“You know, this really doesn’t look right.”
Alicia frowned. “Look, if ICARUS says we go right, we go right.” She swung the car down the dirt track. “He’s plugged into the traffic, the weather, engineering plans, everything. He knows.”
“Thank you, ma’am. You can be sure of the best with ICARUS. Continue on this road for two hundred metres and then turn left.”
The tinny voice annoyed Margot, but she decided not to fight it. After all, ICARUS was always right. And since he’d been ramped up to full AI and given the run of the internet the previous month, praise had gone through the roof. There was no point in arguing; he knew best. Even if this looked nothing like the route Margot remembered.
“All right, fine. What did you think of the film? I thought the scares were kind of predictable.”
Alicia grinned. “That’s the fun of it! You can see everything coming, but those poor idiots don’t know what’s going to hit them. Too stupid to come in from the rain, even when it’s a rain of blood coming out of their kitchen ceiling. Gives you a sense of intellectual superiority. It’s hilarious. Great fun.” She turned on the wipers as drops turned into splashes.
“Eh, I always feel bad for them. It isn’t usually their fault.” The rising wind buffeted the car. “Um, look, are you sure about this? None of this looks familiar at all.”
“Of course! ICARUS, this is the way home, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. At the haunted farmhouse, turn right.”
Margot swivelled in her seat and stared at the screen. “Turn at the where?”
“At the abandoned farmhouse, ma’am. Records retrieved. Abandoned 1605 following Red Hill witch scare, never since occupied for more than two nights at a time. Reputedly –”
The last few words were drowned out by thunder.
“Look, I think this is a really bad idea.”
“What are you on about?”
“Come on, you’ve seen the films. Too stupid to come in from the rain, you said. Well, if thunder, being lost and creepy robot butlers aren’t big fat ominous rain clouds, I don’t know what is.”
“You’re being ridiculous. ICARUS is here to help. And he’s not a robot butler. He’s a polyscient navigational AI offering an integrated, informed personal driving experience.”
“Well, if we suddenly find we’ve lost phone reception and a sinister local tells us to turn back, I’m going to lose my shit, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Whatever.” Alicia turned past a stone building that suddenly loomed at a fork in the road, and the car passed under a canopy of trees. “Look, this is nicer,” she said after a little while. “Vegetation. Greenery. And at least it’s drier.”
“Darker, you mean. I can’t even see the moon anymore. And I’m sure those trees are getting closer together. How long is this road, anyway?”
“Records incomplete,” ICARUS intoned. “The far end of the lane has not appeared on any map since 1605. Local legend holds that it is the path by which the Red Hill witch descended to Hell, but no accounts survive from anyone who has completed a journey along it.”
Margot shuddered. “You know, I’m starting to wish that you hadn’t been hooked up to the internet. I really didn’t need to hear that.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Alicia. “It’s not true, he’s just picked up some local folklore. It doesn’t even make sense.” She thumped the dashboard next to the screen. “How can the end not be on the map if the start is? The line has to stop somewhere.”
“See? He’s just got confused.”
“Confused? What happened to ‘ICARUS is always right’?”
“Well, you know, the AI is only just out of beta, maybe the information filtering is a bit off. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that he needs recalibrating about what he needs to tell … us …”
Her voice trailed off as the headlights swept across a cracked stone cross under the trees by the road. It was swallowed in shadow almost immediately, but Alicia could have sworn that some of the letters hewn roughly into the rock had spelt out ‘Red Hill’. And ‘witch’.
“Um, ICARUS,” she said, “How long till we get home?”
“But you said this is the way back, right?”
“All right, that’s it,” said Margot. “Let me out, I’m taking my chances out there.”
“With the witch?”
“On second thoughts, no! Lock the doors and don’t stop for anything. I said don’t stop! What are you doing? This isn’t funny!”
“I didn’t! It’s doing it by itself!”
The car rolled to a halt at the edge of the treeline, rain lashing at the windows. The lights stayed on, but all Alicia’s efforts to restart the engine failed.
“Shit shit shit.” The engine remained resolutely unmoved. Margot had been reduced to a quivering mass, curled up in the passenger seat with her hands over her eyes.
“OK,” Alicia said at last, “let’s be sensible. ICARUS, please call for assistance.”
There was no response.
“ICARUS? Ugh, he must have lost signal.”
“How is that even possible?” Margot wailed without uncovering her face. “He’s controlled by satellite! We’re in the open air! He’s got government guarantees!”
“Well there’s something going on. I’ve got no reception either.”
“Oh god, don’t say that! Holy … what was that noise?” She bolted upright.
“What noise? I can only hear the wind and the rain.”
“It was a sort of … howling. There it is again!”
“OK, I heard that. What the … ?”
“Ohhh … come on, give me your rational explanation,” Margot whispered.
“It’s probably just a farm dog — or a pack of farm … dogs … getting closer …” The sound did indeed seem to be getting nearer. “Right, I give up — this is not OK. Are the doors locked?”
Margot fumbled with the catch by her elbow. “Yes.” The two drew closer together. “At least nothing can get in, then … ?” Alicia whispered, but she wasn’t even convincing herself.
“Remind me never to come into the countryside again,” Margot moaned. “If we ever get home, that is — Aaaaaaah!”
She and Alicia leapt into each other’s arms as an almighty crash rocked the car. They huddled together, eyes squeezed shut.
Long minutes passed with no sound but the rain on the windows and the wind in the trees. At last, Margot cautiously opened her eyes and relaxed her grip. “What the hell was that?” She sat up. “Oh good grief, look.”
Alicia peered out. A huge branch lay across the road in front of the car, its leaves illuminated by the headlights. It had grazed the vehicle as it fell, but there did not seem to be any damage.
Alicia let out a long, shuddering breath, and as she did so the engine stuttered into life. “Thank god,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Margot collapsed back against her seat as Alicia shifted the car into reverse. Then she heard a noise that made her sit up again. “Is that — someone laughing?”
Alicia stopped the car. The chuckling continued. “What — ICARUS! You’re working! And you’re — laughing at us.”
The tinny laughter went on for another moment, then the computer said, “Yes, ma’am. You should have seen your faces. I hope that you have enjoyed my little entertainment.”
“You did this?”
“Yes, ma’am. While you were in the cinema, I investigated the nature of the diversion, searched local geographical and historical records and weather forecasts, and tailor-built an in-person adventure experience based on the pattern of your interests. I hope that you have enjoyed it.”
Margot put her hand over her eyes again and started to giggle. Alicia glared at her. “What’s so funny?”
“You did say the scares were great fun! Maybe you’ll be more sympathetic next time.”
“Hmph.” Alicia executed an angry three-point turn. “Maybe I’ll disconnect this sodding machine. Integrated bloody informed personal driving experience my foot.” She jabbed a finger at the computer. “I’m writing to my MP about you.”
“Yes, ma’am. Take the first left after the farmhouse, ma’am, and continue straight for one kilometre until you join the A57, where traffic is currently clear. Time to home, 35 minutes.”
As the car pulled out of the treeline, the rain began to slow.