May 24, 2018

A white plume boils up from the crater where the pool once stood, slowly enveloping the surrounding landscape. And then, from the cloud, an angular, black, pre-Ban sports car emerges. A furious wedge of motion and menace. It hurtles, roaring, toward the school.  

It's coming for Barton. This is not a dream. 

He still has hold of Mindy's hand. They need to go. Now. In an instant, Barton's StarkBoard is under their feet and Mindy is hugging his waist. Riding two-a-board isn't safe and it slows the board down, but even at half speed, the Model Six beats running over most any distance. 

They lean forward, willing the board to deliver them from the leonine growl of the sports car bearing down. More of them, Mindy shouts. Barton chances a glance back and sees a phalanx of NowPodEnforcers in pursuit of the black beast.

And then the sky dives down. Barton catches a glimpse of his StarkBoard slipping their feet at a tangent to their tumbling bodies. They crumple to the shoulder, legs tangled. The board lands on its nose in the street. A sickening screech mingles with the ringing in Barton's ears. 

A dull white cloud envelops them. Barton instinctually closes his eyes, expecting the burning, choking suffocation of his recurring dream. But, instead, he feels only the momentary sensation of a steamy bathroom. 

Get in, says a calm voice. Wait, what was that?  Get in, the voice repeats, louder, more urgent. Barton opens his eyes. His father leans across the front seat of the sports car. Come on, Barton. Get up.

Mindy is pulling Barton to his feet, but the ground feels soft under him. My board. Mindy plucks the battered Model Six from under the bumper and pushes it into his arms. He tastes blood. His vision blurs. Mindy squeezes his shoulder, hard. The Enforcers are almost on top of them. Get in, shouts his father. Get in now or I go without you.

Not this time. 

He and Mindy dive through the open door. He clutches his board to his chest. Mindy shouts something. A force crushes them into the soft leather seat. Barton's vision narrows to a pinpoint focused on his father's fingers wrapped around the wheel. The world goes dark.

The thing about NowPods...even the Enforcers...is that they're tied to the power grid under the road surface. You can't outrun them on a grid road. But if you can reach the edge of town...

Dim sun seeps through a skylight. Waving blades of long grass cast shadows on the floorboards. It makes no sense. The world spins. Barton drifts away. The dream returns. But this time, the black sports car doesn't move. His father turns to look at him. The engine still roars, but as the cloud washes over him, he inhales and it tastes sweet and warm in the back of his throat. 

Nighttime. Mindy perches at the end of the bed. Where are we? It's hard to explain. Come and see.

They step out of the room onto a metal, railed, walkway. This, too, makes no sense. Behind them, a bedroom like any other of NowCorp design. Arched ceiling, skylight, no corners. In front of them, a black void. Mindy sees the confusion on Barton's face and points downward.

 

It's not a void.  It's a cave. Lighting panels hang on tendrils from the roof above a wide floor occupied by workbenches and bisected by a rippling stream. Further back, along a rocky wall, sits not one, but a row of...am I seeing this?...sleek, black NowCars in various states of construction, tended to by a dozen men and women.

Mindy points again. His father sits at one of the workbenches, hunched over Barton's StarkBoard. He looks up, sees them, and waves. Five fingers splayed wide. Mindy nudges him toward a metal stairway. Go ahead. I've already met him.

Barton's palms are sweating before he reaches the bottom stair. He's aware the technicians over by the cars are staring at him. He lowers his head and walks toward the workbench where the man he hasn't seen in a decade balances on a metal stool. Barton raises his eyes only high enough to see that his father has removed the StarkBoard's battery pack and replaced it with... What are you doing with my board?

You mean my board?

Barton responds with a fiery glance at his father's face. It's craggier than he remembers. More intense. And then his eyes return to the board. It took a beating in the crash. A long scar on the side rail, chips out of the deck and nose. 

Don't worry, it still rides like an angry bullet

What do you know about it?

His father picks up the board and holds it out to Barton. See for yourself.

Barton takes the scuffed Model Six, embarrassed that his hands are shaking, that there's sweat on his brow. Wonder, anger, joy, and heat grapple up his spine. He's overwhelmed and feels dumb when all he can say is, I need my battery pack.

No, you don't. You have that. His father points to a small, gray box affixed to the board inside the empty battery cavity. Barton pokes at it. It's warm.

What is it?

It's why you're here.

His father's cryptic concision annoys him, but Barton can't muster a retort. He drops the StarkBoard under his feet. Which way is out?

Careful, you might want to...

Which way is out?

With a hint of amusement, Barton's father motions toward a darkened passage at the far end of the cave. Barton turns to Mindy, still watching from above on the metal walkway. She shakes her head. Barton, why don't you...

A tingling creeps along Barton's scalp, and for the first time, he notices his head throbbing. He doesn't care. He needs to get out of this place. Away from the surreal, painful presence of his father. Away from the torrent of confusion. 

If she doesn't want to come, he'll leave her behind. He leans into the board. Full power. I. Am. Out. Of. Here.

CRACK! An invisible hand slams Barton backwards to the floor. The StarkBoard sits ten yards away. What just happened? How did it get over there?

His father stands over him, offering an outstretched hand. 

Like I was saying, that's why you're here, Barton.

 


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