ON THE ROAD
Tom:I land on the back of the car and my feet go out from underneath me on the slick SolarZorb surface. I begin to slide off but my foot catches on the top spoiler directly behind me. Any comfort offered by the solid footing is countered by the extreme heat venting from beneath it.
A voice crackles in my headset. “Don’t waste time. Get busy.”
Johnny’s order helps me get it together. I take the powered screwdriver from my tool belt and remember my practice sessions on the captured Saber. I hug the car’s dome and push myself to the top of it where the glass gives way to a metal cap that stores components such as the sterilization systems and a small covered communications port. The screws come out easily and the port door slides away.
Johnny said the antenna ports had never been put into use because Nate Johnson did not see any need for redundant internal safety systems. Instead, SaberCorp would protect the travelers by continually improving the AI. Johnson used similar arguments to sidestep other ethical questions presented by the creation of autonomous cars such as:
A driverless car with two passengers is traveling on a street with busy pedestrian traffic when it is bumped by another car. It temporarily loses control. It can regain control and save its passengers only by driving into, and surely killing, a large group of pedestrians. Or, it can save the pedestrians by driving into a solid brick wall at high speed. A decision that would kill its occupants. Which choice does the car make? And how would it weigh the complexities of such a scenario?
These were the kind of questions that made Johnson uncomfortable and were responsible for his declaration that Sabers wouldn’t have accidents. Therefore, he assured, they did not need any safety measures to be included — with the exception of seat belts, which was an argument lost to focus groups and lobbyists. He did, however, design the car seats in such a way that the majority of passengers didn’t realize they were there. It was his way of saying F.U. to those who didn’t agree with him.
I reach into the pouch and pull out an eight-inch antenna. I need to push it into a receptacle that shares its hexagonal shape, but it’s not as easy as our practice sessions in the garage. The wind and motion cause me to take a number of tries until I’m finally able to insert it. I give it a twist to lock it and activate the system.
“The first is done!”
Johnny has a small display screen showing a schematic of the cars lined up beside us. As soon as each of the cars’ emergency communications systems goes online, his monitor will show it as active.
“Looks good from here,” Johnny says. “Get ready to make the next jump.”
I slide down the dome to rest on my hands and knees, thankful to remove my burning feet and melting shoes from the top spoiler. I coil and lock on my destination.
“Ready? “Warren, pan your gun now! Tom, jump!”
When I push off, my tacky soles stick to the car and rob me momentum. I manage to cross the gap but fall onto the next car, sliding face down and flailing for a handhold. And then I see an antenna slip past me. The pouch has burst open. Another antenna glides across the SolarZorb.
“Antennas are spilling out!”
“Stay calm. We have a few extras. Secure the pouch. Make sure you have stable footing.”
I continue to struggle for stability. I need to get my feet against the top spoiler, but I also know it’s going to hurt like hell. I swing around and plant my shoes on the spoiler. At the same time I see a wayward antenna and catch it.
“It’s okay. I’m good,” I say to reassure myself as much as anyone.
Before I know it, I’m removing the access cover, carefully re-opening the pouch and locking the next antenna in place.
“Ready to move on.”
Mr. Chu check his display screen and sees the second system is operating. He calls the move. Tom jumps. I re-aim the disrupter. What I fail to notice is the red light flashing on the side of it.
I land squarely on the next car and find that the grooves melted into my soles help hold me in place. They wrap around the top spoiler and provide added stability – despite the fact that if feels like my feet are filling with blisters.
With two successful installations under my belt, I now move with greater confidence. In a fraction of the time it took previously, the panel is popped, the pouch is opened and the antenna is installed.
“Okay, I’m moving on.”
“Roger that,” Johnny replies as the passenger cabin is suddenly filled with the sound of an alarm.
I struggle to maintain my aim and not look for its source. “What the hell is that? What’s wrong?”
The flashing red light. The one I hadn’t noticed. It’s gone dark.
The car behind me has turned black and is charging forward. Before I can react, it springs up and mounts my Saber, climbing toward me. Its progress is only stopped when its large front air scoop catches on my car’s spoilers.
Mr. Chu is methodically seeking the source of the problem. The alarm has died with the gun, making the source harder to find.
While avoiding the attack, I’ve fallen face first onto the back of the car, and from that close vantage my world is turning black. Or rather, the car is.
I feeling something at my feet. A look back confirms my worst fears.
The spoilers are dropping: the two Sabers are working together.
Mr. Chu grabs the gun from me, and sees the battery indicator light is off. He curses under his breath as he begins to sort through his bags of equipment.
I’m having trouble pulling myself up the dome. Without the spoilers to brace me, I keep slipping back.
The attacking Saber repositions itself, before it charges forward and manages to bump against my feet. I try to move out of the way but slide again. My feet fall into its air scoop.
I try to pull away. One foot comes out, the other doesn’t. It’s caught on something inside. The car seems to sense my situation and begins to back up, pulling me toward the road.
Mr. Chu finds a battery and tosses it to me. His small victory is squashed when he sees Tom’s situation. “Tom, reach forward, find your foot inside the car!”
Tom reacts without a second thought. He reaches into the scoop but is unable to free his foot.
“My shoe’s caught.”
“Cut it loose. There’s a knife on the tool belt I gave you. Be quick. You’ve got seconds before you’re pulled onto the pavement at 60 miles an hour!”
Tom reacts even before Mr. Chu stops talking. He takes the knife and extends the blade. He starts cutting as he’s pulled closer to the edge of the car. Rushing pavement is in view. Just another foot — no pun intended. He continues to cut.
Mr. Chu rests a hand on my shoulder. “Make your aim count!”
I shoulder the disrupter and eye the target.
Tom pulls his shoeless foot from the car.
I activate the gun. The other car returns to its original color — red — and drops into formation with the surrounding cars. Tom’s car is blue again.
“Okay, Tom, get up higher. The spoilers will be raising again, and you don’t want to be on top of them.” Tom moves himself up. “Now the next part. You need to take your sock off.”
Tom looks at his freed foot and understands. He will have no traction with a sock on. But without, he will have no protection from the heat.
Mr. Chu preps us both for the jump, followed by Tom launching himself as I pan my aim to the next car.
I touch down and quickly jam my shoe against the top spoiler, holding my bare foot as far away as I can and still maintain balance. Even with that, my naked foot feels like it’s been dropped into a barbecue pit.
I attempt to get into position, but I can’t steady myself with only one foothold against the motion of the car and force of travel. Each time I take the screwdriver out, I nearly drop it.
“Hold on, I can’t do it like this.”
“What is it?”
“My foot. Too hot. No balance.”
Looking down at my shoe, I get an idea. I lean against the dome as I quickly take the lace from it and tie one end to my belt and the other to the screwdriver — won’t be losing that anytime soon.
Then I take the three remaining antennas from the pouch and stuff them into my shirt’s buttoned pocket. I unfasten the empty pouch and bend down to pull it over my bare foot. It’s uncomfortably small, but it gives me some protection as I stand with both feet on the spoiler.
“Okay, let’s get this done!” I slither up the dome and pop open the port to quickly install the antenna.
“One more to go!”
“Take it easy, Tom. Don’t get over confident.”
A laugh bursts out. “Believe me, I am the furthest thing from that.”
I lift my foot from the spoiler, take off the pouch and reattach it to my belt. The bare foot adds grip as I prepare to jump.
“Johnny, I’m ready.”
Mr. Chu taps me on the shoulder as Tom goes airborne.
He overshoots, lands poorly and slides toward the other side of the car. There’s only one way to stop it. Tom’s hand shoots out and clutches the red hot top spoiler. He screams his way through the pain as he pulls himself back onto the car.
“Is he okay?” I ask.
“I can’t tell,” he activates his headset. “Tom! What’s going on! Are you alright, kid?”
I maneuver myself further onto the car while still smelling my freshly baked flesh, and use my good hand to get steady. I hear Johnny calling, but I don’t answer. There is only one thing on my mind.
Pulling the pouch over my foot, I re-establish myself and belly-up the dome. I protect my burnt hand as much as possible and take hold of the driver with the good one. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the sole of my shoe has actually caught on fire. It doesn’t matter. Only one thing matters right now.
Screws are removed. The panel opens. I reach into my pocket to search for an antenna and immediately realize something is wrong. There should be two left, but I feel four pieces. They snapped when I fell!
For a moment, the searing pain of my hand and the burning discomfort of my feet are replaced by a great nothing. The motion of the car recedes, as does the wind. It is all replaced by one question: What do I do now?
The first thing I do is decide to keep Johnny in the dark. It’s my mistake, I’ll fix it.
“Tom, are you okay?”
“Yeah. Give me a minute.”
It comes to me in a flash. Using the needle-nosed pliers on my belt, and both hands despite the pain, I twist two sections of antenna together. The grafted sections are slightly longer than the others, but I figure that can’t be a bad thing as I insert it into its receptacle and carefully twist it into place with the pliers — all the while John Lydon’s singing fills my head: I could be wrong. I could be right. I could be wrong. I could be right.
Not surprisingly, Johnny Rotten is no great comfort.
Mr. Chu checks his monitor. All the cars are hot.
He quickly enters a series of commands into a portable computer hacked into the car’s wiring.
“This is where we find how much of the original brains are left in these little nightmares,” Mr. Chu says as he continues to enter code.
I’m leaning against the dome, trying to stay away from the heat of the spoilers when I first sense it. My car is slowing. I look forward and back. Thousands of Sabers are following the lead of the six cars we control.
“Get ready everyone,” Johnny says over the headset. “We’re right on the edge!”
Mr. Chu enters code so furiously he’s broken into a sweat. With one last tap on the Enter key, he relaxes.
“That’s it. It’s got to be it.”
I continue to watch the cars behind me as they come to a stop. I begin to laugh a scary, kind of maniacal laugh. We actually did it!
“Now! Everyone get moving!”
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