by Jane Lebak (1/01)
"Pass cutting around the outside."
Jason followed the lead car into the curve, and as they went, he cut out of the draft and tried to pass. As he made his move, the other car swung out at him, and as he corrected, the car behind slammed into his bumper--
--and the team car slammed into the outer wall before jack-knifing tail-first out onto the track. Jason turned his head in time to see the oncoming traffic slam into the right side of his car.
The track spun before him--he could see windshields instead of tailpipes--and then he was facing forward again, but everything was upside-down--and then he could see only the track wall.
A moment after the impact, Jason realized he was hanging suspended from his harness. His heart hammered. He blinked uncertainly. It was dark. The car smelled awful.
It's on fire over my head. For some reason this didn't panic him. He reached for his harness buckle with a hand that moved too slowly. Actually, the race car was on fire above his legs, because he was so well strapped into the seat. I wonder if they'll come get me out?
After a moment, the buckle came loose, and he dropped onto the roof. Just about the time he tried moving for the window, gloved hands reached in and pulled him forward and outside. He staggered to his feet, looking to see if there was a caution flag or if he'd managed to clear the track. He only dimly registered the thundering crowd. The smell of smoke and burning oil and gasoline permeated everything.
"Easy." Suddenly there were two track crew members supporting him from either side. Jason noticed an ambulance before him, and that was where they were making him walk.
"We believe you. And we'd believe you even more if you could stand on your own."
Jason boosted himself into the back of the ambulance, then accepted help getting seated. "I'm okay," he said while the medic checked him over. "Just do your job and let me out of here."
Eventually Cassie arrived and snuck into the back of the ambulance. "Here's the deal, sport." She smiled winningly. "This has nothing to do with you. It has to do with our insurance policy. I don't want Dad to lose the track, so you're going to the hospital and getting them to say you're fine. And that's that."
Jason said, "Let me sign something so I can go home."
"Let me sleep easier and not worry about future multi-zillion dollar lawsuits. If the insurance people find out we let you go, they'll assume we let other people go home too." Cassie left the back of the ambulance, and a moment later they were in motion.
At the hospital, Jason answered too many questions and made sure his track insurance card got billed rather than his ISO insurance. He didn't give his home phone number, on the grounds that no one should be calling home anyhow. "I'm eighteen," he repeated a couple of times. "I don't need parental consent to be stared at."
Cassie showed up at about eleven o'clock, while the doctors were still amusing themselves by leaving Jason alone in an urgent-care room so they could take care of gunshot victims and drug overdoses. She glanced around at the non-staffed area. "So what's going on?"
"They're taking their sweet time about releasing me. Nothing is wrong. I just hope they do it soon enough that I can get back home before anyone realizes I'm missing."
"Flushing Hospital is hardly missing--at least, they only lose dead bodies here--and I can't see that--"
"Cassie," Jason said thoughtfully, "do you want me never to race again?"
She frowned. "The Chief wouldn't stop you just because you rolled your car. Anyway, you're eighteen and you have your own place, so you could move out full-time and tell him to go to hell."
"I've still got my day-job, and anyhow, I don't see a need to complicate things. I'll just leave well enough alone."
Eventually a doctor arrived and decided to keep Jason overnight for observation. Jason protested loudly, and repeatedly, but the doctor insisted, and eventually Cassie prevailed on Jason ("It's the insurance policy, stupid") and Jason decided he could still get away with it; he'd just sign out at the crack of dawn and say he spent the night at the trailer.
He got admitted to a private room, and Cassie saw him settled in. She went to the small table by the bedside and told Jason she needed to use the phone. He lay back in bed and felt too tired and stiff to keep his eyes open. He could recreate the entire accident in his head--the strike from the other car, the spinning, the smells, the gritty taste of the smoke--and his heart rate sped up. A nurse had entered the room, and she asked to record his blood pressure. Without comment, he let her take his arm.
Cassie said, "Hi! It's me, Cassie. Hey, I wanted to let you know Jason's all right."
Jason thought to himself, John, as the blood pressure cuff inflated around his bicep.
"Yeah, he's at Flushing Hospital. He had a little accident at the track tonight, and I made him go."
Jason turned his head. John had been there tonight. So had Cassie's father. So who was she-
"Wow, that's high," the nurse was saying, even as Jason shot upright in bed and shouted, "Cassie, you bitch!"
"Oh, and I think it's time for me to go. Here, I'll hand it over to Jason."
She knew better than to get near the bed; she just threw the phone at him and sprinted.
Jason's heart beat so fast his hands trembled. He lifted the receiver. "Hello?"
It was the Chief's voice. "Are you all right?"
"These jerks are just keeping me here. There's nothing wrong. I wasn't even going to tell you it happened."
"I'm glad Cassie had some common sense. What room are you in? Who was the admitting doctor?"
"210, I think. It was just some emergency room guy. Look, I'll be home tomorrow, and I'll tell you about it then."
"How reassuring. What else aren't you telling me?"
"Nothing, Chief. I won't even have whip-lash."
"I presume they're keeping you overnight because of your scintillating conversational skills."
Jason clenched his jaw.
The Chief said, "Hang in there. I'll talk to you later."
Jason hung up, then glared at the nurse who was still hanging around the room. "What's your problem?"
"I want an actual blood pressure reading," she said, eyebrows arched, "not one inflated by your girlfriend betraying you to your mom."
Jason didn't correct the nurse. He just let her get her numbers and leave him in peace.
Lying on his side in the green-dark of the hospital room, Jason couldn't sleep. Light seeped in from the hallway and the city streets, and he heard voices and footsteps passing with uneven frequency. The thin blanket kept him warm enough, but he wished he had more of them for the weight. The pillow felt prickly, and the room seemed to echo even without sound. This wasn't solitude as much as isolation. At least in the trailer, the loneliness was his own.
At around midnight, the door opened, and someone stepped inside. Jason looked up, then blinked and sat upright.
"Oh, good, you're awake." It was Keyop ghosting around the door, as if Jason were about to throw some medical equipment at the intruder. "The Chief said you were okay, but he wanted to get out here anyhow. So what's up?"
Jason took three or four random pushes to turn on the overhead light with the bedside remote. "Didn't he say?"
"All he did was come into the TV room and say, direct quote, 'Your idiot brother landed himself in the hospital. I'll be back before two.'" Keyop took a few steps into the room. "I figured it was more fun to just keep guessing on the way over, so I didn't ask."
Jason chuckled. "I flipped my car at the track. It's a bunch of paperwork nonsense. We're keeping the accountants happy by having me here overnight."
"That's it? Geez, I'd have gone to bed if I knew you were fine." Keyop sat at the foot of the bed and gave a big laugh. "What's the damage to the car?"
Jason blinked. "I forgot to ask."
"That's probably why you're kept overnight: major personality change. I bet you didn't ask who won the race, either."
He had, and now he couldn't remember listening to the answer. Jason shrugged. "Where's the Chief, anyhow?"
"Probably talking to some doctor somewhere. The nurses said it wasn't visiting hours, but you know me." Keyop struck a pose. "A bunch of stupid nurses aren't about to stop someone who could get all the way into Zoltar's private bathroom in the Spectran royal headquarters!"
"As if.Maybe they need to keep you overnight--"
"Hey! You know damn well--"
"--for delusions of grandeur."
A potential pillow-fight stopped germinating as Chief Anderson entered the room. He insisted on looking Jason over himself, all in silence. Finally he said, "What they're actually concerned about is smoke inhalation."
Keyop's eyes grew big as half-dollars. "The car was on fire?"
The Chief kept his voice low. "They didn't like how you were acting early on. They got concerned."
Jason chose not to reply that the Chief never liked how he acted, but concern didn't exactly sum up his response.
The Chief studied him. "You've got to be more careful, Jason. You can't take major risks like this on a regular basis. Eventually you're going to draw the short straw."
"You're right. Fetch me an oxygen tent and call me bubble-boy."
"One more comment like that, and I might." The Chief put his hand on Jason's head. "Just get some sleep, and I'll be back in the morning."
The next morning, the Chief returned with Tiny even before Jason was ready to leave. He was less tense than the night before, but he and Jason spoke very little.
"Are you okay to drive?" Tiny said.
"The doctors said I was fine." Jason looked at the Chief. "Besides, you need the car nearby, in case something happens."
"That's true." It had already been decided that Jason would spend the day at ISO rather than at the trailer. He credited that to the Chief not wanting him out of his sight, or maybe to enforce some rest on him. The Chief made the quick drive to the track, and once they were in the parking lot, it was easy to find Sweetheart; most of the other cars had departed overnight.
The Chief pulled in alongside Sweetheart, and Jason hopped out. "I'll see you back home."
"Maybe Tiny should ride with you."
Jason ignored that, opening the car door. And then he froze.
It wasn't a flashback. It was just a memory: the last time he was behind the wheel--
That's ridiculous. How many times have I driven and not flipped over?
But he just stood there, door open, one foot up on the car and the other flat down on the pavement and refusing to lift. His shoulders had tensed all the way down his back. His neck hurt. For a moment, it was hard to breathe.
But this is my livelihood--this is who I am-- Jason crossed his arms on the roof of the car and bowed his head on them. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
He thought he felt Tiny's hand on his shoulder, but when he heard a voice, it was actually the Chief. He raised his head and saw Tiny on the other side of the car, looking surprised. Turning, Jason met the Chief's eyes.
"Maybe you should ride with me instead."
Tiny said, "I'm not sure I can shift this car."
"Jason taught you to drive standard."
"Sweetheart is kind of a non-standard standard."
Jason clenched his teeth. It's now or never.
But then it wasn't now after all. The Chief guided Jason back to the Buick. "You just do your best, Tiny. Dock the car, don't park it. I don't think he's ready to drive, and I don't want him to discover that in the middle of the LIE."
Jason couldn't agree, but he didn't protest. Totally numb, he sat in the front seat of the Chief's car, listening only to the distorted whistling in his ears.
Early the next morning, Jason felt well-rested, no longer sore, and ready to get back to work. The team had an early-morning workout, but Chief Anderson interrupted in the middle and summoned them into his office.
The uniformed five arranged themselves before his desk. "I need you on Riga." The Chief hadn't looked up at them yet; he had a phone in his hand and was looking over a sheaf of maps. "There's a mecha attacking Nelson City, and the local forces are unable to stop it. We've got almost no data on the menace, but Nelson has several major weapons manufacturing plants. If Nelson is destroyed, it's going to hurt Riga's defense capabilities immensely."
The team headed to Riga without hesitation.
In the Phoenix, Mark studied the data and monitored the Rigan transmissions. The whole team got a quick look at the pictures as he downloaded them and printed them out. The mech didn't have an animal-shape that the team recognized; either it was a Spectran animal, or else they'd grabbed something from mythology. In general shape it looked like an upside-down octopus: a heavily armored center with a number of spindles that rayed out from the center and served as its weapons ports.
Finally he said, "This thing's quick on the draw, and it's got quite a number of guns. It's able to take down the Rigans because they're not well armored. It can track a number of incoming aircraft at a time, and for a single large aircraft, I would guess it will concentrate its firepower."
Jason was crunching some numbers of his own. "I'm not sure our hull would withstand that kind of pounding--"
"--which is why we can't afford to let them concentrate their weaponry like that. The second consideration is the armor on that craft. While the arms whip around pretty quickly, the craft itself travels slowly. But if you notice, it travels pretty close to the ground."
Tiny said, "With the weight of all that armor, it's probably hard to attain any altitude."
"Or maybe it can't fire at an object directly beneath itself, and it doesn't want to risk the exposure."
Princess shook her head. "It looks pretty well-armored on the bottom as well."
"I didn't think they would leave an unguarded blind spot like that." Mark nibbled on his pencil. "All it would mean is that if someone got in really close underneath, he could conceivably stay in a relative safe zone. So this is what I want to do." Everyone but Tiny gathered close. "If we split into the individual vehicles during the fiery Phoenix, we'll be able to keep the various gunners occupied on our different vehicles. That should prevent them from ganging up on us. We'll need one of our vehicles to get in a good run at the main part of the ship, where the armor is heaviest. There's a good chance that the fiery phoenix will be able to warp or even puncture that armor."
Jason hummed. "There's a chance. There's also a chance that the smaller firebirds won't be able to generate that kind of heat. Fiery phoenix is a fuel suck."
"It is. That's where the sheltered spot comes in. Whichever vehicle goes after the hull can hide beneath the mech if necessary, until we can arrange a pickup."
Jason said, "Your vehicle is out for kamikaze duty. Me or Princess?"
Keyop said, "What about me?"
"We'll need you in the air. Princess and I are ground-bound."
Mark nodded. "Jason, you're more armored than Princess is, and your gun doesn't elevate as much as hers. I want you to be one of the ones drawing fire. Princess, can you handle your role?"
She nodded. Mark said, "Then we have our basic plan. Tiny, what's our ETA?"
"Eight minutes to Riga's outer system; eighteen minutes to target."
They spent the time smoothing out the plan, working out backup plans, figuring out their own weak points. A couple of times Jason caught Tiny eyeing him, and he glared back. He was fine. The Chief had checked him over this morning and deemed him physically perfect. What'd they expect him to do, retire just because he'd rolled a car?
When they began their final descent into Nelson City, Mark dispersed the team to their vehicles. Jason descended through the ship before working his way forward again, then slid feet first through the shaft leading to the G-2.
He raised the seat-back and then looked for his screens. It almost passed him by that he was behind the wheel.
The momentary panic gripped him. Not as badly as it had yesterday. His lungs weren't tight, and he didn't feel the tension all the way down his back. With a deep breath, he forced his shoulders to relax.
On the monitor, he could see the silly-looking mech demolishing a Rigan aircraft. The cycling numbers at the bottom of the screen gave their position, and he estimated they would close in less than a minute.
"Prepare for fiery phoenix," Mark called over the communicator.
They all checked in, then waited. Thirty seconds. Fifteen seconds.
The ship vibrated in that peculiar manner it had right before it burst into flames. Jason gripped the steering wheel in one hand and bowed his head, then abruptly raised it again and looked around.
The car was on fire. It was a normal thing for fiery phoenix--it was supposed to be on fire, for pete's sake, that's what fiery phoenix was. What did he expect? But for a moment, he could smell a thick oily smoke, and that never happened during fiery phoenix. At least, it wasn't supposed to.
Jason swallowed hard.
The ship blew apart, and Jason could glance into his rear-view mirror and find four birds aflame in the air behind him. Princess went in low and remained in fiery phoenix; Jason felt the flames beginning to lose their grip on his car, and he angled toward the mech to keep as many of the tentacles firing on him as possible. Come on, look at me. I'm the one you want. I'm the dangerous one-
For some reason, the receding flames spooked him worse than the entire car on fire. When they just licked around the edges of his peripheral vision, they seemed more real.
The mech was hovering over fairly gentle terrain, with low hills and few trees. Dense thickets occupied the lower elevations. The enemy craft had two heads concentrating their fire on the G 2. Jason veered suddenly toward a third head hoping the third gunner would change targets abruptly and clang into the head beside it. There was only a near-miss between the two gunners. The G-2 slammed into the ground with a jolt that left Jason's chest hurting, and he immediately spun the steering wheel and started circling the perimeter.
The shrubbery tended to snap off at the base as the G-2 plowed through it, and Jason kept the accelerator flat to the floor whenever he had an open space in front of him, which still wasn't often enough to be predictable. Those heads targeted quickly. He had to make sure he wasn't where they remembered him being for too long at a time.
Of all five vehicles, only Princess remained in fiery phoenix now, and Jason could see even that slipping away. She'd careened into the mech's armored hull and done significant damage without managing to puncture it. The metal sagged in sickened slopes, panels warped down and sideways onto other panels. She attempted one more pass before the flames slipped away from her motorcycle and she touched ground.
Jason wheeled about to distract the head which had begun to target on the motorcycle. It responded by whipping in his direction. Firing the gatling gun at it, Jason braced for the impact when the return fire hit him. He managed to keep his car steady. Neither of them had done more than damage the other's paint job.
There might theoretically be a weak spot at the fusion of the neck-joints, or where the necks joined the body. Theoretically. They were all too high for Jason's gun to reach. Maybe Mark or Keyop could test the theory. He had no time to radio them in between dodging and firing. They'd probably already thought of it.
Mark's guess about the mech's firing range proved correct: staying beneath the mech, Princess had a little protection from the guns, and she was able to fire upward from her vehicle.
So we've got a stalemate here for now. But I want to win, not just tie.
Jason spun the wheel and headed back toward the mech to keep a couple of the heads trained on him. Three of them swung to face him simultaneously. The car could probably take one hit like that.
He realized belatedly that the ground wasn't armored. One of them took aim at a hill in front of the G-2. The two remaining heads blasted at his windshield even as he spun the wheel to avoid them.
With a roar, the ground beneath the car flew into the air, sending the G-2 pirouetting. By reflex Jason grabbed the wheel, but with no solid earth beneath the tires he had no control.
A jolting whack let him know he was on the ground. Jason took a shallow breath and looked around.
"G-2, you okay?"
It occurred to him as he replied that he was hanging upside-down in his seat for the second time in two days.
"I'm flipped like a turtle, aren't I?"
"Hang tight, G-2. I'll come help you."
"G-4, don't. We need you drawing fire. We can't risk them ganging up on him now that he can't move."
It was an interesting predicament, Jason reflected, adjusting his monitors so he got the output from the Phoenix's screens rather than a hyper-analyzed view of a thorn bush. That cast the only bluish-white glow on the interior, now that the sunlight was blocked by the thick underbrush. While the bottom of the car had armor, he wouldn't care to guess how much direct fire it could take before crumbling.
The car shuddered with a direct hit.
"G-2, you might want to get out of there."
A hot impatience seized Jason's throat. "What a brilliant idea, G-1. Tell me how."
No response. He couldn't pop the roof of the car to exit. Not with the entire weight of the car resting on it. It had occurred to him to try blow-torchng his way out with the gun, but dying in a spectacular auto-interior conflagration hadn't struck him as the right way to go about things; nor had passing out with carbon-monoxide poisoning, another likely occurrence even if he kept his cape wrapped around the gun to absorb the sparks. Only the drill remained a possibility, and Jason knew it would take too long.
Over the intercom, Keyop screamed, "Woo-hoo!"
Jason looked at the monitor and discovered that Mark had managed to chop off one of the heads.
He gunned the engine again and felt the wheels spin uselessly, even as the mech scored another direct hit on the undercarriage.
The thought popped into his head: You know, stalemate wasn't really all that bad in retrospect...
And abruptly Jason found himself laughing out loud. He pulled his gun out of his belt and affixed the drill attachment. He might as well do something. As one slow spin confirmed the head was on okay; he looked for a weak spot that might get him at least partway out. No exit point presented itself. I guess I could scrape my last message on the interior of the window with the drill--
He thought of an appropriate one, "Aaaagh--" even as another blow rocked the car.
Only this time, clear light began to crack through the windows. Jason whipped around to spot the direction of the fire, but it came from every direction. The car was being lifted. The briars crackled as the weight of the car rose off their branches, and Jason checked on the monitors to see whether it was the Spectrans doing this, or--
Mark's voice: "G-5, can the car really dock upside-down?"
"Well--" Tiny's voice sounded a little bemused. "We never tried it before, but I figured the worst I could do was drop him."
"Thanks for gambling with a major concussion, G-5." Jason tried to adjust himself in the seat to lessen the chance he'd slip out of his belt and onto the roof. He had an extremely unobstructed view of the ground now that the bottom of the car was effectively see-through. The mech had already lost two more of its heads.
Just then, the retractor arms gave a screeching grind.
"Since you were wondering, G-1, the answer is no, the car can't dock upside-down."
Lovely. What this meant, of course, was he couldn't get free through the rear hatch.
Jason started laughing. "Well how much fun is this? G-5, swing us around to face that mech again."
A fourth head had already gotten sliced to the ground by Mark's gunfire. They seemed to lop off easier now that Mark had found the weak spot. "Look, I'm stuck here. You might as well make some use of me."
It wasn't the most aerodynamic ship in the world, this misshapen two-fifths-assembled Phoenix, but Jason opened the port for his gatling gun. As the front end of the car parted, the docking arms suddered, and the car slipped a little. Jason held his breath until the car seemed stable again, then trained his targeting computer on the mech beneath.
"This isn't going to work very well," Tiny warned. "We really kind of need to dock the others to shoot out the main body--"
"So get them." Enough of the heads were gone now that the mech wouldn't be able to concentrate its firepower. Even so, Jason could visualize hundreds of Spectrans watching this scene simulcast back on Spectra, all laughing so hard they'd need new pants. There would be clips available for download on world's-klutziest-space-battles.com within the next hour. He tucked his cape beneath his leg to keep it from dangling down around his head."You're bound to get the nose into range at some point or another."
Jason laid down protective fire while Tiny retrieved Princess, Keyop and Mark. Luckily or unluckly, Jason couldn't decide which, the Phoenix couldn't retract the nose plates around the G 2, so he got a pretty decent view of the mech as they hovered eye-to-eye.
"G-2," Mark said over the intercom, "we can't patch the targeting computer through to your vehicle, so I'm going to fire the missiles myself."
"Quit making speeches and do it."
He couldn't do more at this point than watch the two ships lobbing their weaponry at one another, with the Phoenix targeting all its fire on the spot Princess had slagged. It's weird. I figured I'd be freaked out to have this happen again. But it's not that bad, now that I'm here. Sure, he could have been killed. But he hadn't been. He was fine. The car too, in all likelihood. They'd survived.
The Phoenix had scored three direct hits on the spot, and the mech had lurched to the ground. The nearby thicket had gone on fire with a crackling blue flame as it leaned over on its side and then rolled to a crazy angle. Up above, Mark loosed a fourth missile.
Of course, and he grinned, whether I'm ready to drive on the LIE is an entirely different matter from whether I can drive in combat..."
The missile landed home, and the Spectran mech detonated.
It took an unbelievably long time to get the G-2 righted, but while everyone was still wrangling about how exactly to go about it, Jason took about ten minutes and managed to flatten out the back of his seat, then forced open the rear shaft. He worked his way out around the top of the car. From there he scrambled up along the nose of the ship to the bubble. The Chief disliked for them to run about on the outside of the Phoenix like that. But then again, the Chief would dislike it worse for Jason to get crushed to death or to sustain a concussion. Eventually the Phoenix landed, the car was set down, and Keyop managed to get it sitting on its tires using the helicobuggy.
Keyop radioed back to Jason,"You have a flair for this, apparently. I have it on good authority that my friends' parents never roll their cars."
"Well, I guess conditions aren't quiet as extreme when you're driving a Honda Civic to Chuck E Cheese, are they?" Jason went quickly to inspect the car, noticing with dismay the scratches, the dents in the roof, and one spot where the frame might be bent.
"A car can be fixed." It had better get fixed, for all the money they paid the ISO mechanics. He'd lose Sweetheart for a few days until the G-2 was fully repaired, but he could live with that. He could drive another car. He could drive at all. Now that he thought about it, he was able to breathe easier, knowing for sure there had been one thing in the world he was afraid to do, and he'd gone ahead and done it anyhow.
Mark came up alongside. "I didn't ask before," he said, "when the others were around, but were you okay when that happened? I mean, I know you're not hurt. But still--"
"I'm fine." Jason shrugged. "I was worried for a minute, but now I'm fine."