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Blaze of Glory

Updated: Oct 26, 2023


In exchange for a guaranteed annual income, people can no longer do anything for work or pleasure that is better performed by artificial intelligence. But not everyone refuses to give up their passion.


Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.” Candy-colored cars thrummed to life on the living room telescreen. What a crock, thought Grant. No ladies in those speed racers. Or gentlemen. Just driverless hunks of metal with life-sized dummies in the driver’s seat to create an illusion of authenticity, thanks to the Compact. Grant Lawrence didn’t give a damn about machine-against-machine racing. He was just killing time. An emerald green Aston Martin pulled out in front of the pack, and he considered pushing the Bet button on the remote, maybe pick up a few extra bucks. His fingers tightened, then relaxed. “Nah,” he said. “Can’t afford to lose.”

“Did you say something?”

Grant swiveled in his chair, surprised to see his wife in the corner stitching a needlepoint she’d designed. Ellie didn’t miss her now-defunct job as head of HR at a management consulting firm, and she didn’t kill time like he did; instead, she filled her days with the art projects she’d never had time for when she worked—ceramics, oils, needlecraft, whatever struck her fancy.

Ellie rested the canvas on her lap and met his gaze. Light from the pole lamp shone upon an unlined face that belied her forty-five years, as if she’d taken a dip into the fountain of youth when she’d immersed herself in art full time. Ellie once confessed that not working was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and she wondered why people didn’t embrace unemployment for the gift it was.

“I just said I couldn’t afford to lose a bet on the race,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I know you can’t,” she mumbled, hesitating a beat before resuming her needlepoint.

Grant didn’t reply. No point pressing on with an argument he’d never win. He tapped his foot impatiently as a hot pink BMW took the lead on the big screen. This pseudo race is bullshit. I need the real thing. He turned off the telescreen and dropped the remote on the table.

Startled, Ellie looked up from her canvas.

Grant leapt from his chair. “I’m headed to the garage.”

Ellie slammed the canvas down on her lap. “I can’t believe it. You act like everything’s the same as it was before the...”

“I’m careful, El. I’m quiet. And the garage looks like just another room from the front.”

“Honestly, Grant. Why can’t you learn from your mistakes? We can’t afford another slip-up.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this covered.”

She didn’t look convinced.

#

Section 7 of the Compact had outlawed “driving while human.” Subsequent amendments had added owning and maintaining “humanically controlled” cars as violations. It wasn’t long before most people had converted their garages into dens or family rooms.

Grant had “remodeled” his garage to stay under the radar. Outside, he’d replaced his garage door with a brick wall and two small windows, removed the driveway, and planted grass. Inside, he’d partitioned the space into two rooms. The library was the room people would see if they happened to look in the window. Hidden behind the library was the actual garage, accessed from inside the house, its exterior door relocated to the back and camouflaged under a thick growth of ivy. The garage had no windows, but Grant could open a small vent in the roof to let in fresh air. Like all the other rooms in the house, the garage was soundproofed. Soundproofing was God’s gift to family harmony and sanity as jobs disappeared and people spent most of their time at home. And, because their corner property backed onto the woods, the existence of a garage would most likely go unnoticed. Someday I’ll drive my car out of this garage and… He hadn’t yet decided what his act of rebellion would be.

Grant was not going to give up cars—one of the two passions in his life—without a fight. Before the Compact, Grant would unwind by going for a drive or tinkering in the garage. He’d even taken up driving race cars, though it turned out he was a better watcher than racer. Grant’s other passion, his career as a therapist, had also been outlawed, replaced by psych-bots; and when the authorities had caught him in the act of practicing humanic psychology, they’d taken him in for questioning and told him they’d be monitoring him from then on.

Grant was working on a 1967 Chevy Camaro he’d rescued from his late father’s used auto parts junkyard. More accurately, the car was about three-quarters Camaro and one quarter “other,” which was typical of the cars his father had brought home for the family when he was a kid. Grant called them “mutt cars.”

“Dad, why can’t we get normal cars like normal people?”

“Normal people pay a lot of money for cars and have less money to take trips like us.”

“You can keep the trips. I’d rather have the cars.”

“Someday you’ll understand how things work, son. Sometimes you have to give something up to get something else you really want.”

Every once in a while, his dad had brought home a surprise. Like the beat-up gold Triumph TR7 with four-on-the-floor. Grant had learned to use a stick shift so he could drive that puppy. But after only two weeks, his father had sold it at auction and replaced it with a mixed-breed jalopy.

Sometimes you have to give something up to get something else you think you really want. It’s the cost of the bargain we made with our government. When Grant cracked the roof vent, he heard the sound of approaching sirens. His heart jackhammered as the sound got louder and stopped abruptly outside his house.

“He’s in there, officer.” The voice of Gordon Blatt, his racist shit of a neighbor, who couldn’t stop talking about those people, lowering his voice when he said it, as if he were afraid they might hear him. He’d go on and on about how he resented having to pay for people who refused to get off their fat asses and work, all those welfare queens, moochers, illegal aliens. Finally, Grant lost it, confronting his neighbor in a loud, public blowup, and Gordon had needled him ever since.

So that’s how they knew. The bastard’s been spying on me.

“Pull down the ivy. There’s a door underneath.”

Pounding. Shouting. Loud smack of something heavy against the door. Rattling of worn rollers on metal track. Sunlight.

“I’m arresting you for violating Section 7B of the Compact,” said one of the two uniforms who barreled in. “You have the right to remain silent…”

Gordon smirked, and neighbors congregated outside as they perp-walked him to the police car. Ellie reached out to him, but one of the officers pushed her away more roughly than necessary. As they took off, Grant looked out the rear window just as a tow truck parked itself at the curb.

#

“I remember you. You’ve done this before, right?” said the officer, smirking, as he sat down across the table from Grant. Everything in the interrogation room was the color of dirty dishwater: walls, floor, table, computer equipment. Even the officer’s affect was gray. The only bright spots in the room were the American flag pin on the officer’s lapel, the rosacea on his face, and the shiny oversize badge beneath his nametag: Frank Collins.

Grant nodded. Smirk on, Frankie. You could easily be replaced by a robot—not sure why law enforcement is getting a free pass, but there’s talk about automating all of you soon.

Officer Collins fiddled with his laptop. “Right. Here you are. We picked you up six months ago for illegally practicing psychology. You’re a stubborn son of a bitch. We docked you…” he consulted the screen, “…a couple months of bonus pay. Bet that stung.”

Grant met his gaze impassively, but inside he was churning. It had stung. Everyone depended on the Freedom Bonus to sustain a decent standard of living. No, not quite true. Those who were lucky enough to still have jobs—primarily people involved in creating, enhancing and repairing robotics—could supplement their guaranteed monthly income and indulge in luxuries. Lobbyists for the large tech companies had joined forces and outspent their competitors in other industries, long before the advent of the Compact. The President of the United States had been the founder and CEO of the world’s largest tech company; and he’d drawn his entire cabinet from the tech world No wonder technology ruled.

“As required by law, I have to read you the Compact,” said Collins. He pushed a button under the desk, and one of the walls brightened. The words of the document appeared onscreen. Though not rendered in cursive, the initial caps of each paragraph took the form of elaborate calligraphy, suggesting the authenticity of America’s founding documents. Collins read the text aloud in a monotone, as if Grant were incapable of reading it on his own, droning on about the Freedom Act and how it established a compact between the government and the people. In exchange for a guaranteed income to every man, woman, and child, the people were obliged to refrain from performing tasks that were more competently, safely, and economically handled by artificial intelligence, as determined by the Freedom Board. Collins concluded the recitation, and the document faded, replaced by the words “FREEDOM ACT” in oversized red, white, and blue letters.

The smug look gradually returned to Collins’ face. “Bet you voted for it. The Freedom Act.”

Grant gave a slight nod.

“Thought so.”

Of course, he’d voted yes in the referendum. Most regular people—the ninety-nine percent—had. Only the one-percenters had objected on the grounds that it would stifle initiative and big business would suffer. The Freedom Bonus was billed as an antidote to unemployment caused by automation and would enable people to enjoy the leisure time they’d craved for so long. And when there was a second referendum a year later to increase the bonus, he’d once again voted yes.

“So, let’s see,” said the officer scrolling down a list. “Here it is.” He pressed a button to start the “Drivers’ Ed” video—drivers’ ed being a euphemism for learning how to sit back and let the car do its own driving.

Grant had seen the same introduction when he’d been detained the first time for practicing psychology. The patriotic background music, the stentorian voice quoting from the preamble to the Constitution “…promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” and the impressive statistics—crime down, welfare reduced, income inequality rapidly becoming a thing of the past. All true.

Then came the driver’s ed piece, which included a brief history of automobiles the spectacular rise in the number of vehicular accidents and fatalities, followed by the almost perfect accident record of driverless cars because of the powerful algorithms that had been developed from thousands of miles of test driving. The video ended with a review of Section 7 of the Compact, which mandated that humans were no longer allowed to drive their own cars to ensure the safety of passengers and pedestrians. Subsection 7A forbid the owning of traditional cars and 7B, prohibited the maintenance of said cars.

The video ended, and Collins turned on the lights.

“Because this is your second offence, we will be docking you a year’s Freedom Bonus.

A year! Grant didn’t want to give Collins the satisfaction of knowing he’d dealt him a serious blow, but he knew his family would have to make major adjustments. Though the officer was all business when he entered the penalty into the computer, Grant could detect the hint of a smile on his face. Think you’re hot shit, don’t you, Frankie? Won’t be long before the AI people robotize your law-enforcing ass.

On the ride home, he pondered all they’d taken away from him. His computer was being monitored so he couldn’t work with clients, and all of his former patients were afraid of the consequences of working face-to-face with a humanic practitioner. Now they’ve taken away the only other thing I love besides my family.

Grant had a manual the size of a phone book on how to build cars, and there was still a black market for auto parts, so he’d been secreting them away for years to supplement what he’d rescued from the junkyard. Grant hoped Rob would help him build his next car at least until he started his job.

#

Grant was fixing himself a sandwich when he was interrupted by the sound of glass shattering somewhere above. Rob must have left his bedroom door open. Grant ran upstairs and hesitated outside his son’s room, but all was quiet. Maybe he’d imagined it? Then came another explosion followed by the crash of something heavy hitting a wall and landing with a thunk on the hardwood floor.

Rob habitually forgot to close his door in his eagerness to get to whatever project he was working on—building, inventing, hacking, programming. Today’s activity was waiting. It was AI Match Day, the day when the top graduates in the country learned which AI/robotics company was offering them a job. With Rob’s academic accomplishments, there had never been a doubt that he’d end up at a prestigious company. At twenty-two, he had so much to look forward to.

Maybe Rob was just working on a robotics project that had gotten out of hand. Maybe he’d already gotten an offer and was celebrating. No. Something wasn’t right.

Grant opened the door all the way, and his suspicion was confirmed. Amidst the robotic parts littering the room—an arm, a half-built dog, things he couldn’t identify that did God knew what—lay a pile of broken glass, picture frames, trophies; the sum total of his awards and honors, reduced to a pile of rubble.

Rob was facing a wall of electronics, his back to the door.

“Rob,” Grant called softly. “Robbie.”

His son swiveled his chair. Except for a slight furrowing of his brow, Rob’s expression was noncommittal. But Grant knew. He leaned in to hug his son, but when Rob stiffened, Grant stepped back, respecting his son’s boundaries. He studied Rob’s face, his black-framed glasses too large for his close-set eyes. An ordinary face, except on the rare occasions when he smiled, revealing a set of dimples that softened him. But today there were no dimples in sight.

“Didn’t get it, Dad.” His voice was flat.

“Nothing?”

“Not even the second- or third-tier companies.”

“There must be a mistake. Check again.”

“No mistake. I already checked again.” His gaze drifted to the tangible remains of his scholastic achievements. “Pile of shit. All crap. Used to be that straight As from Drexel and Duke engineering were a ticket to great things. Now, if the degree isn’t from MIT, Stanford and the like, you might as well toss it into the shit pile.

Grant pulled a folding chair closer to Rob and sat down. “What about your invention—that thing…”

“Someone beat me to it.”

“But it was a legitimate invention. Why didn’t they—”

“Probably thought I stole the idea.”

Without thinking, Grant put his hand on Rob’s shoulder, and this time his son didn’t flinch.

“Maybe,” said Rob softly, “maybe I’ll try again next year. Got two more tries before I’m locked out for good. I know I can come up with something super cool.” But he didn’t sound all that convincing. In the past Rob had said he dreamed of having some invention named for him. When solutions were elusive, Rob had always dug in.

Rob’s face brightened. “I can work with Evan. He’s brilliant. Told me he’s tinkering with some amazing AI stuff. Together we could make something really spectacular.” Rob’s voice picked up steam until he stopped abruptly mid sentence. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them, the sparkle was gone, and he sat hunched and deflated. “Who am I kidding? Evan was rejected twice and he’s the smartest guy in the room.” Rob looked down again, shaking his head slowly.

“You’ll get back at the bastards.” Grant turned to the poster hanging on his son’s wall. “Illegitimi non carborundum.” Don’t let the bastards get you down. “Maybe in the meantime you can help me with a new car. I refuse to let those bastards get me down.”

“Yeah, sure, Dad. That would be great.” But his voice was flat. Maybe he’d feel differently when he was less upset. Grant squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Don’t give up now, Robbie. That’s not you.”

“It is now.”

Grant’s heart ached for his son. And, much as he hated to acknowledge it, some of the disappointment he felt for his son was tinged with selfishness. With a job at one of the big AI/ robotics companies, Rob could have brought in enough money to more than make up for Grant’s lost year of Freedom Bonus income.

#

Two weeks later, Grant heard it for the first time—a distant hum coming through the open window of his bedroom. He sat up. All was quiet. No, there it was again, a barely perceptible low-pitched thrum. A surge of joy washed over him like a shower of daffodils. He saw a sunlit beach, then a meadow stretching out forever. A breeze riffled his hair. He tasted cherry water ice. Then the visions faded, as did the sound. Ellie snored lightly beside him. Had it all been a dream? A sense of something lost lingered long after the noise had ceased, and Grant had a hard time getting back to sleep.

#

The Willow Ridge subdivision undulated snakelike through what had once been cornfields in the outer reaches of suburbia. The forest in back of the Lawrence house would soon be clear cut to make way for new development. Now that most people could afford to own homes, new houses were snapped up as soon as they came on the market. Willow Ridge was mostly white, with only a couple of Hispanic and black families. Though economic inequality was gradually disappearing, racial inequality still lingered.

Each street of the subdivision was lined with a different species of tree, planted in perfectly spaced rows by arbor-bots. The trees gave the streets their names: Oak Crescent, Maple Drive, Juniper Lane, Sycamore Street. When they ran out of species, they reused the same names with different designations—Sassafras Way, Sassafras Circle, Sassafras Court—causing much confusion for visitors. Curiously, there were no willows in Willow Ridge, nor was it built on a ridge.

Grant stood outside his front door, waiting for Ellie to join him for an early-morning walk around the neighborhood.

He scanned the houses on the block, each of which was was fronted by a perfectly manicured lawn and garden, planted and maintained by eco-bots. Each, that is, except theirs. With a sigh of exasperation, he knelt to pull a few weeds from one of the beds that lined their front walk. He and Ellie had opted for an English country garden look, currently awash in summer colors: spiky pink and white veronica, purple coneflowers, red coral bells, yellow and orange gerbera daisies. Once well-tended, their perennial border had gone rogue. The coreopsis was spreading like yellow fever, the columbine was out of control, and there were so many faded flowers that needed to be deadheaded, he didn’t know where to begin. Someone had stuck a large posterboard sign into the ground at the front of their property. “Your property is a disgrace. Have some consideration for your neighbors and CLEAN IT UP.” Below, in smaller print, “And next time, follow the rules.”

“Fuck you,” muttered Grant under his breath, his eyes sweeping the empty street, looking for the perpetrator. “You have some consideration and tell me to my face,” he said to the empty air.

Grant heard a distant hum and his pulse quickened. Against the sound of birds singing their morning hellos, the hum got louder. Then he recognized the sound of an eco-bot mowing someone’s lawn, and his heart grew heavy. He’d heard “the sound” two or three times since that first time, always late at night, and it always left him with the feeling that anything was possible.

Eco-bots weren’t expensive, but when you were docked a year’s Freedom Bonus, corners had to be cut. The Bonus provided for the basic necessities like food, clothing, housing, insurance, and household cleaning bots. And there was enough left over for occasional splurges. But after Grant lost his Bonus, the Lawrences had to make choices. They drew up a budget that allowed for a few meals out, some new clothing, basic electronics, but that was it. Family trips, eco-bots, and a replacement for their failing housecleaning bot were out.

Nowhere in the subdivision’s by-laws did it say that gardens had to be immaculately manicured, but more and more people were insisting on perfection because… Why settle for good when you can have perfect? A slogan that was featured on billboards and oft quoted by politicians, along with “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Bots and algorithms could do a better job than humans in almost every category, so why not just let them do the work and let the humans play?

“What is it, Grant?” Ellie was walking down the path. “What does it say?”

He didn’t answer, and when Ellie got close enough to read the words, her face reddened. “Who did this?”

“Hell if I know.”

“Makes me angry and embarrassed.” She put on her sunglasses and muttered something.

“Didn’t hear that.”

“I said it mostly makes me embarrassed.”

“Maybe we should re-do the budget. Skip the restaurants. Rehire the eco-bots. He pulled the makeshift sign out of the ground and threw it face down on the lawn.

Theirs had once been a beautiful garden. They’d ordered it directly from the Philadelphia Flower Show, and two weeks later the eco-bots had arrived and given them a perfect replica of the display they’d fallen in love with.

“I don’t know,” said Ellie. “To maintain this garden, we’d have to put in a lot of sweat, and neither of us likes gardening.”

“Me neither.” They stood silent for a moment, looking at their shambles of a garden.

“Let’s walk,” he said.

When they’d moved in fifteen years ago, the streets had been lively. Now people hung out in their soundproofed rooms. Grant and Ellie stopped in front of a house with an elaborate topiary menagerie. “These gardens,” she said. “They’re all so different.”

“Yet all the same.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re all perfect.”

They walked to the corner in silence.

Ellie turned to Grant. “I’ve been thinking about how much happier women are than men under the Freedom Act.”

“That’s not true. They’ve done studies that show—”

“I don’t believe them. Look at the two of us. I love what I’m doing now, and you’re…unhappy.”

“Not exactly unhappy, but... how many books can I read to make up for all I’ve lost? How much TV can I watch?” Grant realized he was shouting, and lowered his voice. “What’ll they take away next? Will they start having our babies for us?”

“Oh,” she exhaled softly. “I didn’t realize how unhappy you really were. You know I blew a gasket when you went back to building cars.” She chuckled. “No pun intended. But I can see how happy it makes you. How can I deprive you of something you love?”

“And I thank you for it.” He kissed her lightly on the cheek. “I think men are having a harder time than women because we have an innate drive to excel, to be better than the next guy, to climb the next mountain.”

Ellie raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide in a say-what expression. “Huh? You don’t think women want the same things? The difference is that most of us have had to squelch those dreams when we were forced to choose between being good mothers and being good workers. Now with the Freedom Bonus we can do both.”

Two houses down, Gordon Blatt was checking out his garden in a pair of faded plaid pajamas.

“Fucking racist,” Grant mumbled.

“Fucking fat, rat-fink racist,” Ellie whispered, and they both chuckled. Gordon’s belly protruded between the bottom and top like a doughy white belt, and his features were partially swallowed by excess flesh. “No wonder he’s fat.” Ellie said, once they were past his house. “Doesn’t do a damned thing. Ordered a perfect garden, so he wouldn’t have to bend or pull weeds”

“Before our fight,” said Grant, “he told me he gave up typing and voice recognition and now relies exclusively on one of those sensors that let you control your video games telepathically. Remember him sounding off at that block party about how much he hated the Freedom Act. Said it would spell the end of initiative. Predicted that those people would get even fatter than they already were. Now who’s got the fat ass?”

They rounded the corner, passing a house with a For Sale sign.

“I heard he committed suicide,” said Ellie. “I think he was in finance. Makes sense. Those unemployed investment bankers have some of the highest suicide rates.”

There it was. That sound again. Like a drone, like a plane flying overhead, like… It stopped. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“You didn’t hear it?”

Ellie shook her head.

Of course you didn’t. Grant’s hearing was exceptionally acute, and he often heard sounds others couldn’t.

“Let’s go home, El.”

Approaching the house, they spotted a mound of trash blanketing their front lawn—bottles, candy wrappings, rotten fruit. How had they done that so quickly? The two of them had been gone no more than a half hour. Grant was speechless.

Someone had stuck up another posterboard sign that read, “Clean it up.” Which Grant and Ellie proceeded to do. Afterward, Ellie went inside, but Grant stayed put, unable to let go of his anger. He saw his neighbor across the street watching from his bay window and imagined eyes staring at him from every window on the block. He pulled the signs out of the ground with a flourish and held them aloft like Excalibur as he glanced from house to house. Then he jammed them dramatically into the trash bin. Resisting the urge to flip the bird to the whole damn neighborhood, he did the next best thing. He rescued one of the signs from the receptacle and laid it face up on the front path. Then, fetching a black marker, he Xed out the message from the neighbors, turned the sign over and wrote “Keep off the Grass !!!” It felt so good to ram that post into the ground, that he rescued the second sign and wrote, “This means YOU!”

The triumphant feeling lasted about as long as it took him to go inside. What was the point of alienating his neighbors, punishing them for something over which they had little control? Doing what they did to the Lawrences was a way to assert themselves in a circumscribed world. As AI had slowly eaten away at their livelihoods, the Freedom Bonus had bought their consent. He knew there were still some rebels out there among his neighbors and friends. They’d occasionally shared their thoughts sotto voce. But the cost of rebellion was becoming harder to bear.

#

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Despite Grant’s show of defiance, the trash incident flipped an emotional switch. No human could be the perfect psychologist or the perfect driver or the perfect anything. What was his place in the world? He and Ellie would have to go back out and work on the garden to get it up to neighborhood standards. At least gardening would distract him, maybe lift his spirits.

He shared his feelings with Ellie one afternoon as she worked on a quilt in her studio. She was hunched over her sewing machine when Grant came in.

“What’s up?”

He sat down on a worktable facing her. “What the point of learning to do anything if we can just tell a machine to do it.”

She patted her sewing machine. “I’m not telling this machine what to do. I’m the one who’s doing it.”

“That’s you.”

“Not just me. Lots of other people are learning to cope. Just find something you love to do and put your heart and soul into it. You used to love music. And you were really good at it when I met you. You could get back up to speed on the keyboard, jam with friends.”

“It’s not the same, El. You’re blossoming. Me…I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m thinking of giving up the car project. Don’t want to endanger you.” He cleared his throat, surprised to find himself on the verge of tears.

Ellie walked around the machine, put her arms around him, and brushed a tear from his cheek. “What about joining a men’s support group? They’re springing up everywhere. There’s probably something in the neighborhood.”

“I have no desire to ‘share my feelings’ with my neighbors. I’m the damn psychologist.” Under his breath he added “Was.”

“I understand. But still…you’re depressed. How about medication?”

“I’d have to talk to one of those… pseudo-shrink things.”

“So?”

“So, I’ll think about it.” Which meant “no” when he said it. But as he continued to sink, he knew he had to do something. Though he’d always been the one to whom strangers bared their souls, now he’d have to bare his own soul to a stranger—and a robot, to boot.

#

Grant set himself up in the spare bedroom and closed the door. When he logged into the psychiatric website, he was directed to an office that looked remarkably similar to the one he used to have. Oriental rug on the floor, walls and paintings in a warm orange and yellow palette, soft lighting, a sofa, a desk with papers and picture frames with photos of what looked like real people. What was that about? Like robots had families. Ha.

“The doctor will be with you momentarily,” said a honeyed female voice.

Fuck this. Where’s the human touch. Doesn’t that mean anything anymore? Once AI robotic practitioners had become more sophisticated and efficient, the government had limited the procedures that human doctors were allowed to perform because flesh and blood doctors made mistakes and got sued, and AI robots could be retrained almost instantaneously and learn from their mistakes, while it took humans a lot longer to change their habits. Nowadays, when people had a choice between humanic and robotic treatment, they were apt to choose the latter.

Onscreen, the avatar that walked into the room was somewhere in its fifties, slightly overweight with thinning gray hair and blue eyes. It seated itself at its desk, put on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, and smiled at Grant, its eyes crinkling at the edges.

“What brings you here?”

Grant’s first reaction was that he was glad he’d be talking to a man. Damn, I’m talking to a machine and “gender” still matters.

“I’m feeling a bit down, Doctor…”

“Berman. Doctor Berman.” The voice was soft, warm, empathetic.

“I need some… meds… medication to help me feel better.”

“All in good time. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself, your family?”

Grant took a deep breath and launched into a description of his wife and son. He felt ridiculous.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “You can access my personal records. Why should I waste time telling you what you already know?”

The avatar raised an eyebrow, no doubt how it was trained to react to a hostile tone. “Of course.” It removed its glasses and leaned forward. “Can you describe how you’re feeling, Grant?”

“Um. I think I’m depressed. I’m not interested in doing much.”

“Have you been depressed in the past?”

“Not really.”

“Hm.” The avatar looked down at a notebook on its desk, as if it had need of written notes. Then it looked up and cocked its head.

“What brings meaning to your life?”

Grant bit his lip. He could confess that all the meaning had been sucked out of him, but he wasn’t there to discuss the new normal. He was there for the meds, so he had to say something.

“Um… my family means everything to me.”

“I sensed a little hesitation there. Would you like to talk about it?”

The doctor’s gaze was so gentle, his voice so reassuring. He was tempted to talk about Rob and how afraid he was that his son might…hurt himself. The two of them had worked together in the garage for a while, but Rob had been listless and emotionally withdrawn, and Grant had finally given up the project. Then, a couple weeks ago, Rob had done a one-eighty. He’d perked up and begun hanging out with his best friend Evan. Grant knew that people who decided to kill themselves sometimes exhibited a false optimism, relieved that they were about to put an end to their suffering.

“Grant?”

“Hm?”

“You seemed to drift off there. What else besides your family gives you meaning?”

“You might think this is crazy, doctor. Guess I shouldn’t use that word here.”

Berman smiled. “That’s okay, Grant. Crazy is just a…crazy word that isn’t in the DSM and has no meaning in this office.” A little robotic humor, but somehow that made him seem more human. “Now what was it you were going to tell me?”

“Um… nothing. It was silly. And not relevant to our discussion.” He was about to tell the doctor about the mysterious sound and how it made him feel, but something told him to keep that secret.

“Nothing is silly in here, Grant.”

“Really, doctor, it’s nothing.”

Grant had to be careful. Robodocs scanned every movement, twitch, change of expression, and could determine your feelings at any given moment, which made them excellent diagnosticians. A session with a robo-shrink was not unlike undergoing a lie detector test. He knew that fooling them was hard, but not impossible. The doctor wrote something in his notebook. Taking notes. What bullshit.

“How did it feel working in your garage?” The doctor had landed a verbal sucker punch, and Grant stiffened and clenched his fists.

“You know about that?” Stupid question. Of course, everything the good doctor needed to know was at his fingertips (or whatever the robotic equivalent).

“I sense my question made you anxious.”

“No. You surprised me, is all. But to answer your question, it was…exhilarating.” No harm in being honest about this.

“Hm.”

Grant braced himself for the next question.

“Would you do it again?”

Grant shook his head slowly and held his hand out in front of him in a sign of surrender, willing his heart to slow down. “Uh uh. No way.” He told Berman how sorry he was that he’d violated the Compact and put his family in financial peril. Grant hoped his face and body reflected his words.

Berman nodded and said he was going to prescribe something for depression. Then he froze for a few seconds, his eyes vacant as he dipped into his massive database, performing a series of complex search algorithms of all the psychiatric research in the world and matching the results to Grant’s medical history and diagnosis to come up with the best possible treatment. That momentary absence of affect reminded Grant that the good doctor was nothing more than a compilation of zeros and ones.

Find something you love to do, Ellie had told him, and put your heart and soul into it. The rest of his family seemed to be doing that: Ellie was immersed in her artwork. Rob was working on his mysterious project. Grant was the only outlier. He’d stopped working in the garage, knowing that if he was caught a third time, he’d be sentenced to the Correctional Colony for Multiple Offenders, which was located somewhere on government-owned land in Nevada. He didn’t know anyone who had served time there, but rumor had it that harsh interrogation and brainwashing were part of the “correctional” process. Not only would his family suffer financially in his absence, but he could end up psychologically damaged.

Maybe he could do something on his retirement bucket list—like learning Italian or physics—though neither of those projects appealed to him anymore.

The doctor had prescribed an anti-depressant that he said was eighty-seven percent effective, and for the next few days, Grant estimated he felt okay about eighty-seven percent of the time, though the thrumming continued to wake him up most nights, pulsing through his body, bringing tears to his eyes.

#

Grant and Ellie didn’t notice right away when Rob disappeared, since their son had been spending most nights at Evan’s—at least that’s what he told them. But now Rob wasn’t answering his phone, and there was no one home at Evan’s when they stopped by. By the third day, Ellie wanted to file a missing persons report, but Grant objected.

“He’s a big boy, El. I’m not worried.” Though that wasn’t entirely true.

That night Grant had trouble getting to sleep, so he went downstairs and stretched out on the living room couch. He’d just drifted off when someone shook his shoulder.

“Dad. Wake up. Get dressed. Something I want to show you. Don’t say anything to Mom yet. Okay? I’ll wait for you outside.” And he was out the door.

Still half asleep, but relieved that Rob was okay, Grant pulled some clothes out of the hamper, got dressed, and joined his son on the front porch.

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

“Shhh.” Rob put his finger to his lips. “Actually no. I want to surprise you. Don’t know whether you’ll shout for joy or want to kill me. Either way it’s going to happen.”

“What’s going to happen?”

“You’ll see.”

Something had captured Rob’s imagination; and Grant’s curiosity combined with the boredom of his everyday existence sealed his acquiescence.

“Okay.”

“Good. We’re going for a long walk, and you’ve gotta be really quiet.”

He led Grant down a dirt road that cut into the woods behind the subdivision. Soon the light from the streetlamp disappeared. They stopped, and Rob reached into his backpack and pulled out two flashlights.

“How far are we going?

“About three quarters of a mile. Sure you’re up for this, Dad?”

“Hard for me to say since I don’t know what ‘this’ is, but how can I say no to my only son”

“That’s the spirit, Dad,” said Rob.

They trekked for what seemed like forever, the silence broken only by the sound of their footsteps and the occasional scampering of mysterious woodland creatures. Finally, Rob stopped and aimed his flashlight at something in the distance. “There it is.” The light revealed a primitive barn-like structure built into a clearing up ahead.

“I didn’t know there was anything here.”

“There wasn’t until Evan built it.”

They approached the makeshift building, which was fronted by what looked like garage doors. Rob punched a combination lock and the doors rolled up. Bright lights suspended from the ceiling temporarily blinded him. But when he adjusted to the light, he saw Evan, another grease-covered guy, and three shiny sports cars lined up side by side.

“Rob… how… why?”

“When I got that rejection, something snapped. I talked to Evan. He was rejected twice, you know. Anyway, we agreed we’d never get jobs. We were angry as hell and decided to do something spectacular.”

“But this is so… I don’t know… out of character for you.”

“Yeah. That’s the thing. Evan and I have always been the nerdy good boys. Never had adolescent rebellions like regular kids. Still be that way if someone had hired us, so maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t. Anyway, now that there’s no future for us, what have we got to lose?”

Defiance shone in his son’s eyes and put color in his cheeks. Rob gave a full-dimpled smile, and Grant realized that defiance had turned his son into a handsome young man.

“Actually” said Rob, “there’s a slim chance there might be a future.” He rested a hand on the hood of the car closest to them. “There are people out there. Not many. But growing… at least we think they are. Fighting the system. A few who have infiltrated robotics companies. Others doing the kinds of things we’re about to do.” He gently patted the car. “Freedom fighters. Doesn’t that give you hope?”

Hope. Something I lost along the way. As proud as Grant had been of his son’s technical genius, what he felt now was orders of magnitude greater.

“Check these out, Dad.” He gave the hood a final pat and stepped away.

Grant turned his attention to the three heart-stopping sports cars parked side-by-side, with headlights like alligator eyes and grills baring metal teeth. Corvettes. He approached the first one, a gleaming red beauty, and touched its sleek fiberglass body, as erotic as any woman’s. The fuckers who ran the country had ripped the heart and soul out of the quintessential American legend, replacing it with a neutered husk of a car. He circled the “Vette,” running his hand lightly over its satiny skin.

“Vintage,” said Rob. “1960.”

“Yeah, I know. I drove one. Long time ago.”

Snippets of memory. A wild nighttime ride in his rich friend’s 1960 retro Corvette convertible. Out of Atlantic City, down the White Horse Pike, past gas stations and shopping centers and the old drive-in until there were only trees and occasional farm stands. The sound! That’s what he’d been hearing. Engines being tested in this garage in the dead of night, evoking images of that night so many years ago. That night when his friend had stopped the car in the middle of nowhere and said the magic words. “You wanna drive?”

Hell yes.

And what a ride it had been.

Grant put his hand on the next car, a silver C2 1964 Sting Ray coupe parked next to the convertible. It had split rear windows, hidden headlamps, a tapered rear. Then he walked over to the last car in line, a Marlboro maroon stunner with chrome trim and spinner wheels. He was taking in the wonder of it all when a female voice rang out behind him.

“Hey, Ev.”

The grease-covered guy turned out to be a young woman, tall, blond and gap-toothed. “I think this one’s ready to roll, Ev,” she said. “Could you try her out?”

“Okay, Bree.” Evan slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition. The engine sputtered as if gasping for air before it came to life. Evan raced the engine and it roared, releasing its pent-up energy in joyous combustion. Grant breathed it in, letting the sound fill his lungs, power his heart, and course through his veins.

“You gonna join us?” asked Rob.

He had so much to lose. Almost certain incarceration in the penal colony. For what? A flashy statement? A joyride? No. A public declaration of independence.

Evan cut the engine, and for a split second the world was silent, while Rob’s question hung in the air.

“Yes. YES,” said Grant. He’d ride for all the kids who’d never know how it felt to be free, for the kid in himself, for the sheer joy that had been Hoovered out of him.

“You wanna drive?” asked Rob.

The magic words. “Hell yes.”

“Okay. I’ll ride shotgun.”

At 8:00 a.m. they lined up caravan style outside the barn, Grant and Rob leading the way. They gunned their engines, and Grant was reminded of the words to an old Kenny Rogers song. “Let’s go out like we came in, in a blaze of glory.”

They made maximum noise as they drove down the dirt road, and by the time the caravan turned onto Sassafras Way at 8:15 a.m. or thereabouts, people were streaming out of their houses. Maybe he’d been wrong and there would be a groundswell of support. Grant’s heart pumped as if powered by pistons. But by the time they parked in front of his house, most of the people were heading back inside—maybe because they were afraid it would cost them too much to show support. Or, sadly, because they’d bought into the new world order.

Hope revealed itself in a small but enthusiastic group of neighbors who stayed outside. Ellie stood on the lawn in her pajamas and slippers, yelling something he couldn’t hear. The three drivers killed their engines, and Rob stood up on the passenger seat, holding a megaphone in one hand and waving his other arm to silence the onlookers.

“We’ve got room for two more passengers, he shouted into the megaphone. “Who wants to join us? We’re riding for freedom.”

Grant’s heart pounded as he stood up in the driver’s seat, holding onto his son for balance. Rob handed him the megaphone, and Grant’s hands shook at he lifted it to his mouth and yelled, “I’m riding to protest the stupid laws that keep us locked up in our homes. Anyone who wants to ride for freedom, come with us.”

Grant turned to Ellie, whose face reflected…what? Shock? Resignation? Sadness? And put his hand over his heart. He lowered the megaphone and mouthed “I love you. I’m sorry.” And he was; but once he’d started down this path, he couldn’t turn back. She could survive on the Freedom Bonus. He raised the megaphone and yelled, “Who wants to take a ride?”

A sixteen-year old kid from up the block rushed the car, hands in the air, yelling “Me. Me.” Rob pointed to the empty passenger seat next to Evan in the Sting Ray behind him. The boy high-fived Evan before walking around the car and leaping over the side into the passenger seat.

“Last chance,” yelled Grant.

Nobody moved. Grant handed the megaphone back to Rob and sat down. A tap on the shoulder. Ellie in her pajamas. He struggled to hear what she was saying above the noise of the racing motors. “….believe in you…coming…family…” What was she saying?

“Way to go, Mom,” Rob yelled into the megaphone. “Last car with Bree. Next time it will be ladies first.”

Ellie gave a thumbs up to Rob. Then she leaned over and kissed Grant. “What do I have to lose?”

A lot, he thought. She and Rob would have one, maybe two strikes against each of them and would probably be docked a chunk of income and… His thoughts were interrupted by the revving of engines behind him. In response, he pressed down on the accelerator.

When everyone was in place, Rob yelled, “Maybe next time, people.” And the few neighbors supporting them cheered.

Maybe next time. Where there’s life there’s hope.

“Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.”

The three drivers shifted into gear, and they were off.

Grant’s heart raced with the sound of freedom. He set the pace, careening down the narrow, winding streets of Willow Ridge, then out onto the highway. He shifted into fourth gear and the wind blew a high-pitched descant to the deep rumble of the engine. This was his freedom bonus. He could already hear sirens in the distance. He shifted into fifth and pressed the pedal down all the way, as if willing the car to take flight and carry him to another dimension. The sound of the approaching sirens reminded him how little time he had left. One thing he knew for sure: He would enjoy the ride and go down fighting.


Published in Shocking Verbs, Lawless Nouns, an anthology of fiction, poetry, and prose by the Bucks County Writers Workshop.

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