In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

The Commuter

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

The Commuter

     Eliot Kew roused from an unsettled doze to find himself offline and sidelaned. An irritating signal reverbed from his dashboard: beep-beep, pause, beep-beep. . . It was probably what had waked him.

     Eliot reached past his steering wheel and touched the monitor. The beeping stopped, and the flashing red screen turned blue. He rubbed his eyes then squinted at the white-lettered message that flicked into place — something about a routing error, as if he didn’t know. A recorded female voice spoke up.

“This is your Concomm Emergency Service Provider. If you are in need of assistance, please log in to your Concomm Emergency Service program.”

Eliot peered blearily through the windows — forward, left, right. He was parked near the center divide; several lanes of traffic crept by in both directions. Along both banks of the freeway rose a generic clutter of commercial buildings and advertising signs. They were familiar, but only because they were ubiquitous. He could have been almost anywhere in the Greater Metropolitan Area.

“This is your Concomm Emergency Service Provider. If you are in need of assistance –“

Eliot touched the Concomm logo and the voice abruptly stopped. Tapping the GPS icon on the monitor, he glanced at his watch before the map flashed onscreen. The cursor denoting his position blinked on a straight stretch of freeway, surrounded by a network of streets he did not recognize. He touched the screen to query for a city name. It flashed on over the grid.

“West Covina?” he said aloud. “What the hell am I doing in West Covina?” He was sure he had inputted for Montclair, but he had ended up going in exactly the opposite direction.

A male voice droned from the dash speaker: “Please repeat your question.”

Instead, he checked his watch again. This time it registered in consciousness — 12:27. No way would he make his one o’clock appointment.

“Damn,” he growled. He straightened up in the driver’s seat, ran his fingers back through his thinning hair, and tapped his supervisor’s contact shortcut on the dashboard phone. At the third warble he heard a click, then a female voice.

“You have reached the internal business line of Noramcor Assessment and Loss,” it said. His supe’s rusty baritone interpolated, “Mike Mercuto,” followed by the alto, “is not available at this time. Please leave your message after the tone.”

“Mike,” said Eliot, “I had a glitch and now I’m frozen in traffic, so I’m not going to make it to Genuflex by one. Naturally, I’ll call them and re-schedule, but I wanted you to know since we talked about the account just this morning. Get back to me if you have any other instructions.”

He next left a message on Genuflex voicemail — explaining, apologizing, and asking them to call him for another appointment — then poked at the dashboard monitor to bring up his log for the day. He had nothing until his three o’clock with the fleet manager at Vaxtrak in Monrovia. Punching up the Greater Metro map, he confirmed what he suspected already: he could head back west on the 10, hit the 605, then the 210. The freeway was hot the whole way. Provided the trip was glitch-free, he had plenty of time to get there while catching up on his paperwork.

Eliot Kew settled back in the driver’s seat with a sigh. He lifted the liter cup from the door holder and sipped at the straw in its plastic lid. His face scrunched automatically; the coffee was cool. He thought of spitting it out the window, but did not want to compromise the air conditioning and swallowed instead. He stabbed a finger at the Kopaid® dispenser in the dash. Instead of the familiar soothing blue caplet, he received a red indicator light. He frowned. That last clip had gone fast. Probably the reason he had nodded off, despite half a liter of coffee. He localized a vague sense of discomfort below his belt and realized that he needed to empty his bladder. Unbuckling, he squeezed between the seats, sidled through his mobile office, and closed himself in the WC at the rear of his FUV. He re-emerged a minute later, relieved but reminded again that his septic tank was overdue for cleaning.

Eliot was shuffling through desk drawers in search of more Kopaid®, either loose or sealed in handy auto-dispenser clips, when a phone signal beeped from his dash. Pivoting in his seat, he hit the phone by remote without bothering to check the caller ID, certain it was Genuflex. A stern masculine voice emerged from the dash speaker.

“Highway Patrol. What’s your problem?”

Eliot reflexively glanced at his ceiling, though he could not hear the chopper let alone see it.

“Just a glitch, officer,” he replied.

“You’ve been sitting in the sidelane for quite some time. Do you need to be slaved?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’d better move on then. If you’re spotted here again, you’ll be in violation.”

“Yessir. Thank you, officer. I understand.”

After belting himself back behind the steering wheel, Eliot fingertapped instructions into the Traffic Control System to send him toward Monrovia, en route taking him off the freeway at the nearest business zone for a refill of coffee and Kopaid®. He touched “Enter” then sat back to watch the rearview monitor above the windshield. Traffic was close but moving steadily in the nearest hotlane; he had dozed off near the end of the morning rush and waked in the thick of the midday rush. Long, squirming moments passed while his FUV’s TCS talked to the freeway. Still eying the rearview, Eliot watched a gap appear in front of an oil tanker. He felt his vehicle pop out of idle, heard the engine growl as he surged and lurched to the right, tossing him against the door and his plastic coffee cup. As his Full Utility Vehicle–a Ford Dominator–accelerated, he watched the oil truck loom in the rearview until he could read the bored expression on the driver’s face.

Eliot was on the road again, zipping along at forty miles per hour in a bumper-to-bumper chain. He found himself looking down from his driver’s side window on an antique Hum3. It might be fun to drive one as a memento of a simpler time, Eliot thought, but it was too small to be practical for one who commuted as he did. Beyond it the close-packed fleet of FUVs, vans, trucks, and cars flowed in near unison, like a suburban tract on wheels.

The TCS had just moved him another lane to the right when his phone beeped. He tapped the monitor; it had to be either Genuflex or Mercuto.

“Eliot?” It was a plaintive female voice, far less pleasant than the recordings and receptionists he was accustomed to hearing.

“Who is this?” he demanded.

“It’s Julie,” the voice replied, growing even harsher. “Your wife.”

“Oh. Sorry. I was expecting someone else.”

“Well, don’t worry. I won’t keep you on long.”

He detected a dash of sarcasm, decided against responding in kind. “No, no. It’s okay.”

“I just wanted to know if you were going to be home for your daughter’s birthday dinner?” Though not strictly a question, it ended like one.

“Sure,” he said, scanning his memory and finding nothing. “When is it?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh.” He tapped at the dash monitor, calling up his log. “I thought her party was this weekend.”

“That’s her party for her friends. We agreed it would be nice to have a family dinner on her birthday itself.”

“Right.” Remembering no such conversation, he studied the monitor. His last appointment of the day was his 4:30 in Pomona. With any luck, he could be home two or three hours later.

“Hard to believe our little girl is thirteen already,” he improvised.

“She’s fourteen.”

“Really — fourteen?” He shut his log down. “Uh, yeah — that’s what I meant. Hard to believe she’s fourteen.”

“I’m not surprised you don’t remember,” Julie remarked after a second’s pause. “I doubt you’ve spent more than a day in her company since her last birthday.”

“Hey, when I am home, she’s off somewhere with her friends.”

“And you’re not home that often.”

He scowled, though no one could see. “You want me to quit my job? You think we can pay the mortgage on our one-point-six-million-dollar semi-detached home in Moreno Valley on your salary alone?”

“I –” She paused. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to nag. I guess I just miss spending time with my husband.”

He stared out the windshield at the river of traffic ahead of him. His vehicle was veering right into the next lane.

“I’m sorry too,” he said, “but I’m going to have to go. I really am expecting an important phone call.”

“All right.” It was almost a sigh. “I have to concentrate on finding parking anyway.”

Over the next two miles, the TCS shifted Eliot Kew into the rightmost hotlane; a signal from the monitor warned him he was about to go offline at the next exit. After punching up the GPS map for this neighborhood, he gripped the steering wheel in preparation. His Dominator peeled out of traffic and arced smoothly onto the ramp, dragging to a stop behind a Lexus Leviathan. When the Leviathan rolled forward to the metered stoplight, Eliot pressed the accelerator and felt the surge as control of the vehicle returned to him.

The map on the monitor told him to turn right at the light; in a block there would be a strip mall to his left. He watched a Land Razer pass, then a Road Warrior and a Desert Storm, before a suitable gap opened in the surface street traffic. He glanced in his rearview monitor as the little VW Ferret he had cut off screeched and swerved, its driver angrily gesturing with a palm device.

Eliot had to sit in the boulevard’s central turning lane for several minutes, quietly snarling curses, before he careened desperately into the mall parking lot across the bow of a lagging GMC Strike Force. He immediately jammed to a halt behind a Saturn Titan, joining the line of vehicles that prowled for parking spots. He checked his watch: it was nearly one now.

He snaked past the computer megastore, the supermarket, the drug store; a tire outlet, a discount clothing warehouse, and a multiplex cinema. He knew he could get what he needed here — a caffeine fix, a Kopaid® refill — if he could only find a place to park.

By his third pass he was gripping the wheel so tightly that the hollows of both thumbs began to hurt. He consciously tried to relax, wiped at the sheen of perspiration on his sagging cheeks and neck. When he lost a spot to a quicker Jeep Predator, he roared out a “Goddamn you!” that only he could hear, though it left his throat raw.

After his next pass, he plunged fiercely out of the queue and toward the exit, barely missing a woman who was walking across the lot. He cursed her too, bounced to a halt in the driveway, and continued to erupt vociferously as he waited for a break in the traffic. He finally screeched into the lane behind a Lincoln Battalion.

In the next block he found a Drink’n’Drive right on the boulevard and bounded across the sidewalk into the crawling line of vehicles. By the time he pulled up to the ACM, he had his dash phone on and his debit card in hand.

“May I help you?” asked a canned female voice from the dash.

“Yeah. Just a chicken-bacon ranch salad, no fries. And an extra large coffee.”

“Would you like fries with that?” came the automatic query.

“No fries!” he repeated.

“That will be thirteen ninety-seven.”

He swiped his card through the slot in his dash and tapped in his PIN. The voice directed him to the window ahead. There he peered through two layers of glass into the dim interior of the Drink’n’Drive, vaguely making out a humanoid silhouette. As he waited, his phone trilled. He answered; it was the appointment secretary at Genuflex — finally — requesting a re-schedule for that afternoon.

“I’m sorry,” said Eliot. “I’m booked for this afternoon.” He punched up his log. “How about tomorrow at …” He had something at eight, and at ten-thirty, and at twelve thirty, and had to count on at least two hours between appointments. “I’m free between two and three-thirty.”

“We have an opening –“

She was interrupted by a beep as another call came in.

“Just a second,” he said, punching the dash.

“Thank you for your order,” came the fast-food voice. Outside his window, the metal drawer slid forward.

He settled on two o’clock with Genuflex while electronically easing his car window down to receive his lunch. Overbaked air rolled in, leaving a faint petrochemical tang on his tongue. He took the opportunity to empty his last coffee cup on the hot pavement outside.

Not until he unboxed his lunch on the freeway and realized how unsettled his stomach felt did he remember he had meant to pick up more Kopaid®. As he forked through the carrot strips in his chicken-bacon ranch salad to get at the croutons and chicken cubes, he reminded himself that he still had plenty of time to reach Monrovia and that he could stop worrying. Switching the rearview monitor to TV mode, he found The Crush Factor on.

“– a technological fix,” Crush’s guest was saying, a trim fortyish type with chiseled features and close-cropped hair, “like wanting a pill to slim you down in place of diet and exercise.”

“What do you have against technology?” the beefy Crush responded.

“Nothing at all. But it can’t overcome bad decisions. For instance, TCS technology was supposed to make it possible for twice the number of vehicles to co-exist on our freeways, but then the average vehicle quadrupled in size –“

“So you’re just another of those killjoy wackos who want to ban FUV’s,” Crush charged.

“Not at all, but there have to be some limitations,” the wacko replied.

“You want the government to confiscate people’s vehicles!” Crush bellowed. “What do you have against freedom?”

“What freedom? The average commuter now spends twice as much time –“

“I suppose you’d be happy if we all returned to horses and buggies!” yelled Crush, bouncing in his seat.

When the commercial began, Eliot nibbled on Real Bacon Bits and watched a Toyota Terminator 2 crunch over lesser vehicles and mow down trees, while a rubric at the bottom of the screen warned, “Professional driver on closed course.” He carried his styrofoam bowl and coffee back to his work station and called up the Vaxtrak file, reviewing it as The Crush Factor returned. By the time nothing remained of his salad but a heap of soggy lettuce, Crush O’Neill was jumping up and down, pounding his table with both fists.

“Why do you hate America so much!” he screamed at the wacko. “Why do you hate America!”

Crush was obviously winning the argument, so Eliot remoted to the 24-hour Traffic Channel and focused on updating the Vaxtrak documentation. When he was done, he glanced at his watch and discovered that it was 2:12 and that his hand was trembling. Another rummaging search for Kopaid® failed to turn up a single blue caplet. He swigged lukewarm coffee instead.

An announcement on the Traffic Channel suddenly caught his attention, and he tottered toward the dash as his TCS monitor flashed red. He touched the screen and a message scrolled up in large white letters, confirming what he had heard:

605 CURRENTLY OFFLINE.

SELECT ALTERNATE ROUTE FROM OPTIONS MENU

     Eliot queried for details. A crash had occurred on the 605 between the 10 and the 210, a total Traffic Control System failure causing a pile-up of over 200 vehicles. The Highway Patrol had no idea when that stretch of freeway would be cleared and back online — probably sometime overnight. Eliot had two alternatives: to ride all the way downtown then backtrack on the 110, or to get off the freeway at route 19 and pick up the 210 on the far side of San Gabriel. Only the first option was entirely hot. Either way he could no longer be certain of making his three o’clock.

     Eliot screamed Shit. His cry grew hoarse and muffled, but only when his jaw muscles began to ache did he realize he was biting the steering wheel. Startled, he released it, then fell back in the driver’s seat, wiping drool from his chin. Beyond the windshield, all around him, the lanes of close vehicles streamed endlessly. Eliot caught himself poking reflexively at the Kopaid® dispenser. He would have to risk the 19 through San Gabriel. Although the surface route was offline, it offered his only chance to pick up more Kopaid®. He found himself still trembling as he punched directions into his TCS program.

Upon passing the 605 interchange some minutes later, Eliot glanced wistfully at the electric sign over the connector: NORTHBOUND LANES CLOSED. As he surfed the hotlane behind a Hyundai Kilimanjaro, he continued to suck at his coffee, which offered tepid comfort. He glanced at the monitor to check his speed — presently a mere 27 miles per hour — then touched the rearview. The truck filling the screen was replaced by a TV newsreader, who announced that despite temporary setbacks the current war to protect national security was proceeding right on schedule. In Venezuela? Or was it Nigeria? Eliot couldn’t remember the details. He voted every couple of years so he wouldn’t have to.

He left the freeway twenty minutes later with less than half an hour to his Vaxtrak appointment. When he surged off the ramp only to find himself braking, Eliot seriously began to worry. He tapped at his dash dispenser before recalling again that it was empty; he cast a glance at the malls that lined the limited access business route. Even though the traffic was actually moving in quantum hops — the lunchtime rush had ended, and the afternoon rush had not yet commenced — he was rapidly running out of time. He might have to choose which he needed more: Vaxtrak or Kopaid®.

And then he spotted warning lights ahead as traffic virtually halted. He unclenched the steering wheel to check his watch: barely twenty minutes left, and he was not even halfway to the 210. When Eliot saw the electric sign over the highway strobing “CONSTRUCTION AHEAD. ONE LANE OPEN,” several seconds passed before he realized that the scream he was hearing was his.

“Out of my way!” His throat hurt, as though someone was grating it. “Everyone out of my fucking way!”

He jammed the accelerator, yanking the steering wheel sideways, and felt a heavy metallic thud as he struck a Chevy Supernova. Throwing his Dominator quickly in reverse, he impacted something behind him before roaring at a forward angle into the next lane. Brushing aside a mid-sized Kia Priapus with a crunch of metal and a crash of glass, he clipped a supermarket delivery truck before ramming a Honda Typhoon. It hopped forward, and with a roar he rammed it again, wishing he had a Terminator 2.

Suddenly his engine quit. His dashboard monitor flashed red. A mechanical female voice came from the speaker.

“This is a Highway Patrol Emergency Override,” it said. “You will be unable to restart or exit your vehicle. An officer will be with you in a moment. Have identification ready.”

Only for a second did Eliot wonder how the Highway Patrol had stopped him on an offline route. Of course, it was camscanned. He had been remotely coldcocked; there had to be a Patrol chopper already overhead. His heart sank, and everything else sagged over his belt. He was in deep trouble, submerged in sewage without scuba gear. As the recorded message recycled, he closed his eyes to wait and felt his eyelids fluttering.

He was just thinking of draining his bladder when the message broke off mid-loop. A male voice replaced it.

“Eliot P. Kew, the registered owner of this vehicle?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Slot your ID now.”

Eliot realized he had forgotten to get it out.

“Just a second,” he squeaked.

Moments later he swiped the card through the slot below his monitor.

“The Concomm camcording shows you colliding with several other vehicles,” the voice continued. It asked no questions, simply waited for Eliot’s response.

“I — I was in a hurry.” He realized how lame he sounded. “I have — had a three o’clock appointment.” His eye drifted to his watch; he dropped to a mumble. “In Monrovia.”

“Why did you hit the others? Did you lose vehicle control?”

“I’d run out of Kopaid®,” he explained.

“Don’t you know how dangerous it is to drive offline without proper medication?”

“I know,” he said thinly. “Believe me, I know.”

“You will remain on hold until we have taken statements from the others,” the officer informed him.

Eliot had plenty of time to use his restroom, then to phone Vaxtrak; he warned the voice machine that he would not make the appointment and asked to reschedule for the next day. He left another message with his supervisor too.

It was substantially after three when the citation and other court documents appeared on his monitor. After acknowledging them with his signature and thumbprint, he received hard copies via the printer in the office at his back. Even the Priapus he had disabled had been towed away by the time the paperwork was finished.

“You are to be slaved to the nearest point where you can acquire meds,” he was finally told. A GPS map came up onscreen. Eliot saw two spots blinking on the grid. “You’ll then be taken to a TCS-controlled freeway. Any attempt to resist and you’ll be impounded and slaved to the nearest holding facility. Do you understand?”

“Yes, officer.”

Eliot felt truly terrible as his Dominator started up and crept away from the site. He sat sagging but still shaking behind the wheel, watching passively as he was inserted back into traffic. He was guided to a drive-by Kwikstop where he purchased a pack of Kopaid® and a diet Bolt. He gratefully swallowed two of the blue caplets right away. By the time he reached the 210, they had taken effect, and he was no longer stewing grimly over how much this episode was going to cost him. Noting that the evening commute had begun, he re-programmed the TCS for his 4:30 at Pomona, then–just to be sure–washed down another blue caplet.

     Eliot Kew roused from an unsettled doze to find himself offline and sidelaned. A phone signal trilled from his dashboard, probably what had waked him.

     “This is Bencor,” came a woman’s voice.

“Yes?” He was blearily wondering what kind of a woman would have a name like Bencor when she continued.

“We were wondering if you were still showing up.”

Eliot abruptly sat up and checked his watch. It was nearly five o’clock. Bencor was his 4:30.

“I, um — I’m so sorry. I got stuck in traffic — uh, because of that huge system crash that took place on 605. I would have phoned but–my telecomm server was maxed out.” Glancing at the vaguely familiar freeway surroundings, he continued to improvise: “I could be there in less than half an hour.”

“As it turns out, Mr. Kew, Ms. Miles will be in the office for a while longer.”

It was the first good news he had had all day.

When Eliot checked the GPS, he learned that he had just missed his ramp. Probably a good thing too, because going offramp and offline in his sleep might have led to more trouble with the Highway Patrol. He had had enough of that for one day.

Negotiating a roundabout route through the evening rush, he entered the Bencor parking lot at 5:30 and immediately phoned to learn that Ms. Miles had just left. He re-scheduled for two days hence and turned around. On the way back to the freeway, he found an autopump station and bought forty gallons for his tank. By then it was six o’clock and starting to darken. After directing his FUV homeward, he rechecked his log and placed a call to his wife.

“What do you mean you’ll probably be home by 8:30?” she said. “Our dinner reservation is for seven.”

“Can you bump it back to nine?” he asked.

“Are you joking?”

The argument was settled when Julie agreed that they would go without him. He promised to make it up to their daughter–somehow, sometime.

Later it occurred to Eliot, as he re-entered freeway traffic munching a turkey cheeseburger, that once again he would be returning to a dark house and a quick shower and a short, restless sleep. With the local news murmuring onscreen — a susurrus of accidents, murders, fires — he slouched in his driver’s seat, scanning the night scene just outside, the flowing rivers of red and white and amber light. It crossed his mind that he had not left his FUV all day and that perhaps this was his real home. Turning to the glow of the dashboard, he poked out a Kopaid® and punched up his log for tomorrow.

It would be another full day.

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