The Extra Cars is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your friendly neighbourhood purveyor of hot car-on-car action, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6
Special note: I'm launching a concerted effort to gain an exhibitor booth at the upcoming SFX 2007 Science-Fiction Expo (Toronto Convention Centre, August 24-26). The fee is $450, plus marketing costs, plus book printing. Anyone inclined to assist me in raising funds towards this end is encouraged to visit my PayPal tip jar (clickable from the sidebar of this blog or the footer of any completed story in the main library). All contributors will be remembered handsomely in my will.
Also, for those of you in California Simon of Space will be represented at the San Diego 2007 Comic Con (San Diego Convention Center, July 26-29) by Chapman Media. If you're local do consider dropping by to show your support!
Meanwhile, our story continues:
It's payday, and Sun Kim is first to the counter, ready to receive his cheque. Mona pushes her shirt sleeves up past her meaty elbows and saddles Sun with an appraising look as she waggles a long-ashed cigarette from her mouth. "Why're you so wooly about getting paid all of a sudden?"
Sun looks down, embarrassed. "I ran out of gas out of town, and I had enough cash to get her towed to a station but not enough to fill her up again. Had to hitch."
"Your baby?" cries Mona, eyes theatrically wide. "You -- Sun Kim, you -- left your baby out at some butt-plugging gas-hole?"
Sun nods. "Sucks, huh?"
Mona cackles in a friendly way. "Sucks to be you!"
Sun nods again. He takes his cheque and folds it into his wallet as he crosses the hot pavement to the other side of the car wash. Phat-so is waiting for him by a neon-illuminated sign for the double wax and polish deal. The sign buzzes fretfully. "Ready to go?" asks Phat-so, picking up his knapsack.
"I was kind of going to go get my car now, Phat," says his brother, shielding his eyes from the sun with his palm as a visor.
"We don't need your car. Becca's going to drive us."
"Becca has her license?"
"Totally she does. She's just filling the tank. She's going to be right back to pick us up in like two minutes."
Sun regards his brother levelly. A week ago he would have done anything to avoid being stuck with Phat-so and his harebrained schemes, but now he finds himself resisting the urge to rescue his precious Civic. Instead, he's anxious to tell Phat-so about the car that drove up in the morning, paid at the automated kiosk, and then disappeared into the car wash never to emerge.
Phat-so is very excited. "Which one was it? One we know?"
Sun grimaces. "I'm not sure. It was a dark blue Explorer. Are there any dark blue Explorers on the list?"
Phat-so whips out his log book and flips through the pages. "...Yes, yes -- here's one. Did you get the plate?"
"So he drove into the car wash, and he didn't come out?"
Sun nods. "It's messed up, Phat. It happened right in front of my eyes. I went around to make sure the undercarriage sprayer was working -- because, you know, it's been screwed up -- and there's no car there. It couldn't have been out of sight for more than six seconds, just the time it took me to walk inside."
"Could he have driven straight through?"
"What, on the conveyor? No way. He was locked in, clamped by the front left wheel."
"Did the wash mechanism engage?"
"Yeah, but listen to this: the vehicle's supposed to break an infrared beam at the mouth of the tunnel, right, so the wash computer knows how long it is. So when this Explorer vanishes I go over to the check the computer and it says it measured the thing as two feet long."
"A two foot long Ford Explorer?"
"What do you make of that?"
"Well, unless the car was moving at relativistic speeds that's pretty damn peculiar," says Phat-so. Then he scratches at his electric blue hair and sniffs. "Actually, I guess a car traveling at relativistic speeds would be pretty damn peculiar unto itself."
"What's a relativistic speed?"
"Velocity approaching the speed of light. When an object travels that fast it appears to be compressed along its length from the point of view of an outside observer."
"That's an Einstein thing, right?"
Becca's battered burgundy Camry grumbles to a stop beside them, the brakes squeaking and a fine ash of rust tumbling from the body. The back of the car is plastered with band stickers: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, The New York Dolls. Becca herself wears a ragged and faded T-shirt that reads NIRVANA SUCKS AND SO DO YOU. "Sup, Kims?" she mumbles around a cigarette as she pats her jeans for a lighter.
"Hey," says Phat-so.
"Fuck," replies Becca, who then ducks inside the Camry again and thumbs the dashboard lighter. She emerges a moment later in a haze of tobacco smoke, tucking her dirty blonde hair behind her ears.
"Listen," Phat-so says to him, "I totally understand about your car. Don't worry about it. I'll just go with Becca, and I'll fill you in tonight."
Sun hesitates. He feels unexpectedly jealous. "No, no," he says quickly, "I'll come, too. I can get the car tomorrow."
"Are you sure?"
Phat-so grins, his face lighting up just the way it used to when they were kids and Sun would grudgingly allow Phat-so to join in his play. "Okay, wicked. You ready to go, Becca? Are you sure you don't mind carting us around?"
Becca scoffs. "Phat, if it weren't for you I wouldn't have my math credit and I'd be in fucking summer school now. I owe you big."
They pile into the car. It smells like old food, stale perfume and ashtrays. Sun is forced to push a collection of kipple aside in order to make room for himself in the back seat. He tries to minimize skin contact with any surface. "Kind of messy in here," he mutters.
Becca glances at him in the rearview. "I'm sorry it's not up to the standard of your glorious cockmobile, Sun."
"My car is not a cockmobile."
"Uh-huh," she agrees sceptically. "What's your shoe size?"
They are pressed back into the seats as Becca floors the gas. Sun and Phat-so hurriedly attach their seatbelts. Becca leans forward into her own cloud of smoke and pokes expertly at the radio. A barrage of distorted electric guitar tears from the speakers, rattling the doors with the shrieks of a female vocalist.
"What the hell is this crap?" shouts Sun, wincing.
"Cherry Nuk-Nuk," replies Becca, ashing out the window. "She fucking rocks."
The Camry blasts across the car wash's arcade, flashing by Mona's office as she hangs her head out to frown in condemnation. The wheels screech as they hit the street, leaving twin black skids on the curb and a sharp rubber smell lingering in the air.
"Take a right on Queen," instructs Phat-so.
"You got it, boss," says Becca. "So we're hunting invisible cars, right?"
"They're not invisible," says Sun petulantly.
"They're extra," explains Phat-so. "They don't belong. They don't come from anywhere and they don't go anywhere -- they just drive around."
Becca draws on her smoke. "That's weird."
"It's more than weird," says Sun.
"How're we going to stop them?"
"Stop them?" echoes Phat-so, brow furrowed.
"Yeah, stop them. I mean, weird shit like that can't be about anything good, right? It's some kind of cover-up, or a distraction, or some fucked up secret government programme, right?"
The brothers exchange a look. Phat-so says, "We're just trying to find out about it, to get to the bottom of the mystery. I'm not sure we can actually do anything."
"Shit," says Becca, tossing her butt. "That's lame. I thought we were like the Ghostbusters or something."
"It's science," offers Phat-so.
"Yeah, well," she shrugs, "I failed that, too."
Becca wrenches the wheel hard and the Camry squeals around the bend to Queen Street. They appear destined to collide with a city bus and Sun reflexively throws up his arms in front of his face, peeking through his fingers just enough to appreciate the deft way Becca jerks the car sideways and fits it into a momentarily space offered as a speeding taxi and a limbering dumptruck draw apart. In the next instant she's changed lanes and dodged a parked delivery van to end up ahead of the taxi.
Sun drops his hands. "That was slick," he gasps.
Becca flips her hair and jams into third. "I know."
Phat-so smoothes open his log book, tapping a mechanical pencil against the side of his jaw. "Let's find somebody to tail," he says thoughtfully. "Everybody look sharp. Tell me what you see."
"Silver Lexus, Nova Scotia plates..."
"Babyshit brown LeSabre, collision damage to the left-rear flank..."
"Orange micro-schoolbus, letters scratched off..."
"Yes, yes -- follow that bus, Becca!"
Becca grunts and veers into the next lane, chasing the light at Barrie Street. It turns red and a parade of left-turners wind across the way. Becca brakes hard and the Camry grinds to a halt, the carriage squeaking like springs on an old bed.
Becca swears. Sun groans. Phat-so turns slowly to his right and jumps. "The red Camaro!"
The red Camaro idles beside them, its driver invisible behind tinted windows. The engine revs in anticipation of the green. Becca flickers her eyes over. "That's one of them?"
"That's definitely one of them," confirms Phat-so, jotting notes in his log book. He pulls the Polaroid camera out of his knapsack and snaps a picture. "Nobody blink."
They all stare at the car.
The light changes. Becca hangs close to the Camaro. Sun leans forward, gripping the back of Phat-so's seat. "Watch yourself -- you're going to get stuck behind that Windstar," he warns.
"Where are you sitting?" asks Becca, eyes on the road.
"Where in the car are you sitting, Sun?"
"Uh -- in the back seat."
"Is that where the driver normally sits?"
"...No," he replies, confused and flustered. Then her meaning dawns on him. "Oh. Sorry."
As they cruise around the city in pursuit of the red Camaro Phat-so traces their route on a photocopied map, marking the time of day beside the line every few kilometers. The Camaro's driver is heavy-footed, and Becca has to push her Camry hard to keep up. When they turn north on Collins Bay Road Sun perks up and taps Becca on the shoulder. "There's usually a speed trap up here."
"Okay," she says, easing off the gas. The Camaro begins to pull away, still speeding.
They round a gentle hill and spot the nose of a police cruiser in the mouth of a laneway. A portly officer with a wide mustache stands in the shadow of a lilac bush, hunkering over a tripod-mounted laser gauge. He pans the head to track the blazing Camaro.
The Camaro passes him. The officer frowns and fiddles with the device, apparently unable to get a reading.
Sun twists in his seat to continue watching the officer as they pass by. Becca accelerates. "He's going to turn on Bath again," says Phat-so. She nods in acknowledgement, then works her way across the lanes, fighting to eat the distance between them. The Camaro turns, Becca follows, and Phat-so adds another time marker to his map lines.
The pull of centripetal force causes a slush of debris in the back seat to slide from one side of the car to the other, exposing a hole in the flooring through which Sun can see the pavement, pebbles drawn into flashing lines by motion blurring. Startled, he pulls up his feet and emits a little yelp. "Your car is falling apart!"
"I know," she says, glancing back at him. "Just cover up the hole with my French textbook."
"She'll hold together," promises Becca. Then she pets the steering wheel tenderly and whispers, "Come on baby -- hold together."
The front right tire breaks open with a bang, followed by the repeated slap of limp rubber against the road. The Camry lurches. Becca hits the hazards and then wrestles the car over to the shoulder where it comes to sad, limping stop. The Camaro tears away.
Sun sags. "You lost him!"
"I've got a spare. Just give me a minute."
"I'll do it," says Sun, releasing his seatbelt and scooching across the bench to the door.
"Stow the macho," replies Becca. "It's my car, I'll deal with it."
Sun purses his lips in frustration. "Can't I do anything? Damn it, I'm nothing but ballast on this trip. I feel useless sitting back here!"
Becca sighs. "You can help, okay? How's that?"
All three of them climb out of the car and wander around the front to inspect the damage. The Camry's rusted chassis sways as other cars blast by. Phat-so consults his Casio. "We've got just under eighteen minutes before he loops back again, if the pattern holds. Can you guys change a tire that fast?"
Something occurs to Becca. "Hey," she says, "why don't we try to flag him down to help us?"
Sun shakes his head. "He won't stop. We already tried to get the attention of one of the other drivers, and we were totally ignored."
Becca gives him a wry look. "Yeah," she says, "but I'm a girl."
She peels her T-shirt over her head, leaving her clad in a spaghetti-strap tank top that hugs her breasts. The tank top says: I SHOT J.F.K. She hefts a tire-iron lazily and leans against the Camry.
The brothers are looking at their shoes. "Um," says Sun, flushing.
Phat-so becomes absorbed in his watch. "Sixteen minutes."
Becca lights a smoke. "You guys are such fucking virgins."
"I'm not," says Sun quickly, crossing his gangly arms across his narrow chest.
Phat-so shrugs and fiddles with his watch. "The girls at Queens say I'm cute. They call me Doogie Howser."
Becca snorts, then drags on her cigarette. The sky is purple. The day is almost done. Minutes pass. "You two get out of sight," she orders brusquely. "Hunker down in the back or something."
The boys do as they're told, peeking out through the rear window to watch the traffic. "One minute," whispers Phat-so.
The Camaro crests the hill, racing toward them. Phat-so holds his breath.
Becca saunters out to the edge of the shoulder and begins crossing and uncrossing her arms over her head, an image the brothers will remember keenly for nights to come. They squish against one another to get a better view. "Stop pushing me," grumbles Phat-so, pulling at Sun's shoulder. The back seat briefly devolves into a flurry of slaps and shoving.
Becca steps out in front of the Camaro.
For a moment it looks like she'll be killed, but at the last second the Camaro veers away into the inside lane and accelerates past them. The Camry is rocked by the wind in its wake.
Phat-so lets his breath go in a dejected sigh. Sun slumps.
A white Corvette swings out of traffic and rumbles across the gravel shoulder to stop behind the Camry. A tanned Portuguese man turns down the radio and leans out the window. "Hey, you need some help?" he calls.
"No, we're fine," says Becca shortly.
"Are you sure? I could give you a lift somewhere."
"No," she repeats, scooping up her T-shirt and pulling it on over her head.
"You can use my phone if you need to," persists the Portuguese man.
He opens his mouth to reply, decides against it, then cranks up his window and drives away, kicking up pebbles. Becca sneers. Phat-so and Sun emerge from the back seat. "Well, that was a waste of time," says Sun.
"Let's get that tire changed," snaps Becca.
"T minus seventeen minutes," reports Phat-so, pressing a button on the side of his Casio. It beeps.
Fifteen minutes later the torn tire has been replaced by a pint-sized spare. Becca wipes her palms on her jeans and tosses the tire-iron back into the trunk. When she slams it closed a cloud of rust drifts to the ground. She drags pensively on a cigarette. "You know..." she says slowly, "we haven't exactly exhausted all the ways cars can interact."
Sun squints. "What do you mean?"
They climb back inside the Camry and Becca starts the engine. "Well, you've tried talking to them, and now we've tried flagging them down for help. Can't you think of another way drivers in different cars can affect each other?"
Phat-so shrugs. Sun shakes his head.
Becca cracks her knuckles and places them on the wheel, her eyes glued to the rearview mirror for any sign of their target. She says, "They crash."
Phat-so blinks. "Pardon?"
"Camaro," reports Sun, turning around in his seat.
Becca lets up the clutch and the Camry starts to drift forward on the shoulder. "They crash," she repeats, shifting gears and accelerating. "They hit each other."
The Camaro is roaring up behind them. Becca lays on the gas to match its speed as she steers the Camry off the shoulder and into the outside lane. Sun grabs the edge of her seat. "You're not going to..."
"Why not?" she says breezily, shifting again and flooring the gas. "That's what insurance is for, after all."
"Becca, you're insane!"
Phat-so is confused. He doesn't grasp her plan until the Camry is drawing up right beside the speeding Camaro, door to door. The last golden glow of the sinking sun glints on the red car's polarized windows. "Ready?" she says, licking her lips.
"No!" shout the boys in anguished unison.
"Hang on tight," she hisses, then spins the wheel to the left.
The Camry plows into the side of the red Camaro.
Sun flinches. The car bucks. When he opens his eyes again he's watching a rooster-tail of bright orange sparks flying past the window as Becca's Camry grinds against the median guardrail. With a dizzying wallop of momentum the car spins out across the street, the twilight scenery a purple-grey blur.
Seconds later they're on the shoulder again, Becca gripping the wheel and breathing hard. "Holy shit," she says. "Did you see that?"
Phat-so nods mutely.
"What?" cries Sun. "What the hell happened? Where's the Camaro?"
"There," says Becca, pointing at the windscreen. The red Camaro is in the outside lane, disappearing over the next hill, utterly undamaged.
"You missed it?"
"I didn't fucking miss it," declares Becca firmly. "It jumped away."
Phat-so shudders. "I saw it," he says quietly. "There it was, in the inside lane, like two inches from us, and then the next moment it was in the outside lane. It didn't steer over -- it was just there...as if it had been there all along. We never even grazed it."
"Jesus Crap," breathes Sun. His hands are shaking. "That's impossible."
Sun is suddenly backlit by a wash of intense white light followed by the stuttering bark of engine brakes. Becca and Phat-so jump, then squint past Sun. "It's a truck," says Phat-so. "It's a big rig."
The eighteen wheeler stops behind them, air brakes chuffing. The door flies open and a burly man dressed in a flannel shirt and a baseball cap jumps down from the cab and rushes over to Becca's window. "Are ya alright?" he gasps.
"Yeah," says Becca. "Yeah, we're all fine."
"That was some spin-out, missy!"
"Thanks for stopping," she adds distantly.
"What happened?" continues the truck driver, taking off his cap and mopping his brow with a handkerchief from his pocket. "Did you lose control? Or was it...that other guy?"
"You saw the Camaro?"
The trucker pinches his mouth tight for a fleeting second, then nods casually. "Sure. Looked like a real speed demon from back where I was at, that guy." He pauses, then puts his large hands on the window's edge. "You kids weren't racing, were you? Do you know that guy? A friend of yours? I'm no cop, you can tell me."
Becca shakes her head. She's not sure what to say. She looks to Phat-so. He leans over her and says, "You know, don't you?"
The trucker blinks. "Huh?"
Phat-so shrugs and drops back into his seat. "Nothing," he says. "Forget about it."
The trucker scratches his nose and shifts his weight. "So..." he says slowly. "I ain't crazy. You noticed them too, huh?"
Phat-so nods. "The extra cars."
"The extra cars," the trucker echoes, thumbs hitched in his belt. "I've been seeing them around here for weeks, every time I'm through Kingston. It's gotta be the second damnedest thing I ever saw."
Phat-so raises his brow. "Maybe we should compare notes. My name's Phat-so -- Phat-so Kim. This is Becca, and my brother Sun."
"We're like the Ghostbusters," explains Becca.
"Stop saying that," mutters Sun.
The trucker puts his cap back on and tugs the beak in greeting. "Yves LeRoche. Friends call me Papa Rock. There's a spot with half-decent coffee about two miles thataway. Big blue sign. What say we meet up there and talk some?"
Phat-so grins. "That'd be great."
"Is your car up to it, missy?"
"Yeah, she'll make it," says Becca. "She's just all scratched to shit."
Yves tugs his cap's beak again. "See ya in a few."
As he ambles back to his rig he, along with everyone in the Camry, pauses to silently watch the orange schoolbus with the scratched off lettering cruise past. It's extra, and they all recognize it.