We didn’t understand what they were talking about. They said a computer had told them to come this way. That an algorithm had decided it was the fastest route. They followed the instructions without question. “It’s so rustic here,” the man said, to no one in particular, “so quaint.” We flipped their car into the gully, out of sight, and buried their bodies behind the rotting barn.
They were from the city, they said, and were headed to the sea, along a long, winding highway far from here. The computer had interrupted and told them there was a faster way. The satellites had discovered the old, abandoned mountain road somehow. It didn’t make any sense to us. They tried to explain while they walked around taking photographs of our barefoot children and the stove-in buildings that had once comprised the town. The man eyed us warily as he whispered to his companion. “I’m trying,” she said, “but there’s no service.”
None of us had ever seen a car from the city before. We’d heard stories of how they used to come all the time, before the soil turned to ash, before the forest withered into one great snag of pallid, skeletal trunks. Our grandparents had told us the trees once had leaves that glittered yellow-gold and red, like flames flickering in the wind, drawing the people from the city to them like moths. As they spoke, we saw the memory of it drive the darkness from their eyes for a fleeting moment. We hated them for that. We couldn’t imagine.
The trees were still dead, but the cars had returned. It was always the same. The computer had told them to come this way, they would say. An algorithm had decided this was the fastest route. They would get out and take photographs of our ruins, and we would kill them and bury them behind the barn, then sift through their things for anything of value. Sometimes, we butchered the bigger ones and fed them to our dogs. “Look at these striations,” one said, running his hand along the weathered shiplap of the collapsed schoolhouse. “This would make a great coffee table.”
Eventually, we grew impatient with the gawking and the photographs and began ambushing the cars straight away. Amid the terror, some offered us money in exchange for their lives. They didn’t understand. Occasionally, we found they were carrying a real treasure—water we could see all the way through, sweets that made our teeth ache. At night, around the fire, we would take stock of our bounty and marvel at our newfound luck. We wondered if some higher power was at work. If we had been selected to be the instrument for some grand, infernal plan. We threw their little cameras on the fire as an offering and breathed deeply of the bitter black smoke that spilled forth. The fumes made us giddy. We watched our shadows dance against the moldering trees and hailed the algorithm for its bloody munificence.
Things went on like this for some time until one day a car continued driving after we’d torn the driver out through the window. As if by magic, it seemed. It would’ve kept on going, but we had dug a ditch as a trap on the far end of the main drag. It became mired in the muddy mess, spinning its wheels for a spell before finally giving up. “It’s a self-driving car,” the man said, in the vain hope that compliance might somehow make things otherwise. “The computer drives it,” were his last words.
We approached the car with great trepidation. In whispered prayers, we asked the algorithm for strength. Through the shattered window, a disembodied voice spoke to us in a flat, affectless monotone.
“Please select a destination.”
Our little clan fell about in a furor. We repeated the words like a mantra as we pushed the car out of the mud and back onto the road, all the while marking ourselves with the half-remembered gestures of some lost religion.
“Please select a destination,” it repeated.
We piled into the cabin, soiling its pristine upholstery with our filthy rags. There was an illuminated display embedded in the dashboard, and we averted our eyes from its brilliant glow, overcome with fear and shame.
“Please select a destination,” it insisted.
Finally, we worked up the courage to look. The display vibrated with colors unlike anything we’d ever seen. We ran our fingers over it reverently, smearing it with blood. A beatific chime issued forth from the dashboard, and suddenly, the car lurched back to life. The steering wheel began to move on its own, pointing the car back in the direction from which it came. It began to drive itself back down the mountain, toward the city.
“You are now on the fastest route,” the computer declared.
The message was clear. Our pilgrimage had begun. We had been chosen. We had proven ourselves worthy. It was no longer enough to lie in wait along our broken old road to collect the sacrifices the algorithm demanded. No, that would take far too long. The algorithm had decided that this was the fastest route. The computer was telling us to go this way. We would follow, without question. We knew that the people in the city would understand that.