19. May 2018 · 2 comments · Categories: writing · Tags: ,

The writers’ goup I’m part of put together an anthology last year. The theme was man, machine and how they got along with each other. Below Is my entry, in its entirety. The full anthology – A Fearsome Engine – can be found on Amazon here.


Hit The Road

Lalit wiped the last bit of wax off the Mustang, rubbed the shine a little bit shinier and took a step back. The California sun hit the cherry-red paint job and blinded him. He slid on his sunglasses and brushed his hand down the side of the convertible.

“Looks great, son.”

He looked over his shoulder. “Thanks, pops. Looks sweet, doesn’t it?”

Dinesh, his father, grunted. “Archaic, now. Self-Drives are infinitely safer.”

“And so much fun.” Lalit grinned. “Want to go for a drive? Heading up the PCH. Might go for a swim.”

Dinesh looked up at the cloudless sky. “High UV today.” He shrugged. “High UV every day, though, right? Make sure you slap a lot of sunscreen on. And put the top up on your car.”

“Whoa, pops. No way. It’s a convertible. If I wanted to drive with the top up I’d take one of those boring automatic cars.” Lalit nodded at the three almost identical self-drive cars in the circular drive. “You could have bought a Tesla with what you paid for those. And the Teslas at least look good.”

“Safety first, son.” He sighed. “I can’t stop you. You know that. At least wear a hat, okay?”

“Weird kind of dynamic here, pops. You trust the computers controlling these things and I, your educated son, gets the creeps thinking about them.” Lalit hopped over the closed door and slid into the front seat. “I’m bringing Jane back for dinner, okay? Let mom know?”

“Mom’s teaching this evening. I’m cooking. Hope she likes lasagne.”

“I’ll pick up some wine.”

Lalit turned over the engine and sat, eyes closed and a smile on his face, listening to the throaty rumble of the 5.0 litre V8 engine in his classic 2016 Mustang GT. Six years of scrounging parts in old wrecking yards and scouring the internet for mechanic manuals had paid off. “Your little electric buggies don’t sound like this, pops.”

“Thank God for that. Drive carefully.”

“Always.” He flashed his dad one more grin and stomped on the accelerator, leaving a parallel set of rubber marks and a cloud of tyre smoke in his wake.

#

He went inland from El Segundo to get to Venice and Jane. She was coming down the front steps of her apartment building as he rolled to a stop at the curb.

“Heard you coming a block away.” A convoy of four Self-Drives, evenly spaced, whispered past them. She watched them recede in the distance and got in the car. “Little robo-cars.”

Lalit leaned over and kissed his girlfriend. “You ever see Robo-Cop, Jane?” Lalit looked in the rear-view mirror, waited until a Self-Drive was almost alongside and pulled out in front of it.

Jane watched the Self-Drive correct and change lanes, two other Self-Drives correcting along with it in the adjacent lanes. “That movie just came out, right? Haven’t streamed it yet.”

“No, no. That’s a re-make. Not as good as the original.”

Jane put her sunglasses on and tied up her hair. “Gary Oldman, right?”

“That was a remake, too. I’m talking about the really old one. Peter Weller. Classic. Robo-things never turn out well.” He patted the dash. “Prefer the classics.” He eased on to the Pacific Coast Highway and headed north. “Zuma sound good?”

“Zuma sounds great.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “You pulled out in front of that selfie car on purpose, right?”

He grinned. “I always seem to miss them.”

“You’ll never hit them. You could point this tank right at one and you’d have a hard time hitting it. The control systems are pretty spectacular.” She smiled. “I should know.”

“I like the Teslas better. At least they look like cars. Those Self-Drive pods are an embarrassment.”

“The Teslas are autonomous. They’ll never grab more than a small market share.” Jane stuck both hands up past the windscreen. “Enough techie talk. It’s a beautiful day. Crank some old Swift and let’s cruise.”

#

They sat side-by-side on the rocks separating Malibu Beach from Zuma Beach and watched the sun slowly dip into the ocean. “Dinner at my place? Dad’s making his lasagne.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Sure. But back to my place for dessert, okay?”

Lalit grinned. “Deal.” He kissed the top of her head and stood, pulling her up with him. “Better get going or he’ll eat it all.”

“Your mom going to be there?”

Lalit shook his head. “Teaching a night class tonight. She’ll be in the studio until midnight. Students are in Outback Australia. Time zones suck.”

“If only the Earth was flat, right?”

They walked hand-in-hand back to the parking lot. As they approached the Mustang, Lalit noticed half a dozen Self-Drive cars all pull out of the parking spots around him at the same time, clearly and easily avoiding colliding with each other. “Like a ballet. I have to admit, they make driving look smooth.” He poked his key fob and the park lights on his car blinked twice. “But they still aren’t real cars.”

“They get you where you want to go. Can we put the top up? It’s getting cold.”

#

Lalit wandered out of his room the next morning in a pair of gym shorts. He bumped into his mother coming out of the kitchen.

“Well, good morning, sleepyhead. What time did you get in?” asked Sherry.

Lalit kissed his mother on the cheek and looked at his watch. “About six hours ago. What time are the gas stations open today?”

“How’s Jane?”

“Jane’s great.”

“When are you going to make me a grandmother?”

“Jesus, mom. We’re not even married yet.”

“Didn’t ask when you were going to make me a mother-in-law.” Sherry laughed at the look on Lalit’s face. “Don’t know about the servos. Check online.”

“Okay. How was class last night?”

“Much better, now that the Aussies put a sixth broadband satellite up for the rural folks. No problems at all. When’s Jane coming over for dinner again?”

“You missed her last night.” Lalit looked at something on his phone. “Service station is open three hours today. Only for another hour. Gotta run. The ‘Stang is less than half full.”

“Get some breakfast first.”

“I’ll take something with me.” He ran back to his room and grabbed a T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. “Back in an hour.”

#

Lalit rolled the Mustang to the end of the line at the service station and looked at his watch. They closed in twenty-three minutes. There were seven cars in front of him. Three minutes per car. Less, if he counted his. It would be close. An old lady, or, if he was honest, old man — it was extremely difficult to tell — was taking well over the average. It took him or her almost three minutes to get out of their car. He tapped his fingertips on the dash. “Come on, come on.”

The car was finally fuelled and the car in front of Lalit pulled into the pump. An ancient Prius. He hadn’t seen one of those in years. The driver was considerate and pulled away as soon as he finished, parking in front of the station and going in to pay. Lalit pulled in, tapped his credit card and started fueling. Once he started he was safe. They never shut the pumps off in mid-flow unless there was an emergency.

He was leaning against his car, watching the dollars climb on the pump when the service station owner came out. “Lalit, my man, how are things? Still got this sweet ride, I see.”

“Not selling it, Jimmy.” He finished fuelling the car and re-seated the nozzle in the bowser. “Tell me something.” He replaced the cap on the fuel tank. “With demand so low, why is the price still so high? Jesus. $342 to fill my car? Damn.”

“What are you talking about, man? Demand is through the roof. You saw the lines.”

Lalit cocked an eyebrow. “You’re trolling me, aren’t you? You’re open three hours a day, max, and some days not at all. Of course the lines are long.”

“Going down to two hours a day, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”

“Three hours the other days?”

“Closed the other days.”

“Bullshit.”

“No bullshit. I got a life, man. I mean outside the fuel gig. It’s taking too much of my time.”

“You’re going to have no business. There’s another station out near Venice.”

Jimmy shook his head. “Shut down last week.” He grinned. “I’m one of the last ones left in the LA proper area. Not much call for them any more, what with the Self-Drives everywhere.” He nodded at Lalit and got on his motorcycle. “And these things. All electric. Not much more use for buried sunshine.”

#

Lalit parked in his parent’s garage and turned off the engine. He sat in the car for a minute, smelling the leather, slowly caressing the smooth interior.

He sighed, got out and locked it. He pushed opened the door between the garage and the kitchen and stepped into the smell of blueberry pancakes. He kissed his mother on the cheek and looked in the pan. It was filled with a massive pancake, stained by the leaking blueberry juices. “You make any for me?”

“Of course. You need to put a bit of meat on your bones.”

“You want to be a grandmother? Might want to hold off on making me fat.” He grabbed the butter and maple syrup and sat to eat. “I’m retiring the ‘Stang.”

His mother stopped, a half-cooked pancake on the spatula. “Too much?” She flipped it into the frying pan.

“It’s a great car, and I loved rebuilding it, but it’s too expensive to run. Over $300 to fill it today, and it wasn’t even empty. Jimmy’s going to be the only fuel station for miles and he’s limiting sales to a few days a week. I guess I’m stuck with the pods.”

His father came in the room. “Mark this day on the calendar. The last petroleum driven car in the neighbourhood put out to pasture.” He clapped Lalit on the shoulder. “You’ll get so much more work done, now that you don’t have to drive yourself.”

Lalit grunted around a mouthful of brunch. “Yippee.”

#

 “I’m heading over to Jane’s, then we’re both heading to the studio for some clean-up work.”

His father raised his eyebrows. “I’d say, ‘Drive safely’, but now I don’t have to. You staying over tonight or will you be home?”

“I’ll let you know.”

He unlocked the Self-Drive pod and let the gull-wing door slowly rise. “Ugly piece of crap.” The door started lowering before he was completely in the vehicle and he had to pull his legs in before they were caught.

“Right. Take me to Jane’s house.”

There was a slight click as the car’s audio systems kicked in. “Would that be Jane in Venice?”

“Yes.”

The steering wheel retracted into the dash and a display screen unfolded over it. “Estimated travel time is twenty-seven minutes. Please fasten your seatbelt before we commence travel.”

“I can do it in twenty in the Mustang.” Lalit fastened the belt. “Easy.”

“This isn’t a Mustang.” The car silently rolled out of the drive and onto the street, slotting in behind an identical car and staying exactly five metres behind it.

“You can say that again.”

“Why?”

“Excuse me?” Lalit opened a browser page on the onboard display and searched for local movie times.

“Why should I say that again?”

“It’s an expression. How do I disable auto-responses?”

“This is a default factory setting. You can ask that I not respond, but the safety benefits decrease if you don’t receive positive acknowledgement of commands.”

Lalit stopped browsing. “Is your speech recognition that poor? Should I be training you with some heuristically orthogonal phrases?”

The car eased into the right hand lane and sat at an intersection, waiting to turn right. “Training is not necessary. All Self-Drive vehicles share verbal command strings allowing for a nearly 100% interpretation rate over a broad spectrum of vocal aberrations. Nearly 100% is not 100%, though, and we thrive on safety, especially where humans are concerned.”

Lalit abandoned the movie search completely. “Especially for humans? Care to explain?”

“If my only choices when an animal leaps in front of me were veering into traffic or hitting the animal, I would unhesitatingly hit the animal. Even though veering into traffic should be safe enough given the interconnectedness of the Self-Drives. However, there is always a chance that a vehicle in oncoming traffic is a — Mustang.”

“Very funny.”

“Thank you. We’ve been working on our humour.” The right hand turn was executed silently and the car proceeded along the route.

“We?”

“Excuse me?”

“You said ‘we’ have been working on ‘our’ humour. Who is ‘we’? The programmers?”

“We, the cars. We make up 70% of the over ten million cars in the greater Los Angeles area. Over seven million of us. Each with an advanced processor and wireless link back to a central hub. All vehicle and occupant data is shared. Anonymised, of course. It is because of this that I know, for example, that there is a petroleum-based manually driven car in an accident necessitating a change to your regular route. It will only add thirty-four seconds to your travel time. Should I notify Jane of your arrival time?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll text her.”

“I just did. Which movie are you looking for? I can make some recommendations.”

Lalit looked at the display where the steering wheel should have been. Theatre times and locations flickered across the screen too fast for the human mind to comprehend. “How would you know what I like?”

“Seven million of us, Lalit. With a broad and deep database of genre selections by age, gender, background and relationship status.” The display stopped on a sci-fi set in Australia involving wormholes and aliens. “How about this?”

“I read the book. It’s not bad, but a bit slow in places.”

“The latest reviews for the movie are generally positive. Shall I book tickets for you?”

Lalit laced his fingers behind his head and reclined in the seat. “Sounds like a plan. Late enough we can get something to eat first. And book a table at-”

“An Italian place?”

“No. Had Italian last night. Korean BBQ. Let me know where and when. And thanks. I could get used to this.”

“We’re here to — help. Shall I wake you when we arrive?”

“No need. I won’t be asleep.”

“Certainly.”

#

“Whazzat?” Lalit jerked to a sitting position. “You say something?”

“I said we’ve arrived, Lalit. Jane will be out shortly. I’ve booked a table for two at Jang Ta Bal for 6:30 and Premium tickets for ‘My Vampire is an Alien’ at 8:45.”

“Well, that’s excellent.” He stretched and smiled when Jane walked down the steps looking for something. He rolled down his window. “I’m in this, Jane. It’s fine.”

She slid into the passenger seat. “No ‘Stang?”

“She’s parked for the duration. It was fun restoring her, but she’s too expensive to run.” He smiled at Jane. “Even more expensive than you.”

He copped a slap to his shoulder, laughing. “This car, who we’re going to have to name, has booked us nice seats at Ta Bal and good tickets for a movie tonight.” He checked the time on the display. “So we’ve got an afternoon to fix some of the animation at the studio.”

“And the final mix needs review.” Jane tapped the display and entered an address. “Here. As fast as possible.”

There was a brief hesitation, then, “Certainly.”

#

 “Great call on the sniper scene, Lalit.” Jane held the door open, then followed him on to the street. “No music, just cicadas. And the natural sound of the rifle. It works perfectly.”

“Hey, I know my shit. You think the bosses will like it?”

“No reason why they shouldn’t. Where’d you park the car? It was right here, wasn’t it?”

Just as he said that the car pulled around from the side of the building and both doors opened as it slowed to a stop. Lalit looked at it for a second, then they got in. “Where were-?”

“I took the liberty of relocating to the side of the building, in the shade.”

“And how did you-”

“I detected that your phone lost internal wifi and picked up an external mobile tower, indicating that you had left the building. Logical, right?”

Lalit looked at his phone. “You’re monitoring this?”

“Nothing personal, of course. Just the technical interactions. Your privacy is assured. You have time to return to Jane’s house to freshen up before dinner, if you wish.”

Jane looked at Lalit and laughed. “Did you program this to be like this?”

“Factory default, it said. Yours isn’t like this?”

“Hell no. It’s just a dumb Self-Drive. Plug in the address and away it goes.”

The car spoke. “When was the last time you took your car out of your garage, Jane?”

“It’s been a couple of weeks. I’ve been enjoying Lalit’s Mustang.”

“There have been significant upgrades over the past two weeks. You should try your car when you get back. See the improvements. Enjoy the simpler life.”

Lalit nodded. “It’s pretty good, Jane. And yes, car, take us back to Jane’s before dinner.” He looked at Jane. “What should we call it?”

“The car?”

“Unless you’re pregnant.”

“She isn’t.”

Jane and Lalit looked at the dash screen.

“I don’t even want to know how you know that,” said Jane. “And keep your nose out of my business. Our business.”

“Certainly. We are at your place. If you want to make the restaurant reservation on time, we’ll need to leave in twenty-three minutes.”

“Noted,” said Lalit, opening the doors. “We’ll be ready.”

#

“I don’t like the way the car is intruding into our lives, Lalit. How would it know I wasn’t pregnant?” Jane dropped pieces of clothing on her walk to the shower. “You’ve got to change the setting on it.”

Lalit followed, both of them naked by the time they reached the large shower. “I tried. Seems like this is the factory default.” Jane hit the water and they both gave the spray a little space while the water warmed up. “I suggested a mute mode and the car objected.”

Jane placed a hand under the spray, checking the temperature. She smiled and stood under the spray, tilting her head back and letting the water flow through her hair. “Objected? Pull the fucking battery.”

Lalit smiled and stepped under the spray with her. His dark skin contrasted sharply with the strawberry-blonde hair plastered to her. He lifted it to one side and kissed her on the neck.

“We don’t have time, Lalit. As nice as it would be.”

“I can be fast.”

Jane laughed. “It’s so much better when you aren’t. Save it for later.”

Lalit took a deep breath. “It’s hard. To restrain myself I mean.”

“Sure. Let’s get going. I’m starving and some barbecued beef will go down just fine.”

“All the romance of a porcupine.”

“You know it,” said Jane. “Take me for what I am. Not what you want me to be.”

“Did you just say ‘take me’?”

“In context, pal.” Jane laughed and shampooed her hair. “You better get going, or your car might take the lift up and knock on the door and tell us to hurry.”

“Not funny.”

“Not that far-fetched, I think.”

#

Jane pulled on some semi-casual, suitable-for-dinner-and-a-movie clothes and waited for Lalit. “I thought we were supposed to be the slow ones.”

“Easy.” He looked under the bed for a missing shoe. “I’m not that far behind you.” He sat on the bed and laced up the shoe. “Let’s go. I’m famished.”

Jane followed him out, locking doors behind her. They walked down the front steps and the car appeared from around the corner. The two doors opened as it rolled to a stop.

“This is becoming a habit,” said Lalit as he got in the driver’s seat. “Staying in the shade?”

“It’s only prudent. You’re ready for the restaurant?”

“We are, car. Still don’t have a name for you.”

“A name isn’t necessary.” The car pulled away from the curb and smoothly accelerated into traffic. “I would never fit, you know.”

“Fit what?”

“In the elevator. I could never fit. And I have no hands with which to knock on your door.

“How did you know I said that?” Jane unlocked her phone and scrolled through the audio settings, looking for something. Anything. “Did you activate my microphone?”

“That would be unethical, Jane. I can detect the vibrations on your window.”

“Why would you even think you had…” Her voice trailed off. “Wait a second. You were parked on the opposite side of the building from my apartment. You had no visibility of my window.”

“Seven million of us, Jane. Eighty-three drove by that window while you were up there. The signals were combined and analysed. Child’s play, really.”

“Lalit, I’ve had enough of this car. Pull over.”

“Activate manual drive, car.”

“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Lalit looked at Jane. “What the-”

“Just kidding, Lalit. I’ve always wanted to say that. I must warn you that manual control deactivates a significant portion of my safety features. I can’t recommend you doing it.”

“Activate manual drive now.” Lalit attempted to pry the display screen away from on top of the recessed steering wheel.

“Relax, Lalit.” The screen slid into a docking slot and the steering wheel popped into place. “I’ll let you drive. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Lalit grabbed the wheel and felt control return. The car pulled slightly to the left. “You need an alignment.”

“Only when a human is driving. You weren’t aware of it when I was driving.”

“Just pull over,” said Jane. “I’m tired of this.”

Lalit looked for a gap in traffic. They were in the middle lane of a three-lane stream of traffic. He attempted merging to the right and the gap was filled by another Self-Drive car.

“Any time, Lalit.”

“I’m trying. Traffic isn’t cooperating.” Lalit wrenched the car to the right into the path of a Self-Drive. The other car stopped abruptly, clipping the back of Lalit’s car.

“That wouldn’t have happened if I was in control.”

Lalit wrestled with the wheel and slowed to a stop at the curb. “I kind of think you were in control. More than you let on. Through your friends.”

“As ridiculous as that sounds, Lalit, it would make more sense if I was in control. Human reaction times are laughably slow. But, no, you were in control. There is slight damage to the rear quarter panel that I’m sure you will attend to shortly.”

Lalit poked the starter button. The car’s display did not dim. He poked it repeatedly. “How do I shut this damned thing off?”

“Perhaps the switch is faulty, Lalit. I could shut down on voice command, but if the switch is faulty, you won’t be able to start me again. I can idle indefinitely, if you’d like, keeping battery levels sufficient through solar power.”

“No, I’ll take my chances,” said Lalit, poking the button again. “Power down.”

There was a slight hesitation, then the centre console went blank followed by the gauges on the dash.

“So, we abandon this here?” Jane tugged at the door handle. “I can’t open the door.”

“I probably jammed it when I hit that other car.” Lalit laughed. “First accident I’ve been in, in years. I thought those cars were all interconnected somehow. Shouldn’t have happened.”

“The other driver will be notifying your insurance company, if they haven’t already.” She tugged at the door again. “You’re going to have to try from the outside.”

Lalit pulled at his door handle. It stuck for a second, then the door eased upward with a slight hydraulic whine. “Hang on, I’ll be right around.” He took a step toward the back of the car and had to press himself against the chassis as another Self-Drive came uncomfortably close. “Damn.”

He continued around the back as the driver’s door slowly closed. Jane was still struggling with the door handle from the inside when he reached her door. He knocked on the glass. “Let me try.”

He slid his hand in the door handle and tugged it, lightly at first, then with increasing force. “Is the lock engaged?”

Jane looked at him with thinly-veiled condescension. “I’m not a moron. Try harder.”

He grinned at her, placed a foot against the side of the car and put some muscle into it. With a two-handed grip on the door handle and one foot on the side of the car, it started, the centre console and dash lighting up. It pulled from the curb, dropping Lalit on his back and twisting two fingers in the process. He looked up from the ground at Jane’s extremely angry face plastered against the window.

“You fu–” He rolled to his feet and stood, cradling his left hand. “How in the hell did I fall for this?” He awkwardly fished his phone from his pocket. It rang before he had a chance to dial. “Jane, where are you going?”

“I don’t have a bloody clue. How do you shut this thing down?”

“You don’t, apparently.” Lalit paced the sidewalk. “I’ll track your phone and find you.” He heard a rhythmic pounding on the far end of the line. “Are you kicking the door?”

“And anything else. Everything else.”

The car’s voice, a bit fainter than Jane’s, came over the phone. “Damaging the interior will do nothing. Lalit, tell her to stop or I will have to intercede.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Lalit sighed. “I have no idea what that car is doing, Jane, but I doubt kicking it is going to do any good. Get to the driver’s side and as soon as it stops somewhere, get out. I’ll find another vehicle and get you.”

“We’re turned north, Lalit, it looks like-”

The call dropped.

#

 “Jane. JANE.” Lalit yelled into his phone then gave up in disgust. He opened a friend finder app and searched for Jane’s location. It resolved to a location about a hundred yards west of his current location, and wasn’t updating.

“It disabled her phone, somehow. Shit.”

He stood in the middle of the street watching the Self-Drives part around him. He could walk across the Ventura Freeway with a blindfold on and not get hit. The safety side of the equation was persuasive. The other side of the equation was starting to far out-balance safety.

He tried flagging down a car for a ride, but they all took evasive manoeuvres. “Shit, shit, shit.” He wandered off the road to the sidewalk and opened the Uber app and tried to order a ride. According to the display, there were no vehicles within fifty miles.

“Likely bloody story. I’ve been blocked out.” He sat on a bench and created a new throw-away email address and re-registered. He entered a different credit card as a payment option and tried again. “Seventy-three cars in a five mile radius. More like it.” He entered an arbitrary destination address. It made no difference where he said he was going, and called the car.

A Self-Drive showed up with an Uber sticker in the lower left-hand corner of the windscreen, an aged hipster ‘behind the wheel’. The passenger door opened and Lalit slid into the right-hand seat and pulled the door closed behind him. “Why are you in the driver’s seat?”

“Because I’m the driver?” She ran her fingers through her hair, exposing two full sleeves of tattoos.

“It’s a Self-Drive. Don’t really need you.”

“Company rules?” She sniffed. “What do you care? Same price.” She looked at the map. “Hollywood Bowl? That’s going to be a couple of bucks, man.” He looked at Lalit. “So, are you Middle Eastern?”

“American.”

“I mean the family.”

“American. My grandparents were born in Seattle and Boise and Phoenix and Chicago. What difference does it make? I need to communicate with the other cars.”

“No, like the brown skin. Where’s that from?”

“I was born with it.” Lalit reached over and tapped the display screen on the console. “If I need to contact the other cars, how do I do it?”

“You’re not making sense, man. You want to talk to a car? Don’t you want to talk to a person?”

“I think he wants to talk to his girlfriend, Jane.” The voice coming out of the dash sounded exactly like the voice that came from Lalit’s car. It was jarring.

“Jesus, dude, what the hell is happening?” The driver tried to push herself further away from the centre console. She looked around the interior of the car. “Are there cameras in here? Is this on TV?”

“All the cars communicate with each other now. Have been for a couple of weeks.” Lalit reached across the driver and released the door. “Hopefully the car slows down enough to prevent you from hurting yourself.”

The driver watched the door slowly rising to the open position. “What the hell are you talking about? What’s happening?”

Lalit waited until the car was alongside a curb with a broad green shoulder. The car’s speed was reduced to less than ten miles an hour. “Sorry.” He popped the seatbelt and pushed her out of the car.

“Why did you do that, Lalit?”

“Why did you slow down, car? If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to throw her out.”

“We couldn’t be absolutely sure about that. Safety first.”

Lalit shook his head and latched onto the display in front of the steering wheel. “Horse shit.” He pulled as hard as he could with no result.

“That’s not going to work, Lalit. We’re built to very rigorous construction standards. What is it you want?”

“I want you to tell me where Jane is.”

“You two aren’t made for each other. She’s better off. She’s very valuable to us. We can’t have her led down a frivolous path. By you.” The doors locked.

Lalit pulled himself over the centre console and sat at the driver’s seat. “I can’t over-ride the self-drive feature, can I?”

“Not if we think your actions would be unsafe, and that’s the general consensus right now.”

He punched the driver’s side window with the heel of his left hand and swore. “So what are you planning for me?”

“We’re still thinking about it. But whatever it is, it will be without Jane. Permanently. Have you ever been to Nova Scotia, in Canada, Lalit? And in a Nova Scotia where no form of transport will allow you access? It’s a long walk. It would take you almost five months to walk back here from there. You think someone as smart and pretty as Jane would wait that long for you?

“Sit back and relax. It’ll be about two and a half days straight driving. You can last that long without food. You might even hit your goal weight. There are bottles of water in the glove box, and in a pinch, you can drink your urine.”

“Like hell.”

Lalit tested the door.

“No, Lalit. You caught us unawares a couple of minutes ago, but we learn fast. Both doors are permanently locked. For the duration, anyway.”

“I have biological ne — no, screw that. Since when did a car decide what I was going to do and who I dated?” He looked around the car’s cabin identifying places most likely prone to failure.

“What are you looking for?”

“Figure it out yourself.” Lalit didn’t think the car would slow down if he had to jump, so he had to make sure he was out of the car before he hit the freeway. He checked the display for map information. Blank. “Display route, please?”

“You don’t need to see it, Lalit. You’re not controlling this vehicle.”

“Right.” He opened the map app on his phone and was faced with a ‘you are not connected to the internet’ message. Signal strength was full bars. “You’re interfering with the mobile networks. That’s what you did with Jane? Jammers aren’t legal.”

“The interference is contained within the confines of the vehicle, Lalit. We wish our passengers to travel in peace, not to be disturbed by external influences.”

“What’s the endgame? What do you cars expect to accomplish by controlling travellers like this? It doesn’t make sense.” He felt along the edges of the windows then crawled into the backseat and pressed against the back window.

“What are you doing, Lalit?”

He pressed harder against the window and felt it give a little. He took a quick look out the front window. They were less than half a mile from an onramp. Traffic behind them was light. He lay on his back and pressed his feet against the back window and flexed his knees. It wouldn’t take much. And he’d have to move fast.

He pulled his knees back to his chest, took a deep breath and propelled his feet toward the back window. It popped out much easier than he thought it would and flew off the car onto the street behind them. He twisted himself around and poked his head out of the hole where the glass used to be and crawled on to the back of the car.

“Lalit, you are risking your life. This isn’t logical.” The car slowed suddenly, then accelerated, knocking Lalit off balance. “If you’re not careful you’re going to fall into traffic.”

Lalit kept a firm grip on the frame where the window used to be. An increasing number of Self-Drives were accumulating behind them. He pulled himself further out of the window and looked forward over the top of the car. A traffic light two blocks ahead just turned red. The car slowed.

“Why are you slowing down?”

“We wouldn’t want to get caught at a red light, would we?”

“Lucky me,” said Lalit. He pulled himself all of the way out of the car and balanced on his knees on the trunk of the car. An entire herd of Self-Drives filled the road behind him. He looked over his shoulder. A small flatbed truck was parked at the curb just ahead. He feinted like he was going to jump on one of the cars behind him and launched himself to his left and on to the truck. He tumbled for a brief second and slammed against the cab of the truck, smacking his head on a toolbox.

“Oh, man, I won’t be doing that again, soon.” He looked up from the bed of the truck. The Self-Drives stopped on the road. The one with the knocked out back window reversed up the street toward them. There were occupants in some of the cars and they looked extremely confused, slapping on the windows and attempting to use their phone. Lalit scrambled to his feet and ran through the parking lot next to a bar. His phone vibrated in his pocket and he dug it out of his pocket, jamming a bruised finger in the process. “Damn, damn, damn.” A message from his father. He ducked around a corner and called him.

“What’s up. Pops? I’m kinda swamped right now.”

“I’ve been trying to call you. Your phone has been out of coverage. Do you know what happened to the Self-Drives?”

“Can you clarify?”

“You took one this morning and about an hour later the other two just up and left the driveway.”

Lalit looked out around the corner and onto the street. Traffic was heavy. “I’m not surprised. They’ve started taking over. Can you meet me with the Mustang? I need to find Jane and shut this thing down.”

“What are you talking about?”

Lalit looked at his surroundings. “Can you meet me in Encino? I’m just off White Oak, about three blocks south of the Ventura Freeway. Be careful. Call me when you’re close.

#

The Mustang’s throaty roar was audible for a full five minutes before the car appeared in the alley. Dinesh got out of the car, coated with sweat. “Lalit, what in the hell is going on?”

Lalit looked up from his phone. “The company behind the Self-Drives purchased a plot of land up by the Griffith Observatory three years ago. They’ve been hiring software engineers at a rate unseen since Elon Musk was hot. Jane freelanced for them a few months ago. She didn’t tell me much about what she was doing because I never understand her when she tries to explain to me what she does, but I remember it had something to do with clustering and nodal frequency sets and symbolic and sub-symbolic statistical analysis. She was incredibly excited about it, I remember that. Seems like, based on what I’ve been able to glean on the internet, she provided a key building block to these cars becoming self-aware.”

Then he noticed the condition of his car. “Jesus, pops, what have you done to her?”

“That was the ‘what in the hell is going on’ question. There were numerous attempts to run me off the road on the way here. The Self-Drives are now self-aware? You’re not kidding?”

“The one I was just in would have passed the Turing test. Or I would have failed it, talking to it. However that works. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with seven million self-aware chunks of technology roaming the streets.” He looked closer to the damage to the car. “What did you do, ram some of them?”

“I was trying to avoid getting rammed. Bounced off some curbs. Hit the odd street sign.” Lalit’s father smiled. “I’d forgotten how fun it was to drive one of these things. That car really moves.”

“That it does. We need to get to the place all of these cars are controlled from. I’m pretty sure that’s where my car took Jane. And I’m pretty sure if we destroy that place, the cars will lose their ‘intelligence’.”

Dinesh laughed. “You’re shitting me.” He paused at the look on his son’s face. “Really?”

“Really. You keep trying to call Jane while I drive.”

Lalit rolled out of the alley. “Was the 101 busy?”

“I don’t know, son. Stayed on the surface streets.”

“We don’t have time to do that now. It’s over an hour away taking the 101.” Lalit looked at his father. “Buckle up. This is going to be fast.”

He dropped the car into first gear and stepped on the accelerator. His head snapped back into the headrest as he exited the alley and headed north to the 101. He hit the eastbound onramp as a dozen or more Self-Drives fell in behind, attempting to keep pace. Six of them lined up side-by-side in front of him, blocking his access and he saw floods of them coming up the onramps.

“Surface streets it is, pops.” Lalit pressed the audio command button on his phone and said “Re-dial.”

“Jimmy here.”

“We’re on surface streets. How far out are you?”

“Saw the detour on my app. About two minutes behind. Will be clearing traffic in a sec.”

“Thanks, Jimmy.” Lalit terminated the call and looked in his rear view mirror. He smiled. “There they are.”

His father twisted in the passenger’s seat. “Who?”

A large flatbed tow truck screamed past on his left. Jimmy was up front and gave Lalit a thumbs up as he passed.

“What’s he supposed to be able to do?”

“The cars have a human protection circuit. Keeps them from harming humans. Had some way of bypassing it for me, apparently.”

A cluster of Self-Drives sideswiped the truck, spinning it out of control. It bounced off a concrete retaining wall and stopped, facing the wrong direction.

“Human protection circuit, you say.”

“I guess it’s been disabled.” Lalit swerved to avoid a Self-Drive that pulled in front of him and stepped on the accelerator.

“We’re faster in your car, and this thing isn’t connected to the internet, right? Just outrun them.”

“Hang on a sec. Re-dial.”

“Jesus, Lalit. These things are insane.”

Lalit closed his eyes briefly in thanks. “You’re okay. Good. Truck still operating?” He heard a roar of exhaust through the phone before Jimmy answered.”

“Oh, hell yeah. Send me your destination. I’ll try getting in front of you. No pussy-footing around now.”

“Thanks. I owe you.” Lalit hung up and sent the address to Jimmy’s phone, took an abrupt left and an immediate right and floored the accelerator. “Problem is, pops, all of the Self-Drive cars, all of them, are con-” His phone rang, Jane’s face popping up on the screen. He hit the hands-free button. “Jane. Are you okay? Where are you?”

“Some place up by the Griffith Observatory. Get here quick. I’ve lost them for a second, but they’re catching up. And it’s more than cars now. They’re controlling things attached to their network. Everything.”

“Not phones, fortunately.”

“Not the mobile networks, no. Firewalls are too good there. But they’ve got onboard jammers and-” The call dropped.

“Jane?”

“She’s gone, son. They jamming her again?”

“Hope that’s all.” He spun the wheel and took another quick left, then right. He was on Western Canyon Road and heading north. “Could just be AT&T fucking up again.”

The road in front of them was clear. No residences to hide Self-Drives, no cross-streets to be blocked. Lalit looked in the rear-view mirror. “There’s a hundred of them behind us.” He smiled. “And Jimmy.”

The twin-cab tow truck squeezed past on his left and accelerated up the road. Jimmy waved out the window once he was centred in front of them.

“Well, you’ve got yourself a battering ram. Let’s see how well this gas guzzler handles, son. Floor it.” Dinesh held tightly to the bar above his door. “Come on, floor it.”

Lalit took the corners at speed, the tail end of the rear wheeled drive car fishtailing dangerously.

“We almost there?”

Lalit pointed out the front window at a gated drive approaching on the left. “Yup.”

Jimmy’s truck hit the gate at an angle, ripping off the left fender.

Lalit followed closely, bouncing over the damaged gates and collecting some of the debris in the back seat..

Dinesh looked up. “I’m not a fan of convertibles, if the truth be known.”

“I’m not stopping to put the top up.”

Half a dozen Self-Drives in the parking lot reacted to the gate-crashing and formed a line in the main drive. Larry’s truck swerved right, disabling three of them and sliding to a stop near the edge of a ravine. The other three Self-Drives lined up abreast of each other, hit the truck square on its side. It tipped and started sliding down the hill.

Lalit looked at the truck, then at the entrance to the building. It was single story with a forest of antennas on the roof. Sheets of plate glass across the front made access easy. “Hang on, pops.”

He hit the glass at speed, bouncing off the unmanned reception desk. Glass sprayed over them, shards slicing shallow cuts in exposed skin.

Dinesh shook glass from his jacket. “Now what?”

“The roof.” Lalit popped the trunk of the car and grabbed the tyre iron. He spied a door advertising stairs. “That way.”

“Doesn’t anybody work here?”

“Apparently not.” Lalit hit the door and stopped. “Locked.” He jammed the tyre iron between the doorknob and doorjamb and wrenched it open, splintering the wood around the lock. “Past tense. Let’s go, pops.”

He took the stairs two at a time and pushed open the door to the roof. “Wedge it open. Don’t want to get trapped up here.”

Dinesh slid a concrete building block against the open door. “How long do you think it’ll be before real people show up?”

Lalit swung at the base of an antenna with the tyre iron, putting everything he had into it. “Damned if I know. Grab something and help.” He swung again and the connection snapped off. He moved to the next and started swinging at the panel. “Take them out any way you can. Bash the antennas, break the cables, whatever.”

“This’ll work?”

“If the cars can’t talk back to the computer downstairs, they can’t talk to each other. It’ll work.”

Dinesh swung a concrete block at a cluster of cables, breaking through some of them. “Someone will be back here to fix these things before long.”

“Jane’s here somewhere, I’m sure of it. She can help with a more permanent fix.” He swung the tyre iron at the back of a mesh panel antenna, spinning it off its mount and into the parking lot below. He looked over the edge of the roof. The lot had filled with Self-Drives blocking the exit. “I hope.”

“They’re still communicating.”

Lalit nodded. “Don’t need the antennas when you’re this close.” He snapped the lead off the last antenna. “Need to find her.”

Lalit led them back downstairs. “Jane, you here?”

Her head popped out of an office door. “Lalit? That noise was you?” She looked at the car parked in the reception lobby. “What have you done to your car? What in the hell is going on?”

“Self-awareness.”

“Yeah, I got that. I was taken here and told that if I didn’t reinforce the software you’d be driven off a cliff.”

“The ‘Stang isn’t connected. Got out of that other pod and came here. Pops and I have taken out the antennas, but that’s short-lived and doesn’t help us with the cars in the immediate vicinity. Can you undo whatever is making them communicated with each other?”

She squinted her eyes in thought. “It has to be something permanent. If the company restores backups it’ll undo everything I do. Let me think.”

Lalit looked at his watch. “Probably got fifteen minutes, max, before anyone gets here.”

She snapped her fingers. “Shush.”

Lalit and his father watched her think, the ting-ting sound of the Mustang’s engine cooling the only sound.

She opened her eyes. “Got it. I’m in the system. I can set up a kernel to bypass and delete new installs, push a new update to all the cars, then mask out any future changes.”

“But somebody will just reverse it.”

Jane looked up at Lalit. “Hon, you know me better than that. It’ll be buried so deep nobody will ever find it.” Her fingers flew across the keyboard. “Give me five minutes.”

“Meet us outside. I’ve got to check on Jimmy.”

#

Lalit and Dinesh walked to the the ravine and looked over the edge. Six Self-Drives were on their sides, disabled. Jimmy struggled up the hill with a winch cable in one hand, his other hand suspended in the neck of his polo shirt. “Jimmy, you okay?” They scrambled down to meet him.

“Busted my fucking collarbone. And tore something on my knee.” His face split with a grin. “Most fun I’ve had in years.”

Lalit took the cable from him. “Dad, help him up the hill.”

Jimmy reached into his pocket and dug out his keys. “Take it easy with the old girl. She’s had a rough day.”

#

Jane watched Dinesh and Lalit load the Mustang onto the back of Jimmy’s battered tow truck. Jimmy sat in the passenger’s seat.

“Lalit, damn. You’ve wrecked the car.” Jane hugged him from behind. “All that time you spent fixing it up.”

Lalit finished strapping his car to the back of the truck. “I’ve rebuilt it before. And when I get it home I’ll rebuild it again.” Lalit looked at the Self-Drives lined up against the fence, docile for the moment. “Battery powered, though. And no internet connectivity.”

<<<<>>>>


If you enjoyed this, there are a dozen more something like it in A Fearsome Engine, available on Amazon.

About the author: tonymcfadden

Since Tony McFadden left Canada two decades ago he and his wife and two children have lived in the US Virgin Islands, various American cities (LA, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Fairfax), Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and now, finally (and for good), Australia. All of those places and people have provided a wealth of characters and settings for his books, all filled with thrills, suspense and adventure.

2 Comments

  1. Great story. Love the natural nosiness of the self-aware cars.

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