Chapter Twelve


The Special Features Training Area

Toby and Clarissa left the track for broken, sorry, different, cars, and walked back to their cars. Toby felt a great weight of disappointment inside, as if he had finally found something special, and it had been cruelly taken away from him before he could enjoy it.

“I don’t think we’ll ever find the right place to train,” he said, his voice defeated. “The brown cars were too austere, the shiny cars didn’t train at all, you said the special features cars hardly bothered to drive, and now we’ve found the area for ‘different’ cars, we’re not allowed to train there. It feels hopeless.” Toby reached his car and slumped against the side.

“Any clever suggestions?”

Clarissa came near, and lightly punched his arm.

“Don’t be so gloomy! I agree, that looked like a good place to train, but like your mentor said, we can choose where to train, which must mean that it’s possible to train anywhere, otherwise we would all be told exactly where and how we should practise. I think you should come back to the special features training area. True, it doesn’t have the best training track in the world, and some drivers are only focussed on having a good time. But there is a track if you want to practise, and I think we’re allowed a little fun, otherwise we wouldn’t have been given the special features in the first place, would we? The Engineer must have put them there for a reason, and every car has one, something fun for the driver to enjoy. You might as well make the most of it. I don’t think your mentor would mind. . .”

“Oh him, Percy,” said Toby, his voice still gloomy. “I’m not sure he’s much good as a mentor. If he was such a good driver, why is he still here? Why hasn’t the Engineer called him to the real track? If he’s not ready after all this time, then he can’t be much of a driver at all, can he?”

Clarissa was still smiling, but her eye-brows were raised in an exasperated expression, and she was shaking her head from side to side. “Oh Toby! Stop being so melodramatic! And you’re wrong – about Percy, I mean. Sometimes the Engineer leaves a driver here, long after they’re good enough for the real track. He leaves them because they know things that can help other drivers. That’s why he’s a mentor, you numpty! I don’t especially. . .” she paused and looked at the sky. Sounds of crashes, very faint now, drifted over the walls to where they stood. “I don’t especially like Percy,” said Clarissa, her voice determined. “But I do think he’s probably a good driver. And I do think that perhaps he gives good advice.

“Anyway, will you come? Shall we go back to the special features area? I think you’ll like it.”

She stood, looking up into Toby’s eyes, her expression hopeful. He looked back at her, thinking that she was very pretty, and there was something about her that made him want to smile. Training with Clarissa would be fun, wherever they trained, and if she enjoyed the special features area, then perhaps he should just follow her and stop worrying about whether or not it would prepare him for the real track. After all, he had been supplied with the bubble button for a purpose, he may as well as enjoy it.

“Okay then,” said Toby, his voice resigned. “I’ll follow you.”

Clarissa reached up, and very lightly kissed his cheek. “Good decision,” she smiled, and skipped back to her own car.

***

They heard the special features area long before they reached it. As Toby drove along the road, which had become very wide and smooth, with a camber that helped to steer the car as he negotiated corners, sounds floated through his window. There were bells, and melody, and as he drove nearer, he could hear laughter and squeals of delight.

The special features area was entered through a large arch, and Toby drove under it, looking at the rainbow of colours that flashed over his car, changing the blue paintwork to purple, and brown and orange, before it emerged into the area looking plain blue again. He glanced down, and realised the paint was now clean – the arch must have incorporated a washing feature too, and his car gleamed. When he opened his door, the smell of blueberry pie wafted up, and he remembered Gerald and his strawberry scent, and realised that part of the car wash had included a colour-related scent. He sighed. Blueberry pie was not quite how he hoped his car would smell.

Toby had parked in the special features parking area. Each space was wide, and low walls separated each car. The walls had speakers, which spoke loudly, guiding the driver into the space, and then congratulating them loudly when the car was parked.

“Well done, Blueberry Driver!” Toby heard, as he opened his door. “That was excellent parking. Welcome to the special features area.”

He walked over to meet Clarissa, who was just opening her door.

“Well done Rose-Blossom Driver!” he heard. “That was excellent parking. Welcome to the special features area.”

Toby glanced at Clarissa’s car. The pink paint was shiny, and now smelt of roses (which he felt rather suited her) but it was parked within the space at an angle, the left wing touching the low wall. It was not, he thought, excellent parking at all. It was, he felt, nice to be complimented, and it made him feel good about his driving, but if everyone was complimented, no matter what their skill or lack of it, then he decided it could not be trusted. He decided to ignore all future praise as irrelevant.

Clarissa beamed up at him.

They give you such a nice welcome, don’t they?” she said, closing her door and leading the way into the area. “I think this is the best place to train. Honestly, you’ll love it here.”

Toby smiled at her, because he wanted her to be happy. “I will look around, and then decide,” he told himself. “There’s no harm in just looking.”

The pathway from the car park wound through flower beds and trees. Birds were singing, and there was music drifting from far away, and the sound of waves. When they rounded a corner, Toby saw the waves – the area was on the coast, and part of the road went right next to the sea. Waves crashed up the beach, breaking on the sand and running up towards the road before they ran out of energy and were drawn back to the ocean. There were palm trees growing along the edge of the road, casting dollops of shade on the road, and as he watched, a line of pelicans flew over the water, three of them, one after the other, searching for food.

“This is the rest area,” explained Clarissa, her smile satisfied, as if certain of Toby’s approval. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? A lovely place to relax after a long day driving.”

Toby nodded. “Where do the cars train though?” he asked, thinking that the coastal road looked very straight, there wouldn’t be much skill needed to drive along it, a driver wouldn’t learn anything.

“Don’t you want to stay a little while? Enjoy the view and rest?” said Clarissa, frowning at him.

“I’d rather see the training area,” said Toby. “It’s why we’ve come.”

Clarissa gave an impatient shrug, and took him to a footbridge that cross the road and headed inland. “We have a saying here,” she called over her shoulder as she led the way: “If it feels good, it must be right! So perhaps you should focus a little less on training and think about how you feel.”

Toby followed, staring over the training ground. There were booths where cars could be fitted with virtual experiences, and Toby watched a car as it drove onto the ramps and the driver attached wires, the windscreen facing a huge screen. The wheels then turned on the treadmill, and the screen showed different courses – some of them elevated so the car looked as if it was flying, while the driver inside swept the steering wheel from side to side, the car was rocked and jolted, and the engine whirred.

“But it’s not real,” thought Toby, peering over the side of the walkway, watching the driver’s animated face. “He feels like he’s having an amazing driving experience, but really his car is just on the ramps, he isn’t going anywhere. He can’t get anything wrong and risk damaging his car, because none of it is real. . .”

“Those simulators are brilliant for training,” said Clarissa, leaning over to see where Toby was looking.

Toby said nothing.

They continued along the walkway, and came to an area full of cars. They were all parked in a circle, their special features buttons were turned on, and each car was adding something different. Some were playing music, others were creating light-shows, some were puffing clouds of perfumed air, a white car was sending snowflakes into the sky above the drivers, and another was sending waves of feathers, that floated on the air currents, up and down, spiralling above the drivers before drifting down and resting on roofs and heads and underfoot in a soft coloured carpet. Toby watched, staring at the driver’s faces. They were all smiling, but he noticed a lack of excitement, as if they had done this many times before, there was no novelty to it, nothing different. There was not, Toby felt, much joy about the scene. He compared it to the area they had recently left, where the drivers had spent all day training, enduring difficult knocks and impossible trials, and then had come together to enjoy their special features. It had all felt so much more genuine.

“But I’m not allowed to train there,” he reminded himself. “That’s only for broken cars. . .”

“Look, there’s the training circuit,” said Clarissa, interrupting his thoughts and pointing to an area beyond the circle of drivers.

Toby could see a circuit, laid out like a race track, with start and finish lines. There were large car parks at each end, all full of drivers using their special features and having what looked like a party. A ‘before party’ and an ‘after party,’ thought Toby, shaking his head. The course itself had curves and hills, but only very gentle ones, with clear visibility, and warning signs flashed before each corner, giving recommended speeds and showing the gradient of the curve. “It wouldn’t take much skill to drive round that,” thought Toby. “All the hard work has been done all ready, the driver simply has to follow what the signs say, there are no decisions to make.”

Toby sighed. He wasn’t quite sure how to explain to Clarissa that he simply couldn’t stay here. He could see that it was attractive, there were lots of fun elements, but he didn’t think after a while that they would seem fun. He thought it all looked rather mundane and boring, and his driving wouldn’t improve at all. He turned to face her, and she smiled up at him, and he opened his mouth to start explaining, then stopped. He frowned.

Beyond Clarissa, behind her bouncing curls and her eager face, Toby noticed the sky. When they arrived, the sky had been blue, tiny white clouds scudding across it, the sun shining down. But not now. With no warning, there was large black cloud, gradually filling the sky, looming nearer and nearer. It crossed the sun, and Clarissa, noticing the shadow, spun around and gasped.

The cloud loomed ever nearer. It filled more and more of the sky, heavy and silent, grey and black, blotting out the blue sunshine, and the blue sky; everything that had been calm and peaceful appeared stark and cold. The sea changed from a gentle lapping to a furious crash, the birds were gone, the flowers and trees bending as a wind crept from the sky and whooshed towards them, pushing feathers and snowflakes in its wake. It pulled at their hair, so Clarissa’s curls were a long tangle of rat’s tails, and Toby felt his own hair sweeping over his eyes.

“We need to get back to the cars,” he shouted, taking Clarissa’s hand and starting to run.

Clarissa opened her mouth, but her words were snatched away, and there was a sudden crash of thunder, deep and rumbling, that burst from the cloud and boomed over the training area.

They started to run. Below them, Toby could see all the drivers running for their cars, the music drowned by the sounds of nature, the special features scattered by the wind. Lightening shot forth, breaking the sky, scarring their eyes with bright white light that left them blind for a second, slowing them as they ran. Toby kept hold of Clarissa’s hand. He was pulling her after him, the walkway they were running over trembled beneath them, shuddering as the wind buffeted it. He tasted salt, as the sea sent waves heaving over the beach, almost reaching the road, he ran on, his hand tight on Clarissa’s, his clothes pushed against him by the wind, his hair flying into his face, pulling into the sky, streaming back over his face.

They reached their cars, and Toby released Clarissa’s hand, watched as she flew to her car, tugged open the door, slid inside, even as he wrestled with his own door, struggling to close it behind him. As the door clicked shut, enclosing him safely in his car, muting the wind, the hail started. Great icy balls of ice, white stones of destruction, fell from the sky as if emptied from a giant bucket. They plummeted to earth, hitting road and tree and cars, bouncing as they landed, stuttering away to land somewhere else. Plants were broken, snapped and covered by the heavy balls of ice, which fell, one after the other, a great torrent of them, pelting the earth as if thrown, smashing glass, denting metal, bouncing for a moment, then lying still, in a bulbous heap of glistening white.

Toby huddled down behind the steering wheel, listening as his car was pelted, watching as chips appeared on the windscreen, depressions were carved onto the bonnet. He was wondering if the glass would shatter, if the great hailstones would manage to penetrate the car, and whether he should attempt to drive somewhere more sheltered, when it stopped. As suddenly as the hail had started, it ceased.

Nothing fell from the sky. Toby peered up, the black cloud was moving, reducing, drifting further away, higher into the sky, getting smaller and lighter, until it was a small grey blob, a blot, a dot, and was gone. The sky was blue, the wind had dropped, the sun shone down. The piles of ice were already melting, shining for a moment in the sunlight, dazzling in their whiteness, silver for a moment, then transparent, then nothing but patches of wet on the road.

To be continued. . .

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

Chapter Nine


Losing Gerald

Toby and Clarissa set off towards the base of the pit, hoping to meet Gerald on his way up. Clarissa was talking very fast, reciting the parts of the race that were most scary, telling Toby how she couldn’t bear to watch, wondering how badly damaged Gerald’s car was and whether it would ever look pretty and shiny again. Toby was barely listening. He was wondering how Gerald felt, and whether he would listen as Toby tried to persuade him away from the brown area.

“I’m not sure that I want to leave on my own,” he thought, thinking about the last few days, and the fun they had had together despite the oppressive atmosphere of the brown area. “It has been fun to have someone to laugh with, to share opinion and ideas, to drive around the course with. And Gerald is like me, he knows that it’s all about the real track, but also that it’s okay to enjoy our cars, to have a laugh, while we’re training. He isn’t like the brown drivers, with their denial of everything fun about training. I don’t want to leave him here. . . but I really don’t think I can stay any longer. I don’t like what this area is doing to my car. . .”

Toby realised that Clarissa had stopped talking, and looked up. They were half way down the track, the walls of the pit rising up beside them, the path they were walking on was narrow, it curved away, down to the track, designed for drivers who needed to leave their cars temporarily – which was not something the brown drivers ever encouraged. They couldn’t see into the pit where the training track was, but sounds from below drifted up, and Toby heard muted voices, and the creak of a car being pushed, and the revving of an engine. There was another sound too, a sound that Toby didn’t recognise.

It began with a whoosh, like a sudden gust of wind that is swooshing through a gap, but instead of stopping, it grew steadily louder, drowning out the other sounds, turning to a roar that sort of filled the air and rushed towards them, filling the whole pit with the deep tremulous moan.

Toby and Clarissa stopped walking, and stood very still, listening as the sound grew, absorbing all their attention. Then, as suddenly as it began, it started to recede, growing quieter and quieter, until it was a gust, a hiss, a whisper, a sigh, and was gone. For a second, they stood completely still.

“What was that?” said Toby.

But Clarissa wasn’t listening, she was hurtling, full speed, along the gravel path. Stones were scattering from under her feet and dropping over the steep edge to the pit below, but she didn’t seem to care. Toby watched her speeding away, then started to chase after her.

“What is it? Why are we running?” he gasped, struggling to keep up. He was aware of the sheer drop beside them, the high walls on the pit edge on the other side, the slippery gravel underfoot. Clarissa’s feet were charging down the path, her hair flying out behind her, her jacket waving in the breeze. She was fast, and as hard as he tried, Toby couldn’t catch up, he could only follow, hoping that neither of them slipped and plummeted to the earth below. They rounded the last bend, and the pathway straightened, flattening onto the floor of the pit.

Toby could see the green car that had raced, the driver standing, open-mouthed, staring at the sky. Next to him was Gerald’s car, the wing missing in a great gouge of exposed metal, wires hanging down where they had been torn from the light casing, screws wrenched from their positions. Toby could see the dent where Gerald had hit a passing brown car the day before, and a smudge of yellow where Gerald had touched the roof with mustard on his fingers at breakfast this morning. But there was no Gerald.

In the distance, the other side of the raging river and the little bridge, Toby could see the two brown cars, meshed together in their misshapen lump. But he couldn’t see either of the drivers, only the green car driver was in the pit. Toby turned his head, first towards the path they had just run down, then back to the crashed cars, then round to where the track arched up high, level with the top of the pit. He scanned the perimeter of the pit, wondering if somehow the drivers could have left, if perhaps he and Clarissa had taken longer than he thought and the drivers had walked back the way they had come, leaving their cars in the pit below while they sought help with removal. But there was no one. He turned back to Clarissa.

Clarissa was crying. She had moved over to where Gerald’s car rested, and was standing there, rocking slightly, backwards and forwards, while tears ran down her face and plopped onto her pink jacket. Toby watched her reach out a hand, running it along the top edge of the roof, placing her palm over the blank glass of the window, her head bowed.

“He’s gone,” she said, her voice husky with tears. “Gerald has gone.”

“Gone where?” asked Toby, feeling foolish. His friend couldn’t have gone to the real track, he told himself, his car wasn’t damaged badly enough to be beyond repair, Toby had watched him complete the race, it was still drivable, Gerald had parked it himself. “Gone where?” he repeated, his voice louder, feeling angry now, cross that Clarissa seemed to know something he didn’t.

“To the real track,” said Clarissa, almost spitting the words at him. “That place that you stupid boys are so besotted with! Gerald kept talking about it, kept training, trying to be good enough. He wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t open his eyes and see what is on offer here. Oh no, all he wanted was the real track and now he’s got it, hasn’t he. Now he’s gone. And left us. And that’s it, we’ll never see him again. . .”

Toby watched as Clarissa sort of folded in half, flopping gown on the ground next to Gerald’s car, and sat hunched next to a muddy wheel, sobbing. He had absolutely no idea what to do.

It seemed like an age that they stayed there, Toby and the green driver standing helplessly, while Clarissa sobbed, filling the pit with the sound of her wails. They didn’t move, the broken cars stayed in place like ugly reminders of the drivers who had been taken. Eventually, the green driver coughed, and muttered something about being very sorry, but wasn’t it what Gerald would have wanted? Before sidling to his car and starting the engine. The motor fired, drowning the sound of Clarissa’s crying, and Toby turned and watched as the green car drove slowly away.

Several brown drivers appeared at the foot of the pathway. They frowned at Clarissa, then marched over to Toby.

“Why is she crying?” they asked, as if they thought it was Toby’s fault.

“Our friend, Gerald, has gone. . .” said Toby.

“Yes, of course, that’s the point, isn’t it?” snapped one of the brown drivers. “You should both be feeling pleased for him, not standing here moping around. And you should be driving anyway, neither of you will be ready when your log book runs out, not if you stand around being sad when you should be driving!”

“But Gerald wasn’t ready, can’t you see that,” said Clarissa, standing up and glaring at the brown drivers. “He was only trying to improve, and your stupid rules and your stupid training area and your stupid training track means that his car broke too early. He wasn’t ready. He had only just arrived. Are you completely stupid?

The brown drivers looked rather shocked, and took a step backwards, as if worried that Clarissa might hit them. Toby wasn’t sure himself.

But she didn’t. She turned on her heel, spinning away from them, and started to march back up the footpath, towards the top of the pit.

“What will happen now?” Toby asked the brown drivers.

One driver was staring after Clarissa, his mouth open. The other driver shook his head and turned to Toby.

“The broken cars will be removed of course, they are no longer needed. The crusher will arrive shortly, then the cubed remains will be taken to the furnace.” He stopped, and added in a kinder voice: “Did you want to stay and watch? I know some drivers like to say a few words over the crushed car. We don’t normally do that here, we don’t think the car matters. . . but if you’re new,” he glanced at Toby’s brown overalls. “If you wanted to stay and say goodbye, I don’t expect anyone would mind, as the driver seems to be your friend. . .”

The other driver closed his mouth, and looked about to disagree, and tell Toby that it certainly would not be all right, brown drivers did not make a lot of unnecessary fuss over broken cars and departed drivers; so before he could speak, Toby said: “No, thanks, that’s okay.”

Then he turned, and ran after Clarissa. He felt that they both needed to find his mentor, Percy, and have a few things explained. He just hoped that Percy would have the answers.

*****

Find out tomorrow whether Percy has any answers.

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

Chapter Eight


Gerald on the Brown Training Track

The following day, Toby sat on the same wall, watching his friend as he approached the start line of the training track. The track was not, strictly speaking, supposed to be used for racing – that was reserved for the main racing track in the centre of the training ground, where drivers from all the different training areas came together and pitched their skills against each other. No, the training tracks were intended to be places where the drivers could practice their racing techniques, but without competition. However, as Toby had watched the various drivers on the brown track, he had noticed that there was a very clear element of competition, a sort of unacknowledged secondary purpose to each race. And the mere fact that circuits of the track were called races, and tended to involve at least two cars, suggested to Toby that the edge of competition was very evident.

There were four cars on the track today. Toby watched as Gerald’s red car – barely discernible as red now due to the splattering of mud that coated it – was lined up with a pale green car, and two brown cars. The brown cars must have been in the training area for some time, as Toby knew that after a couple of months, when a driver was sure that this was the area in which he intended to stay, they resprayed their cars to match their overalls. It was not, he thought, an attractive colour.

In the pit below him, the cars were ready to start on the training track. Gerald had positioned himself right at the back, and Toby decided this was a good strategy. The hardest thing about the brown training track was the track itself, not the other drivers. It would be better for Gerald to let the others go first, to watch their mistakes and avoid any broken vehicles, and to worry about being first later, when he was near the end – if at all – his chances of even completing the track were fairly slim. Toby had watched many, many cars set off from the start line but fail to cross the finish line. He hoped his friend would manage to finish, and not damage his car too badly. Most of all, Toby hoped that Gerald’s car would survive the race. The track was brutal, he and Gerald had watched several cars damaged beyond repair, meaning the driver was taken immediately to the real track whether they were ready or not.

“Be careful Gerald,” Toby whispered, a lump in his stomach.

A flag fluttered down, it was brown, and the motion was slow and depressed, more a resigned flop than an excited sweep down like the flags that started races on the other training tracks. It was, thought Toby, as if even the flag was tired. The cars set off.

A brown car took the lead, heading towards the brick wall in front, then spinning round it at the last moment. It was closely followed by the other brown car, the pale green car not far behind. They sped around the blind bend, confident that nothing would be in the way. Gerald was following more cautiously, and Toby guessed that although his friend knew the road behind the wall was empty, actually driving the route must be worrying.

“Come on Gerald!” he called, the wind snatching his words and carrying them away.

“Oh, it’s so hard!”

Toby looked around, surprised. There, behind him, a blur of pink, was Clarissa. She grinned at him.

“I came to watch,” she said, moving closer. “I met Gerald when he was at the Special Features training area, and I heard he was attempting the training track today, so I came to watch.” She sucked in her lips and looked down. “Actually, I’m late,” she said, staring hard at her feet. “I had planned to get here before the race started, to try and talk him out of it. I think he’s risking too much by entering.”

“It’s not a race!” said a passing brown driver, his face deep in his driver’s manual.

Toby and Clarissa both watched the brown driver leave, and Toby shook his head. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, turning back to the race. Though Clarissa, with her pink clothes and smiley face was as different to the brown cars as it was possible to be. She did not, in any way, fit in, and as they watched the race, Toby could feel the disapproving glances as brown drivers passed behind them, he could sense the sucked in breath and the pursed lips, and he knew that they were all wondering why anyone would want to associate with someone who was so clearly enjoying life rather than training. Toby found that he was smiling, and he stepped slightly closer to Clarissa as they watched the race.

The cars were now on the steep hill downwards. Water was pouring over the track, and the lead car braked to avoid a pothole, the back wheels locked and began to slide on the wet surface. The car skidded sideways, across the path of the following brown car, which didn’t stop in time and ploughed into the side. Toby held his breath, waiting for the horrible crunching sound of metal crushing metal. When it reached him, the clash of melding metal was terrible. The two cars appeared fused together as they continued to slide down the hill. The green car was attempting to pass them, not wanting to brake and lose control, but aware that the gap between the brown cars and the edge was closing as they careered down the hill towards the little bridge.

The green car managed to pass the sliding cars, and Toby watched as Gerald approached. At the bottom of the hill was the narrow bridge over the river. If the crashed cars reached the bottom first, they would block the route and Gerald would be unable to reach the bridge. The space between the cars and the edge of the track was narrow, Gerald was approaching, weaving slightly as he weighed up his chances of passing them before they forced him from the track. Toby wasn’t breathing, his hands were on his cheeks as he watched his friend. He could feel the wind tousling his hair, but all his attention was on the track in the pit below. Beside him, Clarissa had caught hold of his arm, and was clutching it tightly. Gerald was now level with the crashed cars, the three vehicles moving together down the hill, Gerald accelerated, one wheel went over the line of the track, tossing up gravel and mud, the crashed cars were sliding towards him. Toby heard Clarissa gasp, and the grip on his arm became painful. Below them, Gerald held his line, managed to add one last spurt of speed, and passed the sliding cars.

Toby barely had time to exhale before he gasped again. Gerald was now too near the edge, and needed to get to the centre of the track or he would miss the narrow bridge that crossed the river. His wheels were spinning, causing a fountain of gravel and mud that shot up into the air. The river was fast, bubbling water that had started at the top of the pit and was plunging down to a great crevasse in the pit, a torrent of unstoppable water. If Gerald missed the bridge, there were no barriers to stop him sliding into the water. He would certainly be swept away, his car destroyed. Clarissa let go of Toby’s arm, both hands flew to her face and she covered her eyes.

“I can’t watch,” she whispered.

Gerald managed to slow slightly, to avoid skidding, to aim for the bridge. At the last minute, his back wheels locked and he started to skid, but he steered in the direction of the slide, bringing the car back under control, aiming for the bridge. Toby stared, not sure his friend would make it, his left wing was slightly too far over and with a great scraping of crushed metal, the little red car entered the bridge, losing the left wing on one of the posts. The car bounced over the bridge, then slowed as it began to climb the steep hill on the other side. The green car was level with the top of the pit and Toby could see the driver hunched over the wheel as he navigated the turn. The brown cars had crashed into the bridge entrance, blocking it, and the drivers were opening their doors, Their shouts of anger drifted up to where Toby was watching, and he saw one driver shake his fist.

The green car hit a pothole, the car jolted, the tyre burst, the driver continued, his car now whining as the split tyre wore away and the wheel rim squealed as it touched the ground. Gerald was gaining on him, was now level with the top of the pit, Toby could see him, his face as red as his car had been, the muscles in his arms standing out as he struggled to hold the steering wheel steady. He drove cautiously over the area of gravel, managing to control the car as it skidded back towards the bottom of the pit. There was an area of forest, the cars were lost from Toby’s sight, he could only see the tops of branches, and hear the screech of the green car’s wheel, and the roar of Gerald’s engine. They came back into sight just before the finish line: first the green car, which sped along the last stretch, then stopped as soon as he had crossed the line. Gerald was slightly behind – too far back to hope to catch him – and Toby saw that his friend was driving cautiously now, intent on avoiding the potholes and gravel, keen to end the course with his car intact. He reached the finish line and parked next to the green car. Toby saw the two drivers turn to speak to each other.

Toby realised he was still holding his breath, and let out a long sigh of relief. His friend had survived the training track, only one wing of his car was damaged. He left his vantage point, and went to join Gerald. If he had decided anything, it was that he intended to leave the brown area as soon as he could. He just needed to persuade his friend to do the same.

*****

Can Toby persuade his friend to leave? Find out tomorrow.

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

Chapter Five


About The Brown Cars

Toby left the refreshment tent, driving towards the section of training ground reserved for the brown cars. As he drove, winding his way between a motorcycle and the length of a stretch limousine, he caught sight of something pink in the corner of his eye. He eased his car to one side, slowed down to almost stand-still, and looked to the side. Sure enough, there was a small pink car with Clarissa driving. She noticed him, and began to wave madly.

A man was crossing the road in front of Clarissa, she noticed at the last moment, swerved to avoid him, there was a squeal of brakes, and the pink car came to a screeching stop in a hedge. Toby watched in horror, his mouth open. He stopped his own car, and raced across the road.

Clarissa was sitting very still, her eyes wide. She blinked, then collapsed into giggles.

“Oh dear, oh dear, did you see?” she said, her words breathless as she fought to control her laughter. “I am such a bad driver still! I saw you, and forgot all about steering. Oh dear! What a disaster!”

Toby thought that she did not sound worried at all. The man she had avoided was glaring at them from across the road. Toby waved at him, the man pursed his lips and strode away.

“Are you all right?” said Toby, turning back to Clarissa. Her cheeks were as pink as her car and her eyes were shining. She climbed out of the car and walked to the front.

“I seem to have acquired a few extra scratches,” she said. “But to be honest, it’s hard to tell, I had so many scratches already. How is your driving coming on?” she asked, looking towards Toby’s car. “Have you raced at all?”

“No,” said Toby, shaking his head. “Not at all, but that’s about to change, I’m going to join the brown cars.”

“Oh!” said Clarissa.

There was something about the way she spoke, a sort of darkening of her mood, that made Toby wonder what was wrong. “Don’t you like the brown cars?” he said. “They seem to take training very seriously, I think they’ll be very prepared for the real track, when their log books run out. I think I will learn lots there.”

“Maybe you will,” said Clarissa, her voice light. But she had turned away, and was no longer looking at Toby.

“What aren’t you saying?” said Toby, wanting to know.

“Nothing. It’s just that. . .” Clarissa paused.

“Just what?”

“Well,” said Clarissa at last, as if she had made up her mind and decided to be honest, “if the real track is full of drivers like the brown car drivers, then I’m not sure that I want to go there anyway.”

“You don’t want to go to the real track?” repeated Toby, shocked. “But that’s the whole point, that’s why we’re training, so that we’re ready.”

“Yes, I know that now,” said Clarissa, nodding. “And I have been training, I joined the special features drivers, and they have a training track in their area, and we race, and I’m getting better.” She glanced at the front of her car, jammed into the branches of the hedge. “I’m getting better but I still make the occasional mistake,” she continued. “But honestly Toby, if the brown car drivers are like most of the drivers at the real track, then I would rather stay here. They seem so. . . dismal.”

Toby stared at her. Clarissa shook her head, and her hair tumbled and bounced on her shoulders, and her eyes – which Toby realised were very pretty eyes – were serious and stubborn and staring straight back at him, as if challenging him to disagree.

“Well,” said Toby, thinking hard, “I think the brown cars will give me the best training, but I will think about what you have said. And I will try very hard not to become dismal.”

Clarissa flashed a smile at him, her teeth were very white and straight, and it was, thought Toby, an excellent smile. One that he would like to see more often.

“Here,” said Clarissa, opening the door to her car and delving inside. Her voice bubbled up to Toby as he waited, watching her back.“If you’re determined to go, at least take this. I bought it for myself, but I can go back and get another one, and you won’t have time if you’re training with the brown cars.” She was stooped, rummaging on the floor behind the driver’s seat, digging into a bag. “Where is it? I’m sure I put it in here somewhere. . . Ah! Got it!”

She emerged from the car, and handed Toby a heavy bag with blue and white stripes.

Toby took the package, and opened it. Inside was a book. A very large, heavy, book.

“It’s a training manual,” said Clarissa, “the latest version. We have modern cars, so we need the manual for new cars. It has hints about the sort of speeds we should be aiming for, how to take corners; as well as lots of advice about when to top up the oil, when to recharge, that sort of thing. You can have it, as a gift. A good luck, try not to become dismal gift!”

“Thank you – I think!” said Toby, grinning at her. “Listen, I’m meeting my mentor, Percy, back at the refreshment tent next week. Why don’t you come too? You can check whether I’m getting dismal or not.”

Clarissa grinned back at him. “Sure, I will.”

She climbed back into her car, and started the engine. Toby stood to one side, watching for traffic as Clarissa reversed, very slowly, out of the hedge. She waved, grinned, and drove away, stray leaves floating down behind her as she picked up speed. Toby watched her go.

To be continued. . .

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?


Chapter Four


Toby Changes Track

Toby found Percy in the refreshment tent. He wondered how much time his mentor spent in there. Percy was sitting with his friend in the large hat, and she stood up when she saw Toby.

“I expect you two have things to discuss,” she said, with a knowing look at Percy. Toby watched her leave, then slid into the seat opposite Percy.

“I can’t wait a whole week,” Toby blurted, “those cars don’t seem to train at all. They only want to look nice, which is fine, I’d like my car to look nice too, but then when it’s time for them to go on, to the real track, they don’t even want to go! It’s like all they care about is their training cars, and what they look like. Nothing else matters. I think they’ve forgotten the point of being here, what it’s all about. And one of them – quite a nice driver actually, I liked him – well, I met him yesterday and he was upset about his car being damaged in the race, and he told me that his log book must be nearly run out, which is why he entered the race, and then today, when I went to find him, he’d gone, to the real track, and his car was left behind because he didn’t need it any more and they were all. . . they were all. . . sort of. . . distraught. Yes, that’s the word, they were distraught. Over the training car. But that’s the point, isn’t it? They’re only meant to be temporary, aren’t they?”

Toby stopped, and swallowed. He had spoken very fast, the words tumbling from him in a sort of stream of confusion. He looked at Percy, suddenly aware that perhaps he was not making sense, that his mentor might have found the blurted explanation rather muddled.

Percy did not look muddled. His expression was as calm and unhurried as it had been yesterday, and he had the same smile, a sort of knowing smile, that Toby wasn’t sure he particularly liked.

“Why don’t we order some hot chocolate?” suggested Percy, waving at a waiter.

“Yes, but what about the shiny cars?” said Toby, not sure that he wanted hot chocolate. “They were chanting something weird: ‘From metal you were moulded. . .’”

“‘To metal you return,’” finished Percy, then turned to the waitress who had arrived.

“Ah yes, two chocolates please. And some of those rather delicious finger sponge cakes.” He looked back at Toby. “I will explain,” he said, “but first we drink.”

The mugs of steaming chocolate arrived. Toby placed his on the table, not at all in the mood for drinking. But Percy continued unperturbed, dipping the finger sponge into his drink and biting off the end. After a few minutes, when Toby realised that his mentor was not to be hurried, he picked up the finger sponge next to him. It was a thin blonde piece of cake, slightly dry, and perfect for dunking. He dipped the end into his chocolate, and nibbled it. The combination of softened cake, and bitter chocolate, was perfect. He dunked it again, momentarily absorbed by the delicious mixture of sweet and bitter, of hot and cold. He picked up his mug, sipping the creamy chocolate, allowing the thick, velvety texture to fill his mouth, finding it strangely comforting. He realised that Percy was watching him.

“Rather good, isn’t it?” Percy said.

Toby nodded, feeling the luxurious chocolatey taste fill his mouth.

“I find that hot chocolate has a tendency to make everything feel a little better,” said Percy, smiling. “But now, to your questions.”

Toby placed his mug, rather longingly, on the table. He would have liked really to continue drinking, and to forget all about his recent discovery with the shiny cars, but he realised that was not what he had come for. He had found Percy because he wanted some answers, so he gave one more lick of his lips, and folded his arms, waiting.

“You are right, of course,” said Percy. “The drivers of the shiny cars do tend to forget why they are here. Their training cars have become very important, and it tends to blot out the real purpose of why we’re all here. Their cars are very pretty, of course, and they have added all sorts of amazing features, so I am inclined to admire what they manage to achieve – but it’s so tempting for that to become the total aim, and as you say, the training cars were always only ever intended to be temporary. They are for us to train in, until we are ready for the real track.

“The chant you heard: ‘From metal you were moulded, to metal you return’ is all part of the same thing of course. The car, the training car, has become overly significant, so when it is no longer needed, they feel a huge sense of loss. The chant is correct, but it is not meant to be the focus. Originally, the first training cars were moulded from metal, extracted from ore in a furnace. As training cars become obsolete, they are crushed, and then melted down, back into metal, which can be used to make new training cars. The shiny cars look wonderful, in their way they are wonderful, but they are only training cars, lumps of moulded metal. The chant has become something of a lament for the drivers, hasn’t it?”

Toby nodded. “It was a bit spooky,” he whispered.

“As to your friend,” said Percy, his voice business-like, “that was unfortunate. I’m afraid that no one knows when their log book will run out, and they will be promoted to the real track. Usually it happens when we’ve been here for a while, after we have trained for several years and learnt all sorts of driving skills that will be useful on the real track. Your friend will have realised that his time was short, and that he was not as prepared as perhaps he should have been, which is why he entered that race.”

“But he still didn’t have long enough, did he?” said Toby.

Percy was silent, his lips pressed together, his brow furrowed. “That’s not for us to say,” he said at last.

Toby leant forwards and peered into his mug. There was a centimetre of chocolate remaining, so he lifted his mug and drained the last few drops. It was wonderfully comforting.

“Well, it’s not going to happen to me,” he said, his voice determined. “I’m going to be the best driver I can be, I’m not going to get sidetracked by filling my car with lots of prettiness that just distracts me from my main purpose.” He pushed back his chair and stood up, so that he was looking down at Percy as he announced:

“I am going to join the brown cars.”

For a moment, Percy was silent. Then he said, very quietly in his calm voice: “Very well. I will meet you here next week, and you can tell me how you’re getting on.”

Toby nodded, and marched away. “I’ve got this sussed now,” he told himself, striding away from the refreshment tent. “I’m going to join those brown cars, and train hard, and learn to be ready for the real track. Nothing else will distract me. I’m going to be ready.” It was not until later, that a worrying thought struck Toby. If Percy was his mentor, shouldn’t he know the best way to train? And if so, why was he still at the training ground after all this time?

To be continued. . .

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

Chapter Three


The Shiny Cars


Percy was standing next to his car, staring at the new dent in the wing. He straightened as Toby approached and smiled.

“Well? Did you enjoy the race?” he asked.

“Oh wow! Yes!” said Toby, “It was the most exciting thing ever.”

He looked at the dent in Percy’s car. “Can that be fixed? You must be angry with those careless drivers—will they be punished somehow?”

“Punished?” said Percy, sounding alarmed. “Goodness no! Drivers do not get punished for bad driving. It doesn’t work like that.”

Percy shook his head. “You have lots to learn Toby,” he said, “let’s get a drink.”

Toby collected his car. A woman was standing, looking at the jaunty angle and the two wheels which were over the line, but she didn’t say anything. Toby’s face was very red as he drove from the car park, and back to the refreshment tent with the striped flags.

They collected steaming mugs of hot chocolate, and found a table near the back. Percy took a sip, then placed his mug very carefully on the table and looked at Toby.

“You asked if drivers are punished,” he said. “Well, that never happens, not directly, not here. This whole place is a training ground, everyone here makes mistakes – some are tiny, some are huge – but we don’t get punished. Life goes on, the opportunity for training continues, right up until we’re called to the real track. Then it’s a bit different, I suppose, though I still don’t think punished is the right word.

“You see, we are allocated cars, and tracks, according to how well we drive. Sometimes a driver has made lots of mistakes, but has become very skilful. Another driver might have made fewer mistakes, but have learnt very little. The better drivers have the better experience at the real track. That’s all. It’s not really punishment. It’s. . . fair, I guess.”

Percy stopped talking and stared at his drink, as if searching for inspiration.

“Anyway, it wasn’t the fault of the driver who dented me,” he said at last. “That driver has a car that’s very difficult to control. Occasionally, the steering wheel simply stops working, and the car zooms out of control, right across the track, crashing into whatever happens to be in the way. We have to learn to avoid them, the driver has to learn how to use his brake and accelerator to bring the car back under control. It isn’t easy. They’ll never be much good, not here on the training circuit, not with those cars. But the skills they’re learning while they struggle to control those cars. . . well. . .”

His voice faded away, and Toby looked at him. Percy’s face had a far-away look, a wistful glimmer in his eye, almost, thought Toby, as if he’s envious of those drivers. Almost as if he wished his own car was as difficult to control.

Toby shook his head. It made no sense to him. He wanted to win races, not struggle to control an unreliable broken old car.

“Shame about that pretty car at the beginning,” said Toby, remembering the spotted car that had lost control at the start of the race. “Was that car hard to control too?”

“No,” said Percy.

Toby looked up, surprised by his mentor’s voice. But Percy’s face was closed, his expression stony. He clearly was not going to elaborate.

Toby told him about Clarissa, wanting to change the subject, not sure if he had inadvertently said the wrong thing by mentioning the spotted car.

“She didn’t seem to know about the real track,” said Toby. “Don’t all the drivers go there, after their training?”

Percy was frowning. “Yes, all drivers go there. But some of them have forgotten, or never seem to care, or perhaps they weren’t told at the beginning, like you were.” He paused. “To be honest, I don’t know why some drivers don’t seem to know or care about the real track. It seems to be one of the choices here, if they don’t want to train for it, they don’t have to. But I don’t understand why – like your friend Clarissa – some of them never seem to know about it in the first place.

“But that doesn’t concern us. Not right now,” said Percy, sitting up straight. “Have you decided? Which group of drivers most interests you? Where do you plan to start your training?”

Toby was holding his hot chocolate with both hands. He took a long drink, wondering whether Percy would approve of his choice, and if he didn’t, whether Percy would try to influence him.

“The shiny, decorated cars,” said Toby over the rim of his cup. He felt that this was somehow the wrong choice, and he was sure that Percy would, in fact, say something negative. But his mentor simply nodded his head.

“Remember that you can change your choice, at any time, if you feel the training isn’t helpful,” said Percy. “Now, let’s plan to meet again, right here – in two weeks? Then you can tell me how you’re getting on.”

Percy nodded at Toby, and stood up, then without another word he walked, slowly, away.

For a moment, Toby sat still, watching his mentor as he made his painful way out of the refreshment tent. Toby felt uncomfortable inside, as if he had made the wrong choice, but also strangely determined to follow his heart. Of all the drivers he had seen, the ones with the shiny cars, with their many accessories, was the group that most attracted Toby. He wanted to be part of that group, he wanted to look like them, be accepted by them. He grinned, his worry dissolving as he thought about the colour and gleam and novelty of what he had seen. He placed his cup on the table, and went to find his car. He was going to be the driver of one of the best cars on the track.

***


Toby arrived at the place where the drivers of the shiny cars met. It was a sunny part of the training ground, an area of grass and tarmac with plenty of space for parking. Toby stopped in one of the wide bays, and stepped from his car. No one looked up when he arrived, so he walked over to where a driver was busy polishing a lime green car.

“Hi,” said Toby, holding out his hand. “I’m Toby, I thought I might join you?”

The driver stared at Toby, looked at the hand being offered, and shrugged. He turned back to his car, and rubbed the yellow duster across the paintwork, adding another layer of polish. While the driver polished, he glanced several times at Toby’s car, as if evaluating it. After a while, he straightened and came back to Toby.

“Your car is new?” he asked.

Toby nodded.

“Looks in nice condition, anyway,” said the driver, nodding his head. “Okay, you can join us – at least for now. Maybe you could look into having a roof design added or something.” He returned to his polishing.

Toby stood watching for a minute, then realised the conversation had ended, and he had – he thought – been accepted into the group. He decided to look around.

One of the main features of the area of shiny cars, was a shop. It was behind the parking area, and had a tall red tower and glass doors that hissed open when he approached. Toby walked inside, then paused, dazzled by the displays. There were golden cages for holding luggage or picnics that could be fitted onto the back of cars (Toby wasn’t sure they would add much to a driver’s speed). They had slim golden bars, and silver locks and the insides were lined with plush red silk.

One wall of the shop was devoted to cans of paint: rainbow paint, sparkling stars paint, paint that would flash, fluffy paint, plus paint of every possible colour. Toby stood, staring at all the cans and displays. He realised his mouth was open and shut it with a swallow.

The middle of the shop had a display of seats. Apparently, all car seats could be replaced with sofas in various colours, or swivel seats (Toby wondered how he would manage to drive if his seat was constantly turning in circles – but perhaps it would make reversing easier.) There was a mountain of cushions, and a great stack of mats to blanket the floor of the car. Toby went across to touch a furry mat, feeling the soft fur slide beneath his fingers.

“That would be a pain to wash if your shoes were dirty,” he thought.

“Oh, but one wouldn’t wear shoes in the car, would one?” said a voice next to him.

Toby realised he must have spoken aloud, and looked down. A tiny man, no taller than Toby’s waist, stood beside him. He smiled up at Toby and held up a fluffy white mat.

“Feel how soft this one is,” he suggested, his voice silky. “Imagine it under your feet, warm and comfy, helping you to relax. See how beautiful it is.”

Toby ran his hand over the mat. It enveloped his hand, was like touching a cloud, so soft he could hardly feel it, yet warm and comforting.

“It would go perfectly with our snow range,” the tiny man was saying, leading Toby across to a display of snowflakes that appeared to be floating down from the ceiling.

“One can attach the snow-maker to the ceiling of the car, they have a special dry-melt feature, so the driver remains dry, but the temperature remains cold. Go on, touch one.”

Toby stretched out his arm, placing his hand under the stream of snowflakes. He felt the feather-light touch of each flake, cold as ice for a second, before it melted away to nothing. When he removed his hand from the flow and looked, it was completely dry.

“They come with dancing lights,” the tiny man was saying. He pressed a switch, and beams of bright light shone from one side, touching the snowflakes so they turned silver, dancing in the breeze like a thousand stars.

“That’s beautiful,” breathed Toby, enchanted.

“They can all be attached to the inside of your car within the week,” the man said. “Shall we choose some seats to match? Something cuddly I think, to make you feel cosy.”

“But,” said Toby, his forehead wrinkling, “won’t they get in the way? The snowflakes I mean. Won’t they distract you when you’re racing? Stop you seeing clearly. Won’t it be a bit. . . dangerous?”

“Racing?” repeated the tiny man, his voice full of distain. “Racing? Well, of course, if one intends to risk spoiling one’s car by racing it, risking dents and damage, worn out tyres and scraped paintwork, then this is not the shop for you!” He stood up on tiptoe, reaching towards Toby’s ear.

“But is that what you really want?” he said, his voice soft and enticing. “Do you want to risk spoiling that car. You’ve only just received it, haven’t you? Don’t you want to make it look lovely, to enjoy it for a while, to enhance it before you start worrying about racing and spoiling it? After all, you’ll probably be here for some time, you have plenty of time to enjoy what you have been given, it seems to me that it would be rude not to. Plenty of time for racing and being rough later. Don’t you think?”

Toby nodded, feeling uncertain. “Well,” he said at last, “perhaps the cushions. If I only buy the cushions, they wouldn’t distract me too much. . . would they?”

They were undoubtedly beautiful. . .

***


The next driver that Toby encountered was the owner of the green and yellow spotted car that he had admired in the race. He found him in a corner of the shiny car section, surrounded by a group of other drivers. They were all staring in dismay at the green and yellow spotted car, which was hardly recognisable under the dents and scratches. In some places the paint had been completely worn away, and jagged metal, harsh and ugly, stuck out at sharp angles.

“Perhaps you could get the dents bashed out and a new spray job,” one driver was suggesting, his foot feeling the curve of a particularly large dent. “If you spend enough money, I’m sure it could be repaired.”

Another driver was shaking his head. He stood very upright, with his arms folded, and Toby could almost feel his disapproval before he spoke.

“That’s the trouble with those races,” the driver was saying. “You spend time and money trying to make your car look nice, and then it’s all wasted on a single race. I told you, I told you not to enter. But would you listen? No! You thought you knew best, and now this has happened. All that time and energy wasted, and all you’re left with is this! This ugly scrap of metal.”

Not waiting for a reply, the angry driver turned sharply round, and stalked away. The other drivers followed him, all shaking their heads, all showing their disapproval.

Toby was left with the driver of the wrecked car, who looked up at him.

“You’re new aren’t you?” he said.

Toby nodded. “Just arrived. Er, sorry about your car. I watched the race, it was exciting, wasn’t it?”

“A little too exciting for me,” said the driver. He glanced towards the departing drivers, who were walking away in a huddle, their voices low, their heads bent.

“It’s all very well for them,” said the driver, his voice very quiet, so Toby had to lean forwards to hear him. “Most of them haven’t been here for very long, they’ve probably got ages and ages with their training cars.”

The driver turned back to face Toby. “The time goes really fast though, you feel like it will never end, and then suddenly you realise you’re driving one of the oldest cars on the circuit, and – ” He bent low, and whispered to Toby, “and you know what that means. It means that you might not have much longer before, you know what.”

“What?” said Toby, feeling confused. “Oh! Do you mean the real track?”

The driver’s face turned very red and he drew back a step. “Shhh! We don’t talk about that here, not so loudly anyway. None of us likes to think it could be, you know, ‘our time’. Not yet.”

“But isn’t it good?” said Toby, even more confused. “I mean, don’t you want to go to the real track?”

The driver looked shocked.

“You do know what happens to your car don’t you? When you leave for the real track – you do know you can’t take your training car with you? Surely they told you that much.”

“Yes,” said Toby, still uncertain what the driver was trying to tell him. “But you won’t need it at the real track, will you? We all get issued with a new car, a real car.”

“But that could be anything,” muttered the driver. “We have no idea whether they’ll be coloured, or have features, or anything.

“And I realise I may not have long, I realise that I needed to improve my driving a little, before I go, before my log book runs out. And so I entered that race, thought I’d give it a try. And now look, look at what happened. All I did was ruin my car. Ruined it.”

Without warning, the driver sank to the ground, put his head into his hands and began to cry. Tears ran down his face and dripped from the edge of his chin, and he sobbed great heaving noisy sobs, as if something wild was living inside of him and trying to break free.

Toby was very unsure of what he should do, so he moved nearer and reached out a hand, and very gently he patted the top of the driver’s head.

“I have some white cushions,” he said, groping for something to say. “Would you like those?”

The driver stopped crying and grabbed Toby’s hand and started to shake it, up and down, very fast. Toby worried his arm might fall off.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” said the driver, his wet face beaming. “That will help so much, can I collect them right now?”

They walked back to Toby’s car, the driver snatched the cushions from the seats and bounded back towards the wreck that he owned. Toby watched as the cushions were placed lovingly inside, positioned on each seat.

“It’s a start, it’s a start,” Toby heard, as he slowly drove away.

“What a very strange man,” thought Toby as he left. “I’ll go and see him tomorrow, and find out if he plans to race again.”

But Toby had no opportunity to see the driver again.

When Toby returned the following day, there seemed to be very few people in the shiny car area. A few cars gleamed in the sunshine, but there was no sign of the drivers. Toby parked next to a particularly pretty blue car, which had fluffy clouds attached to the roof and rainbows that shone down each door. He walked over to the shop, the doors swooshed open and Toby peered inside.

The shop appeared to be empty. The displays shone at him, tempting him inside with their colours and textures, but there were no drivers. Toby started to walk away, when he spied the tiny man, sitting behind a counter.

“Excuse me,” Toby called. “Do you know where everyone has gone?”

The tiny man shook his head, his face somber.

Toby left the shop, and walked along the narrow pathway that led to the back of the area. It was lined with trees, and Toby could hear birds singing, and leaves rustling in the breeze. Sounds of cars drifted towards him from far away, where drivers in other areas were training, or improving their cars. Everything around him was still, and Toby walked on, wondering what had happened. Gradually, as he walked, he became aware of another sound, a low murmur, somewhere ahead. It didn’t sound like an engine, it was less regular, more like the sound of an ocean, of waves crashing onto a beach. He walked towards the sound.

The noise grew louder and Toby realised it was actually several sounds, the sounds of voices and groans and sobs, all merging together to make one single humming noise. He walked on, the noise growing louder and louder with every step, then he rounded a corner, and there were the drivers.

Toby stopped. Ahead of him was a huddle of drivers – he thought perhaps every driver of the shiny cars was there. Their backs were towards him, and they were staring at something, and groaning, and humming and moaning. Some of them seemed to be crying, as Toby saw shoulders shaking and hands being placed on heads in a gesture of despair. Whatever could have happened?

Toby walked forwards, he reached the huddle of drivers, and pushed his way through, squeezing past shoulders and backs, edging to the front of the pack. Then he stopped, and stared, and felt something like horror rise up inside.

In front of him, squeezed and crushed into an ugly cube, was the car of the driver he had spoken to yesterday. It was barely recognisable as a car, only the glimpse of a twisted wheel on one side, the remains of the painted spots at a corner, the deformed steering wheel at the front, made it identifiable.

“What, what happened?” said Toby, his voice no more than a whisper.

“His log book ran out,” answered the driver next to him. “He’s gone, and this is all that’s left of his car.”

“Oh. . .” Toby started to say, relieved, “that’s really nice for him now his training car is such a wreck.” But before he could finish speaking, his words were drowned by the screech and growl of a motor.

The crowd parted, and a large truck roared through the mourning drivers, and stopped next to the crushed car. Toby leaped back out of the way, and watched as the metal cube was hoisted up onto the truck.

Toby wanted to comment, to say how good it was that there was something to clear away the broken training car; he wanted to ask if anyone had managed to say goodbye to the driver before he left—but he didn’t. All around him were sad faces and worried eyes. No one looked as if they wanted to chat.

A driver sobbed, another reached forwards, and gently stroked the jagged metal of the crushed car, before stepping back, out of the way, so the truck could roar away, carrying its load to – where?

“Where are they taking it?” asked Toby.

“From metal you were moulded, to metal you return,” chanted the driver next to him.

“From metal you were moulded, to metal you return,” repeated the other drivers, all speaking in unison, heads bowed, words spoken on low voices.

Toby began to back away.

“Why are they so sad?” he wondered, “Isn’t it a good thing the driver has gone to the real track? What does it matter that his car has been crushed? He doesn’t need it any more, it was only ever meant to be for the training track. . .” Toby took a deep breath. He decided that he needed to find Percy, right now. He could not wait another week, he couldn’t train with these drivers, they didn’t even seem to train, all they wanted to do was decorate their cars so they looked nice. He reached his car, jumped into the driving seat and started the engine. With a lurch forwards – he still hadn’t quite mastered that skill – Toby drove away. He desperately needed to find Percy.

***

Thanks for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow.

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

*************

Chapter Two


The Training Race


Toby had almost decided to give up waiting, and to drive around the training ground by himself, when an old brown car purred up beside him. He glanced through the window, and realised that Percy, his mentor, was driving. Percy raised a hand, pointed forwards, and began to drive away. Toby started the engine, and followed.

Percy drove very slowly, and Toby was able to follow him and look around at the same time. They left the refreshment tent, with people coming and going, and drove along a narrow track that was empty of other cars. Every time they reached a corner, Toby clutched the wheel and held his breath, and concentrated hard on staying on the road, but when they drove along straight sections, it was easier to stare at his surroundings.

As they drove, Toby became aware that there were, as Percy had said, groups that were very different to each other. Along the first straight, near to the racing circuit, was a group of very smart cars. They were rainbow-coloured, and shiny, with fat black wheels and bright lights. The drivers stood next to the cars, chatting and laughing, and music floated through the window. Some were adding accessories to their cars; Toby glimpsed a golden chimney being attached to a roof, an animal cage being fitted to a boot, then he had driven past and needed to concentrate on the route Percy was taking.

There was a steep corner to negotiate, and then they passed a group of drivers, all in brown overalls, bending over manuals and looking serious. Their cars were parked, all in a line, looking as austere as the drivers. Toby saw bent bumpers, and rusty wings, and wheels where the tread had worn away to almost nothing. The drivers looked up as Toby passed, and stared for a moment before frowning and looking back at their manuals.

“Not so friendly then. . .” murmured Toby as he drove on.

The next group of drivers all seemed to be very busy. Toby watched someone struggle with a bucket of soapy water that was slopping over the edge as it was carried, and a mechanic with a large spanner, and another driver bending over his open bonnet, checking the oil level. One of them glanced up as Toby passed, and raised a hand, and the driver carrying the water nodded at Toby in a friendly way, before frowning back at the water which had whooshed out of the bucket and wet his shoe. Toby grinned.

Percy was now driving fairly fast, and Toby concentrated on keeping up. They wound their way past a garage, where several cars were being mended, and down to a refuelling station, where a row of cars was waiting in line. They doubled back, behind the refreshment tent, and up to start of the racing circuit. Percy parked his car and came up to speak to Toby.

“You park over there, in the spectator’s car park,” Percy said, pointing to a sign. “I need to get ready for the race now, so I’ll meet you afterwards. Go into the stadium, and someone will show you where to sit.

“It will be good for you to watch the race,” he added, nodding to himself. “Sometimes you can learn more by watching than by actually driving.”

Percy waved his hand, and his car glided away.

Toby lurched forwards, held the steering wheel tightly in his hands, and drove towards the car park sign. There were several spaces, and after a few shuffles, and one very near-miss, Toby managed to shunt his car almost into a space. He got out and stared at his parked car. Two wheels were over the thick white line, and there was enough room at the front to park another car. But Toby decided it was in the space enough, nothing was likely to hit it, and he walked away quickly, hoping that no one had watched him park.

He made his way to the stadium, and another man with a clipboard and long grey hair pointed to a seat, fairly near the back. Toby climbed the steps, edged into the narrow seat, and looked down. He was sitting on a raised seat, high above the race track, and the cars below looked like miniature toy cars. The sounds of revving engines drifted up. Toby stared down at the heads of the other spectators. Far below, near the front, he could see the large hat of Percy’s companion. Toby wondered how Percy would do in the race, he moved so incredibly slowly when he wasn’t in his car, it was difficult to imagine him racing.

Toby crinkled his eyes, and stared very hard at the cars near the start line. There, towards the back, he could see Percy’s brown car, waiting for the starter’s flag. There was some music playing, but it could barely be heard above the din of engines and the tangle of voices and the loud speaker, which was announcing the race, reminding everyone that this was the second training race of the season, and only experienced drivers were taking part. Toby saw the starter take his place, the large flag tucked under one arm, there was a flare, a blast of a siren, the flag waved, and they were off.

A shiny green car shot forwards, closely followed by a blue car with stars painted on the roof. Toby could see Percy’s car, it was passing several slower cars, advancing towards the leaders. A green and yellow spotted car zoomed away from the start line, Toby barely had time to enjoy its colours and the shine of the chrome, when it spun out of control and hit the barrier at the side.

Most of the cars were racing forwards, engines roaring, wheels spinning over the tarmac as the drivers fought to balance speed with control. There were a few near-misses as cars drifted too near to each other. The crowd in the spectator’s stand were shouting, some waving flags, everyone sitting forwards, straining to see.

Suddenly, a red car lurched across the track, almost hitting several other cars, spinning round in circles, crossing the lanes. It was heading towards Percy, and Toby held his breath, sure they would collide. Percy’s car braked hard, losing ground but avoiding the red car which crashed into the barrier and stopped. Percy was immediately back in the race, weaving between cars, making up for the ground he had lost. He had almost reached the blue car, when another car lurched into his pathway, crashing into his side and denting his wing. The lurching car spun three times, skidded on the black tarmac, righted itself and continued. Percy had been shoved into the barrier, but he was facing the right way; with a puff of smoke from the exhaust, he was back in the race. Toby was holding his breath, and he exhaled with a sigh, leaning forwards on his seat, his hands screwed into fists on his lap.

“Come on Percy, come on,” he shouted, bouncing on his seat.

Percy had sped forwards. He was passing the blue car, but a purple car was keeping up, overtaking on the inside. The red car had a clear lead, Percy and the purple were level as they raced after it. A brown car appeared on their tail, drew level with Percy, then dropped back as the back bumper detached from the boot and was dragged along the track, sparks trailing from it, the screech of metal reaching Toby. The brown car limped away to be repaired, the purple car and Percy were level, the red car kept its lead, the flag was lowered, the race was over.

Toby slumped back in his seat. He felt exhausted!

“Wow! That was sooo exciting!” said someone.

Toby turned to look.

The ‘someone’ was sitting next to him. She was leaning forwards in her seat, and all Toby noticed at first was a blur of pink. Then she turned to him, and he noticed eyes that danced and very white straight teeth when she smiled, and brown hair that curled to her shoulders.

“Hello,” said the pink someone. “I’m Clarissa. Are you new?”

“Yes,” said Toby, grinning back. “I’m Toby, and I just arrived this morning.”

“I thought so,” said Clarissa, nodding her head so that all her curls danced and tumbled on her shoulders. “You almost looked like you were taking notes!”

“It was thrilling,” said Toby, thinking about the race. “Who will get promoted to the real track now? Do you know? Is it just the winner or will all the leaders be allowed to go?”

Real track?” repeated Clarissa, sounding vague. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about that. . .” her voice faded. Then she said, her smile growing, “Is your car good? Mine is fabulous! I’m still not that good at corners, but I can start and stop just fine, and it’s pink. Pink! Oh, it’s sooo pretty. Is your car nice? Is it shiny? I heard that some people are given old cars, right from the start, I’m sooo glad I didn’t get one of those. I like new and shiny. Don’t you? What’s your fun feature?”

“Fun Feature?” said Toby, “what fun feature? I don’t know what you mean.”

Clarissa looked at him and frowned. “You are funny,” she said, “it’s the best bit about the cars. Each one has a fun feature included – you know, something that serves no real purpose when it comes to the boring driving stuff, but which looks pretty, or is fun to use.”

She leant closer and said in a breathless whisper: “Mine has music.”

“Oh,” said Toby, thinking about his car, and how it had a tendency to lurch when starting. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” He frowned, thinking hard. Then his brow cleared, and he smiled back at Clarissa.

“Bubbles!” he said. “My car has a bubbles button. I wondered how that would be useful.”

“It’s not meant to be useful,” said Clarissa, shaking her head again and giggling. “It’s meant to be fun!”

Toby smiled. “Well, I guess it will be,” he agreed.

“I ought to go and find my mentor now, Percy said he’d meet me after the race, and talk about my training, you know, to help me prepare for the real track. How do you plan to train?”

Clarissa was looking confused again. “Train? Real Track?” she murmured.

“Nope, I intend to enjoy the car I’ve been given and have loads of fun. I don’t have a mentor,” she added, shaking her head. “Perhaps not everyone needs one.”

Toby felt himself blush. He wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of needing a mentor if others didn’t. Then he remembered his rather crooked parking, and the way his car lurched, and how he nearly missed the road every time he turned a corner, and he grinned.

“Well,” he conceded, I do have a bit of technique to learn.”

Clarissa was standing up, and Toby noticed a very slim waist, and a waft of flowery perfume.

“Maybe catch you later,” she called over her shoulder. “It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Toby with the bubbles button and the mentor.”

Toby watched Clarissa as she skipped down the steps. He liked the way her hair bounced, and he thought that perhaps her idea of enjoying her car and having lots of fun was not such a bad one. Then he stood, and stretched his back, and followed the line of people descending towards the track. It was time to try and find Percy.

****

Thank you for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow.

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

Chapter One


Meeting Percy


Toby arrived at the training ground on a Wednesday, which was rather a good day to arrive because all the drivers were preparing for a race. Toby could feel a knot of excitement in his tummy, as he drove he stroked the steering wheel of his car.

“I’ve been issued with my car,” his mind sang. “My very own car! I own a car! I have my own. . . Oops!”

Toby stopped singing and clutched the wheel very tightly as his front bumper skimmed the edge of a cone that had been placed on the corner of the road. He turned the wheel quickly and too fast, nearly driving off the edge of the road. Gasping, he turned the wheel the other way, almost driving into a long yellow car that was passing him. The driver of the yellow car honked his horn before gliding past.

Toby giggled. “Not quite got the hang of driving yet,” he whispered, “but it will come, it will come.”

The racing circuit stretched out next to the road. At the moment it was being prepared for a race, with flags being raised and seats being cleaned. Toby noticed a brass band unpacking, and a man sorting great black cables that looked like giant snakes and were probably part of the sound system.

He drove slowly along the perimeter of the racing circuit, avoiding people rolling fat tyres, and mechanics dressed in grey overalls splattered in oil, and important looking souls striding around with clipboards.

He edged his car towards one end of the circuit, where a group of people were standing together in front of some monitors. As Toby approached, a tall man with grey hair that reached his shoulders noticed him, and waved his hands to stop the car.

Toby pressed the brake, and the car stopped, but not until it was well passed the man. Toby sighed, swivelling in his seat so he could see behind him, reversing the car. He managed to stop slightly too far ahead of the man. Very slowly, his foot hovering over the brake pedal, Toby edged forwards. He stopped, with a jolt, level with the man.

“You must be Toby?” said the man, glancing towards the monitors before staring at Toby very hard with his grey eyes. A lone bubble floated in the air above him, and sank slowly out of view.

Toby looked up at the man and felt suddenly worried, aware that this man was someone important and perhaps Toby should have known that and not approached him quite so boldly. Another bubble had replaced the first, and was drifting on the air towards the man’s head. The man was still staring at Toby, his long neck craning towards Toby, his mouth a thin line of disapproval. He seemed oblivious to the bubbles. Toby nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “I’m Toby.”

“You’ve been allocated a mentor,” said the man, looking cross. “You’ll find him over by the refreshment tent; ask for Percy.”

“A mentor?” repeated Toby, confused. He hadn’t realised they would be expecting him, he had hoped to simply watch and try to work out for himself what was happening.

“Yes,” the man was saying, “a mentor.”

Several bubbles were now floating around the man, the sunlight giving them rainbow patterns as they drifted down. One landed on the man, popping in a miniature shower of soap droplets. The man glanced up, looked at Toby and scowled.

“I realise you haven’t had time to learn your car yet, but could you do something about these bubbles? Hardly the right time for them, is it?”

“Me?” said Toby, wondering why the man would think he had any control over the bubbles. Did he expect Toby to get out and start popping bubbles?

The man sighed – an exasperated rush of air – and pointed behind Toby’s car.

Toby turned, and was surprised to see a whole shower of bubbles—tiny dancing bubbles, great swollen floating bubbles, groups of bubbles that clung to each other as though in a family, lone bubbles that drifted independently—all seemingly being pumped from the rear of his car.

“That switch?” said the man, nodding towards a red button on the dashboard.

Toby pressed it, and the bubbles stopped appearing. The few remaining bubbles continued to float on the air, a lazy drift towards the ground.

“That’s better,” said the man. “Now, your mentor. Someone to explain things and help you to improve. You do want to improve, don’t you? You want to be accepted?” The man was frowning now, beginning to look seriously cross.

Toby nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. Great. Thanks.”

The man stepped back, obviously expecting Toby to leave. Toby released the brake and eased the car forwards, heading towards the refreshment tent with its red and yellow striped flags.

As he drove, Toby noticed the sights and smells and sounds of the racetrack as they seeped through his open window. On his left were the stands—row after row of seats, each row slightly raised so that the back row was almost floating in the sky. Toby doubted that anyone would see very much from the back row, but perhaps simply being there, watching the race and listening to the noise would be exciting enough. The stands were almost empty, only the first few rows beginning to fill as the spectators arrived. It was still very early, and the people arriving would have a very long wait before the race began.

On his right, Toby could see the circuit, a wide expanse of black tarmac scarred with tyre marks. There was a small white fence between the track and the small road that Toby was on, but he could almost imagine he was part of the same circuit, that he was making his way to the start-line, about to compete in his first race. He imagined the cheers, people shouting his name, the car underneath him growling in impatience to speed along the track, his fingers clenched the steering wheel, his foot hovering over the accelerator. . .

Then someone stepped into his path, and Toby had to brake suddenly, and his daydream finished.

Toby sighed. He wondered how long it would be before he entered his first race. He knew that some drivers had to wait years and years, and he frowned. He hoped he would be one of the lucky ones, and that perhaps in a few short weeks he would be whizzing around that circuit, learning new skills, testing his ability against other trainee drivers.

He was almost at the refreshment tent now. The tent had flaps that were drawn wide, revealing small round tables inside, where people rested glasses of beer and mugs of cocoa. A woman in a very large hat covered in daisies was leaving, walking carefully over the grass in her high-heeled shoes, calling to someone behind her.

“Do hurry Percy dear, or I shall have to scramble for my seat with everyone else. I do like to be settled before most people arrive.”

“Percy?” thought Toby. “Percy was the name of my mentor.”

He stopped the car and leaned forwards on his seat, waiting for Percy to emerge. Would he be very large, wearing a leather jacket and driving goggles, like drivers from the past? Or would he be in tight jeans and a tee-shirt, with long hair and a wicked smile, like some of the wild drivers he had heard about? Toby rather hoped that his mentor would be one of the wild drivers, full of skill and daring, not afraid to take risks, a little frightening but admired by everyone for the speed at which they spun corners and raced the straights.

The daisy-hat woman had stopped walking, and Toby peered round her, staring hard into the gloom of the tent. But he couldn’t see who Percy was, because there was an old man in the way, a tall thin man who walked with a stoop and leaned heavily on a stick.

Toby sighed in frustration, waiting for the man to pass, so that he could see his mentor.

The old man made his way from the tent. He walked very slowly, as if worried something might break, using his stick almost like another leg. Step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step.

It was almost unbearably slow, and Toby felt like screaming. He was at the training ground, and for Toby that meant speed and daring, learning skills so that he could drive even faster. It was not about waiting, for what felt like several hours, while a stooped old man inched his way closer. Toby tried to peer round him, searching for a sign of his mentor, when, horror of horrors, the old man glanced up at the woman, and pointed at Toby and said: “He’s here. Go ahead without me.”

Toby gasped. Could this old man, this slow old man be his mentor? What could he possibly teach Toby about how to get the fastest speeds from his car?

By the time the man reached him, Toby was scowling. The elderly man leant down, and peered in the window. He smiled, and Toby saw yellow teeth and watery eyes. He felt something heavy lodge in the base of his stomach, and sit there, cold and heavy and full of disappointment.

“Hello Toby,” said the old man, meeting his eyes. “I can tell from your face that you weren’t expecting me, you were expecting someone young and colourful and fast?” He didn’t bother to wait for Toby to reply, he simply smiled and shook his head.

“First lesson,” he continued, “don’t judge a driver by his appearance. I know I look old and slow. I am old and slow. But put me into a car, and I’ll leave you standing at the start line while I finish the race!”

Toby felt his face turn red. “I wasn’t, I mean, I didn’t think. . .” he began to stammer.

“Yes, you did,” said the man – Percy – but his voice was calm, he sounded more amused than annoyed, even though he was correcting Toby, letting him know that he was wrong.

Toby wasn’t sure that he liked being corrected, but there was something about the way Percy spoke, about his complete assurance, that was somehow comforting. Toby began to wonder if perhaps this driver could, after all, teach him to drive faster.

“Now then,” said the man, leaning on his stick and turning his head away. “My car is parked round the back. You wait here, and then when I come back, follow me.” He grinned, flashing those yellow teeth at Toby again. “Don’t you worry, I’ll make sure you can keep up!

“I want to take you for a quick tour of the training ground. You’ll see that there are all kinds of drivers, and all kinds of cars. No one gets to choose the type of car they’re given, but how you use it is up to you, and drivers vary in how they think it’s best to behave.

“Drivers tend to keep close to drivers who think the same as they do, so as we drive around, you’ll begin to spot the different training methods. Each type of driver has a special area, their training area. It has a training track to help drivers prepare for the racing circuit, and of course that helps you to prepare for the real track. Which is what it’s all about!”

He glanced at Toby, who felt as if he was standing under a waterfall of words, and he didn’t understand any of them.

Toby must have looked as confused as he felt, because Percy stopped talking and patted his arm.

“Never mind about understanding it all now, it will be obvious when you’ve seen it for yourself. Let’s start with a little drive around.

“When you’ve seen it all, looked at all the groups of drivers, seen how they have decided to train, I want you to choose.”

“Choose?” repeated Toby, not quite sure what he was being told.

“Yes, choose,” said his mentor. “It’s up to you, like I said, you can choose how you want to train. You can choose which group you want to belong to. You can always switch, of course, if you realise you’ve made a mistake.”

“Switch?” said Toby.

“Yes, if you change your mind,” said his mentor, nodding his head, his lips pressed together.

As if, thought Toby, he expected Toby to change his mind.

“You see, it can be hard at first glance, to know who has the best training method. Everyone is here for the same reason, we all want to be the very best drivers that we can be, and to improve our speed and skills, ready for the real track.

“No one knows for sure how long their training will be, that’s all decided by The Engineer. But everyone wants to be ready. We don’t know exactly what the real track is like, but we do know that the best drivers will get the best cars, and the most interesting route. No one wants to end up being given a bus that can’t turn corners or make it up hills! Do they lad? Think how awful that would be!”

Toby nodded, but he was not quite sure what the old man was talking about. He had heard of the real track of course, everyone had. And he did know, sort of, that he was at the training circuit so he could improve his skills ready for the real track. But if he was honest, simply arriving, and being given a car—his own car!—well, that was exciting enough in itself. That had rather focussed his thoughts on the present, on what was happening now. He had, he was forced to admit, forgotten for the moment what it was all about.

But Toby did not feel inclined to explain all this to an old man with yellow teeth. Instead, he nodded, trying to look both wise and bored, as if to show that the man was telling him nothing that he didn’t already know.

The mentor grinned, and flashed a look at Toby that conveyed he knew exactly what the young driver had been thinking.

“Now, you wait here, I’ll collect my car. We’ll have a short drive around, then get back for the race. You can watch, try to spot some of the groups of drivers, decide how you want to train. We can talk properly after the race.” He patted the top of the car, and began his slow walk back towards the tent. Step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step. . .

Toby watched him go, yawned, and closed his eyes. This was not going to be quick.

He opened his eyes. Percy had moved about an inch. Toby sighed, reached forwards and pressed the red button on his dashboard. When he turned to look, bubbles of all shapes and sizes were being pumped from the back of the car. Now what, wondered Toby, could possibly be the point of the bubbles?

*****

Thank you for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow, please share with anyone you know who might enjoy a story.

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Puppet Dance


The Puppet Dance

A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.

Max stirred. He could hear the soft fluttering of someone moving in his room. Eyes heavy, he opened them a crack, peered out. The world was bleary, and white—harsh lights; he closed them again. The someone moved closer, he smelt almonds, felt a machine on his neck.

It whirred and hummed as it measured his temperature, heartbeat, fluid levels. Then another prick, sharp, in his thigh.

“Another bee,” he thought, “way too many insects. . .” He floated back to sleep.

***

Mel4 was back in her office. She sipped the bitter coffee in her hand, stared at the screen. She could see Midra leaving his underground garage, the car flanked by two others. The glass was black but she knew he was inside, accompanied by a human guard, with a bot fastened to the ceiling. The bot would be monitoring all passing traffic, anything unusual. The human guard would be armed. She switched to an inside monitor; all was as expected.

All human guards carried firearms, tiny guns that could shoot either instant tranquillisers or, more rarely, lethal bullets designed to kill. Neither guaranteed the immediate removal of danger as it depended on the aim of the marksman when the target was hit—which meant there had been calls for the rearming of bots. Mel4 hoped that would never happen. She remembered too well the mistakes of the past, the malfunctioning bots who had killed innocent bystanders, the over-diligent bots who had removed enemies they would rather have interviewed. It was still too difficult to write code that tempered absolute obedience, code that would enable bots to balance more than the physical elements of the situations they were in. Humans, though unreliable, were still considered more reliable than bots when it came to weapons. They were still able to weigh up situations and vary their decisions accordingly. There were fewer absolutes in the human mind, more variables. For ten years now, security bots had been armed only with sedatives, ones that worked fairly instantly but were never fatal.

Mel4 shook her head; she was day-dreaming, and there was no time for that today. She took another sip, then rested her cup on the desk. She would need to move that if her boss came, the roaming bot that floated around the corridors checking workers, sending instructions to her terminal. Liquids and machines were not a good mix, despite all the manufacturer’s assurances that computers were watertight. She would be careful. It had been a long week; she needed the caffeine. She read through the data that had arrived so far. The holy place was secure; the delegates were on their way. They would be met by Midra at 9am, they would nod, smile, make meaningless speeches, then Midra could return to his safe bunker and the delegates could leave, knowing their importance had been acknowledged.

Her next job would be to make a decision on the boy from the island.

***

Lena was standing in an inspection room with the nurse. He had locked the door, moved the trolley bed to under a hatch in the ceiling and smoothly climbed onto it. He was now unscrewing the clips, lowering the metal plate. Lena was watching. Did he really expect her to climb up there? To shuffle through tunnels? She fingered the borrowed barcode clipped onto her borrowed uniform. She felt her feet, pinched by the borrowed shoes. She wondered if she would need to use the toilet before she got back. Heroes in stories never used toilets, she had noticed that. Women with children did though, and the nurse had made her drink a lot, watched her swallow every drop of the sweet liquid, told her the fluids and sugar would do her good.

She glanced down at the map in her hand. She had nearly forgotten to bring it, had left it in the side pocket of her bag. He had reminded her, raised that eyebrow again, suggested it might be useful unless she had committed it to memory. His sarcasm was irritating, made her want to slap him.

The nurse finished removing the hatch and he sat on the bed, holding it, looking at her. He reached into a pocket and took out a cloth bag attached to a thin belt.

“Put the vials in here. There’s not much room up there so you would do better to wear them at your side, there isn’t enough space to have them at the back, and you’ll need to shuffle on your stomach. You don’t want to break them. Do you know how to administer them?”

Lena shook her head. She had no medical training, how would she know such a thing? He stood and crossed to a cupboard, pulled out a small tube.

“They look like this inside,” he told her, his voice full of forced patience as he explained. “Slide them out of the holding tubes and you will see two buttons.” He held it so she could see. “The first one,” he depressed it, “extends the needle”.

Lena looked at the long point as it shone in the light. It looked sharp and cruel. She swallowed.

“You insert it, a thigh or arm will do, or the neck if that’s quickest, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s in a good centimetre.”

Lena shuddered. She didn’t much like injections, though had given them to the children when necessary, when the drones had brought them from the pharmacy after an online medical examination. This looked much the same, though was slimmer and had no instructions attached.

“Then you just press the button at the end,” the nurse was telling her, “just like a normal injection. The chemical will be pushed out, count to five, that will be long enough. Then inject the next clone. We think there are three but we have given you five, just in case”.

“In case of what?” wondered Lena. “In case there are more clones? In case I drop one? In case I decide to murder someone extra on my way out?” She kept quiet. He didn’t look like he would appreciate her thoughts.

The nurse was standing again, climbing back up onto the trolley bed. He clearly had no time left, needed to send her on her way. He passed her the screw remover, watched her add it to the cloth bag, managing to remain silent, to not tell her to hurry up, but every muscle in his face tense. He reached out a hand to help her up.

For a moment Lena stood, stared at his hand, did not move. After a pause, she took hold of it, her own small hand swallowed up in the mass of his, let him help her onto the bed. She stood next to him, peering upwards, not at all sure she was strong enough to climb up, the gap was very small, very high. Then, with no time to think, the nurse hoisted her upwards as easily as he would have lifted a child. She swung her legs into the space and peered forwards. There was a long white tunnel leading away from the entrance shaft. It was lower further on but she had room to sit here, to remain upright. Below her, the nurse was raising the hatch back into place.

“Wait, what are you doing? How will I get out?”

“Don’t panic,” he told her, his voice rough now, in a hurry. “I’m just putting in place, so no one notices. I won’t secure it. When you get back, listen. If the room is empty, stamp hard, and it will fall down. Then you can get out. Go back to the washroom. You remember the way?”

Lena nodded. Realised he couldn’t see her, said, “Yes”. Her voice sounded strange, hollow and hoarse.

He paused, lowered the tile again so he could see her.

“Good, then go there—to the same washroom. At ten o’clock I will come. I will have Max. You can both leave. There will be a car waiting, it will be ordered with a different barcode, make sure you disable the on-board camera. It will take you to the port. Someone will meet you. That’s all I know.”

He did not tell her to trust him. She had no choice. He did not tell her it would all be fine. He doubted that it would be. He looked up at this woman, saw her exhaustion, her acceptance that she had no options, her determination to find her son. In his mind he wished her well, prayed she would have the strength she needed. He nodded, fixed the tile in place, and left. He did not expect to see her again.

Lena wanted to call after him, to tell him to stay, she couldn’t do this, it was stupid to even try. Through the small grill in the ceiling, she watched the top of his head go towards the door, then he disappeared from her view. She tied the belt around her waist, hearing the vials jangle against each other. She hoped they were stronger than they looked. Then she leaned forwards into a crouch and began to half crawl, half shuffle, along the narrow vent. She held the map in her left hand. It was folded so that her current position was showing. She needed to go forward past three more vents, then turn right. She felt like a marker in a computer game, wondered if she glowed red.

Crawling was uncomfortable but not difficult. Every so often, she lifted her head and looked ahead. She could hear nothing from below, hoped her own shuffling was unheard. She crawled along the narrow space, a fat black cable lying beside her. She tried to not touch it, there was something threatening about that cable. She arrived at the first vent and peered down.

She was looking into a room. There was a nurse in the corner and a bed with a tray next to it. She strained to see around the edge of the vent, to discover who was in the bed. If it was Max, she would abandon her mission in an instant, would find a way to get to him.

It was not Max. It was an old lady, her white hair flowing over her shoulders, her head resting on a pillow. She was very thin, with paper-thin skin and when she lifted her arm, Lena saw bones with flesh hanging, the movements shaky and slow. The woman appeared barely alive. Lena shuffled on.

The tunnel had no discerning features, a long dust-filled hollow stretching before her. Lena used her elbows to propel herself forwards, her stomach dragging along the floor, the unsecured sections of hair hanging in her face, the air dry.

The next vent was over a corridor. People passed beneath her, she paused for a moment and watched their heads. Snippets of conversation floated up, none discernible, a general babble of sound. That helped her relax a little, to think that she herself was unlikely to be heard unless she coughed or shouted when above a vent. Whatever the ceiling was made of, it was clearly well insulated, containing both heat and sound. She continued.

At the next vent there was a crossing of routes. She checked the map again, took the fork to the right. Her arms were beginning to tire now and her throat was dry. The tunnels were dusty, dry, uncomfortably hot. She wondered what her uniform must look like now, imagined it was far from the pristine white it had been a few minutes ago. That would be a problem when she came to leave. There was nothing she could do now, so she continued, taking her weight on her arms, shuffling with her legs. An uncoordinated caterpillar.

***

Mel4 was watching her screen closely. She could see that Midra had arrived at the holy place. He had left the car and was moving into position, walking through the clapping public, through the arched doorway and along the aisle. All seemed to be going to plan. She watched the live feed, switching between monitors until he was in his seat at the front. He would be introduced, then would stand and make a speech.

She reached for her keyboard and turned her second screen on. It flashed blue, then she called the island reports back into view. She had made her decision. They could not alter the boy, that was too severe, held too many risks. She thought it was an unreliable method of control, disliked the number of ‘failures’ her department had been forced to cover up. No, she would not sanction that.

However, her bot had given her three options and the second, the decision to wipe a part of his medium-term memory, seemed sensible. He was young, he would have many more years to build new memories. A few gaps wouldn’t matter.

She entered the codes, sent her decision. They could do it this morning. He could then be returned to the island; she saw no reason to remove him permanently from his family. Her understanding was that they were planning to leave soon anyway, they could be reunited and go. Then they wouldn’t be her problem anymore. It was not as if they were a security threat, they held illegal views, that was all. Mel4 did not agree with the law as it stood, but her job was not to make judgements about that, it was to ensure it was upheld. She finished writing and sent her conclusion. Then she turned back to watch Midra.

***

Lena reached the next vent. She sat up, easing her back, stretching the muscles. This was physically very tough, she wondered if it was going to be possible, she would be tired when she eventually arrived. She peered down, adjusting her position so she could see through the gaps in the vent, squinting her eyes, looking for her son.

She seemed to be over a cafeteria, she could see heads moving, smell something spicy. It made her feel nauseous. A tendril of hair was tickling her nose. She pushed it back, swept all the escaped hair together, hooking it back into the hairband—it didn’t matter what she looked like now. She noticed her hands were dusty, dry, she wished she had gloves. Wished a lot of things.

Lena checked her map, refolding it so her current position was at the top. The exit shaft, the one near the clones, was now on the same square of paper. She was getting closer. That was good, she told herself, nearly there, nearly at the right place. She stopped there—not wanting to consider what came next, what she must do when she arrived and the myriad of things that might go wrong. She had no sense of time but she felt she had been crawling for hours. She checked the vials were still in place, moved them slightly so they didn’t knock against her leg, then leaned forwards, continued moving.

“I can do this,” she told herself, willing her arms to keep moving, clawing her way forwards, heaving her body through the vent. “I can do this, I can save Max. . . ”

 

***

On the island, John’s computer beeped. A message. He opened it. It was sent in code, talked about monitors being fixed, awaiting collection. He smiled, they had located the boy. He checked the time, rubbing his hands together, the slightest smile flickering on his mouth. This was all going to plan.

John rose and went to find Den, to tell him to pack, he and Lucy would be leaving on a boat before nightfall. Whatever happened, it would not be safe for them to stay now. Too much was going to change.

To be continued on Sunday

Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Amazon Link Here

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Taken


Taken

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

If you would like to read the whole story, or perhaps buy a copy for a friend, it is available from an Amazon near you. The link is below:

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Counting-Stars-glimpse-around-corner/dp/0995463212/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=counting+stars+by+anne+e+thompson&qid=1589905723&sr=8-1

 

Thanks for reading.
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