C. J. Peterson writes science articles for a general audience and science fiction for a discerning few.
by C. J. Peterson
Antoinette scanned the crowd. No grown-ups, lots of kids. That was Genevieve, running onto the play area from the parking lot while securing her venous catheter under her jersey. Chima and Chiama, the twins, rolled around on the turf as if they were still conjoined. She recognized several others in her network and double-checked their ages on her phone. She was the oldest one there, at fourteen, so she would be in charge today.
“Hey, guys! Balls!” Blaise shoved past her, swinging a mesh bag. “I’ve got balls!” he shouted, pleased with himself as only a pre-teen boy could be. Mycroft jumped out of the car. Without even looking, Antoinette said “Shoes” and he climbed back in.
On the field, Cordelia and Her Cousins tackled each other repeatedly in the hope of crashing their security drones overhead. Cordelia paused to wave. Mirabelle stepped out of the car and then Mycroft hit the pavement with a thud. “Go say hi to Genevieve,” Antoinette suggested. “I’ll be right there.” The youngsters walked onto the field hand in hand. “Mr. Dunwoodie, please secure the car.”
Cordelia’s cousins were now emptying the mesh bag and pelting Blaise with balls. “She’s right here!” Cordelia said loudly. “Tell my parental figure that you’re right here.”
“I’m right here,” Antoinette said, smiling, when close enough to her friend to be heard through her phone.
“And you’re sure your mother wants a guest this week?” The woman’s voice was muffled, emanating from somewhere inside Cordelia’s sports bra.
“She said she texted you! Didn’t you get it?”
“I’m sure it’s here somewhere. We’re docking. I’ve got to go. You girls keep your phones on, and be safe, okay?”
“Oh… kay,” they chorused obediently. The connection cut off. “My mom texted that I could stay at your house this week,” Antoinette clarified.
“Well done,” Cordelia said.
On the field, the girls organized kickball, then soccer, then tag. They got the IDs of any players who were not already in their network. These children abandoned the game abruptly when their phones summoned them to return to their caregivers. Sometimes you could see a car in the lot flashing its lights impatiently. Eventually, Antoinette declared everyone the winner. Then she led her charges to the front entrance of the building, where a huge sign said:
Grand View Rest Stop
next rest stop 286 km
Inside the food court the young people scattered, some to sit strategically near families or adult couples. “We have time for a hot meal,” Mirabelle decided. Antoinette herded her littles through the serving stations and told the cashier, “We’re all together.”
“And where is The Highway taking you today?” The cashier wanded their trays, then Antoinette’s phone.
Blaise said brightly, “I’m going to my Nana’s house.”
“Visiting my non-custodial parent,” said Antoinette. She glanced at the amount charged to James Dunwoodie and stowed her phone.
“Math camp,” the youngest two said together.
“Well, you stay safe. Next, please.”
As they carried their trays away, Mirabelle whispered, “Do you even have a Nana?”
“My step-mother thinks I do,” Blaise answered.
They ate quickly, packing their uneaten food for later. The last of the vacationing families and harried business travelers were back on the road. There were no other unaccompanied minors in sight; the rest of their friends had already slipped away.
Outside the building, a man standing alone glanced quickly at each of them. Antoinette turned directly toward him, so that her phone and Mr. Dunwoodie got a clear shot of his face. Blaise did the same. No alarms went off; this guy wasn’t a threat. Mycroft said loudly, “I don’t want my leftovers. I’m just going to leave them here.” He set his box on top of the recycling sorter. The man shot him a grateful look and grabbed the box a second later.
“Mr. Dunwoodie, please retract rooftop solar and open both doors.” They entered the car and settled into the seats, one on each side of the windowless interior. The doors melded shut behind them in an impregnable seal. “James, is there any news?” Antoinette felt she could be familiar with the car’s operating system in the privacy of the car itself.
“There is no news,” said the car in its even baritone. “Notice: there are inclement forecasts for these points on your current route.” The map appeared on the front screen. “You have 15 pre-set destinations.”
“Yes, I do,” Antoinette acknowledged. Destinations now halfway across the country. “As a responsible young lady, however, I can be trusted to over-ride the parental pre-set itineraries.” And erase the trip logs every 12 hours.
“Hell,” Blaise griped. “How can a forecast be inclement?”
“Watch your language,” Antoinette said. “It’s not the forecast that’s inclement, it’s something else. Probably just the weather. But whatever it is, the car won’t take us there. So look for other routes.”
“We could go to History Land. It’s got reconstructions of suburban neighborhoods from the olden days.” Mirabelle read out loud: “‘Throw a plastic Frisbee flying disc on a real grass lawn. Play with cats and dogs kept indoors as pets’.” She quickly added, “They have a waterpark, too.”
“James, run a query on History Land and show ages,” Antoinette said. “Okay, guys. Chima and Chiama said yes. Five other littles could meet us there tomorrow. And three big kids, which would be nice for me. What do we think?”
“Show of hands,” Mycroft said. “And it’s unanimous.”
“I’m confirming. If we go that way we can see Cordelia and Her Cousins again at Piney Branch Rest Stop in six days. And we can be back here again three days after that. James, follow the new route as shown.” The car maneuvered smoothly out of the parking lot and onto The Highway. Antoinette sighed. “Wow, the summer is going so fast.”
Mirabelle opened the central console and stowed their belongings. She put the drinks in the cool compartment and stuffed all the wrapped snacks and sandwiches into a backpack. Food this expensive would quickly spoil, but they wouldn’t keep it too long. She checked the balance on Mr. Dunwoodie’s service station account. “Look, we’re fully charged,” she announced. “And we actually sold energy back to the grid.”
“James, please clear the forward screen.” Antoinette blinked at the bright sun. The sky was clear as a sapphire. This far from the national borders, there wasn’t even a jet’s contrail to soften the glare. The passenger cars around them, and the freight convoy in the far lane, were synced so precisely that they seemed motionless, the pavement rushing like a river beneath them. “James, suggest the best eduvids about the next protectorate on our route.”
“Here is a list of eduvids.”
“James, play ‘A Wilderness Regained’.” The window darkened for the opening montage. “I, at least, will learn something while playing hooky.”
“I will, too,” said Mirabelle loyally, and set her earbud to Antoinette’s channel.
Mycroft leaned back and adjusted his headrest, flipping the VR goggles over his eyes. “Now where were we?”
Blaise assumed the same pose in his seat. “I believe I was kicking your ass.”
“Language,” said Antoinette, and after that the car was so still and silent that they couldn’t even tell they were traveling.
After the video ended, Mirabelle called her mother’s work station. “Hi,” she said. “Sorry. I know she’s busy. But can you just ask her, is it okay if I buy smoothies for my friends?” Pause. “No, I don’t mean the entire camp. Thanks. I will. Yes, I will. No, I won’t.” She tucked the phone into the placket of her sundress. “Be good. Leave my phone on,” she told Antoinette. “And not call again during work hours.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“No, her assistant. There was some fire they were putting out.”
“That’s just an expression, you know.”
“Well, I hope so.” Mirabelle addressed the car. “James, where is the nearest served food?”
“If you decelerate for the next exit and proceed five kilometers on surface roads, you can reach the nearest convenience station in seventeen minutes.”
“James, do it. Hey, guys! Smoothies!”
Blaise pulled off his goggles and leaped to his feet as Antoinette said, “Don’t stand up in the car.”
“Why not? It’s not like we’re going to crash. And if we did crash, it’s not like we’d get hurt. And if we did get hurt, it’s not like James couldn’t save our lives with first aid.” He sat down.
“Mycroft, take your meds,” Antoinette said. “Both of you, message your grown-ups before they start to wonder about you.”
“Done and done,” Mycroft said. “And… message acknowledged.”
“You’re just sending the same message you sent yesterday. ‘Having fun. See you when school starts’,” Blaise scoffed. “So… can I copy it?”
A second or two passed. “I got the same auto-reply you got.” Satisfied, Blaise commanded, “James, clear the side screens.” He turned in his chair. “Yikes, we’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s pretty.” They had imperceptibly left The Highway and were coasting down a two-lane road past fences and pastures, dotted with woods.
“Hey, I’m getting a ping on the network,” Mycroft said.
“What, out here?”
“James, locate ping.” The car slowed, then pulled off the road onto the shoulder. “James, open doors.” The roadside door remained shut. Mycroft stepped out on the other side and studied the landscape. “There he is!” They saw a kid’s hand, holding up a phone, then the rest of him plowing through the tall weeds. “Hey! What are you doing out there?”
“I live here,” the boy answered. He stopped before he got to the fence, probably at some perimeter warning only he could hear. “What are you doing?”
“Getting smoothies. You want one?”
“Mint chocolate anti-oxidant.”
Within minutes four young people with five large cups were navigating through and over the old wire fence. “Thanks,” said the new kid. “Can I pay you for the smoothie? I’m Lemuel, by the way.”
“It’s on me. I’m Mirabelle. This is my half-sister, Antoinette.”
“And this is my half-brother, Blaise,” said Antoinette.
“And this is my step-brother, Mycroft,” said Blaise.
“My mother married his father because they had sons the same age,” Mycroft said.
“Making his mother my step-mother,” Antoinette added.
“And my father her step-father,” Mirabelle concluded.
Everyone took a pull on their drinks.
“Makes me glad I’ve just got two moms,” Lemuel said laconically. “But they’re not here; they work in different facilities and take both cars. So they got this place for me. This used to be an isolation ward on forty hectares. I’m having what you call an idealic childhood.”
Blaise toggled his phone and asked it, “What is an idealic childhood?”
A generic voice replied. “An idyllic childhood is defined by many experts as one with security but also freedom for self-directed socialization, learning, and play.”
“Also, you know, fresh air,” said Lemuel. “You want to see my hideout?” They did, of course. Lemuel led them back down the field and into a culvert with a trickle of water in it, dripping from a cylindrical hole in the hillside. “This is the secret passage.” They had to stoop and enter in single file. It wasn’t completely dark; a faint glow shimmered ahead of them. Lemuel crawled through it and into the tunnel beyond. Blaise stopped in the shaft of light and peered upward.
“Man, where the hell are we?”
“Under The Highway.”
Mycroft squeezed in next to Blaise. “Oh, that must be where water drains off the road.”
“Sometimes water, but all the time air. There’s an incredible volume of air displaced by vehicular traffic.”
“Move, you guys.” The boys crawled forward and the girls crept into the gap. “I can feel it,” said Mirabelle.
“There would be even more wind if there weren’t all those layers of turbines. All those little blades power the machines between us and The Highway. They never stop. Everybody scootch toward me.” They crabbed forward, then settled with their backs curved against one side of the pipe and their feet braced on the other. “Listen.”
It was faint. A low hum. Antoinette shut her eyes to hear better, and caught a second harmonic.
“Sounds like ballistic missiles revving up,” said Blaise.
“It does not,” Antoinette snapped. “I bet this is one of those sounds adults can’t hear.”
“Probably,” Lemuel said. “The equipment controls the structural integrity of The Highway and weighs the loads and adjusts for the weather and all that. Nothing can get up to The Highway. Nothing can fall down on it, not even a bug. Nothing can drive on it but authorized autonomobiles. And the grid shares all the information about every vehicle. It’s totally automated. That’s why it’s totally safe.”
“But what about you, Lemuel?” Mirabelle’s eyes were wide. “You don’t have a car. Are you safe?”
“Oh, sure. That’s why we moved here. There are no, uh…”
“…population centers,” Antoinette offered.
“Right. There are no population centers near us. Nothing bigger than the guard station where you got the smoothies. My house tracks where I am and who’s nearby, just like your car does for you.”
Mirabelle relaxed. Antoinette wondered if Lemuel was older than he looked, perhaps closer to her age. The boy suddenly said, “Yo. I can’t talk. I’m in the hideout. Ping these guys.”
“Bump,” said Blaise, and held out his phone. Lemuel touched his phone to Blaise’s, then passed it to Mycroft to do the same, and on down the line. After that, they could all hear the caller on their earbuds.
“Wish I was in the hideout instead of this stupid carpool. Science camp to martial arts. Effing enrichment.” His five listeners agreed with him by groaning “yeah” in unison. “Children first, my ass.”
Blaise grinned. “Children are the future, my ass.”
“Look at the network,” Antoinette said. “Federico, you’re just two friends away from our friend Genevieve.”
“Is it the same Federico?” Mirabelle asked, then caught herself. “I guess there wouldn’t be more than one.”
“Run a query on this drive-in movie that Mr. Dunwoodie has signed up for. Mr. James Dunwoodie.”
“I see it,” Federico said. “What, you just drive into this abandoned mall parking lot and everyone streams the same movie?”
“Yeah, and we go from car to car and eat and hang out.”
“Who’s James Dunwoodie?”
“My mom had a boyfriend named Dunwoodie,” Blaise explained.
“I just like saying ‘Home, James.’” Antoinette imitated a snooty Edwardian dowager.
“Lem, we could carpool.”
“Okay, thanks, man,” Lemuel said. “Later, dude.” The connection ended. Each of them re-positioned their phones over their hearts. Then they crept back out of the storm drain.
As they stood blinking and stretching outside, Mirabelle asked, “Where does this stream go?”
“This isn’t a stream. But it leads to a stream. Which is fed by a spring.”
“Can you jump on it?” asked Blaise.
“It’s not that kind of spring,” Mirabelle said reverently. “A real spring-fed stream would have amphibians.”
“You want to see it?” They did, of course.
“I’m getting the backpack,” Antoinette said. “I’ll catch up with you.”
It was a short walk to the clear, burbling rivulet and they promptly waded in, then forged upstream between low trampled banks and over moss-covered rubble and into the dappled woods, sparkling with sequins of summer sun, and murmurous with life. Soon they were wet up to their waists. The girls moved their phones to their leotards and stowed their sundresses in the backpack. Antoinette was just starting to feel its weight when Lemuel directed them to get out. There was a snag of tree trunks and branches across the creek.
“I was trying to build a dam,” he explained. He picked his way around the edge of the pile, climbing till he was level with the top layer of sticks. “I was trying to make this into a swimming hole. See, the spring is over there. It used to be a well. Then all these stones were put here to make a kind of decorative grotto where the veterans could, you know,” he paused. “Rest.” The passengers of Mr. James Dunwoodie were staring.
“Oh. My. Effing. God.” Blaise walked right into the shallow pool.
“You can drink the spring water. I mean, you want to go right where it comes up.” They sloshed toward the other end, and Lemuel pointed.
“It’s like a water fountain.” Mycroft sounded awestruck. “In the ground.”
Mirabelle filled her smoothie cup and sipped cautiously. Blaise dunked his head in the spring. “You could totally make this into a swimming hole,” Antoinette declared. “You made this great dam with sticks, but if we dug out these rocks and piled them up, we could reinforce it and also make the pond deeper on this side.” She threw the backpack onto the bank and grabbed a rock. “Here, give me a hand.”
“Sweet!” Blaise yelled.
“Careful, you guys,” Lemuel said, kneeling beside Antoinette. “I don’t want to have to call in an emergency drone. We don’t want any information exchanges.”
“Ain’t gonna happen,” said Blaise.
The first few rocks were easy. Later they had to do more digging. In the end they needed levers and complicated skids to move the rocks and fit them into position. Eventually there was so much mud they couldn’t see their knees, much less the bottom, and the littles had to collect rocks from the bank.
Mycroft pried up a stone and Mirabelle, standing behind him, shrieked. She knelt to give her phone a better shot. It was a salamander, shrinking into the mud where the rock had been. Everyone crowded around to film and capture and re-locate the little thing. Then they turned back toward the pool.
And there it was. A perfect swimming hole. The mud had settled and water was trickling through the dam, but not faster than the spring was filling the pond. Thrilled and disbelieving, they eased into the water and tip-toed carefully into the middle. There was just enough room for all of them to float on the clear surface.
Antoinette balanced so carefully on the water that she felt the current from the spring flowing down over her head like a benediction. Her face was almost submerged and the sun stung her eyes through her lashes. Her muscles ached. It was wonderful.
This could have been her: one kid with two parents, having an idyllic childhood. Thank God her parents had divorced! Thank God for serial monogamy — she had a family! With all the parents and stepparents and surviving elders of all the children working together to ensure their safety.
Antoinette stood up. At the spring, she poured cups of water over herself, and then did the same for Mirabelle. Blaise said, “Hey, Toni…”
“Food’s in the backpack,” she answered. “For you, too, Lemuel.”
As they ate they dripped onto the bank and after a while the slanting rays of the sun dried their skin and hair. A sudden breeze rushed overhead and flipped the leaves back and forth, so that they flashed their gray undersides like a shower of ashes. Mirabelle said softly, “I was hoping to see an indicator species. And then I did. This proves there is a God. This proves that everything is going to be all right.”
Unobserved, Antoinette exchanged a tiny smile with Lemuel. Mycroft bent to gaze into Mirabelle’s eyes and said, “It might. It also proves we are really lucky.”
“I know we are, Mikey. As long as we’re together.”
“As long as we’re together,” Mycroft repeated, as if swearing an oath.
Blaise rolled his eyes. “Okay, you two,” Antoinette said.
“I’m really lucky, too,” Lemuel said tactfully. “But right now I think my house is calling me.” He gathered up food wrappers and rubbed them to dust between his palms. “My moms texted. Something’s going on and they’re both working late. I’m supposed to go inside when it gets dark.” The others nodded. “There’s a trail over here. It leads to an old dirt road.”
“Man, I wanted to go back down the creek,” Blaise said, but even he didn’t seem to believe it.
“I’ll tell James to pull around.” They walked until they could glimpse the car waiting beyond the locked gate. Antoinette hugged Lemuel briefly. “Thanks for everything.” He seemed to be all bones and sharp angles under his clammy shirt.
“Sure. I’ll see you at the drive-in.” He returned her hug lopsidedly, one hand holding his phone, then turned back on the path. Antoinette caught up with the littles as they climbed through the bars of the gate. In the car she asked if there was any news.
“There is no news.” There might be news for grownups, but nothing the car would share with them. The doors sealed.
“James, clear all the screens.” The littles kicked off their shoes and rummaged around in their duffel bags for dry clothes. Antoinette swiveled in her chair to peer out. It seemed dark all of a sudden. The trees clasped hands overhead as if lifting a dusky purple blanket for them to pass beneath. Then the woods fell away and they accelerated up the entry ramp. Beyond The Highway a faint white glow leached into the sky, flashing occasionally. It might be sheet lightning. They weren’t going that way.
The car slipped into an empty lane next to the usual line of freight trucks, endlessly en route, forever delivering commodities. There were no other passenger autonomobiles visible.
Antoinette reclined her seat to lie flat. The skin on her nose felt tight and her cheeks were warm. The days were definitely getting shorter, but there was still summer left. She had a sunburn and she was lounging in a damp bathing suit, so deliciously cool it was a pleasure to remember sweating. The night was starless. Or perhaps James had darkened the window. She realized the little ones were quiet, already asleep on their seats, stretched out against each wall.
Someday she’d have to say, “Home, James,” and choose which gated enclave that would be, which of the littles she’d have to leave behind. And then there would be carpools to medical check-ups and emergency drills and tutors and restricted-access labs. But not yet. It wasn’t yet time to shuttle from stepdad to stepmom, to take on this year’s share of new responsibilities, to glimpse the chaos of adulthood through the ever-widening crack in her childhood. Not yet.
For now they were snug as kittens curled up below deck in a slow sea. She pressed one ear to the headrest. She heard a faint hum as James carried them through the night toward another golden day; and all the other kids, too, that were crisscrossing the land at the same time, the lucky ones, were not really lost, but safe in their shared secret gardens. And now the darkness was complete.
Thank you, Mr. Dunwoodie, she said, though maybe she just thought she said it. James.
Copyright 2022 C. J. Peterson