“Back where you started. Here we go round again.”
Sometimes the satellite radio knows the exact song to play.
The headlights on my beat-up old Mustang project a dim yellow glow into the morning fog. Moisture slides through the air, finding its way into the car through the leak in the cloth top. It’s been a long time since I have driven this car in the rain, back before the odometer cracked 150,000.
Ahead, I can just make out the tattered green marker reading “mile 37” in faded white letters. I slide the car all the way down to first gear and ride the yellow line on my right, following it off of County Route 201, until it ends on a poorly packed dirt road. The danger of bottoming out with the extra couple hundred pounds in my trunk leaves me worried about whether the tires will survive. Thankfully, in about a mile, the road changes to a smooth blacktop. On firmer ground now, I grind the clutch and nudge the stuttering engine back into second gear.
A large sign reading “Welcome to Ashford-Beta, a TWIN-MURALS project” greets me on the edge of town. The original plan was to call it New Ashford, until someone pointed out that there already was a New Ashford. Leave it to the science geeks to choose the Beta option.
MURALS (the Modernize, Upgrade and Reinvigorate Ashton Living Society) started off as a cadre of furloughed environmental engineers and one architectural history major. Their original goal was to bring Ashford into the modern world of advanced infrastructure while maintaining a link to its past beauty. To do this, they needed to gather tremendous amounts of detailed information about the city and its buildings, some of which people were less than willing to provide.
TWIN (Townsend Women in Nanotechnology) was a group of techies from a nearby town that focused on making the first self-replicating, self-sustaining, programmable nanobots. Their long-term goal was inexpensive space exploration, but first they needed to perfect the bots themselves. That required a smaller and more local testing ground. And one that preferably didn’t include their designs being blown up in rockets or used as weapons.
Together, they created a partnership that would lead to some amazing breakthroughs. And the depletion of Ashton’s budgetary funds.
Ashton-Beta is still here, in all its glory, one of the biggest boondoggles of its time. Made not only to solve a problem, but to allow us to make what was already great even better. “Maintain the best and improve the rest” was the project’s motto. Certainly, a few people ended up with their lives improved, mostly those that got paid a lot of money. It ended up worse than worthless to the rest of the original Ashton residents.
The streets here are empty of people. The houses and stores hold only relics of the past, too old to be useful, too recent to be retro cool yet. All this effort, all this work, all this money. Just a giant empty shell now, though it’s still a marvel to see.
I take a slow left off Main Street and up towards the South End, heading home.
By early spring of 2033, it was clear to most of its residents that the city of Ashford was in significant trouble. Roads were deteriorating faster than usual. Several buildings had collapsed under the previous winter’s snow. Sewer pipes had broken next to the downtown park. Everything appeared to be falling apart, mostly because it actually was.
The underlying problem was brought about by an accident the previous summer that no one really wanted to talk about. It doesn’t matter how it happened anyway, or whose fault it was. The responsible parties are beyond reach now, scattered or dissolved.
The impact of the event might best be described as an inverse neutron bomb. Simply put, a neutron bomb is a radiation weapon made to affect only living things, killing them while leaving the non-living structures around them intact. In contrast, the Ashford disaster released a mutating enzyme that generally affected only non-living things, slowly removing their stability until they collapsed inward. Living creatures and plants were able to fight off the slow mutation and survive. For the resident people in Ashford, exposure appeared as a nasty skin rash that lasted about a week. The pets and livestock carried on as normal other than some general fatigue. The trees, plants, and grasses merely showed early signs of turning fall colors.
The radius of effect was roughly circular in shape, and perfectly encompassed the entire city. The fact that the spread stopped at the city limits was seen as both a blessing and a curse, depending on whether or not you were a resident.
Once the city council realized what was happening, they put out a call for help from all corners. The TWIN-MURALS Alliance was one of the first to raise their hand. Their extensive data collection already in place astounded and scared the council members, but the Alliance’s plan intrigued enough of the public to start a movement. That data meant that the construction of a new Ashton could begin right away, and held the promise that the faulty mutation would not be repeated there, which was a stroke of luck. With this hope, significant additional funding was made available. All of it really. Everything the city had, and everything the residents could part with, went towards the Alliance’s plan. The fear of loss, and promises of maintaining the status quo in a time of turbulence, were great motivators.
The house is still just as I remember it: white brick front, old-fashioned antenna attached to the chimney, a/c unit coming out of my bedroom window. I park the mustang in its old spot in the right-hand side of the carport, and the engine sputters and goes still.
Home. Here I am. And here it is, still the same, as if I had never left, if a little overgrown. I grab my briefcase from the passenger seat and let myself out, coming face to face with a five foot tall weed. Okay, things are very overgrown. But it’s still home. The house key is behind the shutter as always, and I let myself in the side door into the kitchen.
There is bottled water in the fridge, as there always was, and I twist one open on my way to my den. I set the briefcase on the desk and open it. The business section of yesterday’s news stares out at me from my tablet with the headline “Whistleblower in Financial Fraud Case Goes Missing”. Beneath the tablet is my broken iPod which contrasts sharply with a modern laptop and an electronic actuarial notebook. So much information in so many forms. I close the case gently and leave it in place.
It’s been a long few days, and my clothes are a mess of sweat and oil stains. I’m sure I must reek, though I seem to have gone nose blind to my own scent. I strip down, leaving the clothes on the floor, and jump in the shower, ridding myself of the last 72 hours’ worth of grime. Then I towel off and collapse on the bed, staring at the ceiling and breathing in the memories.
“And you think today is going to be better / Change the world and do it again / Give it all up and start all over / You say you will but you don't know when.”
The Alliance’s final plan, dubbed Gemini, was fully funded within two days. The plan was simple in concept, if not in execution. The nanobots were upgraded from observers to creators and programmed with a new set of coordinates. They were tasked with outputting everything they had previously input in an unpopulated area of the state. First, the land would be rebuilt in the exact image of Ashford, complete with hills and lakes. Then the infrastructure, roads, and buildings would follow, all identical to the current city. In the end, the only thing that would need to move would be the people and animals and a few lucky plants. Then Ashford would be razed, cleaned of the mutation, and rebuilt again. All outdated technologies could be improved on, and capacity left for further advances. A chance for the city to come back from this tragedy as a true modern wonder. A perfect duplicate Beta home, leading to an even better upgraded real one.
Unbeknownst to the Alliance, however, the nanobots had not only mapped out the structures, they had gathered data on everything within the city limits, down to the submicroscopic level. Well, anything that didn’t move while being scanned at least; they had been programmed to ignore living things.
Sleeping naked is amazingly refreshing. I feel relaxed now and reinvigorated. Fourteen hours of sleep will do that. I grab some of my old clothes from the dresser (good thing I lost that weight I had gained) and a pair of sneakers from the closet. While I am in there, I pop open the fire safe and pull out the sizable roll of $20 bills I keep inside and stash half of them in my pocket. Then I grab my briefcase from the desk on my way out, a small thrill running through me as I feel how light it feels.
In the end, project Gemini cost the city tens of millions of dollars, took too long, and solved nothing. Before Ashton-Beta could be completed, the original Ashton’s underground infrastructure collapsed and the area was reduced to rubble. Most locals left while they could, purchasing replacements for everything as soon as they got out of town. Clothes, cars, computers, even dentures had to be replaced. In a matter of months, nothing that was in Ashton at the time of the accident remained.
What eventually became Ashton-Beta had its own problems. The first Ashton residents to arrive noticed that any home improvements they made disappeared in hours. A fixed broken window might at best last a day. The nanobots were continually creating a perfect copy of Ashton, exactly as it was, without recognition of good or bad. And no meddling residents would keep them from their purpose. And if you weren’t from Ashton? Well, in short order you were left with nothing: no car, no phone, not even the clothes you wore on your way into town.
There would be no upgrades. There would be no new technology. There was no moving forward.
There is no future in Ashton-Beta. It will never change.
The day is over, but the warmth remains, and my Mustang waits patiently for me. I pop the back and toss the briefcase into the empty trunk. Then I think better of it and open the case to scoop up its lone occupant, my now pristine iPod. I make a mental note to remember to buy a new tablet when I get home.
Back in the driver’s seat, I jack the iPod into the car stereo, then start the engine. The Mustang hums like a thoroughbred. Oh, how I’ve missed this. I drop the top and back out of the driveway, leaving home once more. As I hit Main Street, I push the car easily into fourth gear, leaning into the curves on the sleek blacktop. Just before the odometer reaches a mere 17,000 miles, I come to the edge of town. I slow down unnecessarily out of habit before I hit the dirt road, not yet used to the now unburdened rear suspension. Heading out to the 201, a sign reflects brightly back at me and I salute it on the way by, promising I will come back. Again. And again.
“Now leaving Ashton-Beta – Your perfect home away from home.”
“Back where you started, come on do it again, do it again...”
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