All My Friends Are Strangers
Cheryl drove down a narrow, unlit highway through the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. Sophie leaned her head on the passenger side window and stared at the reflection of the dashboard display in the glass. Hunter was splayed out on the back seat, asleep. Cheryl turned and pulled down a thin, ill defined dirt road lined tight on both sides with towering cedars and pulled up to a small house in minor disrepair. Behind it was a barn with light pouring out of the open doors.
“Is he up already?” Sophie asked.
“Probably hasn’t gone to sleep yet,” Cheryl replied pulling up to the barn. “What do we do about Toshiro Miphony back there?”
“We should get introductions out of the way,” Sophie said leaning over the seat, poking Hunter.
“You’re serious about bringing this stoner in?”
“At this point he’s in whether anybody likes it or not, I’m afraid. Wrong place, wrong time. Besides he’s pretty scary with that thing.”
“He looks like he’s barely holding it together half the time,” Cheryl stepped out of the car and shut the door.
Hunter bolted upright with snort and swiveled his head, “Where the hell are we?”
“Jersey,” Sophie replied. “Carl’s.”
Hunter stumbled from the vehicle and staggered toward the barn, squinting in the hanging lights that penetrated his amber lenses. He lit a cigarette and scratched his head. Hunter looked in and saw an elephant holding a car above its head.
“Carl,” Sophie called as she sprinted toward the barn.
The elephant turned its head revealing it to be a man of monumental proportions. He placed the car gently back on the ground and grinned wide.
Sophie ran up hugged the giant by the waist.
“Good to see you too, Soph,” Carl said patting her on the back.
Sophie craned her head back, “Can I come up?”
“Always,” Carl laughed and held out his hand. Sophie hopped into his hand and he put her on his shoulder. She perched there like a cat in tree, “How’s the Chariot,” he said to Cheryl, “New finish holding up?”
“Yeah about that,” Cheryl replied. "I kinda got rear ended."
“Made a guy rear end you,” Sophie chimed, “A Vyxco security agent.”
“That wasn’t you what made all that commotion in Port Richmond last night, was it?” Carl joked, cocking his head toward Sophie.
“Maybe,” she replied.
“Let’s take a look then,” Carl walked out and examined the Chariot, “There’s a lot of spider webbing. I can tweak the mixture a little, see if we can’t make it a little stronger. In the meantime, it’s not going to take too many more knocks back here.”
“I’ll try and make them hit other parts, then,” said Cheryl.
“Who’s the zombie,” Carl motioned toward Hunter.
Hunter was staring at Carl with his cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, two inches of ash clinging tight.
“Sophie found a stray,” Cheryl replied as she tapped out a message on her phone.
“Oh,” Sophie blurted, “Sorry, that’s Hunter. He kinda got tangled up in last night’s adventure. Hunter, this is Carl.”
“Extra points for still being alive,” said Carl, “Does he do anything besides stare and drool?”
“Show him your trick,” Cheryl said engrossed in her phone.
Hunter continued to stare then snapped his head toward Cheryl, still looking at Carl, “I don’t think I can.”
“It’s worn off.”
“What do mean by ‘worn off’?”
“I think I can only do it after I eat mushrooms.”
“You want to order a pizza? It’s four thirty in the morning.”
“No. Shrooms. Boomers, liberty caps.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Cheryl yelled, looking up from her phone, “Can only do that shit tripping balls? You were tripping last night?”
“Yeah. Pretty fucking out there too,” he gestured toward Carl, “In fact I’m still hallucinating, I think.”
“No he’s real. And I’m about to ask him to break your spine and throw you in the swamp.”
“This forest is full of mushrooms,” Carl offered, “Guys in Allman brothers shirts are always dragging trash bags full of 'em out of here.”
“I’m pretty sure they have to be the kind my friend grows,” said Hunter, “And when we get back in Philly, I can get more.”
“Who’s we?” said Cheryl, “You’re walking.”
“Oh, c’mon, Cher,” Sophie hopped down from Carl’s shoulder, “You saw it.”
“Yeah, that’s not the point. The point is, do we really want to take on a guy who has to be faced to useful? I’m not…” her phone rang out ‘Hammerhead’ by Simon Haseley. She looked and sighed, “Now this person. I have to take this,” she walked into the barn.
“Okay, so when you’re shrooming,” Carl said grinning, “What happens?”
“We need to be at the aquarium by nine,” Cheryl said walking back from the barn, “We have a meeting. I’m picking up strays now too.”
“Who is it?” asked Sophie.
“Somebody e-mailed me a few days ago. Said they read my blog and they know it’s all true, blah blah, blah. I just ignored it. I get another one tonight saying Vyxco is trying to kill him. I told him to be at the aquarium nine sharp.”
“Want to hook up Daisy May?” Carl asked.
“That would be really great to have some backup. Who knows if it’s a Vyxco set up? They usually don’t operate outside of the city, but lately they’ve gone homicidal over Soph.”
Daisy May was a trailer large enough for Carl to fit inside. It was air conditioned with a television and a radio. Carl gave the interior gyroscopic mounting and had replaced the shock absorbers with something of his own design. The ride felt like sliding on ice. The top popped open so he could stand up and enjoy the breeze in his face. The tableau this presented gave Cheryl’s car the name, The Chariot.
Simon Vyx sat dwarfed behind his expansive white desk. The surface was translucent and backlit; the glow exaggerated his worried face as he stared into it.
“Anything I can get for you, Mr. Vyx?” asked his assistant Kyle.
Vyx looked startled and sat up straight, “Oh no, Kyle. Nothing thank you.”
“Has everything been alright, sir? You’ve been looking anxious lately.”
“Yes. Everything is fine, Kyle. Thank you.”
“Okay, sir. I’ll leave you to your thoughts, then.”
“Yes. No. Kyle? I feel I need to confide in someone.”
“Sure,” Kyle was hesitant.
“Thank you. I won’t bore you with details. There’s things you don’t need to know, that you can’t know. Nobody can. But suffice it to say, I made a deal with a man years ago. He promised me exactly what I wanted. In exchange, I would give him my services. Lately it seems his demands are becoming taxing.”
“You can’t decline?”
“That’s where those details come in.”
“What does he want you to do?”
“He wants me to run for political office.”
Vyx pointed his index finger upward.
Vyx kept his finger up.
Vyx remained pointing.
Vyx gave a quick nod.
“Why not?” Kyle asked, “You built an empire from nothing, you’re a philanthropist, you’re well know, well liked, well respected. It doesn’t sound that crazy. Did he tell you why?”
“As I’ve elected to withhold certain details from you, he has elected to do the same with me.”
“Are you doing it?”
“I have no choice. He wants me to make the announcement this afternoon.”
Cheryl pulled into the lot for the aquarium with Carl’s trailer in tow. The lot was vacant and the aquarium seemed unoccupied.
“Is this place even open?” asked Sophie, leaning out the passenger side window.
“I don’t know, I didn’t check,” replied Cheryl parking, “I never planned a ‘rendezvous’ before.”
“Who are we even looking for?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t get that info either. Maybe it’s that stiff over there,” she motioned toward a thin man in a suit that looked it might have been crisp three days ago. He was standing near the entrance and glancing at his watch in a manic rhythm. He pulled out his phone and dialed. Cheryl’s phone rang.
“At least our books will be in order,” Sophie snickered.
Cheryl looked glared at Sophie, “You’re the reason Sword Wavy Gravy is nodding in the back seat.”
“Maybe he can audit the bad guys,” Hunter chimed.
“Quiet,” Cheryl snapped and turned her phone on speaker, “Hello.”
“I’m here,” Ian’s baritone croaked as he gulped, “Where are you?”
“Quite possibly in the only car in the lot,” Cheryl replied. Sophie stuck her hand out the window.
Ian approached, leaned over and stuck his open hand in the window, “Hi, my name’s I...ah,” he stammered, “The Piper, The Piper.”
“Backseat with the hobo,” Cheryl said, releasing seat and leaning forward.
“Where are we going?” Ian asked, still leaning in the window.
“You can ask questions in the car.”
In the distance a sound began to grow, like someone slamming trashcans on the ground in a brisk march time. Ian stood up and looked for a source. He found a bronze chimera of mechanical parts bolted together in a bulky, humanoid form. It had a slit across what could be described as its head, from which a red light glowed. Its arms were articulated to the point where they bent like tentacles. It was charging for the car.
“Is this one of you guys?” Ian asked.
“Get in,” Cheryl shouted.
A light strobed from the robot’s chest. Cheryl turned the key and the car sat quiet. She turned the key a couple more times with the same result.
“Shit,” she said and scrambled from the car. Sophie darted out behind her.
The top of Daisy May swung open and Carl stood up, “What happened? Everything went out.”
The robot swung its arm and it extended toward Cheryl. A claw on the end opened. Carl grabbed the arm, turned and launched it toward the river. The robot dragged a claw on the ground, slowing its flight. Its feet hit the ground. It skidded backward and came to a stop. It continued to home in on Cheryl. Carl charged and landed a haymaker, denting the dome of the robot’s head. It fell to the ground and pieces broke from its frame. Where a part had broken, tiny mechanical spiders emerged carrying bits of metal. As they converged on the damage their legs vibrated and churned. Just as fast as they had emerged, they retreated and the damage was repaired. The chimera lifted Carl and threw him into the car, which shook as it was pushed sideways on its tires. Ian stepped in front of Cheryl holding his flutes. He waved one through air and pointed it at the robot, he played a hypnotic melody as it swung. The robot paused and made a derisive noise. It jabbed at Ian and he parried. They traded blows, stepping forward and backward, until the robot clamped the flutes in its pinchers and tossed them to the side, On the backswing it knocked Ian away. It stepped toward Cheryl and Hunter flicked his cigarette at it from the backseat. It bounced to the ground. Cheryl shot it with her taser. Electrical arcs hopped around its torso. It slumped and the red glow dimmed accompanied by an electric whine. Cheryl leaned in to look closer and the robot reanimated. It pinned Cheryl against her car and leaned its face close to hers.
“To Miss Ellers, with love,” it buzzed in an erratically modulating drone. Words began to crawl across the red glowing slot.
Tabula Rasa 2.0
“That’s my code,” Cheryl snapped.
“And you will see what it is capable of, Miss Ellers,” the robot crackled, “Witness a demonstration of the big potential that your thinking was too small to see.”
Tabula Rasa stepped back from Cheryl, turned and launched itself across the river and into the city of Philadelphia.
“Everybody back in the car,” she yelled, stuffing Ian into the backseat, “Not bad Piper. Hey, Useless? Where do we have to go to make you un-useless?”