(Note – This is Chapter 4 of the story. See chapter 1.)
The waves lapped gently at the beach, though a little farther down the waves were bigger and came closer to crashing. Terns were skirting the wave tops, darting around, occasionally hovering for a moment, before diving for small minnows. A gull could be heard crying above the sound of the surf. The sun beat down, hot and heavy, but the salt-tanged breeze from the ocean was refreshing.
Jesk watched Thara as she helped Adi read her book. He shook his head. It was a real, honest to goodness paper book. He didn’t know such things still existed.
“Susan, walked, on, the sand. She, saw, a….” Adi’s little face scrunched up in concentration. “I don’t know this word.”
“Sound it out, Sweetie. What are the first two letters?” She had a smile, an odd one he hadn’t seen before. It made wrinkles appear around her eyes. He didn’t like that.
“Good. And what does that sound like?” Actually, she looked like a mother, not a teenager. He wanted a teenager as his bride, not a “mother”.
“Krrrr.” Adi was in Thara’s lap, even though she didn’t have to be. She turned to look at her mother as she spoke. Thara smiled down, that funny, eye-wrinkling smile.
“Great. What’s the next letter?”
Jesk wonder how she could take the time to do this. It didn’t make sense. That’s what e-teachers were about. Not that reading was essential in a life where everything was given to you via electronic means. He avoided reading whenever he could. If there was something the electronic assistants and computers couldn’t handle, he had lawyers and human assistants do all of his reading and writing. He was a busy man and didn’t have time.
“And what does ‘A’ sound like?”
Jesk almost scream, “Come on already!” but bit his tongue. It was difficult listening in.
“No. The ‘A’ is imprisoned between two consonants, not free, so it refuses to say its name. If I said ‘B is for Banana’, what is ‘A’ for?”
What? It can’t say its name unless it’s free? What did that mean?
Jesk would never be able to have the patience for this.
“And what is the sound of ‘A’ in ‘Apple’?”
“Good. What is the next letter?”
“’B’! Which is ‘ba’.”
“Good. So what is the word?”
“Krrr-aya-ba. Crab! ‘She saw a crab!’”
A crab appeared on the beach near the two of them and winked a cartoon eye before scuttling away backwards. Adi giggled.
Jesk shook his head at the banality of it, then turned to watch a sailboat far out to sea. He hated all of these stupid things that Thara did with Adi. She actually changed her diapers when Adi was a baby! She didn’t have the robot do it, like a real person would. Helping her to read and playing with her and such, it was just plain stupid. And he knew she did it to try to steal Adi from him.
Adi was his little girl, of course. He bought her expensive things and listened to her as she talked about her day while they ate dinner. Why, he even sometimes watched while she showed him things, like Petunia’s trick! If Adi wanted something and Thara said “no”, he made sure she got it. Adi was his flesh and blood, Thara wasn’t, so Adi was always right, Thara wrong. He gave Adi whatever she wanted, when she wanted it. She was his little girl and he was going to make sure she always was.
The beach clicked off and the world intruded into the car.
Adi immediately dropped the book and pressed her nose to the window.
“What in the Hell is going on!” Jesk yelled. He could tell by the heat that his face was red.
“Sorry, sir. There was an emergency security patch and it took out the visuals.” The car’s voice was strangely flat, a more “electronic” sound than he had heard it use before.
“Roll it back!”
“Sorry, sir. This bug has been exploited already and five people have been murdered by hackers. It is estimated that you would be targeted within 0.025 second if the OS of the car were left unpatched.”
The voice grated on his nerves.
“Why would anyone kill someone in a car?” Jesk was still steamed. He paid good money for the technology, he demanded that it be up 100% of the time!
“There is very limited actual personal car ownership, less than one tenth of one present of the population own one. Currently over 93% of the wealth of the United States is in the hands of less than 11,000 individuals, which some members of the public deem…”
“Shut up!” Jesk screamed at the top of his lungs. He could feel his heart pounding in his ears. “I never asked for an editorial!”
“Honey, please watch yourself. Adi is in the car….”
“But the car is getting political…”
“Sorry, sir. Your biases were erased in the update so all information is totally fact based at this time with no bias. We know this is very disturbing to some people. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”
“I agree, Honey, the car did not make a judgment call, it just stated the fact that some members of the public resent the one-percenters and the top percent of the one-percenters even more. It did not say that…”
“Are you one their side?” Jesk could still feel his heart beating at triple the normal rate. He was sweating. He so much wanted Thara to say something wrong so he could be justified in hitting her. In his imagination he threw her from the moving vehicle and could see her explode on the pavement as she hit it at over 200 mph. The thought only made his blood boil more, it didn’t calm him.
“Of course not, Honey. I do not want to see my daughter the target of a terrorist!”
He thought that she still had an attitude. He was the most import thing in her life, not their idiotic daughter! Why wasn’t her concern about him? Perhaps she was a radical that resented that he had had a negative tax rate for most of his life.
“The Bloody Friday Collapse was not our fault!” He yelled.
“Nobody said that it was, Honey. Please calm down. Our daughter is listening.”
Her voice had been calm, soothing. She stroked his arm as she talked. He realized that she had been trying to calm him from the moment that the simulation turned off. He replayed her words in his mind. She never said anything radical, didn’t say one bad word against him or any of the ultra-rich. Her voice did have a soothing quality.
The car blew cool air. It helped.
“Please, Honey, just take a couple of deep breaths.” She demonstrated. He tried to breath with her, but it was difficult and hacked at first. His breath continued wheezing and gurgling. “Again, Inhale.” He tried, but the breath was shallow.
“OK, exhale,” Thara said. She made a noisy display of it. “Inhale.” She over exaggerated her intake. “Good.”
After a few breaths, and Thara’s calm voice, he began to calm down, but it was difficult.
He hated that he was now riding in what was little more than an over-large, privately owned Pod. At least they were still traveling at 150 mph or more, not the 62 that was the Pod’s limit.
He looked out of the window for the first time. They were surrounded by Pods and were slowing to the Pods’ speed.
“I thought I said to go no slower than 150 while on the highway.”
“Sorry, sir. There is a temporary Internet outage in the area and so the police have mandated a hard limit of 100 kilometers per hour and are rigorously enforcing it.” The voice was still odd, flat.
“Kilo-what? Speak American! And why can’t we bypass it as usual?”
“Even without outside police control, with the current traffic patterns and no Internet service, it is impossible to safely travel faster than 100 kph. We are also unable to contact the Governor to receive a waiver. We cannot travel faster than 100 kph.”
Jesk sat back and watched out of the window. He could see the rabble in the Pods ogling their car. One waved and Adi waved back. He grabbed her hand in one of his while raising his other to slap her, but let her go almost immediately and slumped back.
They went around a bend and for a moment could see the ocean.
“Mommy, why are those houses in the water?”
“When the sea level rose, these people didn’t have the resources to clean up the neighborhood. It’s only a few blocks and it’s only like this at high tide, Sweetie, the streets are above water at low tide.”
Jesk could feel his heart rate rise. “If you say one political thing, I will make you walk to the funeral!”
“Some of the glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland have melted, Sweetie.”
“That’s enough,” Jesk said. He tried to control his voice, but he knew it was shaking and over loud. “Look, Adi, the Earth has been changing since time began, that’s it. Thara, this is why I told you that Adi should never leave the house until she is at least 16! Hell, I’d like to keep her in until she’s 21 and ready to start taking on a business role! She does not need to be exposed to the radical left-wing politics that she’ll find out here. When we return home, I am going to set her education so she only learns what I want her to know so she doesn’t ask these idiotic questions, not that stupid propaganda she’s been studying.”
Thara just stared at him wordlessly. Adi continued to watch out of the window, fascinated with her first glimpse of the world. She occasionally asked questions. After a few minutes of staring at Jesk, Thara began to answer Adi’s questions in short, factual sentences.
It was too much for Jesk.
He turned so he couldn’t see his wife and daughter and watched out of the window. Truthfully, this was the first time that he had seen the “real world” in almost a decade. Even before that, he tried to limit how much he had to see the stupid rabble as much as possible. Although only a small slice of normal life could be seen from the highway, that little slice was interesting, much in the same way that bad accident was interesting.
Jesk frowned. He hoped that they would get Internet service again soon so the simulation could be reloaded.
The car continued on, with suburban America just outside of their window.
This is the fourth chapter of the story “When the Elephant Bumps the Mouse House” based on the image by Marianne Sopala that was off of Pixabay. The larger story is in response to D. Wallace Peach’s February Speculative Fiction Prompt.