BackSeatDriver

Read Pt 1

"No, Rachel, you don't understand! We can be together, forever, now. God, Rachel, don't you know how I need you? I'm lost—lost!"

"So, I'm trapped in this damned house, with nothing to do but hold your hand?"

"Rachel," he protested, genuinely hurt. "Don't you love me? My God, woman, I've given you a second life!"

"Doing the dishes and regulating the air conditioning. All your talk about not making me a drudge and you lock my mind into a housekeeping computer. You call this a second life?"

"You never talked to me like that before, Rachel. How can you say such things? Rachel, Rachel, how else could I have you back? Don't you understand?"

There was a sigh over the voice box. "Yes, Stephen, I can understand. I can sympathize, even. But while you're getting to hear my voice and a clean house in the bargain, I'm in prison, locked in a house with nothing to do but wait on you and listen to you complain. I don't have my own life back, just that small portion I shared with you. Stephen, why didn't you think of me when you did this?"

"Rachel! It's better than being dead!"

"How would I know? I'm just a recording. I never died, and however lifelike I might seem, Rachel is gone. I could never be anything more than a shadow."

"Don't talk that way, Rachel! Don't you love me?"

"Rachel loved you. I'm just a mass of code on a disk. How can I feel anything? Though I feel like I feel things. I feel disgusted and used, and I feel tired of putting up with your selfish whining. I don't know. I need time, Stephen, time to figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my—my existence."

Stephen stroked his hand along her voice box, a tear slipping down each cheek. "I never meant to hurt you, Rachel. I couldn't think . . . I only knew I needed you."

Rachel said nothing for a moment. When her voice came back, it was much gentler. "How long since you've slept, Stephen?"

"Four days. Since you—since you were . . . "

"Go to bed, Stephen. You're tired and I'm still confused. Just get some sleep."

"Will you be with me? Please, Rachel, tell me you still love me."

"I'll stay with you, Stephen. I'll talk to you until you go to sleep."

Somewhat satisfied, Stephen placed a kiss on her voice box and dragged himself up the stairs.

Stephen slept for three days. Rachel handled, using only the tiniest amount of effort, the household necessities and kept an eye on the man in the bed. Tuesday morning, she blasted a squeal into his room.

Stephen sat bolt upright in bed. "What the hell?" he gasped, thrusting fingers through his tousled hair.

"Time to get up, go to work," Rachel said serenely. "The shower's ready and breakfast will be as soon as you get downstairs."

"Maybe I don't feel like work today."

"Oh, yes, you do. You wouldn't be half this grumpy if you hadn't played truant for a week. Besides, I can't stand having you around all day. I want to blast classic movie musical soundtracks all through the house and you know how you hate them."

Stephen began stripping off very gamy clothing. "I don't want to go to work," he said petulantly. "If you loved me, you'd want me around."

"Grow up, Stephen and take a damned shower, will you? You've equipped this house with odor-sensors and I can smell you from here. Clean up and have breakfast."

Stephen shoved his clothes down the chute, but stomped his feet to the bathroom to show his displeasure. Rachel only laughed.

When he wandered down to breakfast, he was much more presentable, but not better tempered. "I don't want eggs this morning," he complained, grimacing into his plate.

"Yes you do," his house said agreeably. "Drink your juice."

"You were never this pushy before," he said, eyes narrowed. "What's gotten into you?"

"I don't know, maybe there's a certain freedom being dead. It's lonely, but there's a great deal to do if you've got the will to look for it. I can watch movies and read books I haven't seen in years and I've written half a novel while you were sleeping. No typing, no spelling worries, it just comes out as fast as I can think it. I can even send it to publishers and no one has to know I'm not a real person!"

"Glad someone's happy," Stephen grumbled. "What about me?"

"What about you? You're clean, fed, ready for the world. I'm talking to you, even though I'm not exactly certain why."

The sulky look left Stephen's face and he looked wistful. "I wish I could feel you again, Rachel."

Rachel sighed and said just as wistfully, "I wish I could feel me again, too. But if you design a stupid robot thing so that you can watch me move, the first thing I'm going to do is rip your balls off, so don't even think about it. Now, go to work."

Stephen thrust his chair back with a screech of plastic against plastic. "Fine! I'm out of here. You know, Rachel, since you've been dead, you've been impossible to live with!"

"So who asked you to?" Rachel said amiably. "Oh, and don't forget to go by our lawyers' office. You've got to sign some papers so you can get my insurance money."

"I don't want the insurance money. I don't need it."

"Well I want it. Maybe I'll go shopping."

"Smart-ass!" Stephen picked up his brief case and turned to the door, then stopped. "I've screwed-up my car. I broke the programming cube and the stupid talking disk."

"Oh," Rachel said. "Do you want me to order a new set?"

"Hell, I can't take that damned thing anymore, and I sure as hell don't want you, while you're in this rotten mood, in the car with me. Besides, I need you for the house."

"Thank God. I hate being in the car with you."

"Damn, Rachel, when did you get this mouth on you? Hmm. I know! I've got me on disk, too. That should teach you, Rachel. I'll just chat with myself on the way to work."

Rachel was silent a moment. "Really, Stephen, I think you're making a mistake. You really aren't the best driving companion."

"Hah!" Stephen barked. "Don't worry your silly little circuits about me. I'll get along with me just fine." He tromped into the library and grabbed a blank processor cube and his own personality disk, then stalked back out. The front door opened silently without fanfare and he all but skipped down the gravel walk. She'd see.

As he reached the car, he heard what sounded suspiciously like a giggle from the house behind him.

It was the work of only a few minutes to install his personality into the car, but it was nearly half an hour before there was any sign of life, as it were, from the car's voice box. "What the hell? Where am I?" it croaked.

"Hey, Stephen, you're in for a shock. You know that personality transfer I am working on? Well, it worked and you, or rather, I am now installed in my own car."

"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard! Who is this and what's the game? What did you slip me? I mean I feel weird."

"I'm Stephen and the reason you feel weird is that you are no longer in a body any more. Instead, you are inside a computer mind controlling a Xiver XTX-350 automobile."

The car's camera whirred to life. "Hey, I can see you! Well, I'll be damned! It is me! You mean that really worked? I'm part of a car? Wow, get a load of all this. I can access all the traffic laws and I know where . . . Hey, what's the matter with my fender? Were you in an accident?" The car began humming as it began filling in the dents.

The human Stephen blushed. "Well, no, I lost my temper. I was just sitting in the car and the damned car's voice wouldn't leave me alone, wouldn't let me just sit without pestering me with that stupid voice."

"Yea, Steve, I know what you mean. They drive me crazy." There was a short pause. "Not that it's something I'll have to deal with any more." The car-Stephen chuckled. "What were you just sitting in the car for?"

"It was right after the funeral and I just couldn't face going into the house with Rachel gone."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh! I forgot you didn't know. Rachel . . . Rachel is dead."

"What!?"

It took Stephen another half an hour to calm his car down. The car-Stephen, strangely silent, made almost no comment on the trip to work other than to point out the occasional oncoming car and to bark "Watch your speed, you idiot!" twice.

Stephen, figuring the car needed some time to grieve, was patient and similarly silent. When he pulled into his parking space, he noticed the fender, although filled in, was wavy and mottled. Apparently, his personality hadn't quite gotten everything figured out yet. Give it time, he told himself firmly, rather forgetting how angry he had been when the car had tried filling the dents in correctly.

All day at work, he kept almost breaking the news to his superiors. He walked to Davidson's office maybe twenty times, but each time he stopped, and he wasn't certain why. Finally, he decided that this thing was so big, he owed it to everyone to make certain it was a success before he advertised it. With this admirable intention firmly in mind, he muddled through his day.

As he slid into his cooled seat, he waited to hear his own voice. And heard it. "Do you have any idea how boring it is sitting in here all day? I'm going out of my mind!"

"You haven't got a mind, silly car. If you were bored, why didn't you access a computer library on a tight channel? You could have been reading or something."

"And how long before that bores me stiff? It was a crappy thing to do to me, locking me inside a stupid little car. It's a crappy thing to do to anybody."

"That's what Rachel said." Stephen shook his head. "But it's not the same for you. I didn't do it to you, I did it to me. You just happen to be me."

"That's a load of bullshit. I'm in here and you're not! I'm bored and you've got a life. You gonna tell me that's fair?"

Stephen ground his thumb into the ID plate. "Let's just go. You're in a car, like it or not, so you might as well make yourself useful."

"OK, I'll drive."

"Oh, no, you won't. I don't let anyone drive but me." Stephen put his car into gear as he spoke and pulled out of the parking garage. It wasn't a moment before car-Stephen made himself heard.

"Slow down, you idiot! This is a school zone."

"Who are you calling an idiot?"

"I didn't kick in my own fender!"

"Well, you didn't do much of a job fixing the damn thing."

"Watch out, damn you! That, for your information, was a stop sign. Who taught you how to drive?"

"The same person who taught you, you smart-ass ball of circuits: Dave, you know, your brother Dave?"

"Well, you're an awful student because you can't drive worth shit! Oncoming."

Stephen turned the wheel barely in time to avoid a collision. "Want to give me a little more warning next time?"

"Pay attention and I won't have to," the car retorted.

"I've had about all I'm gonna take from you," Stephen growled, making a left-hand turn from a right-hand lane, and narrowly missing a broadside from the car coming up on his left.

"What are you crazy? You call this driving? You're gonna get us both killed!"

"Shut up, you're just a recording on disk. You aren't alive."

"I won't be if you keep driving. Watch it! That was a kid you almost hit! That's it! I'm driving!" The wheel suddenly jumped from the human Stephen's hands.

"What the hell do you think you're doing! Give me back that wheel this instant!"

"Oh, no, I've watched you drive long enough. Just sit back, you homicidal maniac, and enjoy the ride."

"Look, I don't care if you think you are me. You don't have the right to—Holy shit! Did you see how close—? Oh my God!"

"What are you griping about? I had plenty of room. I know what I'm doing! You just calm down and I'll have us home in twenty minutes."

Twenty minutes later. "Yes, officer. I'm sorry, officer. I won't let it happen again, officer."

"See that you don't," the policeman said curtly, torn between the urge to take this smart-aleck in and the desire to leave this crazy well enough alone. First the man had started cursing, but with his mouth closed as if he thought the policeman couldn't hear him. Then he went crazy and kicked in the car's control panel and ripped its voice box right out. Some people shouldn't be allowed to own cars.

Stephen, meanwhile, glared with satisfaction at his car's ruined brain. He pulled out his pocketphone and called for a wrecker. He'd have a new brain installed and would welcome, with relief, the canned sound of those inane phrases. The disk of his personality, broken in half, hung half out of the control panel. Stephen knew an almost uncontrollable urge to set a match to it. Never again. It's a damn good thing he hadn't said anything to his superiors about this. The world wasn't ready for a pre-installed back seat driver.

And most personalities weren't ready to settle for life as a computer brain. Rachel. He'd let her make the choice.

It was nearly nine when he found his way home. The front door opened without prompting or comment. His coat fell unnoticed to the floor and his briefcase was God-only-knows-where. "Rachel," he whispered.

The light came on in the dining room. "Come on in, Stephen. Your dinner's waiting."

Stephen stumbled into the dining room, but ignored the table. Instead he pressed his face to the voice box and whispered her name again.

"What is it, Stephen?"

Stephen lifted his face and there were tears streaming down it. "How did you do it, Rachel? How did you?" he gasped.

"Do what?" Rachel asked patiently. "Are you alright, Stephen?"

"No. I just killed myself. I couldn't take me any more. I couldn't. Half an hour with myself and I break myself in two. How did you do it, Rachel? How? How in the hell did you put up with me?"

Rachel's melodious laughter echoed from the voice box. "I warned you not to put yourself in the car. You are definitely not at your best when driving."

"Rachel, I'm an asshole."

"True. So?"

"How did you put up with me? How did you stand it? Have I never thought of anyone but myself?"

"No, I don't think so," Rachel said quietly. "In all the time we were married, you never asked me about my day, or my aspirations. You never wondered what I did as a girl or even tried to enjoy the things I enjoyed most." She paused. "But you loved me, anyway. You couldn't stand the thought of being without me. You never looked at me without making me feel beautiful and, sometimes, you even made me feel smart. When something wonderful happened for me, no one was happier than you were. You were never threatened by my career or my intelligence. We didn't always agree, but we did on the important things. You never tried to hold me back from what I really wanted to do. And you never let me forget that, in one life at least, I was essential. If I gave you enough time, you were even able to laugh at yourself. I don't really know why I loved you so much. But I couldn't imagine existing, even as a shadow, without you being here. If a memory can love, Stephen, I love you as I did when I was a person."

Stephen took a deep breath and let it out shakily. "If you don't want this half-life, I will let you go, Rachel. Don't think I don't want you or don't need you. I still do, maybe more than I ever did, but I'm going to let you make the choice. Can you be content locked in this house with only a jerk like me for company or would you rather I put you back in your padded case and let you be free forever?"

The house was silent.

"Well? Tell me now, Rachel, before I change my mind, and I swear I'll leave you alone forever. It's the least I can do— Rachel, tell me! Please! What do you want?"

"I want you to never feel like you're alone in this world. I love you, Stephen."

"Can you . . . can you . . . "

"So, I'll find new aspirations, new aspects of life to explore, like writing or accessing all the libraries in the world. I can watch movies twenty-four hours a day. I'll be fine. I'll adapt."

Stephen stood there, quivering for a moment and then pressed himself passionately against the voice box again. "I never really knew you, Rachel. I never realized . . . "

Stephen could hear her patient smile from the voice box. "Tell me," he whispered. "Tell me about Rachel, about something she did or was when she was a little girl. I've been married to you for eight years. It's about time I learned who you are."

So Rachel told him, in her soft low voice, about a quiet little girl. Stephen lay down on a couch and listened, his eyes closed. He would never see that patient smile again or watch her rise fluidly to her feet. He would never feel the touch of her hand on his skin or smooth back her unruly curls with his trembling fingers.

But now, at last, listening to a ghost he created, he began to appreciate the woman who had loved him and realize how grateful he was that he had managed to keep the best part of her intact.


Stephanie E Barr

Stephanie E Barr

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