Monday, 16 July 2007

The Extra Cars - Part Five


The Extra Cars is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your investigative host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6

"You're a gymnast, but nobody can tell."

Our story continues:



5/6

Sun Kim's iridescent purple Honda Civic pulls up to the curb outside of Becca's parent's house, coasting to a stop in the long shadow of a neighbour's maple tree. It's six thirty in the morning. The boys emerge from the car bleary eyed and yawning.

Birds chirp. Phat-so rests his coffee on top of the car while he squirms into his knapsack, then takes another sip. "Bless you, Tim Horton," he breathes reverently.

Sun stretches, grimacing. "I don't know about this, Phat."

"What do you mean?"

"Didn't mom always tell us never to get into a car with a creepy stranger?"

Phat-so makes a face. "We're not little kids anymore. This is different. Mr. Mississauga's a detective. This is his job."

"So he says."

"And so says that cop, Constable Westworld or whatever." Phat-so sips his coffee and consults his watch. "Where the hell is Becca already? He's going to be here soon."

Just then the front door bangs open and Becca steps onto the porch, pushing her dirty blonde hair out of her face with a shoulder while she wrangles a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a small plastic cooler and an unwieldy wicker basket. As she shuffles down the walk she ignites the lighter, touches it to the cigarette, and swings the basket's handle over her arm as she balances the cooler at her elbow. "Look at me," she mumbles around the smoke, "I'm a fucking acrobat."

"What is all that?" asks Sun.

She arrives at the curb and dumps the basket and cooler on the hood of the Civic, which causes Sun to gasp anxiously. "It's a picnic lunch," explains Becca. "You know, sandwiches and crap." She crosses her arms over a T-shirt featuring a picture of large eyed grey alien presenting its middle finger over the caption: THE TRUTH IS UP YOURS.

"Nice shirt," says Sun.

"Stop checking me out. I'm not a fucking hunk of meat."

"You're charming in the morning, Bec."

"Eat me."

Phat-so sips his coffee and checks his Casio again. Becca smokes. Sun shoves his hands in his pockets and considers his shoes. It's just like they're waiting to be picked up for school.

The orange micro-schoolbus with the lettering scratched off rounds the corner and comes to a squeaking halt before them. The stop sign folds out of its side and the door chuffs open. Mr. Mississauga faces them from the driver's seat, his expression humourless. In the daylight he looks older; his short black hair is peppered with grey. "Let's go," he says.

Soon they're rumbling along en route to Rideau Heights, to the address of the red Camaro's owner. His name is Steven Bettersley, and he's twenty-two years old. He's been known to exceed the posted limits.

The inside of Mr. Mississauga's bus smells like soup and cigarettes.

Becca and Sun sit on the bench seat behind the driver, while Phat-so sits on the opposite side of the aisle with his knapsack beside him. He turns on the bench to survey the interior of the bus: there's a camcorder on a tripod clamped to the bench behind him, wired to a tiny television attached to the cabin's ceiling. Further back two benches have been removed to make room for a small, sweat-stained cot with a bundle of twisted blankets in the corner. Phat-so spots a duffel bag of clothes, some sort of a charging mechanism peeking out of a cluster of electronics, and a wooden shipping palette stacked with cans of Campbell's Scotch Broth soup, identical row upon identical row...

There's a hot plate and a shaving kit, a tool box and a sewing machine. A fleet of empty water bottles roll across the aisle whenever the bus turns. Beneath another of the benches are shrink-wrapped boxes of Drum rolling tobacco and a matching supply of slow-burning Zig-Zag papers. Also, toothpaste.

Under the bench Sun and Becca sit on is a crate marked with Japanese ideograms over a cutesy cat logo, and a canister of disposable pens.

Dangling from the rearview mirror is a hoop of willow with a web woven inside, the lower edge festooned with feathers and beads. Phat-so has seen hoops like this before, and he's pretty sure they're called a dream catchers.

The dream catcher sways as the bus stops. Mr. Mississauga pulls up the parking brake and kills the engine.

"So this is it?" asks Sun vapidly, looking at the rows of small but upscale homes lining either side of the block. The neighbourhood trees are old and tall, almost meeting to form a leafy cathedral roof over the road.

"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga simply.

"There's the Camaro," says Phat-so, pointing through the windows to a driveway across the street. He asks, "Isn't an orange bus sitting here all day going to be...you know, kind of conspicuous?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "Schoolbuses are trusted."

The detective extracts himself from the driving compartment by way of a methodical process, rotating his body by stages, lifting himself with the aid of a canvas strap, rapping sharply on each knee to swing his shins straight. They squeak as if in need of oil. He adjusts his overcoat with belaboured dignity and then shuffles down the aisle between the bench seats, rocking purposefully from one foot to the other.

Phat-so, Sun and Becca watch him wordlessly.

He bends down over the camcorder, turns it on, then adjusts its angle to point at the red Camaro. The house is obscured by a wall of sun-wilted lilacs at the end of a yellow lawn. In the driveway beside the Camaro is a dented, bile-coloured Jeep Cherokee. The image of the two vehicles appears on the ceiling-mounted television. Mr. Mississauga feeds a tape into the camcorder and the word REC flashes in the corner of the screen.

Sun looks around. "So...what do we do now?"

"We wait," says Mr. Mississauga. "We watch."

He settles himself down on the bench beside the tripod and extracts a hand-rolled cigarette from an inside pocket. He uses his quietly whirring right hand to position the stiff fingers of his left, then lodges the cigarette into the ready grip and lights it. His gloves creak. He draws on the smoke.

At seven thirty a teenage girl dressed in a heavy black sweater and severe make-up leaves the house and heads northbound on foot. At seven forty a man and a woman in wear-worn business casuals climb into opposites sides of the Cherokee and drive away. At five to eight a young man in his twenties steps onto the porch and lights a cigarette. He's dressed to sell hamburgers. At one minute before eight o'clock he's picked up by a friend in a green Hyundai Pony, which screeches away accompanied by pounding heavy metal.

"That's lame," sighs Becca. "That has to be him, and now he's gone. Nothing's going to happen."

Phat-so says, "The car is still there."

"The car's not going to go anywhere by itself, Phat. How long's a shift at Burger King? We're going to be here all day."

Mr. Mississauga nods behind his veil of smoke. "Yes."

"Yes what?"

"Yes, we are going to be here all day."

Ten minutes pass, then twenty. Mr. Mississauga changes the tape in the camcorder and lights another cigarette. Phat-so makes a note in his log book. Sun slumps.

Becca kneels up on her seat and shifts around to face the detective. "Can I ask you something?" she asks. Mr. Mississauga turns and regards her silently. Becca continues, "What's up with your legs?"

"Phocomelia."

"Isn't that like when people are sexually aroused by poo?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "That would be coprophilia. Phocomelia, in contrast, is a birth defect in which the limbs manifest as stubby flippers."

Becca swallows awkwardly. "Shit. So I guess it's pretty hard to walk on flippers, eh?"

"I have two artificial legs and two artificial arms," explains Mr. Mississauga evenly. "A consequence of prenatal thalidomide poisoning."

"Holy crap. But you walk around and drive and do everything yourself?"

"Yes."

"That's fucking incredible. You're a gymnast, but nobody can tell."

Mr. Mississauga offers a small, tight smile. "I manage."

Becca laughs. So does Phat-so. He says, "Can I ask you something, detective?" Mr. Mississauga turns to look at him. Phat-so squirms a bit, then manages to ask, "Does your hand have sensation, or does it just move?"

"I have sensation," says Mr. Mississauga, exhaling a blossom of fume. "I can tell the difference between hot and cold, sharp and round, hard or soft, coarse or smooth." He drags his arm against the side of the bench to force his sleeve up, exposing a forearm composed of a series of metal and kevlar guards bracing pockets of dark, rubbery-looking bundles. The morning sunlight glints on the fixtures.

Sun leans over, eyes widening. "Oh. my. God," he gasps. "That's a Zhang!"

Becca frowns. "What's a Zhang?"

"Zhang is a genius!" croons Sun. "He's this old Chinese-French guy, based in Paris, and his workshop makes just about the sweetest machines ever. His background's in clockwork so he works in a totally different way than most engineers. His designs are fully bottom-up, from the molecular level, with tiny physical parts instead of electronics, fitting and moving together with like insane precision, each layer more complex than the last. He's supposed to be a crazy perfectionist. His stuff costs millions, like even the smallest thing. Millions! I read about him in Popular Mechanics."

Phat-so is impressed, his pupils racing back and forth over the exposed forearm. "What are the muscles made of?" he asks breathlessly.

"Carbon nanotubes," says Mr. Mississauga.

Phat-so whistles. "It's a work of art."

Mr. Mississauga flexes the arm, pulses of motion rippling through the matte black bundles of ropey synthetic muscle. "Yes," he agrees. "I'm very satisfied."

"How did you ever afford it?" asks Sun, who then turns immediately sheepish. "I'm sorry, that was probably rude as hell."

"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga. Despite this assessment, he answers the question: "My patron is an investor in the Zhang Workshop. I was provided this arm and both my legs in return for services rendered."

"Detective services?" asks Phat-so.

"Yes."

Becca cocks her head. "Why not both arms?"

Mr. Mississauga glances down at his lifeless left arm. "It's been with me a long time. I'm sentimental about my left arm. I like it just the way it is."

Becca sniffs, and offers him an actual smile. "That's sweet."

Mr. Mississauga says nothing.

"So, uh..." stammers Sun. "What tribe are you?"

"Mississauga," says Mr. Mississauga.

"I thought that was just a suburb of Toronto."

Mr. Mississauga closes his eyes for moment, and takes a breath. "It was once a nation. A nation that spread all along the coast of this Great Lake -- including this place, where we are, right now."

Becca raises her brow. "Is this sacred land?"

Mr. Mississauga's brown eyes flash open. He casts a wry look out the schoolbus windows at the rows of tightly packed houses, the asphalt, the utility poles and newspaper boxes. "Not anymore," he says.

A new silence envelopes them.

The sun climbs. The schoolbus becomes quite warm. Mr. Mississauga stumps toward the front and uncouples a battery pack from the cigarette lighter, then begins to haul it along the aisle. Phat-so and Sun both jump up. "Here," says Sun, "let me give you a hand."

"No," says Mr. Mississauga, a hard edge in his voice.

The boys back off. Mr. Mississauga puts the battery pack down on an empty bench and then hauls out a fan from underneath. He clamps it to the top of the bench, plugs it in, and sets it to oscillate.

The four of them watch the fan, hypnotized by the breeze.

Becca leans over her cooler and takes off the lid. Ice sloshes. She comes up with two cans of Heineken in each hand. "It's time to get this party started," she says, tossing a can to each of the brothers and then dangling another toward the detective.

"No," he says.

"You sure?"

"Yes. I don't drink alcohol."

Becca shrugs and tosses it back in the cooler, then pops the top on her own. "Is that an Indian thing or a thalidomide thing?"

"A little of both," admits Mr. Mississauga.

Phat-so looks up sheepishly. "Um, I'm not sure that I drink either, actually, Becca." He fidgets with the can, turning it over and examining it as if he's never seen the like.

Becca is too shocked to speak.

"Hey, that's not true," chuckles Sun. "You drank at that party, Phat. Remember? I caught you."

"Actually," admits Phat-so quietly, "that can was empty. I was just trying to piss you off."

Sun looks scandalized.

"Ho-ly shit," drawls Becca. "You guys are such virgins. Does your mommy pick your pajamas?"

"Shut up," snaps Sun. "I've totally had a drink before. But it's different -- I'm nineteen. It's legal."

Becca rolls her eyes. She chugs from her can and sighs, "Fuck. Me."

For some reason this statement causes Sun to begin perspiring heavily. He puts the cold can of beer against his forehead and tugs his T-shirt away from his neck.

He looks up sharply when he hears another can tab open with a click and a hiss. Phat-so raises the beer to his lips, smells it, then takes an experimental swallow. He begins to nod. "Interesting," he says, and sips again.

Sun frowns. He looks back and forth between his brother and Becca and then comes visibly to a conclusion. He juggles his own can into the correct orientation and then aggressively jams it open, releasing a geyser of froth directly into his face. "Jesus Crap!"

Becca roars, clutching her sides with laughter. Mr. Mississauga looks on expressionlessly. As Becca continues to giggle and Sun mops himself up, the detective leans in closer.

"Alcohol is dangerous," he tells Phat-so.

"I'm only going to have just this one," Phat-so replies.

Mr. Mississauga sits back again, inscrutable. He lights a cigarette and puffs on it, eyes focused at infinity.

Becca crumples her can and reaches for another. Sun and Phat-so both take the cue to drink more of their own beer. "It's a bit sour," admits Phat-so. Then he burps.

"I think it's pretty good," says Sun haughtily. "What is this? Dutch?"

Becca nods. "I tiefed if from my grandfather. He likes the hoity-toity shit. My dad drinks Blue. I mean, fuck."

Sun nods knowingly. "Yeah, totally."

Becca gives him a long look and then smirks. "Whatever. What time is it? My ass is getting sore. Let's get out and walk around."

"No, no," says Phat-so quickly. "We can't draw attention to ourselves. We've just got to sit tight, like in the movies. They just sit there and eat doughnuts."

Sun perks up and looks over to Becca. "Did you bring doughnuts?"

"No, I didn't fucking bring doughnuts. Who brings doughnuts to a picnic?"

"This isn't a picnic, it's a stakeout."

"It's a picnic basket, okay? It wants to be full of sandwiches and shit, maybe fried chicken."

"There's fried chicken?"

"No, there's fucking sandwiches, like I said. What am I -- a restaurant?"

"Sorry, sorry. Jesus, Bec. I was just asking."

"Drink your drink," recommends Becca wearily.

When it does come time to open the basket she hands out sandwiches in plastic baggies -- ham and cheese with dijon. Sun and Phat-so consume theirs with relish. Becca frowns as she waves a sandwich in front of Mr. Mississauga who remains oddly unresponsive. "Hey -- detective man -- Mr. Miss -- hey!" she calls, waving her hand in front of his face.

Mr. Mississauga blinks, then turns to her. "Yes?"

"You were in your own little world there," she tells him.

"Yes."

"Uh...do you want a sandwich? They're ham and cheese. Do you eat meat?"

Mr. Mississauga checks his watch. "Don't worry about me," he says, then stands up and crosses the bus to pull a can of Campbell's soup from the shipping palette. He opens it, drops in a spoon, and then resumes his seat and begins mechanically shoveling in the cold broth, barley and beef.

"You're not even going to heat it up?" asks Becca, her upper lip curling.

"No," says Mr. Mississauga between spoonfuls.

She turns to Sun, her eyes wide, and whispers, "This guy just keeps getting weirder and weirder."

Sun nods. Mr. Mississauga raises his brow. "Trust me," he says softly, "on the subject of weirdness you have the luxury of having no perspective whatsoever, Miss Beckham."

"Supersonic hearing too, eh? What are you -- Spider-man?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I just pay attention."

They finish their lunch without further conservation. Mr. Mississauga changes the tape in the camcorcer again and then settles back onto the bench beside it, his arms crossed over his chest.

Sun crumples his beer can. Becca hands him another. Phat-so tries to finish his but the beer left at the bottom is lukewarm and backwashy, so he simply pretends to finish and then dents the can. Becca holds open a plastic Sobey's bag for the trash and Phat-so tosses the can inside. It falls over and begins to dribble beer through a hole in the bag. "Shit, Phat!" cries Becca, holding the dripping mess away from her jeans.

"Sorry," mumbles Phat-so, flushing. "I thought it was all the way empty."

"You idiot," groans Sun, shaking his head and helping himself to another can.

Becca doubles up the trash with another Sobey's bag. "Do you have like napkins or something, Mr. Miss?"

Mr. Mississauga does not respond.

She gets up and walks over to the detective, peering at him. His eyes twitch slightly side to side, but his expression remains slack. "I think...I think he's asleep," she says in wonder, then snaps her fingers in front of his face. No reaction.

"What?" says Sun. "With his eyes open?"

Phat-so makes a face. He stands up to investigate Becca's claim but finds himself stumbling in the aisle, falling against the opposite bench. "Whoa," he says, and then giggles. "I'm kind of dizzy."

"You're drunk!" declares Becca. "Off one beer!"

"No, I think my foot just fell asleep," says Phat-so, letting go of the bench experimentally and then tottering and weaving in the aisle. He hiccups.

"Jesus Crap, Phat," comments Sun with royal scorn.

An expression of serious concentration moves over Phat-so's features. "I think I have to pee. Like, really bad."

Sun's face softens somewhat. "Yeah, actually. Me too."

"You're going to have to go outside," says Becca. "I don't see anything in here that looks like a chamber pot."

Sun pulls the handle to fold open the door and then the two brothers wait while the handicapped access ramp lowers into place, humming. It reminds Phat-so of a spaceship's gangway: he's just made fresh planetfall, and the world outside is not his.

He giggles at himself, and Sun gives his a sidelong look. Phat-so burps.

The ramp bumps to a rest. They shuffle down. At the bottom Phat-so bumps into Sun and apologizes. They slip in between two of the houses that look unoccupied and each choose a bush in the backyard to hide behind. They hear each other's zippers open, but no other sound for a long moment while they get over their embarrassment.

Sun coughs. Phat-so giggles again. The sound of liquid falling in the grass comes next.

"Oh yes," sighs Phat-so.

"Shut up," snaps Sun.

"What are you so grouchy about, anyway?"

"I'm not grouchy."

"You are so. You've been being really nice to me lately, and now you're like back to your old self -- calling me 'idiot' and everything."

They finish their business and zip up. Sun wipes his fingers on some leaves. He doesn't look up as they start walking back through the narrow alley between the houses. Phat-so glances over. His brother is biting his lip fretfully. "Listen, I'm sorry," he says finally.

"It's okay," offers Phat-so quickly. "Don't worry about it."

"It's just that sometimes I get -- annoyed, I guess -- when it seems like Becca only pays attention to you."

"What?"

"It's like you're good at school, Mom and Dad love you off, everybody knows you're so smart and you're not afraid to do anything. I guess I just feel like a bit of a heel, sometimes, in comparison. You know? And now Becca's into you instead of...instead of into me. Or something."

Phat-so stops at the mouth of the alley. He puts his hand on his brother's shoulder. "Sunny, I'm not interested in Becca. Not in that way."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously. To be honest, she scares me."

"Yeah," agrees Sun, his eyes distant and dreamy. "She scares me, too."

Becca shouts across the street. The boys look up. She's gesturing frantically. They furrow their brows, confused. She swears, then points up the block. Phat-so gasps. "It's him! He's back!"

"Oh shit!"

"Hide!"

Phat-so and Sun duck behind a garbage bin as the green Hyundai Pony roars down the street and stops hard in front of the Bettersley home, heavy metal pouring from the open windows. Steven gets out, shakes his friend's hand, scoops up his Burger King cap and then turns and strolls up the walk to his front door. The Pony screeches away.

Phat-so and Sun scurry across the road and climb back aboard the bus. Mr. Mississauga is standing over the camcorder. He engages a fresh tape and the word REC flashes on screen. He looks up. "You shouldn't have gone outside."

"Sorry," mumbles Phat-so.

"Did he see us?" asks Sun.

Becca shakes her head. "He didn't even look around."

Everyone sits down again, eyes glued to the Bettersley home and the red Camaro in the driveway. Steven has gone inside, and the house is quiet. Moments pass.

Each minute seems longer than the last. Phat-so finds himself counting the number of bricks in each row of the house's walls visible above the bushes. Sun sighs. Becca lights a cigarette.

Phat-so's eyes flutter. He knuckles the sockets and yawns, then pinches himself hard. He winces, then resumes watching out the window.

Mr. Mississauga is in his element. He is completely motionless, watching. It looks of as if he's carved out of wood. It looks as if he doesn't even breathe.

Phat-so detects the sound of a throaty engine approaching. Sun and Becca perk up. Sun says, "That sounds just like..."

Phat-so's mouth falls open. "The Camaro!"

Steven Bettersley's red Camaro with the scratched door blasts down the road and shrieks as it takes the corner, the rumbling engine Dopplering away to silence again.

Phat-so blinks and turns back to the driveway: the Camaro is still there, parked in the shade. A sparrow flutters down and lands on the spoiler.

Becca pushes her face against the glass in an effort to see further down the block, staring agog.

"What the hell?" exclaims Sun. "There's two of them!"

"No," replies Mr. Mississauga crisply as he rises with the camcorder's remote control wand in his stiff left hand. "Look." The footage on the hanging television scrubs backward in time, and the red Camaro flashes by in reverse. Mr. Mississauga toggles to forward playback, then puts it into slow motion.

Sun, Becca and Phat-so get up and wander closer, peering at the screen.

Frame by frame the speeding Camaro draws into view, its outlines blurred by motion, the blurs striped by scan lines. Just as the car passes in front of the Bettersley's driveway Mr. Mississauga pauses the tape, the frozen image jittering slightly. "Look," he says again, tapping a lifeless finger against the screen.

Phat-so squints. "...What are we looking for?"

Mr. Mississauga's gloved finger taps the screen again, right next to the parked Camaro. Phat-so leans in even closer, mouth pinched shut. Then his eyes widen and he turns to look at the detective. "Is it some kind of video artifact?"

"No."

"A trick of the light?"

"No."

Sun looks back and forth between them in consternation. "What?" he cries. "What are you seeing?"

"Here," says Phat-so, pointing. "Look at the cabin of the Camaro."

Sun looks, his expression grim. "...So?"

Becca shoulders past him and puts her face right up to the pixels. "You can see through it," she declares.

"What?" says Sun again.

"Right there, just slightly. See? You can see the edge of the garage door through the car."

Sun's mouth goes dry. "That's...that's messed up."

"It's like bad special effects," says Phat-so.

Mr. Mississauga winds the tape back frame by frame. When the driving version of the Camaro exits the picture the parked version becomes fully opaque again. The detective isn't watching the screen, however -- he leans over an ancient-looking oscilloscope with green lines dancing on its round screen. "There's a three percent drop in luminance when the driving car first becomes audible -- see the waveform here? -- and an eight percent drop in opacity as the driving car occults the parked car from our point of view."

"What does it mean?" asks Sun.

Mr. Mississauga straightens and regards him seriously. "It means there are not two cars," he says. "Detecting the one is coincident with a loss of substantiality in the other. They are related manifestations of the same object. They affect one another -- or, rather, our measurement affects them."

"But one thing can't be in two places at once. That's impossible."

"Yes. That is why when our notice is drawn to one the other briefly fades. It flickers with uncertainty as interaction with us causes one to become more actualized than the other."

Sun blinks. "What?"

Mr. Mississauga pauses. "I may need to sleep again to refine the hypothesis."

Phat-so rubs his chin thoughtfully. "Detective, are you talking about invoking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle on a macroscopic scale?"

"Yes, Mr. Kim," says Mr. Mississauga.

Sun is totally perplexed. "What the hell is a Heisenberg?"

"German guy, small eyes. He's dead."

"Thanks, Phat," says Sun sarcastically. "That clears it right up."

Phat-so chews his lip pensively. "Okay, listen. In quantum mechanics we talk about sub-atomic objects existing as a kind of mix of a particle and a wave. An electron isn't some little speck zooming around a nucleus: it's a cloud of speck possibilities. When we look at it as a wave -- like a ripple in probability space -- the amplitude of the wave represents position, and the frequency is inversely proportional to momentum."

Sun passes a hand over his face wearily. "Huh?"

"If you want to know the position with a reasonable amount of accuracy you're forced to muddy the momentum, and vice versa, because of the way the information is entangled. It's about localizing the wave, giving it a nice, sharp peak you can measure, by introducing shorter wavelengths --"

Sun holds up a hand. "Just quit it, okay. You're making me feel dumb."

"Yeah," agrees Becca. "Me too."

"The thing is," persists Phat-so, "the uncertainties are very, very small -- like so small the effect is only evident when you're dealing with sub-microscopic phenomena."

"Like what?"

"Like an atom."

Becca looks out the window at the parked Camaro. "That's a hell of lot bigger than an atom."

"No kidding," agrees Phat. He turns to the detective, steadying himself against the back of the bench. "It just doesn't make sense, detective. I could at least get my head around some kind of super-inflated observer bias, but actual quantum uncertainty on a scale we can see? It's just not possible."

"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga. "That is why reality is being forced to scooch aside: to make room."

"To make room for what?"

"For something impossible -- or, at least, for something improbable."

Becca exhales slowly through pursed lips. "I don't get it."

Mr. Mississauga nods. "I think it's time we had a conversation with Mr. Bettersley."

The door chuffs open. Mr. Mississauga leads their squadron, limping purposefully across the road, the youths fanned out behind him. Sun watches the Camaro warily as they pass by, the sun glinting on the polished metal. Becca offers her arm as they reach the porch but Mr. Mississauga refuses it, preferring to hop and swivel up the steps on his own. He raps on the door.

After a long moment the door opens a crack. Steven Bettersley is still wearing his Burger King uniform, but now his eyes are bloodshot and the air behind him is thick with fume. "Yeah?" he says guardedly.

"Steven Bettersley?" prompts Mr. Mississauga.

"What?"

"Do you mind if we come in for a moment?"

"Are you Mormons? I already told you guys to stop coming around here. We're not religious."

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "We are not Mormons. Is that your Camaro?"

"Why do you want to know? Are you guys Jehovah's Witnesses?"

"No."

"Scientologists?"

Mr. Mississauga narrows his eyes. "What do you know about the Scientologists?"

"Aw man, you are goddamn Scientologists. No thanks, not interested."

The door slams.

They turn to look at one another. "Well, that didn't go well," says Phat-so dejectedly. "Now what?"

"Hey Becca," says Sun, "maybe you should take off your shirt again."

Becca's expression goes blank, then slowly hardens. "That was for you, you stupid motherfucking retard!" Then she turns on heel and stalks back toward the schoolbus, lighting a cigarette on the way, her hands shaking.

"Whoops," says Sun. He turns and jogs after her, calling her name.

Mr. Mississauga seems unconcerned. He raises his hard left hand and knocks again. He calls through the door: "Mr. Bettersley, you have two choices. You can either talk to us now about moving violations, or we can come back when your parents are home to discuss narcotics."

The door opens a crack once more. "You're a cop?"

Mr. Mississauga says nothing.

Steven pulls open the door the rest of the way. "Okay," he says nervously. "Come in, I guess."

They sit in the livingroom. It's dim, because vines block the windows. A defunct grandfather clock does not tick. The vague thump of rock music plays through the floor from the basement. Steven Bettersley crosses his legs first one way, and then other.

Mr. Mississauga withdraws a pocket-sized notebook decorated with images of Hello Kitty from his inside pocket and then positions it on his knee. Next he prepares his pen. "Mr. Bettersley, my name is Detective Mississauga. You're not being charged with any crime. We'd just like you to answer a few questions about your driving habits."

Steven shifts uncomfortably again. "Who's he?" he says, nodding his chin at Phat-so.

"Student," says the detective.

"Like a co-op thing?"

"Yes."

"Hi," says Phat-so.

Mr. Mississauga clears his throat. "You are the registered owner and primary insured driver on the vehicle parked out front, is that correct?"

Steven nods.

"When was the last time you drove the vehicle?"

"Uh, I don't know. My -- well, my license is suspended because of unpaid fines, actually. I haven't been able to drive for like a month. I'm saving up the money, you know, working."

"Do any other members of the household drive the vehicle?"

"Oh, no way. That's my car. I restored her myself. Nobody touches her but me, um, sir. Why?"

"I will be asking the questions here today, son."

"Sorry."

Mr. Mississauga makes a note, his entire arm jerking in a series of tight, controlled hops. He looks up. "Are you aware, Mr. Bettersley, that your vehicle has been spotted out on the road recently?"

"Recently? Like when?"

"This afternoon."

"No way. That's impossible. My bedroom's downstairs, my window looks out right on the left front tire. I see it every day. There's some leaves pinned under the wheel, and I know exactly what angle the rim's at. That car hasn't budged. No way."

"What were you doing at two thirty this afternoon?"

"This afternoon like today this afternoon?"

"Yes."

Steven squirms. "I was just, uh...well, I was smoking up and thinking about taking her out for a spin."

"You were considering driving with a suspended license?"

"No no, not really. I'd be screwed if I got caught. So no, I wasn't really considering it, not seriously. I was just like -- daydreaming, I guess. I was watching the traffic cam channel and like having a fantasy or whatever."

"Why?"

"What do you mean? I'm just anxious to get my license back. My car's like my space, you know? When everybody's around here driving me nuts I used to just go for a drive, to get away for a while. To listen to tunes have a little smoke."

Mr. Mississauga folds his cutesy notebook closed. "Thank you for your co-operation, Mr. Bettersley."

Phat-so and Steven both look confused. "That's it?" asks Steven.

Mr. Mississauga stands up. So does Phat-so. Steven is visibly relieved as he shows them out. On the porch the detective pauses to light a hand-rolled cigarette, then resumes limping down the steps. Phat-so waits for him on the walk. "So what do you think, detective?" he asks, then releases another little sour beer burp.

Mr. Mississauga doesn't answer immediately. They saunter down the driveway. When they reach the sidewalk Mr. Mississauga begins to nod. "I've seen this before," he says.

"Do you know what it is? Have you figured out what's going on?"

"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga simply. He drags on his cigarette. "In this area, for this time, Mr. Kim, the likely and the actual are commingled."

Phat-so blinks. "The likely and the actual?"

Mr. Mississauga nods curtly. "I'm not a scientist," he says. "But you heard Mr. Bettersley: he visualizes the trips his car seems to be taking. Though he knows he cannot drive, part of him desperately wishes it. And his wishes are being manifested in reality." Mr. Mississauga stops walking, turning to face Phat-so. "Mr. Kim," he says, "the extra cars represent trips almost taken."

Phat-so shakes his head. "But how could we see that?"

"People drive the same routes day after day, charting the same progress in the same lanes from landmark to landmark. The routes are not simply events that happen, however -- they arise as a consequence of a chain of choices made by a conscious entity. And observation by a conscious entity changes the world."

"How?"

"Uncertainty," pronounces Mr. Mississauga heavily. "Observation influences the collapse of the waveform of potential outcomes -- the act of measurement forces the universe to decide, to cull from all the potential outcomes one actual outcome. Thinking things concentrate the collapse of waveforms by concentrating measurement -- Schrodinger knew it, but the thought of it made Einstein ill."

"'God does not play dice,'" quotes Phat-so solemnly.

"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga. "But he does."

Phat-so bites his lip. "But like I said before, it's all on the wrong scale. I mean, I can appreciate virtual particles but whole virtual cars? That just isn't the way physics works."

"No," agrees Mr. Mississauga solemnly. "It's exactly the way physics doesn't work." He exhales a cloud of smoke. "It's the way the universe behaves when physics is broken."


20 comments:

sheik yerbouti said...

Woohoo! It's so cool to see this all being interwoven with the little that we know about the origin of the Math. Even some of the nomenclature is starting to match up. That, and the probability that Mr. Miss's patron is the Shah of Anwar, make me all the more hopeful about my long-term hypothesis (which I don't want to reveal in case it's correct and hence a spoiler).

Quote of the day:

Sun nods. Mr. Mississauga raises his brow. "Trust me," he says softly, "on the subject of weirdness you have the luxury of having no perspective whatsoever, Miss Beckham."

You opened up a new piece of his character with the dream-catcher and that conversation about land... fascinating as usual.

Orick of Toronto said...

Good story. I wish I was less sleepy and braindead so I can make a more clever/useful comment.

Phat-So reminds me of Mike. The contrast between him, Sun and Bec makes a interesting story.

Did you get the Carbon Nanotube muscle idea from today's slashdot or is that a coincidence?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

We'll see if the events of Chapter 6 vindicate your theory.

Dear Orick,

I got the carbon nanotubes from New Scientist last week, then Slashdot caught up with us today (or late last night, I reckon).

Truth be told, some of the things that happen to Phat-so were originally supposed to happen to Mike, but ever since I've firmed up what happens to Mike next I realized he would have to give up some of his adventures to someone else, to make room.

They are different characters, however. If we ever get Mike and Phat-so into a room together I think that would be quite plain.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Dan said...

"It's the way the universe behaves when physics is broken." Wonderul line. Are we gonna catch Becca and Sun going at it when we return to the party bus? That is a wish Sun has.

THE Danimal

sheik yerbouti said...

I read that as "This is a wish Dan has" for several tries before I got it right :)

So what's with Scientology? I didn't think they knocked on doors since they're all about sucking in rich celebrities. Are we going to learn anything more here, or did you just do that to tantalize us?

...and how silly must her real name be if she feels compelled to use her surname as a nickname?

...and how lame am I for commenting twice in the first five comments?

Teddy said...

So the math is a complex means of wishing...

I believe it's been mentioned before, but Zhang is a relation of Mike's. Continuity-wise, this should be after three-face-flip then, if he has a lab. Thinking out loud, clearly this man built the physical element of the Executives, which is really cool, because they EAT! Jeremiah had a craving for carbon, so the mechanisms are able to actually repair themselves, most likely with significant mathematical aid.

I do like the idea of clockwork based robotics. A human muscle is only capable of expansion or contraction, and even then in only one direction, and it's controlled by electrical stimuli - shock the muscle and it does one, remove the shock and it does the other.

New Science and other mags like that are so cool to look through, aren't they? Like near-future scifi except it's all real! I believe Michael Crichton writes his stuff similarly to that idea, where all the tech is theoretically possible.

So...if physics is broken..."She interferes, but just a little." Name implanted what would be needed for her survival in the Context, which includes (presumably) a certain disregard for time and physics as we know it. It seems like the way THIS world works is more in tune with how the context works, probability and life. By my reckoning, at least. By imagining something hard enough, it is.

TRH

Dan said...

Sheik,

So?!

Teddy,

ummmm....wow.

THE Danimal

Simon said...

A couple of casually placed expletives and I am denied access to the story once again at work. So now instead of being entertained by a couple chapters of driving on Ontario highways, I'm entertained by four people parked in a short bus. Truly amazing.

I like how the mention of the toothpaste was very nearly an afterthought. That really caught me. One of Mark's Tic-Tac moments there, you know? And the mention of Heisenberg and Phat's quippy description had me nearly giggling. Fun stuff. As always.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Dan,

Sadly, I'm afraid we're not in for anything too explicit.

I can't tell you more about the Scientologists. They'll disappear me.

You're quite right about Becca's name -- her given name is hideous.

Dear Teddy,

I think you're going to really enjoy Chapter 6. And that's all I have to say about that.

Dear Simon,

Yes, I think about you and your workplace every time I type a dirty swear. Believe it or not, I do try to reign it in...but with a character like Becca the F-bomb just fits so nicely with her attitude.

Dear all,

I'm still waiting to hear about my booking for SFX 2007.

In the event that I don't score a space, I will refund in total any moneys contributed toward the cause by readers, as well as send you each a special gift gratis.

Standby for details as the situation evolves.

I really, really appreciate your support. Those of you who chip in, and especially those of you who trouble to comment (it really is a vanishingly small percentage of you who do), you keep me from feeling too discouraged and giving up on the whole thing.

It certainly occurs to me from time to time that my life would be much less complicated if I just got up, went to work, came home, and watched television instead of worrying and pondering and fighting for the time and peace of mind to type, and struggling to come up with the money I know I need to take the readership to the next level.

Giving up would be such a relief, you know?

But you good folks, you keep those feelings at bay. You remind me that there are people out there enjoying being immersed in this universe just as much as me, and that in turn reminds me why I do do this: because it's too sweet to keep it all to myself. I just can't invent a universe and then keep it secret. I am compelled to share.

So, thanks. Big time.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

I had to engulf the last two posts in one sitting. Been on vacation.

This is a wonderful read. The characters introduced in this story (or, fleshed out more, in Phat-so's case) are rich, and of course it's great to see Mr. Miss again.

I laughed picturing the school bus and the doors chuffing open as Mr. Miss pulled up to get the kids. As funny as the van in Little Miss Sunshine.

Bridget said...

I suppose this is as good a time as any to say it: The opportunity to read your next story installment once or twice a week is a lovely little bright light in what has often lately been a craptacular day of procrastination and self-loathing, in which I make little to no progress on my research. I've even found myself turning on the computer for the day solely to read a new installment with my afternoon coffee and then afterward, thinking, "Well, while it's on, maybe I can get a little work done of my own."

Creative energy begets creative energy.

So, thank you.

- Bridget

Indyju: Any fancy tricks Indiana Jones does with a whip.

Simon said...

And we, in turn, are fully as grateful that you choose to carve out the time necessary to share your universe with us. It is compelling beyond words.

Thanks also for not reigning yourself it too terribly much. That would be a waste. One memorable quote (from Vonnegut, I think?) goes something like, "Write for one person. If you open up the window and try to make love to the world, your story will catch cold and die of pneumonia."

Something like that. So thanks for making love to yourself, and shying away from the four corners of a box.

Brent said...

Dear Cheeseburger,

Your regular posters often add such great insight that it can be intimidating for us lurkers who post once in a blue moon. I missed the connection between Mike and The Reaper’s Coleslaw until I read the comments in Life & Taxes. I’m not sure if I would have recognized Simon in Jesus and the Robot if it was not for Teddy’s comment. I often come back a few days after a post just to read the comments so I can get an idea of what I missed the first time I read the chapter.

With your brilliant writing and your fan’s insightful posts my “woot, great chapter” comments seems so cheap. But if you’re not only willing to put up with but actually enjoy the “woot, great chapter” comments:

Woot! That was an awesome post!!!

But I think my comments are liter that distract from the comments made by your fans like sheik yerbouti, ect. I think tradition of great commenting going back to Simon of Space is amazing.

vtrod - hotrod in Vermont

Teddy said...

I always enjoy a new chapter. And again, this place is a bright little spot twice a week. I actually check every day, but that's mostly because I can't remember which days it updates on...

This universe is starting to illustrate to me the endless depths of human curiosity, especially this story. People notice a funny little occurrence and then expend time, gas and effort in figuring out what is going on. To me, that's really who we are, is curious beings.

TRH

sheik yerbouti said...

Thanks for the props, Brent... and don't be afraid to post! I'm pretty sure that simple praise is never annoying to an artist (unless you plan to hang around outside his window and say it 50 times a day).

Hey CBB, quick question: if Mr. Miss is using Zhang limbs now, why does he still have to knock his shins around? Is he just not used to his new legs yet?

By the way, your attention to creative detail is nothing short of breathtaking.

Teddy, we're going to start calling you Captain Conjecture... or maybe Captain Curious, in light of that last post. See, kids? Learning is fun!

Also, I guess I should mention that my pet hypothesis isn't necessarily limited to this story, but on the off chance that CBB has read my mind, I'm psyched!

Orick of Toronto said...

CBB:

can't you just feel the love in this room. keep plugging away. Your talent means you will someday be more than just another wage slave. Just pretend you are a budhist and say 'life is suffering'.

btw, I always wondered why you haven't submit your stories to some big name magazines. I am sure you can sell a few stories and give it a go as a professional writer.

Sheik, I think Uncle Miss only has a new hand, no new legs. With Zhang legs, he wouldn't be walking all awkward.

brent, don't be shy about commenting. Even to a semi regular like me, some of these guys like Teddy is intimidating with their oh so clever posts. :)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

I hope you had a nice vacation! I'll be going on holiday myself, shortly.

Dear Bridget,

Tap that momentum!

Dear Simon,

Great, a co-worker just came by and read "thanks for making love to yourself" off my screen and stood here making fun of me for ten minutes. Heh.

Dear Brent,

Indeed, one of the reasons I like layering the details in the stories is so that we don't blow the whole shebang in the first read. It's nice to come and be able to find new stuff -- at least, I like that when I'm reading.

Dear Teddy,

Life without curiosity is nothing but a metabolism taking up space.

Dear Sheik,

Definitely force of habit. He's been moving himself a particular way since he was a kid -- that kind of routine can be hard to shake off.

Dear Orick,

The main reasons I haven't been doing a lot of submissions to magazines, in no particular order:

1) "Nice writing, but too intellectual. Can you broaden it?"

2) "Nice writing, but too long. Can you condense it?"

3) "Nice writing, but I see it's already been posted on the Web. Our publication doesn't do re-prints."

Truthfully, the biggest sticking point is the third. I spend my time making new material to post here, and I haven't managed my time well enough over the past year to crank out anything extra (neither the new novel nor a short story I'm willing to hold back just to avoid pissing off potential publishers).

Also, I'm really bad at doing that kind of thing: everyone wants their own format, delivered in a certain way, packaged just right. I'm bad with physical media -- I always mess it up.

My relationship with the physical world can be best described as a truce.

Also, I don't follow up and the detail work annoys me. The fact of the matter is something that I've known for a long time: I need a secretary.

When I can afford to pay one, I'll put out an open call for applicants.

Sorry for the brief replies all -- it's kind of a funny day at work here. Numerous people are being let go (not me, though). The atmosphere is very tense. Better get back to looking busy on company projects.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Teddy said...

Orick: I don't believe I've ever been called either intimidating OR clever before...I like clever, but please don't be intimidated by my conjecturing, I do it as a point of discussion to see what other people think is going on or how they react to the stories here. Please, join in!

CBB: You could always go down to your nearest college and post an unpaid internship in literature and graphic design. I've considered getting one for myself, just to follow me around and do stuff like take calls, or cover shifts at work. It'd be easier, that's to be sure, and you'd be handing somebody some nice juicy resume fodder too.

TRH

Simon said...

I'm curious to read what Teddy's and Sheik's conjectures are. I don't have any conjectures on anything other wondering quietly to myself whether the next chapter will be posted today... how about tomorrow? Maybe after the weekend, eh? And who's going to be in the next story? Will it involve sex? Hey! Maybe I can have sex tonight! If I wasn't so busy reading in meat-space I bet my wife would totally put out. Huh.

Those are my conjectures.

sheik yerbouti said...

I don't know if my conjectures are worth posting (and they're not nearly as interesting or far out as Teddy's).

I will say, though, that I thought CBB explicitly left the Zhang family link unconfirmed in his responses to Three Face Flip. And given that the epilogue talked about how Zhang became a prosthetic genius and his path would cross with Zoran again, it was fairly obvious that he'd be involved with the corporeal portion of the Executives.

Now all that crazy stuff about Name... THAT was Teddy's Wild Conjecture™ at its best.