An hour or so later, desert gave way to thick woods. A familiar sight from past commutes, it meant we were getting close. I wished GPS were still safely usable so I could know the precise number of miles remaining. I’m a constitutionally anxious person, and the looming prospect of death from the skies wasn’t doing me any favors.
Now and then a humanoid would burst out from between the densely packed trees behind us and chase the car for a ways. With a maximum speed of twelve miles per hour they were easy to lose, but numerous. Ever-present pests which made it unsafe to stop the car for bathroom breaks or to effect repairs to the car.
As a result I initially paid no mind to the latest robot to chase after us, only taking notice when we still didn’t manage to lose it after several minutes. “Guys? There’s a-” Lars cut me off. “I see it. Been keepin’ an eye on it for the last couple miles. Doesn’t look like the ones we’ve dealt with until now. Still got your nocs?”
I did, and was soon peering through them at our mysterious pursuer. More cause for curiosity than alarm as it didn’t seem able to overtake ‘Rhonda’...until the small aerial drone detached from its back and sped towards us. “Something came off it!” I cried.
“I saw”. Lars swerved into the other lane, then back. The drone changed trajectory each time, confirming our fears. I couldn’t see it clearly as it wouldn’t hold still enough, but there was plainly some sort of payload attached. I had my suspicions about what it was, and no desire to be vindicated.
“Give it more gas!” Madeline demanded. Lars objected that we were already approaching 110 and coming up on the red line. “What is it? What fucking robot is there that can run this fast!?” In fact I recalled some article I’d seen months ago about quadrupedal military robots designed for speed, patterned after cheetahs.
The speed of the legged robot wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the drone it carried. The little quadcopter’s battery couldn’t keep up for long at these speeds, but whenever it ran low it simply withdrew, landed on the running quadruped and recharged from it. Then our evasive dance began anew.
It always came in suspiciously low. I assumed it would try to get close to the cabin, but then realized if it could get under the fuel tank and detonate there, even a relatively small explosive charge would be enough.
Lars must’ve realized the same thing, as every time the drone tried to maneuver under the rear of the car, he’d swerve suddenly in an attempt to crush it under one of the back wheels. But it proved much too fast, reaction times like those of a fly evading the swatter.
“Did they leave the guns in the back?” In fact they did, but still no ammunition. Our options rapidly dwindling to zero, Lars hit on what to him must’ve seemed like a clever gambit. “Use your cape!” I explained that it was never a ‘cape’ but a thermal cloak. “Now’s not the time, for fuck’s sake just trail it out behind us, maybe we can confuse it!”
I didn’t see how that could work, but did as I was told. As expected, because we were moving so quickly the wind prevent the cloak from draping over the rear of the car as Lars probably hoped it would, instead and flapping and flailing wildly until I lost hold of it.
The great billowing sheet sailed directly into the path of the quadrotor, which evidently had no provisions in its programming for avoiding a thermally invisible object. Like a net, the mylar sheet enveloped the drone, which swiftly tumbled to the asphalt in a tangled metallic bundle.
A bright flash and ear splitting bang followed as the drone’s plastic explosive detonated, flaming scraps of melting mylar scattered to the winds. The quadrupedal carrier, briefly obscured by the flames and smoke, gracefully leapt through the conflagration in continued pursuit.
I proposed slowing down along side it, then running it off the road. Lars refused, reasoning that it could also be carrying explosives. “Throw one of those fuckin robot dog toys at it, maybe it’ll trip.” I reflexively clutched them close to me. “I will do no such thing.”
Before we could decide what to do about the galloping metal bomb chasing us, a rusty red truck surged forth from a back road shrouded by branches. I didn’t understand how it could keep pace until I saw that the engine block protruded through an opening cut out of the hood. Must be somebody like Lars behind the wheel.
The truck positioned itself behind and to the left of the cheeta bot. I couldn’t make out the occupants from this angle, but did see a pair of arms point a scoped hunting rifle out through the passenger side window.
Their position relative to us thankfully put ‘Rhonda’ out of the line of fire, and a few well placed shots later, our metallic pursuer erupted in a brilliant red-orange fireball. Scraps of smoking metal debris tumbled a ways further down the road before coming to a rest as the burning wreckage rapidly receded in our rear view mirror.
We all whooped and cheered, overcome with relief. The dingy red truck then pulled up alongside us and the hefty looking woman with the rifle in the passenger seat gestured down the road a ways. The truck then sped off ahead of us.
I couldn’t make sense of it until we reached the roadblock. Enough bullet riddled metal hulks piled up to stop even a speeding semi, we had little choice but to slow down and come to halt before it. “I don’t like this” Madeline whispered as four men emerged from behind the blockade, brandishing rifles.
I hastily slipped my mask back onto Helper, now glowing a dull purple. The quartet of armed men surrounded the car and instructed us to get out. I quietly advised Helper to speak in a male voice if possible, but she didn’t reply.
“What is this?” Madeline asked. “Are you robbing us? Is that it?” An overweight bearded fellow with a long grey beard and flush cheeks waddled out from behind the barrier. “Put your gun down fellas. They don’t look like no bandits to me.”
The men obeyed, lowering their rifles and backing away. “Heard you were being tailed by a runner. A metal convoy came through the first night, hiding those things along the side of the road. My boys swept through this morning, I really thought we got ‘em all. My apologies, but it looks like you made it through in one piece.”
A song and dance. They’ve sent out a jolly looking face so we’ll let our guard down, I thought. But under the circumstances I saw no choice but to humor him. “Who are you? What do you want with us?” Madeline repeated.
He belly laughed in a passable impression of Santa Claus. “Oh don’t worry yourself miss. Nobody you’re likely to know, and we’re not a pack of robbers either. That’s the US government you’re thinking of.” He waited for us to laugh, but we stood there stiff as a couple of telephone polls waiting for him to show his hand.
“There’s a fine little hunting lodge down the road a bit after the blockade. My pride and joy. Life’s work, really. I founded it to get away from it all. From the bustle and impersonal nature of cities. From the regulatory zeal of big brother. Then I invited a couple buddies to come build cabins out here. Before long we had what you might call an intentional community going.”
I could practically hear the dueling banjos. But they did save us from the runner, that’s gotta count for something. We were allowed to get back in the car, then a van at the edge of the barricade backed up so we could pass around the shoulder of the road.
We debated whether to speed off once permitted to pass the barrier, but not far beyond the lodge they’d set up a second barrier. Presumably to prevent that sort of thing. The lot was overflowing with the cars of people I assumed he’d persuaded to join his merry little band of forest dwelling anarchist wackadoos.
Stay Tuned for Part 40!