The turbine screamed as it sucked in the dank fetid air. Speed: 220 kph. The phosphorescent glow of the route tracker reflected off her goggles. Fuel: 51 liters remaining. She puffs a loose strand of hair off her cheek. Altitude: 31 meters below street level and 2 meters above the Q-line track...
My nerves rattle and jangle along with my teeth in my skull as the roar from the jet engine screams behind me. He’s pushed me too far this time and I can’t take the pressure any more. I catch a simple side swipe from one of the other racers, the black-X pod I think. She doesn’t take the time to loiter and fool with me before zooming off to meet the leaders further down the tunnel. Gotta watch out. I can’t lose my focus down here if I’m gonna survive the night.
Survive, ha. What does that even mean anymore. I shake away the thought and knuckle down on the control yoke of my pod. Good old Bubble has served me well over these past few months. Please forgive me for all the scrapes, scratches, and crashes I’ve put you through.
I start to let my vertical thrust drift down and catch a balled-up bag of fast food packaging in my engine, which coughs violently as it disintegrates in the blades of the intake and is incinerated in the jetwash. Jeez, get your head in the game.
As soon as I think it I hear it repeated over the com-system built into my goggles. “Get your head in the game racer. You lose this one and I up your dosage again.”
Damn it, he’s already in my head. I’m hearing him before he even moves his mouth back at the starting line with the rest of my pit crew. I catch a glimpse of one of the noob racers coming up behind me, timidly trying to pass my flank that I’ve let drift open. Oh no you don’t, I think, juking wildly from side to side. There’s another sputter from my engine and I lurch forward into my safety straps for a split second and my tail smashes into his intake scoops.
It takes him by surprise, but he recovers more quickly than I would have expected. A moment later, he’s right up next to me and grinding against the side of my pod. Did I just loose time again? Even a second of inattention down here can be lethal. I try to resist the push, but it really catches me off guard more than I should have allowed and now I’m careening across and into the oncoming rail line, right as the express Q-train bears down on me.
Calmly, I pull up on the controls and ready my mind for what comes next. It’s a complicated, but swift series of actions that must be performed perfectly if I’m to survive the next few seconds. Pull-up, punch throttle forward, press button, wait, hope, pray, release button, flip switch, hope and pray again, and recover. As the face of the engineer in his small window looms close and I feel the buildup of air pressure in front of the train, I wait until the very last fraction of a second to hit the big beige rectangle marked ‘shift.’
From my perspective nothing happens visually, but there’s a lurch and the engine seizes, choked off from its oxygen supply. The heavy metal hatch above and behind me creaks and pings as the pressure differential blasts through my pod. It’s a relief to hear that sound, it means things are working for now and I won’t be splattered against this subway car. Now I wait and watch the red digits spin down on my SHIFT timer. Only eight seconds available, that should work, but you never know what the future holds. For the most part anyway.
As I encounter the train, it’s like diving through reality with CAT-scan eyes. Metal and flesh boil away in front of me like the fast-forward peeling off the layers of an onion. The superstructure of the train cars glint and telescope across my field of view as beams and tubular supports crisscross the ceiling of the car. The corrugated skin of the train vibrates in my peripheral vision. I see flashes of circles within circles expand and shrink as I pass through the heads of some of the standing passengers, their eyeballs, skulls, and nasal cavities making beautiful, organic patterns.
And as violently as it began, it’s over in a flash of visual silence. I release the button and press up on the switch marked ‘squirt’ which juices the engines with a cocktail of hydrogen peroxide and other nifty chemicals that explode in the guts of the still hot turbine with a massive belch of black smoke and orange flames. I release the switch and grip the control yoke tightly, shimmying back and forth as I regain control on a jet of super-heated gasses, coming out of free-fall.
Phew. Saved by the SHIFT. A series of closely spaced columns now separates me from the clear track, so I steer right and punch the SHIFT button again. This time it’s too short to choke off the engine, so a much simpler procedure. As often as I use the SHIFT technology it never ceases to amaze me – passing solid matter through other solid matter with just the press of a button and the terrifying consequences of emerging into something that isn’t air. I shudder thinking about the highly classified Air-Force films and photos of test pilots who’d died or been horribly disfigured in SHIFT accidents.
My radio crackles to life with the voice I’ve been trying to keep out of my head for the last few minutes, “You’re in dead last. If you can’t at least catch one of these fools you may as well not bother coming home.” Great inspiration there Coach. I glance down at my route tracker and see that I’m entering my final lap. I only have so much time to catch up, this course is pretty damn short, a Manhattan special, staying on the glittering island of riches for the most part.
I check my fuel and punch the afterburners when I enter a long, clear straightaway. I switch on the common channel and hear the announcer spitting out a rapid-fire commentary on the pack of racers in the lead, about a minute ahead of me. Looks like there’s no way I’m catching up to them today. I start to feel heartburn in my chest as the acid taste of fear builds within me. What will he actually do this time if I come in dead last?
A few moments later I spy one of the stragglers up ahead of me, but it’s already too late to catch the winners. They’re engaged in a pitted battle, bashing against one another in an attempt to beat out the rest. It’s nonsense of course, not real racing at all, but I’ve found myself losing the edge that earned me so many wins over my illustrious career. I think back to all that I’ve lost, all that I’ve sacrificed to get where I am, well where I was not so long ago, and the sorrow hits me with full force and my eyes well up with tears. You’re screwed.
“You’re fucked – dead last and Boomer’s beaten you of all people,” I hear in my headset. He rambles on, half trying to inspire me to push the limits of my abilities, half screaming incoherent obscenities at me. Any seed of calm within me is gone now and I push the throttle all the way forward, tears streaming back across my face. It’s reckless and insane, but I don’t care anymore. I need this race to end. I need to rest.
My neck aches and I start to feel the tell-tale bugs crawling across my skin. The crawling becomes a burning and I start to tear at my safety harness. It’s a miracle I manage to keep the pod in the air as my mind begins to disintegrate and then I see him. The voice on the other end of the line. An idea pops into my head and I line up on him, pouring all the speed I can out of my pod’s engines. Freedom. The allure of it is so sweet I can taste it, feel it flood through me like a drink of clean, ice water. I poise my thumb over the SHIFT button and glance over to my left winglet. Sorry Bubble, this is gonna hurt you more than it’ll hurt me.
I close the distance in a matter of seconds and the screaming in my ear never ceases, even as he turns towards me. His face is bright red and flecks of spittle cling to the corners of his mouth. I’m surprised at how much detail resolves in front of me in these final milliseconds. I tap the button and there’s an explosion at my side, my peripheral vision going red where there once was a man.
The pod jerks to the side and begins to tumble. I look around, frantically trying to understand what went wrong and how to save myself when I see the wall looming in front of me. I close my eyes and breathe my final breath.
Back in the rear passenger of seat my mom's beat-up old wood-paneled PT Cruiser, my little black and white saddle shoes and lacy white socks bounce up and down as they dangle out over the edge of the seat.
I take a moment to look around - I can barely see out the window, but it's bright and sunny, the perfect spring day in my hometown, Pittsburgh. I've got a big glass cake stand with domed cover on my lap. My mommy is humming along to the song on the radio and we're driving over to the local arcade parlor for Jessica Swanson's 11th birthday party.
Everybody from my class is going, even the gross boys. I hope they don't mess with my hair again - mommy hates having me look un-ladylike. She's dressed me in my best frilly pink dress even though I wanted to wear my Transformers pajamas. She scolded me when I came down to breakfast without changing into the dress.
Little girls should always be pretty and pleasant, she said, shaking her finger at me as she licked a bit of frosting off of the spatula. I reached up for it, wanting a taste of my own, but she swatted my hand away and said "No refined sugar for you young lady."
After breakfast and a bit of a struggle, she got me into the dress and my shiny new shoes. Daddy was in the den reading some thick leather book that smelled like old people and dirt. I ran over to kiss him goodbye and he stopped reading for a little while to listen to me go on and on about how much fun today was going to be.
Birthday parties are the best. You get to see all your friends and play fun games and even eat cake. Jessica's my best friend in the whole world aside from Alec, but he's a boy so I guess I can have a best boy friend too.
Mommy bends down to kiss my daddy goodbye too and we make our way out to the car. It starts after a few minutes of hemming and hawing over things. She needs to turn the key a bunch of times and jiggle the stick between the front seats a few times before it starts up.
I love it when we go for a drive anywhere. We usually just walk to school and the grocery store because daddy says gas is too expensive and it's good for our health to walk. I peek out the window and see everything rush past in such a big colorful blur. I really like it when mommy speeds around corners and I get that funny feeling in my tummy.
Alec's family has lots of cars, but only a couple of them work. We like to pretend the other ones do too and race each other by making engine noises and twisting the steering wheel around. Mommy drives us up and over a big hill and my tummy does flip-flops again and I giggle. She takes a break from humming to look back and check on me. She smiles such a kind smile at me and looks back to the road.
We stop for a minute at a red light and she starts to quietly sing along with the radio about having a poker face. The engine coughs a bit as we start chugging up another hill, but then there's a scream and a big crash of metal on metal. Glass flies everywhere and the sun outside seems to do somersaults. The cake and glass dome have exploded against my body and everything hurts.
The front seat is smashed against me and I can barely breathe. Mommy is next to me now and all covered in glass and red stuff. I cry out for her but she doesn't move. Her eyes are open, but I don’t think she’s awake.
I hear somebody moving outside and then a wet splash as they throw up on the ground next to my broken window. It smells awful, and burns my eyes, but I'm crying and in too much pain to care. Soon enough there are flashing lights and firemen running around the car trying to pry open my door. They talk to me to try and keep me calm, but I can't help but cry. It's so scary and hurts when I breathe or move. I'm worried that mommy is really hurt bad too. Where is daddy? Will he save us?
The fireman uses a big metal bird mouth to pry open the door and they rush me into an ambulance. I see a man in handcuffs being yelled at by a policeman and what a wreck the car is. It’s just the back of our car and the back of a pickup truck with a mess of metal in between.
In the ambulance they give me a shot in my arm and everything gets all fuzzy. The warmth spreads into me like hot cocoa on a cold night and I fall asleep.