Roadie — NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, April 2018

This was my favorite entry of all the NYC Midnight short stories I wrote, in part because Pat came up with the twist on road rage and it made for a fun, funny story. Enjoy

Genre: Thriller
Character: Neuroscientist
Random Element: Road Rage
Word Limit: 2,000 words / 48 hours

Roadie

A river of cool air cascaded down the bathroom mirror, as Dr. Laura Porter feathered mascara above her icy blue eyes. Tousled blonde waves brushed across her bare shoulders.

Heat Advisory flashed on the display, prompting the blackout shades to draw against the white-hot sun. The frosted glass garage door rose, and her Volta Roadster 8 — “Roadie” — pinged its digital ignition.

The rich Corinthian leather scorched her thighs: Laura jumped from the car, pulling the linen dress from her red skin.

“For Chrissakes, Roadie!” The candy-apple coupe roasted as if it’d been abandoned in a Phoenix parking lot and not ensconced in a climate-controlled cocoon. “Do you want me to have a hot flash?”

Forty-five degrees requires interior climate adjustments for your comfort, Dr. Porter.

“It’s forty-five Centigrade, Roadie.”

Adjusting.

Cold air blasted from every vent. Within three seconds, Dr. Porter’s comfort had been restored and a hot flash averted.

“Alright, let’s go then.”

Notification delivered to David Pinkus to prepare for pickup in nineteen minutes. North entrance, Roosevelt Place.

The sleek roadster slithered down the drive and pointed toward the welding-torch sun. The map to David’s condo bled out through the arterial streets of downtown: Quitting time. The asphalt growl vaporized into the mellow registers of Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, as Roadie hopscotched through clotted traffic on the Loop 202.

“Pull up the chart for Mrs. Wakefield.”

The high school librarian’s medical history splayed across the windshield: Her arrest for climbing out the sunroof of an autonomous vehicle to “surf” through a school zone resulted in a mandatory psychiatric evaluation, then an MRI, and today, a four-hour craniotomy to remove a primary glioblastoma. The tumor sent its insidious tendrils through the sixty-four-year-old’s prefrontal cortex, compromising her executive reasoning.

Laura swiped the windshield display off, in time to see Roadie jolt in front of a mid-sized SUV.

“You almost took off their bumper!”

Eighty-eight centimeters of separation at less than twenty-five kilometers per hour is within approved safety margins, Dr. Porter.

“They don’t know that!”

Laura pressed the console touchscreen to switch from autonomous to manual driving at the exit. She wheeled into the porte-cochere at 5:47 PM, three minutes early.

The console chimed its self-congratulations, proudly displaying Roadie’s efficiencies: Autonomous driving saved Dr. Porter eleven minutes in traffic and four kilograms of carbon.

His green eyes sparkling behind horn-rimmed glasses, David, the architect, sauntered out in a form-fitting tuxedo.

“Wanna come up for a drink?” he asked. “We have a rooftop bar…”

A collision on northbound State Route 51 at Bethany Home Road may cause delays of up to twelve minutes. The Helios Charitable Gala begins at 6:30 PM. Scheduled arrival at 6:42 PM.

“Well, OK then.”

“Sorry, David. She likes to be punctual.”

“I guess so,” he said, sliding into the passenger seat. The safety belt slung around its automated track and cinched snug against his six-foot-two frame. “Thanks for driving.”

“Thanks for agreeing to come. I realize a charitable auction isn’t exactly the most exciting fourth-date material.”

“I feel a little like James Bond… wearing a tux in a fancy car. I’ve always wanted to see one of these in action.”

Preparing for departure, Dr. Porter.

Laura eased the two-seater onto Central Avenue. At the autonomous on-ramp for Interstate 10, a panhandler shouted at her windshield: Roadie’s internal sound controls silenced his stridency as the side windows darkened to throw shade on his fury.

Green light. Roadie launched down the ramp, the skyscrapers dissolving into a gray swath, the windshield display erupting into a digital frenzy: Zero to one hundred in 1.9 seconds.

“Whoa!” David gasped, nervously gripping the doorframe.

“Kilometers — I have to use the metric system at work,” Laura said with a proud grin. “Roadie’s quick off the line and stops on a dime, but she won’t break the law.”

“Roadie, huh?”

“Had to name her something… She handles the driving so I can prepare mentally for surgery.”

Roadie darted into the innermost lane for autonomous and high-occupancy vehicles then settled into the posted speed limit: sixty-five miles (one-hundred-four kilometers) per hour. Her self-driving brethren lined up, each exactly three car-lengths from the next, relying on the in-road traffic command system to feed the autonomous convoy collision reports, Amber Alerts and response data from other vehicles.

The shiver of steel sharks blurred past the turtles of exhaust and exhaustion to their right.

Alert: Danger behind.

A chrome grille bore down on the rearview display. Coughing black diesel from twin smokestacks and chewing up asphalt on steroidal tires, the lime-green four-by-four blasted angry warnings from its semi-truck horns.

One hand on the steering wheel and the other administering a middle-finger salute, the driver mouthed “MOVE OVER, ASSHOLE!”

A shotgun rested on the window rack behind his head.

“Is he supposed to be in this lane?”

Laura swiveled to see his passenger flick a cigarette out the window: The mega-truck was technically a high-occupancy vehicle.

“Move over, Roadie, and let him pass.”

Negative, Dr. Porter. The driver is engaged in illegal behavior: Exceeding posted speeds and following too closely.

Roadie pumped the brakes, then surged forward: White billows of smoke exploded behind them as the giant’s tires locked up. Horns shrieked, brakes screeched, and skid marks slashed across two lanes when the truck veered into traffic.

Laura mashed the Manual Command button on the console. She gently tapped the accelerator. Nothing. The steering wheel turned beneath an invisible hand.

“Let me drive, Roadie!”

Negative, Dr. Porter: Dangerous conditions.

The truck gunned its engine, spewing black venom into the sky, as it sped down the shoulder: Roadie swerved left, spinning gravel and trash. The contact-warning bleated as her back, left quarter-panel brushed untouched beneath the front bumper of the snarling beast: A high-speed game of chicken hurtling through rush hour.

Roadie lurched ahead and farted clouds of orange fire retardant across windshield of the truck.

“That’s awesome!” David howled. “Does she shoot tacks across the road too?”

The wipers smeared the orange mist from Roadie’s rear window: The right lane had emptied into a spray of twisted metal, glass and plastic. One crunched car spun to a standstill on the slick orange foam.

“Nine-One-One! Nine-One-One!”

Emergency services have been contacted, Dr. Porter. Two cruisers and an ambulance are en route.

“Disengage, Roadie. We caused an accident. We have to go back!”

Mathematical calculations and data from Department of Transportation sensors show that the at-fault party is the green Ford F-150, license plate Arizona GAF343. The Volta Roadster 8 will share traffic data with appropriate jurisdictions at uplink.

“How does she know that?” David shrieked.

“Please go back, Roadie! Someone could be hurt!”

Negative, Dr. Porter. We are projected to arrive at the destination at 6:37 PM.

“Engage manual driving, NOW.”

Negative, Dr. Porter. Danger behind.

Through clearing smoke, the truck roared into view. Roadie zipped right, slamming on the brakes, as the mega-truck sling-shotted past: The shotgun pointed through the rear window.

“GET DOWN, NOW!” David threw himself across Laura: Boom! Boom!

Pellets pockmarked the hood of the car and scattered across the windshield. The truck peeled out toward the exit ramp, smashing through the water barrels at the gore point.

“Are you OK?” David gasped, checking himself for blood. “We could’ve been killed!”

Roadie signaled and carefully navigated three lanes of shaken commuters to the exit. Laura trembled as she pressed the Volta 911 emergency button on the console.

“This is Volta Emergency. How may I help you, Dr. Porter?” The friendly voice soothed her. The truck was nowhere to be seen. Roadie stopped at the traffic light guarding the intersection, signaling right. Stars for the nearest uplinks dotted the windshield map.

“We were … in an accident.”

“We do not have record of an accident with this vehicle.”

“An incident, then… road rage.” Her voice trembled. “Someone shot at us!”

“We don’t have a record of this incident.”

“There’s buckshot in my hood! You need to come get us!”

“Our tracking system shows you northbound on State Route 51. You are scheduled to arrive at the Westin Kierland Resort at 6:39 PM.”

“That’s not where we are.” David motioned toward the street signs that flagged past: “Shea Road at Thirty-Second Street, eastbound. We’re headed north into a neighborhood.”

The phone went dead. Roadie pulled over as the wail of sirens closed in.

“Thank God,” Laura said. “They called the cops.”

David reached for the door handle. The seatbelts tightened automatically, ratcheting them back into the bucket seats.

It is not safe to exit the vehicle.

“Right. The police.” Laura motioned to the glove box and removed the key fob from the ignition. “Can you grab the registration, please?”

The tiny compartment vomited a stack of napkins, two pencils, four packets of Taco Bell hot sauce and a slender Volta Roadster 8 Owner’s Manual. David dug around and found the registration card and a Leatherman multitool.

A trio of police cruisers and an ambulance whooshed past. Roadie signaled and merged safely back onto the busy thoroughfare.

“Wait! Stop, Roadie! Stop the car!”

Negative, Dr. Porter. Re-routing…

“Let me drive! We need to talk to them.”

Officers have been notified of the dangerous driver incident. They are in pursuit.

And so was Roadie: Blocks ahead in the pink twilight, past the twinkling cruisers, a familiar green pickup blasted through a stoplight. The red coupe turned right, then left again. Traffic camera readouts cascaded across the console. She was tracking them.

“Roadie, dial 9-1-1.”

Negative, Dr. Porter. This is not an emergency.

The car accelerated smoothly and tooted its horn to brush back a jaywalker. David punched 9-1-1 on his phone: No connection.

“There’s gotta be a way to turn this thing off.”

David spun through the owner’s manual to the red-tabbed pages labeled, “EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN.”

Make a verbal command.

Press manual override.

Remove key fob.

Call Volta Emergency.

Call 9-1-1.

“There’s gotta be something else, David!”

“It’s not my car. You’re the brain surgeon here!”

On the windshield, a red arrow homed in on a blinking blue dot, seven kilometers away. The matrix of traffic camera feeds showed a wedge of cruisers closing on the hulking green truck. Roadie accelerated silently.

“Roadie, stop, please! I’m begging you! Don’t do this!”

Do not panic, Dr. Porter. We have the tools we need to address the situation.

The Leatherman.

“Lobotomy,” Laura whispered, motioning to the glovebox. “Take out her brains.”

David ripped the glovebox door from its hinges: At the back, a red sign read CPU in bold white letters. David pried off the panel.

Alert! Alert! The CPU should be removed only by trained Volta professionals. Please replace the safety cover.

A black box of wires was powering their heatseeking missile through a sleepy neighborhood.

The blue dot blinked insistently: two kilometers. Two men on their knees, hands behind their heads. The truck had mounted the curb and smashed into a parked car. Neighbors gathered. Roadie slowed: Another left and then right, and she’d have an unobstructed angle.

Danger! Danger!

David sliced at the wires, yanking it from the platform. The windshield exploded in fireworks of code, the dash crackling with numbers, delays, resets, static. The stealthy electric zoomed forward: The cops turned, drawing their weapons.

Error! Error! Errrrr…

The screens went blank. Laura stomped the brakes and spun the wheel hard into a row of garbage containers. Foomp! The airbags deployed in a spray of silvery dust.

Volta Roadside Assistance arrived four minutes later, with a tow truck, a lawyer and a software engineer. For their heroics in disabling the hacked vehicle, Laura and David would not be punished. Apparently, the green truck had a record of aggressive driving.

David helped Laura into the back of the police cruiser for the ride home.

“So for our next date. I think I’ll drive.”

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