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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

The Subheroes Chapter 10: The Ghost Is The Machine

Submitted by on December 13, 2004 – 9:29 AMNo Comment

Lionel and Tjinder are standing on The Driver's side porch. Lionel is on the phone with Diz; Tjinder is shifting from foot to foot. He looks at their car in the driveway, and at his wife Mitra in the backseat, taking apart the hood of an opera cloak. The engine is on to let her listen to music, so he can't hear it, but he imagines he can hear her thimbles clicking like a code transmitter. Mitra looks up just then, and her left eye behind her sewing loupe is enormous, and it winks at him. Tjinder winks back.

"She's not answering the door and I don't see her or the dog, what do you want us to do. … Okay. … Okay. … Talk to you soon."

Lionel hangs up and smoothes an eyebrow with his forefinger.

"So?"

"So, they figure she's gone."

"Already."

"That's what he said. So."

Tjinder shrugs and takes a flashlight from a loop on his coat and clicks it on. "Okay."

"Do you know where it is?"

"Well, sure, I installed it." He clicks the flashlight on, and they walk around the house and out to the edge of the trees. "What I don't know is where she put the switch, which is what we actually need to find." Tjinder stops. "It's here."

"Sure?"

Tjinder points up. "There're the fans."

"But the switch could be anywhere."

Tjinder shrugs again in response. Lionel holds out his hand for the flashlight; Tjinder passes it to him, and Lionel crouches down and aims it along the ground.

"Anything?"

"Not that I can see, but with all these leaves…" Lionel stands up again. "Okay. Let's think. Let's think about this. Where would she put the switch."

Tjinder walks over to the picnic table and sits down. "Well, it could be rigged up on any of these trees right around here."

"Could she have set it in the ground?"

"She could have, I told her not to but she could have."

"Where else? Where's the terminus?"

"Right about here, like I said, in daylight I could tell, but now…"

"Hmm." Lionel sits on the other side of the picnic table. "And the sheath is alloy?"

"Yeah, but she probably painted it." Tjinder takes out a cigarette. "To disguise it. Otherwise –"

"Otherwise what's the point, right."

"Maybe we should just walk the whole yard, grid it, you know."

"Maybe." Lionel smoothes his eyebrow again, slowly. "I wish there were a tread, some crushed leaves, something I could see, then we wouldn't have to bother with the switch."

Tjinder smokes and scans the trees, looking for a square shape, until in the foreground of his field of vision he sees Lionel's finger stop mid-brow and hold there. Tjinder cocks his head at Lionel, who asks, "How long does it take? Once you throw the switch, how long until the lift is up and locked?"

"Couple minutes, it depends."

"You don't know exactly."

"It depends. The switch is two switches, one to start the motor, one to start the mechanism. Keeps it from getting tripped by mistake."

"But if you throw them both at the same time –"

"You have to throw the motor switch first, and ideally you let it warm up, and then you throw the –"

"How long would that take?"

"It depends."

"Tjinder, damn."

"It does. Look, I can tell her, don't set the switch in the ground, don't throw the second tab before the motor's warm, blah, but you can't control what the end user does. People are impatient, especially her."

"But you think it's a couple minutes." Lionel gets up. "In the sense of –"

"Knowing The Driver and knowing the mechanism? If it's still in the condition I built it in? Night like tonight, that's not cold? These conditions? I will say two minutes to two minutes fifteen seconds."

"Two to two fifteen, okay," Lionel says, walking back towards the house. "How long does the car take to warm up?"

"Night like tonight, no time really. Start it and go."

"You sure?"

"It's a Benz."

"It's an old Benz."

"It's an optimized old Benz. I don't know. Miranda knows the car, ask her."

"Two to two fifteen, start it and go," Lionel says to himself, walking out to the trees again. He stops by the picnic table and looks at Tjinder grinding his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe. "We might not need the switch. How long's it take you to smoke one of those?"

"Four, five minutes. … Oh, I see."

"Yeah. If we can find a butt out in the road, we don't have to find the switch."

"But that butt could be miles from here."

"Or it could be at the end of the driveway, it just depends on how long it takes to — hey, wait. After the car comes up, then what happens?"

"When?"

"The car comes up, she gets in, she drives it off the platform — then what? Does she have to get out again and throw the switch back, or –"

"Oh, no no. Pressure sensors. Once the car's off the platform, it retracts itself."

"So she doesn't have to get out again."

"Nope."

"Shit, there goes that theory." Lionel folds his arms. "Well, I guess we have to grid it, then."

Tjinder gets up and stretches. "I guess we do. Pain in the ass."

"No kidding. She's obviously gone, why bother."

"We should just leave a note in the mailbox. 'Call Diz.'"

"We should," Lionel says, and the two of them look at the mailbox, tempted to leave a note and just go eat, and they both see it at the same time, the ridged wiring sheath, painted white, snaking up the house and into the mailbox from below.

They jog up to the mailbox. "That it?" Lionel says, and Tjinder says, "Looks like it, same gauge," and he feels around under the mailbox and grins. "Yep, here it is." He flips one switch, and there's a faint hum from the edge of the trees, and Lionel jogs back out to the picnic table.

"Okay, hit it."

"I'm letting it warm up."

"Just hit it, Tjin."

Tjinder flips the other switch. The hum gets thicker, and Tjinder tells Lionel, "Stay back, by the table," and a large rectangle of the ground drops down about a foot and slides back into itself.

"Damn. Retracting?" Lionel says, and Tjinder smiles and says, "Not much to it, really, just a track and a belt," but he's proud of it, and Lionel says, "That's nice work, there," and Tjinder nods. "Custom joints. Took two weeks to get right."

The lift is coming up, and then it's up, and it's empty.

"Sure enough."

"Yep. I'll call Diz."

The lift locks with a clank, and the tree-mounted fans come on and blow leaves across it, and in the dark, the large rectangle of ground disappears into the leaves and the earth.

"Diz, it's Lionel. The Ghost is gone."

***

Church parking lot, corner of Sherman and Pine; Hennessey's showing the new kid how to fill out a split ticket. He's almost done his probation, the new kid, so they'll have to stop calling him the new kid pretty soon, come up with a new nickname for him, Barts or Barto or something, his last name's Barton but half the guys don't even know it, been just calling him "the new kid" for a year now, he's pretty sick of it but he's a rookie, that's how it goes. Anyway, Hennessey's walking him through it on a dummy ticket when the car comes by, blazes by really, he's not sure he didn't imagine it but there's a coffee-cup cyclone in the middle of Pine so something went past doing a good sixty-five, so Barton flips the lights on and screams out of the parking lot, says to Hennessey, "Man, some kid's gonna get it," and Hennessey chuckles, "I don't think so," and Barton's picking up speed, forty, fifty, but no taillights in sight down the hill, and he asks Hennessey, "Think he took a side street, turned off?" and Hennessey says, "No," and Barton says, "No you don't think so or no you know he didn't," and Hennessey says, "It's already too late, son," and Barton says, "But –" and Hennessey says, "It's too late, show's over," and he points up ahead and says, "Pull in," so Barton eases off the gas and coasts up next to a school playground and turns off the lights.

Barton's mad. He doesn't so much care the guy got away, but Hennessey's going to say something smug and tell Barton he'll see one day, and Barton's gotten to hate that, and once the car's in park he hitches around in his seat to tell Hennessey what-for about what the hell, and Hennessey's chuckling to himself. Barton says, "What's funny? Because if that vehicle –" and Hennessey says, "The vehicle's fine, safe as a house. What'd you see?" and Barton says, "A blur is what I saw, he had to be going fifty miles over the posted –" and Hennessey says, "'She,' it's a she," and he's still sort of laughing to himself and shaking his head. Barton says all sulky that he doesn't get it, and Hennessey nods and says, "They ever tell you in the academy a story, a legend really, about a driver in a silver Benz called The Ghost?" Barton says sure, sure they did, but it's just something guys say when they wreck the cruiser and they got no excuse, right? That's what Barton's instructor told them, anyway, in class. Hennessey says that's just what they say because they can't catch her, nobody can, she's too quick. "I'll say," Barton says, but Hennessey says, "I don't mean the speed. I mean she's too quick." So she's real then, Barton says, and Hennessey says oh, she's real. Real dangerous, Barton says, and Hennessey doesn't say anything for a moment and then he says, "Not usually," and he's off in his own head and it's quiet in the car, so Barton waits, because that's not like Hennessey, he has a conversation like it's a cud, keeps working it. "She retired," Hennessey says, mostly to himself, "came up here to live, she wasn't driving anymore, I remember at the time I told my wife, it's the end of something, I hoped I was wrong and I guess I was, what do you know," and Barton says again he doesn't get it, but nicer this time, and Hennessey says he's glad she's back, that's all. Barton says he guesses they'll see how glad he is when her driving like a maniac gets someone killed, and he thinks Hennessey's going to tell him not to talk about things he doesn't understand, but Hennessey doesn't, and when Barton looks over, Hennessey's looking out the window and smiling a little, and Barton still doesn't get it, quite, and doesn't know if he wants to, and he says again, "She's gonna get someone killed." "No," Hennessey says, still looking out the window. "Not again, anyway."

December 13, 2004

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