Chuck Marley reached over and desperately fumbled with the ‘decrease’ button above Jed’s heart, made all the more difficult in the turbulence. Jed’s eyes rolled into his head. He fell unconscious, his hand still firmly gripped around the flight stick. Marley prised the fingers off the stick and seized control of the cab.
He steered the craft below the cloud layer and out of the turbulence, with little idea how to pilot one of these things. Then he recalled that the hovercab had an inbuilt AI module: Peggy.
How to turn on Peggy? Marley looked at the dashboard. It was covered with stickers that bore little resemblance to the functions of the buttons below them. He pressed a random button and the door next to him opened. Air rushed in and nearly yanked him out of his seat. He quickly pressed the button again and the door slammed shut.
The trial-and-error method was at this moment not the right course of action: he was not playing a computer game.
Finally, in a last ditch attempt (and he felt silly doing this), he called, “Peggy?”
“At your service sir.”
The wonders of voice recognition. “Peggy, I need you to pilot this craft to the helipad on top of the settlement laboratories.”
“Sure, I can do that.”
“Great.” Marley made a lunge at Jed and reached for his heart buttons. The craft veered to the right and Jed slumped against the window.
Peggy was oblivious to the plight of her pilot. “You will need to land manually. I am not programmed to land.”
“Not so great.” Marley scratched his head. “How do I go about landing?”
Peggy thought for a few seconds, a strange thing for a computer to do. “While lowering the flight stick and pushing it forward, gently lower the lever in the middle of the dashboard, but not all the way down. This will ensure a smooth landing.”
“I’ll try my best.” Marley sighed. “One more thing.”
“How can I be of assistance?”
“Jed is unconscious and not feeling well. That is why I’m in control of the craft.”
Marley looked at Jed’s heart’o’meter. His own heart missed a beat. The readout displayed a big fat zero! He checked Jed’s pulse. He couldn’t feel a thing. Maybe he wasn’t checking correctly.
Frantically Marley attempted pulmonary resuscitation by punching the solar plexus in the middle of Jed’s rib cage. He hurt his fist. He kept punching until his knuckles turned red. But artificial hearts cannot be artificially kick-started without jumper leads.
Jed, implants and all, had ceased to function.
“Peggy,” Marley said forlornly.
“At your service.”
If Marley expected her to cry, his expectation was mistaken. A few lights flashed around the dashboard in several pretty colour combinations. Perhaps this was Peggy’s way of expressing emotion.
The hovercab floated over the labs. Marley squinted at the gathering below, jostling outside the perimeter. Occasionally they hurled a placard into it, only for it to be zapped by a tesla coil. They found this quite fun.
Marley zoned in using the hovercab camera and panned both inside and outside the perimeter. A lone figure scurried back and forth between the two labradroids. He appeared to be giving orders or asking them questions. He was shorter than Gaston and frizzier than an ape.
It could only be Rothball Hazard. He yelled something at the cyberdogs. One bounded along the tarmac barking.
The barking, or whatever it was the cyberdog was doing, had no effect on the Zorgons. They began howling in unison, so loud that they could be heard from the hovercab high above. The force of their sound waves even made the vehicle shudder.
Hazard blocked his ears and stamped his foot in contempt.
Marley thought he saw the mad scientist momentarily look directly into the camera, eyes widening as if he saw Marley watching him. He felt uneasy. Even through a camera, Hazard’s eyes bore into his soul. He quickly turned it off. He moved the craft above the landing pad.
Lining up a hovercab was no easy feat and wasn’t helped by the presence of another vehicle already there. It would be best to manoeuvre exactly above the guide-lights before lowering the descent lever.
He kept overshooting the mark. Then in backing up he went too far backwards. Frustrated that his hard-fought efforts were going nowhere, he descended at an acute angle to the pad.
“Easy does it,” he said to himself. “A little to the left. Forward gently.” The flight-stick was so sensitive. “Almost there.” He pointed the nose slightly upwards. He tried to keep the craft horizontal relative to the horizon. A series of beeps issued from the inbuilt speakers. As he came closer to the landing pad they beeped faster. Unfortunately, Marley wasn’t aware they were rear proximity sensors, designed to notify the pilot of nearby obstacles. As the sensors beeped more rapidly, Marley believed he was closer to making the perfect landing.
The beeps transformed into long tones before he felt a sickening thud. The craft lurched sideways. He looked out the rear window only to find his view obstructed by the other vehicle on the pad. Panicking, he pushed the lever forward to right the craft.
Another thud. He’d forgotten to release the landing gear.
He looked out the left window and noticed that he’d dented the other vehicle’s wing. He would not leave a sorry note on their dashboard.
“Peggy, release the landing gear.”
“Landing gear deployed.”
He rebounded against the other craft once more, before landing, then cut power to the engines with a sigh of relief. He rose from his seat and was about to get out when he remembered Jed.
What should he do with him? He had no choice but to leave him. He brushed his hand over Jed’s face and closed his eyes. Surprisingly, Jed didn’t look dead. He merely appeared to be dozing, like any cabbie waiting for the next passenger.
He hopped out and planted both feet on the tarmac. With hands on hips he surveyed the other craft. It looked like a Jovian Sports Coupé, but he wasn’t sure of the exact model as it was heavily modded. The dent in the wing wasn’t too noticeable. Whoever owned it could claim the damage on insurance. He peered closer and noticed an insignia beneath the cockpit window. It looked familiar. As a boy he had loved memorising galactic flags and badges of great dynasties. But he couldn’t place this one. He retrieved his flablet and held the screen up to the insignia. A light flashed as the software sifted through innumerable databases.
He found a match. The Coupé belonged to none another than the Viscount a la Carte, de facto ruler of the Protectorate of Far Western Europe and Chieftain of Tahiti! What was he doing here? Could he be after the Antlers of Amplitude? Marley didn’t want to take any chances. He had to disable the ship. The dent he’d smashed on the wing might not be enough.
He crawled under the craft. Near the rear, a sealed bulge possibly housed the craft’s hydraulic fluid canisters. He tried unhinging it with his fingers, breaking a fingernail in the process. He head butted it in frustration. If only he had some cybernetic enhancements.
Jed’s arm! The cybernetic arm. Marley slid out from underneath the hull and hurried back to the hovercab. He wasn’t comfortable with what he was about to do.
Very slowly, he rotated. At every twist, the arm popped like a ball bearing in a socket. After several revolutions Marley was about to give up and yank the limb off, but it came free of its own accord.
He really hated to think about it…His armament looked crude. But to hell with it, he’d put it to good use!