Driverless Error

Robby didn’t really mean to download the trip logs for his dad’s Vroomba. The boxy, maroon self-driving car is a perk of his dad’s new job. His dad’s a sales rep, and has to get around town with actual samples of actual things and talk to actual people about them. The sales bots weren’t getting the job done, his dad told him when he brought the Vroomba home. That’s why they’re going back to using human salespeople.

It’s actually his dad’s fault Robby’s out there right now, cutting school and careening around Seattle on his flyboard. He’s tailing his father’s used-but-new-to-him Vroomba in the rain. Robby’s toes, warmed by the mini-jets keeping his flyboard aloft, are the only part of his body that isn’t clammy and cold.

They should install better security measures in those Vroombas, as far as Robby is concerned. He wasn’t even interested in tracking his dad’s car until the data practically fell into his lap. Nobody cares about protecting the older models anymore, apparently, which is why they have such outdated security software. No one still drives the kind of Vroomba his dad drives. One of Robby’s friends’ dad has the new Renegade model, with a shower and storage space for a change of clothing. His super rich friend’s dad has the hot tub model (“model” meaning both car and woman), with a clear, retractable domed roof for tooling around town and showing off his third wife.

His dad’s car slows at an intersection, and Robby brakes a little to maintain proper stalking distance. The car signals a left turn, and Robby wonders if his old man is going to that seedy bar again. Robby’s noted his dad’s recent fondness for this place, Rocco’s, way out on the edge of town by the Amagooglezon iPlex shipping fulfillment center where most of his friends’ parents work.

The Vroomba turns left and Robby eases his flyboard around the corner after it. He’s finally almost ready to admit to himself that he shouldn’t have returned the waterproof windbreaker his mom bought him to get the cool but flimsy one he’s wearing now. A hood would be nice, but then again, peripheral vision is nice too.

Robby’d only poked around the Vroomba site last month to find some of those hot tub models, both kinds. Then he saw his dad’s model, the sleeper with reclining seats and blackout curtains for “napping.” As if. They had a link to the specs, the online maintenance module, the trip tracker. He entered his dad’s login info (the man uses one of the same five username and password combinations for everything), and there it all was: trip logs, plus real-time location tracking.

Robby wipes rain out of his eyes. His dad’s Vroomba keeps on going past Military Road, then Tukwila, and Robby’s sure his old man’s heading to Rocco’s again. He’s been going there two or three times a week lately, even though it’s nowhere near the rest of his appointments. And when he goes there, he never stays longer than ten minutes, and then he goes back a second time after an hour. And now Robby’s gonna find out what—Fuck!

The Vroomba screeches to a sudden stop, and Robby almost zooms straight into the back of it. He slams his foot on the rear of his flyboard to brake. A cat yowls and shoots out from in front of his dad’s car, leaping onto the sidewalk and disappearing between buildings.

Crap, he’s too close; his dad will see him for sure. Robby yanks down the visor of his cap and leans on the front of his board to back up. The Vroomba eases off the brakes and quickly regains its prior speed. Robby’s dad doesn’t look back. He hasn’t seen Robby. He’s not paying attention to anything around him, just like always. Robby lets the car get some distance before he starts tailing it again.

Maroon Vroomba. Sounds stoopid, he thinks. A car for a fool. A buffoon. A baboon.

Okay, so the real reason he went to the Vroomba site was to see if his dad would be able to tell if he took the car out for a spin at night. He had his answer: his dad would be able to see exactly where the car went, because that was exactly how Robby noticed the blips in his dad’s driving during the week, the outliers. Robby thought about the reason he wanted to ask a girl out and borrow that car with the blackout windows, and that’s when he started to wonder if his dad was really having another…

His mom stayed with his dad after the last one. They must have thought he hadn’t heard any of the fighting, the crying, the negotiation. Nobody ever talked to him about it. Maybe Mom was embarrassed that she’d been duped, and that she’d decided to stick around anyway. Maybe Dad thought he was too young to understand, or he wouldn’t remember. Well, he does remember.

Traffic is thinning, so Robby lets a yellow hatchback cut in between him and his dad’s car. He clenches his teeth and hands to keep from shaking with cold, and he tails the Vroomba on its way to the hulking Amagooglezon iPlex. There’s no doubt now that he’s heading to Rocco’s. How stupid could his dumb dad be, having an—doing it there where all of his friends’ parents would see him pick her up. Fucking idiot.

Robby stays back, hugging the line of vehicles parked on the side of the road. At the next intersection he lets a second car, a black SUV, in between him and his dad. Robby peeks around the edge of the parade just in time to see his dad’s Vroomba speed up. His old man must be eager to start today’s (literal) fuckery. The rain’s letting up a little, not that it matters. He’s already a soaking mess. But he doesn’t care. For him, it’ll be worth it to catch his dad in the act.

He’s never going to be like his dad. Never.

They’re all heading in a row past the sprawling iPlex now, his dad’s stoopid maroon Vroomba followed by the yellow hatchback, the black SUV, and Robby on his flyboard. It’s obvious which ones are driverless, starting and stopping smoothly, programmed for maximum efficiency and safety, as the Vroomba site explained.

“Safety for whom, exactly, is the question,” Robby’s dad said when he first brought the car home. “Passenger or pedestrian? Which vehicle’s occupants? And who decides? Some settings come from the factory,” his dad explained, clicking through the online dashboard. “Some have to be set by the dealership according to state law and driver profile—age, occupation, criminal record, number and ages of dependents. That’s why even pre-owned Vroombas like mine have to go through the dealerships, no private sales. There’s very little left to chance with this technology, son. A lot of thought went into how best to use this technology for the benefit of society.”

Only his dad could turn a new car into a stupid civics lesson.

Robby is breathing a little harder now, so close to Rocco’s. His head feels a little tingly, and his heart is thudding inside his chest. He alternately flexes and folds his fingers into fists, working blood back into stiff fingers. What will he do when he actually sees the woman heading toward his dad’s car? What will she look like? Will it be someone he knows, one of his friends’ mothers? What will she do, will she run away?

Will his dad run away with her?

And is it bad that that’s pretty much what Robby wants?

The parade of vehicles motors on, his dad’s Vroomba increasing its lead until Robby wonders if he should risk pulling out of line to keep closer. The yellow hatchback slows down, then peels off to the right and heads into the Amagooglezon employee parking lot. The black SUV turns in to the lot too. Robby, exposed now, holds his breath and crouches on his board. He follows the black SUV, but instead of staying in the parking lot, he trails his dad from the sidewalk, cruising above the cracked pavement, picking up speed and catching glimpses of his dad’s Vroomba behind the row of parked cars to his left.

The rain has almost stopped, and the sky is starting to brighten. Robby crouches on his flyboard, close enough to see the back of his dad’s head. He swallows the fear rising up his throat. He has nothing to be afraid of; it’s his dad who should be afraid.

Robby keeps pace slightly behind the maroon Vroomba. He watches it through windshields and gaps between vehicles, one freeze-frame colliding into the next like a film shuddering through a vintage projector. Then Robby sees something that makes him even angrier. The blackout curtains begin their ascent, sliding like a reverse oil slick up the windows to cover the imminent shame inside.

Fuck you, Robby thinks. Fuck you, you fucking fucker.

He weaves around a man in a grey suit and glances down the sidewalk. Which one is it? Who’s he going to meet? The blonde two blocks down? Way young—but so was the last one. Or is it the brunette in the red dress, stepping around the kids jumping in a puddle? Hell, maybe it’s the splashy-kids’ dough-faced mother; maybe she and his dad take the kids to daycare before they cruise around on auto-pilot, humping in their little love nest on wheels.

Robby glares back at the Vroomba. One of the curtains has gotten stuck on something and isn’t going all the way up. Robby sees a hand tugging at the curtain, then his father’s face folded into a frown. Through another car’s windows he sees his father look up. Through a gap between vehicles he sees his father’s eyes widen, his mouth open.

Robby stands up on his flyboard, craning his head above the parked cars separating them, and looks his father full in the face. The face recedes from the glass, and after a moment, the curtains begin to descend. In car-framed snippets, Robby sees the Vroomba jerk slightly as his father takes the wheel.

And now there’s a blur on the sidewalk in front of Robby, peripheral movement that he doesn’t even have time to think of as car door opening, though he knows exactly how much it will hurt if he runs into it. He veers away from the swinging door. His body tenses. The board tilts.

A woman stands frozen in front of him, gripping a child’s hand—how did they get so close?—and another child darts off. Robby leans back too far on his flyboard. It whips out from under his feet and flings him in the opposite direction.

Robby hits the ground shoulder first, grunts all the air out of his lungs, hears screaming, the squeal of brakes. More screaming. He’s on his back now, head pounding, one hand palming pavement while the other clutches at grass. More screaming, but not his, because he can’t even breathe. He opens his mouth again and again, choking on shallow sips of air until his lungs finally ease open.

Robby rolls onto his side and props himself up. The sun glints off his flyboard, lying on its side in a puddle next to a child’s rain boot.

More screaming.

Robby rolls to his hands and knees. He waits for the sidewalk to stop seesawing, then crawls to a parked car and pulls himself up until he can lean on the hood. His dad is standing beside his maroon Vroomba, looking at something in front of his car. Robby can’t see what he’s looking at, but he can see the back of a woman kneeling before the Vroomba, rocking back and forth.

Sirens swell, drowning out her screams.

Robby watches his father turn, searching, until their eyes meet. Robby’s vision blurs, and he wipes something wet from his eyes. Blood is coursing from a cut on his head. Someone catches him before he falls. A man lowers Robby to the ground and tells him to stay down, but Robby shakes his head and tries to stand again. A woman approaches, and both strangers keep him on the ground, telling him help will come. Robby tastes blood and smells the freshness of earth after rain. Is that his dad’s voice now? What’s he saying?

Robby looks up at the man and woman crouching above him and watches his blood spider through the fabric of the man’s shirt. He wonders if there’s any way to wash it clean.

 

 

Tara Campbell

Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a Kimbilio Fellow, a fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and an MFA candidate at American University. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, and Strange Horizons. Her novel TreeVolution was published in 2016, followed in 2018 by her fiction and poetry collection Circe's Bicycle. Her third book, a short story collection called Midnight at the Organporium, will be released by Aqueduct Press in 2019.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, December 13, 2018 - 08:44