This week's writing prompt takes us to a future filled with flying cars and the sky-high gas stations that service them. See if you can come up with a story set at this aerial station, which sells both fuel and fried dough.
This piece, by Alejandro Burdisio, is just one from his series of flying heaps of junk, via The Art of Animation. This is actually the second prompt I've posted featuring a gas station; what can I say? I love stories that intersect with road trips.
Here's my story. Post yours in the comments.
Maribel set down her horchata and slid open the window, the scent of exhaust assaulting her nostrils as the outside air flooded in. She pulled up her oxygen mask and smiled with her eyes, the way her mother had taught her. "What can I get you?"
The driver didn't bother rolling down his window; instead his face—pale, hair greased back—appeared on his window screen. "Your pumps are locked down," he said, frowning.
Maribel leaned onto the counter, strumming her mask with her fingers. Her mother would have scolded her, but this guy wasn't here to buy churros. "We hit our cap for the day. Come back tomorrow. Early." She reached for the window handle, but the man interrupted her.
"Your secondary pumps are open."
She shrugged. "Well sure," she said. "That's for mass transit vehicles. You got a common carrier permit, you're welcome to welcome to use those pumps."
A gold credit key appeared in the driver's hand. He tapped it against the window, as if he were merely fidgeting with it instead of waving it before Maribel's eyes. "You can operate the pumps."
"If I want to lose my operator's license." She leaned out the window, pointing north northwest. "There's a Ho Lin Petrol station about an hour's putter from here. They've got twice our cap."
"What about your private stockpile?"
Maribel froze. "What about it?"
He stopped tapping the key, bringing it instead to his lips. "I know all you gas stations have your own fuel supply in case you need to suddenly relocate." Maribel didn't like the way he said that last word, all silky and slow.
"We do, but it's not graded for sale."
The gold key disappeared from view, but Maribel was certain it was as good as hers. "Miss," he said, "do I seem like a man concerned about government grades?"
Maribel's mother appeared a few minutes after the man left, bringing a lunch of rice and eggs. "Did I see a car pulling out of the garage?" she asked.
Maribel grabbed the steaming bowl, shoveling a forkful of rice into her mouth before setting it down on the counter. "He wanted a barrel from our private fuel supply."
Her mother whipped out a scolding index finger. "Maribel Yolanda Bettina Rivera!" she gasped. "Did you con that man into buying a barrel of used frying oil?"
Gotta love the wacky things people get into nowadays. Flying cars that look like something out of that insane history book my kid brought home from school on his digi-pad! You wonder what makes me work this life? Well... its interesting!
Oh, I've been around a lot. Seen a lot of places, not just through history books. Most of the cities I've been in are something: all gleaming silver, high-tech and futuristic. But that's Noram and Souam. Out here, we're in the hind-end of the planetary dumpster. And people make due with what they can slap an old Aegis Repulsor onto for a few thousand creds. Be honest, though, its kind of fun seeing how people make due while trying to make due yourself.
My granddad used to tell me about the old buses they'd use in Africa, back when it was all backwards and people still had open land to argue over. Funny, calling it backwards - hellish was more what it was - people killing each other for no reason, or every reason - just none that would make sense to reasonable folk. Way too much hate, way too little care. Times have changed though. Now they're decent folk, and they've got their act together. Funny that way history works. Winners turn into losers. Losers turn into winners. But the common man is still the common man, no matter where you find him.
As for Panasia City, well its just a little better than the slime that squirms around most of the Asian Rot today - too much of it former Americans coming to pursue the 'American' dream in Asia. They run around trying to turn a cred at the expense of whomever they can backstab - complaining about the Noram socialist government or some such nonsense. Didn't they hear? Most of this land used to be Communist. Well... it was before these shining bright-eyed boys from the former US came in. They're the reason the city below us is what it is now.
Too bad, too. Noram is getting better. That civil war, the LA sprawl and NYC sprawl rebuilding everything into shiny cities... the central Noram plains being rejuvenated and whatnot. Then there's the Souam Jungles - last massive greenspace on Earth - and its being grown to massive proportions to make up for the losses elsewhere. They've pushed the cities out to the sea - which wasn't a big burden. Eventually though LA and NYC are going to meet in the middle, and start working their way down. Seems that the Capitalistas leaving just made everything in Noram better. But not as good as what Africa's managed.
Africa is mostly big city and desert, more city than desert anymore, and plenty of gear heads went back to the giant scrapyards on the coasts and harvested those old beat up 20th century buses and cars and brought them back here to the Asian Rot. Many a man from here turned a cred or two by helping the African's out, managed to wiggle free of the sludge and slime that flows through the streets just a few hundred meters below my little slice of heaven here. Lots of the people from around here that could afford to do so moved there. Those that weren't taken to the moon by the Chinese government, that is. Yep. Those lights you see on yonder moon? That's new China. All 1.8 billion of them. Strip-mined everything, built their colony ships, and left behind the Asian Rot.
Oh, what? I'm here complaining, running a gas station? Bah. You can throw just about anything into the Mighty-Mite fusion reactor and get useful joules out of it - enough to run that fiftieth-hand Aegis anyways. Truth be told, the fuel we sell is what we need to dispose of after running our primary business - that's the food stand. Big thing, we've got the least pollution on the continent here, and the gas station, people gotta fill up when they're filling up. Health inspectors from Noram gave it a five star rating, just goes to show that Noram's have some taste. Don't have any rad-roaches at least, and that's saying something considering some of the crud these truckers haul along with them.
Yeah, those truckers, they just want the chili, and are darned rude when asking for it - that clipped accent and stench of some burnt plant matter on their breath. Hasn't been real tobacco for almost a decade now, especially since the Noram tobacco farms were bought out and were buried about a thousand feet under the latest towers of New-York-City sprawl - last I heard.
Besides, those tobacco companies moved on to more addictive things - like vat-grown meat and such. Well... we don't buy from them, their VGM rots in the transport containers and has chemicals laced all through it. Probably kill you faster than anything those trucker's were smoking.
Anyways, these truckers, no respect for the guys in the line or at the window. Wonder how they'd feel if they knew that some of their joules were coming from the second hand deposits of last night's dinner, and I'm not talking about the stuff we liquified and pumped right into their tanks for 30 creds a litre.
The food decent folk get is a bit better than that. Really. We get awards for running one of the best diners this side of the clouds. Helps that the smog from Panasia City below doesn't really get this high, and that the air, while a mite thin, is breathable enough. Can't see the city though, old construction, only two towers over a kilometer, and none of those are in eye-shot. Storms something fierce, though - magnetic storms that linger over the industrial sections and sometimes reach out here. So we burn a lot of our own product moving around. People still seem to go out of their way to find us though. About 2,500 orders a day, about 2,500 fillups too. Pretty good work at an average of 50 creds a visitor.
Be honest, I like the life. I got a good staff - all of them former bio-bots of some sort. They're decent compared to most. Then there's my wife, she's been enjoying the quiet time up here. Especially late at night. See the stars and all... don't get that from the ground. Sometimes I take us out to sea - you can see the city-glow from the smog, but also get the stars pretty clear. We're not a 24 hour place, after all.
Still, one of these days, I might move my shop to one of those African cities. After all, not much left below except angry masses and those left behind. Eventually, the creds will stop and nothing much tying us here anyways. Be like the rest of the world and move on when the feeling rises. Sometimes the best things in life are the things you have yet to do.
We'll, got another customer and Frannie is too busy cooking up a batch of today's special. See you around.
In 2118, Earth had finally expended it's natural resources. No longer were we able to simply waste our fuel on such things as cars and giant motors. No, oil and it's byproduce were a coveted scarcity now.
As we saw World War Three close in 2084, the Eastern Allied Nations having been beaten out of Siberia by a combined force of French, Russian and American forces, oil prices had skyrocketed. Drilling operations in the palatial frozen tundra continued to turn out what minuscule amounts of raw oil they could, which barely maintained Europe and America's consumption needs.
But even as the western world clung to it's past, the East in it's terrible defeat was forced to move on. Not only had the United Nations forced trade embargoes and prevented localized drilling, they had outright banned the production and consumption of oil to much of India, China, Unified Korea and Japan. Thus are the dues of being the aggressors.
In light of this development, the Eastern Allied Nations turned their eyes from the centuries-old standby of oil, and became increasingly dependent on alternatives: Solar, natural gas, bio-fuel crated from a combination of re-processed waste plastics and waste oil from produce. But slowly a new technology emerged, and it revolutionized the way the E.A.N. operated, and it would soon change the world. From a research lab lead by the top minds from Unified Korea, Japan, and India came a tiny, game-changing device. A small electric motor that ran on a super-dense oxygen battery, which used a set of powerful electro-magnets to equalize the earths magnetic field to it's own, essentially allowing it to hover several feet off the ground without the assistance of rockets or other propellants.
In their paper, published in The New Allied Nations Science Monthly, they were quick to point out it wasn't any sort of anti-gravity device, but rather a magnetic-defiance device. But it was to little effect, as papers and magazines all over the world bore the title and headlines of "Anti-gravity discovered, fuel issues to come to an end?", and "The End of Big Oil: Brought to you by Eastern Allied Nations?" - It was a world-changing discovery, and brought comparisons to the original iPhone, and to the later-released Google Glass for how it changed the market, and respectively the world in which it would operate. In the same way those devices had revolutionized personal and mobile computing, this would revolutionize transport on all levels.
And that's precisely what it did over the next several decades. After the researches patented it, they sold the rights to GE for a large sum of money. And with that single action, the world began to change. No longer were automakers looking for ways to squeeze the most efficiency out of the least fuel. No longer were airliners sweating over having to use hydrogen fuel instead of gasoline, and worrying about the associated risks.
And so as 2118 trickled around, we had seen the world changed entirely. Vehicles with wasteful rubber tires were a thing of the past. Emissions no longer clouded our atmosphere and we didn't have to choke each time the window was rolled down. In order to serve these new paradigms, charging stations became a common site along the skyline of massive cities, and out along country roads. Earth-bound fuel stations came to be a quaint and somewhat depressing reminder of the past, despite the fact that the new, off-ground models looked very similar.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to you then, reader, that our story begins in one of these off-ground stations, as a long black Lincoln Towncar, converted to the magnetic-battery system hovered in and docked with the charging station. The acrid smell of a cigarette waftes gently from the barely cracked window, and inside a man in a dark blue suit grins a grin that isn't quite welcoming, but more... dangerous.
ShirtBloke's story twists an old joke:
"Fill her up please."
"You're a new face round here."
"Yeah, just took over the route. I'll be a regular from now on."
"What happened to Harvey? Did he retire?"
"You didn't hear? Harvey died."
"Oh no! He was such a sweet old guy. How did it happen?"
"They say he died peacefully in his sleep."
"Which is more than you can say about his passengers."
"Yeah...Whats a churro?" The guy with the overly burdensome rocket pack just seemed to hover at the hover-through window expecting a long conversation as to what it was he was going to pay twenty seven dollars for. Nemarati looked at the chart. A red X was painted over the black image of individual with large rocket pack.
"Sorry Sir, your vehicle is on our 'Do not Serve at the Hover-through' list. I'm afraid you need to come around to the counter to place your order..." Harvard had just been reduced to Pedestrian class.
"You do understand this is a registered vehicle in the eyes of the Law. This isn't some anti-grav belt you know. This is a Rolls-Royce MK 12 Rocket Pack." Nemarati looked up from the cooker having not heard anything the customer was saying.
"If you would care to preview our Pedestrian-Safe Menu for a moment and order when you are ready." The Attendant turned to serve the next in the hover-through.
"What," asked Blaine suspiciously, "are churros?"
"According to the 'pedia, they're a pastry made of deep-fried dough, fried until crisp and sprinkled with sugar," said Yolanda. "Food," she added, seeing that Blaine still looked confused.
"Doesn't sound very nutritious," he said.
"I think they were eaten more for enjoyment than nutrition."
Blaine shook his head in a way that implied ever so slightly that he thought Yolanda might be as crazy as the ancients had been.
"And we can make them with the raw materials that we have?" he said. Yolanda nodded. She had done her research before proposing the project.
In the end, Blaine gave in, as he always did. He always grumbled at first but in the long run he could never deny Yolanda anything. She hugged him and pressed the button that launched the nano-assemblers to execute the design she had prepared.
All night long, the floating station lurched and trembled as the nanos worked. She had programmed the assemblers to tuck the shack in below the main fueling area, perched on top of the reserve tanks. It probably wasn't very authentic, but she had to stay within the design constraints of the lifter modules. The trim compensators had a hard enough time coping with the quirky aerodynamics of the station as it was.
While the station reconfigured itself, Yolanda climbed into the biotank to make some alterations to her own appearance. Immersed in a warm soup of programmed enzymes and catalytic gene-tweakers, her skin slowly darkened to a rich brown. Her hair changed from honey-blonde to jet-black. Her nose became small and snub, and her lips realigned themselves to match those of the girl in the archive photo she had chosen as her model. There wasn't time to do anything about her height but she had programmed the machine to take a little weight off her hips and bust, giving her the gangly look of a teenager. When her physical transformation was complete, the manipulators in the tank carefully braided her thick black hair into two long plaits.
Wearing a pair of faded denim coveralls and a white T-shirt, she went down into the newly-built shack. Everything was perfect, just as she had envisaged it. The surfaces were scuffed and worn and there was even the faintest build-up of grease in the hard-to-clean places around the lip of the fryer. A first batch of churros lolled in their wire basket, slowly turning golden-brown in the hot oil. She reached for the sugar shaker, smiling in contentment.
The second batch was already drying on the rack when Blaine came down. If he was surprised to find that Yolanda had turned into a teenage Mexican girl overnight, he didn't show it. He rubbed his eyes and looked around the shack.
"Chop-chop," Yolanda told him, shaking sugar onto the second batch of churros. "First customer will be here soon. I left a program for your new look in the tank."
"Dammit, I liked being Swedish," he said. Yolanda pouted unsympathetically. Blaine had a fondness for the Nordic look. If he had his way, they'd live out their whole lives as Scandinavians.
"Is this actually how these things looked?" Blaine asked.
"It's as authentic as it can be without putting it on the ground," Yolanda told him. Blaine shuddered.
"Let's not take it that far," he said.
"Let's not," Yolanda agreed. No one wanted to live on the ground among the toxic remnants of a dead civilization, wrapped in a miasma of wind-blown dust and chemical smog. Life in the clouds might have its downsides, but at least you could breathe the air.
Blaine had barely left to make his change when the first visitor of the day appeared, maneuvering his battered 2CV alongside the station with what he probably intended to be Gallic aplomb. Yolanda approved the authenticity of his beret and the replica Gauloise dangling from his lower lip.
"What is 'churros'?" the man asked.
Yolanda held up the most geometrically-perfect of the first batch, its golden sides sparkling with tiny crystals of sugar.
"They're deep-fried pastries," she said. "Quite delicious."
The mock Frenchman shrugged.
"I've already eaten," he said. He rummaged under his feet and came up with a flat white cardboard box, its underside slightly translucent with grease. A dab or two of melted cheese still clung to the lid. He held it for a moment, just long enough for Yolanda to see the red lettering and the crude graphics on the top of the box, then tossed it out of the window of his vehicle.
"Where did you get that?" Yolanda asked, as the empty box flapped open and began its slow descent, spiraling downwards to mingle with the other detritus that carpeted the ruined earth below.
"Air station about five miles west of here," the man said. "Nice place. All very authentic." He released the magnetic anchor and engaged the lift drive. "Well, 'bonne chance' with your pastries."
When Blaine emerged from the tank, his newly-black hair slicked back and his jaw dusted with dark stubble, he found Yolanda leaning against the doorpost with a murderous expression on her face.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"It's my sister," Yolanda said. "Bitch opened a pizzeria."
You're on an island, tropical and wild. Jungle life surrounds you, great palms and crying monkeys and birds. The sand is white and pure, and the waters around you are filled with corals whose colors span the rainbow. Salts stings your nostrils as a cool breeze wafts over the sands, carrying the clean ocean spray, and the moon begins to rise over the dark, cloudless sky.
A figure approaches you, dark and alluring, clad in nothing but the ocean spray and flecks of sand that cling to a perfect frame. The figure reaches out, and strokes your cheek, and invites you-
ENJOYING THIS DREAM? TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT AND GET MORE DREAMS JUST LIKE THIS, SUBSCRIBE TO DANAO REVERIES AND LIVE YOUR WILDEST DREAMS! WITH LOW PRICES AND PLANS TO MEET ANY BUDGET, YOU CAN BE SURE NEVER TO HAVE BORING DREAMS AGAIN! DREAM SPLENDIDLY WITH DANAO REVERIES.
God damnit, Miller thought. She'd been sure that this was a real dream and not one of the projected ads. The companies claimed that they only introduced dreams when you wouldn't otherwise have one, but she swore that she had fewer of her own dreams nowadays.
The sound of a voice from the real world crackling over the station radio shocked her to life and she flailed wildly to her feet, succeeding only in tipping over her chair and falling to the floor, landing painfully on her side.
"Uhhh..." She rolled onto her back, moaning and feeling the heavy vibration of the station's engines through the dirty, ash-stained floor. She sat forward, blinking and rubbing her side.
Well, at least now I'm awake, she thought.
"Miller!" The radio crackled again, and she groaned. Not who she wanted to talk to. Especially not who she wanted to have catch her sleeping again. She pushed herself to her feet, wiped some marijuana ash from her hands and clothes, and clicked the radio on.
"I'm here Boris, cool your jets."
"My jets are going to be far worse than cool if you don't get me some god-damn fuel!" The Soviet accent dripped vitrol even through the hazy radio static. "What, were you sleeping again? Can't even be bothered to turn on the auto-attendant?"
"Auto's broken." She said, swinging over to the control panel with its arcade-style control sticks. She moved one of the sticks with practiced ease, and outside the station, the manoeuvring rockets on the fuel arm piped to life, moving the boom out towards Boris' bus. "We've put in an order with the Xr for some new parts but we're pretty far down the waitlist."
Dust sifted from the rafters as boom connected solidly with the bus and started pumping. "You need learn to bribe better," Boris said over the radio.
"I'm not sure what I can bribe the Xr with." Miller snorted. "We already gave ‘em the planet, what else could they want?"
"Dad, da, this is problem - now we have nothing to bribe them with. We already give biggest bribe. Perhaps you find Xr who enjoys human sex, you bribe with body. Always work for my sister when she need extra rations."
Miller imagined those long, cold claws on her skin, those segmented mandibles kissing her, and gagged. "No thank you. I think we'll do well enough without the auto attendant for now. I don't think there's anything that I would need desperately enough to fuck a Xr."
"Bah! You just wait until your primary repulsor goes and you fall out of sky. Then you will have wished to listen to Boris and find some Xr to fuck and give you best things!"
The boom rattled again and a button lit up on her panel. "Alright Boris, you're all full. Did you want a crate of churros before you left?"
"Bah, these things give me indigestion."
Tell me about it, she thought. The station shook again as she retracted the boom from the beaten up bus. "Alright, we'll see you next week."
"Farewell, capitalist pig!"
As Miller watched Boris fly away, smoke pouring from the alien repulsors tacked underneath the human-made school bus, she wondered what had become of their world. Miles below, the earth swarmed with aliens from another world, while humanity puttered through the sky on borrowed wings.
It was a poignant and profoundly depressing thought.
Like Icarus, or some shit, she thought. Somewhere, there had to be a Greek myth that perfectly foretold this situation.
A Citroen lifted up to the station, repulsors burning blue, and honked three times.
Well, she thought, at least someone wants churros.
Chatuda and Tom looked at the same thing and each saw something different.
"I love the Mid-Century Modern of the station and the vehicles!" Tom enthused, his hat committing the images to long term memory, "It's like calling back to the futurist visions of the Twentieth."
It was an air race of whimsical vehicles, all hurtling around a floating service station one kilometer above Rocha, Uruguay. Bundled in warm clothing, Tom and Chatuda were sitting in an open air bleachers hovering at the same hight near the race course.
"It must cost ten to fifteen thousand commercials a day to keep that thing aloft and on station," Chatuda sneered. He was an engineer, and thus paid to worry about things everyone else took for granted. "Dirigibles would be far cheaper. It's a trivial waste of negative mass stabilizers."
"Come on, they're hobbyists! Let them have their fun!"
"Obviously it's a hobby," Chatuda flopped his hand dismissively in the direction of the 1955 Citroen zooming by leaving an entirely artistic and completely unnecessary trail of smoke in its wake, "These flying cars have no practical use otherwise. The futurists of the Twentieth Century were wrong. Flying cars weren't the future, robot ground cars were. And yet, again and again, they repeated these fantasies of flying cars and jet packs."
"Shut up and enjoy the spectacle!"
"Twenty on #5."
"...one more time and I will walk right the fuck out of there..."
"You should do it..."
"Lemme get two with custard filling, two plain..."
"Ten on pump 3."
"...catalyzer fried on this one- these guys would have been sucking monox in three more days."
"Gimme ten on pump 8."
"...so he comes at me with all three arms, and the tail, pinche cabron- what was I supposed to do?"
"It wasn't like this, back then- we had a sense of what was right. I signed up, my brother signed up, my cousins signed up. We were going to fix this...make it right. Now look- we're doing business with them like Wolf 818 never even happened..."
"I know you?"
"Yo, ten on pump 8!"
"Can I get two with chocolate?"
"New chronodelinator...new diff...fluids and gasses. Will that be cash or genome?"
"...three more cycles on the contract, and then my ass is relativistic, you get what I'm saying, guey?"
"Hey. what happens in Vega, stays in Vega."
"echo uniform sierra three quebec uniform romeo eight juliet echo tango tango bravo"
"Hey, can I get ten on pump number eight?"
"...and we're fully three parsec across demarcation, and suddenly two of their cruisers are on top of us, like the emp we dropped wasn't even there. You want to know why I think the treaty was bullshit?"
"Hey! Ten on eight!"
"...know anywhere a man might find a drink...and some company?"
"Two with cinnamon, please."
"...so you're telling me that not even six rotations after I have the warp variable replaced, now the entire four plane orientation transom has to come out, along with the smoker? Man, I'm just trying to get to my sister's in time for the hatching- that's like three systems over! I can't afford a major repair right now! I can barely even afford the rods to get me there!"
"Well, you could always take the bus..."
"Never mind. Fix It Again, Tchattatchakk."