Henry’s World

Two spires rise sharply into the crisp blue morning sky as our minivan pulls into the lengthy drive leading toward the towering mansion. I can feel my teeth tighten at the sight. It is still an awkward feeling, these braces. Not exactly the birthday present a twelve-year-old boy hopes for, but still, I am thankful to have a better smile some day.

“Is that Uncle Julian’s house…uh…castle?”

“That’s right, Henry. I want you to remember we’re here to talk to Uncle Julian’s visiting nurse about moving him someplace that can better take care of…well…his needs.” My mom grips the steering wheel tighter.

There’s something she isn’t telling me. I don’t know what it is, but that’s not unusual. She is my mom after all.

“Doug, can you believe this place? Look at that yard!”

Doug has been my friend since first grade when he saved me from a life of boredom and loneliness. At least that’s how Doug likes to tell it.

There is no mistaking the two of us for twin brothers by any means, much less brothers at all. Except that we are inseparable. My mom knew before she asked me about going that we had to invite Doug. My friend has a mop of brown hair rather carelessly shoveled to one side, but sometimes even to the other depending on his mood – one of several visual contrasts compared to my meticulously combed blond hair, always parted to the same side. I know; it’s a thing.

The door slides open, releasing us as we snatch up our tablets. I am so looking forward to trying out a new game I installed this morning.

“No boys. Those stay here.”

I can actually feel my shoulders sink as my hand slips off the tablet. This was going to ease the ensuing boredom, but I know spending time with my uncle is the better thing to do right now. I’ve only ever seen him over the holidays once in a while at my house. We haven’t talked a great deal. Usually about baseball or something. Oh, he is nice enough, but just so adult.

After a few hours there talking, it is obvious why my uncle needs some different arrangements.

“What is it they said he has, oldshimers?” Doug leans over to me to whisper. “He’s not all there, is he?”

I draw a deep breath, feeling time crawl. “Yeah, Alzheimer’s. I guess it’s getting pretty bad.”

My uncle seems to be fine for a bit, then slips out and forgets who we even are. The nurse goes to the kitchen, probably to get some medicine or something for him. She’s been doing that on and off for hours. My mom stands up, pensive.

“I’m going to find the restroom.” She can see the look on my face, I’m sure, since she continues, “I know I said I wouldn’t leave you alone with him, but I drank all that tea. It won’t be for long.” She rushes off before I can protest.

“Good. I thought those two would never take a break.” My uncle snatches my attention back as I thought he had slipped off to wherever his mind goes.

“Let’s do this quick before one of them comes back. They won’t understand.” He plunges a hand deep under his chair as if looting a hidden stash.

“Understand what, Uncle?” I lean a bit closer, peering under the chair. This is the most interesting development all day.

A look of blissful satisfaction dances over his face as his hand retrieves the treasure. A book. A rather old-looking book. He hands it to me. Pulling the cover open, I see there is no title inside, just as there isn’t outside. I flip a few more pages. All empty.

“A journal?”

“Of sorts,” my uncle says as a crooked smile wrenches his mouth.

I close the book and notice my name on the cover. Henry Sevenson. “Was that there? I could have sworn there were no words on it.”

“Quickly put it in your pocket, your mother is coming. Remember, she won’t understand this book,” my uncle speaks more adamantly.

“My pocket? But it’s…” I look down at the book that now looks to be barely a sixth of its original size. I glance at my equally perplexed friend, then shove the tiny book into my pocket as my mom walks in.

After another hour of chatting and working out details with the nurse, we are at the door donning our shoes for our trip home.

I feel a hand rest on my shoulder as I turn to hear my uncle, “We likely won’t see each other here, but there’s a place you will find me. Find me once you start to understand and we’ll explore worlds you’ve never imagined exist.”

“Okay,” the nurse interrupts with her shockingly awful bedside manner. “Let’s get you some rest. It seems the long day of visitors has you more confused.”

But his eyes stay locked on mine as he is led off to a room to get rest.

Back in the minivan and on our way home, only one thought keeps pushing its way through my mind. Judging by the look on Doug’s face, he probably has the same one: What’s with that book and that stuff my uncle said as we left?

I pull the tiny book from my pocket. Almost expecting it not to be there, like the entire conversation was just a daydream I had, but there it is. As it rests in my hand, the book becomes full size again. I exchange a glance with Doug. He nods, knowing we have to look inside again.

I pull back the cover and a strange warm light spills out. My head snaps up to check if my mom noticed anything, but she looks very still. Too still. In fact, so do the cars around us on the road. They are moving, but incredibly slowly.

“What’s going on?” Doug croaks the words as if not having talked for a week. It seems he and I are the only ones not affected by this slowness.

“I better close this book. This doesn’t seem right.”

The cover starts closing as I feel Doug’s hand stop me. “Wait, we need to understand what your uncle was talking about.”

I nod. “Okay, yeah. He didn’t seem to think it was dangerous. But then he wasn’t thinking clearly much at all.”

I pull the cover fully open. As our eyes start to adjust to the light, we begin reading words that form on the page just ahead of us reading them. Like the story is being written as we read.

We both start reading the words together:

The sun presses down on the two boys like hot coals. They make their way up the final sand dune, ready to escape from the heat in the refuge they expect to see any moment.

“Why do I feel sand on my feet?” Doug looks down as we both see his feet sink a couple inches into sun-drenched sand. “What are you wearing?” He lets out a chuckle so hard he has to hold his belly.

“Probably the same ridiculous outfit you are. We both look like we’re in some big bath robe. Wait! These are desert clothes. This is the story we were reading! How can this be?”

Before Doug can give an answer he doesn’t have, someone crests the dune from the other side. A rather intense-seeming woman, but I can’t make out her face with her head covering. She grabs our hands as if she knows us. Tugging us forward, she snaps, “It’s about time you two got here. We need to hurry up. There isn’t much time.”

“Wait, what? First, where is here? How did we get here? I don’t understand any of this.”

She stops abruptly and straightens up. Turning toward us, she licks her dry lips. “You don’t know? Your uncle didn’t explain anything to you? Oh great! We’re doomed. How are you supposed to help us if you don’t know how to use it?”

Afraid to ask for seeming even less helpful, “The book?”

She sighs, “The book is only a tool. A door.” The woman takes a softer tone as she places a hand on my chest. “This brought you here. Your heart.”

A cloud begins forming in the sky somewhere behind her. She must have noticed my gaze shift as she turned. The three of us watch the swirling gray cloud grow larger and bolts of lighting begin darting out of it toward what seems like a desert city.

“You’re going to need to learn very fast.” She looks back at me. “Your uncle, your mom, they are depending on it.”

“My mom? No, she doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Did he tell you she wouldn’t understand?” She kneels down.

“How did you know that?”

“He didn’t want you to know they were going to capture her soon.” I can feel my teeth tighten again. Not just my teeth. My hands clench into fists.

“We’ll find her before it’s too late. Don’t worry.” Her eyes waver.

She isn’t sure.

Autonomous Pizza?

This past weekend I was surprised to discover one of the latest applications being explored for autonomous, self-driving vehicles.  Right here in Michigan, Domino’s Pizza has partnered with Ford to test out self-driving cars for pizza delivery.

Domino’s displayed their Ford Fusion delivery vehicle at this weekend’s Ann Arbor Tech Trek event on Mobility Row.

How does it work you might ask? Domino’s supports multiple ordering options these days. Of course there is the traditional method of calling in your order.  But there are more ways now to get the pizza you crave.

Have an Amazon Echo?  You can now order your pizza by asking Alexa.

How about more options? Google Home, Slack chat, Messenger, text message, tweet, from your smart TV, even from your smart watch.  Check out all the options at Domino’s Anyware.

How would delivery work?

The self-driving car would meet you at the location provided where you would access the touch screen device mounted by the rear passenger door.  Upon entering the last four digits of the phone number the back window will open providing you access to your pizza.  The vehicle would accept payment as well so no need to pay ahead of time.

When talking about this new technology with someone this weekend he said, “Why not drones?”

That is a good point.  He went on to explain UPS has been experimenting with drone deliveries of up to ten-pound packages.

What do you think?  Which option makes the most sense?  Does one seem better than the other depending on certain cases?

Some considerations I thought of are:

  • Distance – what service area can a drone cover before needing a recharge?
  • Cost – would the drone be cheaper to operate than the self-driving car?
  • Weather – rain, cold weather, will these be an issue for the drone?
  • Multiple deliveries – a drone could probably only do one delivery at a time before returning for the next pick up where a car could be specially equipped to allow for multiple orders to be delivered along a common route

In either case, it is an interesting thought to see how pizza could be delivered in the future.

Let me know what you think?

Technology Pirates

This post is based on a story idea I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Let me know what you think of it and what you’d want to see more of in a story built around this.

Thanks,
Victor

#

He picks up the package with a pointed curiosity. Shakes it three times. With each shake, his shining, marble eyes grow a little bigger. The word slips out. “Toy!” At the impressionable age of two-years-old, Jayden holds the paper covered package with both hands. Trying to create that first puncture. The one that opens the mysterious world inside, letting it be explored and discovered.

“Here Jayden. Like this.” I coach, punching my finger into the side, forming a hole. The package is quickly tugged back as he begins making quick work of enlarging the small hole.

Will I ever be able to tell him? He needs to know what life used to be like. But not today. His birthday of all days. Seriously, I’m thinking about this today?

I shake my head slightly as if to shake off the feeling and the thought which somehow crept their way back in. Jayden pulls off most of the paper then lets out a shriek of joy. He held tightly to it. His new birthday gift. A green bouncy-ball.

He only has a few toys so this was sure to be a hit. I collect both him and the ball in my arms, off the deck of our small boat. Looking around I draw in the crisp morning air. It was still chilly these days in what they once called the Gulf of Mexico. Today it has had many names. New ownership seems to fight its way in every other week.

I better check it one more time.

I set Jayden down and turn to the mooring line. My hands feel coarse against the thick rope keeping us attached to the larger, stationary ship. That ship is our floating city. The one we are now a part of. Just like the other boats that have cast their lines onto the ship we claim it to be our community. That is until it disbands. Unity is something in short commodity.

Oh, how I do miss the land. Stop! I wasn’t going to do this today. Thinking like this on Jayden’s birthday.

A tear slips out of my eye. I can feel it. But is it for me? For my longing for life on land? No, it is for him. My son, that never knew what it was like to be on hard soil. Jayden was born on this boat. Of course, that was three cityships ago. Or was it four. Whatever. I tug hard on the line ensuring, once more, it isn’t going to let go. Without this cityship… I can’t think like that.

It really is a peaceful morning. I scan the horizon taking in a deep breath of fresh air with hints of the smell of saltwater. I don’t always smell it, the saltwater. I’ve gotten used to it over the years. When I do smell it I know my senses have slowed down enough that I can really enjoy the moment.

From where the cityship is anchored, just outside the bay, I can almost see what’s left of Tampa. What were once great buildings are now destroyed or barely standing rubble. I’ve never been any closer to the city…since it happened. Has it really been twelve years? I remember the explosions. The way electronic devices in my house started shooting bright sparks as all the parts fused. Everything. Every major electronic device on the planet wiped out in minutes. Sure one would think it would change life. But no one could have understood how much.

Now the bay is a haven for pirates just waiting for an unknowing wanderer to enter their web. Another reason it’s good to be part of a cityship community. I would have never known the risk of the bay otherwise. The safety from strong waves is easily a tempting advantage to the bay for a single boat.

Slowly turning to the left I scan the horizon, further enjoying the quiet peace of the morning. North and West the waters look relatively calm. I adjust my footing careful as to not to step on the bouncy ball Jayden rolls between my feet. My eyes now looking to the South. Nothing but beautiful…wait, what’s that. It’s moving fast. Oh no. It’s moving this way!

My hand is reaching for the bell. I hear five other bells around me. I join the alert. Pulling the bell rope so hard I’m sure it will come loose.

“Pirates due South!” shouted the man two boats from me. He’s been a member of this cityship only a week but already eager to help the community.

There’s so many! I can make out three, no four ships! Even one is a serious challenge for cityships. Most cityships started out as vacation cruise liners back when the land was still livable. Even with their overhauls, they are still no match for a pirate ship focused primarily on a different means of survival…to conquer.

I reach down grabbing Jayden up into my arms and rush to the rope ladder leading up to the safety of the cityship. My foot manages to kick his new ball into the lower level of the boat. I can’t worry about that now. Jayden screams. I look over my shoulder. The pirates closing rapidly. I don’t have time. “I’m sorry Jayden we have to go now.” He doesn’t understand. Another scream. I’m going to need him quiet when we are hiding on the cityship when it’s boarded. That ball is the only thing that can do that right now. After one quick look back to check their rate of progress I take a wavering breath. We both descend into the lower level.

Overhead, I can hear people shouting to each other to climb faster as they ascend the cityship. Where is that ball? I set Jayden down so I can look faster. It’s starting to get quieter outside. Most people must already be on the cityship now. I clench my hands to fists trying to not let the shaking take over. Emotions rip through my body like a drug I have no control over. Panic, fear. Jayden. Where is that ball?

Powerful jet motors are sounding louder. They are almost here! I glance out a portal window. They are almost close enough to board the cityship.

There it is! I snatch up the ball then Jayden and start ascending to the deck but then I hear it. The sound I feared. The cityship was locking down! I didn’t make it. What do I do now? My legs shook on the ladder rungs as my knees gave out, making me slip a couple feet, nearly dropping my precious cargo.

I can’t get to the cityship, I’ll need to stay here. Letting out a heavy sigh and resigning myself to hiding here I carefully climb back down. As I set Jayden down I hear the jet engines go silent. I hear nothing. Nothing but voices. It must be the pirates.

Thud! That couldn’t have been more than three boats away. That’s usually where they start. Searching the boats. Looking for anything that will fetch a price. Or anyone. I look down at my hands. They were shaking again. The only place to hide in this tiny boat is the small compartment behind the ladder. If they don’t look hard they probably won’t see the access panel. I rush over to the panel pulling on it. Stuck! I look at Jayden’s glassy eyes staring back at me, as he struggles to find some understanding of what is going on. Pull! Using all of what little strength is in my arms I manage to break the panel free. There isn’t room with this stuff in here. I haven’t looked at this in ages. I’ve had a cityship so long I haven’t needed this hiding space for years.

Thud! That was closer. Have to hurry. I grab a few dusty boxes, toss them to the floor making just enough room. My feet move so fast I nearly trip. I collect my son and his ball then plunge us into the tiny crevice. Pulling the panel closed I let out a quiet, controlled breath in the attempt of slowing my heart which I’m certain was beating so loud it could be heard.

Thud! Dust fell on my shoulder from the hard jump onto the deck just above. I count each creak. Knowing the distinctive sound each rung of the ladder makes. I swallow hard as I can. My mouth and throat both dry.

“Ball?” Jayden asks with pure innocence. My heart sped up as if it had a higher speed. The tall sliver of light pouring into the small, dark space through the crack around the panel suddenly flashed out. I could hear the pirate’s heavy breath just the other side of the panel.

“We got it!” Called a voice from outside.

The man rattled the panel a moment. Stuck. I’ve never been glad that old thing sticks so much, until today. He let out a grunt dismissing the panel as he bolted up the ladder joining the other pirates in their victory of claiming whatever treasure they sought and were successful in finding.

Safe again, for now.

Autonomous Future Book Cover

I’ve been working on my first science fiction book set a short way into the future.

Some of what the book deals with involve possible future ramifications of some timely advancements in technology we are seeing today.  Some of those include: autonomous/self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and bio-tech devices/IoT.

Something I’ve very much enjoyed in working on this project has been creating a realistic future world where we can delve into some of these hot, current topics and ask real questions about how culture may be affected by them.  Some of these questions, and more particularly the potential answers, may prove very striking!

I’d like to share with you the cover design and synopsis for the book!

If you like what you see and want to…

  • Be the very first to learn about my current and future book projects
  • Have a voice in the direction these projects take

…then please sign up on the mailing list below to get the latest!

Thank you!

Victor Illian

 

Cover design by: Iskon Design [www.iskondesign.com]

Autonomous Cars: Driving Our Future

Self-driving cars, or autonomous cars, have been a big topic for some time now. We are being ushered into a new age where technology is offering to take the driver’s seat. Quite literally.

What does that mean for us? For our culture? Even if you don’t want to buy one how will you be affected by their use?

Have you asked any of these questions yet? If you haven’t, you may soon as more and more self-driving cars hit the market.

Autonomous Decision Making

One area I find of particular interest is that of how self-driving cars make their decisions. That is, what are the heuristics they follow?Image via: unifiedstream.com

When you or I drive a car we make millions of decisions. Many of them are small decisions, like how much to turn the wheel to keep it in the lane. Some are big decisions and sometimes can involve human life.

Have you ever thought about a very difficult split-second decision you may have to make while driving?

Maybe there is someone unexpectedly crossing the street or walking across the expressway after their car ran out of gasoline. You weren’t expecting to see someone right there but you need to react quickly to avoid hitting them. In the fractional seconds, you have to make your decision you realize you may very well collide with another car or even a concrete bridge support. With your children in the backseat, you grip wheel tighter ready to make the best decision you can possibly make.

Hopefully, you will never need to make a decision like this. You may not know how you would react in a life and death situation until it comes.

But wouldn’t you want to know how a computer would make this critical decision for you? If it can’t save everyone involved from injury or worse, what choice will it make?

We, as drivers, are able to compensate for gaps in what we see or expect thanks to our experiences. – Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik.com

Will corporations program self-driving cars with heuristics we are comfortable with? Will governments impose regulation ensuring strict guidelines be in place for these autonomous decisions?

Safety

Image via: Jeff Cooper

Maybe the biggest concern we have to address with autonomous cars is safety. As the above point tries to draw out, will we feel “safe” being a passenger to a computer?

It is important to mention, this isn’t the first time we entrusted our lives to a computer to drive us around. Automatic train operation (ATO) has been around for many years.

Mainly, it [ATO] is used on automated guideway transits and rapid transit systems which are easier to ensure safety of humans. – Automatic train operation, Wikipedia

ATO automates many rapid transit systems. The first of which was introduced in 1967:  The first line to be operated with Automatic Train Operation (ATO) was London Underground’s Victoria line, which opened in 1967 – List of automated urban metro subway systems, Wikipedia

While the prior section of this post looks at an aspect that could be a possible negative for safety, there are positives too.  Self-driving cars could be designed to interface with each other while driving leaving little to no guesswork to what to expect on the road ahead. While accidents should be reduced, should one occur on the expressway the cars for miles behind the accident could already know about it and take measures to avoid joining the collision or getting stuck in traffic because of it.

When an accident happens on the expressway and we aren’t aware of it as we approach it is very possible to become part of the accident due to the unexpected slowdown or full stop required. This could be avoided with autonomous technology.

 

Are you ready for one, or what would you need to see happen before you buy a self-driving car?

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