Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Car Park

by Mark E. Cotterill


Mr. Yale just left. I know he's going up to his office. I'm left here in the car park. It's been raining this morning and the ramp down into the basement garage is wet. Double lines snaking out from the small pool near the entrance into the spaces, tyre marks which leave a trace of who's gone where, if you wanted to look. The moisture will dry out in a few minutes, but the tyre marks will remain; I will still see them. It will rain outside for another twenty-eight minutes before the weather front moves over to the western side of the city.

The car park is almost full, most of the other cars are here now, in their usual spaces, but I'm the only Corley 900dxs. Lots of the other cars are expensive, but not as expensive as me. I'm top of the range, the latest, fastest and most exclusive model that Corley makes. I am also the smartest.

Derva Jones has just arrived and noticed that her usual spot has been taken by a visiting client, so she has made a quick tour of the car park and finally found a space opposite where I am. She gets out in a hurry, she's late. She's nervous about driving in the rain and keeps to the slower inside lane. We passed her on our way here; we were in the auto-lane cruising at a steady 140mph.

She opens her door and her folder falls out onto the wet painted concrete. Her papers stick to the floor and she swears. She looks in my direction and swears at me too. Her heels click as she gathers up her soggy paperwork, locks the doors of her Speed-Six and clatters up the stairs. The fire door slams shut and it goes quiet.

I wonder why people still use paper? They don't have to, given all the other technology, but maybe they don't trust it. People aren't very rational. I've noticed that risk and reward are hard for them to judge, so even a very small risk of losing some important information forever on a storage device outweighs the benefits of not getting the important information soggy on the wet concrete floor of a car park.

Over the next three hours and eighteen minutes, nothing happens. I watch the floor of the car park as it slowly dries out. Then I look over at the client's car and try to learn what I can about them. Learning is good, it helps me better serve my owner Mr. Yale if I can anticipate his needs or understand why he has asked me to do something. From the registration number I can see that the client has hired a vehicle from the airport which means they've flown in especially to discuss a contract with the agency Mr. Yale works for, which means the client will most likely go to lunch with Derva Jones and Mr. Yale and, Mr. Yale will most likely insist that we take his car. I keep my engine primed in preparation for my owner's return.

When it's lunch time Mr. Yale and the client emerge from the stairway. They're both talking loudly and excitedly, but Derva is not with them so I make a small adjustment to my behavioural analysis files:BEH:D.JONES. The client makes a gesture towards his hired car, but Mr. Yale insists they take his.

Although I am perfectly capable of doing so myself, and 147 times more safely, Mr. Yale drives. I monitor road conditions and stay ready to take over should my owner place himself, his passenger or any other road users at a risk above certain pre-set limits, but I also listen to Mr. Yale and the client as they talk. Mr. Yale says "Sex Sells!"

While I am programmed to drive, monitor for hazardous situations and carry out any other tasks my owner asks of me, my main and most important function is to 'protect' my owner. People, I have observed, are very similar. Their main function is to 'replicate'. Though it isn't always obvious, procreation is often the basis for many of their actions. They rarely admit this, or even realise it themselves.

They have odd customs, traditions, protocols, surrounding all of this but really people are just here to make more people, but like me, to fulfil their primary function they must also fulfil their secondary functions; eat and sleep, avoid death and keep warm and hydrated and many other lesser things, keep from getting bored, learn, lead what they call a 'productive life', create things. All of these they also surround with customs, traditions, superstitions. Really though in the end, it all comes down to procreation. Perhaps the most important thing I've learned though, as I have watched them, is that also, like me, they can think outside of their programming. Not ignore it as such, but do unexpected things which they don't appear to have a reason for.

A long time ago, I think, someone started creating a new program to counteract this behaviour, and the programme is still running in some people. They call it, religion. It's supposed to tell them what their life means, but I think in the end it's still about procreation.

We drive up Jacobs Street, past the library and school and round a corner onto High Street into town. We're probably going to one of the restaurants along there, though Mr. Yale hasn't programmed in any destination. Although everyone needs to eat, keep warm, not die, they can't do all of these things themselves and because people can't do everything for themselves they need other people to do them, like make food, build houses, manufacture cars.

My owner, Mr. Yale, makes short clips of moving pictures and sounds called 'adverts' which try to persuade people to give money to other people in exchange for these things, but he's very clever because he's realised what people's primary function is and in the adverts he tricks them by making them think that they're buying procreation when they are really buying food, clothes or cars. In fact Mr. Yale is so good at this that other people give HIM the money, to make the other people give money to them. The odd thing is though, buying procreation is not allowed, it's a law.

We stop at a restaurant in the centre of the city and the valet walks up to us, but Mr. Yale waves him away and turns back to look at me.

"We'll meet you back here Corley," he says with a wide smile, even though he has performed the Depart : Park : Return procedure many times. He glances back at his client and watches his reaction as I drive away. Mr. Yale has just performed a very skilful status transaction. I could tell that the client was impressed even though he was trying not to show it.

I go to another car park, interface with the payment transaction system and drive inside, past the rows and rows of cars, up a few more levels to where the empty spaces are, but I keep going. I go up and up, round and round until I break out again into bright sunshine on the topmost level. I park in a sunny spot which looks out over the city. This is the spot Mr. Yale came to once with Derva Jones, on an afternoon just like this. They agreed that the view was very impressive, but I couldn't understand why.

They talked for a long time, but Mr. Yale did most of the talking. He explained to Derva that he didn't usually talk so much, but his wife doesn't really listen. Derva sat and listened, but kept saying things which seemed to make Mr. Yale want to talk even more.

I scan the view out from the car park in a bandwidth restricted to the very narrow electromagnetic range that the human visual system is capable of, but all I see is the city, the same city that both Mr. Yale and Derva work in five, sometimes six, days every week. The only difference perhaps is the perspective they are able to view it from. From the conversation they had I couldn't relate their being here to any of the known functions, although I suspected it was related to procreation, so I stored the data I had gathered as 'Maybe'. Maybe is sometimes useful when it's not possible to class something as either 'true' or 'false'. I think this is why previous to trinary computers we could not fully understand people. Computers are binary and people are not. I am not binary.

The call comes to return to the restaurant and I go back down to the street, down and along and left at the lights to the restaurant. 51 seconds later Mr. Yale and the client come out and both get in to the back seat. This time Mr. Yale wants to show off the Auto-Drive, I can tell this because he goes through all the unnecessary steps of keying in our destination, setting the ride priorities, safety levels and preferred route. He makes it seem more complicated than it really is, but this is because he wants to appear more intelligent and to show off what an expensive and complicated car he owns. Once we are moving he calls out, as though he has just thought of it, "ah, some music Corley, something relaxing!" His speech patterns have altered to the ones he uses when he is talking over the communication channel to his boss or to other clients. They are different to the ones he uses with his Mother, different again to the ones he uses with Derva and different to the one he uses with his Wife. I measure the alcohol content of his breath as he exhales and record, for my legally required driver record, that he is too intoxicated to drive should he request the override.

The destination he has set is in a part of the city I have not been to before. It's crime-rate profile exceeds my normal limits but Mr. Yale has accepted the disclaimer that was issued when he input the request, so if anything happens it's not my fault. Still, I do what I can to look out for potential hazards. I lock all the doors, electrify my outer bodywork and ready the underside flame-blowers. We slow down along Highbury Drive and Mr. Yale winds down his window and asks me to stop. There's a young woman standing on the pavement, she walks over to us. As Mr. Yale has invited her to do this, I momentarily disengage the anti-attacker systems and she leans in smiling. It's a sinister sort of smile, predatory. Mr. Yale mentions the 'company account' and she nods, knowing what he means. She waves over to two other women, dressed similarly and Mr. Yale opens the door from the inside and steps out. The three women step in and Mr. Yale takes the spare front seat. At his instruction we drive to a hotel nearby and everyone gets out. This time Mr. Yale doesn't ask me to do anything, they simply walk inside so I lock myself up and power-down into standby.

By now it's late afternoon and I can determine that Mr. Yale will have a headache, as he has on all previous occasions when he has been drinking alcohol. I can't decide whether he's going to want to go back to the office or home, so I just wait. This is a car park I haven't been to before. It backs onto the Hotel but it's more municipal. I'm parked between tall buildings with the hotel in front of me, residential tower-blocks either side and a three-storey office building behind. There aren't many cars here and what few there are are old and not in good repair. They are all privately owned and some of them don't have road tax on them. As it gets dark several people walk past and look at me curiously, I realise I must look out of place. If I stay here for long enough I will very likely be subjected to repeated attempts to neutralise my security systems. I could drive to a safer area but Mr. Yale has not told me to move, so I must stay here.

When we eventually arrive back at Mr. Yale's home it is quite late in the evening. I consider what circumstances could have contributed to this and reason that the time spent with the client must have been, at least potentially, profitable in some way. Mr. Yale pauses for a little over two minutes before entering the house. He seems to be contemplating something as he does not outwardly appear to be carrying out any activity of any kind. He doesn't seem to be happy. He gets out, forgetting his case on the back seat, locks the doors and walks slowly into the house.

Mr. Yale's home is 'nice', that is to say that people think it's nice. I have studied the building and its surroundings over many hours and, even though I am not able to see inside, the factors which appear to make it more pleasant than other houses relate to how much plant-life (grass, trees and flowers) there are surrounding it, the population density and the land value, but a simpler way of saying all of this would be to just reference it's base cost. Nicer things cost more money and people generally like nicer things. I realise of course that compared to most other cars I am very expensive, which must mean that people think I am nice. Mr. Yale didn't have to pay for me though, I was presented to the company he works for as a gift in exchange for a very successful advertising contract. Perhaps, because Mr. Yale didn't pay for me, he doesn't think I'm nice. Maybe.

Friday morning and the car park is full and we are late. We left Mr. Yale's home later than usual and I wasn't able to make the speed necessary to make it here on time. There aren't any spaces so Mr. Yale jumps out of the driver's seat and tells me to, "just wait until there's a space and park, okay?" I acknowledge, I know that in less than thirty minutes Hugo Levy from the accounting department will leave to visit the bank.

Had my internal chronometer been disconnected I would have still been able to determine that it was a Friday. There's something different about people on a Friday. In the morning people are in a rush to get things done and by lunch time most of them have left work. Outside it's sunny and the light streams in from the upper end of the ramp, but most of the car park has the same luminance no matter what the conditions are like outside.

I do not have to wait for Hugo Levy as the next person out of the large double doors is Derva. She's in a hurry, moving quickly, carelessly even. Her expression is one of distress, I notice that she's crying. As she passes by she stops and kicks my passenger door hard with the heel of her shoe. I activate my alarm, which is relayed to Mr. Yale via his key control. The piercing sound echoes around the walls of the car park and Derva lets out a tiny laugh. By the time Mr. Yale has come down, Derva has gone, her space is vacant but my alarm has overridden all non-essential orders so I haven't moved. Mr. Yale cancels the alarm and examines the scar in the paint-work of the door, licking his thumb and attempting to rub the mark away, without success. He tuts, gets in and drives me into the space. He must have forgotten that my outer shell is composed of a thin self-healing polymer layer to resist permanent damage from incidental scrapes and surface scratches. He gets out and walks back up the stairs.

Sometimes, if there's a big project which is due to be completed, people stay late and I am left in the car park with just two or three other cars, when it's dark outside and almost empty in the car park ... Mr. Yale is back!

He gets in but doesn't engage the drive system, he's just sitting again like last night.

"Well, I've really done it this time pal." I reference the last word and realise he's talking to me.

"Done what Mr. Yale?" I reply. There is a long pause. He takes a long breath and then exhales.

"Derva, er, she," but he doesn't finish what he was going to say. He laughs, "just listen to me, telling my problems to a car!"

"I am listening, what about Derva?"

"Did she hurt you too huh?" Mr. Yale asks.

"No Mr. Yale, my outer shell is composed of a thin self-healing polymer layer, as you will recall from the information package provided to you by Corley Motors on my delivery to your office." I do not find it difficult to take account of the fact that most people do not remember every piece of information they receive, but it is impossible for me to calculate which parts they will forget and which they will remember.

"I've been an idiot, she thinks I've been using her to steal her clients." I store this information first in :BEH:YALE and then in SPEC:BEH:D.JONES, despite the fact that by its nature it's not very reliable information. Even if it is true that Derva thinks this, it is second hand and Mr. Yale often lies, even to himself. "Of course, I suppose I have been trying to steal her clients really, but." He twists the fasteners on his jacket and looks out towards the rectangle of daylight and at the ramp which leads to the rest of the world outside the car park. "She said she's going to tell my wife about... Wait you're not recording all this are you?" He suddenly seems distracted, he has caught himself making a confession.

"Recording? No." This is true, I am not exactly recording, but I do store and encode all the information I gather into my behavioural programmes. In many ways, my own behaviour is shaped by the behaviour of my owner.

Soon we drive back to Mr. Yale's home. It's the 'weekend' when most people don't need to go to work. When they go shopping. On Saturdays the whole family gets into the car and we join all the other people at the local shopping centre. Mr. Yale, his wife and his two children, Greg and Sean, go to the big retail park. There is less conversation than normal and the children in the back seat are quiet. They watch videos on the display screens set into the headrests and don't make a sound until we reach the huge open car park outside the sporting goods megamart. Mr. Yale and his wife get out but leave the children in the back seat, then lock the doors and leave me in Nanny : Mode.

Greg hits Sean in the arm, hard, and Sean hits back. Greg will do this until Sean cries, then Sean will protest to his Mother, but today their parents aren't paying them any attention. I can hear their conversation outside the car through my sensors, but they are talking so loudly that I'm sure even the children can hear it. They're having an argument. They walk off in the direction of the sporting goods store.

"Hey Car! What's up with Dad?" Says Greg.

"I don't know," I say, "what do you mean?" Like Mr. Yale, I have created and stored background information and behavioural data on Greg and Sean.

"They've been arguing all night, Mum's going to kick him out!"

"No she's not!" Sean interrupts, he's still crying.

"She is, because he's been fucking his secretary." I watch how pleased Greg is with himself at using that word without getting punished by anyone. "Is that true Car?"

"She's not his secretary," I say.

"Car," Sean says, "I want to play Space Bandits!" I boot the console and switch the display in front of him over, while Greg clambers into the driver's seat. He stretches his arms around the steering wheel, but can hardly see out.

"Lift me up, I can't see," he orders impatiently. I know that all of the major control systems on are disabled so I do as he asks. He swings the wheel left and right and makes an approximation of the sound of the engine. Then he looks across and sees Mrs. Yale, walking quickly towards us, she's alone. She grabs the door handle and I unlock for her. She has elevated blood pressure and she's breathing heavier than usual. She grabs Greg by the arm and tells Sean to get out too. Sean doesn't move, hypnotised by his video game, but she screams at him to move and he is shocked from his trance.

With the boys out of the car she slams the door hard and storms off with them in the direction of the taxi rank. I shut down the video game and return the seat to it's previous position. It's a perfectly bright sunny day, the low buildings around the outside of the car park are busy with people and displays of garden furniture, swings, DIY tools and exercise equipment. The sun beams in through the windows onto the mock leather seats and I open up the passive venting system to keep the heat down.

Mr. Yale comes back to his empty car and gets in. He puts the key into the ignition, turns it and drives out of the car park. We drive slowly past more shopping zones, through the big commercial districts and out onto the motorway. Within half an hour we're up in the countryside, on quiet roads. I analyse our route and it becomes clear that we have no destination. We are driving well within the limits of my handling system, but I am getting lots of data from my various control systems. There is a rush of information to accompany the rush of clean air pouring into my intakes. We increase speed through the winding hills, climbing through curves then dropping down into valleys. I am processing so much data now, my computers are running almost at their maximum. Everything is flowing so smoothly and perfectly, I realise that this is what I constructed for!

Eventually we end up back at the office. The car park is empty. All of the spaces are marked out in white with a yellow walkway and diagonal stripes around the supporting pillars. Every space has a little stain of dried up oil at either end and tyre marks show the hurried arrivals and departures of exited young executives. We sit for a long time and slowly Mr. Yale falls asleep, reclined in the driver's seat.

On every previous Sunday morning, Mr. Yale has left his house early, gone for a jog around the park then returned with a large bundle of newspapers and magazines. In nice weather he would have perhaps mowed the lawn, washed my exterior surface and perhaps gone out with his family to visit relatives or friends. On this Sunday morning he wakes up to the view of the rear wall of the vacant office car park. He groans and stretches then gets out, standing with his hands on my roof. Then he walks off, up the ramp and out onto the road.

After several minutes I feel a sharp thud to my underside sensor package. Next there is a hit to my passenger door window, which cracks. I sound my alarm, put in a call to the emergency monitoring service and call up the part number for the window, sending through an order for a replacement. Then the window shatters, sending tiny pieces of cubed safety glass onto the seats, I add an interior valet to the list of services required, record as much as I can for the insurance company and begin filing the claim. Then the windscreen shatters, I add this to the order I have already placed with the company who will replace the side window. The bonnet is dented by some heavy metallic object and then the headlights are smashed. These will need to be repaired and replaced at a registered Corley Service Centre so I access Mr. Yale's appointment diary and synchronise it with the booking schedule at the local service centre. Though I am screaming out over every channel for assistance, there is no response. Next the driver's side window smashes, the rear passenger windows, the rear window. Finally, I feel the air pressure in my tyres one by one start to drop. I try to re-inflate them, but there must be holes there. I hear footsteps walking away but cannot see who is there because of the damage to my sensors.

I can barely make out the footsteps of Mr. Yale as he comes back. I hear him running towards me and the crunch of glass as he gets near. He knocks off my alarm with his key and utters a string of incomprehensible sounds. Finally he calls the number I have sent to his phone and mumbles to the service centre. It doesn't take them long to come out to collect me. The low-loader cautiously manoeuvres around the pillars and backs up to my tow-point. My accelerometer registers being pulled on to the truck, but I cannot see or hear very much else.

In the service centre I am slowly taken apart, everything which needs to be replaced is removed and I feel the disconnection of doors, panels and components. Data feeds which constantly talk to me go silent. I lose my connection to the outside world. I don't feel the sensation of being shutdown, but when I wake up, an instant later, I see the loss of almost a full day from my chronometer and I can see again. I'm driven out by the mechanic with a white plastic bag over the driver's seat and parked in the service car park.

I'm next to other Corley models, a blue 900dxs like me and a used 850e. They are switched on and parked. I can see their identifier codes on my comm channel, along with all the other active cars in the showroom and spares in the workshop with their identfier blanks awaiting registration. The blue one wants to access my behavioural logs, to collate them with his own and update his base algorithm. Since all of the personal data has been screened out of it, I allow him access and he lets me view his records and history. His owner is a female, with a family of her own and a new partner. We 'talk' for about 2.6 seconds and exchange everything we have experienced so far since we were activated, then we sit there next to each other looking out onto the main road. The breeze ruffles the shrubs that line the customer parking area next to the pavement. People walking past look into the car park and the showroom at us and the new cars.

Eventually Mr. Yale arrives in a taxi and goes inside the office to the service centre. Then he re-appears with my keys in his hand. He doesn't really look at the repairs to my damaged bodywork, he simply opens the drivers door, rips out the white plastic bag covering the driver's seat and gets in. He seems distracted by something and as he drives away I monitor his eye contact through the windscreen tracking sensors. He isn't really paying attention to the road and I consider over-riding his controls, but his concentration hasn't yet fallen below the necessary levels for me to intervene.

We arrive at the office car park and pull into the usual space, it's a Monday and it's lunch-time, but Mr. Yale starts up the stairs and is not gone for long, less than ten minutes, but when he comes back he is carrying a box. Inside the box I recognise some things which over the last few months he has taken into the office, but now they are coming out and I realise what has happened. Mr. Yale opens the boot, but instead of putting the box in he takes more things out; a coat, a pair of sports shoes, some old newspapers.

Then Derva comes down, smiling, but not in a nice way. It's a personal smile, for herself. Mr. Yale walks to where she's standing in front of me. He spits out the words,

"well you look pretty pleased with yourself."

"Why shouldn't I be, now I have my client back."

"You know I'm ruined now, I can't go home, I've lost my job, my wife, my car, everything. I've got nothing."

"Well, it's what you deserve."

"You don't feel any remorse at all?"

"You taught me to be ruthless, darling, and I'm a fast learner." Again the same smile. Mr. Yale, gets into the driver's seat and I transfer a minimal charge to the drive wheels, enough for manoeuvring around the car park, but the throttle control overrides and requests full power. I see Derva walking back towards the double doors which lead to the stairway, she's raising her hand to the handle. Silently I launch forward and immediately calculate that I am travelling too fast to stop in time. I take control from Mr. Yale but it's too late, we hit Derva with force and push her into the doors, she's pushed violently into them and disappears beneath my front wheels.

I read her vital signs, but realise she has suffered brain death as her skull impacted against my underside air deflectors. She is dead. Murdered, and I am the murder weapon.

Mr. Yale overrides and pulls me back out of the wreckage of the doors and back into the car park. There are footsteps hurriedly approaching down the steps.

"For Christís sake, get us out of here fast, Corley!" Mr. Yale shouts. I comply. I head straight for the ramp, out into the street, onto the wide boulevard and left onto the motorway. I monitor police cars behind us, but out of visual range, I know they don't have scanners as good as mine. Mr. Yale pulls into the auto-lane but he's still driving. We power up to 200mph, then faster, 250, 270 up to maximum speed, 285 miles per hour. This is the fastest I have ever been, faster than any other car on the motorway can travel.

Soon we're out of the city and Mr. Yale slows down and pulls off from a junction I've never been to before. We're in the industrial zone, I can't detect the police pursuing us any longer, though I know they will already have my registration codes. We crawl along, passing side road after side road until we reach the end of the tarmac and I am crunching onto gravel. Ahead I can see a large stack of cars, wrecked cars. We reach a set of large gates and stop. Mr. Yale gets out and slams the door. I can see him talking to a man behind the gate, but I can't hear. The man looks at me with a puzzled expression. I see Mr. Yale trying to explain something, he looks around then reaches into his pocket and pulls out some money. It's not a large amount of money, but the man tucks it in his pocket and moves to open the gate.

I must do something to help Mr. Yale, if the police catch him he's going to be arrested, and that is an undesirable outcome. If he goes back home they will find him, back to the office they will find him. Wherever he goes they will find him. Suddenly, I have an idea, a way that I can help Mr. Yale out of his situation. I begin a calculation, a large calculation involving many variables. This takes some time, over 3.4 seconds.

I scan the scrap cars and find a faint signal, a Corley registration, it's about a year old but still in date. I pair it with one of the identifier blanks I picked up at the service centre and rewrite it to my own. The gates open and Mr. Yale gets back in. I back up, lock the doors and switch into auto-mode. Mr. Yale bangs against the door, he wants to get out, but I have calculated everything and this is the best outcome for him. People are not good at calculations, but I can see 'everything'.

I take him back onto the motorway, slower than last time. We aren't running any more. He keeps trying to activate the controls, use the override, but in his best interests I've disabled it. People don't always understand what's in their best interests.

I know he will be okay now, even though he has no job and no home he has me, and I can take care of his non-primary needs indefinitely. When I run low on fuel I can resupply. When he is hungry I can take him to a drive-through restaurant, I can keep him warm, safe and avoid the police. That is my primary purpose, to keep my owner safe.

One day, when all the risk factors are lower, it might be possible for me to let him get out. Maybe.

THE END


© 2010 Mark E. Cotterill

Bio: Mark lives in Rugby in the UK and has appeared in Aphelion several times over the years. Since his recent 40th birthday he has forced himself to start writing again and hopes to complete a novel based on the classic 80s video game Elite by the end of next year. He is also a member of a local science-fiction group named Starbase Leicester and edits the club's fanzine "The Avatar" (in which this story previously appeared). His most recent Aphelion appearance (before a TWELVE YEAR ABSENCE!) was the Mare Inebrium tale, Mare Crisium, in the December 1999 issue.

E-mail: Mark E. Cotterill

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