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Updated: 6 days ago

“Stupid public transportation pod,” he grumbled, rubbing his head.

The falcon-wing door closed above him.

“Destination Please Edmond,” a female voice asked.

Edmond slung his pack into the empty seat.

“You know the destination. A red, inoperable message flashed on the window when he pressed the button.

“Destination Please,” the female voice asked again.

He punched the empty front seat.

“The same destination it has always been!”

A sticky substance clung to his boots.

“Please book your ride through the BETO next time for faster, efficient service. The environment thanks you,” the female voice said.

I have no desire to merge with the Better Environment Thriving Oasis (BETO). I am fine with the natural world, Edmond thought, covering his mouth and nose with his sleeve.

“What is the stench in here?”

The public transportation pod left his house.

“I am sorry, but my sensors do not detect smell. You will be arriving at your destination in 47 minutes.”

Edmond sighed, tapping his analog watch.

“You’ve been late 3 times. I can’t keep covering for you.”

Edmond zipped up his protective jacket while looking at a faded picture taped to his locker.

“I know Fernand. The useless public transportation pod was late again.”

Edmond slams his locker.

“The line is down,” Fernand said, looking up at Edmond.

Edmond disconnected his breathing respirator from his helmet.

“You should buy an Evoke?”

Edmond inspects his respirator after sitting on a bench.

“Their electric cars cost too much.”

I don't see my kids on the other side of town. An Evoke would solve my problems, Edmond Thought.

A holographic display materialized in the locker-room, showing their sector is clear of contaminants.

“The shift lead is going to fire you if you’re late again. Good luck finding a job outside the BETO,” Fernand said.

Edmond followed the crew through the airlock to the break room.

“How did you buy an Evoke? We earn the same pay.”

The vending machine robot scanned Fernand’s iris and handed him two sustenance drinks called Slurm.

“I entered the Beto because I was in your situation, but also for entertainment. If you know what I mean,” Fernand said.

Edmond looked in the direction Fernand was pointing.

“Wow! Is that Amanda you hang out with in the BETO? I have never seen her outside the factory floor. How does wasting time in the BETO help me buy an Evoke?”

Fernand handed the empty Slurm container to the sanitation robot and crossed his arms.

“She is my dream girl. Your social credit score is terrible because you spend all your time in the natural world. I don’t know why you like the natural world. You hate robots and there are more robots in the natural world than people,” Fernand said.

Edmond finished his Slurm, curious if Amanda was real.

“What does my social credit score have to do with anything? I would have saved enough to buy an Evoke years ago if the government did not steal 65% of my wages. They also forbid investing because it’s too risky since I don’t have the education or income.”

Edmond crumpled the Slurm container and threw it on the floor.

Fernand glances at Amanda before responding.

“You idiot! The shift lead will see this on his environmental report and fine you for littering. That smirk will get you in trouble,” Fernand said.

Edmond reclines, props his boots on the table and intertwines his fingers behind his head.

“You will have to pay the fine because you bought the Slurm that makes you squirm!”

Fernand hits the table.

“This is not funny,” Fernand said.

Edmond puts his boots on the floor and grabs his gloves.

“Another sales pitch on the virtues of the BETO. I bet you helped build the monstrosity. Probably why you yap about it so much,” Edmund said.

Fernand leans over the table pointing his finger at Edmond.

“This is serious. We all have to do our part. The government tracks how long you spend in the natural world. The more time you spend outside the BETO, the more taxes you pay to protect the environment because of your carbon footprint.”

Edmond shrugs.

“I am rewarded for staying in the BETO that consumes massive amounts of energy, but taking a walk in the world God created for humans damages the environment?”

Fernand looks nervously around the room.

“Mentioning God will severely impact your social credit score, especially at work. I will not report you this time,” Fernand said.

Edmond stands up, adjusting his protective jacket.

“I know you're only trying to help. My wife left and I never see my kids because they spend all their time in the BETO with their mom. Our break is over. Grab your kit.”

Edmond hands Fernand his protective helmet.

“You and I have been friends since you started here. I’ll lone you the money to purchase the Evoke. My cousin works at the Evoke dealer in town. She can help you get a deal.”

Fernand secures his helmet and plugs in the respirator.

“Do I have to meet her in the BETO virtual dealership?”

Edmond checks his friend’s equipment.

“Purchasing the Evoke in the BETO gives you a sizable discount, but they offer walk in appointments for Luddites like you. I’ll drop you off at the dealership after work. With our employee discount, you might drive home with a new Evoke today."

Fernand checks Edmond's protective equipment, ignoring the tear in his jacket.

“That is a good point. We build the batteries for those things. I owe you, Fernand.”

Edmond’s antique mobile device chirped.

“Hi Dad, we wanted to show our friends your new Evoke!”

Edmond balanced the old cell phone on the dash of the Evoke to view the holographic message of his kids soaring above his house.

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“We are Dad. BETO recess is the best-gotta go.”

He watched the hologram of his kids flying away before hanging up.

A red exclamation blinked on the Evoke display.

“Evoke, diagnose the problem,” Edmond said.

The center console began displaying the results of the internal diagnostics.

“We are sorry Edmund. Your Evoke is offline. The iris scan could not identify you. The root cause is unknown. Would you like me to contact the dealer?”

Edmond rubbed his forehead.

“My Evoke is malfunctioning for the 3rd time this month! Yes, contact the dealer.”

The Evoke sensed his frustration.

“Hello, Edmond, this is the Evoke Service Center. We are downloading a code for the Evoke to drive itself to the dealer for a diagnostics scan. Will you be accompanying the Evoke or shall we arrange other transportation for you?”

Maybe they can take me to work in one of their luxury flying Evokes if they can’t fix mine, he thought.

“I’ll visit the dealership with my Evoke,” Edmond said.

The Evoke dealer ship was a gleaming oasis in the blighted neighborhood.

“Welcome to Transportation for any Reality,” a female voice announced.

The doors closed behind Edmund. The fresco on the ceiling made him feel insignificant.

“Hello Edmond, my name is Burt, an Evoke integration specialist.”

The specialist approached Edmond with an odd smile and outstretched hand.

“Nice to meet you.” The tingling sensation in Edmond’s arm stopped when he let go of Burt’s hand.

Burt paused while interpreting Edmond’s mental and physical state from the handshake.

“I’ll show you to the waiting room while we diagnose your Evoke.”

Edmond followed the specialist, observing the synthbio mechanics servicing the vehicles.

“Impressive is int it? Nanobots sent by code do most of the repairs, but the batteries require the old-fashioned garage,” Burt said.

Burt could sense Edmond’s elevated heart rate before he asked the question.

“Am I the only human here?” Edmund asked.

Burt paused, allowing Edmond to enter the waiting room.

“We have a minimum of three humans on site: a robotics specialist, a nano coder and a medical doctor. Please Help yourself to our fast food buffet. We are one of the few places to have a license to serve this type of food.”

Why would a dealership need a doctor? Edmond thought.

The buffet options were better than the last time he had dined at the dealership and beyond his ability to purchase on his salary.

“We found the root cause of the error. Your Evoke is having difficulty integrating with your bio waves,” Burt said.

Edmond took another bite, wiping the hamburger juices from his face.

“What does all that mean? Can you fix it so I can get to work?”

Burt sat down across from Edmond.

“The Evoke monitors your health for safety. Sometimes it can’t obtain data from the driver.” Edmund belched, interrupting Burt.

These monstrosities become embolden with every upgrade. It sits down at the table like we are equals, Edmond thought.

“Get to the point,” Edmond said.

“Some people have a bio frequency the Evoke can’t detect.”

Burt offered a foil wrapped hamburger to Edmond.

“Why is my frequency different?”

Burt senses agitation in Edmond.

“Some experts think praying alters the frequency.”

Edmond lowers his head, ignoring the hamburger.

“How can I get on the road? I can’t be late for second shift.”

Burt averted his attention from Edmond's nervous behavior and sensed movement in the corridor before responding.

“A synthbio specialist will record your neural network for uploading to the vehicle.”

Burt stood up when he saw Edmond's pupils constrict.

“I am not merging my mind with the Evoke to become a wheeled cyborg. I want a full refund if you can’t fix my Evoke.”

A clicking sound from the corridor outside the waiting room caught Edmund’s attention.

“Hello, Edmond, my name is Dr Tiber.”

Burt slumped in the chair. Its humanoid form was lifeless after the doctor touched it while walking towards Edmond. Dr Tiber took a sip of Edmund's soda, leaving a lipstick smudge on the straw.

“Forgive Burt. His interaction logic is not perfect yet. We would not upload your consciousness into the Evoke. That would be unethical without your consent.”

Edmond admired her legs in high heels before thoughts of work dashed his fantasy.

“I’m going to be late. Call a public pod for me.”

The Doctor placed her hands on Edmond's shoulders.

“There is nothing wrong with the Evoke. The problem is in here,” she said, tapping on his forehead.

“Relax Edmund, all this tension after a meal is not good for your digestion.”

Edmond was putty in her hands as she massaged his shoulders.

“I will place electrodes the size of a grain of rice under your skin here she said, massaging four points on his bald head. These electrodes will record your bio frequency so we can tune your Evoke. The procedure is painless. You can still make it to the factory. The electrodes will dissolve after 2 weeks with no follow up at the dealership.”

Edmond grabbed Dr Tiber’s wrist.

“Enough doctor. Drop me off at the factory with one of your flying Evokes and credit the money back to my account.”

Edmond strode towards the closed door.

“Do you want to risk being fired from your job because of the unreliable public pods? Think of the freedom you will have to see your kids whenever you want.”

How does she know about my kids? He thought.

The doctor tapped Burt on the back of the neck, activating the synthbio.

“We cover the procedure under warranty and I’ll have the finance department deduct 50 dollars from your monthly payment for the inconvenience.

Edmond opened the door.

“Make it 100 dollars and you have a deal.”

“The procedure was a success,” Burt said, closing the Evoke hood.

The red start button on the console pulsated like a heartbeat.

“Why is my vision is blurry?” Edmond asked.

“The vehicle has finished calibrating with your biorhythms so your vision will return to normal,” Burt said.

Edmond realized he was sitting in his Evoke.

“Where is Dr Tiber?” Edmond asked.

Burt adjusted his BETO visor.

“She is prepping for our next appointment. Press the start button and drive onto the test track for a safety check. The Evoke is configured with a basic setting until you become comfortable with the added sensory input. Eventually, you will control the vehicle with only your thoughts,” Burt said.

Edmond noticed his analog watch was missing.

“What time is it? I have to get to work.”

“You have plenty of time before your shift begins at the factory,” Press the start button.

A surge of electricity dispersed through his body, culminating in the center of his brain when he pressed the button. He felt like his consciousness splashed into a pool of warm salt water.

“Burt, this is amazing. I can feel the tire pressure for each wheel. I have immediate recall of the miles and battery range when I think of a destination.”

Edmond breathed in the smell of the new car. Better than the public pods, he thought.

He rummaged through the gift basket in the passenger seat while waiting for the stoplight and was disappointed it only had fruit.

I’ll give the basket to the homeless. There is a tent city a block from the factory, he thought.

When he turned the corner, the tent city was gone. Also, no potholes, graffiti, or the condemned building.

Maybe the city approved the factory expansion and cleared every one out of the area.

An incoming message flashed on the Evoke windshield.

“Where is my phone?” He frantically checked his pockets and the center console? Great, it’s at the dealership with my watch.

Hi Dad, nice ride. We didn’t think we’d see you here. Want to race? His kids asked, pulling alongside his Evoke in their early model Tesla.

A sickening feeling welled up inside as he watched his two kids not old enough to drive accelerate down the road.

“Containment team to base. Successful upload from sector B.”

“Excellent containment team. Good Work. Your 4:30 appointment is on schedule.”

“We will be ready,” the doctor said.

“Two more to go and the gated community in the hills of the natural world is all mine,” she thought.

“Doctor Tiber, Fernand is requesting to speak with you. He has not received his bounty,” Burt said.

“He has not met the factory quota. Let him fret a few more days.”

Photo by Pexels and Pixaby

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Her black hair wound into a bun and no makeup was her preferred look as she crept down the stairs.

She read the note on the kitchen table and took the money.

Opening the zipper was like a thunderclap. She shoved the note in her backpack, listening for any movement in the house.

She noticed a light on upstairs.

No one can see me leaving the house at 3:30am, she thought.

Lin could tell something was wrong. Her mother’s heels made a clicking noise on the kitchen floor as she paced back and forth.

“Did Stanford and Cal Tech contact you about your applications?” her mother asked.

Lin sighed, relieved her mother did not discover her morning destination.

“They didn’t email me.”

“Why?” Her mother asked, drumming her nails on the marble counter top.

Lin walked towards the refrigerator, avoiding her mother.

“They probably have a lot of applications to review,” Lin said.

Her mother rubbed her temples and took a deep breath.

“Care to explain why they did not receive your applications?”

Lin opened the refrigerator door to avoid her mother’s interrogating stare.

“Close the door and look at me. If you don’t graduate from college, you will not receive your inheritance from your grandfather.”

Lin closed the door, unable to tell her mother why she didn’t send the applications.

“You’re on the wait list to Caltech thanks to your father’s alumni connections, but you need to send the application by Friday.”

Lin stopped mopping when she heard Mr Chen’s van. The highlight of her day was unloading the cargo before school.

“Good Morning Mr Chen,” Lin said, watching him disarm the store alarm.

Mr Chen said nothing as he adjusted his apron and inspected the dough.

“Excellent work. It is good to be back. Please read the temperature of the oil, Mr. Chen asked, removing the thermometer from the fryer?

Lin glanced at the thermometer.

“375 degrees.”

He wiped the oil from the thermometer and sat at a prep table.

“Perfect temperature. Please bring me some hot water. You don’t seem yourself today.”

Lin poured hot water into a teapot from the coffee machine on the counter.

“I am ok Mr Chen. Tell me about your trip while we unload the van.”

Mr Chen removed two teacups from a box on the prep table.

“Tell me your troubles over some tea. We can discuss the Mount Shasta discovery later. ”

Lin glanced at the clock on the wall.

“Let’s unload the van. I don’t want to be late for school.”

Mr Chen took his time preparing the tea.

“If you don’t want to talk, I understand after tea we can unload the Van.”

Lin sat across from Mr Chen, her foot tapping against the table.

“Mr Chen, I may have to quit my job.”

Lin poured herself a cup of tea.

“A smart girl like you leaving for college already?”

Lin pushed the teacup towards the center of the table and crossed her arms.

“My mom would go ballistic if she found out I have a job. The worst part is I don’t want to go to college.”

Mr Chen stroked his white beard, waiting for the tea to steep.

His calmness was infuriating, while her life was in chaos, she thought.

“Where does your mother think you go?”

Lin took a deep breath and reached for her teacup.

“I told her I have tennis practice.”

His rare boisterous laugh was calming, but why does he think this is funny? She thought.

“Do you enjoy your job?”

Mr Chen noticed the question displaced her gloom.

“I like working here, but my mother would not understand. She has never had a job.”

Mr Chen finished his tea and lit a cigarette.

“Would your father approve of working instead of college?”

Lin took a sip of tea while thinking about the question.

“My mother runs the house, so I don’t think he has a choice.”

Mr Chen removed a jade key from his pocket.

“Stand your ground with your mother. We can talk later. Help me unload the van before the customers arrive.”

“Mom, where are we going?”

Her mother smiled while glancing at the elementary school.

“We are meeting your father.”

It seemed like yesterday when they arrived in the USA, she thought.

“Remember Lily from elementary school?”

Lin scrolled through cellphone videos, recalling her first friend.

“Yea, I have not seen her since private school.”

Her mother changed lanes before responding to her daughter.

“Her mother told me Lily has a scholarship to the University of Texas,” her mother said.

Lin massaged her forehead.

“Did Caltech contact you?” her mother asked.

Lin closed her eyes, dreading the conversation over dinner with her dad.

“I have not,” Lin said, crossing her arms.

Lin noticed her mother digging her nails into the steering wheel.

“I’ll call your guidance counselor.”

Lin uncrossed her arms, recalling Mr Chen’s advice.

“He might convince me to enlist in the Army,” she said.

Lin’s mother gripped the steering wheel.

“You will not enlist!” she admonished.

One more jab and I’ll accept my fate, she thought.

“You could share pictures of my shaved head at boot camp with your friends.”

Lin noticed her mother’s clenched jaw.

“Forward me your application email and I will contact admissions!”

Lin slumped in her seat.

“I did not send the application.”

Her mother cut across traffic, oblivious to the horns blaring, and stopped the car.

“Why are you stalling?”

Lin shifted in her seat.

“I want to work at the bakery instead of college.”

Lin’s mother glowered.

“You have a job? Did your father approve?”

Lin said nothing.

“You can do what you want after college. Tomorrow you quit your job!.”

Yes, mother.

The smell of doughnuts and something else greeted Lin when she entered the bakery.

Four bears with red streaks of hair pounced on her before she could lock the door.

“Hi Lin, we missed you,” a bear said.

“Back to work!” Mr Chen shouted.

The bears hugged Lin before scurrying past Mr Chen as he approached from the kitchen.

“Everything ok? You have never been late,” Mr Chen said, locking the door.

Lin’s hands trembled and her face turned downward as she approached Mr Chen.

“I can’t work here anymore,” Lin said, handing him a jade key.

Mr Chen removed a doughnut from the display case.

“Keep it. Visit the bears anytime. Try their new creation,” Mr Chen said, offering her a marmalade doughnut.

Lin’s mother motioned for her to enter the kitchen.

“I spoke to Mr Chen, and he apologized for causing any problems. He spoke highly of you and understands your family obligation,” her mother said.

Lin balled her fists and nodded.

“Mom, would it be ok if I stopped by the doughnut shop after school?”

Her mother opened her purse, aware her daughter was angry about quitting.

“Of course, and buy a dozen for us,” her mother said, handing her some money.

Mr Chen smiled when he saw Lin and brought a pot of tea after serving the last customer.

“Hi Lin. The bears will join us once the kitchen is clean. For now, we can talk.”

Lin filled two cups with tea.

“Mr Chen, you never told me about your Mount Shasta trip.”

Mr Chen unrolled a map on the table.

“The expedition was a success. Cyrus led us to 4 more Lava Bears,” Mr Chen said, pointing at the map.

“We are close to understanding how the bears talk.”

Pots clanging in the kitchen interrupted their conversation.

“We discovered other locations enabling the bears to speak English.”

Lin leaned over the map, intrigued by more talking bears.

“I thought they could only live on Mount Shasta. Otherwise they would act like regular bears,” Lin said.

Mr Chen slapped his hand on the table, startling Lin.

“True, until we discovered Austin has similar properties to Mount Shasta. I plan to open a second bakery.”

Lin took a sip of tea, thinking about a second bakery.

“I would like for you to run the Austin location with these clowns,” Mr Chen said.

The bears barged through the kitchen door.

“My mother would never approve.”

Mr Chen Smiled returning to his normal composure.

“I figured, so I contacted an alumni colleague at the University of Texas and she granted you admission this fall to their honors program.”

The bears clambered over the table to encourage her.

“Ok, Ok. I can convince my mom going to UT is a good idea,” Lin said, roughhousing with the bears.

“Be quiet and hide,” Lin said, pushing the bear into her backpack.

Lin ran to the front door.

“Mom, I am accepted at UT!”

Her mother looked up from her book.

“Texas, don’t they have a cow mascot? Did Lily’s acceptance influence you?”

She rubbed the back of her neck and sighed before responding to her mother.

“Austin is a high-tech city,” Lin said.

Her mother closed the novel Beyond the Goat Trails and shook her head.

“I don’t know. Cal Tech is better.”

Lin set her backpack on the floor.

“Cal Tech is for graduate school. I can start this fall in UT’s honors program. You can tell grandmother the good news! She does not know a Caltech Beaver from a Texas Longhorn.”

Lin knew her mother was considering her grandmother’s approval.

An honors program and immediate acceptance,” her mother thought.

Lin saw a paw reaching through the bag and closed the zipper.

“Are you going to tell grandmother?”

Lin moved the backpack out of view.

“You can attend UT.”

Lin ran towards her mom.

“You smell like marmalade." Her mom said, hugging Lin.

Photo of Mount Shasta by Jill Clardy

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

The group was on alert when the tailgate dropped clanging on the rusted bumper. The occupants clambered out of the bed of the pickup truck. Some of them walked around to regain circulation from the long ride. The more seasoned of the group acclimated to their environment and waited for their leader.

“Hey Roy, does Sam always leave this early in the morning?”

Roy watched the condensation clouds from his breath, longing for the warmth of the fire before he responded to Ben.

“He grew up on a farm and was an intelligence officer during the war. This is a late start compared to his regular schedule.”

Ben walked closer to Roy but gave him some distance out of respect for his position in the group. He couldn’t resist giving him some grief about his age.

“Maybe it’s best you stay with the truck and guard the gear. Hate for you to break a hip,” Ben said after his nostrils flared, filling with an unfamiliar smell in their environment.

Roy reflected on his first hunting trip. Sam had sold his 15 Ben Franklin Discount Stores and took Roy hunting in his brand new pickup truck. The smell of beef jerky is always insatiable. He kept his cool, though.

“Ben, don’t even ask about the beef jerky. Hang back, learn from the others, but most of all, always heed Sam’s commands and he will reward you. Sam shares the spoils of success with his associates and treats them as partners.”

Ben nodded and ambled to the flanks to observe the group and Sam.

“Roy, I was bred for this day!”

This kid has potential, Roy thought.

Roy checked over the group one last time, looking back at Sam stowing his thermos in the truck. The hunt was about to begin.

“Ben, you did a good job out there today,” Sam said, relaxing in the shade of a hill overlooking the expanse of traversed land.

Ben shifted his weight from his aching muscles to the shade tree.

“Thanks Roy, you kept pace with us. I am impressed. Where does Sam take you every day?”

Roy lapped up some water and smiled.

“Sam takes me in his airplane to scout new locations or meet associates at his stores.”

Ben sensed Roy was in story mode about his adventures with Sam and got comfortable.

“Sam is a good leader. He will challenge you with new opportunities and give you the space to succeed or fail. I was in his office when military officers met with him to talk about his investment in an inventory system. Rumor is he has more computing power than the Pentagon, but Sam downplayed his role and gave all the credit to a college graduate who helped build the system,” Roy said.

Ben nodded, his tongue rolling out the side of his mouth, attempting to picture what Roy was telling him.

“Sounds like a lot of work. Going hunting with him is enough for me,” Ben said.

Before Roy could respond, he felt a clasp lock on his collar and a tug on the leash.

“Come on, boy, you're riding in the truck next to me,” Sam said, scratching Roy behind the ears.

Sam whistled for the rest of the pack to follow them.

“Ben, get the rest of the group into the truck. I think I might retire today.”

Ole Roy died in 1981 early in the growth trajectory of Sam Walton’s discount store empire, but immortalized on Wal-Mart’s private label dog food packaging.

Photo by Patrick Adcock on Unplash

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