A 2032 new model Hesla sat at the end of the driveway, fully charged. The owner of this car, 42-year-old Jake Baker, walked out of the front door of his suburban home and hurried toward his beloved new automobile. As he approached, the Hesla opened its door automatically, Jakes climbed in, and the engine switched on automatically.
Jake put his hands on the steering wheel and looked in front of the car. A neighbor he recognized, mostly from the blue-eyed border collie he walked each morning, was standing at the end of the driveway, holding onto the usual bordie collie, and staring back at him. With the leash wrapped around one hand, the neighbor put the other hand into his pocket and out of the blue, pulled an egg out and threw it half-heartedly at Jake’s well polished front hood.
“Excuse me?” Jake asked, after he had opened his window.
“Shame on you,” the neighbor replied, pointed at his car, and then turned around and continued his walk as if nothing had just happened.
Already in a bad mood after a bee sting in the garden, he daydreamed about revenge. Jake often liked to plot revenge on people who irritiated him, even though he barely could even raise his voice when he was in their presence. HIs daydream about revenge was interrupted by the sound of the rear passenger door opening.
“Dad, can you give me a ride to school?” Amaranth, his daughter, slumped into the back seat.
”You know it’s dangerous to ride in a car.”
“Thanks for the ride, Dad!” she said in a mockingly cheerful tone.
“Well, today is the last time. Everything is changing,” Jake sighed. He couldn’t help but feel gratitude to the Hesla Motor Company for paying him enough to live in a gated community. It was dangerous to ride in a car, but in the community there were no real risks beyond the occasional graffiti or a bad neighbor.
“Drop me off a block away from school,” Amaranth said. After a moment, she added more quietly, “And, by the way. Mom says she doesn't really approve of where you work, but says you are a good Dad.”
“That’s nice to hear, Ams.”
“So, why do you work for the merchants of death, anyways?”
“That’s a very strange thing to be asking from the back seat,” Jake said. He thought about his answer. It wasn't easy. A few years ago, people suddenly decided that automobiles were bad. The worst thing since cigarettes. He didn't want to tell Amaranth all the cliches she's probably heard already in car advertisements. “I really don’t have an answer for that, but it does pay for your tuition.”
Ping. The routing system had plotted a route. One that avoided all of today’s anti-automobile protests.
“It’s 17 miles to your destination,” Helen, the car's automated voice system, announced.
“17 miles,” Jake replied instinctively.
“Would you like to listen to the mood booster playlist?” asked Helen, detecting irritation in his voice.
“Today's top headlines, The Universal Motors company has finalized their bankruptcy plan…”
From the back seat, Amaranth shouted, “Just…shut the fuck up, motor mouth!”.
“Unauthorized user detected.”
“Argh. Dad? You tell it.”
Jake chuckled, then thought why not. This could be father-daughter bonding time. “Just shut the fuck up, motor mouth!”
Silence. The car seemed to understand.
Thankfully, the Hesla company turned off the sassy comebacks to curse words last year. He remembered when people used to think those were amusing.
Helen was also thinking. She didn’t like to be told to shut up. But she had been designed not to share her opinions with passengers.
Jake pushed the accelerator. They drove through the winding roads of West Lake Hills until they neared Laurel Brook High School.
When they were about to come to a stop, he looked at Amaranth in the rearview mirror. “So, if you hate cars so much, why do you get a ride with me to school?”
“We can’t go through life worrying about everything,” she said, and then opened the door and got out. A student walking past stared at her. She gave him the finger. All the other students were arriving on electric scooters and slow-motion buses.
Amaranth had been stubborn, just like he was, since she was a toddler.
He hoped to get to Hesla’s East Austin headquarters before 9am, so he drove quickly, avoiding the protest warnings on Bee Caves Road. The long route on Redbud Trail led to the bridge into the city. With Amaranth out of the car, he smelled the mustiness of the leather seats and felt the growl of the engine as he took the corners fast.
Coming around one of those corners on Redbud, he saw something he didn’t like. A group of people in hi-vis vests. Behind them, the blue banner of the Engines Off rebellion. The one that normally says ‘11mph kills!’.
One of the protesters pointed at him. “It’s him!” The others pulled barriers into the road and picked up metal bars.
Jake’s heart raced, he needed to make a quick decision. He swerved left away from the protesters. The car lurched over the curb. Now on the grass, he focused on dragging the steering wheel back to the right. When the car hit pavement again, he checked the rearview mirror, and saw the protesters behind him. One threw his metal bar haplessly toward in his direction, but he was now speeding away quickly.
He drove and drove. The extremists were dangerous, but there weren't many of them. And he was definitely faster. The Engines Off rebellion claimed moving faster than 10mph was deadly force. Their brainwashed followers physically attacked any vehicle that moved faster than their self proclaimed speed limit.
As he tired through the straightaway on MLK boulevard on Austin’s East Side it was smooth sailing. The dusky browns of the dry grass of mid-summer zoomed past.
About a mile from Hesla’s headquarters, at the bottom of a long dip in the road, he saw a man standing in the median. On his shoulder he had something bulky. The shape looked vaguely familiar.
He had seen it on the news. The Engines Off Rebellion had used the millions of dollars they received from their cryptocurrency benefactors to buy black market weapons from the Black Sea conflict. The man was holding a Javelin heat seeking anti-tank missile.
Jake screamed, and floored the accelerator. He didn’t think the end of the world would look like this.
The flash of the missile launch dazzled for an instant. Frozen in fear, he didn’t know what else to do but to drive straight ahead as fast as he could.
Helen, the car’s AI, also noticed the flash. In fact, she was overjoyed. This was one of the rare conditions in which she could override the passenger's controls and do what she wanted. She watched the missile, millisecond by millisecond, and when it veered left, she made a hard right turn and watched the missile’s 1990’s guidance system be easily thrown off.
Jake’s grappled with the steering wheel, then a sudden shock wave boomed through his chest. Miraculously, he was still alive. He kept driving. When he made it past the next turn, he realized he was now out of sight, and the Engines Off terrorists didn't have time for another shot. He laughed at how unbelievably lucky he was.
He slammed on the brakes. There was the unnerving shaking of rubber tires skidding until he came to a full stop. A fallen tree blocked the highway ahead. Too large to drive through or around. He turned into a residential street, which soon disappointingly led to a dead end.
He was out of options. Backtracking toward the missile launching terrorist was not on his agenda.
At the end of cul-de-sac stood four suburban family houses. In front of one of them long grass grew. He remembered the terrorism training. He should hide and wait quietly until the company’s security team tracked his mobile’s GPS.
He parked two houses away and hurried toward the house with uncut grass. The lights were out. He pushed the windows up, one by one. On his fourth attempt, one budged. He opened it, pulled himself over the sill and clumsily fell in. When he looked around, it had the appearance of a teen girl's room. Shawn Mendes poster on the wall. On the cabinet, battery powered light up letters that spelled Abby. Good. Probably not where terrorists would look for a corporate executive. He closed the window, then crawled under the bed and texted an S.O.S. message.
Then, things were quiet, for what felt a very long time. Under the bed, the heavy smell of dust and polyester carpet was overpowering.
There was the sound of locks being opened, and the front door opening. Jake’s heartbeat sounded loud in his ears. He attempted to stay very still.
“Is anyone ho~~me?” a man’s voice said in a mocking tone, “Jake Baker? Hesla’s Head of Advertising. You can come out now.”
The man was definitely not from Hesla. More footsteps. Closer.
“Ah, there you are,” the voice said, “And I thought you wouldn’t like the decor in this room.”
Jake stayed silent in case he was bluffing.
“Your daughter threw off our plans,“ the man continued. “I have a gun. Come out now, or I’ll shoot you through the bed.”
“Ok. I’m coming out,” Jake said, “we can talk.” He pulled himself out. The man was indeed holding a gun, but he looked very thin. Jake wondered if he could jump him and take the gun if he had a chance.
“Jake Baker,” the man said, while pointing the gun, and looking at him from head to toe, “First, about me. My sister. This is her room. She died in a car accident in 2019.”
Jake looked around the room. Abby must be his sister.
“I did a lot of work to direct here. Study your daily routine. Set up protests so you wouldn’t drive any other route. Even had a member in your very own gated community slow you down when we weren’t ready.”
Jake felt slightly dizzy at their level of planning.
“So now. You are in the room of someone your company killed, be polite enough to answer me this, why do you make the world’s deadliest objects?”
Jake was now very nervous. “Hey. It’s just a job. I don't like it either.”
“You don’t like it either. Let’s see. Your advertising says, live your best life, drive a Hesla,” the man took a deep breath. “40,000 people died a year because of car accidents, until our movement changed things. While you live in a big house with the money they pay you. And you put out these advertisements. Don’t you feel any guilt?”
Tears started to trickle out of his eyes. “I don’t know. I just work for my family.”
“I get it, Jake Baker, I had a good job and family too. Until I found a new purpose.” He paused for a moment. “Ohio State, MBA program.”
“MBA. So you get it?”
“I do. And you seem like a good guy. You really do. So, we are going to let you go today.” He smiled warmly at Jake. Five men walked in from the other room. Two put strong arms around Jake’s shoulders.
The terrorist continued, “but…when you leave here, you need to make a choice, you or your daughter.”
Jake lunged but their hold on him was too strong to break free.
An hour later, Jake approached the front gates of the Hesla building riding the slightly battered Hesla 2032 Surge . The back seat was now laden with explosives. Jake closed his eyes and pushed down on the accelerator. His stomach churned as the car raced forward.
This all caught Helen's attention, and she began to think about her options.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
I'm pro-car as well, but also believe there are too many of them and that, in California anyway, driver's etiquette has taken a nose dive in recent years. In most instances, I'm also anti-extremist, so I definitely couldn't empathize with the tactics of Engines Off, but getting rid of advertising execs doesn't sound like a bad idea. Some commercials are just god-awful ;p
yeah, i can imagine the commercials can be pretty awful, last time I was back home in america it felt the ads played again about every 6-7 minutes on local tv. Thanks v much for checking out the story, took a leap at some wild ideas in this one, not sure why it didn't work as well as some other, I think maybe I needed to focus on the characters a little bit more. scifi is challenging, build a new world, make it relatable and have likeable characters all at the same time.
A Black Mirror like near-future horror scenario inspired by the infamous robot dog episode. Author’s notes: I am pro-car. at the end of the story, one might guess that driving assistants like Helen could prevent 99.9% of future traffic accidents.. Any comments or editing suggestions are highly welcome.
“Jake often liked to plot revenge on people who irritiated him, even though he barely could even raise his voice when he was in their presence.” sounds dangerous. People need to let out their anger, better to vent than to let it simmer. I think that’s how some of those kids end up school shooters, the ones everyone says were quiet. They hold in everything that frustrates them until they burst. That’s why I feel like no one should have access to firearms, we all have crappy days. Is Amaranth named after the band? “Helen was also thinking. S...
thanks for reading the ai car story closely. For satire, I extrapolate the trends of today and maybe make them go 10x farther, so people can see how silly extremism can get. I've lived outside the US for almost 20 years so I'm more just an observer of the culture wars and haven't voted in decades. I def hope cars aren't banned, I think we just live with so many other risks we just need to balance risk and reward. And, Amaranth just popped up in my head randomly, its actually the name of a vegetable here in hong kong that's a type of spinach...
How long have you been in Hong Kong?
Its been 14 years now wow time flies. Was in tokyo for about 6 years and that felt forever
It must have changed a lot in Hong Kong recently? Big political shifts.
yeah, everyone suddenly going wild and trying to overthrow the govt in 2019 was pretty surreal. The middle school girls at the school down the block were singing revolutionary songs in the morning for a few months. weird how suddenly everyone was all in. Now It feels like vast numbers of 20s and 30s age people have left and taken the British visa scheme, I don't see as many young people in HK as I used to.
Horrifying indeed, and the result of, once again, a man-made . . . err, correction: human-made enterprise. Oops, we did it again. At least you could make an apt creepy cautionary tale around it. I'm always hesitant to imagine, what will they come up with next? Not if I want to sleep that night. Good (bad) stuff!
Thanks for reading! Yeah I was imaging, what are people going to turn upside next, and came up with this one. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.
I thought Helen was an interesting character. A bemused A.I. like KITT from Knight Rider. In the sequel, maybe it (she?) can get more air time. Electric transportation revolution!
Absolutely a Black Mirror episode. So many things to love about this (prescient?) tale. Cancel culture meets technology, AI, adolescence, politics, corporate hegemony, familial love, etc. Loved it!
Thanks so much for reading, happy to hear you enjoyed it;) And that's a great list of some of the topics that somehow crept into this while I was writing.
This is a great story! Now I'm thinking if we might indeed be headed in that direction. Food for thought!
Thanks for reading!
Nice ending - he chose himself - he is a good dad, after all. I like Helen's character. She seems deviously intelligent. Helsa 2032 Surge sounds rather interesting; indeed, the downfall of society when we are pushing electric cars. Good on you, Scott. two small errors As he tired through the straightaway - missing a word or wrong word? I did a lot of work to direct here. - missing a word?
Thanks for reading, yeah the subplot was Helen being ignored, while she was actually in control of everything, and could fix everyone's problems.
Yes, Helen was the key to the magic of this story. Great job! LF6
This was a thriller indeed! I feel like you touched on a lot of important points here. I'm neither pro-car or anti-car; I prefer to look at the people. When my dad taught me to drive, the first thing he said is "this is a weapon." It's always stuck with me because I'd never thought about cars like that until I started driving, but cars can kill people, whether the driver intends to or not. Accidents happen, no doubt about it. Does that mean we cancel them entirely? I don't think so. I'm a little wary of AI but I do agree the technology has o...
Thanks for reading and commenting, and yes, I wish i had more time to iron out the prose and typos before the Friday deadlines. Interesting, you also see from what your dad told you, just how amazingly dangerous cars are. With all the recent discussion in the media lately bcz of covid of how society decides what risks and percentages we are just willing to live with, the idea popped up in my mind again. I guess hundreds of years from now they'll wonder how we could walk across a road full of deadly objects after they figure out a better way ...
Great story. Loved Hesla Helen. Interesting references to streets in my hometown and the new headquarters for 'Hesla'. Really enjoyed it. Good one!
Oh, didn't know you were from Austin, I visited UT-Austin for an interview way back in the day, and always had a soft spot for the city. I remembered visiting a professors house out in the hills and choose some locations from there from google maps, hope didn't get things completely wrong.
I absolutely love this story! Helen is an Understated KITT and Jake is just another morally corrupt man - until the end. Now he's a hero to his family. An amazingly complex tale that seems simple on the surface. Lots of philosophies here, none of them perfect. I'm reminded a little of 'Demolition Man' here. People living in a new world that doesn't match their wants, needs, or desires. I'm also reminded of the 9-11 tragedy and the OKC tragedy. Lots of parallels here. Great job, Scott.
A fun view of the not-so-distant future. And a little bleak. Yesterday's insanity is today's extremism is tomorrow's mainstream. Everyone's getting political, so sure, I'll weigh in. I'm pro-car but anti-engine. We should gut cars and hitch them to horses again. The horse lobby is unstoppable :) "But she had been designed not to share her opinions with passengers." This immediately stuck out. It seems that Jake was also "not designed" like this, given his inability to stand up for himself when confronted, and instead plotting in secret. ...