1. Chapter 1 by Barrdwing
Copyrights, as usual, to the original creators.Situations by Murphy's Law.
And now, it's time for a breakdown--
Wind whipped past the open windows, tugging at the half-open map on the backseat and smelling of creosote bushes.
About the only identifiable thing out there, Joe thought, casting a brief glance out the passenger-side window. Dirty white sand, reddish bluffs, scrub of a mucklededun hue with occasional accidental smears of white, gray-green, and purple. The vegetable life varied in height and texture but showed little creativity when it came to color. Or so it looked at eighty miles per hour. Joe decided that it wasn't worth stopping to examine it more closely.
The chrono read 1130. Good enough, I guess. Won't be on time, won't be all that late either. And if they give me any crap, that's their problem.
One of the major drawbacks to a civilian cover, Joe reflected, was the stupid situations it got you into. Like getting buttonholed into driving a semi-antique car across two hundred miles of nowhere on a foreign mainland so that somebody's rich uncle could have a new toy for his birthday. Like not having a Gatling under the hood to deal with little white beer cans on wheels with license plates reading IMAZIPR and Grandpa Moses, apparently, behind the steering wheel. Like not knowing the roads well enough to realize that a two-lane highway, while the most direct route, would also be playing host to the most big rigs, Sunday drivers, and overloaded campers. It was also full of tiny dips and creases capable of hiding anything from a jackrabbit to a double rig in the wrong lane. In a car with a solid steel safety frame and heavy panelling, the drive felt more like a turn inside one of Crescent Coral's inertia-tolerance training cylinders.
Still, the old engine had a purr to it that could soothe the nerves, and somebody had bothered to install a good radio. During the first leg of the journey he hadn't used it at all, since the only two stations within range had been something calling itself Radio Méhico and a heavily religious station out of LA offering a Twenty-Four-Hour Sin and Damnation Special. But on the other side of the pass Joe had been pleasantly surprised when the radio's search mode latched onto a station broadcasting an eclectic mixture of rock and pop whose common thread seemed to be grim, gritty soul-searching music. It normally wouldn't have been a first choice, but in light of the other options Joe had kept it on as being better than nothing, and oddly enough it seemed to complement the stark landscape. The overall effect was, unexpectedly, relaxing. Even if everything was in the wrong language.
"I swear, I'm gonna live forever . . ."
Joe shook his head. For the past fifteen minutes the station had been featuring songs by the same grainy-voiced artist, supposedly related to some movie or other. The artist--John something--had obviously felt that gunshots and menacing voice-overs were essential additions to his work, and Joe had gotten rather tired of twitching every time one was thrown in. While he didn't mind the songs themselves, the additions spawned flashbacks to unpleasant moments in which the guns and voices hadn't been window dressing. I don't get much vacation. Is it too much to ask that I not have to be reminded of the real world at every turn?
It's one thing to write songs about loaded guns and justice when you've never been there. I could like this guy, if only he wasn't so clueless about what he was singing about.
Still, "older than the men and younger than the boys" . . . it struck a certain chord. Joe nodded as the new song segued into its chorus and let his foot fall a little more heavily onto the accelerator. The engine's hum rose a note, harmonized with the radio.
The bluffs to the side were still marching along, the correctional facility had fallen far behind, and the distant bluffs to the north had drawn close enough for details to be visible. The dips had mostly fallen behind. A major crossroads with gas stations, gift shops, and a few seedy restaurants was thirty miles gone in the rear-view mirror. And all of a sudden the car slowed as if it had hit glue. Only for a heartbeat, then recovered its speed.
Joe tensed all over, felt the adrenaline flush across his system. The hitch had been so brief that it almost seemed as if it had never occurred, but some part of him knew with deep conviction that something had just gone wrong. The problem was that with the unfamiliar engine, he couldn't tell what it was, exactly. The steering was functioning fine--Joe twitched the wheel left and right, dipping the car heavily onto its suspension--no drag to either side. He'd checked the car over completely before setting out on the trip: even though the diesel was outdated, it still followed the rules of engine logic, and he hadn't been able to spot anything wrong. The tires were a little worn, but sound. And the car had performed perfectly adequately during its climb over the pass. Slow, granted, and utterly gutless, but throughout that half-hour of twisting and crawling through dense traffic, there hadn't been even a sniff of trouble.
And now this.
Less than a minute later, it happened again. Drag . . . speed up.
"Gonna take a mir-acle, to save us this time," the radio warbled.
"Shut up," Joe snarled, switching it off. His hands curled a bit more tightly around the wheel as he reviewed the situation: unfamiliar road, human habitation sparse to nonexistent along this particular stretch, the nearest population centers small and thirty miles in either direction. Nobody was likely to come looking for him, either: the destination town was still a good seventy miles north and the only ones expecting him were Mick and the detailing shop. The shop hadn't cared whether the car was dropped off today, tomorrow, or next month so long as it arrived by noon. Mick had picked today as the delivery date, but he had to work until 1800 and didn't know when Joe was planning to arrive anyway. It hadn't seemed particularly important to tell him, yesterday.
The band on his wrist mocked him; Joe grimaced, imagining comming Crescent Coral for help, and spat out the window. No way in hell.
But . . . Joe glanced at the pack sitting in the passenger's seat, then looked resolutely ahead again. Mick's mother had insisted that he carry the thing, and in the end he'd given in just to get on his way. The cell phone waited in its leather holster. It could wait a little longer.
Three miles elapsed without event. Joe began to relax into his seat again and considered turning the radio back on.
Drag . . . resume speed.
Select language blistered the interior of the car.
It didn't do much good. Drag . . . DRAG . . . .
There wasn't any question this time. The car was losing power steadily, like water running out of a funnel. Joe took a deep breath and mashed the accelerator to the floor. The speedometer needle continued its slow counterclockwise drift.
A camper, loaded to the roof with bundles, whooshed past Joe on the left, giving him a brief glimpse of white curious faces in its windows. Joe glanced at the speedometer, now reading 45. Then, with a feeling of inevitability, he reached down and punched the red button on the central console. The one with HAZARD on it. And pulled over to the side of the road, letting the old car bump onto the gravel- and glass-strewn verge, jerked it into Park.
*Rum-rum-RUM-rum-RUM-ruM-RUM-RUm-rum-rum . . . r'um-r'um-r'um*
Joe reached out, dipped into the pack, drew out the phone, flipped it open. Dialed the number so helpfully attached to the little screen on a little pink piece of stickum paper.
"Hello. You have reached Four-Star Emergency Roadside Service. Please do not hang up. Your call will be answered in the order received . . . ."
By the time Joe's call was taken by an operator ("Good afternoon, Four-Star, my name is Jared, how may I help you?"), Joe's mood had descended into barely describeable. With the map open on his knee he gave precise directions to the operator . . . or rather, as precise as possible.
"What is the name of the closest city or town, sir?"
"There isn't one. I'm on Highway 395, northbound, halfway between Kramer Junction and someplace called Johannesburg. It's the middle of nowhere."
"I see. How far from Kramer Junction, sir?"
The odometer in the car wasn't functional. "I'm guessing thirty miles."
"North or south?"
Deep breath. "North. Thirty miles north."
The conversation didn't improve, and Joe began to get the sinking feeling that the operator was even less familiar with this road than he himself was. And he was at the mercy of this idiot for assistance.
"Look, you've got a topographical map, haven't you? Well, there's some bluffs just east of me, and another set of bluffs to the north where Johannesburg is, I'm in the middle of this big flat desert pan . . . ."
Eventually the operator signed off, quoting an hour's wait and taking the number of the cell phone as a contact in case of tow truck delay. Joe flipped the phone shut with a long sigh, then looked at it in sudden dismay. Oh no. Now what did she say about how to set this thing on standby?
One hour later, Joe rang the service again. And explained, slowly and patiently, to an operator named Timmy, where he was.
"All right, sir. Let me check with Dispatch and see what's happened."
Joe drummed his fingers on his knee and watched a big rig with a late-season wreath plastered to its grill whiz on past without slowing. And a Volkswagen. And a motorhome.
"Sir? Apparently there was a misunderstanding. The tow vehicle has been looking for you north of a town called Inyokern. Is this correct?"
"No! No it's not correct. My position is sixty-seven miles south of Inyokern, thirty miles north of Kramer Junction. I'm trying to reach the China Lake Base, all right?"
"I'm sorry about the confusion, sir. We now have you located in the northbound lane on 395, about sixty miles south of Inyokern--"
"And thirty miles south of Johannesburg. Yes, that's it."
"Good, good. The tow vehicle is on its way south. --We tried to contact you a while ago, but the call didn't go through. I have your number down as a cell phone. Is the reception bad in your area?"
Joe glanced sourly at the phone, which had evidently been in the wrong mode after all. "Yeah, you might say that."
"I'm giving you an ETA of ninety minutes, sir. This is a maximum; the tow vehicle may get there sooner. If there's another emergency and it gets diverted, we will contact you."
"Thanks." Joe hung up and punched the other mode button with a sense of small triumphs being better than none at all. At least I know the call should get through this time. What a rotten way to spend the afternoon.
Seventy-two minutes had crept past when an oncoming truck flashed its lights. Joe jumped to trigger the hazard lights, which he'd turned off an hour ago to save the battery--no telling what else might go wrong, with a car like this. The tow truck swept past, braking hard. Joe watched the rear-view mirror with interest as the truck swung off onto the shoulder in a cloud of dust, cut hard across both lanes, and backed swiftly up the shoulder on his side.
I think I like the way this guy drives. Of course, with my luck it'll turn out to be a cute little button-nosed Galactor agent who'll pull a gun on me.
The truck slewed slightly as it braked a few feet shy of the car's rear bumper, and a jumpsuited figure swung out. Joe climbed stiffly out of his seat and walked over.
"How's it going?" the driver, whose nametag read Phil, inquired. Joe smiled slightly.
"Pretty rotten, if you want to know the truth. I'm supposed to deliver this car to a friend."
"And it breaks down on you." The driver shook his head sympathetically, long hands already on the bank of levers. The bar hoist descended, whirring on its hydraulics, and nosed up against the car's rear tires. Phil stopped it there and tugged out the tire clamps.
"Just be a moment. You can wait in the cab."
Joe shook his head a little and detoured around the car's nose, stopping long enough to retrieve his pack. Might as well not risk losing my gear. The way today's been going, I'd better keep it close. With the pack shipped over his shoulder, he made his way to the passenger's-side door of the truck's cab, paused to let a string of cars shoot past, and jerked it open.
The girl was cute, petite, and button-nosed. Blonde, of course. Wide green eyes fixed on Joe.
Joe sighed quietly and tossed his pack up onto the cab's raised floor.
Hydraulics whined again and Mick's prized relic rose ass-first into the air. Phil zipped around and tied the steering wheel in place, then made his long-legged way around both vehicles and swung up into the driver's seat.
"I see you've met Sandra. I'm Phil, by the way."
"My name's Joe." Joe looked down at the tiny child perched between them, feet sticking out amongst the gearshift levers, and wondered if there was any way this particular female could possibly be part of a Galactor plot. If she isn't, it'd be a first. If she is, I think I might just throw up.
Phil pulled forward a few feet, then slammed the accelerator to the floorboards and sent the linked vehicles howling across both lanes of traffic. Joe winced as they bounded off the pavement on the other side like a startled gazelle and slid a few inches on the loose gravel.
Phil checked his mirrors intently, jaw working, as several campers and a brace of big rigs roared past. At the first break he once again applied his foot and the truck lunged into a tight U-turn. They made the last few degrees on the very edge of the pavement, then settled out on the straightaway headed north.
"Piece of cake," Phil said cheerily. "This holiday traffic, tch tch."
Lucky bastards that get regular holidays, Joe thought sourly, and peered in the rear-view. Mick's gift to his uncle was waving its posterior at the sky as it seesawed on its heavy springs, but it seemed to be settling down. The tow truck quickly proved itself capable of pulling a fair acceleration despite the weight of its burden. Cool wind began to whip in through the inch of open window on both sides of the cab and snarled around the gaping triangular flaps. At first it was refreshing, but before long Joe decided it was just plain cold.
"You can close that if you want," Phil half-shouted above the roar as the speedometer crawled towards 60.
Joe snapped the wind wing shut and rolled up the window for good measure, and Phil did the same. Without the wind noise the cab was a lot closer to habitable.
"Drive this road often?" Phil inquired.
The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and Joe caught the towman giving him a sidelong look.
Damn small-town nosiness, he realized. They all figure anyone's business is everyone's business. This would be his first and--if he had any choice in the matter--only visit to this part of the world, but . . . I don't want them remembering me after I leave.
"The car's a gift," he volunteered. "Michael Sutter's uncle . . . you know them?"
"Runs the Euro car hobby club," Phil responded promptly. "Sure, I know the family. Michael's the local racetrack whiz kid."
Joe smiled politely. Mick may be hot stuff out here, but as far as I'm concerned he's just another car in the pack. "Met him at the track a few years ago," he said instead. "We talk cars sometimes. Saw him again at the Ambassador Stakes down south of here, and that was when he told me about this car he wanted to buy for his uncle."
"Oh, the Stakes," the towman said comfortably. "Saw it on TV. Good race. Missed the end of it, though--had a call."
Joe made a noncommital noise and relaxed slightly, watching the red cliffs outside give way to a rough shantytown, front yards piled with junk, and then to a pair of grungy gas stations and a menagerie of small businesses. Johannesburg lasted long enough for the speed limit to drop to 40, then vanished behind another ridge. The tow truck sped down the hill, making up the lost speed with interest.
Near the bottom of the hill, Joe experienced a crawling sensation on his left arm and looked down into a wide pair of solemn eyes.
"Hi," Joe ventured.
Sandra giggled and kept staring.
Joe groaned silently and wondered what to do next. Somehow none of the small-talk-with-cute-girl strategies he was used to seemed quite right for the present situation.
Phil glanced over, discovered his daughter on point, and swept to the rescue. "Sandra's getting a longer ride than she bargained for, aren't you, Sandra? Mom's going to be wondering where her mocha is."
Sandra giggled and bounced on the seat.
"We were just going to go down to the coffee shop," Phil explained over the bobbing blonde head. "I might've known, that beeper always goes off at the worst times . . . but Sandra wanted to come along, and I figured it was such a short trip that we might get away with it." A shrug.
"Sorry to mess up your morning."
"It's OK. Sandra's a trouper." Phil pulled into the passing lane and bounded past a lumbering tagalong. "We sure got a detour, though. I was lookin' for you fifty miles north of Inyokern, and I knew that couldn't be right."
Joe scowled. "I told them I was south. Both times."
"Yeah, well . . ." Phil obviously had his doubts, "they get confused. There's no landmarks out here."
Joe braced a foot hard against the floorboards and shifted his weight, trying to avoid being bounced against. Phil checked sideways again, bestowed a warning frown on his offspring.
"Sandra, no more bouncing, okay?"
"Okay," Sandra piped, and went back to staring at Joe.
This is worse than being on parade, Joe decided, and wondered if talking to her might help after all. Safe topic, need a safe topic . . . ah-ha.
"Must be nice not having to go to school today," he ventured.
Sandra squinted briefly, then nodded.
"Sandra's in the first grade," Phil translated.
"First grade," Joe echoed a bit blankly. "Um . . . that was a fun year."
Sandra's expression said plainly that she thought Joe was nuts. Then she looked down. Small hands dragged a metal clipboard out of a recessed shelf under the console and plunked it onto her lap. Sandra looked up at Joe again, then dug out a pen and a slip of paper.
Joe watched idly as Sandra began drawing what appeared to be random lines on the paper. Before long it became apparent that the attention was making Sandra nervous. Joe smiled slightly and transferred his attention to the window. Several minutes later, he glanced back at the paper.
Sandra was just finishing her eleventh rendition of SANDRA in shaky blue. Earlier efforts covered the sheet--an old call slip, looked like--in seasick ranks. Sandra put a little flourish on the final A and looked up at Joe expectantly.
A wide smile lit the pixielike features and Sandra bounced a few times, then quit with an apprehensive look at her oblivious father. Sandra looked down at her masterpiece and set it carefully aside, then began a methodical search for more paper. Finding none, she seized a piece of cardboard and began scribing once more.
The cardboard had come from a pad of legal-size paper, and was good for another twenty ranks of SANDRA , in larger script. The remainder was quickly filled in by numerals, beginning primly at zero and working their way up. Suddenly Sandra looked up at Joe with another of her vivid smiles, then drew a deep breath and faced straight ahead.
Joe looked grimly ahead and wondered how much farther to Inyokern.
"Yeah, it's got problems, all right."
Joe eyed the mechanic, wondering if the man was merely stupid or had a habit of commenting on the obvious. Wind whistled around them and skittered fragments of tumbleweed across the fuel- and oil-stained concrete apron beside the shop. The detailer Mick had chosen, it transpired, was the neighbor and co-owner of a repair garage.
The mechanic, named Hal, whistled tunelessly through his teeth as he leaned over the diesel's quietly ticking, cooling engine block. One grease-encrusted thumb traced the fuel lines, squeezed a section here and there.
"There's one problem," he commented, picking up a line that coursed over the transmission to enter a cylindrical housing. At the top of the line's arc, along its underside, was a network of fine cracks. "This fuel line, where it crosses over the tranny, see, and enters that auxiliary filter? It's sucking air."
Joe glanced down at the slowly expanding puddle of diesel beneath the car and forebore to comment that it would have to be, in order to get a leak of that magnitude. "Can you replace it?" he asked instead.
"Oh, no problem," the mechanic assured him. "Easy."
Joe relaxed a little. After the tow-truck ride--which had culminated in Sandra's forgetting what came after one hundred and seven, to Joe's fervent relief--he knew that he wasn't in a good mood for dealing with further problems. Something straightforward and easy to fix. I like that. I'd really like to get my hands on the idiot who thought a high-temperature zone was a good place for an extra fuel line and got me stuck in the middle of nowhere, but I can live without it. The guy's probably dead by now anyway.
"The real problem," Hal said slowly, "the real problem is gonna be getting replacement filters for a car this old. And getting that tank out is gonna be a bitch. Not to mention the spare."
Joe felt his calm slipping. "Why are we taking the tanks out?" he inquired mildly.
"Algae," Hal-the-mechanic answered economically.
"Sure, algae. Grows like crazy in diesel. Now I'm not sayin' that's the problem, son, but it just might be, from what you've described. Somebody hasn't been keeping a good additive in this car's tanks. And with that spare tank stashed in the trunk, couldn't ask for a better opportunity to get a bloom in there . . . ."
Joe tapped him on the shoulder. The mechanic shut up and turned a look of mild affront his way.
"What--" Joe made an effort to keep his voice level, "--does algae have to do with all of this?"
The mechanic shrugged, eased back a step, and stuck his hands in the pockets of his coveralls. "It gets into the filters and the hoses, see? Gums the whole engine right up."
Joe smiled at him, with teeth. "It's Mick Sutter's car," he reminded the man.
"Uh . . . yeah?"
"Call him. Do whatever he says. I've got a plane to catch."
The mechanic drove him to the airport and saw him onto the local puddle-jumper. Joe caught sight of the beat-up white truck scurrying out of the parking lot as the small plane taxied down the runway.
Yeah, well, I'm glad to see the last of you too. He leaned back into his seat. Diesel. Algae. Custom engine jobs done by idiots. A frown crossed his face as he considered the amount of time and frustration the day had cost him, the money it would have if it had been his car, the window of opportunity for trouble during that grindingly long wait in the middle of nowhere for the tow truck. Then he shook his head.
Nah. Some things are too stupid for even a Galactor plot.