This is the third installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator arrives in the capital of the Lakeland Republic, and further surprises are in store.
The train pulled into the Toledo station something like ten minutes late—we’d had to wait for another train to clear the bridge over Sandusky Harbor, and then rolled along the Lake Erie shoreline for half an hour, past little lakeside towns and open country dotted with shore pines, before finally veering inland toward the Lakeland Republic’s capital. All the way along the shore, I watched big two- and three-masted schooners catching a ride from the wind, some obviously heading out from the Toledo lakefront, some just as obviously heading toward it. The sailing ship I’d spotted outside Sandusky was clearly nothing unusual here.
Once the train swung due west toward downtown Toledo, it was more farm country—the twentieth century kind with tractors and pickups rather than the nineteenth century kind with draft horses and wagons. Then the same sequence I’d watched around other Lakeland cities followed: houses became more frequent, fields gave way to truck gardens, and not too far after that the train was rolling past residential neighborhoods dotted with schools, parks, and little clusters of shops, striped at intervals with the omnipresent streetcar tracks and, here and there, crossed by the streetcars themselves. The houses gave way eventually to the warehouses and factories of an industrial district, and then to the dark waters of the Maumee River, swirling and rushing past the feet of a dozen bridges.
“Toledo,” the conductor called out from behind me. “End of the line, ladies and gentlemen. Please make sure you have your luggage and belongings before you leave, and thank you for riding with us.”
As the car I was in reached the far shore, I got a brief glimpse of tree-lined streetscapes, and then brick walls blotted out the view. Some of the other passengers got their luggage down from the overhead racks. Me, I had other things on my mind; it had finally occurred to me that unless I could get a veepad signal, I had no way to call the people who were supposed to meet me and make sure we didn’t miss each other, and I’d checked my veepad one last time and gotten the same dark field as before. I shrugged mentally, decided to wait and see what happened.
The train slowed to a crawl. The immigrant family across from me had apparently spotted somebody waiting for them on the platform, and were waving at the window. They already had their plastic-bag luggage in hand, and the moment the train stopped they hefted the bags and headed for the exit. I got my suitcase down from the rack; the boy who’d been sitting next to me went back to help his parents with their luggage, and I stepped into the aisle and followed the people in front of me up to the front of the car and out onto the platform.
A brightly painted sign said THIS WAY TO THE STATION. I followed that and the flow of people. Partway along I passed the immigrant family standing there with half a dozen other people in what looked like Victorian clothing out of a history vid—the wife’s family from Ann Arbor, I guessed—all talking a mile a minute. The wife was teary-eyed and beaming, and the two kids looked for the first time since I’d seen them as though they might get around to smiling one of these days. I thought about the conversation I’d had with the husband, wondered if things really were that much better at the bottom end of the income scale here.
I went through a big double door of glass and metal into what had to be the main room of the station, a huge open space under a vaulted ceiling, with benches in long rows on one side, ticket counters on the other, and what looked like half a dozen restaurants and a bar ahead in the middle distance. Okay, I said to myself, here’s where I try to find someone who has a clue about how to locate people and get around in this bizarre country.
I’d almost finished thinking that when a woman and a man in what I’d come to think of as Bogart clothing got up off one of the nearby benches and came over toward me. “Mr. Carr?”
Well, that was easy, I thought, and turned toward them. She was tall for a woman, with red-brown curls spilling out from under a broad-brimmed hat; he was a couple of inches shorter than she was, with the kind of forgettable face you look for when you’re hiring spies or administrative assistants.
“I’m Melissa Berger,” the woman said, shaking my hand, “and this is Fred Vanich.” I shook his hand as well. “I hope your trip this morning wasn’t too disconcerting,” she went on.
That last word was unexpected enough that I laughed. “Not quite,” I said. “Though there were a few surprises.”
“I can imagine. If you’ll come this way?”
“Can I take that for you?” Vanich said, and I handed over my suitcase and followed them.
“I’m afraid we’ve had to do some rescheduling,” Berger said as we headed for the doors. “The President was hoping to meet with you this afternoon, after you have time to get settled in at the hotel, but he’s got a minor crisis on his hands. One of the Restorationist parties in our coalition is breathing fire and brimstone over a line item in an appropriations bill. It’ll blow over in a day or so, but—well, I’m sure you know how it goes.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Ellen’s been having to deal with that sort of thing every other day or so since the election.”
“That was quite an upset,” she said.
I nodded. “We were pretty happy with the way it turned out.”
Outside the air was blustery and crisp, with the first taste of approaching winter on it. The trees lining the street still clung to a few brown and crumpled leaves. Just past the trees, where I’d expected to see cabs waiting for passengers in a cloud of exhaust, horses stood placidly in front of brightly colored—buggies? Carriages? Whatever they were called, they looked like boxes with big windows, some with four wheels supporting them and some with two, and a seat up top for the driver.
I blinked, and almost stopped. Berger gave me an amused look. “I know,” she said. “We do a lot of things differently here.”
“I’ve noticed that,” I replied.
She led the way to one of the four-wheeled buggies, or whatever they were. Obviously things had been arranged in advance; she said “Good afternoon, Earl,” to the driver, he said “Good afternoon, ma’am” in response, and without another word being said my suitcase found its way into the trunk in back and the three of us were settling into place in comfortable leather seats inside, Berger and I facing forward and Vanich across from us facing backward.
The buggy swung out into traffic and headed down the street. “Is this standard here?” I asked, indicating the vehicle with a gesture.
“The cab? More or less,” said Berger. “There are a few towns with electric cabs and a fair number with pedal cabs, but you’ll find horse cabs everywhere there’s taxi service at all. The others don’t produce methane feedstock.”
I considered that. “But no gasoline or diesel cabs.”
“Not since Partition, no.”
That made a certain amount of sense to me. “I’m guessing the embargo had a lot to do with that.”
“Well, to some extent. There was quite a bit of smuggling, of course—Chicago being right on our border.”
I snorted. “And Chicago being Chicago.” The Free City of Chicago was the smallest of the nations that came out of Partition, and made up for that by being far and away the most gaudily corrupt.
“Well, yes. But there wasn’t that much of a market for petroleum products,” she went on. “There’s the tailpipe tax, of course, and we also lost most of the necessary infrastructure during the war—highways, pipelines, all of it.”
“I’m surprised your government didn’t subsidize rebuilding.”
“We don’t do things that way here,” she said.
I gave her a long startled look. “Obviously I have a lot to learn,” I said finally.
She nodded. “Outsiders generally do.”
I filed away the word outsider for future reference. “One thing I’ve been wondering since I crossed the border,” I said then. “Or rather two. You really don’t have metanet service in the Lakeland Republic?”
“That’s correct,” she replied at once. “We actually have jamming stations along the borders, though it’s been fifteen or sixteen years since we last had to use them.”
“Hold it,” I said. “Jamming stations?”
“Mr. Carr,” Berger said, “since Partition we’ve fought off three attempts at regime change and one full-blown military invasion. All the regime change campaigns were one hundred per cent coordinated via the metanet— saturation propaganda via social media, flashmobs, swarming attacks, you know the drill. The third one fizzled because we’d rigged a kill switch in what little metanet infrastructure we had by then and shut it down, and after that the legislature voted to scrap what was left. Then when Brazil and the Confederacy invaded in ‘49, one reason they pulled back a bloody stump was that military doctrine these days—theirs, yours, everybody else’s—is fixated on disrupting network infrastructure and realtime comm-comm, and we don’t have those, so they literally had no clue how to fight us. So, yes, we have jamming stations. If you’d like to visit one I can arrange that.”
I took that in. “That won’t be necessary,” I said then. “Just out of curiosity, do you jam anything else?”
“Not any more. We used to jam radio broadcasts from the Confederacy, but that’s because they jammed ours. We got that settled three years ago.”
“Waste of time. Only about three per cent of the Republic’s within range of a ground station, and the satellite situation—well, I’m sure you know at least as much about that as I do.”
I was by no means sure of that, but let it pass. “Okay, and that leads to my second question. How on earth do you take notes when you don’t have veepads?”
Instead of answering, she directed a rueful look at Vanich, who nodded once, as though my words had settled something.
“I’m guessing,” I said then, “that somebody just won a bet.”
“And it wasn’t me,” Berger said. “There are four questions that outsiders always ask, and there’s always a certain amount of speculation, shall we say, about which one gets asked first.” She held up one finger. “How do you take notes?” A second. “How do you find out what’s happening in the world?” A third. “What do you do to contact people?” A fourth. “And how do you pay your bar tab?”
I laughed. “I’ve got a fifth,” I said. “How do you look up facts without Metapedia?”
“That’s an uncommon one, Mr. Carr,” Vanich said. His voice was as bland and featureless as his face. If he wasn’t a spy, I decided, the Lakeland Republic was misusing his talents. “I’ve heard it now and then, but it’s uncommon.”
“To answer your question,” Berger said then, “most people use paper notebooks.” She pulled a flat rectangular shape out of her purse, fanned it open to show pages with neat angular handwriting on them, put it away again. “Available at any stationery store, but you won’t have to worry about that. There’s one waiting at your hotel room.”
“Thank you,” I said, trying to wrap my head around writing down notes on sheets of paper. It sounded about as primitive as carving them with a chisel on stone. “Just out of curiosity, what about the others? I was planning on asking those sometime soon.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “You find out what’s happening by reading a newspaper or listening to the radio. You contact people by phone, if you’re in a county with phone service, or by writing a letter or sending a radiogram anywhere. You pay your bar tab with cash, and any larger purchases with a check—we’ve got all that set up for you; you’ll just have to visit a bank, and there’s one a block and a half from the hotel. You look up facts in books—your own, if you’ve got them, or a public library’s if you don’t. There’s a branch five blocks from your hotel.”
“Not as convenient as accessing the metanet,” I noted.
“True, but there are more important things than convenience.”
“Like national survival?”
I’d meant the words as an olive branch of sorts, and she took them that way. “Among other things.”
She looked out the window, then, and turned in her seat to face me. “We’re almost to your hotel. I’m going to have to go back to the Capitol right away and see if I can shake some sense into the Restos, and Fred has his own work to get done. One way or another, there’ll be someone to take you around tomorrow. If you like, after you’ve settled in and had some lunch, I can have somebody come out and show you the tourist sights, or whatever else you’d like to see.”
“Thank you,” I said, “but I’d like to suggest something different. I hear your streets are pretty safe.”
She nodded. “I know the kind of thing you have to deal with in Philadelphia. We don’t have that sort of trouble here.”
“In that case, I’d like to wander around a bit on my own, check out the landscape—maybe visit the public library you mentioned.”
It was a long shot; I figured the Lakeland government would want me under the watchful eye of a handler the whole time I was in the country. To my surprise, she looked relieved. “If that works for you, it works for us,” she said. “I’ll have somebody call you first thing tomorrow—eight o’clock, if that’s not too early.”
“That’ll be fine.”
“With any luck this whole business will have blown over by then and President Meeker can see you right away.”
“Here’s hoping,” I said.
The cab came to a halt. A moment later, the driver opened the door. I shook both their hands, climbed down to the sidewalk.