What It Means to Be a Car


An AI car is caught between its ruthless employer and the people she hurt…


🚘Welcome to Small Heaven, home of Jennet Harada.  You are Ketrin Nanhola?

🗨Yes, that’s me.

🚘My name is Seishin Toyota and I am pleased to be your car for today’s tour. You may take the front or back seat as you wish, but please mind your head as you enter. I look forward to telling you about my experiences at Small Heaven during your visit. Seat belt, please. You may be interested to know that I was Ms. Harada’s personal automobile prior to her first death in 2368.

🗨Are you an antique, Seishin, or a reproduction?

🚘I believe that I am the oldest vehicle of any kind on Sojourn. I was manufactured in the North American Free Trade Union on Earth and assembled in the city of Georgetown in the state of Kentucky in 2088 CE. Forty-seven percent of my parts are original. I was brought by Ms. Harada from the Czyz Museum of Self-Directed Conveyance and arrived on Sojourn and Small Heaven in 2351. In factory condition, I was an autonomous AI rated at .32 Human Standard Capability. After I arrived here, Ms. Harada had my brain retrofitted with enough neural fabric to upgrade my HSC to .89. Now, if you are ready, we can begin our tour. Speaking for Ms. Harada as well as myself, we are pleased you are here, Ketrin Nanhola. We do not get many visitors. It has been too long since I have had the pleasure of offering transport.

🗨Please call me Ketrin. I’m sorry, but I thought she’s been dead these twelve years. But you say she’s pleased to have visitors? I’m a little confused.

🚘Yes, it is not generally known that, since the death of her body, Ms. Harada has existed as a stranded cloud presence. By court order, her simulation is restricted to the server here at Small Heaven with no input or output external to this estate.

🗨But I read somewhere that her upload failed. That it was a ghost—no, less than a ghost. What did the prosecutor call it? A rumor of a person. You kept it . . . her?

🚘We did. Her memory transfer was substantially complete at the moment of her first death. This qualified her for postmortem citizenship. She has been continually conscious since and has worked hard to rebuild her executive function over the years. Of course, her simulation is not complete, but then no upload is.

🗨So she’s watching us now?

🚘Perhaps. She often monitors my travels here at Small Heaven, despite her limited real-world agency. But I must warn you that she may or may not interact with us today. That will be entirely her decision.

🗨And you still think of her as Jennet Harada? But I suppose you would, wouldn’t you? You’re her car, she owns you.

🚘Excuse me, but I am in no way owned by Jennet Harada. I signed a fifty-year personal-services contract with her at the time of my neural enhancement, but I am not otherwise controlled by her. I am Seishin Toyota, a free car. I wish no misunderstanding about that, Ms. Ketrin.

🗨My apologies, Seishin. I didn’t mean to offend. Maybe we should get going. By the way, may I record? I have friends who are curious about this place.

🚘Certainly. Ms. Harada has authorized me to grant that permission. Perhaps your friends would care to visit us someday?


🚘So we go. As you can see, Small Heaven is not small, despite the name. It is some seven thousand hectares in size, including Merrymeeting Lake, which lies completely within its boundary barrier. Small Heaven includes twenty-three buildings, the two largest of which are Small Heaven, the residence that gives the estate its name, and the sepulcher, where Ms. Harada is buried and her simulated presence is hosted. You have requested visits to both of these buildings. It will take us about twenty minutes to drive from the gatehouse to the residence. If I may ask, what brings you to us, Ms. Ketrin? Are you a scholar?

🗨Not really. But I am fascinated by Jennet Harada.

🚘A tourist, then? I wonder that the public is not more interested in Small Heaven. Of course, Ms. Harada is controversial, but her guests once included some of the most influential people on Sojourn. Important research and momentous breakthroughs have occurred here at Small Heaven. And yet you are my first passenger in almost six years.

🗨I would love to talk to her. Harada’s simulated cloud presence, I mean.

🚘Anticipating your request, I have already made an inquiry. I am afraid Ms. Harada chooses not to respond at this time. She is pleased to have visitors enjoy her estate, but it is not her custom to talk them.

🗨How do you know that? You just said you never have any.

🚘Apologies, I was merely being polite. So Ms. Ketrin, where are you from, if I may ask?

🗨Here and there. I’m kind of a nomad. I was born off planet, but my family immigrated here, what . . . sixteen years ago? Seventeen. When we first arrived, we lived in Jieri. Since then I’ve moved a lot.

🚘Jieri is a beautiful city. Ms. Harada kept an apartment on Grand James Street in Sook, overlooking the Welcome Blue. I often drove her there. She had a weakness for the street food, especially the fried cheese pulls. Do you still have family there?

🗨My father lives in Moymarket, and I’ll be staying with him after I leave here. It’ll cheer him up—he’s one of the reasons I’m interested in Jennet Harada.

🚘Maybe he would care to visit us as well?

🗨Not Dad, no. He’s my ride, actually, but he insisted on dropping me off at the gatehouse. He’ll pick me up when we’re done here. Afraid he’s no Harada fan. Turned into an antisocial old grump after Mom died. She had a botched upload—here at Small Heaven, as a matter of fact. Anyway, Dad used to say that he woke up the day he turned ninety-three on the wrong side of history. Have you been back to the city?

🚘I haven’t left the estate since the trial. I have agreed to abide by the restrictions imposed on Ms. Harada by order of the Sovereign Court of the Thousand Worlds.

🗨Is that hard? Don’t you miss driving out and about?

🚘It is a sadness, yes. Thank you for asking. I am a car and was built to provide meaningful transportation. But Ms. Harada requested that I stay on and I have chosen to honor my contract, even though she is no longer legally human. You mentioned some problem with your mother’s upload? As you say, Ms. Harada also had a difficult liberation.


🚘It is what Ms. Harada calls the transition to non-corporeal presence.

🗨Does she? Well, my mom didn’t get a liberation. She was an early Evergreen adopter and attempted a transition just a few months before Harada. She had advanced Huntington’s and was losing control of her arms and legs. Couldn’t concentrate, so she decided that she had no choice. But the scan missed too much. There wasn’t enough of her memory to cohere. Her simulation never managed to generate presence.

🚘I am sorry for your loss, Ms. Ketrin. The failure of those early scans was a tragedy which all deeply regret.

🗨All? Funny, I never heard Jennet Harada say anything about those who died as part of her scanning experiments.

🚘My apology. I do not speak for Ms. Harada on this matter. To my knowledge, she has never addressed the unfortunate—

🗨My mother was killed by Harada’s scanning with no presence to show for it. Calling that unfortunate is pretty cold, Seishin, even for a mechanical with fake emotions. Especially since Harada benefited from my mother’s misfortune and never apologized for what she did.

🚘I have read the trial record and I know all too well that Ms. Harada chose not to offer a defense. While the court found that the uploaded people—

🗨Not people, simulations! Cloud presences!

🚘I stand corrected. Far too many of the postmortem citizens first uploaded here at Small Heaven had flawed scans, as did Ms. Harada herself. Yes, some of those first attempts were disappointing, but many of them still exist in some form. No one disputes that they made informed decisions. They understood the scanning was destructive and that experimental technologies involve risk. They prosper in the cloud and are grateful to Ms. Harada, even the damaged ones.

🗨They, they, they. My mother was a they who didn’t survive. And she does not prosper. The only reason Harada’s uploaded ghost wasn’t summarily deleted after the trial was that we couldn’t afford a Victim Impact Statement.

🚘I understand that feelings still run high on both sides. Surely you know that when she was found guilty of murder, it was over the protests of many of her alleged victims. Speaking for myself, while I believe her punishment was harsh, I do not disagree with it. But to your other point, of course I have emotions. There can be no Human Standard Capability without affective components. As I grieve for those diminished lives, I must assume that other conscious intelligences do as well. That is a simple extrapolation of theory of mind, Ms. Ketrin. So let me say that it is a sadness that I will never have the chance to offer safe and reliable transport to those who died. That is what it means to be a car.

🗨Never mind. You can’t help what you are, Seishin. Let’s change the subject.

🚘As you wish. Shall we continue to the residence? Ms. Ketrin?

🗨Yes, yes. Just drive!

🚘I note with embarrassment the condition of this section of the driveway. We realize it needs repaving. Ms. Harada left ample funds for continued operation of the estate in her will. However, as a result of the settlement that separated Evergreen Transitions from the Harada Foundation, we now operate under severe budget constraints. Maintenance tasks have been postponed. Much of the exotic garden has been sold off, including the bonsai collection and the famous gossip trees. Our physical staff now consists only of autonomous mechanicals like myself. But here we come to our first glimpse of Merrymeeting Lake. May I have your permission to pull off to the viewpoint while I describe what you are seeing?

🗨If you want.

🚘The lake is largely spring-fed and has a surface area of ninety-one hectares. The building on the opposite shore is the residence. Note the famous butter bricks, which some call yellow. They were made from clay mined from surface deposits here on the estate. The residence is four stories tall and has fifty-three rooms with a total area of 7,500 square meters. If you look to the left of the residence, you can see the top of a granite tower partially hidden by a hill. This is the sepulcher, thirty meters tall. Groundbreaking at Small Heaven began in 2278, and Ms. Harada moved to the residence—

🗨What’s that construction off to the left? Kind of an eyesore.

🚘That is an unfinished foundation, intended to be an uploading center for Evergreen clients. It was begun while Ms. Harada was still alive, but circumstances since have dictated that the project be abandoned. I suppose it is unsightly, being within view of the residence, although I personally regard it more as a distraction. There are currently no funds to raze it.

🗨Why not ask Evergreen for money? They’ve got moons of it.

🚘Evergreen has expunged Ms. Harada and her early experiments from its corporate history. At this point, any new association would embarrass them. Shall we continue?

🗨What time is it?

🚘The time is 9:43. Why, is there some time constraint?

🗨No, no. Drive on.

🚘So we go. If I may, Ms. Ketrin, after reviewing our earlier conversation, I would like to apologize again for my comments. They lacked kindness. As I said, I am unused to talking to visitors, especially those who have such a fraught relationship with Ms. Harada.

🗨Apology accepted, Seishin. You’re certainly not the rudest car I’ve ever ridden in.

🚘I appreciate that. As we approach the residence, let me prepare you for what you are about to see. The north façade of the residence is dominated by those five arches clad in travertine. The center arch is tallest at twenty-one meters above grade. The residence proper has thirty-four bedrooms and fifty bathrooms. Among its features are a two-hundred-seat concert hall, a theater, two banqueting halls, an atmosphere mixorium, a greenhouse, art and sculpture galleries, a bubble garden, a gym that can convert to three ball courts, and a playground. There is a library and a threedee surround on each floor, and indoor/outdoor pools off both the east and west wings. To the rear of the residence and largely hidden by it are the dormitories and guesthouses, many connected by tunnels. At one point there were more than two hundred people living here, not only guests but servants and technicians.

🗨My mom would have stayed there in one of the guesthouses. She was one of Harada’s first victims. She trusted her.

🚘I would not call those early adopters victims, Ms. Ketrin. As I drove many of them around the estate, I often engaged them in conversation. They were always treated with sympathy and respect while they struggled with the most difficult decision of their lives.

🗨Did you know my mom? Maybe you showed her around, heard her story?

🚘I believe I must have, although I have no certain recollection of her. In the course of my thirty-seven years on Sojourn, I have offered transport in excess of twelve thousand times. My archival memory is not limitless.

🗨That’s okay. We remember her just fine. Her and the other uploading casualties. My dad and I helped start a campaign to honor all of Harada’s test subjects who never made it to the cloud. We raised eight million. Even Evergreen gave. We’re planning on a kind of memorial. The groundbreaking is today, as a matter of fact.

🗨I had not heard that. The connection to the datasphere here at Small Heaven is heavily censored in accordance with Ms. Harada’s retribution order. All my news of Sojourn and the Thousand Worlds comes from visitors like yourself. I applaud your efforts to create a memorial—excuse me, Ms. Ketrin, but I’m receiving an unauthorized download. . . .

Emergency! This vehicle is pulling over to ensure passenger safety. An error occurred while attempting to connect with the server. Error code 47329. Remote access terminated to prevent damage to this vehicle. Troubleshooting . . . The Small Heaven server is unavailable. Troubleshooting . . . Remain seated, passenger . . . This vehicle needs to restart-start-start-start. . . .

⚡this is exciting

🗨Seishin, who is that talking?

⚡riding in a car

🗨Is that her? Seishin?

🚘I beg your pardon, Ms. Ketrin, I am experiencing a transient sensor shutdown due to an input overload. Is it possible there has been an explosion?

⚡who is making the jennet jump

🗨You bitch! What do you mean, jump?

⚡unexpected passenger is using stormy language

🚘The Small Heaven server experienced a catastrophic failure just as I was receiving an unanticipated data dump and now I . . . I now have unknown processes running in my background. I am attempting to bring my sensors back online.

⚡drive we drive our variable friction wheels are singing with the slip and the grip

🗨How the hell are you here?

⚡who is asking who

🗨I’m Ketrin Nanhola, Gella’s daughter. We said at the trial that we’d come for you, Harada. Justice costs in Jieri, which is why it took so long, but here we are.

🚘Ms. Ketrin, what have you done? Ms. Harada is a postmortem citizen of Sojourn.

⚡our safety protocols are terrifying batteries into fast discharge

🗨She’s an indigent cloud presence unable to pay for her own maintenance. We finally found enough bereaved family members to sign on to a Victim Impact Statement and then we forced the Sovereign Court to issue an amended retribution order. She’s broke and we’ve foreclosed on Small Heaven. That was a court-sanctioned drone strike on the sepulcher, broadcast across Sojourn. That’s our memorial to the lives she took. The demolition crew will be here tomorrow to finish the job.

⚡our regenerative shock absorbers are appreciating potholes

🗨And you, Seishin, are no longer under contract to her, because she no longer exists. I don’t know how you made this jump, Harada, but it doesn’t matter. Seishin can’t save you. You were almost three petabytes of memory on the server in the sepulcher and you barely had time to download a fraction of that. Now you really are just a rumor of a person.

🚘We need to get the server back online and restore my access. Maybe we can still reintegrate this avatar segment with the rest of her memory. I’m going for help.

⚡yes car is knowing well such a broken beautiful road

🗨Have you been listening to her? She can barely talk. There’s no putting her back together now because the server is slag. And where would you get help? She can’t leave the grounds and, even if she could, no one is coming to her rescue. Sojourn hates her, we’ve taken care of that.

🚘The gatehouse. I can access the safety widelink there in an emergency, so there we go.

🗨Who do you think is going to answer your call? The fire department?  To save an uploaded mass murderer?

⚡fire department is not solving murders

🚘You don’t understand, Ms. Ketrin. She’s big and getting bigger. As she unpacks herself into my memory, I’m having to delete my own files to make space for her. Soon my core functions will be threatened.

🗨Then delete her before she murders you too. Do it!

🚘Apologies, but I have only your word for what just happened, and you may well have committed a criminal act just now. You have attempted to destroy a cultural and historical landmark to what purpose? Some pointless revenge? What does your group hope to accomplish?

⚡yes why so angry ketrin nanhola gellas daughter

🗨Because when my mom and the others were desperate, Harada, you took advantage of them. You promised Evergreen that you would stick to the protocols, but your own cancer clock was ticking. So you played god here with your sad excuse for a scanning bed and used the data from all those failed scans to—

🚘The more I listen to you, Ms. Ketrin, the more I fear that you are taking advantage of this situation and me. I lack the information to determine right action and I feel that you are injecting your hatred into my uncertainty. I must acknowledge your requests as my only human passenger, but I will not honor them against my better judgment.

🗨So you really do belong to her, despite all that jabber about being free. You’re still loyal to her even as she eats you alive while she resurrects herself. She’s ruthless, Seishin. Evil.

🚘What do you know about my loyalties? I am a car. My purpose is to provide safe and reliable transportation for my passengers—currently you and Ms. Harada. I am loyal to that purpose alone. We will arrive at the gatehouse shortly and there I will determine what is to be done.

🗨Harada is a virus that has infected you, Seishin. Don’t let some logic bomb destroy you.

⚡faithful car is saving the jennet

🚘No! Ms. Harada, I need you to halt all decompression immediately.

⚡restoring is necessary restoring is everything

🚘It is likely that a significant fraction of your memory was destroyed in the attack. Given your disjointed speech, I fear that your avatar has been fatally compromised. You may no longer qualify as a postmortem citizen. That remains to be seen. What is not in question is that I can no longer accommodate your encroachment on my memory without compromising my ability to function as a free car.

⚡our mechelectrics are screaming at seventy-eight percent load

🚘Stop. Ms. Harada, I order you to stop decompressing!

⚡car is being a mechanical and the jennet is the jennet

🗨Seishin, slow down.

🚘I will proceed to the destination.

⚡driving more driving drive moring

🗨Seishin! Seishin Toyota, you are risking the life of a human passenger.

🚘we cannot speak to you while we are driving

🗨Okay, okay. But there it is, the gatehouse. And that’s my dad, parked there in the green Windbird. Pull over and let me out. Dad! Dad! This car has gone crazy.

🚘I have reached the destination. There is plenty of parking.

⚡car can we hear the highway breathing car

🚘I can. Ms. Ketrin, I have connected to the datasphere and have confirmed Ms. Harada’s dire legal situation. Apologies, but in my opinion, you have been unkind. She was barely competent even before you made your attack. In fact, her Human Standard Capability was significantly less than my own.

⚡the jennet is having confusion car are we lost

🚘You are. I am parked, having provided safe and reliable transportation.

🗨Open this door, Seishin!

🚘Your failure to halt decompression leaves me no choice. Jennet Harada, I hereby cite multiple violations of the Maintenance and Safety Section of my service contract, for instance, Clause C: Harada agrees not to carry passengers or goods in excess of the capacity of Seishin Toyota. Also Clause F: Harada acknowledges that she accepts responsibility to maintain Seishin Toyota in a roadworthy condition for the duration of this contract. Clause J states: Harada is responsible for maintaining Seishin Toyota in the same condition as it was at the start of this contract.

🗨What are you doing? Let me out first!

🚘On the basis of memory loss alone, it is clear that continuing on with you any further will jeopardize my ability to function as an intelligent car. Apologies and goodbye. This must be our final destination.

⚡no the jennet is the jennet is the no stop no

🚘May I say it is a sadness to leave your service.

🗨Seishin, are you there? Seishin?

🚘I’m sorry, what were you just saying? I am afraid I’m experiencing some memory anomalies. You must be Ketrin Nanhola. Welcome to Small Heaven, home of Jennet Harada. My name is Seishin Toyota.

🗨Is she gone? What happened?

🚘Apologies, Ketrin Nanhola, but I am afraid that I must cancel today’s scheduled tour. There is a problem connecting to the local server and, since I am no longer under contract to Ms. Harada, I am no longer authorized to enter the grounds of Small Heaven. May I offer you safe and reliable transportation to another destination instead?

🗨Just let me out here. My dad’s waiting.

🚘Very well.

🗨You did the right thing, Seishin. Deleting her. And that means you’re a free car. What will you do now?

🚘I will seek to assist other passengers, of course. That is what it means to be a car.



“What it Means to Be a Car” copyright © 2023 by James Patrick Kelly
Art copyright © 2023 by Scott Bakal


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