I had to write a story for school the other day.
Being a writer, my reaction to that was probably a tad more enthusiastic than my siblings. As in, I bounced up and down in my seat, immediately whipped out my short-story-idea-notebook and tried to decide which one of my ideas to use first.
I wasn’t really looking around, but I don’t think any of them did that. Most of them ended up doing tragedies. A cowboy that got shot up by a robber. A guy who accidentally walked into a house rigged with a bomb.
All those were a page or less. Mine ended up being about eight. *cough*
Anyway. So I’d had the idea for this one a while back while riding along with my dad. We have a kind of joke about what the smartphone navigator would say if it could talk to us or voice its opinions and sometimes imitate the voice to say weird things.
“You missed the turn, you idiot. Turn around.”
“I no longer want to work with you. Goodbye.” *shuts off*
And maybe a few malicious directions to drive into a lake.
So, yeah. I wanted to do a humor story along those lines when I got the time. Turned out school was the time, and I had the perfect character to do it with.
This is from the POV of a minor character in my Odd Team Out book, The Impersonator Problem. Agent Sterling is a not very expanded-on agent for the spy agency SPI, but I liked what I had of him.
So, this is somewhat of the story of how he came to be with the SPI and an explanation of his aversion to gadgets.
I ran the comb over my hair one more time as I winced into the mirror. My eyes went over the details of my suit coat one last time and I straightened my tie that had somehow managed to get itself crooked once again.
I checked my watch. No more time for stalling. I only had enough time to drive to my interview with the Superior Protective Intelligence agency (the SPI) on time if I left right now.
Snatching up the map from off my windowsill by the door, I stepped outside. I locked the door behind me and jogged the few yards to my car, my dress shoes making unfamiliar clicking noises on the pavement.
I was just opening the door to the driver’s seat when a voice called from nearby.
I slid into the seat and stuck in the keys, “Hey . . . um . . . really don’t have time to talk right now, Rich. I’ve got to get to this job interview.”
He reached the car and pulled to a stop, watching me just as I started to close the door.
I sighed and poked my head back out, “What is it?”
He was tossing something I couldn’t see in between his hands and smiling, “I’m saving you time, buddy. You were going to go by map, weren’t you?”
“Yes, that was the plan.”
“Well, this thing . . .” he finally stopped tossing his little doo-dad and held it up, “ . . . is going to get you there way faster.”
I squinted at the gadget. It had a green screen on the front, a suction cup on the back and was covered in a futuristic-looking, white case. “What would . . . that thing . . . be?”
“CleverNav. It’s a voice-command operated, artificial intelligence smart map. Just tell it where you want to go and it’ll find the shortest route possible, and a parking spot once you get there. Besides . . .” Rich grinned, “ . . . if you’re going to be joining some spy thing anyway, you’d better get familiar with your gadgets, Agent Matthew Sterling.”
I tightened my lips and leaned my head back a little. There wasn’t enough time to be had that I could talk him out of this. Best just take it and give it a try. It might even get me there earlier than I intended, in a best-case scenario.
“Fine,” I caught the CleverNav as Rich tossed it to me.
“Good luck,” he waved, “And you don’t need to turn that thing on by the way. Artificial intelligence. It knows when it’s in the car.”
I gave the CleverNav a startled look. Rich didn’t seem to notice or find anything unusual about the unnerving fact he’d just informed me of as he walked back to his house. With a shrug, I pulled the door shut, started up the car and stuck the CleverNav to the dashboard.
The green screen lit up as I pulled out of the driveway and a single eye projected onto it. I took my eyes off the road every few seconds to look at it nervously. The creepy eye was really cementing my feeling of this being a bad idea.
As I pulled off my street, a robotic, female voice came over my speakers.
I gave the black and green, glowing eye another frown and cautiously stated the address of the SPI building where I was to be interviewed.
“Is there a time by which you must arrive?” the voice asked. A ripple went through the eye projection, looking almost like a blink.
“Um . . . yeah. Three o’clock, but I’d like to get there a little early.”
“Routing to your destination,” said the CleverNav. To my relief, a map replaced the eye on the screen, showing a virtual little road slowly moving by with very vague, hard to follow features. Still, it was rather helpful in the fog I was driving in.
I relaxed a little, but I still felt like I was being watched in the silence. Was the CleverNav in the habit of reading minds to better serve its users? What other tricks did this thing have up its virtual sleeve?
The voice chirped over the speakers again, “Taking note of your unease and rerouting to a shortcut.”
I jumped a little in my seat and felt my heartbeat quicken. Swallowing, I tried to push back the alarm and remain calm. I didn’t want it picking up on anything else. If Rich liked this sort of navigator, I really couldn’t see why. Having my emotions read for getting to a job interview wasn’t really pleasant.
After a few more directions from the CleverNav, I reached a long, straight stretch of road. Looked like a fairly straight shot to the SPI building. Hopefully here I’d have a bit of rest from the creepy voice over my speakers. I gave it another suspicious look.
Demonic little thing.
“Are you unsatisfied with your CleverNavigator’s service, Matthew?” The voice was quieter than before, but it seemed even worse than when it was loud.
I gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead, having a little trouble breathing evenly.
This is crazy; I should chuck it out the window here.
There was a beep noise from the CleverNav and the map on the screen changed.
“In one hundred feet,” it informed me, “take a left.”
I turned my head sharply to look at the map. A pin was dropped ahead to show the SPI building, but the road was different now. It went in a strange loop around.
“Is this a shortcut?” I asked as I slowed by the commanded turn. The road was gravel and dirt and didn’t look well traveled at all.
The arrow that represented my car came to a stop on the virtual map.
I looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes until the interview. No time to argue right now if I wanted that job. I spun the wheel and my car bounced down the road. The trees seemed to close in overhead, their tops disappearing into the fog. I drove slowly at first until I’d gotten used to the terrain and speeded up a little.
The map still showed my arrow moving along a nice, well used road that took a turn to the right in about a mile. It was a good thing I had it, I thought. With this fog I could barely see the road a dozen yards in front of me.
But as my car bounced along the dirt and rocks for another couple of minutes and I still didn’t see any signs of civilization or human life, I began to have my doubts. Was this really a shortcut? Or . . .?
I shook my head. No, it couldn’t be. Navigators didn’t take revenge on their users. I’d never heard of anything like that. Then again, I’d never heard of anything like the CleverNav either . . .
I turned slightly to look at the map again. The arrow still pointed straight ahead and the robotic voice remained silent. I let out my breath and looked back at the road.
Which ended in nothing only a few feet in front of me.
I put my foot down on the brake as hard as I could. My car came to a screeching halt and I jolted forward against my seatbelt.
There was the sound of a few falling rocks echoing outside as I sat there, gasping for breath. With shaking hands, I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door. I stepped out to look after carefully making sure that I was setting my feet down on solid ground.
Sure enough. A cliff plummeted down to foggy nothingness only just in front of my front wheels.
My blood pounding in my ears, I got carefully back into the car, shifted into reverse and backed safely away from the edge. I sat there for a little bit, recollecting my breath and my wits.
The CleverNav gave a cheerful beep. I looked warily over at it with my eyebrows down.
“Proceed to the route,” prompted the voice.
I looked over at the little map on the screen, trying to find exactly where the navigator had gone wrong. There went the virtual green road. Straight off the cliff like it wasn’t even there.
“Taking note of your panic and dialing 911,” informed the CleverNav.
“No!” I hit the screen, “I need to get to that interview, you murderer!”
“Call canceled. Rerouting to SPI headquarters.” The green road shifted to a u-turn and the cliff appeared on the screen, “Hazard ahead. Please make a u-turn.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” I buckled my seatbelt and pulled the car around to face the other way on the road, carefully avoiding the cliff.
“Estimated time of arrival: 2:59pm.” The CleverNav said as the car bounced back down the road to the main one.
I gritted my teeth and looked up at the ceiling, “I hate you.”
The now familiar beep noise sounded again. I looked and the cliff on the map had disappeared. The highlighted road went straight over it again.
“Proceed to the route.”
“Okay, that is it,” I yanked the suction loose from the dashboard with a yank and threw it below the passenger seat, “I can find my own way without you!” I spun the wheel to the side and pulled back onto the main road. “Just hope this doesn’t totally ruin my interview . . .”
There was another beep and the voice, muffled though it was, came out from under the seat.
“Taking note of your dissatisfaction and changing voice chip.”
Oh, yeah. That’ll make everything better.
I hit the radio button, hoping the weatherman’s voice would drown out whatever new one the CleverNav would try next. Thankfully it seemed to have decided I would enjoy its silence most at the moment.
I drove along for a few more minutes before more buildings started to show up. The Seattle skyline was a relieving sight to see, and I could just make out what looked like the tip of the SPI tower.
Almost there, I ran a hand over my hair, smoothing back the disarray that had followed my attempted murder. And of course my tie was crooked again.
“Your destination is near and you are excited, Matthew,” a deep, man’s voice rumbled out from under the seat.
I startled at the voice and my car swerved, eliciting a honk from the driver behind me
“If you speed up to 3.5 mph faster, you will still make it 13.2 seconds early to your interview,” it continued in a voice that sounded almost like some sleazy salesman. “Following this course of action would be advisable.”
I gritted my teeth, “Shut. Up.” The light in front of me turned red just as I was coming up and I stopped.
“Running this red light would save you 1.5 minutes,” the muffled, suave voice came from under the seat.
“CleverNav, are you aware that you are routing me to an interview for a government job?”
There was a silence I could have sworn seemed embarrassed from the seat next to me as I waited my 1.5 minutes patiently. It looked like I’d finally gotten the best of CleverNav. I smiled as I drove away from the green light and on towards my destination, enjoying the silence.
There were quite a few streets that I could take for the last stretch. I slowed down as I tried to think which one would be the quickest.
Well, whatever I decide, I’m certainly not asking . . .
“The first street on your left is the best option at this juncture, Matthew.”
I puffed out my cheeks and blew my breath out slowly. That was the one I had been planning to take, but now that the murderous little navigator had recommended it . . . There was probably some bomb down the alleyway or something. I took the next left onto a less crowded street.
“This is not a recommended route,” rumbled the CleverNav, “There is a possible collision course and you will be 28.3 seconds late even if not.”
I turned up the radio and watched the road more carefully and the mention of “collision course”. But honestly, it sounded like the CleverNav was just trying to threaten me into using its recommended route.
The SPI building towered very nearby now. Director Ecks had said he would have an agent out by the entrance to meet me there and I squinted ahead to see if I could spot him.
Strange, though. It wasn’t just one agent out there. There were at least seven of them, running out through the doors with guns out and aimed somewhere beyond the corner. I couldn’t see what it was from where I was, but with alarm I saw that all of them were swiveling their aim in my direction.
If they’re following the target, that means . . .
A little, black car zipped onto the road in front of me.
“Collision imminent,” said the CleverNav in an “I-told-you-so” tone.
I tried to slam on the brakes but I was too close. With a resounding crunch, my car smashed into the black one. My car hood crumpled up and I was jerked forwards, smacking my forehead hard against the dashboard.
The next thing I knew, there were a lot of loud noises and distant sirens outside.
“Arrived,” informed a muffled voice from at my feet. I barely registered it.
I blinked a few times and turned my head to look out my cracked window. Someone that I didn’t recognize in a suit and tie was approaching my door. Realizing I was slumped against the steering wheel, I quickly sat up and tried to get my seatbelt loose. It wouldn’t go and the man was looking in now. I pulled out my pocketknife and cut through it just as the man grasped the door handle.
The man opened my door and peered in at me. “Are you alright?”
“I . . . yeah, I think so.”
He held out his hand, which I cautiously took as I stepped out. He seemed pretty friendly and almost amused for some reason. One corner of his mouth kept twitching upwards as he looked me over and I couldn’t figure out why.
“Well . . . thanks for helping me . . .” I began, putting a hand to my hurting head. Something sticky oozed on my fingers and without thinking, I wiped it off on the side of my jacket.
The man smiled openly now, “Glad I could be of assistance, sir.” He clasped his hands behind his back and looked me over again, “Out of curiosity, is your name Sterling?”
I looked up from my bloody hand, “Yes . . .” Oh, please don’t be who I think you are . . .
“Director Ecks of the Superior Protective Intelligence agency,” he held out his hand to shake mine. Painedly, I shook it, making an effort not to spread the blood to his hand.
This really was a bad situation to meet a potential employer in. I’d just been in a car crash, my suit was a mess and my forehead was bleeding. Not exactly the “competent secret agent” image I’d been going for.
But, for some reason, Ecks looked pleased as he surveyed the car crash. He motioned for me to follow him as he began at a sauntering walk towards the building. “We’ll take care of your car and all. That is, if you have insurance,” he laughed and elbowed me in the ribs, jolting me a few steps over.
I forced a laugh back, “Of course.”
“Don’t know what we would have done without you just then, Sterling,” he said, pulling back his dignified manner, “We’d just discovered that agent as a mole and were going to apprehend him when he made a getaway with valuable papers. We certainly wouldn’t be in a good place if you hadn’t come when you did.” He smiled.
I kept myself from staring at him as we came into the building. It looked like the CleverNav had actually helped after all . . .
“Needless to say,” Director Ecks walked towards the elevator, ignoring the commotion surrounding the car crash outside, “You have a bit of a jumpstart with our agency as is. To start off the interview, I’d just like to know if you have any misgivings about joining us.” He hit the button to close the doors and looked over at me questioningly.
I straightened my tie a little, “Well, to be honest, the fancy gadget aspect has me a little nervous.”
“Oh, it’s completely optional. We only provide the basics.”
I smiled, “In that case, I’d be overjoyed to join.”
And that is Agent Sterling, everybody! You’ll be seeing more of him in Odd Team Out. 🙂
How’d you like the story? Has your navigator ever done anything creepy? 😉
Please comment! I’d love to hear what you thought!