She's not paying attention, is the problem. Not to the road at least - her focus squarely fixed on the mess of ideas currently packed tightly into her brain, sardine-style. It's not until she's entering Sunnyvale and spots the familiar green-and-red-stripe awning of the little taco place she likes that it dawns on Cameron that she's driving in the wrong fucking direction.
Sat behind a garbage truck at a stop sign, her hands grip the steering wheel hard and give it a quick, frustrated shake. After she'd pulled out of the diner her thoughts had started coming at her at warp-speed. She must've gotten so wrapped up in them that she'd managed to take a wrong turn almost instantly, which is sort of impressive given the map laid out on the dash mere inches from her face.
The map had been a compromise. Originally, she'd entertained this grand romantic notion of picking a direction and just driving. No map, no plan, no destination. She would just head vaguely East and let the road take her where it would take her. That whole see-where-the-wind-blows-me type of deal.
When she'd floated this by Bos he'd levelled her with a flat stare. "Uh-huh. That's a fine idea, Cam." He'd said, deadpan. "And when should I expect the call tellin' me you been found lost in the damn desert picked clean by buzzards? At least take a goddamn map."
She'd taken the goddamn map.
At Bos's insistence she'd also been gifted a baggie of peanut M&Ms (for sustenance), a roll of quarters ("for a payphone in an emergency not vending machines, you hear?"), sunblock and a canister of bear spray that bordered on the comically-large side. All this struck her as a little over the top (she's driving through the Midwest after all, not trekking through the Russian tundra) but then something about Bos's tone had told her it wasn't up for negotiation so she'd dutifully stuffed it all in the glove box.
He had gotten this weird, watery look on his face around the time she'd been packing up the last of her stuff and Cameron had been afraid he might do something awful like start crying, so she'd nodded in all the right places while he'd imparted his wisdom on the finer points of road safety and resisted the urge to argue when he'd insisted on double-checking the tire pressure and changing the oil in her truck even though she'd just done all that the day before.
Cameron tried to find his heavy-handed fatherly routine irritating, but mostly it had just put a golfball-sized lump in her throat that had sat lodged stubbornly long after they'd said their final goodbyes.
Anyway, it's not like it hurts to be sure that her truck isn't going to immediately crap out on her. And now she's glad she took the map, although it'd be embarrassing to have use it before she's even left the state. If she can ever manage to get out of this godforsaken state.
Seriously, this past 24 hours has been one improbable stumbling block after another. Literally - the smell of chlorine is still lingering in her hair after that mortifying tumble into the pool. She's already a full day behind schedule and now she's actually managed to get further away from her destination than she was an hour ago. Because even getting out of the zip code is a Herculean task, apparently. At this rate, a hydra will cheerfully pop its nine writhing heads out of the Bay and cut off access to the highway. Or there'll be a sphinx lurking at the state line with some bullshit cryptic riddle for her to solve. Or, wait. Was that Oedipus?
It's possible she's mixing up her mythology. And maybe being a little melodramatic. But Jesus H. Christ it is getting a little ridiculous now.
Case in point: she's been waiting at this stop sign for what seems like an eternity. Cameron drums her fingers on the steering wheel then glances in the rear-view to see nothing but the hulking silver mass of the Airstream looming behind her.
Oh, right. That.
Seat belt digging into her ribs, she twists in her seat and sticks her head out of the open window to get a good look at the road. It's early afternoon still, the streets aren't quite jam-packed yet. She's half-considering attempting a U-turn when a big, shiny convertible pulls up right beside her. Top down, bass-heavy dance music pounding out of the speakers. A balding guy in dark sunglasses nods along in the driver's seat.
Scowling, Cameron ducks her head back inside the truck and hesitates. Her insurance premiums are already through the roof without adding side-swiping some wiener's mid-life-crisis-mobile on top. The garbage truck in front haltingly inches forward as Cameron grits her teeth and resigns herself to her fate - she's going to have to circle back.
One positive is that by the time she's fought her way back through what feels like every single red light in San Jose and managed to hit the highway her head is a lot clearer. In fact, her mind feels elastic - like it's expanding, stretching out. Hurrying to make space for big ideas growing fast.
It's been a while, so it takes her a moment to recognise the feeling for what it is: actual, honest-to-god inspiration.
Her mind has been racing since the diner, Donna's big speech having left her feeling keyed up over a project in a way she hasn't really been since Pilgrim. She'd felt the stirrings of it playing around with her self-learning AI stuff - there had been some real enthusiasm there, at least for a little while. But after Alexa had been decidedly underwhelmed by the whole endeavour Cameron had eventually lost interest and consigned it to the scrapheap.
It's like, even though Alexa had basically given her a blank check and told her to go do whatever-the-hell she wanted it had still felt like a job. A job she could do in her underwear from the comfort of her own kitchen table maybe, but a job nonetheless.
Historically, computers have never really felt like work to Cameron, even when she was running herself ragged at Mutiny or frenetically churning out four games in four years for Atari. Computers had always felt like more of an obsessive hobby she sometimes got compensated for. Something she got to do rather than had to do.
This idea of Donna's has that kind of obsession written all over it. Whether she knows it or not Donna has given Cameron something impossibly precious, in that she has hit upon a problem.
A big, messy, beautiful problem.
Hosting personal web pages. How are they going to do that? As far as she's aware there's nobody else doing it, so they are headed straight into uncharted territory. There's no blueprint to follow, no model to work from. They'll have to figure everything out from scratch and build it all themselves.
How is she meant to resist a challenge like that?
She hadn't been sure quite what to expect when Donna had pulled her back into the diner. True, Donna had been practically vibrating with the strength of her own conviction before they'd even sat back down so Cameron had figured that it would be good but, at the end of the day, it wouldn't have really mattered. The idea itself is secondary.
What's important is the two of them working together again on something, anything. Honestly, Donna could probably have suggested they build a soap box derby car together and Cameron would have jumped at the chance. But what Donna actually came out with... Well.
It's big and it's ambitious and it has incredible potential if they can get it right.
If they can get it right they have the chance to do for web building what Mosaic had done for browsing: make it so simple any bozo could do it. Aspiring musicians and poets, hobbyists and obsessives and enthusiasts of every stripe building their own websites. Letting the rabble in, isn't that what Donna had called it? The normal, non-techie people.
Donna has always been eerily good at that part - the people part. She seems to just get social behaviour online. Spotting the patterns. Sensing people's motivations, what makes them tick, in a way Cameron has never been able to. After all, Donna had been right about Community all those years ago. Donna had known what the people wanted, seemingly before they even knew it themselves. It still makes Cameron wince to think how close she'd come to pulling the plug on those community rooms. This time around, if Donna says that personal homepages are the way the internet is going Cameron is inclined to believe her.
But herein lies the problem: if this site is going to appeal to every Joe Sixpack off the street, Cameron needs to come up with a way to integrate text, graphics and formatting in a way that's instantly engaging. Most people won't bother grappling with HTML, so everything will need to be stripped back in the name of accessibility. If Pilgrim being shelved has taught her anything it's that most people don't like having to work at something. They want instant gratification, and if they can't get it from you... Well, they can always go play Doom instead. So manual code editing is out. And she'll need to make the the UI user-friendly to the point of being idiot-proof.
But it can't be cookie-cutter - Cameron doesn't do boring. This needs be a platform for self-expression, which means letting people play around and get creative. You've got to respect the user. What she needs is to strike that impossibly perfect balance between making it simple without letting it become simplistic. Which is easier said than done. In her experience, the cleaner and more intuitive software is for a user on the front-end, the more sophisticated and complex it is to develop on the back-end. Put another way: making something simple is really fucking difficult.
Fortunately, Cameron lives to solve really fucking difficult problems. It's what she's best at.
Unfortunately, this one looks like it's going to have to wait.
There's nothing Cameron would love more than to pass the time on this trip by taking a mental deep-dive down this particular rabbit hole, honestly. But the fact is that she is a little preoccupied with not dying. It turns out hauling a trailer on unfamiliar roads requires actual concentration, so most of her brainpower is tied up with making sure she doesn't brake too late and go slamming into some poor sucker in front or take a turn too quickly and go jack-knifing across the road like she's in that part of every shitty action movie with the badly choreographed car chase.
She hasn't even hit Sacramento when it occurs to her that maybe she's not quite a good enough driver to be multi-tasking. She can't let herself code a entire website in her head, follow road signs and calculate brake distance at the same time. Not with a 3000-pound tin can tethered in back. Maybe not even without.
Cameron knows she's not an amazing driver - her mind drifts and she likes to go fast which has gotten her in trouble before - but she's not like, a menace or anything. She's not terrible. She's a damn sight better than anyone who taught themselves at 14 by driving at a crawl around parking lots at night ought to be. Len didn't drive and her mom sure as hell wasn't going to be teaching her, so Cameron had taken the initiative - she'd sneak the keys to her mom's Oldsmobile while she was sprawled out on the couch "resting" (read: passed out drunk by dinnertime) and go lurching off to practice outside the Lowe's down the street.
She'd puzzled out the basics from watching the school bus driver - Mrs Moscowitz - like a hawk every morning and the rest from library books. It had taken a lot of trial and error, and it hadn't exactly been an elegant process but she'd figured it out eventually.
Looking back now, it seems likely the only reason she'd passed the driving test first try had been that she'd worn her punkiest vest - the X-Ray Spex one that she'd heavily customised until it had been more safety pins than actual fabric. Her instructor, a pimply-faced guy with peach fuzz despite being well into his twenties, had been too busy sneaking furtive glances at her chest to notice just how badly her driving had sucked.
She's way better now, obviously. Although she does nearly rear-end a church bus at the lights in Roseville, and there's a gut-churning moment when she thinks the Airstream's going to tip after she clips a curb before she reluctantly concedes that figuring this web problem out might need to be put on hold for the time being.
Now, she's resigned herself to driving in the right-hand lane at such a glacial pace she'll be lucky to make it to Carson City by March. The traffic around her is getting heavier and the rusty Honda in front has had its turn signal on for the past 40 miles - the sickly orange light blinks insistently, periodically illuminating a peeling LA Raiders bumper sticker.
Feeling restless, Cameron flicks a hand at the radio. It crackles to life midway through one of those depressing old country songs her brain always associates with Bos nowadays. She actually kind of likes this one - the slow scratch of the guy's guitar, his voice deep and mournful - but her head already feels too crowded, so she quickly shuts it off again.
Rolling her shoulders, Cameron takes a deep breath, settles back in her seat and tries to focus on the smooth sound of the road rolling past beneath the tires below.
Either she misses the sign or there isn't one, but it's obvious she's crossed into Nevada from the way slot machines are suddenly glittering enticingly at her from the windows of every grocery store she passes.
It's early evening when she pulls into Carson City, the sky steadily darkening with deep purple clouds. Cameron steers the truck towards the riot of flashing neon lights of the first casino she sees and parks around the side near a cluster of RVs. The engine cuts out as she pulls the keys from the ignition and finally lets her head fall back against the headrest and her eyes drift closed.
In retrospect, starting this trip on zero sleep may not have been a smart move on her part. Truth be told she'd been running on fumes by Lake Tahoe. As she'd carefully rounded the bends overlooking the brilliant blue water the trees had gotten taller and their shadows had gotten longer and her eyes had gotten heavier and heavier to the point where she probably (definitely) should have pulled over.
Even as her eyelids sagged it had suddenly seemed of critical importance that she cross the state line. Leaving had been... difficult. More so than she'd been expecting. And not just in a bumper-to-bumper-traffic-along-El-Camino-Real way. It's more like a persistent itch in her brain, a voice in her head that refuses to be beaten back telling her that she's making a big mistake.
Rather than examine this line of thought too closely she'd come up with a brilliant solution - put enough distance between herself and California so that when she did eventually stop she wouldn't be tempted to turn her truck around and head straight back the way she'd come. Turning back is tempting, but it's not the answer.
The past few months it's like she's been leaping headfirst from one calamity to another. First her divorce. Then Bos's heart attack. Gordon's death. Comet's collapse, and the part she played in it. The shit-show that had been her trip to Europe with Alexa.
And, of course, there's Joe. The most recent addition to her ever-expanding list of interpersonal disasters.
The last thing she wants to do is add Donna to that list. Sure, they're on good terms right now but Donna had said it herself: working together is the surest way of ruining this tentative friendship thing they've got going. If Cameron turns back now while she's still exactly the same person with all the same weird baggage she's been lugging around her whole life, she runs the risk of ruining everything. As much as she wants to go back, bang on the door of Donna's big, fancy house and get to work, she can't. She knows that what she needs right now is some time away from California, some space to find her head.
Because if she goes back now, Cameron knows what will happen. It's what always happens. She won't mean to, she never really means to, but her relationships have a tendency to blow up in her face in the most spectacular way. Look at how things ended with Tom. Alexa. Joe. Not to mention her mom. Cameron doesn't want to go through that with Donna, not again. Not when they've only just started to reconnect.
No. It's time to take a step back. She doesn't want to be mired in the muck of her shitty past anymore. She's going throw herself fully into this road trip, see the sights, make some memories, figure all her weird shit out with her mom and come back in a few weeks time a whole new and improved Cameron Howe. Cameron 2.0. The bug-fixed, stress-tested, newly-updated version of herself that's capable of forging meaningful connections and maintaining real relationships.
Normal, healthy relationships that don't end with adultery on both sides or someone abruptly putting an ergonomic desk chair through a glass door.
A wet gurgling sound fills the truck, startling her. As her eyes flicker open to a bug-spattered windshield, her first thought is shit, the radiator but after a second she recognises it as her stomach. She's hungry. Ravenous, really. The chicken she'd eaten at the diner seems like forever ago. For a moment she considers heading into the casino and really going to town on the shrimp buffet but before she can reach for the door handle a huge group of thick-set business types stagger out of a metal side-door, ties loosened, heads thrown back laughing and shoving at each other.
Yeah, scratch that.
Casting a quick glance around the shadowy parking lot, she slips out of the truck and into the Airstream.
Inside the trailer, it's dark and still. She doesn't bother turning on the light, enjoying the way the dancing neon sign outside the window casts an eerie technicolour glow on the unmade bed, the laptop on her desk, the rough sketches tacked up on the walls. Tucked in the corner, the refrigerator rattles and hums with a ferocity disproportionate to its tiny size. The air in here is getting a little stale, Cameron notes absently, she'll need to air it out before it gets too college dorm-room. Still, she takes a moment to appreciate the quiet comfort of this space that, while cramped and messy and just edging past its prime, is hers.
The wall is cool through Cameron's sweater as she leans her shoulder against it, thinking. Now what? She knows what she should do. She should shower, change her clothes, heat up a can of something with vegetables in it on the stove and eat it at the little table. Instead she toes off her sneakers, collapses face down onto her gently sagging mattress and closes her eyes.
She's not sure how long she sleeps before she jerks awake to the rumble of raised voices, close enough to reach out and touch. The crunch of heavy footsteps just outside her window. Men's voices, deep and loud. Angry? Her heart rate picks up as she wracks her brain to remember if she'd bolted the trailer door behind her.
Disoriented, Cameron casts her eyes around the darkness of the trailer for something heavy. Her gaze lands on a familiar shape propped in the corner by the stove - on a cosmetic level the hockey stick is a bit battered, but it still has a decent amount of heft to it in an emergency. Not bad for five bucks, she'd picked it up at a yard sale right after she'd gotten set up at Bonny Doon. At the time, she'd mostly just needed a jabby-looking stick to wave threateningly at the raccoons that insisted on cavorting around outside all night long and knocking over her trash cans. But also, y'know, the world is full of creeps and weirdos and she'd been living alone in a field in the middle of nowhere. Isn't that how women end up on Dateline?
Although, thinking about it now, she hadn't even managed to chase those raccoons off. They'd just sort of frozen for a second, given her a bland who do you think you're kidding, lady? look then resumed enthusiastically ransacking her trash bags with their stupid tiny hands.
Cameron lies very still in the dark, listening hard. She spares a thought for the bear spray, safely stowed in the glove box of her truck, a few feet and a million miles away. For a long moment all she hears is her own shallow breathing and the blood rushing in her ears.
There's a muffled thump, then the unmistakable jangle of keys hitting gravel. A weary sigh. Then-
"Oh, fuck me sideways. Did either of you see where those went?"
The assortment of noises that follow are ones made exclusively by large, ungainly men as they drunkenly scrabble around on the floor of a poorly-lit parking lot in search of an errant set of car keys. There's a lot of muffled swearing, scraping and just enough helpless giggling that Cameron relaxes, adjusts the pillow under her head and rolls onto her side.
She must drift off because next thing light is spilling in through a crack in the curtains. Her stomach emits a low growl as she rubs at gritty eyes. Cameron stands, stretches and peers through the window, squinting against the bright early morning sun peering over the casino rooftop. The view that greets her is of an overflowing dumpster - a few dark-winged birds inspecting black bags bursting with cocktail sticks and shrimp tails. Her stomach gives a queasy roll, then rumbles again with renewed insistence. Stood angled over the sink, Cameron pours herself a huge bowl of sugar-frosted flakes, adds the last of the milk from the fridge and eats them fast, trying to ignore the way they settle heavily in her stomach.
To stave off her uncertainty, Cameron mentally talks herself through the benefits of a solo cross-country road-trip while a pot of coffee brews on the counter. For one thing, she finally has a chance to explore this colossal country that she has seen so little of beyond Texas and California. For the first time in her life she's going to take the time to see national parks and historical monuments and museums and... Giant balls of string or whatever. Cultural experiences. Enriching experiences. This is her opportunity to become the type of person who has enriching cultural experiences. All she needs to do is pick one.
An hour later she's back behind the steering wheel, nestled in the sun-warmed seat of her truck. Her hair is still damp from the shower and the soft cotton of her tank top grazes against her skin where fresh air is wafting in through the open windows. Crucially, she's drunk three mugs of strong dark coffee and is feeling highly-caffeinated enough that it could pass for enthusiasm if she doesn't examine it too closely. The map is right where she left it, lying flat and limp across the dashboard. She traces the colourful spider's web of roads with a long pale finger, pauses on a tiny black dot and taps it once, decisively.
It's as good a place as any to start.
It's honestly a relief when the whirl of music that has been filling the truck starts to fade out. The afternoon sun has moved around to slant directly into her eyes and she's just flipped down the visor when the cassette in the tape deck announces its end with a gentle click. It's only the first side, but rather than flip it over Cameron pulls it out with one hand and gently places it on the seat next to her.
In a determined effort to keep her eyes on the road at all times, she had been groping around blindly in the foot well amongst the shaky mountain of her cassettes and come up with Goo by Sonic Youth. It had been about three tracks in before she started regretting her choice. Don't get her wrong, she loves Sonic Youth and Goo is a great album - loud and weird in the best possible way, like the soundtrack to a peculiar recurring dream. Usually she'd be into it - any other day the discordant sounds of the strangely tuned guitars would be soothing to her but right now, on this barren highway, all it's doing is conjuring up a frightening air of unreality that is only compounded by the scenery. Or lack of scenery - it feels a little like she's crash-landed on a bizarre alien planet solely populated by dense tangles of sagebrush. Miles of the stuff, stretching out around her in every direction like an ugly silver-green carpet as far as the eye can see.
It's a good thing she stocked up on gas and snacks (orange soda and beef jerky) back in Carson City because three hours into this six hour drive Cameron has yet to see a gas station that doesn't look ready to collapse under the weight of its own weather-beaten sign.
The only other things she's seen so far on this seemingly endless stretch of highway are a few rusted hunks of metal that might once have been cars, a couple of dog-eared motels and a steady parade of road signs so bleached with sun she has to squint to read them.
It carries on like that for hundreds of miles, a mind-numbing blur of scrubby desert whipping past the windows until, suddenly, there it is.
Rising abruptly from the desert are the towering mountains of Great Basin National Park.
She doesn't drive too far up the snaking mountain road. For one thing, it's all narrow curves and sharp overhangs and she doesn't fancy her chances negotiating them in the steadily creeping darkness. For another thing, she doesn't really need to. This place is so far removed from any town or city that elevation is a non-issue, all she really needs is a quiet place with an unobstructed view to set up camp.
Finding somewhere isn't too much trouble - she follows a promising-looking trail road lined with tall trees and emerges onto a wide open clearing that's completely empty except for a scattering of twisted, ancient-looking bristlecone pines. The ground is uneven and the Airstream scores a big fat zero in terms of off-road capability but she eventually manages to guide the trailer to a creaking stop and, relieved, clambers out of the truck. Dry grass crunches underfoot as her knees protest underneath her, trembling like they've forgotten how to hold her up after all that time stuck behind the wheel.
Her breath clouds the air where she stands in misty blue puffs. It's cold up here, and it's only going to get colder. She darts into the trailer to pull a thick sweater over her head, then another one over the top, then snags the comforter off of her bed for good measure.
Outside, the night is clear and moonless. The sky above is slowly darkening to a deep, bottomless indigo as Cameron scrambles to set up her folding lawn chair and cooler of beer on the grass before she's left fumbling around in the pitch black.
By the time she's wrapped the comforter tightly around herself and settled back into the chair, beer bottle swinging lazily from her fingertips, it's safe to say that night has officially fallen. Try as she might, she can't make out anything much more than her hand waving in front of her face and the vague outline of her truck somewhere to her right.
The forlorn howl of a distant coyote rings out through the air and it occurs to Cameron that this might just be the dumbest idea she's ever had - sat out here completely exposed in the dark with a hundred unknown dangers hidden away in the trees. If she winds up getting eaten by coyotes Bos is going to fucking murder her. Her thoughts are just gearing up for a quick left turn straight into panicky-town when it happens.
They appear one by one, at first so tiny and far apart that she thinks she's imagining things until, out of nowhere, the sky is ablaze with thousands upon thousands of stars. Cameron stares, transfixed, as they continue to emerge out of the thick velvety blackness until the sky is alive with dancing light. It's as though the world drops out from under her and she's weightless in her wonder, beer bottle hanging forgotten in fingers now stiff with cold. A silvery streak that Cameron thinks might be the Milky Way sweeps wildly across the sky, a shimmering opaque spiral. Cameron sits absolutely still, eyes saucer-wide, and thinks it might be the single most beautiful thing she has ever seen.
The wind picks up then, frigid air biting through her layers of clothing and sending a violent shiver shuddering through her body but she barely feels it. She tips her head back further and tries to pick out the constellations. It's hard to remember the names. A long time ago she'd known them all, had memorised them over one feverish weekend.
Without warning, Cameron has a vision of her dad in ripped jeans and a ratty Pink Floyd t-shirt. His hair touches almost to his shoulders and he is balanced precariously on her childhood bed as he painstakingly arranges those little plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on her bedroom ceiling. A version of herself she barely remembers hovers in the doorway, looking up at him with a frown. A sky atlas open in her hands, she is supervising his work with the intensity of a six-year-old with exacting standards.
The memory makes her stomach twist in a way that isn't entirely unpleasant. It's the kind of hurt that satisfies, like pressing down on a bruise.
That had happened a lot when she was a little kid, back before she'd discovered computers. She would get suddenly, intensely preoccupied with something to the point where it would become her sole focus and only topic of conversation for days or weeks or months. It could be stars, stamps, geology. A song or an album or a movie she'd play again and again until the tape wore out. It was like tunnel vision - her entire world would narrow at the edges down to this one particular thing, and she'd have to know absolutely everything there was to know about it.
Her dad had called it getting stuck - he would walk her to the library and guide her back, his deep laugh booming as she struggled to see over the stack of books in her arms where she'd cleared out an entire section on Greek myths or the life of Alexander Graham Bell.
Her mom had called it spooky and deeply fucking irritating. Her mom-
Cameron shakes her head sharply once, twice, like she's clearing an Etch-a-Sketch. She doesn't want to think about her mom right now, not with thousands of miles between them still to go. She's got plenty of time.
Andromeda, she thinks triumphantly. That's one. Orion, the Hunter. Ursa Major, the Great Bear.
In her head, Cameron reels off the name of every constellation she can remember as she takes a swig from her beer bottle, feeling it slide icily down her throat. She hugs the comforter closer to her chest as she looks out at infinity, oddly comforted by the knowledge that she's just one microscopic pixel in the vast, never-ending bitmap of the universe.