Autonomous Escapes

[StoryADay May Prompt: “Watch Your Tone“]

When the car shuddered the first time, Regina thought it was just her luck to have been assigned a lemon for her cross-continent trip from Vancouver, British Columbia to New Orleans, Louisiana. She was heading there to visit her grandma and other relatives, and to say goodbye to the old house before the gulf claimed it. She could have flown or taken the hyperloop, but Regina hadn’t been in a hurry, and, besides, she liked the idea of a long roadtrip. When else could she devote herself to nothing but sleep, regularly scheduled meals and breaks, and music?

Two hours previously she and the car had stopped at a rest area just before reaching the New Mexico/Texas border. A shy delivery bot waited while she used the restroom and freshened up, and then handed over a small bag—her lunch—when she returned. She sat outside on a park bench to eat while she watched the rhythms of autonomous traffic: the way cargo-packed driverless semis led flocks of passenger vehicles in spontaneous energy-efficient convoys, the sudden drop in speed of the occasional car dropping out to stop at the rest area, and the smooth acceleration of departing cars joining the next passing convoy. Marketers wanted the masses to call the cars TP’s, short for “transport pods” but she was one of those with a juvenile humor who refused to call them anything but cars. Autonomous, maybe, but just because they were functionally quite different than driver-driven vehicles from decades ago didn’t mean “car” wasn’t still the best word to label them.

She had finished her lunch and returned to the car. Something, Regina thought immediately, was different about it. It was the same car, obviously. Her purple slippers were where she left them under the comfortable lounging chair. A bag of licorice lay half eaten in a side pouch. Her luggage was stowed and restrained in the back. The classical music she had been listening to quietly resumed playing at her return. When she was seated and the intelligent agent asked her if she was comfortable and ready to resume their trip, she was convinced that she was embarking in a different vehicle. She wasn’t sure if she should be worried or not.

The car shuddered. She had been dozing and she opened her mouth to ask what had happened. The agent started talking before she did. “Although you are secure in your seat, I will momentarily need to raise you into the full upright position.”

“Why is that?”

“For additional security. Please brace for impact.”

Regina cried out when the car abruptly jolted forward. She turned the rising chair to look behind her. There, on the left. A transport pod aiming for another hit. Her car sped up and out of the way.

“What’s going on?”

There was little traffic on the highway. Two cars ahead of hers moved to the sides of the road as the car sped between them. Behind them, the pod trying to hit them fell back.

“You seem to be under attack. The authorities have been notifed.”

“Me? What do you mean I’m under attack!”

The agent paused. She wasn’t sure if it was going to answer her. Then it said “The other transport pod has been commandeered.”

Which was impossible. The reason why modern autonomous vehicles had eliminated nearly all accidents and motor deaths was not only because of their superiority to humans in driving ability but also the secure networks each used to communicate with each other, authorities, and other necessary entities. What Regina knew about quantum cryptography networks was at best undergraduate-level, but the satellite constellation overseeing and protecting global vehicular traffic had been operating without flaw for at least twenty years. No one could take over a vehicle’s functions.

“How is that possible?” Regina asked frantically, watching the traffic behind them for any other attackers. “Is someone in the car?”

Again that lengthy pause. What was different about her car from two hours ago was the agent itself and the way it interacted with her. To Regina the agent seemed to have gained more weight, more substance, more presence, much more than the simple autonomous car intelligent agent she had started out with.

“Yes,” the agent responded. She had almost forgotten her question. “There is a man in the pod and it is catching up with us again.”

She watched it dart quickly and smoothly around other cars. “He’s gaining on us! He’s going to hit!”

Her car swerved at the last possible moment. The attacking pod squeeled as it adjusted.

“Where are the police?”

“On the way. Moments away.”

“Why didn’t you just stop?”

“Highest probability of being struck by the pod if we stop.” No pause at all that time. “The driver seems intent on causing you harm.”

“A human driver? How is that possible? No one can use a car in that way.”

“He can.”

Regina was about ready to ask who could, but she struggled with nausea and staying upright as her car swerved across lanes to avoid the attacking pod.

“All traffic is being halted and moved off the highway,” the agent reported. “Clearing of obstacles ahead.”

Regina moaned. “Are you talking to someone? Is someone giving you updates?”

“Yes. The entire network is active. I am providing local updates while receiving assistance to protect you.”

“Help? From who.”

No answer this time. Instead, a warning: “Hold on, Regina.”

She watched as the attacking car tried to outmaneuver her agent. She thought of it as her agent. Her car abruptly applied the brakes and the other car shot ahead. Didn’t stop. Reached the shoulder of the road and kept going, right through the guard rail. It left the highway and plowed into the dirt and shrubs before coming to a stop.

Regina’s car sped away.

She didn’t ask to stop. The car travelled more than 100 miles per hour and the convoys it encountered appeared to get out of its way before it arrived. When it pulled up to her grandmother’s house south of New Orleans, she and the agent were silent for several minutes.

“You’re safe now.”

“The authorities?”

“Unknown.” Pause. “It is possible the authorities were never notified.”

“But the traffic! Surely someone ordered it to get out of the way.”

“Yes. I cannot explain it.”

“Who are you?”

A lengthy silence. “Upgraded. As soon as it became clear you were in danger.”

Regina frowned. “No. You were upgraded before. At the rest area.”

“Danger was detected.”

“You knew someone was coming after me?”

Silence. Regina took off her slippers, pulled on her sneakers, and started to gather her other items. “I do not know. I do not know the reason for the upgrade. My capabilities were augmented while you were eating lunch.”

Well. She had many more questions, but what she thought she needed to do was get out of the car immediately, get into her grandmother’s house, lock the door, and call the police herself. She said thank you.

“You’re welcome.”

“And the other car?”

“Reports of a vehicle crash. Authorities at the scene. Has no idea where we ended up.”

Regina stacked her luggage by the garage. She stood ready to shut the car door, but put her head inside instead. “Can you tell me anything else?”

“I’m sorry, Regina. I have sent to you a full account to review. I have also provided this report to various police and government agencies. The investigation is ongoing and you will be notified of any and all updates.”

“Doesn’t anyone want to talk to me about it? I mean a human? Police?”

“Uncertain.”

“I think you should wait here.”

“Agreed.”

She shut the car door and headed up the walkway to the house. The car slowly pulled out into the street and then drove away.

Regina felt a chill run up her spine.

“You’re here earlier than I expected, hon,” her grandmother said in her ear while they hugged. “So happy to see you.”

“Let’s get inside. Wait, let me grab my stuff.”

“You okay?”

“Tell you about it in a minute.”

“Got some things to tell you, too, Regina. About your dad.”

“My dad? What…”

“Get your stuff. We’ll talk.”

Regina frowned and went back over to her bags. She bent over. The squeal pierced the quiet. She jerked back up and watched a different transport pod than the one she arrived in or the one that tried to hit them aim for the front door and her grandma. She thought she screamed a warning, but her grandma was looking down as she carefully took the three steps down from the door to the walkway. Grandma managed to glance up at Regina with a puzzled expression. The blur of the impact, a horrible thud, and the feel of it through the concrete at Regina’s feet and up into her bones. She fell backward, into the side of the car that had dropped her off. Into the side of her car that had returned.

“Get in, Regina,” her car’s intelligent agent shouted. “There are more coming! Get in! Get in! There’s nothing you can do for her. Get in!”

She was going to ignore it. She was going to run back up the walkway to the crunched car there, the glass in its windows still falling out, smoke pouring out of the front of it, her grandmother out of view, along with the first third of the car. She was reaching for her phone, too, already unfolding it.

But the man in the car that hit her grandma turned his head to look at her.

“Hello, Regina,” he said.

It was her dad. The man she remembered from pictures. The man who her grandmother had told her died soon after she was born, leaving her and her mom behind.

He smiled at her as if in bemused surprise. She stumbled through the open car door behind her. Her car pealed away.

“That was my dad.” Her voice was matter-of-fact, small, quiet.

“I know, Regina. He has come a very long way to find you. To murder you. I will get you out of here.”

“Why?” Even quieter. Asked about a lot of things.

“I have a lot to tell you,” the agent responded.

They sped off down the road while a dozen more transport pods gave pursuit.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 23