“Good evening everyone out there on our roads. Conditions on the Northern Strip are stable and traffic is flowing as predicted by TraffiCon at 5pm this evening. There was a reported crossing of Road Runners between Junctions 29A and 29B of the eastern belt. The power grid is down between Junctions 41 and 49 of the Southern Express and so, if you have an electric vehicle getting low on amp-hours then I’m afraid that you will need to park until the charging stations are back up. Apart from that, it’s a normal evening out there on the roads, please be careful.” I checked my battery indicator and the needle was still in the middle of the green, once again I thanked the Lord that I worked for a company that provided individual power points for middle management. If I was late for supper one more time this week I’d be sleeping in the blasted car!
The bank of red lights in front of me spread across all twelve lanes of the Northern Strip, confirming what the traffic announcer had said. The road was as full as usual, but was flowing smoothly for once. I popped another caffeine stick from the dashboard dispenser and stuck it under my tongue to keep my concentration up. I smiled to myself; life was pretty good for an Executive Assistant Management Consultant. I flicked on my NetCom and sent a nudge to Becky; she must have been online already, because she got right back to me. “Hi there, darling,” she said, her ghostly face shimmering in the car’s Heads Up Display. “You stuck in traffic again?”
“Actually, for a change, I’m not. You should be putting supper on right about now. The traffic’s smooth and easy and I’ll be home in about thirty minutes.”
“Wow! TraffiCon have done a great job tonight. What do you fancy, soy bourguignon or pasta with krill pesto?”
One thing that always impressed me about my wife was the range of gourmet dishes that she could prepare. The money spent on her microcook programming courses was really paying off. “I don’t mind my dear, but didn’t we have krill cannelloni on Friday night?”
“You are absolutely right. So bourguignon it is then. I’ll get right on it. Drive Wise.”
“I will, my darling. See you soon.”
I clicked off the conversation and Becky’s face disappeared, leaving just the traffic tickertape scrolling along the bottom of my windscreen. The Chung Ko Motors Strider was the perfect commuting car. Like its namesake, one could say that it was a little boring on the surface, but beneath the bland exterior it was an aristocrat of cars. Smooth riding, low power consumption, top of the line information package and HUD. So I settled back in my seat looking forward to finishing the evening’s commute. Just then, out of the blue, a person ran across the highway way up ahead of me. I first caught sight of the runner out of the corner of my left eye. I couldn’t tell the sex, all I saw was a bundle of rags crazily dashing from one lane to the next, pausing momentarily on a white line, before spinning and dashing across the next lane. I hoped that everything would happen away to my left before I reached the runner, but it was just my luck that this was one of the better ones. The figure made it across the lane to my left, now about a hundred metres ahead of me, then it mistimed the next move and was caught a glancing blow by a passing Connaught. “Roll left. Roll left.” I mouthed, but, true to form, the runner collapsed in the road and rolled to the right, under the wheel of a large white Ford. “Damn!” The next car swerved a little to its left to ensure that it too went over the now still pile of rags, then the next, spreading the jelly of purple flesh and olive rags across the concrete. I was three more cars behind, so, when I drove over the runner, my suspension took it all in its stride and I hoped that I would get away with just needing a wheel alignment.
Luckily it wasn’t one of the mass crossings that had become more common over the past few years. Those cause multiple accidents that slow the traffic down so quickly that it only takes a couple of minutes for the whole flow to be disrupted, and then a jam is inevitable. This was just a lone runner, so the traffic could carry on moving.
I thought again about the strange sequence of events that had led to the Drive Wise protocols. Insurance steadily climbing as more accidents happened on the expanding road system. The protracted legal battles over fault, when a pedestrian was killed. The eventual compromise shocked some voters at first, but, to me, it made absolute sense. First of all, no pedestrians at all were allowed on any road ever, and second, if a car did hit a pedestrian on its own, the driver might be liable but, if multiple cars hit the same pedestrian, then no individual driver could be held responsible. Drive Wise meant protecting the system, making sure that the traffic flowed, and so, if an illegal pedestrian was hit, it was the responsibility of all following drivers, in solidarity, to also hit the same illegal. After all, pedestrians shouldn’t even be on the road and so they could hardly complain.
The excitement of my encounter with the runner had squirted some adrenaline into my bloodstream to go with the various forms of caffeine, and so I was more than a little edgy. But, not much further up the road, about twenty K or so, I left the Northern Strip and slotted myself into the local traffic stream. Before I knew it, I was pulling into the parking bay of our apartment block. I still wasn’t really used to the organic lines of the new NanoHabs. It just didn’t seem right that the whole apartment block had been constructed from the waste products of microscopic little bugs. Or is that nanoscopic? Is that a real word? Anyway, I slipped the car into the parking mitt, got out and watched as the car was lifted and placed into its parking dock for safe-keeping and charging. I keyed my access code into the building’s security system and was allowed through into the lobby. To me the place always smelt of ammonia, a by-product of the construction process; I had been assured that there was no chance of there still being nanowaste in the building, but you try telling my nose that.
I rode the lift up to the fifth floor and walked along the plain utilitarian corridor, then let myself into our apartment. The space was full of the gorgeous aromas of soy bourguignon cooking, and my stomach rumbled. “Hi, darling!” I called. “I’m back!”
Becky poked her head out of the cooking alcove and smiled at me. “Right on time! Take your jacket off and sit down, I’ll be through in a minute.”
I did as instructed and sat at the table, loosening my tie slightly. Becky came through with the serving bowl. She pecked me on the cheek and then proceeded to serve up the stew. “So, how was your drive? Any incident?”
“Not much to report,” I replied. “There was one runner, it reached my lane and so I had to drive over it.”
“How’s the car? Any damage?”
“Not really. I’ll have to have the wheel balance checked, but that’s all.”
“I wish someone would do something about those Road Runners. It’s just too much! What about the driver who was the first to hit it, what will it cost to fix his car?”
“I know my dear, but what can you do? The transies are more than sixty percent of the population. They have to migrate to where the food and water is.”
“Well I think that we would all be better off if they were just put down humanely. It would save a lot of grief.”
“You have a point there Becky, but the problem is just too large ...” I spooned some of the aromatic stew into my mouth. “Have you done something different with this bourguignon? It tastes wonderful!”
After a relaxing supper, and at a very reasonable hour, we went to bed. I needed to be up at five to hit the road again, so, after a few minutes reading, I slipped off to sleep.
The trip into the office the next day took just under three hours, so I was bright and refreshed as I settled down at my desk, one of the first to arrive. Jackson came over to me holding a datasheet in his hand. “Good morning Rogers, I see you beat the traffic too,” he looked around the office at all of the still empty desks.
“Yes, things were smooth and flowing today. So, what’s new?” I asked, pointing at his datasheet.
“I’ve been tracking my stock options. There are some very strong rumours that Zencardia are going to take us over.”
“That’s wonderful, I’m sure that our stock options will pick up on the back of that.”
"What do you mean?” I could tell that I was missing something.
“If Zencardia do take us over, then they’ll bring in their own middle management team...”
“Precisely. How long do you think you’ll survive on your settlement package and the stocks you’re holding?” Jackson was looking decidedly grim.
I had been with MenloParQ since graduation and I’d worked my way up the ladder. I’d reached Executive Assistant Management Consultant for goodness sake! They couldn’t just let me go ... Could they ...?
The rest of the day was a waste in relation to MenloParQ’s business. The whole of my floor were in the same state, wondering what was going to happen. I produced a spreadsheet outlining my few investments, my likely settlement, and all of my outgoings. It didn’t look good. In fact, I would need to find new employment on the same level within two months of leaving just to keep a roof over our heads. And what was I going to tell Becky? She had no marketable skills; I doubted that her proficiency in programming meals could be turned into paid employment. Slowly the clock crept around to six and I walked down to the basement garage, nodding dumbly at the people that I passed. The garage was deathly quiet, people simply walking to their vehicles. I uncoupled from the power grid, and drove off. It was if we were all islands of misery, isolated from each other.I drove home on autopilot, my eyes fixed on the wall of red lights in front of me. There was no Drive Wise that night; in fact, if there had been a runner I would never have been aware of it and could have been the cause of an accident. There was a multiple collision up ahead and so things seized up on the highway and I just sat there waiting, flicking across the various feeds of the NetCom. They all said the same thing; there was total gridlock and little prospect of there being emergency vehicles on the scene. Medevac had evacuated the scene of the dead and injured, but the wreckage was still blocking five of the lanes. Eventually some nearby earthmoving equipment was commandeered by blocked off drivers and the wrecks were pushed to the side of the concrete strip. Five hours after I left the office I stepped into our apartment.
"How are you doing, darling?" Becky greeted me with a solicitous look.
"A terrible day and a terrible journey, but I'm glad to be home." I told her all about the possible takeover and how it could leave me without a job.
"But what are we going to do? If you lose your job how will we pay the bills?"
"I know ..."
Over the next three weeks the takeover firmed up, until, one morning, we all arrived to find that our terminals had been locked and a staff meeting was scheduled. Jackson and I filed into the staff refectory with all of the others who'd been locked out. The dining tables had been removed and the chairs set in rows. A small stage had been set up at one end of the room and we sat waiting for senior management to appear.
The lights dimmed and the face of George Harper, the CEO of MenloParQ, appeared on the large market tracker screen on the far wall. "Good morning to everyone. Unfortunately I am in Beijing at the moment, finalising the transfer of MenloParQ into the Zencardia Group. However, I have instructed our Human Resources Department on what needs to be done. They will be dealing with all of you personally this morning. Good luck to you all."
We sat there stunned. Harper had never been the most hands on of CEOs but this was impersonal even by his standards. The screen went dim and a troop of HR bods walked out onto the makeshift stage. Carlton Barclay, the purple-nosed, watery-eyed, Head of the HR Department walked up to the microphone and addressed the crowd. "First of all I would like to say that I am proud of all of you. It has been your work that lifted MenloParQ to the position it reached in the global marketplace. It was you that made us one of the most respected players in our field. As you know, Zencardia completed the deal this morning, taking us over. I am afraid that all of you have been identified as surplus to requirements for the new merged structure. You will already know that your terminals have been locked. All of your current work has been transferred to staff in the new structure.
"We have set up interview rooms for you all. My colleagues here," he motioned to the HR staff beside him, "will be assisting you in your transition out of MenloParQ."
Our transition? A polite way of saying our slide down the chute to the scrap heap. Jackson and I sat and waited to be called. My name came up and I stood, turning to my colleague to shake his hand. "Well, I suppose this is goodbye. Good luck."
"You too Rogers, nil illegitimi carborundum."
“Actually, I don’t feel that there’s anything left for them to grind down.”
I trudged out of the refectory and down the corridor to the appointed office, I tapped on the door and walked in. A fresh faced boy looked up, consulted his datasheet and waved at a chair. "Good morning, Mr. Rogers. Please have a seat."
"My job here is to talk you through the process of leaving the company. You must appreciate that I have no decision making authority, so please do not expect me to be able to change any of the arrangements."
I nodded. What was the point of arguing?
"First of all, as Mr. Barclay stated, you are no longer working on any of the current projects. Please do not contact any of the staff in any of the partnering companies, such contacts will be considered attempts to use your previous position with MenloParQ for personal gain, and appropriate legal action will be taken."
"Second, your salary up to 10am this morning has been deposited into your bank account along with three weeks severance pay. You may wish to take legal advice over the level of your severance package, but I must warn you that ZencardiaMenloParQ, or whatever the merged structure becomes known as, will fight any action with the full weight of our legal department."
"Finally, the access code to what was your company car has been changed. If you check your datasheet you will find that a single bus ticket has been deposited to enable you to get home."
I stood up without looking at the boy and walked out of the room, still without saying a word. The whole process had taken less than two minutes.
I didn't even know where the public bus terminus was, but my datasheet guided me through the intimidating streets to the crumbling building. I walked in and joined a group of about fifty stunned executives all waiting for a bus.
A lumbering old biofuel bus pulled up with Northern Satellite scrolling across the front, and my datasheet assured me that it was the correct one. I got on with the others and watched the ticket disappear from my account, I realised that I would be watching many more things disappear over the next few days.
About three hours into the ride back home, I was whiling away my time, counting the various manufacturers of the vehicles that passed us. I should have been working on an employment plan but, to be honest, my heart just couldn’t build up much enthusiasm.
As I stared out of the window at the traffic, at the lucky citizens who had personal transport, my reverie was interrupted by the clipped tones of the driver. "Sir, I said could you please sit down."
"I don't give a damn what you said!" shouted a vaguely familiar executive in a sharp charcoal grey suit. He grabbed the emergency door release.
"Sir! PLEASE sit down! NOOO!"
The door swung open and the besuited man leapt. He flew through air spread-eagled and was nudged into a somersault by the windscreen of a shiny silver GM Bullet in the next lane. Then he disappeared under the wheels.
The emergency door swooshed closed and we continued, the rest of us on the bus silent and ashen faced. I have to admit that the jump-from-the-bus option did look attractive in some ways, but then I thought about Becky. How could I just leave her to deal with all of the problems on her own?
It was nine o'clock that night when the bus reached the Northern Satellite terminus. I got off alone and walked eight kilometres through the dark and empty streets to my NanoHab; and so it was almost eleven when I walked into the apartment, tired and rumpled. I took off my jacket and tie and settled down on the sofa while Becky brought me a cold drink.
"Here you are, darling. Take a drink and then tell me what’s going on."
I took a long pull on my Gin and Tonic and then began. "It's bad Becky, really bad ..."
At first I managed to keep up appearances, I would tell Becky that something would turn up soon, that the world always needed executives; but I was lying to her, and to myself. Every day I would watch as our funds flowed out of our account, with nothing coming in. The three week’s severance pay allowed me to fool myself for a while, but, eventually, the real world came knocking at the door. We had to stop the payments on Becky's car and so Finance Force came and took it away. From that point on, things spun downwards in a rapidly accelerating spiral; the next shock was when we were woken very early one morning as Finance Force came back for the furniture, the TriV tank, and anything else that moved. The final nail in the coffin came when a red notice appeared on my datasheet informing me that, unless I could deposit the next six months mortgage payments within two days, Executive Properties were exercising their right to sell from under us to someone with an income. We spent the next two days liquidating every last asset that we had, which wasn't much. Then we followed the advice of the datasheet and moved to the nearest temporary shelter.
The shelter system was set up about twenty years ago when unemployment was still a manageable thirty percent. Since then the 'transient population' has grown to sixty percent, totally overloading the system. What had been a free support had now become a revenue raising scheme. We walked up to the reception desk to be confronted by a sweating functionary wiping his bald head with a grubby handkerchief.
"How long unemployed?" He snapped with none of the usual courtesies.
"Uhm ... Three weeks."
"What on earth!" I spluttered and then gave in. "We have just over five thousand Euros."
"That will cover a single room plus two meals a day for thirteen days." He pushed a rates sheet at me under the glass screen.
"What!" How on earth could it cost almost four hundred Euros a day for a room in a transie shelter?
"You don't have to take it." He gestured at the line of other down on their luck executives behind me.
"I'll pay now for a week, and then let's see what the situation is then, shall we? Will that be acceptable?"
"Fine by me."
I shot the required funds over to him from my datasheet and he shot back a door code valid for seven days.
We struggled with our bags up to our room, the lift wasn’t working of course, and I let us in. It was tiny, not much larger than the bed and bare wooden dresser that were its only furniture. Becky let out a cry and I dropped my bags and took her in my arms. It took me all of my strength not to join her in the tears, but I just about managed it.
I spent the next twelve days desperately searching the WebNet for a job, any job. Becky had never worked before, she’d never needed to, but I was proud of the way that she put herself out there; but she was never even given the chance to prove what she could do. I had marketable skills, or so I thought, and yet there was nothing for me either. We walked the streets and asked at every business, every fast food palace, every garage; but nothing. The moment that we walked into an establishment, it was as if we were ringing a bell and calling out ‘unclean’. Giving up, we searched the information pages set up by transient assistance organisations. There were many sites dedicated to guiding a person into the life of a transient. None of them had any jobs on offer, it seemed to be accepted that there were none. All of the sites encouraged the same thing – band together. Individual transients were a target, and travelling together seemed to be the only defensive strategy.
The day before our money finally ran out, we took all of our belongings to a Pawn Shop. For the sum total of our life possessions we received a few Euros and some essential equipment, backpacks, windup torches, lightweight sleeping bags. The owner of the shop skinned us, but did make sure that we bought practical items. We walked out of the shop with our appearance changed, we were no longer an executive couple down on our luck, we were archetypal transies; khaki clothes, backpacks, and haunted looks on our faces. We headed straight for the outskirts of town; we were now personae non grata and would be picked up for vagrancy if we didn’t give a strong impression that we were moving out.
By the time evening came, we were out of sight of the town and heading down a well-worn path towards the nearest transie camp. The datasheet had promised that it was just six kilometres into the countryside but, on foot, it seemed much further. I don't know if we would have made it that far without the datasheet and WebNet access. Thank God that the WebNet had been declared a human right. They can take our jobs, our homes, our dignity, but they can't touch our universal WebNet access ...
We reached the top of a rise and there it was, laid out in front of us. There must have been hundreds of people camped out in the valley below. Some were obviously longer term residents, with bivouacs made of branches, but most were out in the open, sitting around in small groups. We trudged down the hill and into the mass of rejected humanity. We were obviously new to this, our clothes too fresh, my cheeks still clean shaven, and I felt eyes following us wherever we went.
We had no idea what to do, so I led Becky to the edge of a circle of light from a large bonfire. It seemed to be a communal meeting place, there were so many people sitting around it. We put our packs down and sat on them, which had been a key piece of security advice on a number of WebNet sites.
I looked around at the range of people sitting huddled together; all ages, some families, many on their own. I wondered what their stories were, had they been ‘downsized’ or was it medical bills that had broken them? Each family, each person, must have travelled a bitter road to reach this place. I thought that I was being discrete in my observations but, out of the shadows loomed a ragged man, waving his arms as if he was chasing away birds from a newly planted field. He looked to be about sixty but that could just have been the fact that his face was ruined by drink or drugs and he hadn’t had a bath in weeks.
“What the fuck are you looking at you goddamn suit!” He was slurring, but somehow that only managed to add power to his speech.
“Becky, you stay behind me, this transie seems to be on something.”
“Transie? Fucking TRANSIE! What the hell are you then? Sociologists studying our migration patterns? If not then YOU'RE a goddamn transie too!”
“I apologise, this is all new to me ...”
“Aye I bet it is. A few months ago you would have been one of those speeding down that fucking concrete strip, aiming for any of us who got in the way.”
I was going to respond to that but thought better of it, I took Becky’s hand and led her away.
As we were looking for someplace else to settle down for the night, an old man, with a carefully combed beard, came over and nodded to me. “Excuse me, but can I give you some advice?” His voice was cultured and gave the impression that he had just arrived there from a night out at the opera.
He seemed trustworthy to me and so I nodded and held out my hand. “I am always willing to listen to advice, sir. My name is Paul Rogers.”
“I’m Parker. Just Parker.”
“And ...” I gestured to my side, “this is my wife Becky.”
“Pleased to meet you both.” He tipped an imaginary hat towards Becky. “My advice is that you need to accept that you are transients too. And you need to accept it fast. This sector has been cleaned out of any edibles and we are going to have to move over to the next sector. If you want to be allowed into the group, and you will need that if you are to survive, then you have to fit in as quickly as possible.”
“Thank you very much for that, Mr. Parker ...”
“Thank you, Parker. We don’t mean to give offence but, as I just said, we’re new to this and are struggling to adjust.”
“That’s perfectly normal, Rogers. Stick near to me and I’ll point you in the right direction.”
“Thank you again, Parker, we’ll do that.”
“Yes” agreed Becky smiling gratefully, “we really do need help in all this. You’re a lifesaver.”
“I’m not that. There’s no such thing out here off of the grid. I can help, but only you can save your own life.”
Becky nodded seriously.
The next morning we woke up very early, both of us stiff from sleeping on the ground. We had a snatched breakfast of energy biscuits from our packs, and then stood up to see what the morning routine of the camp was. It seemed as if everyone was preparing to make a move, shoving their meagre belongings into their packs. Parker came over and greeted us. "Good morning, how went your first night on the road?"
"Good morning, Parker," I replied. "Not too bad. A bit stiff, but nothing that a walk won't put right."
"Good for you! Now follow me, we are about to move northwards. You need to be near the front so that you can see the procedure."
We grabbed our bags and followed our mentor.
We joined the crowd of people slowly walking up the side of the valley, the blood red sun rising to our right. "Red sky in the morning," said Parker; "not just a warning to shepherds but to you too. Watch and learn. You will not be expected to take point position on your first crossing, but you won't be allowed a free pass forever."
I wasn't sure what Parker was intimating, but I knew that it wasn't likely to be good.
We climbed over the lip of the valley and immediately our ears were assailed by the constant thrum of traffic. Up ahead, about half a kilometre from where we stood, was the broad carpet of concrete that was the Northern Strip. My heart did a funny little flip; there was the road that I used to drive every day, now it was a barrier that I would have to cross. We headed towards it.
As we walked, Parker explained the procedure. "You were both drivers? Correct?"
"Yes, that's right." I replied.
"Then you understand Drive Wise. In order to cover their backs, if one person hits a pedestrian, then all will aim for him – to ensure that no one driver can be singled out. One or two runners may be able to get across a twelve lane highway, but deaths are inevitable.” I thought back to the times that I had been involved in Drive Wise incidents; back then the Runners hadn’t seemed real, just obstacles to a smooth trip home, their deaths just a part of life in the fast lane. My reverie was interrupted by Parker’s explanation of what was going to happen. “The way that our technique works is that the first group all dash together, some may even make it across. Those who don't make it, cause enough accidents and confusion that the lanes snarl up and grind to a halt. Then the rest of us make a dash for it. You have to just run. Don't stop to help those on the concrete, they will either be dying or too injured to continue. Just get across that road and keep moving; we need to be away from the perimeter fence by the time the police arrive."
We both nodded, we knew the theory, we'd both seen mass crossings, but this was real now. This was us.
By the time that we got to the perimeter fence, the advance group were prepared; or at least they were as prepared as they could be. Their faces were uniformly bloodless, their eyes dead already. Two men stood at the fence about ten metres apart, and, at a nodded signal, they both began to rapidly cut the wire, sending an alarm back to the nearest police headquarters. The section of fencing fell to the grass and the advance group ran towards the road. It was suicide, the cars were speeding by at one hundred kilometres an hour with very little gap between them, but the runners had no other option. It was either migrate and forage, or stay and die of starvation. The first to reach the road shot between two cars and paused at the lane markings. The second person was hit full in the hip by a truck and disappeared. Then there was a squeal of tyres as cars began to realign. More runners pressed out onto the concrete, some reaching the third lane, the fourth, before falling. The squeal of tyres was now a constant as drivers tried to Drive Wise, but the sheer number of hits caused hesitations, cars slipped over lane markings and side swiped each other. Within a couple of minutes the road in front of us was a mess of tangled cars and broken bodies. But the traffic had stopped.
"Now!" shouted Parker. I grabbed Becky's hand and we followed him. We dodged a bit to our left to avoid the worst of the carnage and then ran for our lives. It was like passing through one of the suburbs of hell. Blood was everywhere. Body parts were strewn across the slick wet concrete. Some of the mortally wounded still flopped and jerked as their last breaths deserted them. Becky stopped and retched; at her feet was a perfect body, probably a teenage boy, lying on his back. One shoe was missing, pathetically showing the holes in the grey sock. The body was completely undamaged. Except, that is, for its lack of a head. The neck was crushed almost flat, a wheel must have gone over his head. There was nothing there but some purple and grey slush. I pulled on Becky's hand and, crying, she followed me.
We reached the other side of the highway, stumbled across the grass verge and through the newly cut perimeter fence. A thin line of people were already running away from the road and we joined them as the sound of police helicopters filled the air behind us.
That evening, as we were settling down for the night, Becky asked Parker a question that had been nagging me all day too. "What I don't understand," she said, "is why there are no crossings built? Surely that would be possible?"
"What you have to remember," explained Parker, "is that, when these roads were built, there were over eight billion wheeled vehicles in the world; in some countries vehicles outnumbered adults by two to one. So crossings were not needed, no-one walked! As economies transformed and the transient population increased, there were calls by liberal politicians to spend money on infrastructure for pedestrians. But no-one could agree. Why spend a fortune on adapting the roads when the law could just banish them from the system? By the time the transient population began annual migrations, the system was too entrenched to change. The Drive Wise protocols were in place and, now, the two populations should never meet."
"I know what you mean" I said. "When I was a driver the only time a runner would cross my mind was when one was hit on the road. And then I automatically saw it as their own fault ..."
“Exactly!” our mentor nodded. “The PR machines worked overtime for years, slowly chipping away at the humanity of the ‘scroungers’. Once all support for the unemployed was removed from the system, the new term, ‘transies’ was promoted. If transients could be portrayed as worthless, then the workers would not object to anything that happened to them.”
I couldn’t respond, I knew that I had been one of the workers, one of those brainwashed into accepting this situation as the natural way of things. Parker could see my thoughtful manner and stood, leaving us sitting there in silence.
The next month was one long learning process. Parker taught us what berries and nuts were edible, how to locate the wild potatoes and other vegetables that grew on the outskirts of abandoned hamlets. I hadn't realised just how empty some of the countryside had become. Those with jobs congregated in communities like the one where I had lived. Those living in the villages that were left behind soon had no jobs, then no services, finally no food but that which they could grow in their tiny gardens. Eventually they had to leave and join the transie migration. If one was lucky, then edibles could be found in the overgrown backyards.
Becky and I were leaner and undoubtedly meaner than we had ever been. Our hair was shaggy and matted and my beard was showing the length of our stay in the 'clan'. We settled into a regular pattern of foraging, walking, camping and more foraging, and my executive past started to take on an almost dream-like quality.
One night, in early autumn, we settled down by some bushes at the edge of a large field of corn stubble. Becky had a cough and the soreness of her throat meant that she'd got through all of our water. "It's alright my darling," I told her, "you stay here. There's a stream about half a K back, I won't be long." I walked through the darkness until I heard the tinkling sound of the water. There were a number of people camped on the bank of the stream and so I picked my way through them and drank my fill of the water. Then I filled up our four bottles, slipping them into my pack. As I walked back to where Becky was, it struck me how quickly I had adapted to the migratory life. My main worries were crossing the next road and what would happen in the winter. I got back to the bushes where Becky should have been, but there was no one there. "Damn!" I thought to myself. "What a time to get lost.” I searched around and it soon became clear that I wasn't lost. Becky was missing!
I ran back through the bushes searching more carefully and saw signs of a struggle. The scratches in the dirt seemed to suggest that Becky had been dragged away. I ran in that direction.
After about a hundred metres I dimly saw a commotion under a tree. "No ... No! Mgmph ..." I realised that it was Becky. As I got closer I could see the dark form of someone on top of her, thrusting wildly as he held a hand pressed to her face. Without thinking I cast about and saw a fist-sized rock, I picked it up and ran faster.
Before the rapist had a chance to react, I hit him as hard as I could on the back of the head. He screamed and I pulled him from Becky rolling him to the side. Falling to the ground next to him I pounded the rock into his face, then again, and again ...
It was much later that I came to my senses. My arm was soaked with blood up to the elbow. The rapist lay still beside me, all chance of recognising him gone, as his face was little more than bloody pâté spread over a shattered skull. I turned to the side, throwing up a jet of vinegar-smelling bile; then I looked over to where Becky was. She was still lying where she had been flung by her attacker, curled in a ball, her eyes tightly shut. I crawled over to her and sat with my back against the tree, her head in my lap.
It was a lifetime later that Parker found us and organised some of the women to take Becky and clean her up. He stopped me from going with her. "No, you stay here for a while. She will be fine with them. Anyway, I want to talk to you." I shrugged, all of the will drained out of my body the way that the blood had drained out of my victim. "First of all," he continued, "I want to say that I'm proud of you. I don't think that you would have had the guts to do that when I first met you. Second, I want you to understand that what you did was right. That animal deserved what he got and, if you hadn't killed him, you would never have known when he was going to pounce again."
Looking back, I understand what Parker was saying; I even agree with him. But that still doesn’t take away the fact that I killed a man.
The next weeks were really hard for Becky; she was quieter than usual and would startle at the slightest thing. I, on the other hand, became more belligerent. If someone looked at Becky I was in their face immediately, threatening them. But that didn’t do anything to help her, she was hurting and I absolutely failed in my duty to help her to heal.
I've never really been the sort of person to discuss feelings; and so I blundered around in my usual way. I would ask how she was feeling but would get little reaction back from her, and I just didn't know what to do. The women who had helped Becky that first night would sit with her when we reached the end of a day's walking and foraging and, slowly, she began to open up to them.
I think that Becky would have been able to get back to some semblance of normality eventually, but she didn't have the time. We were deep into autumn and exposed on a flat open plain. One evening the more experienced among the group got together and it was decided that we needed to make for a small forest over to the west. There would be plenty of wood for fires, and there should be nuts to collect and squirrel meat. Moving to the forest was agreed upon and within a week we were close to The Spine, a wide highway that ran straight north-south for over a hundred kilometres in either direction. We would have to rush the traffic again.
The night before the crossing everyone, except the newbies who had joined since the last crossing, had to draw straws. I was 'lucky' mine was a long one, but Becky ... Becky drew a short straw. I tried to swap with her but everyone had their eyes on me. The straw boss shook his head sadly, "No way, Rogers, you can join the rush with your wife, but she still has to make that first crossing."
I hugged Becky. "Alright, that's what I'll do. I'm not letting her do this alone."
Becky pushed herself forward, her eyes wide with an anger that I had long thought to be crushed. "He is NOT joining me!" Turning to me she hugged me. "Whatever happens to me, I want you to survive, to go on. I don't want you throwing your life away for nothing."
At first I suspected that it was her reaction to the rape that was making her so willing to give her life; but, with tears in her eyes, she explained. “Don’t you see, Paul, I have to do this? It’s a part of the contract that we Road Runners have with each other. If people duck the short straw then how would we continue the migration?”
Becky surprised me that night; her quiet bravery was something that I’d never really seen before. Of course, it had been there all along, I’d just been too self-obsessed to notice. In the middle of the night, after thinking about the alternatives and not being able to imagine continuing on my own, I decided that I should take someone else's place and we would both be in the first crossing. Once again Becky, with quiet strength, said no, that wasn't allowed, I could go, but no-one could be saved. And she would not agree to my accompanying her.
Finally, with tears pouring down both of our faces as we clung on to each other, I gave in. "I can't make it without you. I need you." I whispered.
"You can do anything that you put your mind to, Paul. Even this."
The next morning I was standing by the fence with Becky. We couldn't cry any more, our tears were all dried out. I hung on to Becky as if I could keep her with me, stop this nightmare. But she kissed me gently and eased away. "I love you Paul."
"I love you Becky."
The fence was cut and the advance party began to run. Becky gave me one last smile and turned away. She straightened her back and then ran. I could hardly watch, but I couldn't turn away. Becky was quickly across the first three lanes that were already clogged with bodies and metal and I began to hope; could she be one of the few that made it? Then she looked briefly to her left, hesitated, then ran again, but she mistimed it. A purple Colrane Camper rammed straight into her and she disappeared beneath the wheels. I screamed and began to run.
By the time I made it through the piles of flesh, shattered glass, and spinning wheels, the highway was at a standstill. Becky was lying on the concrete, her left side a mass of torn flesh and blood-soaked rags. I dropped to my knees and put a hand against her face. Her face was untouched, dirty and splashed with blood, but untouched. A hand grabbed my shoulder and an unknown voice shouted "Run!" I shook them off, bent to kiss Becky's dead lips then stood. I was now near the back of the crowd and I could hear the police helicopters coming. And so, to my shame, I ran.
The next weeks were a blur. I don't remember walking, but I must have done because I was in the forest and I knew damn well that no one would have carried me there. Parker came over to me. Parker! He'd made it safely over yet another road.
"You're looking better, Rogers. How are you feeling today?"
"Alright I suppose. Numb, but alright. How did I get here?"
"You walked. I had to guide you, stop you when we all stopped, but you could walk. Thinking was beyond you though."
"And what now?"
"Now you survive. That's all we can do. It's winter and we are going to be here for the duration. So just... survive."
I did as I was told. I gathered nuts and berries. I learned to skin a squirrel. I boiled roots. I tended the fire. In short, I survived.
One day, sitting by the fire and watching the snowflakes disappear as they fell towards the flames, it finally struck me. I realised that just surviving wasn't enough. Becky was dead and, somehow, I had to make sense of it all. I had my datasheet, I had WebNet access; maybe I could make some of you out there, comfortable in your executive NanoHabs, think.
And so I wrote this account. The story of an everyday executive who finds himself surplus to requirements. I was like you, proud of my meaningless achievements, contemptuous of the transies. But it's a short step and a very long drop from being one of you to one of us. It can happen to anyone. I was stupid and ignorant and yet I thought that I was climbing the ladder to the top.
My life has been hard since I left the hallowed halls of MenloParQ. Harder than anything that I could ever have imagined. My wife has died senselessly and, for a time, I lost the will to live. But I've learned what is real, what is true. I've learned that it isn't right that the world wastes so much on the few that there's nothing left for the rest. It isn't right that the life of a transie is so cheap that it's easier to grind them to a pulp on the concrete than face the consequences of hitting one with a car. It isn't right and it is going to change. Your choice is whether you are going to help make that change from within, or whether you are going to wait for the massed ranks of the transies to climb the walls and take back what is theirs.
It's now spring and we’ve started the long slow circuit of the transie migration. I drew a short straw tonight and so, if this is my last post, then you know that I am nothing more than a stain on the concrete. A stain that you may drive over on your way home from work, a stain that will wash away until all that is left of me are my words. And, if that is so, here are my last ones ...
Change will come. Be a part of it or be run over by the juggernaut.
Road Runner signing off ...