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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Fiction: The Pickup Artist and His Talking Car

I wrote this a long time ago — say, 1992 or so. The original hinted at an 80’s setting, when speech synthesizers were first hitting mass markets and people were amused by them as much as annoyed. But most of the themes are timeless, and it didn’t take much work to make it as relevant now as ten years ago.

So read on to find out just how goofy things get when Casual Sex meets Rise of the Machines...

The Pickup Artist and His Talking Car

Bobby and Amanda lurched forth from the Lizard Lounge some time after midnight Saturday morning, together yet strangers. Her boyfriend had recently left Amanda for one of her few friends; and after about five drinks, going home with a complete stranger sounded like a good idea. A fine idea.

As for Bobby, helping Amanda get back at her boyfriend was an idea that needed no drinks to sound good, although he drank them anyway. So he picked her up — or she picked him up. Whatever. Amanda hadn’t cleaned up her place lately, between work and sulking, so they decided on Bobby’s place.

“D’you think you can get us there okay?” Amanda asked with just a touch of slur. She wasn’t drunk enough to need support, but liked leaning against Bobby. His warmth felt nice in the cool spring air — he wasn’t bad looking either, and seemed like a good enough guy in the bar. There was still a small, nagging doubt about what she was doing, but figured another rum and Coke or three would erase it when they got to Bobby’s place.

“Yeah, the car knows its way home...” Bobby suddenly gave her a nervous look. “’Manda, lemme tell you something about my car —”

“Oh, it’s okay if it’s old. I’m not going home with you for your car.”

“No, no,” Bobby attempted again. “I mean the car... talks.”

Amanda grinned. “My best friend has one of those cars. I’m not some idiot, y’know. I can make my computers at work talk.”

“That’s not what I mean. The thing really talks. And it doesn’t have much nice to say.”

“Oooo, a possessed car. Good thing you didn’t try using that for a pickup line.” Bobby had come to like Amanda’s lopsided grin in the hour or so he’d known her, and even when teasing him now it looked even better than before. (The rest of her looked pretty nice too, he thought.)

“Well, not possessed, really, but damn it’s temperamental.” He tugged at his collar, already loose. “Well, you’ll find out...”

“Temperamental, huh?” Amanda looked intrigued. Sweeping an arm across the parking lot, she cried, “Lead on, Bobby McDuff — or whatever your last name is. Let’s meet this temperamental car.” She gave him a kiss, for encouragement.

Bobby’s car wasn’t particularly noticeable — a brown Nissan, about ten years old, looking reasonably well-maintained. He helped Amanda into the passenger seat, then stalked around to the driver’s side, muttering, “I hope this one lasts more than two blocks.”

He got in and started the car. Bongg. “Fasten seat belts,” the mechanical feminine voice said. Then, “Jeez, you’re polluted. I’d better drive.”

Forewarned or not, Amanda goggled at Bobby. “You weren’t kidding!”

“Yes, Christine, I know I’ve over-indulged,” Bobby said to the dashboard. “Talking cars drive a man to drink; I told you that.”

Bongg. “And who is this?” The mechanical voice sounded definitely icy.

“I’m Amanda. Nice to meet you, Christine.” She looked at the dashboard, and then at Bobby, who wasn’t touching the steering wheel as the car poked its way through the parking lot.

Bongg. “That’s not my real name,” the voice replied. It took on an edge as the car turned out of the parking lot, with Bobby leaning back in the seat with his hands behind his head. “Booby, among his many other vices, likes Stephen King novels. A Japanese car has a Japanese name, and mine is Miko.”

Bobby snarled, with an air of haven’t-we-been-through-this-before, “Yeah, but aren’t Japanese women supposed to be meek or something?”

Bongg. “But Japanese women aren’t made of steel and plastic,” Miko snapped. “And if it wasn’t for me, you’d have lost your license for DUI a long time ago, and you know it.

“Amanda, you should know you’re not Bobby’s first pickup attempt by a long shot. Of course, once his bimbos get to talk to me for a few minutes, they usually sober up and run.”

Bobby slammed the steering wheel. “Amanda is not a bimbo! Now you apologize and I mean right now — or I’ll by God pour sand in your crankcase first thing tomorrow morning!” He grinned nastily. “You’re paid off, after all.”

Amanda burst out laughing. “Bobby, this is wonderful. How did you program this? You really ought to take it on the road; you’d be rich!”

Bobby and Miko responded in unison, “We do. Every morning.” Bobby smiled and said, “One thing we have in common — neither one of us can resist a bad joke.”

Amanda doubled over laughing, catching herself on the dashboard. Gasping for breath, she finally wiped her eyes. “I just can’t believe this! I’ve done expert system programming for three years and I thought it was impossible to create an AI this good! How long have you been driving around in this... breakthrough?”

Bongg. “No work of Bobby’s, I assure you.” Miko’s voice managed to convey a touch of light humor. “He’s an accountant, pretty good at cranking numbers into a computer but not a programmer.”

“I have a theory,” Bobby rejoined. “You know how cars kind of develop a personality when they get older? Well Chri— Miko started talking about the time she — it? got up to about eighty thousand miles.”

Bongg. “I was using oil, and Bobby’s no mechanic. Good with numbers like I said, but — anyway, he got frustrated and yelled at me. ‘I wish you could tell me why the hell you’re using oil all the time,’ he said, so I told him to check the front seals. He was so surprised, he nearly drove right into a tree.”

“Yeah,” Bobby continued, “and since then Miko tells me when something’s wrong and even tells me how to fix it myself. A hundred and ninety-three thousand miles, and runs like new. I figure I’ll have this car forever, if it doesn’t drive me nuts and I drive it off a cliff.”

Amanda looked goggle-eyed at Bobby again. “You mean it — she —”

Bongg. “Home sweet apartment,” Miko announced. “Run on in and have a good time, kids.” They were both sobered up somewhat, and Amanda was keyed up trying to figure out how Miko could have happened, but Bobby had most of a bottle of rum and a few cans of cola in the refrigerator. They had a good time. A fine time.

Bobby woke up alone at about ten, not hung over enough to not wonder what happened to Amanda. He stumbled into the kitchen/dining nook, and found his answer:
Hey sweetie, had to wrap up a project at work.
Would have left you some breakfast but you don’t
have nothing but cereal. Typical bachelor (ha ha).

My place tonight. Supper, whatever, breakfast.

I'll be ready about 5-ish.
Call me for directions. 555-6124 after about 1.

Say hi to Miko for me!
XXX, Amanda

Bobby reached for the cereal, then thought about Amanda’s comment. Throwing on the first clean clothes he found on the bedroom floor, he headed out to Miko, staggering a bit in the bright sunshine.

Bongg. “Where to on a late Saturday morning? Amanda’s place?” Miko sounded not a bit surly for once — rather friendly, in fact.

“Later on, this evening,” Bobby smiled. “Right now, we’re off to the Breakfast House.” He squinted at the reflections off Miko and the other cars. “Whoosh, it’s bright this morning. You mind driving?”

Bongg. “Not at all. I saw her leave this morning; she said ‘see you later.’ I hoped you got her phone number. You need to hang on to this one, I think.”

That evening, Bobby and Miko pulled up to Amanda’s place, to be greeted with a kiss for Bobby and a cheery hello for Miko. As they went inside, Bobby shook his head, “Miko really likes you, and I finally think I’m starting to like her too. It. Whatever.”

“I like her too. But if I ever find out you programmed her, I’ll break your fingers.” Amanda grinned. “Well, maybe nine.”

“Well, I’m safe then,” Bobby grinned, flexing his fingers a little nervously. “But I’m still amazed by it all. How did you get off on the right foot with her?”

“Me too,” Amanda gave Bobby that lopsided grin he liked so much, throwing her arms around him. “But I remembered something about my dad. He had this old Chevy, and I swear he was the only one who could get it started. He used to say you just had to know how to talk to a temperamental car.”


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