J. P. Boyd
As dawn neared, Hugh Ransom was dreaming of walking along the beach at Grand Traverse Bay, hand-in-hand with his fiancée. He had been a nervous, anxious, fiercely ambitious graduate student seventy years earlier. What did she see in him? But Sarah was his fixed point, invariant to the dramas of churlish faculty, impatient mentors, buggy computer programs and uncooperative algorithms.
His eyes opened. He was ninety-four now, long a widower. The flexible organic videoscreen that wrapped around all four walls, even on the closed door, was filled with a summer beach on Lake Michigan, waves rolling ashore. His bedroom speakers spoke the soft susurrations of breaking waves and trees creaking with the wind. The aromatizer, steaming quietly next to his smart clock, filled the room and his age-muted senses with the pungency of a sea breeze and sun-ripening stranded minnows.
It was a very good dream. Although he was too frail to travel much, he woke every day of the week in a different vacation.
But he couldn’t linger. After a slow breakfast of bread,bananas, honey and apples, watching the Science Channel’s morning variety show, only clips customized to his interests, he would resume his post-retirement career as a beat policeman.
Two hours later, reclining in his study, he was in hot pursuit of a purse-snatcher. His police telesome was a four-armed pyramid-shaped box with roller treads and stubby legs, now folded up, for climbing stairs. When Hugh’s avatar neared the thief, Hugh pulled the trigger on his joystick. A cylinder, trailing a thin line, flew into his field-of-view, bounced just beyond the perp, and exploded into a net. The perp had only an instant to shout before the reticulation engulfed him.
Hugh tapped a few keys, using his official police passwords, to interrogate all the surveillance cameras on the street. Within a few seconds, he was watching a view of the purse snatching on his left panel and a different view from the ice-cream shop on his right.
He grinned at the bruised adolescent, irretrievably tied up in netting.
“You probably thought you were in the clear because I had just rolled around the corner. But my friends are always on duty.”
The small video panel on Hugh’s telesome usually displayed a police shield with his badge number, but now it replayed the mugging.
Hugh hid his laughter from the crestfallen perp. No doubt he’d plead, and be sentenced before dinnertime.
An electric paddywagon, managed by a human policewoman named Shakira Sands, pulled up a couple of minutes later. While her two burly telesomes stuffed the net-wrapped perp in the back, Shakira chatted with Hugh.
“The smart ones time our rounds. This kid must be dumber’n paint.”
Hugh chuckled. “I use my tablet to randomize my schedule. Even I don’t know where and when I’ll be.” With one exception, he noted mentally.
When the telesomes, both big, rectangular metal boxes with the usual two arms and legs, had reattached to the sides of the paddywagon, Shakira bent down to make sure she was in view of his front camera and waved.
Hugh then rolled through the streets as he did for four hours each weekday, indifferent to rain, snow and very bad intentions.
A rocket-propelled grenade had blown up his telesome once. It was surprising how much that hurt. “It’s only a small electric vehicle with a bunch of cameras”, his son Ian had said, not understanding. But it was also an avatar, an extension of self. It was like losing a finger or a best friend.
Still, beat cop was a good job for a senior. He had been many things: engineer, manager, and professor. The leisured life had never appealed to him after a life so busy. He wasn’t as sharp intellectually as he had once been, even with smart nutrition and a dazzling array of pharmaceuticals, and he needed more rest. Working twenty hours a week, sharing the telesome with five other oldsters, was about right.
One of the pleasures of the afternoon beat was that he could walk his ten-year-old great-granddaughter home from school. That was a rendezvous that was always built in to his otherwise-randomized patrol.
“Hi, Grampy!” she called when she saw him.
He throttled his treads to match her speed and changed his chest display to a live picture of himself.
“A good day for a walk, Claire.”
Scholastically speaking, every house was a university, but social education was best in groups, and children still went to school. It was strange how much had changed, and how much was still the same in his nine-plus decades. But today she was tired.
“Were you reading a book after being tucked in again?”
Claire smiled sheepishly. “A Saddlegirls book.” She sighed. “I really love horses.”
Hugh chuckled. He had never been physically inside his great-granddaughter’s room, but had once sent his house telesome over to climb the stairs — now difficult in his own skin — so that she could show him the posters, framed pictures, stuffed ponies and plastic horses that made her room a shrine.
They chatted about the cliques at school, and how Irving Sontemeyer had tripped in the cafeteria and sprayed three kids and a teacher with his plate of spaghetti.
“Bye, Claire.” Hugh sighed and rolled on to uneventfully finish his shift.
Afterwards, he grabbed his walker and shuffled out to the kitchen to make a late lunch. His infoserver used his known preferences to automatically splice together a dozen video clips about the topics that interested him: the Boston Red Sox, terrorism in Argentina, currency exchange rates, Civil War history. He watched and munched. Then, equipped only with windbreaker, cane, and the communicator medallion that always hung around his chest, he walked up and down the street, very slowly, for nearly an hour. Daily exercise was good for him, and sometimes he would wave at the joggers who flashed by. Liza Kanzawa, who had once run the 10K for her high school, looked remarkably good in shorts, her long black hair bouncing wildly behind her, unencumbered by a ponytail.
Winded, he curled up in his recliner and read, a terribly old-fashioned hobby. Much as he enjoyed technology, especially the gadgets that compensated for his failing body, the good life was a blend of new tech with the old and the familiar. Perhaps Pharaoh had felt the same, four millenia ago!
After his nap, he reclined in his chair and went to his book club: five old men keeping their brains alive. Tommy Kincannon, who was also a former engineer-manager, lived on the New Zealand coast. Kiki Polamu on Maui. Lev Perelman in Haifa. In a wired age, it didn’t matter. Hugh pulled the side panels around him so as to have a good view of everybody, and held down his end of the discussion about the autobiography of the first commander of the permanent moon station.
Today was special because he left the house, zipping to Spago’s restaurant in his little electric car. With his stiff neck and slow reflexes, Hugh was too old to drive a car himself. He felt a sense of loss and nostalgia because earning his driver’s license had been a big milestone when he was a teen. He still vividly remembered dropping his dad at the house and then talking a victory lap, solo, around the neighborhood. His electric runabout, though, was an artificial intelligence, navigating its way with lidar and continuous downloads of speed, direction, and control inputs from every vehicle nearby. He closed his eyes, dreaming of fettucine alfredo, and let the network chauffeur him.
His son Ian was in his late sixties, the haggard manager of his own construction company, wrestling with balky personnel, late shipments, weather delays, and a thousand other curses.
“Missy made the freshman volleyball team,” he told his father. “I don’t know how long she can continue — “.
Abruptly, Ian laughed, and for a moment the frown-line disappeared. “She’s short, but she makes up for it with brains and orneriness.”
Hugh chuckled, too. His eldest great-grand was a lot like him.
As he rode home in the darkness a couple of hours later, Hugh touched the pendant hanging from his chest. The computer listened to the dozen tiny implants that monitored Hugh’s bodily functions, and would call for paramedics if there were any problem. At least Ian didn’t have to worry about his old man.
As he drifted off to sleep, Hugh shook his head, thinking of Ian. It was tough to be young.
And then he dreamed of going back with his dead wife to Traverse Bay nearly seventy years earlier, in the heart of cherry country. He bought them both cones at a large store, manned by a horde of college students from all over the Midwest, called Cherry Republic. He still remembered the motto above the front door: `Life, liberty, beaches and pie.’ It was a very good dream.