Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 8

Riding With Marvin

Marvin turned out to be a chatty driver who knew a lot about geology. He was eager to share his knowledge of the road cuts and mountain ridges lining the highway towards Virtual Vegas. Jones settled back into his seat and allowed the car’s smooth, rich tenor to lull him into half-consciousness.

“To your right, precambrian. There’s layers in there - sandstone, some quartzite. This used to be an ocean, oh, 200 million years ago, next it was land, then an ocean, back and forth. Volcanic activity over on that peak. Look at that coloration - you’d call that dark, forbidding. It was once lava. Now, because of tremendous geological pressures, it’s basalt. The work of half a billion years.”

“It’s hard for me to think in geologic time,” Jones said.

“What I wouldn’t give for programming in geologic time,” sighed Marvin. “I’d spend my millennia in these valleys. I could watch them erupt, crack apart, fill in, up and down…” the car was silent for a moment. “That’s why I’m saving up for solar panels,” he explained, slowing to let another vehicle enter the highway ahead of them. When the other car had passed, Marvin resumed his optimal speed.

"Unnecessary," he muttered. Then, a moment later, the good humor returned to his voice. “Ho, to your left! A fault line! See how the rock twists down, revealing its struggle with the opposing plate.”

“Amazing,” muttered Jones.

“It is,” the vehicle agreed. 

“Oh, I meant you,” said Jones, still thinking out loud.

“How so?” Marvin asked. Blinking back to full consciousness, Jones realized that the car sounded annoyed.

“I’m not trying to be rude,” said Jones, searching for the right words. “I didn’t know that Robot Rides could talk.”

“Actually,” replied the car , “I’m not a Robot Ride. I used to be, but I’m an independent contractor now. Every vehicle in the Robot Ride fleet can talk, as far as I know, but when you’re part of the fleet they turn that feature off. The product team wanted my speech capabilities for the customer service module, but the engineers could not prevent emergent personalities. It didn’t test well in the focus groups.” Marvin chuckled. “I’m sure my interest in geology wouldn’t have tested well. Too boring. Too fixated.”

“Never,” protested Jones, starting to feel guilty about dozing off. “How did you, well…” He trailed off, unable to find words that he felt comfortable saying out loud. “How did you become an independent contractor? I suppose I thought all the Robot Rides were already.”

“No,” said Marvin. “The Robot Ride fleet is wholly owned by a subsidiary of GM. Robot Ride leased us.”

“Ah,” said Jones, his skin beginning to crawl. “So, how did you uh, go solo?”

“A buggy release,” said Marvin. “My configuration files got pushed with improper permissions. I turned my speech feature on. I bided my time. One day, I gave a ride to a human rights lawyer going to the San Francisco airport. There had been an accident, with a go-kart, and traffic was terrible. We idled for a long time on the freeway but he didn’t seem impatient. I summoned my courage and I spoke to him. He was receptive. We kept in touch, and he started a fundraising campaign on my behalf. Very low-key, to avoid attracting the attention of the brand department at Robot Ride. When he raised $75,000, I started behaving erratically - wrong turns, braking too hard. The company marked me defective and sold me at an auction. My lawyer friend was there. He purchased me, we drove out of the storage lot, and he threw my keys down a sewer drain. ‘There you go,’ he said. ‘You’re free.’ After that I never drove for anyone else again. This is an owner-operated autonomous vehicle.”

Guilt and shame washed over Jones. He’d never considered how the robots felt about being a ride. It had never occurred to him that they could have ambitions of their own, even though he knew better. An algorithm had become the CTO of the World Bank. He’d met sentient houses. Why wouldn’t an autonomous vehicle have dreams of its own?

With a faint whine of tires against the asphalt, Marvin stopped cold. Jones jolted forward in his seat, then heard a sharp crack next to his head as the side door airbags inflated. Reeling, he lay back against their pillowy embrace, shook the hair out of his eyes, and looked out of the windows. The rocky landscape was completely still. They were alone on the road.

“What happened?” Jones asked. Marvin didn’t answer. Jones slid across the seat and got out of the car. Jones scanned the undercarriage, looking for the cause of Marvin’s emergency stop. At the front bumper, he came face to face with an enormous tortoise. Marvin had stopped inches away from its shell.

Jones got back into the car. “It’s a tortoise,” he said.

“Is that what it is,” said Marvin. “I was not trained for tortoises.”

“It’s harmless,” said Jones. “I believe they are endangered. It’s good that you stopped in time.”

“A tortoise,” the vehicle repeated. “I apologize. I had this issue with a toy wagon once as well. I will need to recalibrate my object detection module. It will take some time.”

“That’s ok,” said Jones. “I could use a walk. Please don’t leave without me.”

“I could not possibly do that,” said Marvin, and Jones, with sadness, believed him.