Across the Border
A story about the distances technology fails to bridge.
There are some borders technology cannot help us cross. In today's dispatch, Sahil Lavingia the founder and CEO of Gumroad, paints us a future that demonstrates why. Enjoy. -the ed
Matthew lifted his foot off the gas pedal, inching the car forward. The re-entry point was only a few hundred feet away, but at this pace it would take upwards of an hour. Past the border it was just another five hours until he would be home and asleep in his own bed.
But for now, Matthew was an uncomfortable combination of tired and restless. His car’s self-driving functionality would be disabled until he crossed the border, so he couldn’t take a nap or disappear into a vid. He was also out of signal range, and sick of every song saved locally. So he waited in silence, crawling forward, just a few dozen cars to go.
Your connection has been restored, his car spoke to him, while text flashed on the windshield to accompany it. Please verify your identity.
A week before, Matthew’s car hurtled down the last stretch of US space. Vanessa’s messages remained unread on the windshield:
C u in three weeks?
I miss u
Cya soon…. rite?
R u coming or not?
I love u
Got an A in MoBio!!
I hate u
“Call Vanessa,” Matthew said.
“Hello?” Came her voice. “Where are you dad? You’re not coming, are you?”
“I’m not sweetie. I’m not.” He steeled himself for her reaction.
“Why?” She croaked.
“I got called to help set up a hospital. I dreaded telling you...”
“It’s not that hard to text.”
“Why’d it have to be now? I haven’t seen you since...” Her voice trailed off.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s just not fair!”
“Dad, let me–”
Your connection has been terminated.
Self-driving capabilities are now disabled.
Welcome to BajaX.
“Matthew Johnson,” he said, uttering his passphrase, “yellow monkeys play guitar.”
Identity verified. United State Citizen. You have fifteen-thousand four-hundred and two unread emails… Three unread messages… One missed call.
“Filter, messages from Vanessa.”
Hellooooooooooo? Vanessa’s messages flashed up on the windshield in grand white text, shoving the rest of the interface aside. R u dead???
Matthew sighed, rejecting the option to send the emoji that corresponded to his body language. He knew how that conversation would go. Tomorrow, he resolved, after he had slept in a real bed and taken a hot shower.
Instead, he looked out the windshield, up at the glossy black wall that towered over him and stretched out in both directions. Its monolithic surface hid a city that blazed with changing hues, burning neon and shafts of multicolored light.
On this side of the border, among the dusty, cracked streets of Bajax, a very different kind of economy endured. People of all ages embraced their final chance to sell food, souvenirs, and last-minute gifts to homeward tourists. A girl walked by, arms wrapped around a forest of perishable flowers. A woman came by and commanded her robots to start cleaning the side of Matthew’s car. Unlike the ones he had at home, these robots were rusty and squeaked as their joints moved. Matthew waved them away without success. They scrubbed the whole side of the car and scurried onto the hood of his car before Matthew rolled down the window and said firmly, “I’m not paying.”
She looked him in the eyes and said, “Who asked you?”
Matthew smirked and gave her a few pesos. Bad idea; it seemed everyone in a forty-car radius had seen the glint of metal and started to descend upon his car.
A boy who must have been less than ten stood in front of his car and juggled five (then six and seven) balls up in the air, occasionally dropping them like a robot wouldn’t. A man sat atop a hovering cart stirring a vat of neon-yellow churros, keeping pace alongside Matthew’s car.
Matthew had had enough. Of churros, and everything else. He rolled back up his windows, stared forward, and tried to sink back into his own mind. Eventually the crowd dissipated, refocusing on the other cars.
A small boy tapped on his window with his fingernails. “Hola,” he said.
Matthew kept his gaze aimed forward.
The boy pressed a crisp white envelope up against the window. Scrawled on it: HELP.
He shook his head at the boy. “No more pesos. What about a churro?”
The boy laughed. “Not hungry,” he said, patting his stomach. “Just need help. I need to get this letter to my abuela.”
“Can’t call her?”
“My abuelo wrote this letter. It’s the only way he can communicate with my abuela. He was deported fifteen years ago, and it’s illegal for him to communicate with anyone inside the US. Holo, vidcall, phone, they block everything we try… everything except letters.”
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said, “but I need to go home. I haven’t slept in a real bed in weeks. Could you ask somebody else?”
“Okay,” the boy said, “but you’re the only one going back to Orgone.” He pointed at the cars in front of him. “Lower California. Lower California. New Colorado. Zion. Upper–”
Matthew looked ahead, at the slow-moving string of cars before him. “Where is he?”
“He can barely walk. He can’t speak English. Please?”
Matthew’s car vibrated gently. Vanessa is calling.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said, rolling up the window. He grimaced as he tapped the phone icon on the dash. “Hi, Van.”
“How are you?” Vanessa asked urgently. “Why didn’t you call?”
“Fine. I’m fine.”
“Are you angry at me?”
“I’m not angry,” Matthew sighed. I was just sleeping on a cot in the sweltering heat for the past three weeks. “I’m just... tired.”
“How’s school?” Matthew interjected. He did not need to know his ex-wife triumphed over him in yet another metric.
“School’s good, dad. How was the work trip? Was it worth it?”
Matthew sighed. Just good? Could she elaborate? “Are you done with your college essays?”
“No, Dad. I’ve been busy–”
“Nothing’s as important as college, Van.”
“Grades, Dad! Which also matter!”
“Don’t shout, Van.”
“Dad. I haven’t talked to you in weeks. You were supposed to be here, in person. For my birthday, remember? For all I know, you could have been dead. And now all you want to do is tell me college is important. No shit, I’m the one applying!”
“Well, I care about your long-term happiness.”
“Could you try caring about my short-term happiness for once? You’re never there for me. You were never there for Mom either. You’re so selfish. Ugh!”
Vanessa has hung up.
Matthew rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration. There was a tapping at his window again, and he looked to his left to see the same boy with a pleading look on his face. He rolled down the window. “Where does your grandmother live?”
The boy flipped over the envelope. The address was clearly marked. The town was a few hours east of where Matthew lived; he had been there for a wedding.
Matthew took one last look at the boy. Selfish? He looked forward to telling Van about delivering the letter. “Give me the letter.”
An hour later and Matthew was through the crossing. Every bag–even the churros–had been turned inside out and back again. They had swabbed around the wheels and inside the hood and in every other nook and cranny they could find. His car was doused with a disinfectant that caused it to smell faintly like a swimming pool. The letter was flagged by the scanner, but Matthew defended it as evidence for work, flashing his government ID badge. Finally, the lights turned green and his car became autonomous.
Matthew’s pill of a car shot up the PacCoast in the black of night, hurtling past trees that blurred together. The only light came from the pulsating lane dividers. The drive wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. At least his car was toasty, and he had his music back.
His daughter’s face glowed green on the windshield, indicating that she was still awake. All he’d have to do was speak, or tap; but if he did that, they would get into an argument and he wouldn't even be able to sleep. Instead, he reclined his car seat and watched the stars and satellites move across the sky, trying to figure out which one was which.
Your destination is on your right, Matthew’s car said as the door slid up. A light yellow townhouse framed with squared-off bushes. He kneeled down to slip the letter under the door.
“Hello,” came a voice from above, and Matthew almost fell backwards.
An old lady stood in the doorway, propping herself up with a cane. Her skin was wrinkled like a prune. “I’m Sabrina, Alejandro’s grandmother.”
How did she know I was coming? Matthew spun around, paranoid. Was this a trap? He had knowingly helped a family break the law. He handed her the letter. “I should go,” he said.
“No no no,” she said. “You should come in.”
“Sorry, but I really think I should just go home and sleep. I’m not thinking straight.”
“Hello,” a voice echoed from behind Sabrina.
“He would certainly love it if you came in,” Sabrina said, stepping aside.
“I don’t think–” Matthew’s breath caught. There was the boy. Right in the middle of the living room.
“How did you get here?” Matthew asked. Something was off. Was he wearing different clothes? Alejandro was shaking. No, shimmering. He saw the lights now, coming down from the corners of the ceiling.
“I’m a hologram,” the boy shouted. He stepped forward and attempted to grab his grandmother’s hand.
“You didn’t tell him?” Sabrina asked.
“If I told him,” Alejandro said, “he wouldn’t have said yes.”
“Explain,” Sabrina said, crossing her arms, “and apologize.”
“I’m allowed to holo across the border because I’m a citizen,” Alejandro said. “I was born here. Without me, we couldn’t deliver the letters. My abuelo is too old to do it himself.”
“But why bother with the letters at all,” Matthew asked. “If you can holo?”
“Why don’t you come in, Matthew?” Sabrina said. “It’s cold out.”
“You don’t say no to abuela,” Alejandro said.
They sat around a sparse dining table, and Matthew sipped at a cup of steaming tea, his legs fidgeting under the table as Sabrina read the letter in silence. He watched her eyes, but they betrayed nothing.
“Thank you,” she said finally, folding up the letter carefully.
“You’re welcome,” Matthew replied awkwardly. “And I’m sorry, for what our country did to you.”
“My daughter’s asleep, upstairs,” Sabrina said, waving the comment away. “Alejandro is hers.” She let one hand rest next to the letter, and the boy’s image grasped at it as much as it could. “He was born here, but he spends the summers with my husband. It’s important for him to understand where he came from.”
“I could just watch a vid,” the boy grumbled.
“Believe me dear, I would love to run my hands through your real hair,” she said, stroking the virtual representation. Alejandro tried to shake her off, then feigned defeat and laid down in her lap. “Without him,” Sabrina said, “we would have lost touch long ago. You’re right, of course. While the government does not allow my husband to holo, Alejandro could act as our conduit. But our relationship is... sacred. There are parts of it no one else deserves to know. Not Alejandro, the government, credit profilers, you. For that purpose, only the letters suffice.” Matthew nodded, tried to stop fidgeting.
“Of course we would prefer to talk all the time,” she continued. “But we’ve discovered there is a magic to writing. It’s never too much too quick. Sometimes we used to hate each other. We couldn’t stand talking to each other. But a letter… I’m never angry at him when I’m done writing a letter. Not once, in fifteen years. My anger can never make it all the way down the length of my arm and onto the paper. You must understand.”
“I have a daughter,” Matthew said. “I haven't seen her in two years, since the divorce. But we're in the same country. We could visit each other.”
“You should give it a try,” Sabrina said. She pushed herself up against the table, gripping her cane tightly with one hand. “Here, I’ll walk you out.”
Matthew couldn’t get to sleep, even though it was almost four in the morning. His daughter’s face still glowed green on the windshield. He swiveled the seat around to face an empty desk and reached underneath to pick out a clean sheet of paper. It took him a minute to find a pen, hidden at the very back of the drawer; rolling it between his fingers, he realized it had never been used.
Sahil Lavingia is the founder and CEO of Gumroad, an all-in-one e-commerce solution for creators. He writes speculative fiction and paints en plein air.