2256 words (9 minute read)

Stolen Goodbyes

After Ethan and his family donned their OS-11s in the lobby, they were quickly ushered outside to catch the 11:05 PM HoverBus--the most public form of transportation in the Bloc. It wasn’t the most favorable way to travel at such an ungodly hour, but Ethan had made a specific request to catch the 11:05 HoverBus back to their sector. Not because he found pleasure in travelling like the masses did. Rather, he was disgusted by the gaudy displays of wealth by the elite. He always told himself that no matter how rich and powerful he became, he would always raise his children with a sense of humility. The 11:05 HoverBus ride was Humility 101.  

     The 11:05 was the last pickup from the Hall that would drop Ethan and his family off within walking distance of their apartment. Considering how late in the night it was, the HoverBus ride home that night for Ethan and his family should have been nice and quiet save for the storm raging on.

      Inside the HoverBus there were two distinct sections: the back one-third, which was reserved for the wealthy, and the front two-thirds, which was reserved for the non-wealthy.

     The front two-thirds of the bus consisted of a couple dozen rows of hard plastic seats with an aisle cutting up the middle of the rows. The typical layout. There was also a small coat rack area where Subsisters could hang their OS-11s if they didn’t want to wear them on their bus trip. The vantage point of the riders in the cheap seats afforded nothing special, just the view through the side windows, the windshield, and the back of the bus driver’s head. Riveting!

     The rear one-third of the bus was the first class section. It consisted of six self-contained HiberPods that were equipped with plush beds, HoloProjectors (3D televisions), and LRUs[1]. And as if that wasn’t enough, each HiberPod came with its own attendant (male or female) that would do anything the rider asked.

     Near the rear of the cheap seats, there were a few late night stragglers, some sleeping in their oxygen masks, others entranced by the storm outside oohing and ahhing. Since the HiberPods were shielded behind a soundproof wall, and they had their own entrance, it was impossible to know whether anyone occupied them.

     Ethan and his family were seated in the cheap seats, a few rows back from the bus driver. When they had embarked, the first thing they did was remove their OS-11s and hung them on the racks, making the long ride as comfortable as possible.

     Ethan’s wife and Miriam were both asleep, each leaning against the other. It was a tender image, peaceful. Ethan couldn’t help but admire them while they slept, being easily reminded of just how lucky of a man he really was.

     Ethan looked down at his watch: 11:23 PM. Their apartment was about forty-five minutes from the Hall so they were about half-way home. And on time.

     Out of nowhere, an alarm pierced the silence:



      Ethan snapped to attention, trying to locate the source of the sound. A quick scan revealed the source: the bus driver’s dashboard status unit.

     The bus driver turned to the riders in the cheap seats. “Stay seated! Everything will be fine,” he shouted, his face less assuring than his bark. He turned his attention back to the dashboard status unit, tapping on a small status screen next to the steering wheel as though that was going to solve the issue. In giant red letters, the status screen obnoxiously flashed: Critical Alert - Magnetron Malfunction.

      Ethan’s family shuffled awake, startled by the annoying buzzer. Ethan put his arm around both of them, holding them tightly, assuring them everything was going to be fine. Their faces were an image of confusion as they woke from their slumber.

     Other passengers screamed and scrambled like chickens with their heads cut off. The bus’s sleepy silence turned into chaotic panic in an instant.

     The buzzer continued to blare.

     Unusual clunking sounds erupted from under the bus’s floor.

     Ethan’s mind went into protection mode. He scanned his surroundings looking for an answer; for an escape route if needed.

     “Wait here,” Ethan told his wife and Miriam. He got up and rushed over to the bus driver whose face was in a total panic.

     “What’s the issue?” Ethan asked the portly bus driver.

     “Uh...well...sir,” the bus driver stammered, making absolutely no sense. He continued to tap on the status screen, indicating to Ethan that something was wrong with the magnetron. It was obvious at that moment that the bus driver had no clue what to do.

     “Can you call someone?” Ethan asked forcefully.

     The bus driver punched a few buttons on his touchscreen opening up a communication line with a transportation manager, a stoic older lady with an intense stare and thin lips creased by the frustrations of time.

     “TranComm. Please hold while I connect,” the transportation manager stated authoritatively. Her statement sounded routine as though this was something she did regularly. Her face twisted a little, confused. “I’m actually having a little difficulty porting in. I’m going to try a different protocol.”

     The bus driver exhaled a giant sigh of relief knowing that someone was troubleshooting the issue.

     HoverBuses were designed with intelligent contingency controls. They operated at a high rate of speed on a specialized road that functioned as a magnetic levitation track. As a consequence of operating at such a high rate of speed, HoverBuses were built with redundant contingencies that activated in the event of a magnetron malfunction; a rare, but potentially catastrophic, event.

     The contingency was supposed to be simple and seamless: in the event of a magnetron malfunction, the intelligent operating system was designed to shut down the faulty magnetron and push more power to the other magnetrons thereby balancing the levitation load. But as Ethan and the bus driver stared at the status screen and the confused face of the transportation manager, it also became obvious that the contingency had failed.

     The addled bus driver frantically tapped on the status screen. It was a nervous reaction.

     The bus began to violently shake.

     The screen that displayed the transportation manager lost connection, then reconnected a few seconds later. The image that returned of the transportation manager was blurred by static interference.

     “Stop fucking pushing buttons!” Ethan barked at the bus driver, yanking his arms away from the status screen in the process.

     The scared bus driver cowered, tucking himself against the seat as far back as he could. He yanked his seat belt tighter.

     The bus’s shaking worsened becoming louder and rougher.

     Ethan tried to hold on, but he lost his footing, causing him to slam to the floor.

     Screams filled the bus.

     Ethan’s wife and daughter hugged each other tightly. Both of their faces had been bleached white from fear.

     Ethan stood up, realizing that he needed to get back to his family. Driving the bus was not his responsibility, he thought.

     Ethan grabbed whatever fixtures he could get his hands on, using them as support to guide him back to his family.

     The bus felt like it was driving over boulders. Rough was an understatement.

     Then an awful sound filled the air. It was the eerie howl of ripping metal...the bus’s metal shell.

     Without notice, the faulty magnetron switched its magnetic poles, causing it to fuse to the hover track below, eviscerating all the magnetrons behind it and shredding the walls and floorboards above it. 

     Ethan fell to the ground, bouncing in the opposite direction of his family. He hit his head, leaving his vision blurry and his balance unmanageable.   

     The bus suddenly lost its forward trajectory, veering off the road, headed toward the adjacent field of granite boulders and nutrient-deprived trees.

     The bus fish-tailed violently from side-to-side.

     Ethan’s body was abruptly tossed across the floor.

      The passengers seated above the faulty magnetrons--where the floor and walls used to be--were instantly ejected from the bus; Ethan’s wife and daughter included.

     Ethan raised his head, looking in the direction of his family, or at least where they had been. To his dismay, he caught the last glimpse of them as they were sucked from their seats. He watched in agony as his wife and daughter bounced against the rocks, landing in the field of dead trees, breathing in the toxic air.

     Seconds later, as the gaping hole in the bus expanded even more, another buzzer belched out followed by a female voice: “Stand clear! Encapsulation process commencing.”

     The bus came to an abrupt stop. Then, the bus’s atmosphere safety mechanism kicked in. An impenetrable encapsulation balloon wrapped around the entire bus, sealing tightly over the gaping hole in the bus. A hissing sound erupted from the floor. The sound was oxygen being released into the cabin.  

      Ethan watched in horror from behind the translucent skin of the encapsulation balloon as his wife and Miriam lay amidst the barren landscape. Instinctively, he punched and kicked at the encapsulation balloon’s walls, trying to break through to save his family. But his efforts were futile; the walls were indestructible and the balloon could only be removed by the transportation manager once the bus was relocated to a rescue warehouse.   

      But Ethan knew that without their OS-11s, his family had no chance of survival out there. If they weren’t rescued in the next couple minutes, that would be it. They would suffocate.

     The other passengers exposed to the elements in the barren forest flailed about as they tried to gasp for air. They twisted and turned. Punched and kicked at an invisible attacker.

     It was a horrific scene.

     Ethan’s wife turned toward Miriam, grabbed her hand tightly.

      “Stay awake, baby,” she whispered to Miriam, her breathing labored. “Try to take small breaths until help gets here.”

      “What happened, mommy. Where’s daddy?” Miriam mumbled, her eye swollen.

     Ethan’s wife scanned her surroundings, carefully studying the faces of the other unfortunate passengers around her. Where is Ethan? she asked herself. But he was nowhere to be found. She didn’t know that he was stuck inside the bus.

      “I don’t know, baby,” she whispered. There was a new coarseness in her voice. Something was happening inside her.

      “Is he okay?”

      Ethan’s wife tried to shush Miriam, softly placing her fingers over Miriam’s mouth.

      “No more talking until helps gets here,” she said in shallow breaths.

     Miriam nodded. As she did, her eyes made long, exaggerated blinks. She couldn’t keep them open. Something was making her sleepy.

      Instantly, rescue lights danced over the landscape. Rescue drones magically dropped from the sky, each illuminating an injured passenger in the barren forest.

     Miriam fought to keep her eyes open, but slowly, they closed. Beneath her eyelids, her eyes could be seen bouncing around as though she was in a REM-like state.

     Heavy footsteps approached from every angle.

     Rescue LB-231s had arrived!

     Ethan’s wife’s tried to reach her hand out to a rescuer, but her arm went limp, and her eyes gently closed shut.

     Two more rescuers surrounded Miriam, quickly placing her inside of a rescue capsule.

     For Ethan’s wife, the rescue attempts were too late. Her body was broken. Her lungs punctured. They placed a dark mask over her face, indicating she was no longer alive.

     At 11:28 PM, the HoverBus had lost its forward trajectory.

     Two minutes later, Ethan’s life had also lost its direction; a battle that would bring Ethan the edge of self-destruction.

[1] Life Resource Units (LRUs) were the biological version of 3D printers. Coincidentally--or not--these were manufactured by Digix. Each Subsister was issued an LRU that was wirelessly connected to Digix’s Central Control Server. LRUs were preprogrammed with the molecular structures of a number of food and medicinal items that Subsisters could print at-will, at least until their molecular cartridges were emptied. 

There were two versions of the LRU: a non-wealthy version and a wealthy version. The non-wealthy version was limited in its capabilities and could only print basic food stuffs and simple medicines; just what was needed to survive. The wealthy version, on the other hand, was limited only by the owner’s imagination. Occasionally you could find a hacked wealthy version on the black market, but it was rare. Mostly because possession resulted in an immediate death sentence.