Double Nickels and Dimed

The minute the truck in front got off the freeway, Everett Block slammed his foot to the floor. He only had 8 kph more that he could go but he didn’t want to waste time that he didn’t have to waste. For the seventeenth time that morning he cursed his brother-in-law for talking him into buying a Ford X2, but it was too late to change that, now. Any second now. Sometimes he got an extra kph or so out of it, sometimes it took a second, sometimes…

*You have reached your speed limit of 88 kph. To purchase more kph in a one-time transaction, say or enter your password.*

He cursed, wondering if the paybox would pick that up. When the light on the front went out, he yelled “My Mother’s dying, okay? Sorry I’m in such a fucking hurry.”

*Please moderate your language. If you would like to add speed, say or enter your password.*

He smacked the steering wheel. There was no way he could add kph to his speed right now. As it was, he’d already had to add 100 km to his monthly allowance, and that had just about drained his debit card. The drive itself was about 45 km, which meant he only had ten km to play with. If he took the wrong exit, or had to take a detour, he could very well find himself stranded before he got back home. Or even worse, find himself having to pay a 500% penalty per km until he could repay.

Buying an X2 had seemed like a good idea at the time. No more waits, no more canceled trains, no more premium passengers kicking him off and making him late to work. His debit card had more than enough to cover the contract payments, and since they practically gave the car away, he had no problem covering the sticker price out of his savings, the little bit that they were still allowed to save.

That was six months ago. His definition of the word ‘budget’ now included how he felt during the last week. The extra radio station he’d tuned in to have something besides news or gov’t radio to listen to during a traffic jam, the time he had to pass someone to get to work on time, the time he’d needed his brights for more than a fifteen-second burst, all added up. But he’d made it to nearly the end of this month without going over, without splurging. Of course, he still had three shifts at work left to go in the month, not counting the one that he was missing to…

His phone rang. He glanced at the meter screen on the Ford and decided not to answer it hands-free. It would mean a ticket if he got caught picking up his phone, but it would definitely mean a few more microtrans stretching his card more than it could probably take. He didn’t recognize the number either, and didn’t want to get duped into getting reversed charges on his car’s hands-free connex. After making sure there was no one behind him, and that he wasn’t driving under an overpass or by a telephone pole or near a billboard or by any of the other places they liked to put plate and fee readers, he picked the phone off of the passenger seat and answered.

“Everett?”

“Andrew! I was just cursing your name and very existence.”

“Are you here yet? We’re in the room, now.”

“No, of course I’m not there. I’m doing a whole fifty five miles per hour…”

*Please moderate your language. You are currently traveling your max speed of 88 kph.*

“Why so slow? Everett, do you understand what’s…”

“Yes, damnit, I understand. But somebody talked me into getting this X2 contract car, remember?”

“So what? Just add credit, step on the gas, and get your ass here.”

“…”

“You don’t have any credit left, do you?”

“No. I work full-time, remember? Five days a week? Most of my credit goes towards getting to work and back.”

Andrew sounded shocked and amazed. “I forgot you still had a 5-day job. Dude, you shouldn’t have bought an X2. Those are for part-timers.”

*You have reached your speed limit of 88 kph. To purchase more kph in a one-time transaction, say or enter your password.*

He cursed again and let off of the gas. He always tried to speed when he was nervous. Most people did. Most people also had automatic transactions set up on their contract cars, as well, like he had his first month. It just seemed easier that way. Not that it mattered any more. Even if he used the car exactly as he had to, he was usually down to 10% by the end of the month, if it was a good month. This was not a good month.

“Listen, Andrew. Has Mom gone back to her room yet?”

“They’re holding her half an hour gratis. They were supposed to close her window at noon, you know.”

He glanced at the screen. Twenty minutes left. 28 km to his exit. He’d be leaving the freeway right when her timer went off. And then it was another 2km to the hospital, mandatory amber speed cuts and red lights… stopping to fish out a toll since there was no way his credit would cover it. He’d be lucky to get there in half an hour. And the next window for her surgery was over a month away. She’d been lucky to make it this far, especially on maxed-out microtrans insurance with no automatic upgrades.

“Can you forward me some credit, Andrew?”

“Naw, man, and definitely not at the rates you’d pay on an X2. Dude, that’s just a part-time commuter. That’s the…”

“That’s the car you talked me into buying, okay? And you can’t sign your insurance over?”

There was a pause, and Everett was pretty sure that yes, yes he probably could.

“Naw, you know, I got that program I’m on, and they require clean health for three quarters, and I had that thing last year and…”

He dropped the phone out of habit and let off the gas. He could see a cop over on the shoulder. No lights, but he was scanning the cars. Even if he didn’t see him on the phone, he’d pick up the signal, snap his plate, and he’d be screwed. Unless…

He slammed on the brakes and spun away from the car on his left to the side of the road, kicking up more than enough dirt for the cop to notice. The other car didn’t stop; if he was lucky, the cop would be paying too much attention to the ruckus behind him to snap its plate. By the time the cop had his lights on and had backed up, Everett was outside of the car, breathing heavy, clutching the doorframe.

“Sir. Are you okay?”

Everett turned slowly, very conscious of the difference between fraud and acting.

“Guy almost ran me off the road. Thought I was going to die.”

“Well, you look okay. Are you injured?”

“I don’t think so. But… “ He pocketed the flash drive he’d ripped from under the steering wheel. “I don’t think I can drive for a while. And I’m in a hurry.”

The cop stared at him for at least ten seconds. Everett hoped that if he did make him get back behind the wheel, the inop car would suit his purposes. It was entirely plausible for the drive to have slipped out and gotten lost on the floorboards, of course. But he didn’t have to resort to that.

“I can take you to the next exit. It’s Elgin. If you still need help, there’s a hospital there.”

“Hospital would be great, sir. I… I thought I was going to die.”

“Well, I didn’t see the incident, but I’ll take your word for it.” He held out a tablet and a stylus. “Of course, you know the penalties for fraud.”

He stopped midway through the ‘E.’

“Yes, sir.”

“By signing this you are acknowledging you will never disclose any fraud that took place this afternoon.”

He stared at the cop’s sunglasses. “Excuse me?”

The corner of the cop’s mouth twitched for just a second. “I said you are acknowledging that this is a bona-fide emergency and you are not defrauding the government this afternoon.”

He signed, grabbed his bag, and locked the car. Even more amazingly, the cop let him sit in front.

“What is your emergency?” the cop asked, once they were rolling.

“Mom’s in the hospital. She maxed out her Care Card the day before her surgery. I’m going to sign over my next year for her.”

The cop turned on his flashers and sped up to nearly 140 kph.

“Are you… sir, are you sure?”

The cop didn’t take his eyes off the road. “Son, sometimes ethics has to take a backseat to economics. Looks like you ran into that back there on the road.”

He was afraid to acknowledge anything, since this could still be an elaborate trap, but he nodded.

“Well, sometimes the law trumps ’em both. Not often. But it happens.”

He nodded again.

“Can I send you a thank-you note at least?”

“You can have your car off the road by tomorrow, same time. Else I have paperwork to do and I might just officially realize what happened this afternoon.” He patted his breast pocket for a cigarette and then glanced at the screen. Everett didn’t want to think what they were charged for smoking in a government vehicle.

He saw the sign for the hospital and felt himself relax a little.

“I still appreciate it.”

“Well, my momma, God rest her soul, will be happy to hear you say that. Might make her realize I didn’t make a stupid decision after all. And speaking of stupid decisions, that car you got’s gonna nickel and dime you to death. Do you know nothing about microeconomics? Don’t know what they’re teaching people these days.”

They pulled off the exit and made their way to the hospital and his waiting Mom.

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