By Jane Lebak (April, 2005)
While waiting for the pump to kick off, Jason noticed something gleaming from the edge of the trunk, on the seam where the lid met the rear quarter panel. Thinking it might be a reflection from the street lights, he tilted his head, but it didn't vanish.
_That's weird._ He glanced at the two passengers in the back seat of the Monte Carlo, students he was driving home for SafeRides, and based on how much they liked his singing, dead drunk. They were staying put for now (that had been fun, when he'd lost one of his passengers) so he popped the trunk to see what the gleaming object was.
He could see a round surface, flat against the side of the car, gleaming vaguely silver, kind of like a thumbtack. The skin of the car seemed to have folded around it, hiding all but a little bit. Jason ran his fingers over it, but it didn't give.
He glanced at the pump--a couple of gallons to go, which was good because otherwise he'd have to sell the trailer to finance the next tank of gas. He grabbed the screwdriver from the trunk floor and tried to pry up the metal bit.
It turned red. Then it blinked.
Oh, crap. That was a tracking beacon.
Jason disengaged the pump and closed the gas cap. "G-1," he said into his bracelet. "I need you on standby."
It was late on a Friday night--actually, it was Saturday morning. Please let Mark be there, please--
"I'm here, G-2."
"I've got a tracker beacon flashing on the trunk of my car."
"Are you sure?"
"Either that, or it's a funky earring." Jason was unwrapping a Very Very Old Sandwich from the back of his car and spreading the aluminum foil over the unit. This worked with a cell phone antenna, so he might as well give it a shot. The foil wouldn't stay in place unless he closed the trunk lid over it. "It started flashing when I tried to pry it off."
"Why'd you try to do that?"
"I didn't know what it was." The foil slipped, and Jason popped the trunk to try again. "It doesn't have tiny print on it saying, 'Made in Spectra.'"
"It probably also doesn't say 'Do not eat,' but you haven't put it in your mouth."
"I hope you're getting in your plane, flyboy."
"I'm getting dressed. It's sleepy-bye time." A pause. "I'll alert the others as well. Try to get back to headquarters before they find you. The shielding there should help."
Jason got the lid down so it pinned the aluminum foil over the beacon. Then he sprinted to the front seat of his car, and as he got inside, one of the passengers said, "What took you so long?"
Jason's eyes bugged. He'd forgotten all about his SafeRide clients.
No one drove Northern Boulevard now. No one by New York City standards, which meant only a few cars per block. Jason slammed the Monte Carlo into drive and peeled out into the street.
"Woah!" The two in back started laughing. "You're supposed to bring us home safely, remember?"
"I'm trying," Jason said. This stank. This really stank. He could kick them out of the car, but a pair of drunk guys wandering an unknown part of Queens at this hour of the night wasn't very safe. There was a chance that he wouldn't get picked up by Spectra. He could get them dropped off and then make the run home.
Jason ran the red lights. The guys thought he was great. Having that little blood in your alcohol stream will do that to you.
It should have been about ten minutes to the first guy's drop-off point, just a couple more exits to Little Neck Parkway. Jason could boot the pair of them out there and then turn about. No problem.
His bracelet chirped. "G-2," said Princess, "you've got a mech on your tail."
Later, Jason would find out that it wasn't a tremendously big mech, nor was it loaded with enough armaments to flatten all of Queens. It was only about as big as a 727, and it was equipped with only two warheads.
This aircraft had been scouting locations for a new Spectran base and had been combing Lake Ontario for sites where the currents would discourage ship traffic. The closest Spectran base--they never found out which--had received the beacon's homing signal and determined it originated from somewhere in New York City. Which, to be fair, the Spectrans had figured was the case, given the presence of ISO Headquarters.
Also, they weren't quite on Jason's tail. Because he'd taken the precaution of shielding the tracker with tin foil, the signal appeared to the Spectrans to be far weaker and more scattered than it ought to have been. They didn't know exactly where he was, only that he was in Flushing, Queens.
So it wasn't quite as bad as it could have been. Not quite.
"How far out are they?" Jason asked.
"G-5 says they'll be on you in about ten minutes. Where are you?"
"I'm on the Grand Central heading east."
"I thought you were coming home."
"I have passengers." He glanced in the mirror at the drunks who were looking for the babe who was talking. "SafeRides."
"Kick them out."
"They're drunk. They'll be lost."
"They'll be dead."
Jason screeched to the side of the road. "Okay, guys. Your ride ends here."
They looked at him. "We're not home."
"You have to get out now," he said. "You'll get killed."
"I donét have cab money," said one guy.
"Where the hell are we?" said the other.
"Just get out," Jason said.
"I don't wanna," the first one said. "I don't even know where we are."
"They said you'd bring us home," the second guy said.
Jason sighed. "Someone wants to kill me."
"What?" The first guy lunged toward the front seat. "Just let 'em try! I'll stop 'em!" He made a few practice punches in the back seat. "I'll stop 'em!"
_Oh, dear heaven._ Jason took a deep breath and was about to lift them bodily out of the back seat, when his bracelet chirped, and then a low, persistent humming filled the car.
He looked up to find the black shadow of an airborne Spectran ship, heading down the Grand Central Parkway.
Jason buckled back in and slammed the car into gear, launching right into the middle of the highway. "G-3," he said, "they found me."
"Are you sure?"
His wisdom teeth began to vibrate with the humming.
Mark's voice came over the radio. "I'm on my way."
"Perhaps if you hurried it up a bit?"
"I can't hear you, G-2. There's some static on your end."
Jason had the car in top gear now and the pedal flat to the floor, and he prayed there was no one in front of him. No cars had passed while they were pulled over at the roadside, so he had his hopes up. The blackout shape of the flying wing, blotting out the sky, came closer and closer while Jason found himself hunching tighter toward the wheel, as if that would help. The scream of the engines increased dramatically, and then with a rocking boom, the Spectrans passed overhead and continued eastward, following the highway.
One of the guys in back gasped, "What the hell was that?"
"That's the guy you were going to punch on my behalf." Jason found he was gasping. He found a "do not use for U-turn" opening in the highway and banged a U-turn ("Officer, you can arrest me for the moving violation after the Spectrans finish killing me") and then worked back up to speed again over his own tire marks.
"G-1," he said, "they passed right overhead. Where are you?"
"I'm on approach. I have them on my radar."
"You'll have it on your radar when they kill me."
"Why didn't they notice you?" Princess asked.
"I wrapped tin-foil around it. The five cent radar jammer."
"And you're driving how fast now?" There was a pause. "It's going to blow off."
"You're right. I'll just crawl home at five miles per hour."
"G-2," came Keyop's voice, "why don't you abandon the car?"
Jason glanced in the rear-view mirror. "I've got passengers. They'd never get away in time, and I can't carry both--oh, man. It's back."
The radar jammer wasn't fool-proof. Perhaps if he'd used Reynolds Wrap rather than the store brand it would have been thick enough to fully block the signal, but probably not. It was only laying partially over the tracker. The car itself was bouncing the signals, and the foil was scattering the signal as well, but it was many times more powerful than a cell phone. The ship was able to get a sense on where the car was within a mile or so. When the signal had faded behind them, they had followed the exit for the Cross Island Parkway, then circled back around following the LIE, and now were back on the Grand Central. The highways were the best place to check because the mech could fold its wings and get closer to the ground. While it could probably have plowed through buildings on the city streets, that would have slowed its progress, and there was the chance that the car could be buried beneath the rubble without any way to identify a body.
Anderson's voice came over the radio. "G-2, don't abandon the car." A pause. "They may want the technology as much as they want you."
Jason didn't reply. Both drunks were riding with their faces plastered to the rear windshield, gaping upward at the flying wing, fogging the window around their open mouths.
"This is G-5," came over the radio. "I'm airborne."
"I've got visual contact with the flying wing," Mark said. "It looks like an armored reconnaissance vehicle. I guess that's the good news."
"Not much armament," Princess said.
"But fairly fast and maneuverable."
Jason eyed the brush at the side of the road. There was no place to pull over and ditch the passengers, and a moment after, he was on an elevated stretch of the roadway. He turned off his headlights.
"Was that you?" Mark said.
"It's dangerous to drive without your headlights. You might hit something."
"You've got to listen to yourself sometime, man." The whine of the flying wing began to steadily increase, and Jason felt the car beginning to rattle. Sweetheart had never rattled. Sweetheart would have been overheating by now, though. The billows of steam might have served to hide the car, sort of, but it was just a good thing he didn't need to be doing evasive maneuvers in a car older than he was.
"Why don't you transmute?" Mark said.
"What part of 'I've got passengers' has been escaping you all along?" It was a good thing they couldn't hear him. The flying wing rumbled past overhead, only marginally faster than the speeding Monte Carlo. Both guys in the back seat went, "Woah!"
"He was so close," one of them whispered, "I coulda handed him a beer."
_Hey, there_. Susan's voice sounded crisp in Jason's mind. _I'm on my way._
"So we're all on our way to the party," Jason said into the bracelet.
"I think the best bet is to pick up the car," Tiny said.
"I'm going to try scaring them off," Mark said. "Once I get them off his tail, he can transmute, and the Phoenix can pick him up."
"None of you guys are listening," Jason said. "I've got two SafeRides passengers in the back seat."
"Your cover is already blown," Princess said.
"I can't transmute around them. There's a single seat in the back of the G-2."
"It'll be crowded," Mark said, "but you can do it."
_It'd give you access to your weapon,_ Susan added.
"Right now they're not sure which car they're pursuing," Jason said. "Once I transmute, they know who I am for sure."
"You'd survive a direct hit," Keyop said.
"We're in the middle of the city. I'd prefer they don't fire at all."
Princess said, "And you know they'll send pictures of your car back to every Spectran base on the planet within seconds. I agree--if there's any way to keep them from being certain who you are, we should do it." A moment later, "I'm about five minutes out, Jason. I'll get there and take their fire."
"They'll know the difference between the G-2 and the G-3," Mark said.
"I'm close too," Susan said. "Maybe three minutes out."
"Dude," said Number One Drunk, "who's that talking?"
"No one," Jason said. "You're drunk."
"I heard 'em too," said Number Two Drunk.
"What do you expect?" Jason said. "You're drunk too!"
The flying wing made another pass overhead. Jason glanced at the back of the car and could see the glint of the tin foil, gamely holding for dear life.
"The problem is," Tiny said, "if you keep driving along one highway, they're going to figure out it's you, because there aren't many cars."
Jason said, "I should try cloverleafing?"
"That's too tight. Drive aimlessly, but keep in the same general area." Tiny paused. "I'm actually picking up the tracker's signal as well, and it's dispersed, but they're going to figure it out eventually if you keep following one highway."
So many choices of places to go--it was like a kid at Christmas. Frankly, if he had to get shot at, he might as well make it on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, since that highway had always needed, in his opinion, to be widened. Missiles might make the New York politicians actually do it. But the number of people who lived there made that kind of choice untenable.
Mark said, "I'm going to engage them. That would be a good time for you to lose them."
_Sure, I'll just lose them like a set of car keys._ Jason didn't say anything as he pulled off the Grand Central onto the Clearview going south. At the bottom of the Clearview, it connected with the Long Island Expressway, which connected to the Cross Island Parkway, which connected back to the Grand Central--nearly a perfect square. Each side was approximately two miles, which would keep the signal bouncing around and with any luck keep them from figuring out which car was Jason's.
Of course, there weren't many cars on the road. But it was night, he was driving with no headlights, and the Monte Carlo was black. They must be looking for the G-2, not for a random car. The average Spectran green didn't always seem to know that G-Force had alternate identities or that their vehicles could transform. When they couldn't find the car for a while, they'd probably radio for help and be instructed to look for *any* car. Or they might take out every car they came across, which would be bad for any number of reasons. Jason slowed, no longer trying to escape.
"Watch out," Tiny said.
"I saw them." Mark paused. "They've got a forward-mounted gatling-gun type weapon. Either they're not getting a fix on me, or my equipment can't pick it up."
"I can't lock on them myself," Tiny said. "The cameras pick them up, but radar's not having much luck."
"How armored are they?" Princess said.
"I'm going to find out."
"Use extreme caution," Anderson said. "Any time you miss, those bullets have to fall somewhere."
"Bullets?" said one guy.
"Talk radio," Jason said. "The NRA."
"I love Rush."
"They have a new album out," said the other drunk. "Where are we?"
"Doesn't look familiar."
_It's a highway, for crying out loud. How different can it look?_ "I know a shortcut," Jason said.
"Oh." The guy laughed. "That's funny."
Jason made the changeover from the Clearview onto the LIE. He couldn't see the dogfight overhead, but he could hear the three different engines. The Spectrans were sticking to their search pattern, only swerving briefly before returning to a low sweep.
"Where are you going to bring them down?" Tiny said. "There's practically nowhere for them to hit the ground, and they're refusing to follow you out over the water."
"Maybe because they suspect I can't drive over water," Jason said.
"Hey, yeah, maybe." Tiny gasped, "G-1, be careful!"
"I see them, I see them?"
"G-2, I'm in visual range," Princess said. "And I've got G-6 too."
"We need a long-term goal," Jason said. "Something other than we drive in circles while you guys dogfight up there."
"You can't outrun them," Princess said. "We've got to keep them from firing on you."
"And we don't want to risk the mech crashing into the city," Mark added.
Tiny said, "If I pick up the G-2, it'll carry the signal out to sea with us and maybe they'll follow."
"I can't transmute," Jason said.
"What if they think you've transmuted?" Susan said. "Maybe one of us here on the ground could remove the device and meet up with the Phoenix."
Jason glanced in the rear view mirror. "I couldn't pull it out with the car stopped."
"I see the aluminum foil," Princess said. "It's under that?" She hesitated. "Maybe I could cut off part of the panel."
"It's under the trunk lid," Jason said.
Just then it was time to make the interchange between the LIE and the Cross Island Parkway. There was water off the right side of the car, but the Spectrans made another pass on the landward side of the car. Jason's drunks lunged for that side of the car and gasped at whatever they could see of the underbelly.
_Damn, that's big,_ Susan sent. Jason got the impression that the draft from its passage had nearly knocked her off the bike.
_You get used to seeing them on the Phoenix's screens,_ Jason thought. It was easy to forget how enormous they could be, how they overpowered the sky and scrambled your brain as you tried to make sense of just how massive they could be and still fly. This one was a baby mech. Looking at them on a tiny television in the cockpit, you always felt like you were playing a video game, because they were only about six inches on those terminals. You could beat something only six inches big. Then you tried to board the thing, and it was the size of Central Park, and heck, that was easy too: who couldn't slip into Central Park undetected? This tiny mech, matched up against his car, seemed so much bigger than any other mech he'd ever faced down.
"G-6, you keep following." Princess sighed. "G-2, keep a steady speed."
Jason glanced in the mirror to see that both Susan and Princess were riding G-3 bikes, Susan on one of Princess's older model bikes. Princess pulled up close on the passenger side and looked at the trunk of the car.
"I couldn't get it off with a screwdriver," Jason said. "I'm not sure what you think you're going to do."
"No kidding," Princess said. "How'd they get it in there?"
"They must have shot it into the G-2 during combat, and when it was over, I detransmuted the car, and it folded around the thing."
"G-6, keep close on me." Princess jumped off her bike, sending it into the brush at the roadside, and landed on Jason's trunk.
"Woah," one of drunks said. "Now that's a babe."
"She'd kick you into next Tuesday," Jason said.
"I'd let her."
"G-3," Jason said, "I'd like to set you up on a blind date with a friend of mine?"
"Hah hah." Princess was crouching on the back of the Monte Carlo, her birdstyle clinging to the surface of the car so she could work. With the pike of her yo-yo, she nudged up the aluminum foil to pry up the tracker.
The aluminum foil flew away in the wind.
Jason's heart pounded. He slammed on the gas, nearly losing Princess.
"G-2," Tiny said unnecessarily, "evasive--" because immediately the thrum of the mech's engines increased in volume fivefold.
Ahead of him was the exit for the Grand Central, but there was no use in circling now. With the water on one side, this was as good a place as any for Spectra to detonate a warhead, as long as they didn't wait too long until he was at the Throg's Neck Bridge.
Jason looked in the rear-view mirror to find the highway behind him illuminated by a spotlight bearing down on the Monte Carlo. Susan started weaving on the road, and a moment later Jason could see plumelets of dust rocketing upward in the circle of light as the mecha fired its machine guns.
"G-2!" Mark shouted as the bullets swept up toward the car.
The car gleamed around him in an explosion of light, then exploded again as the Spectran bullets slammed the length of the car.
"G-3! You okay?"
Princess looked up from under the tent of her wings. "Fine."
Jason glanced in the back seat at the pair of drunks, smashed together in one seat. One of them had his eyes closed and wasn't moving; the other was trying to pick himself out of the general tangle of bodies in the single seat.
Overhead, the mech banked around and came for a second pass.
"I've got it!" Princess shouted, and then, "It's in the yo-yo."
"I'm ready," Susan said, working her way up alongside the G-2. Jason felt Susan's presence in his mind, and as he swerved, she swerved; as he sped up or slowed down, she did the same, matched evenly with the G-2. Princess jumped from the back of the car onto the bike. Susan peeled off to the left and carried her away, and with her the tracking device.
"What's going on?" said Drunk Number One.
The mech had returned, seemed to hesitate for a moment, then followed the car rather than the signal from the tracking device. Jason accelerated again, slamming both drunks against the back of the car.
From the back emerged a small voice. "Pull over. I'm going to be sick."
"Detonator set," Princess said. Jason caught a small flash in the mirror, and a moment later, Tiny said, "Signal's dead, G-3. Good job."
"You need to detonate their eyesight," Jason said. "They're still on my tail."
A low moan emerged from the back seat. _This is me no longer caring, guys. You both had the chance to get out, but you're the most stubborn, single-minded drunks I've ever had the pleasure of escorting home from a fraternity party._
As he rounded a curve in the highway, the dual light-lined shapes of the Throg's Neck and the Whitestone Bridges stood out above the black expanse of the water and the diffused glow of Manhattan and the Bronx.
From over the water, the G-1 appeared, diving toward the Spectran, and Jason could hear from the other direction the engines of the Phoenix, putting pressure on the mech's left flank. Then he heard the higher whine of Keyop's buggy, slower than the other two but finally able to join the party.
The mech swung out and over the water, with Keyop diving in low and the G-1 laying down fire. Jason felt the car shudder as the grabber arms snatched it off the road's surface and hauled it into the air. A moment later, he heard one of the guys in the back being quietly, wretchedly sick.
"You okay?" Tiny said.
"Yeah," Jason said. "You know, I think I am."
"Woah," Jack said. "That was wild."
Adam sat in front of a cup of black coffee, rubbing his temples. "Yeah. Crazy."
"I wonder how fast he was driving."
"Who? That dude from SafeRides? He didn't drive that fast."
"Are you crazy? He was going like a thousand miles per hour!"
"You were drunk. But don't you remember the plane?"
"The plane that passed right over us! How could you miss it?"
"What, he drove us by LaGuardia?"
"I don't think so." Adam winced, then rubbed his temples. "But that babe was hot--I think she was hot."
Jack laughed. "Everyone's hot at three o'clock in the morning. Which babe?"
"I think she jumped on the back of the car."
Now Jack roared with laughter, causing Adam to flinch again. "Man, you must have been drunker than I thought!"
"At least I didn't puke all over you."
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that." Jack shook his head. "Apparently we had a great night last night."
"I'm sure," Adam said. "The driver was speeding, planes were passing overhead, and girls were tap-dancing on the back of the car. What else happened?"
"The car was flying."
Adam gave a rueful stare. "Flying. And you thought I was drunk."
Jack started to nod, then hesitated. "You're right. We were both drunk." He frowned. "But then...if we were both drunk, and none of this happened, why was that guy in the suit here when we woke up? I've used SafeRides before, and they never woke me up in the morning to ask how the driver was."
"No clue," Adam said. "Maybe he wanted to make sure the driver brought us home okay. You should have told him the guy uses a magic flying car."
"And free entertainment with dancers."
"And he takes shortcuts where you can watch the planes land on your head."
"Didn't the driver say that someone wanted to kill him?" Jack shook his head. "We must have had the best time last night."
Adam nodded. "Yeah, I think so too." He sighed. "I kind of wish I remembered it."