Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an undocumented immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.
From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, "Which of these people should we save?...And who should we kill first?"
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 John Marrs
By the time the front door closed, the car was parked outside Claire Arden’s home, waiting for her.
She lingered inside the porch, re-reading 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 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 politely declined and he panicked, begging her not to tell Siobhan. She promised she wouldn’t, and she 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 in fascination at the car’s arrival as it delivered itself to their home and parked on the driveway. Sensing both Claire’s unease and reluctance, Ben assured her anyone could operate it, even her, and that it was “idiot proof.” As they personalised their settings from an App, she responded with narrowed eyes and a jab to his arm. He 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 gripped the seat when the car indicated and overtook 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 gave 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 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 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 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 bangs that morning so they 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 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.’
Jude Harrison’s eyes were fixed on the charger leading from the wall and plugged into the grille of his car.
He couldn’t be sure for how long he had been sitting in the vehicle, staring at the charging point or why it had captured his attention. Realising he’d lost all track of time, he checked the clock on his dashboard. To remain on schedule, he would need to start moving soon. His eyes flicked towards the battery cell light – ten minutes remained before it reached its capacity. The distance he was to travel wouldn’t require a complete charge, but anything less than at least three-quarters full made him jittery.
Most other vehicles in the supermarket car park charged in smarter ways than his. They topped up using on-the-go over chargers embedded in the asphalt of traffic lights, roundabouts, parking spaces or even drive-thru fast-food outlets. Jude had purchased his driverless car at the beginning of the government’s much hyped “road revolution.” Overnight, he went from a driver to a Passenger - someone whose vehicle contained no manual override. The car made all the decisions itself. Compared to many, his model was now out-dated and soon it would cease to automatically download the software that operated it, thus forcing him to upgrade. He’d been offered financial incentives to purchase a more advanced, hi-tech model but he refused. It was pointless spending money on something he would not need for much longer.
Jude’s belly made a deep, guttural rumbling, reminding him it wanted to be fed. He knew that he must eat to keep his energy levels up and get him through the morning. But he had little appetite, not even for the chocolatey snacks he kept in the side pouches of the luggage on the seats behind him. Exiting the car, he made his way into the supermarket, but towards the bathroom, not the food aisles. There, he emptied his bowels in the toilet, washed his hands and face and dried them under the wall-mounted machine. He removed from his pocket a disposable toothbrush containing paste that foamed up once it mixed with his saliva and began to clean his teeth.
Harsh lighting above the mirror reflected from his scalp and emphasised how thin the hair was becoming around his temples. He’d recently begun keeping it cropped rather than trying to style and hide it. He remembered his father warning him and his brother that he had begun receding by his thirtieth birthday, and Jude was following suit. His friends took medication to keep their hair in place; Jude rejected it along with all popular cosmetic alterations. He hadn’t even fixed the two bottom teeth that leaned against one another, which meant he always smiled with closed lips.
It had been the best part of a week since he’d last run a razor across his face and it made his olive complexion appear darker. Despite his fatigue, the whites of his eyes remained bright and made his green irises resemble the colour of ripe apples. He placed the palms of his hands on his T-shirt and traced the outline of his stomach and ribs with his fingers. He was aware of the weight he’d lost over the last month and blamed the pressure on all that needed to be organised for this day to be a success.
He looked to his wrist for the time, forgetting he had long discarded his watch. It had gathered details from his pulse and temperature to reveal his metabolism, blood pressure and many other diagnosis’s he didn’t care to be informed about. He didn’t need to read the digits on a display to know his stress levels were soaring.
Jude returned to his car and once satisfied the battery was now full, he unplugged the recharger and took the first of a handful of deep breaths before climbing inside and informing the vehicle’s voice-activated operating system of his next destination.
The car began cruising the suburban roads at no more than twenty-five miles an hour as Jude recalled how much he used to enjoy being in sole control of a vehicle. He passed his driving test on his seventeenth birthday and at the time, it had felt like the greatest achievement in the world, giving him the freedom he craved. He could leave at will the confines of the village in which he was born and raised. He was no longer reliant on irregular bus timetables, his parents or older brother to give him glimpses of the outside world. It didn’t sit comfortably with him that nowadays, children of fourteen were Passengers in fully autonomous vehicles. It was if they were cheating.
Jude also remembered a time when roads like these were to be avoided at that time of the morning. They used to be gridlocked with rush hour, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Now, cars glided smoothly through the streets, conversing with each other through a network of internal communication systems to reduce bottlenecks and congestion. As much as he resented these cars, there were some benefits to having one.
Much of his dashboard was taken up by a soundbar and large interactive OLED screen in which he could control everything from his choice of television viewing to emails, social media, and reading material. He scrolled downwards until he located a blue folder labelled Family Holidays. Inside, he checked a subfolder which read ‘Greece’ and a selection of videos appeared. He opted for the one titled ‘restaurant’ and clicked play.
The super high definition picture was so crystal clear it was like he was there, relaxing on a restaurant terrace’s lounger, lying by Stephenie’s side and wrapped in a warm jumper as they enjoyed the setting sun over the vast vista. The camera panned slowly from left to right, zooming over the crescent bay and uninhabited islands ahead. The few clouds above them were illuminated with blues and oranges but cast the islands in shadows.
‘Can you see the boat in the distance?’ he heard her ask. ‘Over there, behind the island. The stern is just poking out.’
‘Ah yes, I see it now,’ Jude repeated aloud and over the recorded voice. He knew it off by heart and silently mouthed her reply too. ‘One day we should book a trip on a round-the-world cruise ship,’ she said, ‘then we can spend our retirement seeing the sun set from every ocean and every continent. How does that sound?’
‘Perfect,’ Jude replied. ‘Just perfect.’ It was only in recent years that he understood perfect was an impossible concept.
He closed the folder and used the screen to turn down the car’s temperature. The spring morning was proving warmer than weather forecasters predicted. However, the display remained at a stubborn twenty-seven degrees.
‘Car,’ he began, not having personalised his operating system by giving it a name like most owners. ‘Turn on the air con.’
Nothing happened. The vehicle typically obeyed each task asked of it and his was the only voice it was programmed to recognise. ‘Car,’ he repeated more firmly. ‘Acknowledge my request.’ Again there was nothing.
He cursed the software glitch and rolled up his shirtsleeves instead. Then, removing a wireless keyboard from the side pocket of the door, he logged on and began to compose an email. He chose to type it, preferring the old-fashioned means rather than dictating it or sending it via a videogram.
“Dear all,” he began. ‘Apologies for the impersonal nature of this email but…”
‘Good morning Jude.’
‘Shit!’ Jude blurted out loud and dropped his keyboard into the footwell. He looked around his vehicle as if he were expecting to find a second Passenger, hiding.
‘How are you today?’ the voice continued.
‘Good … thanks,’ Jude replied. ‘Who is this and how did you get my number?’ He examined the phone icon on the screen but it was switched off.
‘I need to you to listen carefully Jude,’ the voice continued calmly. ‘In approximately two and half hour’s time, you are going to die.’
Jude blinked quickly. ‘What did you say?’
‘The destination you programmed into your GPS is about to be replaced with an alternative location of my choosing.’
His eyes darted towards his dashboard where new coordinates appeared on screen. ‘Seriously, what is going on?’ asked Jude. ‘Who are you?’
‘More details will follow soon, but for now, please sit back and make the most of this beautiful spring morning as it will likely be your last.’
Suddenly, the car’s privacy windows switched from clear to opaque, meaning no-one outside could see he was trapped inside.
‘Tell me where I’m supposed to be going because I can’t bloody remember,’ Sofia Bradbury snapped.
‘Again?’ Rupert replied, exasperated.
Sofia was in no mood to be patronised. The painkillers and anti-inflammatory tablets she’d swallowed at breakfast along with a tumbler of brandy were doing little to ease the discomfort of the spinal osteoarthritis in her lower back. It also didn’t help that her hearing aids were malfunctioning, making some words hard to hear.
‘The hospital, remember?’ he continued with a note of weariness. ‘Please assure me you’re in the car now?’
‘No, I’m in a bloody spaceship. Where do you think I am?’
‘I’ll send the address to your GPS.’
‘Oh Jesus. The map on your screen.’
Sofia watched as coordinates appeared on the centre console and calculated the route her vehicle was to take from her home in Richmond, London. The car doors automatically locked and the vehicle began its journey, the only sound coming from the gravel of her lengthy driveway crunching under the thick tread of the tyres.
‘And why am I going there again?’ Sofia asked.
‘I’ve already told her once this morning,’ she could just about hear Rupert saying. She assumed he was addressing the boy with the effeminate mannerisms interning in his office. Rupert went through assistants with alarming regularity, she thought, and they always shared a similar appearance - skinny T-shirts, skinny jeans and skinny torsos.
‘Rupert, you’re my agent and my PR, if I ask you a question, I expect an answer.’
‘It’s the meet and greet with the young cancer patients.’
‘Oh yes.’ A concern sprang to mind, causing her brow to furrow. However, her facial muscles were still too paralysed from last week’s visit to the dermatologist to feel anything move above her mouth. ‘This is not going to be one of these events where nobody knows who the hell I am, is it?’
‘No, of course it’s not.’
‘Don’t “of course it’s not” me like it’s never happened before. Remember when I went to that school in Leicester and they were all too young to recognise me? It was humiliating. They thought I was Father Christmas’s wife.’
‘No, as I explained to you earlier, this group are patients in their early teens and I’ve been assured they are all huge fans of Space & Time.’
‘I finished filming that a decade ago,’ Sofia dismissed.
‘No, it hasn’t been that long, has it?’
‘I may be seventy-eight, but I’m not bloody senile yet. I remember it as clear as day because it was the last time you got me an acting job on prime-time television. I’m hardly likely to forget it, am I?’
Despite reading the script a dozen times, even while filming Sofia had no idea what the storyline was to the popular sci-fi show. All she grasped while acting against a green screen - and running away from an off-camera man with a tennis ball attached to a stick - was that an alien’s head would be added to the shot in post-production. Not that Sofia had ever watched the finished product. She rarely viewed her own work, especially in her advancing years. She didn’t take any satisfaction in seeing herself age.
Lately, her acting work had become sporadic and the parts offered, stale. Sofia had tried to remain relevant by waiving her fee for a handful of film student projects, and she’d toured the country in acclaimed regional productions of Macbeth and The Tempest. She had also been offered huge sums of money to join the casts of two long-running soap operas. But she didn’t relish playing grandmothers clad in charity shop costumes and little make-up and turned both parts down without hesitation.
Instead, she lifted her spirits by lifting her chin and her breasts with the help of a Harley Street surgeon’s knife. Now, the wrinkles and creases on the backs of her hands were the only tell-tale signs of her true age.
‘Oh Oscar, what have you eaten?’ She scolded the sleeping white Pomeranian lapdog lying by her side and tried to waft away the toxic smell it omitted with her hands. He briefly opened one brown eye, shuffled his body further towards her thigh, then closed it again.
Sofia unhooked the clasp of her vintage Chanel handbag and removed a compact mirror. She applied another coat of her trademark crimson colour to her lips and watched, displeased, as it bled into vertical lines under her nose. She squinted at how pale her grey eyes had become and made a mental note to ask Rupert’s assistant to research medical procedures that might reduce their milky hue. With her veneers, enhanced cheekbones, hairpieces and breast augmentations, momentarily she wondered if all that was left of the original Sofia Bradbury was her ambition.
‘Do you have any new scripts for me to read?’ she asked Rupert.
‘A couple have appeared but I don’t think they’re right for you.’
‘Surely I should be the judge of that?’
‘Well, one is playing an aging prostitute with terminal cancer in a long–running hospital drama and the other is in a music video for a girl group. You would be … playing a ghost.’
‘Oh, for the love of God,’ Sofia sighed. ‘So they either want me on my deathbed with my legs apart or returning from beyond the grave. Sometimes I wonder what the bloody point of it all is.’
‘I’ll send the treatments to the car now and you can read them en route.’
By the time Sofia had rolled her eyes, the characters’ outlines were available to view on her windscreen, which at the flick of a switch, turned the glass into a panoramic monitor and television. She only needed to read the first couple of lines of each character description before dismissing them.
It wasn’t a wage that needed, it was recognition and appreciation. And annual appearances at sci-fi conventions or TV chat shows would not suffice. It riled her the British Academy of Film and Television Arts had yet to offer her a lifetime membership despite having first trod the boards at the age of seven.
Do they know? she asked herself suddenly. Have there been rumours? Does BAFTA know what you’ve done so they’re punishing you? She hated that voice. It had haunted her for almost four decades. She shook it from her head as quickly as it appeared.
Sofia sank her aching back into the seats and pressed a button to massage it with deep, penetrating vibrations. She poured herself another brandy from the refrigerated armrest. She decided the best thing about driverless cars was being able to drink and drive legally. She ran her manicured fingernails across the plush calfskin. Then she tapped the Macassar wood panelling and dipped her bare feet into the thick Peruvian vicuna wool carpeting. By dispensing with her driver, she could afford a top of the range Imperial GX70, the most expensive autonomous vehicle in production. She had no idea how a driverless car operated and she didn’t care – as long as Rupert ensured she got from A to B remotely and on time, that was all that mattered.
‘Rupert?’ she asked tentatively, ‘Are you still there?’
‘Of course. How can I help?’
‘Will my … will … Patrick … be joining me today?’
‘Yes, his account is still linked to your diary. He expressed an interest in attending so I’ve a car booked to pick him up from the golf course. He’ll meet you at the hospital.’
Sofia let Rupert’s response hang in the air knowing the complications her husband’s appearance might bring. ‘I’ll speak to you later,’ she said quietly, not waiting for his reply before hanging up. Her nails were embedded in the palm of her hand before she realised she was close to drawing blood.
‘Good morning, Sofia,’ a male voice she didn’t recognise began.
She glared at the console, assuming she had touched something accidentally and answered a phone call. ‘Rupert? Why are you putting on a silly voice?’
‘It’s not Rupert,’ the voice replied. ‘And it might surprise you to learn that your vehicle is no longer under your control.’
Sofia laughed. ‘It’s never under my control darling. That’s why I have people. To make sure things are controlled for me.’
‘Alas I am not one of your people. However, I am in charge of your destination.’
‘Good for you. Now can you stop playing silly beggers and put Rupert on please.’
‘Rupert has nothing to do with this, Sofia. I have programmed your car to take you on an alternative route this morning. And in two hours and thirty minutes, it is likely that you will be dead.’
Sofia sighed. ‘I’ve read the script, darling, I’m not playing a bloody dying whore on a Saturday night hospital drama. I am Sofia Bradbury and I think Sofia Bradbury is worth a little more than that.’
‘You will hear from me again soon.’
The car fell silent again. ‘Hello? Hello?’
Sofia glanced at the map on her windscreen and it was only when she saw icons for the M25 and M1 that she realised she was leaving London and heading north, and not towards a hospital in Essex.
‘Rupert?’ she said. ‘Rupert? What in God’s name is going on?’
Suddenly, Sofia narrowed her eyes and cocked her head to one side like a penny had dropped. A broad smile spread across her face. ‘Rupert, you sneaky little devil, you did it, didn’t you? You got me on that programme.’
She felt a twinge in her back when she moved to the edge of her seat. She winced as she looked around. ‘Where have they hidden the cameras or are they just using the one in the dashboard?’
There were just three television reality shows that Sofia had ever considered participating in. However, Rupert’s attempts to organise meetings with producers had been repeatedly rebuffed. Sofia had been judged too unfit to dance and too old to stay in a Peruvian jungle for a month. But Celebs Against The Odds was the new water cooler show that everyone was talking about and which every entertainer whose career had stalled was desperate to appear on.
In the opening episode of each series, ten famous faces were snatched without warning from their day-to-day routine. They were whisked away to an unknown destination to compete in a series of physical and mental tasks. Cameras recorded their every move for a week. A year earlier, Sofia had watched in envy as Tracy Fenton, her acting rival for more than four decades, had been one of the chosen few. She too had been taken while in her car and her popularity resurgence led to her being cast in two high-profile network dramas. Now it appeared Celebs Against The Odds producers wanted Sofia.
She balled her fists to contain her excitement - her comeback was imminent, she could feel it. It wasn’t going to be by playing aging grandmothers in soaps. It was by being herself, beamed into homes, vehicles, telephones and onto tablets every night of the week.
Sofia removed the mirror from her handbag again and checked her make-up from all angles, dabbing, smoothing and contouring where necessary. Then she took another painkiller and washed it down with a swig of brandy.
‘This is it Oscar,’ she said proudly as she petted his head. ‘Mummy’s on her way back to the top. Just you wait and see.’
She held her smile firm and looked directly into the camera, and for the first time in years, she wasn’t afraid to stare at her own image as it appeared on the screen before her.
SAM & HEIDI COLE
‘Are you sure your parents have kept the date free?’ asked Sam. ‘Your mum’s hopeless when it comes to remembering she’s volunteered to babysit.’
‘Yes, I’m sure,’ Heidi replied. ‘I’ve already put the date into the family calendar so she’ll get a text alert every day in the run up to it. What about you? You’ll definitely be back in Luton by then?’
‘Uhuh. Should be.’
‘So when are you going to tell me what you’ve organised?’
‘I’m not. Like I keep saying, it’s a surprise.’
‘You know I hate surprises.’
‘Most women love them.’
‘Most women aren’t police officers, and in my job, surprises are rarely a good thing.’
‘Then let this be the exception. For once, have some faith in your husband.’
Heidi wanted to laugh but she held herself back. Instead, she finished filing her fingernails and recalled last year’s effort – a fish supper at their local pub. Money had been tight so she hadn’t vocalised her disappointment. Many months later, she had stumbled across the real reason why they were struggling financially. But she had chosen to keep it to herself.
She checked the destination time on the car’s dashboard – it would take another twenty minutes before she reached it. She needed something to distract her from her anxiousness about what was to come next. So she decided to paint her fingernails. She opened her handbag and removed three shades of white polish.
‘Which one should I use?’ she asked, holding them up to the dashboard camera.
From the console own in his own car, she watched as Sam looked carefully at each of them. ‘The white one,’ he replied and heaped another spoonful of warm porridge from a Tupperware pot into his mouth. Heidi hated it whenever she was a morning Passenger in his vehicle – it either reeked of milky oats or well-cooked bacon.
‘Which white one?’ she pressed and watched Sam hesitate, as if his instinct was warning him this was a test. ‘The one on the left.’
‘Well remembered. That’s the one I chose for our wedding day.’
‘I could never forget.’
Heidi knew her husband was lying because so was she. She had worn a baby pink polish that day. Recently, she had found herself testing him more and more frequently over the most minute and innocuous of topics, just to see how much he was prepared to fabricate.
‘This colour always reminds me of sitting with Kim and Lisa in the nail bar,’ she continued, making it up as she went along. ‘We drove the owner mad trying to decide which shade to pick. Kim kept telling me to go with the ivory to match my dress but I wanted something with a little more sparkle.’
‘You made the right choice. You looked amazing.’
Heidi tried to read his smile, quietly hoping it was genuine. She remembered him waiting at the church altar, turning his head when the organist began to play the opening bars of Wagner’s Bridal Chorus and how he dabbed at his eyes when he caught sight of her. Even now, after everything, she would do anything to relive those early, fairy tale moments from their relationship again, even just for a moment.
‘Do you remember where our first date was?’ Heidi asked.
‘Of course, in that fish restaurant in Aldeburgh high street.’
‘No, that was the second night.’
‘I don’t count the first night because that’s when we met.’
‘That’s right, you were on the stag weekend from hell.’
‘Bob’s best man had booked us all two static caravans in a park populated by pensioners and the only club in town closed at eleven. Then I saw you and your friends walking back to the campsite and the next thing I know, we’d spent the night swigging from a bottle of Prosecco watching the sun rise over the beach.’
Heidi felt a warmth spread across the surface of her skin, mirroring how she felt when Sam had leaned in to kiss her for the first time. Back then, and following the collapse of her parents’ marriage, she didn’t believe in happy-ever-afters. And not for a moment had she assumed she could fall in love so hard and so fast. The warm feeling dissolved as quickly as it appeared. She blew gently on the fingernails of one hand as she began painting the other.
‘Who’d have thought back then that one day, we’d be celebrating our tenth anniversary?’ she asked.
‘I did because I’d never met anyone so on my wavelength like you were. There’s no way I was letting you go. And while I remember, aside from a hacksaw to remove the ball and chain, what are we supposed to buy one another other to celebrate?’
‘Something made of tin.’
‘So if I wrapped up a tin of spaghetti hoops you’d be happy?’
‘Give it a try and see how long the proctologist takes to surgically remove it.’
‘What was on that modern list anniversary presents you Googled?’
‘Diamonds. Apparently, they’re still a girl’s best friend.’
‘I thought I was your best friend?’
You were, Heidi said to herself. Once upon a time you were everything to me.
She watched as Sam used his tie to clean his glasses. He hadn’t worn them when they’d first met, but then his hair and beard hadn’t been flecked with grey either and the skin around his eyes didn’t crease when he laughed. She wondered if he had watched her aging like she had him. Perhaps that’s how this had all started. Her genetics had been to blame. Her body was no longer as attractive to him as it once was when they were in the first flush of love. But wasn’t that what marriage was about? Not the ceremony or the grand gestures or the anniversaries, but standing by the side of someone come what may; growing older with one another and loving them regardless of all their faults. Till death do us part, she said to herself.
Heidi wondered what others saw when they looked at her. In her imagination, she was still a twenty-year old girl with her whole life ahead of her. In reality, she was a 40-year-old mum-of-two whose once thick head of blonde hair was losing its lustre. Her teeth needed whitening and her jaw line was fast losing its elasticity. As gravity pulled it south, it took with it her freckles. Nowadays they were less like cute brown dots and more like fat ink blots. It wasn’t just her looks that had toughened over the years, so had her personality. Her job had made it harder for her to see the good in people. And she had forgotten how to cry either happy or sad tears. Sometimes she felt as if she were made rock; break her exterior and she was just as solid inside.
‘Do you ever miss those days?’ Heidi asked suddenly.
‘The ones when we could drink and smoke and go out whenever we wanted to or bugger off around Europe on a city break without having to worry about the kids?’
‘Sometimes, like when they caught that stomach bug before Christmas and the house stank like a Roman vomitorium. But on the whole, no. The adventure we’re on is much more fun with them in it.’
‘If we can get a late cheap deal, we should take them to the South of France for a few days in August. Just pack up the essentials, programme the address, set off at night and sleep in the car while it drives us there. We could be in Lyon by the morning.’
Heidi knew what Sam’s response would be before he gave it. ‘We’ll see,’ he replied. When it came to trips abroad, he’d been “we’ll see-ing” her for most of their married life. Every other Christmas he’d visit his mother at her flat in the Algarve and it was always alone.
‘So remind me, where are you taking me for our anniversary?’ she asked.
‘Oh for God’s sake, if you really want to know then I’ll tell you. But don’t start moaning later that I’ve ruined the surprise.’
‘Come on then. Spill.’
‘Okay, well, I’ve hired us a caravan in Aldeburgh for the weekend and I was planning to take an early morning breakfast picnic with us so we can start the day where it all began – under the rising sun.’
‘Aww, that’s lovely,’ Heidi replied, not meaning a word of it. Sam clearly assumed it to be a thoughtful, romantic gesture though. ‘It’s a really nice idea.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ he replied. ‘But then I remembered how my wife’s face tripped her up last year when I took her to the pub, so instead, I bought us tickets to a musical in London’s West End, followed by a slap-up dinner at a posh restaurant and a room in a Covent Garden hotel.’
Heidi knew it was never going to happen, but she played along regardless. ‘Are you serious? Can we afford it? We’ve got James’s school ski trip coming up…’
‘Yes, we can afford it,’ Sam replied, and she recognised a hint of irritation in his voice for questioning him. ‘I’ve been putting some money aside for a while to pay for it.’
Heidi opened her mouth to say something else, then changed her mind. Instead, she held her newly painted white fingernails to the camera. ‘What do you think?’ she asked, but before Sam could reply, the picture went blank. ‘Sam? Have we been cut off?’
Meanwhile inside her husband’s several miles behind, Sam slapped the dashboard to encourage the screen to function again. He was paying the price for ignoring the car’s automatic reminders for its six-month MOT, software update and App diagnose the problem. He hadn’t booked Heidi’s in yet either, but she didn’t need to know that. There was a lot she didn’t need to know.
‘I can still hear you,’ he replied.
‘What happened there?’
‘We must have fallen into a wi-fi black hole.’
‘Then why is my GPS reprogramming itself with a different route?’
Sam placed his now-empty bowl of porridge on the seat next to him. ‘It does that sometimes doesn’t it? You know, if there’s been an accident or problems ahead.’ Sam glanced at his own screen. ‘Hold on, mine is doing the same. What … where the hell it is taking…’
He didn’t get the opportunity to finish his sentence. The next voice to come from their speakers did not belong to either of them.
Reading Group Guide
The Passengers by John Marrs
Questions for Discussion
1. Which Passengers were you initially rooting for, and how did your opinions of them change throughout the course of the book?
2. Which of the Passengers or jurors did you relate to the most and why?
3. Was Sam correct in believing that he had just as much of a right to be saved as his wife Heidi? Should the father of a child be treated the same as the mother?
4. Which character had the biggest journey in The Passengers and why?
5. Libby put herself in grave danger by agreeing to meet with Jude one last time. What do you think of that decision? Would you have done the same?
6. Which Passengers’ behaviors angered you the most, and which did you approve of?
7. It appeared that Jack would be getting his comeuppance at the end of the book. What do you believe happened to him after the final chapter?
8. Which twists surprised you the most and why?
9. What was your opinion on the use of graphics to aid with the storytelling?
10. Technology is a big theme in The Passengers. Do you trust it and how it might impact our lives in the future? What scares you the most about it, and what excites you?
11. What was your opinion of driverless cars before you read The Passengers, and does it differ now? Would you ride in one?