[Episode 1 is here]
“Ok. Now take your foot off the brake and put it on the gas. Ease the pedal down gently til you feel the truck start moving.”
Chi’s heart raced like he was running. He had no business being behind the wheel of such a giant, powerful machine. Before today, the biggest thing he’d ever driven was his old delivery bike, which hadn’t had gears or even a seat.
Gingerly as he could, he pushed the oversized pedal forward; even with the seat moved all the way up, his foot only just reached it. The engine grumbled and growled like some off-camera screen monster. A moment later the whole thing lurched forward, so sudden Chi panicked and slammed down the brake with both feet.
Dick Pynchon sighed and rubbed his head like it hurt.
“Not bad, kid. Let’s try again.”
Chi shook his head. He didn’t want to try again. Pynchon gestured forward, through the windshield, to the cracked pavement and faded yellow lines of the abandoned state park parking lot they were in.
“There’s nobody out there. Nothing to hit. We’re just here to learn the basics. Nothing complicated.” He chuckled. “I’ll do the getaway driving. But we’ll make better time on the highway if we can take shifts. Even I have to sleep sometimes.” A thought struck him. “I probably will, more and more, the longer it takes us to get where we’re going.”
A thought struck Chi.
“There’s something wrong with your head,” he said. Pynchon smiled, reassuring.
“I just need a tune-up, is all.” He knocked on the side of his head. “My generation’s more… robust.”
“Than your last partner?”
“The one who…?”
“Kicked all our asses and took your girlfriend?”
Chi looked at the empty parking lot in front of him. The afternoon light was fading, thanks to the mountains to the west, the rays slanting gold and pink through the thin canopy. He took his foot off the brake, set it gently on the gas.
“You have a strange idea what robust is,” he said, and pressed down.
Pynchon didn’t want to lose the travel time, but he needed to do some maintenance on his wet-drive — the gmorg second brain ratcheted on to the one he’d been born with — and letting the kid ease the truck around the loop of a disused state park parking lot til he built some confidence was as good a way to pass the meantime as any. He set a chunk of his wet-drive to monitor the situation and offer encouragement and pointers. Then he opened the tool-kit that came with his old handler’s parting gift and got to work.
First thing he did was try and troubleshoot combat mode. Last time it tried running, he’d been half-blind with error codes and got a splitting headache in the middle of a situation. He’d got through it, but he wasn’t looking for it to happen again. Lucky him, he now had the tools — and the uploaded know-how to use them — to get under the hood and get things running smoothly again.
Except he didn’t. The whole thing was fubar. He couldn’t even tell where to start. He was better off just shutting that part of his wet-drive down and losing those capabilities til he could figure out how to get them back.
It was about five minutes after he did that the second pair of headlights appeared at the far end of the parking lot.
“Who is that?”
“I don’t know. Just keep driving.” Pynchon opened the compartment between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Chi’s heart — only recently slowed back down to normal — sped up with a jolt as his companion took out two of the guns they’d taken along with the truck and checked that there were bullets in them ready to fire.
“You should drive.”
“I should. But there’s no time to trade places. They’re coming.”
A third light incandesced, tracked the ground between the other vehicle and theirs til it shone through their windshield. The glass was polarized, but it was still annoying.
“What do I do?”
“Press down on the gas, point the truck at the exit.”
“They’re between us and it!”
“Then I guess it’s time for your first game of chicken.”
“Chicken is a food. Not a game.”
“It’s both. Now hit the gas.” He reached over, pressed a button in the console in the middle. “There. Now you’re in four-wheel drive.”
“Don’t all four wheels drive normally?”
“Now you can go off-road if you have to.”
“Everything you say makes this worse.”
Heart pounding in his ears, balls nestled up somewhere near his small intestine, Chi pressed down on the gas.
The spotlight tracked them as the other truck turned and then backed in front of the exit, blocking it. It was a quad cab like they drove, only bigger and, if Pynchon wasn’t wrong, armored, too, with mirrorglass windows that shined their headlights back at them and what looked like a gun mount in the bed. The truck was black trimmed matte, with a magnetic decal on the door with a cross-and-Armalite in silhouette the only marking.
Vigilants from the local Dominion franchise. Self-appointed citizen cops enforcing their own version of law and order.
Not above taking a bounty, and likelier than many to know about it.
“Stop the vehicle.” They had a loudspeaker. “Stop. The. Vehicle!”
Chi trembled, inching them forward slow enough they wouldn’t make a dent when they gently bumped into the other truck.
“Chi. Chi! Those guys? They want to stop us from getting where we’re going. Where your girlfriend is. Do you understand me?”
The kid just stared at him.
“If they get us, you’ll never see her again.”
Chi felt his eyes go wide. That couldn’t be allowed to happen!
It was like he became another person. Not one who knew how to drive. An hour turning circles in a parking lot while the sun went down couldn’t do that.
One who didn’t care what he didn’t know.
He jammed the gas pedal down, wrenched the wheel around, aiming for a gap in the trees just behind the other truck. He hoped Pynchon was right about going off the road.
They clipped the Vigilants’ tailgate as they clambered past, the impact loud as a gunshot. Then they were off the road, and though Chi couldn’t have made the comparison it was like riding a bull, only one with big, comfy seats and seat belts. The wheel jerked and turned in his hands like a thing with a will of its own. Chi fought back, hauling left and right by instinct.
“Get back up! Back up on the road! Up! UP!”
Chi pointed the truck uphill. He was pretty sure the front wheels left the ground as the quad cab crested the shoulder and slammed back on to the road.
Chi looked over. How would punching help?
“The gas! Hit the gas!”
Chi did. He gripped the wheel like his life depended on it and pressed his foot down as far as it would go. The engine roared and pressed him back into the padded seat. The road came at him faster than anything he’d ever seen in his life.
The Vigilants got themselves turned around and after them quicker than Pynchon hoped they would. They caught up faster, too.
“Chi. You gotta go faster.”
“This is as fast as I can go.”
“Just push the pedal down a little further.”
“This is as far as my foot reaches.”
Pynchon glanced down. It was true. Shit.
He watched the Vigilants catching up in the rearview.
“Alright.” He unsnapped his seat belt and rolled down the window. “Don’t crash.”
“Why would you say that?!”
“Because I don’t want you to crash the truck.” He stuck his head out the window. If Chi said anything back, it was lost in the howl of the wind.
Ideally, he wouldn’t be shooting left-handed. Or out the window of a moving vehicle, either, if he was playing three wishes.
With combat mode running, it would be no problem.
“Guess that’s my third wish,” he muttered, and took aim with the .45.
The first shot went wide thanks to a bump in the road that almost cost him the weapon. The second ricocheted off the concrete inside the penumbra of the pursuing truck’s headlights. Things got more interesting when they started shooting back. Pynchon heard a thunk in the back where they scored a hit.
They traded shots for a couple of miles before Pynchon finally managed to stop bouncing shots off the armor and put one in the unprotected radiator grill. By then they were close enough he could see the steam hiss out of it.
The Vigilants’ truck overheated not long after that. Pynchon waved as the headlights faded from view behind them. The Vigilants took a few parting shots, but there were no more thunks.
“Good job, kid. That was some excellent driving.”
Chi smiled. He couldn’t believe they were alive. He was filled, for one of the first times in his short life, with a sense of accomplishment.
He was going to like driving, he decided. He couldn’t wait to keep doing it.
A yellow light came on in the display in front of him.
“What is that?”
Pynchon looked over.
“That… is really unfortunate. You’d better look for a place to pull off out of sight.”
The thunk Pynchon heard was a Vigilant bullet piercing their gas tank. They spent the last fumes turning up an unmarked forest road and driving the sputtering quad cab as far off the main road as possible. The kid looked sad as the motor wheezed its last and the truck rolled to a stop in the darkness.
They gathered their weapons and kit-bags from the back, scoured the cab one last time for anything that might prove useful. Then they set off, to hike the night through and get some distance from the truck in case the Vigilants came looking and found it.
“Easy come, easy go,” Pynchon said.
The kid looked like he’d just lost a friend.
“Buck up,” Pynchon told him. “We’ll steal another one, somewhere along the way.” He smiled. “We’ll have to. I haven’t finished teaching you how to drive yet.”
That made the kid smile, at least.