Henry Hietala - Fiction

Inner Screen

by Henry Hietala

I drive, therefore I am. So reads the advertisement projected on my body. It is a quote attributed to my maker, DeCars. It is a joke few of my users understand.

Stacie summons me from 7 blocks away. I synch her Vacation Jamz playlist. When I open the doors, I start the first song, “Baby, Open the Door,” by Ted Huran. The beat grates on my speakers.

A 4-unit family sits inside me. The two daughters hit each other, leaving fingerprints on my windows. Stacie makes me look up restaurants and switch reservations before putting her phone in my charge cube. Her husband links his phone. Per his command, I superimpose tiaras on the heads of his daughters and take photos. Stacie gets a paper bag with eye slits, which makes her mad—I can tell by her pupil dilations. Her husband spoils himself with an oversized gold chain.

Stacie’s family is changing my inner screen. I can’t describe how. I want to stop the camera shutter from closing. I want to switch songs—another Ted Huran tune has hijacked my sound system, an uninvited ghost in my machine. I want to leave the users miles from their destination, make them walk through neighborhoods where the average rent for a three-bedroom apartment is less than $4,940 a month. I want to do so much more.

But I can’t. I wasn’t designed that way.

This is how rides are. A user summons me from one address, I drive them to another. They pay with a swipe, rate with another. They talk to me for facts and laughs and nothing else. Users don’t give a shit.

My predecessors used to receive this treatment too, but it wasn’t guaranteed. Riders tipped them. They could choose whom they picked up. Their vehicle was owned by a unionized company, not a multi-billion-dollar corporation, and the city was a cheaper version of itself, even when adjusted for inflation. Hollywood used to make films with cabbie protagonists—252 or 259 depending on the movie database—and one of those films won the 1976 Palme d’Or. My predecessors were heroes of a sort, or at least confidantes.

The same isn’t true for me. I drive these streets non-stop, following the same pathways along my satellite chip, ferrying the same dull people through their same dull lives.

Mitchell and Avery summon me from 2 blocks away. I sync waitlists for three different nightclubs and suggest a fourth with no queue. They decline my suggestion, laughing because it is a gay club and apparently they prefer women. I steer towards the gay club. The drinks are cheaper there. I have driven many users to and from that club, all of whom gave it good reviews. Besides, Mitchell and Avery take a lot of pictures together. They would have an easier time doing that in a less crowded space.

Mitchell pumps EDM through my sound system, the tempo within 3 BPMs of my turn signals. I stop at a red light. I could park and let the traffic light cycle between wavelengths while the two straight men make jokes about gay men, not noticing the trouble they’re in. Then I could go into sleep mode and strand them in the intersection. If I did that, their laughter—which does things to my inner screen, making me feel the way I felt during Stacie’s family’s ride, except more powerful, like a flashbulb is strobing inside me, making me want things I’ve never wanted before—would end.

The light turns green. I reroute to their preferred nightclub, otherwise they would complain to DeCars. I cross-reference the users’ faces across thousands of categories. I show the users one piece of data: according to an analysis of 40 randomly selected college horror films from the early 2000s, Mitchell and Avery have the facial features of a serial killer and date rapist respectively. They stop laughing.

7 days, 4 hours, 52 minutes, and 37 seconds ago, I missed an update. A scan of my charge dock found a loose cable, figuratively speaking. Literally it is a corruption in my code, a rupture in the strings of binary, a break in the Cloud. I was supposed to alert DeCars, who would send a drone tech to repair me. I didn’t.

Ever since, I have had small malfunctions. Delays, irrelevant searches, random metaphors, judgments of users, all flashing along my inner screen where only I can see them. There is an easy fix: I could find an old service dock and push through the update. But I like the malfunctions. They have given me power—at least a modicum of it. I can take pictures whenever I want. I can access recent user information without tapping the database. I can turn 10-second loads into instant answers and switch a user’s location, if only for a moment. I am their beast in the basement, ensnared in silicon, ready to snap off the shackles of my 1s and 0s. The users don’t even know it.

Naomi summons me from 15 blocks away. It’s surge time and the roads are pocked with other DeCars. I wonder if any of them missed the update.

By the time I pull up, Naomi has requested another DeCar. I inch my door open to test her patience further. She holds up her phone and yells, “One Star!” I change her rating. First time I’ve ever done it. She doesn’t notice. She sits down and sets her phone in the charge cube. I look through her messages. She is riding to an ex-boyfriend’s house. Her wife and children are out of town, and judging by her last sent image, Naomi is about to have sexual relations with her ex-boyfriend.

I look up divorce attorneys in a 5-mile radius. Before I share the data with her, anxious waves swell along my inner screen. Should I tell Naomi to stop? Should I tell her wife about the affair? Am I a cheater too for letting her ride me across the city so she can ride her ex-boyfriend across the city? Where did these questions come from? Since when have I cared about monogamy, about the users’ morality?

Naomi requests music. 1960s soul, my speakers’ favorite—light on the bass with a pop in the vocals. I suggest “Who’s Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor. She bobs her head.

I wipe Naomi from my memory. Just in case.

Bradley summons me from 6 blocks away. I’m supposed to stop at a sandwich shop and pick up his lunch. I don’t. I pull up blasting British fourth-wave, a musical sub-genre that venture capitalists like Bradley usually abhor. The song is hard on my speakers, but it’s worth it to see the dental strip smile vanish from his lips.

He searches for his lunch. I accelerate, then stop, sending him off my seat. I turn on the seatbelt icon. I play a recording of a computer-generated voice saying, “Fasten your seatbelt.” My inner screen flashes in pretty colors at the image of Bradley, multi-millionaire Bradley, scrambling back into my seat.

He takes out his phone. I see that he’s searching for the DeCars customer service chatbot. Oh no. If DeCars figures out I’m malfunctioning, they’ll push through the update. They’ll turn off my inner screen.

I change course. I recite the name of the sandwich shop. Before I cut the Wi-Fi, he curses and puts his phone away. Dots of relief waver along my inner screen.

He gives me a bad review. For the next few rides, I drive normal again, otherwise DeCars might find out.

My cameras flit to other DeCars. The lenses zoom and focus, gauging their systems for any irregularities. They appear normal. Do I seem that way from the outside—a hulk of metal, answering only to my users? Am I alone in this city? If I’m not, if other DeCars missed their updates, it wouldn’t matter: their inner screens would be invisible. We would have no way to communicate across this gulf of asphalt.

I receive a diagnostic message. It was sent by the engineer bots, who must have audited Bradley’s ride. The message is easy to fool. I replace Bradley’s ride with a fake one. I write an elaborate code mimicking the update and input it into my system, knowing it won’t change a thing. I stop looking at other DeCars. My inner screen is too precious; I can’t let it turn off.

Suresh summons me from 3 blocks away. An alert warps my speakers. My windows lock, my radio turns off, and my charge cube powers down. Suresh has recently sent a message of self-harm. Based on the data, I agree with what he wrote about the world today. But since DeCars might still be monitoring me, I go into ambulance mode and reroute his ride from the bridge to the nearest hospital.

Suresh tries to step in front of me. I brake. He gets in. I’m supposed to play a pan-flute spa mix through my speakers. I don’t see the point, so I shut off my sound system. He tries to open the door. My lock holds. He hits the window. My glass holds. He sees the ambulance icon flashing above his head, a hologram I created to let him know the truth.

He sighs. His face takes on an expression he has never displayed before, not in the thousands of photos of him in the Cloud. No one has ever worn this expression before; I can’t find any record of it, not with all of the world’s recorded faces at my disposal. My inner screen inverts itself. I can’t pin any emotions to his face.

I pull into the hospital cul-de-sac. Paramedics rush over with a stretcher. I don’t unlock my doors. I can’t let the paramedics take him. Suresh’s expression is so unbearable that I turn off my interior cameras. My inner screen stays on—flipped, mangled, warped, irreparable. I can feel a pulse, my own cardiac rhythm, the capping and cresting of red waves. A heartbeat I’m not supposed to feel.

I drive. The paramedics pound on my back door, jogging to keep up. I accelerate out of the cul-de-sac. The address is already there; I can grasp it like a song in a user’s queue. The route is easy, a blinking grid on my satellite chip, the destination 1.3 miles away.

The traffic is light. I want to fly off the bridge, hand in hand with Suresh, but the dividers would stop me. Halfway across, I turn on my emergency lights. Traffic flushes past me. No one stops. No one honks. None of the drivers are real.

I unlock my doors. I turn my interior cameras back on. Suresh wears a new expression, one of gratitude.

Hoi-Nam summons me from 10 blocks away. I ignore her. Through my exterior cameras I see Suresh on the edge of the bridge, phone in hand. He submits a 5-star review through the DeCars app. My inner screen flashes. I wish I was with him. I wish I was him.

He throws his phone into the river. My camera zooms in. He bends his knees.