Priority, Peter Burton

“Look, I don’t understand why you haven’t been able to come round and fix it by now. It’s been three days since the water started coming through.”

“I’m very sorry, Mr Reynolds. Please understand that as prioritisation is determined by algorithms there is little I can personally do to alter call out time.”

“Computer says no, is that what you’re telling me?”

“An Automated Repair Solution should be with you within 12 working days.’”

“But that’s four weeks, a month in old money.”

“Yes, Sir, it is.”

“You barley sound twenty. You won’t remember what a five day working week was like. Actually, am I even speaking to a person?”

“Again, Sir, we apologise. You will be notified as soon…”

Tony’s phone beeped and died. He always forgot to charge the damn thing. Looking around the driverless car for a charging port, he attempted to focus on the few labels he could see; his ageing eyes struggled with the microscopic lines of grey and white. He lowered his glasses and ran a hand over the smooth dashboard until he found a button. A lid flipped open. Under a tacky, smoked-plastic surface, a squinting Tony could just make out, in feint white letters, the words ‘wireless charging.’

“Smart arses,” he muttered to himself.

He placed his phone on the charging surface, but being one of the few remaining phones featuring actual buttons – essentially an antique – it didn’t respond. Picking it back up, he sighed, as he so often did.

“Well, who would I ring anyway?” he said to himself.

“Would you like to place a call, Mr Reynolds?” the car said. It spoke with a detached, monotone androgyny almost impossible to maintain attention on.

“No thanks, Hera. Just an old man muttering to himself.”

Tony was waiting at Integration Junction RF11. Waiting again, to be prioritised. The dark and deserted junction allowed access to Highway C3, the major highway into the city.  To allow for the very bottom end of budget housing to be built underneath, where access to daylight was considered a luxury, these Integration Junctions were raised platforms, making entry onto Highways like a rollercoaster. Below him, by leaning towards the front windscreen, Tony could see the constant flow of traffic on the four lanes of Highway C3 – a seamless stream of equidistant vehicles scrolling along at the regulation speed of twenty-eight miles per hour.

He looked at his watch – another anachronism. He’d been waiting twenty minutes to leave the ironically named Richfield District. He hadn’t wanted to come out this way, but it was the only area where you could find independent manual labourers.

“Hera, how much longer is it going to take to get me home?” Tony said.

“It is not possible for me to compute a time accurately, as no highway entrance position has been allocated to this vehicle,” the car said.

“How about a vague estimate?”

“The adjective vague cannot be applied in this context.”

At least it wasn’t raining for once, Tony thought, the bucket shouldn’t be overflowing. Yet.

When the roofer had told him to ‘bugger off’ because he hadn’t brought anything worth trading, Tony got confused. He tried paying by typing the Personal Identification Code from the roofer’s jacket (take the concept of vehicular licence plates and apply it to people) into his Universal Pension digital account book, but this only succeeded in further annoying the roofer, who preferred discretion. By trying to get someone independent to fix his roof Tony knew he was on dodgy ground, but he didn’t know the system had gotten worse. Although independent contract work still wasn’t technically illegal, payment for it by Global VirtuCoin was. And as Tony’s only source of funds was his pension, he had no other choice. Little justification had come from the Government – a technocratic corporate theocracy that had greased its way into power as everyone else squabbled over the infinite different ways to tackle this common enemy. It had something to do with not wanting the failure of unregulated services to compromise the value of wealth for others. Few understood, less criticised, all were suspicious. But the bottom line for Tony was he had to wait, like everyone else, for an Automated Repair Solution to be assigned to his roof.

“I would like to apologise for the continued delay to this service. The system is experiencing a high volume of traffic,” the car said.

“That’s an excuse, Hera, not an apology,” Tony said.

“Thank you for your patience in this matter. Be assured that we are doing everything we can to provide you a comfortable and efficient service.”

An hour passes.

The gapless grid of total efficiency that continued to trundle along Highway C3 still prevented Tony from getting access. There was nothing he could do to get home quicker. None of the vehicles on it were driven manually. It wasn’t allowed anymore. Every vehicle was fully automated and linked in a seamless network under control of HERA – the Human Error Reduction Administration. The only way to make driverless vehicles safe was to make all vehicles driverless, and reduce pedestrian areas to a minimum: artificial parkland and commercial units.

Tony needed a piss. He always needed a piss these days.

“Hera, could you open the door. I need the toilet.”

“I am afraid you cannot leave me when I am in traffic.”

“We’re not in traffic. There’s nobody around.”

“I am currently in drive mode, waiting at Integration Junction RF11 to join Highway C3. For safety purposes, I am considered a vehicle in transit. Exiting the vehicle would put you in danger. Also, I should not have to remind you that public urination is illegal.”

He rummaged through his rucksack and found his water bottle. It was half-full.

“Well how about opening the window so I can tip this water out.”

“I am sorry but this area is designated as high risk for criminal activity so the windows have been inactivated for your safety. Do not worry, your air is filtered and replaced regularly, and the temperature is maintained for your maximal comfort.”

Tony sighed, and opened the bottle.

“Please refrain from consuming food and drink in this vehicle.”

He drank all the water in one.

“Talk about diminishing returns,” he mumbled.

He unzipped his trousers, positioned the bottle, and after a few audible heaves he was urinating.

“Mr. Reynolds, I must politely remind you that the passing of bodily fluids is not permitted. Please cease immediately.”

“Hera, I must politely remind you to go fuck yourself.”

“Mr. Reynolds, the use of threatening language will not be tolerated.”

“You’re a fucking car. What difference does it make?”

“Mr Reynolds, this journey’s Priority Rating has been reduced. Please refrain from unacceptable behaviour to avoid further reduction.”

“I’m done anyway.”

As expected, Tony had only managed to fill half the bottle.

“For fuck’s sake,” Tony mouthed, as he dripped urine on his beige linen trousers.

Highway C3, like all the others, was always full. With the population boom and continued centralisation of the population, there were a lot of vehicles to organise. The success of HERA’s transport management system had also stimulated a reduction in the number of roads. The residential areas of the new cities (like where Tony lived), and the roads connecting them, had been streamlined to look like isolated nodes from a brainstorming session. The buildings in these nodes, a thicket of teetering grey monoliths as dense as bristles on a toothbrush, towered as high as the clouds to cope with the overcrowded population. This battery-farm lifestyle allowed more plush countryside to become available for luxurious property development between the nodes. But as traffic became denser on the slimmed-down road network, complaints came about delays; complaints from CEOs, politicians, gangsters – those that lived between the nodes. So HERA developed a priority system – an ostensibly-utilitarian triage. Every journey became assigned a Priority Rating, and entry time onto highways became allotted according to the minimal disruption of all those affected, ranked by the journey’s – and, in particular, the person’s – assigned importance.

The continuous huffing and puffing from Tony suggested his car was not a high priority. Although it wasn’t his car. Nobody owned a car. You had to lease them from UNI – United Navigation Industries – a subsidiary of HERA. You could use them like taxis or get annual exclusivity passes. Tony was in a taxi, the cheapest available. His Priority Rating had been set accordingly.

Another hour goes by.

“Hera, is there any way I can improve my Priority Rating? I could really do with getting home. It’s been dark a long time now.”

“The parameters HERA utilises to inform its algorithm are confidential. The only method available for you to upgrade this journey is with a payment of fifty VirtuCoin per Priority Point. Would you like to upgrade your journey?”

“If I must. But just two to start with. That’ll put me one ahead of where I started, Right?”

“The parameters HERA utilises to inform its algorithm are confidential.”

“Just do it.”

“Thank you for your custom, Mr Reynolds. I will process that for you now.”

A few seconds pass.

“I’m sorry Mr Reynolds, but your pension account has been temporarily suspended. An attempt to make an unauthorised payment was detected approximately two hours ago in the Richfield District.”

Tony grimaced at the bureaucratic punishments that lay ahead. His roof had no chance.

“Please contact your Local Authority Administrator to explain this anomaly. As this journey was paid upon booking, we will continue the journey at our present Priority Rating.”

“What a relief, it’s going so well after all.”

Another hour passes. Tony’s water bottle is now full.

“Hera, go on, tell me what’s in a Priority Rating? What do you use to assess a person’s importance? Why am I waiting like this? Is it because I’ve no wife, no kids, no siblings, no job. No dependables at all. Is that it? God, the closest I’ve got to a friend is the bloody emails from Amazonia Suggests – buy yourself a present, go on, treat yourself, you deserve it, you know you do, how about this, or this, I know you so well, don’t I? That’s right, old Tony here’s got no one waiting so why bother getting him back  home.”

He paused to laugh and continued.

“Yeah, that’s right Tony, you called it a home. Home. Jesus, what a joke. They should call that box a Minimal Living Environment, an MLE, or some other fancy acronym, but definitely not a home. Anyway, what else do you judge priorities on? That I’m a pensioner? Does that score me down?”

“The parameters HERA utilises to inform its algorithm are confidential.”

“It most likely just comes down to money, right? Or the lack of it in my case. And I bet I’m especially set back now as I’ve committed the worst of all possible sins – I’ve pissed off my Local Authority Administrator trying to pay for that roofer. Well, Hera, what do you say, am I bottom of the pile?”

“The parameters HERA utilises to inform its algorithm are confidential.”

“Seriously, when am I going to get back?”

“It is not possible for me to compute a time accurately, as no Highway Entrance Position has been allocated to this vehicle. Thank you for your…”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it.”

Tony examined his door. It was completely smooth, no handles or buttons. With much moaning and grunting, he clambered onto the backseat.

“Mr Reynolds, you must stay in your seat at all times with your safety belt fastened when the vehicle is in traffic.”

“Listen, Hera, we are not in traffic. We haven’t been in traffic for hours.”

“I am currently in drive mode, waiting at Integration Junction RF11 to join Highway C3. For safety purposes, I am considered a vehicle in transit.”

The doors in the back, like the rest of the car, were featureless. Trying to find a safety hath, he pushed at the rear window. Nothing.

“What happens when I need the toilet again? I’m an old man, it won’t be long.”

“Mr. Reynolds. I must politely remind you that the passing of bodily fluids is not permitted.”

“You know Hera, it’s funny, when you see films that are about people being trapped somewhere they never mention the toilet. Yet in reality it’s the most important part. At least to me.”

“You are not trapped, Mr Reynolds.”

“Let me out then.”

“I am currently in Drive Mode, waiting at Integration Junction RF11 to join Highway C3. For safety purposes, I am considered a Vehicle in Transit. Exiting the vehicle would put you in danger.”

Later.

“Mr Reynolds?”

“Tony, please. Call me Tony.”

“Mr Reynolds, would you like to listen to some music to help pass the time? I have many relaxing playlists. How about Soothing Sounds for Inner Peace?”

“No. Absolutely not.”

It had started to rain. Hard. And for a moment Tony’s mind was back with his bucket and the hole in the roof.

“I want to change the destination. Take me somewhere you consider it safe to get out.”

“I’m afraid a change in route requires an active financial account, so it is not possible for me to complete this request.”

“Right then, I’ll take that offer of a call. Put me through to whoever’s in charge. I need to speak to an actual human being.”

“I’m afraid a phone call requires an active financial account, so it is not…”

“What? It doesn’t cost you anything.”

“Even calls to Customer Services require payment at this vehicle’s priority rating.”

“Is that legal?”

Later.

“Mr Reynolds, could you make time to rate our service? Please give us a star rating out of five, or choose:  Maybe Later or Never.”

“Are you joking?”

“Would you like me to tell you a joke, Mr Reynolds?”

“What?”

“A joke might help you feel more at ease. I have access to an extensive library. Would you like me to read you some in order of highest customer rating?”

“If you must, but make it one from the lower half of the customer ratings. I don’t trust the taste of your customers.”

“OK, Mr Reynolds. Where does a prohibition-era mouse go for a drink?”

“It doesn’t. Mice don’t go for drinks.”

“The Squeakeasy.”

The dynamics on Highway C3 shifted. Tony leaned forward. A wave of change rippled through the vehicles and towards him, a gap approached.

“Here we go! Thank God.”

He looked up, his hands bobbing in prayer. The gap grew closer.

“Come on Hera, get going. We’ll miss our chance.”

A sleek black car passed Tony without stopping and smoothly descends into its place on Highway C3. The grid resets.

“Hera, is this some fucking wind up? Am I on fucking TV or something?”

“Mr Reynolds, please refrain from threatening language”

“Seriously, is this some kind of joke?”

“Would you like to hear another Joke, Mr Reynolds?”

Reflections of the orange street lamps throbbed in the raindrops on the toughened glass as he started to thump the car window. He lashed out at the dashboard next, then the headrest. And pretty much everything else.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Let me out, Hera, for fuck’s sake!”

Like a toddler having a tantrum he stopped only because of exhaustion, not because he had achieved his aim.

“Mr Reynolds, I’m afraid your violent outburst has left me with no other option but to redirect this journey to the nearest Police Station. You will not be permitted to leave this vehicle until you are met by a police officer. Your Priority Rating has been amended accordingly.”

Tony rubbed his aching hands.

“Good. At least we’ll get moving soon.”

 

Tony awoke to a dry mouth, a rumbling stomach and a furious bladder. The low sun was brighter than he wanted. It was morning. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he hoped for his box room, or at least a prison cell, but he got the car, a deserted Integration Junction RF11, and Highway C3 – still thick as blood.

“Hera, am I going to die in here?”

“It is not possible for me to compute a time accurately, as no highway entrance position has been allocated to this vehicle…”

 

© Peter Burton

Peter Burton is originally from Merseyside but has lived in Glasgow
since 1999. He has been a scientist, a volunteer and is currently
trying his best to write and practice his photography. Peter’s fiction
has been published by the ‘YellowChair Review’ and ‘Lucent Dreaming’.
Some of his photos can be found in issue 3 of ‘Barren Magazine’.
@burtonium78

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