Future Tense

“Ride”

Read a new short story about hacking the system in Hawaii.

A woman in an aloha-print dress stares at her phone while waiting at a taxi stand.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

A handsome boy, 17 and soft-spoken, told Jasmine about an Easter egg. “Try it,” he urged, sincerity in his voice and in his eyes as he gazed at her across the tall front desk. “It’s fun. Amazing, really.”

Jasmine smiled at him. She smiled all day at the hotel’s guests, chatting with them when time permitted, listening to their stories. Her role came easily: bright-eyed island girl, young and pretty, a white flower tucked behind her ear.

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“Ah, your parents are here,” she said as the couple emerged from the elevator alcove into the expansive lobby, its glittering perfection empty now of other guests in the lull of early afternoon.

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The boy waved at them, then turned again to Jasmine. “Give it a try,” he exhorted her in a conspiratorial whisper. “Promise you will?”

Those eyes.

Her smile brightened. She didn’t want to disappoint those eyes. So she played along, teasing, “I might.” And maybe she really would. It was just a little game, after all.

“And if it works for you, then tell someone else, OK? Keep it going.”

An arched eyebrow. “And how will I know if it works?”

He answered with a blissful smile. “You’ll know.”

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His parents joined him at the desk. A wonderful vacation, they enthused. The new Waikīkī, so much better than the old. Jasmine wished them all a safe trip home.

Her shift ended at 4. Still wearing her uniform—a blue, body-hugging aloha-print dress—she left alone through the employee entrance, sighing at the shock of transition from air-conditioned comfort to the withering heat and humidity of a late-summer afternoon. Out of sight but audible, surf rumbled against the artificial reef. Closer, mynah birds chattered amid the heavy bloom of a rainbow shower tree.

After a few minutes, an electric cart rolled up, nearly full with resort employees on their way home. Jasmine took the last empty seat.

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Nothing so ordinary as the coming and going of shift workers could be allowed to intrude on the magical experience of post-hurricane Waikīkī, with its newly refurbished luxury hotels overlooking a multibillion-dollar reconstructed shoreline. So the cart kept to a maintenance path, screened from view by vegetation and decorative fencing as it rolled sedately toward the resort’s west end.

Jasmine’s thoughts turned to the boy. He’d claimed he’d met someone on a shared taxi ride, a nameless stranger who’d told him about the Easter egg—a hidden bit of code embedded in the programming controlling the city’s autonomous taxi fleet.

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Probably, the boy had been stringing her along. Yet there had been something about him, a sweetness, a rare sincerity that made her want to believe him—and anyway, what was the harm?

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She pulled out her phone.

Probably, nothing would happen.

A tap to wake the taxi app. The preset that would take her home tried to launch. She canceled it and tapped the option to enter a new route.

Destination? the app inquired.

Jasmine whispered the words the boy had taught her, words she’d repeated back to him to make sure she had them right: “I’m ready for a change. Take me where I want to go.”

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Those words manifested on the blank line, but only for a moment before the prosaic destination, Village B-7, replaced them.

A twitch of her lips, a quiet hiss. Jasmine allowed herself no other sign of anger. Cameras lurked everywhere within the resort, a security A.I. monitoring for brewing issues. She didn’t want to get called into HR tomorrow. But what a stupid joke to play! That boy with his pretty eyes had persuaded her to believe in his trick, to hope just a little for something magical, something fun—a new and unexpected destination. But the Easter egg was bullshit. The transit A.I. was sending her home.

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Jasmine’s phone buzzed as she reached the Ala Wai taxi station. A queue notification: Lane 6. Ala Wai was always busy, but the wait was never long. The transit system was that efficient.

Painted lines on the sidewalk directed riders where to stand. Tourists occupied the first lanes, with resort workers at the higher numbers. The transit A.I. never assigned tourists and workers to the same cars.

A sleek little taxi glided in on its silent electric engine. It stopped first at the drop-off zone. Four passengers exited. Then it rolled up to Lane 2, where it picked up three tourists.

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Another taxi followed, taking on four workers waiting at Lane 6, leaving that lane empty for Jasmine. The A.I. strove for efficiency, grouping riders who shared a destination, or at least a route.

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Two more taxis arrived. Passengers got off, others boarded, new queues formed—a cycle so familiar, Jasmine scarcely took note, until she sensed someone behind her.

She glanced over her shoulder, and tensed at the sight of a skinny sunbaked guy of indeterminate age—more than 30, less than 50—standing in her queue. He was clean-shaven, but his long, burnt-blond hair had begun to escape the grip of a styling gel, his khaki shorts were frayed at the edges, and the thin, faded fabric of his aloha shirt testified to too many washings. He looked like someone who’d tried to clean up after a long time on the street.

His pale eyes met hers. “No worry, eh?” he murmured with a lopsided smile. “I’m not as bad as I look.”

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Jasmine shrugged. “You’ll get your own car.”

No way would they be sharing a ride. On the day she’d had to start commuting alone, she’d set up a filter in her transit profile to ensure she rode only with people who had a social rating comparable or superior to her own. If she sometimes had to wait a few minutes longer for a seat, it was worth it to avoid groping hands or spontaneous outbursts. And Scruffy clearly didn’t have the social rating to qualify.

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A taxi stopped at Lane 6. Its front door slid forward. Jasmine tucked in, scooting across the front bench seat—and Scruffy got in beside her.

“Hey!” she said, challenging him with a glare.

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He said nothing, just fastened his seat belt as a faint odor of sweat filled the car’s clean, compact cabin.

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An orange light flashed on the dash in front of Jasmine. “Secure your seat belt,” the taxi scolded her in a stern, disapproving voice.

Jasmine had heard that voice before, though never directed at her. It should have been directed at him. The taxi should be telling him that he’d been in the wrong queue, that this wasn’t his ride. He should have a penalty tacked on to his monthly rider’s fee. Instead, it would be Jasmine who got dinged for being slow with her seat belt.

She debated getting out. But abandoning the ride now would throw a glitch into the transit system, a little ripple of inefficiency in the precise calculations of passenger routes and wait times—and that would cost her more than just a monetary penalty. She would lose social points too.

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“Buckle up, buttercup,” Scruffy murmured, staring straight ahead.

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She gritted her teeth and latched the belt, resolving to use the emergency-stop button if he threatened her in any way.

The taxi pulled away from the curb.

“It isn’t me you need to worry about,” he murmured. “It’s the carbon cycle. You ever think about that? The cycle’s out of balance. Every time we breathe, we make it worse.”

He’d pitched his voice low, gentle and soothing, but Jasmine’s tension ramped up anyway and her anger with it, knowing she was trapped. Trapped alone with a loony who wanted to stop breathing.

She stared straight ahead as the taxi turned up Atkinson Drive.

He kept on talking: “Our breath, each of us, we’re all part of the planet’s respiration. Forests are part of it too. I used to be a forester.”

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That startled her. Forgetting for a moment her mother’s admonition never to engage with fools or madmen, she turned to look at him.

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“It’s true,” he said, a glint of satisfaction in his eyes now that he’d won her attention. “I was a forester back in Washington. Tended the trees … what was left. Marked the sections still fit to harvest.”

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She scowled, thinking about the Easter egg.

He misread her. “Hey, that doesn’t make me a bad guy. People need timber, don’t they?”

“Not so much, anymore.”

No one Jasmine knew lived in a wooden house. Not since Hurricane Nolo. Whole neighborhoods had been swept away and never rebuilt.

After a moment, she added, “This is the weirdest ride I’ve been on in a while.”

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“Yeah? Sorry. I’ll be quiet.”

“No, it’s just weird because, well … I wanted to be a forester. You know, when I was a little kid. Other kids wanted to be celebrities or tech billionaires. I wanted to grow trees. I imagined filling up the abandoned pineapple fields with forests.” A prickle of heat stung her cheeks. She shouldn’t be sharing small-kid dreams with this rambling, worn-out stranger. “As if I could ever make a difference.”

The taxi accelerated up a freeway ramp.

“You can, though,” he said.

She scoffed. “Did you?”

He didn’t answer, so she answered for him. “Your forest, it all burned, didn’t it? Nothing left, and that’s why you came here.”

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Some people were like that, she knew. They let themselves be lured by the false promise of a fresh start somewhere far away, leaving family, and friends too, to carry on alone.

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He sighed and leaned his head back as the taxi cut across the freeway to the autonomous lane. “It happened,” he admitted. “It’s the imbalance of the carbon cycle. It feeds on itself. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more heat and more fires. And more fires means more carbon dioxide. My name’s Trevor, by the way.”

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“Jasmine.”

She too turned to look ahead, past the lingering ruins of shattered subdivisions, to a sky the color of old brass—and caught her breath.

“Yeah, it’s happening here too,” Trevor said.

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She tapped her phone, summoning a fire map. Three months of drought following a long rainy season had left the island ready to burn. “Three separate fires, but not close to any village.”

“Close to my plantings, though.”

“You’ve got a farm?”

He looked like he had barely enough basic income for his next meal.

“Not officially. But there’s a lot of empty land. You know, those abandoned pineapple fields? Thousands of acres. Yeah, so I’m working with a few others to plant trees. Native species like koa, and ‘ōhi‘a.”

“Community service?” she asked, wondering if he was doing it to boost his social rating.

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“I think of it more as a late-stage act of atonement.” His brow wrinkled. “Hell, you’re right. This is the weirdest ride ever—but we can make a difference.”

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“Sure we can—until it all goes up in smoke.”

The village system had been instituted after Hurricane Nolo, to address the need for housing. Like every other village, B-7 was an orderly cluster of concrete domes, designed to survive the next big storm. Shaded lanais looked out on little gardens of mostly fruit trees and vegetables. But on that afternoon—hot, windless—smoke drifted between the domes, tinting the scene with a sepia filter, and no one was in sight.

“Looks abandoned,” Jasmine commented as the door opened, letting in the stink of smoke.

“Get inside and stay inside,” Trevor advised. “You don’t want to be breathing this stuff.”

Only as the taxi pulled away with its solitary passenger did Jasmine consider how strange it was that the transit A.I. hadn’t found riders to fill the back seat.

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When Jasmine got home, she heard her mother’s sunny voice through her closed bedroom door. Her mom worked in sales, presenting convention packages to client companies in Australia and East Asia. Jasmine prepared dinner, a simple meal of green salad and vegetable curry, ready just as her mother emerged.

As always, her appearance was impeccable: matte makeup, eyes alluringly shaded, lips glistening with moist color, black hair swept up in an elegant bun set with fresh flowers, conveying an image of paradise.

“Any luck?” Jasmine asked.

A pout, a slight shake of her head. “I have a meeting with another potential client in 20 minutes.” No time to chat. She would work until late, and Jasmine would be long gone by the time she woke in the morning. Effectively, they worked in different time zones.

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Jasmine arose in the predawn darkness. She put on a fresh uniform, and then applied her makeup and arranged her hair, finally stepping outside to pluck a freshly opened gardenia from the garden. Black ash stained the lanai, but the smoke had mostly cleared. Maybe Trevor’s newly planted trees had survived the fire. She hoped so.

She tapped her phone awake, then hesitated, remembering the boy urging her to try his Easter egg: It’s fun. Amazing, really.

She’d hoped the game would take her somewhere fresh and new and exciting. Now she suspected it had merely turned off her ride-share filter. She checked her transit profile, but nothing had changed.

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Maybe nothing had happened?

She’d been expecting something—and Trevor had been a surprise. Different, a little crazy, and for that she’d marked him as a low-scoring loser. But he’d been a decent guy; he probably had a respectable social rating. And if so, their shared ride might have been simple coincidence—though she did not want to believe that.

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Jasmine wanted the hack to work. She needed it to. She needed something different, something amazing, something to fill the hollow loneliness in her heart—and she didn’t want to believe the boy had played her. So, just to see, just to give it one more chance, she whispered the charm again. “I’m ready for a change. Take me where I want to go.”

The destination field filled in, same as every other day: Ala Wai taxi station.

Fist clenched against a surge of shame and disappointment, she left along the garden path.

Jasmine joined a queue of three for the ride into town—all women she knew who lived in B-7 and worked in Waikīkī. In less than a minute, a taxi arrived, its amber lights bright in the darkness. They all got in, Jasmine in the back seat. As the taxi set off, she leaned back and closed her eyes, ignoring both the glowing threads of fire scratched across the lower slopes of the Wai‘anae Mountains and the quiet conversation of her companions.

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Maybe the boy hadn’t tried to set her up. Maybe the hack had worked for him because he was a tourist, with the money and freedom to visit exciting places.

Her phone buzzed. She checked it and found an update from the transit system: Modified route warning: Prepare to exit and transfer to another vehicle.

She frowned in confusion.

The taxi angled toward an unfamiliar exit ramp, and a woman named Jen looked around from the front seat. “Did someone request a stop?”

Tiana, sitting beside Jasmine, groaned. “Sorry. It’s me. I have an appointment. Routine stuff, but I completely forgot.”

“I’m supposed to get out too,” Jasmine said uncertainly.

“What? Why?” Jen asked. “Do you have an appointment too?”

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“No.” Jasmine gestured with her phone. “It just says I’m supposed to transfer.”

“Oh. Well. It’s early. You should still be able to get to work on time.”

She had to be at work on time. A late arrival would hurt her social rating.

Sorry,” Tiana said again.

The taxi turned into the driveway of the new medical center, stopping under the portico. Jasmine got out with Tiana. A couple with a baby got in—and the taxi left.

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“Maybe they had medical priority,” Jasmine mused.

“Look,” Tiana said. “Another taxi. You’ll be on time.”

Jasmine’s phone prompted her to queue up. The taxi stopped. Its front door opened. She slipped inside, latched her belt, looked around, and met the stunned gaze of her front-seat companion. “Hi,” she said, not knowing what else to say.

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He was an older man, trim and well-muscled, dressed in a finely tailored aloha shirt and slacks. If she’d seen him at work, she would have taken him for a high-powered attorney or a corporate officer—but people like that didn’t ride the city’s taxi fleet. They had their own cars, or used a luxury service. Still, he had money. His smart glasses would have cost Jasmine three months’ pay.

“What are you doing here?” he asked as the taxi headed back down the driveway. “I always ride alone.”

Jasmine glanced over her shoulder, confirming an empty back seat. “Riding alone isn’t an option,” she said, more tentative than she’d have liked.

“It is for me,” he answered irritably.

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She side-eyed the emergency-stop button—but it would cost her dearly to use it, if it was determined she’d done so without good cause. “I’m just trying to get to work, OK? And the transit A.I. put me here.”

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His eyes unfocused, no doubt scanning some bit of information projected by his glasses. “Jasmine Choy,” he said, letting her know he subscribed to a facial-recognition service. “You work in Waikīkī?”

“Yes.”

The taxi had reached the freeway. The pressure of rapid acceleration pressed Jasmine deeper into her seat.

“Well, I don’t. So it makes no sense for us to share a ride. It’s a flawed solution to the efficiency problem.”

Jasmine’s heart raced. Her hands clutched together in her lap. Maybe the hack had worked? Messed somehow with the efficiency algorithm?

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“You know something about this?” he asked.

“No.”

“Of course not.” He settled back in his seat. “How could you?”

“You sound like you do.”

“I should. I’m the principal designer of the transit system.”

No way. Still, she tapped her phone, seeking to confirm his claim.

“Steven Koga,” he volunteered. “That should make your search easier. Officially, I’m retired, but I like to keep an eye on the system.”

An article popped up with a photo that confirmed his identity. The text talked about Steven Koga’s money. His company earned a commission on every ride.

“You own the system,” she said quietly.

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“The city owns it.”

“But you run it.” Resentment bubbled up from some deep well. “And that lets you hack the rules, doesn’t it?” Her heart raced at her own foolish daring. “That’s why you get to ride alone.”

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Koga eyed her suspiciously. “No one hacks the rules. If they did, they’d be banned. No exceptions. The rules are fixed, they’re fair, they ensure maximum efficiency, and they enforce good behavior.”

“But you ride alone,” she insisted, her belly knotting with the knowledge that she had hacked the rules.

He watched her closely. “Yes. You probably know that anyone who’s used the system has a ranking. My rank is developer. It lets me observe, challenge, and stress-test the system, alone. That means you shouldn’t be here. So you’re an interesting puzzle. Granted, the A.I. can come up with strange solutions, but this isn’t one of them. This is just a mistake. When I get into the office, I’ll check the logs and figure out what happened—but it looks like you’re going to be late for work.”

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She clocked in 20 minutes late and flustered, her social rating down by a point. A small penalty. Nothing compared with what would happen if Steven Koga figured out she’d used the hack. She worried about it all day. And she brooded too, preoccupied by the puzzle of what the A.I. was really doing. Could it be interpreting the hack as a two-part request?

I’m ready for a change—and for sure, her last two rides had been very different.

Take me where I want to go—and hadn’t she ended up just where she wanted, or at least needed, to be?

That afternoon, she didn’t dare trigger the Easter egg. She queued with people she knew, and the ride home brought no adventure. But it brought no comfort, either; the brushfire had expanded, burning ever closer to the road and the village.

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The next morning, Jasmine stepped outside to see curtains of smoke, lit from below in hellish colors, billowing into the blackness of the pre-dawn sky. Strobing lights reflected off the smoke. That, and the sound of earth-moving machinery, assured her the village would be protected. She and her mom would get past this disaster, and maybe the next—but for how long? The carbon cycle was out of balance, and that meant more heat, drought, floods, hurricanes.

And yet we pretend it’s all OK, another ordinary day. Get to work on time. Smile. Improve your social rating. There’s nothing you can do anyway, so don’t look too far ahead.

Resentment flared hot, and defiantly, she triggered the hack again. “I’m ready for a change,” she growled, truth burning in each word. “Take me where I want to go.”

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No surprise. The transit A.I. routed her into work. The only difference: Her pickup time was a few minutes later than usual. Such a boring game! But why expect more? It was just an A.I. after all, a processor concerned with the efficiency of traffic patterns, planning ahead only for the next few hours, with no regard for long-term considerations.

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She buried her resentment and put on a good face, trading greetings with other early-shift workers at the taxi stop. But when the next taxi rolled in, she stood aside, breathing smoke-saturated air. And when the taxi departed, she stood alone.

Another minute passed before her phone vibrated with a notice to queue.

A new taxi arrived. Its back door slid open. She took her designated seat. As she secured her belt, she said hello to the two women up front, who worked in the hotel next to hers. Then she turned to Trevor, who was sitting beside her. He wore the same tired aloha shirt, his brow crinkled as he puzzled over her presence.

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“You again,” she said with a bitter laugh.

The cab light went out, reducing him to a shape in the darkness as they began to move.

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He said, “I go into town to talk to potential donors. You know, for the tree-planting project. We need greenhouse supplies, dew collectors, that sort of thing.”

“Going well?”

“No.”

“The donors think it’s a scam?”

“No. They know it’s real. Me and a few friends, we’ve put more than a thousand seedlings into the ground, documenting everything on video. They just think it won’t make a difference. Too small scale, too slow … so why bother?” He sounded defeated. “They’re probably right. Still—”

He broke off, his face visible now in the glow of a ruddy light as he stared wide-eyed at the highway ahead.

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The fire had jumped the road. Jasmine gasped as she caught sight of three people on foot, stranded between billowing walls of flame devouring the haole koa and the towering stands of dry elephant grass. Squatters, surely. Two men, thin and unshaven, and a small white-haired woman with a hundred years of struggle etched onto her face. The fire must have surprised them, driven them from their hidden home. They blocked the lane, panicked faces flush with heat as they waved frantically for the taxi to stop.

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“My God,” one of the women in the front seat murmured.

“We have to stop,” said the other.

The taxi slowed but didn’t stop. Instead, it pulled into the opposite lane, then gently accelerated. Jasmine felt the fire’s searing heat, even inside the sealed cabin.

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“Damn it,” Trevor swore, frantically tapping his phone. “There’s got to be a way to get an override.”

“There is,” Jasmine whispered.

As the taxi swept past the trio, she leaned forward and hammered the emergency-stop button.

It worked. The taxi braked hard. Trevor triggered his door’s emergency release and shoved it open. Heat and smoke filled the cabin.

Jasmine scrunched into the corner as the three refugees squeezed in, coughing, gasping, piling on top of one another, trying to jam the door closed while everyone yelled at everyone else to hurry. But the door wouldn’t close. And the car, in its stern voice, ordered the new arrivals to get out. “You are in violation. You are not authorized to enter this vehicle.”

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“It’s an emergency!” Trevor shouted as another taxi swept past without slowing.

“This vehicle cannot proceed while over capacity. Unauthorized riders must exit immediately.”

Jasmine couldn’t breathe. With Trevor pressed against her, she could barely move. Heat radiated from her closed door. The cab felt like an oven. So she did the only thing she could think of. She activated the transit app and whispered, “I’m ready for a change. Take me where I want to go.”

To her astonishment, the door slid shut. The air conditioning kicked on, blasting smoky air into her face as the taxi accelerated, racing past the fire.

No one cheered. No one had the breath for it because everyone was coughing.

The taxi proceeded only as far as the next stop, Village B-5, where it took itself out of service. The refugees drifted away and the other hotel workers soon secured a new ride, but Jasmine and Trevor were stranded. Jasmine had hit the emergency-stop button when there was no emergency involving the taxi or its riders. Trevor had used an emergency release to open the door. Both acts had drawn severe penalties. Jasmine’s rank had plummeted. She’d become a last-call rider, lowest in priority for a seat. No way would she get to work on time.

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“I found a form,” Trevor said, studying his phone. “We can appeal the decision. It was an emergency.”

Jasmine nodded, still trembling with a post-adrenaline low. She needed to sit down, but there was no bench. Efficient systems didn’t require benches. “I have to call my supervisor.”

No one picked up. She left a tearful message.

Even if she could get to work, she couldn’t go to work, not reeking of smoke, with her makeup and hair in disarray.

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Much later, she received a text from HR: Your employment contract requires you to maintain a positive social rating. As you are in violation of that clause, you no longer qualify for your position.

She sat down on the ground. Put her head on her knees. Trevor squeezed her shoulder.

She didn’t get home until after noon.

Jasmine brooded over what had happened. She hadn’t done anything wrong. It would have been wrong not to hit that emergency-stop button. But doing so had ruined her life because of Steven Koga’s no-exception rules. As she listened to her mom crying behind the closed bedroom door, her resentment congealed into determination. She would find Koga, confront him, and insist he restore the ranking she’d earned over years of good behavior.

At first she thought to go directly to the transit office, but he was retired. He probably wasn’t there every day. She tapped her phone, searching for a clue to where he lived, but he must have paid to hide his information behind gateways she couldn’t afford to access.

Of course, the transit A.I. knew where he lived. If not his exact address, it knew his taxi station. She could wait there, and sooner or later she would find him.

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She went to her mother’s door, opened it just a crack. “Don’t cry, Mom. I’m going out for a while. I’m going to fix this.”

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“It isn’t fair,” her mom said in a trembly voice. “One mistake …”

It wasn’t a mistake.

“I’ll see you later.”

She headed out, dressed in her alternate persona: shorts, tank top, athletic shoes. No makeup, her black hair in a ponytail, wearing a ball cap to mitigate the glare of the late afternoon sun.

As she left, she played the game again, and the transit A.I. gave her a destination. Finally, somewhere she’d never been before.

The afternoon had brought a mild trade wind that pushed the fire away from the village and most of the smoke with it, though a brown haze lingered, softening the figure of a man crouched in the meager shade of a young monkeypod tree.

Trevor.

He wore the same aloha shirt, though he must have washed it because the stink of smoke was gone.

“Trouble catching a ride?” she asked.

“I came to see you.”

“I’m heading out … though it’ll probably take a while.”

She told him about the hack and where she was going.

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Trevor had questions. “You’re saying you met this Steven Koga guy because of the transit A.I. And the A.I. put us together too? You and me?”

She still wasn’t sure it had happened that way. Trevor had only recently gotten a house, joined her route. She shared rides with the same people all the time.

Her ride with Steven Koga was harder to explain, but then, perfect efficiency wasn’t possible.

“I think it’s just a stupid hack. But I’m playing the game again. Want to come?”

Jasmine expected a long wait. But just 12 minutes after adding Trevor as a second passenger, an empty taxi arrived to pick them up. It sped toward town without stopping to fill the back seat, then crossed the Ko‘olau Mountains, emerging into the still-green paradise of the windward side. They exited the taxi at a hillside station in a neighborhood of massive homes and lush gardens, all fenced and gated.

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“Where to now?” Trevor asked uneasily. “In this kind of neighborhood, police will show up if we hang around too long.”

Jasmine grimaced. A citation for vagrancy would make this day complete. “There have to be public records on who owns what, right?”

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“Sure, but Koga’s place could be owned by a trust or a corporation—if he even lives here and this isn’t some randomized destination …”

His voice trailed off as a taxi appeared at the end of the street. They stood back, eyeing it expectantly as it pulled up to the curb. Its front door opened—and Jasmine knew the hack had finally worked just as it ought to. With bleak satisfaction, she watched Steven Koga emerge.

He hadn’t forgotten her. Above the frame of his smart glasses, his graying eyebrows drew together. “I know why you’re here. I’ve seen the logs. You’ve been exploiting a deliberate flaw in the system. You used it to take on extra riders. And that got you in trouble, didn’t it?”

Faced with the truth, Jasmine trembled, too flustered to speak. Koga shook his head and started toward a gated driveway just past the taxi stop.

Jasmine found her voice again when she understood his destination. “You put a taxi stop right outside your own home?”

He turned back. “Why not? I designed the system.”

“A flawed system. One that penalized me and Trevor for helping people. What were we supposed to do? Leave them there to die?”

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“Those people shouldn’t have been there.”

“But they were there! And we had to do something. You created a great system, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.”

“Nothing ever is. That’s why we make adjustments.”

“Right. And that means you can fix this, can’t you? You know we didn’t do anything wrong.”

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“Is that all you want? A clean slate?”

Trevor stepped forward. “No, it’s not all. I want to know the reason the A.I. connected the three of us.”

“There was no reason,” Jasmine told him. “I think the hack just randomly messes with the efficiency algorithm.”

“That’s what I thought too, at first,” Koga said. “But it’s more than that. Your little Easter egg is a very clever corollary program that draws on extensive social analyses.”

“Yeah,” Trevor said. “And it put us all together. Why?”

“I don’t know why. An A.I.’s reasoning can be opaque. But I’ll clean up your records. You’ll be able to ride without penalty. Just don’t try to game the system again.”

He turned to leave, but Jasmine wasn’t done. “You’ve used a lot of money to fence people out.” She gestured at his gated driveway. “Why don’t you use it for good, instead? You could help people—people like Trevor—who want to make this island a better place for everyone who lives here.”

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She’d touched a nerve.

“I have helped this island. I gave it the taxi system. You take it for granted, but it’s a beautiful system, fully integrated with the solar farms, carbon-neutral, directly responsible for hundreds of jobs. I’ve done my share. You’re only angry with me because you broke the rules.”

Truth stung. “I’m sorry, OK. I shouldn’t have said that. But I’m not sorry for what I did. Because if you’re right and the hack is real, and it uses your transit system to bring certain people together to share ideas, I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.” She glanced at Trevor, thinking that something good might still be coaxed to grow out of the chaos and confusion of the past two days. “Like, I learned about this project Trevor’s working on. A long-term way to try to rebalance the carbon cycle. But he needs help to really get it going.”

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“Hey, yeah,” Trevor said, wide-eyed. “I was telling you about it in the taxi, how we need funding to expand. And the A.I. monitors every ride. That’s got to be why it put the three of us together.”

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Koga drew back, his gaze guarded. But then a faraway look came over him. “Ghosts and fairies and angels and A.I.,” he murmured. “The names change but the role is the same—invisible forces that shift the path of our lives.”

“You said the hack was real,” Jasmine insisted.

“Oh, it’s real all right. I’ve been looking for a new project, something local, and I’ve been discussing options with my assistant while I ride.” He crossed his arms, cocked his head. “The A.I. took that into account—sacrificing the efficiency of your commute to satisfy your hack.” He looked at Trevor. “So you’re here. You might as well tell me about your project. I’ll give you five minutes to make your pitch.”

“Do it,” Jasmine urged, smiling encouragement, though she felt oddly hollow. The hack had brought Trevor and Koga together, but what had it done for her?

Trevor straightened his shoulders, and addressing Koga, he said, “Well, the first thing you need to know is that it’s not just my project. Other people are involved—including Jasmine.”

She shot him a sharp look.

He raised a questioning eyebrow. “You’re the kid who wanted to grow a forest, right?”

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Well, yes …

He smiled. “It’ll be fun,” he promised her. “It’ll be amazing.”

Read a response essay by Slate’s Henry Grabar, who reports on cities and autonomous vehicles.

More From Future Tense Fiction

The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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