The old man rose early in the morning to ferry water down. He liked to think he was not unlike a lone monk waking before the rest of the monastery to ring the bells. These days even monasteries were on electronic alarms; the bells probably rang themselves now. Why was he here at the top of the middle of nowhere? Could some robot not do his job just as easily? Maybe “the middle of nowhere” was not accurate. How many million souls lived in these few miles? No one had bothered to count, but as far as he was concerned the number was too. Too many. Certainly too many to go on feeding this way. Still, an island in the middle of the pacific, especially one that was not there when he was young, was the middle of nowhere. Most of the islands inhabitants may as well not exist to the rest of the world. Yet they were numerous and needed to eat.
The old man used to be quite the horticulturalist when he was younger. He reminisces while scratching the thinning gray hairs on the top of his head; he does this every morning, this transition from existential ennui to nostalgia. He used to pull sustenance right out of the earth. Colorful roots of orange and red, green stems and leaves all bursting from dark soil that stained his coiled forearms. Ah yes, the muscles, he remembered looking down at his protruding wrists and elbows as he worked. On those wrists, he would sometimes find worms and snails, ants and mosquitos. He tried to displace them when he could, picking them up with a pincer grip and placing them a few feet from the garden. Of course they had to go, but he understood why they were there. Honestly, he would have been worried if the garden attracted no bugs or rodents.
What does he do now? Occasionally push buttons, inspect as plants fly up and down the elevator. Why did they need him? They needed him because, for all electronics and artificial intelligence had done for humanity, no one trusts a human free food process. Those that are sea locked with the world hardly aware of their existence were particularly weary. Sure, the computers and robots could do all the actual work, but someone had to be there to say, “yes, that is real, honest, edible food.” Now a lone old man with poor eyesight cannot verify every plant growing on that carbon tether reaching up and away from the planet. He had to have a kind of system. So this old man, he wakes in the morning and walks upstairs to the control room. His bedroom is part of the Agritower, like a lighthouse keeper’s apartment. He steps into the control room and ensures that the AM watering has begun. Sometimes he likes to watch the water retrieval, by remote camera of course. He likes to see the droplets of condensation collected straight out of the clouds. He used to pray for rain, now he can watch rainmaking.
After ensuring the water cycle, he proceeds with a roulette wheel sampling of the harvest ready plants. He takes his time here, despite his only responsibility being to confirm: yes, that is squash, yes that is a tomato. All plants, from seedlings to the compost ready fly about on hanging escalators. For the old man to see any plant in the tower he need only punch in its UID and after some clicks and whirs there it comes. After a few checks of each type of plant, he can more or less do what he wants. What he wants, most of the time is to walk out on the deck overlooking New St. Louis with his back to the agricultural production line. From here, he is at eye level with antennas and satellite dishes attached to the towering buildings. When he looks down, he can see the walls of the tower: an organic off white color with a hint of yellow like antique piano keys. Pedestrian activity is hazy, like watching dust particles in the sun. Of course, his eyes were not what they used to be.
He had not descended from the Agritower in years. When he did, he felt like the air was thicker down there, and warmer. It was unpleasant to breathe. He had memories of visiting his grandparents in Florida as a child. The air was like that, but New St Louis had a bit less smog. He supposed most of the US did now, though, have less smog. How did they stand the thick humid air? He would not even venture into the greenhouse to check the seedlings, he could not imagine living in that kind of environment. If he wanted to check seedlings, he would have them lifted over by the machines. He was too old for air he did not like.
The produce, once harvested by the robots was dropped down the tower and into a storeroom. In this room, there were several people in charge of moving and selling the crop, which practically sold itself in this city with so many bellies and only one food source. No one was going hungry from the old man’s understanding, but little was ever wasted, at least on the supply side. Did anyone remember he was here, watching a whole city’s food supply? Some of the warehouse workers used to come up to visit the production line, but he had not seen anyone in years. Perhaps they forgot he was there and thought that the production bots simply had their own quality control (which they did). Probably they assumed someone was up there watching over their food safety but felt no need to verify it. It was while pondering his own spectral place in this society that he saw the little boat, like a child’s bath toy, float on to the beach. It was early and no one at sea level saw the four people run out onto the island. Now what do you suppose that is about? The old man wondered.
New St. Louis efficiency and density induced claustrophobia. Helen had never seen so many people living right on top of one and other. From what she could gather, this island was small, maybe a few miles, maybe five, maybe. Certainly in the single digits. Where did all the people come from? So much activity, so many different people: the people in the streets were of diverse nationality. Still, everyone from those obviously of European descent to those from Pacific Islands, had a sort of toasty brown hue. The average American hid from the sun and was unnaturally pale regardless of race. Helen knew from high school health class that tans were not in fact healthy, but could lead to tedious skin cancers and diseases. Still, the New St. Louisans looked healthful in their tans.
They looked healthful in the way that she knew these people had been out of their houses more than once a week. The people were thin and toned. Even the thicker people she saw had a lively walk and held themselves upright with confidence. It was hard for Helen and her companions not to immediately glorify this place. Why did more places like this not exist? They could not help but think that the citizens of this island would be sympathetic to their cause. One curious thing they all observed but no one mentioned aloud was the generally humble look of the people and businesses on the ground. The buildings themselves seemed grand, but what they saw at their level looked unkempt, even a little dingy. This stirred a different feeling in Helen’s chest: admiration, as if these people had chosen to eschew ostentation.
They walked streets that more resembled human capillaries or streambeds than Euclidean lines. The paths had destinations, but curved and wound their way to them. Helen imagined the roads cropping up as needed as thousands of people repeatedly wandered the same routes. The roads followed existing traffic patterns rather than the other way around. How strange, such an organic feature on one hundred percent artificial development.
“This place is. It’s.” Al started.
“It’s huge!” Pat finished.
“It’s crowded!” Mike added. This was a good thing.
“It’s perfect!” Helen finished.
“So, how long has this place been around anyway?” Al wondered.
“The earliest mention we could find about it online was, what, fifty or so years old? That was when it was still being built. Did we ever find an official foundation date?” Helen said.
“No we didn’t, but look at this place! The size of the buildings, the tarnish on them. I mean, everything looks good you know, but like it’s been here awhile.” Al said. It was true. The island’s buildings hinted its age, but by no means answered their questions. They looked to the ages of the people on the street for a clue, but found a pretty even spread. It seemed to be predominantly people their age, early to mid-twenties. Yet there were plenty in their thirties and middle aged around. A few children darted here and there and even a few elderly residents strolled about. Young and old were all out and about, walking as if on a route they have known their whole lives. The residents of new St. Louis intrigued the travelers; something about them was drawing the attention of the locals as well.
What was it that immediately flagged them as outsiders? Their clothing was not obviously different. They had been on the road a couple of weeks getting a lot of sun, plus the time on compound; they were more suntanned than your Average Joe. Here they were different though, lighter but also less evenly pigmented. Still, it was not their clothing or complexion that was drawing attention, Helen thought. “Hey guys,” she said, “level out those foreheads and lower those chins.”
“Whaa?” Al and Pat said.
“Quit gawking, we look like tourists and I don’t think they get many of those around here.”
“Right,” Mike confirmed directing his gaze back to even eye level. The looks from passers-by, friendly but knowing, did not exactly stop, but they were just slightly further between. Perhaps it was the way they walked? At any rate, no one seemed alarmed and certainly no one stopped them to ask questions.
“Where are we going anyway?” Al asked no one in particular.
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “Our instructions here are kind of vague. We need to go from here to some new Links project, but Rick did not know where that was. He just said our best bet was to start here.”
“So this might take a while?” Al asked.
“I don’t know.” Mike replied.
“And we may as well start anywhere?” Pat said.
“Like, maybe, a restaurant.” Al said.
Mike sighed, “Sure, let’s find a restaura –”
“There!” Helen was pointing at a little sign up and across from them. She could not understand the writing on the wooden sign, Kwole Luue, but there were pictures of cabbage and mushrooms hand painted on it and fresh smells wafting over from the door.
“But,” Pat started in vain; Helen had already gone into the restaurant. Inside the light was dim but pleasant and the air was cool. A young woman with dark hair and yellow brown eyes, maybe fifteen or sixteen, looked out over the top of a swinging door, disappeared for a moment and then backed through the door holding a pitcher of water and four glasses. On the table, there was already a ramekin of sliced citrus and a white ceramic jar of sugar with a little wooded spoon.
Setting the water and stack of glasses down, the waitress rubbed her hands on a canvas apron wrapped around a thin simple yellow dress.
“Yall monna ta?”
“Umm…” Al said.
“Ahh…” Pat said.
“You speak English?” The girl said.
“Oh, yes, yes we do.” Mike answered, relieved.
“OK.” She said, “Our menu is written on the board over there,” they all turned their heads clockwise to look at a menu written in the same language as the sign outside, “but I don’t guess that will do you any good. My mom, the cook, though, can make pretty much whatever you want, you know. As long as there’s no meat.” Helen kicked Pat as he started to open his mouth.
“Any specials today?” Helen asked.
They dropped their things, what few items they crammed into backpacks when they left Hawaii, at the boarding house. Lacking a specific goal, they were free to wander. It was Helen who had the gumption to ask about lodging. She had formed a sort of rapport with the waitress and asking felt as natural as asking for dessert. If not for her, who knows where the others would have slept. Helen imagined the three huddled on the beach or slumped in an alley somewhere. More likely they would have drawn a lot of attention to themselves asking strangers on the street where the nearest hotel was.
The boarding house was more of a boarding condominium; no surprise considering the lack of single story development anywhere on the island. The waitress’s cousin, a Ms. Loa, owned the top two floors of a ten story building, one of the smaller buildings they had seen so far. The accommodations were barracks style, but being four, they were able to secure a private room. Not that there was a risk of running out of room there, Ms. Loa received few travelers. It was not that she never saw them, just not often. She usually rented to New St. Louisans in transition: someone moving, someone kicked out by a spouse or parent, and, occasionally even a Links employee on business. When pressed about Links Corp involvement on the island, she had to admit that she did not know anything; she only knew the employees were good about payment in advance and relatively clean.
“Speaking of paying in advance…” Ms. Loa had said, lightly rubbing her index finger against her thumb.
“Yeah, OK.” Mike said and paid for the week. He handed Ms. Loa a crisp pile of cash, which she was happy to receive. They discovered at the restaurant that their money was good in New St. Louis, but a little undervalued. The exchange rate was not in their favor, but the room was cheap anyway.
Now back on the streets, they had not much to do but wander. For a group raised in sprawling Middle America, wandering was alien. In their respective hometowns, they rarely left the house. Certainly they would not go outside and walk somewhere, not with freeways raging just outside the door and nowhere to walk to anyway. Even on Open Acres, aimless walking was uncommon. Loafing and lounging sure, aimless activities absolutely, but only a few were ever seen walking for walking’s sake. None of them realized that walking, something they had assumed humans had been doing for millennia with no effort, could be so tiring. Helen was sweating, Al and Patrick were melting, Mike maintained an even posture but there was a weariness about his eyes. The locals they passed, though, seemed to be doing just fine. People were darting around them, zipping around with no difficulty.
Walking appeared to be the only option; vehicles were a rare sight: bicycles here and there, they saw a couple of motorcycles hauling carts. Anytime someone drove through, pedestrians had to vacate the road. None of them had ever walked through a crowd. They watched others slither through like swimming, but they could not seem to do it. Each person was like a brick wall, a brick wall that moves forward slowly, stops, turns around, moves somewhere else for a while, and then is suddenly back in front of you and stopped. Vehicular traffic on the mainland was nothing like this. There was none of this confused meandering. Auto-driven cars get you to your destination as efficiently as possible and never stop in the middle of the road for no reason. Sure, when people drove themselves there were accidents and the occasional senseless action, they had all heard, but it could not be anything like this.
They were stranded behind a particularly oblivious row of pedestrians when they heard someone calling:
Cards! Craps! Cash! Strike it big at Lucky Jacks!
Al froze, “Is he talking about a casino? A real, in person casino? Like in the old movies?” There were low stakes card games on Open Acres, mostly friendly, some more serious than they needed to be, but real gambling always took place in holorooms. Frivolous use of holonet bordered on treason when you lived on an eco-commune, so none of them had seen anything like a casino in some time.
“We’re not here to gamble.” Mike said.
“What are we doing then?” Pat asked.
“Looking for information,” said Mike.
“Yeah, but in the movies, people in the casino were always the most connected, had the most information,” Al whined.
“That is how the movies went,” Helen added. She did not care about the casino idea one way or the other, but liked stirring the pot sometimes. Besides, she could not let the story fizzle out while they wandered around lost on the island.
“Couldn’t hurt, could it?” Pat asked.
“Going into a casino we know nothing about in a city that few even know how to find and asking for information? Yeah, no harm in that.” Mike grumbled to himself. He would have scolded further, but his traveling companions were already inside. They walked downstairs into the basement of an endlessly tall tower complex. The stairwell was outside of the building and slightly obscured by shadow. Something about the shadow bothered Mike. He looked around at the illuminated sides of the buildings. How did light penetrate the streets and alleys with no break in the buildings, Mike wondered. He gazed up and saw no sun, but had to squint against the glare of the windows. The sky was deep blue and a single puff of cloud floated in view. Everything about New St. Louis was different, except the sky, the sky was the same. Logically he thought this should be comforting, but he felt a pressure, a discomfort, growing behind his eyes the longer thought about it.
By the time Mike gave in and entered Lucky Jacks he found Al and Pat already had a pile of chips in front of them at a craps table, looking worried. Pat flung a pair of dice and looked away as if his very glance could cause him to crap-out. Al was glaring at them as they arced through the air. The dice hit the table, bounced once and came to a stop with a five and a six showing two inches apart. Pat and Al’s eyes darted from the dice to the dealer, waiting for him to explain their roll. “Eleven!” the dealer called and pushed a stack of chips towards them.
Helen was at the bar sipping a tart zinfandel from a stemless glass and savoring a piece of brittle white cheese taken from a passing tray. She had wandered around the room when they first arrived, watching roulette wheels whirl and slot machines hypnotize patrons out of their money. It was tempting watching someone lose exactly nine pulls on the slots and walking away. Surely that machine was ready to pay out, perhaps she should take a chance? It was not prudence that kept Helen in her seat, though; it was a fondness for the bar and a kind of schadenfreude she felt watching others lose.
There were not many other patrons, probably the reason someone was outside trying to stir-up business. Mike found a lounge near the entrance; he squeezed around chairs that had been pushed just a little too close and settled into a plush seat in the corner. He would wait here until this silliness was over. Besides, the chair was comfortable and he was travel worn. His weighted eyelids dropped and at around the fourth nod of his head, a tall slender man who looked ripped straight out of twentieth century Texas sat in an adjacent chair. The man adjusted his belt buckle so that he could sit down. Mike was sure he had fallen asleep and this apparition was just a character in his dream. A sleepy smile formed, one bordering on condescending. The man seemed to misconstrue the strained smile as a sign of friendliness.
“Hey there brother, name’s Earl.”
“Mike,” he said, accepting a meaty hand shake that chased away any notion of dreaming.
“They sure took me for a ride this time, I tell ya! Just have enough left for the ferry home and this here drink.” In indicating the drink, Earl sloshed half of it on himself. “Damn!”
Mike was prepared to ignore the man and give the standard one-word responses, but a certain word caught his attention. Maybe Al and Pat were not so ridiculous after all, despite their ever-shrinking pile of chips. “Oh, right, the Ferry! What time does it come in anyway?”
To get updates on Nesson and my other works, follow me on twitter: @
You can also Subscribe
Nesson is an ad free serial fiction project. If you like what you have read, please leave a comment and share! If you’re feeling extra generous, donate to help me keep the story going and build this site!