alfvaen: floatyhead (Default)
[personal profile] alfvaen
"So this is a Fermat car, is what you're saying?" said Neil Fremont, scratching his head. This was the fifth car lot he'd tried today, and he might have missed it if it weren't for a stray sunbeam sparkling off the unusual paint job on the model before him. He was tired and getting discouraged, but he was willing to give it one more shot.

The car salesman, a short, squat man with the biggest walrus mustache Neil had ever seen, shook his head fiercely, then stopped as his sunglasses began to slide down his squashed nose. "No, no," he said in a high-pitched, oddly accented voice. "Is a car with Fermat option. Like the GPS, but more good."

Neil frowned to himself, trying to figure out what kind of car it was, then. He supposed it might have been a Tercel before the modifications, but there was a big lump under the hood like a supercharger, except for the fine metal mesh that covered the entire chassis, and not one but four antennas sticking out. Plus the trunk seemed to be permanently welded shut. Still, he mostly just needed a car to get to and from work, something smaller than the landwhale his wife had bought, and now needed more and more days of the week to drive the kids to and from their various appointments. And the price was, admittedly, right, especially if it came with a built-in GPS. "So what's different about it?" he asked. "Does it connect to a dispatcher or something?"

"It always take you most short route," the salesman said.

"Don't all GPSes do that?" Neil said, puzzled and a little disappointed.

"No, no, your GPS they take you what they think is most short," the salesman said. "This one, it always take you way which is most short. Not always same way is short, know you? Some day is construction, some day is accident, some day is just slow traffic. You will never be seeing the slow traffic again!"

If there was one thing Neil hated, it was sitting in slow traffic, so he let himself be talked into it. The price was really much better than he had seen anywhere today, even if he couldn't quite get a straight answer about what the original model was or where he might find replacement parts. This one, he could afford to drive into the ground and start saving up for something better, but it looked much better than your average beater.

The paperwork finally done with, Neil drove off the lot, glad to throw out his bus transfer at last. There wasn't a back seat either, but that just meant he had a good excuse for not giving anyone else rides at the company lunches. And it did have a good sound system.

He didn't see the GPS right away, but there was time for that when he got the car home. He thought it might be audio-only, but he didn't hear anything but the radio. Thinking about it, he forgot to change lanes to get into the freeway lane, but given the number of people that were lined up waiting to get on, that was probably for the best. He turned on 39th Avenue instead, on impulse, remembering that it lead to some kind of a side road that would get him onto the freeway just after it widened to three lanes. Sure enough, as he merged onto the freeway he saw an accident just west of the onramp which would probably have cost him half an hour if he'd bothered to wait in line.

The car handled fine at freeway speeds, and he reached his suburban home in good time, even for a Saturday afternoon with all the big-box shopping traffic to deal with. It was the most fun he'd had driving in a long time, since the days he'd get in the car with Rosemary and get out on the highway on the weekend for impromptu road trips, back before the gas prices got so high, and back when Rosemary had time for anything but the children.

When he got home and tried to tell her about the car, she wasn't that interested, just glad that he got a good price and would stop trying to share the minivan with her. Their conversation was constantly interrupted by Georgia showing him her Play-Doh sculptures, Matt and Ted shouting at each other as they played on the PS3, and the phone constantly ringing for Allison. The evening was the usual watching TV, no talking even during the commercials, then a little web-surfing before bedtime.

Neil decided to do some searching on this "Fermat" thing. There was a famous mathematician, apparently, who had some theorem that took forever to prove. Ho hum. Neil had never been that much interested in math. Further down the page, though, was a mention of a "principle of least time", which sounded promising. The Wikipedia page was full of math symbols and weird diagrams, but he gathered that light always took the shortest path. Big deal, everyone knew it went in straight lines, which was the shortest path, right? He shut down his computer and went to bed not much wiser.

His dreams weren't particularly pleasant; he spent most of them stuck in traffic on the freeway, though in one of them he turned around and drove out of the city to the west instead. Instead of turning into a nice road trip dream or something, it just faded into another dream about driving through bad inner city neighbourhoods and getting lost. He woke up almost dreading the drive to work, but it didn't turn out that bad. His regular Tim Horton's was busy as usual, but on a whim he stopped at a little coffee-shop next to an adult video store instead, and found their coffee surprisingly good, and he got to work a good ten minutes early after taking a quick one-block detour around a tractor-trailer that would probably wait forever to make a left turn into a parking lot.

Over the next several months, Neil experienced nothing but driving bliss. Accidents happened on other streets, where he decided not to drive; he turned off onto side streets before ambulances and fire engines came through. Once he got stuck at a railroad crossing for five minutes, but he had confidence that what he had missed was worse. Especially given the dreams he had that night, which he'd begun to suspect were somehow reflections of what would have happened on the other routes he took.

Once or twice more he spent some time researching Fermat's Principle again, puzzling his way through a lecture by someone named Feynman about how light actually took every possible path, but only the one that arrived first actually happened, or something like that. One Saturday he drove over by where the car dealership had been, but there was nothing there but a vacant lot.

One fall day, late in the afternoon, a shimmering dome appeared over the city. Neil heard about it on the radio as he was preparing to leave the office, and glanced out to see the odd, golden aura in the distance. He and everyone else in the office gathered around the radio, the initial "War of the Worlds" jokes giving way to a grim silence as it listed the affected areas. They were inside the dome, but many of the roads out of the city seemed to be blocked. The announcer's voice grew more and more strained as he went on, describing the horrific pileups that happened where the dome hit the freeways and cars ran into something as hard as a brick wall.

In a daze, Neil went down to his car as usual. He sat behind the wheel for a full minute before starting it up. Then he pulled out of the parking lot, determined to get home.

His path began to veer off right away, turning left instead of right, going back into the industrial park instead of taking main roads. He began to see a haze of smoke in the sky beneath the dome, and the sounds of sirens were everywhere. He was heading for the centre of the city, he soon realized. A lot of traffic was trying to flee, despite the barrier of the dome, but enough was heading inward, or just somewhere at random, to make his path erratic.

He turned on the radio again, flipping stations to hear more about the dome. While there were initial reports of a large hovering object appearing just before the dome arose, it had since moved off, and there was an area of the river valley where strange armoured creatures had appeared, easily holding off city police forces.

Soon Neil could see the flashing lights ahead of him, police roadblocks trying to keep civilians out of the affected area. He swerved around them like a virtuoso, though he felt more like the instrument being played as he took corners at high speeds, finding the gap only just big enough for his car on the one street where they had set up their barricades a little less carefully. Two cruisers set off after him as he drove down the slope at a speed he would normally have called insane. Now he just knew that driving any slower--or any faster--would just mean that he failed and never got home.

He slammed on the brakes at the foot of the hill, skidding wildly and also avoiding a burst of radiance that sizzled over the hood. Regaining control, he drove toward a cluster of the armoured aliens, whose courage failed them as he gunned the motor.

They had set up some kind of huge device in Hawrelak Park, on a large open space between barbecue pits, surrounded by shiny metal barricades. One of the barricades had tilted over and not been righted, probably because the humans had been driven back and it was no longer necessary. He headed straight for it, except when he swerved from side to side to avoid more alien gunfire. He jerked back in his seat as his front tires hit the barricade, but it tilted a little further, enough to let him keep his momentum and take off into the air. He landed on a walkway on the edge of the device, steering sharply to keep from going into its metal outer skin, then following the curve as it rose to the top of the thing.

As he reached the rim, he slowed down slightly. Inside was a fragile-looking metal tower connected to the outer structure by a web of struts and cables. The aliens here were less armoured, and Neil saw one who reminded him oddly of the car salesman from months earlier. They were looking at him in what could only be horror, and began to run away as Neil stepped on the gas again. He didn't see any way to reach the tower itself, or any of its struts, but he didn't need the odd intuition granted by the Fermat car to know that the raised devices the aliens had been standing in front of had to be some sort of control systems. Without those, what would happen to it? He intended to find out.

The car hit one and crashed to a halt; Neil was pulled forward against his seat belt, and discovered that this car had never been equipped with an airbag as he whacked his forehead against the steering wheel.

He came to several minutes later to see the tower shuddering and shaking, soon tearing itself loose of its supports and beginning to crack at the seams, leaking smoke and who knew what else. His head was splitting and his vision blurry, but the car responded when he backed it up and drove it as fast as he dared back down the walkways. He didn't see any signs of the aliens until he caught sight of a few stragglers getting into a large vehicle that soon lifted off the ground. The dome was gone, though, and he heard the sound of helicopters and jets from the local air force base following the alien ship. He reached the ground, drove over the barricade he'd used to launch himself into the air, which had since toppled flat, and soon met up with police vehicles who were determined that, this time, they were going to make him stop. He obliged them, and didn't even object to being handcuffed while a medic looked at his forehead.

After the arrival of the military, as well as scientists hastily recruited from the university to examine the remains of the device, Neil was released as the details of the story became clear. They decided Neil was a hero, if a crazy one, and even the police complimented him on his driving.

"Communications are still spotty," the Colonel in charge of debriefing him told him later, "but this may be the first of the domes to be brought down. The information we gather here will be invaluable in the fight to come. Still, what you did was, not to mince words, batshit crazy. What the hell made you think it was even possible?"

Neil just shrugged. "It was the quickest way for me to get home," he said.

He didn't look forward to the dreams he was going to have that night, though.

Numerous commutes, and trying to determine which is the best route to take, kept making me think of the Feynman lecture where he talks about how light really takes every path at once, and got me thinking about how nice it would be to have a car that always took the quickest route home no matter what. I almost called it a "Feynman car" until I did a Google search and discovered Fermat's Principle. The plot of the second half only came to me comparatively recently, though. I still want a Fermat car sometime, though. (Except that any long highway trip would result in only the bare minimum number of rest stops...)

Date: 2012-01-15 11:16 pm (UTC)
kodi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kodi
What a terrifying last line.

Date: 2012-01-16 03:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I did a presentation in college on Concurrent Prolog, in which I compared it to a car that splits into multiple cars, taking all possible paths to find the right answer. The ones that fail are cast into flaming pits of fiery crocodiles.

I look forward to more stories, Alfvaen! Thanks for taking up the challenge. I've fallen away from my interactive fiction efforts.

Date: 2012-01-16 10:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Nicely done!

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