“More fun than alphabetizing the road.” Justin grumbled.
“Now I don’t know if I’d say that,” Simon smiled. “Yeah, yeah, this should be fun. Educational at least.”
Thus was the first description Justin received of Los Angeles just before they entered the mountain range. As they wound through, something was happening to their surroundings. They could no longer see for miles ahead, but despite this fact there were more houses in view at any given moment. Some were to the side of the road, some further, clinging to the side of a mountain. They were mostly of the type of house he grew up in: large, indistinct. Except, they had ornaments outside of the houses, as if people were coming outside to spend time and possibly look at neighboring houses. There were also places where grass and other greenery had been tramped down, not by lawn tools but by feet, leaving these places as meandering brown streams around the houses. The further they went, the greater the signs of outdoor life until, for the first time since leaving Neopolis, he saw people outside. They were walking, playing, sitting, talking, all the parts of life he knew as indoor activities. It was not quite to the extent of Neopolis, he often wondered if the Neopolitans even had private residences. The people here had cars, the roads were meant for them, and there were no commercial buildings he could see.
There were other cars on the road, a lot of them now. Justin could not remember when they entered the traffic. It seemed to him that they were alone one moment and the next surrounded. These cars were all autodriven and they politely moved out of the way as Simon sped towards them. The desert between Neopolis and the mountains was nearly clear of traffic. Justin’s home had a fair amount of traffic, enough that the desert seemed eerie with its lack. This mountain community, though, made the traffic of Justin’s neighborhood seem closer to that desert. It was here that he could see what a marvel autodrive really was. The traffic halfway into the mountain was tight but fast. The only comparison in Justin’s experience was the foot and bike traffic of the Neopolitans, which whenever it approached this kind of density moved slowly and awkwardly. What was more impressive was watching the whole traffic pattern adjust to Simon, making way for him without ever slowing.
The passengers in these cars were engaged in the typical reading, net-surfing, and games, but they also appeared to be talking. He saw the occasional wave or hand signal from car to car. If cars were mobile living rooms, this was more like a mobile park or something Justin had only seen in Neopolis: a town square.
“What you’re seeing is a sort of relic. Anachronistic if you will.” Simon told Justin, who was looking at the cityscape unfolding before them. It appeared suddenly, abruptly as they crested the mountain and circled around a rock wall. From rocks, wild flowers, cars, and sprawling houses and lawns to miles of tightly packed single story buildings laid out in rigid grid lines. It was still sprawl, but a whole new interpretation of it. New to Justin anyway.
“Welcome to LA, this used to be the definition of car culture and low density living, now it’s one of the most urban places you’ll see outside of Neopolis.”
“But it’s huge! Far larger than any branch of Neopolis. There must be, what, a million people here?”
“Tens of millions.”
“All in the same place? But why?” Justin knew the closest city to his house had rotted away long before his birth as people spread further and further out and worked from home. The density of most urban cores was actually lower than the surrounding neighborhoods now. Why would it be any different here?
“Open your window.” Simon suggested. They had been sealed shut against the desert heat for hours. Justin complied, braced for the same hot winds he found emerging from the hatch outside the tower. Some fresh air might be nice though. The Window rolled down into the door and Justin felt no change. He stuck his hand outside the window. It was immediately blown back by the wind but he could feel the pleasant warmth outside. Not quite room temperature, but not the blistering heat of the southwest by a long shot.
“That’s about as hot as it gets here, and rarely more than ten degrees cooler. Even at the peak of the climate crisis, this place was a paradise. You can’t go far from here and find the same climate.”
“So people stayed in the city just for the outside temperature. But who goes outside anyway, as perfect as this seems, you can do better still with indoor climate control.”
“True, but generations here grew-up outside. Going to the beach, hiking, just sitting around, whatever. It’s a different lifestyle.”
“So what, do people still go out, go somewhere for work or school or whatever?” Justin asked.
“Oh no, not really. They stay home. They use their holorooms and video walls like anyone else. Well except the wealthy. For whatever reason, the rich want to actually go somewhere all the time.”
“What about all the cars?” Justin pointed to the jammed streets ahead. It seemed like every bit of road was in use, “It that all rich people going places?”
Simon chuckled, “There are an awful lot of rich people here, but not that many. No, people just like to get out and ride around.”
“You mean they don’t actually go anywhere?”
“They just drive in circles for a while and take in the scenery?”
“Not even. They do what anyone else does in the car: read, watch videos, not a lot of looking out of the windows.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“Don’t ask me, I don’t live here. I think you have to be a resident to understand how they do things out here.”
Justin let it be and sat quiet for some time. Did Allison come out here? Did she see the same view and wonder about the traffic? He was somehow sure she did. There was a sense of deja vu, not that he had been here before, but the echo of someone else’s experience. It was not hard to picture Alison here, maybe she was here now. No, the news said she was in Japan now. He had no reason to doubt it, and yet he did. She probably wasn’t in Japan.
Maybe he thought she was too smart to flee to such a xenophobic place. How could one hide somewhere your mere existence is conspicuous. He knew better than to hide in a place like that, she probably would not either.
“So, what do we do from here?” Justin asked. He was ready to move on. A part of him wanted to learn more about LA. It was an odd place, an ugly paradise choked with people and cars. He would love to find out what made this place tick. How did people live here, what did they do? Yet he felt an urgency, a forward pressure.
“We’re not doing anything here except leaving.”
“Oh?” Were he and Simon growing connected in their thoughts and drives?
“Yeah, trust me, things are not so different in LA as they appear. No, we continue on, Westward my friend.”
“But isn’t the ocean directly west? What, are we catching a boat?”
“Eventually, not yet. We’ll continue by car for a while, courtesy of Links Corp.” Justin started. Did he mean Nesson? He head about it in the news and rumors about it from the net. But wasn’t the border sealed and the land in a succession crisis?
“But isn’t Nesson…”
“Nesson? Nesson is no different from the rest of the sprawl. What, do you think it’s filled with a bunch of rebels who are waiting for a couple of regular Americans to stroll in?”
“Well, why else would they still be there?”
“I doubt moving was an option, but most of them are probably oblivious of the conflict, or they don’t care.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Just like you can’t imagine someone living a few miles from Neopolis and not knowing it exists?”
“Now that you mention it, no I can’t,” Justin smiled. He could joke about his own ignorance, but a prickling gray feeling was sneaking into his chest. A few weeks ago, he would have assumed he understood the world and how people lived. Now all he saw was fragmentation. Everything new he learned about the world diminished his old life; there was not much of it left.
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