4360 words, short story
The Slow Deaths of Automobiles
In the woods, on the edge of the ravine, we found the corpse of a car. It was so close to the cliff edge, a determined push would have sent it tumbling down to the river. We climbed in and sat inside the rusting shell, on the sun-bleached fabric and perishing foam of the seats.
Eventually you said, “Hey, look, there’s a music streamer in this thing. We should totally take it out and bring it home with us. See if Tanvi can play it.”
“What about the software?”
“Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s compatible with Tanvi’s.” You’d taken your utilitool out and were unscrewing the music player.
“It won’t be. It’s a good five years newer than Tanvi is.”
“Still close enough. It’s pre-switchover. We could try it.”
“We could, but what would be the point?”
You weren’t listening. The music player came out, leaving a stark, violated hole in the dash, startlingly black against the faded gray polymer.
I wished you’d just let the dead car alone.
You were turning it over in your hands, looking at the connectors. “We’ve got to fit that new fan belt too, so we can wire it in at the same time.”
“Okay, but it’s got to be by Wednesday.”
“Why, what’s on Wednesday?”
I felt a surge of irritation. “I go back to university. Remember?”
A smile came and went from your lips. “Oh. Right. Hey, doesn’t your university have an AI lab? If the music player isn’t compatible with Tanvi, maybe you could work out a patch so she could use it.”
“Why can’t you?”
“I’m sure I could try, but you could do it in half the time with the equipment you have there.” Coaxing. “Then she’d be ready in time for the spring vintage car show.”
I sighed. “Okay.”
Tanvi had been your grandmother’s car. When your grandmother had died, you wouldn’t let your mother send Tanvi back to the Verve company.
“Isn’t that the right thing to do?” I’d said, when we were up on your grandmother’s front porch, out of Tanvi’s hearing. Tanvi was a blocky, blunt thing, painted the sort of colors that hadn’t even been fashionable twenty-five years ago, built for reliability, not beauty or speed. “The company can update her systems, put her in a new shell. She can get a new contract, with a new employer.”
You sat on the porch, looking at the car. “Her software hasn’t been updated for fifteen years. I checked.”
“Huh. So, she would still be running a PicoSoft-based system?”
“Yeah, she dates from before the big switchover, and she missed the reintegration window. They couldn’t put her in a modern bodyshell. They’d have to, I don’t know, retire her to a computer server somewhere.”
It’s against the law to kill a sentient machine, but there were rumors of server banks housing personalities that were incompatible with modern bodies. Like an old episode of Black Mirror.
“There’s got to be some way of updating the system, so she could?”
You shook your head. “Even if there was a way to do that, she wouldn’t be Tanvi anymore. The mind-body interface. A new bodyshell changes cars’ personalities.”
“Well, she’d be, like, Neo-Tanvi. Different, but the same.”
You shook your head. “She wouldn’t want that.”
“How would you know what she wants?” Tanvi was too early a model to have a proper talkbox. The company might be able to communicate with her, but we sure couldn’t.
“Because she’s still here. Not retired. Just being herself, as she is. I don’t think Tanvi wants to retire, or to get a new bodyshell.” Another silence. “You can get parts and software online. She can just stay in her current shell. Live. Be happy.”
I nodded, slowly. “That sounds like fun. We could join a vintage car club.”
We’d been the only two kids in the village who were both scarily book-smart and really into vintage cars, from primary school onward. So naturally everyone assumed that once our endocrine systems started kicking in, we’d become a couple. I’m not sure what would have happened if there had been other options, but we did.
Tanvi both intensified and complicated things. She gave us a reason to be together, something to put our spare energy, emotional and otherwise, into.
When I went away to university, you took over more and more of the work on Tanvi.
“I need better software patches.” That was the first thing you said to me the next time I came back.
“Hello and I’ve missed you too,” I said. If you took the rebuke, you didn’t show it. “What was wrong with the ones I sent you?”
“Too modern. You included updates.”
“Oh, you noticed,” I said. I shoved a loose collection of wrenches on the bench to one side and sat down. “It’s nothing, really. Just a few things to help her run better. While I was looking at the patches you wanted, I figured out some tweaks that would do a better job and still be compatible with Tanvi’s existing system.”
“But she’s best the way she is.” The way you touched the car was almost a caress, and I found myself feeling a peculiar emotion. “Get me software that’s like what Tanvi would have had when she was built. Just without the bugs. That’s all I want.”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “My folks will be out tonight, want to come ’round and watch a movie or play a game or something?”
And you did. But you were distracted, thinking about Tanvi, and I was also thinking about Tanvi in a different way.
The next few weekends I found a lot of excuses to stay at college.
“No,” you said. “I won’t allow it.”
“But it would just be for the demonstration. We could put her software right back the way it was afterward.”
“And what if we can’t?” You stomped off behind Tanvi, angry. “Even if we can, it’d still change her. Make her different.”
“It’s no different than installing, say, modern reproduction headlights if you can’t get vintage. Or wiring in a music streamer that’s five years newer than she is,” I coaxed. “This system will bridge the gap between a pre-switchover digital mind and the new systems.”
“Why hasn’t this been done before? Surely Verve could have come up with something any time.”
“Costs,” I said. “And markets. Most of the cars at the time of switchover upgraded during the reintegration window. The number of pre-switchover cars still on the road is tiny and the market for people who want to be driven by one is tinier. Cheaper just to retire them.” And, I didn’t say, on the car enthusiast side, most of the vintage car community know next to nothing about software, they just like the look of the cars. “To develop the system, you need someone with the knowledge of vintage software and modern software, who’s willing to put in the hours to develop it for free.”
“Me. And now, even a car as old as Tanvi can have a new lease on life.”
“And if they don’t want one?”
“Then they’re still not stuck in a rotting bodyshell. They can have rebuilds that look exactly like the old ones, just with modern materials. This could be revolutionary for cars Tanvi’s age or older. They’ll have options.”
“Is that what you’ve been working on at college?”
“Mostly, yes.” The first weekend, I just kept thinking about you and feeling sad and angry. I locked myself in my dorm room and worked on my midterm projects. But gradually, after that, I began to focus on something else.
“You don’t seem to realize what we’ve got here,” I explained. “This isn’t just a few patches to make a part from a newer, but still PicoSoft-based, car compatible with an older car. This is a complete retrofitting system. Something that could allow any vintage car a new life, if they wanted it. They can accept new parts, new software, no matter how old they are. They could even re-shell.”
“I’m not letting you experiment on her.”
“Fine. But why not at least ask her if she wants me to?”
“She doesn’t have a talkbox.”
“She can still indicate yes or no, though. We could ask her to flash her lights or something.”
You just glared.
“What are you afraid of?” I couldn’t resist asking. “That she’ll say yes?”
“Tanvi wants a faster braking system,” you said.
“Great!” I said, pulling up the college internal drive on an adjacent window to our video call and paging through it. “We’ve got some bang up to date ones here that you can use. Just don’t tell anyone where you got them.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”
“You’ll be going to the vintage car show next weekend, then?” At the time I was mostly just happy that you’d taken to my retrofitting system so well. The fact that Tanvi wanted it, liked it, had been the deal breaker, and I tried not to overthink that.
A pause. “Maybe.”
“Why not? You promised. You promised I could use her to demonstrate the new system to the others.”
“What? I thought this was just for Tanvi.”
“Well, it is, but since it worked, why not sell it to other vintage car employers who wanted the advantages of modern software on a beautiful old vehicle? Tanvi could have been its best advertisement.”
A long pause, one of those “sorting out the words” pauses. “She wants . . . ” Another pause. Then, more emphatic. “She wants to go to Hamilton next weekend.”
It took me a minute. “What, for the rally race?”
“I’m the one who should be asking that. Why does she want to rally?”
“Apparently she did it a bit for her employer before Grandma, and she’s always wanted to get serious about it.”
“How is she telling you all this?”
“She has a talkbox.”
“Since it’s compatible with her systems now, I rigged it in. Thought it would be a better way to communicate than just doing the Ouija board thing. It’s not ideal, I mean, her mind’s not predeveloped for verbal communication. But she can convey more complex things than she used to. Tell me what she wants.”
“What other things does she . . . uh . . . want?”
“Just a few bits and pieces.” You sent a series of photos, line drawings, and software registrations up the line.
I studied them. “Looks like she’s going for speed.”
“Like I said. She’s always wanted to be a rally car.”
You winced, but quickly covered it up. “It’s not about what I want, it’s about what she wants,” you said, firmly.
After you missed three vintage car events, I decided to come home for a couple of days and see how you were.
I found you in the garage, of course, fitting a new set of tires to Tanvi.
Seeing her body up on the hoist, I realized how much work you’d been doing on her. Not just new software and new replaceable parts, but the seats and upholstery had been updated. No more gray polymer, but gleaming modern colors, clean printed fabrics. Even that old music streamer had been lathed and sanded ’til it fit the dash perfectly, repainted and polished ’til it gleamed.
“She’s looking good,” I said. Meant it.
You looked up, blinked. “Oh, it’s you.”
“And it’s great to see you too.” I shoved a few tools over to the side, sat down on a wooden bench. “Where have you been these past few weeks? Nobody in the Vintage Verve club’s seen you since New Year’s.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
“I’m surprised you’re not taking every opportunity to show off Tanvi, the way she looks now.”
“I was thinking about it,” you said, “but I’m not sure. I mean, she’s not technically a vintage car anymore, is she?”
“I think that’s a judgment call. What about that Morris Oxford that Dan owns? The one with literally no original parts. Most of them aren’t even old parts, either, he sourced them all from vintage reproduction sites. And what about those guys with DeLoreans? The ones from the company that started up in the 2020s, making reproductions?” I glanced over at Tanvi. She still looked like an early model Verve, just one given a lot of attention and some racing modifications. Then again . . . I craned my neck to see what I could make out of the engine. Had he got her a new one?
“Hey,” I said. “Let me buy you a drink, okay? You’ve been working hard, I’m back in town, let’s go out and celebrate a little.”
You started to protest, but then relented. I waited while you changed out of your coverall, washed your hands.
At the pub, I couldn’t put it of any longer. “Okay. So, talk. What the hell is wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” You curled your hands around your pint, like a thug with a bat or a child with a soft toy.
“Bullshit,” I said, feeling a pang of fear as I said it, as if maybe I was crossing a line I shouldn’t. “You used to be always with the Vintage Verve club. Now, you’re never there. Something’s changed. I need to know what.”
“Nothing’s changed, really,” you said. “It’s just that now that I can communicate better with Tanvi, she’s telling me what she needs. What she wants.”
“And of course, it’s all about Tanvi. Always.” I sat back, blew out a breath that came out more of a snort than a sigh.
“Of course,” you said. “And now I see what this is. You’re just jealous.”
“The word’s actually envious. Jealous means possessive. Envious means you want something you can’t have. But no, I’m not either.”
You clearly didn’t believe that, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.
“She’s just using you.” The cliché was out before I could think of a better way of saying it.
You shook your head, the disbelieving smile on your face deepening.
“No, seriously. I think she’s using you. Telling you what parts she wants, making you pay for it all.”
“Why would she do that? She’s a car.”
“A sentient car. And I don’t know. You said she wanted to go to rallies? Maybe that’s it? She wants to be a rally champion?”
“She hasn’t been to one in weeks,” you burst out, suddenly. “We went to a few, she did really well. I thought it was what she wanted. But then she stopped asking to go.”
“So what are you fixing her up for, then?”
“Because she’s Tanvi.”
“Okay,” I sat back. No sense getting between a man and the thing, or whatever, he loves.
“See? You’re jealous. Or envious. Or whatever.”
“Why would I be?”
“Because you just want to be champion of the vintage meetups. So, if Tanvi’s not doing those, you lose out.”
I shook my head. “Do you know what I’ve been doing the past few months?” No, of course you didn’t. “Since you and Tanvi wouldn’t be my demonstrators for my new retrofitting system, I went into partnership with Steve.”
“Steve? Steve with the twin-turbo Ocelot?”
“Named Hercule, and yes. We installed the system on Hercule, let him selectively download some upgrades. We went to an Ocelot show, and before long we’d got orders for a hundred packages.”
“Oh, well, Ocelot owners, they don’t really get in the spirit of the whole vintage car thing. They just want something that looks pretty, they don’t want the hassle of maintenance.”
“True,” I said, overly familiar with this particular rant. “But that’s exactly the sort of customer we were after. People who want the beauty and style of a vintage car but with the precision, safety, and security of present-day ones. Like I said, this new system gives old cars options. And just on a side note, I submitted the system as my senior year project. It got ninety percent. My dissertation advisor wants me to stay on and do postgraduate research. And she says she’s going to introduce me to people at Verve who might be interested too. So tell me,” I could hear my own voice expressing an anger I didn’t know I was feeling, “tell me exactly what I should be envying?” And I couldn’t resist driving it home. “I’ve got established in the automotive smart technology world, and I haven’t even graduated yet. You’re working two bullshit jobs to pay for tires for your grandma’s car.”
You sat there and didn’t look at me.
We finished our drinks, went our separate ways. In the morning, I got the train back to university.
“Thanks for coming,” you said from the hospital bed, with an ironic edge.
“I came as soon as I got your mother’s text,” I said. I was glad you were willing to speak to me again, but I wasn’t going to say that. “Are you OK? And if not, just how not-OK are you?”
“I’m fine,” you said. “I know this looks dramatic, but all I really got was a busted wrist.” You raise your hand, showing off the sleek, thin cast. “They’re keeping me here for a few hours because they’re worried about concussion.”
“Good idea. Head injuries can look fine and then suddenly go bad. Remember that time Ron Gzowski did a rollover in that Ariel of his? Looked fine, but collapsed the next day and they almost didn’t save him?”
You nodded. I found a chair, sat down.
“How’s Tanvi?” I had to ask it eventually.
The look on your face was hard to read. “Her mind’s okay. The central processor wasn’t damaged.”
“The rest of her?”
“I’m going to have to take a good look,” you said, your expression hardening into determined. “I’m sure it’s nothing I can’t fix, not with enough work and patience.” I read into it that the rescue service had probably wanted to write the whole thing off, but you’d talked them out of it.
“So, how’d it happen?”
“We were rally driving. There’s a tricky stretch through a bunch of trees before you hit rocky country, we took it too fast, and she went off the road. Hard. It’s a good thing I did all that improvement work on her; with her original parts I don’t think either of us would have made it.”
I wasn’t sure about this. The Tanvi I’d known didn’t take stupid risks, especially with speed; she was more the sort to keep a steady pace and beat out the flashier ones. “Do you think I could help you with her?” I risked.
You looked surprised. “You sure? I thought you had all these other projects.”
“I do,” I said. “But, well, she’s Tanvi.”
Tanvi herself was indeed a sorry sight. Fixable, probably, with enough patience and money. But her front end was crumpled around the engine (and who knew what state that was in) with a dent that probably corresponded to the size and shape of a Scotch pine, the front axle bent, the windshield gone.
“Right,” you said. “Let’s do a damage assessment and figure out what parts she’s going to need.”
I didn’t move. Kept my hand curled around my tablet. “Is that what we should do, though?”
“What do you mean? It’s obviously what we should do.”
“Let’s think about this,” I said. I deliberately stayed in Tanvi’s earshot; I wanted her in the conversation. So to speak. “Tanvi gets the new system. Tanvi wants a lot of upgrades. Tanvi doesn’t just want her software upgraded, she clearly wants as many new parts as she can. Tanvi doesn’t want to go on the vintage circuit, but the rally circuit. But she seems ambivalent about that.” I felt my knuckles clenching but ploughed on. “Then she starts taking things too fast, has an accident she wouldn’t have had if she was operating properly. I think . . . I think she actually wants a new body.”
There was a stunned silence.
“No. No way.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes, I am.” You rubbed your forehead, getting grease in your hair. “If she does that, she’ll die.”
“Not exactly,” I said. “The same mind, just in a different body.”
“But the mind-body interface . . . ” You buried your face in both hands, getting grease on that too. You looked up again. “She won’t be Tanvi anymore.”
“But maybe she doesn’t want to be,” I said. “Maybe she wants to be Neo-Tanvi now.”
“Why hasn’t she told me?”
“I think . . . ” I wasn’t sure how to say it. “I think she knew it would upset you.”
You looked as if you were going to say something but stormed out of the garage instead.
I strolled over to Tanvi. Ran a hand gently over the strained and wrecked dashboard. The music streamer was beyond repair too, I noticed. Somehow that made me feel sadder than anything else.
“How about it, Tanvi?” I asked her. “Did I read it right?”
The talkbox crackled, failed to emit a word.
Then all her lights flashed green.
I finally found you in the woods, on the edge of the ravine. Inside the corpse of the car on the cliff edge. A determined push, and you’d have a Viking funeral, tumbling, crashing, breaking, and finally coming to rest in a tangle of plastic and aluminum in the river.
“Everybody’s looking for you,” I said.
“I don’t care,” you said. There was a bottle of some kind in there with you, maybe more than one.
“Don’t do this.”
Your face creased. “You’ve gone,” you said. “Now Tanvi wants to go. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing for me anymore.”
“I’m not gone,” I said. “I’m just . . . different now. It’s the same with Tanvi. People change.”
I thought about the amount of time you spent on restoring Tanvi. Restoring her, making her like she was. Keeping her frozen in a bubble, in a state that was twenty-five years gone.
“I wish this was her.” You gestured at the dead car.
“So you can conduct a murder-suicide?” Now I didn’t feel sorrow, or alarm, anymore, just anger. “She deserves a life. Even if it’s not the life you want for her.”
I lay down in the dirt, on my back. “I’m done,” I said. “I’ve said my piece.”
The stars, over the trees, were dim, but persistent, in the darkness of the sky. You didn’t want things to change. Maybe I wanted to change too much. To get away from this town and its boring people following the same paths as their parents and grandparents. Grow up. Marry a schoolmate. Get a little job in a shop or a data center. Find something fun to do on the weekends. Have kids. Get old. Die.
It wasn’t a wrong way to live. It just wasn’t my way.
I heard you get out of the car, come ’round. You lay down in the dirt beside me.
We both lay there for a while, looking at the stars.
“You okay now?” I said.
A pause. “Yeah.” Then, more certain: “Yeah. I am.”
“We’d better go in, then.”
The next day I had to go back to the university. I sent you a few messages, but you didn’t respond.
I threw myself into finishing up the school year. Any time I thought about you or Tanvi, I told myself the ship had sailed. I needed to move on.
And then I got a handwritten letter from you.
Not so much a letter, more a note. A note inviting me to spend a last evening with Tanvi.
So I moved my calendar around and came.
You were there, in the garage. With Tanvi. You hadn’t fixed her bodyshell, but you’d clearly cleaned and polished the wreck ’til it shone, light gleaming off the facets like a crystal shard.
Without speaking, we both climbed in, sat in her front seats. You’d really splashed out there; a black, suede-like synthetic fabric that held a friendly warmth. Tanvi switched on her dash lights and headlights, so the inside of the car seemed to glow like the windows of houses.
For a while, neither of us said anything.
“You decided to let her go?”
“We decided,” you said. “In the end it was her decision.”
“It must have been hard to accept?”
“It was,” you said. And then, surprising me, “but you helped me realize what she wanted. I’m sorry. You were right.”
“I wasn’t entirely,” I admitted. “It’s not about changing or not changing. It’s about her, and what she wants for herself.”
“What happens now?”
“Tomorrow, she goes back to Verve. They extract her mind, put it into a new body. That’s thanks to you too; she could never have adapted without your new retrofitting system.”
I shrugged. I didn’t know what else to say or do.
You took out your utilitool, began extracting the screws from the music streamer.
“You going to keep that?”
“Yeah,” you said.
“I don’t think it works.”
“I can get it working again,” you said. “And maybe there’s another car out there that can use it.”
We sat there without speaking for a while.
“I’m going to California,” I said finally.
You looked disappointed, slightly. But also oddly relieved.
“I’m going to be working for Verve, but also doing a master’s degree, it’s a kind of work study program. Because of the retrofitting system.”
“You could come too?” I found myself saying. While at the same time part of me was shouting no, don’t say that, you’ll be stuck together for the rest of your lives and unhappy . . .
You shook your head. “I couldn’t leave here. Toni from the Vintage Verve club got me a good job at the garage, and Mom needs me.”
“I’ll keep in touch, though.”
And we both sat there, in the lights from the dash and headlights. Thinking about death, and about rebirth, and about change, and about Neo-Tanvi.
Fiona Moore is a two-time BSFA Award finalist, writer and academic whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Cossmass Infinities, and four consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. Her publications include one novel; numerous articles in journals such as Foundation; guidebooks to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who; three stage plays and four audio plays. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London. She lives in Southwest England with a tortoiseshell cat which is bent on world domination.