She missed the motor pools, she shared on the way back from work, until just a decade ago. Ever since personal pods had become the preferred means of transport, she wondered if she was the only one who had ever enjoyed them. She pressed her face to the fiberglass that covered her pod, to try and catch the eyes of others travelling on parallel lines. The pods however, whizzed by too fast for her to make any real contact. It was at the interchanges where she had the only real chance to make out a face. As the years went by and the system had evolved the pod’s speed was adjusted dynamically to minimize the slowdowns or stops required at interchanges. Despite these advances, her pod still stopped at least once or twice a week at the interchange.
It was a Wednesday. She had already stopped twice this week, so she did not expect to stop today. As she got closer to the interchange, she felt her pod begin to slow down. Three days in a row. If she stopped now something was certainly off. Were the computers working correctly? Her pod came to a halt at the interchange. She looked to her right at the other pod that had also come to a halt. A man looked back at her. He waved back to her frantically. Her heart sank. Was something wrong with the pods? Was she in danger? He looked down like he was rummaging through something and held up a sign saying HEY I’M JAY. She just found herself waving back. Before she could decide what to do next, her pod began to gather speed and she was on her way back home.
This fleeting encounter was all she could think about. Was this Jay some kind of weirdo who displayed his name to anyone whose pod stopped around him? When she thought about those brief moments, she felt like his movements had been measured. Like he had planned for it. How was that possible? She went off to sleep with conflicting thoughts running through her head. The rest of her week went just the way it always did with no delays on her way to work and back. The stranger Jay continued to invade her thoughts. Monday was still the worst day of the week. The trip back as lonely and dreary as it always felt. Interchange 571 was close. She began to slow down again. Was last week’s pattern going to repeat itself? She looked around intently for any other pods that had slowed down at the interchange. She saw a pod arriving from the right. In it was a woman who looked as bored as herself. She crossed quickly. Another pod began to arrive. Before it got close enough for her to see who was in it, her pod began to move forward and cross the interchange. She looked back to try and catch a glimpse of the second pod, but she had already moved too far ahead.
Tuesday played out the same as Monday. There was no second pod. Wednesday. Exactly a week since she had seen the man named Jay. Interchange 571 again. Her pod slowed down. A pod was arriving from the right. Her pod didn’t wait for the other one to cross. It picked up speed as she crossed the interchange and proceeded home. She looked back. The pod that had arrived at interchange took a right and followed right behind her. However, she couldn’t make out much about its occupant. Privacy rules restricted the minimum distance between 2 pods. She was nearing home and the pod soon arrived at her stop. It moved downwards through the shaft and when it reached the ground, its doors opened to let her out. She stepped out and waited as the pod went back up before letting the pod that was behind her move again. It too stopped at her stop. It reached the ground and opened to let the man she knew as Jay step out. “Hi,” he said. “Please do not be alarmed.”
“How is this happening? How did we reach this point after that brief interaction from the other day?” she said.
He started with his story. “As the years have gone on privacy became the primary pillar of every new technology that ever came to be a part of our lives. There were so many that advocated for this for so many years. That is why the pod network functions the way that it does now. It is fast and efficient. Perfectly tuned to get you to your destination in the shortest time possible. Any human interaction has been eliminated from the process. I used to yearn for the days when I could see passengers on the buses or pools that I took to work. The privacy that we yearn for also comes at the cost of social interaction. A chance encounter with a stranger is a memory that can outlive the countless conversations that we have with familiars.”
“What does this have to do with me?” she said.
“I’m a security researcher at the pod tech company. Part of my job was to monitor the pod activity at interchanges on the pod network. Interchange 571 was one that was under my jurisdiction. There is a camera at the interchange that is the second layer of safety to ensure that the pod movement is safe, despite all the intelligently controlled movement that takes place. It also allows me to get a brief glimpse into the inside of moving pods when they have slowed down. You eventually began to stand out, because your face was so often pressed against the glass of the pod whenever you had stopped at an interchange. It seemed to me that you were so eagerly seeking to make contact with anyone you could at the interchange. It felt like you were maybe trying to seek out the same experience that I have begun to miss as the years have gone on. That’s when I thought I could try to somehow connect with you. I knew the time frames within which you made your journey every day. Since the network is managed by technology, the best I could do was try to plan my journey in a way that ensured I crossed the interchange at around the same time that you did. I have been trying this for the past weeks. In case you were wondering, that is why you experienced more than the usual slowdowns.”
She stepped back. She was unsure if she should be afraid or impressed with this story. The truth was despite her misgivings Jay was really the first stranger she had spoken to in a long time. He looked at her with lowered eyes and said “I can surely understand if this has begun to freak you out. I only did this with the off chance that there was somebody who felt the way that I have begun to over the years. Just say the word and I will take the next pod up. You won’t ever hear from me again.”
She looked up at a pod whizzing by, took a step forward and held out her hand. “Hi, Jay,” she said. “I’m Risa”