The Passengers – John Marrs

By the time the front door closed, the car was parked outside Claire Arden’s home, waiting for her. She lingered inside the porch, rereading the notes she had made on her phone until she heard the faint beep-beep-beep of the alarm as the house secured itself. She gave a furtive glance across the suburban estate, one of many just like it in Peterborough. Sundraj from number twenty-seven was the only other neighbour outside, guiding his noisy young family of four into a people carrier like a farmer trying to herd sheep from one field to another. When he spotted her, he gave her a half-smile and an equally half-hearted wave. She reciprocated with the same. Claire recalled Sundraj and his wife Siobhan’s fifteenth anniversary party last spring. They’d celebrated with a barbecue and most of the street in attendance. He’d found time to drunkenly corner Claire in the downstairs bathroom and suggested that if she and her husband Ben were ever inclined to invite a third person into their bedroom, he was open to offers. Claire had politely declined and he’d panicked, begging her not to tell Siobhan. She’d promised she wouldn’t, and she’d meant it. She hadn’t even told Ben. Claire wagered every person in that street had at least one secret they kept hidden from the rest of the world, including her. Especially her. As Sundraj’s vehicle eased out of the cul-de-sac, Claire took a handful of deep, calming breaths and stared uneasily at her own car.

It had been three weeks since Ben had signed the lease and she was still struggling to acclimatise herself to its many new functions. The biggest contrast between it and their last vehicle was that this one no longer contained a steering wheel, pedals or a manual override option. It was completely driverless and it scared her. They had watched the car’s arrival in fascination as it delivered itself to their home and parked on the driveway. Sensing both Claire’s unease and reluctance, Ben had assured her anyone could operate it, even her, and that it was ‘idiot proof’. As they’d personalised their settings from an app, she’d responded with narrowed eyes and a jab to his arm. He’d protested, claiming he hadn’t meant she was the idiot in question. ‘I don’t like not being in control,’ she’d told him on their maiden voyage to the doctor’s surgery. She’d gripped the seat when the car had indicated and overtaken another one of its own accord. ‘That’s because you’re a control freak,’ he’d replied.

‘You need to learn to start putting your trust in things you’re not in charge of. Besides, the insurance is next to nothing and we need to start saving some money, don’t we?’ Claire had given a reluctant nod. As a man who thrived on the detail, Ben had spent considerable time and effort researching the right vehicle to suit their changing circumstances. And after a hellish few months, she was glad to see him returning to his old self. He had attempted to involve her in the process by suggesting she pick the paintwork colour and seating fabric. But she’d dismissed him as a misogynist for suggesting that buying a car was ‘man’s work’ and that the aesthetics were all she was capable of understanding. In the last few days, Claire had found herself snapping at him frequently. It was never his fault and she’d immediately regretted it. But it hadn’t prevented her from repeating it and she feared her quiet resentment towards him was rising ever closer to the surface. The rear of the car momentarily held Claire’s gaze before a dull kick to her kidney snapped her from her thoughts.

‘Good morning,’ she whispered and rubbed her swollen, rounded abdomen. It was the first time Baby TATE had made his presence felt that morning. They had given him the nickname after the midwife had informed them he weighed about a pound, the same size as a Tate & Lyle bag of sugar. However, what started as a joke had stuck and they were giving it serious consideration. Provided all went according to plan, in two month’s time, Claire would be a first-time mother. Dr Barraclough had warned her that with her high blood pressure, it was essential she kept life stressfree. It was easier said than done. And in the last few hours, it had become impossible. ‘You can do this,’ she said aloud and opened the car door. Claire placed her handbag on the front right-hand seat and lowered herself into the vehicle, bum first.

Her expectant belly had begun to protrude much earlier than her friends had when they were pregnant, and sometimes it felt as if she was carrying a baby elephant. Her body was constantly contradicting itself – some parts sagged while others looked fit to burst. She pressed a button to close the car door and faced the retina scan. Taking a quick glance at her appearance, Claire noted her blue eyes were surrounded by a pinkish-white hue and the dark circles around them were still visible under her foundation. She’d not straightened her blonde fringe that morning so it hung loosely, resting on her eyebrows. Once the scan confirmed Claire was a registered Passenger, the electric motor silently came to life and the dashboard’s centre console and operating system illuminated in whites and blues. ‘Ben’s work,’ she spoke, and a three-dimensional map appeared on the screen from her home to his office several miles outside of town. As the car began to move, she jumped when a playlist of 1990s rock anthems blared from the speakers without warning. She hated Ben’s appalling taste in music and the volume at which he played it. But she had yet to figure out how to turn off his streaming system and create playlists of her own.

Then, as the opening bars began of an old Arctic Monkeys song Ben favoured, she failed to choke back her tears. He knew every word of it off by heart. ‘Why did you do this to us?’ she wept. ‘Why now?’ Claire wiped her eyes and cheeks with her palms, turned the music off and remained in an apprehensive silence as the car continued its journey. She ran through the to-do list again; there was so much she needed to complete by the afternoon for this to work. She kept reminding herself that everything she was doing was for the right reasons; it was all for Tate. And as much as she longed to meet him, a tiny part of her wanted him to remain safe inside her forever, where she could continue to protect him from the cruelty of the world. She glanced out from the windscreen just as the vehicle turned an unexpected right instead of left, the opposite direction to Ben’s office on the outskirts of Peterborough. Claire squinted at the route map on the navigation system, sure that she had programmed it correctly. Then she remembered Ben telling her that, sometimes, driverless cars take alternative routes if they learn of delays ahead.

She hoped it wouldn’t add much more time to the journey. The sooner she could get out of that car the better. Suddenly the console went blank. Claire hesitated, then poked at it, jabbing random icons and searching for a way to reboot it. It made no difference. ‘Damn it,’ she muttered. Of all the days, this was not the one to be inside a faulty vehicle. The car chose another route, this time travelling along a slip road and on to a dual carriageway that she knew would take her even further from her destination. She began to feel uneasy. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked and cursed Ben’s decision to talk her into a car with no manual override.

She poked more buttons in the hope something might happen to allow her to regain control and order the car to pull over. ‘Alternative destination being programmed,’ came a softly spoken female voice that Claire recognised as the vehicle’s operating system. ‘Route being recalculated. Two hours and thirty minutes until chosen destination reached.’ ‘What?’ Claire responded. ‘No! Where are we going?’ As the car pulled up at traffic lights, she spotted her chance to leave. Quickly, she unclipped her seatbelt and hit the door release button. Once outside, she would compose herself and rethink her plan. She knew that whatever alternative she came up with, she could not leave the car unattended, not under any circumstances. However, the door held firm.

Over and over again she pushed it, harder and harder, but it wouldn’t budge. Her baby kicked again. ‘It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay,’ she repeated, trying to convince them both she could find a way out. Claire’s head turned towards the car next to hers at the traffic lights and she waved her hands to catch the driver’s attention. But he was too distracted by a film playing on his Smart windscreen. Her wave became more and more frantic until, finally, she caught his eye. He turned his head towards her, but within the speed of a heartbeat, her windows switched from transparent to opaque. The privacy control had been set remotely so that no one could witness her desperation. Terror overtook her when she finally realised what was happening – someone else was controlling her car. ‘Good morning, Claire,’ a male voice began through the speakers.

She let out an involuntary scream. The voice was calm and relaxed, friendly almost, but most definitely unwelcome. ‘It may have come to your attention that your vehicle is no longer under your management,’ it continued. ‘From here on in, I am in charge of your destination.’ ‘Who are you?’ Claire asked. ‘What do you want?’ ‘Neither of those things matter right now,’ the voice replied. ‘The only thing you need to know at this point is that in two hours and thirty minutes from now, it is highly likely that you will be dead.’ Chapter 2 JUDE HARRISON Jude Harrison’s eyes were fixed on the charger leading from the wall and plugged into the grille of his car. He couldn’t be sure for how long he had been sitting in the vehicle, staring at the charging point or why it had captured his attention. Realising he’d lost all track of time, he checked the clock on his dashboard.

To remain on schedule, he would need to start moving soon. His eyes flicked towards the battery cell light – ten minutes remained before it reached its capacity. The distance he was to travel wouldn’t require a complete charge, but anything less than at least three-quarters full made him jittery. Most other vehicles in the supermarket car park charged in smarter ways than his. They topped up using on-the-go over-chargers embedded in the asphalt of traffic lights, roundabouts, parking spaces or even drive-thru fast-food outlets. Jude had purchased his driverless car at the beginning of the Government’s much hyped ‘road revolution’. Overnight, he went from a driver to a Passenger – someone whose vehicle contained no manual override. The car made all the decisions itself. Compared to many, his model was now outdated and soon it would cease to automatically download the software that operated it, thus forcing him to upgrade. He’d been offered financial incentives to purchase a more advanced, hi-tech model but he’d refused.

It was pointless spending money on something he would not need for much longer. Jude’s belly made a deep, guttural rumbling, reminding him it wanted to be fed. He knew that he must eat to keep his energy levels up and get him through the morning. But he had little appetite, not even for the chocolatey snacks he kept in the side pouches of the luggage on the seats behind him. Exiting the car, he made his way into the supermarket, but towards the bathroom, not the food aisles. There, he emptied his bowels in the toilet, washed his hands and face and dried them under the wallmounted machine. He removed from his pocket a disposable toothbrush containing paste that foamed up once it mixed with his saliva and began to clean his teeth. Harsh lighting above the mirror reflected from his scalp and emphasised how thin the hair was becoming around his temples. He’d recently begun keeping it cropped rather than trying to style and hide it. He remembered his father warning him and his brother that he had begun receding by his thirtieth birthday, and Jude was following suit.

His friends took medication to keep their hair in place; Jude rejected it along with all popular cosmetic alterations. He hadn’t even fixed the two bottom teeth that leaned against one another, which meant he always smiled with closed lips. It had been the best part of a week since he’d last run a razor across his face and it made his olive complexion appear darker. Despite his fatigue, the whites of his eyes remained bright and made his green irises resemble the colour of ripe apples. He placed the palms of his hands on his T-shirt and traced the outline of his stomach and ribs with his fingers. He was aware of the weight he’d lost over the last month and blamed the pressure on all that needed to be organised for this day to be a success. He looked to his wrist for the time, forgetting he had long discarded his watch. It had gathered details from his pulse and temperature to reveal his metabolism, blood pressure and many other diagnoses he didn’t care to be informed about. He didn’t need to read the digits on a display to know his stress levels were soaring. Jude returned to his car and, once satisfied the battery was now full, he unplugged the charger and took the first of a handful of deep breaths before climbing inside and informing the vehicle’s voiceactivated operating system of his next destination.

The car began cruising the suburban roads at no more than twenty-five miles an hour, as Jude recalled how much he used to enjoy being in sole control of a vehicle. He’d passed his driving test on his seventeenth birthday and, at the time, it had felt like the greatest achievement in the world, giving him the freedom he’d craved. He could leave at will the confines of the village in which he was born and raised. He was no longer reliant on irregular bus timetables, his parents or older brother to give him glimpses of the outside world. It didn’t sit comfortably with him that, nowadays, children of fourteen were Passengers in fully autonomous vehicles. It was as if they were cheating. Jude also remembered a time when roads like these were to be avoided at that time of the morning. They used to be gridlocked with rush hour, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Now, cars glided smoothly through the streets, conversing with each other through a network of internal communication systems to reduce bottlenecks and congestion. As much as he resented these cars, there were some benefits to having one.

Much of his dashboard was taken up by a soundbar and large interactive OLED screen in which he could control everything from his choice of television viewing to emails, social media, and reading material. He scrolled downwards until he located a blue folder labelled Family Holidays. Inside, he checked a subfolder which read ‘Greece’ and a selection of videos appeared. He opted for the one titled ‘Restaurant’ and clicked play. The super high-definition picture was so crystal clear it was like he was there, relaxing on a restaurant terrace’s lounger, lying by Stephenie’s side and wrapped in a warm jumper as they enjoyed the setting sun over the vast vista. The camera panned slowly from left to right, zooming over the crescent bay and uninhabited islands ahead. The few clouds above them were illuminated with blues and oranges but cast the islands in shadows. ‘Can you see the boat in the distance?’ he heard her ask. ‘Over there, behind the island. The stern is just poking out.

’ ‘Ah yes, I see it now,’ Jude repeated aloud and over the recorded voice. He knew it off by heart and silently mouthed her reply too. ‘One day we should book a trip on a round-the-world cruise ship,’ she said. ‘Then we can spend our retirement seeing the sun set from every ocean and every continent. How does that sound?’ ‘Perfect,’ Jude replied. ‘Just perfect.’ It was only in recent years that he understood perfect was an impossible concept. He closed the folder and used the screen to turn down the car’s temperature. The spring morning was proving warmer than weather forecasters predicted. However, the display remained at a stubborn twenty-seven degrees.

‘Car,’ he began, not having personalised his operating system by giving it a name like most owners, ‘turn on the air con.’ Nothing happened. The vehicle typically obeyed each task asked of it and his was the only voice it was programmed to recognise. ‘Car,’ he repeated more firmly, ‘acknowledge my request.’ Again there was nothing. He cursed the software glitch and rolled up his shirtsleeves instead. Then, removing a wireless keyboard from the side pocket of the door, he logged on and began to compose an email. He chose to type it, preferring the old-fashioned means rather than dictating it or sending it via a videogram. ‘Dear all,’ he began, ‘apologies for the impersonal nature of this email but …’ ‘Good morning, Jude.’ ‘Shit!’ Jude blurted out loud and dropped his keyboard into the footwell.

He looked around his vehicle as if he were expecting to find a second Passenger hiding. ‘How are you today?’ the voice continued. ‘Good … thanks,’ Jude replied. ‘Who is this and how did you get my number?’ He examined the phone icon on the screen but it was switched off. ‘I need you to listen carefully, Jude,’ the voice continued calmly. ‘In approximately two and a half hours’ time, you are going to die.’ Jude blinked quickly. ‘What did you say?’ ‘The destination you programmed into your GPS is about to be replaced with an alternative location of my choosing.’ His eyes darted towards his dashboard where new coordinates appeared on-screen. ‘Seriously, what is going on?’ asked Jude.

‘Who are you?’ ‘More details will follow soon, but for now, please sit back and make the most of this beautiful spring morning as it will likely be your last.’ Suddenly, the car’s privacy windows switched from clear to opaque, meaning no one outside could see he was trapped inside.

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