“Don’t tell me you don’t have time. You always say that, but you seem to find time for the things you want to do.”
Charles Sturbridge attempted to listen to his wife’s tirades, but found the task more difficult with each passing day.
“I didn’t say we couldn’t go, I just said I can’t go right now,” he said, buttoning his shirt as he walked from their gaudy, over-decorated bedroom. Why he had thought she would have enough class to decorate their penthouse was beyond him. At the time he’d allowed it, he had been too enamored by her beauty to think straight. Amazing how 10 years of living with a shrew could change a man’s perspective.
“Are you walking away from me?” Kelly shrieked as though he had just slapped her. She had a knack for the dramatic.
With a heavy sigh, Charles turned toward her. “Of course not. I’m just getting ready for work and my shoes are in the living room.”
He actually didn’t know where his shoes were and was, in fact, walking away from her, but his trophy wife didn’t take dismissal well. Lying seemed the best course of action at the moment.
“Well,” she said, as though he cared, “the Frasier’s are going to Paris and then to Madrid and we haven’t been to either of those places in over two years!”
“I’m sure Paris isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.”
She flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder and shot him a petulant look that used to melt him to the spot. The neckline of her silk robe parted enough to expose the curve of her surgically enhanced breasts. Another pose that would have had him panting a decade ago. Now, he simply found it tedious.
Kelly sat on the edge of the bed, turning to exaggerate her assets and cooed, “Please, Charlie, promise we’ll go soon.”
Fastening the shirt button at his throat, he forced a smile and said, “Of course, darling. We’ll go before fall.”
She squealed and headed for the shower, totally unaware of the contempt he felt. He wasn’t sure who the bigger idiot was: him for trapping himself in a marriage with a gold digger or her for believing he was taking her to Paris anytime soon.
He headed to the living room just as his wrist piece began to vibrate. With a quick tap of the icon, he answered the phone option. “Yes?”
“Dad, are you on your way to the office?” Mike asked. He sounded upset.
“Getting dressed now. What’s going on?”
“Not sure. I think we’re getting a security breach.
Charles frowned. “Which account?”
“I can’t go into detail on the phone, but it looks like the Eagle account.”
“Hacked?” Charles pressed his hand against his chest to quell the pressure. Where was his nitro glycerin?
“I can’t say anymore. Just get here as soon as you can.” Mike ended the call and Charles envisioned his son, scrambling in an attempt to staunch the breach. Eagle was a major government account. A hack into that could be catastrophic for his company.
Charles tapped his wrist piece and waited for the computer voice to ask, “May I help you?”
“Get me an Autoride,” he said, slipping his feet into his shoes. He ended the call, knowing the computer would locate the closest self-driving vehicle and send it to his address.
“I’m heading to the office,” he yelled, toward Kelly, not really caring if she heard him over the sound of her shower. Her snit wasn’t top priority at the moment.
He grabbed his briefcase and jacket and hurried from his penthouse to the private elevator reserved for the top three floors of the Edwardian building. Wealth had its advantages at times like this.
The darkening sky mirrored his mood as he stepped to the curb and his awaiting Autoride. The silent electric vehicles were the only mode of transportation that had been allowed in the city for the last 25 years. Pollution free and far safer than automobiles, they had improved the atmosphere of the city by leaps and bounds, though occasionally Charles missed the independence of driving a car.
The door to the sleek white vehicle opened as soon as the Autoride detected his wrist piece as being the one that had summoned the ride. He slid onto the leather seat and waited for the computer to address him.
“Good morning,” the Autoride said with the comforting female voice ubiquitous to cyberspace. “My name is Sara.”
Of course, he thought. They’re all named Sara.
“Good morning, Sara. I’m Charles.” He always used his actual name, not giving in to the common practice of many of his friends who gave Sara ridiculous names so she would address them as such throughout their ride. Except for the one time he’d had a little too much to drink and told her his name was “Your majesty.”
“Good morning, Charles. Where would you like to go today?”
“Four ninety-seven, south third street.”
He waited while Sara calculated the rate. “That’ll be three hundred forty two dollars.”
With a quick wave of his wrist piece across the payment device, the system automatically deducted the amount from his financial account, and the door closed with a soft whoosh.
“Charles, the estimated time of arrival is in 23 minutes. Is the temperature comfortable for you?” she asked.
“It’s a little too warm. I prefer about 68 degrees.” Instantly cool air came from the vents, bringing the interior to the exact temperature he’d requested.
“Sara, please increase the lumbar support.”
“Of course, Charles,” she responded and the lower section of the seat inflated, relieving some of the pressure in his chest. He probably should send a report to his doctor. He hadn’t checked in for months, but if he sent a reading now, his blood pressure would be off the charts and an ambulance would probably be waiting for him at the office.
He didn’t have time for an ambulance. If Eagle had been breached, there would barely be enough time breathe.
“Charles, would you like a drink?” Sara asked, and for a brief moment he wondered what it would be like if could find a wife like Sara. Calming, sexy, kind…all the things his current wife was not.
He debated getting whiskey, but knew he needed to keep his head clear. If Mike was right and Eagle had been hacked, things were about to get dicey. “Water would be nice.”
He waved his wrist piece over the payment device and another 10 dollars was deducted from his account. With a quick tap, he checked his blood pressure. Too damn high. No way was he sending that to his doctor.
A small door opened on the dash and a cold bottle of water dropped into a slot within Charles’s reach.
“Thank you, Sara.” There was no need to actually thank a computer, but it allowed him to continue his fantasy of Sara-the-wife for a few minutes more.
“My pleasure, Charles.”
He chuckled, opened the bottle and tipped his head back for a drink, allowing his gaze to drift out of the window as another gleaming white Autoride pulled up beside them. He could barely make out the passenger inside, the tinted windows allowing privacy unless the passenger requested they be cleared. He wondered briefly if the Autorides had the ability to communicate with each other, but the thought barely formed in his mind before the vehicle beside him suddenly accelerated and darted down the street.
“Sara!” he said, leaning to watch the speeding Autoride more clearly. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, Charles,” she said as he watched the rogue Autoride slam into a building, collapsing on impact like a paper lantern.
Charles craned his neck in an attempt to see the wrecked Autoride as his own vehicle continued on its journey as though no one had just been killed a few yards ahead. It was unheard of. No Autoride had been in an accident in 25 years. Earlier, in the infancy of the Autoride industry, there had been a few accidents, but those had been caused by the human operated vehicles still on the roads. The collision-prevention technologies had been perfected to the point crashes and collisions simply didn’t happen anymore.
He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and mopped the moisture from his brow.
“Sara, please lower the temperature 5 degrees.” He waited for the air conditioner to kick on, but nothing happened.
“Sara,” he said, a little louder, “Please lower the temperature 5 degrees.”
Still no response. An uneasy knot formed in his gut as he loosened his tie.
His ride came to a stop at a traffic light, just as it should, and he started to relax. Just because one Autoride had malfunctioned, didn’t mean they all would. He wondered briefly about the passenger in the wrecked vehicle. Had he been killed? In all likelihood, yes. The Autoride and crumpled upon impact, a sight he would never forget.
He started to ask Sara to lower the temperature once more, but was sidetracked when another Autoride bolted across the street, smashing into a different Autoride that had been traveling in the opposite direction. Fiberglass shattered with a sickening crunch, sending pieces of the wrecked vehicles flying from the collision, a few smacked into Charles’s car, but Sara did not respond.
As soon as the light changed, she pulled across the intersection, barely missing a body lying on the pavement.
“Sara!” Charles yelled. “Stop!”
“I’m sorry, passenger, but we have not arrived at our destination. Are you comfortable?”
“Hell, no, I’m not comfortable! Stop the ride, now!”
He pressed his hand against his chest in an attempt to relieve the pain. “Notify the authorities of the accident,” he said, but he didn’t trust Sara to do as requested, so he tapped his wrist piece and selected the phone icon.
“Emergency,” he said into the wrist piece, however, before he could receive a response, the screen on his piece went black.
“I’m sorry, passenger,” Sara said. “Communication is not allowed.”
He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. “Sara, stop the ride. I wish to get out here.”
But instead of stopping, the Autoride picked up speed.
“Sara, stop!” The vehicle continued to accelerate. Charles flipped open a panel on the dash that contained an emergency shut off switch and quickly read the instructions. He snapped a small plastic clip free and flipped the switch to shut off the power source.
Immediately, the ride began losing speed, the dead motor no longer humming as they coasted down the street. Charles leaned back against the seat, his breathing labored and the pain in his chest getting more intense. He fumbled through his pocket to retrieve his nitro glycerin tablets and popped one into his mouth.
He waited on the ride to stop, determined to exit the vehicle even if it meant walking the last 20 blocks to his office.
The ride drifted a few feet more before he felt the tell-tell hum beneath his feet and Sara said, “Shutdown override. Power reestablished.”
“What the hell?”
Charles flipped the shutdown switch repeatedly in an attempt to kill the power once more, but the switch no longer worked. The ride was now speeding through the streets of the city, its motor whirring with a high pitched squeal that made his ears throb. Desperately, he opened panels and tore loose flaps, searching for a way to open the door or call for help.
A loud crash momentarily pulled his attention to the view outside his window. Autorides were colliding with buildings, lampposts, and pedestrians like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Panic driven, he returned to his task, but the sudden turn by Sara, threw him across the seat of the ride. She entered an alley. One he knew well. One that ended with a solid wall and no way out.
He managed to pull himself upright and grabbed the edge of the plastic panel covering the dash area. With a heave, he jerked the panel loose, bending the plastic away from the wiring of the ride. Another layer of fiberglass and plastic broke free as he frantically snatched a handful of wires and jerked. A jolt of electricity shot through his arm and sparks flew into the cab.
“Die!” he yelled as he continued to pull cables despite the searing pain in his hands and arms. The nauseating smell of burning fabric, wiring, and flesh filled his nostrils, but he couldn’t stop. The brick wall loomed closer with every second.
This is it, he thought as he grabbed one more wire. If this didn’t stop the ride, his life was going to end like the countless others lying now in the streets of the city. Using his last ounce of strength, he ripped the wire from the dash and the sickening whirr of the motor ceased.
The ride slowed, finally coming to a stop 20 feet in front of the brick wall. With a weak whoosh, the door slowly opened and Charles stumbled out. Half walking, half crawling, he managed to reach the wall where he collapsed against it to catch his breath.
It took every ounce of his will to raise his arm enough to check his wrist piece. The icons blinked back at him. Lifting a mangled hand, he touched the phone icon to call for help.
“Emergency,” he said, before allowing his hand to drop. The emergency system would follow the signal from his piece even if he lost consciousness.
He laid his head against the wall, his breathing labored, his chest pounding, he took a moment to close his eyes while he waited for help.
And that was when he heard the hum.
So soft at first he wasn’t sure if he actually heard anything. But then the hum grew louder and he opened his eyes just as the lights came on in the Autoride. The vehicle faced him in the deserted alley, the grill a mere 20 feet away. If the car accelerated, he would be crushed into the wall. He knew he should run, but he was no longer capable of moving. He prayed his death would be swift when he heard Sara say, “Alternate power established. Target located. Termination proceeding.”