by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
As Lohman stormed out the hospital doors, the Director’s image hovered ahead of him, keeping pace as Lohman hurried to his transport. “He was here!” he shouted. “He left this morning, just after sunrise. But he was here!”
“Richard, I don’t give a tinker’s dam where the man was. What matters is where he is, and at this point you have no idea!”
“Not true, Director. Doubtless he’s en route to San Francisco.”
“Eh? Frisco? How do you know that?”
“Headquarters for Nutrisynth, obviously. Why else head west?”
Without waiting for a response from his employer, Lohman turned to face the Grunt at his side.
“Delta, Flemel is travelling under a false identity, one Frank Williamson, Citizen 49-A-726JP. Not only did he survive the crash, he was able to leave on foot.
“One problem: The Williamson citizen number coded as valid, and yet — I can’t understand how he managed it — his position posted as unreadable. You’ll have to track him down visually. Notify me once you’ve found him, and hold him until I can reach you.”
Wordlessly, the Grunt lifted off, making an expanding spiral in the sky as it went into search mode.
“Richard, I have to say, I’m disappointed at your progress so far.”
“My apologies, Director. But, as you can see, I keep hitting snags. As I said, Flemel can’t be tracked. That’s enough to stymie the best investigator.”
“But you are the best, Richard. Or so I’ve always thought. Now I’m beginning to wonder.”
“Director, I had every reason to believe I would find him here. The local DMV report described Flemel’s smash-up as cataclysmic. He should have been killed or at the very least, in intensive care. Instead, he requested early discharge and walked out on his own.”
“So, how hard can it be to hunt down a man wandering the streets in a hospital gown?”
“Easier said than done, Director. He may have hitched a ride, or perhaps he’s lying low somewhere. I have three Grunts prowling for him. I’ll find him soon enough.”
“Until today I wouldn’t have doubted you, Richard, but things seem to have changed. So far, you’ve allowed yourself to be outwitted, first by an ordinary counterfeiter, and then by a mere sanitation technician. Are you asleep?”
Lohman grimaced. On the list of things he truly hated, being spoken to in this way was first and foremost. But he managed to keep a civil tongue.
“Director, I can assure you I’m hot on Flemel’s trail. The day isn’t over yet. I’m still confident I’ll have him by nightfall.”
“We’ll see, but I expect satisfaction in this matter. If I don’t have Flemel before me in the next twenty-four hours, I’ll have to hand the matter over to someone else. And God forbid he reache Nutrisynth before you intercept him—”
“I’m on it!” Lohman said, more gruffly than he had intended, and terminated the comvid.
Immediately, he regretted himself. To be sure, his relationship with the Director had never been particularly amicable. He had always considered the Old Man a short-sighted fool. But in business as much as in politics, it was important to play one’s cards close to the chest.
So far, he had managed to keep Hildy out of his conversations with the Director. He was glad for that. He hadn’t mentioned that Flemel was seen boarding an Ouroboros transport with her, either, a detail the Old Man would certainly want to hear.
No, he had decided even before leaving New York not to share any information about Hildy. Instead, he would keep the Director apprised only about his search for Flemel and omit any mention of Hildy in his reports. Her betrayal was personal. His search for her would be a private matter, conducted in tandem with his official quest to retrieve the stolen files. Hildy had made a fool of him. She would be made to regret it.
As he boarded his car and lifted off, a static buzz heralded a message from Beta and Gamma. They spoke in unison.
“Evans transport found north of Death Valley. Emission of water vapor from transport mingling with dry air—”
“I don’t care how you found her. Is she unharmed?”
“Affirmative. Engines have been disabled. Holding and awaiting further instructions.”
“Excellent! Send the coordinates to my driver, I’m already en route.”
The transport veered west, gaining speed. Lohman checked his map: Hildy was only an hour ahead of him. With luck, Flemel would be in the car with her, and this whole matter would be finished. Not that he felt any compulsion to obey the Director’s orders. Once he had the files, Ouroboros could go to hell.
He leaned back and relaxed a moment, envisioning the various humiliations he had in store for Hildy. Suddenly, an alarm sounded.
The fuzzy voice of the pilot rang out. “Large object approaching, approximately two meters high, on collision course.”
Lohman sat bolt upright. “Evade!”
“Evasion unsuccessful. Object is adjusting. Impact twenty seconds.”
“Give me a visual and relinquish pilot control.”
When the virtual control panel displayed itself before him, Lohman magnified the image on the screen. His jaw dropped to his knees.
The object about to collide with him was his own Grunt.
“Delta!” he shouted. “Stand down! Do you hear me? I said, stand down!”
The Grunt made no response. Its course remained unaltered.
“Veer away!” Lohman cried, frantically working the controls. “Accept emergency override 1-Lohman-Prime, and veer away! Acknowledge!”
Again, there was no response from the errant Grunt. The alarm assaulting Lohman’s ears intensified. He ignored it. At this elevation, there would be no surviving a mid-air collision. If the Grunt failed to kill him, the ensuing fall would.
A bead of sweat dribbled down his left temple. He grasped the controls firmly in hand and held his breath, knowing he had to time this perfectly — if he miscalculated his turn by even a fraction of a second, he was dead.
Above the alarm’s grating blare, he could hear the Grunt headed for him. The air around him vibrated with the Grunt’s approach. Steady, he told himself.
The viewscreen indicated a black dot bearing down on his position, easily doing Mach Three. Lohman trained his eyes upon it. “Steady, steady...”
A millisecond before impact, he jerked the controls hard starboard, rolling at the point of impact.
His timing was nearly perfect.
He had managed to evade a direct impact, but the Grunt clipped the transport’s undercarriage, rupturing the vehicle’s hoverglide panels and instantly filling the cabin with smoke. As the transport began to spin wildly, the virtual controls dissolved in Lohman’s hands.
At the same moment, the Grunt’s fuel reserves were ripped open by the collision. It quickly lost power, spinning in counterturn with the now-crippled transport. They tumbled earthward.
Before impact, Lohman managed to pose a single question. “What the hell...?”
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll