The closest train station to New St. Louis was at the end of the inhabited Nesson developments. It was the end of the line for Links Railways; there was nothing there except a couple of houses and the remains of an old US military base. The rail station consisted of a platform and a sign pointing east. To go west from here required ferry service. If Marcus were on his way home, he would be cramming himself into a tipsy tin can of a boat filled with day laborers.
To avoid that kind of contact with their employees, most of the Links upper management used their own boats to travel to construction sites. They did not use the trains and they certainly never set foot on ferries. They usually drove their yachts straight from California to wherever the current project was; or rather, their yachts drove them. Considering the distance from California these days, Marcus supposed they might launch from Hawaii now. For his part though, he liked the train. Really, he liked any form of transportation where he surrendered the responsibility for safe travel to someone else. Sure, all vehicles were self-driven these days, but there was always the risk of having to do emergency manual driving.
The station platform was made of lashed composite bamboo treated to look hand fastened. It rose about four feet from the ground and was unadorned except by a small ticket booth that looked like a thatched hut. From the booth, an awning extended five or six feet, more than enough shade and shelter for the station’s patrons. The tracks actually extended west some ways, and there was land stretching halfway to the horizon. Beyond that, Marcus could make out some construction, just a grey blur of it the size of a quarter. The train did not continue past this station because the land beyond had not been settled yet. One could continue to drive a little further from here and even walk after the roads ended, but no one besides construction crew bothered. People did not move out here to walk and explore; The Nesson residents left home about as often as any other American.
The Midway station, named in commemoration, brought in crews to continue the housing tract that ended a couple hundred miles east. Eventually these rails would carry new homeowners over the international dateline and to their North Pacific properties. There was not much in the way of signage; travel was one-way.
The trip would be short. In less time than it took to get from his store to this platform, he would be on Hawaii and from there just a few more hours to the mainland. He would have enough to time to take a nap and hope to adjust to the time change. His store was a day ahead of LA; oddly enough, it was exactly twenty-four hours ahead of where he now stood.
There had been some talk in the media about the oddity of time zones as Nesson grew. Early in development, Richard Links sat for an interview about Nesson time:
Percival Wolfe: Some have said Nesson, seeing as it is part of California, should stay on Pacific Time. What do you think about that?
Ricard Links: Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it much. There are so many logistical issues to consider in a project like this.
PW: But you do not think it is an issue?
RL: I mean, look, Nesson stretches across four time zones currently and will likely cross three more in the near future. Of course there will be some awkwardness, but I don’t think it will be a problem.
PW: So… what then? Maintain current time zones? What about crossing the dateline? You will have two separate dates on one continuous land mass.
RL: Time is artificial, and with that comes these kinds of issues. Sometime during the twentieth century, people forgot that time is not objective. We created time zones because our lives got faster. We traveled and communicated fast enough for local time to become confusing. Since everyone did business during certain hours, we had to know exactly what time it was where.
PW: And won’t the residents of Nesson be confused if their neighbor is a full day ahead of them?
RL: Maybe, but how much time do we spend talking to neighbors and how much time do we spend talking to people hundreds of miles away? Time as we know it is already outmoded, it cannot account for something like Nesson and it is irrelevant to the way most of us live our lives now.
PW: How do you mean?
RL: Time has become idiosyncratic. We live, work, play, and socialize whenever we want. Geography has nothing to do with it. When we enter our holorooms to go to work we sit in virtual offices with coworkers from dozens of time zones. Maybe I wake up and go to work for the first part of my day; maybe my coworker who lives three time zones away does the same. Maybe my closest neighbor works in the same office but has already been awake for eight hours before going to work.
PW: So you’re saying…
RL: I’m not saying anything really, just that time is not my biggest concern when it comes to Nesson.
PW: Speaking of concerns, let us turn to the sovereignty issue.
RL: Oh, of course, my favorite concern…
“Destination?” The old timey uniform Links Corp required its employees to wear only further illuminated the boredom on the porter’s face. They were the kind of clothes that Marcus’s grandfather would have found quaint. From California to Midway, all the station employees wore the same black vest over black shirt with black pleated slacks. Combined with the perspiration shining all over, the young man appeared covered in an onyx shell. He seemed to have forgotten the pillbox hat, opting for cool air on his sweating forehead.
“LA.” Marcus said. It was sometimes stilted, awkward speaking to a real agent at the booth. Normally such transactions were automated; the attendants hauled bags and corralled passengers. Out here, traffic was so low that one person could handle ticketing and boarding. The travelers at this end of the line were self-sufficient anyway. The workers carried no more than a rucksack; anyone outside of Links employment that passed through this station was a new settler or a wanderer. Either way, people here carried little and kept to themselves.
“One-Seventy-Five-Please.” The young man recited. His voice was flat, bored.
“American?!” Marcus feigned shock.
“Yes Sir. You are in America Sir.”
“Sure, sure, I know that.” Marcus chuckled at his own absurdity and pulled out a wad of bills fresh out of Lucky Jack’s vault.
“Hard cash sir?” a slight edge of annoyance and suspicion.
“It’s what I’ve got.” Marcus shrugged, affecting an apologetic manner.
“Just a moment, let me get the key to the drawer.” The cashier walked away passing through a door at the back of the booth. Marcus heard fumbling and muttering. The truth was he could have easily paid with his UBN card, but he liked the feel of paying with hard money. Besides, Jack always paid out in cash and Marcus had to spend it somewhere. The Cashier was back, counting change in a deliberate fashion that revealed how often he received cash payments. The ocean breeze picked up for a moment and ruffled both their hair and the money.
“Twenty-five’s your change, have a great trip.” The last syllable was punctuated by the window closing. Ah the joys of commerce, thought Marcus. It was different, being on the other side of the counter. Marcus liked to think he was friendlier to his own customers. This ticketing agent was cold and distant beyond his years; where did someone so young learn to be so jaded anyway? Of course, Marcus knew that this short, pointed interaction was actually more than he ever had with the Links workers who frequented his shop. Well, except for Earl, but Earl did most of the talking anyway.
The first time Marcus rode this train he was headed the other direction, away from the mainland. A slight magnetic hum rose around him and thoughts of exotic landscapes and teeming oceans filled his mind. The hairs on his arms stood straight; he chalked this up to the electromagnetic disturbance generated by the train, not the visions of adventure.
Marcus was no more than an hour off the coast of old California when he found there is nothing scenic about riding a bullet train across the pacific. Most of the time his view was only the surface of the ocean. Sure, this had a certain appeal. The endless rippling steel blue reflecting sky and clouds: he could hardly say it was not beautiful, but where were the whales and dolphins? Where were the ships and the new Nesson towns? When there were settlements, the train was moving too fast to see what was happening there, not that there was anything going on.
Now, he did not expect much. The blank ocean view was the same that he had back at the store and he had been to some of the inhabited sections of Nesson. He knew there was nothing to see there. Most of the residents were more private and reclusive than your average American. Nessonians were something like raccoons; they left signs of their presence but you rarely saw one. The view was unquestionably dull, but that is not to say the ride was without entertainment options. A cacophony of entertainment noises buzzed everywhere he turned. Even when he figured out how to turn off all the TVs, speakers, and talking posters, he could hear it from the neighboring compartments.
Marcus had purchased fare for a whole compartment so that he might be left alone, in silence. After months more or less alone with silence abound, he had forgotten that quiet was a rare commodity. The muffled noises from every direction made a kind of white noise; it was annoying but not so distracting that he could not think.
What exactly was he doing on this train? Jack had told him about some sort of business deal. That is actually how he put it: some sort of deal. All Marcus knew was that someone was going to pick him up in LA and that it will supposedly be worth his while. He was not doing bad, financially speaking. Life on the frontier was cheap, nothing to spend money on but food. Still, he rarely turned down a good opportunity and Jack never led him astray, not on purpose.
BING. BING. ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS. PREPARE FOR DECELERATION AND DEPARTURE AT HONOLULU. ALL CONTINUING PASSENGERS FOR SERVICE TO LOS ANGELES PLEASE STAY SEATED AND ENSURE THAT YOUR TICKETS ARE DISPLAYED. AGAIN PREPARE FOR DECELERATION BING. BING.
Deceleration was rattling to some but to Marcus it was exhilarating. It is not the shaking or vibration that gets people. The G-force pinning them to their seats was disorienting, but Marcus enjoyed the sensation. It was a complete uniform pressure, a constrained comfort.
It was the tail end of dusk outside the station and while the adjacent streets hummed in a blur of activity, the curb was deserted. What sunlight remained served only to obscure rather than illuminate. Trees and signs in silhouette surrounded Marcus. Glowing in the foreground was the word “Cook” in careful, clean font on a net paper. This must be his ride.
Dim light and a low hat twice obscured the chauffeur’s face. The man led Marcus to a limousine. It was a real, gasoline powered limo with a leather glove and cap-wearing driver who opens doors for his passengers. Marcus remembered these things from early childhood. Gas powered cars that is, not limos with drivers. He remembered the sounds; the hum of electric engines replaced the roar of internal combustion. Acceleration was accompanied by a sound of great effort; modern electrics made no sound at all.
What he did not remember was the smell. Sharp and intoxicating, in the toxic sense of the word. How did he not remember such a stench? Was it so ubiquitous that no one noticed? Still, the kindling of all of Marcus’ automobile memories and fantasies made the fumes bearable.
This kind of luxury was becoming increasingly en vogue. It was considered that only the very wealthy had the resources to maintain and power petroleum vehicles. The cost of fuel was obvious, but there was also constant repair, hard to find parts, and a driver. Hiring a driver or having the time to learn how to drive oneself around, that was the real obstacle. There were some hobbyists here and there, but mostly it was the conspicuously rich that owned historic cars.
Where were they going in such style anyway? How long would the drive take? It had been so long since he had traveled by something other than boat or train. Most importantly though, who was paying for all his travel expenses? Marcus started in on a line of questions as soon as the back of the driver’s head slid into view, but what actually came out was some mixture of the words ‘who’ what’ and ‘where’ all at once. The driver had an air of familiarity with passenger confusion. “Mr. Links has requested your presence at his mountain home.”
“Links? Wait, you mean, as in Richard Links?” The car was making a little more sense now. Surely Links had a fleet of them. Why would the wealthiest man in the country, if not the world, summon him from such a distance? In person too, they could have easily met over holocall. Marcus was operating on the frontier of Links’ Pacific development, but surely Richard Links was not aware of a merchant running a shack of a store.
“The same, sir.”
“And we’re going to his home in which Mountains?”
“I’m afraid that’s classified, sir.”
“What? Are you kidding me?” Marcus knew he could easily check his location at any point during the trip. It was not as if the driver could cut his Net connection.
“… Yeah, I’m kidding you,” the driver chuckled to himself, “but seriously, don’t tell anyone.”
“Where it is or that I was there?”
“Oh, ok.” Marcus stopped speaking and enjoyed the ride. Something about the limo seemed to part the dense LA traffic. It could have been the midnight sheen of the well-waxed hood or perhaps the driver’s none-to-passive driving. Considering all the other cars were on auto drive, probably the latter. Marcus liked to imagine, though, that it was the sound of the engine that cleared a path. The roar of an internal combustion engine to the meandering electric robot cars was akin to the lion’s roar to a herd of gazelle. Marcus remembered and generally sympathized with the arguments for abandoning gas-powered cars, but right now, all he could think was, Yeah!
On mainland California, one never exactly left LA. Most of southern California had incorporated into the megalopolis years ago. The annexation merely codified what had been the case for decades. Marcus was being driven out of “Old LA,” but not out of the city limits. The traffic outside of the old core was lighter and the number of single-family homes greater. As was typical for LA, light suburban traffic still meant a line of cars stretching for miles both directions. These people lived in their cars, many literally, and why not when your car drives itself and has all the comforts of your living room? There was no use wondering about why people in LA were out in their cars or where they were going; it was innate, a cultural memory perpetuating itself. It was the same reason glass windows still existed and National Parks still entertained visitors.
The car stopped and the rear door opened. It had been a few hours since leaving the train station; the car distracted Marcus such that he did not notice how much time had passed, nor had he noticed the change in elevation. The city had conquered the landscape; it was hard to tell they were climbing a mountain. The grade was obscured by identical rooflines and dancing holographic roadside advertising. Of course, Links’ house, if you could call that behemoth a house, looked out over a few hundred acres of pristine land unspoiled by the endless development that was gospel to the rest of the country.
At first glance, the house looked of the same era as the chauffeur. It was neo-classical in shape, but late twentieth century modern in construction. What was not glass was a nearly translucent polished marble. There was an extravagant simplicity, a greatness in size but not in detail. He would not have been surprised to see his host step out wearing tails and a top hat, looking like the robber barons that were surely ancestral to him. The man that walked out of the large, apparently unfinished, alder-wood door wore faded jeans and a cashmere sweater with a brown collar peeking out of the top. Links was famous both for ostentation and for plain personal style. “Welcome!” Links called out. He pushed his round glasses up the bridge of his nose so they rested pointing at his receding hairline. An enduring gesture, Marcus thought. “Mr. Cook, I have been expecting you.” Links said with a caricatured nasal lisp.
“Marcus is fine. Can’t say I knew who or what to expect.”
“Well, don’t be shy, come in and,” Link’s voice dropped to a spooky cadence, “all will be revealed. Seriously though, come in and have a beer.” The chauffeur stepped ahead of Marcus to usher him in. Marcus was spirited away to an office so hastily that there was no way to check out his surroundings. He did notice an odd amount of modern painting and sculpture featuring straight lines and right angles. The artworks stuck out against dark wood trim and thick molding. The office, on the other hand, was wood and glass everywhere, both stained. The seats were all upholstered with fine patterns and the woodwork was elaborately inlaid. At the back of the room was a monstrosity of a desk with more drawers and nooks than anyone born since the collapse of the postal service could use.
Links handed Marcus a beer that he had somehow grabbed unnoticed on the walk through the house. They sat facing each other, long fibers from the seat cushions stuck to Marcus’ clothes. “So Marcus, I hear you’re something of a businessman.” Links said before the chauffeur stepped out, closing the door with a soft click.
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