by Roderick D. Turner
"You see it?"
Jackie's long blond hair streams out behind her like a billowing flag. The black beetle sunglasses make her eyes look huge, shrink her features. Still not sure I like them. I brush back a strand of my own hair, tuck it under my headband.
"I see everything," I say, laughing. It's a gentle yell, needs to be over the blast of air. I weave the Mustang in and out of lanes, threading gaps, feeling the rush. Top down, the sun beats on us in the wind of our passage. We've been waiting for this a long time.
"What was it? Dirigible?"
I glance at her then, not sure. "Maybe." I didn't see anything. Better to just let it go.
"They make them with weird shapes these days," she says. "Maybe a balloon. Saw one like a peanut the other day."
We switch highways, a little red Mazda top-down whizzing by us as we take the ramp. Glimpse of a black kerchief, tinted shades, short brown hair. Flash of an easy white smile. He's gone, doing at least two hundred.
"You catch that guy?"
"Joyrider," she says. Smiling at me. High fiving it, we're in his wake, I rev the 'stang up and push it hard. Makes an easy two forty, I know this baby has more if I really let it loose. But he's back in sight, perfect threading traffic, and I'm on his case.
"Radar." Jackie taps the scanner. Three K ahead, we're almost in range. I slow alongside our red friend, two finger salute. Step up to two sixty, leaning on the wheel, angling for the next exit. Then I'm gearing down, smooth on the brakes as we sail along the ramp, just out of radar range, roll up to the light. Skin tingling and alive.
The Mazda eases up beside us.
"Fancy driving, ladies," he says. There's a thin dark mustache and cowboy tie, bright blue shirt buttoned down neat. Eyebrows raised. "Dodging radar?"
I smile. "Could be," I say.
"Join me for lunch?"
It's eleven AM. I laugh back at him, Jackie just looking the other way. "Sorry. Busy." The light goes green, I pull away slow and let him pass. We head south, but I turn right at the next corner. Turn south again and hit the west edge of the Sprall. Our name for it, Shopping Spree Mall, a full day once a year to go wild, blow some money and take a few risks.
I see it, as we turn into the parking lot. Kind of hazy, floating right above the Import Emporium. Looks close, like it's near ground level, but I can't focus on it. I almost steer the car into a pole.
Jackie's voice snaps me out of it. "It's OK," I say. There's plenty of spaces. Slide into a spot, turn and look. Nothing.
"You really all right?" she asks.
"The dirigible," I say. "The one you saw."
"Yeah. What about it?"
"How high was it?"
"Maybe twenty, thirty meters," she says. "Hard to tell."
"What do you mean?"
"Kind of -- blurry." She has this strange look on her face, like for just a second she's not really here. "They must have used some weird paint. Camouflage or something."
I nod. "That must be it." But I know it isn't. Nagging at me, a feeling that things are different. Then I get it. "No cars, Jackie." How could I not notice? Distracted by the balloon. "The parking lot's deserted."
Jackie looks at me like I'm crazy. She gestures around us. "The lot's almost full. What are you talking about?" Then she sees it too. Confusion in her eyes. "Nobody else but us in this lot," she says. Just hearing it, spoken aloud, gives me the shivers. Not a single car, not a solitary person is in motion. And as I look, it's not just the lot. The streets beyond are still, like they've been immobilized. Stopped in mid action. Cars in normal traffic flow, none of them moving. Pedestrians crossing the street, frozen in mid stride. Like time has stopped, all around us. Except for us.
"What the fuck," I whisper.
I'm out of the car, scanning the sky. It has to have something to do with the balloon. The dirigible. Whatever we both saw.
"Did you see it again?" I ask. "Here at the mall?"
We're heading for the main doors, and now we notice the shoppers, walking towards us. Walking away from us. Oscillating back and forth, in a closed cycle of motion. Many others, all completely motionless. But these two...
We stand for a second, staring. I touch the shorter woman, dumpy and affluent, on the arm. She's soft and flabby, the flesh warm. Alive, but not here. Not really here. My arms have goosebumps now. Watching the taller woman's mouth moving, slowly, open and shut, tongue shaping words that I don't hear. Then, unshaping them again.
"Why them?" I ask, at last. Turning to Jackie. "Why us?"
Jackie shrugs, but looking at her, over her shoulder, I begin to get an idea. Down the aisle of the lot, already moving towards us, is a red Mazda.
"The balloon," I say again. "Did you see it here?"
"No. Only on the highway."
I keep an eye on the Mazda as it creeps in our direction, but I'm searching the sky again. The adrenaline rush is fading, and I can feel myself slowing down. "It's the high," I say. Not looking at her, the guy from the Mazda stepping out of his car and closing the door. "From driving, the rush. Our emotions, our adrenaline." I glance at the two shoppers. "Shopping high, I guess."
"You ladies do something?" Mazda man is beside us. He looks -- almost scared. Watching the oscillating shoppers like they're from Mars. Maybe they are.
"Did you see a balloon?" I say. "Kind of U shaped. Like a boomerang."
Now he's looking at me, like I'm out of my mind. "A balloon?" He points at the shopping ladies. "What the fuck do I care about a balloon, with the world standing still?" He's freaking, and he's bigger than me.
"Hey." Jackie, on the other hand, is about his size. Toned, trained, and dangerous. A good person to have on your side. She taps him on the shoulder, none too gently. "Get a grip. Whatever happened, the three of us, we're in it together. So calm the fuck down, and let's figure this out."
I nod at her, and she tilts her head the way she does, a little smirk on her lips. The moving shoppers are making me uneasy, and it takes me a second to figure why. They're moving faster, and I'm beginning to hear the tall one's voice. Either that, or --
"We're slowing down," I say. They both look at me, but Mazda man is faster. "Am I going in slow motion?" I ask. "Are my words slurred?"
He's calmed enough to be thinking again. "Yeah," he says. "Your voice is playing back at slow speed."
"And you sound like a fucking chipmunk," Jackie says.
"You better start pissing me off really fast or I'll stop, just like everyone else." I look Mazda man in the eye. "You slimy piece of crap." My fist snakes out, I hit him in the jaw and he reacts. Almost before I touch him he plants an elbow in the side of my head, and I'm raging mad now, shrieking and scratching, yelling at the top of my voice. Jackie gets into it, realization dawning. A few seconds and we have Mazda man on the ground, bleeding from the nose and nicely bruised in a dozen places. But now, we're all at normal speed again. I get up, pull Jackie back, reach down to help him to his feet.
"Don't even think about forgiving me," I say. "We need to keep this up. Let our rage die, we die." I point to the shoppers. "Like them. Stuck. Probably for good."
"You cow-faced little bitch." Mazda man wipes a hand over his face, spits blood across my now-crumpled white blouse. I know I have plain looks, but a woman never likes to hear her low self-opinion reflected back at her. That and the blood on my blouse keep my anger boiling. I smile at him.
"Welcome to the team," I say. Tapping my own chest. "Monica." Slapping Jackie gently across the cheek. "And Jackie." He's about to reply but I hold up my hand. "We'll just call you Mazda."
"So, brains of the outfit," he says. "What now?"
"The balloon," I say. "Did you see it?"
"I saw something, hovering over the Mall," he says. "Didn't pay much attention."
"Is it still there?"
He looks up, scans the structure. Slows at one spot, close to the entrance. Points. "I think I see it."
We're all looking now, and Jackie nods. I make out a faint shape, then as I look at it directly it becomes clearer. Only about five meters above the roof. Like a horseshoe floating up there, maybe fifteen meters long on each arm.
"We check it out," I say.
"How in Hell do we get up to it?"
I turn to my friend. She winks at me. Smiles across at Mazda.
"Let's get on the roof, and we'll see what Jackie can do."
Inside the mall it's immobile shoppers everywhere, doors wide to every store, everything up for grabs and nobody to stop us. The shopping urge pulls at me, but the urgency just pumps me up. We find the stairs and climb, break open the roof access, ignore the alarms as we walk out across the tarred surface. The horseshoe is there, and we stand beneath it looking for a way in. There's a hatch, right at the bottom of the U, facing the open end of the curve. Jackie takes a running leap, stretches her one eighty five full length and grabs the edge of the hatch. We're under her, holding her feet. A few seconds of probing and we're in, the hatch sliding sideways into the frame. She crawls inside and helps us up.
It's like a big oval corridor, heading in both directions. We can't see any doors. I lead the way, round one of the arms towards the tip. There's a soft hum, the whole corridor throbbing gently. The passage is dark but it lights, walls glowing as we move through and fading out as we pass. The end of the arm is a window over a flashy control panel, a set of illuminated touch pads with etched labels. "Holy shit," I whisper. "It's a space ship or something."
"Or something." The guy appears behind us, out of nowhere. He's wearing a military type uniform, with black lightning bolt insignia. Mazda's at the back and he's staring the dude in the face.
"I'm impressed," uniform guy says. "You're the first to work out what's going on. The first to break through as far as the ship."
"And what exactly is going on?" I say. "What the fuck are you doing up here? This hunk of metal in the sky isn't just hanging about watching. You're tampering with time, right?"
"Crudely speaking, yes. And I'm afraid it's a top military secret. We're not going to be able to release you."
"So bring us into the fold, buddy. We already deciphered the plot. This whole experiment of yours, learning how to immobilize the enemy. Pretty effective way to win a war -- if nobody figures it out."
He stands for a second as if listening. Then "Yes sir," he says. Eyes me, ignoring Mazda. "You and your friend, young lady. The General is interested in you."
Mazda looks from uniform guy to me. I nod. "Just hit him, Mazda," I say. And he tries, really hard. But hits nothing. A hologram, or a projection. I glare back at the image.
"All of us," I say. I glance at Jackie for confirmation. "We're all in, or none of us are."
There's another pause as uniform guy listens. Then the lights down the corridor wink on, getting closer. A group of six soldiers come trotting towards us. Their guns leveled. "Under oath," says the guy in front. "You will not tell anyone of this incident." He gestures and a skinny guy walks up from the back, carrying a case. Opens it, and it's filled with these big hypodermics.
"No you're not," I say. "None of that injection shit."
"It's this, or you all disappear into military prison." Skinny guy picks up one of the hypos, and it looks really strange. No liquid I can see inside the barrel. "It's not like you're thinking. This is an implant. Transceiver, monitor, a few other things. Goes in behind the ear," he turns to show us a tiny mark on his own skull. "You'll hardly feel it."
Mazda steps up. "I'll go first," he says. Skinny guy has him injected inside ten seconds, and Mazda only shakes his head a little, then smiles at us. "Least I could do."
So we each take our turn, not really any choice. And now I guess we're official military personnel. The General tells his goons to let us go, but he says they're listening. They'll take us in if we blow our cover. Some weird kind of new job if you ask me, but they assure us they`ll be in contact. Yeah, right.
But it turns out OK for all of us, at least for today. They keep their machine running for another couple hours, over the mall. These little implants keep us accelerated -- an hour for us is a second for normal people. The two women stuck in half-ass accel mode, we watch Skinny guy reset them so they freeze up like the rest.
Me and Jackie get a two hour Spree on the military while everyone else barely blinks.
And Mazda -- well, he takes his one chance to hit the streets as the only car that's not immobilized.
Now that's moving.
© 2011 Roderick D. Turner
Bio: Roderick D. Turner says "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Better like it, or why bother? Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over the story, almost literally writing the story themselves. It's a rush." Several of Mr. Turner's stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Open All Hours, May 2011.
E-mail: Roderick D. Turner
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