10030 words, novelette, REPRINT
I was only nine when it happened, so I may not have the details absolutely right. But I know the heart of my story, and the heart is always what matters in a tale like mine.
My family didn’t have much when I was growing up. A lot of lean years happened in that first half of the century. I don’t say I had it as tough as my mom did, but the 2030’s weren’t a piece of cake for anyone. My brother, my mom, and I lived in subsidized housing in the part of T-town they call New Tacoma. It sure wasn’t new when I was a kid. Tacoma’s always been a tough town, and my mom said that her grandpa kept her on a short leash and she survived it, and so her kids would, too. Everyone knew we had the strictest mom in our apartments and pitied us for it.
We weren’t like a lot of folks in the subsidized housing. Mom was ashamed to be there. It was the only thing she took from the government, and I think if she had been alone, she would have lived on the streets. We got by on what she made working at an old folks’ home, so we budgeted hard. She cooked our meals from scratch and we carried our lunches to school in the same battered lunch boxes and stained backpacks, year after year. She mended our clothes and we shopped at the Goodwill. Our cellphones were clunky and we all shared one computer. And we didn’t have a car.
Then my great grandpa died. Mom had hardly seen him in years, and we kids didn’t know him at all, but she was in his will. She got what was left in his checking account, which wasn’t much, and the old furniture in his apartment, which was mostly particle board crap. The old rocking chair was good, and the ceramic canisters shaped like mushrooms were cool. Mom said they were really old and she remembered them from when she was little. But the one big thing he did have was a car, parked in his parking slot where it had been gathering dust for the last twelve years since they’d taken his license away.
The car was vintage, and not in a good way. Back in the 2020’s, there was this rage for making new energy efficient cars that looked sort of like the old classic gas guzzlers. People wanted rumble and roomy to go with their solar and alternative fuels. I guess my great grandpa had been a surfer back in the day, because what he chose was something that was supposed to look like a station wagon. The first time we went down to the parking garage and looked at it, Ben, my older brother, groaned and asked, “What is that crap on the sides? Is it supposed to look like wood or something?”
“Or something,” my mom said absently. She pushed the button on the key but the battery for it was long dead. So she opened the car the old fashioned way, putting the key in a hole in the door handle. I was fascinated and proud of my mom for knowing you could do that.
The outside of the car was covered in fine dust, but inside, it was immaculate. She sat in the seat for a little while with her hands on the wheel, acting like she could see out the windshield. She was smiling a little bit. Then she said, “The smart thing to do is sell him. If the interior is this good, I bet he kept the engine cherry, too.” She reached down and pulled a little handle, and Ben and I jumped when the hood of the car popped up.
“Mom, I think you broke it,” Ben said. “Maybe we shouldn’t touch anything until we can have a mechanic look at it.” Ben was fourteen then, and for some reason, he now believed that if he didn’t know something, Mom didn’t know it either. She just snorted and got out of the car and went around to open the hood the rest of the way.
“My goodness,” she said softly. “You did take care of him, Pops.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I do remember that the inside of that engine compartment was spotless. She shut the hood, unplugged the car from the supplemental charger, and retracted the coil. She had a license and knew how to drive, because that was part of her job at the old people’s home. I was still surprised when she slid in behind the wheel and put the key in a slot-thing and turned it. The vehicle had an anti-theft box on the steering column. She hesitated, and then put her forefinger on the sensor. “Hello, Suzanne,” the car said in a rich, brown voice. “How are you today?”
“Just fine,” she said quietly. “Just fine.”
Ben was freaked. Mom noticed that and grinned. She patted the steering column. “My grandpa’s voice. A little customization he did on the systems.” She tossed her head at the back seat. Ben opened the door and we both got in. There were shoulder strap seat belts.
“No airbags?” Ben asked in disbelief.
“They’re there. But when he was new, cars had both. It’s safe. I wouldn’t put you in a car if I thought it wasn’t safe.” She closed her eyes for a minute and tightened up her mouth as if she had suddenly wanted to cry. Then she opened her eyes and shifted her grip on the wheel. “Let’s blast,” she said loud and clear, and the engine started. It was a lot louder than any other car I’d ever heard. Mom had to raise her voice to talk over it. “And when he was new, cars were electric AND internal combustion. And much noisier than they are now.”
Ben was horrified. “This car is running on gasoline, right now?”
Mom shook her head. “Sound effects. And loudest inside the car. My Grandpa had a sense of humor.” She stroked the car’s dash. “All those years, and he never took me off the security system.”
“How smart is this car?” Ben demanded.
“Smart enough,” she said. “He can take himself to a fueling station. Knows when his tires are low on air, and can schedule his own oil change. He used to talk to the dealership; I wonder if it’s even in business still. He’s second generation simulated intelligence. Sure fooled me, most of the time. He has a lot of personality customization in his software. My grandpa put in a bunch of educational stuff, too. He can speak French. He used to drill me on my vocabulary on the way to school. And he knew all my favorite radio stations.” She shook her head. “Back then, people wanted their cars to be their friends. He sure was mine.”
“That’s whack,” Ben said solemnly.
“No, it was great. I loved it. I loved him.”
“Love you too, Suzanne,” the car said. His voice was a rich baritone.
“You should sell this thing, Mom,” Ben advised her wisely.
“Maybe I should,” Mom said, but the way she said it, I knew that we had a car now.
Ben had begun to think he was the man of the house, so he tried to start an argument with Mom about selling this car and using that money and her inheritance money to buy a real car. She just looked at him and said, “Seems to me it’s my inheritance, not yours. And I’m keeping him.”
And so that was that.
She opened a little panel on his dash and punched in our address. She moved a handle on the steering column, and the car began to ease backwards. I held my breath, thinking we were going to hit something, but we didn’t. She stopped the car, moved the handle again, and we slid forward, smooth as a slide, up and out of the parking garage and into the daylight.
On the way home, she kept pushing buttons and chatting with the car. It didn’t have instant-net, but it had a screen that folded down from the ceiling. “What good is that? You have to sit in the back seat to see it,” Ben complained. Mom reached under the seat and opened a drawer. Inside was a bunch of old style DVD’s in flat plastic cases.
“They’re movies,” she said. “Supposed to entertain the kids in the back seat. The screen is back there so the driver won’t be distracted.” She picked up the stack and began to sort through them. She had a wistful half-smile on her face. “I remember all of these,” she said quietly. “Some were my favorites.”
“So the driver’s supposed to just sit up front by himself and be bored?” Ben demanded.
She set the movies down with a sigh and turned to him. “The driver is supposed to drive.” She turned back and put her hands on the wheel and looked out over the hood. “When this fellow was built, cars were only allowed to go a short distance without a licensed driver in the driver’s seat. Less than a mile, I think it was. The auto-brains were really limited back then. Legally limited more than technically limited. People didn’t really trust cars to drive themselves. They had emergency services locators, of course, so they could take you to the hospital if you passed out, and sensors to help you park, but when he was built, drivers still did most of the driving.”
“Why do you keep calling the car ‘he’ and ‘him’?” Ben demanded.
“Old habit,” my mom said, but she said it in a way that ended the conversation.
We had a parking spot at our building that we’d never used before. The first time we pulled up in the car, every kid hanging around outside came to see what the noise was. They watched as the car plugged in to charge. Our car was about twice as long as any other car in the lot.
“Look at the size of those solars,” one boy whispered, and Ben’s ears went red.
“Old piece of junk,” said another knowingly. “Surprised it still runs at all.”
Mom did the one thing that Ben hated the most. I didn’t much like it either. All the other moms in the building would have just ignored the wanna-be gangers hanging around the parking lot. Mom always looked straight at them and talked to them as if they were smart, even when they were so drugged out they could barely stand.
“He’s old, but he runs like a clock. He’ll probably outlast most of the Tupperware crates here. They still used a lot of steel when this guy was built.” Mom set the alarm, and the tattle-tale light began to circle the car.
“Wha’s that stuff onna size spozed to be?” Leno asked. He was smiling. Leno was always smiling, and I’d never seen him with his eyes more than half open. He looked delighted to see the car, but I’d seen him look just as enthusiastically at a lamp post.
“It’s wood. Well, pseudo wood. My Grandpa was so proud of it. It was one of the first nano-products used on any car. It was the latest thing, back then. Guaranteed not to peel or fade or scratch, and to feel like wood grain. Most minor dents, it could repair, too.” She sighed, smiled and shook her head, remembering something. Then, “Come on, kids. Dinner to cook and homework to do.”
“Homework,” one of the boys sneered, and two girls laughed low. We ignored her and followed her into the house.
Ben was mad at her. “How come you know so much about that car? I thought you didn’t have anything to do with your grandpa. I thought he, like, disowned you when you were a kid or something.”
Mom gave him a look. She never talked much about her family. As far as I remembered, it had always been just her, Ben, and me. Someone must have been our father, but I’d never met him. And if Ben remembered him, he didn’t say much. Mom firmed her mouth for a minute and then said brusquely, “My grandpa and I really loved each other. I made some choices in my life that he didn’t agree with. So he was really angry with me for a long time, and I was angry with him. But we always knew we still loved one another. We just never got around to making up in time to say it.”
“What decisions?” I asked.
“Getting knocked up with me,” Ben said, low. Either Mom didn’t hear him say it or she didn’t want to discuss it.
So, after that, we had a car. Not that we drove it much. But Mom polished it with special wax, cleaned his solars, and vacuumed out the inside and hung up an old-fashioned pine tree scent thing from the mirror. Once we came home from school on the bus, and found her asleep in the driver’s seat, her hands on the wheel. She was smiling in her sleep. Every once in a while, on the weekend, she might take us out for a ride in the station wagon. Ben always said he didn’t want to go, but then went.
She didn’t upgrade the car but she made it ours. She put us both on the car’s security system, and updated the old GPS settings with our home, school’s, the hospital, and the police station, so in an emergency either of us could get help. The car greeted us by name. Ben pretty much ignored its personality program, but I talked to it. It knew a lot of corny old jokes and had a strange program called “Road Trip Games” about license plates and “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral.” I tried out every seat in the car. I watched some of the old movies on the little screen, but they were really long and the people talked too much. My favorite seat was the one in the back that faced backwards. I liked watching the faces of the people as they came up behind our car. Lots of them looked surprised. Some of them smiled and waved, and some turned their heads to look at the car as they passed us. The only time I didn’t like it was at night when the headlights of the cars behind us would hit me right in the eyes.
The car was a sometimes thing, and mostly it didn’t change anything about our life. Sometimes, when it was pouring rain and we had to walk to the bus stop and then walk home again, Ben would grumble. Other parents sent their cars to pick up their kids from school. Ben whined about this a lot. “Why can’t the wagon pick us up from school when it’s pouring rain?” he’d demand of her.
“Your grandfather was a ‘drive it yoursel’ guy. Like me. I doubt he ever had the block removed.”
“Then it’s just a software thing? You could take it off?”
“Don’t get any ideas, Benny-boy!” Mom warned him.
And for a while, he didn’t. But then he turned fifteen. And Mom decided to teach him to drive.
Ben wasn’t that interested at first. Most kids didn’t bother with a personal license anymore. As long as a car met the legal standards, anyone could get in it and go. I knew little kindergarteners who were dropped off by their cars each day and then picked up again. Mom said it was stupid that it took 3000 pounds of car to transport a 40 pound kid to school, but lots of people did it. Ben and I both knew that Mom could have had the car’s brain upgraded or unblocked or whatever, and we could have had wheels any time we wanted them. But she chose not to. She told Ben the only way he was going to get to use the car was if he knew how to physically drive it. Once he passed his test, she told him that we might even have it updated so that he could just kick back and tell the car where he wanted to go.
So, that was the big attraction for Ben. I got to ride along on his driving lessons. At first Mom took us way out of town in the evenings and made him practice in parking lots outside vacant strip malls. But Ben actually learned to drive pretty well. He said it wasn’t that different from a lot of his video games. Then Mom reminded him that he couldn’t kill himself or someone else with a video game. She was so serious about it, and Ben got so cranky. It was a thing they went through for about a year I think. Any conversation about the car always turned into an argument. He hated the “dorky” paint and wood on it; she said it was “vintage” and “classic.” He said we should get a cheaper car; she said that all the metal in the body made it safer for him to drive, and that he should be happy we had a car at all. Their conversations were always the same. I think Ben said, “I know, I know!” more than a million times that year. And Mom was always saying, “Shut up and listen to what I’m saying.”
Ben was absolutely set on getting the car upgraded so he could ride around with his friends. Most of his friends’ parents had said “no way” to them riding if Ben was actually driving the car, even after he got his license. He kept telling Mom how the car would be safer if it could drive itself and how we could get better mileage because it would self-adjust routes to avoid traffic or to take short cuts, and that statistics showed that car-brains actually reacted faster than human brains in dangerous situations.
“Maybe so, but they can only react one way, and human brains can think of a dozen ways to react in a tough situation. So the answer is still no. Not yet. Maybe never.”
Mom scored big points on him the next week when there were dozens of accidents on I-5 that involved driverless cars. Mom didn’t care that it was because of a virus that someone had uploaded to the traffic beam. No one knew who did it. Some people said it was an environmental group that wanted to discourage private cars. Other people thought it was just a new generation of hackers making their mark on the world. “It wasn’t the cars’ fault, Mom!” Ben argued. “The beacon gave them bad information.”
“But if a human had been holding the steering wheel, none of those accidents would have happened,” Mom said. And that was the end of it, for a couple of months.
Then in June, Ben and Mom got into it big time. He came home from school one day and took the car without asking. He brought it home painted black, with a rippling hint of darker tiger stripes. I stood and stared at it when he pulled into the apartment building parking lot. “Cool, huh?” he asked me. “The stripes move. The faster you drive, the faster the nanos ripple.”
“Where’d you get the money to do it?” I asked him, and when he said, “None of your business,” I knew it was really going to blow up.
And it did, but even worse than I’d expected. By the time Mom came home from work, the vintage nanos in the “wood” paneling were at war with the tiger stripe nanos. The car looked, as mom put it, “Like a pile of crawling crap! What were you thinking?”
And they were off, with him saying that the black made the car look better and that the new nanos would win over the old ones and the color would even out. When it came out that he’d raided his college money for the paint job, she was furious.
“It was too good of a deal to pass up! It was less than half what it would cost in a standard paint shop!”
So that was how she found out he’d had it done in one of those car-painting tents that had been popping up near malls and swap meets. They were mobile services that fixed dings in windshields or replaced them entirely. They could install seat covers, and add flames or pin stripes. The shady ones could override parental controls for music or video or navigation systems, erase GPS tracking and alter mileage used. Or, in the one Ben had gone to, do an entire nano-paint job in less than an hour. With the new nanos, they didn’t even use sprayers anymore. They dumped the stuff on and the nanos spread out to cover any previously painted surfaces. The men operating the paint tent had promised Ben that their nanos were state of the art and could subdue any previous nanos in the car’s paint.
Mom was so furious that she made us get in the car and we drove back to where Ben had had it done. By law, they should have looked at the owner registration before they nanoed it. Mom wanted Ben’s money back and was hoping they had call-back nanos that would remove the black. But no such luck. When we got to where the tent had been, there was nothing but a heap of empty nano jars and some frustrated paint crawling around on the ground trying to cover crumpled pop cans. My mom called the cops, because it’s illegal to abandon nanos, and they said they’d send out a containment team. She didn’t wait for them. We just went home. When we got there, Ben jumped out of the car and stormed into the house. Mom got out more slowly and stood looking at our car with the saddest expression I’d ever seen on her face.
“I’m so sorry, Old Paint,” she told the car. And that was how the car got his name, and also when I realized how much her grandpa’s car had meant to her. Ben had done a lot worse thing than just paint a car without her permission. I thought that when he calmed down, I might try to explain that to him. Then I thought that maybe the best thing for me to do was to stay out of it.
The paint on the car just got worse and worse. Those old nanos were tough. The wood paneling took to migrating around on the car’s body, trying to escape the attacks of the new paint. It looked scabby as if the car were rotting. Ben didn’t want to be seen in the car anymore but Mom was merciless. “This was your decision, and you are going to have to live with it just like the rest of us,” she told him. And she would send him on the errands, to get groceries or to return the library books, so he would have to drive Old Paint.
A couple months later, my mom stayed home with stomach flu. She woke up feeling better in the afternoon, and went to the window to look out at the day. That was when she discovered Old Paint was gone. My brother and I were on the bus when we got her furious call. “You probably think you are smart, Benny Boy, but what you are in is big trouble. Very big trouble.” He was trying to figure out why she was so angry when the bus went crazy. Ben dropped his phone bracing himself and me on the slippery seat. Mom told us later that the Teamsters contract with the city had always insisted that every city-owned mass transit unit had to have a nominal driver. So when the bus started honking its horn and flashing its light and veering back and forth over three lanes, the old man in the driver’s seat reached up and threw the manual override switch. He grabbed the wheel and wrestled us over to the curb and turned off the engine.
The driver apologized to everyone and asked us all to sit tight until the maintenance people could come. He called in for a replacement bus, but everyone on the bus heard the dispatcher’s hysterical response. Twelve bus break-downs in the last ten minutes, three involving bad accidents, and there were no more replacement buses to send. In the background, someone shouted that an out of control ambulance had just rear-ended a bus. Dispatch put the driver on hold.
We were only three blocks short of our stop, so we asked to get off and walk. Ben grabbed his phone off the floor but Mom had hung up and he didn’t really want to find out just what she had discovered that had made her so mad. Ben had a lot of secrets in those days, from rolling papers in his gym bag to a follow up appointment at the STD clinic. Not that I was supposed to know about any of them.
We’d gone half a block when we heard the bus start up. We looked back and saw it take off. I’d never known a city bus could accelerate like that. We were staring after it, wondering what had happened, when a VW Cherub jumped the curb and nearly hit us. It high-centered for just a second, wheels spinning and smoking, and two kids jumped out of the back seat, screaming. A moment later, it reversed out into the street and raced off, still going backwards. The teenage girl who had jumped out was crying and holding onto her little brother. “The car just went crazy! The car just went crazy!”
A man from a corner bar-and-grill opened the door and shouted, “You kids get inside NOW!”
We all hesitated, but then he pointed up the street and yelled, “OMG, now, kids!” and we bolted in as the Hot Pizza delivery van came right down the sidewalk. It clipped the awning supports as it went by and the green-and-white striped canvas came rippling down behind us as we jumped inside.
The place was a sports bar, and a couple of times we’d had pizza there with mom when her favorite team was in the play-offs. Usually every screen in the place was on a different sports feed, but that day they all showed the same rattled newsman. He was telling everyone to stay inside if they could, to avoid vehicles of all kinds and to stay tuned for updates to the mad vehicle crisis.
Ben finally called Mom and told her where we were, because the tavern owner refused to let us leave by ourselves. When Mom got there, she thanked him, and then took us home by a route that went down narrow alleys and through peoples’ back yards. Every few minutes, we’d hear a car go roaring past on the streets, or hear horns blaring or crashes in the distance.
Not every vehicle in the city had gone wild, but a lot of them had, including Old Paint. Mom had been mad because she thought Ben had upgraded Old Paint’s self-driving capability by removing the block on his software. She looked a bit skeptical when he denied it but by late evening the news people had convinced her. The virus was called the “7734, upside down and backwards” by the hacker group that took credit for it. Because if you wrote 7734 on a piece of paper and looked at it upside down and backwards, it looked a little bit like the word “hell.” They said they did it to prove they could. No one knew how they spread it, but our neighbor said that zombie nanos delivered it right to the cars’ driving computers. He said that the nanos were planted in a lot of car stuff, from wiper fluid to coolant and even paint. So Ben said there was no proof he’d infected the car when he got it painted, but that was what Mom always believed.
By evening, the Internet news said the crisis would solve itself pretty fast. For a lot of cars, it did. They wrecked themselves. Cops and vigilantes took out some of the obvious rogues, shooting out their tires. It made the owners pretty angry and the insurance companies were arguing about whether they had to pay off. The government had people working on a nano anti-virus that they could spray on rogues, but nothing they tried seemed to work. Some people wanted all the auto-recharging places shut down but people with uninfected cars objected. Finally they decided to leave the auto charge stations open because some of the rogue cars got aggressive about recharging themselves when they encountered closed stations.
Mom tried to explain it to me. Cars had different levels of smartness, and people could set priority levels on what they wanted the cars to do for themselves. A lot of people had set their “recharge importance” level high because they wanted the car kept charged to maximum capacity. Others had set their cars to always travel as fast as they were allowed, and turned the courtesy level down to low or even off. There was a pedestrian awareness level that was not supposed to be tampered with, but some people did it. Pizza delivery cars and ambulances were some of the most dangerous rogues.
At first, the virus paralyzed the nation. It didn’t infect every car, but the ones that had it caused traffic accidents and made the streets dangerous. No one wanted to go out. Schools shifted to snow-day internet mode. The stores got low on groceries and the only delivery trucks were vintage semis, with no brains at all and old guys driving them.
By the third week, the infection rate was down, and most of the really dangerous rogues had been disabled. That left a lot of cars still running wild. Some seemed to follow their normal routines, but speeded up or took alternate routes. Kids were warned not to get into infected cars, even if it was the family van waiting outside the school at the usual time, because sometimes those cars behaved reliably, and sometimes they abruptly went nuts. A new little business started up, with bounty hunters tracking down people’s expensive vehicles by GPS and then capturing them and disabling them until the virus could be cured. But some owners couldn’t afford that service or the car wasn’t worth what the bounty hunters charged.
So Old Paint was left running wild. At first, we’d see him in the neighborhood at odd times. He always drove himself very safely, and he just seemed to be randomly wandering. Twice we caught him in our parking spot, recharging himself, but each time he took off before we could get near him, let alone open his doors. Mom said to leave him alone, and she’d worry about it when the government came up with an anti-virus. Then we stopped seeing him at all.
One night, when Ben was really bummed about not having a car for some school dance that was coming up, he checked Old Paint’s GPS. “That crazy bastard went to California!” he shouted, half impressed by it.
“Let me see that,” Mom said, and then she started laughing. “I took him there one spring break when I told Grandpa I was only going to Ocean Shores. I wiped all the data off his GPS before I came home. I guess the virus must have brought it back into his memory.”
“You did things like that? You’d kill me if I did something like that!”
“I was young,” Mom said. She smiled in an odd way. “Sometimes, I think being a teenager is like a virus. You do things that go against every bit of programming your parents ever put into you.” She made a “huh” noise as if she were pushing something away. She looked over a Ben. “Becoming a parent is the antivirus. Cured me of all sorts of things.”
“So how come you don’t let me just be a teenager like you were?” Ben demanded.
Mom just looked at him. “Because I learned, the hard way, just how dangerous that can be to a kid. Running wild is a great thing. For the kids that survive it.” She turned off the monitor then, and told us both to go to bed.
In the weeks that followed, Old Paint went all sorts of strange places. Once he went off to some place in the Olympic National Forest where Mom had once gone to a rave. And he spent two days crawling around on an old logging trail near Chrystal Mountain. Mom looked worried when he went off on that jaunt, and the night she discovered that he was now headed for Lake Chelan, she was so relieved she laughed. In a way, it was really cool that Old Paint did all that traveling. Mom would look at his location at night, and tell us stories about when she was a teenager and living with her Grandpa and making him crazy. She’d tell us about close calls and stupid ideas and how close she had come to getting killed or arrested. Ben and I both started to see her differently, like someone who really had been a kid once. She didn’t cut us any more slack than she ever had, but we began to understand why.
We kept expecting Old Paint to run out of charge, but he didn’t. He’d go sedately through the auto-charge places, I guess, looking like some family’s old car. Ben asked Mom why she didn’t block him from using the credit card, and she just shrugged. I think she enjoyed reliving all her wild adventures. And he wasn’t that expensive. A lot of cars had back-up solar systems, and Old Paint had a really extensive one. Sometimes he’d stay in one place for three or four days, and Mom figured he was just soaking up the rays before moving on. “And if I cut him off, then he may never come home to us.” She gave an odd smile, one that wasn’t happy and added, “Tough love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, when you lock a door, the other person never knocks on it again.”
So, as the weeks passed, we watched Old Paint move up and down Old 99. Ben and I went back to walking. All the city buses and delivery vans had been set back to full manual, and all sorts of old guys were chortling about being suddenly employed again. My mom said it was a huge victory for the Teamsters, and some people insinuated they had backed the hackers.
The government people came up with three different anti-viruses, and everyone was required to install them in their vehicles. The trick, of course, was getting the scrubber nanos and anti-virus program to the infected vehicles. Everyone with an infected vehicle was required to report it, and Mom had filled out the forms. A package came in the mail with the scrubber nanos in a spray can and a booklet on how to disinfect the car and then install the antivirus. Mom set it on the kitchen windowsill and it gathered dust.
By the end of summer, most of the infected vehicles were off the road. They’d either destroyed themselves or, in the case of the really aggressive ones, been hunted down and disabled. There were still incidents almost every day. Three fire trucks in San Francisco were scrambled for a five alarm fire, and instead they went on a wild rampage through the city. Someone deliberately infected fifteen Harley-Davidsons parked outside a bar with a variant of the virus, and ten of the Hells Angels who mounted them and rode away died a mile later. A fuel delivery business in Anchorage faced huge fines when it was determined that they had neglected to use the proper anti-virus. The fines for the environmental clean up were even bigger.
In late September, during a heavy rainstorm, I spotted Old Paint near the school. He was idling at the curb, and I ran toward him, but Ben grabbed me by the shoulder. “He’s infected. You can’t trust him,” he warned me in a harsh whisper. He looked over his shoulder, fearful that someone else might have overhead. By then, they were disabling even non-aggressive vehicles because they thought they might be able to infect other vehicles. As we walked toward the bus stop, Old Paint slowly edged down the street after us.
“Why is he here? He never did auto-pick-up for us.”
“It’s in his programming. He knows what school we go to, and what time we get out. Mom put it in just in case she wanted to use it someday. Probably just glitching.”
When we got on the bus, Old Paint revved his engine, honked twice and passed us. When Mom got home from work, we told her and she smiled. That night, really late, I heard her get out of bed and I followed her to the living room. We peeked out the rain-streaked window and Old Paint was charging himself at our parking slot.
“Doesn’t look so bad for being on the road so long,” Mom said. She smiled. “I bet I’ll find a car wash and oil change on my credit card bill this month.”
I went to the kitchen and came back with the scrubber and anti-virus. “Shall we try to catch him?” I asked.
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Not in the rain. Let him get used to coming at night to charge. On a dry night, I’ll go down and spray him.”
And we went back to bed.
September became October. I saw Old Paint in the streets sometimes and I suspect he came and charged up at our place more than once. But the weather stayed wet and that was Mom’s excuse for not trying to catch him. Ben was playing football for his school and seemed so different it was like aliens had re-programmed my brother. Most days, I had to ride the bus alone. I noticed that Old Paint would show up at the school on the really stormy days and shadow me until I was on the bus. Once he was at my bus stop and followed me home. I knew I wasn’t supposed to get inside him, but no one had said I couldn’t talk to him. So I edged toward him as he followed the sidewalk and ran my fingers along his fender. “I miss you, Old Paint,” I told him. The locks bit down, he revved his engine and leaped away from the curb. He tore off through the afternoon traffic with other cars honking at him. It really hurt my feelings. I didn’t tell Mom or Ben. I was afraid she might report him as borderline aggressive and give his GPS code to the police.
January brought really nasty weather. Snow fell, melted into black ice, and more snow fell. For a solid week, the cycle repeated. The worst part was that all the busses were running on the “snow routes” that avoided hills. So our usual three block walk to the bus stop became six blocks to a main street. Each day, Old Paint was outside our apartments, edging along behind us as we walked to the bus stop. Ben ignored him, except to cuss that he could be inside a warm car instead of wading through snow and ice. Our bus stop was right in front of a charging station.
There was a line for the quick charge, and while we were waiting for the bus, a black van pulled up, blocking a car in. The lettering on the sign said Road Dog Recoveries. “Bounty hunters!” Ben said. “Cool. Watch this.”
They fanned out around the car they wanted. A man in a car at the end of the line shouted, “Don’t shoot those so close to the station!” Because they had their special tire piercing guns out and were taking aim at the red Beamer they had blocked in.
But that wasn’t the car they should have been watching. Two cars back in line, a black sedan with big wheels suddenly cranked its wheels and cut right through the median and the bushes and right at us. It hit one of the men as it did so and he went flying. The other men all fired at it. And missed. Then the red car freaked out, backed into the car behind it to gain a bit of space, and it shot over the curb into the median and high centered.
Ben grabbed me and jerked me to one side, but it wasn’t quite enough. I hadn’t even seen the black sedan coming toward us. It clipped me and the impact snatched me out of Ben’s grip. I went flying and rolling out into the street. When I hit the ground, I slid on the black ice and I thought I was never going to stop. Ben was yelling, cars were honking, and when I finally stopped the whole world was spinning. But I was okay. I got up. Ben was running toward me.
Then my arm started really hurting and I realized I couldn’t move it. I screamed. And Ben shouted, “RUN! Run, Sadie, get out of there!”
The black sedan had slewed around and was coming back at me. Later, I found out that it had belonged to a security service and had an attack mode if anyone tried to harm the VIP inside. It had interpreted the bounty hunters as assassins. No one could say why it came after me. But as it came at me and I turned to run, I saw something even scarier. Old Paint was roaring at me, full speed in reverse. I was going to be crushed between the two cars. I screamed, the black sedan hit me, and I was airborne.
But Old Paint’s rear door had opened upwards and as I flew toward him, he shifted into first, burned rubber and faded away from me like a catcher back-pedaling for a fly ball. I landed in the rear-facing back seat as air bags blossomed. It wasn’t exactly a soft landing, but his actions meant that it was the softest possible landing. I collapsed there as the hatch was closing, and then I fainted as his air bags puffed up all around me.
I woke up on the way to the emergency room. I couldn’t see anything because I was surrounded by air bags. I heard Ben shouting my name and then he was pushing the bags back. He was in the middle seat, leaning over the back, trying to reach me. “Who’s driving?” I asked, but he only shouted, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”
Old Paint ignored traffic signals and one way signs all the way to the hospital. Horns blaring and recorded voice shouting, “Emergency! Emergency! Out of the way, please! Emergency!” he beat out an ambulance and was opening the back hatch as he backed up to the emergency room loading dock. Ben jumped out, screaming for someone to help his sister. The air bags around me deflated and people in white lifted me out. I had one glimpse of Old Paint as he roared away from the ramp. His rear bumper was pushed in and his back window was crazed.
“What happened to Old Paint?” I cried. They had me on a gurney and were rolling me in. Ben trotted beside me, his cell phone to his ear.
“Compared to that black sedan? Nothing. He worked that car over until it couldn’t even turn a wheel. Slammed into it over and over. I thought you were going to be creamed in there. Mom?” Ben talked into his phone. “Mom, yeah, we’re at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. Sadie got hit by a car, but Old Paint saved her. Come fast, they want our insurance number and I don’t know it.”
I wasn’t hurt that bad. My arm was broken and I was bruised all over. They kept me six hours for observation, but my concussion was mild. Mom stayed by my bed. Two cops came to ask what happened. Ben said a crazy car had hit me. Mom said she had no idea what good Samaritan had picked me up and gotten me to the hospital, but she thanked them. The policewoman said that the other witnesses had said the car had behaved in an extraordinary manner to save me. Ben looked at Mom and said, “Some old dude was driving it. After he busted up that black car, he opened the door and yelled at me to jump in. He said he drove in stock car races, demolition derbies when he was a kid. Then he brought us here. He left because he didn’t want to get in trouble.”
The cops asked him some more questions, but Ben just kept saying, “I don’t remember” or “I didn’t see, I was worried about my sister.” After they finally left, my mom said very quietly, “I hope the charging station didn’t catch the plates on camera.”
Ben just looked at her. “Yeah. Me, too,” he said. “But I couldn’t let them go out and disable him after he saved Sadie’s life.”
Mom took a deep breath. “Ben. Sadie. We both know it’s probably going to come down to that, eventually. He can’t run wild forever. And we all know that Old Paint is just following the directives of his programming. He’s not really . . . alive. He seems that way because we think of him that way. But it’s all just programming.”
“Saving Sadie’s life? Catching her in the back seat like that, cushioning her with air bags while he pounded that sedan into scrap?” Ben laughed and shook his head. “You won’t convince me of that, Mom.”
The hospital let me go home that evening. We all went to bed right away. But about midnight, I heard my mom get up, so I did, too. She was looking out through the blinds at our parking stall.
“Is he there? Is he okay?”
“No, baby, he’s not here. Go back to bed.”
Ben and I overslept the next morning and didn’t go to school. Mom hadn’t bothered waking us. We had a good six inches of snow outside, and school was cancelled for the day. When we came out to the living room, Mom was sitting at the computer watching a dot on a map. It wasn’t moving. There was a backpack at her feet and a heap of winter clothes beside her.
“You kids get your homework off Moodle,” she said. “I’m going to be gone for a while.” She sounded funny.
“No,” Ben said. “We’re going with you.”
We hiked through the snow to a bus stop and took a bus to a City Car rental lot and checked out a tiny car. Riding in it after riding in Old Paint was like crowding into a shower stall together. Mom sat in the single front seat and Ben and I had the back seat. There was barely room for us with our coats on. Mom plugged in the coordinates, and the car demanded that she scan her credit card again. It had a prissy girl’s voice. “MacIntosh Lake is outside of Zones 1 through 12. Additional fees will apply,” the car told her.
She thumbed for them. The car didn’t move. “Hazardous conditions are reported. Cancellation recommended. You will not be charged if you terminate this transaction now.”
Mom sighed. “Just go,” she said, and we went. It wasn’t too bad. The main roads had been plowed and salted, and once we got on I-5, the plows and the other traffic had cleared most of the mess down to almost pavement. It felt really odd not to have Old Paint’s bulk around me and I leaned against Ben.
We didn’t talk much as the car hummed along. Ben had tossed a bunch of stuff in his backpack, including my pain medicine and a water bottle. I took a pill and slept most of the way. I woke up to Ben saying, “But there’s a chain across the access road.”
“So we’ll get out here,” Mom said.
I sat up. We were out in the country, and the only tracks on the snowy road behind us were ours. It was a very strange feeling. All I could see was wind-smoothed white snow and snow-laden trees on either side of the narrow road. We had pulled off the road into a driveway and stopped. There were two big yellow posts in front of us, with a heavy chain hung between them. A hunter-orange sign said, “CLOSED.” The road in front of us was mostly smooth snow and it wound out of sight into the woods.
Mom told the car to wait and it obediently shut down. We struggled back into our coats. None of us had real snow boots. Mom grabbed her pack and Ben brought his as we stepped out into smooth snow. The skies had cleared and it was cold. This snow wouldn’t melt any time soon. Ben followed Mom and she followed the ghost tire tracks that left the road and went around the access gate to the lake. Snow had almost filled them and the wind was polishing them away. I came last, stepping in their footprints. Mom pulled her coat tighter as we walked and said, “There were some great raves out here when I was in high school. But in summer.”
“What would you do to me if I went to a rave out in the woods?” Ben asked.
Mom just looked at him. We both knew he’d been to raves out in the woods. Ben shut up.
Mom saw Old Paint before we did, and she broke into a run. Old Paint was shut down, back under the trees. Snow was mounded over him; only the funky paint job on his sides showed. Twigs and leaves had fallen on his snowy roof during the night. His windows were thick with frost. He looked to me like he’d been there for years. As we got closer, his engine ticked twice and then went silent. Mom halted and flung out her arms. “Stay back, kids,” she warned us. Then she went forward alone.
She talked to him in a low voice as she walked slowly around the car. She kept shaking her head. Ben and I ignored what she’d said and walked slowly forward. Old Paint was still. Both his front and back bumpers were pushed in and he had a long crease down his passenger side. One of his headlights was cracked. His rear license plate hung by a single screw. “He’s dead,” I said, and I felt my eyes start to sting.
“Not quite,” my Mom said grimly. “He doesn’t have enough of a charge to move. His nanos have been trying to pop his dents out and fix his glass but that will take time.” She went around to the driver door and unlocked it with a key. She leaned in and popped the hood, and then tossed the keys to Ben. “Look in the back. There’s a hatch in the floor. Open it. Get out the stuff in there. Looks like we’re going to need Grandpa’s emergency kit.”
She dropped her pack on the ground in the snow and then wrestled a Charge-In-A-Box out of it. Ben and I were staring at her. “Hurry up!” she snapped.
We walked to the back of the car. Mom already had the cables out and she plugged Old Paint in. His horn tooted faintly. “Easy, big fella,” my brother said as he slid the key into the lock. He saw me looking at him and said, “Just shut up.”
We pushed the deflated air bags out of the way. We found the floor hatch and opened it. “Look at all this stuff!” My brother exclaimed. My mom walked back and looked in. She had a grim smile as she said, “My grandpa was always trying to keep me safe. He tried to think of everything to protect me. ‘Plan for the worst and hope for the best,’ he always said.” She took a deep breath and then sighed it out. “So. Let’s get to work.”
Ben and I more watched than worked. It was weird to watch her fix Old Paint. She was so calm. She pulled his dipstick, wiped it on her jeans, studied it, and then added something out of a can. Then she pulled another dipstick, checked it, and nodded. She checked wires and some she tightened. She replaced two fuses. She looked inside his radiator and then felt around under it. “No leaks!” she said. “That’s a miracle.” She stepped back and shut the hood.
Old Paint woke up. His engine turned over and then quit. Turned over again, ran a bit rough and then smoothed out. He sounded hoarse to me as he said, “Right front tire is flat. Do not attempt to move the vehicle.”
“There’s Fix-A-Flat in there,” Ben said, and Mom said, “Get it.”
He came back with it and his backpack. I stood next to him, stroking Old Paint’s fender and saying, “It’s going to be okay, Old Paint. It’s going to be okay.” Neither one of them made fun of me. While I was standing there, his front bumper suddenly popped out into position. You can’t really see nanos working to take out a dent, but he already looked less battered than he had. Ben handed Mom the can and she re-inflated the tire.
“Tire pressure is corrected,” Old Paint announced.
Then Ben took the scrubber spray and anti-virus box out of the pack and handed it to her without a word.
Mom took it and stood up slowly. She walked slowly to the back of the car and I followed her. She put away the left over emergency supplies. She gently shut the door. The glass nanos were at work on the rear window. It was almost clear again. She walked around the car and Ben and I both followed her. She got to the driver’s door, opened it and climbed in.
“Mom?” Ben asked her anxiously and she waved a hand at him. “I just want to check something,” she said.
She opened a little panel on his dash and a small screen lit up. She touched it lightly, scrolling down it. Then she stopped and leaned her forehead on the steering wheel for a minute. When she spoke, her voice was choked and muffled by her arms.
“My grandpa considered himself something of a hacker, in an old school way. He made some modifications to Old Paint. That’s Grandpa’s voice you hear, when Old Paint speaks. And you know how I told you some people remove the safety constraints from the car’s programming, the ‘do no harm to people’ or by-pass the speed constraints? Not my grandpa.” She sat up and pointed at the screen. “See all those red ‘override’ indicators? You’re not supposed to be able to do that. But Grandpa did. He gave Old Paint one ultimate command: “Protect logged users of vehicle.”
She flipped the little panel closed over the screen and spoke quietly. “I should have known. I was a wild kid. Drinking. Doping. So he broke into the software and overrode everything to make ‘protect the child’ the car’s highest priority. Hm.” She made a husky noise in her throat. “Got me out of a corner more times than I like to think about. I passed out more than once behind the wheel, but somehow I always got home safe.” She dashed tears from her eyes and then looked at us with a crooked smile. “Just programming, kids. That’s all. Just his programming. Despite all his tough talk, it was just his programming to protect, as best he could. No matter what.”
Ben was as puzzled as I was. “The car? Or Grandpa?”
She sniffed again but didn’t answer. She re-opened the panel on his dash and accessed his GPS. She was talking softly. “You remember that one spring break, my senior year? Arizona. And that boy named Mark. Sun, sun, and more sun. We hardly ever had to stop at a charging station. That’s where you should go, old friend. And drive safely.”
“Don’t we always?” he asked her.
She laughed out loud.
She got out and shut the door. He revved his engine a few times, and then began to pull forward. We stepped back out of his way, and he moved slowly past us, the deep snow squeaking under his tires. Mom stepped forward, brushing snow, twigs, and leaves off the solars on his roof. He stopped and let her clear them. Then, “All done. Run free,” she told him, and patted his rearview mirror.
When she stepped back, he revved his engine, tooted his horn twice, and peeled out in a shower of snow. We stood there and watched him go. Mom didn’t move until we couldn’t hear him anymore. Then she pitched the packet of anti-virus as far as she could into the woods. “There are some things that just don’t need curing,” she said.
We went back to the City Rents car and climbed in. My sneakers were soaked, my feet were numb and my jeans were wet halfway to my knees. We ate some peanut butter sandwiches that Ben had packed, Mom gave me another pain pill and I slept all the way home.
Three nights later, I got out of bed and padded toward the living room in my pajamas. I peeked around the corner. My Mom’s chair was rocked back as far as it would go and her toes were up on the edge of the desk. The bluish monitor light was the only light in the room. She was watching a moving dot on a map, and smiling. She had headphones on and was nodding her head to music we could barely hear. Oldies. I jumped when Ben put his hand on my shoulder and gently pulled me back into the hallway. He shook his head at me and I nodded. We both went back to bed.
I never saw Old Paint again. He stayed in Arizona, mostly charging off the sun and not moving around much once he was there. Once in a while, I’d get home from school and turn on the computer and check on him. He was just a red dot moving on thin lines in a faraway place, or, much more often, a black dot on an empty spot on the map. After a while, I stopped thinking about him.
Ben did two years of community college and then got a “Potential” scholarship to a college in Utah. It was hard to say goodbye to him, but by then I was in high school and had a life of my own. It was my turn to have spats with Mom.
One April day, I came home to find that Mom had left the computer running. There had been an email from Ben, with an attachment, and she had left it as a screen saver. He’d gone to Arizona for spring break. “This was as close as I could get to him,” Ben had written. The scene had been shot under a bright blue sky, with red cliffs in the distance. There was nothing there, only scrub brush and a dirt road. And in the distance, a station wagon moved steadily away from us, a long plume of dust hanging in the still air behind him.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2012.