Waiting For The Children

Sara Perelman’s tea was poured at 3:15 in the afternoon just as she liked it, black and with a drop or two of lemon substitute. She liked to take her tea next to the front window so this is where the house automaton carefully placed it. She liked to be by the window to wait for the children as they came off their bus and watch them scatter into the neighborhood.

What was so entertaining about her afternoon show was the display of the children’s abundant energy. One morning she’d watched a particularly animated girl — second grade? First? — who couldn’t just stand and wait (and bounce in place) and who finally broke into jumping jacks.

Such energy! More than could be contained! Really too bad all this excess energy couldn’t be captured to solve the energy crisis, as she told her friends.

When Sara and Larry first lived on this street she liked to listen to a “light classical” station during this afternoon interlude (really practically her only truly free moment of solitude) as she had done in their apartment near the financial district, but after the birth of Ben and their move into a “proper neighborhood” she found just hearing the random shouts and laughs of the children was entertainment enough — well, that plus she also loved listening to the birdsong from the trees along the street.

Sara’s job was as a “content provider,” or content-spinner, really — she took gossip site content or a news story and gave it a snarky spin, attempting to wring some humor for one last go-around for the item in the news cycle. The job was perfect for her because it allowed her to often work at home in the day, and sometimes she worked at night when Larry was wrapped up in his virtual stories.

The bus rolled up, right on time.

. . .

Larry Perelman’s ridedisengaged from its charging station and silently piloted to his pick-up place at 5 p.m.

He had at first determinedly resisted the self-driving trend — he had always loved driving, the sensory thrill of the roar of the engine, the pleasure in skillfully shifting through the gears — but all that was eclipsed, first with the emphasis on saving gas with the building of “econoboxes,” then with automatic shifting, and finally even the sound of combustion through throaty tailpipes disappeared with electricars.

So Larry resigned himself to allowing a self-driving module (named, with rather too much élan, the “Avaunt”)to transport him to and from home. He did at least get some amusement by programming the sound of a powerful sports car to greet him when he entered the car. As a joke, his cubemate Cyn had given him a little model gear shifter he could mount on his dash, but he hadn’t gotten around to putting it in.

A “meta-analyst” is how he described his job, if asked, which was a good enough answer to usually discourage further queries. It was in fact his title, and had mainly to do with analyzing and representing graphically the overall financial performance of groups of analysts — beyond that vague description his job was too tedious to detail further.

For some excitement in his life in the evening hours he spent his time in “Destroyed World,” a Surroundworld environment, where he battled to keep his virtual surrogate alive in what was the ruins of a once civilized city now rendered a soulless jungle due to climate chaos and the resulting wars and scramble for remaining food.

He had, so far, been through six surrogates, each having been killed either by other players’ surrogates or by the wild environment itself. But at last he had become expert at what it took — and had developed the canniness, the will, and the ability to make the often brutal choices Destroyed World threw at him — and now he was a “Savant,” the topmost rank in Destroyed World.

As it happened his immersion in Destroyed World didn’t end when he turned off the holographic game — it invaded his dreams. Off and on in dreams he experienced a wild, nonsensical mix of his real world and the holo world, and because these were dreams he had little control of events; from these dreams he would sometimes verbalize grunts of alarm, waking himself, or Sara would gently wake him.

. . .

Sara and Larry’s son, Benjamin, now ten, spent most of his day in an educational/play environment that was the opposite of Larry’s virtual world. Both his parents marveled at the extraordinarily nourishing advances made in schooling since their time, and Ben was already far more sophisticated than they had been at the same age — he was now fluent in two languages, and beginning to learn a third.

Ben’s physical world was also well taken care of; meals were balanced, exercise periods staged on robotic equipment providing low-impact workouts designed to produce a well-balanced specimen.

Because Ben was also, after all, just a kid, he delighted in getting as near to trouble as he could without either anyone noticing or, if they noticed, without causing too much alarm. Lately this skating near the edge had led him to take nighttime excursions.

The adult world, when no kids are around, was a tempting target for Ben’s curiosity — what did they talk about? From the sound of their voices (that he was barely able to hear from his room) and sometimes from the urgent tone, he suspected that their secret world held mysteries — what was it they might withhold from him? Was it about subjects he wouldn’t understand, or perhaps subjects that would alarm him? The urge to overhear was too great for him to resist.

And so he didn’t. Over several evenings he kept himself awake long enough to understand their habits and know when they were unlikely to surprise him as he crept down the hall — and he had a ready-made excuse if discovered (having to do with an upset stomach).

. . .

The journey into the world of Adult Conversation was, in the end, an unsatisfying adventure for Ben. Certainly the careful exit from his room (doorknob turned ever so carefully, door pulled open with no complaint from the hinges) and stealthy creep down the hall was in itself exciting, but the overheard remarks carried little meaning to him –

“…temporary thing.” His mom’s voice.

“Well, I don’t know how they can be so sure,” his dad’s voice, sounding worried. “I mean, I haven’t heard what the endgame is supposed to be…”

“All I saw on CNN was that an Antarctic glacier — Thwaites? — collapsed. I mean, that’s what set this all off. Other ice sheets were destabilized and now there’s this freaking parade of ice… Anyway, they said the President is back in Washington and that we should just hold on for now…”

“Hold on? I think they’re not telling us the whole story — this thing is gonna cascade into other disasters — I mean, it’ll simply empty out cities along the coasts, people looking for food and help — farm lands invaded by salt water…”

“It can’t be — I mean, I know it’s big. But the CNN guys had a scientist who said that although it looks bad it’s probable that things will prove to be not as bad as the worst case. I think we just have to see how this plays out.”

“Maybe — everyone at the office thinks we’ll adjust — actually, plenty still think this has zero to do with global warming. … Must be nice to live in such a wonderful fantasy!”

Ben’s mom laughed. She said, “I would move there in a second!”

. . .

Ben concluded that his guess that adult talk might be incomprehensible to a kid was right — so his parents just waited for him to go to bed before talking grown-up talk. He’d heard the phrase “global warming” here and there, but didn’t understand it — and there was no way he’d learn about in his class because his school had a fear of offending deniers, who were still a powerful force in the U.S.

. . .

Citizens did flee low-lying regions on the coasts, and one of the immediate effects elsewhere was the interruption of all kinds of transport, including transport of food, as people stockpiled what provisions they could find, and as paramilitary forces sequestered food, in a country well-seeded with enough firearms to equip many armies.

The Perelman’s town was especially hard-hit, and within a couple of weeks their provisions were dangerously close to running out.

Much of their town was quite advanced, many things were guided by artificial intelligence and powered by renewable sources, but cracks in the infrastructure began to appear — blackouts rolled across the town, and what gas stations there were quickly ran out.

Now and then supply convoys from whatever was left of government would appear in various parts of the town — it was uncertain where they might show up, so when Larry heard of one group of trucks within a couple of blocks he grabbed bags and hurried to where the trucks were parked, only to find the street already filled with desperate people looking to grab what they could. The crowded situation quickly descended into a riot.

And then there was a gunshot — it sounded like a cannon to Larry, who had only experienced the “Destroyed World” game’s simulation of gunfire, which was much more muted. He unconsciously called on the confidence given to him by his many hours in the game’s environment and boldly pushed into the brawling crowd — dodging, weaving, and nearly to the tailgate of the truck when he felt a burning pain below his left ear. His hand went to the pain and came away wet. Blood.

The Savant of Destroyed World had been stabbed in the neck, and he fell below the tail of the truck, where he quickly bled to death.

His last thought was of a fragment of a lyric he once heard — “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining…”

. . .

Sara spent an agonizing week without news about Larry, only rumors she heard from neighbors, and in the end realized he was gone and she wouldn’t be finding out what happened to him. On the largely broken Internet the only remaining active news sites (many of the news sites had stories frozen from a couple of weeks before) gave only the sketchiest information, and none of it was particularly helpful to Sara and Ben.

Some sites offered theories and stories spiked with religious fervor, and it was at one of these that Sara found what she hoped would provide some help, one of whose members was a woman she had known in her college days, Tina Shores. Sara didn’t recall Tina as being especially religious, but it had been years since she knew her, and now she was apparently one of the leaders of a group called “Ezekiel’s Wheels,” and besides her connection with Tina what attracted Sara to the group was that they were within perhaps a day’s hike, and they seemed to have a sustainable camp, with guards, gardens and a promise of vastly more security than her apartment.

She didn’t love the idea of faking religious devotion, but she thought she was capable of anything, “except,” she thought, “snake handling — otherwise anything if it gets us safe again.” She packed two backpacks, and Sara and Ben left in the morning.

. . .

The Ezekiel’s Wheels camp was further away than Sara had thought — a large part of the hike turned out to be up a long incline, and as the sun got closer to the horizon she realized they’d have to find a place to stay overnight — to hide in place, actually, because she didn’t want to chance meeting any of the gangs that she knew were in the town.

She found a perch in a small graveyard that gave her a view of the surrounding area, and she and Ben settled in next to a monument. “AT PEACE” was inscribed in the granite, and she was hopeful that this was a good omen.

The view of the town below showed very few lights; here and there bonfires flickered, and she noticed in the extreme distance an ominous red-orange glow — a large fire, maybe in the wooded area outside the town. There was no car traffic — no gas, and only electricars supplied with power from solar panels could be driven, but tonight none were apparently brave enough to venture out.

. . .

Sara was startled awake by gunfire. She had no idea of the time — it was still dark, but there was a slight glow in the East — not a fire this time, but the first hint of sunrise. She and Ben huddled together closely and were still for minutes. They heard footsteps approach, then one more blast of a gun, much closer than before, and at that Ben grunted in surprise.

Sara held Ben tightly, gently rocking him. If confronted she would throw a backpack at the person and run with Ben — this was her plan…

But the footsteps receded, and after more minutes Sara peeked around the stone memorial and saw — no one. “Let’s go, Ben — let’s walk as quiet as we can,” and they began to hike again.

. .

On the second day the two arrived at the Ezekiel’s Wheels camp. Challenged by an armed sentry Sara asked that Tina come out to okay her entry into the camp.

Tina and Sara had a tearful reunion at the edge of the small camp, and after they had caught up on what they’d done during their years of separation Tina took Sara and Ben on a journey through the camp to meet the people.

Although the camp had in fact been named after the biblical Ezekiel (and his wheels) it turned out that it was named by its founder, Paul Ash, who was religious, but the people in the camp observed no especially rigorous religious practices — and this was to Sara’s relief. When she met the founder he told her that he named the camp after part of a vision of the prophet who foretold Israel’s destruction, “Although he foretold the destruction, he couldn’t escape it, and was carried off to Babylon — just as we now must go through our own period of tribulation — for God knows how long.”

. . .

There began Sara and Ben’s reorientation to an utterly changed world, one which continued to change at a rapid pace, as the rising oceans were followed by the mass migrations, superstorms, droughts and plagues such as the resurgent flu epidemic.

Sara worked to fit into the workers in camp, and began each day early and worked into the night, which brought an early and exhausted sleep. A lifetime of working with words, memes and gossip still visited her in her dreams, and kept the contrast between her life before and after the disaster fresh.

Ben was taken on as an apprentice hunter and immediately showed great promise. Paul Ash observed to Sara that the best hunters in the camp had been given various warrior titles, like “Silver Shot,” and “Major Damage.”

“What do you think Ben’s title would be?” he asked.

Sara thought a moment, then she said, “I do have one… I think his title should be ‘Savant.’”

. . .

With the breakdown of mass civilization, cities and towns like the one Sara had lived in were mostly abandoned; very small towns became armed camps, and life generally regressed to a state where it was once again nasty, brutish, and short.

The abandoned areas became overgrown, but among the dilapidated buildings occasional movement could be seen, as fully automated systems with still-functioning renewable energy continued their tasks, whatever they might’ve been, and to the degree they were able.

Such as the school bus that Sara loved to watch, which now each morning left its electrical station (which was covered with solar panels) and drove its silent route, stopping at each loading point, and, seeing no kids, drove on to the next stop, each time pausing with doors open for a minute, waiting for the children to come running up laughing and shouting.

(end)

(further reading: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/09/14/glaciers-breaking-antarctica-pine-island-thwaites/)

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