In my last email, I hinted at sharing a novel I'm writing. It's not uncommon today to 'serialize' one's writing and offer it over multiple installments. Those who have tell of the benefits of getting reader feedback. Sometimes that feedback finds its way into the final book which likely makes for a better effort- a collaboration if you will.
If so inclined, please feel free to offer your suggestions and criticisms. Your feedback will be most appreciated and possibly constructive. If so, I will be recognizing your contributions in the published book, unless you ask for anonymity.
If you know others that might enjoy this idea, please feel free to share it with them.
The Setup: The year is 2039, the protagonist is Wayne Decker, a very old man kept comfortable at a state retirement facility in the state of Arizona. Wayne is old but in full control of his mental faculties. He has observed many changes in his lifetime including riding in a Ticky, an autonomously driven car, and the removal of meat from his diet. But Wayne is not yet done with life nor is he without significant cognitive skills. For Wayne, life was always about navigating obstacles and solving problems, and pulling pranks.
The First Episode
Wayne slowly rolls his aching body toward the window, props his head up on an elbow, and fumbles for the button on his nightstand that turns on the 'window.' He squints as the desert sun peaks between the arms of a prickly Saguaro cactus. His head finds the pillow again while he works out why he should get up today. Then he remembers. Not that it matters, he's gotten up every morning for, well... geesh. He doesn't remember.
Sometimes eyelids are heavier than will so Wayne fades back to slumber and imagination. He finds himself outside. Less than a half-mile from the side exit door of the Level 9 building was Highway 203. A busy two-lane with folks heading back and forth to work or school or Starbucks. The back windows of the ‘Ticky's’ were nearly always blacked out and traveling at precisely the same speed. Who knew what the occupants were doing? It would be left to Wayne's imagination, which was still amazingly fertile for someone knocking on ten decades. Yes, they were mostly checking their social media, snoozing, or sipping a coffee. He even thought it possible that couples might be grabbing a 'quickie' on the way to ‘In-N-Out’ for lunch.
“A quickie in the Ticky. A quickie in the Ticky,” he hums until it gets stuck in his aging cobwebbed prefrontal cortex. Lately, and it’s been bothering Wayne, certain things get stuck in his brain like a sticky valve and it just clicks and claps until something else replaces it.
The 'Ticky,' which is what Wayne called these driverless autonomous cars and vans and trucks, would hum and tick and rumble across the concrete seams driven by computers and sensors and cameras and satellites and made smart by algorithms.
The dirt path from Wayne's residence, the Level 9 building, to the highway was narrow and lined with native Arizona vegetation. That meant the trail was full of plants with prickles. Some thick and some as thin as the thinnest surgical needles. Wayne would think about those things. What was the fascination of the desert with sharp objects? Why must everything be like needles that drew Wayne's blood as poorly as an incompetent phlebotomist and often? They'd sometimes reach out and snag Wayne, forcing him to adjust his walker to another prickly encounter on the other side. Back and forth he'd go sometimes having to stop and unsnarl the snag to his sweater or pant legs multiple times.
But a bench beckoned him alongside Highway 203 where he could squirrel away a couple of hours watching the Ticky's zoom by and maybe catch a sunbaked snooze. It was one of his favorite spots. The hum and tick-tick would completely relax him often into his own little world of imagination. Other times his eyelids would flutter till he was smack dab in the middle of his childhood. That was happening more frequently too. "Why are my childhood memories so damn clear and just yesterday a blur?" he'd moan to himself.
The light from the rising sun causes Wayne to stir again. He reaches down to a pain in his leg. Almost like a pinprick. Again, he resists crossing into the new morning and fades back into his dream.
He was again traversing the lane down to his favorite bench along Highway 203. On this trip, while he was untangling from a prickle attack to his pant leg, he heard something rustle beneath the thorny plant. His right hand was down by his knee attempting to free his pants. Before he could determine that his hand might be in some danger, a small snake launched straight up from amongst the thorns with mouth agape. Before he could pull his hand to safety, its fangs pierced Wayne's skin on the top of his hand and right into his big purple vein.
The snake just hung there, curling its tail and pumping its venom directly into Wayne's bloodstream. As blood started dripping out of the snake's mouth, all Wayne could think to do, was to use his other hand, whose current purpose was to balance himself with the walker, and grab the snake by the neck. His quick movement to grab the snake caused his walker to roll a foot or two away, leaving Wayne teetering while clutching a snake by its neck, which still had its fangs dug deeply into his other hand. All Wayne could think to do at just that moment was to call the snake a nasty name. "You little prick." Before Wayne tumbled backward, he must have gotten "you little prick" in a half dozen times. But no one heard him.
The collision with the dirt and the prickly cactus he fell into had dimmed the lights for Wayne. But he held onto the little prick, which eventually relaxed its bite due to being strangled to death. Despite having passed out, Wayne reflexively held firm to the now limp little snake until an emergency room tech unclutched it from his grip. Having brought the evidence with him, Wayne's recovery was much more likely. Not certain... but having the snake that bit him allowed the right anti-venom to be administered. Wayne dodged death again.
It was just a week before his run-in with 'the little prick' that Wayne had pulled a little trick that he later regretted. It was a stunt a young boy would pull. Boys have loads of time and can be impulsive. Some thought Wayne was reverting to being a young boy. He had the time, and just enough synapses firing between his ears still capable of devious creative scheming.
While sitting on the bench next to Highway 203 and imagining what was going on behind those blacked-out windows of the Ticky's, Wayne's imagination got the best of him. And like a young boy full of prankster ambitions, he didn't always work out all the ramifications of a practical joke. "What is wrong with me? I'm like an impetuous child," he muttered to himself after fleeing from the scene and safely back to Level 9. The scene he recalled, with some guilt, was the Ticky having come to a complete emergency stop with tires smoking all because of him and a prank gone wrong.
Either Wayne’s bad knee spasmed or he grew concerned he might be entering more a nightmare than a dream, he stirred again. He willed one eye to open with an attempt to focus on the clock on his nightstand before giving up. He slid even further into slumber and a dream he wasn’t sure he wanted.
The previous owner of Wayne's two-wheeled walker was a dog owner. The owner departed, leaving the dog to some lucky family member, no doubt. The leash remained tightly knotted to the walker handlebars, which is possibly why it never went with the dog. It was maybe fifteen feet long, and if sitting on the bench next to Highway 203, and if rolled to the end of the dog leash, it would put the walker in the middle of the road. Perhaps Wayne was reverting to his childhood, but his natural curiosity had never left him. It could be said that what he was thinking of doing was both a childish prank and an experiment.
"Yes! It was an experiment," Wayne finally convinced himself in retrospect. It relieved him of a bit of remorse he had for a prank that went badly.
Things that do things automatically always fascinated Wayne. And when cars proved they could navigate driving as well or better than humans, he was amazed. Never thought he'd see that in his life let alone enjoy the benefits of riding in the backseat of an automatic driving Ticky and not backseat drive.
Wayne could backseat drive with the best of them. "Shouldn't you slow down a bit? You should have turned back there, I think. Good grief! Knock off the tailgating!" But the Ticky’s don't care. Ticky’s heard what you said but have been programmed to ignore you. Keywords mostly, like 'address,' 'stop,' 'rest area,' and hundreds of other words, would influence Ticky, but 'slow down' wasn't one of them. Ticky knew the speed limit and followed it precisely. It knew where the next rest stop was, and now it knows you need it. Wayne knew the Ticky was ignoring him, but it didn't keep him from backseat driving. It's hard to teach an ole fart a new tune.
Over the years, Ticky’s had gotten very good at avoiding accidents. The onboard computers with their algorithms had progressed to the point that there were fewer and fewer collisions with pedestrians, or bicyclists, or dogs or other obstacles. But it wasn't easy, and occasionally a moral dilemma had to be solved which would cause all sorts of outrage. The digital world would light up in the shape of a mushroom cloud, and what some thought was so clear and so right others would see just as clearly as so wrong. It was crystal clear to everyone.
This particular outrage was ignited when a young programmer, working for the tech company which held hundreds of patents perfecting the automatic driving car's brains, mentioned on some social media site that the algorithm was set to favor preventing another accident as opposed to saving the life of the wayward dog or any other animal for that matter. In other words, if a Ticky encountered an animal darting in its path, it was programmed to slam on the brakes and not go careening into another lane, or into the ditch, or sidewalk, or into an old man daydreaming on a bench next to the road. It was programmed to stay in its lane even if that resulted in hitting the animal and possibly killing it.
The outrage was immediate, and the demand for the 'human' rights of animals grew to a fevered barking pitch. Millions demanded to know who made this programmer 'God.' Of course, no one actually wanted an explanation. They just wanted to see him hang. Poor Milo. He got caught up on the wrong side of the mob. Dogs and cats filed lawsuits against the company employing Milo. No dog crap!
Years ago, some court issued a ruling giving animals access to the legal system. In actual practice, the owners of these animals filed suits on behalf of their pets. And it was the owners that benefited from any winnings left over after paying the attorneys. Then the judges started playing 'God' until it reached the Supreme Court. By then, the will of the people had been determined. By a 5 to 4 margin, human life was to be protected over that of someone's pet. Program the damn Ticky’s to hit the mutt before the human. But the pet could still sue. And they did. Well, it actually was the next of kin who sued.
In the downdraft of all this social outrage, Milo lost his job and quickly erased, as best he could, his digital life. In 2039, that is what you did if you found yourself ‘canceled’ by the outrage mob. For a budding coding talent, moving back into his mother's basement was like attempting to crawl back into her womb.
The dilemma presented when a Ticky approached a dog that had run unto the road, and Ticky had to make a swift decision. Does Ticky proceed and hit the dog, possibly killing it, or take evasive action potentially colliding with another car or a pedestrian walking or sitting alongside the road?
Wayne watched in amazement at the collective outrage. He, of course, knew the right answer. "You program the damn Ticky to stay on the road hitting the stupid dog and avoiding another collision. Simple!" He told his dining buddies loudly. Possibly too loudly, and with too much certainty at dinner one night in the Level 9 dining hall. He was about to chomp down on a faux pork chop made with a seaweed concoction and crushed peanut shells with a dash of food coloring and heavily salted when he got whacked on the back of his head from behind. He never saw her coming. Mrs. Hamelin had taken her bulging purse, along with all her diminishing might, and swung it hitting Wayne smack in the back of his head, nearly pushing his noggin into his mash potatoes. The whack was more noise than hard so everyone turned to see what happened. Having extracted justice, Mrs. Hamelin indignantly, with head held high, calmly returned to her table where several fellow diners were silently mini-clapping in admiration of her courageous support of dogs everywhere. Each had a pooch on their lap finger feeding them the fondu veggie-balls featured on the 'doggie' part of the menu that evening. Several of the doggie lovers snuck a ball or two for themselves, preferring them to the make-believe pork chops.
Wayne sat still for a few minutes, stunned by the whack. His head didn't hurt but he worried briefly about his blood pressure and the rusting pacemaker in his chest. Looking at no one, he resumed eating without ever attempting to see who had smacked him. He knew who it was. That confused his table mates some. They didn't know whether to admire his 'turn the cheek' stoicism or to think of him as a 'pussy.' Wayne perhaps thought it best not to 'dignify' his attacker by responding or even acknowledging her. It didn't matter. No minds were changed. But it did allow for dinner to resume quickly, and soon the sound of clinking silverware, yapping dogs, and muffled discussions took the place of uncomfortable silence.
Wayne sat alongside Highway 203, soaking in the sun with his eyes closed. As the Ticky's ticked by, his meandering thoughts...
Wayne's regrettable prank is yet to come. I promise that in the next episode. Thank you for reading and please offer your comments.