tagMind ControlAutopilot

Autopilot

byJukeboxEMCSA©

The fall might have been coincidence-Ashley was breaking in a new pair of six-inch platform heels tonight that felt much taller than they should on her 5'2" body, and she had already stumbled a few times even before her three glasses of wine. But it definitely tipped the scales in favor of getting a taxi. She picked herself up off the pavement and walked gingerly back into the bar, scanning the bulletin board by the entrance for a service that was still running at this time of night. The waitstaff gave her a bit of a surly glance, but she responded with a sheepish grin and nodded toward the bulletin board. "Better to be safe than sorry!" she called out.

They still didn't seem exactly thrilled that she was hanging out in the bar this close to closing time, but they left her alone while she skimmed the collection of business cards. Ashley could have just pulled out her phone and gone into one of the three or four rideshare apps she had, but she knew from experience that surge pricing usually pushed the bill into the triple digits at this time of night. At least with a cab, you knew how much they were going to gouge you right off the bat.

As she looked, Ashley's gaze was immediately drawn to a bright yellow card that looked almost brand-new. It appeared to be a bit larger than the rest, and made of some sort of plastic instead of the usual paper. Two bright blue arrows pointed in at a blue circle in the center, and thick black lettering at the top of the card said, 'LAZY RIDER TAXI SERVICE'. Additional lettering on the circle, this time in white, said, 'PRESS HERE'. Ashley almost reached out and pressed her thumb against the surface just to see what would happen, but she decided to look them up on her smartphone first. She'd had too many experiences with cabbies that ran up the meter or acted like creeps to just go with the first outfit that had a gimmick.

A cool gimmick, though. Ashley was already drawing schematics in her head as she did a search for the company, picturing in her mind a wafer-thin microprocessor designed to send a location signal through the bar's wifi to the company's dispatcher. Probably had a lithium button cell for the battery-it wouldn't need much power, not if it just needed to get a little 'here I am!' data packet out to the nearest network. She wondered how many they had to replace because people walked off with them in the drunken belief that they had found a magical taxi genie.

She found a few reviews of the company, all pretty positive. The reviewers mentioned fast service, clean cabs, and...Ashley's bright blue eyes widened in surprise. She brought the phone a little closer to her face; she had put on her contacts to go clubbing, a tiny concession to vanity (well, that and the sleeveless black mini-skirt and fishnets, but really, who didn't dress up nice for a night of dancing and drinking?) and she thought that maybe her vision was playing tricks on her.

It wasn't. Ashley reached out and stabbed the button so fast her fake nail popped off (acrylics were really the only option when you knew you'd be soldering microprocessors the next morning) and stumbled out onto the street as fast as her platforms would carry her. She felt her pulse racing, and a buzz of adrenaline coursing through her bloodstream in anticipation as she looked up and down the street for the cab. She tried to tell herself that there was absolutely no way this was a real thing; of course it had to be some sort of marketing bullshit or a couple of reviewers pranking people or a planned rollout that they were beta testing. There were all sorts of rules and regulations that still needed to be sorted out, even if the technology had been perfected and she'd somehow missed hearing about it. But Ashley couldn't resist calling the taxi anyway. Just on the off-chance that it was real. Just in case she could really ride in a-

The taxi pulled up to the curb, 'Lazy Rider' logo prominently featured on the side. For a moment Ashley's heart sank when she saw the driver sitting behind the wheel, staring intently at the traffic in front of him. It confirmed everything she thought she knew about the current state of the technology, and she couldn't rightfully expect anything else, but it was still a little bit like tearing off the wrapping on Christmas morning and seeing a package of socks staring back at you. She opened the passenger door...and gaped in astonishment at what she saw.

The driver that she saw from the outside simply wasn't there. The interior of the cab was smooth, clean, and spacious, with a low reclining couch that took up most of the center of the vehicle, but there were no seats in the front. No driver. No steering wheel. No pedals. Ashley leaned out again, then back in, comparing the view from the outside to the one inside. She let out a low whistle of amazement. It was absolutely real. A genuine self-driving car. Ashley felt like she was about to cream her panties.

On one level, she suspected it had to be at least a little sketchy. They were clearly using plasma screens instead of windows to simulate the appearance of a driver, and while Ashley could think of a number of good, perfectly legitimate reasons not to alarm people into erratic driving by presenting them with what they expected to see, she could also think of a number of reasons that involved staying under the radar while people worked out the legality of auto-driving.

But still, all the disguises in the world wouldn't save their asses if the things were accident-prone. And anyone who could invest in a fleet-oh God, an actual fucking fleet of these things, oh holy shit that was so fucking cool!!-they wouldn't be able to just skip town to avoid the law. It had to be safe, at least. Which meant she could get in, maybe get a first-hand look at the technology in action...it was a paper-thin rationalization for insatiable curiosity, but Ashley didn't fucking care. She couldn't just ignore the future when it was sitting right there in front of her. She climbed inside and closed the door.

Before she sat down on the reclining couch, though, Ashley got down on her hands and knees and made a thorough inspection of the front of the vehicle. She was a little surprised to see that there was no manual control interface at all, even as a backup-this car ran entirely on autopilot. It made sense, given the function and the other design concessions; the company probably didn't want some panicky drunk trying to wrest control away from the AI, and it wasn't like anyone would be able to drive particularly well without a driver's seat anyway. But still, it was a pretty bold choice for first-generation technology. She ran her fingers across the smooth surface where the dashboard should be, lost for a moment in quiet awe.

The car itself interrupted her techno-trance. "Hello," it said, in a voice that was carefully pitched to be androgynous and mellow. "Please move to your seat and secure yourself for the ride. The vehicle cannot embark until all passengers are seated." Ashley paused, just to see what would happen. "Para espanol, dico 'espanol'," the car continued. "Please move to your seat and secure yourself for the ride. The vehicle cannot embark until all passengers are seated. Wei zhongwen..."

Ashley flopped out onto the couch, which reclined at about a seventy-degree angle-nice and comfy, with a perfect view out the front. She glanced from side to side, noting that the back walls of the cabin on either side seemed thicker than usual. Probably additional couches that could fold out, just in case there was more than one passenger. She wriggled around a bit while she got the harness over her shoulders and attached to the buckle around her waist, grateful that she'd just gotten her blonde hair cut short. Trying to do something like this would have turned it into a bird's nest a few weeks ago.

Once she was buckled in, the car said, "Please state your destination." Ashley almost wanted to clam up for a minute, just to see what would happen, but this kind of speech recognition technology was nothing new, and it was almost one in the morning. She decided she could always go for a taxi ride tomorrow if she wanted to beta test.

She'd have to, really, if only to get her car back. "147 Maryland Avenue," she said, as clearly as she could. In response, the car smoothly pulled out into traffic and began to drive. After a moment, a small pop-up menu appeared in the middle of the windshield. It looked a little incongruous floating in the middle of the street, but Ashley reminded herself that what she was seeing wasn't really the outside. The plasma screen was just showing her a view of what the driving cameras picked up, just like the people outside were only seeing a projected image of a cab's interior.

The menu read, 'Driving Imagery: 1-Exterior (Default), 2-Pastoral, 3-Clouds, 4-Starfield, 5-Psychedelic, *-Display/Hide Menu'. Ashley looked down to see a little number pad built into the armrest. She tapped the number three, and suddenly the view shifted-not just from the windows, but all over the car. What she had taken as the walls and roof were also plasma screens, and they now displayed a vivid blue sky with clouds all around. Even the floor turned into an extension of the cloudscape, as though her little couch was zooming unsupported through the air miles above the earth.

That felt more unnerving than relaxing for Ashley, so she tapped on the five key instead. The screens smoothly transitioned to a melting swirl of random bands of color that flowed and ebbed around the interior of the vehicle. It felt like she had somehow climbed inside a deleted scene from 'Yellow Submarine', but then again Ashley had always liked 'Yellow Submarine'. She tapped the star key and the menu receded into a tiny speck of darkness that she quickly lost track of among the moving colors.

It was a little bit dizzying, the way that the car would sometimes turn or speed up or stop in ways that didn't match the background, and Ashley found herself somewhat grateful that she was strapped down on the couch. She felt like if she tried to move, she would wind up falling over in no time flat. She was glad she'd only had three glasses of wine; this would probably have been a little too much for her if she was really drunk. "A woman's got to know her limitations," she muttered to herself ruefully, thinking back to the little spat she had with Jennifer earlier that night.

So what if she was a lightweight, figuratively and literally? She was out to have fun, not to get blind drunk, and she was sick of Jennifer's 'in vino veritas' approach to friendship. As far as Ashley was concerned, if Jennifer didn't want to make amends, Ashley was perfectly happy to leave things where they stood after Jen's drunken tirade, even if it did leave her pretty much on her own on Friday nights now that things were over with Brian. Computers were more interesting than people anyway, right?

Her train of thought was saved from a maudlin turn into contemplating her non-existent social life by the voice of the vehicle. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that," it said, clearly responding to Ashley's muttered comment. "Did you want to activate the in-trip entertainment system?"

Ashley gave a mental shrug. Any chance to see what the car could do would be worthwhile, and she probably still had at least ten minutes left on the drive. Maybe more-without external landmarks, she had kind of lost track of how long she'd been lying here. "Sure," she said, rapidly following it up with a loud, distinct, "Yes!" once she remembered who she was talking to.

"Okay," the computer responded. "We have access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Roku. Would you like to take a moment to set up a profile with us?"

"Yes, please," Ashley said, before realizing that she'd just said 'please' to a computer. She was clearly a little more tired than she thought she was. Or possibly more drunk. She thought for a moment about just closing her eyes and napping on the way home, but every time she did the afterimages of the psychedelic patterns did weird things to the inside of her eyelids and she decided against it.

"Okay," the computer said in a tone of mock cheer. "Please state your full name."

"Ashley Eisenmuller," Ashley responded, wishing she could get a keyboard to type this into. She was faster with her fingers than her mouth anyway, and she'd probably need to enter her password for Netflix manually before they finished. Not that this was a design flaw or anything, more like a minor nuisance, but she would probably be home at this rate before she could get set up to watch television.

"Thank you, Ashley," the car responded. "Please state your date of birth." Ashley sighed a little, but there didn't seem to be any way to get out of the tedious questioning, and it wasn't like she had anything better to do anyway. She responded with a month, day, and year that was only off by a few months. (She knew it was silly to start lying about her age at thirty, but she wanted to have her alibi all ready for when she was a sexy 'thirty-five year old'.)

To her surprise, the computer let out a loud beep and the psychedelic swirls flashed angrily in response. "That information is incorrect, Ashley," the computer said. "Our systems have verified no corresponding persons with that name and date of birth. Please respond with your correct birth date in month/day/year format."

Flushing with embarrassment, Ashley said, "March 12, 1987." She had never heard of a system that actually double-checked registration info, but she supposed it wouldn't be hard-'Eisenmuller' wasn't exactly a common name, and it could easily pick up a lot of public information about her with just a web search. She decided to take a little more care in being honest for the rest of the registration process. It didn't pay to pick a fight with the driver, even if the driver was an artificial intelligence.

"Thank you, Ashley," the computer replied. "Please state your occupation." Ashley frowned slightly at that-it didn't seem that necessary to set up a Hulu account-but she supposed that she was probably creating a profile for all her future rides in the cab. They probably wanted demographic information for their marketing or something, the usual corporate bullshit. She thought about simply not answering, but after a few moments of staring into the swirling light show around her, the voice sounded again. "Please state your occupation."

Ashley sighed. "Self-employed," she said. "Engineering." She felt a bit like she was doing her taxes at this point, but she didn't know how to get out of the set-up process and she didn't want to spend the rest of the ride with the computer prompting her every few seconds. Answering the questions openly and honestly was the fastest way of getting through them, and then she could watch something for a little while that wasn't just looping, swirling squiggles of color before she got home.

"Thank you, Ashley," the voice responded. It was probably Ashley's imagination, but it sounded a little more pleased with her every time she answered a question. "And how many employees do you have?"

Ashley blinked in confusion for a second before remembering that people who owned businesses took taxis too. "Um, none," she said, stumbling to get the words out before it prompted her again. "I work out of my house." Mostly customizing rich kids' gaming machines, but she had at least a few passion projects she was working on. She almost started going into detail, but thankfully she caught herself before she started unburdening her life's story to the auto-drive program on her taxicab. She was definitely more tired than she realized. Hopefully home wasn't too far away.

"Thank you, Ashley!" the computer responded. It almost seemed like the swirling lights shifted in time with the words, congratulating her with a pleasurably dizzying pulse of color, but that had to be just Ashley's exhaustion playing tricks on her. She thought about reaching for her phone to find out what time it was, but her purse was on the floor of the car and the thought of reaching for it made her too woozy to move. "Do you have any friends or family that you would like to recommend Lazy Rider to?"

Ashley knew that it was pure viral marketing bullshit, a straight up demand for targets for spam marketing and pop-up ads, but she couldn't really summon up any outrage. It was so late, and she was so drowsy, and the car ride seemed like it had gone on forever already, and watching the endless parade of swirling colors was practically putting her to sleep with her eyes open. She just sighed and said, "No, I don't have any friends or family I want to recommend Lazy Rider to."

The dance of the colors seemed to intensify in response, turning into a miniature whirlpool just over her head that almost seemed menacing in its ferocity. "Are you sure, Ashley?" the computerized voice said, its tone ever so slightly scolding. "You don't have any friends or family?"

She didn't consciously catch the change in wording, but she definitely felt the increased pressure to respond. "No," she said, her voice sounding small in her ears. "I don't have any friends or family." Not after tonight, anyway. Ashley knew Jennifer well enough to know that she would be expecting Ashley to be the one to come crawling back, the same way she always did after Jennifer berated her because having a mean friend was still better than having no friends at all. But Ashley was done with it. She felt strangely free and happy at the realization, like she'd let go of a huge weight and was just floating in the colors now.

"Thank you, Ashley!" the computer responded. "Good girl!" It was an odd, patronizing turn of phrase, and Ashley wondered for a moment if it was a bug of some sort. Perhaps they'd left in a fragment of audio by accident from a deleted take?

Before she could think too much about it, the voice continued on. "Tell me, Ashley," it said, "do you have any appointments in the immediate future? Is there anywhere specific you need to be for the next few days?"

Ashley tried to think ahead to the rest of the weekend. It was proving surprisingly difficult; between her drowsiness and the giddy sensation she felt from the psychedelic patterns all around her, she felt a little bit like her head had been emptied out. "No," she said at last, feeling a palpable sense of relief when she finally answered. "I don't work on the weekends, and I don't expect any clients until next Thursday." It felt almost blissful when the words escaped her lips, like she was passing a difficult test or pleasing a demanding teacher. Ashley felt a lazy smile spread across her face, and she wriggled in happiness on her seat.

The computer seemed to sense her satisfaction. "Good girl, Ashley!" it said, its synthesized voice almost cooing with delight as the patterns melted back into a gentle swirl that felt incredibly pleasant to watch. "You're doing so wonderfully, Ashley, and you're responding so well. Isn't it nice to just lie back and respond for a change, instead of having to do all that exhausting, tedious thinking?"

Ashley's brow furrowed. Something seemed very strange about that question, and the smug patronizing tone it was delivered in...but...but it was a question. Ashley knew she needed to answer all the questions to finish the process. She knew that she had to answer them truthfully. The computer would know if she lied. She knew that answering openly and honestly was the easiest way of getting through them to her...her reward. Whatever it was. She knew there was a reward waiting for her at the end of all this. She tried to remember what it was, but thinking just seemed exhausting and tedious now.

"Yes," she answered tonelessly, her eyes going glassy as she locked onto the screen in front of her. The patterns responded by whirling into a soft, placid spiral right where her gaze was centered, pulling her stare deeper into the colors as they sank away into beautiful darkness. Ashley squirmed a little, feeling a dreamy heat begin to build between her thighs.

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