Warp Goes Up
February 9, 2057
21 miles east of Des Moines
8 Years, 8 months PP (Post-Pulse)
“Package Red is dead,” Two-Bug said, pulling off his headset and staring into the blinding snow.
“Goddamn it,” said Caspar. He squirmed in the driver’s seat, glancing into the back of the cab. He didn’t take his eyes off the road for more than a second. “Toni!”
“What?” called Toni.
“We just lost Package Red.”
“The hell we did,” Toni said. She looked over her board, then shook her head. “Channels are clear.”
“They’re dead,” said Two-Bug, holding up his headphones as irrefutable proof. “On all channels.”
Caspar risked a look at the dashboard console. The EXTREME WEATHER HAZARD light was still red, advising him to pull over. He’d had to disable autonomous drive and take the wheel himself to make sure they stayed on schedule. It had been years since he’d had to drive the rig at high speed, and he’d never driven in anything this bad.
“Toni, see if you can raise them,” he said.
Toni unclipped a headset from her chair and pressed a receiver to one ear. After several minutes of attempting to reach Red, she switched channels. “Whiskers, Package Blue.”
She tapped a switch, piping the conversation into the cabin. “This is Whiskers,” came Bear’s voice. He used his call sign, as operational protocol required in the field. “Reading you loud and clear, Blue.”
“Still on the road, Whiskers?” asked Toni.
“Hard to tell,” said Bear, his tone matter-of-fact. “We can barely see it.”
“Steady on big guy,” said Toni. She couldn’t disguise the affection in her voice. “We just lost contact with Package Red. Can you raise them?”
“Hang on,” said Bear. The channel went dead.
It was quiet in the cabin, except for the howling of the wind. It blew snow across the black Iowa asphalt in thick streams, reducing visibility to under a hundred feet. The night sky was so overcast it transformed this stretch of I-80 into a swirling black tunnel, lit only by towering street lights and the resolute headlights of the rig.
Two-Bug watched a sudden gust lift an ungainly chunk off the crown of the snow bank on their left, tumble it fifty feet through the air, and crash it to earth directly in their path. It disintegrated on the blacktop. The rig rolled on, grinding cold debris under its eighteen wheels.
Two-Bug shifted uncomfortably. The custom cabin of the tractor-trailer was spacious by normal standards, but the passenger seat still strained to accommodate someone of his size. He gave Caspar a nervous glance. “You okay?”
Caspar’s grip was tight on the wheel. “Never driven in anything like this, I can tell you that,” he muttered. They’d been in the thick of the winter storm for nearly an hour, and it just kept getting worse.
“You blinking?” asked Two-Bug. Or he tried to, but Caspar interrupted him to say. “Of course.”
Two-Bug gave him a wry nod, acknowledging Caspar’s unique ability. Like the rest of the crew, Caspar was a PIP, a Pulse-Impacted Person. Eight years ago, when the mysterious quantum wave had remade the world, Caspar was one of the rare individuals who’d found himself radically transformed. Unlike many, his physical appearance hadn’t changed, but he’d been given an extraordinary gift. Caspar could see five seconds into the future, and his ability to react accordingly – including his reflexes and spatial awareness – were supernaturally enhanced.
Caspar called his uncanny skill ‘blinking,’ and nothing gave him more pleasure than answering questions just as his teammates were starting to formulate them. It also made him an exceptional driver, though the autonomous-driving capabilities of the team’s big vehicles didn’t give him many chances to prove it. At least not usually.
The speakers crackled as Whiskers came back. “No response,” he said.
“Told you,” said Two-Bug.
“Could it be the weather?” asked Caspar, his eyes still fixed on the road. “Fouling comms?”
“I doubt it,” said Toni.
“Are you seeing this?” said Caspar. “It’s a goddamn snowpocalypse out there.”
“I see it,” said Toni, not taking her eyes off her board. “Cold wouldn’t normally affect comms.”
“Make sure Whiskers is close,” Caspar said.
Toni lifted her mic again. “Whiskers, honey, you still see us?”
“No,” said Bear.
“Don’t break protocol. You should keep the rig in sight.”
“Protocol wasn’t made for white-out conditions, Array,” Bear protested, using Toni’s call sign. “Tell Caspar to slow the fuck down.”
“I heard him,” said Caspar. He let up on the accelerator and everyone in the cabin felt the rig, which had growled its way across hundreds of miles of Nebraska prairie, reluctantly relent. The hum of the road lessened slightly.
Two-Bug poked at the nav console. “We’re not going to make our scheduled arrival in Davenport,” he muttered.
“I know,” said Caspar under his breath. “This gonna let up any time soon?”
Two-Bug scrolled through weather reports, brought up a sat image of the massive storm front hammering western Iowa. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“How far back is Whiskers?” Caspar asked.
“Whiskers, you getting close?” said Toni.
Bear didn’t respond. Static hiss filled the cabin.
“Whiskers, you copy?”
“We should pull over,” said Two-Bug. “There’s a charging station six miles ahead.”
Caspar shook his head. “We’re running late as it is.”
“Come in, Whiskers.”
For long minutes, static was the only sound in the cabin.
“I can’t reach Bear,” Toni said. There was barely suppressed tension in her voice.
Caspar nodded and made a decision. “Wake up Warp,” he said.
Array didn’t hesitate. There was a grunt from the back, and Caspar heard movement.
“What time is it?” asked Kyle a moment later, his voice tinged with sleep. He leaned into the forward cabin, rubbing his face. A hoodie still cocooned his head.
“Nice of you to join us, Warp,” Two-Bug said. He checked his phone. “It’s 9:36 p.m.”
“We’re two hours from the drop point in Davenport,” said Caspar.
“We’re late.” Kyle yawned, taking in the view through the windshield for the first time. “The hell is this?”
“Winter storm,” said Array. “Covering most of the state.”
“Was it in the forecast?” asked Kyle.
“Not like this, it wasn’t,” said Caspar. “Last I checked it said, ‘Light to moderate flurries.’”
“Light flurries my ass,” Kyle muttered. He leaned forward, peering at the dashboard nav. His face turned serious.
“Tell me you don’t need recon,” he said.
“Can you go up in this?” asked Caspar.
‘You’re kidding,” Two-Bug said, looking at Caspar.
Kyle didn’t respond immediately. He stared out the window for long seconds. “What’s the situation?” he said at last.
“We’ve lost contact with Bear,” said Toni.
“Pull over. He can’t be more than a half-mile back,” said Kyle.
“It’s more serious,” said Caspar. “We can’t raise Package Red.”
That was serious. Both high-security containment rigs, Package Red and Package Blue, were crewed by experienced four-man transport teams. For security purposes, neither team knew which cargo they were carrying. Each rig had a support team, bringing the total convoy size up to four vehicles; Package Blue’s support team was Bear and Mina, following behind in a decoy vehicle. Per operational protocol, all communication gear was double checked before getting underway. Warp and Array had inspected the gear personally before getting underway.
Warp looked to Toni. “Comms outage?”
Array’s lips were white. She shook her head.
“Shit,” said Kyle.
“Can you go up?” Caspar asked again.
Kyle considered for a moment, then said, “No.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Caspar. “You can do a three-mile hop in your sleep. Up and down, five minutes.”
“No point going up if I can’t see anything,” Kyle said. “There’s zero visibility.”
Caspar looked like he wanted to argue, but Two-Bug cut him off. “He’s right. It’s below zero out there. He can’t stay up more than five minutes anyway.”
“What about Whiskers?” Toni said. “He’s only a few minutes behind –”
She was interrupted by a squawk. She grabbed the headset.
“Whiskers? Whiskers, do you read?”
Bear’s voice came across, but so awash in static it was impossible to make anything out.
“Say again, Whiskers. This is Array,” Toni said. “Say again.”
The rig’s headlights illuminated a road sign. A turnoff, four miles ahead. There were icons for food and charge. “Pull off here,” said Two-Bug. “Let them catch up.”
The radio burst to life again. Bear’s voice, suddenly clear. “Jesus Christ.”
“Bear, honey? Do you read?”
“Did you see that?” said Bear. “Jesus – tell me you fucking saw that!”
“Saw what? Bear, where are you?”
“Still on your six. Behind you less than half a mile –” There was a burst of static.
Kyle saw Toni grip her seat with anxiety. But her voice remained level. “Bear, you’re breaking up. What happened?”
“Array, did you see it? Can you see us?’ said Bear.
“We didn’t see anything, Bear.”
“There’s something out here.” Bear’s voice was muffled as he spoke to Mina. “Cut speed. Stay on the road.”
“Pull over,” Two-Bug said to Caspar.
A gust of wind rattled the cab. Snow dropped over the highway like a curtain. Visibility dropped another thirty feet.
“What is it?” said Toni into the radio.
“Array, I don’t know what the hell it was. But it – Jesus!”
There was no response. “Pull over,” Two-Bug said again. “Now.”
“Yeah,” said Caspar. “I think you’re right.”
Toni was repeating Bear’s name into the headset, again and again, as the rig slowly rumbled to a halt by the side of the road. Just before they came to a complete stop, Toni threw the headset against the window. When Two-Bug glanced back, her hand was pressed against her mouth and her eyes were squeezed shut.
“I’m going up,” said Kyle. “Wish me luck.”