It was daybreak when the TripStar passed the wall. From the rear Rodrigo watched it twist along the red verge of the foothills. He counted the turrets: two, four, six, pairs receding toward the gasoline shimmer of the horizon. On one side of the wall were the orange roof bungalows of the California Free State; past that, the Pale, wealthy and tense, controlled by the government from the military instillations on the coast. He’d crossed over to the Zona Fumar — the Zone of Smoke.
No need to roll the window down: the TripStar was large and air conditioned. Wide enough for Rodrigo to fit some important possessions — his little dirt bike, for instance, and an Israeli paratrooper bag — in the storage area by the wheel well. Good enough, he thought, since he wasn’t certain if he was coming back.
His was by far the worst looking TripStar in the dedicated lane. Someone had bashed deep U-shaped dents in the hood with a baseball bat. A zigzag fracture ran, diagonally, right across the window to a back door that shook on its hinges. The onboard water dispenser had been disabled, but that was probably another casualty of the drought, not an internal malfunction. So it wasn’t pretty, but Hernan was certain that it would do the trick. A TripStar with federal colors would skate through the border checkpoint. Otherwise Rodrigo would face at least a week of delays while crossing, invasive searches, electron scanning, the works.
Beyond the wall, Route 52 looked nothing like he’d remembered it. Rodrigo had heard the reports but he was not prepared for the craters, or the pickaxe cavities along the side of the asphalt, or the splashes and drips of color and stenciled logos spray-painted on the surface of the highway. Many of these were insignias he’d never seen before; others he knew well from the prison. He recognized the red and white of the Brotherhood and the bruised banana yellow of the Central American gangs. The fires Rodrigo expected. They were all anyone heard about, even in custody. No one could agree about who’d started them, or why, or why they couldn’t be contained. Perhaps it was because the water was gone.
Rodrigo would have preferred to travel south through the Free State and brave the checkpoints, but Hernan programmed the LinkStar for the Zona Fumar — Route 52 to 125, or what was left of it, and then the crossing near Garita De Otay. Alone in the TripStar, he watched the smoke tumble down the red and stony hillside to collect in pools on the road. When the TripStar dipped into the milky white that pooled on the floors of the canyons, Rodrigo was glad his ride was driverless.
The lane was full of automated vehicles. Most wouldn’t be crossing the border: they’d either stop in the Federal redoubt south of Chula Vista or continue east to the relative stability of the Rocky Mountain states. Not by I-8, though — that had become the most dangerous stretch of road in the hemisphere, and the TripStar satellite navigators had programmed accordingly. Rodrigo tried to spot the old house near Scripps Ranch, but visibility was compromised by the smoke and the thick red dust on the windshield. It was probably gone anyway. Right there in Scripps Ranch, in his dad’s garage — that was where Rodrigo and a group of friends had met in secret to discuss resistance strategies. Some were violent. All were fantastic. They’d gone unrealized: someone had blown the whistle and the house had been stormed by Border Force agents. Shot between the palm trees, a tear gas canister had torn through the big arched window in the faux-adobe facade and into Rodrigo’s living room while he and his father and sister were eating cereal.
Rodrigo’s friends were scheduled for deportation, which meant in practice months and possibly years of detention and labor in the sweltering desert camps. Rodrigo could not be deported; at least not then. His family had been in Southern California for decades — before he’d fled the state with Luisa, his father had been a geologist in the San Diego planning office.
So he’d been shipped to a private prison on the parched eastern edge of the state. For about a month it felt like there were no other inmates in the facility. Then it began to fill up. The buses started coming and didn’t stop — not even when the cells got so crowded that prisoners were forced to share bunks and sleep in shifts. An air conditioning breakdown made the building a skillet. Water was rationed: a gallon a day for drinking and washing. Everyone stunk. Rodrigo was too delirious to notice. The revolt, when it came, was a fever dream of batons and steel surfaces and heat sizzle. He remembered raiding a freezer only to find it empty. A truncheon blow on the back of the head brought the relief of oblivion. Later Rodrigo was tapped as a ringleader and transferred to secure housing: twenty three hours a day alone in a shoebox with a high slit in the wall for a window. After a week he began to wish he was back in the frying pan. No news got in or out. There was nothing to mark the time, or the passing of days, except the click and whir and rattle of his dry and decomposing thoughts.
There Rodrigo would still be were it not for Hernan. He’d met him in his first week at the private facility and he was never exactly sure if he was a prisoner or a guard or some intermediary whose role he didn’t understand. Hernan’s freedom of movement was far from absolute, but he enjoyed certain liberties that other inmates didn’t. They’d talked politics: the deterioration of civil society in California, the factions, how far it would all go. Hernan believed in the inevitability of armed combat: war between the Brotherhood and insurgentes, drug cartels and vigilante bands, government forces and separatists. It all seemed farfetched. Yet from the dusty windows of the TripStar he could see that much of what Hernan had predicted had come true. And Hernan, now headquartered in the Free State, had remembered him and arranged for Rodrigo’s release. All he’d asked for in exchange: service as a courier. An envelope needed to be delivered to friends. Rodrigo taped it to the underside of his bicycle seat. It probably contained money or drugs or some kind of weapon. Rodrigo didn’t care what it was. He was anxious to discharge his responsibility and be done with it. He hoped not to see Hernan afterward.
Rodrigo couldn’t tell where he was or how far he had to go. Many of the road signs had been completely painted over. Others had fallen face down on to the red earth as if they’d been executed by gangsters. The LinkStar mounted a stony ridge and Rodrigo could see fire on the adjacent hill — a red and black semicircle, an untreated wound in the landscape. It wasn’t unfamiliar. Lightning strikes would do that too: sparks on dry vegetation would grow and devour power lines, houses, towns. The wind would push the flame line west to cauterize the sky.
“Where are you coming from?” The voice from the station came clear through the TripStar dashboard. It was as if the interrogator was present in the front seat. Really he hid from the heat in a tower behind a concrete partition, shielded from the sun by a corrugated metal roof.
“San Luis Obispo,” the car lied.
Next to a wan American flag, the gold standard of the Free State flew high over the roadblock. The town had become separatist territory. Rodrigo remembered it as quiet and pretty. A moat had been dug on the far side of the highway to keep the fires out, but there was no water in it.
“TripStar appears damaged. The hood looks unsecured.”
“We were detained by the Brotherhood outside Escondido,” answered the car. “There was an altercation. Luckily my owner and operator was unharmed.”
“Well, that’s the important thing.”
So far, the TripStar had supplied the right answers. The Free State separatists were at least nominally anti-fascist; an official might reasonably be sympathetic to a tale about a rogue militia. But what if they’d been stopped by the Border Force? Did the TripStar have a cock-and-bull story tailored to every contingency, or hadn’t Hernan thought ahead that far? Rodrigo had been off the streets for years, but even he knew enough about driverless cars in California to understand that there was some digital black magic at work. LinkStar in Palo Alto had designed its cars to be responsive only after breath analysis authentication; that’s what the little tube by the satnav was for. Each vehicle on the network was scrupulously tracked. This one must have slipped off the grid. Perhaps it was decommissioned and then reclaimed, skirting the extremities of the database, riding along on the frayed edges of the map, its rearrangement undetected.
Rodrigo pressed the override button and spoke.
“Excuse me but I have to ask. What happened to that road over there?”
There was a pause.
“That? Oh, you really must be from the North. You really didn’t hear about that?”
“I don’t follow the news too closely.”
“Well, we got rain. Torrential rain.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“No, it’s a bad thing. It’s a bad thing when you haven’t had any at all in two years. Ground couldn’t take it. Landslides and rockslides all over the place.”
Through the dashboard he explained: a sinkhole had opened, one of many in the area. Many old houses had been tugged under. Others had their tops dusted with a layer of crumbled earth. No help is coming — we’ve got to clear these roads ourselves. So don’t get any ideas. Don’t reprogram or reroute. Stick to the lane. Stay safe.
The two iron wings of the roadblock parted and the TripStar accelerated to meet the ride in front of it. Soon they’d locked back in to the rhythm of the satellite and recovered their authorized spacing.
The man at the roadblock had not been exaggerating. Gravity had shorn the nearby hillsides into rough and chalky cliffs, and great spillways sluiced rock and dust into the brown yards of abandoned houses. Cracks in the desiccated earth fanned out from great holes in the surface of the town. Icebergs of macadam, shaken loose from the streets, slid heavily into ditches with overturned cars, the root systems of dead trees, exposed wires and cables and PVC pipe — the connective tissue of a civilization, pushed to the surface, exposed to the air and the sun. It was possible to remember this place before the drought had really sunk its teeth into the topsoil. Still the TripStar rolled forward, never varying speed, a capsule of absolute calm amidst the deteriorating conditions along the highway. Rodrigo looked at the car ahead of him and the one behind. A little girl with ribbons and her mother in one, a man in a business suit in the other, all sitting absolutely still as the disaster slid by.
The TripStar was at the dirty bottom of a canyon when Rodrigo noticed something off: a quake in the wheels, an irruption in what had been an unnervingly smooth ride. Just a small ripple, a shudder, a quickened barefoot step on a hot sidewalk. He thought it might be a tremor. No: there was a wobble in the wheels of the TripStar ahead of him too. The car shook like the backside of a horse ridding itself of flies. Then Rodrigo noticed something really peculiar: through the smoke wisps he saw a TripStar ahead of him turn off of the highway. The next one did the same — and then it was the little girl and her mother pulled off to the right too. Beneath him, he felt the wheels cut.
Had a sinkhole opened in the middle of the highway? It seemed likely. LinkStar must be rerouting the line of cars away from a crater. Rodrigo wondered how long the detour would be. Back pressed against the seat, he stared out of the window, now almost completely covered with dust, and waited for another sharp turn to the right.
It didn’t come. The TripStar continued its indifferent cruise: now along a winding road through sparsely populated subdivisions and along the bed of a lake that had turned purple-red. A few boats were lodged in the mud. This had been a wealthy area — a getaway. The people here had fled to the Pale, thought Rodrigo, or left the state altogether as his dad and sister had. Past the lake the road opened to blasted hills. Another painted street sign greeted the procession. Then an iron gate, and another fence, and another sign festooned with symbols that Rodrigo didn’t recognize. He swiveled uncomfortably in his seat. Even in the air conditioning it was getting hot. He noticed the man in the business suit in the TripStar behind him fidgeting. He watched his arms flail and his fingers scrabbling at the door. With a shudder Rodrigo realized: he was trying to get out of the capsule. Rodrigo checked the locks on his own doors and recognized he’d been sealed in.
The mother and daughter realized it, too. Panicked, they pushed the little white palms of their hands against the back windshield, and then the side windows, and then the back windshield again. He knew it wouldn’t budge. These TripStars, thought Rodrigo, could withstand hundreds of pounds of pressure. He barked a few futile commands to the car. It ignored him. The interface had shut down. The tide of the transmission had changed; something had overridden the satellite. They’d been intercepted. They were locked in boxes on a conveyor belt and bound for a reckoning.
Ahead Rodrigo could see men in ratty uniforms with rough armbands pry open the doors of a TripStar. Its rider — he couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman — was yanked out like an oyster pulled from its shell. Armed men jumped into the capsule. Then the writhing passenger was carried into the smoke.
With both feet, Rodrigo kicked at the back door of the TripStar. He heard the squeal of metal parts in distress. Encouraged, he took his bike and rammed the wheel well as hard as he could. Fragments of shattered glass fell to the seat as the door gave way with a bone-break crack. Hernan may not have meant to give Rodrigo a faulty ride, but he was relieved he had. Man and bicycle fell hard to the mud — but terrified, he bounced back like a rubber ball on a stoop. Slinging the paratrooper bag over his shoulder, Rodrigo found the pedals and pushed off in the opposite direction. The TripStar continued forward; his own thick tires scraped against mud and loose pebbles as he charged along a grooved dirt trail. He heard a woman’s scream and saw the little beribboned girl held aloft by uniformed arms. Rodrigo remembered thinking: not me, not me, the businessman gets it next. The last thing he saw as he cleared the fence was a field of empty TripStars, inert and disconnected, dented by bats or rifle butts, pulled off of the network and mute under the pounding sun.
It was midday. The Southern California border zone was all heat and dust and the occasional sound of helicopter blades above the canopy of smoke. On his dirt bike Rodrigo felt the heat like a membrane pulled across his lips. It had taken him some time to adjust to the bicycle: he hadn’t been on one in years. He’d fallen off and scraped himself on the bare rocks; his right knee was bruised and throbbing, but he didn’t mind too much. The envelope remained snug under the bicycle seat. He was bound to see his task through.
This, he realized, would take some persuasion. The TripStar contained all of his falsified information and it was programmed to handle the negotiations with the border agents. He didn’t know how he’d bluff his way over the divide. But turning back now wasn’t an option, he told himself. Behind him was nothing but fire. Ahead was Mexico. Of course he knew the drought was just as bad there as it was in San Diego. His father had explained it to him: the Twentieth Century had, he’d discovered, marked the end of an unusually green and fertile period in the history of the Western third of the North American continent. Now California — both Baja and Norte — were returning to their default state: dry, tan, crumbly as a coffee cake, tough to inhabit. Residents fighting over dwindling resources, the sun and wind taking the rest. There had been many other megadroughts in the Southwest throughout time; the difference this time around was that millions of Americans lived in a metropolis atop a trembling crust.
Hot and parched and dizzy, Rodrigo reached the highway. Instantly he knew he was mere miles from the border: the smoke had dissipated and the nearby streets were straw-dry but orderly. He was back in the government zone. Dead ahead he saw the old Immigration Service fortress and Border Patrol station. Rodrigo recalled the abuses that had infuriated him and his friends; the way the empowered police had crashed around like Keystone cops, joyriding their black sport-utility vehicles around the Mesa, hopping out to harass Mexicans, drunk on petty power and determined to punish anybody weaker than they were. If they were thirsty or starving, all the better — they wouldn’t put up a fight. But Rodrigo was not afraid of the fortress. He knew it was deserted. Immigration was no longer an issue, even for drum-banging bullies in search of victims. Nobody wanted to come to California anymore.
Nevertheless Rodrigo found the emptiness of the highway unnerving. There was nobody else on the road; not service trucks or police cars or TripStars or old fashioned personal gas guzzlers. Nobody under the sun but Rodrigo and his dirt bike — one ex-con pedaling on the stony verge rather than the broiling asphalt to avoid popping a tire. Even in the heathaze delirium, he knew the terrific risks he ran. He could be picked up and questioned by anybody on the Force — his bike confiscated, the envelope discovered — and he’d be heading to Corcoran or worse. Or the militias would catch up with him, or the gangs would knock him off his ride and sell it, and him, for parts. And then there was the great hurdle: a border that was, even in good times, an obstacle to free movement. Mexico was right there. He could smell the flowers. But would it be wiser to turn to the hills, dissolve into one of the shantytowns, look for work or a drink of water, deposit the envelope in a trashcan and hope that Hernan never caught up to him? Tempted, Rodrigo stopped the bike at the side of the road and stared at the horizon.
Something dark and low as a bug punched straight through the hot expanse of the sky. Rodrigo recognized a helicopter — and then, not just one, but several. Beneath them crawled a border force armored vehicle with its monster wheels and front and rear-mounted machine guns. Right behind it was another, and then another. Rodrigo froze. It was too late to run. The armored vehicle was seconds away, scraping at the roadway, hungry, flanked by two roaring motorbikes. Was all of this for him? A heavily armed squad meant to scoop him up and weigh him down, drop him back in the prison and let him rot there?
The road presented few options. Well, let him stand as tall and proud as he could. In a moment he could see the American flags on the copter doors and the eagle insignia on the grill of the armored car. It rolled so close to Rodrigo that he could smell the rust. And it kept rolling on.
So did the next one, and the one after that. Helicopters streamed overhead in threes; motorcycles kicked asphalt and carried impassive members of the Force, hidden behind sunglasses and heavy helmets. Not one turned his head to acknowledge Rodrigo’s presence. He stood there mesmerized, pinned by the side of the highway, watching the procession — American air and land vehicles, chewing road and space, heading unswervingly north as if pulled by magnets. He felt like the only kid who had shown up on the parade route. If he’d had an American flag, he would have waved it around in an infinity sign.
Rodrigo watched them until they were all gone, and even then, he stood for a long time at the side of the road. Where were they headed? Had they, too, been pulled off course by an errant satellite signal? Bewildered but curious, he kicked off in the direction of the border.
Thirty minutes later he reached the checkpoint. Rodrigo was surprised to find thick iron gates in front of the booths. Only one conduit to Mexico remained. It was not the TripStar lane. But there were no TripStars on the road anyway.
Rodrigo bicycled up the the booth. There behind the glass was a hunched man with heavy spectacles and ink stains on his fingers. He looked sixtyish and ill-used. On his shirt he wore the insignia of the California Free State.
“How the heck?” He looked incredulous. “Road’s closed.”
“How do I get through?”
“Damned if I know. I mean I can let you through our side. I suppose. You’d be the first. Historic and all.”
“Historic? What’s going on here?”
“What you haven’t heard? You been living in a cave? It’s over. They pulled out. We’re on our own now.”
He explained that the order of secession had finally been accepted by Washington. Old Glory was gone. They’d taken it down and headed to the Pale. From there they’d probably ship back East.
“How long you think that’s going to hold?,” asked Rodrigo.
“How long you got?”
He was the only Free State actor in the vicinity, so Palo Alto had asked him to be present for the transfer. A TripStar was as good as a visa, but he didn’t know if the Mexicans were going to accept a random person on a bicycle. Rodrigo might encounter some trouble getting in.
“Got an old fashioned passport or anything?
Rodrigo did not. He was hoping that the expedited protocols of the TripStar lane would do the trick.
I think you been in the sun too long, said the man. Here, let me do this. He took a ratty piece of paper and folded it over into four quarters. On the front he scribbled California Free State Passport. Then he opened it up. With an orange magic marker he drew a quick likeness of a golden bear, circled it, and dated it. There’s your stamp. No guarantees. You might be coming back this way in a few minutes. How the heck should I know. If so the Free State welcomes you. Only not really.
“You gonna sign your passport?”
Rodrigo signed it.
“Looks good. OK get lost.”
Across the divide the Mexican agents were waiting, unsmiling. Rodrigo pumped his brakes and patted his bicycle seat. The envelope was still there. Good, then, he’d gotten through the Zona Fumar somehow, and made it past American customs. He’d been the first witness present for the divorce. They were accustomed to receiving TripStars; yes, but maybe all of the expectations had been upended. Maybe the regulations have been scrambled, and the collapse of California prompted a kind of ethical paralysis. Everything about today had been improbable; why would that stop now? Yes, Rodrigo was certain they’d let him in. He felt bulletproof, shot free from a cannon. He was a guided missile. The flowered gates would open, his shoulders would relax, he’d drink from the nearest stream. California had made its exit; now he’d make his exit from California. Any moment now. His nation had fallen to pieces and was crashing to earth like a rocket that had broken up in the stratosphere. It was still hot and dangerous, but now it was scattered over the desert. All at once he was no longer scared of the eagle. With a great stride he’d step over that line, and that, America, that, California, that would be that.
– Tris McCall