Future Tense

“If We Make It Through This Alive”

A new short story about a cutthroat future road race (and much more).

A giant truck with solar panels folded at the rear drives on a ruined road.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Ruben Hanssen/Unsplash, Ravi Sharma/Unsplash, Brandon Green/Unsplash.

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

Pennsylvania to Ohio, 600 miles: Sabrina

The open road is just potholes and misery, but Sabrina loves it anyway. Not that she has anything against the national train system, trains are great. But it’s the challenge, the potential to rebuild everything, that has her doing final checks on Gran’s old Jeep at the starting line of the Great American Road Race.

Advertisement

Not that Gran would’ve recognized her beloved car.

“You’re driving across the country in that?” asks a rando guy. It takes her a second to recognize him from last year’s winning team. Johnny Shore. Or as Sabrina and her teammates call him—Johnny Shit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“Yeah,” Sabrina says, squaring her shoulders. At her tone, her teammates look up.

They’re 30 miles outside of Philadelphia on the dead asphalt carcass of the King of Prussia mall. It’s a typical November day, hot and sunny. Jody’s sitting cross-legged on the roof of the Jeep, fine-tuning the antennas. Fern’s kneeling on the pavement fussing over the inspector bot.

“Is he dissing Spike?” Jody says, quietly, but with a glare.

Advertisement

“Yup,” says Fern, half-rising, fists balling at her side. Sabrina grabs her friend’s T-shirt and Johnny Shit smirks.

Obviously, Spike, their car, isn’t much of a looker. The diesel engine has been switched out for an electric motor and oversize batteries. Solar panels are folded up like accordions in the back. The wheels are massive, designed for river crossings and brutal terrain, but they make the Jeep’s chassis look like a toddler on a horse. Antennas stick out of the roof like a sorry mane. The only untouched part is Gran’s New Jersey license plates.

“First time, right?” Johnny Shit asks, smugness dripping off him now.

“No. Tenth,” Fern snaps back.

Of course this is their first time. Racers are a tightknit community. Unless you grew up without family ties to a Reinvention Club. Or money. Or a longing for “the good ol’ days.” In that case, you’re on your own.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“Hey. I’m just being friendly. It’s a tough race.”

“Maybe don’t patronize other teams then,” Jody mumbles, but loud enough for him to hear.

Johnny Shit makes a face. “Good luck out there, ladies. Hope you don’t break down.”

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Sabrina replies.

He retreats to his souped-up, eye-catching blue trophy truck with “Philly’s Own Reinvention Club” decaled on the side, and a stab of jealousy twists Sabrina’s guts. She’s never wanted anything so badly as to win this race. Winning means having enough money from corporate sponsors and notoriety in the Reinvention community to set up a school to teach anyone how to reengineer their life back together. To make things right again for their family.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Unless you make a career out of racing like Johnny Shit and his team. From the corner of her eye, Sabrina sees Fern flip him the double bird.

“Ignore him,” Jody whispers. “We got this far.”

“And we’ll go farther,” Sabrina finishes, exhaling.

Yeah, they might be three friends racing without any sponsors or support, but Sabrina knows they built something beautiful with Spike.

Someone shouts, “Ten minutes to start!”

Advertisement
Advertisement

This is it, Sabrina thinks as they pile into the Jeep. Her knuckles are white on the steering wheel as she studies the 14 other cars around her. All club-backed, all shiny in the sunlight. She wonders which teams will make it 2,800 miles on America’s outdated highways and beat them to Sacramento. Or maybe, she and hers will beat them.

Advertisement

She knows, statistically, there’ll be at least one team who won’t survive this. Her fingers creak as her grip on the steering wheel tightens.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if Spike doesn’t start, though?” Fern asks.

“NO!” Jody and Sabrina almost shout. Then, they see Fern grinning in the rearview. They chuckle shakily and Sabrina eases up on her death grip.

An eerie hush falls over the starting line, like a held breath. The nervous energy’s so thick you can almost chew on it. There’s no revving engines—every car is powered by batteries or ecodiesel or both. The motors are almost whispers. The distant sounds of trains are the only things that dare to make noise.

Advertisement

“Good luck, racers. And Godspeed,” a voice shouts, followed by a loud pop.

Sabrina steps on the accelerator and Spike lunges forward. And just like that, 10 months of designing, planning, testing, redesigning are put to the test.

“Told you she’d start,” Fern says.

Advertisement

Jody rolls her eyes, but there’s a faint smile on her lips.

“We’ve got this,” Sabrina says, squaring her shoulders. Because they have to. Because Sabrina doesn’t know what she’s going to do if she can’t rebuild things for her family.

When Sabrina, Jody, and Fern planned out their route, they divided the country by home territories—East for Sabrina, Midwest for Jody, and West for Fern. They expected the race to take 10 days. They expected surprises, rerouting, and car problems.

Advertisement

They didn’t expect the problems to start 50 miles in.

Sabrina’s cruising down the PA turnpike, going steady at 40 miles per hour. She’s driving in the middle of the road, weaving between potholes, while Jody updates and annotates their maps and Fern reads out the road conditions their inspector bot feeds them from half a mile ahead.

“Overpass is still standing. Giant pothole upcoming on the left. Bridge better fucking hold our weight.”

The tension, the worry, the fear is still there, but Sabrina feels herself uncoil now that she’s racing. Finally moving. All those months the three of them slaved in that shared workshop, fighting for time on the CNC machines and laths, all those hours combing message boards and strangers’ storage units, looking for the right parts and material. The work is paying off.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Then, the battery sensor starts beeping and Sabrina’s heart almost stops. If anything happens to the batteries, Spike’s screwed. She immediately brakes and turns off the engine. Fern jumps out of the car, Sabrina close behind.

While Fern checks connections on the solar array, now open and fanned out behind Spike, Sabrina yanks open the hood, her heart in her throat.

Please be nothing major, she prays, inspecting the connections around the batteries.

Advertisement
Advertisement

A few are loose. Even though she just went over them at the starting line.

Swearing, Sabrina grabs fast-setting adhesive from the back seat and reapplies.

Sabrina, we can’t keep rebuilding. she hears her dad say.

“Watch me,” she says under her breath.

Advertisement

“What?” Fern asks.

“Try now.”

Jody turns on the car and after a few agonizing seconds, she gives a thumbs-up out the window.

Sabrina climbs back into the driver’s seat and before Fern’s even sitting, Spike’s accelerating. Her friend falls inelegantly into her seat, swearing. But Sabrina doesn’t care. Her fingers are white on the wheel. Her teeth are clenched.

This race is a terrible idea, she hears her mom say. You can’t run away from grief.

Sure, they’re moving forward, but Sabrina looks in the rearview mirror and imagines the floodwater rising behind her, closing in.

Central Pennsylvania was always rural. It’s still rural. But now the farms are overgrown and abandoned with the exception of a handful of determined communities. The world between train stations is so deserted now. Gran would’ve hated it, but Sabrina marvels at the wild beauty of the ivy-covered buildings, young trees, and mossy trucks.

Advertisement

“Did you know that this was all forests once?” Fern asks suddenly, in the middle of her readouts.

“Did you know there used to be an amazing ice cream place 5 miles away?” Sabrina replies.

“You’ve had ice cream?” Jody asks, suddenly interested.

“Not the real stuff. But my Gran used to talk about it every time we were here.”

“Lucky her,” Fern says, slumping back in her seat.

Everyone is quiet after that.

As planned, Sabrina steers clear of the old abandoned suburbs and towns to avoid the overpasses and throughways. The trick to surviving this race is not to test your luck with structures that haven’t been inspected or maintained in decades. They only get close to Harrisburg to use the bike lanes on the one safe bridge across the Susquehanna River. Fern runs ahead to clear the way, while Sabrina passes excited bicyclists. Kids stare open-mouthed as Spike rolls by and Sabrina laughs. They’ve probably never seen an old-school car before.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As the bicyclists study Spike, Sabrina studies their bikes. On this bridge alone, there’s a dozen different DIY designs with a dozen different modifications. Even at a quick glance, she sees that only a few of them work as well as they should.

If we make it through this alive, my school’s going to help people like this. She puts a little more pressure on Spike’s accelerator.

The roads through the Appalachians are a minefield of flood-outs and rubble. Despite spending hours poring over maps, reading dozens of DOT reports, and carefully choosing their route based on friends along the way, conditions are worse than expected. Much worse. Sabrina wants to scream.

But Jody’s a navigation genius with a backup plan for everything. Patiently, she reroutes Sabrina over and over again.

Advertisement

“I can’t wait until we get to the Midwest,” Jody says, glaring at the mountains. “Everything there is flat and simple.”

“Have you met Chicago?” Sabrina asks. Jody sticks out her tongue. “How much farther?”

“Eighty-six miles till we reach your uncle’s place.”

Sabrina glances at the time. It’s 3 p.m. They have three more hours of sunlight and she’s going to make the most of them.

Advertisement

Thirty minutes later, they reach an impasse at a mountain tunnel.

“Hell no,” Fern says as the inspector bot reemerges from underground. “There’s major cracks in the cement.”

Sabrina bites her lip, looks at Jody, who sighs and says, “Turn around.”

It almost physically hurts to go back. Sabrina imagines the 14 other racers in their shiny, tricked-out cars speeding ahead of them.

Advertisement

Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward, Gran used to say when she was teaching Sabrina how to rewire a house.

It doesn’t make her feel better.

Advertisement

Off the major roads, Sabrina cuts the speed to 20 mph as Spike lumbers over streams and shrubs growing in the middle of the tarmac. Tall, half-alive trees stretch up around them, making the growing twilight even darker.

“We’re not going to make it tonight,” Jody says eventually, quietly. “I’ll let your folks know.”

Sabrina starts to argue, but she catches Fern’s scowl in the rearview. They agreed not to drive at night. Visibility’s terrible and inspector bots aren’t as accurate in the cold. This is when most fatalities happen.

Advertisement

Jody taps out the message on the Smartpad as Sabrina finds a place to camp. It’s only their first day and they are already behind. She wants to vomit.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Instead, she pulls out three portions of dried veggies and lentil protein patties and a small hot plate.

“This was our first meal together,” Jody says, with a small smile. “At that PORC class,” she adds when she gets confused looks.

“With that jackass instructor,” Sabrina says. That’s where they all met—three outsiders at Philly’s Own Reinvention Club free intro seminar. Advertised as “open to everyone,” but in reality the organizers didn’t want anyone but their own kids to show up. “God, I forgot about the ‘authentic racer’s lunch.’ ”

Advertisement

“Ladies,” Fern says, dropping her voice. “I’m going to level with you. This clubhouse is only for serious racers. Cars need to be in your blood.”

“And look at us now,” replies Sabrina, dejected. She’s exhausted, cold, and drowning in doubt.

Fern throws a dehydrated yam chip at her. “For fucksakes, Sabrina, stop it. Your school’s going to be so much cooler than PORC. And you,” she says, pointing to Jody, “will be reunited with your beloved and land a good government job. We’ll all get some serious cash and street cred from this.”

Advertisement

Sabrina blushes. “Yeah, and what are you going to do with all that street cred?” she asks.

Advertisement

They’ve asked Fern this a million times, but Fern’s never really answered.

Advertisement

She shrugs.

“You’re so weird,” Jody mumbles.

“I mean it,” says Fern, ignoring her. “Don’t go mopey on me now.”

Later, when her teammates are passed out, Sabrina lies awake, thinking.

No one at PORC ever bothered asking Sabrina how she knew her way around an engine or a machining shop. That Gran also taught her to love the open road, challenges, and how to keep old things together when everything else is falling apart. No one bothered asking why she and her family moved to Philly.

Only Jody and Fern. Over the months they pried out her story. How Sabrina fixed the basement water pumps, but they failed in the hurricane that destroyed her family’s house. How Gran died from pneumonia a month later. How she’s been heartsick ever since.

Advertisement

Her teammates are only ones who know that Sabrina’s risking her life on this stupid, crazy road race to keep what Gran taught her alive.

“Got a response from your great uncle,” Jody announces the next morning. “He’ll be waiting at the Ohio border.”

It’s barely dawn when they pack up the Jeep and do system checks in record time. In the weak morning sun, they make their way down the mountain. Weirdly, driving feels easier today to Sabrina, though there are just as many streams and trees.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Maybe I’m finding my racer’s rhythm, she thinks.

Around Pittsburgh, they sneak across another bridge, this one built for trains, though the upper level is for pedestrians and bikes. It’s still early enough that there are few witnesses. As they cross, a train rumbles and shakes the bridge as it speeds through the lower level, hundreds of cars long.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Her great-uncle Manny is waiting for them on his old electric bike by an ancient, rusty highway sign that says “Welcome to Ohio.”

“Right on time!” he says, laughing. He grabs Sabrina in a bear hug the second she’s out of the Jeep. She hasn’t seen him in years, but the way he talks with his hands is exactly like Gran used to and suddenly Sabrina’s missing her with a fresh fierceness.

She tells him about their adventures as they swap his water jugs and fresh food for the inhalers and cholesterol meds they brought. They give him a good bottle of whiskey. Like how hot air balloonists used to give Champagne to surprised farmers.

“So, why didn’t you move to a city?” Fern asks him suddenly.

Advertisement

“Jesus, Fern,” Jody mutters.

Manny shrugs. “This is home. And someone’s gotta keep an eye on the power lines and aqueducts out here.”

Advertisement

He catches Sabrina right before they leave, pulling her aside. “Hey, sorry to hear about your parents’ place. Know you spent a lot of time helping them rebuild.”

It’s Sabrina’s turn to shrug. “Most of Jersey is a swamp. It was bound to happen, I guess.”

“Yeah, but twice in two years … ”

Sabrina shrugs again and doesn’t meet his eyes. He sticks his hands in his pockets and studies her welding job on Gran’s beloved car.

“Do you think she’d kill me or be proud?” Sabrina asks, biting her lip.

Manny considers. “Probably a bit of both.”

Advertisement

“My family thinks I’m crazy for doing this.”

“You are. But your Gran would expect nothing less of you.”

She feels her cheeks burning. It’s the first vote of confidence Sabrina’s gotten in a while from someone who wasn’t Fern or Jody.

Advertisement

“It’s just for publicity … and the money,” she admits. “I’m going to open a school in Sacramento on how to fix things. Open to everyone, not just car nerds. Thinking of naming it after Gran.”

Manny’s smile lights up his face. “She’d love that.”

Later, as Ohio passes by, mile after mile, Sabrina squares her shoulders like Gran taught her and lets herself relax. Lets herself believe that it’ll be OK. That there are hundreds of people in Sacramento who can use the skills and lessons so patiently handed down to her. That this race is more than a grief reaction.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Because at some point or another, Sabrina figures, everyone’s going to need to know how to rebuild.

Indiana to Nebraska, 700 miles: Jody

There’s always another argument, Jody thinks. Around Indiana, she finally manages to convince Sabrina to let her drive.

“This is my home turf,” Jody says.

“Then what were you doing in Philly?” Sabrina says, tossing Jody the keys. It’s an old argument, a joke between them.

Except, everyone’s always asking Jody: What are you doing in Philly if you hate crowds?

She was following her girlfriend when Zara moved from small town Iowa to Philadelphia.

Now, Zara’s in Sacramento, has been for a year, and Jody’s finally found a way to make the cross-country trip without using a train.

Advertisement

“Any messages from Zara?” she asks as she climbs into the driver’s seat.

Sabrina glances at the Smartpad. “Nope. Not in the five minutes since you checked.”

A bubble of hurt and worry rises up in Jody’s chest, even though she knows the satlink out here is terrible and it’s 6 a.m. in Sacramento. But Zara kept coughing when they talked two days ago. When they had the same old argument.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Seriously? This is your solution for getting here? Zara said as she caught her breath.

Yes! Remember what happened last time? Jody replied, sharper than she meant to.

Some people are just not built for crowds, no matter how hard they try and keep trying.

Advertisement

It’s as if the train is haunting them. Jody hears it as she drives through the wide expanse of abandoned grassland. Its whistle in the distance, the rumble of its hundreds of passenger and supply cars. A steady reminder.

It’s been almost two years since Jody’s been back in Indiana and god, she’s missed it. The unobstructed horizon, the sound of the wind through the grass. The sameness, the calmness. It’s soothing even though she knows that if they break down out here, they might be stranded for days.

“These clouds better clear up,” Sabrina says, frowning at the gray sky and then at the battery meter on Spike.

Jody nods.

I don’t think I can stay here, Zara said to her, 14 months ago. This East Coast mold is killing me.

Advertisement

Jody bites her lip, makes herself focus on the road, not on the past. If they make it through this alive, she’s going to use whatever funds and prestige this race gives her to build a little utopia in Sacramento with thick walls and moisture control. Where Zara will get better and Jody will conquer her fears. Where she won’t get left behind anymore.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Jody drives until she’s bleary-eyed. Then Sabrina takes over. Then Fern.

“My kingdom for smooth asphalt,” Fern says through clenched teeth, as she zigzags around potholes.

Jody keeps her eyes on the Smartpad, adding notes to the maps. She doesn’t rise to the bait. Their Midwestern route was another argument.

Advertisement

Sabrina and Fern advocated for the service road that runs parallel to the train line from Chicago to Omaha. It was rumored to be the only passable road in the area for 300 miles. Jody fought for I-80.

Advertisement

It’s illegal to use the service road and we can’t gather info about the highway if we’re on it, Jody said.

And Jody plans to gather as much data on the highways as possible. It’s a dirty secret of the Great American Road Race—most racers don’t make their living by reinventing old tech and winning the races, but as DOT contractors who provide updated information about infrastructure.

In fact, Jody spent weeks working with a government consultant learning what information would be useful, where, and how to get it. He was impressed with her attention to detail and her knowledge of the Midwest. “Make it through that race alive, and you got yourself a job,” he said.

Advertisement
Advertisement

My kingdom for an allergen-free home and steady work, she thinks.

The useful thing about living outside of major cities most of her life is that Jody still has stubborn friends living along the route. She’s sent them all ETAs, then updated ETAs, and when Spike rolls up, the trio is greeted with excitement. Jody’s pulled into rib-crushing hugs, as Sabrina and Fern exchange antibiotics and first-aid kits for water and updated directions.

“Why haven’t you moved to a city?” Fern asks Jody’s friends. Every single time.

Their answers are all variations of a theme: because they won’t leave someone they love behind. Jody resists yelling at Fern. Yes, cities might be sustainable now, but they’re not for everyone. She’s told her this, but Fern keeps asking for second opinions.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Jody doesn’t pretend to understand Fern.

They reach Plymouth, Indiana, on the fourth day of the race. Jody’s old hometown. She’s almost vibrating with excitement. God, she’s missed her neighbors, the cook fires, the garden-grown meals.

“I’ve never seen you this happy,” says Fern, from the driver’s seat. “About anything.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen me in so much open space,” Jody replies quietly. “Turn left there.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Spike rolls down Main Street, a dirt road that runs between a handful of houses. Jody searches for familiar faces, but slowly her heart sinks.

There are no lights, no fires, no one in the gardens.

She makes Fern stop anyway, Jody knocks on every door, whiskey bottle in hand, hoping against hope. But no one answers. Plymouth has become a ghost town; even the last stubborn holdouts have left.

Advertisement

“Don’t read into it,” Sabrina says as Jody climbs back into the Jeep.

She nods, blinking back tears. But Jody does read into it.

It feels like the world has moved on without her, despite her best efforts to keep up.

The Mississippi River. One of the deadliest obstacles on the Great American Road Race and the point on the map that frightens Jody most. Two years ago, a team drowned while trying to drive across it. Most don’t even attempt to engineer a solution anymore—they just hire a boatman.

“Where’s Ariadne?” Sabrina asks, biting her bottom lip.

Jody’s friend agreed to shuttle them across on her ferry. Except, there’s no one waiting at the riverbank as Spike pulls up.

Advertisement

Oh god, she thinks as she tries to reach Ariadne, but she isn’t answering and no one who does has a spare boat that can fit a Jeep. As Jody makes frantic call after frantic call, she sees Sabrina and Fern quietly prepare for Plan B.

Advertisement
Advertisement

They’ve tested Plan B in the Schuylkill River. But the Mississippi River is much larger and more unpredictable.

A cold knot of dread settles in her stomach as Jody realizes it’s this or turn back.

Can’t go back. Swallowing her fear, Jody helps Sabrina inflate pontoons and secure the inspector bot to the roof. They fold the solar array into the car and hook up a makeshift motorboat rig to the back, connecting it to the steering.

Advertisement

“I’ll drive,” says Sabrina and Jody doesn’t argue. Her hands are shaking.

They sit in silence in the Jeep for a moment at the bank of the river, tense and barely breathing. Then, Sabrina eases Spike into the water.

The current is strong, but the river isn’t as swollen as it would be in the summer months during the floods. Jody can see the opposite shore. It’s not so far.

This isn’t so bad, I can do this, she thought as she boarded the train from Cedar Rapids to Philadelphia. It’s only nine hours.

Sabrina inches deeper, the water rises to the headlights.

“See you soon,” she texted Zara. “Save me a spot in bed.” The train was only half-full, the seats were scruffy but clean. Jody picked a window seat.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Suddenly, Spike lurches, begins to spin with the current, sliding slowly downstream. “Shit!” Sabrina says, turning the wheel, stepping on the accelerator.

“Made it across the Mississippi,” Jody updated Zara an hour later.

“Great! Miss u. See u soon. <3,” she replied.

She was wearing headphones and sunglasses. She was keeping calm and breathing steadily. This was working.

Until the train stopped in Chicago.

For every inch forward, Spike drifts a foot downstream. The water rises to the windshield, the pontoons aren’t enough.

Suddenly, hundreds of people boarded the train. Every seat was taken, the aisle was full of bags. A father and a toddler sat down next to Jody. The child was shrieking, his fingers were sticky, they brushed her cheek.

Advertisement

Jody can’t tell if they’re moving forward or only sideways. The water slaps the windshield, Spike reverberates with the sound. The smell of algae is overpowering.

It was too much. Too many odors, too much body heat. The noise was ear-splitting. There was no room to move, no room to think. It was too much. It was too much.

She has to get out. She has to. Like on the train, even though she knows it’s suicide. It’s either this or suffocate on panic.

Advertisement

She’s reaching for the car door handle when she feels Fern’s hand on her shoulder.

“We’ve come this far,” Fern shouts.

“And we’ll go farther,” Jody whispers. Maybe. Spike is shaking, spinning.

She puts her hands over her ears and her head in her lap and waits for the water to swallow them up, to sweep them away. She waits.

Waits.

Then, she hears Spike’s wheels crunch on shifting silt.

“Holy shit,” Sabrina breathes.

Fern laughs shakily. “That was fucking wild.”

Jody’s trembling too badly to say anything. Instead she texts Zara: Made it across the Mississippi.

Immediately, there’s a response: “Thank god. See u soon. <3”

Jody argues as they check Spike for water damage and deflate the pontoons. The river crossing has cost them three precious hours of daylight.

“We’ve lost too much time,” Sabrina says. “We gotta use the serivce road.”

“It’s still too risky,” Jody counters. They look at Fern.

“Sabrina’s right,” she says, shrugging. “We’ve lost too much time.”

Jody scowls. If they get caught, they might get arrested for trespassing. Still, it’s not the riskiest thing they’ve done today.

They wait until nightfall to sneak onto the service road. Fern breaks the padlock on the gate with bolt cutters and closes it behind them, tying the chains together. Everyone is silent when Jody hits the accelerator, slowly at first, but gaining speed. The road is so smooth and straight, she could cry.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

She hears the train thundering up behind them, then beside them. And Jody finds herself urging Spike faster to keep pace with it. Through the windows, she sees sleeping families and solo travelers bent over bags in their laps. For a moment, it’s like being among them, without the crowds, the smells, the panic, the strain.

Jody rides alongside the train for 1 mile, then 2, longer than she should have, relying on Spike’s reserve batteries to keep pace. But she doesn’t want to slow down or stop. The grasslands she loves whooshes pass and it’s like flying. In the darkness and the roar of the train, Jody laughs.

For the first time in a long time, she’s not being left behind.

Nebraska to California, 1,500 miles: Fern

Fern tries not to get angry. Really, she does. Anger helps no one. Especially Jody and Sabrina, who’ve been in this Jeep with her for six days, and the body odor’s getting intense.

But fuck it, Fern’s angry because they’re on Wyoming’s dilapidated highways and the Rockies are ahead of them and they’re only halfway through this stupid race. And as terrifying as the Mississippi River was, Fern knows it’s the West that kills the most teams.

Advertisement

Whatever, it’s nothing she hasn’t faced before. Fern’s been a nomad all her life and not the cozy, hopping-from-small-community-to-small-community type that Jody was. No, Fern spent most of her childhood scrounging, watching seedings die, wondering where the next source of clean water would be. Some days she’s not convinced they can accomplish anything in this wrecked world.

Sabrina takes over for the mountain driving and Fern’s happy to let her. She focuses on the inspector bot’s readouts instead, refusing to watch the landscape change from green wilds to steep mountains to desert.

Advertisement

It’ll be desert from here on out.

It takes a day and a half to get across Wyoming on the damaged highways. And on the seventh day of the race, they reach Salt Lake City. The city itself is huge with dizzying skyscrapers, surrounded by agriculture and greenhouses. It’s smaller than Fern remembers, though maybe that’s because she’s not a kid anymore and has seen other cities now. But Salt Lake was like Eden to her growing up. Clean, livable, unreachable. Now, though …

Fern doesn’t know how she feels about it now.

Advertisement
Advertisement

They meet up with a farmer who knew Fern’s dad and trade two bottles of whiskey for all the water they can carry.

Salut, man, she thinks. Pour one out for us when we’re gone.

She doesn’t watch the farm disappear in the rearview mirror.

We can tough it out here, kiddo, her dad used to say. You’ll see.

The highway’s surprisingly smooth between Salt Lake and Nevada. But Fern doesn’t trust it. She keeps pinging the inspector bot, pestering Jody to update her maps, nagging Sabrina to pay attention.

“Fern, chill,” says Sabrina. “What’s going on with you?”

“I’m on edge,” she says, honestly.

“Yeah, we’ve noticed,” mumbles Jody.

Fern bites back a snarky reply. Jody and Sabrina are the first friends she’s had in years. She’s trying not to wreck that too.

By the time they reach Nevada, they’ve been in Spike for eight days with 800 miles left to go. The land becomes drier and drier and drier. It was always a desert, but now not even cacti grow.

There’s nothing to see, she thinks as she refuses to study the landscape. All that’s left is the dried husks of things.

Advertisement
Advertisement

For example, Merris Point. A town with a handful of shacks and one proper building. Someone decorated the “Welcome” sign once, but it’s dust-covered and faded now.

“Jesus, you lived here?” Sabrina asks, looking at Fern in the rearview, her eyes going wide.

Fern wouldn’t call it living exactly. She’d learned a lot about Jody and Sabrina’s lives over these past 10 months working on Spike. But she told them as little as possible about hers. Mostly that she was originally from nowhere Nevada and had been city-hopping before landing in Philly.

Because childhood stories about scraping by in the desert don’t win you friends.

Vultures, that’s what they called Fern and her dad.

“Don’t stop here,” Fern says. Spike accelerates a little and for that small kindness, Fern’s grateful.

Everything goes to hell on the 10th day when they see the obnoxiously blue trophy truck in a ditch in the middle of Nevada.

“Oh my god, is that … ?” Jody starts.

“Johnny Shit’s car,” Sabrina finishes.

The front end of the truck is a crumpled mess and the windshield is smashed, but there’s no one around, not even footprints. No food or water or tools either. Just a little blood in the driver’s seat.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“There’s no bandits out here, right, Fern?” Jody asks. Fern’s poking around in the hood.

“Only scavengers,” she says, inspecting the engine. “Looks like the road collapsed on them.” She nods at the crumpled asphalt.

Jody insists on searching the area on foot. Sabrina joins her, but Fern doesn’t bother. In her opinion, those jackasses aren’t worth leaving Spike alone. Instead she takes the wiring and adaptable engine parts from the truck. She’s not surprised when her friends come back alone.

Advertisement

“I hope they found help,” Jody says, quietly, as they pile back into the Jeep.

They don’t say anything for miles and miles.

Fern’s hyperfocused on the inspector bot’s readouts. She saw what happened to Johnny Shit, she knows things aren’t always what they seem out here.

“Road ahead is solid,” Fern says. “Just go slow.”

The road wasn’t solid.

Fern hears something cracking. And before Sabrina can react, they are falling.

Spike clatters and crashes as the road beneath them collapses.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Fern says, when Spike finally stops moving. Not bothering to check herself for injuries, she hauls ass out of the car. She sees the solar array in back, bent at an unnatural angle. Two of the tires have gone flat. And then she sees the hood. Wedged against a piece of asphalt practically folded in two.

“We can fix this,” Sabrina says as she jams her shaking hands under the hood. “We can. We can.”

But Fern knows better. It doesn’t take them long to realize that the scariest thing has happened.

Spike’s battery is crushed.

“How?” Sabrina says, hanging up the phone after the fifth time not getting through to anyone for help. It was a long shot anyway.

“I don’t know,” Fern says. She wants to scream. The inspector bot was her responsibility. She was being so careful, but she screwed up anyway. If they make it through this alive, Fern swears she’s going to make it up to Jody and Sabrina. Somehow.

“We really did need to make it to the finish line,” Jody says, head in her hands. “DOT only pays a fraction for incomplete routes.”

“Fuck the money,” Fern says through clenched teeth.

“Then why the hell are you even here?” shouts Jody. Fern blinks, surprised. She didn’t think quiet Jody could shout. And then something in her snaps.

Advertisement

“Because I have to,” Fern shouts back. “Because I needed to know it’s possible to do the impossible in this shitty half-dead Earth. What the fuck is the point otherwise?”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Jody and Sabrina stare at her. That’s not the answer they expected, Fern realizes. Quickly, she turns around, so she doesn’t see their expressions. So they don’t see hers.

“I’m going to try to call Sacramento’s club people again,” Sabrina says and drifts away.

After a few minutes, Jody whispers, “Oh god, there’s no way out of here, is there?”

“I think I can help you out,” says a voice from behind them.

It takes Fern a second to understand what she’s seeing. It’s a car. A weird ass car. There’s a man in the driver’s seat of a rusted, hollowed-out Ford four-wheel drive pulled by two Robomules. Like the ones used on farms.

“What the hell?” Fern says.

The man grins. “I’m Edan. The Great American Road Race’s dirty secret.”

“They sent you?” Jody asks.

“No, I sent myself. There’s always a handful of teams that crash around here. Like that other team a few miles back. Was going to get their car now,” he waves at the back of the truck and Fern notices the hitch. “But since I’m here … can I give you ladies a ride?”

Advertisement

The three friends all glance at each other. “Yes, please.”

His truck is hot in the bright sun, but at least he hasn’t lived in it for a week. Deftly, he maneuvers his Robomules around the collapsed part of the road to Spike. Within an hour, their Jeep’s hooked up to the back of the truck and they’re on the move again.

Advertisement

Edan drives like he’s done this a million times, off-roading sometimes only to direct the Mules back on the road 100 feet later.

“Haven’t seen you ladies before,” he says, when the silence gets weird.

“First-time racers,” Sabrina replies.

“You going to make a career out of this?” he asks.

They all shake our heads violently in unison. Shit, Fern thinks. We’ve been stuck together for too long.

“One and done,” he nods approvingly. “Good.”

Neither Sabrina, Fern, nor Jody tell him they have no idea what the hell they’re going to do now that the finish line is as good as gone. So much for their hopes and dreams.

Fern feels sick.

“Do you know why our inspector bot failed?” she asks, as he swerves off the road yet again.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“The heat from the pavement throws off its readings,” he says. “Happens to at least one team every year.”

“Which is why you’re out here,” Sabrina says. Edan gives her a two-finger salute.

“So, um, where are we going?” asks Jody, timidly.

Edan nods up the road. “I live there.”

Edan’s house is in the mountains on the border between Nevada and California. It would have been paradise to Fern as a kid. A wooden ranch with solar panels, a vertical garden, a well, and a large building to the side that he calls a garage. He lets them into the house and settles himself in a wheelchair by the front door. He shrugs at Fern’s unasked question. “Don’t ask me to walk more than a hundred steps a day.”

“Where’s the other team?” Sabrina asks.

“Oh those assholes. Had a mate pick them up. Not even a thank-you.”

Somehow, without actually talking about it, the three of them silently agreed to postpone the phone call to the Reinvention Club to say they’re out of the race and start cooking dinner instead.

Advertisement

Shit, we really have been spending too much time together, Fern thinks. She’s sick of lentils and dried yams, but Edan relishes it. He does most of the talking too, telling them stories about different teams that bit the dust over the years.

Advertisement

“Sounds like there’s no good way to Sacramento,” says Jody, slumping. Fern bites the inside of her cheek, knowing how much it kills them to be stuck 60 miles from the finish line.

“Oh you can use the old highways, you just need to be quick and lucky,” he says and winks. “Or … you can find yourself a local who can tell you which spots to avoid.”

“Will you?” Jody asks, Edan nods and she brings over her SmartPad and for the next 30 minutes, they sit shoulder to shoulder, routing, annotating and planning backup routes.

“Won’t even need your inspector bot,” finishes Edan.

“All we need now is a working car,” says Sabrina, miserably. There are tears in her eyes, which freaks Fern out. Sabrina never cries.

“You tell no one,” Edan says, suddenly serious. “But I think I have most of the parts you need in the garage.” He leads them there, and Fern’s shocked to learn he’s right. It’s full of tools and scrap materials.

“We still need a battery,” Jody says.

“Well, we have one,” Fern says. “In Spike’s trunk.” She adds when her friends stare blankly.

“We didn’t bring an extra battery,” says Sabrina.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“No, but Johnny Shit wasn’t using his anymore,” Fern says, then shrugs. “What? I took it when you two were looking for bodies. We just … didn’t have a way to replace it before now.”

Once a vulture, always a vulture, Fern supposes. Only way to survive out here.

Advertisement

Suddenly, Sabrina’s sprinting toward Spike. Then, Jody. Leaving Fern swearing and running to catch up. Behind them, she hears Edan laugh and laugh.

They work all night.

But around midnight Fern sneaks away and finds Edan sitting on his porch. “Here, this is for you,” she says, handing him a bottle of whiskey. “Our last one.”

“I knew you ladies were worth helping.”

Fern laughs and sits next to him. The night air is cool and dry. She forgot how much she loves desert nights. “I used to live out here, you know. My dad was convinced he could be this self-sufficient frontiersman. Spent a lot of time watching sprouts that were supposed to be our food die.”

“Hell, I know those types. Kudos for making it out alive.”

From anyone else, that would’ve been condescending, but from Edan, Fern took for the compliment it was.

“So, why didn’t you move into the city?” she asks.

Advertisement

Edan sighs. “I tried, but these refashioned cities did a crap job designing for wheelchairs.”

“I tried too,” she admits. “I tried five different ones when I left my dad. I like them, but I don’t know.” Ferns pauses. “Is it weird I feel like I belong out here?” she asks.

“No,” Edan replies.

“I think I’ve been looking for a reason to come back,” she admits.

They don’t say anything for a minute. Or maybe five.

Eventually Edan says: “I go to Sacramento almost every week these days. It’s easier to get around now that so many people have lung damage from smoke and mold. I built myself something great here, but I don’t want to be here all the time.”

“So you’re a part-time urbanite, part-time road guardian or whatever?”

Advertisement

“Why not? There’s no such thing as a self-sufficient frontiersman, just ones with access to some friends and a good hardware store.”

Fern blinks at him, stunned. Growing up, there were no in-betweens in the desert. Only terrible choices and impossible dreams.

“If you can get on the road tomorrow,” Edan says, after a beat. “You might win this thing. Word is no one’s made it to Sacramento yet.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Winning. Them. All those assholes at PORC thought they wouldn’t survive. Fuck it, suddenly Fern wants to do the impossible and beat them too.

Before she sprints off the porch, she turns back to Edan.

“Hey, are there other places around here that need road guardians?”

Edan raises an eyebrow. “You have no idea.”

Fern’s behind the wheel when the sun comes up. Spike looks beat up, but Sabrina worked her magic and they’re all moving forward again, a little slower 11 days and one crash later. Jody’s route is gravelly and bumpy as hell, but there are no surprises. Jody and Sabrina are passed out, sleeping with their mouths open like little kids, and Fern cracks up quietly every time she looks over.

For the first time in 2,800 miles, she isn’t angry or scared or trying to hold herself or her friends together. For the first time in years, she knows where to go and how to get there.

Sure, things aren’t great in this shitty, half-dead Earth. Yet you limp along, you struggle, you rebuild. You keep trying until you can’t. Then, you try again.

Being the only one awake, Fern sees it first. “Guys, guys, hey, hey, hey! Look!” she shouts, slapping Sabrina’s knee.

“What?” Sabrina asks, barely conscious. In back, Jody rubs her eyes.

Advertisement

“Look, it’s what we want.” Fern says and points. A school, a reunion, a purpose for sticking it out. “There.”

Sacramento’s skyline is rising up to meet them against the hilly background.

Like an impossible dream.

Read a response essay by Damien Williams, an expert on the social and cultural implications of technology.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement