Mishap on the Magway
Knuckles white against the dashboard, Herb Fohrs clenched his teeth and stared straight ahead. He did his best to ignore the vehicle looming just outside the windshield in front of him, and the one to the side, inches from his arm on the armrest, all of them racing insanely down the Magway. The shining coffins of metal and plastic sped in unison at more than a hundred miles an hour, traffic packed bumper to bumper across four lanes in each direction. A cottony noise-cancelling muffled the swish of the wind, threshing of tires on pavement, and the faint whirr of cooling fans. Oblivious behind the steering wheel, but not touching it, his great-grandson Micah reclined with half-closed eyes, head bobbing slightly to the tune inside his head.
Micah had met him curbside outside baggage claim, stowed his bag and ushered him into the passenger seat of the sleek little car. Engaged in small talk, remarking how the kid had grown, he hadn’t really paid attention when the lanky teenager accelerated into a stream of traffic and steered them to the inside lane of the Magway.
“Xu-Li, full auto,” Micah said to the windshield. “We’re going home.”
“Full auto control is engaged,” announced a lilting female voice. “Audio warning system is off. We should arrive home in - forty-two minutes.”
That was when it struck him that Micah wasn’t actually driving the car any more. He felt himself pushed back into the padding as they accelerated.
Micah rotated with the driver’s seat to face Herb. “So, how was the flight, Great-Grandpa?”
“Fine, I guess – a little cramped – they really pack you in there, but still… no complaints. And just ‘Grandpa’ is good enough.” He’d been prepared for discomfort, having been banged around on the bus from his small-town home, and then folded into his seat for a five-hour flight from Salt Lake City. But how could you complain about traveling across the country in such a short time? When he’d last made the trip, thirty-five years before, he and Margie had taken a week to go west in his old pickup truck, poking along back roads, soaking in the scenery, enjoying the drive. This – this craziness – hadn’t been invented yet! He peered out the windows at the gray blur of median strips and sound barriers.
“You look a little nervous,” Micah chuckled. “It’s okay, Grandpa. Xu-Li keeps us on automatic until we get to our exit and I tell her I’m ready to drive.”
“What if you’re not?”
“Oh, Xu-Li won’t let us crash. She’s got all the standard safety features, lidar for lane maintenance and collision avoidance – plus on the Magway she’s all up in the network with the other cars and Traffic Control. If something goes wrong we just slow down automatically and get steered onto the shoulder.”
Herb squirmed in his seat, trying to gauge the narrow strip of pavement between them and the central concrete divider. “Xu-Li?” he asked.
The musical voice rose from the dashboard. “How may I assist you?”
“Nothing, Xu-Li,” Micah said quickly. “No orders.” He shook his head, grinning. “I’m surprised she responded to your voice. Dad named her Xu-Li. The Yemao’s a Chinese car, after all. Dad says it has the most powerful motor available, and this Car Nav is the most advanced AI.”
“We should arrive home in thirty-five minutes.”
“It’s usually not crowded this time of day, Grandpa. There’s some big international bank convention or something going on in town this week, right up here at the Convention Center. Lots of VIP’s staying in the hotels around the airport here, too, so … – But it’s not rush hour yet, so we’re still making good time.”
Herb shuddered at the thought of rush hour, if it was worse than this. They surged along, thousands of them like railroad cars in tandem trains, a dense mobile gridlock on autopilot. Auto navigation and Traffic Control were in command of the vehicles and their helpless passengers.
Herb had been driving for most of his ninety–five years, a good many of them with his late wife Marge talking into his ear. But he’d never had a car that talked to him.
These new cars – it was all computers and high-tech equipment a man couldn’t work on in the garage. Back in his little retirement community, some folks still fixed their own cars and enjoyed driving themselves; they prized their independence and self-sufficiency. Sure, more driverless cars and trucks cruised the highways all the time, but there wasn’t a Magway anywhere near him, until you got to the interstate and up near Salt Lake City.
Micah was watching him fidget out of the corner of his eye. “Really, Grandpa, it’ll be okay. Hey, you were an engineer, right? So you know how cars work. You shouldn’t be worried.”
He stared at the gawky teenager. “I was a stationary engineer. I drove buildings!”
The kid gave him a blank look. “What?”
Herb laughed and shook his head. “Never mind. I wasn’t a car mechanic, though. My job was fixing stuff that broke down in the building where I worked.”
Micah nodded. “Well, okay, so you know how stuff works and all. Dad always says you could fix just about anything. He said you’ve got an old Jeep that you work on.”
“Yeah,” Herb laughed, “I work on it a lot. But it still goes, in spite of me.” He would miss tinkering with the old Jeep, if he got sidelined here…
“This Yemao is the latest model,” Micah boasted. “Brand new.”
Herb grunted. “My point is,” he said, “that it takes time to get a … relationship with a car, or any piece of machinery for that matter. You get to understand each other.”
“Sure, Grandpa. That’s the cool thing about artificial intelligence. It learns about you just like you learn about it.”
Herb just shook his head. No sense trying to explain. “I don’t know how any of this works, Kid, believe me.” He gestured to the monitors and multi-colored displays of the control panel. “I wouldn’t even know how to turn it on or off.”
“Ah, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quick. I’ll teach you!”
Herb’s blood chilled as he thought of trying to steer through the solid mass of vehicles around them. He might already have driven his last lap anyway. Did Micah know Herb was in town for a medical treatment that may or may not keep him alive another year? Or five years? Or – not? “Well,” he said, “we’ll have to see if I’m around long enough.”
Micah nodded without comment and began fiddling with the console, his fingers waving over the panel, scanning quickly through random holographic video imagery that popped in and out of the dashboard display screen.
Herb studied the boy – tall, dark, and handsome like his father, but he was a child of another century, with soundbud implants in his ears, smart contact lenses on his eyes, and nanotech sera flowing through his veins so he could plan to live well into the next century.
Herb tried to recall – which of his great-grands was this? The AP student or the flunk-out slacker? The track star or the couch-bound gamer?
“Want to watch something?” Micah asked. “Play a game? Hear some tunes?”
“No, I’m fine. You go ahead and listen – watch anything you want. I’ll just sit back and – uh - enjoy the ride.” The slacker, Herb decided. Nice enough kid, but not much gumption.
Micah smiled and leaned his seat back, his head moving in time to the unheard music.
Herb sort of remembered what the kid’s father had brought up in their last tele-conversation. This was the son who’d given him an argument about some service opportunity at school, Conservation Club or something. Told his old man volunteers were “just being used.” Well, maybe so.
A gentle chime got their attention as the voice of the Car Nav purred, “We are approaching a security check-point.”
Herb could feel the pressure of his shoulders against the safety harness as the car gently decelerated. All around him the accompanying traffic slowed in sync, choreographed by Traffic Control.
“We will reach the security check-point in three minutes.”
Micah sat up and grinned at him. “How you doing, Grandpa?”
Herb twitched him an uncomfortable smile and took a deep breath. It was hard to tell how fast they were going, with every car at the same matched speed and few points of reference beyond the roadway.
“What’s with this security business?” Herb asked.
“We get alerts all the time, no big deal. The check-points are a big pain, but – you know, that’s life in the big city, right?”
“Alerts for what?”
“I don’t know, Gramps, it’s usually some anti-terrorism thing, right? Lemme check.” He paused and his eyes lost focus for a few seconds. Herb imagined the kid reading something on the insides of his eyelids, as he accessed an info feed. Micah nodded to no one in particular. “Yeah, just a routine check. They slow the whole Magway down to scan cars, especially if they think someone got through without ID.”
Around them the traffic had slowed to a crawl. “Xu-li, give us a traffic status.”
“We will reach the security check-point in ninety seconds. An orange security alert has been issued for Magway 94. An unauthorized vehicle has been detected. An unidentified vehicle has been detected.”
“How could an unauthorized vehicle even get on the Magway?” Herb wondered.
“Well, they shouldn’t,” Micah said, a little indignant. “I mean, if a car gets on and it’s not logged onto the grid, it could be – you know –“
Herb looked past his great-grandson in shock as a white van suddenly loomed up on their left, racing along the shoulder between the median and the slowed traffic. With a crash the side mirror of their car disappeared and the van flashed past, sparks streaming as it scraped the guard rail and flew toward the security checkpoint.
Concrete crash barriers had been positioned to narrow all the lanes and also to block passage at the shoulder. Uniformed security guards scrambled away from the van, which careened into a barricade, rolled onto its side, and exploded, the flash of the blast blinding Herb. A fiery plume erupted from the van and the Yemao’s windshield shattered, peppering the shocked faces of Herb and Micah with glass pellets. Flaming pieces of the van flew in every direction and nearby cars were hurled into the air. They crashed down onto their still-moving neighbors all aflame.
“Security alert! System is not responding.”
Herb stared at the carnage all around. Their car still moved forward, steering itself onto the shoulder to avoid the burning vehicles in front of them. The drivers, dead or alive, smoldered in their seats. A few people tumbled out of flaming cars onto the pavement in confusion.
“System is not responding – please resume control. 系统未响应 --请继续控制.” (Xìtǒng wèi xiǎngyìng – qǐng jìxù kòngzhì)
Micah and Herb were covered with bits of glass. Herb glanced over at his grandson. The boy hunched over the steering wheel, head down with arms folded over his face.
“Micah, are you all right?”
He answered with a groan.
The car rolled slowly along the shoulder. The van had smashed through the barricades and actually cleared passage. Herb recoiled as they slipped past the flames licking the exposed undercarriage of the van. They drove through the black cloud billowing from the wreck, eyes stung by burning plastic. The oily reek of burning rubber assailed their nostrils. Several uniformed men became visible through the smoke. Herb locked eyes with a guard who stood legs spread with a handgun trained on them. Another man with an automatic rifle advanced. Sudden gunfire erupted behind them and the guards dashed to cover.
“请继续控制!” The singsong tones in Mandarin nonetheless expressed urgency.
The car limped along.
“Micah!” Herb said. “Look at me! Look at me! Are you okay?”
Micah slowly raised his head and lowered his arms. His face was flecked with spots of blood. Opening his eyes, he shook his head, inhaled sharply and moaned, “My eyes! I can’t see!”
Herb reached over to grasp Micah by the shoulder. “Take it easy, take it easy! Can you see anything at all?”
“It’s all dark and blurry!” Micah cried.
“Look at me, Micah!” Herb took the boy’s chin in his hand. He didn’t know what to do amid this confusion, the crying, and now the shrill voice filling the car.
“I don’t see anything wrong with your eyes, Micah. But don’t rub them.” Herb’s helplessness swelled.
“XU-LI SHUT UP!” Micah screeched. The Car Nav went silent. Another burst of gunfire rattled behind them. Herb tried to duck, snugly held as he was by the safety harness. In spite of his desperate fumbling the belt wouldn’t unfasten. Why are they shooting? No one could have survived that crash. It could be ammunition exploding, he thought.
Herb exhaled and looked around. The Magway’s orderly stream of traffic had become a gridlocked nightmare beyond the security checkpoint. Many of the cars and trucks had steered themselves to the far shoulder where they hummed at idle, their passengers’ pale faces peering out in alarm. But much of the traffic had frozen in place, bumper to bumper, blocking all five lanes. A few people had emerged from their cars and stood blinking in the bright sunlight, while here and there a car lurched forward and back hopelessly trying somehow to maneuver out of its confined space. The only open route was the inside shoulder, along which, inexplicably, Micah and Herb continued to move slowly. Micah whimpered.
Herb focused on the boy. “Micah, can you stop the car?” he said gently.
“I can’t see anything! Everything’s blurry!”
Herb took a deep breath and examined Micah’s eyes. “Micah, don’t you wear contacts? Are you wearing contacts now?”
“Should you – ? Can you get them out? Maybe they’re messed up, or something – I don’t know!”
Micah sniffed and sat up straight, blinking. He craned his neck around peering out of the car and then leaned close to squint at Herb. “Oh, man, I bet that’s it! My lenses stopped working! It’s like they lost power and shut off!” He hunched over and opened an eye wide, working his mouth open too with the delicate effort.
A gentle chime sounded from the speaker. Very faintly, almost apologetically, Xu-Li’s voice sang:
“一辆汽车后面接近高速.” The car accelerated.
“Now what?” Herb groaned. “Can’t we just shut the car off?”
“If it would be dangerous, Xu-Li won’t let us.” He flicked the second contact lens out of his eye and blinked in Herb’s direction.
“一辆汽车后面接近高速.” The voice was louder and more insistent.
“Xu-Li,” Micah called out, “please speak English!”
“Can you, like, reboot the system or something?” Herb asked. “Turn it on and off again?”
Micah muttered and looked at the dashboard, where the display had faded to a dull, greenish glow of virtual buttons and panels. “I can’t read any of it, Grandpa,” he said. “Not without my contacts.”
“Tell me what to do, then!”
“Uh, well…” Micah thought. “Try pushing that big round button next to the instrument cluster.”
Herb jabbed his finger at the green circle. The lights over the dashboard dimmed and a musical note clanked.
The car swerved, swinging neatly into the space between a pickup truck and a limousine. The limo driver jumped out of the way and stumbled back to his vehicle. The gentle vibration of their car ceased and the instrument panel went dark. In the same instant Herb’s safety harness clicked open.
Micah felt around the steering column and placed his thumb against a flat spot. The dashboard lights danced and a throaty growl emerged from the engine compartment. “Xu-Li, take us home,” Micah said.
“Please fasten your safety harness.”
Herb grumbled and clicked the buckle shut.
“The system is not responding. The network is off-line. Would you like to continue?”
“Yes,” Micah pleaded. “Please take us home!”
Lights flickered. Xu-Li seemed to be considering her options. “We should arrive home in - forty minutes. The system is not responding. The network is off-line.” All four car wheels turned to carefully edge them out of their space and back onto the shoulder. Immediately the car accelerated to the pace of a fast walk.
“How’re you doing, Micah?”
“Okay, Grampa, but I don’t know if I should drive from the Magway without my contacts.”
Herb stiffened. “You better not be thinking what I think you’re thinking!”
“You might have to drive when we get to the exit. I can give you directions to our house.”
“Oh, nonono – no way I can drive in this traffic!”
“We will reach Exit 26 in – four - minutes.”
Herb considered the options. The transition from Traffic Control to driver control seemed pretty seamless. Maybe they could pull it off. But they’d have to stop and switch drivers somehow. Would the Car Nav even let them do it? They weren’t going very fast – or at least it had seemed that way, but now without a windshield the wind in their faces made Herb’s eyes tear. “Why are we going faster all of a sudden?” he wondered.
“A vehicle is approaching from behind at – fifty-one – miles per hour.” Their car was definitely accelerating. In the narrow shoulder, squeezed between the metal guard rails or concrete dividers and stalled cars in the inside lane, they sped like passengers trapped on a rogue roller coaster.
“Xu-Li,” Micah said, “we should get out of the way if there’s an emergency vehicle approaching.” Herb realized he’d been hearing sirens in the distance.
“An unauthorized vehicle is approaching from behind at – fifty-eight – miles per hour.”
“Xu-Li, we should pull over!” But they could both see that there were no breaks in the stalled traffic for them to fit into.
“An unauthorized vehicle is approaching from behind at – fifty-nine – miles per hour.”
Herb squirmed in his seat, turning enough to see a van coming up fast behind them – a white van similar to the one that had crashed and burned at the security check. A van even now looming closer in their rear view screen.
“Vehicle approaching from behind – brace for rear bumper impact!”
The van smashed into them with a horrible crunch. Herb’s head slammed back into the headrest as their car leapt forward, sideslipping then swerving to avoid the guard rail. Micah shouted and held tight to the steering wheel. In seconds the car settled down and they continued at their previous speed. The van had fallen back several car lengths.
“Stability maintained,” the Car Nav reassured them. “Rear bumper has suffered significant damage. Rear hatch hinge and lock mechanisms are damaged.”
Herb twisted around again. The vehicle behind them was struggling to keep its speed and falling farther behind. The grill was flattened and he watched as the dangling front bumper swung under the front wheels. The van swerved wildly and skidded against the guardrail. White vapor billowed from the grill.
“An accident report is being transmitted. Emergency assistance is being summoned.” A few blips accompanied more flashing lights above the dash. “The system is not responding. The network is off-line. We should be home in – thirty-one – minutes.”
“Xu-Li,” Micah shrieked, “Get us off the Magway!”
“We will reach Exit 26 in two minutes. Access to Westchester. Oak Brook. Oak Brook Shopping Center. The Drake Oak Brook Hotel. The York Tavern. Butler Country C – ”
“Xu-Li, get us out of here!”
Ahead of them Herb saw a clearing, a channel in the sea of vehicles, created by a jackknifed truck that blocked several lanes of the Magway traffic. Their car braked and deftly steered into it. The empty pavement stretched some way ahead, but a quarter mile down they were funneled into a lane where they rolled to a stop, surrounded by idle cars. A mob of stymied drivers milled about.
“What the heck happened to you guys?” A big man in a light business suit strode up, observing the broken-out windshield. Several others drifted over to peer in at Herb and Micah.
“You all okay in there?”
A young man with tattooed arms stepped up, leaning on the fender. He gaped at their bloody faces. “Holy shit! What did happen to you?”
Micah dabbed at his face with his shirttail. “Ah-ah-ah!” he cried, seeing the blood-flecked material. “It burns!”
Herb sat back, willing his heart to slow, grateful for the numbness that seemed to grip him now.
Micah unbuckled and opened his door, squinting at the group. “I guess we’re okay. We almost got it when that truck blew up!” His voice cracked with emotion, remembering.
“What? Blew up?” Alarm rippled through the crowd.
“What blew up?”
“I told you I heard something back there!” a woman shouted at her partner.
Micah breathlessly described the destruction of the van to the audience who erupted into a frenzy of speculation.
“It was terrorists! That’s what the security alert was for!”
“They thought they could blast through the check-point?”
“Was it a suicide bomber?”
“That’s what took the system down,” the businessman concluded. “Traffic Control is out of commission.” He gestured at the haphazard parking lot. “The whole Magway must have come to a stop.”
Herb shook his head. “Aren’t you supposed to be able to take over the driving in an emergency?”
The younger man folded his well-inked arms in frustration. “It looks like some did, and some didn’t. Must depend on what kind of back-up systems the car’s got. Mine just parked and stalled out, and now it won’t start at all!”
“Must have been some kind of electromagnetic pulse – fried the components or something.”
Micah gave their roof a couple of pats. “The Yemao’s got special shielding,” he said.
The young guy gave his head a shake. “Burned out my ear buds – there ain’t nothing coming in.”
“My contacts went dark, too,” Micah added.
“Shit, I bet it played hell with any kind of implant. That guy – “ he pointed to a sedan on the shoulder where a small group had gathered. “ – seemed like he was having a heart attack. Some off-duty firefighter’s trying to give him CPR right now.”
Herb got out of the car to look around. Heat curled off the pavement, pulsing from the cars all around them. “What can we do?”
“Nothing much,” shrugged the businessman, “until the traffic clears out on its own, or they get Traffic Control working again.”
“A couple of cars switched to manual,” a woman pointed out, “with the people trying to drive, but now they’re all boxed in. They can’t go anywhere!” Herb could see what she meant – some drivers were creeping up and back, up and back repeatedly to make their way to an opening in the packed lanes. Then they could lurch forward a few car lengths before running into another blockaded lane. As they watched, a car made its way to the inside shoulder and sped out of sight.
“We’re real close to the exit, aren’t we?” Herb asked.
“Yeah,” Micah pointed, “it’s right up ahead.” Herb saw the overpass in the distance, and the beginning of the extra lane for the exit ramp. A few of the operating vehicles crept along the outside shoulder in that direction.
“We should try to get over there,” Herb said.
“If Xu-Li’ll let us.”
Herb looked out over the sea of cars. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he muttered.
Micah squinted, his eyes casting about. “What is it?”
“They’re back.” The crumpled van had reappeared, stuttering along the inside shoulder of the Magway.
“Who’s that?” asked the businessman, following Herb’s gaze.
“We don’t know!” Micah wailed. “They rammed us from behind! After the first van blew up – they came really fast and tried to push us out of the way!”
“I thought they were wrecked,” Herb said. “Their bumper fell off, but – here they are again!”
“Probably smashed up the cooling fans,” the tatooed man noted, as the van coasted past and sputtered to a halt a couple hundred feet away. “Now the batteries are overheating.”
The group of motorists instinctively drew together and quieted, watching. A thin man with a close-cropped beard exited the passenger side of the van and examined the battered front end. He kicked at the fender and looked around, sighting the gathered audience. He stomped back to his seat and emerged with an ugly-looking automatic rifle. Turning it in their direction, he grimaced and fired a burst into the air over their heads.
People scattered with screams and shouts. Micah dodged around to where Herb had dropped below the side of the car; the businessman dove to the pavement with the other man. Shaking, Herb raised himself up and peeked through the car. The shooter leveled his weapon and stepped toward them, but a barked order from the driver stopped him. They exchanged words Herb couldn’t quite understand. Then, slinging the rifle, the man veered off in the direction of a stalled box truck.
“Terrorists!” the young man hissed.
“Something,” Herb admitted. Many of his neighbors back in Utah were hunters, and some kept guns for the sure-as-hell coming apocalypse, but Herb hadn’t had a combat weapon fired in his direction since his deployment in the Middle East. Although it was a long time ago, from that experience he remembered two things: One, keep your head down and Two, use any means at your disposal to make the other guy stop.
People streamed down the Magway in panic. A uniformed driver broke from the box truck, scurrying to safety behind a sound barrier fence when the gunman fired again. Sliding in behind the wheel, he seemed to be manipulating the controls. Meanwhile, the driver of the crippled van had come around and opened the rear cargo doors. Herb had a clear look at the load packed into the van – dozens of gallon plastic bottles taped together to sealed storage containers.
“Shit,” said the businessman.
“Right,” Herb nodded. “Micah?”
“I think we’re looking at a bomb.”
Micah stared, trembling.
The young man was still on his knees, peering around the car. “They’re looking for another truck to move it to.”
“They won’t find anything they can drive,” the businessman said. “They’ll be stuck here.”
“Not for too long,” the young man said, backing away. “If their van is just overheating, they’ll be able to drive it again pretty soon.”
“Or they might just blow it up right here!” Micah said.
“I don’t think so,” Herb whispered. “They had the first van blast through the security check, so these guys could come through with their explosives. They want to get it to their target,” he mused, “but where’s that?”
“The International Bank Conference!” exclaimed the businessman. “The Drake Hotel!”
“Shit! I’m outa here!” the young man declared, and, crouching, he scampered away.
The other man watched him go. “Somebody should go to the police, and warn everybody.”
Meanwhile the gunman had given up starting the box truck and moved on to a mini-van a few cars back. His partner paced back and forth in front of the van’s open cargo doors.
When Herb turned around again, the businessman had hustled off. Micah sank to the pavement and leaned against the car shaking with his face in his hands. “It’s okay, Micah,” Herb told him. “We’ll do something – I just don’t know what.” Herb wished he was sitting in his old reliable Jeep. “How do we get this car moving?”
“I don’t know, Grampa. Xu-Li won’t give me control. Traffic Control is down, so it’s just the car’s own sensors and AI. Everything is telling Xu-Li it’s too dangerous to go manual. Too many cars too close together. It might be picking up signals from other damaged cars, too.”
Herb opened the door and crawled over the passenger seat to get behind the wheel. “Xu-Li?”
“How may I assist you?”
“Get us to the exit ramp.”
The dashboard display shifted from green to red. “Please enter identification.”
Herb looked to Micah for help.
Micah shrugged. “Try holding your thumb over that sensor pad there.” Herb did as he’d seen Micah do earlier.
“Herbert Fohrs. I’m sorry,” the voice warbled cheerfully. “You are not authorized to operate the vehicle.”
Micah slid into the passenger seat and reached over to scan his thumb.
“Hello, Micah. Welcome back.” Relays clicked somewhere, the display went green, and the motor hummed to life.
Herb tested the steering wheel for movement and pressed the accelerator. The car responded with its recorded whine. “Xu-Li?”
“How may I assist you?”
Herb hesitated. “Take us – no – Can - ? No. “ He thought. “Do you remember me?”
“You are an unauthorized user.” The display lights went red again.
“No, Xu-Li,” he said. “I am authorized to navigate – in the state of Utah.”
Xu-Li grumbled, considering this. “Please re-enter identification.”
Herb again pressed his thumb to the dashboard and watched the colors change to yellow.
“Hello, Herbert. Welcome back!”
Herb grinned. “Xu-Li,” he commanded, “take us to the nearest exit ramp.”
The yellow light began to fade. “You are an unauthorized navigator.”
“Herb is authorized, Xu-Li!” Micah yelled. “He’s authorized by me!”
“Transferring authority,” the voice seemed to concede and the green glow returned. “Driver is validated for navigation.”
“That’s more like it,” Herb said.
“Hello, Herbert. Welcome back!”
“Yeah, yeah – Xu-Li?”
“How may I assist you?”
“We want to get off on the next exit.”
“Exit 26 is – closed - at this time.”
“No it isn’t,” Micah argued. “I can see it from here!”
“Traffic at Exit 26 is gridlocked. I am selecting an alternative route.”
“No, Xu-Li!” Herb insisted. “Take us as close as we can get to the exit.”
The dashboard blipped, and the Wildcat logo flashed briefly on the display. The car maneuvered backwards, then sideways, then back and forward again, laboriously advancing a few car lengths at a time. The Car Nav burbled as though under its breath, “We will reach Exit 26 in – 14 – minutes.”
Micah rotated his seat ninety degrees and twisted to squint through the rear window, where marbles of shattered glass still crackled out of the frame. “I can’t see the guy any more. What’s he doing?”
With some contortions Herb got his head turned around. He saw the man with the rifle emerge from the cab of a semi tractor. As predicted, he hadn’t been able to start any of the stalled trucks. The truck driver had hidden behind his rig, and now he ran for his life, dodging among the other disabled vehicles. The gunman fired wildly in frustration and looked back at his accomplice who had reentered the van.
Herb saw it lurch forward. “Damn, he got it started.”
The driver leaped out with a shout and waved back to the gunman, who now ran back, slammed the cargo doors shut, and swung into the passenger seat. The van, with a clear path ahead on the inside shoulder, raced forward.
“Shit!” Herb yelled and pounded his fists on the steering wheel.
“How may I assist you?”
“Just get us to the exit ramp, Xu-Li.”
“Let ‘em go,” Micah grumbled.
Herb looked at him. “You don’t think they’ll get to the hotel?”
“Well,” Micah mused, “they wouldn’t get into the parking garage – there’s security there.”
“Did you see the amount of explosives in that van? That’s more than enough to flatten a building from half a block away!”
“What can we do? With the network down, we can’t call the cops or anybody!”
Herb watched the van as it drew farther away and nearer to the exit. He fixed Micah with a stony look of resolve. “We’ve got to stop ‘em,” he said.
Having finally maneuvered to the base of the exit ramp, they found themselves bumper to bumper in scrum of cars angling to leave the Magway, all of them funneling into two exit lanes plus the shoulders. Beyond the pavement’s graded edge was a landscaped hillside of neatly-trimmed grass that sloped down to the blue water of a retention pond a hundred feet below.
Five packed lanes away, the terrorists’ van idled as they considered how to get across to the exit.
A space opened up in front of Herb and Micah, and the Yemao rolled forward. “When can I drive it myself?” Herb asked.
“Normally, you’d take over about halfway up the ramp,” Micah explained.
“Conditions are hazardous,” warned the voice of Xu-Li. “Individual driver control is discouraged at this time.”
“Just get us up to the top of the ramp, then.”
“We will reach Exit 26 in – four- minutes.”
“What are you thinking, Grampa?”
“I want to block the exit ramp.”
“’Block the exit ramp’ is a hazardous action,” Xu-Li stated. “Action is denied.”
“She can’t stop me, can she?” Herb asked, and his voice rose, “Xu-Li, you can’t stop me once I’m driving the car!”
“Uh-uh, Grampa, no, you can’t do stuff like that, like drive in front of another car on purpose. It’s not allowed by – there’s collision avoidance programming.”
A resounding whomp! and screeching of metal rang from the other side of the Magway. The white van had just slammed into a car in the adjacent lane and was pushing it into the car in front of it. Passengers in both cars screamed in panic.
“What about their collision avoidance?”
Micah shook his head. “That old van’s not wired up smart with auto drive or anything – we know that. And the other cars, they can’t do anything, boxed in like they are, just like we couldn’t stop them from hitting us.”
Herb considered. “So, they can’t stop us from hitting them, either.”
“’Hitting them’ is a hazardous action,” Xu-Li intoned. “The action is denied.”
Crash! The van bashed the next car out of its path.
“Xu-Li,” Herb said, “give me control of the car.”
A moment’s hesitation, and a chime sounded. “Hazardous conditions are present. Driver control is denied.” With that, the car came to a stop. The dashboard lights dimmed.
“Xu-Li, the – “Herb chose his words carefully. “the – hazard is moving toward the exit ramp. Can Traffic Control stop the hazardous vehicle?”
The dashboard scanner display illuminated with a “bleep.” “An unauthorized vehicle is approaching. Traffic Control Systems are not responding.”
“Driver Control has to stop the hazard, Xu-Li.”
Tires squealed in the middle lanes as the van battered another car out of the way. At that, people swarmed out of nearby vehicles and scurried like roaches in every direction. Giving in to the panic, several drivers on the ramp ahead also left their cars, jogging up the rest of the way to the street at the top.
“Shit!” Herb exclaimed. “Now we’re stuck …!”
“Exit 26 is gridlocked,” Xu-Li observed with an echo of Herb’s disgust.
Behind them a car horn honked. Micah spun around. A driver gesticulated wildly and hit the horn again.
“Yeah, that’ll help,” Herb muttered. He looked around helplessly for some way out of the traffic jam. Where they sat immobile, on the flat ground near the base of the inclined exit ramp, they were just where the typical metal guard rails started. which confined vehicles to the two exit lanes. “Micah,” Herb asked, “how’s this car off-road?”
“Off road? You mean – well, it’s all-wheel drive…”
“Okay. “ Herb pointed at the grassy slope to the right of the guard rail. “Well, how about we go Jeepin’?” Micah stared, wide-eyed. “Xu-Li?”
“’Jeepin’ - is a hazardous action. Action is denied.”
Herb threw his head back and yelled.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that.”
Micah leaned forward, pawing at the virtual controls on the dashboard. “Xu-Li,” he said, “we need another way out.”
“I will select an alternate route.”
“No, Xu-Li, let me choose.” The Car Nav hummed. “Xu-Li, take us off the paved ramp and onto the grass to the right of the guard rail.” The dashboard lights turned amber, but the car began to edge slowly to the right.
Another crash and crumpling of metal came from the Magway where the van barged another car out of its way. At this the driver behind them leaned desperately on the horn. His minivan lurched forward and swerved onto the shoulder, cutting off the Yemao, which jerked back in reflex, alarm bells ringing. Herb and Micah watched helplessly as the minivan veered sharply to the right and began to ascend the ramp outside the guard rail. Wheels churning in the soft ground, the vehicle fishtailed, struck the guardrail a glancing blow, and spun out of control. Its rear bumper kissed the steel, stopping its spin perpendicular to the roadway. Poised for a moment at a 45 degree angle, the minivan began a helpless slide down to the pond, the driver cursing and beating on the steering wheel all the way down.
Herb stared at the deep ruts gouged along the hillside and slumped in his seat. “Well, so much for that idea. We’d never get through that way now.”
Micah peered past Herb as the white van bumped away the last of the cars on the Magway’s outside lane. It backed up and then haltingly crossed over to the exit lane just a few car lengths ahead of them. Herb closed his eyes and groaned, “Oh, nononono…”
“What about the other side?”
Herb peered out the open window at the left hand side of the exit ramp. The incline increased gradually to a point halfway up the ramp, where the guard rail began with a curved return marked with black and yellow stripes. It stretched to a gap where the grade leveled off, providing access to some Magway equipment. The slope was a sharply-angled hillside planted with purple ground cover. “It’s too steep,” he said, “and just a narrow space for a car. You saw what happened to that other guy.”
“But that guy didn’t know what he was doing! He wasn’t a Jeep driver like you!”
Herb allowed himself an empty laugh. “Jeep driver, huh? That’s a good one. This isn’t exactly my old Willys!”
“No, but it’s a Yemao – that means ‘Wildcat’!”
Herb shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, because I’m not getting a chance to drive.”
The van in front of them had been idling behind several abandoned cars. Steam billowed beneath the frame and coolant dripped from a broken hose somewhere.
“They’ve got to be overheating again,” Micah said. “We’ve got a chance to get ahead of them!”
Herb drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Xu-Li, let’s try an alternate route.”
“Drive on the left shoulder, Xu-Li!” Micah ordered.
“Hazardous conditions ahead. A 40 % grade has been detected.”
“That’s okay, Xu-Li. We can handle it!”
The car sideslipped onto the shoulder and moved slowly uphill, gradually approaching the white van from behind on the left. They had just come abreast of it when the van accelerated, slamming with a cracking of plastic into the empty sedan in front.
“Jesus!” Herb exclaimed. “Aren’t they afraid their bomb might go off?”
Micah had slipped down below window level, at least as far as his safety harness would allow. “They’re desperate suicide bombers!” he said. “What do they care?” Tires squealing, the van pushed the little car ahead and onto the shoulder – directly in the path of Herb and Micah. Then it reversed and idled as if catching its breath for the next effort.
Micah sat up, eyeing the terrorists’ vehicle warily. “How can we get past without them noticing us?”
Herb sighed, “We can’t. They’ve probably noticed us already, or they will soon.”
The Yemao had detected the car blocking the shoulder and steered, maddeningly slow, to the edge of the asphalt. Tentatively it rolled the left front tire off the hard surface, like a bather testing the waters with a toe. Dashboard lights flickered amber. “Leaving the pavement. Surface is loose gravel and dirt, hazardous conditions. 40 % grade detected. All-wheel drive and traction control are engaged.” They rounded to the outside of the guard rail with both left wheels in the dirt, crunching through the ground cover, leaning precariously as they approached the steepest dropoff from the side of the ramp. They had just pulled even with the idling white van on the other side of the railing when they stopped. They could see the two men in the front windows, their heads bobbing in heated conversation.
Herb turned to Micah. “Okay, Kid,” he said. “Get out of the car.”
Micah exhaled and unclipped his harness. He opened his door and looked back at Herb. “Okay, come on! Let’s get out of here!”
Herb shook his head. “No, listen to me: You – move! Walk back along the Magway to that security check, or stop any kind of help you find along the way. Get going.“
Micah turned and faltered with the door handle, shaking his head. “Just let ‘em go, Grampa. You can’t really stop them.”
Herb shook. “I don’t know if I can, but I’ve got to try.”
Herb considered briefly and answered looking at his hands: “Because I couldn’t stand it if I could have done something and didn’t try.”
Micah shifted back into his seat. “I could say the same thing, then.”
Herb shook his head. “No, it’s different for you – you’re young. Me, I might not have too much time anyway, you get it?”
Micah clenched his jaw. “I’m in. Anyway, you might need me.” He pulled the door shut.
On the other side of the guard rail, the two men in the van turned in their direction, staring.
“Okay…” Herb muttered, “we’ve got to get moving.” Shaking his head, he scanned the incomprehensible displays in front of him on the dashboard. “Xu-Li, let me drive now.”
“Driver control is discouraged at this time. Hazardous conditions ahead. Steep grade is detected.”
“Xu-Li,” Micah scolded, his hands playing along the dashboard lights, “switch to driver control now!”
A few sassy blips came back, but a cold voice intoned, “Auto control is disengaged. You are the driver, Herbert.”
Herb shot a nervous grin at Micah. “We’re going off-road now, Kid. Buckle up!” He stomped the accelerator and the car leapt forward.
Micah, pressed back in his seat, glanced back toward the van. The bearded man was fumbling with his rifle and trying to aim it past the face of the driver, who sensibly flailed at him and the gun. “Come on, Grandpa!”
Herb barely heard him. The car raced along the steep incline, inches from the guard rail on their right, front wheels plowing through the thick cover of plants, rear wheels spinning in the moist soil and gravel. Just keep it steady, he thought, keep the wheels moving, don’t let it bog down, don’t let it slide… His sweating hands cramped on the steering wheel, struggling to keep the car from careening down the slope. Behind them a burst of gunfire seemed far, far away.
Their car churned along through the soft ground and somehow Herb kept it tight to the railing all the way to the clearing at the top. They came to a stop alongside a green transformer. From here they could see traffic moving in both directions on the street, slowing to allow merging of cars that maneuvered from the exit ramp around abandoned or disabled vehicles. Arrow signs indicated the direction to different suburbs, and just beyond the overpass the hotel complex sprawled. As more cars cleared from the gridlock at the top, more space opened up in front of the white van, advancing with its deadly payload.
Grimly Herb watched it approach, clenching and unclenching his hands on the wheel. He looked at Micah. “Is there something else I need to do? Am I forgetting something? We only get one shot at this…”
“Xu-Li!” Micah barked. “Disable collision avoidance!”
“Collision avoidance system is disabled.”
The white van nudged one last car to the side and sped forward, fishtailing slightly and rocking perilously, but quickly stabilizing and racing toward the intersection.
“You’re in?” Herb said.
“All in,” Micah answered.
The Car Nav chimed once.
Herb floored the accelerator and the Yemao shot forward. They hurtled toward the oncoming van and crashed into the left fender with a shattering of metal, glass, and plastic, striking just above the wheel below the shocked wide eyes of the driver and his accomplice. Like a boxer taking a knock-out blow, the van veered from its path and careened off the pavement, down the steep grassy slope toward the edge of the pond where the minivan had landed earlier. Spinning in a lazy arc, the vehicle slid backwards until, bogged in the mud, it finally tapped rear ends with the other car. A flash of light consumed the scene as the van exploded in a fireball.
Their faces covered, bent double in their seats, Herb and Micah felt the shock wave jolt the car. Neither of them ventured to look up until things had stopped falling around them.
Unbelting from the car, they emerged into a Martian landscape. A crater wide as a football field gaped in place of the pond. The blast had scorched the earth and scoured the exit ramp, tossing cars and trucks down onto the Magway below. The pavement sizzled and vehicles smoldered, including the blackened Yemao, its once-sleek finish blistering.
Herb took Micah by the shoulders and squeezed him as tight as his tired old arms could. They squatted down to examine the damage to the interior of the car. “I hope you can fix that Car Nav,” Herb said, “or transplant it to a new Wildcat.”
“She did okay, didn’t she?” Micah grinned. “Xu-Li?”