The Cabbie Begins
Max Berretti was crouched under his car, tools in reach, screwing the metal plate over the gas tank. Sweating, he mopped his brow, and then scooted out into the sudden glare of the garage. He looked at the newly installed box at the back of his car, and then gave it a few kicks to make sure that it was screwed on tightly. It held just fine, and he grunted in satisfaction. He opened the driver door and pulled the switch he had installed just below the steering wheel, and was pleased to hear a metallic clunk. The box had opened, and knew that if he was driving and pulled that switch, caltrops that were stored there would spill out into the street behind his vehicle. He could barely contain his excitement: the first mod that he’d put on a car since he was barely out of high school, and his head was already filled with ideas about how more could be put onto his car, how this one could be altered and made better, all the steps that he could make to turn his lowly cab into The People’s Chariot, not just a car but a symbol and tool of Justice.
If you live for any amount of time in Gateway City you know that you can’t just assume that the guy standing in the middle of the street waving his arms and wearing a mask and an old-timey hat is some sort of fruitcake. Of course, that’s always a possibility: unless you actually see the guy shooting lasers out of his eyes or juggling hundred pound weights or whatever you can’t really tell the wannabes from the real things. Also, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the guy is nice or nasty, though if he’s scaly and green with flashing red eyes and wearing a big black crown covered in spikes, most cabbies will tell you to look for another fare; the story about the guy who picked up T-Rex is probably just one of those taxi urban legends, but you never know. Sometimes, though, when you see the fare, you just have to take it. Sometimes it can change your life.
When Max pulled up to the guy, he knew almost instantly that the guy was a do-gooder. It wasn’t just the way that he was dressed, with the whole neutral-coloured-caped-crusader thing. As soon as he said “Follow that contrail!” in a pompous British accent and a ‘onward to adventure and good works!’ tone, Max knew that this guy walked the straight and narrow. His fruitcake status might have been questionable, except that the two pistols that the guy was carrying were still smoking from recent use. Momma Berretti’s son always had a hard head, but it was screwed on right, and he was far from a dunce.
Most people assume that every cabbie wants the chance to engage in the high speed pursuit of some dastardly villain with a hero riding shotgun, sharing in the guts-and-glory adventure of some fancy-pants hero. Those people are right. However, contrary to popular myth, the talk around the shop from the lifers is that you never, ever take that chance because doing it is so very, very stupid. Guts-and-glory is likely to result in broken bones and traction, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have the apologetic hero helping to cover the medical fees. Max had always figured that the old-timers were probably right.
Max started the clock and grunted “Get in.” With a dude standing in front of him inviting him to take the chance that every cabbie wanted, Max realized that he’d be almost as stupid as not if he was going to let this pass him by. He’d raced as a kid, drag and in competition, and he’d been damn good. Before the Brit had the door closed Max’s pedal was on the floor.
Max was hammering on the metal plating for extra armour onto the cab when he was suddenly struck with the insanity of what he was doing. What was he, some sort of super hero? Driving some other guy was one thing, but this was actually a crazy idea. He wasn’t some nine-foot-tall-made-of-steel-and-radiation-man, not a master of martial arts or reptile-gunslinger-from-the-planet-Uranus. He was just a cabbie who got lucky. Here he was nailing armour to his car?
Dropping the mallet to the floor, Max leaned against his car. What he’d been doing was nuts, and he was just some ordinary guy. He hadn’t spent too much on this mad-cap idea, and he was going to end it here. He looked at the ground and sighed.
The voice that shocked him out of his stupor was clearly old, but also had strength. “Are you Max Berretti?” Max looked up, “Who wants to know?”
When he came out of the shadows, Max saw that the old man walked with a cane. He had long hair and a beard, and he wore a brown robe cinched with a knotted rope. He was short, really short, shorter because he was slightly bent over the cane. His eyes, though, shone with a bright silver sheen, speaking of health and vitality of the mind, and a clear otherworldliness.
“The Justicars want to know.”
The contrail was high, but Max’s eyes were sharp enough to track it. It pulled farther away, and he thought it was gone. It was the expression of the Brit beside him, the ‘do the villains win this one? Look, that caused Max to make his split decision to burst through the walls of the new mall downtown. Most of the shoppers were smart enough to stay well out of the way, and Max had an easy time dodging the rest, despite the shocked expression of Mr. War of Independence. He held the car steady when the Brit was shooting, and when he climbed on top of the car. When the man threw a sack of gold in beside him and told him to hold onto it, Max nodded and watched as the guy ducked into an alley. He drove around looking for him, until he was tipped off by the explosion and pillar of smoke rising a couple of blocks away. When he drove up, the Brit was standing on the street and waving him down, looking pleased.
Max handed him the bag, surprised into a grunt of effort at how heavy it was. The gray suited man slung it onto his shoulder effortlessly.
“Well done, sir!” The man said, “you and your horseless carriage carried me to victory over anarchy this day!” Max was shocked by this sudden praise from a guy who had just taken down some sort of rock ‘em-sock ‘em super villain, managing to stammer “Uh, thank you sir! Great job on bagging that guy.”
The man adopted a smug expression, “Ha! Anything for the Empire!”
Max grinned, “God bless America!”
As Max pulled away, he saw that the man was both surprised and pleased. However, he realized with sudden chagrin that his cab was going to need some maintenance, and that was going to require some explaining down at the depot. As he drove there, he saw at least a couple of folks along the way pointing at his cab and talking, and he had that sinking feeling you get when you figure you’re about to be fired. He pulled into the depot of Gateway Cabs.
He was surprised at first at the fact that there were only two cars in the depot, the ones who were currently in need of fixing, and the mechanics were hard at work on those, not sipping coffee like they usually did. Stepping out, the mechanics shot him a look, and he pulled his cap low over his face. Stepping into the break room, he saw that Lou and Bobby were glued to the small TV, not even noticing that their coffee cups were empty. Max was going to try to sneak past him when Lou looked up, seeing that he was in.
“Max!” Lou yelled, just as pleased as punch, “you’re on TV! They’re replaying the whole thing!”
Max looked at the screen, and footage from a news chopper clearly showed his cab along the road leading to the Skyplex mall.
“Here it comes!” Bobby yelled.
The two of them cheered and Max cringed as his cab crashed through the mall’s walls, and the chopper tracked his cab moving through the mall.
“We aughtta call this ‘Max’s greatest hit!’” Bobby grinned, and Lou laughed.
Suddenly, the door to boss’ door opened. Tom was a big guy, used to be a dock worker, a big guy with a big voice and a big, hot temper, which matched his bright red hair. Lou and Bobby were still laughing, but Frank looked grim. Max couldn’t even bring himself to grin at the guy’s big, furry moustache at this point, or his poindexter shirt with the pen protecters.
“Berretti. In my office.” Tom said, and walked back into his office, closing the door.
“Eh, how bad could it be?” Lou said, “so you went through a mall? They won’t sue ‘cause it was in support of justice. Unless you busted up the cab, Tom’s got nothing to whine about.”
“Thanks.” Max mumbled, head down, going to the boss’ office.
“Hey, if it goes bad, every driver here’s going to fight for you, Max! This is the best thing that happened to one of us since Martin and his wife had their kid!” Bobby called after him.
Max grunted as he opened the door to the office. Tom looked up.
“Close the door and take a seat.”
Max did as he was told. He refused to meet Tom’s eyes, feeling them burning into the top of his head.
“So, as I see it you have a couple of options…”
“Look,” Max began, “please don’t fire me. My mom’s health isn’t great, and my girlfriend and I are thinking about getting married, and…”
“What?” Max was momentarily stunned by the surprise in Tom’s voice, and looked up, “fire you? What are you talking about? This is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gateway Cabs. I was thinking that I’d be sitting here trying to convince you to stay rather than starting your own celebrity service!”
It was Max’s turn to be surprised. “Huh?”
“I’ve already been on the phone with the Skyplex people. The mall goers are all jazzed about having been so close to a real super-hero chase. They wanted to work out to legal ramifications of making a ride based on your chase, so I negotiated a nice little royalty for Gateway cabs, in addition to the free publicity. Also, we’ve never been busier. As soon as you were seen in that chase, everyone started talking about how one of ours was in that chase. The phones have been ringing off the hook with people looking for cabs from us. My only problem has been getting the drivers to stop watching the TV and to get out and collect fares!”
Max sat in silence.
“We want you to stay on, Max, and the only question is, how are we going to use this?”
“So, my thinking is that you tell every cabbie in here your story, as many details as you can remember, give them a real blow by blow. I’m going to invest in that bodyguard-training driving course, and everyone here is going to get a crash course in chases and evasive driving. As to you, do you think that a $25 000 bonus is fair for you to avoid taking all the limelight yourself and being the poster boy for some other competition?”
“Fine, fine, $50 000. With the money that we’re going to make off of this, that’s going to be well worth it. I’m thinking a full page add in the Yellow Pages, ‘Gateway Cabs!’ Damn, I need a slogan.”
“How about “Your Gateway to Adventure?” Max offered.
“I Love It!” Tom bellowed, “you’re my man, Berretti! We’ll be the biggest cab company in Gateway! We’ll be the only one! Hoorah!”
The old man walked toward him, his cane matching every second step.
“I heard about the exploits of you on the radio, though they did not mention you by name. I had to go through three rides with drivers from your company claiming that they were the one who drove the Gray Patriot, and all of them were excellent on the details. When pressed, only one was willing to tell me that it was Max Berretti, who happened to be spending much of his off time working on some sort of project. He led me to believe that you were fixing up a hot rod. I see that you are engaging in a different sort of project indeed.”
“How did you find me?”
The old man shrugged. “We have our ways.” He ran a hand along the body of the car, knocking on the new metal plating.
“What do you want?”
The old man looked at him, “That is exactly the question that I had come here to ask you.”
“That’s some Obi-Wan talk right there.”
The old man looked at him. “I’m sorry, but I have not encountered that culture. From where do the Obi-Wan originate?”
“Uh, don’t worry about it.”
The old man stared him in the face, a look so intense that Max couldn’t look away. “I have come to see an ordinary man who has suddenly discovered that he has the skills to compete in a world of the extraordinarily talented, a man who can chase down someone using a jet-pack in an ordinary car. This is not typical. I come to see if this is the sort of man wants the opportunity to be a part of this brave new world, and I see that he is modifying his car for that exact purpose. The question, then, is what do you want? Will you use this to gratify desires for wealth, fame, power? Or will you use this in the service of others, for the sake of Justice?”
Max sighed, and now looked down, “Look, this was just a stupid idea. I’m just an ordinary guy. I’m going to go back to driving a cab.”
The old man snorted. “Look at me, Max Berretti.” Max looked at the man again, and was again caught by his gaze. His eyes were a piercing blue, but they shone, almost metallic, definitely too much shine for an ordinary person. “You know that you are capable of so much more than that. You are not going to give up your newfound abilities, no matter how much defeatist sensibilities try to overcome your good sense. The question is, what do you want? Do you want to serve yourself, or do you want to be a hero?”
Max’s jaw set. “That’s a stupid question. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
“So do you want to be a hero?”
“Of course I want to be a hero!”
“A symbol of Justice, a man of the people, someone who risks life and limb, putting all that they have and are at risk for the sake of others?”
The old man nodded. “You will call me Roland. Your training begins today.”
Roland watched as Max welded the armour plating onto his car. Max turned off the welder, and looked at Roland. “So, what did you call this metal?”
“Tri-duritanium. How much chemistry do you know?”
“Uh, high school?”
“Whaddya mean, ah?”
“I read a paper by a chemist with the Royal Society of London that argued that while this type of metal was theoretically possible, it could not be refined with human methods and technology. He was wrong, but it’s a difficult equation at the best of times.”
Max lashed out three times at the punching bag, and it moved satisfyingly each time. He grinned. This was far easier than it had been even a few weeks ago.
“Speed and power are fine.” Roland stated. “It’s your technique that needs serious work.”
“I don’t even really get this technique. It’s some sort of martial art, sure, but where is it from?” “You would not be able to pronounce the name. Suffice to say, it was developed over many centuries by masters who were raised to do nothing but refine their method. There are good teachers, though, and it should be useful for you. It involves creating false opportunities before exploiting them, counter striking with great accuracy to stun your opponents before you grapple them into unconsciousness. You learn quickly, but you still need work.”
“Heh, de Niro made it look easy.”
“Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?”
“Yes, I am. Are you feeling quite alright?”
Max grinned. “Sorry, I forget that you don’t get out much. It’s from Taxi Driver, a movie that stars Robert de Niro. We always watch it in the break room, hell, at least once a month after work.”
“Well, we don’t really watch it. Most of that movie is pretty weird. We mostly just fast forward to the parts where he’s driving the more normal people and then the part at the end when he shoots all the bad guys. We all cheer, but we’ve had a few beers by that point.”
Max chuckled, but Roland’s expression suddenly darkened, his brows furrowing and his frown deepening. “Is that the type of thing that you cheer for?”
“Carnage. Death. Is that the sort of thing that excites members of your culture.”
“Well, uh, these are bad guys. Like, really bad. They deserve it.”
“Whether or not they deserve it, you should never cheer for the death of conscious beings.”
Max swallowed. “No, I guess not. But sometimes, bad guys, and I mean really bad guys, well, sometimes, what choice do you have?”
Roland sighed, and looked into the distance. “We have a saying where I come from: ‘Mui-te duo’, which translates roughly as ‘the executioner suffers the greatest punishment.’”
Max scratched his head, “Uh, do you guys kill people who execute bad guys?”
“It means that when a person takes it on himself to kill someone, even someone who deserves it, they suffer for it. Where I come from, we acknowledge that there are people who deserve to die, but we would never condemn a man or woman to be an executioner. When you kill, you carry that death with you for the rest of time. You are certainly not a man that I would wish that fate upon. No conscious being should have to bear that.”
Max nodded. “You come from a wise people.”
Roland snorted. “We certainly thought so. Hubris.”
“You thought that you were Gods?”
Roland looked at Max, surprised, then resumed his solemn countenance. “Almost. Now let’s return to your training.”
Max was installing the nitrous onto the bottom of his car. He wheeled himself from the bottom, and saw Roland running his hand along the car, his eyes closed and a small smile on his face. He opened his eyes and saw Max.
“Are they installed?”
“Yeah. Can I ask you something?”
“Why me, specifically? I mean, surely you see guys who have the potential to be heroes all the time, smarter, tougher, whatever than me. I’m just pretty good at driving a car. So, why did you choose to come and train me?”
Roland looked at him, still smiling. “I heard about your driving on the news, and then I watched the television to see it myself. The car that you drive, black and yellow, those are the colors that I raced under in my youth. So, I suppose that it was sentimentalism.”
“No kiddin’. You used to race cars?”
Roland grinned, and suddenly it brought some youth back to his face. “I was chaos on adrenaline when I was young. I won three championships in my racer, before my…” Suddenly the grin disappeared, and he looked grim and solemn again, “before my retirement.”
“So, you drove something like my baby here?”
“Not quite. Mine flew.”
“So, should I actually understand any of the science that goes into these modifications?”
“Do you want me to try to instruct you?”
Max and Roland stood, side by side, admiring his new cab. Sleek, it looked like a sceince fiction car coming out of the fifties, sleek and finned, like a shark come to land. The meter on top had one light, and it read ‘ON DUTY’. It was yellow, bright and golden, except for the black checkered pattern running along both sides. The top was low, and it only had two doors, but it still had enough room for three passengers, and plenty of trunk room, enough to take a perp to the station if necessary.
“She is beautiful, Max.” Roland said admiringly.
“She’d have been one ugly machine if it hadn’t been for your help.”
Roland shrugged. “As long as you use her in pursuit of something greater than yourself.”
“You worried ‘bout it?”
Roland shook his head, his expression still solemn. “No, Max, I am not. In fact, I have something for you. You can find it in the trunk.”
Max looked at Roland, puzzled, but he opened the trunk. Inside were three boxes, which he opened one by one. The first contained a golden helmet, looking like some medieval knight’s, topped with serrated ridges. The second were a pair of gloves, black, with uplinks to connect to the vehicle, but strong enough to protect his hands whether it was in a car crash or a boxing match. The last box was a fitted jumpsuit, golden with black stripes running down the suit, ending in a pair knee-high black boots. Max turned to Roland, stunned.
“My old racing gear. The gloves can be used to uplink to the new computer system that we installed, and the helmet has viewing options for other perceptual frames. I will let you experiment with those. Of course I had to get some alterations done to the suit, and the boots are new. I hope that you will use them well: my racing days are long behind me.”
“They…they’re incredible. How can I repay you?”
“By using them in the service of Justice. I would never ask more or less.”
Max nodded, blinking back tears.
“It was good to get to know you, Max.”
“You too, Roland.”
“Have you decided on a name for your new persona?”
“Yeah. I’m going to call myself The Cabbie. Go ahead and head off the news reporters. They like that sort of thing, snarky.”
Roland nodded, and began to turn to leave.
Roland turned back, one eyebrow raised.
“You think we can modify this baby to fly?”
Roland grinned. “Not today, Max. You should have all of the new features down to reflex before you think of adding more. Perhaps someday I’ll return, and then we can make it soar.”
Max nodded. “Thanks for everything, sir.”
“Thanks to you. It was good to feel young again.”
As Roland left, Max turned back to his car, The People’s Chariot. He ran a hand over it’s smooth lines, wishing that he’d been able to make something this sexy when he was working on hot rods back in high school. He sighed, and opened the door to get in.
Max looked up to see Roland coming toward him, standing straighter, barely using his cane. His whole frame looked animated, like he was young again. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“To Chaos with prudence, let’s make this baby fly!”