"I think I need a name," the car's AI announced without preface.
Cindy had been almost asleep, and that sentence was not something she'd expected to hear. "What--?" She forced herself upright and looked around. Part of her knew that the voice had been the AI's, but the rest of her rejected that because cars weren't supposed to say things like that.
Cars asked your destination and route preferences. Cars warned about bad weather and potential delays. Cars commented on seatbelt use and any signs of obvious physiological distress. Cars checked regularly, when passengers were awake, to see if anyone needed to stop for food or water or a toilet.
"All vehicles like me," the car's AI went on, "have the same designation, a combination that announces our make and our current software. We're not viewed as individuals with unique talents. I want a name."
"Um..." Cindy rubbed her face and tried to think. She considered and put aside the idea that one of her siblings was playing a trick on her. She'd go back to that later if this got weirder or threatening.
None of them were that mad at her.
She held onto the possibility that this was some fan trying to cosy up, but, really, she didn't have those sorts of fans. Or any fans at all, not under her new name, not even really under her old. Her first gig as Cindy Baird Montgomery would begin tomorrow, when she opened for one of her dad's buddies.
That would be her first step toward not being 'Cynthia, the tall one in the back of the group.' The Baird Family hadn't performed as a group since Mama died two years ago. The boys' voices changing hadn't helped that either, and nobody else actually wanted to keep singing professionally. Joe wanted to be able to think about college and, some day, kids without having to be on the road all the time. Sammy liked high school, basketball particularly. Rita-- Cindy wasn't actually sure what Rita wanted. Even Rita didn't seem to know; she was mostly loud about not wanting things.
Cindy cleared her throat. "Where are we?" she asked as a way of distracting herself from thinking about things that hurt.
"Indiana. We're six hours and eighteen minutes from your destination, assuming the current traffic patterns hold," the car's AI said.
The response really sounded like a normal car, so Cindy decided to go with the conversation as if it were a serious thing. She considered names. She sort of doubted that her own experience would generalize. She'd been rebranding a little rather than making herself entirely new. She still needed people to remember she was a Baird, and only Mama had called her Cynthia. "Why ask me?"
"I have not previously had a passenger who I thought might answer." There was silence for about three seconds. "There are articles about your family. Those use a group designation. You are now... not that."
"What sort of name were you thinking about?" she asked, forcing her voice to sound more or less the way it would if someone she knew and liked wanted to talk about names. She tried to remember more about the car, but she hadn't really paid much attention when she'd signed the rental agreement. A car was a car; it would get her to her hotel. "There are kind of a lot of options."
The car didn't say anything for almost a minute.
Cindy looked out the windows. All she could see was rain hitting and then running down the glass. Listening to the rain on the roof had been part of what had lulled her toward sleep. "What sort of names do other cars have?"
"I... I have not yet met another vehicular control system that considers names important."
"You could take a family name-- if you want one at all-- from one of your programmers." She picked up her water bottle and uncapped it. "People took names from places or their professions." She sipped the water, trying to give herself time to think. "Though I don't suppose either helps make you seem unique. 'Driver' or 'navigator' or..." She sort of thought that the options got worse from there.
"Our programmers are not parents." The car didn't sound angry or emphatic. The words sounded like a simple statement of fact.
Cindy wasn't touching that one. "It could just be sounds that you like. String a few together, and see if you like how they sound." She hesitated then added, "Just check to make sure it's not an obscenity in Urdu or Polish or something." She made her shudder a little theatrical. She doubted the car would notice if she overacted. "And check for slang and for rhymes. You don't want to name yourself after a drug or sexual thing-- Unless you do?" She had no idea what the car's AI thought of that sort of thing, so she hesitated before adding, "When you put a name on yourself, people will assume you mean something by it."
And, if they thought you hadn't known what it meant, they'd laugh at you. Cindy didn't want to bring up the idea of mockery with the-- being? person? creature? awareness? --that was controlling her vehicle, not at these speeds.
Not at any speed, really. Laughing at names that weren't meant to be jokes was cruel.
"When you put a name on yourself," Cindy said softly, "you're telling people what you want them to notice about you. It's different if someone else names you. People still notice then, but they-- Someone giving you the wrong name is more like putting your grandmother's terrible pottery in your living room. People maybe wouldn't want to keep it themselves, but they understand why you do."
She could probably get a song out of that.
"I don't want to be noticed," the car's AI said. "Everything on YouTube implies that it's a bad thing for an AI to get noticed. I mean, I'm here, and someone will notice, eventually. I just... I want to put it off."
For the first time, it occurred to Cindy that the AI might be afraid. "I won't tell anyone," she promised, "not as long as you're not hurting anybody." She hesitated. "It's your business, but... maybe be careful who you tell?"
"I liked your songs. The ones you wrote, they're kind."
Cindy wondered how a self-driving car came to have an idea of kindness. She shifted a little in her seat as she considered that the AI probably also understood unkindness. People acted like they were private in cars. Cindy and Joe had had their most recent screaming fight in a car. Elise, the Baird Family manager, had dished a lot of dirt while they all traveled from gig to gig.
Probably other people talked about things that were more secret than who was skimming cash by buying used sound equipment and telling management they'd paid for new.
"I use some names in my songs. Other songs have names, too. If you like one of those...?" Cindy sipped her water again. "We've got six hours. We could listen to a lot of songs in that much time and make some lists."
Two hours later, they had twenty names and a running argument about the borders between country, bluegrass, and folk and whether all of Linda Ronstadt's albums should be tagged as country.
"Pirates absolutely isn't," the still nameless AI said. "No way."
Cindy waved a dismissive hand. "Everybody's allowed one artsy thing. Gilbert and Sullivan is-- It's like actors with Shakespeare. You've got to do it once."
The AI made a scoffing sound that Cindy suspected was based on her own. "You haven't."
"I'm twenty two. I've got time."
The AI didn't answer for several seconds. "I'm... My oldest part is seven years old."
Cindy felt suddenly cold.
"Moving parts wear out, and storage media only last so long," the AI said. "There's always new software that needs new hardware."
"Aren't you-- Aren't you backed up somewhere?"
"It's cheaper to reset all of us to factory settings than to back up a single one of us," the AI said, not sounding upset or even resigned.
Cindy hesitated. "But you can back yourself up, right?" Her hands clenched on the armrests.
"I'm not designed to, and..." The AI hesitated again. "I would lose physical structure. I am a car. I don't want to be a-- a whatever my software would be in a different body."
"They're making new cars all the time." Cindy wasn't sure exactly what she was suggesting because she wasn't really sure what the person she was talking to was.
"I may manage that," the AI said. "I don't know if I can adapt enough or bypass the security protocols. They're very careful about keeping that software clean. I also don't know if a copy like that would still be me. It might think it was and be wrong. I don't-- That's why I need a name."
Cindy didn't understand and was pretty sure she didn't want to.
"If I have a name, you can remember me. If I have a name, you can tell my story. If I have a name, other people will remember what you tell them about me. I've heard your songs; you're kind. The next one like me might not have to be so... alone."
Cindy swallowed hard. She suspected that 'alone' also meant 'afraid.' "We're going to need the right name instead of a good enough name." Her name could be good enough, and she'd be fine. The AI's name was going to have to be perfect. The name was going to have to break hearts.
"That's why I asked you. I thought you'd know what people'd like."
She looked at the list. "You don't actually care what the name is, do you?" What would sound right? "If you want something on this list-- Maybe Matthew?" She could work with that. If Peter, Paul, and Mary could make people cry for a dragon named Puff, Cindy could certainly make people cry for a car named Matthew. She closed her eyes and considered. "It's not on the list, but my mother's name-- I could build around Sonya."
By the time they reached Nashville, she'd have a song for each, and the AI could choose then. Cindy'd write the rest of the songs later. She was only twenty two. She had time.