TUT'S HICCUPS & GLITCHES
by Mary Vettel
“Wake up! C’mon, Tut, wake up!”
Huh? Tut? Nobody’s called me Tut in like, I don’t know, what year is it?
“It’s your turn to drive, Tut. I didn’t bring you along for your good looks. Snap to.”
Who the hell is this person? I rub the dust from my eyes, look out the windows and don’t recognize a thing. Not a house, telephone pole, tree, street sign, or another vehicle in sight. And this psychotic driver is unfamiliar to me, too. And where does he – or is it a she? - the voice sounds somewhat effeminate - come off calling me Tut? Some nicknames are OK, but Tut? Just because my number at the factory was 210 – some wise guy called me Tutan or Tutankhamun which was shortened to Tut.
What the hell am I doing in this car? This feeling of amnesia frightens me. I try to suppress a panic rising in my chest and head. I think if I focus on the mundane it’ll pass. OK, these are cool putty-colored cargo pants. Nice thick-soled hiking boots. Olive tank, long-sleeved putty-colored shirt (sleeves rolled up) and one of those photographer’s/journalist’s vests with all these neat little pockets. OK, that little inventory check helped to calm me down a little. “It’s Mat. Mat Lupin,” I say with just enough force in my voice for him (or her) to know not to call me Tut again.
“What’s your—?“ I begin to ask, but he (or she) climbs out of the car, yanks opens the back door and gestures for me to get out and behind the wheel, and I can tell he’s (or she’s) in no mood for twenty questions. Dressed in dirty gray rip cord type pants with elastic cuffs, silver T-shirt, silver baseball cap - I’m very observant – but still can’t tell.
“I gotta take a leak,” he (or she) announces and climbs up into some bushes parallel to the road.
Never one to be a sexist, but that crude remark makes me think the driver is male. I get out of the car – have no idea what sort of make or model it is – maybe it’s one of those prototypes not available to the general public yet. There’s what appears to be solar panels on the roof and trunk of the car. I’m trying to get my bearings but nothing looks familiar – no landmarks of any kind. Just grass and shrubs as far as the eye can see – in all directions – like we’re in the middle of some endless Kansas plains. I have no idea how long I was asleep in the back of the car or how far we’ve come. Or why.
The driver returns, scuttling down the bushy incline, jumping the last few feet to the dry earth, sending up sepia eddies. The last bounce causes the baseball cap to fly off and long salt and pepper hair cascades freely – and I think, Oh! It’s a woman. And in that instant don’t know if I am pleased or not. The driver picks up the baseball cap and turns to me and I can tell by the features that it’s a man with long hair.
The panicky feeling comes again and I want to ask, Who are you? Who am I?! Where are we? Where are we going? Why?! But I’m afraid to ask. The guy gets into the back seat. I slip behind the wheel and look at the dashboard and controls to familiarize myself with this vehicle. I haven’t driven in a long, long time and nothing looks familiar or where I imagine things to be.
“Come on, let’s go,” my companion says and tsks annoyance at the delay.
Is he my companion? Or is he my abductor? “How much longer?” I ask, figuring that can’t give away my ignorance of where we are and where we’re going.
The guy laughs sardonically, lays down on the backseat and seems to fall asleep instantly.
I look for the signal indicator switch but can’t find one. Since there’s no sign of another vehicle, I just step on the accelerator and glide onto the road. There don’t appear to be any turns or forks in the road and seeing as my passenger is sleeping, I just continue driving the way the car was headed. I get the hang of it after a few moments and put my driving brain on auto-cruise and try to piece together what I know.
What’s the last thing you remember before waking in the backseat of this car? I ask myself. Being at a party. A dance. A ball. Fancy outfits. Lovely music. The President’s wife tried to put the moves on me and I nearly blew a gasket. Nothing after that.
That wasn’t much help. I drive for hours, though there’s no sign of change in the scenery or the sun’s position in the sky. Suddenly, a whiff of salty ocean breeze. Instinctively, I turn the wheel to the right and we’re off the road and onto sand, following the scent. After several minutes of bumpy driving over sand, I stop the car when I see boats in a harbor. Some small sailboats, motorboats, big yachts – the names on their bows in English. I leave my passenger sleeping and walk down the wharf, all the time taking deep breaths of the sea air. It feels like the salt has washed away any rust from inside my skull. I feel better.
I sit on the edge of the pier, my legs dangling six feet above the rainbow oil-slicked water. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, contentedly. My panicky feeling is subsiding. I open my eyes and sailboats, motorboats, and yachts have been replaced with whaling boats and clumsy rough hewn, tar-stained rowboats. I blink rapidly to restore the previous images. Whaling boats remain. I scramble to my feet, run to the car, and shake my passenger awake, all the time pointing back toward the ancient boats bobbing at anchor.
“You idiot! Why did you bring us here?!” He scrambles over the seat and starts the car. I jump in, sensing he has no intention of waiting for me to get into the car.
“What’s wrong? Why are you speeding away? Before, they were sailboats, motorboats and yachts. Then they turned into whaling ships. Did you see them?” I strain my neck to turn back and the whaling ships are gone. The yachts are back. “What happened?” I whisper. “What’s going on? Where are we? Who are we? Who are you? Where are we going? Where is everybody? What’s happened?”
He ignores my questions, maneuvers the car in reverse from the wharf, spins it around over the sand and we’re back on that solitary road.
“Look, at least tell me your name.”
“Brace. Brace Ed Stunting.”
“Hmm,” I nod. “That’s different.”
“Oh, really? It meets with your approval, Tut?”
“Don’t call me Tut. I told you my name is Mat Lupin.”
“It’s an anagram. You can also call me Scuba Grind Tenet. Or Dab Secret Tuning. Can you guess? Are you any good at anagrams?”
I have no idea what he’s going on about.
“How about Bad Genetic Turns? Or Bad Instruct Gene?”
I shake my head at him.
“They’re all anagrams for Tungsten Carbide.”
I nod and feel I have to add the obligatory, “Oh.” The fear is back and gnawing at my insides and I have an unpleasant metallic taste in my mouth. “When are you going to tell me what’s going on? Don’t you find this strange?”
“All of this. You. Me being here – wherever here is. And what about this car? What kind of hybrid is it? There’s no gas gauge on the dashboard. We’ve driven for hours and hours. It must be nearing empty.”
Brace furrows his brow at me. “Is this an old comedy routine? ‘Cause I’m not finding it particularly funny.”
“Don’t dick around with me, OK? Am not in the mood. And never – and I mean never – take a detour without my approval. Got it?”
I notice how tightly he’s gripping the steering wheel and how taut the muscles are in his forearms. How does somebody get muscles like that in their forearms? Is that from some sort of purposeful exercise or just everyday use? “Please just answer me this,” I whisper. “Did you see whaling ships or modern yachts?”
“I’m not getting sucked into your game, sweetie,” Brace says firmly and keeps his eyes focused on the road.
Fighting the fear that continues to rumble and echo in my belly, I lower the sun visor thinking there’s a mirror there and I can see my reflection – because now I’m starting to get a little bit terrified the reflection will not look like what I remember. No mirror. I gently feel my face with my fingertips from my wide, high forehead, to finely arched brows, high cheekbones, sunken lower cheek, matching lips that were neither too thin, nor too full, rounded chin. Just as I remembered. My shoulders relax and I exhale relief.
I glance out at the side view mirror and scrunch down to see myself. Before I can focus on my face I see the truck barreling down upon us. “Brace! The truck! Look out!”
Brace swerves off the road onto the dusty shoulder and glares at me. “What’s wrong with you?”
“That truck. Didn’t you see that truck? If you hadn’t pulled over it would’ve crashed into us.” I look back and ahead of us and can see no trace of the truck. Now I really feel like a jerk. “I swear to you…”
“You trying to wind me up, or what?”
“No. Of course not. Especially not while you’re driving. It was an old World War II Army truck. I could see the driver. He was wearing a helmet.”
“What would a hundred year old truck be doing on this road? Oh, wait, don’t tell me. They were probably on their way to climb aboard the whaling ships.” He jerks the wheel and we’re back on the road.
“Hundred year old truck? You mean it’s 2045?”
“Impressive. You did that math in your head?”
My jaw drops. “What’s gone on in the world in the last 35 years?”
Brace looks skywards, opens his mouth to speak, then shuts it. Then opens it, “Not much.”
“Not much?” I ask incredulously.
“Listen, we’re on a mission. Like I’ve got time to catch you up on the past 35 years.” He shakes his head at me. “And stop making my innards seize up with your wacky hallucinations.”
“You didn’t see the truck?” I ask softly.
“You didn’t see the whaling ships. What’s wrong with me?”
“It’s a glitch. Don’t go getting yourself all worked up. You’ll blow a fuse or something.”
“A minor malfunction from lack of use. A mere hiccup. Nothing to worry about. We’ve got more important things to attend to.”
“Yeah? Good. I need something to focus on. So, what’s our objective?” I ask casually, hoping to sound calm and collected.
“Our mission?” Brace asks. “To get you the hell out of here. You’ve definitely got a few screws loose.”
I nod my acceptance of this insult and think, I must be someone of importance then. I am being taken away from something or someone that wanted to harm me. The corners of my mouth lower and my head bops from side to side, weighing this information and finding it acceptable. I’m frustrated that Brace refuses to address my other questions, but the answers may be classified. Or he may be crazy what with his talk of anagrams, his crazy car, and glitches.
We hit a pot hole in the road and my head jerks, jarring my insides. “I’m originally from a meteorite in Sudbury Basin, Ontario, Canada,” I blurt out. “I’m made of platinum. Symbol: Pt, Atomic Wt: 195:084, grayish white, metallic, precious metal. Half-life of 50 years.” I rattle it off so quickly, by rote, that I’m not even sure what I just said.
“Don’t go acting like you fart plutonium. And don’t look down your titanium nose at me, honey,” Brace said.
“My nose is platinum, like the rest of me, not titanium.”
The car swerves wide, nearly going off the road. “What?! You’re not titanium?!”
“No. I told you. Platinum.”
“Of course! Mat Lupin is an anagram for platinum.” He shakes his head and makes a squeaking sound. “You were only taken out of the closet and dusted off because of the brine,” Brace wails.
“Look, it’s basic chemistry. Titanium is resistant to dilute sulphuric and hydrochloric acid, most organic acids, damp chlorine gas, and chloride solutions. Now what are we going to do?”
“I don’t understand the problem.”
“Listen, when we reach the Clayton Deep Lithium mine in Nevada and after we find a large deposit of spodumene, we extract the lithium. One method of extraction involves converting α-spodumene to the β-form by heating to 1100°C, and then mixing with sulfuric acid – which we can’t do now because you’re not titanium which is resistant to sulphuric acid.” Brace rests his head on his forearm which is draped around the steering wheel. “There’s got to be another way to extract the lithium,” Brace says, trying to be positive.
“Oh, there is,” I say. “It can also be extracted from the brine of lakes by solar evaporation, adding sodium carbonate to the hot brine. And that’s certainly less toxic.”
“But sulphuric acid has a certain ominously impressive, dangerous ring to it.”
I nod and smile slightly, remembering you’re supposed to react that way when dealing with crazy people. “Why don’t you do it?” I ask, playing on his ego.
“I’m Tungsten Carbide, four times harder than platinum. Symbol: W, Atomic Weight: 183.84, grayish white, lustrous, metallic,” he spews the information like he’s giving me his name, rank and serial number. “Scratch resistant. I don’t react to water at room temperature. Since we won’t be in a room, I’m unsure what to do. I’ll have to re-calibrate my calculations.”
“Our mission is to get lithium?” I ask, just wanting to be clear on this, since I’m feeling weirdly confused.
“Honey, I know you’ve been in storage for decades, but try to get with the program. Yes, we need the lithium to keep our batteries going. Lithium is sometimes used as battery anode material (high electrochemical potential) and lithium compounds are used in dry cells and storage batteries.”
I nod at him just to let him know I’m listening, but have no idea what he’s going on about. Lithium, batteries, and some mine and lake in Nevada. The panicky feeling is welling up again and I’m wondering how I’m going to get away from this lunatic out in the middle of nowhere.
“See, the energy levels that result from the fluorine spin-rotation term alone then simplify, the lithium nuclear quadrupole interaction, is a scalar product of the rank – remember, this is field gradient – not some pure hermetically-sealed laboratory shit. The problem is that the vibrational shift in frequency nearly matches the separation due to the Li nuclear quadrupole interaction, so the vibrational state makes the deconvolution procedure less effective. Oh, sorry.” He chuckles at my glazed-over expression. “I forgot – you’re an antiquated X2R series and can’t possibly follow me.” He laughs derisively. “The full Hamiltonian matrix was not obtained.” He looks at me expectantly. “No? Never mind. This stuff is way beyond your ken, I can see that. You should see the look on your face.”
“No need to be such a smug little shit,” I say and don’t care what his reaction is. “Apparently you need me or I’d still be locked in some closet.”
“Oh, please, don’t even think about trying to have a data contest with me. I am the king of factoids. Besides, I’m the latest model and therefore have the most up-to-date information.”
“So, you’re an android?” I pretty much state this, rather than ask.
“Android is so last century,” he says haughtily. “I am an anatomically correct Cybernetic3K.”
“Oh, so sorry for my ignorant gaffe,” I say and wonder if my sarcasm is lost on him. “If you’re not human, why did you have to take a leak before?”
“Ha! You caught me. I’ve been nipping at the anti-freeze in the solar panels.”
“That can’t be good for you.” I caution.
“Maybe not. But the buzz is lovely.”
I didn’t think it was a good idea to have Brace buzzing on anti-freeze especially if I have another visual anomaly and see a Stegosaurus galloping towards the car.”
“Alright, let’s turn our attention to the matter at hand,” Brace announces in his officious manner. “I think I need to ride up top for a while.”
“On the roof?”
“Yes. I’ll do an SPT.”
I hate to have to ask, but don’t know. “What’s that?”
He chuckles. “See? You don’t know everything, do you?”
“I never said I knew everything. Besides, you could just make stuff up and pretend it’s been around. What’s SPT?”
“Solar Powered Transference.” He clambers up onto the roof of the car, lays flat on his back and plugs himself into the solar panels.
I stand, hands on hips, watching him. “If you can do that, why are we going all the way to some lake in Nevada for lithium?”
“You’re so cute. I can’t really blame you for your lack of intelligence. I hope you’re extrapolating as we go along. SPT is only a stop gap measure, I assure you. I’ll start to feel sluggish again about an hour after I unplug myself. I am cybernetically accurate. I could pass for a human much better than you.”
“Perhaps, but you’re scratch resistant – humans aren’t. And what about your reaction to water above room temperature? Leave the solar panels alone.”
“Just drive,” he says and closes his eyes. He reaches an arm and knocks on the windshield, signaling for me to resume driving.
“What if I have another glitch?” I ask and get behind the steering wheel.
“No wonder you were kept locked in a closet. You are such a neurotic droid.”