Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Or Nobody Does

by Ian Cordingley


"What's the hold up?"

Paul flicked through the car's menu. "Flying inspection."

"Jesus..."

A long line of red brake lights stretched ahead. It was quiet. The hum of the cars' batteries, though a few old stinkers rumbled. People inside their cars looking bored or annoyed if they hadn't already logged onto their vehicles entertainment links, though off in the distance a hot head or two was honking and cursing.

If they were trying to attract attention, certainly they would succeed. Exactly what grievance could be worth being pulled out of their vehicles was left to speculation. Tonight the weather was atrocious: fat, thick raindrops pelting the windshield. He could have sworn he got a bruise from a particularly nasty one. Trees were barren and the sky was dark; night was falling, earlier than usual.

The line budged an inch. An encouraging sign.

"We'll be here all night."

The car's dash displayed in block red letters DO NOT EXIT VEHICLE. Quite a few people, especially the ones who conspicuously had children, looked distressed.

"What is the hold up?" he asked again.

Paul shrugged. "Can't see anything on the news."

He flicked through a few links. The notice of the flying inspection ran along the top; if there was something world shaking occurring it was hard to see what it was. Trending stories were just celebrity gossip.

Jake sat back, laying his head back and sighing deeply.

"I really have had enough of this," he said.

"Relax, its nothing," Paul said. "Till they get into the city..."

"Oh God."

"Relax," Paul said. "Just teasing you."

"Not funny."

Jake and Paul made their commute regularly. In addition to the hassle of the boundaries there were the inspections, which were coming more frequently, almost capriciously.

WE FEED YOU AND ENSURE YOUR HAPPINESS.

Jake wondered when, if ever, efficiency and common sense would become dominant concerns.

"What if they come over here?" Jake asked.

"There's nothing to fear," Paul said, "right?"

"I'm running two nuclear bombs and half a ton of opium hidden within the child sex slaves I've secreted within the car."

"Ha ha. Seriously, what have you to fear?"

Jake snorted. "I'm me. They know that."

"Lots of people are like you, nothing to worry about."

Lots of people haven't done the things I've done. Done all the things to make their lives as difficult as humanly possible. Forget it, Jake reminded himself. They do everything but wash his feet.

They. Circling above, drifting down along predetermined lengths. The line had been moving had suddenly slammed to a halt and for a long time they were left idling. Perhaps someone had gotten out to take a leak and got tackled. It was only innocent things like that that held up the line.

Mostly spindly little observation drones mulling about waiting for people to screw up, and justify bringing the heavy artillery down.

Jake had nothing to fear. Nothing expect his big mouth. Tonight would be fodder for another one of his broadsides. Holding up traffic forever, and for what? Tomorrow he would cluck that tonight should be filed as crimes against efficiency.

The line of cars shifted forward an inch. Inching towards the smudgy lights in the distance. Home. Just a smidgen closer.

Jake and Paul had intended for this to be a quick jaunt to help some of their friends get things together. Moving, and dragging their lives with them. More like amputating: leaving bits and pieces around, and scurrying to gather them all up and take them to one place.

Well, from up above it must seem like an easy job.

WE KEEP YOU SAFE AT NIGHT.
YOU SLEEP EASY BECAUSE OF WHAT WE DO.

Right now a hollow promise.

As time went on and the various computer systems got smarter, and more integrated, and layered and encompassing...at one point they got fed up with the kvetching and issued a statement. Their only one.

LOOK
WE CANNOT TOLERATE DISTRUST AND CERTAINLY NOT VIOLENCE
UNDERSTAND: WE NEED YOUR COOPERATION AS YOU NEED OUR ASSISTANCE
FOR COMBINED SAFETY OF THE BOTH OF US

Jake was trying real hard right now.

He wasn't a bad person. But if they were looking for people, Jake was certain they were coming for him. Everyone had issues, and he had a difficulty keeping them himself. Sharing them with everyone he encountered...which, over the web, was a considerable number indeed.

Too little too late had been the main countering argument: should've said something in the early days, back when the emergent AI knitted itself together over its multinational components. People just shrugged, let it happy and delighted to learn things were easier now. Jake admitted there were benefits. This just wasn't one of them.

A smaller unit drifted by. It seemed that it was going to dart back up into the sky; Jake let his head face front again, and then was almost blinded.

"What the..."

The sharp, deep light of a Monitor. A large, blocky monitor was drifting down. Most of the hotheads kept quiet, everyone hoping that some poor sap next to them would be on its receiving end.

People in the other cars were staring, likely thankful it hadn't been them that got singled out. Wondering as well what Jake and Paul had done.

PLEASE REMAIN INSIDE

"Bullshit."

"Jake..."

"We've done nothing wrong."

The Monitor was outside the window, peering in. It blinked and hummed.

INSPECTION

"What for?"

"I don't know," Paul said. He scrolled through the command on the car's screen.

"Christ."

The Monitor's tendrils snaked around the car. Exactly what it was looking for it was impolite enough to not report.

"What's the problem?"

INTERNAL INSPECTION REQUIRED

"We're going to be here a lot longer," Jake grumbled to himself.

From the outside the Monitor appeared larger than expected. Large, spherical and multiple tentacles with several dozen eyes peering at you. An even larger number of eyes peered from the waiting cars, beginning to inch forwards at more regular intervals.

"Well, the line's moving better without us."

Paul nodded. Without their coats they were being hammered by the rain. Trying to go back to get them would be unwise.

"Before we got out did you get a chance to find out what was the problem."

"I don't know. Somebody took a swipe at one of their smaller facilities, or something. Somebody did something to piss them off."

"Did you find out what?" Jake asked.

Paul shook his head. "They're so paranoid."

The Monitor finished molesting the vehicle. Slowly, barely audibly, another unit was slinking behind them.

DETENTION

"For what..?"

The words were caught in his throat.

Jake was on the ground. He didn't know how. His eyes crept open. It felt like he had fallen off a mountain and that he had slept for a hundred years. His limbs felt like they were made of pudding, just lying there useless. The concept of getting up had fled his mind.

FOR PUBLIC SAFETY.

Jake winced. He passed out.

The door closed. Under automatic control the car lurched forwards. All the other cars were accelerating to required speed. The line had disappeared; now there was just open road.

THE END


© 2010 Ian Cordingley

Bio: Ian Cordingley's work has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Estronomicon and, of course, Aphelion (The Table, March 2010).

E-mail: Ian Cordingley

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.