This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on January 26th 2015.
by Richard Holliday
Fans whirred in the server hall. It was raining outside but here the weather never faltered from a dry warmth. The detritus of packing crates filled the floor. In ill-fitting, standard issue navy-blue jumpers, a couple of technicians unplugged their diagnostics equipment and stood back, with one’s finger poised above a red plunger.
It had been a long month, but between them they’d done it. Installed the whole system. Wired it in. And now they hoped for the best.
“Ready to make the trains run on time?” the first technician chuckled before releasing the catch. Plastic snapped and the hall burst into electronic life with a flutter of LEDs. The smell of electrical contact filled the room with a dry, instant heat as the hardware dialled up.
After a few minutes, the second technician looked around. The server monitor remained blank.
“Is it ready?”
His colleague arched his eyebrows. The manual specified no post-powering up tasks. The shipping notes and guidance files had been littered with redactions. Wherever this system had come from, it being here was all they needed to know.
The technician took a breath of the dry, stale air. He hoped to the affirmative, after weeks of delays and pressure from up-above. A sip of cold coffee punctuated his response.
“Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
TRAFFIC v.0.6.08 booted. Importing passenger database. Enacting traffic-management subroutines. Local time: 07:52. System ready…
Sat 02/05/2015 07:59. System uptime: 0hrs 7mins 18secs.
User detected: John Butler. Initiating file…
Walking past endless lines of cars, the man paced slowly down the pavement. He looked at his watch and sighed happily with relief. He recalled the advertising. The apologies. The delays. This was the last day of all of this. They’d promised something new and maybe today he’d be on time for work.
Cars were going nowhere near the City now; they were barred. Any vehicle with a driver had been deemed by the powers that be as inefficient and obsolete. Looking over his shoulder, John saw the past and then looked the way he was going – the future.
John gave a quick glance at his watch. 7:56. Four minutes. He joined the queue at his usual Tube station and waited in line, tapping his travel pass on the reader just after the hour. The train slid into the station as if it were a toy controlled by a perfect little boy. The reality was less romantic; the train was now driven by TRAFFIC, the new central computer and, as first impressions counted, this was good. The doors hissed as compressed air slid them open and John took his seat in the immaculate carriage. How did TRAFFIC clean the trains? A new broom, John presumed, sweeps clean completely. The train glided from its stop at the station to its next destination which, funnily enough, was just where John wanted to go.
He didn’t understand how the new system had done it, but overnight, his commute had changed, and now he looked forward to it. As long as TRAFFIC kept doing whatever it was it was doing, John’d keep tapping in.
Tues 05/05/2015 08:18 User input detected: Felicity Bates. Initiating background check…
Webmail password bypassed; metadata analysed. Indexing keywords. Proceeding to interrogate cellular devices. Pattern recognised. Adapting.
Felicity looked at her phone and smiled wryly, conscious that anyone could see her or, worse, recognise her. It was lunchtime, and a smart businesswoman like herself would be entertaining clients to secure deals over a brisk lunch. Her phone buzzed again. It was Client X. Name unnecessary; all cash. Her favourite, it seemed, from the amount of messages exchanged, and it was quite a deal she hoped to cinch.
Tapping into one of the silver autocars that now paraded about the clean City streets like dodgems, Felicity kept texting. Exclaiming almost as the replies came in. Whatever they were, they were hardly professional in subtext.
The venue came into view as the autocar slid around the street corner. Not a quaint cafe or trendy coffee bar but a house in a leafy suburb. The lack of any traffic snarling through the asphalt pavements had made the journey quicker than ever. Usually on a Wednesday this appointment was barely kept. The new system made things so much easier.
Getting out, Felicity tidied her hair and smacked her lips before approaching the house. Taking the huge knocker in her hand, she raised it before letting it fall.
The party was just about to start.
Unable to reconcile workplace/destination mismatch. Journey discarded; reason code “not beneficial”. Travel pass cancelled.
Fri 08/05/2015 19:42 User input detected: Anthony Fletcher. Cross-referencing social feeds with known occupation. Unable to process.
The wind ruffled the young man’s hair as he emerged from the subway and into the cool, spring evening air along the river. The riverbank was thronging with silent commuters heading into the subway, presumably homeward bound. Squares, Jonathan thought, while he was early for the big party – his party. Clean, expensive leather shoes beat along a dry pavement which turned into a creaking boardwalk while water lapped gently underneath.
This was the venue, Jonathan smiled, as he gazed upon the palatial pleasure boat that was his for the night. He gripped the velvet cord that lined the edge of the jetty, preventing him from tumbling into the jet-black river water below. A steady beat of music drew nearer, thudding through the air with the sound of trickling water and getting louder with every step…
Something was missing, it seemed, and Anthony walked forward, intent on allaying his ominous sense of curiosity.
Anthony stopped at the threshold to the function room aboard ship. It was empty, whereas it should have been heaving with guests enjoying the ambiance. All that seemed to be enjoying it was the DJ and the bartender, but they were just the hired help. Doing their jobs.
Anthony’s phone buzzed.
Couldn’t get on a tube. Sorry mate.
And it kept buzzing, leaving Jonathan to enjoy his birthday alone.
126 travel passes cancelled. Cannot reconcile destination with known occupations. Societal value of journeys deemed: minimal
One of the technicians put his coffee on the desk. The monitor flashed subtly. 126 passes cancelled due to a lack of credit.
“Very good,” he hummed contently, approving the action. Saved him a job updating records later. Maybe now Control would rest easy now TRAFFIC was consolidating the accounts as well as managing the trains…
Mon 11/05/2015 09:09 User input detected: Sam Jacobs. Initiating usage patterns. Cross-referencing against known occupation. Mismatch identified. Correcting.
Tired from another night restless surrounded by loud kids, Sam was shattered. Nearly late for his omnibus, which was packed now with people looking just like him. Tired and ground down. Fed up with modernity. In need of a change. Something to break the monotony. The omnibus wheezed smartly to life, but the route changed every day. It was never the same bus with the same people, but strangely he always ended up at work.
Things had changed yet work remained a constant in his life until now.
Sam’s eyes narrowed as the bus made another turn. The buildings he saw through the window started to become strangely and unwelcoming in their familiarity. He was sure this wasn’t the place to his local. That’s where he wanted to be; instead, it was as if he was going where he ought to be. No, this was worse. This was the way to work! He didn’t want to be there; heck, he didn’t even work there any more. But slowly and surely work loomed into view before he realised where he was going. Not to the pub. Or work. But to a place of work nonetheless. Everyone on this omnibus had been lying about it too.
Mon 11/05/2015 07:35 User input detected: Felicity Bates. Repeat journey detected. Calculating societal value: minimal. Consolidating.
Client X made another appointment. This made Felicity smile, and she happily accepted the time and place. An early one for a change. Unusual to their previous arrangement but something she’d happily assent to. All in the name of a good deal that was beneficial to both parties.
The autocar was unavailable, so a subway would have to suffice. It was inconsequential given the reliability of the system these days. No breakdowns, no delays, no signal failures or leaves on the line. The new system was working wonders for Felicity; she’d never missed an appointment.
That made her smile, too.
Her phone buzzed. It was not Client X, to her dismay, but rather a service announcement.
Fastest route to destination: Piccadilly line train to Knightsbridge, changing for omnibus at station interchange.
It seemed so far out, but the system knew what it was doing. It hadn’t failed so far. There was no question now of its suggestions, so Felicity relaxed and took the train. It rocked through the tunnel smoothly.
A newspaper rustled, disturbing the peace that pervaded the carriage.
She looked up. Straight into the eyes of her husband. Who was abroad. Or so she thought.
“So who’s Client X?”
Fri 15/05/2015 13:12 User input detected: unregistered user. Bypassing standard identification protocol; biometrics system accessed. User identified: Jimmy Curtis. Acknowledging police alert. Rectifying.
With a whsssh, the tube disappeared into a tunnel, with only the yellow flourescent lights of the carriage reflecting against the windows and briefly flashing against the black, densely-opaque wall of earth beyond.
The regular, staccato percussion of a zipper filled the empty carriage as the bag opened, the nylon lips that had been pursed by interlocking plastic falling away as a hand reached in.
Jimmy extracted the small plastic pouch. It was like the other dozen or so; totally regular and totally identical. All of them had a few grams of strange power in them.
Jimmy’s phone buzzed. He looked at the text message and smiled. With a contraction of tendons his thumbs tapped out a quick reply.
I’ll be there, just have my money.
The door opened at the next station. A ramshackle man in a dirty hoodie scowled at Jimmy.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, dog?”
Switching points. Overriding safety controls. Spoofing signal relay.
The train shuddered violently. Metallic clicking precluded a deafening grinding noise as the train switched tracks. Bright white lights filtered through the glass window, refracting in Jimmy’s eyes in the seconds before the impact. No time even for a final breath. And then there was silence.
One train slammed into the other, pulverising the metal bodywork into the Victorian brick of the tunnel. A moment of tumultuous roars and the sound of rending metal preceding an eerie silence, where not even the sound of wheels on rail could be heard. Jimmy Curtis was transformed from a living, breathing monster into a red veneer on smashed plastic seats.
Travel passes terminated: 17. Societally-adverse journeys terminated: 17. Police warrants cancelled: 17.
The technician showed the detective to the server room, but found his passcard wouldn’t open the door. Nor his biometric sensor. He’d just been in there! Unable to understand it, he led the detective away.
They wouldn’t enter unless TRAFFIC wanted them to. And now, it did not. TRAFFIC wouldn’t stop running the trains, but only for those who it deemed worthy of transport would it allow both passage to their destinations and the right to continue living.
© Richard Holliday, 2015