The cab jockey gives me a look from the screen. “Sorry, pal” he says, but he doesn’t look sorry. Halfway between sod-all interest and vindictive amusement, more like.
“Cab’s detected puke,” he goes on, while I gurn pained injustice. It won’t help but I do it anyway, for the record. The cab loads its new route, chuntering and beeping as it plugs into the council network, and hands itself off from Virt-U-Cabz for the trip to the sin-bin. Jeez! How could a tikka masala and three lagers have tripped the vomit alarm?
We look at each other, me and the cabbie. He has to, until I’m signed off; I choose to, in case his face cracks, and there’s a hint of sympathy. There isn’t. He’s in Bangladesh; I’m in London. What does he care? I see his eyes flicking side to side, and a tiny light pulsing blue over his ear — bastard’s picking up a new punter before I’m even despatched! Odds on he’s punching for an LA school run; has to be fewer drunks than Hackney, at chucking out time.
“Good evening, Mr. Salomon.” It’s the local council’s automated pick-up service. “Your cab is fitted with sensors for your travelling comfort. Unfortunately, levels of personal emission consistent with gastric instability have been detected…”
“Crappy sensors need upgrading!” I yell at it, which really does bring on the bile, because these bloody things don’t do conversation. The screen flashes up the corporate message, Proud to have no antisocial behaviour in our City, and starts to scroll through a table of statistics.
Mr. Automaton drones on, “…to your local reception centre where you will be disembarked and assessed by our law enforcement and medical services. We appreciate your cooperation in assuring your safety.” The stats scroll along in pedantic harmony.
Four hundred and thirty arrests in 2035, two hundred in 2036…
I flash a pair of digits at the screen in celebration of my innocence.
Ninety-five arrests in 2037…
Ninety-five? Down from four-thirty in how many years? I’m starting to hazard percentages when the cab lurches, my stomach lurches, and we’re off; destination drunk-tank. Last trip I really was pole-axed, and I hardly noticed getting manhandled out of my cab, so they could plunge it into the scrubber. I noticed the medical probes though, down and up; and I sure as hell noticed the antidote they shoved in the up one. Well, at least I’m going to bugger up their gold-plated arrest statistics. I nearly crack a smile, but my face feels like I’ve worn it too long, and my eyes are itching the crap out of me. I drop them shut, and ease back into the seat for a few last moments of dignity, before the prescribed assault.
Something tickles me awake; something that’s in my nostrils, curling in, sneaking up behind my eyes and down into the back of my throat, scratching and choking. Fumes? From the air con? I hack up a real chest-splitter and lunge forwards; banging my face on the windscreen, and splattering it with lung snot. Ach!
Exploded upright and smacked alert, I peer into the gloom to see what’s what. And here we are; two sorry rows of encapsulated miscreants, judged guilty by jobs-worth vomit sniffers, and sentenced to procedural humiliation at the council’s leisure. Shit! Well, I’m not above bribery, so I make my credi-chip casually visible, and open hailing frequencies.
“Hey! Over here! You guys? Fellahs? Been a bit of a screw-up, any chance of a… ”
I stop. I’m seeing HazChem suits, and backpacks that look like breathing apparatus. I’m seeing pale faces in some of the other cabs. Unmoving faces. Oh God! Mouth open, eyes open, frozen-in-a-scream faces.
Fifteen arrests in 2038…
Suddenly I get it. Suddenly, I don’t want to be noticed. I creep my fingers towards the emergency button; but my hand knows better and slides away to hide inside my jacket, tucks into the damp pocket of cold sweat in my armpit. I ooze downwards in my seat, straining to hear something reassuring over the hammering thump of blood in my ears. A soft clunk on the chassis. A hiss. Not reassuring; very not reassuring. Stomach acid is etching cracks into my tongue; and nebulised compliance is starting to poke its fingers down my throat.
I watch as the overalled figures clunk a pipe onto the air con of the cab opposite. The occupant, a girl of about eighteen, wakes from her alcoholic doze and smiles. I’m watching as she weaves to a standing crouch, pulling the hem of her short red skirt towards her knees, and making ready to be helped out. I’m her witness when that doesn’t happen and she hovers there, too hammered to get antsy. I’m her twin when the gas goes in and her face contorts.
When she claws at her throat and then the windows.
When she hacks at the glass with the heel of her shoe.
When she deflates into her seat, a blue-lipped Cinderella in her coach of summary justice.
Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a health care specialist in learning disabilities currently researching in virtual worlds and capacity to consent. In her other worlds, she provides hotel services to several cats, a couple of dogs, and a large number of uninvited spiders.