Extract: The Passengers by John Marrs
When someone hacks into the systems of eight self-drive cars, their passengers are set on a fatal collision course.
The passengers are: a TV star, a pregnant young woman, a disabled war hero, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, who are travelling in separate vehicles, and a suicidal man. Now the public have to judge who should survive – but are the passengers all that they first seem?
Read on for an extract from The Passengers by John Marrs!
1. Programme car for Ben’s office.
2. Use Uber App for car under ‘guest’ account. Don’t use real name.
3. Get picked up from Ben’s car park, go to work.
4. Start texting Ben mid-morning.
5. Call his boss around midday.
By the time the front door closed, the car was parked outside Claire Arden’s home, waiting for her.
She lingered inside the porch, rereading the notes she had made on her phone until she heard the faint beep-beep-beep of the alarm as the house secured itself. She gave a furtive glance across the suburban estate, one of many just like it in Peterborough. Sundraj from number twenty-seven was the only other neighbour outside, guiding his noisy young family of four into a people carrier like a farmer trying to herd sheep from one field to another. When he spotted her, he gave her a half-smile and an equally half-hearted wave. She reciprocated with the same.
Claire recalled Sundraj and his wife Siobhan’s fifteenth anniversary party last spring. They’d celebrated with a barbecue and most of the street in attendance. He’d found time to drunkenly corner Claire in the downstairs bathroom and suggested that if she and her husband Ben were ever inclined to invite a third person into their bedroom, he was open to offers. Claire had politely declined and he’d panicked, begging her not to tell Siobhan. She’d promised she wouldn’t, and she’d meant it. She hadn’t even told Ben. Claire wagered every person in that street had at least one secret they kept hidden from the rest of the world, including her. Especially her.
As Sundraj’s vehicle eased out of the cul-de-sac, Claire took a handful of deep, calming breaths and stared uneasily at her own car. It had been three weeks since Ben had signed the lease and she was still struggling to acclimatise herself to its many new functions. The biggest contrast between it and their last vehicle was that this one no longer contained a steering wheel, pedals or a manual override option. It was completely driverless and it scared her.
They had watched the car’s arrival in fascination as it delivered itself to their home and parked on the driveway. Sensing both Claire’s unease and reluctance, Ben had assured her anyone could operate it, even her, and that it was ‘idiot proof’. As they’d personalised their settings from an app, she’d responded with narrowed eyes and a jab to his arm. He’d protested, claiming he hadn’t meant she was the idiot in question.
‘I don’t like not being in control,’ she’d told him on their maiden voyage to the doctor’s surgery. She’d gripped the seat when the car had indicated and overtaken another one of its own accord.
‘That’s because you’re a control freak,’ he’d replied. ‘You need to learn to start putting your trust in things you’re not in charge of. Besides, the insurance is next to nothing and we need to start saving some money, don’t we?’
Claire had given a reluctant nod. As a man who thrived on the detail, Ben had spent considerable time and effort researching the right vehicle to suit their changing circumstances. And after a hellish few months, she was glad to see him returning to his old self. He had attempted to involve her in the process by suggesting she pick the paintwork colour and seating fabric. But she’d dismissed him as a misogynist for suggesting that buying a car was ‘man’s work’ and that the aesthetics were all she was capable of understanding. In the last few days, Claire had found herself snapping at him frequently. It was never his fault and she’d immediately regretted it. But it hadn’t prevented her from repeating it and she feared her quiet resentment towards him was rising ever closer to the surface.
The rear of the car momentarily held Claire’s gaze before a dull kick to her kidney snapped her from her thoughts. ‘Good morning,’ she whispered and rubbed her swollen, rounded abdomen. It was the first time Baby TATE had made his presence felt that morning. They had given him the nickname after the midwife had informed them he weighed about a pound, the same size as a Tate & Lyle bag of sugar. However, what started as a joke had stuck and they were giving it serious consideration.
Provided all went according to plan, in two month’s time, Claire would be a first-time mother. Dr Barraclough had warned her that with her high blood pressure, it was essential she kept life stress-free. It was easier said than done. And in the last few hours, it had become impossible.
‘You can do this,’ she said aloud and opened the car door. Claire placed her handbag on the front right-hand seat and lowered herself into the vehicle, bum first. Her expectant belly had begun to protrude much earlier than her friends had when they were pregnant, and sometimes it felt as if she was carrying a baby elephant. Her body was constantly contradicting itself – some parts sagged while others looked fit to burst.
She pressed a button to close the car door and faced the retina scan. Taking a quick glance at her appearance, Claire noted her blue eyes were surrounded by a pinkish-white hue and the dark circles around them were still visible under her foundation. She’d not straightened her blonde fringe that morning so it hung loosely, resting on her eyebrows.
Once the scan confirmed Claire was a registered Passenger, the electric motor silently came to life and the dashboard’s centre console and operating system illuminated in whites and blues. ‘Ben’s work,’ she spoke, and a three-dimensional map appeared on the screen from her home to his office several miles outside of town.
As the car began to move, she jumped when a playlist of 1990s rock anthems blared from the speakers without warning. She hated Ben’s appalling taste in music and the volume at which he played it. But she had yet to figure out how to turn off his streaming system and create playlists of her own. Then, as the opening bars began of an old Arctic Monkeys song Ben favoured, she failed to choke back her tears. He knew every word of it off by heart.
‘Why did you do this to us?’ she wept. ‘Why now?’
Claire wiped her eyes and cheeks with her palms, turned the music off and remained in an apprehensive silence as the car continued its journey. She ran through the to-do list again; there was so much she needed to complete by the afternoon for this to work. She kept reminding herself that everything she was doing was for the right reasons; it was all for Tate. And as much as she longed to meet him, a tiny part of her wanted him to remain safe inside her forever, where she could continue to protect him from the cruelty of the world.
She glanced out from the windscreen just as the vehicle turned an unexpected right instead of left, the opposite direction to Ben’s office on the outskirts of Peterborough. Claire squinted at the route map on the navigation system, sure that she had programmed it correctly. Then she remembered Ben telling her that, sometimes, driverless cars take alternative routes if they learn of delays ahead. She hoped it wouldn’t add much more time to the journey. The sooner she could get out of that car the better.
Suddenly the console went blank. Claire hesitated, then poked at it, jabbing random icons and searching for a way to reboot it. It made no difference.
‘Damn it,’ she muttered. Of all the days, this was not the one to be inside a faulty vehicle. The car chose another route, this time travelling along a slip road and on to a dual carriageway that she knew would take her even further from her destination.
She began to feel uneasy. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked and cursed Ben’s decision to talk her into a car with no manual override. She poked more buttons in the hope something might happen to allow her to regain control and order the car to pull over.
‘Alternative destination being programmed,’ came a softly spoken female voice that Claire recognised as the vehicle’s operating system. ‘Route being recalculated. Two hours and thirty minutes until chosen destination reached.’
‘What?’ Claire responded. ‘No! Where are we going?’
As the car pulled up at traffic lights, she spotted her chance to leave. Quickly, she unclipped her seatbelt and hit the door release button. Once outside, she would compose herself and rethink her plan. She knew that whatever alternative she came up with, she could not leave the car unattended, not under any circumstances. However, the door held firm. Over and over again she pushed it, harder and harder, but it wouldn’t budge. Her baby kicked again.
‘It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay,’ she repeated, trying to convince them both she could find a way out.
Claire’s head turned towards the car next to hers at the traffic lights and she waved her hands to catch the driver’s attention. But he was too distracted by a film playing on his Smart windscreen. Her wave became more and more frantic until, finally, she caught his eye. He turned his head towards her, but within the speed of a heartbeat, her windows switched from transparent to opaque. The privacy control had been set remotely so that no one could witness her desperation.
Terror overtook her when she finally realised what was happening – someone else was controlling her car.
‘Good morning, Claire,’ a male voice began through the speakers.
She let out an involuntary scream. The voice was calm and relaxed, friendly almost, but most definitely unwelcome. ‘It may have come to your attention that your vehicle is no longer under your management,’ it continued. ‘From here on in, I am in charge of your destination.’
‘Who are you?’ Claire asked. ‘What do you want?’
‘Neither of those things matter right now,’ the voice replied. ‘The only thing you need to know at this point is that in two hours and thirty minutes from now, it is highly likely that you will be dead.
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