(World in Sound)
The hemi rumbled, wobbling the car on its minimal suspension. Hunkered over the steering wheel, the stuntman tested the loud pedal, drilled and heated by the baking Arizona sunshine. He could barely move, so securely was he strapped down. A little play in his ankle to get the pedal to the floor, just enough space to twitch the wheel one way or the other, and of course, the matte red button duct taped to the wheel within reach of his thumb.
The car had more or less been built around him on the hardpan, by the dedicated crewmen whose counsel he had come to depend upon these last few months. Now, he squinted past a blinding tension headache, searching the heat haze for the distant crowd, barely visible past the thick black window nets. He recognised nobody. So many had come to watch his hour of glory, and yet he had scarcely felt more isolated.
He concentrated instead on the tiny red strobe a mile distant, waiting for it to shift to blue-green. That was his Rubicon now, the threshold where one moment became the next; where a man became a legend.
Trepidation hung like a pall across the desert, as if the crowd struggled as one for its breath. Dimly, the stuntman wondered if the tension had been amplified by his confused, stumbling address, delivered just moments before from his cramped, contortionist’s cabin via radio microphone.
“Now, you all know how much I admire Hitler,” he had begun, then immediately spluttered to a stop. The reaction of the crowd was impossible to gauge at this remove. He could have been talking to himself. He coughed, heard the squeal of feedback roll between the rocks from the public address system. “That, uh. That is to say, not. At all. But if I did, I imagine that he would be smiling on my endeavour today. I do this for you. For all of you. For America for, for the fatherland.” Silence. He revved the V8 for punctuation. A backwash of heat and noise rolled over the hood and into the mic, blowing the PA stacks in a shower of sparks.
Dumbly, he had thumbed the mic switch and dumped it on the passenger seat beside him. Then he’d fixed his gaze on the pulsar strobe, still red. Minutes slid by in stillness, stretched to anti-time by the strobe’s hypnosis.
It was almost a shock when he discovered himself hammering across the hardpan at 70 miles per hour and climbing, an arrowhead in front of a khaki plume, racing toward the blinking blue-green. He didn’t remember the shift.
A black line flashed past, 1500 feet out, spray-painted across the sand, and the stuntman drove his thumb deep into the red button’s shining temptation, glimpsing his wife’s face as he did so. The solid-fuel rocket behind him fired, filling the cabin with heat, vibration, and a tooth-cracking howl. The speedometer flipped to its apogee and stuck, never to return. The flames melted sand and stone into a long arrow of hot, red molten glass in his wake. The ramp loomed, now, seconds away.
He fought the screaming urge to touch the brakes as the car accelerated beyond all hope of human control, knowing he would melt the wheels solid in a demi-second and shred the tyres, reinforced or otherwise. His teeth chattered inside the white helmet, its blue and red stars shaking as if they were about to go nova. He clutched the wheel and gritted his jaw, until he thought his very bones might splinter. Smoke began to curl around the cabin. The crowds lining the approach flashed past in an incomprehensible blur, but he could spare no attention for them. Even the smouldering vinyl of the car seat, scorched under the booster’s glare, could not penetrate the stuntman’s concentration. All he knew was the wheel, the pedal, the ramp.
He drove the springs clean through the tops of the fenders when he hit. His helmet struck the ceiling, cracking vertebrae, tearing burned skin, scorched jumpsuit and melted vinyl away. But he felt nothing. Now all he could see was sky, so vast and boundless, that his momentum was only comprehensible in the unbearable trembling of the machine. Then, even that was gone.
The ruined Firestones, pitted and blistered, left the ramp. Still the rocket yawned at his back, still the heat and smoke built around him. He knew the canyon was beneath him, but he could not see it. Angled at the heavens, he seemed to float free, unmoving. He twisted his scorched, ruined back, trying to catch a glimpse through the rear window. But there was nothing beyond the booster’s incessant belch. He was a pure passenger.
Clouds drifted by, adrenaline faded, to be replaced with bone-deep fatigue. The stuntman surrendered, sagging inside his star-spangled overall. Unable to resist, his eyes slid closed, shuttering his brain, overcome by smoke and heat and rattled senseless by vibration.
He awoke to a chill that seemed to originate in his very marrow. In palpable disorientation, he tried to blink away the sleep that cobwebbed his forelobes. Night had fallen, it seemed. Blue-hued stars crusted the night ahead of him. Where was he? When had he landed? Where were the crowds awaiting his triumph, his disaster?
He looked around the cockpit of his Challenger R/T, searching for clues. There was nothing but silence. He reached for the door handle, but it was not there. The latching mechanism had been removed to save weight, the door welded shut. He’d needed assistance to get in the car, and he’d surely need it to get out again. He craned his neck, left and right, wincing against the pain of the burns on his back. Nothing but night, dusted with brilliant white stars like diamonds on velvet.
That was odd, he thought. He took a grip of the wheel, and studied the night before him. The stars ahead glinted coldy, blue like shards of ice. Those to either hand glared a familiar white. Twisting backwards, squinting past the rocket, now cold and dead silent, the stuntman glimpsed red pinpricks, livid as fire ants, swarming the night at his back. There was no discernible sign of his movement, but abruptly, he was gripped by a baseless conviction that he was not standing still. Anything but.
Nothing but nothing beneath his wheels; the planet Earth far, far behind him, the stuntman crossed the cosmos in a 500 horsepower photon machine, flying faster and harder than any daredevil ever had. He was in space, light years from Arizona, and somehow he knew it. Subjective time trickled past him like treacle as he dove into the blue-shift, gaining velocity in increments of infinity. He gave the wheel an experimental nudge to the left, and sensed the car’s broad snout shifting, even though he could see no indication of his trajectory’s change.
He was the world’s first space-daredevil. The thought tickled him deep in his being, and he was unable to suppress a hysterical whoop.
But what now, he wondered? What was there to do, to see? The stars were not visibly approaching. Even at his ludicrous speed, he might not reach another solar system for a hundred years or more. He frowned at this. He was driving a ’70 Challenger R/T at the speed of light or quicker. Earthly physics seemed to have excused him. What was inconceivable now?
His eyes were suddenly drawn to a certain point in space. At first, he didn’t know what his eye sought out. Then he caught it. A dot, moving against the static backdrop, a deeper blue than the rest. Its hue shifted continually, blue, purple, red, and back again. Its movement told him it was much closer than the stars. He grinned beneath the helmet, and turned the wheel.
The speck grew, faster than he expected. It took on the aspect of a flower, petals rippling. As he approached, he saw the colours shifted not only between blue and red, but across the entire spectrum. It seemed he glimpsed shades he had never even imagined before, let alone seen. The surface of the flower rippled with detail. It appeared no further from his face than the end of the car’s hood. And yet, it continued to grow, and grow, revealing more and more layers, depths of fractal complexity, until it filled the entire forward view.
He did not know how long he fell into the face of that cosmic bloom. Fresh details never stopped presenting themselves, the shifting of its colours never abated. Minutes, hours or days might have passed. He imagined himself a speck, growing ever more infinitesimal against the enveloping arc of the bloom, and yet still he fell. More than anything, he wished his crew hadn’t removed his eight-track player; that his Hawkwind tapes were still in the car.
The shifting kaleidoscopic detail at the centre of the bloom gradually began to resolve itself, became a point of reference against the smeared paintbox around him. It loomed out of the morass with alarming speed, and vertiginous nausea bubbled in his throat. Before another second had passed, he was close enough to make it out. A stage, bricked high with red 1969 Marshall stacks, a band of four men on its back. Incense burned at the base of the microphone stand, and a set of blue sunburst drum shells loomed on the riser, heads picked out in white. A crowd was gathered before that edifice, and somehow he already knew what he would see.
The band had his face, plus 30 years. The crowd too, circling in front of him, wore his aged likeness, bald, toothless and grey. The crowd was marching around and around in concentric circles, one against the other, at the bloom’s very heart. The car lanced through the circle’s exact centre, and stopped, as if driven radiator-first through the floor. His own haggard selves danced past him, up to down on the one hand, down to up on the other.
A bright, livid anxiety overtook him. What could it mean? Paralysed for a moment, he swallowed against the knot in his throat, twisting the wheel between his fists, toeing the pedals ineffectually. The cosmos held no allure now, all it had done was bring him face-to-face with a nightmare. He felt his mind bulging against the enormity of it, struggling to contain what he was witnessing. The music droned around him, audible somehow in the vacuum. The circle pit of his blank-eyed selves, moist toothless jaws working against one another, wound around and around, an infinite ouroboros of his id. His terror built, climbing out of his stomach and up through his throat until he screamed, muffled and hoarse behind the crash helmet. His hand fumbled blindly forward, finding the gear shift. He shoved it away, then tugged it in, not caring what gear he found so long as it was ‘away’.
A year later, the car was finally discovered, by sheer chance, more than 200 miles distant from the canyon. A year previously, the eager crowd had gathered on the other side of the gulf, awaiting the denouement of this incredible stunt, but the car had never landed. Eventually they had lost sight of its contrail over the horizon. And though the desert was quartered and searched, no sign of it had ever been found.
Now, smoking on broken axles, the useless car squatted in the desert wastes, eroded and corroded, its cavities home to heavens-knew-what. Of the stuntman, the only sign was the microphone in the singed passenger seat, and the fingernails, still embedded in the steering wheel. No tracks leading to or from the vehicle. The single discernible clue to the mystery of the car was an ethereal music that seemed to bleed between the gaps in its panels, only audible when you were not really listening for it.
This is what it sounded like: