Fifteen Minutes of Grace
Meg Elison writes some of the best science fiction thrillers I’ve read, and “Fifteen Minutes” is no exception. It’s a tense story set five minutes from now, with cars that are way too smart, and stakes that are all too real. ~ Julian Yap, June 12, 2022
Fifteen Minutes of Grace
The VCar was locked down. This was not surprising; Gary knew that if he walked more than ten feet away from it with the fob in his pocket, it would lock. He never had to hit the button; the car was designed to anticipate the driver’s needs in every situation. This included a safe and cool place to keep his rambunctious toddler, and even if Miranda wasn’t a fan, the VCar provided that, too.
But he had come back to its slick blue-black exterior with the fob in his hand and could see immediately that something wasn’t right. “Here. It’s right here. Open up.”
Gary put his hands on his hips and sighed. The cart full of groceries sat on his left, the milk sweating condensation over its cloudy plastic jug, the greens wilting in the sun. It wasn’t the hottest day of the year, it wasn’t close, but it was still cooler in the running VCar than inside the store. It was mid-June, the scent of spring still hanging in the air. It wouldn’t get punishingly hot until August, when Gary and everyone else would refuse to leave their houses, hunkering down in their windowless basements with the AC cranked up. Here in western Massachusetts, August was still manageable. Gary had grown up in Manhattan, where it was already 115 degrees in the shade this time of year. He heard that people stayed in the steel and the swamp, that they’d figured out how to endure. But his parents had spent three years in the malarial summers and the starving winters before they’d decided they had to go east, away from the city.
Gary had stayed put where his people had settled. He had made enough money to avoid having to refugee north. He had bought the right house (fortified, insulated) and the right car (autonomous, AI-run) and done all the responsible things one was supposed to do these days before having a child.
The VCar manual said it was safe to leave a child inside for periods of no longer than fifteen minutes. Said, in fact, that it was the safest place for a child to be. Full climate control, enclosure, and no way for Bobby to run off or wrap a star-shaped baby hand around something sharp in the produce aisle. Gary was sure he had done the right thing.
“It couldn’t have been that long,” Gary muttered. He pulled out his phone and verified his pedometer, looking at the time when he’d entered the store.
“Okay, twenty-four minutes. That’s still barely . . .” But the fob did not unlock the car. The lights didn’t even blip.
Gary put his forehead against the VCar, his hands forming a visor over his eyes. He could not see inside.
“He’s gotta be asleep.” Even the VCar’s seal wouldn’t contain the sound of Bobby’s wailing—his son had lungs like a fire alarm when he got going.
Gary walked back around to the driver’s side and put his palm against the old-fashioned lock in the door. The door should have thrummed to life with subtle haptic feedback at his touch, but he felt inert metal, too warm in the sunshine. Nothing stirred within. He had parked in full sun.
“Okay, fuck this.” Gary pulled his phone back out and started his VCar app. He saw there the sprites for his car and Miranda’s. He saw that she was driving somewhere, clipping at a pretty good speed. He tapped his to access his VCar.
A second screen opened, whisking away the pair of cars, showing a page or more of legalese.
ILLEGAL SOFTWARE BUILD DETECTED. PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR VCAR DEALER FOR A REBOOT AND REBUILD OF YOUR VCAR SYSTEM.