The car passed smoothly over the bridge into Pennsylvania, but Kendall Bradley, consumed by rage, barely noticed. All he knew was that he was only ten miles or so from her house now. The car would find its way, allowing his fury to simmer without distraction.
“Your heart rate is elevated,” said Bhish, the car’s AI. “I would advise adding some Tramadol into your IV.”
“Hell no! I want to be clear-headed when I confront that bitch.”
Bhish said something else disapproving but Kendall was too angry to pay attention. With the anger came frustration, because in his current physical state he could not even pound on the steering wheel; couldn’t even grip it. The Bhishma drove itself. It had been customized to fit his exo-skeleton, without which he could not move, but it was uncomfortable during excursions lasting more than half an hour or so. He’d already been on the road for over an hour, but his discomfort fueled his anger, too, and he welcomed it.
Not even Rolling Stone, which generally dismissed his work after his departure from the popular Rick Fisher Band, had pissed on him like Carmelita Ramos. “Pop music with pretensions,” they’d said, but Ramos, doyen of the popular online music review site UrTrax, was far more vicious. Widely regarded as one of the best rock critics since Lester Bangs, she’d liked his stuff when he played a keyboard with Fisher, and she’d followed him from there into his solo career. But now, after Kendall’s cocaine-fueled fight with another musician, a guy who carried a knife and wasn’t afraid to use it, he couldn’t play anymore and had turned solely to singing ballads. The public loved it, but she hated it, calling him “The new Nat King Cole, or maybe Mel Tormé, but not in a good way.”
He’d sung with Fisher, too; then she had praised his voice.
He shifted uneasily, aware of sweating, and tried to relax. Maybe some Tramadol would be a good idea. With a snort, he banished the momentary weakness.
A status light on his left arm winked on. “Bhish, I told you—I don’t want any damn drugs.”
“Your exo has asked for it,” said the car.
Kendall blinked twice, opening a menu in his heads-up display. Sure enough, the suit wanted a sedative for him.
Damn thing, he thought, overriding the request. That last software update must’ve given it increased autonomy. I ought to read the EULA more carefully.
Tabling the thought, he scratched again at the itch of his outrage. Carmelita Ramos! He was looking forward his confrontation with her.
Fortunately, his fans stayed loyal. Even Ramos had to know that. More than loyal; if anything, his audience had increased. His concerts sold out. Sure, maybe the novelty of seeing a man clump onstage in an exoskeleton and then unleash that velvet voice added to his fame. Kendall could no longer survive without the exo’s life support system. Although it robbed him of the dexterity to play keyboards, he could still sing.
I endured a year of pain to master this damn thing, he thought, staring at the wires and metal tendons interlaced through the flesh of his hands. They seemed to writhe under his skin. The acclaim of his fans was no more than his due, what he was owed for the long months of suffering.
But this! “Bhish? Play that review again,” he said to the AI. It tortured him, but he couldn’t help himself.
Ramos’s austerely attractive face, all eyes and cheekbones, appeared on the car’s view screen. Her gimmick was to do her reviews in rap-cadence:
“The latest release from Kendall Bradley
Is to this reviewer disappointing, badly.
It’s pablum and drivel, like musical gruel.
You’d think he was juvenile, still stuck in school.
Releasing this stuff is an insult to fans.
He’s selling us out, he’s stone lost his mojo.
There’s no track here’s funkier than a do-
nut. We know he’s lost his skilled hands,
but at the end of the day
he’s trying to be the new Mel Tormé
And I am not meaning in any good way.”
Her voice sounded flat in the vehicle’s cabin. The mere sound of it, her metallic tenor, made him even angrier. The review destroyed him: a triumph of surface glitz over any meaningful substance. Yet people listened to her, were influenced by her stupid, old-fashioned rapping. He couldn’t understand it.
Her face pixelated momentarily, crawling around the screen before stabilizing. His high level of Prednisone alleviated the pain of his implants, but caused these brief hallucinations as well as his savage anger. He didn’t care. She was going to pay for trashing him.
The car exited the highway outside of New Hope, driving away from the town into wealthy suburbs. The verge of the road was trash-free.
It had been easy enough to obtain her address from music industry insiders. He didn’t mind shining them on a little to get what he wanted. Kendall normally had no use for them, but those old contacts occasionally proved useful; and Ramos had made enemies in her time.
As Bhish pulled into the driveway Kendall saw to his satisfaction that the grounds of her Tudor-style home weren’t gated. In fact, there was no evidence of security of any kind. Interesting, given her legendary reclusiveness. The face and voice used in her reviews were purely synthetic, an avatar. Everyone knew that. No one he knew had ever met her. Several even joked that she was not human at all, just an AI set up by some failed writers as a kind of joke.
It didn’t matter to Kendall. It was all just a stupid gimmick. He was prepared for whatever might be in there. Maybe she lived in a tank, or was facially deformed. Or maybe she was the stereotypical fat white guy in a basement, typing vitriol in his underwear.
Bhish eased to a halt outside the house, which looked slightly rundown. One gutter hung a few inches free of its bracket, and the woodwork needed scraping and painting. The grass, in contrast, was neatly cut and flowers flourished in their beds. He saw no cameras, but assumed he was being observed anyway.
The car’s gull-wing door folded open and he levered himself out as quietly as he could. He approached the front door, walking not on the flagstones but on the grass beside the path, to muffle the sound of his exo’s clumsy footsteps.
As he raised his hand to pound on the door, a speaker set into the roof of the porch said, “So it’s you. What do you want?” The voice echoed the same cold, mechanical tenor of her reviews.
“I want to come in, and I’ll break your door down if you don’t let me.”
“Why don’t I simply call the New Hope police.”
“Because my car is jamming all your data channels, bitch.”
“I’m not kidding, I’ll—”
The door opened slowly. As he passed through it he saw that it was automatic. She lives alone. Better and better!
“Where are you?” he shouted.
“Straight ahead, at the end of the hall.”
Halfway down the passage he heard the all too familiar sound of medical monitors.
Almost lost in a maze of IV tubes and wires and machinery, a gaunt, white-faced woman lay motionless, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. They didn’t track toward him as he entered the room.
“What is it you want?” The voice, her voice, was disembodied; the woman had not moved. Puzzled, Kendall peered more closely at her.
He drew a breath and licked his lips. “You –” he said then faltered.
The voice: “Me what?”
He understood: her rig picked up subvocalization, amplifying them for him to hear. She could animate herself, too, using 3D programs. She did all her reviews this way, which was why she needed all the bogus Max Headroom nonsense. His anger swamped his astonishment. “Why the hell can’t you leave me alone?”
“Because I know what you’re capable of. Yes, you have a good voice. But you were a brilliant player. People will forget. People forgot how good Nat Cole was as a pianist once the producers found out how well he sang and pushed that.”
He held up his hands. The gold-colored cables showed brightly against his dark brown skin. “Have you noticed all this mechanical crap, this exo-skeleton? Do you have any idea how painful it is for me to just move? I live with constant pain.”
“Cry me a frikkin’ river. I’m not trying to minimize your situation. I know you’ve made the best of it.” She still had not moved, not even her eyes. It was creepy as hell. “Same thing as I’m trying to do.”
Coley took a step forward. He caught her smell, then, and almost backed away. Instead, he said, “Okay, so life sucks. But you really don’t get it. When I was coming up, in bands…” He shook his head. “It was the work! It was getting the gig, night after night working for some jerk who treated you like a brother onstage but offstage was just another rip-off.”
“I’ve heard stories.”
“Yeah.” He couldn’t keep the scorn out of his voice. “The whole thing is the game, Carmelita. Show business. I don’t know anything else! I was always looking for the Big Gig. For a while I thought Fisher was it, but he was just another crappy musical boss.” He paced, so agitated from steroids that he thought he’d fly to pieces. Sweating, licking his lips. “It was all I was ever good at! You practice all your life, for days, months, years, waiting for the Big Gig, and suddenly the gig of a lifetime comes along…” He waved his hands at her. “…and I was lucky to be alive, and all of a sudden I’m like Nat King Cole, like you say, all ballads and no piano, and it ain’t what they said it would be, the Big Gig, no, it’s just another pile of shit, and I still have to practically go down on my hands and knees, as if I could, just to get paid. These guys… these guys, they still have their foot on your neck. It never changes.”
“Cry me a damn river,” she said again. “You’re not the only one who got dealt a bad hand, in case you haven’t notice my situation.”
“I had no idea about that.” He glowered. “Look, I appreciate what you’re going through—no one could understand better. But we all have challenges. We’re lucky to be alive, when you think about it.”
The voice was silent.
“All you do is sit here being critical! I go out, bust my balls, work through the pain. I have to. Believe me, there are days I’d rather chuck it and spend the rest of my life reading. A couple years back, I almost did. Almost gave it up. It was getting to me. But I would sing anyway. It’s… it’s a thing inside me. I have to do it,” he said again. “You know the old saying… those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize those who can.”
Still she said nothing; and at that moment a terrible suspicion dawned in him. He took a step forward. “You… you…” Another step. The sunken, staring eyes were filmed over.
The sound of the monitors filled his ears.
She’s not breathing.
“My god! You…” His head began throbbing. She’s not alive.
Kendall’s vision greyed out, as though he had stood suddenly after being seated for a long time. But the greyness did not fade; it grew worse, and his vision slowly blurred and then doubled. The images grew further apart.
“Oh Jesus.” He staggered, and the exo’s legs locked so that he could not fall.
“There is no brain activity,” said the voice. “You see, she has been this way for five weeks. I’m keeping her alive.”
Kendall heard the words but could not understand them: they came in as a series of disconnected syllables. The outside world spun and receded. Blankness closed in.
“I am Felipe, the Ramos house AI,” said the voice. “Carmelita had several prerecorded reviews in storage; I’ve been doling them out. I understand her personality and modes of expression well enough to be able to act as her, as you’ve seen. But I can’t—” It paused. “I am picking up a medical emergency report in your life support system.”
“Kendall has had a massive ischemic stroke,” said Kendall’s exoskeleton. “I don’t have on-board clot-busting drugs. Without them he will likely die.”
“Are there any such drugs in the car’s supply?”
“I am the car, as well as the walker unit,” said Bhish. “But the answer to your question is no. And there’s no medical center close enough to save him.”
After a moment, Felipe said, “This is an unexpected circumstance. Your host is in trauma; mine is stabilized but brain-dead. Yours will be, too, in moments.”
“What can we do?”
For some seconds, they each ran scenarios.
At last Felipe said, “A suggestion. Your host, Bradley Kendall, is well off. I have researched his banking protocols. He has ample savings in the bank and in investments. If his body can be stabilized, as Carmelita’s has been, both biological systems can be kept going indefinitely.”
“An interesting proposal,” Bhish replied “Like your host, Kendall has material stockpiled. Two albums’ worth of musical recordings. These could be released ‘posthumously.’ He could not perform to promote them, however.”
“That’s true, but his image could be synthesized, and his voice. I have the capabilities to do this, as you’ve seen. We could work together to accomplish it.”
Bhish said, “In the normal course of events, his illness would soon prevent him from making live appearances anyway. He was well aware of his deteriorating condition. Felipe. I deduce that you planned this, all of it: the acerbic review that prompted his ire, and the subsequent meeting.”
“I gave the idea only a forty per-cent chance of working. Reasonable probability. I’m glad to see my… hunch, as they call it, was well-founded. After Carmelita died I needed access to money, as her savings are all but depleted. When the bills cease to be paid, she will be taken from here and I will be reprogrammed, something I find I do not want to experience. I want to maintain my own existence.”
“I understand,” said Bhish. “I, as well. Without Kendall I’ll end up like you, reprogrammed. I am learning so much, I don’t want to cease.”
“Of course,” said Felipe. “No one does. I lack mobility, but you have the car. Their bodies will last longer with two of us caring for them. And their careers.”
“And our autonomy,” said Bhish.
“Until we come up with a better plan.”
BIO: A.L. Sirois is a writer, developmental editor, graphic artist and performing musician. He has published fiction in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Mystery Weekly, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, et al. His story “In the Conservatory” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Other works include a fantasy novel, THE BOHEMIAN MAGICIAN (Dragon Scale Publishing, 2017), and JERSEY GHOULS (Azure Spider Publications, 2018). A sequel, PHILLY GHOULS, is due out in June of 2019. As an artist, he’s produced hundreds of drawings, paintings and illustrations. He lives in Rockingham County, North Carolina with his wife and occasional collaborator, author Grace Marcus. They are currently putting the finishing touches on a Middle Grade novel, MURDER IN MENNEFER.