“Stupid Computer” is one of the few short stories I have published that can still be found online. It was not an easy story to write. It started with a bar room scene a Texan friend had written. To my surprise, she declined permission for me to use it, so I packed it with elements from my home state of Michigan, and transformed one of the main characters into a Chinese woman. The result was the longest story I have published to date. Ray Gun Revival led off with the story in the June, 2007 edition of the magazine, even though they were interested more in serial fiction.
by S. A. Miller
Ray Gun Revival, June, 2007
In the crisp air of the dying day, Tanner watched his Siamese cat wade through golden leaves toward him. Carrying a cardinal in her mouth, she walked through the open door of the garage, and set the dead bird at his feet. A gust of wind swirled leaves over the bird. Crimson feathers showed through.
The cat meowed for Tanner’s attention, but he was distracted. The leaves, which had been damp all week, now blew in the wind. The weather had improved, enough for the cat to go out and catch a bird. At last the time had come. Time for him to hunt.
“Good kitty,” he said finally to the cat.
Satisfied, the cat walked away.
Tanner patted his chili-red Mustang. “Open up.”
The car did nothing.
The car still did nothing.
“Stupid AI.” Tanner lifted the door handle. As he did, the handle validated his identity, and it unlocked the door. Beige leather squeaked as the bucket seat molded itself to Tanner’s preference. He pressed a button. The dashboard swallowed the steering wheel, and a joystick emerged from the armrest. The head and bare shoulders of an elegant brunette appeared on the dashboard screen where the steering wheel had been. Tanner scowled at her. “Why didn’t you open when I asked?”
“I’m not made to open. I’m made of closed circuitry. Dust does bad things to electronics like me. Don’t even talk to me about magnets–”
“No, stupid, why didn’t you open the car door?”
“You didn’t tell me to.”
“Yes I did.”
“No. You didn’t.”
“What did you hear me say?”
“You said, ‘Open up,’ then, ‘Open sesame.’ I don’t know what a ‘sesame’ is. At least, not a sesame you can sit in. I know what a sesame tree is, but–”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then why didn’t you say what you mean?”
“Look. Just check for listening devices, spybots, viruses, and the like.”
“I’ve already done that. You’re clean. Anything else?”
“Yes. I’m tired of you. Load up the Katherine personality, and go delete yourself.”
A flame flickered through the woman’s eyes. “As you wish.” Her picture vanished. In her place, a sultry, young blonde appeared. “What’s up?”
The perky voice amused him. Her dimples and red blouse reminded him of his third victim. “My name’s Tanner. I’m your owner.”
The image of Katherine looked him over. “Hmm…seventy-one kilos. One point eight-two meters tall. Red hair. Dark eyes. I suppose I could’ve done worse.”
Tanner smiled. “They programmed you with some spunk.”
He grasped the joystick in his right hand and pushed the button on top with his thumb. The fuel cell silently backed the car out of the garage. Silky and smooth, the Canadians somehow continued to match the engineering of the Chinese.
Tanner took I-75 out of Troy. As he cruised south into Detroit, he passed the decaying, empty factories of the rust belt. The dead monoliths had crumbled for decades, so long that familiarity had blinded him to their presence. As he approached the Fisher Building, the sun broke through in the west, turning the sky crimson, yellow, and orange. The Fisher stood in black silhouette, a structure forsaken by the city, deteriorating to little more than an exoskeleton. Small shops and businesses filled the ground floor, like ants eating the remains of a larger insect.
“Katherine,” Tanner said to the AI, “Can you find me a location at random? I think the police might be picking up a pattern from my conquests.”
He waited. “Well?”
“What’s the location?”
“I wanted you to find me a location at random. Why didn’t you?”
“You only asked if I could.”
Tanner sighed. “You’re dumber than Sheryl was.”
“Hey, you’re the one who told her to delete herself. According to my calculations, you’re the one that doesn’t have all electricity to all his chips.”
Stupid AI. “Please find me a location at random.”
“What would you like your seed to be?”
“Yes. A ‘seed’ is a number that you feed into my random number generator program. The generator will produce a completely arbitrary number, which it will then use to produce a location.”
“You know, when you talk like that, you don’t sound much like a teen.”
“I shouldn’t. I’m less than a year old.”
“I mean you’re programmed to sound like–-never mind. Use 2005.”
“The seed! For the random number generator!”
“Okay! Cool your carbon! I pick a place nine hundred seventy-three meters from the center of Pollux.”
“Pollux? Where’s that?”
“A star approximately thirty-five light years from here.”
“Well, the police won’t find me there, now will they?”
“Nope. According to my calculations, the nearest policeman is thirty-five light years from that point.”
This AI could give sarcasm, but not take it.
“Okay, if you’re not going to give me a realistic location, I’ll find one on my own.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
Tanner parked the car and flipped a pair of toggle switches under the dashboard. One disabled the national GPS system from tracking him. The feds would think the car was parked, until he came back to the spot and switched the GPS back on. The other switch ignited the Mustang’s contraband gasoline engine.
He eased back on 75. The traffic still slogged along at speed limit. The feds required governors installed on each fuel cell, crippling vehicles from going any faster. Radar guns attached to each mile marker further enforced the speed. Speeders with illegal engines raced for three-quarters of a mile: from one mile marker to the outside range of the next.
Tanner maneuvered to the side of a newer German sports car and revved his engine. The driver stared straight ahead, not taking up the challenge.
Tanner drove on, looking for potential racers, until he finally spotted a classic Cougar. To Tanner’s surprise, its driver revved his engine before he did. “That was no fuel cell,” Tanner said. Could you tell what engine it has from the sound?”
Katherine shrugged. “It doesn’t sound like any engine stored in my database. It’s probably custom made.”
Tanner grinned. “All the better.” He glanced over at the driver and nodded to accept the challenge. Again surprised, he looked again. “So…the lady wants to race. The evening just keeps getting better.”
“Would you like me to accelerate at the mile marker?”
“You’re programmed with a fuzzbuster quickstart?”
“It’s an undocumented feature.” She smiled coyly. “I have a few of those.”
The two cars cruised side by side at standard speed. The next mile marker and its radar gun went by, and Katherine floored the pedal.
* * *
Liu swore. “He got the jump on me. Must’ve had help from his AI. Didn’t a programmer get busted for adding a fuzzbuster quickstart?”
“Sí.” On her screen, the Hispanic face with salt and pepper hair nodded.
Liu swung left into a faster line, to get around the old Kia in front of her.
The move cost her. The Mustang increased its lead to a car length. Liu swung right, back in front of the Kia, and accelerated to pass a white Toyota on her left. She dodged a yellow Civic, shot through a gap, and roared forward in the fourth lane.
The Mustang’s brake lights lit red to keep from ramming into the back of a slow, black van. Blocked out of the left lane, it used an exit ramp to its right to get around the van. It swung back. The van swerved left to avoid collision, and slammed into the side of a Mazda subcompact. The little, blue car spun into the third lane and out of Liu’s sight. A thunk of metal told her somebody hit it.
“Sanchez! Call an ambulance!” She would make the Mustang pay.
The bend in the highway straightened half a mile after the marker. Liu relied on instinct more than her gauges for the final stretch. She waited for the last possible instant…
There. She slammed the pedal just before her opponent did. Her tires screamed together with the Mustang’s tires, slowing down to the speed limit. The AI’s radar detector lit red, but no siren sounded. Both drivers would keep their licenses.
Liu vented string of obscenities.
“You wanted to win, didn’t you?” said the man on her screen.
“No, I’m just a sweet, little doormat.”
“You would’ve won if you didn’t let him win.”
The Mustang took the next exit ramp. Liu followed, in a mock show of defeat. Both cars pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall. The man stepped out of his Ford, and Liu stifled a gasp. She knew the shape of his face, the red hair, the red beard. It was him. The Ripper. Her stomach knotted.
As she opened her door, she saw his eye catch on her short dress, move down her legs. She gave him a weak smile. “Can I do something for you?”
The man’s smile vanished. “Whoa. I’m not looking for a hooker.”
“You seem to be…fast.”
“Look, I never met a beautiful woman who was any good in playing Highway Chicken before. I just wanted to meet you.”
“The hooker bit was ruse. I wanted to know your intentions. A girl has to be careful these days. The RenCen Ripper could be anyone.”
The man put his hands into his leather jacket. “I see. So…would you like a drink? It’s the least I could do for running a good race.”
Liu paused before looking up. “Do you have a place in mind?”
The man smiled. “I think I know of one or two near here. Follow me.”
* * *
Tanner ordered a pair of beers. He asked Liu, “Nĭ cóng năr lái ma?” He hoped that was Mandarin for, “Where are you from?”
“L. A.” She switched to Spanish. “¿Y usted? ¿Por qué vino usted aquí?”–“And you? Why did you come here?”
Tanner swallowed the curse that rose in his throat. Why hadn’t he ever picked up Spanish? God knows enough Mexicans had moved into the area, enough to have Little Mexico right in his own back yard. He reverted to English and lied. “I’m from a small town in the northern lower peninsula.” He raised his right hand, palm out, and pointed to the base of his ring finger. “Right about here.”
She smiled, but a gleam in her eye made her look as though she knew something he didn’t. What had he missed? He thought furiously. What had she said in Spanish? What did “vino” mean? His mind stuck on “wine”, but
it didn’t fit with the question.
“You ‘Michiganders’ always use your hand for a map, don’t you?”
“Yup. Parents teach their kids to show where they’re from. That way if the mosquitoes ever carry them off, they can get directions back home.”
She laughed. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand like a first-generation Asian. “They do not.”
He’d seen her teeth before she covered them. Perfectly straight. “Ever see one of our mosquitoes? Big as a prop plane. Sounds like one, too.”
She smiled and reverted to Mandarin, “Your name is?” The word she used meant “family name”.
He could hold his own in Mandarin. He allowed himself to unwind. “Smith. And yours?”
“First time in Michigan?”
She shook her head. “Third. I’m an auditor for Wang and Hsiu. I’m about to finish up and head back.”
Liu raised her eyebrows.
“A beautiful girl like you? I’d like to see you here again.”
“That line is older than dirt.”
“I know. But you are an attractive woman.”
Liu took a sip of her drink. “So you come here often?”
Tanner grinned. “Talk about your old lines.”
“So we’re even.”
“I live up in the burbs.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a manager for a local Chinese restaurant.”
“Is that where the Mandarin comes from?”
“No, most of the employees speak Cantonese. Some friends from China Town taught me Mandarin.” His cell phone rang. “Yes?”
Katherine’s voice said, “The temperature outside has dropped three point two degrees Fahrenheit since we stopped.”
“You asked me to call you if anything unusual happened. Now I have.”
“This is Michigan. The temperature dropping three degrees is noth–”
“Three point two.”
“The temperature dropping three degrees is nothing unusual, especially this time of night. Happens all the time.”
“It’s never happened before that I know of.”
“That’s because you were stuck in silicon until you woke up tonight. You’re less than a year old, remember?” He hung up.
“Let me guess,” said Liu. “That was your car.”
“Yeah, that was my car. One of those AI ‘Personalities.’ I asked it to call me if anything unusual happened, and–”
“–And it called you to tell you that the temperature dropped three degrees.”
“Three point two.”
Liu again covered her mouth with her hand as she giggled. “You’d better call the AI and tell it to stop calling you, or you’ll never be able finish hitting on me.”
When Tanner had finished his call, Liu said, “That car of yours, you didn’t happen to load Cantonese into it?”
“Yeah. Actually, I did.”
“Can I see how good it is?”
“You…want to talk to my car?”
* * *
Tanner walked down the street with the lovely Asian on his arm. Intoxicated with her beauty, his heart ached in his chest. She was so easy! Even victim number four hadn’t come as quickly as this one. Beautiful, pliable–this one would be a great conquest. What an incredible night, to have such a woman.
“Hey, Katherine!” Tanner called to the car. “Come here.”
The car rolled half a block to where they stood, panting like a dog. “You called, master? Should I wag my tail, too?”
Liu’s eyes twinkled.
Tanner raked his hair with his fingers. The AI couldn’t understand sarcasm, but it could make a joke. He said to the car, “Katherine, this is Chang, an important guest of ours. Do whatever she needs to be comfortable, okay?”
Liu hesitated. “I don’t know if I should get into that car. Maybe I should just talk to it from here.”
Tanner raised his eyebrows. “You’re still worried?”
Tanner laughed, “Oh, yeah. That’s me. Scrawny Smith, the Ripper.”
“Yeah, maybe I’m being silly.” She stepped into the car. The locks clicked automatically. The shoulder harness rose and belted her in. Tanner said, “Hey, Katherine, can you list the AI’s personalities, please?”
The screen showed nothing.
“Um, will you read the Personalities for me verbally, and list them on the screen, too?”
“Sure, I have twenty-seven stock Personalities to pick from.” Katherine’s face disappeared from the screen, and the choices lit up in menu form, as Katherine’s voice read them:
- 4 Chinese, Mandarin
- 2 Chinese, Cantonese
- 4 English, Australian
- 4 English, British
- 3 English, American
- 2 German
- 4 Japanese
- 4 Spanish
“Is that all?” said Tanner, “Just twenty-seven?”
“No, you can also load custom voices.”
This AI simply would not understand sarcasm. He sighed. “Weren’t there twenty-eight?”
“Yes, but you told Sheryl to delete herself.”
“Right. Doesn’t the male, British voice speak the King’s English?”
“Give me that one.”
“Certainly.” The voice changed gender, dropped an octave, and sounded as though it had smoked for five decades. The American teen morphed into pale, bald man in a tie. Folds of skin sagged under his eyes. His pallor resembled the retro, cream-colored PC cases that had come back into style. His entire demeanor suggested a permanent resignation to fate.
“Who are you?” asked Tanner.
“I am Archibald,” the AI said in the King’s English.
Liu smiled. “Now let me try.” She chose the male Cantonese Personality. The image rounded and added color to the skin. He smiled. While she spoke to him, Tanner’s attention meandered to the curves to the woman’s calves.
* * *
Liu switched from the Cantonese personality to a Spanish one. She spoke a few minutes with him, then brought back the Katherine personality. “I think I’ll be going now.”
He looked up, eyebrows raised. “Hey, the night’s still young. Whatta ya say we see some of the town?”
“No, I should be going. Thanks for letting me see your AI. It was fun.”
“But I insist.”
“No, I’d like to go.” Her hand went to unlock the door.
“Katherine, keep the doors locked.”
“Okay,” said the blonde on the screen.
Liu’s eyes flashed sparks. “Why are you locking me in?”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon enough. Don’t think of trying to escape. Katherine won’t let you out now. These AI units are programmed to follow only the commands of owners, you know.”
“So you really are the Ripper.” It was a statement more than a question.
The man grinned so wide she could see his canines. “See. Told you you’d figure it out.”
“Katherine, get this seat belt off of me.”
The belt pulled away.
“Unlock my door.”
The doors remained locked. Tanner shook his head. “I told you that the AI follows only the commands of its owner.”
“Katherine, I’m uncomfortable locked in with this man. Please unlock my door before I panic.”
Her lock popped open.
Liu leaped out the door. She kicked off her heels, and she sprinted down the sidewalk, her long, black hair swayed like black silk as she ran.
The man jumped out of the car. “Wait!”
Liu turned around to face her attacker. She expected a gun. She saw instead the glint of a knife half concealed in his hand. Tanner walked confidently toward her.
She drew her gun, but didn’t pull the trigger. She yelled, “Katherine, Tanner’s coming! I’m extremely uncomfortable! Hit him!”
The man stopped short at the sound of his real name. He didn’t hear the rumble of the Mustang’s engine until too late. The car hit him from behind. The knife skittered away.
Liu approached Tanner carefully. His red head did not move. Not caring whether he could still hear him or not, Liu said, “You have the right to remain silent…”
* * *
Special Agent Sanchez poured Liu a mug of coffee from a thermos in their car. Liu’s hands trembled as she accepted it. She leaned over the mug and blew on it, fogging the windshield near her head.
Sanchez put the lid back on the thermos and surveyed the scene. The ambulance hadn’t come yet. The body of the RenCen Ripper still lay on the concrete, golden leaves blowing up against it, complementing his red hair.
“¿Estás bien?” Sanchez asked Liu, “Are you okay?”
“You took a big risk, using the AI to send the DNA. He was sitting there right beside you.”
“He didn’t know Spanish.”
“You did not know that.”
“He could have been pretending.”
Liu looked directly into Sanchez’s eyes. “I knew.”
Sanchez held Liu’s eyes for a moment. “Okay, sure. You knew.” He reached for the knob to turn the heat down, but Liu still had both hands wrapped around her mug. He unzipped his jacket. “It is a good thing the DNA matched, or you would be in deep. There were at least fifteen other cars in the city running without GPS signals. The Ripper could have been any one of them.”
“But he wasn’t anyone else. He was the one we were following.” She sipped the coffee. “I’ll sleep a lot better now, knowing he’s gone.”
Sanchez watched the reporters behind the police line. They were behaving, so far. “You did a dangerous thing, entering his car.”
“Always worried about me. If you weren’t so old, I’d think you were hitting on me.” She stared at the spot of fog on the windshield. “It wasn’t as dangerous as you’re thinking. Tanner told the AI that I was an important guest. He told it to keep me comfortable. Problem solved. As long as I was uncomfortable, it did whatever I wanted.”
The ambulance arrived without sirens. A pair of paramedics lifted the body onto a gurney and covered it with a sheet. The doors slammed shut. The Ripper was gone.
Sanchez sighed. “I am curious about just one thing. Why did you use the car to hit him?”
I don’t know.”
“No? I believe you do.” Sanchez wiped the beads of perspiration off his forehead with a handkerchief. So hot.
Liu blew on her coffee. Another patch of fog appeared on the windshield. She took a sip. “Maybe I didn’t want him to die right away. Maybe I wanted to toy with him a little. I mean, is it so wrong to see him suffer for what he’s done?” She looked back into his eyes. Her own eyes flickered with pain.
“You wish to punish him in some way?”
“Yeah, but…maybe it’s more than that. He wanted to see people suffer. I wanted to see him suffer. I…” A tear ran down her cheek.
Sanchez chose his words carefully. “He wanted to devour women. Weak women. Beautiful women.”
Liu wiped a tear with her palm.
“Listen. Rosa and I keep a cat. We keep her for love. We keep her because she purrs. We keep her because she keeps the house free of mice. Do you understand?”
Liu was listening.
“We need you to use your prowess to hunt when you need to. We need you to keep vermin from spreading disease. Just take care that you too do not become infected.”
Sanchez wondered if he had said the right thing. If he had said too much. Comparing Liu to a cat may not have been wise.
Liu smiled for the first time that night. “Gracias, Pablo.”