Cheryl raced in and out of lanes on the Ben Franklin bridge into Philadelphia, Carl’s trailer wagging behind. Plumes of grey and white smoke could be seen rising between the buildings in the skyline. She roared past a police car that slipped out of its lane and flashed its sirens.
“Great,” she shouted.
The police car changed lanes again and zipped past Cheryl.
“Great,” she laughed.
“Can you tell me why we’re storming back into the lion’s den?” Ian poked his head into the front seat. “We cross this bridge we’re in Vyx-controlled territory. He has the whole city in his pocket.”
“That thing is running amok on my software,” Cheryl barked.
“And,” Sophie chimed in, “We can’t just let it hurt a bunch of people if we can help it.”
“I guess that’s the positive upshot,” Cheryl mumbled. “And our stray dog back there needs his fix.”
Hunter put his hand out to Ian, “Hunter Yeager.”
“Ian Roland,” he sai, returning the gesture.
“Your name is ‘Hunter Hunter’?” Cheryl quipped.
“I never considered that,” Hunter replied.
“Well, anytime you want to give me directions to your dealer, Hunter Hunter, that’d be great.”
“Dealer?” Ian asked, “What is this operation? Are we charging in to do battle with a pernicious robot, with a junkie in tow?”
“I like this guy,” Cheryl said.“Calls it like he sees it.”
“Head toward Fishtown,” Hunter said.
“Sure, just hop on 95 at 9:30 am on a Wednesday. A hop, skip and jump. In the opposite direction.”
Ian slumped back with his hand over his face.
Cheryl pulled up to Bart’s florist shop and jerked to a halt.
“Bouquets by Bart?” Cheryl groaned, “Your dealer works out of a florist shop? I suppose that’s appropriate.”
“I’ll be right back,” Hunter said, jumping out of the car and running to the door to Bart and Billy’s apartment. He banged on the door and rang the bell.
Bart poked his head out and squinted as he put on his glasses, “Hunter? It’s a little early for you, isn’t it?”
“Let me up, Bart,” Hunter yelled up, “It’s urgent.”
Bart opened the door to his flat and Hunter charged in.
“I need more of the good ones,” he panted.
“How did the experiment work out?” Bart said, scooping the mushrooms into a sandwich bag.
“Great. Fuck the bag,” he grabbed the wad of fungus and jammed them into his mouth.
“That’s roughly half a pound wet. Are you planning on starting a religion?”
“Hey, Hunt?” Billy chimed, grinning from the couch, “Heading into town to watch that big goddamn robot tear the place up?”
Billy’s television was flickering with images of the robot overturning cars, tearing chunks out of buildings and terrorizing the passersby.
Hunter nodded as he headed for the door.
“You’ll do great,” Billy smiled as he motioned toward his smoke rings.
Hunter stuck a thumbs up in the door as he raced back down the stairs.
“Namaste,” Billy giggled.
Hunter flopped back down in the car and Cheryl pulled out. Ian looked over and saw about five mushroom stems pinched in his lips, disappearing into his chewing mouth.
“At least there’s some therapeutic value in those,” Ian sighed.
“Don’t silver-lining this shit, Roland,” Cheryl said.
“He did pretty well last night,” said Sophie.
“He’s lucky. I trust you, Fischer. By the way, Roland, only use code names in the field. Especially, when it comes to Vyxco. Fanny, High Priestess and I- we guess you’re The Piper. Except Carl. He doesn’t seem to give a shit.”
“Wait, Vyxco?” Ian wavered, “Isn’t the idea to steer far away from Vyx and his men?”
“You didn’t think this was some kind of underground, did you? Vyx needs to be shut down.”
“What are we going to do against one of the richest men in the world?”
“Don’t get sketchy on me now, Roland.”
“Trust us, Ian,” Sophie said leaning in, “Cheryl and I have been at this for awhile. And now we have more friends to help.”
“Okay, I guess,” Ian said with consternation, then pointed at Hunter, “What’s his code name?”
“Pfft, I guess call him Samurai or something,” Cheryl scoffed, “I haven’t used his real name yet, anyway.”
“We can spell it with a silent ‘P’,” Ian said, “For all that psilocybin he’s ingesting.”
Hunter nodded in approval.
“I better see some fireworks out of you?” Cheryl glared at Hunter in the rearview.
As Cheryl approached Center City her path was blocked by a line of abandoned cars. The entire downtown area was gridlocked. People were fleeing out toward the river.
“I guess we get out and walk,” Cheryl said. “Soph, can you get Carl?”
Sophie rapped on Daisy Mae and Carl emerged from the top. He saw the mass of stopped cars and frightened pedestrians. He vaulted out of his trailer.
“That thing is really going to town,” Carl said scanning the scene, “That wasn’t a pun.”
“I’m guessing we should go in the opposite direction of the mass egress,” Ian said.
“I was trying to track it in the Chariot, but I wasn’t getting any pings,” Cheryl said, slinging a duffle bag over her shoulder and gripping a laptop on her forearm. “Though a big fucking robot shouldn’t be too hard to find. You guys stay with the car for now and me and Soph will scout ahead.”
Ian and Carl nodded. Hunter waved from the backseat.
“So,” Ian said, craning his head to make eye contact with Carl, “How long have you know Cheryl and Sophie?”
Carl pointed at Ian and gave him a correcting glance.
“Sorry,” Ian said, “Code names.”
Carl chuckled. “Everybody gets one,” he continued. “Me and Cher been working on this car for almost six years now. It’s kinda like my masterpiece. I handle the mechanical, she handles the tech.”
“It is impressive,” Ian motioned toward Hunter, who was staring into space. “What about him?”
“Beats me. I met him about an hour before I met you.”
Ian and Carl nodded to each other and stood looking at their shoes.
The scene became increasingly chaotic as Cheryl and Sophie approached the focus of the destruction. EMTs, police and firemen rescued and tended to the wounded and sorted the dead. Swarms of reporters and news crews buzzed, probing everything and everyone with cameras and microphones like proboscis. As Cheryl and Sophie skirted the scene a woman from a local news station jumped in front of them and jammed a microphone in Cheryl’s face. They squinted into the camera light. Cheryl glared and Sophie put her eyes down and turned away.
“If I could have a moment Ma’am,” the woman shouted over the din, “What can you tell us about the situation here today?”
“I can’t tell you anything if you don’t get the hell out of my way,” Cheryl replied, trying to step past the reporter who kept reinserting herself in Cheryl’s path.
“Can you tell us anything about the robot?”
“What did I just say?!” Cheryl barked as she pushed past her and started to climb over the police barricade.
“Ma’am,” a police officer shouted at Cheryl, jogging toward her, “Please stay behind the barricade for your own safety.”
“Miss, what do you…” the reporter persisted.
“Look, I bet that guy knows tons of shit,” Cheryl said, pointing at the officer.
She cleared the barricade and continued on. Sophie smiled and waved at the camera as she followed.
As they drew closer they saw lines of police cars in disarray, accompanied by several Bearcats and police in riot gear arranged in a semicircle. One was shouting orders through a loudspeaker. Cheryl and Sophie darted through the gaps in the line and saw the robot Tabula Rasa, who had cornered what appeared to be thirty people against a wall of rubble, its large caliber guns ready to fire. A police officer rushed Sophie. She conjured what resembled an enormous, mangy bull mastiff. The officer fell on his back and scrambled back to his line. Cheryl clacked at the keys on her laptop.
“I hope this thing has wi-fi,” she said to Sophie. “Bluetooth, anything.”
“What if it doesn’t?” Sophie asked.
“Get ready to run.”
Cheryl slapped a final key. Tabula Rasa stopped advancing on its captives.
“Good,” Cheryl sighed and continued to type, “Turn around.”
The robot turned around.
“Oh thank Lleu,” Sophie sighed in relief. She ran over toward the captives and she began to shepherd them out toward the police.
“Raise your right arm,” Cheryl said while typing.
“What do you want to do with it?” Cheryl called to the policemen.
As she said that, Rasa fired on the defensive line destroying several cars and armored vehicles. The officers fired back, but were met with more shots from Rasa’s cannons.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Cheryl wailed as she banged on the keyboard.
Rasa stopped and turned to her.
“Miss Ellers, I know all your moves. My creation can adapt to anything you throw” came a voice broadcasting from Rasa’s speakers. “Do you recognize my voice?”
“Should I?” she replied.
“Oh, indeed you should. Think U-Penn.”
“Are you that psycho grad student who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer?”
Rasa fired a shell at a police officer and his body was tossed in several directions.
“Shit,” Cheryl panicked. “Who could it be?”
“That fact that I’ve adapted and improved your Tabula Rasa code doesn’t give you any hints?”
“Improved?” Cheryl yelped, “Who do think you are, you motherfu…Oh I think I know.”
“Englebert,” Cheryl glowered. “I’d call you Professor, but you haven’t been one of those in a while.”
Rasa shot another policeman.
“Stop it. You’re mad at me. Hurt me, then, not them.”
“Fine,” Rasa turned its cannons on Cheryl and Sophie.
“Soph, the mirror thing should overload its light sensors long enough to give us a head start.”
Sophie held out her mirror and blasted Rasa with light. Rasa began to stumble, turning in random directions, until it snared its foot on debris and fell on its knees. Cheryl, Sophie, the police, and the rescued captive all began running back towards the barricade. Rasa regained its vision and charged after them. Cheryl and Sophie vaulted the police barricade, yelling to the others to keep running. The previous reporter once again latched onto them.
“Miss, can you tell us what you saw back there?”
“You’ll see,” Cheryl shouted back as she continued to run.
Rasa burst through the rubble and police barricades. Cheryl shot it with her taser and Rasa powered down.
“Get out of here,” she yelled. “It won’t be down for long.”
Ian and Carl could hear the metallic stomping of Tabula Rasa’s approach. Hunter was lying prone in the back seat looking at his hands.
“Guys,” Cheryl’s frantic voice emerged from the dashboard of the Chariot, “We’re coming your way. Get ready.”
“What should we do?” asked Carl.
“I’m confident you’ll think of something.”
“My God,” Ian said pointing to the stampede of terrified humanity storming toward them, climbing the abandoned cars and hopping debris.
Carl jogged toward the crowd and began ushering them to safe spots. Ian followed suit. Hunter was whispering the lyrics to ‘Politician’ on the floor of Cheryl’s car. Rasa leapt from a distance and landed in front a clump of fleeing people, the impact knocking them to the ground. It raised its fist to strike. Carl charged Rasa and drove it into the side of a building. Ian collected the group of people and led them away as Carl and Rasa traded blows. Carl threw Rasa over his shoulder, landing it on its back. It kicked Carl, sending him airborne. Rasa got back on its feet and made a beeline for Ian who was leading a mother and small child to safety beside the Chariot. Rasa knocked Ian aside and trained its cannons on the mother holding her child. As Rasa fired, Hunter stumbled out of the car window and knocked the projectiles back at Rasa with his sword like a baseball bat. Rasa tipped back from the impact and Hunter flipped it onto its back and drove his blade into a chink in its shoulder joint. Rasa’s arm began jiggling and jerking like an eel caught on a fishing line, shooting sparks. Rasa flailed at Hunter with its other arm. Hunter leaned over Rasa’s head and squinted over his glasses, examining its ‘face’. Rasa drove its fist at Hunter. Hunter leapt off and Rasa stuck itself in the head.
“You lot are an unexpected wrinkle,” Englebert’s voice crackled over the speakers. “I didn’t think Miss Ellers was capable of making friends.”
Rasa swung its fist at Hunter and he slashed its elbow joint with the edge of his blade, disabling its other arm. Rasa turned and began to flee.
“It appears my creation will need a few modifications,” Englebert said as Rasa fled back across the river.
“Get in the car,” Cheryl yelled from the driver’s seat. “I have an idea.”