The inside was dark. Derek McNeal flicks on the overhead lantern and mutters, “Ah, that’s better” as he presses the button for acceleration on his X5 Vehicular Model No. 211 Special. The gray sleek turbo car tracks and shifts into the appropriate highway travel lane based on speed, distance, and number of other traveling vehicles. At this hour, there were few.
Derek grunts as the sleek pieces of metal slip and slide back into place below his seatbelt. It wasn’t exactly a very comfortable way to relieve oneself and took some getting used to, but his bladder appreciated it and so did his watch. The automatic relief disposable bin prevented him from having to stop in one of the highway’s few Relief Stations along the way. A good thing since many of the Relief Stations now housed several techno gangs who operated solely on looks. If they didn’t like the way you looked then you died. If they did, they’d keep you. Not exactly welcome choices.
Now personally comfortable, Derek presses the automatic refill button to take care of the car — his sleek fiberglass steering transportation machine. Passing by one of the thousands of gray towers zigzagging along the edges of the eastbound and westbound lanes, Derek hears the command bark through the loudspeaker in front of him.
A metallic voice yells “McNeal, Derek. What type of automobile fuel would you like today?”
Derek responds with a gruff “Premium.”
“Premium, 12.5 gallons as usual?”
“Confirm. 12.5 gallons,” Derek replies.
“12.5 gallons beginning … now.”
Derek grabs the slick oblong shaped wheel to brace himself for the impact as a giant arm-like shape juts out of the nearest Highway Tower and races towards him. A few seconds later, he feels the arm connect to the refuel bin on top of the car and he hears the hiss of air, water and a mixture of fossil fuels being dumped into the rectangular 5” by 5” cubed space. The Tower Arm bends and jerks with the movement of his car now heading up a hill and almost out of sight of the fill station. He would have to flip up his hazard lights and hold the car in motion if the fuel dump didn’t finish in time.
Just as this last thought crosses his mind, the electronic voice comes through again saying “McNeal, Derek. 12.5 gallons premium. Complete. Would you like to dump your personal waste cartridge now?”
“Yes, dump personal waste cartridge. Confirm,” Derek mumbles back to the electronic box.
A few seconds later, he feels the Tower Arm detach itself only as another Tower Arm from the right side of the Highway further up attaches itself underneath his vehicle. In less than five seconds, the electronic voice spits back “Personal waste cartridge dump complete.”
“Thank you,” Derek automatically responds.
“McNeal, Derek. Thirty-six credits will be deducted from your account.”
“Thank you,” Derek replies again.
“Anything else?”, the metallic female voice queries.
“Yes. Two beef Hot-dogs. Mustard. French Fries. Onion Rings. Cola — large.”
“McNeal, Derek. Those are not foods on your approved dietary catalog. I will need an override code, please.”
Laughing, Derek gleefully answers with “X12365. Now can I have my junk food, please?”
“X12365. Approved code. Order being prepared. Please wait.”
Sighing, Derek releases the wheel letting the automatic drive operation take control again. He presses some buttons on the side door until he gets his driver’s chair in the correct position. With his thick clumsy fingers he manages to squeeze his hand into the side pocket again pressing a series of buttons until his objective has been achieved.
“Ah, no that’s even better,” Derek whispers as he feels the automatic heat sensors press and mold into his medium framed body through the leather material of the chair.
About the same time, the electronic voice returns saying “McNeal, Derek. Order complete.”
“Thank you. That will be all the service I require for now,” Derek answers.
The voice responds with “Thank you. McNeal, Derek. Sixteen more credits have been deducted from your account.”
Popping the Mustard-Hot-dogs-French Fries-Onion Rings-Cola pills into his mouth, Derek mumbles another “No, thank you.” The flavors explode in his mouth as the tiny white pills dissolve in his saliva. Eventually he swallows only to burp still tasting remnants of hot-dog and greasy oils used for creating the French Fries and Onion Rings flavored food tablets.
Fully satisfied, he reaches above him flipping the switch marked “Music – Relax.” Soon the soft sounds of airy instruments fill the slender car that could accommodate only two passengers including the driver at a time. No one but Derek had ever traveled in his car. There had never been a need.
Reaching up above him again, Derek jiggles and presses a few more buttons until the digital numbers read thirty minutes. “That should be enough time,” he says aloud as he presses yet one more button whose feature is scheduled to go off after thirty minutes elapses along with the alarm.
Leaning back into the soft chair, Derek shuts his eyes as sweet music swells all around him heightening his senses. He barely feels the shifts and turns as the car zooms at mid-speed towards his destination.
Automobile travel had not always been this convenient, he recalls. Almost thirty-five years ago as a child he remembers his parents had had to actually drive their cars and use maps, real bathrooms and stop at Fast Food restaurants if they were hungry. Long dead now, his mother and father probably wouldn’t have been able to adjust to the New Society — the New Way. They were better off being dead — those who did not, could not, or would not adjust were eliminated just as easily as personal waste was disposed of now.
His thoughts jangling around him, Derek jolts back into reality as the car’s internal electronic voice barks “Alarm. Time Elapsed. Please return to an upright state.” As soon as the mini automatic arm and mirror charge from the dashboard, Derek is forced to sit up straight as the electronic razor begins to glide up and down his hard chiseled face. Soon a comb moves back and forth automatically through his short black locks, and he winces only a little as tiny splashes of after-shave are sprinkled onto his newly shaven skin.
He takes a large breath of filtered air knowing what is next as the aluminum panels slip and slide around him forming airtight seals in a temporary compartment just below his neck. He takes another deep breath.
He relaxes completely as he feels his black t-shirt and retro blue jeans sliced and removed from his body by the same automatic arm. The clothes would be turned into the Tower Clearinghouse to be reworked and returned to him later in a brown paper mail-drop at his four room Apartment allotment off Central Avenue in ABQ, New Mexico — it had been shortened from Albuquerque years ago since spelling had become too difficult for what was left of the New Society’s inhabitants. Now, everyone human used abbreviations for almost everything. To his friends, he wasn’t Derek or McNeal but simply DM. Easier to remember.
Thinking of his friends and the last time they’d reserved a Racquetball allotment pass, he grits his teeth as he feels his fit form being washed and scrubbed with lukewarm water and a soap cleanser. The vehicle manufacturers had not yet figured out a way to get the car shower’s to produce really hot water.
He winces again as the water suddenly disappears to be replace by volumes of hot air drying his lightly tanned skin in seconds. Tanning was not allowed, but for an inhabitant with dark features a few degrees of skin burning was acceptable since it was believed their bodies were more immune than those of fair-haired, fair skinned inhabitants.
A few moments later, the panels slip and slide returning to their previous positions only to reveal Derek now in a neatly pressed white turtleneck, black slacks, black hiking boots and a sliver timepiece and monitor secured around his right wrist. Derek was left-handed — considered a flaw in the New Society but acceptable due to easier identification since there were not so many lefties among the inhabitants.
Wriggling around to a comfortable position, the Car Massager and Music Mosaic Surround Sound automatically shut down as the car’s built-in electronic speaker informs Derek he is five seconds away from his destination.
As the car pulls into the Tower Country Club’s overhang temporarily stopping motion, Derek locks down the theft pattern by whispering his middle name, Dean, into the tiny microphone in the steering wheel. In the New Society no one had middle names so inhabitants often made them up for security purposes or for fun. He smiles automatically as the inhabitant valet — a novelty in the New Society’s all electronic, all computers age — assists him from his vehicle.
Moving a few short steps and taking another deep breath — this time of unfiltered outside air, Derek presses the button for entrance into the Tower Country Club. He knows what lies ahead of him and he is none too thrilled — at least sixty minutes of false and exaggerated celebration for his forty-first birthday party. Only a few of his friends would be here — most would be inhabitants hired by the country club to make the party seem more realistic. If he were a lower inhabitant instead of an upper one he might have some co-workers in attendance as well. But, Derek had been fortunate – he did not have to work for a living.
Biting his lip, Derek plunges inside the steel gray interior of the round sphere building wishing he had an automatic arm or electronic voice to guide him through all the necessary social graces and expectations for the next sixty minutes. Every minute would be monitored and broadcast to the lower and middle inhabitants so they could see — since they were required to watch — what the life of an upper inhabitant was really like and aspire to it.
On the other hand, Derek could not afford any slip-ups or mistakes on his part — he being required to act accordingly unless he wanted to have credits deducted from his account. Too few credits would mean banishment to the middle or lower inhabitant status. And once banished below status there would be no return to the upper level ever. The New Society believed once one attained or was born into upper status one had to behave correctly in order to stay or one would lose the privilege completely.
Putting on his best plastic smile and finding his firmest handshake, Derek enters the brightly lit ballroom. A novelty orchestra also hired by the Country Club plays Big Band music.
As he glides towards the center of the crowd-filled room where a spotlight will be flung on him and his arrival announced, he suddenly realizes that ever since he’d been a teenage inhabitant in virtual High School he’d always hated — been afraid of inhabitants he didn’t know or rather strangers. Unable to stop himself, the answer to his fear begins to cross his threshold of thought. Without warning, he feels a sharp pain in his right wrist emitting from the silver timepiece/monitor.
Suddenly, Derek jerks his arm and body as the pain rocks him into reality.
A sharp voice echoes around him saying “McNeal, Derek. Stop it! You are not allowed to think. Return to your previous state.”
Wildly looking around the damp cement cubed cell with a ceiling over forty feet above him, Derek twists his head a fraction taking in the long steel bars to his left preventing his exit and also glimpsing several similar cells scattered throughout down the long stark hallway. He notes the gray and white distorted fuzz emitting from the 40 inch TV screen buried in front of him in the cement wall, and knows it will be used in an attempt to control his thought patterns. So far it hadn’t worked.
He tries to twist his body further around when another jolt to his wrist — this time twice the voltage — shocks him back to a complying state. Quickly, Derek flings himself back down on the cement cot keeping himself perfectly still.
“Prisoner X12365, McNeal, Derek. Please comply,” a metallic voice screams in his ear.
Derek repeats “Prisoner X12365. McNeal, Derek. Will comply,” softly but firmly.
Maybe he was a captive here and maybe he was only daydreaming again, but he would never comply. He might be afraid of the New Society’s leaders, but he would never tell them what they wanted to know.