I had raised the travellers’ hopes so many times, only to have them dashed repeatedly. My successes were specks in an ocean of failure. Some travellers were now saying they no longer needed me, that my navigation style was too erratic, that the other driver would take them there faster and smoother on her own. She rarely made mistakes. As I watched travellers trudge through the evening snowfall, they no longer seemed like our travellers but hers. Well, if that was the way they felt, it was better for me to exit gracefully rather than suffer the humiliation of gradual desertion. Time to take my leave.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you.”
The voice was deep, sonorous.
“Who's that?” I called into the frost-bitten air.
“You'll be sorely missed.”
“What do you know? The travellers will be better off without me.”
“Now there's an idea.”
A curtain of hail. After the tempest had subsided, I found myself in a dark circular auditorium. A fluorescent embryo hovered in the central space. Seated travellers stared up at it, their faces lit by a kaleidoscope of cyans, greens, yellows and cherry reds.
“What do you think?” said the voice, which had accompanied me to the chamber. The words echoed but the audience didn't flinch. “Don't worry, they can't hear us.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“A future without you.”
The floating embryo began to enlarge, as though we were moving towards it. We zoomed into a cell, passed through its membrane and entered a sea of vibrating shapes, racing in random directions. They faded out, replaced by a swarm of arrows and a hairball of cross connections.
“Courtesy of the other driver,” the voice explained. “Every trajectory and molecular interaction has been mapped, the results deposited in repositories accessible to all, classified through elaborate AI algorithms.”
“I suppose the travellers must understand everything then.”
“Understand? Without you, their minds have been purged of all speculation, all conjectures, all possible errors. Research has been driven by your colleague alone. They admire but cannot comprehend.”
“Well at least the computers must understand.”
“Can a computer be inspired by a new idea, experience the thrill of discovery? It can explore paths in the minutest detail, but only those down which it has been driven. Come, there is another place we must visit.”
A flash of light. The auditorium morphed into a long corridor with beds jutting out along both sides. Each bed was occupied by a traveller. The walls and ceiling were tiled with luminous displays: yellow lines snaking erratic paths, numbers pulsing, bodily organs rotating in a void – heart, lung, kidney. In the bed nearest me, the occupant stared up at the ceiling from sunken eye sockets, as though mesmerised by the ceaseless parade of data. His neighbour was curled up on her side and groaned with pain.
“What's wrong with these poor souls?” I asked.
“Cancer, infections, hereditary diseases, starvation.”
“But surely they've found cures by now.”
“Vitalomic coverage is deep – every bodily function is being monitored and imaged. The other driver has ensured that. But without being able to gamble on new ideas and put them to the test, there's been no way to outsmart the opponents. Heaps of data, but no one knows what it means.”
An agonising shriek.
The voice has gone. Birdsong greets me like an old friend. A white carpet animated by rosy-cheeked travellers. Dressed-up trees in shop windows blink with coloured lights. My fellow driver joins. “Isn't it wonderful?” I say. “We have so many exciting journeys with our travellers ahead.”