As thanks, Lia was teaching me to ride her crawler.
“Might come in handy someday, too.” She said. I had to agree, things just got too crazy sometimes that it would never come up.
The crawler was similar to a snowmobile but longer. ‘Similar’ in that it was still a machine you wrapped yourself over and held onto while it rocketed off. Instead of treads or wheels, it had what were basically giant screws all along its bottom and sides which propelled the crawler forward by turning. In practice, this made it poor at handling, the extra length of the machine existed solely to have a few extra segments like a tail which allowed the crawler to turn.
But going in a straight line? The crawler was an unstoppable lightning-quick juggernaut that blasted through terrain as much as it went over it. And I said this knowing exactly how fast lightning could go.
So riding lessons were…interesting. Fortunately there was a sort of cockpit which covered my arms and shoulders as I laid on top of the machine, controls gripped in my hands in front of me, feet on the ground on either side of it. The hard part was getting it balanced and moving and getting my feet in all at the same time…without opening the throttle so much I left my feet behind.
“It’s just like riding a bike, but faster.”
“Lia, I never rode a bike. Neither of us did.”
“Yeah, but I learned real fast and that’s what Subaru kept telling me.”
“How is that supposed to help me?”
“Just focus on balancing. Try getting your feet up just for a second and then hit the throttle.”
I balanced on the thing, feeling it wobble under me as I put less and less weight on my legs. I started to fall one way and involuntarily jerked the yoke, making the tail whip around that way and sending the crawler careening over the opposite direction.
“Stop moving the yoke! Just try to go straight. You’re gonna hit me with the tail.”
“I wasn’t trying to, I just fell over and it moved!”
“Well stop moving it even if you are falling over, and just catch yourself with your feet.”
I gritted my teeth and tried again. This damn machine was twice as impossible to deal with as Saga.
I wasn’t quite sure why I’d thought that, except she kept coming to mind ever since the last conversation we’d had. In every context. Not that I minded sometimes, but the things she said…
“Dude, are you even focusing?”
“Yeah. Thought so. Okay, so hit the throttle, that’s the lever under your left hand…just…a …tiny…bit.”
“Like, seriously tiny. Smaller than you think.”
“I got it.”
“I’m gonna stand back here…” she retreated to inside The Bunker, safe behind a wall of concrete AND twenty feet away. She had no faith.
I centered myself, lifting up my feet. I wobbled for only a fraction of a second and then hit the throttle.
I almost flew off as the machine spun to life and tore forward, and then almost flew off again when I pulled the throttle all the way back and it slammed to a stop.
“Too much throttle!” Lia called from the doorway.
“You don’t say?” I grunted, wondering if I still had any vertebrae left. At least I’d stayed on and moved it forward.
“The only hard part is right when you accelerate or decelerate, it keeps its speed as long as you don’t touch the throttle. So don’t panic when it takes off.”
“Got it. Trying again.”
I did it again, barely touching the throttle. The monster roared to life, but this time only slowly crept forward at a walking pace. It was annoying to keep my balance, but Lia was right, it was much easier to do when it was moving.
“I-I’m doing it!” I said.
“Look at you go!” Lia exulted. “Go you!”
“I’m gonna kick it up a little,” I said and barely touched the throttle again. It moved imperceptibly under my hand and I was cruising at a brisk jogging pace now. Now that it was moving, it felt like keeping my balance was easier than losing it.
“Do some steering, don’t be gentle!” she shouted from a rapidly-growing distance.
Right. I turned the yoke in my hands gently to the side and found it did…not much. I was slowly turning to the right. I moved it more, and more, and ultimately as far as it would go. Behind me, I could see the tail curled behind me, the whole crawler now a little crescent shape, leaning into and turning toward the right, still rather meekly. It still took what seemed like a hundred yards before I had traced a full circle, which seemed ridiculous.
“It turns slow because it always has the same turning radius no matter the speed,” Lia said, walking up and standing in the center of the circle I was currently crawling in. “If you kick it up to top speed right now, you’ll still be going in this circle, just…a lot faster.”
“But I shouldn’t do that.”
“You can if you want. Just hold on and turn it up slowly.”
I turned it up slowly, and had the impression of going round and round on a carnival ride. A hundred meter circle did not feel so fast when you were going around it every seven or eight seconds. I looked down and found out I was going a hundred miles per hour. I realized the g-forces were so strong, I couldn’t even lift my chest from the seat. Or whatever you called a seat for your chest.
“Pretty fun, huh?”
“I wouldn’t drive it down the highway,” I said, feeling my voice vibrate as the crawler whipped around.
“Your voice sounds funny coming from all directions like that,” she giggled. “Sounds like I’m getting my hearing checked. Come on and slow it down, and we can go on a ride.”
Gently, I dropped the accelerator from where I had it…not even full, and the dizzying revolutions slowed and finally stopped. When I sat up, I realized that I was massively dizzy.
“Yeah, I don’t recommend standing up right now. It’s less disorienting if you are going in a straight line instead of in circles, trust me. Just feels like you’re on a fast train.”
“What if you hit a tree or something?”
“You do hit trees. All the time. They go crunch.” She patted the crawler affectionately.
“Okay. What about rocks?”
“What if you hit a cliff?”
“Well, if you’re stupid enough to drive straight into a solid wall, yeah, you’re probably done for. But more than likely, it’s got enough incline on it that she’ll tear right up the wall.”
“You mean you can drive up walls on it?”
“Yep. What, you didn’t think crawler referred to her speed, did you?”
“I didn’t think much about it at all. I never had much interest in ATVs.”
“Scoot back, I’m driving,” she said, popping open a trunk compartment in the tail and pulling out her helmet, banged to hell and abandoned in the woods when Apotheosis had come charging and rescued by us when we went to get the crawler. It was pink, which really, really clashed with the all-black menacing ensemble she’d otherwise put together.
“Your hat looks dumb,” I told her as she settled in in front of me.
“Your face looks dumb. There’s straps at my hips for you to hold, but you’re still going to want to lean in as much as you can.”
“Like…this?” I asked. I leaned forward on her.
“No, all the way in. Come on, you’ll fly off.”
“Uhh…” At her insistence, I scooted in as close as I could until my butt fell into the groove of the second seat and our pelvises were crushing up against each other.
“Now loop your arms over and grab the straps. This is not hard, what is taking you so long?”
I gently laid basically on top of her, holding my arms down with the straps, awkwardly aware that from my helmet’s chin bar, down to my hips, every inch of me was pressed against my sister.
“Mmm, you’re warm,” she said, and that was all the acknowledgement I got of our awkward situation before she hit the throttle.
She was right that moving forward was a lot less disorienting than going in circles. The world disappeared into streaks beside us as she kicked it further up, but her head stayed fixed forward, at the stretch of open in front of us.
There was a different noise for a moment as we flashed past something.
“That was the river!” she shouted over the wind. Had we gone so far so fast? The river wasn’t exactly far, but we’d been moving for only seconds. At this rate, we’d be completely out of anywhere I’d ever been in moments.
And…just like that we were. I couldn’t really tell because the details whipped past too fast, but we went through a thin copse of trees, which did indeed go ‘crunch’, and were out in another open field I’d never been in before. Lia hit the accelerator again and kicked us into high gear, faster than I’d been on my test drive, and I felt the force of the G’s hit me in the chest like someone dropped a book on my chest.
“Wooooooooooooo!” she hollered, her voice weaving in and out of the wind. It was impossible to believe we weren’t the wind. We moved so fast, and through or over everything. I saw trees and rocks whip by all around us, and through it all we remained untouched, like a bullet tearing through a world made of paper..
It was insane. I was on top of it, completely exposed, I thought, but the simple fact was we moved so damn fast that even if the front screen just pushed a branch out of the way–although it was more likely that branch just disintegrated at impact–by the time it would whip back to hit me…we were already a dozen feet away.
She was banking us now, slowly turning to the left. I saw now why the turning radius was so huge. At these speeds, with this level of invulnerability, all we cared about was heading, and puny things like ‘obstacles’ or ‘roads’ were the concerns of lesser vehicles. We just pointed where we wanted and flew.
“Gonna hit that hill!” she shouted.
In the rapidly-shrinking distance was looked like a cluster of extra-tall trees. In fact, they were just higher up than all their neighbors, so much so that they almost looked like they’d been planted on top of the others, or trees carried on the shoulders of other trees.
“You’re crazy!” I screamed into the wind.
“Yeah I am!”
She gunned it, heading right for them. In moments we were in the trees, and then, in a moment, I felt the machine jam into my pelvis, and we were moving up and forward instead of just forward.
“HOLD ON!” she shouted, her voice filled with manic glee.
I didn’t have time to respond. We exploded back into the sunlight, rising up and over the trees like the forest had just spit us out. We were flying.
“Wooooooo!” she screamed again.
“Wooooooo!” I echoed.
For one impossible moment, it seemed like we were riding on the treetops, before we crashed back down into the forest, inertial dampeners catching the worst of the impact so that I was merely in excruciating pain when I landed back down on the seat between my legs.
I heard Lia make an involuntary noise as the landing slammed the air out of her, but she kept driving like nothing was wrong. In another few moments we broke clear of the trees again and entered another unfamiliar field. I lurched forward, my pelvis pressed even harder into my sister’s butt as she slowly dropped us to a stop. Finally, she put her feet down and leaned back into me, pulling off her helmet.
“What a ducking rush,” she said, shaking out her brown mess of hair. “Oh my god that was fun.”
“Maybe skip the jump next time? I think you may have removed any chances I had of having kids,” I complained, trying to nurse my wounded junk without groping her butt. She just laughed at me
“Like you had a chance of that,” she said, kicking down the kickstand and standing and stretching. “Don’t be such a baby, I landed too and I’m fine.”
“Yeah, well, you keep certain parts of your anatomy on the inside. Guys don’t have that privilege.”
“Psh, that’s why there’s an inertial dampener built in. I think you’re just a weenie. I can take a pounding,” she said with a grin, giving her own butt a smack.
“Uh, please don’t say anything like that ever again,” I said.
“Yeah that sounded better in my head.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Changing the subject, what’d you think?”
“Fast. Very fast. Kind of lacking the elegance of your average…oh I don’t know, everything else, though.”
“Yeah, well, it’s an offroad vehicle for a reason. The screws don’t even work on roads, so…it’s just an offroad vehicle. But you gotta admit, it’s pretty fantastic.”
“It is pretty fantastic. How far did we go?”
She flipped her wrist and looked at the holo on her arm. “That was…about six minutes, and we went…12 miles, little more?”
“So that’s…” I did some math silently mentally for a second.
“120 miles per hour,” Lia finished before me.
“Haha yeah. Want to hit max speed on the way back?”
“I’m not sure I have the balls for it. Literally, not after that jump.” She laughed again.
“Okay no more jumps. Want to head back or keep going?”
“Let’s–” I was about to say head back, but reconsidered. She was the happiest I think I’d seen her since we got back together. “Let’s go a bit more.” She beamed at me.
We tore it up for another twenty minutes or so, and Lia kept to her word and kept us off any more tree-high jumps. We did bounce around a lot, and by the end, I was losing feeling in my hips, which was definitely kind of a blessing considering I was pressed up against my sister. I wondered if I could get Karu to go out on a ride with me, and felt my face go stupid at the thought of her breasts pressed up against my back while we bounced over rocks and hills.
We were almost home and I almost recognized the area I thought, when I saw something off to the side, flash past in a moment.
“Lia stop,” I shouted, tapping on her leg. Again, my body ground into hers as she brought us down from lightspeed.
“What’s up? Feeling sick?”
“No, I saw something back there. Can you reverse? Slowly?”
“Sure,” she said, and we started moving straight backwards at a few miles an hour. I kept my eyes to the side where I’d seen in, and after a minute of backtracking, saw what caught my attention.
“What…is that?” Lia asked. She put down the kickstand and both of us headed towards the thing in the grass.
It was a metal tube about three feet long, stuck in the dirt, pointed upright. A mortar? I got closer and saw it was definitely a weapon, there was a trigger and a rotating chamber for loading several rounds of munitions at once.
“It’s a gun?” Lia asked, hesitantly standing next to me. “Is it from the ruins of the base?”
“No, it’s not rusted or anything. It looks like it’s been here a little while, there’s some snow on it, but it can’t be that long. Looks like it was just dropped here.”
“Hmm.” Lia began to walk around, while I examined the weapon. It looked familiar, maybe I’d seen one wielded by an XPCA soldier? That would mean XPCA had been here…but then again, it didn’t make any sense for anyone other than XPCA to be here.
“Here, look. Someone dragged something here.” Lia had found a trail. Weirdest trail I’d ever seen, older than the snow, but deep enough to stick around through it. Giant footprints and dragging in equal measure. Something with one working leg that had dragged itself? And the trail led back from approximately The Bunker and ended here.
Near the start of the trail, Lia found another gun, a huge single-barreled monster, a little over six feet tall, carelessly thrown into the snow. Lia examined it, gingerly sweeping snow off of the black metal, before pulling it out and hanging it diagonally across her back, the butt of it inches from the ground and the big rectangular muzzle break at the tip of the barrel hovered over her head by several inches.
I stopped and thought. If the trail left The Bunker, that means it had to be someone we knew about, but none of my friends would leave like this or make a trail like this. That left…
“Luminary. Damn him,” I said.
“The guy who shot you?”
“The guy who’s butler shot me. He was in an exosuit and got run through by Karu. But it looks like he wasn’t dead…he dragged himself all the way out here, but then…vanished.”
“Maybe his butler got him? Or he got out of the suit?”
“Maybe. I don’t think he could move without the suit, they amplify all your actions, so even if you’re on death’s door, you can still move sort of normally in them. Doesn’t make sense to take him out of it either, they pump you up with medi-gel and you don’t want to open the suit and rip that all off unless you have a doctor on-hand.”
“You know a lot about this.”
“I own an exosuit. Haven’t you seen it?” She shook her head. “Well, I’ll let you stomp around in it sometime in thanks for the crawler. Pretty fun.”
“Maybe he flew off?”
“No landing skids to indicate a VTOL. Suit didn’t have any gigantic jetpack on it or anything when I saw it. Plus this was a replacement suit, I doubt he’d go even more expensive than his first one.”
“You destroyed his first suit?”
“No, stole it. That’s why I own one.”
“There are…” I swept the snow aside. “There’s tire tracks here. There was a vehicle here. He must have gotten in. But it wasn’t his, he was parked in the trees near where he attacked us, and I don’t know if he could drive in his state.”
“So someone else was out here, who picked him up and took him home. Another butler?”
“Maybe. Don’t relish the thought of him down our necks again. I might need to check out the scene of the crime again where Karu kicked his ass and see if we can find more details there.” I swept aside more snow, finding another set of footprints supporting the exosuit into the car.
And there, under the snow, I found something which made my heart stop.
“What do you have–” Lia started to ask before she too froze. Both of us just stared at the thing in my hand for a few minutes in silence and confusion, wondering how it got there, turning over theory after theory in our heads. Both of us were thinking the same thing, but nobody wanted to say it.
I threw it back on the ground and stood up. Lia was frozen and I had to pull her up by the arms. She’d gone completely catatonic. I guess I was driving.
“Come on, Lia, let’s go. Move your feet, please,” I pleaded as I dragged her unresponsive form away from the thing and onto the crawler.
I drove us away slowly so she wouldn’t fall, leaving the half-smoked cigarette butt in the snow where I’d found it.