Dark Spiral Publishing
- look beneath the surface of an ideal future at what can go terribly wrong

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Future Tense

/ a novel by John Johnson /

13 - Big Sur

Justine was up early for her daily run before the students filled the streets around campus. There was a peaceful stillness over the campus at six o'clock in the morning. The sky was still dim and a light fog hung in the air as a few staff members arrived for work. She ran across the quad and up the hillside to her lab. She thought she would grab her tablet with the results she hadn't finished reviewing from the day before. She was in such a rush to get home and do laundry, that she forgot it on her desk.

The door was locked and she used her access card to enter. She was panting slightly as she walked down the hallway to her office. She unlocked the door and walked to her desk. The tablet was sitting where she left it. As she was leaving she turned to watch the door shut behind her and heard voices down the corridor. That struck her as strange. What were people doing in the lab this early?

Justine walked around the corner and noticed some men coming out of the imaging chamber. The hallway lights weren't all on yet, but she could tell it was her advisor, Dr. Lange, leading the group. The men that followed him out of the chamber were all wearing dark suits. He must be giving a tour to donors or corporate sponsors that were funding his research projects. Lange had been the department chairman for a number of years, and was frequently called on to entertain such visitors. She was far from dressed appropriately for that crowd, so she quietly let herself out. She was wearing her onboard computer in earpieces that fit snugly around each ear, as she usually did when she exercised. So as she finished her run, she listened to a favorite instrumental piece and tried to put thoughts of work out of her head and think about her weekend plans instead.

There was no competition for the shower at this hour of the day. Her roommates were typical and had barely begun to stir. Marcus and Aaron were more likely to stay up late into the night than crawl out of bed before eight o'clock. So she enjoyed a hot shower and had breakfast before Brad pulled up to the curb.

“Let me get your bags,” Brad offered. “I figure we should be there around noon if we don't run into any traffic.”

With the guidance system his car had, they wouldn't come close to any traffic jams. He knew that. He also knew that the environment in the car would be a pollen-free, HEPA filtered, acoustically tuned and smooth ride at the most optimal speed and with the most scenic views.

“Here,” she grabbed her backpack before he closed the trunk. “I thought I might review some work on the way so I won't be distracted when we get there.”

He gave her the look, but knew it wasn't worth an argument. The quality time would come later on. He could just as easily relax and enjoy the view while she did a little last minute work. In fact, he would enjoy letting the throttle out and taking the wheel himself for a while, rather than let the car have all the fun.

The streets were busy with students, tourists, shoppers and businessmen going about their mundane daily grinds. The driving was stop and go for about half an hour until they passed out of the Bay Area sprawl to the south. They climbed up into the hills and wound down toward the coast. They would skirt Monterey to the east, but spend most of the trip along the coast.

Justine finished her work as they passed an exit for the Redwood preserve. She went to save her work and realized that she had also saved the file she mistakenly opened the day before. Just out of curiosity, she ran an analysis of the DNA in the file and identified it as human DNA.

“That's strange,” she commented to herself.

“What is it?” Brad heard her and suspected she might want to talk about her work.

“Oh, nothing much. It's just strange that this file I came across is filled with human genome sequences. I don't know of any research projects using human DNA. I mean they have a hundred thousand DNA samples in this file.”

“Isn't it illegal to sample people's DNA without their permission?”

“It's probably nothing. Probably some DNA samples from a research project at another lab doing medical research. They must be working with Lange to get access to our processing power. You know how people donate their organs for medical research… signing the organ donor card also gives implicit permission to use DNA samples in any way that benefits society.”

Justine did a quick search. “You're safe hun… your name isn't listed.”

“I'll rest easier,” Brad grinned. “Just trying to give a damn.”

“Don't think I'm not keeping score. You might get a chance to cash in some of your brownie points this weekend.” She raised her eyebrows in that sort of ‘you-know-what-I-mean' way.

The backpack was closed up and stowed behind the seat. Justine reclined the seat and swiveled her seat toward Brad.

“You gonna drive or keep me company?”

Brad turned his head. “I'm gonna drive.”

“I guess a high paid engineer like you should be able to drive and pay attention to his girlfriend at the same time.”

“Music?”

“You trying to avoid conversation?”

“No. No. Just thought you might like some ambience.”

“You do a good job of backpedaling,” she smiled. “Let's find something fun to do on the way.”

“Sure. If you find something, I'll stop. The cat won't know the difference if we show up a little later.”

“Look, there's a farmer's market up ahead a couple miles. Let's stop and get some real vegetables and I'll cook up something special for dinner.”

“You know they don't regulate all these fruit and vegetable stands on the side of the road.”

“I know your philosophy, ‘Never eat anything unless it comes from a company with deep pockets.'”

“It makes sense. If McDonald's gives me food poisoning I can retire and spend my days and nights worshiping you.”

“Sycophant.”

“Seductress.”

“Stop worshiping for a second and watch the road. Follow the sign up ahead.”

Brad slowed and pulled off on a side road. He followed the cardboard signs to a produce stand on the access road. The stand was set up on the unpaved road, in the shadow of a large billboard. The irony of the subject of the billboard wasn't lost on them.

The billboard was a large advertisement for the latest in John Deere technology. Farming automatons in John Deere Green that would replace your migrant workers. Images depicted human-like robots with oval heads and long arms and spiny fingers picking fruit in an orchard. Most of the corporate farms were owned by a division of one of the super-globals. They all used these new convenient and easy to maintain workers, meanwhile the humans they replaced were left to wander the countryside like bands of gypsies.

The groups of migrant workers often formed traveling communes, growing as they moved across the country. Every city had workers who had either been displaced by automation, or who couldn't keep up with the demands placed on high-tech workers. The poor and uneducated fell through society's safety net and the number of homeless swelled. Many of those joined the ranks of the displaced and unskilled, drifting from town to town selling what they could to make ends meet and resisting the onslaught of modern technology.

These information ghettos dotted the periphery of urban sprawls. They were primitive enclaves fueled by Luddite values. They drew a stark distinction, for those who looked at the seams in the fabric of modern Western society, between the haves and the have-nots. The modern caste system in society is divided into five basic layers. The Mega-Rich sit atop the pyramid, living unheard of lifestyles and not only controlling corporations and vast fortunes, but directing the evolution of society in what they choose to support and fund.

Below the Mega-Rich is the large group of Upper Class citizens. Investors, high-level corporate executives and entertainers. They live lavish lifestyles and are afforded a level of access and treated unlike any of the lesser castes. The Middle Class is the widest division of the populace, with mostly skilled to professionals. They pay the taxes, provide the brainpower, inspiration and keep society moving. The brunt of society is borne on the backs of the Lower Class. These are semi-skilled workers who stay in the game and haven't, for a number of reasons, joined the ranks of the new underclass, the Lost People. This underclass is devoid of technology, nomadic and virtually untrackable. The government cracks down on civilian unrest, and militant uprisings, but for the most part leaves peaceful groups of nomads alone.

Justine made her choice of produce and Brad paid cash for the transaction. There were several women laying out vegetables, wearing worn clothing and scarves. Some tents dotted the hillside, and children played in the fields. These gypsies were not that different from the settlers that drove across the plains two centuries before, except they had become an anachronism and society no longer had a need for them.

“What did you get?” Brad held the passenger door for Justine before getting into the car himself.

“Squash, beans and oranges.”

“I'll bet they didn't grow it all themselves.”

“Does it matter?”

“No, not really. I feel sorry for them.”

“You don't hear about these people very often. How many camps like this do you think there are?” Justine wondered.

“I don't think anybody knows for sure. I mean the government must have a good idea, but the census has always underestimated the homeless.” Brad pulled back onto the main road. “Millions I guess. Everybody seems to know someone who quit their job and disappeared. I hear a lot of them have gone mental and just can't cope with society.”

“The people I saw didn't seem crazy. It's like you get outside of the sprawl and there are these third world pockets hidden just out of sight.”

“Well, we did our part and bought something. Now you have to cook me that meal.” As he merged back onto the highway, the farmer's market shrank and disappeared from view.

The road wound down the coastline and the traffic was light. More often than not, they were the only car within sight. Brad enjoyed pushing the car, and Justine relaxed and watched the ocean. Seagulls soared and played on the shoreline and on the horizon she could see a few of the great wind powered turbines that stretched for miles in a great electricity farm, providing power for millions of homes in the NoCal sprawl.

“It's exciting about your parent's trip,” said Justine. “I know it isn't a big deal to spend the weekend in orbit anymore, but it sure is a romantic way to spend a thirtieth anniversary.”

“My Mother has always wanted to see the Earth from space. It's affordable, so my Dad decided to surprise her. She thinks she is going to Belize . Of course by now they're probably at the Barstow terminal north of LA, just waiting to take off.”

“I guess we'll have to make the best of a weekend of solitude, nestled in a wooded cove above the Pacific Ocean . Just you and me and a nice fire, as we listen to the last of the autumn winds and watch the rolling surf beat against the rocks.” Justine had no doubt that they could have just as good of a weekend right here on planet Earth.

“Just you and me… and a cat,” added Brad.

 

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