It was late, but the glow from the road kept the darkness at bay.
“Take a left here, coming up,” I said from the passenger seat.
Johnny nodded, flipping on the blinker.
“You weren’t joking; you really do live out in the sticks.”
“Yea,” I replied. “Guess so. Thanks for the lift, I really appreciate it.”
Johnny took the left. “Can’t believe you’re still driving that thing,” he said. “That car’s a classic, and not in a good way.”
“Runs good, most of the time.”
Most people didn’t believe that I still owned a gas-powered automobile; and not just for car shows and events. They were practically antiques now, and I had to drive all the way up to Chestnut and Main to get to the city’s last remaining gas station.
Johnny cleared his throat and continued. “I still can’t believe they questioned you, for what, like two hours? What did they think you would know?”
I shrugged. “Been working on the roads a long time, Johnny. Guess they figured if anyone saw something suspicious it would be me.”
“Yea, but we’re just the road crew. If anyone knows something about the hackers, it would be the guys in tech.”
I shrugged again, over emphasizing. Johnny had been talking about our interrogation by the authorities, earlier that day, since we got in his car. The whole department was in a stir. Guess I can’t blame them. Not much goes on in the public works other than the repetitive day-to-day business. The techies stare at monitors for hours on end, making sure the solar roads are working like they should. Most of their time is spent monitoring the traffic patterns and calling in accidents to the authorities. Boring stuff. Me and Johnny, we were the working men, the muscles and sweat of the public works. We filled in the potholes when the nano-asphalt cracked, and cleared road kill from the highways and all along interstate 76 and 80. The hackers caused quite a stir when they overtook the city’s entire illumination grid and shut it down—if only for a brief period. Imagine that: the whole city’s road surface gone dark, not gently glowing at night, and not supplying electricity to the homes and automobiles.
“They only asked me a few questions,” Johnny went on. “Like if I saw anyone who might be suspicious around the offices or by the garages. Stuff like that. What did they ask you?”
I’ll have my car back tomorrow, I thought.
Not that I minded talking about the hackers, but I live an hour out of the city, and Johnny hadn’t shut his flapper since we first got in his car. Nice enough for him to offer me a ride, though, after my old Buick decided to not start up in the parking lot.
“All right,” I said. “Listen. How old are you again? Twenty-four, twenty-five?”
“Right. Twenty-four. I started with the public works when I was two years older than you are now — and right now, I’m almost twice your age. Back then, the illumination grid was brand new, and all it did was give the roads a gentle glow at night. It only took a year or two for the techies to advance the compound of the nano asphalt to start taking in power through microscopic solar particles.”
“Right . . . I know all of this.”
“Well, that’s what I told the cops. They asked me some technical stuff, but mostly wanted to know about our jobs and what we do. The cops were about your age, not around when all the roads changed over. I guess they wanted to hear about it firsthand.”
Johnny squinted his eyes. The highway ahead had a clearly visible dividing line from where the newer road met the older one.
“Jesus, you really do live far from the city,” Johnny said.
“It’s gonna get dark,” I warned him. “Turn your high beams on.”
The car drove seamlessly from the illuminated road surface to the old and weathered asphalt, passing a blinking light spelled out on the pavement beneath the car’s tires:
DARK ROADS AHEAD
A warning light flashed on the car’s dashboard, indicating that it was not receiving an electrical charge from the magnet particles in the pavement, to the magnetic responders under the car. He had one of those new cars, a crossover, that partially relied on alternating magnetic currents as well as pure electricity supplied from the pavement. Johnny’s hands clutched the steering wheel, his eyes squinting into the darkness.
“Don’t worry,” I said, sensing his trepidation. “You never been off of the grid before, have you? There are still a few of these old roads around. Your car ain’t gonna die, you have hours of charge left.”
“I know that, I’ve been off the grid plenty of times. I’m not worried.” He lied, I could tell. Everyone got nervous off the illumination roads. Society was used to being able to see everything all of the time; their electric cars receiving an unending supply of energy; their houses receiving enough free power to keep a skyscraper radiating brightness for centuries; and their phones, computers, all electronics, receiving a full dose of invisible power from the millions of nano-magnets mixed in with the ground beneath their feet.
“Be careful of the ice ahead,” I told him. “You ever drive on the ice?” I chuckled.
“I’ve been off the grid before, I told you.”
“These roads here are good old-fashioned asphalt. The stuff I worked with back when I first started. It doesn’t radiate a pleasant seventy-five degrees year round, melting snow and ice, and making it simple to plow.”
Johnny shook his head. “Figures you live on the one road left in USA that hasn’t been converted. Now I understand why you’re still driving that antique.”
“Make this next right coming up and then the first left. I’m a few miles up.”
Johnny turned, and continued speaking, “The cops today, they say the hackers want our roads and cities back to this, back to the way they were in olden times.”
I shot him a glance. “Easy there. I’m olden timed.”
Johnny laughed. “You think that’s true?”
“Maybe.” I shrugged. “With the advancement in the roads, sidewalks, and grounds in general, a lot of good things have come about. Not only can we safely see our roads and sidewalks at night, but we can detect accidents immediately, and sense where the asphalt is in need of repair as soon as it is damaged. We can find stolen cars within seconds, even wanted fugitives by the way that they walk—their footstep pattern, weight, and what not, all tracked in the control room. The advantages of illumination roads are evident, but I’m sure there are people out there who don’t want the government—and worse yet, the marketing companies—to know where we are every second of the day. Or our shopping patterns by following our footsteps, and tracking our cars and phones through the ground.”
“You think they’re really doing that?”
“When you go online, do ads for stores that you regularly shop in pop up? And I mean the shops that you go in yourself, not order from the Internet.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” I said. “These hackers, the Hellfire —”
“Helix,” Johnny corrected me. “They call themselves The Helix.”
“Right. The Helix. No matter what they do, there will always be work for us. Filling in potholes and repairing sidewalks is a job that will always be in demand. That’s my house there by the fire hydrant, two houses after.”
“The only house with lights on? Got it. You live in a damn ghost town.” Johnny came to a stop.
“All right, then,” I opened the door, shaking his hand. “I’ll see ya tomorrow. Thanks again for the lift.”
“Your car going to be out of the shop tomorrow? I can pick you up in the morning if needed.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. I’ll call a cab.”
“I don’t mind —”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Be careful getting out of here, don’t get lost. The roads get even worse in some of the back roads.”
Johnny let out a laugh. “This isn’t a back road?”
I shut the door and walked to my front steps as Johnny pulled away, the rear lights of his car fading around the corner. I let out a sigh and looked up at the sky. In the distance, the glow of the city filled the horizon, yet the view overhead was pure black. It was nice here, out in the middle of nowhere. Johnny may not appreciate it, and nobody else seems to want to live in these parts for miles around, but out here I can still see a star or two. Plus, the constant glowing patterns on the roads and sidewalk — the ever-changing supply of maintenance signs and flashing advertisement — that’s nowhere to be seen.
I opened my front door and flipped the light switch. My place may be old, dilapidated even, but it’s been in my family for generations.
In the kitchen I grabbed a beer and popped off the cap, before unlocking my basement door and heading downstairs. At the landing I turned on a light, and took a seat at my desk full of monitors and wires; snaking everywhere from my scrapheap computer.
I let out a sigh.
I really need to clean this place up.
I turned on the computer’s power and the live feed from Central Avenue popped up on one of the screens. I took a drag of the beer and cracked my knuckles.
Now . . . what went wrong yesterday?
Smiling, I typed in a command and hit the enter key. Instantly, the monitor went dark. I took another long pull from the beer and then typed in another command.
I’ll give them a hell of a show tonight. Something to talk about around the water cooler tomorrow.
Well, that being if anyone will be able to get to work without the use of their cars, phones, or well … anything.
I hit the enter key and leaned back in my chair, taking another long sip of my beer and putting my feet up on the desk. The words HELIX ILLUMINATED glowed brightly on the computer screen, from one end of Central Avenue to the other.
It was time for me to take back this city.
Brandon Zenner is an author living in Red Bank. He was one full-length novel, “The Experiment of Dreams,” published, and two more on the way.