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by Gary Cuba
“Sam, maybe we should head back to the main highway.” Marian’s small voice hardly registered over the noise of the SUV’s massive tires pounding over the rocky scree that covered the approach to the butte rising in front of them.
“C’mon, Marian,” Sam said. “This is what it’s all about. Life on the edge. You can’t hardly buy this kind of experience.”
He’d punched the “seek vista” control on the SUV’s onboard computer a few miles back, and the vehicle had launched itself onto this new route, turning off the paved road and coursing through the dry, rough badlands. Sam beamed in delight: the SUV was the newest model and had all the luxury options, including the latest version of automated touring software. His new man–toy had cost him dearly, and he was determined to get his money’s worth out of it.
“What if we get stuck out here?” Marian said.
Sam chortled. “You can’t get ‘stuck’ anywhere on the planet anymore. If we do get in trouble, we only need to punch the ‘call for help’ button. That’ll bring help racing to the scene. So loosen up, lady… Have some fun for a change!”
Marian sniffed once, retrieved the compact from her purse, and proceeded to check the powder on her nose.
Sam watched the sparse cacti and yuccas zip by outside the window, his arms clasped behind his head, secure in the knowledge that the vehicle’s computer would take care of manipulating the steering based on input from the laser scanners embedded in the front bumper. Their angle of ascent had risen significantly in the last few minutes, and the terrain was getting rougher.
“It’s a real beast, isn’t it?” he said. “Moves like a panther over this terrain.”
“I have to go to the bathroom, Sam. It’s from all the bouncing.”
Sam looked over at his wife and frowned. “You’re no fun at all.”
“I have to go to the bathroom. Like I said.”
“Okay, okay. We’ll stop and you can find a rock to go behind.”
Sam stepped on the brake pedal. It fell flaccidly to the floor. The vehicle continued on, unimpeded.
“Right,” Sam said. “No stopping it that way, I guess.” He studied the computer screen in the center console, looking for a means of halting the vehicle’s progress. There must be a menu or an icon I’m just not seeing, he thought.
The vehicle continued to crawl up the side of the butte. It had gotten frighteningly steep. Sam began to second–guess his impulsive decision to take this little side trip. What if we roll over and damage the emergency call antenna? Lord, what if we’re injured and trapped inside this thing?
“I need to go, Sam.”
“Just cross your legs, Marian. I can’t seem to get this program to escape.”
“Bad choice of words, Sam.”
“Marian, bear with me, here! This is a complicated, state–of–the–art device. I’ll figure it out. Just give me a minute!”
Without warning, the SUV lurched to the left. Their angle of ascent changed, throwing them both sideways against their seatbelts. Sam wondered why the airbags didn’t inflate, considering the dramatic g–loads they suffered. The vehicle continued churning its way up the side of the butte, apparently now deciding to assault it in a more of a spiraling fashion. Sam heard Marian shriek once, then the smell of urine began to permeate the cab.
“Marian, you didn’t! This is leather, for God’s sake!”
“Two words, Sam. Two words for you. By this time, you should know what they are.”
Marian reached up to the overhead central console and jabbed the “call for help” button. A dial–tone sounded, followed by the beeping of a connection being established. After a moment, a recorded voice with the hint of a foreign accent came over the line.
“Thank you for calling the RT Rolling Thunder automotive help line. Your call is important to us. Please hold the line until the next service agent becomes available. This call may be monitored for quality control purposes…”
Instrumental music took over at that point. Sam recognized it as an old Burt Bacharach song, interpreted in a particularly schmaltzy, irritating way.
The SUV continued to spiral up, up, up the sides of the butte, its engine growling as it conquered the larger boulders in its path. Sam pressed the door–mounted control to lower his driver’s side window, trying to get some fresh air into the cab, but it didn’t respond.
At gut–churning length, the vehicle reached its destination. Sam gasped in sync with Marian’s own exclamation as they crested the top of the butte. There in front of them, lined up in a neat row as if they sat gleaming in the original dealer’s lot, were at least a dozen other RT Rolling Thunder SUVs, all perched with their front bumpers hanging precipitously over the rim of the plateau.
Their own SUV slowly maneuvered itself to line up with the nearest one—a cherry red model, Sam noted—and finally crunched to a stop, its front wheels an inch from the edge of the sheer dropoff.
After a moment, when his heart had managed to descend to its normal position, Sam glanced over at the neighboring vehicle, barely two feet away from them. Its occupants were slumped back in their seats, their faces gray and desiccated, swollen purple tongues sticking out of gaping mouths, sightless milky eyes bulging wide.
He tried to open his door. It might as well have been welded shut. And it was useless to think about breaking the thick, tempered glass in the car; he remembered the original sales brochure touting its bulletproof strength.
“It is quite a breathtaking vista,” he said, looking out over the desert that stretched for a hundred miles in front of them.
“Two words, Sam.”
Around them the air resonated with the unrelenting sound of the same Burt Bacharach song, coming from many sources.
Gary Cuba lives with his lovely wife (yes, she is reading this over his shoulder) and a teeming horde of freeloading domestic critters in South Carolina, USA. His home is located perilously close to a swamp where big–footed, seven–foot–tall “Skunk Apes” are said to lurk. (And while he hasn't seen any of these marsh Yetis personally, he has numerous friends who claim to have done so—although it must be noted that those persons tend to like their beer a lot.) Besides numerous appearances in Stupefying Stories, his quirky short fiction has been published in more than sixty magazines and anthologies, including Crimson Fog, ReadShortFiction, Conjurings, Universe Annex (Grantville Gazette), Abyss & Apex, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. See http://www.thefoggiestnotion.com to find links to some of his other work and to learn more about him.