Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The king of the streetcar drag racers

Of all the extreme sports out there, streetcar drag racing isn’t the most extreme, but it must be one of the oddest. Especially the PCC Leap Year Winter Invitational, held every February 29th in that balmiest of southern cities: New Toronto. Crazy rich guys from all over North America rent private boxcars to ship their souped-up rail-burners to the Agincourt car barns, and then spend every waking hour from Valentine’s Day on primping them for the big day. The city has to throw extra thorium on the pile to crank out all that extra electricity for these guys. But, it brings lots of tourists, and their bucks, into the city at one of the dreariest times of the year, so more power to ‘em.

And after four weeks of training up north, two months behind a desk, and four months as a field grunt learning the ropes, not to mention trauma counseling and a divorce, this is where the agency sent me on my first solo investigation, to meet with the purported craziest of the streeters: Ron, “The Street Rat”, Fairbanks. Apparently, my bosses think Mr. Rat has some information concerning the whereabouts of a missing scientist we’re looking for. 

One might think streetcar drag racing was dead easy, and dead boring. They’d be dead wrong. Yeah, there isn’t any steering involved since the track takes care of that for you, but the trick is to finesse the application of all that power so that you don’t jump the track, or your power pole hops the wire. Track jumping – always a tricky problem to clear up after it happens – noisy wheel grinding, driver theatrics, smoke, exploding motors, high speeds and even wheelies – if you call lifting the front end 4 or 5 centimetres off the track a wheelie - draws the crowds. 

What draws the streeters is the money: millions for winning; millions on the line in endorsement contracts afterwards. All the street transit companies in North America want the fastest streeter to endorse their system and their cars. It’s that old saying, “If it wins on Sunday, it’s ridden on Monday.” Of all the streeters, Mr. Rat is also the fastest of the fast.

Mr. Rat was no ordinary streeter, he traveled in style in his own private team train: extra-long box car for the racer, a converted standard issue one for its equipment, an office car, a private quarters car, and a sleeper for team members. 

I knocked on the office car door and entered. I was greeted by a platinum blonde straight from central casting.

“I’m Ed Bryce. I have an appointment with Mr. Fairbanks,”

“Please have a seat. Mr. Fairbanks will be with you shortly.” She typed something into a terminal. I shuffled through some of the magazines on offer and took a seat, but before I could get past the cover I was ushered in.

“Mr. Fairbanks will see you now,” cooed the blonde holding open the inner office door.

I walked in and someone who looked every inch the prosperous banker offered me his hand in greeting. I shook it. 

“Please have a seat Mr. Bryce” said the banker as he motioned me to a chair. 

“It’s good to meet you Mr. Fairbanks”

I sat down.

“You look confused?”

“Well, this isn’t quite what I was expecting,” I replied looking around the tastefully appointed office.

“Not ‘ratty’ enough for you?”

I was still hopelessly transparent.

“The Street Rat is just a persona I put on to entertain my fans. I owe it to them. If it wasn’t for them I’d still be down in Texas on my daddy’s ranch chasing after stray cattle. They want a street rat and I give them THE STREET RAT.”

Made sense.

“Your request said you were looking for a Dr. Leslie Warden. How can I help you?” said Fairbanks in a let’s-get-down-to-business tone.

“We’ve obtained some reports that she was either currently working for you, or had been working for you sometime during the last year. Is she here?”

“No. I hired her last July, did her job, and then left in August.”

“What job was that?”

“She had gotten in touch with my team and said she had a device that could shorten our race times by several tenths of a second. That may not seem like much to you, but in this business it means the difference between consistently winning and going home empty-handed. We’re always looking for an edge, and she didn’t seem like a crank, so we brought her on to see what she could do.”

“How’d that work out?”

“Far better than I had expected. She spent a week installing a little gray box on the forward stage of our motor, and after a couple weeks of testing it did what she promised. One might say it did it too well. We started winning more than usual, and that subjected us to more than the usual levels of scrutiny by race inspectors to see if we were violating the rules of our class.”

“Did they find anything?”

“No. They’re idiots. They concentrate on all the big flashy motor parts and overlook all the little boxes attached to the motor.”

“Can I see what she installed?”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“I can request a warrant from my supervisor, who’ll ask the deputy-minister for one. It’ll be here around five. But, that warrant will impound everything you have parked here until Easter. A dozen techs will come down and comb through everything. There won’t be any racing for your team on the 29th. However, you could just show me what you’ve got, and we’ll no doubt be able to reach a more amicable arrangement.” I had at least learned something during my apprenticeship.

“Ok, ok. Let’s go take a look.”
The racer had already been unloaded and taken into a secure area in the car barn. Fairbanks picked up a gadget from a workbench and pushed a button. The front part of the PCC’s body started to rise. Hydraulic jacks were tilting it up and exposing all the car’s inner workings. It wasn’t like any streetcar I’d ever seen. Its guts were massive chromed cylinders and spheres studded with all sorts of small boxes sewn together with a tightly crisscrossed network of wires and tubes. It looked like some sort of Area 51 refugee. 

“Where’s the box?”

“Right over here.” Fairbanks walked over to the massive engine and pointed to a small gray box tucked beside a larger blue one. It had a lot of thin wires going into it along with a single, inch diameter one. The box looked like the standard issue lab cover used on these things. It had a small inspection door on top. I needed to open it and look inside to confirm it was the device.

“Have you ever opened it?” I asked.

“Hell no! She told us not to. And don’t you try. It cost me a hundred grand and I’m not tampering with the goose that lays the golden eggs. She left us with interface specs, diagnostics and a troubleshooting guide. As long as we follow that stuff, it seems to work fine. I don’t care what’s inside it as long as we keep winning.”

“I need a small Robertson screwdriver.”

Fairbanks gave me a nasty look, but got me the tool anyway, “Here.”

I unscrewed the inspection cover. I could see the glowing blue vortex behind the glass window. This was it. Another early fusion prototype. I re-secured the inspection door, stood up, and walked with Fairbanks back towards the car barn’s door. Fairbanks punched the control button to lower the body.

“I’ll need to send a tech down here to have a look. Normally we’d immediately re-claim it, but…”

“Re-claim it? I paid good money for it!” gagged Fairbanks,

“It’s stolen government property.” I continued with my plan, “but, we might benefit from instrumenting and observing it while it’s in use. I propose…” My proposal was rudely interrupted by a thunderous explosion and a psychedelic light show of Hendrixian proportions. Both of us fell to our hands and knees. I turned to the racer. Black smoke was billowing from a ragged hole in the body. Water spewed from ceiling sprinklers. Foam gushed from wall nozzles. Sirens howled.

I turned back to Fairbanks. He had his hands over his ears and was shouting at me. I couldn’t hear a word he said, but I could read his lips very clearly, “I told you not to open it!”

The next instalment can be found here.

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