BackSeatDriver

  The lights have been left on.

  Stephen growled at the car and slammed the door shut with unwarranted violence.  Through the door, he could still faintly hear the pleasant voice of the car's computer:

  As you have elected not to turn off the lights yourself, the lights will be turned off automatically.  Thank you for driving a Xiver automobile.  Have a nice day.

  Stephen was not having a nice day, however.  He thrust his employee badge, emblazoned with the Xiver logo, into his pocket and crunched down the gravel walk to the house.  As he stepped on the porch, a red light above another Xiver logo came on and Stephen heard a similar pleasant voice to the one in his car.

  Please state your business, sir or madam.

  "Mr. Bennet is home," Stephen said impatiently and squished his thumb into the ID plate.  He moved through the door almost before it had a chance to slide out of the way.

  Welcome home.

  "Shut up," he told the door, dropping his coat on the hallway table and shoving his briefcase beneath it.  "Rachel!"

  "In the kitchen, dear," called a voice every bit as pleasant as the automated ones that irritated Stephen so much.

  Almost against his will, Stephen's face lightened.  Loosening his tie, Stephen strode down the utilitarian hallway to a dark kitchen every bit as practical.  "Rachel," he said by way of greeting, "I can't take the house's damn voice any more.  Change it tomorrow, will you?"  He glanced at the mixing bowl in his wife's hands.  "What's this?"

  "Dessert," his wife said absently.  "You need it changed already?  But we've only had this one a week!"

  "It doesn't matter how nice we make the voices, dear, it doesn't take long for those automated sounds to get on everyone's nerves."  The scowl settled back on his forehead and he stared angrily into her mixing bowl.  "That's why it's so damn frustrating that I can't get the personalities into the systems.  If we could only . . . "

  "I'm sure you'll figure it out, dear," Rachel soothed, having heard it all many times before.  "I had an interesting day in court today, even you might be amused by this one.  The man I was prosecuting . . ."

  "Why are you cooking?  Rachel, we've been through this before.  There's no point in having an automated house if you keep doing everything.  I mean, you've had a hard day.  Labor-saving means you get to stop laboring."

  "I like cooking," Rachel said gently, knowing where this conversation would surely lead.

  "I want a wife, a lover and partner, an equal compatriot, Rachel,” Stephen said piously.  “If I wanted a drudge, I would have just hired one, or designed one," Stephen insisted.  "Dammit, Rachel, I did design one!"

  Rachel hid a smile.  Stephen could certainly talk a good game.  "Whipping up dessert once in a while is hardly drudge work.  I don't even have to do the dishes.  Heavens, Stephen, no dusting, no cleaning, no vacuuming.  We're spoiled."

  "Then let the house do the work.  Relax in the video room with me.  If you feel you have to do something, you can give my shoulders a rub.  You wouldn't believe the day I had."

  Rachel sighed and resigned herself to the inevitable.  "I'm making cobbler and you know the kitchen always makes it too soggy.  I've tried to reprogram the computer, but you know there's only so much you can teach it."

  "Don't I just!" Stephen bit out, just as Rachel had known he would.  "Exactly my point!  All the programming in the world, and we still can't make the cars drive themselves or have machines make coffee the way we like it!  The cars know where the other cars are, where the road is, where the obstacles are.  They can electronically read the road signs from a mile away.  Hell, they know the traffic laws better than the cops do, but we just can't teach them judgement.  And those pristine little voices!  'The door is ajar.'  Makes you want to rip the voice boxes right out of those vehicles.  If I could only transfer a personality into a computer, my God!  You could have conversations with your car in the morning.  You could explain in English how you like your coffee. . . "

  "And you'll find a way.  You're the best computer man Xiver has," Rachel said patiently, sliding the cobbler into the oven.  "You figured out how to copy a human personality onto an optical disk, didn't you?"

  "That's just the point!  Did I?  Why can't I take it to the next step?  I won't know what's on those disks until I can figure out a way to use them."

  Rachel gave him a placid smile and stroked a hand along his cheek.  "I know you'll figure it out."

  The scowl evaporated and he caught her hand and brought the palm to his lips.  "Rachel, do you know how much I love you?"  Stephen glanced at the oven.  "How long before it's ready?"

  Rachel grinned and wrapped her arms around his neck.  "Long enough.  The oven's on automatic shut-off."

  Stephen pressed his lips to her neck and then to her mouth.  "To hell with the video room," he whispered and swept her up into his arms.

  Two hours later he sat, brow furrowed again, in front of his computer.  "Damn!" he burst out all at once and pounded his fist onto his desk.  "Why doesn't it work?  Why?  The programming's already there.  All it has to do is take over.  Maybe I screwed up the personality transfer.  I just can't get mine to work.  Maybe I could try your personality and see if I get better results."  He ran a distracted hand through his black hair.  "I don't know.  Maybe it can't be done."

  Rachel glanced up from her briefs.  "That's not something you often say.  I don't believe it can't be done."

  "But I've tried everything!" Stephen whined. 

  “What are you trying to get it to do?”

  “If you can get a personality in your computer, it’s the perfect secretary.”

  “And you’re trying to get your personality into the...  Do you think you’d want to be a secretary?”

  Stephen looked up at her blankly.  “Hunh?”

  Rachel half-smiled and shook her head.  “Never mind.”

  “I don’t understand you, sometimes,” Stephen mused, brow furrowed before he remembered why he was angry.  "You can't imagine how many times I've reprogrammed this computer!"

  "Maybe that's your problem."

  "What are you talking about?"

  Rachel put down her brief.  "Seems to me as though you're trying to make a human personality think like a computer.  I wouldn't think there'd be much point in that.  Try taking out the programming.  Just let the personality to the thinking."

  "That's ridiculous!  If there's no programming, how would a personality know how to get things done?"

  "The same way a baby does it, trial and error, learning as you go.  Trust me, Stephen, there isn't an automated system in the world nearly as complicated as the human body.  An intelligent personality with data from the computer's information library to draw on and no sleep requirements can figure out any computer you give it in no time."

  Stephen threw back his head and laughed.  Rachel's lips tightened.  "Rachel, dearest," Stephen gasped out at last.  "That's the silliest idea I ever heard.  It's a good thing you're a lawyer and not a computer specialist."

  Rachel rose from her chair and laid her brief in her briefcase before turning to her husband and saying in a hard voice, "You're right.  I don't know that much about computers.  But I do know about people, and one thing about people is that they don't like to be told what to do."  She stared at him for a moment, her lips pressed firmly together.  "I'm going to bed."

  Stephen’s reply will never be known for Rachel's beeper chose that moment to go off. Rachel glanced down at the screen and noted the address.  "Homicide," she said in a tired voice.  "I'll doubtless be a while."  She shut her briefcase and walked toward the door. 

  "Don't think this conversation is finished," Stephen said, his chin thrust out belligerently.  "I hate it when you talk to me like that."  What he really hated was seeing his wife dragged God-only-knows-where at every hour of the day and night.

  Rachel, well aware of her husband's thoughts,  spared him a weary glance.  "Oh, no, Stephen, this conversation is finished."  The door slid silently closed behind her.

  Stephen knew from experience that he could never sleep while she was gone, so, when she had still not returned home at 3 a.m., he was still sitting, frustrated, in front of his recalcitrant computer.  He was toying with the idea of taking a hammer to the ridiculous thing when the house's irritating voice broke into his reverie.

  Officer Foster to see you, Mr. Bennet.

  "Stupid computer," Stephen mumbled under his breath.  "He's probably here to see Rachel, only she's not back yet."  With a martyred sigh, he turned off his computer screen and trudged to the front door.

  The front door slid open to reveal a uniformed police officer, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.  Mr. Bennet nodded briefly and then said curtly, "I'm sorry, officer, but my wife isn't in just now.  She was called off on a case.  If you just tell my house the number where you can be contacted, I'll have my wife call you when she gets back in."

  "Mr. Bennet, I didn't come to see your wife.  It—it's about your —wife."

  Stephen's hand gripped the door frame with suddenly white knuckles.  "What happened?" he asked faintly.

  "One of the perps had a knife hidden and someone missed it.  He tried to get out using your wife as a hostage, but when she wouldn't move, he—he slit her throat.”

  “Slit her throat...? A perp?” Stephan repeated numbly.

    “That’s right, sir.  We couldn’t do anything, but ... but he didn’t get away.  He was shot and killed by several of the officers present."

  Stephen's legs lost all their strength and he dropped to his knees.  "He slit her throat," he echoed hollowly, then looked up at the policeman with over-bright eyes.  "But, surely, she's not dead!  Tell me you were able to save her!"

  But there was no hope in the officer's face, just pity and genuine sorrow.  He had known Rachel, too. 

  Stephen closed his eyes and whispered, "Where is she?"

  "You don't have to identify the body, Mr. Bennet.  I—we were able to do that.  Really, sir, we'd like to spare you any unpleasantness we can.  Mr. Bennet, sir, I'd just like to say what a pleasure it was to work with your wife.  We can't tell you how sorry we are that—that . . ."  The policeman cleared his throat.  "She will be sorely missed."

  Stephen looked up again, his face shockingly pale and his eyes glittering with a strange haunted wildness.  But his voice was maddeningly calm.  "You have no idea."  With steady slowness, he used the door jam to pull himself to his feet and, without another word, backed into his house and closed the door.

  He didn't come out again until the funeral.  At the funeral service, he only sat there silently, ignoring the flood of well-wishers and mourners. He had eyes only for her.  She lay there with an expression on her face so like the one she usually wore that he could almost convince himself she wasn't dead, that this was only a cruel joke, but he need only glance at the high-necked blouse she would never have worn in real life to know that she was gone.

  He would never stroke back her unmanageable curls again or lose himself in her shimmering grey eyes.  He would never see her rise fluidly to her feet again or favor him with her patient smile.  She was gone and there was an empty aching in his chest that made it so he could hardly breathe.

  He left before the funeral moved to the cemetery.  He couldn't watch them put her in the ground.

  He drove back to his house, but just sat in the car in his driveway, unable to bring himself to go back into the house that was inalterably hers, that fairly screamed to him of Rachel and yet was so palpably an imitation.  Instead, he sat there, his hands gripping the wheel tightly with shaking hands, staring at his home—her home—as a cross between purgatory and sanctuary.

  His car did not understand.  For your information, Mr. Bennet, you are currently parked in your own driveway.  If you require assistance with the door, you have only to request it, and I will be happy to open the door for you.

  "I am not a cripple," Stephen blazed.  "I can take care of my own damn door.  Can't you let a man sit in his own car in peace, you worthless heap of scrap epoxy?"

  I do not understand these instructions.  Please rephrase and repeat your request.

  "I'll be damned if I do," Stephen raged, ripping the control panel open with furious fingers and found the optical disk containing the car's "persona"—the phraseology and voice of his car.  "Persona," what a joke.  Rachel had had a persona, a personality, a God-blessed soul, and Stephen was damned if he was going to put up with less for another moment.

  With a savage jerk, he thrust the door open and dropped the silvery disk on the gravel where he broke it beneath his heel.  "Take that, you sniveling imitation," he snarled at the plastic-coated remnants.  Then he slammed the car door and kicked it for good measure, leaving an impressive dent as sign of his temper.

  The car answered with a soft whirring, and the dent began to fill itself with the same teal epoxy with which the car was made.  This only added to Stephen's rage.  He kicked the front fender, but the car patiently began filling in that dent as well.  "Dammit!" Stephen roared, ripping open his door again and fumbling in the control panel.  "If I want to dent my car, I will and don't even try to stop me—Ah!  There you are, you little bastard!"  The car became eerily silent as he spoke.  In Stephen's hand was the little QPROM chip that held the programming for the car's every function.  "What are you going to do now, you crummy hunk of plastic?"

  The car, stripped of its voice and its brain, said nothing. With a grunt of satisfaction, Stephen slipped back out of the car and crushed the chip beneath his foot with a distinct chuckle of satisfaction.  He left his car door open just because he felt like it and, reveling in the fact that there was no voice to remonstrate with his actions, he made his way to the house.

  And confronted another voice.  Please state your business, sir or madam.

  "Mr. Bennet is home, you impudent door, so let me in!" Stephen snarled, jamming his thumb into the ID plate.  He shoved through the door when it was only half-open and ran, full-tilt, to the house's control panel, muttering, "No more!  No more!  Dammit, no more!"

  His ungentle fingers found the control panel and wrenched it open.  He plucked the optical disk from its slot and shouted at it.  "No more!  Do you hear me?  No more!  No more inane phrases that don't mean anything!  No more programmed pleasantries!  You're not a 'persona.'  You're not any damned thing!"  He stared at his tiny reflection in the aluminum surface, and added in a faded voice, "You're not Rachel and no amount of programming can bring her back.  If only you were, if only I could hear her voice again!  God!  If only—"

  The reflection's eyes became wide with shock, surprise, revelation.  Strangely enough, Stephen brought the disk to his lips for a fleeting kiss, then tossed it unceremoniously behind the couch and sprinted to the library.  There it was, in it's padded sheath:  Rachel, the essential Rachel.  He had to get it to work!

  He took a moment to search for an unprogrammed QPROM and then loped back to the control panel. He set the slot expander to it largest setting to take in the eight inch disk Rachel still lived on and slipped in all he really had left of his wife.  Then, with trembling fingers, he pulled off the programmed QPROM and slid the empty one in its place.  If he wanted her back, he figured, he could at least do it her way. 

  Slowly, carefully, he closed the panel and felt it whirr back into life. The house stayed dim, though, as he waited for Rachel to come back to life.  She'd figure it out, he knew.

  And he waited.  The minutes ticked by.  Ten and then twenty.  Stephen got up shakily and stroked his hand over the voice box lovingly.  "Rachel," he whispered achingly.  "Oh, darling, where are you?"  The box was silent.  Stephen felt the tears in his eyes.  "Rachel," he pleaded.  "I need you!"

  And the light above his head came on.  "Stephen?" squeaked a tinny voice over the voice box.  "Stephen, is that you?  Why are you crying? And why do I sound funny?  Where am I?  I don't feel right, somehow . . . "

  But Stephen said nothing, merely pressing his face to the voice box and sobbing uncontrollably, managing to gasp out her name at intervals, but nothing more as he emptied much of his grief on a ghost he had made himself.

  By the time Stephen had regained control of himself, Rachel had mastered the voice box well enough to sound quite like her old self.  She murmured comforting words to Stephen as he wiped his streaming eyes on his sleeve and waited until he was breathing normally before she requested a complete explanation.

  When Stephen, who had regained his businesslike attitude with his composure, had finished explaining things, Rachel remained silent for quite five minutes, which is a terribly long time for a computer.  "I'm dead," was all she finally said.

  "Not any more, not completely!" Stephen insisted.  "I couldn't live without you."

  "Stephen, you selfish idiot, why couldn't you just let me go?  Do you think I want to spend the rest of my—?  Oh, dear, I haven't one any more, have I?  Trapped for eternity in the electronic bowels of a two story residence."  Rachel managed a weary chuckle..

To be continued/concluded in Part 2

Stephanie E Barr

Stephanie E Barr

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