The Smartest Mob
A stand-alone excerpt from David Brin’s novel EXISTENCE
by David Brin
Copyright 2012 Tor Books
Washington was like a geezer -- overweight and sagging -- but with attitude. Most of its gutty heft lay below the beltway, in waistlands that had been downwind on Awfulday.
Downwind, but not out.
When droves of upperclass child-bearers fled the invisible plumes enveloping Fairfax and Alexandria, those briefly-empty ghost towns quickly refilled with immigrants -- the latest mass of teemers, yearning to be free and willing to endure a little radiation, in exchange for a pleasant five-bedroom that could be subdivided into nearly as many apartments. Spacious living rooms began a second life as storefronts. Workshops took over four-car garages and lawns turned into produce gardens. Swimming pools made excellent refuse bins -- until government recovered enough to start cracking down.
Passing overhead, Tor could track signs of suburban renewal from her first class seat aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista. Take those swimming pools. A majority of the kidney-shaped ponds now gleamed with clear liquid -- mostly water (as testified by the spectral scanning feature of her TruVu spectacles) -- welcoming throngs of children who splashed under summertime heat, sufficiently dark-skinned to bear the bare sun unflinching.
So much for the notion that dirty bombs automatically make a place unfit for breeders, she thought. Let yuppies abandon perfectly good mansions because of a little strontium dust. People from Congo and Celebes were happy to insource.
Wasn’t this America? Call it resolution -- or obstinacy-- but after three rebuilds, the Statue of Liberty still beckoned.
The latest immigrants, those who filled Washington’s waistland vacuum, weren't ignorant. They could read warning labels and health stats, posted on every lamp post and VR level. So? More people died in Jakarta from traffic or stray bullets. Anyway, mutation rates dropped quickly, a few years after Awfulday, to levels no worse than Kiev. And Washington had more civic amenities.
Waistlanders also griped a lot less about minor matters like zoning. That made it easier to acquire rights-of-way, re-pioneering new paths back into unlucky cities that had been dusted. Innovations soon turned those transportation hubs into boom towns. An ironic twist to emerge from terror/sabotage. Especially when sky trains began crisscrossing North America.
Through her broad window, traveling east aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, Tor gazed across a ten mile separation to the West-Bound Corridor, where long columns of cargo zeppelins lumbered in the opposite direction, ponderous as whales and a hundred times larger. Chained single-file and heavily laden, the dirigibles floated barely three hundred meters above the ground, obediently trailing teams of heavy duty draught-locomotives. Each towing cable looked impossibly slender for hauling fifty behemoths across a continent. But while sky trains weren’t fast, or suited for bulk materials, they beat any other method for transporting medium-value goods.
And passengers. Those willing to trade a little time for inexpensive luxury.
Tor moved her attention much closer, watching the Spirit’s majestic shadow flow like an eclipse over rolling suburban countryside, so long and dark that flowers would start to close and birds might be fooled to roost, pondering nightfall. Free from any need for engines of her own, the skyliner glided almost silently over hill and dale. Not as quick as a jet, but more scenic -- free of carbon levies or ozone tax -- and far cheaper. Setting her TruVus to magnify, she followed the Spirit’s tow cable along the East-Bound Express Rail, pulled relentlessly by twelve thousand horses, courtesy of the deluxe maglev tug, Umberto Nobile.
What was it about a lighter-than-air craft that drew the eye? Oh, certainly most of them now had pixelated, tunable skins that could be programmed for any kind of spectacle. Passing near a population center -- even a village in the middle of nowhere -- the convoy of cargo zeps might flicker from one gaudy advertisement to the next, for anything from a local gift shop to the mail-order wares of some Brazillian MegaCorp. At times, when no one bid for the display space, a chain of dirigibles might tune their surfaces to resemble clouds... or flying pigs. Whim, after all, was another modern currency. Everyone did it on the VR levels.