Part One: A Twist in the Tail
Heat haze shimmered over the salt flats making the surface look like water. Doctor Green took a swig from her bottle of water, grimacing at the tepid warmth of it, and she'd only been out of the car for a short while. You could see for miles on a good day but today the view was obscured by smoke. Wreckage lay over some distance, wheels and foil-thin aluminium and titanium. The kind of thing yokels might mistake for a UFO crash. She sighed and flipped open her notepad, rechecking her notes while the medical team zipped up the body bag and the police hovered around her.
“Can you tell us anything yet?”
The depressingly and ostentatiously Mormon sheriff had been a pain in her backside since she'd arrived, standing over her shoulder while she examined the body and the wreckage of the Swift IV, the latest foolhardy attempt at a land speed record with a rocket powered cigar tube on wheels.
“Anything I tell you is only going to be preliminary.” She sighed, pushing her hair back from her face, the sweat slicking it out of her eyes. “I think it's safe to say he died almost instantly when the steering column pierced him, speared his heart and broke his spin in two places. That seems the most likely cause of death. As to the vehicle's cause of failure, you're better off asking the mechanics.”
“How fascinating.” This new interruption was a deep, basso rumble of a voice that almost made her jump out of her shoes. It seemed to come out of nowhere and she and sheriff Bralan turned as one to look at the source.
He was a towering man, unbelievably not sweating in the noon sun as it glared off the flat. He wore a thin white shirt and tan-coloured trousers, heavy walking boots, his only concession to the sun a pair of classic, black, aviator sunglasses and a white cloth tied as a bandanna around his neck. Inexplicably he wore heavy gloves over his hand, one of them holding a slung pack over his shoulder. There wasn't an ounce of spare fat on him. He didn't look like a gross, overblown caricature, not a body builder, more like an anatomical diagram or a classical Greek statue, though the look was marred by the strange tattoos that covered his cheek, jaw and neck, vanishing down beneath the shirt.
“He with you?” The sheriff drawled, hand going down to his gunbelt, a move that the giant reacted to with only the barest flicker of a smile.
“No.” She said. “I'd remember him. He's not part of the car crew either.”
The sheriff drew his revolver and levelled it at the big man. “We got to account for everyone here mister...”
“Doctor.” The big man interrupted.
“...and this might well be sabotage. So you're going to have to come with me.” The sheriff finished, undaunted.
“A crashed supercar, a dead driver – judging from the bag – the police are suspicious and what I take to be a scientist or doctor already on the scene and you want me to waste my time coming with you to answer tedious questions?” The big man stared at the sheriff as though he were something one might find upon overturning a rotting log. “I am Doctor Oswald Stone and I was out walking. If I am to get to the bottom of this intriguing mystery I cannot afford to waste time with you.”
She went to open her mouth and interject but, his authority questioned the sheriff was in no mood to play nice. He cocked back the hammer on his revolver as his deputy crab-scuttled behind the giant man, hand to his own gunbelt.
The big man give her an apologetic look and then there was an abrupt blur of motion. One muscular leg snapped back as straight as a laser beam and hit the deputy just beneath his ribs. There was a brief, loud, woof of expelled air as he flew back several metres and slid to a halt, slumped over himself desperately trying to breathe.
The sheriff did no better. The big man's gloved hand grasped his pistol with impossible strength and tore it from his hand in the same motion as he kicked the deputy, flicking the gun away with a casual gesture that sent it flying out across the flats, vanishing into the heat haze.
“If you can find your gun, you're welcome to try and take me in for questioning.” The big man said, returning to his casual, relaxed stance and turning to her.
“If you're a doctor as well this could get terribly confusing. Call me Doc or Osmium, and you are?”
Her heart pounding in her chest with fear she swallowed it back and answered him. “Doctor Susan Green, pathology mostly, but I dabble and do medical support for things like this. What are you a doctor of?” She felt like an idiot saying that, given what just happened, but banal pleasantries were better than being kicked.
“Oh, life, the cosmos, everything and anything interesting. I'll call you Susan then, if you don't mind.” Doc shifted his pack back into place on his shoulder and began pacing over towards the wreckage. With the sherrif swearing a blue streak and chasing after his gun and the deputy trying to work up enough breath to vomit, she followed hurriedly in Doc's trail like the tail of a comet, finding herself babbling about the accident.
Eli Grange has been the best driver, on paper, three previous record attempts, jet fighter experience, inhumanly good reflexes. The car had been checked over a dozen times. The safety harness and other life-preserving equipment was all in good order. Everything had some form of redundancy and safety and yet... something had gone wrong. On the first proper run the rear end had drifted and the car had tumbled end over end, side over side until it was completely wrecked.
The Doc crouched amongst the main body of the debris, listening, asking questions, technical questions about the wheels, about the chassis, about the engine. Intelligent, seeking questions that she couldn't always answer, but he seemed to be finding his way. She glanced about her in a panic and saw the rest of the pit crew heading over, angry, curious, wondering who the hell this man was perhaps, just as she was.
“Who the hell is this guy?” Mick, the chief engineer on the project lumbered up, a big guy but heavy with it, unlike this 'Doc' person.
“Doc Osmium.” Susan answered, without a trace of humour, still unsettled from the brief fight. “He's dangerous.”
“AHA!” The Doc shouted, emerging from the debris holding a tiny piece of metal, startling them both as more of the engineering crew arrived.
“You can't go messing with that! We need to work out what caused the accident.” Mick thundered, stamping towards the Doc with a look of murderous intent. The Doc thrust the tiny piece of metal beneath his nose bringing him to a halt.
“The lox regulator valve. There's a tiny grain of sand between the washer and the nut, keeping it fractionally open. I surmise that this caused a tiny fluctuation in the fuel feed to the car's rocket which was enough – at full acceleration – to throw the tail off, leading to the crash. As to the rest, the abruptness of the crash and the fact that it was side on seems to have tumbled the car in such a way as your safety precautions were only minimally effective. An enormous string of bad luck...”
Mick stared at the washer as the others arrived. “Bad luck?”
Before the question could be pursued any further the Doc abruptly froze, slowly raising his hands from his sides. Susan's head jolted around, expecting to see the sheriff threatening the big man again but it wasn't, it was Jose from the pit crew, an ugly slab of an automatic pistol in his hand, levelled at the Doc.
“Couldn't just let me get away could you Osmium?” Jose's voice was different, hard-edged, he meant to use the gun, she could tell. “Had to follow me, all the way out here, track me down and put me away. Madre de dios man, they were only samples.”
The Doc's face twisted into a feral snarl. “Irreplacable samples collected by Charles Darwin himself, priceless. Would you believe me if I told you that I wasn't actually here for you? This is all the most terrible coincidence.”
Jose shook his head and laughed. “That smooth tongue might be a hit with the ladies Osmium, but it's not going to get you out of this.”
Susan saw his knuckles tighten around the trigger and she acted. Her boot caught Jode – if that was his name – in the back of the knee and sent him down to the ground. The pistol barked, the bullet going wide, sparks flying as it ricocheted off the car's wreckage. With Jose down the Doc moved with that unnatural precision and speed again, grabbing a blackened piece of metal and hurling it like a discus. The heavy sheet slammed into Jose's throat with a sickening 'Chud!' and he fell back, stone dead to the flat ground, the metal embedded halfway through his neck.
Susan stared wide eyed at the Doc as he picked his way out of the debris, the rest of the crew keeping well back from him now as he crouched over Jose's body.
“Carlos Ortega, a thief and a murderer, wanted by Interpol for theft to order. The funny thing is that I wasn't here looking for him at all. I really was just walking.” The big man looked up at Susan and frowned, his face creasing, the tattoos on his cheek twitching as his jaw muscles worked.
“I happen to be walking here, he happens to be here, there's an accident that is wildly unlikely stemming from a tiny flaw in an otherwise perfect machine... and you're here.” His steely eyes settled on Susan.
“So? It's just blind chance, isn't it? Things like this do happen... synchronicity they call it don't they?”
The Doc stood up again. “Synchronicity is what we call it when causally unrelated events occur that seem to hold meaning beyond coincidence. In a truly random universe we might brush it off but I'm afraid I'm still a bit of a stuffy old Newtonian, clockwork universe fan. I'm a big supporter of cause and effect, even in quantum physics, and this seems to stretch the odds a little too far for me. Something more is going on.”
He stepped forward, those Olympian features twisting into a wry and enticing grin as he offered her his massive, gloved hand.
“Let's find out what that is, shall we?”