Finding Best Route

The number at the top right-hand corner of the phone dropped down another digit.

The orange bar glared from the dimmed screen, filled a sad one-fifth of the way. I groaned. “Oh, come on, come on!” I glanced around. The sweat on my brow chilled the skin. Copper stung the back of my nostrils. My stomach rolled over. Scientists could create a perpetual energy machine with my gut’s inner movements. And my heart fluttered like the wings of a hummingbird, nonstop.

Someone barged into me and I staggered to the side. Right into the path of a group of people from the opposite direction. A man with a wide-brim straw hat gestured and shouted. His cheeks puffed red. His small coal-black eyes glinted from the recesses of his pudgy face. His hands threatened with their gestures — they might’ve been obscene, but I wasn’t sure. Of course, I couldn’t understand what he said. But I got the general gist.

I wriggled out of the throng and stumbled into the shop wall. My shoulder thumped against the glass. I slid up against the front and sucked in a breath of air. It wheezed down into my reluctant lungs as if it came in through an oiled rag. The glass behind shuddered and a muffled voice screamed out at me.

I lurched away and spun around. A short, chubby woman with a scowl slapped her open palms against the glass. She gesticulated and pointed and frowned. Her mouth rattled off incomprehensible barks.

“I-I’m sorry!” I backed away from the storefront. “I didn’t mean to, someone knoc—”

Right on cue, someone shoulder shoved me and I spun around. I did a complete pirouette, mouth an ‘O’ of surprise. I came close to a faceplant, but I managed to catch my balance. I turned to glare at them, but they were gone. Backs of heads. A million faces with slight variations. Blank expressions.

“Who—”

“Please go straight ahead.”

And there she was again.

I gritted my teeth and brought my phone to eye level. Fifteen per cent, now. The screen showed my location in the form of a little arrow. The app highlighted the street ahead in blue. The destination was zero minutes away. The destination was 1,000 km away. According to the clock at the bottom, I’d get there at some point in the next few days.

“Please, go straight ahead.”

I spun around and did a 180.

The arrow on the screen paused for a moment. She was in deep thought. It began to rotate. As it reached my true direction, it sped up and twisted around. A roulette wheel spun by an overzealous croupier. I whined, deep in my throat. It passed me once, twice, thrice. Then it slowed and came to a rest and lined up with me.

The blue colour disappeared from the street. ‘Finding best route…’ said the message on the screen. The street reilluminated in blue, straight ahead, as far as the screen could see. The destination was now ‘41 d 4 hr’ and ‘0 km’ away. I was already there.

“Please go straight ahead.” Fern’s voice — Female ElectRoNic — was cold and clinical. Some would say that’s because she was an AI, but I knew it was more than that. It was an ironic deadpan.

She goaded me.

I could picture the smirk as it curled the corners of her nonexistent lips. Her tones were smug and haughty. Fern knew what she was doing, even though she’d pretend nothing was up. I had the notion that if someone else were to take my smartphone, the issue would evaporate. Like the sweat from my skin.

“I want to go home!” I raised my voice at the little device. I got a few glances from the endless stream of people. But nobody said anything. And no one approached. And why would they? Who in their right mind would approach the foreigner in the middle of the street? As they yelled at their phone? I’d tried OggleTranslate, but it converted everything said to me into obscenities. And when I used it to speak to a woman on the street, she swung for me.

But still, I did want to go back home. Regardless of which home that was. Either back to the hostel, or back to my home country. I didn’t care, I’d walk the distance. “Tell me where to go! How do I get back?”

“Please go straight ahead.” Same monotone voice. As cold and sterile as a laboratory workbench.

The number at the top of the screen now said 11 per cent. I could put the phone in ‘Ultra battery saver’, but I knew the GPS wouldn’t work. Not that it was doing much for me as it was. How long until my little electronic friend died a temporary death? Minutes. I had mere minutes. Even if OggleMaps behaved, the battery wouldn’t last to see me back to my rented bed.

But if I could get a general path, a rough direction…

I spun around full 360. Endless streams of faces flowed past me, indifferent. The arrow on the screen blinked, disappeared, reappeared. It edged one degree to the side, then stopped. The numbers for the time and distance spiralled and cascaded like a scene out of The Matrix.

“Please go straight ahead.”

“I can’t! I can’t! Let me go home!”

Eight per cent.

The bar was now bloodred. It burned into my retinas.

“Please go straight ahead.”

Seven per cent.

I twisted around on the spot. Irate and miserable countenances. They parted around me as if I were Moses and they were The Red Sea. I searched for a friendly face, someone to help. I found none. I was an ET stranded on an alien planet.

“Please go straight ahead.”

Six per cent.

Inspiration struck.

I tapped the three dots at the side, hit settings. I navigated to voices and a dropdown menu spilled across the screen. All but two were grey, I’d need to download the others when I wasn’t on a metered connection. Right now, ‘Fern’ had a tick next to it. I bared my teeth. Homicidal nutcase.

Five per cent. A message flashed at the top: ‘Extremely low battery power’.

I bashed the only other available name. Moe — Male vOicE. I hit the back button again and again until I reached the street view again.

“Tell me!” I said to the phone.

Four per cent.

“Tell me how to get home!”

“I heard you didn’t like my wife,” said a superior voice.

Three.

“What?”

Two.

“Please go straight ahead.”

One.

“Wait! Please, I don’t know where to go!”

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