Justin sighed, exhaling a warm mixture of exhaustion and boredom. How could walking take so much time? There was never a reason to travel by foot and so he had no concept of how walking compared to driving speed. Until now. His legs ached and his shoes were rubbing a burn into his heel. All this to get, well he did not really know where he was, but not far enough.
People traveled this way for most of human history, without the benefit of the nice shoes or portable music. It only took a few generations for the tedium of walking to become prohibitively painful. Neither Justin’s parents nor grandparents had any experience walking. Even two more generation prior to his grandparents, pedestrians barely competed with automobiles on the road. Now travel by foot was as familiar as horseback riding.
Justin decided not to steal one of the family cars. It was a tough decision even without knowing how inconvenient this trip would be. The reasons not to drive were myriad, romantic ideas about rugged freedom abounded, but the main reason was they are so easy to track. Leaving the house for anything was such an occasion that cars automatically broadcasted the trip on the net. The Fahrs are going to Slathers! James Fahr is on the way to his neighbor’s house! Jennifer Fahr is leaving the volunteer neighborhood clean up! On top of that, Surveillanet automatically followed every car that passed one of its cameras. The act of traveling outside the home was suspicious and should be tracked.
Walking seemed like the most definite, reliable way to run away from home. There was also the idea of “the road” that Justin held in his imagination. These thoughts had been fed by classic literature and old movies. Twentieth century novels often talked about something called hitchhiking; the idea was sounding better all the time. He could preserve his anonymity and travel at a reasonable pace. The trouble was finding a place that cars could or would stop. Justin was but a boy, sixteen by only a couple months, and by no means a large one. Still, the sight of someone walking was just too suspicious. The thought of stopping never entered the mind of the drivers, most let the car do the driving and rarely looked out of the window.
How effective could this plan be? He left home in haste, packing what clothes and supplies would fit in his backpack, but what choice did he have? It had been months since he saw or heard from Allison. Now her face was showing up on the news. Of course he had to find her. Surely, his own sister could not be part of a terrorist plot, a plot rippling through international waters. What would he do when he found her, not if, when? Like most boys his age, he knew little of his own motivations.
He could not have timed his departure worse if he tried. The sun began to set not two hours after he jumped out of his window. Two hours in the late spring sun was enough to drain his energy, but not enough to make significant progress while he still had light. If he had waited until the after dark, it would have at least been cooler. There was nothing to see in the daylight anyway. Since walking and spending time outdoors was universally recognized as dubious, streetlights did not exist. Cars drove themselves and were equipped with infrared sensors and GPS guidance; they did not need much light, certainly not as much as the human eye. Though Justin’s eyes were young and able, he was quickly losing his sight to nightfall. The world became a kind of silhouette of itself.
He could go further, despite the protests of his feet and the side stitch, but not if he could not see. He needed a place to stop for the night. The options at hand were to lay down in the ditch, walk into someone’s yard and find an out of the way corner, or start knocking on doors. If just being outside your own home was cause for alarm, who knows what kind of reaction he would get standing on a stranger’s doorstep. Perhaps simply walking towards the door would cause Surveillanet to alert the authorities. Now there was something. If he could get arrested, he would certainly have somewhere to sleep. Before he started out, he imagined he would walk right into a town center that would have countless hotels and restaurants. In the two hours he had traveled, he barely left his subdivision. He saw nothing but houses separated by large swaths of marginally kempt lawns. From the road the houses were tiny, appearing no larger than his fist. There was plenty of space to stop where no one would notice him. Camping out was looking more realistic. If not exactly realistic, necessary.
Justin reached into his bag and pulled out a metallic object the size and shape of a pack of cards. He pulled it apart at the middle and it unfolded to four times the size and projected an image a few inches from its flat surface. Justin swiped his hand over the image a few times, he had always preferred manual commands to voice, and a high-resolution tabloid size map spread out before him. A pleasant blue dot marked his current location. The dot blinked in empty space.
“Ok,” he said, directing his voice at the device, “find hotels.” The map immediately zoomed out, leaving a blur as it shrank the scale. A cluster of red dots appeared in an area where the roads looked fantastically dense with outlines of buildings traced between them. Beyond this was another expanse that looked much like the one in which Justin sat. The cluster of activity stuck out like a glistening sore on otherwise perfect skin. A label floated over the cartographically busy area: Neopolis 46052. From it ran a strange line that looked like a road but was thicker and a different color. “Computer, what is that?” he asked pointing at the route.
A soft androgynous voice replied <That is a railroad, Mr. Fahr.>
“Really? Out here? How far is Neopolis?” This had to be some kind of error, or maybe some kind of novelty. Perhaps there was a railroad museum there.
<About five miles, sir.> Five miles? It was already too dark to make it that far. The only light around was the soft glow of the computer. This Neopolis was in the right direction and it supposedly had hotels and a railroad; he had to try to get there. When he left home, Justin used the map to point himself west. That was about all he knew concerning Allison’s location: west, maybe somewhere in California. He was comfortable with using maps through countless hours spent in Siege. Unfortunately he could not just point to where he wanted to go and teleport there in real life.
How was there a town a few miles from his home? Granted, he did not leave the house for much, but shouldn’t the local news report on the town occasionally? Even if only for the weather? After staring at the map until he was almost looking through it, a realization hit Justin and turned him red with embarrassment. He turned the device, pointing the screen at the ground. A small aura illuminated his feet. He tilted the screen enough to see the ground ahead and continued walking.
The glow cresting the hill turned his legs to gel. Hours of walking, or rather stumbling, in the dark focused his thoughts to a pinpoint goal. He just had to put one foot in front of the other. He could keep going, as long as he remembered he could always go one more step. The last one did not kill him, surely he could make one more. The light though, the first light outside of his mobile, was a feet freezing kilolumen.
A wind rolled over the hills and cooled the sweat on Justin’s arms. When he left the house he was suffocating from the heat, now he wished he had a coat. He flipped the mobile opened and closed in a steady beat. Mobile computers were paper-thin and lighter than a wallet. Actually most people no longer carried wallets. Mobiles linked directly to credit accounts, maintained contact information and acted as identification. Justin’s device clicked and snapped as he opened and closed it. It was the sound of two small but strong magnets colliding and pulling apart.
A dome of light, a kind of orange white haze, poked over the horizon directly in his path. This was a welcome sign of civilization; the last house he saw had to be more than a mile away. Really, it felt like further, despite what the GPS said. Seeing a glow coming from what had to be Neopolis did not exactly give Justin a burst of energy, but it did stop him from laying down to sleep in a field owned by God knew who. Even now, with his goal in sight he thought he might not make it. Young though he was, and more fit than his average peer, walking more than five miles in a day was beyond anything familiar. His head pumped with his heart and his feet ceased sending signals to his brain. The slight up and down motion of the world let him know he was still moving.
Time skipped between his sighting of the first rooftop, high above the treetops, and his arrival at a green metal sign. He shined his screen on the sign, “Welcome to Neopolis 46052,” it read. He had supposed the number at the end was a sort of map code, not part of the name. He was accustomed to neighborhood names like “Running Meadows” or “Rest Haven;” the prospect of speaking a number every time he referenced a place was tedious. Maybe it had something to do with the population, but the town he saw on the other side of the sign did not look that big.
What lay before him was like something out of an old TV show. The town was set on nearly flat land that sloped gently towards a creek. What Justin initially thought was a hill overlooking Neopolis was actually a ridge stretching for miles to his left and right. It was a sheer drop, but not more than a few stories. The Earth was level before him and behind him. Viewed from directly overhead, Justin considered, one might see a continuous plane and not notice any difference in elevation. The ridge seemed out of place, but Justin had no sense of what was and was not natural, geographically speaking.
Looking down he saw the streets marching in an orderly grid with cohesive yet not identical buildings filling the gaps between. The street was brightly lit and revealed almost no automobile traffic but he could see specs of people walking, some of them fast. Really fast. Wait, he thought, are those bicycles? Just had ridden many virtual bikes, but never had seen a real one, let alone mount one himself. The concept of really riding a bike was as anachronistic as riding a horse, or walking for that matter.
Justin traced the pedestrians and cyclists with his eyes until it made him dizzy. This place was too strange, too different to process. It was so foreign that he was able to skip feelings of surprise and go straight to acceptance. He was also exhausted from the walk and could not summon the energy shock would require. He checked his map again and found a hotel marked almost on top of him. Zooming in he found that he need only climb down the ridge and enter the city outskirts to find it.
Maybe twenty steps past the sign he was on a footpath lit by a series of lamps hammered into the ground. The path was short, traveling mostly downhill before feeding into a real, though narrow road. No one was about on this side of town, it seemed, though the buildings were all illuminated. Each was inviting in a way, but it was hard to tell businesses from homes. Most were three to five stories and close together. They were of brick and stone, he saw little wood, save for the trees to the side of the road. They were short but robust and as orderly as the streets themselves. As Justin approached a corner, he looked at the map and found himself transposed with a red dot. It had to be this building flooded with windows and at least three stories taller than any surrounding structure. He found great double doors under an awning and too tired to question the wisdom of opening a strange door in a strange place, he rushed forward and grasped the handle.
Inside he found himself perpendicular to a long desk. The desk enveloped a man not much further into adulthood than Justin. He was formally dressed in a way that seemed to match the décor in the room, which if he had the vocabulary for such things he would have called “Old World.” The hard, dark wood and the strips of velvet carpet were a stark contrast to the chiseled stone and stacked brick outside. The young man was looking down at something below the desk and, not looking up, acknowledged Justin with a “’Help you?”
“Umm, yeah. Is this a hotel?”
“Well I’m not sitting here looking pretty for my own amusement.” The receptionist said with a snort then looked up, “Say, how old are you? Little young to be traveling alone eh?”
Justin said, “Nineteen,” a little too quickly for he had practiced this question in his head. He figured adding a year to the age of adulthood would lend some credibility. From the look on the clerk’s face, he figured wrong.
“Yeah, alright. It’s fifty a night.” Justin pulled out his mobile and began to login to his payment account. “Whoa, that’s fifty hard dollars. It’s a hundred digital.” Justin knew fifty was too cheap, but what were hard dollars? He did not ask questions, he wanted to keep the transaction as short as possible. Justin transferred one hundred dollars to the clerk, who looked none too happy considering he had just succeeded at extortion. The clerk had shifted his gaze downward. He was looking at a book and flipping pages, Justin tried not to stare but his eyes kept darting back to it. His parents had a few paper books, but they were treasured antiques. No one read them or even touched them. Watching the clerk casually turn pages and take sips of coffee over the book made something inside Justin squirm. The clerk slurped his coffee and a bead of amber liquid rolled down the outside of the mug. It dangled at the bottom, ready to fall at any second and stain the page he was reading. Justin held his breath; the clerk continued reading as he reached for a key card and held it out for Justin to take. The clerk set his mug down and the coffee drop safely soaked into the desk. Justin let out a puff of air as he took the key and left the lobby.
When Justin got to his room, he looked around only enough to find the bed and fall into it. Besides the late hour, he had just spent more time on his feet than ever in his life. It was only once he laid down that he truly felt the ache of his tired muscles; fortunately, his eyes were already heavy and he fell asleep before enduring discomfort for too long.
The sun crept in through the window to wake him. His legs ached instantly. How long had he been sleeping? He did not dream, did not perceive any passage of time. Whatever relief he felt laying down was short lived. His body was tired, but there was no chance of getting back to sleep. Actually, he had never woken so quickly and definitely. Usually he rolled around for hours and slept through his first two classes. It was a recurring problem until Justin invested in an avatar to sit in class for him. He still needed to dive into the backlogged hours of classes his avatar recorded for him. It was there full time now; a sour taste bubbled up in his throat when he thought about all the recorded lectures that he would have to watch when he got home.
Why did he wake so well today? His eyelids were glued open while the rest of his body remained frozen. An acute beam of light shone on the floor a few inches from the window. He had not thought to close the curtains because he had never slept in a room with a real window. The first thing he saw was the neatly arranged decorative pillows he had neglected to move when he collapsed on top of the bed. He gathered his arms under him and pushed his hands against the comforter he had slept on top of. Yet too tired to sit up, he flipped onto his back.
Rolling over revealed the stiffness in his back. He expected the legs and feet to be sore, but his back? And what’s this? A twang in his shoulder? He had never encountered such full body punishment from walking. Maybe tired feet, sure, but who knew he was using so much of his body for his long walk! Attempting to free his thoughts from his somatic pain, he shifted his gaze from the textured ceiling to the adjacent window, a large landscape single pane view of, from his angle, a mostly clear blue sky with a few puffs of clouds. The unchanging sky, he thought.
Except, he knew somewhere in the back of his mind, that this was not true. The sky was as much its own realm as the sea. It was not uniform. Somewhere storm clouds slithered across an ashen sky, somewhere it had holes allowing harmful radiation to pass through, and here it was azure. It moved, or did it? Maybe just the surface of the Earth moved but not the sky? Perhaps both. Either way, however similar looking, this was a different sky from the one he saw the day before. Yet it comforted him as something distant and immutable in appearance.
Holoroom skies could not offer this kind of comfort. They were manipulated to no end, or rather to whatever ends the user had in mind. Even live feeds could be altered so that it appeared to be raining in the desert or the sun shining in the winter Arctic. A virtual sky was one’s own creation, or perhaps someone else’s creation. Justin found something vexing about situations where he had too much control. Now he was feeling tranquil.
Finally sitting up, Justin surveyed his room. The bed occupied about a third of the floor space. In the remaining area was a little chest of drawers, a desk, an uncomfortable looking chair, and three doors at the end. Two were closed, one open. The open door led to a closet sized bathroom. One closed door he knew to be the exit, the last was he could only assume, a closet. From his new, upright position Justin could see the town through the window. There were buildings of varying size, but most were about five to ten stories. In the distance was a sort of earthen wall, another ridge. Even from his elevated position he could not see what was beyond the town, but he knew from his map that it was nothing. There was something odd cutting through the middle of the city. It was like a road but raised above everything but the tallest buildings. There were no visible on or off ramps. He could not see the surface of the road, just the pillars supporting it and the walls to its side. Was it some sort of highway? When he looked at the map yesterday there were no major highways running through here. But, he did remember now, a strange path, extending beyond this little city. A railroad his computer told him. He had never seen one in person, or a train for that matter. As if the universe were responding to his very thoughts, a train shot by so quickly and quietly that he almost missed it. A metallic flash almost knocked him out of bed. He leapt up and put his face to the window, but the train was long gone.
That was motivation enough to send Justin straight out of his room and into the city. He did have to slow himself down enough to groom and change clothes, which he did in the most cursory way. He later found that even his most meticulous grooming was sub average in terms of New Urban standards. The rushed clean up Justin performed before his ran out of the room left him conspicuously grungy.
Briefly, while packing up and exiting the room, Justin thought of home. Home was not so far geographically speaking, but already seemed a light-year away. He wondered if his parents found the note he left. He wrote it in haste, almost an afterthought, on the way out of the house. He hoped they were not worried. They were not really the worrying types, but they were still parents. Who would not be disturbed by two children missing, one wanted for terrorism?
Questions about his parents did not concern Justin for long. His mind shifted to Allison: how would he find her? If he could find a whole new civilization, new to him anyway, he could certainly find his own sister. He wished he could stay here longer, but as interested as he was in Neopolis, Justin had keep moving. He was almost through the hotel’s weighty double doors when he heard a voice shouting out, “Hey! Are you checking out or what?”
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