“Captain’s log…we are passing through the waterfalls of Zarqlok.” Meena placed a finger on an empty space on the dashboard console, pretending to press a button. A cascade of soapy water passed over the front hood of our car.
“Of what-lock?” I asked.
She glanced over at me, then faced forward again. “D.A.D. unit appears to be malfunctioning.”
I chuckled and shook my head.
“Perform diagnostic on memory functions,” she said.
“Diagnostic? Do you know what that means?”
Her brows crinkled and she tapped the index finger of her free hand on her chin. “Mmm…test? To figure out what’s wrong?”
“Impressive.” Most parents probably think their kids are impressive. But mine does stun me on the regular with her knowledge of things I definitely didn’t know about when I was ten.
She was an excellent speller, but she had no interest in entering any bees. Her passion was for vocabulary, and of course, for outer space.
A soft whine came from the terrier sitting on Meena’s lap. I barely heard it over the drumming of the water on the roof. Rigel put his head down, as he was satisfied that the noise, while loud, was harmless.
As the cascade of water passed over the front windshield, we felt a bump. Actually it was more of an extended jostle. And it didn’t feel as if our wheels were rolling over a series of raised studs. It felt as if the water was batting us around. I glanced to my left, frowning in mild confusion. The dim dusky sunlight shifted to a sharper orange, and a sudden humidity filled the cabin.
“Whoa,” Meena whispered.
The cabin brightened as the water dribbled away. I looked ahead again, and my mouth dropped open.
We were…hovering. In the air.
We were hovering in the air above a jungle.
A jungle with a strange color scheme, purple, dark orange, and deep red. A slice of glowing orange light on the horizon faded fast, leaving a night sky filled with two moons, one at a crescent, and the other one full and huge. With a splash, another vehicle whooshed past just below us. I glanced at the rearview mirror and glimpsed a rushing waterfall just behind us.
I rubbed my eyes, blinked a few times, and turned to look around at the interior. We were definitely still in our car. We were definitely hovering in the air. I was definitely not hallucinating.
The first notion my mind hooked onto was that this…situation we’d just found ourselves in must have been a very elaborate projection, or a virtual reality thing. We weren’t wearing any eye gear.
Could the car wash be some kind of holographic suite? I wondered.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay for anything that fancy.
I heard a sharp short wail from behind.
“Dad, we’re in the way,” Meena said, her gaze on the side view mirror. “We have to move.”
I put my hands on the steering wheel and then hesitated.
Another car burst out of the waterfall, this time from above, splashing so much water down on us that the car dipped and started to wobble.
I gripped the wheel.
“Dad! We should pull over.”
“Uh, yeah.” I eased my foot off the brake pedal and turned to the right.
The car moved over until we were just outside the margins of the waterfall.
“Where are we?” I said, and I realized I sounded breathless.
“We’re on Zarqlok,” Meena said. She too sounded breathless, but for a completely different reason.
I looked over at her and she turned to me, her facing beaming. The temporary tattoo of a star on her cheek gleamed happily in the moonlight.
It was some kind of projection, or simulation. Surely.
I must have missed a sign or something. This must have just been part of the experience, a new gimmick that this car wash had installed to enhance the customer experience. Clever, actually. Kids would definitely goad their parents to return, especially if they mixed it up with different scenarios.
That jostling we felt was probably the car being raised onto some kind of platform that allowed the driver to steer their vehicle without actually moving the vehicle. Maybe the platform adjusted. No, it was probably simpler than that. This was a car wash, not a theme park ride.
I decided to go along with it.
“Let me see where there’s a good place to land in that jungle,” I said, easing off the brake again.
“Not a good idea.”
I smiled a little. “Oh no?”
Meena explained. “Don’t you know what they say about the jungles of Zarqlok? Pretty from above, deadly from below.”
“What does that mean?”
“Predators. Venomous predators. Lots of them.”
I stopped the car. “I guess we can just stay and watch the view from up here.”
“Don’t worry,” Meena said. “We’re still in the Milky Way. We’re still in our own galaxy.”
“Where in the galaxy is Zarqlok?”
“Uh…you’re supposed to be in charge of navigation.”
I let my smile grow wider. “Is that one of the duties of the D.A.D. unit? I wasn’t aware.”
Meena leaned over the dashboard console. “We’re running low on fuel. We need to find a station.”
My smile faded when I checked and confirmed that she was right.
“But I just filled up,” I said.
I frowned and glanced around again, peering at specific spots in the environment, trying to find signs of a break in the holographic façade, for signs of speakers projecting the audio of other hover cars going by, of the hoots and roars and whistles coming from the jungle below. All our windows were still rolled up, but I could swear I smelled the sweet humid scent of the jungle flowers blooming below us. The temperature in the cabin had gotten warmer still.
Meena turned on the air conditioner to compensate, announcing, “Environmental controls are functioning.”
But just when I began to think I might be out of phase with reality, Meena leaned toward me and whispered, “Dad, is this real?”
“I think it’s a simulation, or hologram. But I don’t know how to end it.” I glanced around at empty sky, as if an attendant would just hover over to us and tell us which way to drive out of the bay we were occupying.
I was expecting to just sit through the whole car wash experience, but it seemed as if we were in some kind of interactive scenario. Sitting would not get us anywhere.
The obvious solution seemed to be that we should turn around and go back through the waterfall. I hoped that would trigger the wash cycle to end. I managed to turn the car around, but there were more cars coming out of the waterfall now, constantly coming through, at different levels, except below some threshold that wasn’t marked in any way that was obvious to me.
I gripped the steering wheel and frowned. Clockwise for right. Counterclockwise for left.
Which way did I turn for up and down?
I sighed, and I must have put a little extra weight on the steering column, because the whole thing shifted downward, and with it, the car dipped too.
“Okay,” I said, shaking my head. “Let’s try it.”
I slowly pulled down on the steering column and we descended below the rush of other cards.
Something started beeping. A panel of pink lights just below the gear shift lit up. An unfamiliar panel of pink lights.
The dashboard screen blinked a warning that was also unfamiliar. It read, “Tendril Threshold” in red letters.
Meena seemed to understand. “Dad, stop!”
I stopped and she explained. There was a reason traffic didn’t dip below this threshold.
If we got too low, the carnivorous trees would reach up with their trapping tendrils and pull us down.
“Maybe we can wait until traffic dies down,” I thought out loud, hoping that would happen within the next minute or so. We weren’t late for anything yet, but I was ready for the car wash experience to end. I raised the car and the blinking, beeping, and flashing alerts all stopped.
I hovered beside the waterfall again, far enough away so we wouldn’t get splashed by the vehicles coming through—the hover cars, hover buses, hover trailers, and so on.
It was full night now.
A different kind of beeping started sounding.
“Now what?” I asked, noting another unfamiliar light below the gear shift, yellow this time.
The dashboard console displayed a message I understood this time. I’d forgotten about the problem that Meena had already warned me about. Somehow, we were low on fuel.
Meena took over “navigation controls,” bringing up a local map on the dashboard display. It showed where the nearest fueling station was. Only a few minutes away. She set the directions.
“Why not?” I said, and we headed toward the fueling station.
“Oh good, they have full service,” I said, pulling up to what looked like the spot where I should wait. “Stay in the car and keep the windows up, sweetie.”
The station was close to the mountain face just around the bend from the waterfall.
An attendant whom I could only describe as a space stingray came gliding over to my side of the car on wide undulating fins. A Zarqlokian, I presumed.
The attendant made a series of flickering flute-like noises.
“Hang on,” Meena said. She swiped through the dashboard screen until she found a translator function. She turned it on, and the attendant, apparently understanding and adapting, repeated the series of sounds, which the translator translated.
I asked for the attendant to fill us up with the appropriate fuel. The translator turned my words in a different pattern of flute-like sounds.
Amidst the electric and chemical smells of the fuel, some other scent drifted into the cabin, something delicious.
“What is that?” Meena asked. She glanced back toward what appeared to be a mini-mart jutting out of the mountain face.
The translator converted her question, and the attendant answered.
“Martian gravy. But just the imitation stuff.”
The fueling station was a floating platform with a couple of small silos full of glowing pellets that loaded into each fueling stall. The attendant scooped some pellets out and poured them into our gas tank.
I felt the bewildered crease between my brows relax into resignation.
“I was wondering,” I said, emboldened a little after the attendant answered Meena’s question. “How do we get back through the waterfall? Or…how else can we get this to end?” I waved my hands around. “The simulation?”
“The waterfall is one-way,” the attendant said.
If we wanted to return to our point of origin, we would have to find another portal, one that specifically led to our desired destination.
The attendant finished loading the pellets and raised some kind of device to my window that looked like a brick of platinum. It took me a moment to realize I needed to pay for the fuel.
I pulled out a credit card, grumbling to myself about how I’d already paid.
But suddenly, Rigel leapt over from Meena’s lap to mine. He jumped up until his forepaws were resting on the window’s edge.
The attendant placed the brick against the window. Rigel raised his right paw against it.
Nothing seemed to happen that I could see.
But Rigel dropped back down, twirled around, and leapt back over to Meena. And the attendant told us to have a nice day, then fluttered away.
I glanced over at Rigel, who was looking at me.
“I’m not going to question that,” I said. Rigel responded with an appropriately adorable asymmetric blink.
Meena sighed. “Dad, I’m hungry. Can we get some Martian gravy?”
I pointed out they we had plenty of snacks in her backpack in the backseat, but she claimed she was suddenly not hungry anymore.
I continued to play along, asking Meena to bring up information on the waterfall and map a return route, hoping the map would find a portal close by. That made her perk up.
I glided along slowly, just trying to stay out of the way, and stay close to the mountain face, while Meena swiped and tapped on the dashboard console, occasionally grunting in thought.
After a few minutes, she leaned back. “We have a route!”
“What does it look like?”
“Not bad. We’re just three portal hops away from our destination solar system. I didn’t put in a specific address. That was taking too long to load. So I just entered Earth.”
“Good thinking. We can narrow it down from there.”
To reach the first portal, we had to get to another jungle—apparently Zarqlok was replete with jungles. Fortunately, this other jungle, much like the fueling station, was only a few minutes away from our present location.
“There it is,” Meena said, pointing to the beacons that flanked our portal.
That’s when something landed on the roof and we started plummeting toward the jungle below.
I pulled up—even before Meena cried out for me to pull up.
Our descent slowed, but we were still falling. The dashboard console—in anticipation of our imminent doom—switched to a display of our altitude.
Meena wrapped her arms around Rigel. “Flip the ship!” she said.
I noticed, next to the gear shift, that there was another lever. This was another unfamiliar control. The lever was labeled “ATM.” I really hoped that pulling it did not make a stack of paper bills pop out of the air vents. I pulled the lever.
The same pleasant female voice that had translated for us now announced, “All Toggle Modes Activated.”
“That doesn’t help!”
Flap-like switches flipped up on either side of the steering column. I reached for the one at right and started raising it. The car began to tilt toward the left just as my seatbelt locked and alarms started beeping.
I glimpsed tendrils reaching up at us from the darkness of the jungle below. I pulled the flap further and we tumbled over all the way.
Whatever was on the roof slid off and plummeted toward the jungle with a strangled roar.
Whatever you were, I hope you weren’t endangered.
I let go of the right flap, pulled the left flap, made myself wait until the car was right side up again before I pulled up as smoothly and quickly as I could. Tendrils thumped against the bottom of the car.
When the alarms stopped, and we were high enough to spot our portal, I released a breath.
Rigel barked. Meena let out a nervous, precarious laugh that got louder and stronger as we sailed toward the first portal and passed through it.
“Excellent flying, D.A.D.”
A reflexive chuckled escaped my lips before I saw where we had ended up.
We were now hovering in the upper atmosphere above what appeared to be a massive carnival that covered the continent we were flying over.
Or maybe this was a carnival planet, the same way the last one seemed to be a jungle planet.
A giant Ferris Wheel was visible under pastel purple clouds. As we descended, we felt weirdly woozy as if our bodies were adapting to the changes in gravity and pressure. Meena found an automated cabin pressure control from the dashboard console. It was already turned on, adjusting several environmental parameters, but there was an adjustment for portal travel that was turned off. She saw that that was what had eaten up all our fuel. She flipped the automated controls to our current destination.
Our next portal was somewhere down there, in the cacophony of music and the delighted screams and hoots of carnival-goers enjoying the sights, the shows, and the food.
We started to smell that aroma again, the one we’d first smelled at the fueling station, only now it smelled even better, richer, and fresher. As we followed the map to the next portal, we spotted a sign that read, “Martian gravy. Authentic recipe. Best in the galaxy.”
“Dad, can we stop for just fifteen minutes?”
I knew that if I relented, she would next ask for something I would have to deny her, Martian gravy. But I agreed, warning her to keep the windows up and to stay in the car.
“We’re only going to watch,” I said.
I dropped the car until we were a few stories above all the activity.
We marveled at the spectacular sights we saw as we hovered through the carnival. Creatures floating in gelatinous bubbles. An arena full of what looked like cotton candy, with many-limbed acrobats bouncing and somersaulting around on the fluffy candy clouds. A stadium full of a cheering crowd watching what appeared to be a chariot race between a tortoise and a hare. The chariots were being pulled by pairs of caterpillars wearing running shoes. A food court where various delicious dishes were displayed in spirals around a round table that spun slowly so that the outer foods ended up back in the middle and the middle foods ended up on the outer edge, where seated diners could choose what they wanted. The court smelled like cinnamon and sugar, butter and popcorn, fried cheese sticks, cherry pie, and of course, Martian gravy.
I admit the smell of that gravy was so…so comforting and so delicious that when Meena meekly asked if we could just get one serving to share, I almost, almost agreed.
But I managed to stay strong.
I veered away and headed through the second portal.
The sign read “Galactic Highway Alpha Gamma Zenith.”
Meena was not looking at the sign. She was gazing at everything else.
We had emerged from the second portal in the one place that she had always wanted to visit. She had on her favorite homemade headband, with two foam ringed planets extending from springy rods. The planets swayed before the window that she was staring out of. They swayed against a field of stars, bright, glowing, pulsing, flickering stars. Some of those bright things were probably actually planets.
We were floating in outer space.
I’d never been in outer space before, so I couldn’t actually say, but it felt so real. The seatbelt was holding me in place, but my legs floated up and my arms, if I let them go. Meena’s braid was floating up.
“We don’t have gravity in our ship,” Meena said, still staring out of her window. “We’re too small.”
We needed to travel on the highway that we’d arrived at. It looked like it was just a series of beacons that would guide us to our last portal, which was an exit off the highway.
The highway seemed to be mostly clear. I waited until there were no other cars, just in case, and I merged in.
We were going fast, but Meena was still able to see and point out everything exciting she saw—which was everything she saw. Distant supernovas and nebulas. Binary star systems and exoplanets. But after a few hours, she and Rigel both dozed off. I didn’t want to wake them, so I couldn’t play music. I started looking for the heavenly objects that Meena had pointed out.
I checked the dashboard gauge and noticed how fast I was going. Half the speed of light now. And the car could go faster according to its new dial. Alpha Gamma Zenith was pretty clear at that time of…whatever time it was in that part of the galaxy. So I slowly increased the speed, sensing the space around me shifting in some subtle way. The car remained steady, just burning fuel pellets in a low soothing smooth roar, the fuel gauge hardly shifting as the car—the ship—sailed easily through the frictionless vacuum of space.
The ship registered the highways markers without me seeing them. I just hears the soft pings coming faster and faster, and the estimated time of arrival at our destination creeping earlier and earlier. The stars began to streak, like they did in shows where ships went faster than light. There was some new message on the screen that read “hyperspace.” If Meena had been awake, I’d have asked her to look it up. We had jumped from having hours left in our journey to having minutes left. I readied myself to slow down and look for the exit. And then…I heard the sirens.
Meena and Rigel woke with a start as flashing red lights appeared behind us. Our translator translated the meaning of the harsh throbbing sounds projecting toward us. I was informed that I was speeding. I was being asked to pull over.
Meena glanced behind us. “Dad…?”
I started slowing down.
And that’s when Rigel leapt up on the dashboard with his front paws.
“I can’t watch this anymore,” he said.
I glanced over at him. “Rigel?”
“I knew it,” Meena breathed.
“I’ll make it quick. I’m not actually a terrier. I’m a Canidian.”
I glanced at the rearview mirror and back at him. “You’re from…Canada?”
“What? No, I’m from the planet of the Canids. The dogs.” He threw his head back to look at Meena. “How long has it been since your D.A.D. has been upgraded?”
“Uh…I’d have to check the logs.”
“We need to speed up,” Rigel said. “The people following us are the galactic force patrol. They have a quota to fill, and if someone is going even slightly above the speed limit, they’ll pounce. The speed limit, by the way, is the speed of light. Anyone traveling on a hyperspace highway has to go faster than light if they ever want to get to where they’re going. It’s a technicality.”
I gulped. “But if it’s still illegal—“
“The next portal is close,” Rigel said. “We can outrun the patrol and hide in Jupiter.”
“Jupiter?” Meena said. “Can the ship handle the atmosphere?”
“Oh yeah, we’ll be fine.”
“How is that going to help?” I asked.
“You’ll see. Trust me.”
I pressed my foot on the accelerator pedal. I looked over at Rigel as we began to pull away from force patrol vessel. Rigel’s lips stretched up and his tongue lolled out.
“Exit approaching, Dad,” Meena said.
Not too soon. The force patrol vessel was already catching up to us.
I veered our ship toward the hyperspace exit portal.
We exited right outside our solar system.
“They’re right behind us and something just came out of the roof,” Meena said. She was switching between monitoring the galactic force patrol vessel and frantically searching our dashboard console’s database for anything that would help put more distance between us and them.
“Grappling magnet,” Rigel warned.
We couldn’t plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere at faster than light speed. So I’d slowed the ship, and made myself hold my foot steady on the accelerator.
Now I pressed down a little. Jupiter loomed ahead of us.
Something was shooting up and out from the planet.
“What is that?” Meena asked.
Rigel answered, his voice low and calm. “Gas Giant.”
I blinked. “Should I—?”
“Head right for him.”
I put my fingers on the flap next to the steering column. “Tell me when they launch that magnet,” I said.
“Now!” Meena yelled.
I pulled the steering column and the flap up at the same time. We tilted left and up. I righted the ship and dove into the heart of the Gas Giant.
The dashboard console blinked off.
I huffed out a breath. I could feel the drag on the ship. But I didn’t know if it was because the grappling magnet had caught us or if it was the dense gases all around us.
The console blinked on again. The sensors had just adjusted to the new environment.
Meena was on it, checking our status.
“The grappling magnet failed,” she said, a smile in her voice. I didn’t dare to look anywhere but forward. Meena reached over and shook my shoulder.
“They’re breaking off pursuit. Dad, you did it!”
Rigel smirked. “We did it.”
“Their ship can’t handle this atmosphere?” I asked.
Rigel shook his head. “We’re out of their jurisdiction. Also, the Gas Giant is not a fan of the force patrol. And they don’t want to mess with him.”
The Gas Giant was not a reference to Jupiter itself, but to a massive plume of sentient gas living on the planet, or in the planet. The Giant didn’t like most people, but did allow small vessels to enter his borders for nutrition deliveries.
“He thinks we’re bringing him takeout?” I asked.
Rigel nodded. “We’d better move on before he realizes we didn’t come bearing Martian gravy.”
I lifted us out of Jupiter’s gases and pointed us sunward.
“Dad, could we get some? Martian gravy? It’s on our way.”
“Martian gravy from Mars itself,” Rigel said. “Now that is best in the galaxy.”
“Assuming we don’t run into any more surprises between here and there, I think we’ve earned a treat,” I said.
We coasted towards Mars and as we descended toward the planet, I felt that drag on the ship again. A wind was blowing across the Martian plains. It blew dust against us. I lost visibility and slowed down to a hover.
The sound of the wind shifted, and before I could ask Meena if it was normal for Mars to have dust storms, I heard a familiar high whine accompanying the blowing sound.
The dust blew away. There was water in its place, trickles blurring the windshield, and then, clearing away.
I looked ahead of me, and I gaped.
“We’re back,” Meena said.
A bell dinged, and I was prompted by an automated voice to pull forward to let the next customer in. I moved aside and parked.
Meena turned to me. “Did that really just happen?”
I nodded. “It happened.”
Her shoulders slumped. “You’re never coming back to this car wash again, are you?”
I paused. “We can talk about it.”
“Talk!” Meena lowered her head toward Rigel, who was lying on her lap. “Rigel?”
Rigel apparently had resumed pretending to be a regular Earth terrier.
I peered at him and he peered back. “Anyway, we’ll have to stay in our designated zone, on Earth,” I said. “We’re outlaws now.”
Meena frowned. “Oh, that’s right.”
“Unless…we could manage to avoid the galactic force patrol.”
Meena’s frown turned upside down, and then burst into a toothy grin. And that star on her cheek twinkled with mischief. “I know a pilot who can do that.”
I chuckled. “Is this pilot a D.A.D. unit?”
“Yeah, best in the galaxy.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel