May 2020

As of today, I’m a human crumple-zone. I saw to that myself. The highway network will see my car and label me the perfect impact absorber.

There was a time I thought I had things all figured out. I had a good job. I had plans. Ambitions. Goals. A house of cards sent toppling down when they pulled my job out from underneath me. My severance package, nothing more than a handshake and an escort out the door, told me exactly what I was worth. It was a rough year. A rough couple of years.

I figured it out, though – how to rebuild that card house into something the system would value. I married a doctor.

Her name was Linda. She had everything. A beautiful face. Gorgeous eyes. Wavy brown hair. Long legs and a knock-out body. A great fashion sense too; I got a lot of advice on picking out her clothes and accessories before I bought them for her. Her physical presence was the easy part. I built that from old car parts and a suede recliner I had in the garage. But she had a great personality too. I spent hours creating her digital footprint and integrating it into her physical body via her cellphone and the biometrics I gave her. She wasn’t just beautiful to my eyes. When I helped her turn on her phone, the network saw her face and her retinas, and felt her 3D printed thumb prints the same as I did. But Linda went beyond just biometrics. According to her records, she worked the ER at a Level 1 Trauma hospital, donated to charities, and coached our son’s soccer team. She was a great mother to all three of our kids.

Luke, Jeremy, Abigail… They had lives too. I built them in the garage and integrated them into the network not long after Linda and I got together. They were enrolled in sports, wore cool clothes, had friends online, and streamed the newest hip music. Their faked school records weren’t all straight A’s, but they worked hard and really made an effort. So what if maybe they spent a little too much time on their phones playing games and streaming videos? I knew the metrics the network used to quantify the value of their lives, so I maxed theirs out. As far as the system could tell, we were the perfect family. Worth saving.

I think it all went to hell the moment we trusted the computers to drive for us.

See, back then, when I was working and all I had was my job, I was a highway systems engineer. I did the final coding on tying the whole highway network together. There was a lot of work to be done during the months before launch day. A lot of overtime. That was when I came across the “pre-triage” protocol. Never heard of pre-triage? Never heard of triage? It’s French, meaning “to sort”.

Imagine for a moment, being a paramedic back when humans drove cars. You come upon a wreck and you and your partner have ten patients. Three are fine. Bumps and bruises. Three others are flat-lined dead. Of the remaining four, two are so close to dying there is only a slim chance you could save either one. The other two you know you can save, but only if you give them all your attention. Whom do you treat? The two who have the best chance of being saved, right? You’d play God and you would decide, these people will live and these people will die. That’s triage.

It’s no different nowadays, only we programmed the network to decide instead of the paramedics. And the network chooses before the first collision ever takes place. Say a deer jumps out on the road. As soon as it’s detected, the network knows that the thing that should not happen is about to happen: there’s going to be a wreck. A nasty one too. A pile-up. People will surely die. So what does it do? Pre-triage. Some cars become impact absorbers while others are spared. It becomes a numbers game. This car has five passengers. This car has one. This car is carrying a happy family and a Nobel Prize winner. This car is carrying a single out-of-work engineer with a drinking problem. These people live. This one dies. For the good of others, your car just might decide that you should die. That’s pre-triage.

So my plan began as a way to stay safe on the highway. As the family grew, it was only natural for the network to see how valuable we were. Instead of being a lone washed-up programmer clinging to the bottle, I was a husband and a father. I was a good one, too. My wife was a respected doctor, advanced in her field. Our kids had real potential; I poured hours of attention into them, making sure they’d make the most of it. In the end, we had a measurable, quantifiable, benefit to society. Most people wouldn’t recognize it at first glance, but I saw how special my family was, and the network saw it too. It was right. This was about more than just me staying alive on the highway; it was about raising a family that trusted and needed me, regardless how some bank of computers scored the value of our lives.

Between you and me, by the morning we met, I’d stopped worrying about highway safety. I was enjoying spending time with my family during aimless rides along the highway. The network was performing flawlessly. Road travel was more efficient than ever before. More cars on the road. Higher speeds. Shorter commutes. Highway fatalities had dropped to ninety five percent. And the network enjoyed a near perfect customer satisfaction rating. By April fifth, 2025, I didn’t worry about fifty car pile-ups anymore. Nobody did.

I read the police report. It was an unsecured load that started the accident that morning. Some trucker didn’t inspect his tie-downs before hitting the road. It’s always human error, whenever you ask us engineers. A load of cinder blocks fell off his truck. The blocks brought the first vehicle to an “unanticipated spontaneous halt”.

The next ten cars were “impact absorbers”. Nothing could be done about that. You were in car eleven. I was in car twelve. It was up to the network to pre-triage us correctly.

It seems like just yesterday. I heard the screeching brakes and the ten smashes like rhythmic thunderclaps coming closer and closer to me and my family. I was scared. I grabbed Linda to hold her back, to keep her safe from the collision I knew was coming. I reached out to little Abigail, praying to god I’d put the car seat in right. You know how they say only one in ten car seats are installed correctly? That’s all I could think about as I waited for the next thunderclap to hit my family.

I wasn’t thinking about your family.

The thunderclap came. No flash-to-bang delay. Just one big crash. Metal twisted and bent. Tiny bits of glass filled the air. I swear I could hear the boys screaming.

We hit your car still going seventy miles per hour. The car behind us hit us going forty. The network, in all the infinite wisdom we gave it, decided to save me and my family. When the impacts had been absorbed, when the tires stopped squealing, when the glass and bits of metal settled on the blacktop, when the frame of your car collapsed and mine remained rigid, we ended up okay. Linda was scared, but not injured. The boys were crying, and I was happy to hear it. It meant they were still in one piece, thank God. Abigail, I thought maybe she was hurt, she was so quiet. Panicked, I unbuckled and crawled over the seats to see inside her car seat.

And there she was, pretty as an angel, as healthy and happy as the day I built her from a baby doll, an old laptop, and steel springs. My relief was infinite. I cried and held them all close. I can’t say how long we stayed in the car, just holding each other and thanking God we’d made it through okay. It wasn’t until the rescue crews opened our door with the jaws-of-life that I got out and saw the rest of the accident.

They checked me out, saw I was okay, were confused about my family, but triaged them as not needing any medical attention. Then they went to your car.

I was standing on the shoulder of the road when they extricated you and your fiancée. You were unconscious but mumbling her name. That’s how I know it. Abby. That’s what me and Linda called our baby for short. Abby.

When they pulled her out, your Abby, she came out like Jell-O from a mold. Loose, like there were no bones left in her body. Blood everywhere. Her blonde hair was matted and stained dark. There was no sentience in her movements. Her limbs and head went where the firemen moved them or where gravity pulled them. There was no will left in her body. No life. I’m glad you weren’t awake to see it. I can’t get the image out of my head.

I’m sorry.

I can’t look at my family the same way after that day. I can’t look them in the eyes. I’m too ashamed of myself. They’re too beautiful and I’m too…

I bet your Abby was beautiful too. Before the accident.

I’m sending this to let you know I deactivated the sensors in my car. I’m not carrying any electronic devices. Understand that I knew exactly what I was doing when I first put my family into a car, and I know exactly what I’m doing now. Now, when I drive, the network will see my car as being empty, like I’m not even there. It will see me for exactly what I’m worth: A crumple zone. An impact absorber.

I took your fiancée from you. I took all the potential you had for a family. So I’m sending you mine. They’re in a car now, heading to your home over at 2600 Juniper Street. I got your address from the police report. I hope you don’t mind. Linda is a great partner. The boys… they’re just amazing kids; I know you’ll think so too after spending some time with them. And my Abigail. I took your Abby from you. I hope mine fills that hole, even just a little bit. Think of her as your Abby reborn. She’s my gift to you.

I’m going out on the road now. I got plenty of fuel and plenty of booze to keep me on the highway for a while. I figure eventually the network will use me for what I’m worth. I trust it to administer justice. I have faith in it now.

That’s all I got to say I guess. Just that I’m sorry. That, and please take good care of my family.

Your thoughts?