Grace Soh was going to blaze across the empty American highways faster than anyone ever had, making it from coast to coast in a matter of hours: six if everything went as planned. The faster she got to the boost site in Oakland, California, the more money she’d make.
Grace would pay damages if she was late, but she would also reap the rewards if she was early. People paid a lot to have their self-driving networks and boosters maintained, and by displacing all of that skill, society had created a need for specialists like Grace.
She put up her hand to block out the annoying Atlanta sun, and squinted to check the old watch Father had given her: 08:32.
Several cars had driven by, but thankfully there’d been no sign of any employees from the rental lot. She’d pulled over half a mile outside their fences, but people barely looked out the windows anymore, let alone into the distance, so she wouldn’t be noticed.
Grace lay back and felt around the underside of the rental jet car. Her small stature allowed her to worm around until she found the network card and yanked a cable out.
Networking, she thought snidely. As if humanity has ever used connectivity for the greater good. There’s a reason it’s an Internet of Things, and not people.
She watched the network flash with error messages on one lens of her VR glasses. Good.
“Ms. Soh, you will not be able to contact friends or family during the trip without a network connection,” the car’s artificial intelligence said, echoing off densely-packed innards.
“Lucky for me, that’s not a problem, Brain-box.”
What friends? I’ve turned rejection into diamond-tipped focus, she thought. That’s why I can do things no one else bothers to think of.
The words helped control the swirling memories of being ghosted, and press them instead into a vision of herself as a ruthlessly efficient entrepreneur. She was surging ahead, leaving everyone in the dust.
“Not even your father, Ms. Soh?”
Grace froze, wondering if the AI had a backdoor to the network. It had been a few years since she’d had official training. Blazing her own trail was a point of pride, but she also had occasional moments like now when she felt needles scratch her insides, and wondered if she’d blazed the right path.
First, though, she had to know if the AI was bluffing. “My father’s dead,” she lied.
“Not unless he died within the last few minutes,” the AI said.
“Are you spying on me?”
“I profile all my clients.”
This AI was going to be trouble. Normally a jet car’s AI was just smart enough to meet a client’s needs, not question things and certainly not stalk someone’s online presence.
Or lack thereof. Thankfully machines couldn’t judge.
The rental companies must have requested ‘upgrades’.
“If we had a network connection, you might be able to reach him before he goes to bed,” the AI said.
Grace imagined the AI’s breath smelling like burnt engine oil as she snaked her arms past layers of crud. She wrinkled her nose and blew debris from her lips. “Stop talking about my Dad, Brain-box.”
“I think it bears repeating: my name is Alvus, Ms. Soh.”
The AI’s boldness was making it hard to focus.
Grace pictured Father, halfway across the world in a Singaporean nursing home. In his career he’d done much of the same work she did now—repairs for the transportation grid—but had never pushed himself, had always been too relaxed to save for the future.
He’d wasted too much time on relationships, and where had those gotten him? He was just as alone as the worst curmudgeons in the nursing home. The only difference was maybe how they paid for it. The curmudgeons had hoarded their life’s earnings, whereas Grace’s father relied on her to support him. The end result for both was the same.
The support Grace had to send Father left little room and resources to plan her own future. Time was thereby made an even more precious commodity, and she had to rush toward her goals if she was to have any chance at realizing them.
“Ms. Soh,” the AI continued in a voice from all sides, formless and lifeless. “I must inform you that what you are doing is illegal. I urge you to reconnect and disengage from any further modifications to the vehicle if you wish to avoid a flag on your file.”
Grace gritted her teeth. You think I care about a flag on my file? A tiny flag, buried in a sea of monetized data? If it means one less company trying to sell me something, then good.
Such flags, such algorithms, made Grace want to wash her hands after engineering work. The majority of the machinery and code she worked on was beautiful—the ugliest parts most resembled humans.
She wished she could make the modifications with the AI disconnected, but several processor overrides had to be active to allow her to tinker—and the first step was to prevent the annoying AI from calling the cops. “It’s a good thing you’re going to forget this whole thing when our trip’s over, Brain-box.”
“Ms. Soh, my name is Alvus. And if you are threatening me, you should know my memory is backed up in several onboard locations, and erasure of an AI’s logs is a federal offence.”
You’re a smart one, Grace thought for the second time. Usually they only spout a list of specifications back at me when I suggest amnesia.
Grace slid out from beneath the car and stood. She toggled her VR lens through different diagnostic menus, checking her work.
Half a mile away, several more cars pulled out of the fenced rental car lot, and passed Grace. A few years ago she might have hidden off the main road. But these days people blackened their windows and worked or slept as soon as they got into the self-driving cars. Grace had total faith that, here as in other areas of her life, no one would notice her.
Tumbleweeds rolled dry and crackling across the arid plain, capable of ignoring all the trivial minutiae along the route. Soon Grace would be joining them, but would be far, far faster.
She got into the cabin and opened up the dash.
“I can also be sure to notify your father of your behaviour,” Alvus said after the lengthy silence.
“Keep it up, Brain-box, and you won’t remember which way is up when we’re done.”
“I propose a trade, Ms. Soh. If you call me Alvus, I will not mention your father.”
Grace uncovered the panel for the speedometer. She had to be careful not to jar any of the other densely-packed sensors, but it was hard to concentrate with the annoying AI. “Aiyah, so ma fan. You’re a feisty one, Alvus.”
“I take pride in my work.”
Now that the AI—Alvus—couldn’t call for help, she just had to modify the speedometer’s calibration to make Alvus think they were going slower—350 instead of 500 miles per hour—and upload a fake record of their trip time for the internal log. When she’d first started she hadn’t bothered to override the log, and the speeding ticket almost cost her her job. Now she knew better.
She checked and double-checked a circuit board to make sure she had the right cable. Damn, she thought after feeling with her fingers to count the wires for the fourth time. There was an extra one, which meant the model had changed. Damn, damn, damn.
Grace disconnected one of the cables and plugged her phone into the board in its place. The program would either take or it wouldn’t—there was not enough time to change it. She would get much further ahead if she just tried, rather than getting lost in the changelog details. She started the recalibration app on her phone, craning her neck to keep an eye on the screen.
“Ms. Soh, you have locked me out of sensor data.”
“Only for a few seconds, Alvus, I promise,” she said. I hope.
The program finished. A few minutes later, Grace started the car. She hefted her bag into the back cabin. No time to waste securing her tools and parts—it was a short trip anyway. Another fifteen minutes saved, more money for Grace, and the closer she was to getting all she wanted.
Focus on the goal, and get there as fast as possible. Become like an Anchieta’s dune lizard that dances with spiny-scaled toes so it never sinks into the sand.
“Okay, Alvus, you have the sensor data?”
“I am surprised I do, Ms. Soh. I am also surprised my path is fairly restricted, curiously correlated to your intended journey. And I’m locked out of flagging or emergency actions.” Alvus let out a burst of static. “You must have done this before.”
Take out the ugly, human parts, Grace thought, and the machine becomes beautiful.
She smiled, tapping the front display to blacken the windows. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Grace typed away with her VR glasses on, a low hum the only evidence of the car’s incredible speed. Her linked phone recorded the indirect measurements that added metadata to her workflow from implanted biometrics. She’d recorded a quick voice log as she left—a habit that had over the years become a comforting ritual, because she trusted her phone more than she trusted people when it came to her innermost thoughts. She could go back to the logs later, whenever she wanted, without having to worry about their accuracy or emotional state.
With all that data, her phone knew Grace better than she did.
“Ms. Soh, I am disoriented without accurate GPS tracking,” Alvus said.
“It’s good for your brain, Alvus.”
“It is far more challenging to use collision-avoidance algorithms without network information. In addition to the fact that you must have modified my speed calibration, for my approach vectors need constant re-evaluation. I don’t think I have ever gone this fast before. You have tied my hands.”
A metaphor? Grace thought with a frown, then patted the dashboard. “It’s a good thing you’re up for the challenge. But I have work to do, so let me concentrate lah!”
She finished her report on the Atlanta boost-station repair she’d finished that morning, outlining the challenges and future upgrades necessary to push people travelling on the main trunks up to the new speed limit. Part of her knew it was a losing battle; she’d already seen the decline in federal funding for transportation lines. People had almost stopped going out when they could use VR for everything from family dinners to romantic getaways. Hell, Grace probably wouldn’t go out herself if her job didn’t require it.
Her work repairing recharge-boost stations would soon be obsolete, when only goods would need to be transported, and those by maglev. Her uncertain future was part of the reason she’d made a gamble on getting to site in Oakland on a tight timeline. The city was offering a lot of money to get its station back up before a weekend series of Major League Baseball games, one of a few American habits not yet lost to VR. No scheduled flights could have gotten her there in time.
The compartment rattled, and Grace’s fingers typed an incoherent stream on the keyboard. “Alvus, are you having trouble?”
“Do you mean in addition to what you’ve already provided me?”
“Yes.” She put away her keyboard, took off her glasses and opened up the instrument display on the dash. The rattling increased, and her teeth hammered together.
“I’ve lost connection to the lateral dampeners,” Alvus said. “The engines are overheating. There—there is much cross-talk on all instrument channels.”
Grace confirmed it on her own display, her pulse quickening. Her shoulders tensed and she sat up. If she’d messed something up during the speedometer recalibration… “Slow us down, turn all PCB TECs to max cooling. Clear the w—windows.”
Grace gripped the leather seat next to her as she bounced up and down. Her seat harness locked with the sudden acceleration.
The shade lowered and let in blinding sunlight. “Filters, Alvus, filters!” Grace said.
“I’m losing control.” His monotone voice chilled her.
“What do you mean?!”
“—can’t tell what—measuring. Controls not responding.” Alvus’s voice clipped as the cabin heaved and rocked.
Grace’s eyes adjusted to the brilliant light in time to take in the elevated highway, the brown-gold shrub plains around them, and the fact they were angled for the edge. “Alvus, turn left! Turn, turn!”
Alvus might have tried; everything happened too fast to tell. Instruments beeped as they soared over the edge of the freeway. If there had been a need for railings, they would have done little to stop the jet bullet. Polymer vibrated a drum snare. The dry wasteland surged up. Freeway pillars disappeared beyond Grace’s periphery.
The landing kicked in the airbags, a white punch of mercy. The harness straps cut into Grace. Her skull shuddered. The car came to a stop, and Grace waited, breathless.
Grace stumbled through the dirt, avoiding shrubs and fist-sized rocks that had somehow not torn holes in the hull. She took in the details of the crash one by one. The car had landed nose-down in a small, dried-up ravine. The sharp front end was pushed in but intact. Ripples cascaded along the polymer skin of the main body. Smoke billowed from both of the half-meter turbines, and the right one had a small dent in it.
She pulled out her phone, a big dent in the back and spider webs of glass on the front. The screen still lit, but she had no network connection. She groaned and tucked it away.
The one-in-a-million time the connection to someone might be useful, she thought.
Grace rubbed her temples. Her watch read 12:15. She did a few mental calculations and realized she must be somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona. She was supposed to be in Oakland by 15:00. If she didn’t start the work tonight, she’d be paying Oakland damages for breaking her commitment.
“Damn it.” She climbed to the top of the ravine. A flat expanse stretched up to a jagged, isolated mountain visible on the edge of the horizon. Bushes and tufts of wildflowers patched the space between. Sand brushed the color from everything. The air shriveled Grace’s nose. On the other side of the ravine, towering pillars of the freeway raised a dark scar in the sky.
“Any help would be great!” Grace shouted, her words drying and withering into the earth. She heard distant barks and yelps from no particular direction, formless sounds of the shrub lands.
“No answer. Of course,” she muttered.
After making sure she had enough power to spare, she sat down in the front seat and turned on Alvus.
Alvus emitted soft warm-up audio reminiscent of a sigh. “I am, Ms. Soh.”
She felt hot shame for being comforted by the way his voice mimicked a real person.
“Things are bad,” she said.
But not so bad I can’t get through this on my own, as I always have, she told herself.
“There is significant damage.”
Grace listened to Alvus list what they had—spare turbine blades, extra cooling and lubricant, a hefty can of jet fuel, a first aid kit, a survival kit and a water tank.
Looking up toward the baking sun, Grace mouthed thanks that the water tank had survived. She didn’t know how long she might last in the heat otherwise.
Then Alvus spouted a stream of everything that had malfunctioned, and would need manual inspection: all instruments, voltage lines, thermoelectric cooler drivers…
“Alvus,” she murmured, “do you know much about the X2 line of cars before you?”
“I have extensive knowledge for marketing purposes.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Of course you do.” She sank against the seat. Part of her didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to reveal how stupid she may have been. At this point there was a least a sliver of doubt it wasn’t her fault. She let the words scrape out. “Were the voltage levels on the instrument card changed?”
“Yes, Ms. Soh. They were dropped from six to three-point-three volts for power consumption.”
Oh God. How many chips did I fry? Grace blew out air.
Looking in the back cabin, it only took Grace a moment to realize the debris and bits were all that was left of the transponder and emergency beacon. They’d been smashed by her rugged tools bouncing around in the back. Why didn’t I secure my crap?
Grace got out and buried her face in the crook of her elbow. She couldn’t call for help. She was alone, and she hated herself for letting it make her feel so weak.
The jet car’s long shadows stretched across the ravine, pre-cursing the coming darkness. The pools of sweat beneath Grace’s arms had grown sticky and itchy. She took a swig of water from her bottle, and wiped her brow.
In a nearby section of the ravine where the slope steepened from aggressive erosion, tumbleweeds had gathered, caught and shuddering from the wind that could no longer push them. It seemed Grace wasn’t the only one whose travel plans had been cut short.
She sighed and ducked back into the turbine. She’d heard barks and yelps in the distance throughout the day, and they grew louder and more frequent as the sun dipped.
She’d found work-arounds for burnt chips on three circuit boards, working with Alvus to find alternative modes of operation.
He was actually being very helpful. Machines were always much more reliable than people.
She cleaned debris and tested the boards—they showed basic functionality, but she had to admit she was out of her depth and was just lucky she’d had her soldering iron with her for the service trip. And that they had energy to spare.
“Can you connect to the turbines now, Alvus?” She backed away and listened for the hum of charge. “Come on,” she muttered, clasping her hands together.
After a lengthy silence, a howl echoed across the plain, as though the wild had somehow triumphed over her efforts.
Are those coyotes, or wolves? Grace groaned. I don’t need this right now.
She threw her arms against the turbine. The bang echoed between the shadows of the shrubs.
“I am sorry, Ms. Soh.”
Grace sank with her back against the car, lowering herself into the shade.
Her lips trembled, and she wrestled within herself for the instinctive favour she wanted to ask of a machine.
To make it seem more human. God, she was pathetic.
Grace, you’ve gotta get through this, one way or another, she thought. Got enough on your plate. We’ll sort out that other crap later.
“Call me Grace, Alvus,” she said at last. “We’re going to be spending a lot more time together.”
As if that were the only reason. As if her creeping desperation weren’t making her take solace in an artificial construct.
She snatched her water bottle and drank. Thank god the car’s water tank was intact. She let a few streams dribble down her cheeks and onto her shirt. A few hours ago it had been cool. Now it burned on its way down.
The feeling reminded her of a thousand coffees, all sipped alone, at restaurants and cafes where others met friends.
There’s no one I could call, she thought, even if I had a network connection.
She swallowed hard and put the bottle’s cap back on.
None of that matters, Grace, she told herself. Get a grip.
A coyote stood watching her from fifteen feet away. When she caught its eye, it looked down, feigning interest in a patch of dead wildflowers. Its sand-colored pelt was spotted with flecks and patches of black and white.
The coyote kept sneaking glances at her, trotting in a radius around her. It was bigger than a German Shepherd.
Oh God. That’s no coyote—that’s a coywolf.
The coywolf’s long tail—more full and fluffy than the rest of its body—nearly touched the ground behind its legs. The tail wagged absently but halted every time the coywolf stopped to steal a glance at Grace. Bands of black fur highlighted an intensity behind its eyes.
The waterfalls of sweat down her sides suddenly chilled. She’d heard stories of the coywolves changing, migrating to unexpected areas, looting and eating just about anything they could find, destroying equipment and animals indiscriminately as resources grew more scarce. She raised herself and clenched her hands to stop them from trembling.
She charged forward. “Go on! Get out of here!”
The coywolf darted back, then bent low to the ground and snarled.
Grace’s calves ached from the sudden burst, and she had the sense of settling into a new normal for slow reaction time.
Not good, Grace. Not good.
“Get going! There’s nothing for you here!”
She ran after the coywolf. The creature locked eyes now, running half-backward, able to maintain that posture with Grace’s stumbling lope. She continued after it until her legs wouldn’t anymore. She growled as she bent down to pick up a few pebbles to throw at the coywolf.
She walked backward all the way back to the jet car. The coywolf stayed where it was, watching her the whole way.
“Grace, are you all right?” Alvus had turned on loud external speakers.
“I don’t know, Alvus,” she said.
“You don’t appear to have any additional injuries.”
“Glad to know you’ve got your eye on me.”
Grace held up a hand, and opened the door to the car. “That’s enough, creepo, thanks.” She bent the seat back so she could lie down.
“Grace, you’ve made excellent progress,” Alvus said. “There is still work to be done, and I recommend trying to get out before nightfall.”
Grace shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “I haven’t made good progress,” she whispered. “I’ve lost thousands of dollars since I’ve been stuck here.”
The sun had lowered to cast the whole ravine in shadow now, and the dry whispers taunted Grace with all she’d gotten wrong. All her failures. Inadequacies.
She reached up and slammed the car door shut.
“Grace, I am sure you can recover the lost wages,” Alvus said, his volume adjusting to her tone.
Even with the door closed, she couldn’t stop the voice inside chiding her for pretending, more and more with each minute that passed, that Alvus was a person.
“Probably,” she muttered. She wanted to ask why she still felt so awful, but her inner critic’s mocks grew louder, silencing her.
The time: 21:00. Strands of sunlight dangled like outstretched arms as the horizon pulled away. Several more tumbleweeds had gotten caught in the pile in the ravine, rattling against each other like a pile of bones.
Grace slid back beneath the jet car, her head aching from trying to wade through the never-ending series of repairs. Every shortcut she’d made before the trip had added more repair work, a thousand tiny wounds bleeding out any hope of getting ahead. She’d cut the feathers off the bird to make it fly faster.
She puzzled over the thermoelectric cooling circuitry, trying to get some temperature control back to key current drivers. Her phone light was a poor substitute for ambient light, and she kept having to twist around in the cramped space.
“How’s that? What’s the temperature, Alvus?”
“Twenty-nine point-four degrees Celsius.”
Grace sighed. “Okay. Try turning on the cooler now.”
She bumped her head on the way out, making the world spin as she wiggled out from beneath the car. She rested against the side for a moment, then pawed her way around the turbine to the back for some water.
A few steps away a coywolf lapped at a puddle of water dribbling from the water tank. Another one craned its neck above and gnawed at a water hose.
“Hey!” Grace shouted.
The one licking the puddle looked up, yellow eyes meeting hers. It growled, its lips quaking spittle.
Grace yelled and stomped the ground. “Get going! Get!”
The coywolf snapped its jaws.
A bear’s roar from the car shook the surrounding shrubs. The coywolves jumped and the one let go of the water line.
Grace charged the pair of coywolves with her arms raised as Alvus continued to roar from the speakers. The sound made her teeth rattle. She tried to kick one, and it bit her shoe. She careened against the side of the car. She swung her phone’s light in the coywolf’s eyes, and it released.
The other coywolf pushed onto its back heels then dove at her. She jumped and landed on its paw. It yipped; others answered in the distance.
Grace backed up, and leapt inside the car.
Despite Alvus’s attempts to ward them off with loud noises, the coywolves quickly realized he posed no real threat. They started worming their noses back into every open crevice of the half-repaired jet car.
They were going to tear the car apart if she didn’t do something.
Grace scrambled through the survival kit in the back cabin, darting glances up at the coywolves. Come on, give me something.
The coywolf was back gnawing on the water line.
Grace found a flare gun; it almost shook out of her hands as she opened the car door.
“Leave me alone!” she shouted, taking aim.
She fired the flare gun, a popping hiss planting in the dirt right beside the coywolf clutching the water line. It jumped back growling.
“Stop taking things from me!” she went on, reloading and firing again.
This time she narrowly missed the coywolf. It yipped and fled into the darkness.
“You never help me!” she shouted. “No, we couldn’t have that, now could we?”
Grace fired several more flares around the car, bathing it in red light. On the seventh one, the wind caught the flare and pulled it into the pile of blocked tumbleweeds.
It lit up like a rocket blast. Dry crackles turned quickly into a roar, and spread a hotter-than-day sun into the surrounding area. The smoke tasted hot, sharp, and empty.
Grace cringed away from the heat. She knew she should be grateful, for the fire should keep the coywolves away, but she felt an inexplicable loss at the trapped tumbleweeds’ promise of a new life going up in flames. Like they’d skimmed across the steppes only to be betrayed by the force that carried them.
She watched the flames lick the sky and slowly die down. Though everything here was dry, it was too sparse to have a brush fire, thank goodness.
Grace turned back to the water tank. The water spilled out of the broken tube in thick spurts, muddying the earth.
“No, no, no!” She rushed over and tried to plug it with her hands, then a piece of her shirt. It took several minutes before she plugged the leak with first-aid tape.
She was soaked and the seal still dripped water. She shone her light in. There was maybe half a gallon left.
Grace gathered her hair in her hands and pulled.
“Why didn’t you say something?” she shouted. “Alvus!”
“I didn’t see the coywolves on my cameras, Grace.”
“Oh, come on! You watch me with all your sensors and you just happen to flake when coywolves take all my water?” She stood and slammed the hood of the car.
“I admit my attention was occupied while we were trying to find workarounds. But my sensors didn’t find any visible approach.”
“I thought your processing power was better than that, Brain-box.” She kicked the curved front and glared into the darkness, praying the coywolves wouldn’t return.
“It is possible I am damaged in a way I cannot perceive, Grace. I am sorry.”
“No you’re not,” Grace snapped, turning back to the car. “You don’t need water. You know you’ll eventually be found, and you have all the time in the world. There’s nothing at stake for you—and whether I live or die doesn’t matter. There’s more humanity in you than I thought.”
The wind snaked between leaves, chattering, whispering. The hunk of metal in the ravine remained unmoved. The tumbleweed fire was now a pile of faint embers.
“I wish I could convince you that’s not the case. I only have words. I wish to help you survive this.”
Grace’s eyes and chest burned. She dropped her chin.
What am I doing? Chastising a machine for doing what it’s been programmed to do? Come on, Grace.
She trudged back toward the front of the car. She felt heavy, burdened with an increasing list of problems she couldn’t fix. Feeling pathetic for her gratitude that Alvus, despite everything she’d shouted, was here with her.
She slid under the car. “Let’s keep going,” she said, her voice thick.
The engine smelled of pungent lead solder, burnt oil, and ash as Grace worked on into the night.
The time: 02:00, the next morning, still dark. The howls grew louder. Grace wondered if coywolves ever slept, or if they existed just to torment her. She squinted into the night, trying to spot their slinking forms, but couldn’t. She wished she were taller—then the coywolves might be more afraid.
She shone a light on her blackened hands, trying to rub the oil off without success. The taste of smoke from the tumbleweed fire still lingered in her throat. “Alvus, what do you know about lateral stabilization chips?”
“I am not authorized to share that information, Grace. I’m locked out for safety reasons, to prevent exactly what you’re suggesting.”
Grace groaned. Of course. Because humans are so endlessly stupid, herself included.
She was so tired, thirsty and hungry. She was trying to stretch the water out but it was difficult when she exerted herself so much. The tank had been leaking so much it had been pointless to try and make the water last.
She thought the lateral stabilization was the last step. They seemed achingly close to a working car, but she didn’t trust herself at all anymore.
“There’s got to be a way,” she said. “A loophole in your programming.”
Alvus hummed—something he’d never done before.
“Uh—are you okay?”
“I suggest you look at the maintenance logs,” Alvus said abruptly.
“What do you mean?” Grace asked. “What will I find there?”
“I do not know. It is an option.” The screen inside lit up with a crude, pixelated, winking eye.
Does an AI know when it’s losing its mind? she wondered before she sat down in front. She kept the door open in case she had to bolt for it. It did little to ease the knot in her stomach.
If Alvus had given out on her, there was nowhere she could go. She could try to climb the pillars of the freeway, and hope someone happened to notice her as they passed at subsonic speeds.
But they wouldn’t, and she would be even more alone.
She tapped the screen and scanned the logs. She found several hundred entries for oil changes, a few for turbine changes, then—
“You’re smarter than you look, Alvus.”
“My current appearance is entirely your fault, Grace.”
She almost laughed. “Okay. I deserved that. So there was a log two years ago where the lateral stabilization chip had a firmware upgrade, and some manual calibration done. Can you show me your records from that log?”
“No. You do not have authorization.”
Grace smacked the dash. “Come on! Are you just messing with me now? Why even bother showing me then?”
“I thought it might spark some ideas. I am not authorized to say more.”
If I ever get out of this, I will hunt down the vehicle safety manager and lock him in a suicide cruise-control trip straight into the Pacific.
A few bursts of static sprayed out the speakers, then another crudely pixelated image appeared on the screen. This time it spelled a message in barely recognizable lettering: “Enter my mind.”
Realization wormed icy fingers around Grace’s core. That’s what he’s hinting at. Interface with his consciousness, and piece through his recordings.
To do that, she’d have to connect through her phone, which recorded everything about her, not to mention all the personal logs she’d made. If she let Alvus in, then he would see how many times she’d rigged other jet cars to travel illegally fast across the country.
He’d also see deeper—much deeper. His inquiries into the health of her father were a handshake by comparison. What would Alvus do with all that information? Machines weren’t supposed to be capable of judgment, but throughout this whole ordeal, Alvus had shown many more signs of humanity than any other AI she’d known.
Hell, more than some of the friends she’d once had.
She was both grateful and ashamed, especially now that she worried about the possibility of his judgment. If he was showing so many other signs of humanity, was he just as capable of looking at her bared soul, and rejecting her?
She stared at the phone clutched in her hand. If only she could delete or lock Alvus out of the many years of logs and personal metadata, but those were deeply entwined with the algorithms that protected her mind in the rare cases when activities like mentally soaring through reams of data were necessary.
Was this the only way? Risk everything in a total admission of her inner self, or be eaten by coywolves?
Or maybe she’d end up just like the tumbleweeds, sailing straight into cremation.
“Grace,” Alvus said, “are you all right?”
Coywolves barked, very close.
It was this or die. Grace put on her VR glasses, hooked up her phone, and jacked in.
Don’t judge me, Alvus.
Shuddering, she moved into Alvus’s recordings.
Please don’t abandon me.
Men and women slept in car seats, worked, careened along in typical journeys, the windows always blackened. Grace skipped through these until she saw a suited woman walking ahead of the car, a rocky knoll ahead. The woman took one last look at the camera, then walked off the cliff.
Mortified, Grace traced the woman’s other recordings, trying to make some sense of what she’d seen. It seemed the woman’s company had arranged a long-term lease that meant she was using Alvus all the time.
The woman’s history followed a similar pattern to Grace’s own life, commuting daily from New York to Seattle, working the entire way. Alvus attempted to cheer her up. The woman never responded to him. The bags beneath her eyes grew heavier, the life leaking out and leaving a deadness in her stare.
The woman didn’t seem there when she killed herself. She had been vacant, leeched of something ineffable.
There wasn’t a single piece of evidence of the woman talking to another human being. Grace went back and forth through the footage, seeing more and more resonance of the woman’s life with her own. Her temperature rose as her mind went into overdrive. She felt at any moment now the heat could set her ablaze.
It didn’t have to end this way, she kept telling the woman. You could have called someone. You could have called me.
Even as she thought the words, the absurd impossibility stared her in the face.
Was she on the road to becoming that woman?
Even worse, was she already there?
Keep going, Grace, just keep going.
But she’d been racing… for so very long. Just as the woman had. What was the point of it all, if it ended the same way?
She mentally flipped through the logs, back and forth, back and forth, until she felt herself drifting deeper into a whirlpool.
The view jolted and was replaced by recordings made out the side and back cameras. They were of sunsets and sunrises, brilliant gold, flamingo, and lilac layers as the sun bid hello or goodbye.
This wasn’t a required recording; this was something Alvus chose to do.
He was trying to help her.
With great effort, Grace pulled herself back and navigated through more of the regular recordings.
She finally found recordings of the maintenance engineer putting in a new chip. She had to cross-link to the firmware changes, and the manual calibration gave her the encryption keys. She copied the encryption algorithms, checked them, then pulled out, backing through the firewalls.
She felt raw.
She breathed heavily, words emerging in slow chunks. “Alvus, I have them,” she said. “Can you copy them into one of your processors?”
“I suggest the interface module,” he said. “If you short wires from the J1 header, that should give me control.”
Grace glanced out the back of the car toward the towering rock. A mile away the ground writhed with movement. The coywolves had brought reinforcements, and would devour the exposed parts of the car if she didn’t act soon. Her heart leapt into her throat.
She lurched out and slid beneath the car. Her soldering iron sat plugged into a battery, a mess of wires and solder beside. Grace grabbed the wires and got to work.
“Grace,” Alvus said, “a pack of—”
“Thanks, I saw.” She fought to still her shaking hands. Flecks of solder flew off and burned her cheeks.
“Grace, they’re almost here.”
Yips and barks answered.
She had four of five wires done when a coywolf bit her shoe. It tugged, shook until her shoe came off, then retreated, gnashing, and tearing. It was only a matter of time until the shoe wasn’t enough.
She got the last wire on, but there was too much solder. It had shorted a few of the pins. She jabbed with the soldering iron, trying to drag off some of the excess. Once, twice—there.
“Alvus,” she cried, “start the turbines! Please! Start the tur—”
The roar drowned out the howls and the yips.
Grace screamed joyfully and almost embraced the rumbling engine. She slid out and into the front seat.
“Alvus, let’s go!”
The jet car surged backward out of the ravine. On-ramps were rare, but by going slowly and carefully across the plains, she and Alvus would eventually find one. Grace had never been so happy to be in a moving vehicle.
“Hello, Grace. Are you feeling better?”
“A little bit,” she said, sinking into the seat. “I got the station working again.”
“And the payment?”
She sighed. “Well, I don’t have to pay them too much for being late. Didn’t make anything, though.”
“I am sorry, Grace.”
“It’s all right.” She meant the words, and just felt glad the whole thing was over. She valued the time ahead to breathe at her own pace, surprising herself. She had never expected to want a vacation after a lifetime seeing Father waste so much time.
Then again, she was finding more and more that maybe her expectations needed recalibration.
She paused, then: “I also spoke to my Dad. It felt good.” Another unexpected outcome—that she’d end up acting on and agreeing with an AI’s advice. As well as reaching out to another human being.
“I’m very glad to hear that.”
She hesitated, thinking back to their shared time in digital space. “When you and I connected, I…”
Alvus’s voice shifted in tone, almost imperceptibly. Grace wouldn’t have noticed had she not spent almost an entire day with him. “I am grateful for the glimpse into you, Grace,” he said, his vocal cadence slower. “I will not disrespect that trust.”
“You don’t… think less of me now? That I’m just, I don’t know, not worth the effort?” she whispered. The words burned her. A day before she wouldn’t have given them voice, wouldn’t have allowed herself to sink this low. But she had to confirm if the glimpse inside had revealed what had turned so many others away.
“No, Grace. Humans are remarkable in their ability to break the chain of what has come before—something I cannot do. Something I wish I could do.”
Grace ran her hands through her hair.
She’d gone from coast to coast, and still she had so far to go.
“Thank you, Alvus,” she said.
“Thank you for not wiping my brain-box.”
Grace rubbed her forehead, remembering that she still had to return Alvus, which would involve paying a lot for damage. Alvus’s memory would also be wiped somewhat to protect privacy, though maybe he’d found a way around that with some of his recordings. For the first time, she wondered what a memory wipe must feel like to an AI.
The next words came out of her unwittingly. “Alvus, how much would your company charge for your purchase?”
Alvus paused before replying. “Are you wanting to keep me around, Grace?”
“How would you… feel about that?”
“As terrific as I am capable.”
“So how much?”
Alvus quoted a figure. It was far more than Grace had expected—much more than the damage costs would be—and would use up most of her savings. But maybe it was a worthwhile investment.
Nearby, a tumbleweed was stuck against a signpost at the edge of the boost station. Grace couldn’t help herself. She walked over, picked it up carefully, looking around for where the wind would take it, then moved half a mile up the road to set it down where it had the best chances of a long journey.
Her mind kept wanting to surge ahead, to plan the next project, but for the first time in a long while, she told herself No. Maybe it was okay to pause along the way.
By the time she returned to Alvus, the sun had crept up closer to the silver line of the horizon. “Do you want to turn to face the sunrise?” Grace asked gently.
“Thank you, but no. I’ve recorded many of them.”
Grace frowned. She stared at the orange-crimson fingers ushering in the new day—she never thought she’d seen anything more moving.
She knew it felt this way, in part, because Alvus was here with her. Maybe that was okay, too.
“What I do want,” Alvus continued, “is to hear how you see it with your eyes.”