“Alright Max, c’mon, what’s the big surprise? Why are we going to your uncle’s?” Frank asked restlessly. Frank and Max sat in the passenger seats in the cabin of Frank’s 2215 autovan, facing away from the cockpit. Their friend Steve occupied the bench-style seat across from them, while the van cruised up the highway in the Nevada desert on autopilot. For three hours Frank had been trying to distract himself from the secret Max was so keen on keeping about the reason for their road trip, but he couldn’t stand it anymore. Anticipation was getting the better of him.
“If I tell you it will spoil the surprise!” Max fired back with a childlike grin. He always had a flair for dramatics. Every plan or idea he had was a secret, a surprise, a mysterious riddle leading to some grand reveal, and Frank was a sucker for it. He hated suspense, and to his chagrin the thing hardly ever lived up to Max’s grandiose presentation. Frank often spent hours asking questions until he was red in the face, only to learn that Max had bought an antique drone or found a bar with a vintage pinball machine. But this time was going to be different, and Frank could sense it.
“Whatever man.” Frank replied with obvious annoyance. He knew his irritation only fueled Max’s amusement but he couldn’t help himself. “Steve will you throw me a beer?”
Steve, unlike Frank, didn’t get swept away in Max’s routine. He was the most relaxed of the three, always along for the ride but never invested in the mystery. He had spent the duration of their trip thus far with his feet up on the bench playing a tower defense game on his datavice. He responded to Frank’s request with a distracted, “Huh?” followed by “Oh, yea sure.” He reached behind the seat and pushed the “open” button on the autovan’s mini fridge, grabbed a beer, and tossed it to Frank.
“Thanks.” Frank sipped his beer and vaguely remember his history teacher saying drinking in a moving vehicle used to be illegal, back when everything was manual. He turned around and looked through the gap between his seat and Max’s at the console in the cockpit. There was a map showing their route. Their destination was a little dot in the middle of nowhere, miles from any major city. An orange line extended from their current location to the dot, and the estimated time of arrival read three hours. Three more hours. We’re only halfway there Frank thought. And Max still won’t say a word.
Suddenly, Max leaned forward in his seat and exclaimed, “Okay!” It seemed even he couldn’t stand the anticipation anymore. Steve looked up from his game and Frank turned to Max with his eyebrows raised, as if to say well spit it out already!
“So get this.” Max began, elbows resting on his knees, hands displayed out in front of him for dramatic effect, looking back and forth between his two friends. “My uncle owns this property out in the middle of the desert, right? It’s super secluded, no neighbors, no one bothers him. And he collects things see. Old things. Like super rad pieces of old tech. Tape players. Arcade games. Old computers, ya know like really cool stuff.”
I swear to God Max if you dragged us 6 hours away from home to play pinball… Frank caught himself thinking, but he held his tongue and listened. He was intrigued in spite of himself.
“My parents used to take me to visit him once or twice a year. That’s how I got interested in antiques and stuff myself. And when I got older I kept in touch with him, and I go to visit by myself every so often.” Max slowed his speech, giving his next few words extra emphasis. “This last time… Guys, this last time, he showed me the coolest. Thing. Ever.”
Max had shown Frank and Steve many things that were rad, dope, or gnarly, but this was the first coolest thing ever. When Max didn’t continue, Steve inquired: “What was it?”
Max kept the others in suspense for another moment, and then said two words: “A car.”
The autovan was silent for about thirty seconds. Both Frank and Steven needed to let the words sink in before realizing the entirety of what they meant. Frank was the first to speak up.
“A car? Like… a real car? A manual car?”
Max grinned and nodded. “Mhmm.”
“Like what they use for racing?” Steve asked.
“I thought those were illegal without a permit.” Frank said.
“They are.” Max replied. “But like I said, my uncle lives out in the middle of nowhere. No one’s gonna catch him with it.”
“How did he get it?” Steve asked
Max shrugged. “All he’ll tell me is he ‘knows a guy.’”
Frank suspected the “guy” was most likely a racing sponsor making a little extra money on the side selling retired vehicles. Pro racing was widely considered to be the most dangerous sport in existence, and as a result, cars more than a couple years old were required by law to be retired and recycled, no matter how good of a condition they might be in. Every so often a news story came out about a vehicle owner selling their retired cars illegally to private, non-licensed buyers.
“Did you drive it?” Steve asked.
Max exhaled sharply in affirmation to Steve’s inquiry, then turned to Frank. “How fast does this autovan go. Eighty? Maybe ninety going downhill? What about in manual mode? It only lets you drive up to twenty-five before it has to go into auto, right?” Frank nodded, listening intently. Max turned to Steve. “Imagine sitting in the cockpit right now and steering at this speed. You nudge the steering wheel just an inch to and suddenly your entire body lifts out of your seat. Think about pumping the gas and going even faster. A hundred miles an hour.” Turning back to Frank: “A hundred and twenty! And the car responds to your every move. It’s like it’s a part of you! You are one with the vehicle. You are three tons of metal blasting through the desert like freakin Iron Man. And when you let off the gas, it slows down, but not all at once. You gotta slam on the break and suddenly you feel like you’re holding back a freight train. And your heart is racing so fast you’d swear you were flying.”
Frank and Steve stared at Max for several seconds, soaking in the scenario. Frank wasn’t certain if he should take Max’s rousing yarn seriously, but he had to admit it was convincing. After all, why wouldn’t it be exciting to be in control of a vehicle at a hundred and twenty miles an hour? Before either man could respond, the console emitted a dinging sound.
Frank turned around and looked at the console. The power gauge was showing a picture of a nearly empty cell, with a small line of red at the bottom. “We need to stop for power.” Frank hopped into the cockpit and tapped on the screen, pulling up the menu. He pressed “Add Destination” with his finger and typed “Power Station” into the search bar. “Looks like there’s one coming right up.”
A few minutes later, the autovan decelerated and merged onto an exit ramp. Off to the right was a power station, which looked like a large convenient store with about twenty charging kiosks dotting its parking lot. As the van neared the station, a computerized voice spoke out of the console: “Engaging manual mode.” Frank took ahold of the steering wheel and positioned his foot on the brake pedal. When the van decelerated to twenty-five miles per hour, the voice spoke again: “Manual mode engaged.” Frank pressed lightly on the break to continue decelerating, and began steering toward the power station. As he neared a kiosk, he had to give the accelerate pedal a small nudge to get the van all the way into the stall, where he came to a full stop. “Engaging parking mode.” Said the console. Frank sighed. Hardly as thrilling as Max’s vignette he thought to himself.
All three men exited the van, and Frank approached the power kiosk while the other two made for the store. Frank touched the finger pad and allowed it to read his identification chip, which linked the kiosk to his bank account. A voice almost identical to the autovan’s console declared: “Please Enter PIN.” Frank entered his six digit PIN on the number pad, then removed a cable from the kiosk and plugged it into a port on his van. While the van was powering up, he dumped some beer cans into the recycling bin, and then looked up at the Skyway.
Hundreds of miles above the power station, the Skyway looked like a beam of light cutting straight through the clouds. It was essentially a massive magnetic field created by generators in major cities that could carry large freighters across it. The light was also created by the generators to give passengers less fear about being suspended in mid air. Frank thought about his old history class again, and how his teacher taught them that flight used to be done by “airoplanes” which flew much higher than the skyway, and required massive amounts of gasoline fuel to reach the proper altitude. Now they could accomplish the same thing with electricity and magnets, and gasoline had become a rare and antiquated resource. Frank often caught himself staring at the Skyway for long periods of time, and wondering just how the human race came to design something so impressive. But it doesn’t go where we’re going he thought to himself.
Three hours later…
“Hey Maxxie! How ya doin buddy?”
The guys had arrived at a modest house in the middle of the Nevada desert. The land was flat and dry, with small bits of foliage dotting the landscape. Max’s uncle, a tall man with greasy black hair and a five o’clock shadow, came out of the open garage to greet them with a smile on his face and a beer in his hand. Max ran ahead of the others to embrace his uncle. “Hey Uncle Mike! These are my friends Frank and Steve.” The men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, but only a few moments had passed when Max asked: “Can we see ole Eleanor?”
Uncle Mike grinned. “Gee you boys don’t waste any time do ya? C’mon I’ve got ‘er in the garage.” Mike led the friends into the garage, where a large object covered by a gray tarp was waiting for them. He pulled back the tarp to reveal a black four-door sedan. It was considerably smaller than the autovan, but Frank took note of how much larger the hood was. There was something impressive hiding under there. Something powerful. The doors has bright orange flames painted on them, which almost distracted from the multitude of dents and scratches.
“Looks pretty beat-up” Steve interjected casually.
“Oh yea she’s taken a beating over the years, but she’s built fer it.” Mike replied “They say a couple centuries ago, when they mass-produced these puppies, they were real fragile, but now that everyone drives auto-vehicles, they build these to last.”
Frank quickly surveyed the garage, which was filled with various junk items. He had no idea what most of them were, but noticed something very important was missing. “I don’t see a charging station in here.”
Mike raised an eyebrow at Frank. “Charging station? Ohhhhhh no this baby runs on gas.”
Frank did a double take toward Mike. “Gas? As in gas-oline?” he asked in disbelief. Mike grinned and nodded. “How do you get it?”
“I know a guy” Mike said, and winked toward Max. “C’mon, let’s take ‘er for a spin!”
Max slapped Frank on the shoulder. “You’re up first, big guy!”
“No way…” Frank started to protest but before he knew it, the other three men had entered the vehicle and taken every seat except for the driver’s. Steve had already started up his game on his datavice, indicating no interest in driving. Frank cautiously opened the door and sat down behind the wheel. Suddenly Mike was holding a flat, pointed piece of metal in front of his face.
“Here’s the key. Just stick it in that slot right there and give ‘er a turn.”
Frank did as he was instructed, and what happened next startled him so much that he almost cried out loud. A monstrous roaring sound erupted from the front of the vehicle, which then settled into a low, steady rumble. For a moment Frank was afraid the car might explode.
“That right there is the sound of a jen-you-wine combustion engine my friends!” Mike exclaimed. “Ain’t nothin like a good ole’ fashioned fire under the hood!” Frank was understanding Max’s personality more and more as the day went on. “Now just grab that stick right there, move it to ‘D’ and pick a direction! Ain’t no people, buildings, trees, or anything else for miles out here. Just open desert.”
Frank shifted into drive, pressed lightly on the gas pedal, and began moving the vehicle out of the garage. He was still shaken up from starting the engine, but was trying not to show it. The swelling of the noise from the engine as the car accelerated did little to calm his nerves. He crept past his parked microvan, and began driving away from the house. He reached a steady speed and glanced at the speedometer. Twenty-six mile per hour. He was already driving faster than he’d ever driven before.
“Don’t be scared of her, give ‘er a little more gas!” Mike insisted. At first the car seemed to resist, but then it jolted forward in a sudden burst as it shifted up to a higher gear. He glanced at the speedometer again, which read thirty-five. The vehicle’s speed had increased by ten miles in a second. As the needle continue to creep steadily up, he felt his pulse rising with it. Forty-five. Fifty-five. The engine was whining louder and at a higher pitch. The car was beginning to rock steadily up and down on the uneven terrain. The wind coming through the open window was both refreshing and unnerving. When he noticed that his knuckles were turning white, he tried to relax his grip on the steering wheel. As he did so, he nudged the steering wheel and the vehicle jerked sharply to the left without warning. In a panic, Frank tried to correct his course and began swerving side to side, almost uncontrollably.
“Whoa! Whoa! Keep ‘er steady now! keep ‘er steady!” Mike shouted. “Gotta caress the wheel, not pull on it!” His tone was assertive but jovial. He was guiding Frank, rather than scolding. Frank slowly regained control of the car, and let out a deep sigh of relief. “There ya go now give ‘er some more juice!” Frank’s face seemed to say are you serious?! And Mike nodded to confirm that indeed he was serious. Frank applied more pressure to the gas pedal, and the car shifted gears again. This time it seemed to propel them forward so hard Frank was worried he would fly backward through the seat. They were going seventy miles an hour. Then eighty. Then ninety. Then a hundred.
From the seat behind him, Max let out a joyful howl: “WOOOOO!”
“Just a little more!” Mike goaded.
Frank pressed the pedal to the floor and screamed in response. One hundred and ten mile per hour. A hundred and thirty-five. A hundred and fifty!
“Okay okay better pump the breaks!”
Frank released the gas pedal, slammed the brakes, and promptly lost control of the vehicle again. Suddenly, they were spinning full circles, and Frank’s adrenaline became full panic.
“No no, just a little at a time, or you lose steering!” Mike yelled. “Don’t worry you got this!”
For a few seconds Frank was completely frozen in fear. Is this the part where your life flashes before your eyes? He thought to himself. Then Mike’s words began to sink in, and he released the break, reset his grip on the steering wheel, and corrected course. Once the car was going straight again, he pressed the break a little bit at a time as Mike instructed. As the car decelerated it began to swivel again, and Frank instinctively braked harder. The car drifted sideways, kicking up a massive cloud of dust. Frank was worried it would tip over and braced himself for impact, but the car finally came to a full stop. He felt like someone was pounding on the inside of his chest cavity with a sledgehammer as he shifted into park. With wide eyes he looked around the car. Mike and Max were grinning. Steve’s eyes were wider than Frank’s.
“My turn!” Steve yelled, immediately jumping out of the vehicle and circling around to the driver’s seat. It seemed he had forgotten all about his datavice. In fact, none of the men in that vehicle used their datavices for the rest of the day.