Red Barchetta

I think Bill is my favorite uncle. He’s a nerd, and is always introducing me to cool old stuff, like the wind-up alarm clock. Really different than today’s clocks, the antique had pointers that pointed to hours and minutes that were painted on a round screen. It didn’t even need a battery, you wound up a spring! That’s really cool, everything is electrically computerized and robotic now.
Everything. Even the cars. Uncle Bill tells me that in his grandpa’s time, people controlled the cars and there were signs and traffic lights, and accidents, injury, and death. Of course, since all the cars are robots now, those are all long gone. It’s been decades since an auto accident was recorded.
He called me when Grandpa died. Even though Grandpa made it to a hundred and three I was still hurt, I loved my Grandpa. Grandma had died ten years earlier, it hurt when she died, too. Dad’s been gone for five years now.
Dad and Grandpa didn’t get along. That’s bad for me, because Grandpa had tons of money and Dad was a steelworker. Middle class, but... anyway, Dad got along with Uncle Bill and their big sister. She died from a fall when I was little. I don’t remember much about her, she was about forty when she died, almost twenty years older than Dad.
Uncle Bill, a week after expressing the sorrow of the passing of his dad, called and told me that Grandpa had left him a farm, and in a barn there was a treasure he wanted me to have and I should come visit and see it.
His farm was more of a ranch, as it grew fodder for the animals; corn, soybeans, hay, and so on. Vegetable and fruit farms were mostly in multistory greenhouses in the cities, with animals and fodder in the country. Nobody wants to smell a pig.
I got in my car and told it “Uncle Bill’s”. It had been there before. I read an old book, sipping on a beer while the car took me there. I don’t even remember what it was I read. Uncle Bill told me that his grandpa had told him that when he was a kid, there were people called “Futurists” who had predicted that when cars were robots, all would be taxis. Yeah, I want to wait five or ten minutes in the freezing rain for a taxi that has chewing gum on the seats, especially since cars are so cheap these days, compared to the “futurists” old human-driven internal combustion cars with their thousands of moving parts, fluids, pumps, gears, valves... the only thing that made electrics expensive was the batteries. Didn’t futurists think there would be progress? Didn’t they realize that the older a technology gets, the cheaper it gets? Which brings me to Uncle Bill’s gift.
Uncle was excited, and hurried me to an old barn. Inside was something under cloth, which Bill uncovered.
It was a car. An old car. A really old car, all the way back to 2020, a Ferrari Barchetta. It was painted bright red, with what looked like primitive control mechanisms in front of the right seat. It was well over a hundred years old and looked brand new! It was a really expensive car when it was new and now, well, I couldn’t guess what it would be worth now. It was half the size of a modern automatic.
“Already had it put in your name! So, what do you think?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “Does it work?”
Uncle grinned. “I hope so. Most of what it used back then is illegal today, stuff that’s based on petroleum.”
I was shocked. “Petroleum? It almost ruined the planet! There’s no way anybody could get any today!”
“Even if you could get any, it would be useless. It was refined into flammable fuels, like gasoline and kerosene, and made into lubricants. Even if any still existed above ground, it was very poisonous. But this car could run on ethanol or methanol as well as gasoline... at least I think so from what I’ve read, and it looks like Dad converted it to burn alcohol a long time ago. There were modifications; spark timing, different fuel hoses... I put a vegetable-based oil in its crankcase and gearbox, that should work, too, at least if I got the viscosity right. I found a chemical additive that keeps it from thinning too much but it may thin with heat, so we’ll have to watch the temperature gauge. And not just for the oil, alcohol burns a lot hotter than gasoline did and what I read said it might burn a hole in a piston, although the adjusted spark timing should prevent that.”
“You haven’t started it?”
He grinned even wider. “Been waitin’ for you! I knew you’d love this thing! The lawyer that read the will said Grandpa bought it second hand for Dad when Dad turned sixteen, it was seventy years old then. Dad restored it and did a great job of keeping it like new. I don’t think Dad even started it after I was born, I didn’t even know he had it until they read the will.”
He was right, it was a beautiful machine, gleaming and shiny, even inside the old barn. I threw my beer can in Bill’s recycle bin and he handed me another, along with a lit muggle. Most people vape because it’s a lot cheaper, but Bill’s “old school” and rolls his muggles by hand.
“You’re right! How does it work?”
“You mean the engine?”
“No, I mean how do you work it?”
“Here, sit in the driver’s seat and I’ll show you.”
I took a toke, handed the muggle back to Uncle Bill, and got in. It was a really comfortable car, lots more comfortable than my new one. Uncle Bill stood outside, holding the door open. “See those three pedals? The one on the right accelerates, the one in the middle slows and stops, and the one on the left is a ‘clutch’.”
“A what? What does it do?”
“A clutch. When cars were first built they all had one. Unlike our modern electric cars, an internal combustion engine has very little torque at idling speed, so you have to change gears. That stick between the seats changes gears.” He got in and finished explaining its workings. He wasn’t really all that clear about the clutch.
“Start it up!” he said.
“Turn that key.” I turned it and let it go, like I was unlocking a door. It made a grinding noise and was quiet. Bill laughed. “I forgot to tell you to push the clutch in first. If it had been in gear the car would have moved, and that’s not good. When you turn the key, hold it until you hear the engine, then let it go.”
“Hear the engine?”
“It isn’t quiet like an electric car.”
I turned the key and it made that sound again, then growled like a quiet lion. I put it in first, let the clutch out, and it lurched and died. Bill grinned. “Give it a little gas and let the clutch out slow.”
“Well, it’s running on alcohol but it was designed for gasoline. They used to call it ‘gas’ for short. Try her again!” He’d obviously done a lot of research into antique vehicles.
I started it back up and tried again. It died again.
“Third time’s a charm!” Bill said. I started it again. This time I stomped the right pedal when I let off the clutch and it took off like a shot, the wheels spitting gravel when it got outside the barn. I pushed the middle pedal with my foot and it died when it stopped. Bill was barely able to control his mirth. “Don’t feel bad,” he said, “I doubt I’d do any better. I only know what I’ve read. Take it around the fields! When you stop, remember the clutch.”
I started it up and took off. I was starting to get the hang of the clutch, but the steering was iffy; I almost hit a post. This was hard to do—and really fun! Bill seemed to be having a good time, too.
There’s a dirt road circling the fields, about five miles or so long, surrounded by corn. The engine was screaming. Bill said “Put it in second gear.” I pushed in the clutch and changed gears. We kind of slid around the first turn, so I slowed down before the second turn. We took turns racing around the fields for an hour. Man, but I was having the time of my life!
At least, until I saw the sheriff’s department cruiser at the end of the driveway. “Uh, oh,” I said.
“It’s okay, that’s probably Bob.” Bill had been friends with Bob since high school. We pulled up and got out.
It was indeed Bob, who looked angry. “Damn it, Bill, what the hell is all that racket? What’s going on here?”
“Dad left me an antique car. We’re taking it for a spin.”
“Not on public roads you ain’t!”
“No, we’re just driving it in circles around the fields.”
“I hate to say this, Bill, but if you take it on the roads you’ll be in some expensive trouble. That car isn’t licensed, and what’s worse, manually operated automobiles have been outlawed for decades.”
“Relax, Bob, you know me better than that! Want to get a beer when you’re off duty?”
“Sure, I’m off as soon as I take the car back. That’s where I was headed when I heard your little red monster! I was headed for the bar afterward.”
“We’ll meet you there.”
We put the old car back in the barn and covered it, locked the barn, and took my automatic to the bar.
Bob rolled up right as we were getting out of the car. He got out of his and said, “Uh, Bill, what’s that red car running on, anyway? Hydrogen, I hope.”
“No, alcohol. Distilled beer.”
“Well, I’m not going to write you up, but you can’t start that car up without a permit from the county.”
“What? A permit? What kind of a permit?”
“A combustion permit, like for a really rich man’s fireplace, or your muggles. You’ll have to go down to the county building and fill out an application.”
“I can’t do it over the internet?” he asked as we were entering the building.
“No, it’s like voting. The internet isn’t trustworthy.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot, it’s been years since I got the muggle permit, Thanks,” Bill replied. “I’ll buy you a beer.”
I had forgotten, too. Burning anything but hydrogen entailed a very hefty carbon fee; the exhaust from burning hydrogen is pure water, so a tax isn’t called for.
Some wanted to have combustion of material grown on your own property to be tax-free, probably wanting an old fashioned wood-burning fireplace or barbecue pit, but most realized that an awful lot more carbon had to come out of the air for that to be practical. The world has been “carbon negative” for almost a century, and at least another century will be needed.
The next day we went down to the county building to get a permit to burn alcohol. After lots of forms and signatures and bureaucracy and a huge fee we left with our permit and headed straight to the barn.
We took turns driving around the fields for three hours, stopping every hour or so to let it cool, until the alcohol ran out. I don’t know what Bill had done to the oil to keep it from thinning, but it worked. We still had to watch the temperature gauge, though.
We were pushing it back to the barn when Bob pulled up in his own car, dressed in civilian clothes. He got out and walked up. “Damn it, Bill, I told you you needed a permit!”
“Got one this morning.”
Bob got behind the car and helped push. “This machine’s broke already?”
I almost said we were out of fuel, but Bill beat me to the punch. “Yeah, it’s my own fault. Probably take a week to get it running again.” I kept my mouth shut, the permit was for a certain quantity of fuel.
Bob said “That’s too bad, I thought maybe you’d give me a ride in it.” We were pushing it into the barn then.
Bill said “Come back the next time you have a day off.” We put the tarp on it, locked the barn up, and all of us went for barbecue and beer in Bill’s back yard.
Of course, the barbecue pit was a hydrogen burner like most of them. You had to be even richer than Uncle Bill to burn wood or charcoal.
After Bob went home we went back in the barn. I changed the oil while Bill was filling the still with the sour mash that had been brewing all week, then cleaned and sterilized the pots and stuff and started a new batch.
A week later Bob was back, driving his work vehicle. “Hey, Bill,” he said, “you know those old antique cop movies?”
“Yeah, why?”
“They all had car chases, with the cop chasing a criminal through the streets. Want to race that thing?”
Bill and I both grinned. Bill exclaimed “Hell, yeah! Sounds like fun!”
We got the cars lined up. I was driving, and Uncle sat in the passenger seat holding the air horn that would start the race. He blew the horn and the race was on! It was neck and neck until I shifted into second, and we left him behind.
We came up behind Bob’s car after lapping him. He stopped, and I almost hit him. We got out, all laughing. We were pretty buzzed.
“Those lights and sirens are a nice touch,” Bill said laughing. Bob laughed and shook his head. “That was my secret weapon. When I turn on the lights and siren, cars pull over automatically. It was out of habit, I didn’t even think about what was driving. I thought four big electric engines would give me an edge, too, but man, that thing is fast. State cops’ cars probably can’t even hold a candle to it. I’m really impressed.”
I asked why the lights and sirens when the cars all were programmed to pull over at a police radio signal.
“So any civilian drivers will know their car isn’t faulty, and pedestrians will be careful.” It made sense to me.
I showed Bob how to drive it and he took a couple of laps around the field, taking to it like a duck to water. He seemed born for it.
We sat down in Bill’s yard and talked for a while, drinking beer and passing a muggle around, and Bob said he had to take the cruiser back to the shop to get his own car, and left.
I had to work the next day that Bob was off. Bill called and asked if they could play with my toy. Sure, why not?
That was a mistake, as I found out when I was reading the news the next day. The site reported that someone had hacked a car’s computer, reprogramming it to allow collisions and ignore the police “pull over” signal. It was reported that the car was red, but had no information about its make or model.
It went on to speculate why someone might do something like this, and why they would have a sound system roaring as it went, and interviewed the police chief, mayor, and county sheriff, all of whom were clueless.
I cursed; I knew what was going on as soon as they mentioned the noise. It wasn’t hackers, it was my uncle. And I was sure Bob was really behind it; that wasn’t like Bill at all, but Bob got pretty wild after he had a few beers in him. I pulled out my phone to call Bill, and put it back without dialing; I’d just drive over. I was really pissed off.
Unknown to me until much later, two young brothers, Jacob and Jeremiah Hensley, saw the report. “Wow,” Jake said. “I never thought of doing that. Jerry, lets write our own operating system for the Dongfeng!”
“Can we do that?”
“Sure, it’s open source. We just need to find the right wires to tap to load it after we modify it.”
They were grinning widely as they started researching.
I got to Bill’s house. The front door opened as I walked up the steps to the porch, and the doorbell said “come in, I figured you’d come out today. Have a seat in the living room, I’ll be right out.” He was apparently occupied in the water closet.
When he came out I glared at him. “What happened yesterday?” I demanded. He looked at his shoes.
“So, you figured it out, huh? Well, me and Bob was driving around the field. He was driving and decided to go on the road...”
“He was warning you not to!”
“Deputies never get in trouble. Well, almost never, they always shut it up.”
They’d had four or five beers and a couple of muggles before Bill called me. They took turns racing around the field, and on one of Bob’s laps he decided to take it to the streets!
Even though he was more than half drunk, Bill exclaimed “Bob! What the hell are you doing?”
Bob laughed. “They can’t catch this thing!”
Bill put on his seat belt. Bob pulled out on the highway and shifted into third, the first time they had used that gear. He shifted again and was hitting a hundred miles an hour and still accelerating. “I can’t believe how fast this thing is!” Bob exclaimed.
“Slow down, damn it, we don’t want a wreck!” They were still on the two lane. It would have had a forty mile speed limit before robotic cars. Bob slowed down to sixty and passed a car that was going about forty.
They passed a stopped state police vehicle. There were far fewer these days than before automobiles were automatic. The cruiser’s lights and sirens came on, and Bob laughed. “Woo, hoo!”
The state police car pursued, but its top speed was only a hundred, the fastest cars traveled on an interstate; for long trips there was the tube, which traveled hundreds of miles an hour.
They pulled into the interstate, the tires squealing on the entrance ramp. “Now open ‘er up!” Bill yelled, laughing. Bob floored it, leaving the police car far behind.
If I’d have been there it wouldn’t have happened. Well, I hope it wouldn’t...
Bill saw that at the next exit, just under the overpass, there were four police cars parked with their lights flashing. “Uh, Bob...”
“Yeah, I see ‘em. Dumbasses!” He slowed down, exited, and got back on the highway on the other side, laughing. But at the next exit, both the highway and exit were blocked. Bob took another drink of his beer and grinned. “Watch this!”
He drove straight at the two cars blocking the exit. Bill’s knuckles were white gripping the seat belt and his eyes were wide. “What the hell!” he demanded.
The police cars moved out of the way. Bob chuckled, turned left, and then entered the interstate going the other way. “Dumb kids on bicycles are always trying to get run over, but the cars get out of the way every time.”
Bill asked “What’s the temperature gauge say?”
“It’s warm. That’s why I turned around. We’ll head back to your house and let it cool. Man, I’m having fun!”
“Keep it under a hundred, if it quits from overheating we’ll go to prison.”
“Well, I’m a deputy, so we don’t have to worry about that. You’re just a passenger so you’re not breaking any laws.”
They were coming up on the next roadblock, the last exit before the two lane to home. It was as easy to get around as before. They got back to Bill’s farm, laughing, and put the car away.
Uncle Bill was really apologetic, and suggested that we not take it around the field for a few weeks until the corn was taller in that field and the fields around it. “I’m glad Dad didn’t plant beans,” he noted.
Two weeks later the newspapers reported that the noisy red car was spotted again, and again it outran all the police. I started dialing my uncle in anger, when they reported that this time the car was pegged, a Dongfeng Spiritwing. My anger changed to bewilderment. I finished dialing and Uncle Bill answered.
“Bill, did you and Bob take the car out again?”
“Huh? No, why?”
“They said on the news that it was spotted again, but the report said it was a Dongfeng.”
“I’d better check to make sure nobody stole it. I just made a fresh batch of hydrogen, come on over for barbecue! I’ll meet you out back by the pit.”
Hydrogen was free for most folks, after the initial cost of the hydrogen generator, which was simple and inexpensive. Most people made it out of electricity and rainwater, and of course electricity is free; solar panels have become so good in the last century that a home’s roof supplied far more than a family needed. You could still buy hydrogen, of course; the big commercial airliners and the giant ocean ships all ran on it. Rockets, too, although it’s liquid in a rocket, as is the oxygen. A very few who had very old houses that still had gas furnaces that used to run on natural gas or propane are now burning hydrogen.
Well-to-do folks like my uncle made it from zinc and vinegar. Since you have to buy them, it’s not free, but it’s safer for cooking because you can see the flame.
Bill was already cooking venison steaks he’d had frozen since the previous winter. Most people who hunted deer used bows or crossbows, but Bill used a rail gun despite the weight of the capacitor backpack you had to wear when hunting.
He still had the antique shotgun, a twenty gauge pump that had been in the family since the early twentieth century. Of course, it hadn’t been fired for over a century; shotgun shells cost about ten times their weight in gold, the environmental fees are paid by the manufacturer. Bill had it hanging over his fireplace, which also hadn’t been used in over a century.
I was always fascinated by the old shotgun, which used a chemical propellant rather than electromagnetism. I read that they somehow invented a shotgun shell that used quickly burning hydrogen instead of powder. The article didn’t say how it worked, but supposedly it would work with Bill’s shotgun. The shells aren’t on the market yet.
Grandpa once told me his dad had seen one used once and it was the loudest thing he ever heard. Of course, my great grandpa had never been to a spaceport. I can’t imagine anything louder than a rocket. That’s not to say the rail gun is quiet, which is why most people use arrows rather than slugs.
We were talking about hunting and rockets and antique machinery when Bill’s phone rang. He took it out of his pocket, looked at it, and put it on speaker. Thankfully it wasn’t one of those stupid hologram phones. “Hi, Bob, what’s up?”
“Are you in the Barchetta?”
“No, we’re in the back yard by the barbecue pit. Why?”
Bob cursed. “Then someone must have stolen it, we’re chasing it now.”
“No, it’s still in the barn, I checked when the news said it was a Dongfeng.”
“A Dongfeng? It can’t be, it screamed like the Barchetta when it streaked past me.”
“Then somebody else must have an antique Ferrari,” Bill replied.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “The news speculated that the Barchetta was a modern car that had been hacked, and had the sound coming from a stereo. Maybe somebody heard the news and decided such a thing might be fun?”
“There he is!” Bob exclaimed. We could hear engine noise through the phone, faintly and getting fainter. “I’m following him. I don’t think it’s as fast as yours.”
I said “Remember what Bob said about old movies and car chases? I think you and Bob gave somebody an idea.”
He shook his head sadly. “You may be right. I sure hope not, though.” He turned the steaks over, the chemically generated hydrogen burning a safe yellow.
The next day the news reported that there was a fast yellow Chevy Gatling with no license plate that was loud like an internal combustion engine and didn’t stop when the State Police turned the lights and siren on. It, too, got away.
The next day Bob saw both cars on the interstate as he was getting on, just after they flashed by. He hit the “pull over” button, which did nothing except turn the lights and siren on and follow in pursuit. He radioed the station, of course. By the time he passed the next exit it looked like half of the sheriff’s department was chasing them.
Later, Bob joined my uncle and me in Bill’s back yard, drinking beer and smoking muggles, and told us what I just recounted. He ended the story with “they both got away. Sheriff Murdoch talked to the engineers at the auto company with an idea that they shot down fast. Karen thought that we could install more batteries to make the cars go faster, but was told that it would most likely cause a bad fire. She was pretty worried and disappointed; someone is sure to be hurt if this goes on. It worries me, too.”
Bill said “How is an automatic car going to stop a hacked car? It isn’t just a matter of speed. How will you stop it?”
“I didn’t think about that,” Bob said. “Karen must not have, either.”
“Use the Ferrari,” I said.
“Hmm...” said Bob, “I’ll have to give it some thought, maybe talk to Karen. But... are you sure? That machine is worth a fortune.”
“The county surely has insurance.”
“Well... I’ll talk to Karen.”
Bob called me the next afternoon. “Can you meet Karen and me at your uncle’s? She wants to see the Ferrari.”
“Sure, when I get off work. Two more hours.”
On the way to Bill’s, the radio said there were two more cars that wouldn’t stop for police signals. About that time the sheriff, deputy, and my uncle were passing a muggle around.
“I’m afraid I may be responsible for this mess,” Bill said. “Bob stopped by when he heard the car racing around the field. Someone else may have heard it, too.”
“Well,” Sheriff Murdoch said, “that’s more work for us, but there’s no way you could have known. Besides, it might have been a coincidence.”
That’s when I pulled up and got out of the car. The sheriff and deputy were in street clothes. “Hi, Bill, Bob, Sheriff.”
She held out her hand. “Call me Karen.”
I took it and shook it, grinning. “Okay, Karen.”
She handed me the muggle they had been passing. “Can I look at your old car?”
“Sure.” We walked to the barn, Bill unlocked the door and we went in. I took off the tarp.
“Wow, that little car’s sure pretty. Think it would stop a modern car?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can we take it for a spin?”
“Sure, hop in the passenger seat and I’ll show you how to work it as we take a couple of laps around the field, then you can try it.”
“Passenger seat?”
“Yeah, the seat on the left is for the passenger, the one on the right is the driver’s seat.”
I showed her how to drive it and we took a couple of laps around the field. “Looks easy,” she said. I laughed.
“Looks even easier when Bob’s driving, he’s really good at it.” I stopped and we traded seats. Of course, she had the same problems as any first time driver. She ran into a fence post, but it didn’t hurt the car and only made the post lean a little.
“This is a lot harder than it looks,” she said as she wheeled back by the barn. Bob and Bill were smoking and laughing. We got out.
“I’ll have to research this,” she said. “I’m not sure how to use the manual to stop an automatic.”
We didn’t play with the car any more that day, we spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and smoking muggles. “Did you know that beer and muggles were against the law once, like petroleum and coal are now?” Karen asked. I was surprised.
“Really? Why?”
“I have a couple of books I can email you if you’re really interested, but basically, they outlawed alcoholic beverages for a little over a decade because the government was stupid, and muggles was outlawed for over a century in most states because a high ranking federal government employee named Harry Anslinger was dishonest. He’d also been involved in the alcohol prohibition.” Her phone rang; it was her office. She answered it normally, by her ear.
After she hung up she said “Bob, we have to go. There’s been an automobile accident.”
The three of us started. “What?” Bob said. “Holy crap, there hasn’t been a car wreck since... hell, at least thirty years. That one was a poorly maintained car and we took measures to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
“I don’t know how it happened,” she said. “Come on, Bob, we have to go.”
They drove to the crash site in Bob’s personal car, still in civilian clothing and higher than a pair of kites; they had both been off duty.
A fire truck, an ambulance, and several sheriff’s cruisers were already there when they arrived. Deputy Linda Watson, holding her tablet, informed Karen. “Nineteen year old Jeremiah Hensley from here in town,” she said, as a stretcher loaded the teen on itself and got in the ambulance, which left quickly. “He’s in really bad shape and might not even live. Hit the abutment at a high rate of speed and caught fire. His car called us, its electronics were amazingly intact for long enough to call.”
The car was mashed up and burned so badly you couldn’t even tell what make it was. It was the red Dongfeng.
Deputy Watson said “Uh, Sheriff, maybe you’d better go home before the media shows up. Even though you’re officially off duty there will be questions about your sobriety.”
“Yes, you’re right, Linda, thank you. Come on, Bob, I have some research to do.” She also had some lobbying to do at the state house. Now that there was a serious injury because of hacking, and the likelihood that someone would die, maybe the state lawmakers would make it a felony.
Jacob Hensley rushed to the hospital when he heard of his brother’s accident, tears streaming down his face. He blamed himself; hacking the car had been his idea. His little brother was laying in the bed unconscious, wrapped in bandages with tubes in his arm and nose and electronics by the bed bleeping.
A middle aged female nurse came in and told him that his brother was scheduled for more surgery and he should go home, as the surgery would take hours. He went home, still crying.
His friend Charles Wilson was parked in his Gatling at the curb. Jake’s Goodwraith parked itself in his driveway. Jacob got out as Charles exited his Chevy.
“Oh man, Jake,” Charles said, “I heard about Jerry, how is he?”
“Hi, Chuck. Jerry’s in really bad shape, they’re doing surgery now. He might die!” He had thought he was done crying, but another tear ran down the side of his nose. He wiped it off. “Come on in and have a beer.”
“You’re shaking!”
“It could have been me. Or you. Or any of the other guys that did mods. I’m going to take out the joystick and put mine back to factory. You?”
“I don’t know,” he said, handing Charles a beer. “I’m in shock and can’t think straight. You got a vape? I’m so shook up I forgot to stop at the store for juice.”
“Sure.” The doorbell rang as he was reaching into his pocket, and three miniature young men showed up on the TV table in crystal clear, three dimensions, in the weird way the tables have of making it look like they’re small because they’re far off, even though the table is close.
“Come in,” Jacob said, and the door opened.
The crash made the national news, all of them speculating about how a modern car could wreck. What part could have failed? Law enforcement kept the drag racing quiet, and the media hadn’t connected the hacking.
That next afternoon the sheriff herself called. “I’ve found three ways that they used to stop manuals. One was what they called ‘stop sticks’ which were basically wooden planks with nails through them to flatten tires, I think we’ll try that first. The second was called a PIT maneuver, but it’s too dangerous at over forty, and your little Barchetta probably couldn’t stop a big modern car anyway.”
“Pit? What’s that?”
“An acronym for ‘pursuit intervention technique’, nothing to do with pits. They basically force the car they’re chasing to spin around, and two more cars would pin it. Not only is it so dangerous over forty, we’d need two manual cars to pin it.”
“What’s the third?”
“It used a device that I doubt still exists. It shot a nylon strap that tangled a back wheel. I wish we could find one, it seemed the best way. Too bad I couldn’t even find plans for one, although we found video of one being used.
“At any rate, we won’t need to use your car to attempt a PIT maneuver.”
I was actually a little relieved, to my own surprise. I would have liked to have seen that, but wouldn’t have wanted the car to be damaged. I thought about how the sheriff had hit the fence post, it worried me until I saw it was okay.
The next day while he was at work, Bob was entering the freeway and his car suddenly came to a dead stop, feet from the highway. Two cars traveling a very high rate of speed flashed by. His car turned on its “pull over” equipment and went in pursuit as Bob grabbed the microphone and radioed in.
Lyle Waring was winning the race as he flashed past Bob’s cruiser, and hit the joystick harder, laughing. George Frankfort was behind, but wearing an evil grin. He was about to unleash his secret weapon—a second battery. He reached up and flipped the switch as Lyle went under the overpass.
Bob’s car was nowhere near as fast as the cars that had sped past, he couldn’t even tell what make or model they were. Then there was a flash from a mile ahead, like an electrical explosion, followed by a loud noise seconds later. He radioed that there was an explosion and medical people were needed.
He thought the car had hit an abutment, but the flaming, sparking inferno was a good hundred yards away from the overpass. He shook his head sadly, whoever had been in it couldn’t have possibly survived.
Lyle was past the overpass when George’s car exploded. He heard the explosion, thinking that George had hit the abutment. He shook his head; George wasn’t very good at this “driving” stuff. But he couldn’t stop, not with a sheriff’s car chasing them.
The fire department came and put the fire out with an argon fire extinguisher. Of course carbon dioxide hadn’t been used in generations, and argon worked even better anyway.
Bob was off work the next day, and so was I, and he told us about it at Bill’s then. He let out his toke, coughed, and said “It was awful. My God, the stench. I understand law officers had to put up with that all the time back before cars were robotic.” He shook his head sadly and took another toke before passing it.
Bill said “How are we going to get this car hacking to stop?”
“I don’t know. It’s already against the law to modify a car’s software, the legalese says that all software used on public roads has to meet certain criteria, which obviously means it’s illegal to hack it. But it’s only a misdemeanor with no jail time, just a fine.”
Of course, it was all over the news the next day, as car fires were almost unheard of. The media didn’t catch the link between it and the crash that had happened earlier, and the crash was still in the news, overshadowing it.
It would be a while before the cause of the explosion was known—Except to the sheriff. She had asked the engineers at Ford if more batteries would make a car go faster and had been told it would cause a fire. She called the engineer on her phone, and of course a tiny engineer appeared on her stupid phone in three dimensions, looking surprised.
“Well, hello, Karen,” she said. “This is unexpected, what can I do for you?”
“A car exploded.”
“What? Exploded? I heard there was a fire. I’m surprised there aren’t more, the way people don’t inspect and maintain stuff.”
“Yes. Would extra batteries explode, or just burn?”
“They could explode. An explosion is a sudden release of energy, and batteries hold a lot. Loose it all at once, and BOOM. Did that happen? The news didn’t say anything about an explosion.”
“They don’t know anything about it. We’re keeping it quiet. What we need to know is how to catch them? How can we make our cars go fast enough?”
“I don’t understand. Fast enough for what?”
“There’s a new kind of racing, they’ve modified the operating systems and associated software to let them override those systems. The cars run rings around ours. We found joysticks in the wreck and the fire.”
“Hmm... the cars’ computers govern speed. If they were overridden, there isn’t a working governor.”
“Could you do that with one of our cruisers, or a state police car?”
“Probably, if they’re Fords. Also, there are some new motors that just came out that have much stronger magnets than were formerly possible, thanks to that find on Ceres. We could replace the motors. It will take a while.”
“Thanks, I’ll talk to the County Board about it.”
The next day she called me. I could picture the miniature me on her dumb hologram phone, I hope those stupid things are a fad. Sure, holographic television is great, but it’s stupid on a phone.
She had an idea of how to catch the drag racers. “Can we hire you and rent your manual?” she asked.
“Uh, I guess, as long as the county will insure against damages. What are you planning to do?”
She grinned, and dare I say, an evil grin. “We have these,” she said, and pulled out a... well, it’s hard to describe, it was actually kind of cool. It was like a bunch of really sharp nails welded together into a ball. It was obvious one would flatten a tire.
“We made a lot of them,” she said. “You’ll chase the racers with your Ferrari, pass them, and Bob will throw these on the highway. Better than the stop sticks.”
It sounded good to me. It sounded even better when I read the contract; I called my boss and gave her a week’s notice, which was unheard of. Nobody ever quit a job, since there were so few of them. Robots did almost everything, even steel work like Dad used to do. Yes, everybody gets a government check now, but some of us want more.
She seemed distressed that I was leaving, which puzzled me. Jobs are scarce and easy to fill. Mine sucked, I’m ashamed of what I did. Nope, not gonna say.
Bob and I had lain in wait for the drag racers for two weeks. No wonder they were paying me so much, I was bored senseless.
“There they are!” Bob exclaimed suddenly, pulling me out of my reverie. I started it, put it in gear, and took off. It didn’t take long to catch them. I wonder what they were thinking when I passed them at a good ten miles an hour faster than they were going?
We were doing well over a hundred as Bob loosened his seat belt before releasing Karen’s box of spike balls, and sat back down, grinning, as the belt retracted.
I didn’t even see the deer. There seemed to be an explosion, and it hurt, which they said were air bags going off because of the collision. My ears were ringing, and I was sore in spots but I was all right, as was Bob. We had been going over a hundred miles an hour. I guess I must have stood on that middle pedal.
The deer, alas, didn’t survive. We ate him later.
The two drag racers didn’t fare much better than the deer; there was a lot nobody thought about. We had air bags and seat belts, but modern cars had no need, since automation had made cars safe without air bags and seat belts.
One died instantly from a broken neck. The other had brain damage and would never be the same, even after rehab. Apparently, blowouts are a really bad way to stop a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed.
But we didn’t know that yet, we were stunned. Air bags are a bitch. “You okay?” we asked in unison, and laughed.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I think we hit a deer.”
“Well, hell, let’s get him out of the road!” We hadn’t even noticed the two ambulances taking care of the two wrecked cars. An ambulance rolled up and asked if we needed help.
“Yeah,” Bob said. “Take that carcass...”
“To Bill’s!” I interrupted. I like robots. At least, the ones that do what you tell them. I didn’t like that one.
A flatbed rolled up, put the Barchetta on its back, and drove off without saying a word. Some robots are just rude. An even ruder car came up, a taxi cab. It wouldn’t answer us as Bob almost got in. “What the hell am I doing? I have a car, and We have a mess to clean up.”
“Karen’s spikes.”
“Well, look,” I said, “robot cars will steer around them. Maybe we ought to spread them out.”
“Do you want to kill somebody?”
“They’re risking their lives anyway. And it’s Karen’s decision, you’re just a deputy.”
He hit a vape and grinned, and said “And you’re just a civilian!” He handed it to me, I hit it, and we both laughed.
“That’s right,” I said, “neither of us is sheriff.” I called my car on my phone, thinking that if I’d have called when we hit the deer it would be here. I don’t know if the taxi ever left.
The next day the sheriff, deputy, my uncle, and I met in Bill’s back yard. Karen told us she’d talked to several state legislators. “I hope they take this seriously,” she said. “This has gotten way out of control and it’ll get worse, mark my words.”
“Did any of them seem to really take it seriously?” Bill asked.
She shrugged. “Who knows? They’re politicians, they’ll convince you blue is red while proving blue is blue. Words matter, and a good politician knows how to use them effectively.” She passed the muggle to me. I shook my head.
“I’m stoned to the gills.” The three of them laughed, and I opened another beer.
Karen’s phone rang, and she got up, put it by her ear, and walked away. When she got back she said “There’s been another accident, and this time an arrest, a young man named Charles Wilson. He was drag racing with an unknown person who got away, but he hit a spike ball and flattened a tire. It put him in a ditch but didn’t overturn and he got out and ran. Deputies had been chasing him and caught him. If the fool would have just sat in his car he’d be out of jail tomorrow with a big fine, but we were able to hit him with several charges, including resisting arrest. I’m calling the D.A. and asking her to avoid a plea that keeps him out of jail.
“Even if he gets out in a few days, he’s out a car. We impounded it. Who’s holding that muggle?”
The fact that hacked automobiles had been drag racing didn’t land on the news media’s radar until Angus Flannigan, who had recently immigrated from Australia and been befriended by Chuck Wilson, got mad. By “mad” I don’t mean angry, I mean insane.
He had his hacked car downtown, trying to run into automatics. I guess it was some kind of game to him, but it’s just crazy. So far he hadn’t managed to damage any cars, but he knocked a light post down.
It was quite a while before they caught Angus. They didn’t even know who he was, or had a description beyond the inaccurate “skinny white woman with short red hair”. There was just no way for the governed, self-driving police cars to stop a manual car.
This woke up both the governor and legislature. The governor ordered a dozen interceptors from Ford for the state police, with the bigger motors and stronger magnets that were literally from out of this world, and instead of a built-in joystick, pre-programmed maneuvers, such as the PIT were built in and could be upgraded remotely.
The legislature made it a class four felony to operate a manual vehicle, or any vehicle with modified electronics on public roads. This excluded motorized bicycles and tricycles, and wagons pulled by horses, of course; it only applied to motorized vehicles with four or more wheels.
The county fixed my car, except for the air bags; they couldn’t figure out how they worked.
In the end it all died down. Angus was the first to go to prison, before being deported, but more than a dozen followed him to the lockup. Wilson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a very large fine, and never saw his car again. Hensley recovered, but rehabilitation was slow and painful.
These days I just charge people money to see the old red car. I make a pretty good income with it without actually doing any real work. We still drive it around the fields sometimes, charging stupid rich kids insane amounts of cash for a three lap ride. Sometimes Bill and I race it against the clock.
But we won’t let Bob drive it any more.


Three Administrations

The Letter


Highway Fifteen

No, We’re Not All In This Together

The Allegations against Joe Biden

Don’t Feel the Reefer

20 Downsides Of Electric Vehicles: Debunked

An open letter to my congressman

Indoor Rocketry for Children

The Passover

The Trump Supporter

A Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing

Driving the Snakes from Ireland

The Coffee Pot

The Best Music Ever Recorded


Why Are There No DINOs?

Socialism and Capitalism

Channel 49



Trump and the Christians

Q and the Real “Deep State”

Last year’s stories and articles

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