Sunday, April 28, 2019

Another story from The Robot Revolution
First published in  CommuterLit

Rip Van Winkle                                             
            When Rip woke up, he didn’t know where he was. Then he looked around and saw that he was in his own bed in his own house. But something didn’t seem right. It was the color of the room, a soft pink. He remembered painting it a light green. There were things on the bureaus that he didn’t remember seeing before.
            He climbed out of bed and looked into the mirror that hung over the dresser. He pulled back in alarm when he saw an old man staring back at him. Then he remembered: he had woken up a few days ago in a hospital room, it seemed like. There was a lot of excitement when he woke up. Nurses kept running into the room and talking excitedly. Then a doctor came and explained what had happened to him. But Rip didn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense to him. After a couple of days they brought him back home, but it was late when he arrived, and he had gone right to bed.
            He shook his head at the image in the mirror. Then he got dressed and walked out through the living room to the kitchen where he saw a plump blonde woman stirring a pot on the stove. She looked familiar, but he didn’t recognize her.
            “Oh, good! You’re up. How are you feeling? Are you hungry? I’ll fix you some breakfast.”
            Rip sat at the kitchen table. He thought the woman must be his daughter Alison, but she had changed since he had last seen her.
            The woman brought him a cup of coffee and hugged him.
            “Can you tell me what’s going on? I’m confused, Alison.”
            The woman laughed. “I’m not Alison. That’s my mother. I’m Heidi, your granddaughter.”
            It was getting more confusing all the time. “How can you be my granddaughter?” he asked. “Heidi is still in high school, and you must be…”
            “I’m thirty-four, grandpa. I graduated from high school many years ago.”
            “But where have I been all those years?”
            “Didn’t they explain it in the nursing home? You were in a coma for almost twenty years.”
            “Twenty years? How did that happen?”
            “Evidently there was some kind of unusual reaction between your heart medication and Tylenol. Didn’t the doctor explain that to you?”
            “I guess he tried to, but there was so much noise and confusion going on, that I didn’t understand very much of what he was saying.”
            “Do you still like your eggs over easy?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she went on, “Mom will be coming down this week-end. In the meantime I will be staying with you for a while. But you should be okay. The doctors put you in a hospital for a few days to undergo some tests, but they said you are fine.
            Heidi put the eggs on the table and popped two slices of bread in the toaster. She reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of pills, which she put in front of her grandfather.
            “Here are you heart pills. You need to take one with your breakfast. There is some Tylenol in the medicine cabinet. They are for my sinus headaches. Don’t you take any of it. We don’t want you to take another twenty-year nap.” She smiled.
            After Heidi took the dishes to the sink, she said, “I’m going to the market to pick up some things for dinner. Do you want to ride along with me?”
            “Sure. I don’t suppose my old car is still the garage.”
            “No, it’s long gone, but that’s no problem.”
            She picked up her phone from the counter and punched something into it.
            “What did you do?” Rip asked. “Did you just order a taxi?”
            “No,” she laughed. “I ordered a LandCar. I belong to an organization, and I can order a LandCar whenever I need it.”
            “You just order it on your cell phone?” Rip asked.
            “That’s right. I have a LandCar app on my phone.”
            “I have an old cell phone around here somewhere. Can I get that on my phone?”
            “Your old phone is obsolete. We’ll have to get you a new one. You need a cell phone for practically everything you do these days.”
            In a few minutes a car pulled up in front of Rip’s condo. They went outside and Heidi climbed into the back seat.
            “Are you sure you want me to drive?” Rip asked. “I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car for a long time.”
            Heidi laughed. “No, you get in beside me. This car drives itself.”
            Rip started to back out. “I don’t think I want to go,” he said. “I don’t trust a machine to drive me through traffic.”
            After she coaxed Rip back into the car, Heidi said, “Take us to ShopRite,” and the car started moving.
            Rip felt his heart leap up to his throat. “Stop the car!” he yelled. “Stop the car!”
            Heidi laughed. “Don’t worry, Grandpa. These self-driving cars are much safer than cars driven by people. In fact very few people drive cars themselves anymore.”
            When they entered the grocery store, Heidi showed something from her phone to a small monitor near the entrance. Then she picked up a basket and walked through the store picking up the things she wanted.
            When she had everything she needed, she started walking toward the entrance.
            Alarmed, Rip asked, “Aren’t you going to pay for the stuff you took? Are we going to get thrown in jail for shoplifting?”
            She chuckled. “Sorry,” she said. “I should be more careful to explain things to you. I checked in with my phone first when we got to the store. After that, everything I picked up was charged to my bank account. “I’m sure you noticed, there were no cashiers or cash registers. It’s a lot easier this way. People rarely pay cash for things these days. They just use their cell phones to make a direct payment from their checking accounts.”
            After Heidi put away the groceries, she made tuna sandwiches for lunch. As they were finishing their sandwiches, they heard a knock on the door. Heidi opened it to admit a short robot who rolled in on small wheels.
            “Good afternoon,” the robot said. “I am Murdok from the Office of Vital Statistics. Are you Rip Van Winkle?”
            Rip said he was.
            “Well, Mr. Van Winkle, you are delinquent in filing your Personnel Reports. You are supposed to file it by March 15 every year, and we haven’t had one from you for over twenty years.”
            “Iris used to file them. All that paper work gets me all confused. Besides, I was in a coma for almost twenty years.”
            “No one is excused for any reason from filing Personnel Reports. It is your responsibility as a citizen.”
            Murdok reached into a brief case, pulled out a pile of papers, and thrust them into Rip’s hands. “You have until Friday to fill out these forms for the past twenty years. I’ll be back to pick them up.”
            “I can’t do that by Friday.”
            “You should have been doing them every year, as required by law.”
            “I couldn’t do them. I was in a coma.”
            “I’m sorry, Mr. Van Winkle. I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them.”
            He wheeled around and went out the door.
            All the stress had given Rip a headache. He went into the bathroom and got a Tylenol. He took a couple of pills and lay down for his afternoon nap.

The Robot Revolution

Friday, April 12, 2019

Microchips                                                                   1001 words
Carl Perrin

            I looked through the keyhole and saw my Uncle Frank standing there. He was holding a bloody handkerchief to his right shoulder. I opened the door and pulled him inside.
            “What happened?” I asked
            He sat on the couch and pulled the handkerchief away.  “I cut out my microchip,” he said.
            “Here, take off your shirt and let me look at it.”
            The bleeding seemed to have stopped. He winced when I cleaned it with alcohol. After I put a bandage on the wound, I asked, “Why did you do a thing like that? Without the microchip you can’t use your phone, you can’t even buy a hot dog from a street vendor.”
            “And the government can’t track where I go.”
            Uncle Frank had always been the family radical, complaining about the government encroaching further and further into our lives, but cutting out the microchip seemed to be the height of folly.
            “Can I get you something to eat, a cup of coffee or something?”
            “I need something stronger.”
            That surprised me. Uncle Frank rarely even had a glass of wine. I poured a small glass of Seagram’s 7 for him, and he drank it right down.
            “You know, kiddo, things were a lot different when I was younger.”
            I love Uncle Frank, but I hate it when he calls me “kiddo.” I’m 39 years old and assistant principal at Middleton High School.
            He held out his glass for a refill. While I poured it for him, he said, “When I was younger no one had microchips. People used to microchip their dogs so they wouldn’t lose them. Then they started putting a chip in every child at birth. It was supposed to be a way to access their health records.”
            He stared out the window at the gathering darkness and then continued. “Pretty soon new flourishes were added. You could unlock doors with the wave of your hand. It was all so convenient.” He smiled sourly. “You needed the chip to operate your car. You needed it to get into college. You couldn’t get a phone without it.” He scoffed.
            He went to the sideboard and poured himself another drink. He drank it down and continued. “Then they added a GPS to the chip. That was the final straw. The government had you under its thumb. You couldn’t go anywhere without the government knowing where you were.”
            “You have to admit, though” I said to him, “it has cut down on crime. If a crime is committed anywhere, the police can find who was at the scene at the time.”
            “What they have stopped is freedom. They arrest anyone who doesn’t follow the party line.”
            That kind of talk from Uncle Frank was nothing new, but cutting out his microchip was really radical, even for him.
            “Maybe things aren’t like they were in the good old days,” I said, holding my fingers up to indicate quotation marks around the last three words. “But that doesn’t seem like a good reason to cut out your microchip.”
            He took a deep breath. “I got word an hour ago that they had arrested Redstone. I would have been next.”
            I knew Redstone slightly. He was one of Frank’s radical friends. The two of them were always talking about government suppression. Some people in the family got tired of hearing them talk, but I didn’t think it was against the law to say negative things about the government.
            I shook my head and asked, “What are you going to do now, Uncle Frank?”
            “I’m starting tonight for Freedomland. I’m hoping you can give me some food and maybe supplies for the trip.”
            The country was now concentrated on the coasts. Large land masses in between were no long controlled by Washington. People like Uncle Frank called it Freedomland. Others called it The Jungle. No one really knew.
            “There is empty farm land waiting to be taken over,” Frank said.
            I just looked at him.
            “It’s true,” he insisted. “I have heard it from people who have been there.”
            Neither of us said anything for a while. Then he asked me, “How come you never married, Jimmy?”
            The question stung me. He knew why I had never married, and it was a painful topic to me.
            “When I was young,” he went on, “people didn’t need permission from the government to marry.”
            I could not hold back the tears that sprang to my eyes. Annette and I were going to be married in the spring. When we went to the Office of Vital Statistics, we were not denied permission, but permission never actually came. There was something in her or my DNA that the government didn’t want, so they just strung us along for months.
            Then she got that fantastic job offer on the West Coast and had to go. For a while we called and emailed back and forth, but then she stopped taking my calls or answering my emails.
            Uncle Frank put his hand on my arm. “You know, don’t you,” he asked, “that the job on the West Coast for Annette never really existed?”
            I poured a double shot of Seagram’s 7 for myself and drank it right down.  
             I realized that I had been deluding myself for a long time. I had refused to face the truth. Annette had not decided out of the blue to stop writing to me. If an accident had befallen her, her family would have been notified. If she had decided to break our engagement, she would have let me know.
            For years there had been rumors about people who had just disappeared. I had always taken these stories as just more weird conspiracy theories. But now I was sure that Annette had been disappeared.
I went to the kitchen and got the sharpest knife I could find. I took off my shirt and said, “Cut that damned microchip out of my shoulder. I’m going to go to Freedomland with you.”

This story was originally published in CommuterLit and is part of the collection