By Rachel Roberts

Claire loved her Japanese car. It was small, black, economical and intelligent. Its on-board computer sent her messages when the car needed something; such as “REFUEL” or “MAINTENANCE CHECK”. There was no car key. Claire just had a little gadget that she kept in her pocket, and when she got close, she only had to press a button on the door handle and the car would open. Another button on the dashboard started the ignition. That made it a safe car. She could open it quickly at night without having to look throughout her bag.

It was difficult not to feel affection for a car like that. Claire had even got into the habit of talking to it.
“Thirsty, are you?”
“All right, calm down!”
One night Claire missed her usual train and came home late. It was dark and the station car park was virtually empty, but she walked up confidently to the little car and pressed the button on the door handle.
Nothing happened.
She pressed it again, harder.
Still nothing happened.
Feeling strangely betrayed, she bent down so the car could hear her, and whispered, “Don’t let me down, now!” As she did so, she spotted a perfumed cardboard tree hanging form the rear view mirror - something she never used.
She looked up, and there, parked just a few yards away in the shadow under a large tree was her own identical car.

“Can you believe it?” she said as she drove off. “Two cars left in the same car park, both exactly the same!” She patted the dashboard. “I was about to start swearing at you!”
The distance from the station to Claire’s home was about seven miles, including a dangerous stretch of dual carriageway. There wasn’t much traffic at that time, so she put her foot down. She was flying along the road when a message appeared on the on-board computer. It was one she’d never seen before.
“What?” Claire was so surprised she nearly drove into the guard rail.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The message was too long for the length of the small screen, and the words scrolled past five or six times.
“Who’s in danger?”
“I can’t stop here. I’m on the dual carriageway. It’d be really dangerous”.
Unnerved Claire drove on in silence for a few minutes. This wasn’t her little car anymore, but some alien being that could talk.
“Oh, all right!”
A sign on the right indicated an emergency parking space a little way ahead. When she reached it, Claire pulled over and turned off the engine, but left the headlights on.
“Now what?”
She hesitated. There was no traffic and no streetlamp. At this point the dual carriageway passed through open countryside. There was no one around for miles.
“You want me to look in the boot?”

With her heart beating uncomfortably in her chest, Claire opened the car door and walked round to the back of the vehicle. She looked at the boot. If she opened it, what would she find? A dead body? An alien? A pulsing, mechanical brain?
She reached out a shaking hand, opened the hatch and raised it fearfully.
There was absolutely nothing.
“Well?” she asked in a frightened whisper.
There was silence. And then she heard it: the sound of another car approaching at speed on the road behind her.

Claire slammed the boot shut, and jumped back into the driver’s seat, locking the door. Terrified, she gazed behind her and watched as the glare of two headlights on full beam , rushed towards her, blinding her, and then flew past at top speed. She had a fleeting image of a small black car disappearing into the night.
“Oh!” she breathed. “I’m not going out again; it’s too dangerous. We’re going home, OK?”
No answer.

She kept glancing at the on-board computer as she drove slowly home, but there were no more messages. Perhaps the whole episode had been the result of accumulated tiredness after a stressful week at work.
A triangular road sign warned that the dual carriageway was about to narrow into a single lane. Claire slowed down and seconds later saw the accident. Pushing the brake pedal to the floor, she stopped just in time.

A small, black Japanese car, identical to her own, had collided head on with a lorry coming the other way. It lay, roof down and scarcely recognisable, on the side of the road. Two other cars had rammed into the back of the lorry, and people were standing around, trying to pull someone from the wreckage. She could hear the distant sound of a siren on the night air.
Claire’s eyes fell on the computer screen as the last message come up.

[SpeakUp, maggio 2014]

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