Thursday, August 4, 2011

Human Black Box: Things Go Sideways (pt 7)

Because I'm going to be busy over the next few days, I'll go on ahead and post part 7 of Human Black Box today. In the last installment, the team was ambushed by strange creatures who could go invisible, quite possibly hacked, and general confusion sown among their ranks. Several were lost... and now the remainder are on the run again, on their way through the mountains and towards the Nevada/Arizona boarder - and Las Vegas.

You can find the Human Black Box archive, and with it, the previous 6 installments, here: HBB

You can continue following their journey here, courtesy of MapQuest:

At some point in the drive, they passed through Williams, a city some 10 miles from where they'd been spending the night. It was a case of blink and you miss it - the city was there and gone, its ruins left far behind, as the AGI continued down Interstate 40, through the snow-covered mountains. As they left the region around Flagstaff, the snow wasn't that deep, although the interstate had probably seen better days. Chloe, of course, saw none of that - she'd nodded off to sleep again, in the back seat of the crash vehicle.

There wasn't much to see anyway; even if the crash vehicle had windows, beyond the two in the back, the large front windshield, and the side windows in the suicide doors, the mountains were dusty and covered with snow and a forest of dead trees.

They passed a large, single mountain that rose up from the highway surrounded by trees, the back of it looking slightly hollowed out. The Interstate continued in a wide sweeping pattern, until it branched out into four parts, and they saw the sign telling them that they were going to be entering Ash Fork. Ash Fork was another there but gone situation; a few burned out buildings dotted the side of the road, covered in a thin layer of snow, but the rest was fields of rubble.

Some time after passing Ash Fork, Chloe woke up, stretching and looking around, trying to get her bearings again. There was a reason she didn't want to sleep in the armor the night before, and that was becoming apparent as she stood up and could only remember how she hadn't felt that sore in... well, until she remembered more, she could safely say she'd never felt as sore as she did now.


She crawled up in the seat beside him, as he tilted his mechanical head to look at her.

[Oh, you're awake.]

[Yeah. And before you ask, no, I didn't sleep well.]

[I wasn't going to. I never remember sleeping well when I was inside of armor. That's the one upshot of being a synth with a cyberbrain; while I do have to sleep, I don't have to sleep all at once. shut down the right half of the brain, let that sleep, then wake that up and shut down the left. It works.]

Chloe looked ahead. It was hard to see in the massive spiderweb-like cracks that ran across the windshield, but she didn't need to see: the AGI was driving them. It was getting drier, though; she could begin to see heat rising from the sandy floor surrounding the Interstate, and the concrete ahead looked like it was melting into puddles.

[What's the temperature?]

[100 degrees. It'll probably get to 120, but we'll be back in the mountains before then.]

The Interstate wove its way through the mountains. She looked over into the back of the seat; spotting the bag that she'd grabbed and had with her since the start. She had to think for a second, but then remembered that there was a box in there.

She leaned over, careful not to wake up Hotaru, Zira, or Zaius, and picked the bag up, pulling it into the front seat.

[What's in the bag? I've been meaning to ask that, but you left it in here during the storm.]

[Yeah, I know. I totally forgot about it.]

She unzipped the bag, as the road continued snaking through the mountains. They'd been on the road for about two hours, judging by her internal clock, although they were still surrounded by dead trees and rugged terrain.

[This. This is a black box. Antares told me there was a modified ghostrider module in here that had an ego in it.]

Ahmed leaned over and took the box, looking at it. [I'd say you're nuts, because a ghostrider module is an implant, but I can't see how to get it open to double check.]

She took it back, as she saw a familiar emoticon in her entopic AR display. She leaned backwards, looking over at Ahmed.

[What the fuck...]

#Start Aether Jabber#
#Active Members: 6#
Antares: [Oh wow, you actually made it! Uh... sorta. I only count a grand total of 2 deaths, but those were among people who didn't actually matter. Not bad... not bad at all. I mean, any landing, right? Of course. And those weapons you found served you, yes? See, good ol' ANTARES. He's a smart cookie, I'm telling you what. And you're learning how to use the Mesh, too. Why, it feels like my babies are all grown up on me.

[Okay, so, bad news. By now, you know you're not alone on Earth. I feel like now is a good time to bring that up, because you've already meet met some of the inhabitants. But that's not what I mean. See, I neglected to tell you that there's already something that's taken up residence in Area 51. It's a seed AI, just like me, but not. It's name is Ares. So what's the difference between me and Ares? Well, my name is ANTARES, which means the Anti-Ares. I'm a Promethean. So if a Promethean is the Anti-Ares, what does that make Ares, you ask? It makes him a seed AI that's *not* a Promethean. And not special enough to get his names in all caps.]

Ahmed: [There's only two different types of Seed AIs - the Prometheans and the TI-]

Antares: [How astute! Give this synthmore a cookie and a tune up. Where'd you find him at, Chloe? Yeah, Ares is a TITAN. Now, I know you know that I know you know what TITANs are. So I won't bother explaining that they're like me, in that they're crazy. But I'm crazy in the funny-haha way. They're crazy in the "we-fuck-you-up" way, and there's a big difference there, folks. So, here's what's going to have to happen. My peeps can't get down there with a TITAN - or possibly part of a TITAN - taking hold of Area 51. I'm not sure how much of Ares is still on Earth - the TITANs are up, up, and away - unlike me and the others - so there's a good chance that what you'll find in Area 51 is a Gamma or Delta Fork. If it's a Gamma or Delta Fork, you take standard action recourse #452013: Shoot it 'till it stops moving.]

Chloe: [Wait! Why didn't you tell us this sooner!? I've heard stories about them now, I don't know...]

Antares: [Well, see, I would've love, but I just remembered. When you're crunching more information than the 10x the Library of Congress a minute in a Matroskia brain, you can be forgiven for forgetting things.]

Hotaru: [Why did you do what you did - you put my father inside of my head!]

Antares: [... And on that note, I should be going. Oh, but before I leave, I notice you're near Seligman. Nice place, that Seligman; it has an airport, and there's some parts of it left. I bring that up for no apparent reason other than as an awkward transition to let you know that by initiating this chat, I've alerted everything within 50 miles of your current position. Expect company - soon. Aaaand - adios. Remember the TITANs.]
#End Aether Jabber#
"What the fuck?" Ahmed demanded, looking over at Chloe. "That's Antares?!"

Chloe looked up as they passed Seligman, the ruins rising up from the desert floor as they crossed over an empty creek bed, and into the dry and dusty Mojave desert.

"He hasn't changed a lot."

"He's trying to kill us!"

Hotaru sat up, as Chloe leaned froward. The humidity was dropping rapidly, but that wasn't what caught her attention. What caught her attention was what looked like trails of jet exhaust. The jet engines broke off, and flew towards the west, as the crash vehicle, now in the open, continued its race along the desert floor.

[Are there supposed to be jets in the air?]

[No. There's not.]

Up ahead, a new ridge of mountains rose up; one they approached quickly along the concrete ribbon of I-40. One of those jet trails looped back around and then vanished off towards the horizon.

[The road! Check the road!]

Chloe looked behind them as several two-wheeled vehicles appeared. They looked like motorcycles, but they didn't have drivers, and they were sleek and almost organic. There were three more of them, for a total of five, speeding across the desert road beside them.

I-40 turned into a sweeping curve, as Ahmed tossed the box into the back and checked his clip. The first of the bikes opened two small doors on the side, a sideways drum with several holes on it falling out and locking into place.

The others did the same, and what followed were rapid fire missiles, screaming across the ground and slamming into the crash vehicle. They ripped into the heavily armored exterior but didn't budge the vehicle itself. With their first salvo over, Chloe picked herself up off of the floor and loaded another round into the rocket launcher.

[Stay down!]

She kicked open the back door, immediately aware of how dry it was outside. It was bone dry and hot; she could feel the moisture being sucked from her skin as she crouched down, the drums clicking into place again. She unloaded a round but missed; the bikes maneuvering out of the way. She cursed, fumbled with the munitions, and ducked as they opened up again with a withering hail of bullets that tore into the back of the vehicle. Another rocket streaked past her amidst the bullets, slamming into the nose of one of the bikes. It flattened the front of the bike and sent it spiraling to the ground, where it went sideways and ripped itself to pieces skimming along the ground before finally cutting itself in two on a tree.

Chloe looked up as Zaius loaded another round, tossing one to Chloe. He was bleeding, probably hit a few times, but none the worse for wear. Chloe grabbed the round and slid it into place, as the road straightened out. They were surrounded now by walls on both sides, meaning that the bikes had to move onto the road. She grabbed one of the doors and pulled it shut as the next salvo of rockets slammed into the vehicle, Zaius shutting the second. She looked back for Ahmed, who was picking off the bikes from the driver's seat.

Once the rockets were done, she pushed the door back open and fired, the rocket scoring a solid hit on one of the long fork. The metal fork disintegrated, and the bike skidded on a side and threw sparks in the air, as they approached a bridge. They turned go over the bridge, the skidding bike unable to turn. It triggered a pile up when it slammed into the wall of the bridge and ricocheted off, flipping over the edge and vanishing into the gully below.

The other bike it'd hit lost control and fell flat on its side, spinning to a stop. That was three down, with the fourth joining soon after: it slammed into the bike that had gone on its side and flipped. The whole thing had happened so fast that only one of the bikes managed to slow down enough to get around, and then pick back up speed again. 

The valley they were in had become narrower now, and they started a sweeping corner. The sole bike didn't stay alone for much longer - two more appeared, kicking up dust as they went over the dusty, dry hills on the mountain sides beside them.

[Where are they coming from?!]

[The other side of the Interstate!]

They shot past an access road connecting the two parts; it offered a dip that the two bikes that had appeared could ride down and get on I-40 with. They weren't alone, though; tires screeched, and another sleek, metallic vehicle appeared - this one sporting four wheels, and a large machine gun that pivoted on the top of it. Three bikes and one heavy machine-gun toting vehicle - this just kept getting better and better.

The vehicle with the heavy machine gun opened up with it, the rounds punching into the back doors of the crash vehicle, both Chloe and Zaius working to keep the door shut. Another salvo of rockets slammed into the vehicle as well, as they went over the first bridge. When the rockets stopped, Chloe threw the doors open and let Zaius get a good shot with his launcher at the bikes; he scored a solid hit and blew a large hole in one, the vehicle opening up and peppering Zaius with bullets. The interior of the vehicle was covered in a fine red mist as Zaius went backwards and struggled to get himself out of the way, Zira picking up the rocket launcher only to take several rounds in her stomach and chest as well. She hit the floor, dropping the vehicle as Hotaru continued to lay on the ground, covering her head.

Chloe stood up, took aim, and fired at the machine gun. The gun was blown from its mount; it flipped off as the vehicle slammed into one of the bikes, running it off the road before it straightened itself.

They went over another bridge, the vehicle speeding up to catch them now. The last bike launched another rocket at them but it missed, catching a tree and blasting it to matchwood. They looked like they were out of rounds, so Chloe pulled the doors back shut, latching them and looking back at Zira and Zaius.

Both of them had gotten tore up pretty badly. She ducked down beside Zira, and then Zaius, as Zaius waved her off.

[We... we'll be fine.]

[That sort of machismo gets people killed. Hotaru, see if you can find something - anything - to help them.]

[Look for a nano-bandage. We... I think we brought a few with us, if we haven't used them already.]

Hotaru set to work, as Chloe tired to find something else to use. She went looking around, tearing through the boxes, hoping to find something - anything - that DirAct had left for them to use. She had a hard time believing that a private military contract wouldn't come to a place like this without carrying a virtual armory.

There was a loud crash and everyone went against the far wall. Chloe was almost knocked unconscious, and was temporarily buried under some boxes. There was grinding, and Ahmed pulled himself back inside, as the crash vehicle struggled to stay on the road. The two AGI driven vehicles were attempting to run one another off the road, and as they approached another bridge, off into the gully below as well. Chloe staggered onto her feet, loading another clip into the gun. She could hear the continued grinding of metal and crawled into the front seat, looking out as their AGI got the upper hand by breaking off and then turning sharply in front of it, clipping the front just right. The maneuver managed to push the other vehicle off road. It went careening off the battered concrete strip and vanished in a dust cloud with a loud crash. Chloe watched it flip right off the edge of the gully and into the dried river bed below, as they raced over the bridge.

[Now that's some fancy maneuvering.]

[Fuck yeah. We've got a kick-ass AGI in here.]

They could see the other side of I-40 from where they were. They shot past a sign that read "Kingman", but they missed how many miles it was away.

The mountains parted, and several more bikes appeared on the other side of the highway.

[I found more of the rockets!]

Chloe ducked into the back, grabbing the box that Hotaru had found and pried it open, heaving a huge sigh. They came with a lot more than she thought.

Hotaru had also managed to find the nano-bandage, and was trying to read the instructions to figure out how to apply it when Chloe jumped back in the passenger's seat and pushed the door open, leaning out with the launcher. She took aim and fired, the rocket screaming across the distance between the two roads. It was behind the bikes, but it looped back around and homed in, slamming into the rear tire of one and causing it to flip in the air. It slammed back down, taking another bike with it as the mountains finally vanished and the two sides of I-40 reconnected, careening down an otherwise flat, desert road.

The humidity had dropped to 8% and was falling, while the pressure was rising. It was getting dangerous to be outside.

Ahmed tossed her another round from the back as they approached an exchange; she fired but missed, wasting the round in the desert sand. The desert and the desert roads stretched out for miles, as Chloe slammed the door shut, fumbling with the rocket launcher.

[Is everyone alright?]

[You've been good about where you've been aiming that backwash. Don't start getting stupid with it now.]

They went over another bridge that spanned a dried riverbed, and were approaching the Highway-93 exchange. The crash vehicle clocked out at its red-line speed of 225mph, the bikes still managing to keep up with them. Once they were on the other side of the bridge, the bikes cross over behind them and peppered them again with another salvo of missiles.

[Damn I hate these bikes.]

[Chloe! The AGI says hold on!]

Chloe didn't think, she grabbed Hotaru, pinned Zira and Zaius against the back seat, and grabbed onto something, hoping it was enough.

The brakes screamed. She'd never heard brakes scream that loud before. And while that wasn't saying much given the gaps in her memory, they were loud. Over the course of less than ten feet, and the thick odor of burning brakes, the crash vehicle came to a stop.

The bikes, however, could not.

Chloe screamed and looked away as the bikes slammed into the back of the crash vehicle, completely disintegrating upon impact, massive explosions resounding from their collisions. Chloe had no idea how the crash vehicle held up, but it did. When it started back up again there was a grinding sound, but after it got into the proper gear, the grinding sound vanished.

[Tell it not to do that again, okay?]

[I will.]

The crash vehicle started picking up speed again, moving across another bridge that spanned the hundredth dried river bed, picking up speed quickly on the straight-away that followed. They were approaching Kingman now; they hit the exchange with highway-93 and shot right past it, the crash vehicle getting back up to 225mph.

After about five minutes, they closed on another complicated exchange and a collection of rusted and dead cars. The crash vehicle plowed right through them, continuing on its way as they closed on the blasted remains of Kingman.

After another few minutes, they passed a crater where a subdivision used to be. The highway made a sweeping turn into Kingman, the ghostly ruins rising up from the blazing hot desert surface. In that time they hadn't seen any more bikes, and assumed that they'd outrun them.

Hotaru had managed to get the bandages on Zira and Zaius, while Ahmed tore through the boxes, looking for all the ammunition he could find and collecting it in one place. Kingman was a fairly good-sized city, with multiple exchanges. After they'd gotten the two uplifts settled, around the time they went over the second exchange and were exiting Kingman, Chloe settled back onto the floor.

[Maybe we should stop?]

[Not a chance. Your "friend" told everything within 50 miles where we were at. There's no stopping - not until we're far enough away that it won't matter.]

Chloe swallowed hard, and went looking around for something to drink. While she did that, the crash vehicle left the northern part of Kingman, went around a sharp loop, and entered the southern part of the city. Once there, it jumped off of the interstate. It nearly flipped getting onto the overpass, and once off of that, made a sharp turn onto Highway 93.

93 took them through a ruin-littered valley; the crash vehicle slammed through several evacuated cars as it did so.

[There's water in our bag.]

[Thanks, Zira.]

Chloe reached into their bag, and pulled out a canteen. She drank some, and then handed it over to whoever wanted some, Hotaru taking it. Highway 93, meanwhile, exited the valley and continued weaving through the mountains, until they reached the 93/68 exchange, and continued north. Once they exited north, 93 opened up onto a completely flat stretch of desert; from there to the horizon.

Chloe peered back over the front seat, spotting the jet exhaust trails again.

[That's not good.]

She jumped into the front seat as a jet - it had to be, or it looked like one - dropped from the sky and flew parallel to them just a few dozen feet above the ground. It broke and lifted back upright, Chloe throwing open the door and looking out as several jets screamed overhead. They flew straight in a pattern and then looped back around, coming at them from the front.

She slammed the door and ducked under the dash as the first few missiles slammed into the front of their vehicle.

The windshield was almost knocked out. The fireball that those rounds created ignited a massive firestorm in the bone-dry air that quickly expanded to consume everything around them, and continued to grow. There was a loud warning siren, and it started to feel like an oven. Chloe had never been inside of a fire before, but it didn't seem like this one was ending. It kept right up with them, as the jets punched through the fire at less than a few dozen feet above the ground, careening past speeds that easily surpassed mach 2. The missiles they launched, however, did not.

The second missile ripped into the crash vehicle, and nearly threw it off the road.

And the land was nothing but flat desert, with two mountains regions couple dozen miles away on either side.

The rolling firestorm sparked more clouds of raw fire, barring them from attacking back at the jets as they looped around. The fire didn't even seem to hide them; as the fire storm grew into a massive storm of Biblical proportions, driven by the 2% humidity and the explosive dust in the air, the jets continued to fly circles around them, breaking mach speed and launching the rockets at them. The next one slammed into them and nearly knocked them off the road, as the AGI pilot took drastic action and jumped off the road. Chloe jumped into the back and grabbed Hotaru, holding onto the younger woman, convinced that this was it. It was utterly terrifying, and Chloe guessed that the wailing noise was the climate control warning them that if it got any hotter, it wouldn't be able to help.

By this time, the rolling firestorm had grown to several miles in distance, and a half-mile tall. It consumed; burning through the remainder of the ruins, and barreled after them, catching up with and surpassing them. It was like a pyroclastic flow almost; the flames washed past them as they passed the exit to Dolan Springs. The firestorm passed, continuing to roll north and allowing them full view of the jets - and allowing the jets full view of them.

There was a sign that read "Willow Beach" just ahead, but they ran it over and left it in the dust. Chloe grabbed the rocket launcher again, and jumped in the passenger seat, forcing the door open and burning her lungs with the hot air. She pushed the pain aside, leveled the rocket launcher, and waited for the jet to loop back around. When it did, she planted the shot right in its nose.

The explosion eviscerated the mechanical jet and sent it's fiery pieces into the sand below. She was afraid of another firestorm before she realized that the previous one had burned all the dust from the air; rather, what remained of the jet tumbled to a stop, as they shot past it's flaming wreckage.

The next sign they shot past alerted them to the fact that they were closing on Boulder City.

93 continued northwest, as she slammed the door shut just in time to miss getting hit by a missile that threw the crash vehicle - and her - into the driver's side door. She slumped down, knocked unconscious by the blow.

The jets looped around and ascended, as they approached Hoover Dam.

They couldn't see it yet, but the signs were announcing it right and left.

93 made a sweeping curve, and Chloe felt herself jarred awake by Ahmed.

[Get up. I'm not letting you sleep on the job.]

He offered her hand up and she took it, climbing back into the seat.

[Where'd the jets go?]

[They're making another pass.]

Chloe picked up the rocket launcher and loaded it again, as the crash vehicle came to a sudden and sharp stop. Chloe caught herself, as did Ahmed.

[Why are we stopping!?]

Chloe looked ahead. There was supposed to be a bridge there, because that was a big gap. Unfortunately, 93 ended where they were at, and picked right back up on the other side. Wherever the bridge was at, it wasn't where it was supposed to be.

[The crash vehicle can do a lot of things, Chloe. Flying is not one of them.]

Chloe looked at the large gap, and then through the back as the jets made a loop far behind them, coming back around at them.

[I don't supposed it can learn, can it?]
edit: Thanks, Brin


  1. Another multi-parter.

    quiet possibly hacked


    it's ruins left far behind


    the mountains were dusty and snow covered with dead trees and the like.

    Is the "covered" referring to the snow or the dead trees? It looks like it's probably "snow", so "snow-covered" should be hyphenated.

    she'd never felt as sore as she did before.

    As she did now.

    she didn't need to see. the AGI was driving them.

    Either a colon instead of a period, or a capitalised "The".

    She looked back ahead as Interstate wove its way through the mountains. She looked back over into the back of the crash vehicle

    As the Interstate.
    Too many backs. The second should be replaced with a "Then" at the beginning. (I was going to say the first shouldn't be there at all, since last we heard she was already looking ahead, but then I remembered most people look at the person they're having a conversation with.)

    spotting the bag that she'd grabbed with and had with her

    First "with" shouldn't be there.

    Start Ather Jabber#


    See, good ol' Antares.

    Why has he stopped putting his name in all-caps?

    you've already meet some of the inhabitants


    continued it's race along the desert floor.


    Up ahead, a new ridge of mountains rose up, and I-40, and they continued racing through, winding around the curves and corners.

    "Up ahead, a new ridge of mountains rose up, along with I-40. They continued racing through, winding around the curves and corners.

    several two wheeling vehicles


    The first of the bikes opened flipped open two small doors on the side

    Either "opened" or "flipped open", not both.

    she could feel the moister being sucked from her skin


    as a Zaius loaded another

    Just Zaius, with no "a".

    but none the worse for the wear

    While it might not be strictly wrong, the use of a second "the" that isn't usually in the phrase is distracting.

    the next salvo or rockets


    threw sparks int he air

    In the.

    They turned go over the bridge

    To go over.

    The valley they were had become narrower

    They were in.

    on the mountains sides beside them

    "Mountains" looks like it's supposed to be possessive, so it should have an apostrophe on the end.

    The shot past an access road


    They weren't along, though


    Another salvo of rockets slammed into the vehicle as well; as they went over the first bridge.

    Comma, not semi-colon.

    only to take several rounds her stomach

    Several rounds in her stomach.

    blown from it's mount


    catching a tree and detonating that tree.

    The phrasing is a bit awkward. I suggest replacing the second "tree" with "instead".

    They were looking like they were out

    They looked like they were out.

    had gotten tore up pretty badly.


  2. down beside Zira

    Double space between "beside" and "Zira".

    the edge of the fully


    They could see the other side of I-40 from where they were, as they shot past a sign that read "Kingman", but they missed how many miles it was.

    Drop the first comma and "as" and replace it with a period.

    the mountains parted

    Capital "The".

    The went over another bridge


    at it's red line speed


    the bikes cross over behind them


    The breaks screamed.

    Brakes. This is consistently wrong for the paragraph beginning with the quoted sentence.

    another complicated exchanged, and a collection of rusted and dead cars.

    Drop the comma.

    The high way made a sweeping turn


    they hadn't seen anymore bikes

    "Any more" should have a space.

    they'd out run them

    "Outrun" shouldn't.

    to who ever wanted some

    Neither should "whoever".

    it looked really close like one

    Hybrid phrasing. "Really close to one" or "very much like one".

    The flew straight


    in a patter


    past speeds

    Double space.

    with two mountains regions couple dozen miles away on either side.

    Mountain is singular in this context.
    A couple dozen.

    baring them from attacking


    next one slammed into the


    sent it's fiery pieces


    shot past it's flaming


    ahead. there was supposed

    "There" should be capitalised.

    the jets made loop

    Made a loop.