| The Network Revenant
Since flitters covered more ground than automobiles did, it was natural that more ground would be required to race them. The Canobie Rally Fields, situated just north of the New Hampshire/NewMass border, had a vast sweep of green and brown hills at its command. The green, even in the chillier season, was due to the prevalence of conifers in New Hampshire's forests. The brown was due both to the color of their needles on the forest's bare floor, kept so open by their acidic decay, as well as to the many areas of overturned earth that were scattered about the facility.
I spun the Toyota over the ridgeline from the 93 cut, accepting control from the automatics at the triple blink of red on the interior of the canopy and the familiar warbled tone of TransCon informing me that I had left controlled lanes.
The turbines were loud with their fan blades running coarse for greater flow; control surfaces were dialed out to a higher extension at low speeds for increased responsiveness at the cost of greater fragility and a rougher ride. I rode the Toyota down to my habitual prep area with a careful hand, settling down onto extended gear and letting the fans drop to full fine but leaving them spinning for gyrostabilization as the soft turf of the lawn settled underneath the flitter's pads. There were a good twenty or twenty-five other flitters in the immediate vicinity, several with turbine housings off or systems panels lying on their hulls, tools moving or diagnostics being taken. Racing hasn't changed much. As I cracked the door and climbed out, a shriek told of a turbine limiter that was either malfunctioning or had been overridden dangerously far; I winced along with several others nearby but the sound settled into a deeper and more satisfied moaning grumble as the unseen flitter found its rhythm.
"Hey, Top, still here? Still dreaming?"
I waved to the heckler, grinning back with teeth. "You owe me four beers from last month, Sol. Eat me."
"Four? Four! More like two, you lost the last heat..."
"I may not have won, but I beat you, man." We traded only mildly obscene salutes in passing, he on his way back to his car and me on my way to check-in.
Check-in was quick, a formality to permit verification of credentials established by electronic transaction on the one hand and long-time membership on the other. The Toyota's sponder number was checked against that in the SCCA database, found to be still the same, and I was given the race's key to allow the carcaster to perform handshakes with the waypoints for the cross-country race I was registered for. After no more than ten minutes of familiar insults and bets laid, accepted or waved off, I strolled back out into the sunshine of afternoon and the ordered hurry of the prep areas where the Toyota was waiting for me to run my half-hour of pre-race checks.
Since I was in Production/Aero, a class which allowed minimal modifications to flight hardware for anything other than safety, I had many fewer toolpushes to make than some of the other, more enthusiastic members of the SCCA who shared the expanse of grass around me. I crawled under the Toyota to attach a diagnostic terminal to the lower fan controls, eschewing radio links for the more certain (and more secretive) fiberoptic link. I was lying on my back on the grass, waiting for the custom diagnostics in the portaterm to finish chuckling over the code and monitoring logs in the flitter, when the thoughts of the 'verse and the Founders, of Jayanta and the whole ugly situation that he'd laid out in front of me came flooding back into my head. I'd managed to hold it all at bay with the familiar absorption of race day prep, but the pause underneath the car, a routine period of pre-race blankness, had left a window. My subconscious had promptly exploited it in the time-honored tradition of protestors everywhere when presented with a clear pane of glass, throwing a half-brick straight through it with a vicious grin.
Epaulette's words of cold caution had not contained any sentiments I had not voiced myself to Jayanta, but hearing them come from another - indeed, from someone to whom I'd trusted my safety before on countless forays into netdiving and waveriding - made them somehow sharper. I could feel their edges pressing into me with the unyielding touch of perfect right angles, not cutting but certainly not forgiving of mere flesh or bone if ignored during incautious action.
All I had wanted was to make a difference.
But was that true? I couldn't say, at the moment. Perhaps the difference I'd wanted was yet unmade, and this was my chance; perhaps this was no more than hubris, and I was being manipulated by the Founders (or, worse, by Jayanta alone) through that sin. If this was true, though, then to what gain, I admitted to myself there underneath the Toyota in the smells of grass, soil, the sharp tang of plastics and catstacks and ozone, I didn't know.
There was one way to be sure, I realized. Something I should have done even before talking to Epaulette, or to Clotho or Farnham or even agreeing to help. I was an idiot for not thinking of it sooner, and in self-flagellation I carefully moved my arm up to my head in the cramped space under the Toyota's lower nacelles and sharply slapped my forehead, resolving to look carefully at the code Jayanta had given me as soon as I had the chance. I would probably need Clotho's help; she was better at straight code than I was.
The diagnostic terminal bleeped done, showing a green board on its small built-in display. I detached the lightcable from the fuselage port and squirmed out from under the flitter, locking the terminal back inside the small cargo locker on the outboard rear. Seeing that the start area was open for the cross-country I was registered for, I clicked the 'sponder at the Toyota and pointed at the clearing near the start line. It winked its running lights cheerfully and spun up the fans, while I wandered back to the main lodge area for a quick lemonade and - more important - a bathroom. Behind me, as I strolled off, the Toyota's fans came up to a rushing howl, and with the strident warning beeps of a flitter on autohover taxi it set off for the clearing.
"Topher? Top! Wait a minute!"
I turned from the counter, holding my lemonade and a pretzel - race carbs. "Hi, Sully." Sullivan Connelly was a Bostonian from way back. We'd been crossing paths at SCCA meets for years; we both lived in Southie, but he *was* Southie, whereas I was just a Yuppie who lived there. His forebears had been intimately involved in all manner of closely-held and dubious commerce in that most closely-held neighborhood of Boston, and although he himself owned a large share of several quite legitimate businesses, including a transatlantic liftship line and an industrial firm servicing transcons at Logan, he wore the mantle of Not-A-Gentleman with pride.
"Top, you still driving that piece of shit Jap box?"
"Aw, come on, Sully, you know I can't afford luxury like you. Besides, I'm in Production/A, it's all about the 'ware, and you know the JDM stuff is the best there is."
He laughed, waving a soda expansively. Sully was about six feet, but wiry rather than stocky. "Un-American, my man. We invented the car and the damn flitter, didn't we?"
I grinned back at him, sipping lemonade. "What're you driving?"
"I'll have you know I'm entering a Carver, thank you very much." Carvers were well thought of as rallying flitters, their airframes having originally been designed for some of the first military flitter contracts; they could take some fearsome powerplant and control upgrades without requiring much in the way of strengthening. Of course, they needed it, being heavy as hell, but in upgraded rally flight the strength was what told.
"Oooh, nice." I pursed my lips. "A Carver. So what'd you drive here? You don't look nearly shaken enough."
"Oh, I had the Carver auto up. I drove my daily up."
"What's your daily, mister I-buy-American?"
"Oh, shut up, Top."
I let my grin go shark-like. "Funny, I saw an upgraded Carver out in the paddock, and there was a really, really, really nice Lotus Exeter next to it. That wouldn't be yours, now, would it?"
I laughed, and after a second, so did Sully. "Thought so. That's a very nice ride, sir."
"It is. Listen, if you're in town next weekend, drop me a line and we'll go wind it out. You'll like it, I had the pedal box modded so you can actually put your feet on the damn things."
"That is severely tempting. Thanks, Sully, I may do that." He raised his soda and moved out towards the cars. I shook my head, thinking of what it likely cost him to keep his stable of flitters; a Lotus was a toy I dreamed of in my most sinfully jealous nights. Although the British had sniffed long and hard at the newfangled notions of fan-driven vehicles, those few of them that were still building vehicles after Downtime had approached the matter with their usual maddening lack of anything resembling scientific engineering - which had produced their usual few absolutely beautiful results. Nobody outside the British Isles could quite figure out how British flitters flew, since flight was much less forgiving than simple motoring - but fly they did, and when so induced, damn did they fly well. Military pilots smirked to themselves and muttered things like Harrier and Vulcan and Spitfire and no damned sense of history and bought those few Lotuses and Astons and Jaguars which made it across the pond.
By the time I'd finished my pretzel and my lemonade and then visited the head, the first couple of races had assembled on the starting grids. They were long-haul, several hundred klicks of course winding through the nearby hills and valleys, with fifteen or twenty flitters in each race. The first was Group B, heavy mods, and I wandered over to the starting grid to watch the field of sleek machinery growl throatily at the official perched up on his starting stand with the archaic flags bunched in his hand. Sully's Carver was in midfield - I waved, in case he saw me - along with a couple of its fellow marque, several Fords, two or three Jeeps and a raft of others so heavily modified it was difficult even to tell their original airframe. I could have sworn there was a heavily modded Bell Boeing 609 at the end of the line; the giant outboard nacelles and closed cabin caused me to flip mentally through the recognition factors, but just then the flags went, both physical and electronic, and with a deafening roar they were off. The field was grass and well-sodded, so there was little dust, but even so blades of grass and some divots flew at the violent turbine and fanwash, then all the machines were aloft and snarling for the first turn, some kilometer and a half downrange, which would take them to the raceloop. The loop itself was almost entirely out of sight to the east.
I watched until they were all over the first turn, behind the hill - Group B involved a high minimum payload weight and low maximum altitude restriction, making it a terrain-following contest involving lifting power and airframe strength - and then moved back towards the northern starting area where I'd told the Toyota to await the start of its race. There were some ten flitters in the clearing now, several with their drivers and others clustered around them. The Toyota was sitting in its parking spot, fans stilled but the warning blinkers that indicated the autopilot was active and paired with the sponder still blinking quietly above the canopy, visible from the couple of hundred meters still before me. I swept the clearing, looking for anyone or any other flitters I knew, but didn't see anyone; not unusual, in a gathering this large, but there were a pair of gents waiting near the back of the Toyota.
I slowed my walk, angled towards the lodge unobtrusively. They weren't wearing racing gear or even simple t-shirts. One of them, the only one I could see from the bad angle past the Toyota's driver's door, appeared to have on a suit jacket. I hate suit jackets. There's never ever a good reason for anyone wearing one to be trying to talk to me. Funerals, people at weddings, taxmen, cops...
...even Jayanta was wearing a sportscoat, said my subconscious in a mocking whisper. Not a suit jacket.
I turned my head, moving more deliberately for the lodge. Once inside, I went straight back into the john, found a stall and locked myself in. I dug my portable out of my cargo pocket and juiced it, then told it to talk to the Toyota and ask it how it was doing. There was a slight delay as the link paired up and encrypted, then a small image from the Toyota's cabin cam came up. The status window was edged with green; no problems that it could detect. I fished the earbud in. "Car?"
"Are you okay?"
Damn, I hadn't put duress codes into the carcomp. "Intruder scan, please."
There are two persons standing two meters from the left rear fender. They have not approached closer than that. The next nearest person is seven meters-
"Skip it. How long have those two been there?"
Seventeen minutes, fifteen seconds.
"Okay. Car, listen up."
There was a brief pause while the Toyota dusted off some additional security protocols. When its voice came again, it was slightly scratchier, indicator of nastier encryption and more paranoid link security. Ready.
"Masada. I say again, Masada."
Understood. There was a tiny click as the link died. I shut off the portable, stood up, flushed the toilet and left the bathroom. Peering out the windows of the lodge, I could just see the clearing with the Toyota in it, and the autopilot warning blinker on it had stopped winking. The two men behind it couldn't see that from their vantage point. There was no other indication that anything had changed, but I knew better; I and my obsessive technoparanoia had armored the Toyota against just this kind of situation and in my imagination I saw the stupid but faithful carcomp running bars across its doors, boiling oil in cauldrons, counting arrows and checking their fletching, laying in supplies for the siege to come.
I grinned, but it faded. My car was safe. Now I had until the race was called to starting positions and they realized I wasn't showing up to get my own ass the hell out of here, somehow. I knew what I was going to do; the solution had been obvious to me as soon as I knew I was going to run. Born of equal parts desperation, longing and wild glee, I only hoped I'd survive it. Checking to be sure that my path wouldn't be seen from the Toyota's parking spot, I moved towards the paddock area once more. Pulling my pocket Ops toolkit, I looked lovingly at the lines of Sully's Lotus lying in repose next to the empty place where his Carver had been, its sharp lines offset perfectly by the subtle bulges of its fan and turbine nacelles, spreading down and flowing aft, nose slitted against the slipstream, waiting to be free.
<--Back | The Network Revenant | Forward-->