Nesson 5: At Sea

Nesson is a serial novel about living with technology and sprawl in the near future. Learn more or start from the beginning.


“But I can’t stay in here,” Helen argued as the group entered their hotel room. In response to the blank expressions she added, “There’s only one bed and you’re three men.” She knew two of them had not the slightest interest in her that way, but that was not the point. Actually, this was an issue she had to confront regularly on Open Acres. Communal living gave people the idea that there was no such thing as “your room” or “my room.” Helen agreed from a philosophical standpoint, but growing up in a typical sprawl household, she felt a physical need for privacy and personal space. The thought of being around other people while she slept, changed clothes, and attended to hygiene nauseated her.

After their meeting with Rick, Mike marched straight to the counter to pay for the cheapest room at the hotel. This was an unplanned extravagance. The previous night they had camped out on someone’s expansive beachside estate. No one told Helen she would need a tent, though in hindsight she did not know what she had expected. So while Patrick and Al shared their tent and Mike spread out in his, Helen reclined the front passenger seat of the car as far she could. Earlier, when everyone was setting up their tents, Mike saw Helen sitting cross-armed on the trunk of the car and looked as if he was about to say something. Instead, he flushed and went to work threading the tent poles through the tarp.

Hotels were not in the plan because largely they did not exist and when they did, they were impossibly priced. The conference hotel did offer discounts to attendees to encourage them to stay an extra day and enjoy historic Hawaii. The discount made the unattainable comfort merely unreasonable. Mike paid the clerk in hard cash; the clerk eyed the four of them suspiciously and brusquely informed them that he had no change.

“Can you credit the balance to our room?” Mike asked, thinking of dinner.

“No. No, don’t believe I can do that.” Legally, hard cash had to be accepted. However, the only people who used it were criminals and the extremely elderly. Paying with cash guaranteed a rip-off; most paper money users were trying to avoid attention and would not make a stink about a few dollars. For Helen and her companions, this was the central logistical conundrum. They did not want to be traceable; yet, using untraceable currency drew attention.

Helen did not pay much attention to the reservation process, she was just happy to be staying indoors that night. It was not until they all stepped into the same closet sized room together that she realized the situation. Her protests began immediately.

“Look, we’re on a budget here,” Mike said, “We just have to deal with it. Besides, you don’t even have to worry about Pat or Al.”

“Alright,” Helen said, “Then get a room for you. Either way I’m not spending the night with all three of you.”

“What if I get a room for those two, and…”

“What’s that?” Helen asked, glaring.

“Nothing, nothing.” In the end Mike agreed, though he looked a little aggrieved that he would spend the night alone with Patrick and Al. Mike promised them this would be the only night any of them would get such accommodations. From there on out it was sleeping in the car or outdoors.

After several cramped days of travel, the space and comfort of a hotel room was almost alien, but no less welcome. The room was well furnished and smaller than her childhood bedroom. Despite the size of the room and her proximity to the air conditioner, she could not get the room cool enough for her taste. It was nearing winter after all and she was a Midwestern girl; she could get over the lack of snow, sleet, or even a cool breeze, but eighty degrees was too much. Her time in California did nothing to prepare her for the tropics.

She thought about the course of the next few days as she fanned herself by flapping the collar of her shirt. They should avoid much exploration outside the hotel, Mike warned. There was no need to be too visible. This was no idle paranoia on his part. Over the past few decades, surveillance technology and artificial intelligence had evolved and merged. Most major cities, and certainly every tourist town in the US, had joined the Surveillanet: a system capable of not just recording, not just observing, but identifying and tracking. The bots in Surveillanet could identify suspicious behavior as well as those perpetrating it. A young man observed looking around before heading into an alley could be predicted to be about to, in order of probability: buy illegal substances, use said substances, mine dumpsters for food or valuables, or urinate. The system, upon noticing unusual activity could analyze all adjacent cameras and all recordings made any time in the history of the system to make a more accurate prediction before alerting police.

There were rumors of use of the Surveillanet for more than law enforcement purposes. Some believed that some shadowy government agency kept tabs and profiles on everyone using the system. For most, this idea was not much more frightening than what Surveillanet was already doing publicly. Sure, domestic spying was still technically illegal, but it was so easy now. It seemed like the government would have to be trying not to collect information about private citizens. Others believed that another network existed, one comprised of covert cameras hidden in every room and populated outdoor space. Nano technology had been employed to make a fine dust of sensors and cameras that permeated the country. Anything, anywhere could be visualized in full real time three dimensions and five senses if needed, down to the workings of an individual’s vital organs. Everything was monitored all the time and the only reason there was still crime was that national security necessitates that the system remain covert. It was used only on dissidents and enemies of the state.

Helen considered such ideas pure science fiction. Not so much the technical part; that sounded plausible if a little fantastic and costly. No, the idea of that kind of overbearing government presence sounded unrealistic. There was an element of competence to it, which she did not believe the government capable of possessing. Not the government she knew anyway. However, the normal, demonstrated uses of Surveillanet were enough to justify caution. A car making the whole trip from LA to Honolulu was not unheard of, but certainly not normal. The fact that they were using a manually driven car without a navigation system did not help. They were not Links employees or property owners, no one else would be driving around Nesson.

Helen wanted to say something about using cash. Who paid for anything in cash? Really though, she should not interfere. Just her presence was hindering the objectivity of the assignment. It was her professional duty to let things play out as they would, even if it meant letting her companions make decisions that would land them all in jail. Would being an undercover journalist get her off the hook if something happened? Maybe she should have looked into that.

Helen walked to the window and looked down. She was seven floors up and looking over a resort town that had peaked before her grandparents’ time. Hawaii was expecting a revival, or at least a rebirth through the connection with Nesson. Links Corp had probably promised as much to the state to get approval to connect Maui to the land bridge. Surely the traffic to and from the new settlements would bring business and travel to the old islands. The town surrounding their hotel had yet to see gains from the development. Still, many of the buildings were in fantastic shape for being abandoned. The decline of Honolulu was gradual, but unavoidable. When holorooms replaced travel, the state’s economy hollowed, creating a sinkhole that left the population at pre-annexation levels. Helen felt an urge to go walk between the empty, fossilized office buildings and towering apartments. She turned to walk to the door, but knew she could not leave her room. Going out could create any number of behavior trails that could be inconvenient later, so Mike said.

Helen wondered how far back the system could trace her. If she unconsciously did something odd, like maybe order a salad at a steak restaurant, would the system follow her records back to college, forward to the commune, up to now at the hotel? Would the bot knowingly watch her undercover reporting while reporting a suspicious group to the FBI? The FBI that was surely so overloaded with suspicious cases that human investigators did not bother with anything short of murder or racketeering. An FBI that needed to employ its own bots to follow a case until intervention was required.

Many experts considered the impact of the Surveillanet a wash. The amount of crimes stopped before they happened was balanced by the crimes that police had no time to get to because they were overloaded with potential crime. The possible effects of the coming robo-enforcement was a popular topic of debate at criminal justice conferences. Recently test towns had set up evenly spaced posts with speakers and printers that would issue instant citations, court dates, and commands to appear in the nearest holding cell. Compliance in test markets was high, with no higher percent of robo-arrestees requiring bench warrants than under the traditional system, though the cost-benefit of wide spread use remains in dispute.

Needless to say, Helen was not going to do anything to risk her story, including going out to enjoy cocktails on the beach or exploring derelict buildings. She could make do with room service and videos over the net. She fell asleep with a half-eaten tray of linguini lying at the foot of her bed and an old science fiction movie playing on the video wall. It was funny, Helen thought as she dozed, that the old sci-fi movies always imagined space travel and over a hundred years later, we were no closer to interplanetary travel than we were in the 1960s.

That night Helen dreamed of a pillar of smoke rising from the center of the island and the ground shaking. She was sure they were all about to sink into the sea. She ran outside, certain that was what to do during an earthquake, but no one was around except her and the Surveillanet. The dark cloud of ash gathered overhead while water pooled at her feet. A loudspeaker called out to her to take her citation, please, for terrorism and report to the nearest police station.


“How did Rick know about any of this anyway?” Al asked, referring to their conversation with Smithson. Al gazed at the window, scowling in suppressed excitement. They were back in the car for as far as it would take them. Relative to the distance they had already traveled it was not much further, the driving portion anyway. It would take a little over a day between uncertain roads and construction delays. They would need to leave the car behind; she was not sure when, but knew it would be soon. Nesson was visible on a map, if you zoomed in close enough. From too far away it appeared to be a mislabeled portion of ocean, as if the waves had carried the words off from California and dropped them halfway to Hawaii. Not all of it was labeled though, even the satellite feeds they had access to did not show any development west of Hawaii. They were leaving the populated portion of the land bridge and heading into a construction site. They had some hand drawn maps, generated from news stories and rumors, but any sense of scale was absent.

Navigation by physical map was a long lost art; you may as well ask them to saddle a horse or dial a phone. There was little hope they could actually find their destination. Mike studied the map constantly, comparing it to the road and their surroundings. His would occasionally flash with understanding. Patrick and Al looked over his shoulder in these moments to see what he saw, but they could never piece together whatever navigational revelation Mike had. Helen did not understand why they needed to consult the map so often when there was only one road and one way to go.

“He knows Al, what else do you want me to say?” Mike was being obtuse as usual, but in truth, he was as impressed as the rest of the group.

“You think he has spies?” Pat said, “You know, like corporate spies?”

“I don’t know. Yes? Maybe? Does it matter?”

“Well, yeah, it kind of does. If we’re going to…” Al trailed off.

“You know, there’s a lot of information out there on public record, maybe he has a permit out there that no one has looked at.” Helen speculated.

“Who, Links? Where would one file a permit to build on international waters?” Al snapped.

“I don’t know, the UN?”

“Yeah, sure.” Pat said.

“Alright, enough.” Mike took on his most parental voice, “It’s bad enough I have to drive ninety percent of the time, by the way thanks for the other ten percent Helen, but I don’t want to hear anymore bickering.”

“Sorry Mike,” the three said in chorus. Nesson west of Hawaii drew a stark contrast to the California side. It was like the apocalypse playing in reverse. Mounds of waste and debris were everywhere waiting for transformation into habitable land. A few dwellings could be seen along the road, now and then. These were sometimes cute, clean family homes; others were shacks made with no attempt to hide the refuse based building material. Some of the scant residents here considered themselves homesteaders striking out into new territory. Some were admitted squatters. Whatever their reasons for living out here, they all shared a mistrust of others. To them remote living seemed safer, despite little police or emergency services. Helen imagined the life of someone living several hours from the next city or town. To each his own she would normally say, but the idea of sprawling out into the ocean just to avoid people, it made her, she did not exactly know, mad? Sad? Whatever it was, for the moment she was glad to be traveling with people who want to do something about it. Guilt crept in to tint her fondness for her companions’ cause. What was worse, that she was accomplice to conspiracy or that she was lying? She consoled herself that someone needed to tell this story; countless junior reporters would gladly take her place, guilt free.

“Anyone seen a restaurant lately? I could use some cheese fries.” Pat said. Helen sighed and unfolded a map. There was a large star in the middle of the ocean. Rick provided this particular map, though it was really no better than the ones they found on the net. The star read New St. Louis. It was a sort of mythic city, developed in the early 21st century and probably, but not officially, bought by Links Corps. When the island was being built, it was widely discussed. It was in the news and the topic of many architectural, engineering, and sociology journal articles. It was the first time anyone had seriously attempted to create and settle an entirely new land mass in the middle of the ocean. I was a ray of hope to those who dreaded over population. As the rest of the world was forced to live shoulder to shoulder, Americans had managed to spread out to a further extent than ever before. The US was large enough to support the lowest population density in the world, yet the population continued to rise and space would run out eventually.

New St. Louis did not just loose the spotlight; it fell into a kind of black hole. It was now more legend than geographic fact. The island that contained the city was supposedly built just off the coast of one of the Midway Islands. It was several decades older than Nesson and not connected to the rest of the land bridge. The place was certainly populated, all sources agreed on that point. Most believed it was highly populated, though the reasons for this assumption were varied and conflicting. There was no documented mass migration to the island, but there were a few believable, if second hand, reports from people who had been there. Helen had heard it described as one large building with a few courtyards, so dense the place had become. The people were a mixture of mostly Americans, Japanese, and Micronesians, many of whom were now second or third generation.

Despite the supposed population boom, it was one of the most isolated communities in the world. Net traffic from New St. Louis was virtually non-existent. Some believed they used their own intranet to talk to each other, others speculated they simply did not use electronic communication at all. Helen did not know how to explain the lack of presence on the Net, but she could not conceive of someone, let alone a whole city, not using it at all.

Thinking of the metropolis sitting in the ocean, far from any home continent, set the tips of her fingers tingling. The only way she could describe it was that she felt a possibility. Despite her opposition to the Links land bridge, she could not help her good feelings about their destination.

The car would soon reach a dock, where supposedly transportation had been arranged to New St. Louis. They would surely travel by sea, and probably not by regular ferry. Beyond that, she knew little about how long it would take or what they would be doing from there. In fact, none of her companions seemed to know the details. They were just following orders. They knew the basic ends, but the means were revealed only one piece at a time, each step of the way.

Less likely to raise suspicion, she guessed, or maybe just to keep them going on an unpleasant journey. She felt bad about her attitude when she remembered that the native islanders who populated the pacific thousands of years ago paddled across the ocean to reach new land without a map and at pain of death. She looked out a side window at the world rushing past and began to laugh aloud.



“No, no. No. I won’t do it.” Helen jerked her head and waved her hand wildly at the oar Mike presented to her.

“Listen, we don’t have a choice, we’re already half way there. It’s not like it’d be any easier to go back.” Mike was reasoning with her, afraid the others would refuse as well. It was bad enough to be the sole driver; he refused to paddle this bunch to New St. Louis on his own. Helen voiced her doubts about the little dingy from the start. Mike insisted that their sponsors, that is what he called the network of people supporting them, would not leave them high and dry, so to speak. If this is what they left for them, this must be all they need. Yeah, ok, she thought, as Al and Pat took turns trying to start the motor and Mike offered his hand to help her board.

Helen ignored the hand and jumped aboard; the thump her pack gave on the rear as she landed nearly sent her overboard. She flailed her arms for an interval that felt like a minute, but was probably two seconds, before falling between two benches and scraping her hip. She had changed into slightly lighter, more snug fitting clothing: some khaki high waters and a tank top for the nautical portion of the trip. These offered little padding for her fall.

Al and Pat either did not notice the fall or chose to ignore it, but Mike was beside himself to help Helen onto a seat. She thought she caught him stealing a glance at her collarbone as she dusted herself off. She turned a freckled and tanned shoulder to him and looked out into the ocean. Watching wave has a dilating effect on time. It can be difficult to judge just how long one is sitting and watching, and so it was for Helen. She did not know how long they had been at sea when a forlorn pop and crack from the stern interrupted the silent swelling of the ocean. The wind fell and everyone started confused cursing. Mike wasted no time finding the oars and thrusting the handle in each face in turn. Whatever new found thoughts Mike had about Helen’s body, it did not stop him from demanding she row along with the rest. Her tank top revealed firm arms and square shoulders recently toned by farm work; she had the strength.

The motor died halfway to New St. Louis. It was supposedly halfway, but no one knew exactly how much further. They had all noticed some slowing and the motor changing pitch, but none of them being nautically or mechanically inclined, they continued at full speed. Eventually Mike realized they were only coasting and the battery was dead. Fortunately, they were coasting in the right direction, but at this rate they would reach the island sometime next week.

In the ensuing argument every reason for the dead battery was brought up: Pat’s extra pounds, Helen taking too long to change and board, bad wind, Al’s incorrect starting of the motor, Mike’s attitude, and freakish currents caused by lunar perigee. No one considered the possibility that their sponsors might have given them a lemon boat with a bad battery.

“Why don’t we just wait for the battery to recharge?” Helen grumbled as she rowed.

“Because,” Mike said, “It’ll take too long and we don’t have that much sun left.”

“What?” Al said. “How long can it take? My car back home charges in less than an hour.”

“Yes,” Mike letting just a slight edge in his voice, “but your car charges on the grid. Also your car battery and electrical system probably isn’t twenty years old like this sorry piece of solar powered shit.” A long silence met Mike’s outburst, interrupted only by the sloshing of water. As they rowed, occasionally they would hear the motor sputtering back to life for a half second, having charged just enough for that. No one bothered to turn it off so it would stop all together.

When the motor died, there was no land visible in any direction. At the tip of a wave crest, they could see indistinguishable dots on the horizon, but nothing of consequence. Now after a couple of hours paddling, the dots were thin wisps, like a patch of weeds jutting from the ocean. They could just make out a one-dimensional coastline. Having a visible goal motivated the rowing crew and they replaced their complaining with grunting of exertion. The sun was descending, but they still had a few hours of orange light and purple sky; hopefully they would beat nightfall.

New St. Louis, despite the grand rumors of its size and population, did not have reliable maps. None that they could find before leaving Hawaii anyway. They did not know where to look for a dock and simply pointed the boat at the land on the horizon. What would be the residents’ reactions as they paddled right on to a beach? Such a distance at such pains for the sake of a low profile, suppose the city uses Surveillanet? Could they be any more conspicuous rowing their way ashore? Helen imagined rolling out of the boat, covered in dry sweat and layers of sunburn and being greeted by a citation for disturbing the peace. Maybe this was not such a strange way to get to New St. Louis though. What was the official method of traveling to an island that does not officially exist?

Helen suspected that there was no Surveillanet on the island. It was a fairly private system, but not immune to hackers. If the tabloids could abuse the system in order to track celebrities, someone would have gotten and distributed videos of the city if video existed. They found no such video in their pre-travel research. Pat was no slouch when it came to information retrieval; his data mining skills almost made up for his otherwise dead weight. That he found nothing except archival footage of the island’s construction meant the videos were not there to find.

Helen’s arms ached by the time the buildings revealed their depth, but she was not too exhausted to be excited. Though still hazy, the island was like nothing she had ever seen. Photos of places like Tokyo or Mumbai did not compare. Helen could not believe the skyline could be so dense. How could such a place remain obscure to the rest of the world? What goes on there? Who lived there? She wondered what she could find there, what kind of story she could write about the island itself. However unpleasant the trip and the coming mission, Helen could not imagine anywhere else she wanted to be right now.

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