Monday, February 29, 2016

Chapter 16: Magnum Thrax and the Amusement Park of Doom

It's in the over-the-top spirit of Magnum Thrax
Ahead of them, deep inside the Death Zone, was Scylla, an undulating tornado storm. Some believed it was a sentient information wave, formed out of ancient information networks. It sucked ad clouds into its surging maelstrom vortex and devoured them while it loomed over the blighted landscape that was known as The Death Fields.

Thrax surveyed the bleak terrain. It was pockmarked with thousands of craters filled with stagnant black water. Blasted by ‘god rods’ from low orbit, the shallow pits offered succor to loathesome colonies of polyps.

He had no idea what they ate.

Didn’t want to.

Towering over the craters were remains of once indestructible war machines, their cyclopean frames scorched and shredded like tissue paper.

Long ago, two colossal ancient armies had clashed here. And in the shadows and crevices, their deadly legacy lived after them.

A bright dot of orange winked in the distance outside Thrax’s starboard window: an explosion. Five clicks away, to the north, easily Thrax zoomed the sensor suite in on the heat signature. It showed a divot in the earth surrounded by steaming organic matter. An animal of considerable mass had ventured into a still active minefield.

Yuck, thought Thrax.

A clap of thunder reverberated powerfully enough to be heard within the Lux Chariot cocoon.

Thrax tapped on the inky black forward divider. It slid away, revealing the driver cabin. “What?” demanded Ghatz testily, peering into the passenger cabin.

“We’re headed straight for The Death Fields,” said Thrax simply, as if that explained everything. It should have. Nobody sane went into The Death Fields. They were named that for a reason.

Ghatz sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”

Thrax paused for a beat and lied. “No. Why?”

Ghatz’s eyes narrowed. He looked pointedly at the empty glass of gin Thrax held in his hand, then back at Thrax.

Thrax had forgotten about that.

He cleared his throat. Tried to think.

“Tonic water,” he said after a moment. Best he could come up with without Darwin and after several glasses. Verbal jousting on the fly was not his strong point. He preferred to punch people. He had his medbots remove all traces of alcohol from his breath. He wanted to hang on to the buzz. “Anyway. Death Fields are ahead.”

“Yes. So?” “That’s suicide.”

“Not at all,” responded Ghatz with a scoff. “We have a transponder. Gives us immunity to the remaining ordnance. Besides, going around would take too long. The fields are enormous. The south is dominated by corporate cyber-ant colonies and that nightmare fungi-termite metropolis. Corpcultists, the lot.”

Thrax shivered. He was fascinated and horrified by the gigantasects. Respirovores allowed them to grow to incredible size, while bacteria computers bestowed sentience. The termites fell prey to a rogue ad campaign for deodorant, and now grew it in the abdomens of a specially adapted chemical caste, and sprayed it everywhere. The ants brewed and sold and worshipped a brand of cola.

“Half,” corrected Kal. “What?”

“The transponder will only work for one side or the other,” said Kal. “Federalist or Coalition. So it’ll only be half effective.”

“Um. Actually... less than half,” interjected Sable, putting her glasses back on and pulling her hair into a tight bun. “It won’t affect the tertiary parties, such as the anarchists, nihilists, ecowarriors, or corporate enforcement.”

Kal’s jaw dropped.

Thrax felt bad for his friend. Kal hated being wrong, hated having his easy breezy declarations challenged.

“That is, I think. Just an idea, a thought,” said Sable, blushing. She nervously adjusted her glasses. “Didn’t mean to interrupt. Sorry.”

“I was going to say that,” huffed Kal, feigning indignation at being interrupted. “Quiet!” Jez rounded on Ghatz, “That true? It’s not what you told me.”

“We’re so fucked,” muttered Kitty glumly, plunking her face into her hands.

“It’s good enough. We’re going across,” said Ghatz flatly. “That’s the plan. Time to separate the men from the boys.”

“Why not go north?” asked Jez. “Give us a chance to wear furs.” “No way,” said Jasmine emphatically. “No freakin’ way.”

“The Pox Khanate,” said Ghatz. “Some real bad-ass biobricks.”

“What? I didn’t think anything lived in the Yelling Wastes,” Thrax said. He only knew of the Yellstone megavolcano, an earthly Olympus Mons. An eon ago it detonated in a massive Plinian explosion that buried the continent in chalky ash. Only Pleasurepit Five had survived unscathed. At least, that’s what they told him in school.

“That was a long time ago. It’s plague nomad territory now. I love those guys, in a science nerd kind of way. Blood boil cowboys. Herders with virulent pathogenic symbiots, uber hyper aggressive microscopic allies that strike down anything they cross. Their flock is also infected. Makes trade deadly difficult. Isolationists, thankfully. No one bothers them, save machines. Think they’re Amish.”

“Mormons,” corrected Sable.

Kal scowled and dipped his head. Thrax grinned and tried not to laugh. Another score for Sable. Must really be driving Kal crazy.

Kal, his voice more subdued, cautiously continued: “And as curious as I am, scientifically, about the fields, I’m not suicidally so.”

“The boy is right,” added Andromeda from in back.

“Your objections are duly noted, android corporal,” said Ghatz, emphasis on the low rank. “Sang, step on it.”

Sang, intent on the terrain ahead, frowned. He started to speak, stopped, then blurted, “Sorry, man, I agree with them.”

Ghatz lost his patience. “These fields are a thousand orbits old! More! How bad can it be?” said Ghatz, exasperated. “They’re spent. Coasting on reputation. Legend. Bottom line: stop being such a pack of Nervous Nellies.”

“You’re the boss,” Thrax said, and slid back into his seat. Until we’re all killed. “Getting there is half the fun, as they say.” He looked over at Kal, who tapped the side of his forehead, crossed his eyes, then pointed back at Ghatz, mouthing, “Him batshit crazy motherfucker.”

Thrax grunted agreement and pulled his plasma rifle from its rack, which then receded into the vehicles’ frame. He primed the rifle’s fusion pile.

“Okay, ladies,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the music and recitation, “This is it. Get your weapons ready, by the windows. Prep for anything.”

The movie player faded out, and the broad bed shifted beneath the androids, separating and carrying each into a chair positioned before a window.

Kal fiddled with his vehicle interface. “Combat configuration set. Polarizing the windows now. You’ll be able to fire out, but they’ll still absorb energy coming in.”


“Activating recorders,” Kal added. “Don’t want to miss the silver lining of certain death.”

“Heaven forbid, girl,” added Kitty, rolling her eyes. The other androids tittered.

“Stop undermining team morale,” admonished Ghatz. “How soon?”

Jez checked the instruments. “Thirty seconds to border.”

“Buckle in boys and girls”,” said Sang.

The pristine stretched limousine, gleaming in the fading light of the sun’s crepuscular rays, crossed into darkness.


That was unexpected, thought The Wraith sitting atop a landing platform. It had picked the tilting kilometer high office spire as the site from which it would strike. The vehicle it was tracking was not capable of surviving the lethality of the Death Zone. Projections indicated it would turn south, run along the edge of the zone, through the isolated valley below:the optimal point for it to strike.

Now it was too late.



Waves of stygian ash slammed into the Lux Chariot, the living dunes battering it left and right. Molecular grip tires barely held the vehicle upright. A few more hits and they’d give way, sending the vehicle tumbling into chaos.

“That’s not ash,” said Kal, “It’s—”

“Grey goo!” shouted Ghatz, gripping the dashboard. “Get us airborne!”

The limo shuddered as each successive wave hit, battering down their defenses and hull integrity.

“We’ve lost our drone scouts,” announced Kal.

Vast zymotic dunes began to shift, awaken, flowing, focusing in on them. Sang pulled back on the steering wheel.

Traceries of electricity arced through the black churning murk far above, unleashing lightning bolts which struck all around the limo, turning ash to glass and scorching the limo’s shell. It began to smoke.

Jez’s teeth clattered as she shook in her seat. She looked over at Ghatz, as much as the G- Forces would allow. “This had better work,” she hissed, menace in her silken voice.

Jets appeared on the underside of the limo and burst into life. Roaring blue flames propped the vehicle up on a cushion of superheated air. The wheels folded into their wells to be replaced by short, stubby wings.

More multi-coloured lightning bolts. They fell short.

Rear mounted rockets fired, throwing passengers back hard against their seats, propelling the limo forward like a cruise missile.

The malevolent dune sea roiled beneath them, issuing otherworldly shrieks, then, realizing impotence, slowly subsided once more into somnolence.

“They seem to have deployed it within rigid, coordinate defined areas,” observed Kal, “All three dimensions. Smart.”

“Told you,” said Ghatz with a triumphant grin. “Piece of cake.”

As he turned back forward, he saw sand cascade off a huge black egg that rose up out of a patch of phlegmatic goo, thirty meters high. The front unfurled gracefully, like a rose petal, into a score of rubbery arms, each ending in a clawed particle weapon ringed by undulating filaments. At the centre was burning, crimson plasma forge, shimmering with indescribable heat, a great malevolent eye. Thousands of short feelers lined the inner edges.

Ghatz gibbered in fear.

Kitty threw up her hands. “You fucking moron!”

“Oh, my,” said Sable, peering over the rim of her glasses. “Some kind of nanocolony robot.”

“Evasive!” yelled Thrax.

Strobe lights flashed all over its surface with blinding intensity.

Sang adjusted the window dimmers and waggled the steering wheel.

Beams of energy lanced out from the antediluvian war machine, sizzling past them. Sang veered the limo sharply sideways, dodging another salvo.

There was a tremendous explosion behind them as the beams detonated an ancient ammunition stock. The limo’s rear slid sideways. Sang pulled hard on the wheel in the opposite direction, bringing it back in line and sending the limo soaring through a rent in an ancient war hulk.

“Idiots! We need ECM!” said Jez. “Fast!”

Kal closed his eyes and focused his mind in virtual programming space. “I’ll try and scramble its fire control.”

“Oh, I’m on it,” said Sable, tapping at her own holographic interface.

Kal gave her a sharp look. No time to dispute or get territorial. He got back to work.

Dozens of white-hot streaks sliced after them, cutting through the twisted metal derelicts like knives through butter. Sparks, molten metal, and smoke gushed from the blubbering, sagging contact points.

Yet another refulgent salvo singed the limo’s hull.

“I can’t... I’m trying. It’s too fast!” exclaimed Sable.

“It’s overcalculating us; zeroing in!” shouted Kal. “Get us out of here quick!”

Support straps and harnesses dropped from the ceiling in back. Squad members grabbed on to them for dear life as the internal stabilizers became overwhelmed by reckless maneuvering.

“Radiation hot spot ahead!” called out Ghatz.

Sang smiled and accelerated. “Not for long.”

Before them lay the sublimely mournful ruins of a long dead city of indescribable scale and beauty, the prize over which the long ago battle was fought. Scorched silver spires rose majestically out of the ash, resplendent and adorned with mighty advertising billboards touting glorious miracle products. Their colours had faded, sections ripped away, but the message of prosperity remained, calling out across the eons.

Jumbled piles of rusted hover cars lay against the base of them, where hurricane force atomic winds had casually thrown them.

A dozen sleek legs sprouted from the machines’ glossy underside; it gracefully raised its bulk out of the earth’s embrace and trundled after them. Dozens of small shimmering globules, explosive drones, peeled off from its main body, sprouted thrusters, and rocketed after them at supersonic speed.

Sang noticed bright, darting specks in the rearview mirror. Engine glow. Rockets. He bit his lip and flipped a switch. Brilliant streams of golden lights spewed from the limo’s tail lights, diverting the incoming globules at the last second. They exploded into coruscating vortices that shook the vehicle about like paper in a hurricane.

“Faster!” shouted Ghatz.

“Already at max!” gasped Sang through gritted teeth, struggling to bring the vehicle under control again. It throbbed and shook with runaway power.

Control panels flickered, turned to static.

Went out. The steering wheel became much harder to shift. Sang’s muscles strained, veins popping.

“What’s that? What’s wrong?” demanded Jez, panicking.

“It’s using ECM against us,” said Sang, spinning up the ECCM dial. “Just. Give it a sec.”

“We don’t have a sec,” exclaimed Kitty. “What’s the matter with you people?”

“Shut it, Kitty!” said Thrax, fed up. “That’s enough out of you.”

The lights popped back on, danced sideways like mad sound waves, then snapped into sharp characters.

“Engaged electronic warfare; we’ll see who has the better program,” said Sang as holographic readouts flashed around him.

“Ah, but we do,” asserted Kal, “Not to worry, ladies and gentlemen. I updated the chariot’s defenses an hour ago.”

“That was you?” asked Sable, impressed. “Indeed.”

“Wait. You what?!?” Sang’s eyes bulged, and he almost choked on his own slavia. Anger flooded his brain, overpowering years of meditation practice. “You hacked my fucking car? My baby!?!”

“Uh, well, yes, sorry, but... there were pressing reasons,” said Kal, “No overstepping of bounds meant. It was just dangerously outdated, archaic even. Heh.”

Sang cursed. “You sonnova–”

Something glittered and caught Thrax’s eye.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing.

It was a small, gleaming silver pod floating upward on their forward port side. “Comm relay? The fuck do I know. Serenity now--”

“That’s not a–”

As the sphere languidly drew level with the limo, it began to glow, then sparkle like a vampire in daylight. It detonated, showering the vehicle with armour piercing shrapnel. Bulbous dents appeared in the hull. A section by Thrax jutted inward like a knife, barely missing his throat. Autorepair quickly pulled the deformity back into the frame’s defined shape.

“Warning. Hull integrity,” announced the limo computer rather indifferently, “at seventy per cent and falling.”

“Oh! Oh! Mines!” Kal said excitedly. Challenge had reared its ugly head, and he was ready to chop it off. “Got an idea. So good!”

A hundred more pods fired into the air, filling it with deadly bursting fireworks, peppering the vehicle front to back.

Thrax released his seat buckles and threw himself into the centre of the cabin. “Get away from the frame!” He fired at the silver pods from the hip. Hit two, which exploded.

Dozens more hit.

The hull assumed the look of an inverted anemone, thousands of indentations pushing the autorepair to breaking point.

Andromeda fired wildly out the side window, the energy beams passing harmlessly through. A bolt hit a silver pod, sending it spiraling downward trailing smoke.

A 3D projection hovered before Kal, showing a cross section of a machinery filled metal sphere. “AVM-190. Gotcha.”

“Hull integrity fifty-two per cent.”

A pod exploded to their port side; a hundred sharp shards blasted inward. Jasmine took a hit in her calf and screamed.

“Twenty per cent.”

“Kal!” shouted Thrax, huddling with the androids, “Get out of your seat! Away from the window!”

“One sec,” said Kal, engrossed. He tapped madly at a keyboard. “My neural tap is blocked, some kind of jamming field below. Almost got it. You’re gonna love this. So rad.”

“Mr. Grammer, it won’t work!” shouted Sable. “Get up!”

“No, I got it, got it.”

A hundred shards burst into the underside, slicing up through Thrax’s seat.

“Hull integrity reduced to ten per cent,” said the computer. “Please visit your nearest auto repair shop at the earliest possible opportunity.”

“Got what?”

Energy beams flashed all around them, overwhelming the polarized windows.

The cabin flooded with blinding white light.

“Aw, no!” Kal blinked rapidly. “Fuck! I can’t see. Totally unfair!”

Sang spun the wheel hard, trying to avoid a fresh cluster of shrapnel pods.

Candy stumbled forward. Thrax shifted his rifle into his right hand and grabbed hold of her with the left as the vehicle lurched starboard.

She clutched Max to her chest.

The terrified dog whined plaintively.

“Ahead!” yelled Ghatz. “Look out!”

A gleaming silver pod was barreling straight at the front cabin. Too late to dodge.

Jez was firing off shot after shot at it. Went wide with worry.

Thrax instinctively leveled his rifle, aimed, and at the last possible moment, squeezed the trigger. The energy bolt barely cleared the top of Ghatz’s head, burning off the top of his hair before it passed out the front windshield into the pod, striking it dead centre. The pod disintegrated. Fragments clattered against the windshield harmlessly.

It was a shot for the ages.

“Lucky,” groused Jez, fiddling with her sights. “My gun was miscalibrated, or I’d have had it.”

Thrax gave her a triumphant wink. She snapped her head forward to hide the blush that filled her cheeks.

“There it is!” shouted Kal happily, looking up from his keyboard. “Should do it. Look and be amazed, my friends.”

Thrax followed Kal’s gaze.

Outside, the silver pods began to shift in mid air, then accelerated towards the pursuing war machine.

“Hold fire!” ordered Thrax.

A volley of deadly beams lanced outward, but the pods were too small for the behemoth to target effectively. Explosions blossomed over its sleek surface. Puffs of black dust spun outward. It extended its mass of surface feelers; they grew petals that tried to intercept the incoming pods before they contacted the hull.

It wasn’t enough.

The ancient death dealer slowed and stopped as more and more drone pods struck. Its surface began to fragment. Changing strategy, limbs and feelers retracted. The shell rippled and melted down into the earth. A section detached, oozing apart like blobs separating in a lava lamp, spreading out into a hard concave chrysalis shell that hovered in the air above the burrowing war machine.

Pods collided with it. Multiple explosions sent out a concussion wave that rocked the Lux Chariot as it fled at top speed.

“Maintain evasive,” ordered Ghatz, coming to his senses. “Get us out of here.”

Thrax and the androids clustered together in back, holding on to each other for support and stability as the limo jerked about violently, skimming over the deadly fields.

Kal pumped a fist into the air, ebullient. “Booyah! You see that? Hacked code in record time. Reset their threat AI. I amaze myself!”

“Inconceivable!” said Thrax with a wry grin.

“Nicely done, Mr. Grammer,” said Sable, hungrily peering over her glasses at Kal. She licked her lips as if she were looking at a rare, edible book of erotic poetry.

Ghatz sighed with relief and felt the singed top of his head. “Good work,” Ghatz conceded grudgingly. “I knew you’d be useful, Kal. Leadership is about putting together the right team for the right mission.”

Sang steadied the limo. “Everyone alright?” “Good back here,” replied Thrax.

“Keep your eyes peeled, yeah?” advised Ghatz. “New threats could come from anywhere.”

Sang nodded. “I said he had a point, didn’t I?”

“Just turn us around,” snapped Jez. “Before I rip your lying lungs out!”

Ghatz held firm. “Not a chance.”

That set Jez off. “What the fuck!? You want to get me killed, you dick wagging douchebag?” she spat back. “You’re a fool. A pathetic, incompetent fool. Go around!”

“One more word and you’ll regret it.” He pulled out his pistol and rested it in his lap. Jez fell silent.


The dominatrix android pondered her options. Perhaps Ghatz was more replaceable than she’d thought. Ghatz was a pathetic poser, out of his depth, useful only for his position. Thrax, on the other hand, was Mars personified. Being rejected by him just made him more desirable. A challenge. A mountain to be climbed. She liked the frission of it. The heat.

She wanted a man who could dice his enemies and look good doing it; ignite desire while splattered with the blood and guts of fallen foes, then take her afterward, without mercy. It was the nature of animals.

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