Miller hedged. "Well, not exactly gasoline, but close enough. To a car, it would be like 94 octane unleaded gasoline, though. Of course, it will only work in high-end cars -- it would burn up the engine of a delivery truck."
He grinned conspiratorially. "But that's the beauty of it, see? This will get cars back on the road ... but just cars. Mostly, we're talking fast, expensive cars. The road will be wide open for Beemers and Mercedes and stuff ... oh, and my Harley, of course. With no truck traffic slowing us down."
"But, trucks are the vehicles that people need most right now," I answered, feeling as if I was explaining something that should be obvious to a five-year-old. "Why not make diesel fuel, instead?"
He shook his head. "Wouldn't work. The enzymes aren't right. Besides, trucking is coming back already using big electric motors. Between those and coal-powered trains, manufactured goods will be moving well enough again in five years or so. Everyone's building electric cars and the infrastructure to support them as fast as they can, so people that want to drive short distances really slow can get around. But this lets folks start driving the cars that they already own right now, without any conversion. They just have to be fast high-end cars.
"And since it's only for high-end cars, it'll make me richer than hell," he added.
I nodded. "And the part that I brought ..."
"That's the last piece of it. Here, I'll show you."
He quickly undid the wrapping and opened the box to show a gleaming stainless-steel box with fittings at either end. Within a minute, the part was bolted into its place.
"Now, let's see if it works."
Going to a corner of the room, he pressed the starter on a small generator. "My last gallon of real gas," he yelled over the noise. "Saved it just for this." Then he flipped a switch on the machine, and it started pumping and groaning. Moving to the spigot, he watched the needle on a pressure valve creep clockwise. After a minute, he put a bucket under the spigot and turned the valve. A stream of liquid poured out.
Miller closed the spigot, turned of the machine, and shut down the generator. He brought the bucket over, showing me what looked like two gallons of dark amber liquid. It smelled oddly sweet. "Pure gold," he said.
He carried the bucket over to the far wall and pulled a canvas cloth off of a huge motorcycle. He poured the contents of the bucket into the fuel tank, climbed into the saddle, and gave me a wink.
"Let's light this candle," he said, and turned the key. The engine sputtered reluctantly to life. He revved the motor and let out a whooping "Yeee-haw!" The building began to fill with smoke as he drove out the door. Soon, he was out on the main road. I watched his lights go left and right in front of his property for 15 minutes, listening to the doppler-shifted roar of the Harley, until he returned.
"Congratulations," I said, when he shut down the engine.
"Thanks," he said, climbing off the big bike. "I was always good with machines, and the idea just came to me one day. Wheat, you know?"
I nodded. "Yeah. But don't we need all the wheat we grow now for bread, so people can eat?"
"Well, sometimes you gotta make the tough choice."
We listened to the motorcycle's engine ticking itself cool. It had been a long time since either of us had heard anything that loud, and the silence of its aftermath was chilling.
"You mind if I set up camp in your yard? I've got to leave early."
He slapped me on the back. "Shoot, boy, you can sleep in the house if you want. You brought me that part all the way from Jacksonville -- why, I couldn't have finished the machine without you! Stay here tonight, and I'll fix us a big breakfast come morning."
It felt wrong to sleep on a mattress with clean sheets, the wooden slats of the ceiling above me bearing ever more solidly down. The previous day's inactivity and naps left me feeling antsy, as if there was a tremendous task that I had failed to perform. Eventually, I lay down on the floor and fell into a fitful sleep, rousing when the early birds twittered at a hazy dawn's approach. As the sun rose, I lay on the floor finishing "To Have and Have Not." Soon, I heard Miller stirring in the kitchen.
The smell of coffee flooded my senses as I walked in. "That's almost the last of my stash," he said, indicating the french press. "Thanks to the machine, of course, I'll be able to run up to Atlanta and buy a couple of pounds any time I want." The thought tickled him so much that he laughed.
I fixed a big mug and drank deeply. It cleared the last cobwebs.
"Bacon's done," Miller said. "How many pancakes do you want?"
Putting down my mug, I stepped over to looked at his griddle. Three big cakes were almost ready. "Those will do."
Stepping in quickly, he never saw me break his neck. He was dead before he hit the floor.
I turned off the propane to the stove, and then shuffled the pancakes to a plate with a fork. Miller had butter and syrup on the table. It was all delicious.
Miller weighed at least 250 pounds, and dragging him out to the barn was not easy. I took a long shower, shaved, and then checked the house and yard to make sure that I had left no signs. Then I went to work on Miller's machine, pulling some of the more elaborate parts and stashing them in my bike's trailer. I would toss them in various lakes and bogs on my trip back south. Other parts of the machine I smashed with a crowbar. I checked the house to make sure that there were no copies of plans or schematics other than the ones on the walls in the barn, and then poured the last of Miller's "gasoline" on his corpse and cursed machine. As I walked out, I lit a match and dropped it.
I could see the flames licking through the roof when I got back on Highway 239. The smoke followed me for miles. I had a tailwind, and the travelling was good.