Aphelion Issue 253, Volume 24
August 2020
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

It Just Started Making this Strange Noise

by Frank Hill

Miniature dust devils whirled down the road in the midday heat coming off the softening asphalt gathering and moving anything loose. If you looked close at the sign out front, you could just make out the name, Pop’s Garage, on the sand blasted metal. The constant wind scours away the paint almost as fast as it can be replaced.

Pete McCready, “Pop” to all the locals, had already finished a turbine oil change on Glen Smith’s convertible and replaced the injectors in an ancient diesel loader owned by the local gravel quarry. He was wiping his hands clean on a red shop towel and thinking about a cold grape soda sitting in that rocking chair under the canopy. His antique soda cooler that circulated ice cold water around the bottles used ten times the power to run than any solid-state unit, but it could make a soda really, really cold. He opened the heavily insulated lid, selected his favorite and maneuvered it through the metal maze to the delivery gate as he dropped an old metal nickel from the tin into the coin slot. Pulling the frosty bottle upward through the gate and walking to the rocking chair in the shade of the canopy, he skillfully removed the bottle cap on the metal edge of the support column. Pop took an icy sip and slowly sat down in the heavy wooden rocker with a sigh.

With his eyes closed, Pop mentally ticked off a list of jobs and chores completed and still to be done. “OK, I’m caught up for jobs promised and this is already Wednesday so I’ve got to get the office cleaned up before Mabel comes Thursday to do the books.” Mabel ran the beauty shop in town while doing accounting and financial planning work on the side. She owned her shop, handled the books for a half dozen other outfits, knew all the latest gossip in the county while singing in the church choir and still managed to volunteer time in the community.

Pop had no idea how she did it but he knew Mabel was just one of those folks happier with lots of irons in the fire. On the positive side, Pop was confident that the garage was financially sound if Mabel ran the numbers and he hated doing the books with a passion.

“OK, the garage is booked solid tomorrow and Friday in light work and oil changes, and I’ve got to clean the restrooms and sort the last delivery of parts.” Pop took another sip of the ice cold grape soda as he listened to the wind. There is an old saying: When you own your own business, you can work any hours you want… either the daylight 12 or the midnight 12. Pop had slept in the office on some of the real long days.

Pop had a partner when the garage first opened back in 2115 named Steve Cantrell but he got involved in something else and needed money so he begged Pop to buy him out. It was hard taking on the debt while doing twice the work but everything happens for the best in the end. Heh, Mabel told him there was no rest for the wicked.

When it came through the tunnel under the inter-state, the hollow echo of the high-pitched engine sounded like a bullet bike or one of those hyper sports cars, but it sounded “off” somehow. Working by sound only, he made a game of identifying the make and model of a vehicle before it went by the station and out of sight. Just as he was about to run out of time to solve the puzzle, the engine rpm dropped suddenly and a low-slung exotic blue sports car of a model he did not recognize wheeled into the drive. He reluctantly left the comfort of his rocker in the shade and walked out to greet the customer in the strange car.

The window of the car rolled down smoothly to reveal the smiling face of a young female driver.

“Hi. Welcome to Pop’s Garage,” I said. “I’m Pete McCready but everybody calls me Pop. What can I do for you?”

“Well, uh, Pop,” she said a little uncertainly. “It just started making this strange noise that I’ve never heard before and I thought something might be wrong. Can you look at it for me?”

“Sure, I can. Release the hood latch so I can look it over.” The hood popped and I eventually found the safety latch over on the side in an odd position. As the hood came up to reveal the engine, I was stunned when I didn’t recognize a single part. I’ve been in this business a long time and I thought I’d seen every type of power plant on the road. I’ve worked on gas engines, diesel engines, turbines and hybrids running everything from liquid gasoline, diesel, propane or liquefied natural gas to straight electric and every combination of the above. This however, was something entirely different. The purpose of that row of red helical coils with the small yellow triangles on the sides was as mysterious as the six-sided metal tank sprouting shiny tubes that disappeared behind the firewall.

I leaned around the edge of the raised hood and asked a little sheepishly, “Miss? Can you rev the engine just a little?” As the RPM came up smoothly, there was no mistaking it, I heard it again; that “off” sound, not a squeak but more like a squeal. Something didn’t sound right about this engine and I had virtually no idea where to start. Was it an Exhaust leak? A vacuum leak? A compression leak? Or something else altogether?

“Miss? Why don’t you have a seat in the office where it’s cooler while I have a look at your car?” I suggested. “Who makes this model?” I asked feeling awkward and hoping it didn’t show.

“Well, that’s a little hard to explain. You see, I bought it off a used car lot from a funny little salesman about six hundred miles north after the engine in my old car quit. Since I was stuck, and it was such a good deal and it looked like it was in great shape, I just handed him my credit chip. It ran great until it started making that noise. Pop, did I get cheated?” she said sounding worried.

“Hold on, don’t get yourself all worked up,” I offered. This might just be something simple and we could have you on your way in no time. You just have a seat inside where it’s cool and let me figure this out for you, OK?”

“OK, Pop, and thank you,” she said over her shoulder as she retrieved a purse from behind the seat and walked into the shadow of the canopy over the pumps.

I sat down behind the wheel and scanned the dashboard with almost as much confusion as I experienced under the hood. The gauges and indicator lights labeled with strange script I’d never seen before made me wonder, “Who made this thing anyway?” I tend to talk to myself when I’m trying to figure something out so it was just a coincidence that I happened to say out loud, “How am I going to fix this?” That’s when things got a little strange.

The dash display screen went dark and strange characters began scrolling rapidly across it from right to left. When I simply sat and watched, it changed to a different set of unknown characters but still scrolled rapidly right to left. I thought quickly and said, “Standard English, please,” hoping against hope. After a long pause, a single question scrolled slowly across the screen from left to right. “Maintenance?” it inquired and displayed a green “Yes” and a red “No” button. When I immediately pressed the green “Yes” button, the screen cleared and was replaced by a color graphic in the unmistakable outline of the car from the top and bottom. The bottom graphic displayed a prominent blinking red “X” on that strange engine. When I touched the display, it zoomed in to a specific spot on the side of the engine and the red “X” blinked faster. “Hmph. On board diagnostics and a fault finder. I wish everything I worked on was this helpful.”

At least the steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator were in familiar positions and worked as expected allowing me to drive the car into a service bay. I took another long look at that graphic with the rapidly blinking red “X” and raised the car up on the hoist till I could walk under it with a trouble light.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by now to find no exhaust system or visible drive shafts or anything familiar underneath for that matter. Everything behind the engine compartment was sealed tight as a drum and nothing short of a can opener or a torch was going to open it. I focused my attention on the bottom of the engine about where the display had put that “X” and gingerly probed up alongside the engine. To my continued amazement, the engine was cool to the touch even though I had just turned it off.

“Hey Pop!” the girl called from the open bay door. “Can I buy one of those cold sodas from your machine? There’s no scanner or credit chip dip to pay for it.”

“It’s an antique. It only takes old metal nickels. There’s a tin of them on the shelf above the machine. Help yourself, it’s on the house,” Pop replied from under the car.

“Gee thanks, Pop! You having any luck finding my noise?” she inquired.

“Not yet,” Pop replied a little hesitantly.

“OK, thanks again!” the girl called from the bay door.

When Pop turned back to continue his inspection of the engine from underneath, a skittering, scraping sound made him pull his hand back quickly. Using the trouble light, he peered up into the engine from a safer vantage point and was about to call it imagination when he saw something move. Pop stayed real quiet as he reached over to pick up a good-sized pair of channel lock pliers just in case. He was still working out a plan when a foot-long green fuzzy tail dropped out of that space beside the engine accompanied by more skittering and scraping sounds. Pop reached out with the channel lock pliers, grabbed that tail none too gently and something started thrashing around up in there and squealing in protest. He slowly pulled one of the oddest critters free of that engine he had ever seen. It was covered with mottled fur the color of dark green summer grass with lighter green stripes.

Pop couldn’t be sure because of all the thrashing and commotion, but he was pretty sure he saw six legs.

Pop dropped the pliers releasing the loudly complaining and struggling hitchhiker in surprise and it promptly ran out the open bay door to disappear around the corner. Pop had picked up a short pry bar when he dropped the pliers for more “leverage” in case the altercation became more involved. Pop stood in the open bay door, pry bar at the ready, cautiously peering in the direction the critter had disappeared when the girl walked out of the office with an ice-cold orange soda.

“Hey Pop! That was the noise I heard! What did you find?” asked the girl innocently.

A hundred yards behind the station, the green critter paused long enough to sniff curiously at a mudpuddle before hesitantly lapping up the water with its long yellow tongue. After a few seconds, it went rigid and its eyes glazed. It rapidly inflated, expanding with gas like a furry green beach ball. When the inflation reached all the way to the tip of its tail, the critter reached neutral buoyancy and floated away on the breeze like a runaway party balloon.

“I think I found the problem but I’ve still got to check one more thing to be sure,” Pop replied with returning confidence.

“Alright!” said the girl enthusiastically. Hey Pop, this is the best orange soda I’ve ever tasted, real cold too.”

“Yep. That one was called Orange Crush,” Pop replied. “My favorite is Grape Crush.”

Pop lowered the car to the ground, opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat again. The color graphic of the car was still on the display, but the blinking red “X” was gone. When Pop touched the display, the graphic disappeared and “Maintenance?” scrolled across the display with the now familiar green “Yes” and red “No” buttons. After a short hesitation, Pop selected the green “Yes” button to run the diagnostic again in case the green hitch-hiker wasn’t the only problem.

The display cleared and after a short pause, a series of diagnostic command prompts with multiple status indicators scrolled rapidly across it. The display filled quickly causing line items to index out of view but Pop’s eyes bugged out when it ran through propulsion, life support, navigation and an extensive selection of armament! As the diagnostic completed, the display blanked and then “All Systems Nominal” scrolled slowly across to be replaced by the original confusing array of gauges and indicator lights on the dashboard. Pop squinted at a couple of the indicators on the dashboard before pulling out his reading glasses for a closer look.

Well I’ll be. Look at that! All the labels are in English now! But what in the world is an “Aperture Temperature” or a “Plasma Density” or a, uh-oh, “Deuterium Reserve - 2%.” Pop quickly looked over the rest of the indicators and found what he was looking for at the bottom left corner of the dashboard. Blue letters, “HO Level – 1%”, “OK, fine. We know what you want but where do we put it?” Pop said out loud expectantly.

The display blanked to be replaced by another color graphic of the driver’s side of the car with the old red “X” blinking away on the rear fender. Pop hopped out to look but wasn’t surprised at all to find a small hatch had opened in the top of the fender to reveal a recessed standard water intake fitting with a small blue light next to it. Pop was fairly sure that regular tap water would be OK, but he ran it through a filter first anyway. It took about ten gallons before the blue light began to flash and he shut the flow off. When he removed the hose, the hatch slid forward indexing up into the opening with such a tight fit that he could no longer find it. When Pop returned to the driver’s seat, the “HO Level” was up to 97% and the “Deuterium Reserve” was at 6% and rising.

“Um-hm,” Pop said under his breath with his hand on his chin as he began to understand. Pop ticked off items on his fingers saying, “You understand spoken commands in a variety of languages using technology that I’m sure doesn’t exist in the public sector. I suspect you have a fusion engine and you refine your own Deuterium from tap water.

You can probably operate, navigate and fight in a hostile atmosphere using life support in a sealed cabin to protect your young human pilot.”

“But I’ve got just one more question,” Pop said slowly. The display darkened and “Proceed” scrolled slowly across. “Are you an AI, a real honest-to-goodness, high order Artificial Intellect or are you a sentient being in your own right that just happens to reside in a machine?” Pop asked hesitantly. After a long pause, “Yes” scrolled slowly across the display. “Right, OK then. I guess you’ve got just as much right to your secrets as anybody else, maybe more considering. You take good care of that little girl. It’s been a pleasure having you here at Pop’s Garage and you’re welcome back anytime.”

One line of text scrolled slowly across the darkened display, “Thank You, she will always be safe with me”, before the dashboard changed back once more to the confusing maze of gauges and indicators. Pop sat quietly in the driver’s seat for a moment before stepping out of the car and carefully shutting the door.

As Pop walked into the office wiping his hands on a red shop towel the girl looked up from a magazine expectantly.

“All done. You’re ready to go”, Pop said with a smile.

“That’s great, Pop, but what did you find?” she asked with some trepidation.

“Oh, you just picked up something from the road that was making a noise. I removed it and now it sounds perfect again. Also, to answer your question earlier, you definitely did not get cheated,” Pop said seriously. “I’d say you got the deal of a lifetime, actually.”

“What do I owe you, Pop?” the girl said smiling.

“Nothing. It’s on the house. It’s been a pleasure having you here at Pop’s Garage and you’re welcome back anytime.”


2019 Frank Hill

Bio: Frank Hill is a grandfather who writes tales and tells stories.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.