“Pre-Triage” by Joe Prosit

 

PreTriage-002

I know my life means nothing to you, but it meant a hell of a lot to me. I had plans. I had ambitions. I didn’t always want to be the equivalent of a human crumple zone. I know it equals precisely “impact absorber” on the highway, but I wanted a worthwhile life as much as the next guy. I was just going through a rough year. A rough decade. A couple of decades.

So, I married a doctor.

Not a real doctor. A doctor I made.

Her name was Linda. She had everything. A beautiful face. A knock-out body. A social media presence. A job. A family.

I made it all up. I built her body in my garage out of old mannequins and car parts. I spent hours creating a digital profile for her online. I bought clothes for her and accessories to match.

She had a personality. She was the mother of our children, Luke, Jeremy and little Abigail. They had lives too. I built them in the garage not long after me and Linda got together. They were enrolled in sports. They wore cool clothes, downloaded the newest hip music. Their rigged school records weren’t all straight A’s, but they worked hard and really put forth an effort. Me and Linda, we loved those kids, and we loved each other.

I think everything went to hell the moment we trusted the computers to drive for us.

See, I was an automotive engineer. I did the final coding on tying the whole highway network together. There was a lot of work to be done during the months before launch day. A lot of overtime. Not so much anymore. But when we were building it, there were billions of lines of code. Millions of protocols. It was during those long hours and late nights that I came across the “pre-triage” protocol. Never heard of pre-triage? Never heard of triage? It’s French, meaning “to sort.”

Imagine for a moment, you being a paramedic back before we let all the computers drive the cars. You come upon a wreck and you and your partner have ten patients. Three are fine. Bumps and bruises. Three others are flat line dead. Of the remaining four, two are so close to dying there is only a slim chance you could save either one. The other two you know you can save, but only if you give them all your attention. Who do you treat? The two who have the best chance of being saved, right? You’d play God and you would decide, these people will live and these people will die. That’s triage.

It’s no different nowadays, only the network decides instead of the paramedics. And the network decides before the first collision ever takes place. Say a deer jumps out on the road. As soon as it’s detected, the network knows that the thing that should not happen is about to happen: there’s going to be a wreck. A nasty one too. A pile up. So what does it do? Pre-triage. Some cars become impact absorbers while others are spared. It becomes a numbers game. This car has six passengers. This car has one. This car is carrying a Nobel Prize winner. This car is carrying a single out-of-work engineer with a drinking problem. This one lives. This one dies. For the good of others, your car just might decide to let you die. That’s pre-triage.

So maybe my plan started as a way to stay safe on the highway. I built my family so the network would value me and my occupants. Instead of being a washed-up programmer with a drinking problem, I was a husband and a father. My wife was a respected doctor, advanced in her field. The kids had potential. We had value. See, I fooled the system I helped create. That was my original intention anyway. But to be honest, at some point it wasn’t so much about staying alive on the highway anymore. At some point it became more about not being so damn lonely. It was about feeling valued.

Between you and me, by the morning of April 5th 2025, I didn’t think the fifty car pile up I was so afraid of was ever going to happen. By then, I just enjoyed spending my daily commute with my family. The network was performing flawlessly. Highway fatalities had dropped by 95%. Road travel was more efficient than ever before. More cars on the roads. Higher speeds. Few accidents. Shorter commutes. Everyone was happy.

I read the police report. It was an unsecured load that started the accident that morning. Some trucker didn’t inspect his tie-downs before hitting the road. It’s always human error whenever you ask us engineers. A load of cinder blocks fell off his truck. The blocks brought the first vehicle to an “unanticipated spontaneous halt.”

The next ten cars were “impact absorbers.” Nothing could be done about that. You were in car eleven. I was in car twelve. It was up to the network to pre-triage us correctly.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was so scared. I heard the screeching brakes and the ten smashes like rhythmic thunderclaps coming closer and closer to me and my family. I grabbed my wife to hold her back, to keep her safe from the collision I knew was coming. I reached out to little Abigail, praying to god I put the car seat in right. You know how they say only one in ten car seats are installed correctly? That’s all I could think about as I waited for the next thunderclap to hit my family.

I wasn’t thinking about your family.

The thunderclap came. No flash to bang delay. Just one big crash. The car frame buckled. Tiny bits of glass filled the air. I swear I could hear the boys screaming.

We hit your car still going 70 miles per hour. The car behind us hit us going 40. The network in all the infinite wisdom we gave it had decided to save me and my family. When the impacts had been absorbed, when the tires stopped squealing, when the glass and bits of metal settled on the blacktop, we ended up being okay. Linda was scared, but okay. The boys were crying, and I was happy to hear it. It meant they were still in one piece, thank god. Abigail, I thought maybe she was hurt, she was so quiet. Panicked, I unbuckled and went to her side to see inside the car seat.

And there she was, pretty as an angel, as healthy and happy as the day I built her from a baby doll and steel springs. I was so relieved. I cried and held them all so close. I couldn’t say how long we stayed in the car, just holding each other and thanking God we’d made it through okay. It wasn’t until the rescue crews opened our door with the Jaws of Life that I got out and saw the rest of the accident.

They checked me out, saw I was okay, were confused about my family, but triaged them as not needing any medical attention. Then they went to your car.

I was standing on the shoulder of the road when they extricated you and your fiancé. You were unconscious but mumbling her name. That’s how I know it. Abby. That’s what me and Linda called our baby for short. Abby.

When they pulled her out, your Abby, she came out like Jell-O from a mold. All loose, like there were no bones left in her body. Blood everywhere. Her blonde hair was matted and stained dark. There was no sentience in her movements. Her limbs and head went where the firemen moved them or where gravity pulled them. There was no will left in her body. No life. I’m glad you weren’t awake to see it. I can’t get the image out of my head.

I’m sorry.

I can’t look at my family the same way after that day. I can’t look them in the eyes. I’m too ashamed of myself. They’re too beautiful and I’m too…

I bet your Abby was beautiful too. Before the accident.

I’m sending this to let you know, I deactivated the sensors in my car. Now when I drive, the network will see my car as being empty. To the network, I’m not there. It sees me for exactly what I’m worth: A crumple zone. An impact absorber.

I took your fiancé from you. I took all the potential you had for a family. So I’m sending you mine. They’re in a cab now, heading to your home over at 2600 Juniper Street. I got your address from the police report. I hope you don’t mind. Linda is a great partner. The boys… they’re just amazing kids; I know you’ll think so too after spending some time with them. And my Abigail.

I took your Abby from you. I hope mine fills that hole, even just a little bit. Think of her as your Abby reborn. She’s my gift to you.

I’m going out on the road now. I got plenty of fuel and plenty of booze to keep me on the highway for a while. I figure eventually the network will use me for what I’m worth. I trust in it to administer justice. I have faith in it now.

That’s all I got to say I guess. Just that I’m sorry. That, and please take good care of my family.

 

 

 

 


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Joe Prosit writes sci-fi and horror fiction. Several short stories are available at his website, www.JoeProsit.com. His ongoing sci-fi series “Vulpine One,” is available with new episodes each month at www.Channillo.com. He lives with his wife and kids in the Brainerd Lakes Area of northern Minnesota. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just follow him on Twitter @joeprosit.

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7 Comments

  1. WOW.
    This one really hit hard for me. The tone was just great, one foot in the real the other in the surreal, like a technological fairy tale. Something about the idea of building a fake family for yourself and falling in love with that construction is really powerful.
    I liked that both stories touched on the idea of disconnected connections, which I think is the concept at the heart of everything that makes the internet great and terrible.
    I would have liked a little more from the ending, but it hit the right tone and wrapped things up in a creepy way. In particular the idea of the protagonist sending his fake family to the accident victim struck me as particularly horrifying. All in all this story is just crazy enough to work.

  2. I liked this a lot. The prompt is interpreted in a really inventive way and, as with many of my favorite stories here at the arena, it gets used but not shown off. Clearly the Internet is central to this story. You can’t have any of this story’s premises come about without it, and yet the author knew enough to use a light hand there and not jump up and down and point to where the Internet is in play.

    The building of the fake family is…weird. When I started this story I thought for a moment that this premise would be the main one and I was a little disappointed. We’ve seen that before in a number of tales and it seemed to be fleshed out and dealt with very early to have much impact on the entire story. Of course that’s the point and the building of the family is only the beginning. The *attachment* that he forms to his family was where a lot of the meat was and boy howdy did that work on a lot of levels. When he ran to the car seat after the accident, terrified that his girl might be injured, I got a little caught up in things. That whole lead up, and the thoughts about whether the car seat was installed correctly and everything, they had me forgetting the truth, so when he feels relief, I felt relief. And then he describes the girl and it’s a doll and…and that was an amazing moment as a reader for me.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the title concept yet. It was really freaking interesting and absolutely believable (do they do this? have designers of self-driving cars had conversations about how their inventions will have to work when catastrophe does strike?) as well as a great way to get us thinking about how real the protagonist’s connection with his family actually is…

    Really good stuff here.

  3. L.K. Feuerstein

    This piece is painfully beautiful and delightfully disturbing while thought provoking on many levels. I found myself thinking about the way we value family, as a breakdown of scores and numbers. People are a series of statistics, lines of code, to be sorted and evaluated. Even though the creation of the family in the system should feel like a violation of honesty, the loneliness that carries throughout the piece made me empathize with the character. The end just struck a chord…I’m still not sure if I’m more disturbed by the sending of the false family to replace the lost fiancé or the collection of booze to head out on the highway for justice.

    My only criticism is that I initially had trouble picturing the “family” and then there is almost an expectation to recall their appearances (especially Abby’s) during the crash. It felt abrupt, in a way that jolted me out of the story looking back to see if I’d missed something.

  4. That was awesome! Great job Joe.

    I love reading about broken people. Maybe I have a problem, but they are so much more interesting than the average character. I also feel incredibly bad for the man who lost his wife, who now has a crazy drunk sending him mannequins. That would be one hell of a scene.

    I’ll definitely upvote this in the bear pit.

  5. You know when someone’s crazy because the irrational stuff makes perfect sense to them.

    This is a really well constructed character study of crazy. So well constructed that you forget about the crazy until the brutal reminder at the end.

    Good, haunting, work!

  6. I feel goosebumps over my body while being creeped out. That was excellent, I loved it!

  7. Pingback: Short story about the automated cars | Alex Villepique

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