Conrad Vellion approached his red sportscar in the dim-lit parking garage, his shoulders slumped from the weight of his briefcase and the day’s challenges. As usual, most other vehicles had already left the structure for the night. Without his wife waiting at home, the professor lost his motivation to head there before security demanded he leave the office. Of all the lecturers employed at Ploford College, Conrad’s office hours had become the most available. Somehow, that had not translated into a multitude of students taking advantage.
Inserting the key into the ignition of his Zing, Conrad wondered if he were as stuck in the past as Chad had claimed. Most cars these days would start with a thumbprint reader. So many ways that could go wrong. It gives new sinister meaning to the phrase, “I need your digits.” There was something satisfying about the way a key fit into its slot. It made him the master of his vehicle, not a mere user. When the Zing roared to life, that was his doing rather than a program running its course. Of all the dozens of reasons to avoid upgrading his vehicle, the first to spring to mind involved the classic nature of his car. One anachronistic tweak would detract from the artwork of this masterpiece.
The more he thought about it, the problem coalesced into a clearer picture. He had grown up in a time just before the world’s progression toward technological dependency. Back then, having anything more advanced than a color television in the home had been unimaginable. Now, streaming video on any screen not placed in a window had become a matter of course. When the dean at Ploford College had insisted he live-stream lectures for ill students, Conrad had balked, knowing people would stop coming altogether. His incompetence with the new software worked in his favor. Conrad could not decide what bothered him most: the rate of change or people’s dissatisfaction with delayed gratification.
Dr. Rovain, one of his younger colleagues, brushed off Conrad’s concerns. “Oh, everyone thinks the next generation is destroying our way of life. People always asking, ‘What’s the matter with kids these days?’ But we’re still here, right?”
That attitude was too laissez faire in Conrad’s view. Perhaps his studies of history had rendered complacency impossible. People who remained silent when they saw problems allowed the furtherance of evil. History judged such people as complicit, even if they did not participate. No amount of hectoring would keep Dr. Conrad Vellion from speaking out against what he perceived as steps off the right path. Does that make me a codger? Stuck in the past? I don’t think so.
His Zing’s headlights cut through the darkness. The radio announcers listed the day’s headlines. Representative Pommel unveiled his intentions to run a Presidential campaign. Franklin Motors had recalled one of its older makes due to an electrical issue. Burger Bum released a new sandwich which had Conrad fearing the sound of sizzling grease coming through the speakers might be enough to clog his arteries. Questae, Inc. had announced the successor to The MUSE would arrive in stores four weeks before Christmas.
As he drove down the main road, Conrad fumed about Questae’s continued influence over the general public. Why would anyone buy one of their MPlants? He heard a slight crunch. It sounded as though he had driven over a Styrofoam cup. In the rearview mirror, he could see a college-age girl shaking her fist at him. Whatever he had done to offend, he could not imagine. At least this one did not have MUSE wires dangling from her ears. Seems like kids these days can’t survive without their devices. Put them in a wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and they’ll be flailing their arms like inflatables.
Conrad turned at Bergamot Boulevard, pulled up the driveway, opened the garage door, and parked the Zing in its spot. The door clattered back into place as the professor stepped out of his vehicle. He patted the roof as one might do with a prized puppy. Looks like you need a wash.
“I’m home!” No one replied. That had been normal for the last three years. Studies claimed that husbands usually went first, but that had not been Conrad’s experience. Even so, he called out this greeting as if Jasmine could still hear. He touched her framed portrait with regretful fingers as he passed. There should have been more time.
He pulled out a container of leftover pasta from the fridge. “You would not believe the day I’ve had, honey. That Rodgers kid actually called my bluff today. Didn’t think he’d have it in him.” After the microwave worked its magic on the meal, Conrad tested a noodle. The marinara sauce had lost some of its pep in reheating, so he added a second sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
“But his friend, Jason? I think there’s something about him. I guess it’s a little early to tell yet. Hmm. This spaghetti might’ve needed another twenty seconds.” Sighing, he popped the meal back in and grabbed two wine glasses while he waited. “How about a glass of Merlot, dear?”
After filling both glasses with the dark beverage, he set one of them at the place where his wife should have been. He sipped his Merlot. “They’re talking to me about retirement, Jasmine. I know it’s something we planned for. Trips to Italy and Britain. But I’m not sure I could face it now. Alone.”
A loud sound startled Conrad. His hand shot up, spilling alcohol on the floor. He came close to dropping the glass as he realized the noise had been a window shattering in the next room over.
As Conrad stood, his chair groaned against the laminate floor. His unsteady hand set down the glass. “Is someone there?” His voice quavered as he took cautious steps toward the front door. A gray brick lay on the floor a few feet from the great room’s window. His gaze shifted from the intruding object to a hole in the glass large enough for a grown person to step through. Someone’s broken in! Where’s Jasmine?
A heavy object slammed into the back of Conrad’s head. He stumbled but did not fall. Too stunned to flee the attack, he turned just in time to see something wooden and rounded swing at his chest. The strike broke a few of his ribs and knocked him to the floor. He lifted his hands to block the barrage and begged for mercy. By the time the fifth blow landed, Dr. Conrad Vellion was dead. The beating did not end when the victim’s heart stopped. The weapon swung even as splinters flew off in all directions.