Fiction: ’Stang Struck
The car that gate-crashed the future and turned the gatekeeper
By Shahzad Sheikh
‘Have a great weekend dude!’
Rick logged out of his terminal and swiped off the transparent monitor before turning to respond, ensuring all secure files had been saved behind the multiple firewalls – a process that sounded long-winded but actually took mere moments: ‘you too mate; doing anything fun?’
‘Oh, might play a little golf,’ said big Hari, hoisting himself from the chair and swinging an imaginary golf club, a grin plastered on his cherubic face.
Rick’s head jerked up with renewed interest. ‘Oh really? Where are you playing?’
‘Thinking about Blair Atholl in South Africa,’ replied the chubby Hari jovially.
‘Wow! How are you getting there? Taking the Emirates Orbital?’
‘No my dear chap, I’m going virtual of course, far too strenuous to actually travel for real!’ retorted Hari with a wink, as he sauntered off. ‘I guess you’ll be doing that old car racing simulation of yours again? Well enjoy, see you next week…’
Rick barely managed a ‘yeah, sure, you too,’ as he packed his satchel. It was too much to expect Hari to actually engage in a physical activity, few people did anymore. It was a sad fact that over 80% of the population would be spending their weekend leisure and social time hooked into the virtual network, minds plumbed into virtual reality interfaces.
Well at least it kept them from getting out and using up diminishing resources, but since clean hydrogen reactors and efficient fuel cells had been perfected, making electricity cheap and plentiful, virtual engagement was the only way, especially as it kept population growth and movement to a minimum. As a senior Environmental Enforcement Agent he knew the importance of keeping mass consumption down more than most.
And yet… Just before he hit the DNA seal on his satchel, he furtively glanced around at the other desks, no one was watching so he opened it wide enough to peer into it and reached in one last time.
He rummaged amongst the smart paper and his touch-pad until he found what he was looking for and then held it in his hand fondling the serrated but blunt metal edges. Reaching back to the head of the key, a black rubberised cover had been placed on it, a very, very long time ago, which was both smoothed over in parts, and at the same time pitted, split and blistered with a couple of tiny areas somehow gauged out completely revealing the shiny bare metal beneath.
Deciding he liked the feel of the rare object too much, he replaced it in his pocket and sealed his work bag.
During the ride home on the Magna-Metro he kept his hand in his pocket, rubbing his thumb along the metal surface until his skin started flaking. He kept his satchel on his lap to avoid looking like a complete perv. Especially after the rather attractive brunette in the tight one-piece in the opposite seat had clocked him, looked away, but with the vaguest hint of a smirk on her face.
It wasn’t, of course, technically illegal to possess a key, although DNA locks, retina scanners and even simple transponder fobs had long since done away with the need for keys, but many still owned them for antique cabinets and locks, or just as souvenirs, although the latter were usually ornate and elaborately presented.
His key didn’t even have a key ring on it, but worst than that, it fitted something that was indeed illegal and the likes of which had long been outlawed off the roads and consigned to museums and mall displays. By people like him, as it happens.
The key belonged to an original vintage combustion-engine powered 1968 Ford Mustang.
His field team had found it in the garage of a 123-year old who had passed away last month. That in itself wasn’t unusual, he was always locating and confiscating old cars and motorbikes. Most of them would be sat in garages, warehouses and barns with a load of other junk, neglected and untouched for decades, and the worst for it.
The vast majority were destroyed after all attempts made to salvage any recyclable content, and those in slightly more presentable condition ended up in the numerous historic displays around the country.
Fortunately when the report of this find came to him, he hesitated in following usual procedure. Two words had immediately caught his attention – the car was described as appearing to be in ‘working condition’.
That was an understatement he found when he got there. It was absolutely pristine. It was as if it had just rolled out of the factory, even though that would have been over a century ago.
The old fellow had either kept it in its original condition, or he had actually somehow managed to restore it. The fact that even the surfaces within the engine bay and underneath the car were clean and unblemished, lead him to believe the latter.
He would have had to source the parts, the electrics and even the fluids required, despite all being contraband – giving rise to the possible existence of an underground network trading in these rare items. Hence he’d commandeered the old man’s computer and transaction records and was going through them methodically.
As for the car, a Fastback finished in evocative American racing blue with twin white stripes and sitting pretty on black Torque Thrust wheels – yes, he’d read up a lot about these old muscle cars – it had hooked his fascination so completely and totally that he, well, he did something he knew was an abject abuse of his power and privileges.
He appropriated the car and had it transported to his own personal home for ‘further investigation.’ Then he waited a few weeks until he reckoned it was safe to assume the field team had forgotten about it. Finally, with shaking hands, on an overtime shift one evening, he’d gone into the official records and deleted any mention of the Mustang.
If confronted he wouldn’t have been able to explain his actions, in fact he still couldn’t comprehend why he’d done what he’d done himself. He was normally an utterly law-abiding citizen by nature, precisely why he’d ended up in the job he was in, in one of the most crucial agencies in the country with powers almost on par with internal security service agents.
Eventually he arrived at the last stop on the line, the sexy brunette having long since disembarked, unmistakably giving him a final comely look. Any other day, he would have followed her out the carriage to see where the weekend would take him (probably to a virtual pleasure dome anyway, he sighed). Tonight though, he just wanted to get home.
Automatically detecting his proximity to his station, and based on previous routines, the smartcom device on his wrist had already taken the liberty, as it always did, of summoning his car which was now waiting for him just past the exit gates. Of course ‘car’ was throwback terminology that didn’t really describe his Automated Personalised Transportation Device.
The podlike transporter allowed for very little manual control, and even that was restricted to designated minor roads and limited to highly assisted joystick control. The pod would never get anywhere near, never mind exceed the grip and agility afforded by its rollerball drive, or the performance from its fuel-cell driven motor.
‘Tint maximum,’ he said, once he was in and as soon as the pod’s side panel slide shut. ‘Home, shortest time, message gentle,’ he added as he settled into and reclined in one of the two seats, which began to vibrate and caressingly knead his shoulders and back.
‘Coffee as usual, Rick?’ He was used to his personal devices, including this pod, being overly familiar when addressing him. Before he’d even said ‘sure,’ a steaming cup of the brew emerged from the centre console in his favourite mug.
During the 20 minute ride he logged into Pedia-net and continued to feed his obsession for the 20th century automobile. His friends often mocked him for lusting after the very objects he was duty-bound to hunt-down and take out of action. His leisure gaming records alone would reveal extended bouts of simulated motor sports – long since banned in the real world. He always claimed it was research of course; ‘know your enemy,’ he would usually retort with a wink.
Once home though, he was off the net. He spent nearly the entire time in the garage inspecting, checking and analysing the 68 ’Stang as he’d taken to calling it. After which he spent the rest of the evening just sitting in the driver’s seat, holding the steering wheel, fiddling with the switchgear and drinking in the pungent, musky smells emanating from metal, the oil, the aged upholstery.
Eventually he found himself doing something familiar to all boys of an earlier generation but entirely alien to him, he gripped the steering wheel and made engine noises with his mouth, his imagination transporting him to a fantastical open highway, blurring past the clear untinted windows as the pace gathered.
Several hours later he awoke with a start, still in the driver’s seat. He immediately noticed he’d dribbled onto the black vinyl seat cover. As he instinctively moved to reach for the rag in the passenger seat something slipped from his lap and fell on the floor. After a big of groping he recovered the key.
He stared at it for a long while and looked his watch – 3:02am. There surely wouldn’t be anyone outside now. He’d been over the engine many times and knew that it was all correctly hooked up, with apparently all the right fluids in the appropriate reservoirs – where had the old man procured them from? It even appeared to have nearly a full tank of gasoline in it too.
According to all his checks, it should start, and in his gut he knew for sure that it would come back to life. Giving himself no further moments to reflect and reconsider, he inserted the key, pumped the accelerator twice (he’d read somewhere to do that) and hesitated only for a micro-second before turning it all the way.
The solenoid clicked and the starter motor whirred initially reluctantly, then more urgently, and then rather futilely to the point where he almost flicked the key back assuming nothing would happen. Then something appeared to catch as the halting tone took on a livelier edge. It sparked, it banged, it popped and then it roared into life.
‘Oh. My. God.’ Yes, he’d said that out loud. And he was laughing. Hysterically.
He had never heard something so ferociously loud and belligerent and so utterly unhinged, to the point of attacking his ears with an aural violence he had not experienced before. And then there was the clanging and wrenching and shearing, as if everything ahead of him under the bonnet was ripping itself to shreds.
In fact it was just warming up. But this was a totally alien sound to his late-21st century ears, despite all the vids he seen, and all the simulated race-car noises he’d experience whilst submerged in sim-space.
Once again his grip on the key tightened subtly. He almost turned it off out of sheer fright, not to mention being convinced he had woken not just the neighbourhood, but pretty much the entire district. But then the noises started to settle into a more rhythmic constant, the jarring clatter subduing and settling to a background hum as a bassy rumble throbbed through the structure of the car.
He suddenly became aware of the incredible vibrations, in fact he could actually see them. The body was rocking, the controls shimmied before his eyes. The mind struggled to comprehend the massive amounts of internal movement. Even at high velocity, every part of his transport pod would remain unflinchingly still.
This thing though felt like it was alive, the intensity of the sensory assault starting to fire synapses throughout his body leaving him tingling with excitement. He found if he held his jaw, just so, his very teeth clattered almost perceptibly.
What he was doing right now, could not only lose him his job, but get him thrown into a correction facility. Indefinitely.
The car had run for less than two minutes. His grip on the key tightened significantly, but just before twisting it anti-clockwise, he found his right foot involuntarily (yeah, right) stab and release the gas pedal.
The engine roared, its ambling beat rising to staccato thunder with an almost melodic thrum that really did become the clichéd music-to-his-ears. The body rocked suddenly to the right, although to him it felt like it was trying to rip itself clean off the chassis. Exhaust fumes and the aroma of burnt oils and flamed metal filled his nostrils.
He switched off.
Was he too late? He breathed deeply. Jumped out of the car, slammed the door with a loud thud. Then immediately winced, wishing he hadn’t done so. His heart was trying to drill out of his chest.
Burning any of the planet’s invaluable rare resources without proper permits and authorisations was a grave crime, even for an Environmental Enforcement Agent. Especially, for an Environmental Enforcement Agent.
He could still make up some excuse though; he could pretend it was a mistake… or… or… he was investigating whether the fluids the old man had purloined somehow, were genuine or just visually similar synthetics. He could still wriggle out of this. But had he been discovered?
He crept out of the front door slowly, and stared up and down the well-lit leafy and pristinely presented suburb road, and listened. Nothing. Thank God for the sound-proofing in modern homes.
Back inside he accessed and logged into his work net-cloud. From here he had enough clearance to access usage information about specific areas. It was late but surely someone would still be up?
However, apart from domestic climate control systems power usage was negligible for 80 per cent of the households in his immediate vicinity, and as for the rest, the virtual nets showed full engagement – everyone awake was hooked up and/or surfing the web, oblivious to the real world.
He logged out and slumped back, the sweat started to dry, the ferocious drumming in his veins began to die-down. A glint caught his eye. He had left the garage door open and from his terminal in the front room, he could still see the ’Stang. The delicate rectangular-shaped chrome mirror was visible, along with the front edge of the door. His eyes involuntarily followed part of the contour caused by the top crease of the side scallop.
Realising his gaze was lingering he shook his head, as if to snap out of it, and went back outside the house. Still slightly anxious he surveyed the street carefully. No blaring sirens, no commotion, not a soul in sight.
He took a couple of deep breaths; and looked back at the closed garage door behind the transport pod. ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong… Don’t. Do. It,’ he told himself.
Twenty minutes later the pod had been moved, the garage door was open and a piece of automotive history graced his driveway. The night lights from the street and his house highlighting and accentuating the metallic blue paintwork. The steel body glistened and the chrome brightwork glinted, all quite unlike the deliberately reflective bland surface of the pod. Inanimate it might be, but out here in its element it seemed to be a living thing, patiently waiting for the merest beckoning to action.
He’d been obsessed with vintage car automobiles (especially from the second half of the last century) ever since his grandfather had shown him a holovid of a car he’d once owned, not unlike this one.
He had to admit that the most exciting part of his job was, in fact, finding relics of the most widely spread form of transportation in humanity’s history. Many millions of these things were still to be found stored, hidden, abandoned, forgotten or even dumped in deserted areas, but rarely, if ever, had he come across something so beautiful, so well preserved, so achingly evocative, so, so… perfect.
The urge was becoming irrepressible. Sod it. He got back in and turned the key. It started at once, quicker this time, more assured, more resolved.
The hush of the night was pierced with a deafening and rousing roar as his right foot squeezed the throttle, the cacophony of mechanical mayhem arranged in masterful symphony of raw aural pleasure. His hand stroked the large thin-rimmed wheel, coming to a halt as his thumb rested on the inner semi-circle that hung below the horizontal spokes.
Needles on the dials ahead of him were juddering frenetically but holding steady, and he realised, somewhat with surprise, that his right paw was resting on the T-shaped top of the transmission lever, his thumb gently flicking at the clinking release button on the edge. He depressed the button and pulled the lever, using a tad more force than was required to get past the stop and ended up directly in ‘D’.
Something clanged harshly, there was a snap, then a massive jolt as the cogs engaged and the car suddenly lurched forward, which took Rick completely by surprise. His first instinctive reaction was to shout out ‘Car, stop!’ Momentarily regaining his senses, he remembered and slammed both feet on the wider of the two pedals.
A ring of sweat beads had formed around his forehead, he could feel the back of his neck on fire, his perspiring palms were sliding off the steering rim and his heart was pounding overtime again.
Thoughts whooshed through his mind like a desperate avalanche of anxiety that threatened to drown him in fear and meek acquiescence… he was jeopardising his future, his career, his almost-certain promotion… For what?! Something that could be replicated in a mind-meld sim? This was absurd.
But his feet had apparently made up their own mind, and were sliding off that big left pedal. The Mustang was rolling again, perhaps for the first time in several decades. It was creaking and squeaking, as if freeing up its old joints. He had played enough classic sims to know how to drive, so his hands began twisting the steering wheel and guiding the big two-door (it was three times the length of his pod) out onto the street.
The steering was heavier than he expected but he could feel the direct linkages to the front wheels, he sensed the rolling resistance, and all this whilst the whole body wobbled and trembled, reacting both to the movement over the surface beneath, and resonating to the beating drum of an eight cylinder engine that was furiously banging pistons up and down through essentially what amounted to a set series of controlled miniature explosions.
In Rick’s lifetime the concept of the combustion engine was ridiculous, dangerous, horrendously wasteful and utterly pointless. The propensity for it to all go wrong at the very least, or implode at the worst was extraordinary high, and way too extreme for such a mollycoddled society. He should know, he helped write some of the rules that outlawed the very operation of such antiquated motorisation.
And then there was the notion that people actually drove these around, without any computer aids, which in itself was utterly unfathomable. And yet apart from a lot of noise and immense vibration, it all seemed generally well composed. And he was doing it. He was driving it. Himself. Without computers, without assistance, without the thing talking to him, without… well…. without anything.
He gave the throttle an exploratory prod. The Ford suddenly appeared to be attempting to wring its own bodywork, but before he had time to react a maddening screech from the rear made him grimace, as the back of the car squatted and the tyres broke traction.
He lifted instantly, almost in horror. But with resolve intact he was back on the throttle, this time squeezing it a little more gingerly, picking up the slack gently. The car did a little leap at the front but moved with far less drama.
It wasn’t until much later, after he had gotten just outside of the town’s limits, onto a quiet tree-lined road, that he buried the pedal again. There was an eruption of smoke, sound and sensations. The rear of the car juddered and shimmied and seemed to be swinging to one side, despite the fact that there was relatively little forward motion. He found himself instinctively correcting, but staying on the loud pedal.
Rick was soaking in the ferocious deployment of unbridled, and unhindered raw power, and this time the anxiety had gone. He was revelling in it, keeping his foot planted, actually laughing out loud, whooping and hollering. Eventually the tyres took hold and catapulted him… well, not so much forward as towards the nearest tree. He spun the wheel the other way and the rear came around. He turned the lock in the opposite direction, but overdid it, and the rear snapped towards the other direction.
Realising it was time to give in, he slammed the brakes and hoped for the best as the car did a complete 180 degree spin and stopped mere millimetres from a forbidding and very un-amused tree.
Pure adrenaline coursed through Rick. He jerked the gear lever forward into ‘P’ opened the door and jumped out, walked about ten paces from the car, then doubled over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. He realised he was trembling, he moved his right hand off his knee and looked at it, it was actually shaking. He’d never experienced such fear, such dread, such naked exposure to danger, in fact. At the same time he realised he had never felt anything so exciting, so satisfying, so surreal and yet so completely real. And he liked it. He liked it a lot.
He noticed something on the pristine tarmac. There were marks. Black marks. He realised with a start that they were his tyres marks. ‘Defacing state amenities,’ another one to add to the litany of crimes he had clocked up in a matter of hours.
Crouching down now, with his hand on the marks he laughed out loud. He ran back to the car, carefully turned it around and in a burst of burning rubber flung himself down the road, successfully this time.
A few weeks later in an office back at the Agency for Environmental Protection, two men sat staring each other, one intensely and the other passively.
‘We’re being made to look like idiots by this… this… hooligan,’ said the intense man. ‘He’s out there every other night terrorising the city’s inhabitants and what’s left of the wildlife in that outrageous machine of his, and you’ve had all this time and you can’t catch him?!’
‘Sir, he’s very careful, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to his appearances, and he manages to leave no trace of where he’s come from or where he’s gone…’ offered the passive man.
‘That thing is big, it’s loud, it leaves disgusting rubber deposits on our roads, and you can’t track him?! What about the cameras and all of the city’s monitoring systems – have you liaised with the Civil Obedience Agency department that runs them?’ cut in the intensive man.
After a deep sigh the passive man explained ‘somehow he’s hacking the monitoring systems in real-time, blanking them out. Apart from footage and images grabbed by witnesses we have nothing…’
‘And that’s another thing… this miscreant, this crim, is turning into some sort of viral folk hero, people are out on the streets trying to catch him in action!’ The intense man snatched up a T-shirt from his desk, unravelled and held it out for the passive man to see. The image on the front depicted an artist’s impression of the Mustang going sideways. ‘They’re selling these in the malls now! This can’t be allowed to continue.’
The intense man suddenly took a slightly softer tone: ‘look, in the past we’ve had a pretty good record of seeking these things out in this city. But now we’ve got somebody actually rampaging around our streets, taunting us, and becoming some kind of renegade hero out there. We’ve got to stop him. Go back and analyse every appearance again, talk to witnesses, go examine the scene of the sightings yourself, go over everything and then bring your findings to me.’
Knowing he’d been dismissed the passive man started rising from his seat, ‘will do!’ He headed out the door, a little too eagerly, it appeared to the intense man. As the passive man stepped out of the office and door started to swing closed, he just caught a glimpse of the passive man turning to Hari and shrugging.
Once the door shut, the intense man allowed himself a little smile. It was good to be the boss. That promotion had come through at just the right time. He glanced down at the T-shirt smugly, and put his hand in his pocket. There he found the familiar small metal object with the serrated edge. He lent back in his chair and smiled, closing his eyes and mentally transporting himself into the driving seat of a 1968 Ford Mustang, and without the use of any computer simulation…