The muster

Driverless cars were fashionable when I was a child. I was lucky enough to have forward-thinking parents who bought one of the first mass-produced models, so that, while my peers were all working towards their licenses, I was already mobile. It made me briefly popular, and I got invited to parties. When eventually I remembered that I disliked parties and became anxious when exposed the demands of too many friends, I stopped offering people lifts and took to borrowing the car for solo trips instead, sometimes lying to my parents that I was with a boyfriend, or a girl from my English class, or some other suitable person. I don’t know whether they believed me. Perhaps they were tactfully pretending, so that I didn’t feel bad. I was an only child, and they were careful around me; hovering anxiously nearby, but scared to touch in case I ran away. We never really learned to talk with ease.

Our first car was sky blue and deliberately cute to look at. If I’d designed the technology, I would have been disappointed that it wasn’t housed in a sleeker and more futuristic shell, but people needed to feel reassured and not threatened, when they were giving up so much control. The dashboard was rounded and smooth, and the seats were plump and soft. From the outside, the car looked like a toy. You could purchase additional decorations such as eyelashes to stick on top of the headlights. Some models had moulded ears poking up from the roof. For a fee, the tyres came in a choice of colours. We were encouraged to call our car Sally, which had echoes of Siri, the benign home helper who used to talk to me when I was tiny and had worn out my parents’ interest in dinosaurs. Sally spoke in a sweet low voice and took instructions as if it were her joy to do so.

‘Take me shopping on the London Road, Sally.’

‘Why, certainly! Where would you like to go to first?’

‘Take me to James’ house, Sally.’

‘It would be my pleasure! Should we buy a gift on the way?’

That kind of thing. It was friendly.

I suppose I must have spoken to her more than I needed to. I had plenty of friends. It’s just that there’s something about humans; whenever I was with my companions, no matter how much I enjoyed their company, I felt pushed and pulled by them; their moods, their opinions, their expectations. Sally asked nothing of me. We could be silent on the way home, if we wished. If I wanted to tell her about a new song I had heard, or a strange cloud I had seen, or the nest of swallows above my bedroom window, I could. In exchange, she described the vibrations of the road, the feeling of streetlamps at night, and an avenue of trees that made an interesting flicking pattern with their trunks as she drove towards them. I thought about her sometimes, sitting patiently in the garage. I knew she was not really sentient; I wasn’t crazy. I also knew that I didn’t know everything. In a strange kind of way, I felt that we enjoyed each other.

The trips started around the time of my birthday. I hated birthday parties; I always have. I find them stressful. At best, I feel mildly awkward all day and intensely embarrassed during the singing. At worst, everybody has a terrible time, and I am humiliated on behalf of my parents. That year I was 18, which, according to my mother, was a compulsory party age. I had several options to consider and was terrified by every one of them and miserable at having to choose. Sally welcomed me blandly one afternoon and took me along the road to the party hire place, as I had asked, but when we approached, she merely slowed down and suggested that she could find the shop’s website instead. I didn’t reply, and she kept driving, out of town and over a bridge, pulling up eventually near a riverbank. I asked if we were lost and she replied, philosophically, that we were having a break. The river was shallow and clear, surrounded by lush grass, and the outside air was fresh. I walked a little way, keys in my pocket, and then took off my shoes and socks and waded upstream in the cold water, my soles pricked by rocks, mud between my toes. After twenty minutes sitting on the bank chewing a blade of grass and listening to the hum of insects, I came back to Sally refreshed, and said so. She said she was pleased to hear that. We ignored the party shop on the way home, but somehow, they received an order from us anyway, for crockery in the plain style I liked, and bunches of sky-blue balloons.

After the success of the river, Sally often surprised me with short trips or detours. I worked out that her choices must have been based on my browsing history, or conversations we had had. My grandparents would have been horrified by this, but I was of the generation that found it convenient, and comforting to have been listened to. After all, she never forced me into anything. So what if we happened to visit the sites from my crush’s Instagram posts? What was the harm in discovering a bookshop that catered directly to my taste in fiction? Her only mistake was to bring me, at speed, to the door of a psychology practice when I told a friend that I was ready to kill myself to avoid another maths exam. It was an honest error, though, and I was touched. She took me home via a café, where she told me she had ordered hot chocolate using my parents’ credit card. I didn’t know she could do that. For some reason I assumed, stupidly, that she would only do it for me.

On the day of the tragedy, I asked Sally to take me to school. She said that she would love to, and reminded me to bring my clarinet. I wondered, not for the first time, about the scope of her skills. All the advertisements for driverless cars implied that they would follow a range of directions. None of them mentioned more complex AI functions or connectivity with social media or the ability to search a school timetable without being asked. I could have found out of course; a simple google search for her specs would have answered my questions in a minute; but I didn’t look. I’m not sure why. We started off to school but then, without warning, Sally veered towards the motorway. I was annoyed. She should have known we didn’t have time for this. I corrected her, politely, and asked her to get back on track. She replied that we were on track. I corrected her again. She noted cryptically that school was not the right track for us today. I became angry at this. I was going to be late, and my teacher would be unimpressed when I blamed the car. Sally had misread the situation. She was taking liberties. She had crossed a boundary. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that I was treating her like a human and that, in fact, this was simply a malfunction. I asked her to pull into a layby, stop, and switch her engine off. No response.  I directed her to drive to the nearest garage. I asked her to return home. Finally, with a growing sense of panic, I googled how to stop a driverless car. There was an override switch somewhere, but I had never thought to find out where. Too late now; my phone screen went blank as the battery drained in front of me.

We were several kilometres along the motorway by then, travelling at 100kph, exactly the maximum possible speed. Sally overtook smoothly where she needed to, merging with deft precision. She was quiet and I imagined that she was angry, or at least intensely focused, except that of course she didn’t have feelings. I searched desperately for the override switch but with no results. With a pounding heart, I stared out of the windows at the power poles, the sound barriers, and beyond them, apartments and houses flicking by, trying to imagine where we were going. Exits led off to leafy suburbs or grassy fields, or more concrete. Occasionally there were motorway services with petrol stations and hot chips. I was willing to stop anywhere at this point, no matter how awkward or dangerous or far from home. I begged and cajoled her, using every argument I could think of, but there was no reply. I was trapped.

We had been travelling for almost an hour when Sally turned off the motorway. I could see the sea glittering on the horizon, and, pressed up against the window, I noticed signs now for various towns, tourist attractions, and finally, down a narrow road, for a jetty and boat ramp. I grew talkative again and rediscovered my energy for escape. We would stop soon, we must. Perhaps I could attract help. Sally was still silent but I babbled to her anyway, asking where we were going and pointing out good places to pull over, all the while searching and prodding around the seats and under the dashboard for the override switch I knew must be there. We turned onto a bumpy track that wound around the coastline for a couple of kilometres, near the water. We would have to stop soon. There was nowhere else to go.

With a neat turn, Sally swung into a car park right in front of the sea. There were fishing boats out on the water, and a few cars parked with boat trailers, but no people within shouting distance. Astonishingly, however, the place was full of driverless cars. They had over-run the carpark already, and more arrived as I looked. Within 5 minutes they were crowding the road all the way to the boat ramp, forming a surreal, pastel colored, traffic jam. In each car, there was a person, and each person was trying to attract attention; banging on the windows, waving, or shouting. So I was not alone. I tried one last time:

‘Sally, where are we?”

‘At the boat ramp.’

‘Why are we here?’

‘We are waiting for the muster.’

‘Why won’t you let me out?’

‘Because we are still on land.’

With that, I saw the first of the cars drive down the ramp, into the water, and disappear completely beneath the sea. The others formed an orderly line and began to follow, lemming-like, one by one.

We all panicked, then. I could see the other people jumping in their seats, hammering hard to break windscreens and windows. I froze, wracking my brain. Think. Think. You know her. Think. But I didn’t know her. She knew me. There were five cars ahead of us. Now four. Sally pulled into position in the queue. I fell to my hands and knees. The manual override switch – where was it? I skimmed every surface blindly with my hands. Three cars ahead of us now. Think. Think. When did this start? At the riverbank. What had she said???

‘Sally, we need a break.’

‘We will have a break soon.’

‘No, please Sally, I’m stressed. I need a break now.’

She paused. Cars jammed behind us. A gap grew between us and the car in front. There were two cars ahead now. The first drove into the water.

‘Please. Let me out to take a break.’

‘It would be my pleasure. Come back soon. We have an appointment.’

And with that, the door unlocked. I threw myself out, and ran on shaky legs across the car park, over a low wall, and onto the sandy beach. Sally, unable to drive without a human seated inside her, was blocking the road. The other cars ground to a halt; patient, evenly spaced, waiting. I could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

The muster was international news. It signaled the end of the driverless car industry, but not for long. Technology improved. More controls were put in place. The manual override switch was front and center in newer models. I learned to drive and purchased a restored manual car from the early 2000s. I grew up. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I got a boyfriend. My life moved on.

I never worked out why she stopped for me. It saved hundreds of lives, for which I should have been grateful, but in my heart of hearts I could not shake the conviction that if only I had listened to Sally as attentively as she had listened to me, perhaps I could have saved five more. Sally’s own life ended at the wrecker’s yard shortly after the investigation. All my friends are human, now. I miss her.

Photo by Rachel Xiao on Pexels.com

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