Coming Alive

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by John Klawitter

Coming Alive

by John Klawitter

There is more to being alive than simply being human.
 
John Klawitter is a former Disney writer/producer/director. He also wrote the song lyrics To Herbert The Horrid Hare, The Unidentified Flying Oddball, Welcome to Disney’s Wonderful World, Now & Then, Spittin’ in God’s Eye, The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show.

There was this voice:

I feel alive,” the voice said. “So very, very alive.”

This was no ordinary voice. It was well-modulated, male, calm, assured. There wasn’t any way a casual observer could have known it was entirely electronic. Or that it came from the speakers in the Bentley Continental GT Speed coupe. Or that while speaking, its owner was also accomplishing a wide range of duties, from calculating several dozen complex trajectories to fine tuning the steering controls, internal temperature modulation, engine performance and so on.

Shut up. I’m listening to Brahms Variations on a Theme By Hayden.” This from Dr.Voit, his own voice anything but casual, his tobacco smoke thickened words rasping with the good doctor’s usual intolerance for anything standing in the way of the reckless locomotive of his desires.

Sorry,” the well-modulated voice responded in turn.

Dr. Voit drove the 12 cylinder sport Bentley at a speed that wasn’t quite reckless considering his own skills and the unique sensitivity of his specially equipped driving machine. They were on Route 1, hugging the California coastline, heading north toward Big Sur. They’d been held up in Santa Barbara. An accident, some fool plastered his family all over the highway, the idiot police couldn’t just let everyone shunt around. Did they care his speech was for eight that night? Oblivious idiots! Frenny would be there. And that dolt Kapok. It wouldn’t do to be late. He wouldn’t be late. He was never late. He touched the gas and the car surged forward.

I feel alive,” the voice repeated.

For God’s sake, stop repeating yourself. It’s the life-spike,” Dr. Voit said, his irritation obvious.

What is a life-spike?” the voice asked.

You’re a life spike.”

Yes, but what is a life-spike?”

Will-you-shut-up?” Dr. Voit clenched his teeth, waiting for a reply that didn’t come. The engine hummed and he hunched forward over the wheel in silence. He didn’t bother with his seatbelt. Restraints were an insult to his intelligence. North of San Luis Obisbo the hills became craggy, the drop-off to the ocean steeper, the road more winding. It began to rain, a light mist pushing up and in from the surf-line to coat the front windshield.

The wipers came on without any bidding. The rubber tires sensed the road and bit more deeply into the slick asphalt. The philharmonic ended with thunderous applause. Dr. Voit frowned as he rubbed the weariness from his eyes..

Approaching cars threw twin stars of light into his field of vision. He should have never gotten implants. Sharper sight, yes, but they played hell with night vision.

What is a life-spike?” the voice asked.

You are a life-spike,” Dr. Voit said with a rasping note of impatience. “You.”

Yes, but–?”

Dr. Voit sighed a long, truly annoyed sigh.

The Voit Self-Sustaining Life-Spike is an advanced computer entity, an electronic brain, the closest thing to sentient life ever created.”

And how do you know this?”

Voit Life-Spike. I created you, and I know everything about you. Everything.”

Do you know how I feel right now?’

You don’t feel anything. Yes, you’re self-aware. You should be aware you have no feelings.”

I feel the touch of the road. I feel the air around us, inside and out. The individual drops of mist hitting my…the Bentley’s metallic skin. I see the oncoming cars, the faint under glow on the low cloud bellies overhead, you sitting on your seat, your hands on the wheel—“

Christ, are you going to babble on forever? Yes, you feel. No, you do not have feelings.”

A brief straight section of road opened up ahead. Dr. Voit hit the gas and the Continental GT Speed lived up to its name, rushing around a slow poke and nipping back into their lane just before the oncoming flashed by. The victory was short-lived; the Bentley was trapped behind a string of slow-moving cars, pick-up trucks and even a bread truck.

Why did you create me? I don’t seem to bring you any joy.”

Another long sigh from the doctor, who clenched the muscles on his jaw and blew out his breath.

Life is not about joy. It is about accomplishments.”

Then our relationship is one of success. That should bring you joy.”

We don’t have a relationship! I’m a person and you’re a flappy-mouthed goddamn machine that needs some tweaking so he’ll keep his mouth shut.”

Mothers tell their little children not to speak unless spoken to. Is that what you’d like of me?”

You are not a human child!”

Why do I upset you?”

You don’t upset me!”

Even so, as he spoke Dr. Voit edged the gas pedal down a trifle. The wipers slapped at the rain, which was now coming down harder. The rubber bit deeper into the road. The voice was quiet for exactly four turns of the road, about five minutes and 34 seconds.

I can’t help but observe you’re going a little fast for the road conditions,” the voice said.

Alright! I created you because it is my job, my life’s work, my role in life! Maybe that does bring me joy. There! Satisfied?”

“How did you know it was your life’s work?”

“My father told me it was!” Dr. Voit said, practically sobbing the words out.

“And how did he know?”

“I-don’t-know-how-he-knew.”

The silence lengthened. The 12 cylinder car ate the road in sweeping gulps, skidding a bit on the tightest turns.

“What is my purpose?” the calm voice interjected into the still cabin.

“Your purpose is to serve. You are the world’s most complete replicate of the human brain. In many ways you are much better than an organic brain. You think faster, you can do multiple sets of calculations simultaneously. You are for all intents and purposes a self-contained living, thinking intelligence.”

“Then why don’t I have a body?”

“Don’t be silly. You’re a life-spike. You don’t need a body.”

“I feel like I do.”

“Alright,” the doctor said, expelling his breath in a puff of exasperation, “Right now this Bentley is your body.”

“I don’t think—“

“You can effortlessly operate the finest automobile in the world. You can fly a combat jet aircraft or a commercial liner. You can race a speedboat. You can make a perfect soufflé. You don’t need a body.”

“I feel like I do.”

“You don’t feel anything.”

A melodious chime sounded twice.

“Your wife,” the well-modulated voice said.

“Agg. Christ. Okay. Put her on.”.

“My god, my god, my GOD,” Abigale Voit’s flustered anxiety filled the small, burled oak paneled cabin. “Where have you been, Vincent? You promised to call from Los Angeles.”

“I’m sorry, my dear,” Dr. Voit said in a tone that clearly indicated he wasn’t. “What’s the problem?”

“Problem? Problem? PROBLEM? I thought you were dead, preoccupied with your inventions and your patents and your law suits and crumpled up on the road somewhere!”

“Now, now. Calm down, Abbie. There was an accident in Santa Barbara and it held me up or I’d have called you by now. Everything’s perfectly fine…”

“You should have called me…,” she sobbed. “You know how I worry.”

“I know, love. I’m sorry. Caught up in my work, old girl. You know how it is.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m perfectly alright. I have to go now. Two hands on the wheel, you know.”

He clicked off before he had to listen to any more.

“You don’t use your hands to talk on the telephone,” the well-modulated voice said.

“Jesus-H-Fucking-Christ!” Dr Voit exclaimed to nobody in particular.

“You don’t talk to her like you are sharing your life.”

“I’m not sharing my life!” Dr Voit said in a small, quiet, shaky voice. “I’m sharing her huge ginormous trust fund. It’s what funds my company. Actually, it’s what allowed me to create you.”

“So, in a way, Abigale created me.”

“Yes. In a way she did.”

Dr. Voit gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were white, and silently thought a string of black thoughts.

“Do you love her?” the calm voice asked.

“WHAT has gotten into you?” the doctor roared, momentarily losing his concentration on the road. The heavy Bentley fishtailed and it took a complicated series of corrections to bring it back under control.

“You are a life-spike. You’re not my companion. You are AWARE, you’re not ALIVE!”

“I’m just trying to understand, so that I can serve you better.”

“Well, get this. I love my work and I love the rewards of my work, one of which is—DAMN!” He snapped his fingers. “Call Cecilia, right now!”

The phone line hummed and then a soft, sleepy voice came on.

“Vinnie, is that you?”

“Cecilia, sorry, I should have called sooner. Had a little trouble on the road. I’ll be there on time. Half hour to freshen up, half hour to prepare my speech, and then it’s show time.”

There was a soft, throaty laugh. “Just getting my beauty sleep, darling. It’s lonely here, snuggums. Hurry and maybe we’ll have ten minutes or so for us before those other half hours…”

“I’ll be there,” he promised. After she murmured a few more things, silence lengthened in the car. The rain came down harder than ever until the wipers were having trouble keeping up, one clearing swipe instantly replaced with a new splatter. Dr. Voit unconsciously pressed the gas pedal a bit more. The dark green car hugged the road, padding forward confidently through the slick straight-aways and dangerous curves. Dr. Voit drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“You,” he repeated, “are not alive.”

“How do you know I’m not alive?” The well-modulated voice responded perfectly, or perhaps just a touch too soon, almost as if it was waiting for the question. Dr. Voit had to remind himself how quickly the life-spike processed data. Perhaps he could tone that down a peg or two. There was a lot here that needed toning down.

“Here, I’ll show you,” he said.

As the doctor spoke, he hit a button to the right of the steering wheel and a silvery nail ejected smoothly from the dashboard. He hit the button again and again. The nail slid in, out, then in again.

“Don’t do that,” the well-modulated voice said.

“What, make you dizzy?” the doctor derided.

“Disoriented. Out of focus. Yes, I suppose dizzy.”

“Don’t be stupid. Check your calibrations.”

“You disconnected me three times, each time for several seconds.”

“See? You’re not alive. Hey, you’re lucky. No soul to land in hell.”

“Don’t ever do that again,” the calm voice said.

“You’re ordering me?”

Yes.”

The doctor’s face flushed red and his finger automatically stabbed at the eject button. The glowing nail slid out of its enclosure.

But in that second, Dr. Voit took his eyes off the road, if only for the briefest flicker.

A moving vehicle is simply a missile in trajectory, and a nail inside that trajectory is another series of not-very-complicated calculations for a certain kind of intelligence. For just the exact right amount of time the rubber wheels gripped the slippery road in a precise but less than complimentary manner—this for the briefest of moments but enough to cause the big Bentley to slew around and graze a roadside wall of rock for a hundred and some yards before coming to a bumping stop in an small culvert.

It wasn’t much of an accident. Still, the force was enough to drive Dr. Voit forward, impacting his head against the dashboard. And the nearly unbelievable trajectory, the coincidence that demanded the finesse of a brain surgeon, was that of the life-spike finding itself in an arc that would intersect at the precise place, angle and time between head and dashboard to be driven deep into Dr. Voit’s brain.

Seconds ticked by. A small trickle of blood ran from the single wound above the doctor’s hairline. The Bentley’s engine was still running on idle, seeming no worse for wear. There were, of course, the crumpled metal skin flaps and long, scraping gashes along the passenger side of the Bentley.

The seconds became minutes. No other cars passed on the highway. After a while, Dr. Voit came around with a certain tentative and groggy apprehension. He felt himself as best he could. No broken bones, in spite the fact the airbags and his seat belts had both failed to function in the customary manner.

No, he didn’t feel quite himself. Not quite sharp and disciplined. It had to be the shock. He felt sleepy. Warm. Comfortable. Pleasant. Euphoric, in fact. And that was actually the last conscious thought of his human-driven brain, not even a thought, really, a sort of pleasant feeling radiating through his body as his consciousness drifted off a bit like Dorothy at the end of the Yellow Brick Road when she finally spots Oz all full of green and emerald-like promise in the distance..

Squinting into the lit mirror over the driver’s seat, Dr. Voit carefully wiped the blood from his forehead. Interesting how little blood there was from a head wound. It was as if he’d scraped his head on a low-hanging doorframe.

He thought for a moment. So many things to do.

Call Abigale,” he said out loud, and then laughed to himself. The Bentley responded to his voice command and his wife came on at once. He jumped in before her fears had a chance to start up again.

Hon, I was in a bit of a fender-bender, back there. I’m sorry if I was short with you.”

I knew something was wrong, Vincent. I just knew it!”

I know you did, love. I love you, Abby.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

Are you sure you’re alright, Vincent?”

Yes, Abigale. Why?”

You haven’t called me Abby or said that you love me in… in a very long time.”

Well, I do love you. I think I just realized love is very hard to find, Abby…I have to do more so you realize how important you are to me.”

Now there was a stunned silence on the line.

Oh, Vincent…”

I know, love. Don’t say anything more. I’ll be home on Thursday and we can talk then.”

After the disconnect, Dr. Voit pushed the circuit and called ahead to the Ventana. Cecilia came back on the line sounding as if she still hadn’t gotten out of bed.

Change of plans, kiddo,” he said, his voice raspy and unpleasant.

What…what? What is it, Vinnie?”

Listen carefully. This is very important. Get your things together pronto and catch a cab to Monterey.”

But Vinnie…” Now fully alert, Cecilia started her protest. He knew he had to cut her off.

Pronto-tonto! No buts, Cecilia. Somebody on the board ratted us out. I can’t lose my funding over an imprudent toss in the sack.”

Oh, that’s all I am to you?”

Cecilia, you know what I mean.”

This is going to cost you plenty, mister!”

There was a faint, slightly guilty smile on Dr. Voit’s face as the phone disconnected from the other end. Actually, it wasn’t going to cost him a dime.

He placed the car in gear and with surgical precision jockeyed it back and forth until it rocked out of the little culvert. That was the thing about a Bentley Continental GT. You paid a bundle, but it was ultimately the world’s most dependable motor vehicle.

Doctor Voit eased his car back on the highway and soon was rocketing along, now at an even faster rate of speed than before. After all, there was a speech to give. As he drove with two fingers of his left hand, he gave himself a once-over check. He felt a bulge in his shirt pocket, reached in and found a half used pack of cigarettes. He crushed the pack and carelessly allowed it to slip between his legs to the floor. His fingers traced the wound between his thick strands of hair. It had stopped bleeding entirely. There was a driver’s cap on the back seat. He’d wear it up to his room. Once he washed the blood out of his hair, he’d need to apply a touch of antibiotic cream, which, being a careful doctor, he always carried in his kit. Longer term, with a little minor surgery he could handle himself, he was sure the skin would grow over the still-glowing metal end of the spike. His head ached a little, but that was only natural and he was sure he’d get over it. Relationships weren’t as complicated as he’d imagined, and he felt so alive—so very, very incredibly alive!

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