Urban Formula

URBAN FORMULA

by Chris Bardell

Time 03:58 / Arrays 98%

Ryzhkov’s car was maybe fifty meters ahead of mine, its headlight beams playing across the still-damp road surface as he threw the steering wheel left and right, trying to coax some heat into the tyres.

We were both in RESTRICTED mode, rolling along and waiting for our dash panels to warn us to pull level with one another and match speeds. The GPS would sense that we had done so, and few seconds after that our panels would scream and flash RACE, and we’d stomp on our accelerators.

As usual, the precise time and venue had been kept secret until as late as possible. Ours had been called for just before 4 AM. We’d been there since mid-evening, working on some tweaks before the config lock-down at midnight. I was about to tell Marli that I’d grab some sleep in the van when one of the Race Control guys wandered over with the start ticket. No nap, then. Just the regulation 10 minutes to get ready, take a piss, meditate, pray, or whatever.

This time of night wasn’t bad for limiting interference. Most of the cops would still be dealing with drunk tourists and burnout artists on the harbour front. And anyway, Race Control had plenty of ways of knowing if any units were headed anywhere near our route.

Now and again, Ryzhkov and I passed a working streetlight in a halo of thin mist. Not too much moisture in the air tonight, no risk of fog screwing up the race for us or the viewers. The car’s cockpit was snug around my shoulders, with just a vestigial band of raked plexi above the wheel, to deflect the wind. A hydration pack was clipped on the right-hand side of the cockpit, above the emergency flashlight and crowbar. Claustrophobic, but escapable if the unthinkable happened. The jemmy had been standard equipment since that French guy had had to lever his way out of a crash last season, just before his car’s cells caught light.

The car’s panel was third generation, but still based on a mundane tablet device like your kids would watch cartoons on. The left-hand side of the screen showed a combined speedo and battery meter. On the right was a scrolling map view with my car represented as a blue dot crawling along in the centre, and Ryzhkov’s a green dot just ahead. No red dots yet. And at the top corner, the heartbeat symbol, indicating my radio comms link with base was online. At the bottom, the status was shown in large characters – RESTRICTED right now.

The road continued ahead of us, bullet-straight until vanishingly far away in the distance, where I knew it turned right and fanned out into the first split-point of our route. Between here and there was a series of disused warehouses, welded-shut gates, and garbage-strewn empty lots where other structures had once stood.

I was two seasons into my drive for the team, but this was the first time the race had come to my hometown.

 

Time 04:01 / Arrays 97%

The earbuds pinged, and Marli’s voice came in.

“Driver? Confirm comms OK?”

She always called me that. Some formal German thing, I figured.

“Yeah, loud and clear.”

The radio comms were fully encrypted. Usually worked fine, but tended to choke and splutter with long sentences. We’d adopted a terse, clipped style to our conversations. And besides, any of our radio traffic might end up in that week’s show. Soundbites rule.

Marli would be sitting with the other engineers in the makeshift control room, the rest of her team nearby, sipping on whatever tepid coffee they could find. She continued the run-through.

“Telemetry is up. Both battery arrays 97%. Tyre pressures good but too cold. Needs more heat.”

I started throwing the car from side to side to light up the tyres, enjoying the G-force pressing my body against the sides of the moulded seat. It was debatable if the move really did heat up the tyres all that much, but it was still useful to get a feel for the car. Tonight it was as responsive as ever.

“How is the handling?”, Marli asked. The tyres were standard, legal road spec as usual, but we’d switched to a different brand to shave off some weight.

“Feels good. Front end grip’s not there yet, will monitor as they heat up. Did you get the new MAX POWER dialled in?”

“Latest configuration from Race Control is downloaded to your panel.”

“Thanks.”

“Race Control also confirm class 3 extraction available if required”.

They were being careful on this one. Class 3 was the fast in/out specialist crew, ex-Services guys mainly. Expensive.

“Let’s not even go there, Marli.”

“Race Control have given ten second warning, radio silence until started. Good race, driver!”

The hang-up ping sounded. I brought the car level with Ryzhkov’s, and took a few deep breaths.

The panel screamed and flashed RACE. My heart slammed, and I brought my foot down hard on the accelerator.

I’d raced those two seasons in this formula, but the car’s acceleration still knocked the breath out of me. It’s not like an internal combustion car, with its flat spots and powerbands. It’s more like riding an endless wave of torque. No gears in this formula, just a simple step-down transmission. No lurching upshifts, just ceaseless acceleration, pinning you into the seat. You learn to hang on and ignore any self-preservation instinct. Finally, the acceleration slackens off when you’re screaming down the backstreets at near-autobahn speeds.

Ryzhkov was maybe caught unawares by the start. I certainly hadn’t jumped it. That’s why they don’t have a countdown, so that the start tests the drivers’ reflexes. But when I nailed the accelerator, he didn’t keep up.

I didn’t know much about Ryzhkov. It was his rookie season, but we hadn’t been drawn to race together before. I had seen him on my way into the makeshift pits. We shook hands, his grip cool and inert. His face had the blank Slavic look, so that you weren’t sure if he was vacant or if he was trying to psych you out. He was young, or maybe just looked it.

The panel pinged, and its display changed to STANDBY FOR RE-ROUTE. Probably just a chance encounter with some random cop on the outer fringes of wherever Race Control were sending us. The panel showed no red dots. Its status changed to RE-ROUTE and it instructed us to hang right a couple of hundred metres ahead. I nailed the brakes late and kept it on the limit, feeling the lateral forces. Ryzhkov would take any advantage he could, and look for the inside line. I would.

 

Time 04:04 / Arrays 92%

The formula was fairly cheap to enter, but that didn’t make it amateur hour. The organisers had taken advantage of the open source movement. Nowadays you could build any technology for not much more than the cost of parts. Combined with a standard design for the cars, it meant that the well-financed big boys and the small fry like us could compete on even terms. Little deviation from the standard spec was allowed, but there was enough leeway for innovation and midnight-oil ingenuity.

Startup costs were so reasonable that a skilled enough group of fans could put together a team themselves, and get involved at Qualifier level. That’s how Ryzhkov’s team had started out. Three years ago, they were just a bunch of enthusiasts, watching at home with dreams in their eyes.

The battery arrays in the car’s floor were efficient and powerful, and the design had proven mostly fire-proof so far. The rest of the drive-train was just as advanced. The huge power of the motor would normally have destroyed the rear tyres in seconds, but the community-developed traction control kept it efficient and burnout-free. Regenerative brakes fed power back into the arrays. Standard sat-nav software had been finessed into the panel’s dynamic map. Race Control’s master version had been further tweaked to constantly recalculate alternative routes. More options for escape if the cops showed up, with each possible route ranked by algorithm as the most likely to succeed.

 

Time 04:07 / Arrays 86%

The tyres had reached working temperature and were feeling grippy and eager. The ultra-stiff suspension and spaceframe chassis fed back every detail from the road, through the steering wheel and the ergonomic seat. Each type of road surface felt distinct, every corner had its own unique set of sensations.

Ryzhkov was good, a constant presence in the mirrors, picked out in the red glare from my rear LEDs. He had hung back after I passed him but was now creeping up, taking good lines, learning my style. He was using my slipstream well, keeping close in my wind-shadow, reducing his car’s drag and saving power. That could count if it went the distance and was close. Lot of maturity for a young guy. But did he have the balls to handle a pursuit if the police disrupted the scene?

Oh, yeah – the cops. The organisers had crowd-sourced that little problem. In the lead-up to the first season, they had recruited groups in every city where a race was scheduled. They became known as the Fixers. Their job was to disrupt anything that would help the cops locate or break up the races. They were paid modestly, but most of them would have done it for free if you’d asked. They carried out the orders from the organisers quietly, without drawing attention. Maybe knocking out an inconvenient surveillance camera, or working their bolt-cutters on a locked access gate. Their audacity grew. Before the first season was over, they’d perfected the art of bugging cop-cars. Waiting, sometimes for hours, until a cruiser was left unattended, then clipping a tiny tracking beacon somewhere discreet on the car’s underside.

And their geek wing had learned and progressed, too. They’d worked out how to tap into security systems, traffic controls, and surveillance camera networks. The organisers could now use the authorities’ own technology against them. Every backdoor they closed was countered by the hack team within days.

We flew through the linear stretches around the Old Port and were routed south. The landscape changed from utilitarian to industrial, and the lighting from bright white to a dirty sodium orange. An overpass road ran parallel above us on concrete stilts, before veering away. The view ahead opened up on the ragged arterial road heading inland. We passed humming industrial plants, their heavy, chemical stink hanging in the air. Empty freight yards, derelict railway viaducts. Occasionally the terrain would rise, and we’d catch a glimpse of the city’s tallest skyscrapers in the distance. We buzzed past a couple of lumbering trucks and night buses. I thumped the hydration pack, and a splash of weak isotonic drink came down the tube plumbed into my helmet.

The panel screamed and displayed STANDBY FOR RE-ROUTE. My pulse sped up a click. Marli was straight in my ear.

“Driver, no concern. Scanner monitors say one police unit near Fishmarket. Race Control precaution, taking you towards Empty Interchange. Expect another re-route there. Repeat no concern.”

 

Time 04:09 / Arrays 82%

The organisers’ trio of follower drones caught us up at this point, to provide multiple angles for the coverage. They flew in the usual pattern, just behind the second-placed car. Their cameras were tricked out, with sensitivity going past the visible spectrum and into infra-red, to give a nice edge of heat detection to the footage. Useful when the races are held at night, and the cars’ bodyshells are bare, black carbon fibre.

The drones began their automated firefly dance, dipping almost to ground level to illustrate the speed, then panning around to show how close the gap was between the cars, then rising up to give an overview shot. The producers preferred to have a decent amount of source material to stitch together into the show. They’d also be able to fold in any good action from the camera pods on the nosecones and rear spoilers of the cars.

After the race, the coverage would be edited and uploaded within hours. There had been talk of doing the whole thing live – the technology was already there. But that would be an easy bullseye for the cops to home in on. Delayed transmission also kept gambling and corruption out.

The race coverage was getting online views well into seven figures, worldwide. The old track formulae had become dull and remote, despite all the rule changes. Urban Formula was edgier and more aspirational. The routes used the kind of streets that everyone had in their hometowns.

We stole all the eye-candy tricks from the big formulae and improved them. Telemetry beamed back in real time to Race Control, for cutting into the race coverage. Unedited, uncensored cockpit radio comms. Raw, visceral.

The online views generated huge revenue. The teams got a bigger slice of the pie based on their placings, which kept it competitive. Driver contracts were limited to one season, to keep everyone on their toes. Audience feedback confirmed they liked the drivers singing for their supper at every race.

Up ahead, the larger lookahead drone also established contact, then flew ahead of us and out of sight in the night sky. Its job was to provide a hi-res feed of the terrain ahead for Race Control, so they could spot any cops or other problems along the route. It also had a loudhailer so they could warn any bystanders that the race was coming through. That was pretty rare, though. The time of day and the deserted locations usually meant a balls-to-the-wall clear run.

We were almost at the Empty Interchange, a junction of motorways, expressways and distributor roads, most of which were never built. It formed an inter-meshing set of cloverleafs with no apparent purpose. Except maybe for racing ultra-lightweight electric single-seaters in the middle of the night.

Marli’s voice cut in.

“Driver! Opponent too close, faster!”

I flicked a look left into the mirror. Empty expanse of road. I looked right, and my heart lurched as I saw Ryzhkov’s car charging out of my slipstream, attempting a pass on the inside of the bend.

I floored it, felt the rear end try to step out, caught the slide, heard the tyres sing. The helmet blocked my peripheral vision, but I knew Ryzhkov’s nosecone would be alongside my side-vents about now. Too late to close the door. Stay focused.

We flew out of the bend onto the wide highway and I stole a quick look. Ryzhkov’s car was still large in the mirror, but falling back. I felt the adrenaline kick dropping off, my breathing still quick and shallow, hot sweat under my arms and across my chest. My heart rate began to slow down, but it jumped again as the panel screamed and flashed up STANDBY FOR RE-ROUTE.

“Driver, Race Control taking you down next off-ramp. New heading. Stand by… Painted Quarter.”

 

Time 04:14 / Arrays 76%

I was heading into familiar territory. The Painted Quarter was its official name, but the locals just called it the Clouds. An idealistic town planner’s wet dream from two generations ago, it was a collection of a dozen or so residential Project towers. Curved, naturalistic shapes, no hard edges or straight lines. Some apartments’ windows were shaped like fat aerofoils, some like teardrops, some oval. The towers were painted in muted colours – abstract patterns, some resembling clouds, some looking more aquatic. It was intended as an antidote to all those old social housing projects with their serried rows of decaying balconies.

And in the tallest of those towers, almost at the top, I knew there was a tiny, one-bedroomed apartment. It was where my parents had taken me home to, from the maternity ward, thirty-two years ago.

We barrelled down the clearway, the Clouds moments ahead of us. We passed more signs of human presence, or its remnants. Boarded-up or burned-out retail units, a disused bowling alley, a long-derelict row of fast food joints. And then the first people we’d seen since before the race started. Pockets of the homeless and the hopeless, huddled in old blankets in shop doorways. An occasional group clustered around a trash fire in a burning garbage can. I’d been one paycheck away from joining them for years, and I still felt like it was only dumb luck that meant I wasn’t –

Shit! Ryzhkov’s car slid past on the left and took advantage of the gradual, sweeping bend to power ahead. I reacted instantly, pressing the throttle to the floor, but he had the jump and the momentum. The camera drones fizzed down, their operators keen for dogfight footage. I could only close to within a couple of car-lengths. Ryzhkov’s rear flasher glared and pulsed at me, revealing the road grime on my visor.

Inside my helmet, I flushed with embarrassment. How could I have let my concentration lapse like that? Years of experience boy-racing, of watching instructional videos, not to mention two seasons in this formula. But I’d been caught rubber-necking, and allowed a rookie twelve or fourteen years my junior to make me look an idiot. And right on my home turf. The millions out there would see it, within hours. I’d underestimated him, again.

Worse still, we were heading into a complex of tight, zigzagging backstreets around the Clouds, specifically intended to stop cars coming through at speed. No way at all of getting back in front through that.

As we entered the section, Ryzhkov kicked it again. He looked to have overcooked it for the sharp left up ahead, but slammed on the brakes, kept the rear in shape, and slipped round the corner like he was on rails. The kid was hot, inexperienced in years, but clearly hyper-aware even on unfamiliar roads, and with the skills to fully own his machine. I was falling behind, and felt the first hint of panic.

 

Time 04:17 / Arrays 73%

Ryzhkov was still ahead of me, but I’d limited the deficit. We’d just rounded the right-hand sweeper to go across the open area between the central Clouds towers, when the panel screamed and flashed, lighting up the visor and cowl of my helmet.

The real-time map showed a handful of red dots. Two of them were flashing. Race Control’s computer projection had assessed them as the ones likely to catch us first. The status indicator was strobing PURSUIT.

“Marli! Cruisers or interceptors?”.

If we’d chanced across some souped up cop-rockets, we had a problem. Even if a cruiser got near enough, we’d be vulnerable. They would have no hesitation in clipping us off the road. No bystanders to worry about at this time of night.

“Driver, consulting Race Control. Stand by.”

Ryzhkov’s car wobbled slightly, up ahead. He’d be having a similar conversation with his own engineer. No telling how he’d react. His races earlier in the season had gone off without interruption, from what I remembered. I wondered what the word ‘PURSUIT’ looked like in Cyrillic characters.

Marli was back.

“Driver, both are cruisers. Re-route coming up. No concern on power, cell array at 73%, temperature good.”

The panel’s status changed to RACE NEUTRALISED. A temporary truce, so we could concentrate on getting our asses out of there.

Race Control’s servers would be measuring the trajectory and speed of the cops, recalculating endlessly, comparing against thousands of scenarios they had modelled. The next re-routes would be abrupt and brutal, needing lightning reflexes. My mouth was dry, and I whacked the pouch for another sip of drink.

Now I was relieved we were on narrow roads with switchbacks and sharp bends. Standard-issue cop-cars had decent gas-guzzling power when pushed, but were sloppy-handling whales, laden down with equipment and often lard-assed officers. If Race Control could throw us into a twisty, slalom course through the backstreets, the cops would have trouble keeping up. We’d light it up through every corner, and the cruisers would lumber behind like blimps. I tried not to think about them calling for backup.

Blue light flashed off a nearby building. Close. Immediately, the panel screamed RE-ROUTE, arrow pointing moderate left. Ryzhkov’s car nosed off and I followed, metres behind.

 

Time 04:20 / Arrays 69%

We were bombing past a pizza delivery scooter, on a shallow curve down into the older part of the housing project when the panel shrieked and flashed MAX POWER 10…9…8…

Marli’s voice stepped in.

“Driver, police close, Race Control enabling MAX POWER, prepare.”

They were giving us the full hit from the cells, to shake off the cops. I gripped the wheel tight and braced against the seat. 3…2…1…

The power surge hit hard, catapulting both cars forward. Race Control had upped the power from 80% to 100%. The car felt alive and wild, like shackles had been thrown off, or like a stifled fire which had breathed in fresh oxygen. I could hear my pulse thumping in my eardrums.

“OK, Ryzhkov,” I mumbled to myself. “Let’s get rid of the bastards”.

We threw the cars through the estate, following every re-route that Race Control fed us. Whoever was running the route tonight must have been a native. They sent us on a crazy zigzag around the towers, through parking areas, past garage blocks and the garbage-blown disused community shops. One of the drones had been taken up, to get some overview footage. The other two remained low, shadowing us as we chucked the cars around. Ryzhkov again handled it like a pro. He took lines like he could see round corners, aiming perfectly at the apexes of blind, compound curves and keeping the car on its limit but composed.

I occasionally caught a flash of blue light in the mirrors or reflected off the chrome of a parked car. But the cops were losing ground, making lumpen, flabby progress way behind us, suffering on the tight turns. But they’d be on the radio right now, requesting backup further down the road. The night wasn’t over yet.

We finally emerged from the far side of the housing estate and accelerated away. The panel changed status to PURSUIT TERMINATED.

 

Time 04:23 / Arrays 67%

Some of the talented drivers had gone on to greater things since the formula started. We were all racing under assumed names, and were never seen in the footage with our helmets off. But if you knew the right people (and tipped big), it wasn’t too hard to find out who a driver was, and make an approach. Some got TV work, some were rumoured to have gone into getaway driving. Some of the more physical guys got work as combined chauffeur/security goons to high-rollers with a price on their head.

The minor track formulae were no longer much of a dream ticket, or even a stepping stone. Only the upper echelons had professional status, and the whole thing was rigged to favour the big boys, anyway. You could spend years on end, financing your own way up through the formulae, schlepping around looking for sponsorship, getting used to the taste of corporate ass on your lips.

Urban Formula was the mainline to getting out there and racing, on a level field with established players. Some new teams would arrive on the scene, lighting up the season instantly, their revenue stepping them straight up into the richer strata. Some newcomers would labour for seasons on end, only to suddenly hit on form or technology which pushed them up. Veteran teams sometimes became complacent, sliding down the cut scale as the glory days faded. It was anyone’s race.

 

Time 04:24 / Arrays 64%

The panel wailed and flashed PURSUIT again. I threw a look at the map. Again two dots, but even on the tiny map, I could see these were rolling much faster than the cruisers we’d escaped earlier. Interceptors. Highly-tuned Japanese machines, unrecognisable from the family jalopies they were based on. Turbocharged, intercooled, all-wheel drive. Powerful in standard trim, and that’s before the cops’ engineering geeks applied their own special sauce.

The two interceptors were coming from different directions, converging on the road some way behind us. As soon as they hit the straightaway, they’d nail the gas, rocking three-figure speeds within seconds to out-drag us.

I saw the blue/red flash of distant cop-lights in my mirrors as the interceptors slid onto the road, way off behind.

“Marli!”

“Driver, again pursuit. Race Control maintain MAX POWER, advise monitor battery array depletion.”

“Understood”.

I looked at the charge meter. 64%. Enough, for the moment.

The panel switched to STANDBY FOR RE-ROUTE. I waited. Seconds ticked by. I knew the flashing lights would be bigger in my mirror, but I didn’t dare look. The panel cleared for a moment, then flashed up STANDBY FOR RE-ROUTE again.

“Marli, what the fuck? Where’s the re-route? Come on!”

A moment’s silence.

“Driver, Race Control confirm algorithm unable to re-route currently. Not enough options while you are on the straight road.”

“Shit!”

We were sitting ducks.

“Driver, Race Control switching to manual routing.”

“What?!”.

First time in over two seasons. But they’d only ever done it a couple of times, and that was when the systems had gone down mid-race, before the backroom boys had gotten the software reliable. Never when the racers were staring down the barrel of two interceptors.

“Driver, verbal instruction! Take next left, then take first right. Finish parallel to current road.”

Ryzhkov was already reacting to his identical instructions up ahead, scrubbing off some speed, moving to the right to throw his car into a sweeping line through the intersection. I was carrying too much speed, and nailed the brakes too hard, losing momentum and taking a lousy line. The drones overshot my car in a formation of banking turns, their camera gimbals spinning round to shoot footage of me floundering.

Ryzhkov was already halfway round the following right turn by the time I got my position in order. I prepared and took that turn much better, emerging a couple of hundred metres behind.

“Driver, concentrate. You were close to lock-up on front left.”

My breathing was ragged and stressed. Sweat was soaking the sides of my race suit.

“Where are they taking us?”

Pause.

“Driver, route will take you across Alpha Park.”

“That’s crazy! Barriers and bollards and stuff. We’ll never make it!”

“Driver, Race Control advise hack team have compromised the sector. Will use obstacles against pursuit. Stand by.”

 

Time 04:27 / Arrays 61%

We raced on towards the industrial park, blowing past a slow-moving garbage truck. The operatives must have spotted the blue lights in the middle distance behind us. The vehicle stopped and I saw the guys in the mirrors, scooping shit out of the back and dumping it on the road, to slow the cops down. I guessed they were fans, excited to play a small part in this week’s race. They’d watch the coverage, and try to spot their fleeting appearance. The producers would pixellate out anything identifiable from the drone footage.

Even at night, you could see Alpha Park was still in good shape. The discreet, downward streetlights picked out well-tended grass verges and managed trees. By day, this would be a scene of quiet activity, transit buses ferrying the staff in and out. Mostly technology companies, a few huge logistics places. But aside from the odd security guard on the front desks of the buildings, Ryzhkov and I were the only ones here. And the two interceptors were now only seconds behind.

It felt like a dead end. The park had several exits, but was laid out in a set of jagged, concentric rectangles, precisely to stop boy-racers using it as a track. And the series of barriers and bollards could win or lose it for us, right here. I was muttering and swearing to myself when Marli broke in.

“Driver, lookahead drone reports fence at back of section K for Kilo, breached by Fixers, wide enough for car.”

Ah, now we’re talking. If we could get into K, we could scream across the overflow car parks to the rear perimeter road and get out that way. Smart guys doing this part of the re-route, maybe former street-racers themselves.

“OK, but how will we get out of the car park?”

“Driver, Race Control are working on this. Stand by.”

They were only just working on it?

“Driver, cars will take road towards Leadmill area, then turn left through cut fence into parking.”

“How will we know where the break in the fence is?”

“Driver, lookahead drone will hover and show.”

Ryzhkov had already taken the dog-leg bend to realign with the road out to the old Leadmill district. I came out barely fifty metres behind him. Marli had been right. Up ahead the lookahead drone was hovering in place with its strobe lights flashing. Ryzhkov nailed the brakes and aimed his car into the darkness underneath the drone. I could now see where the chain-link fence had been pulled back and rolled up into a loose cylinder to the right of the gap. Ryzhkov’s rear wheel brushed it as he went through, no harm. I followed his line and was through the gap seconds after. Blue lights behind, much closer now. And the missing section of fence was wide enough for the interceptors, too.

“Driver, fast now, go straight to car park interchange on far side”

“We can’t see shit, all the floodlights are off!”

“Driver, standby.”

We plunged on into the near-darkness, our headlights only showing the immediate way ahead. After a few seconds, the car park lights fired up and the whole interchange section was bathed in white light.

“Driver, hack team have compromised lighting. Fast now, we need gap to pursuers”.

Ryzhkov and I realigned towards the interchange plaza, with its dozens of entrances to the huge car parks. Barriers, bollards. Jesus, I hoped Race Control had an ace up their sleeve, or this would be over in seconds.

“Driver, aim for left-hand exit barrier, then go left on road.”

Ryzhkov had responded to his instruction already, and had adjusted his line. One of the camera drones flew up alongside him. We pushed on towards the barrier. The cop cars were visible across the deserted car park, a hundred or so metres behind us.

Ahead of us, the barrier began to rise. The geeks again, roaming all around Alpha Park’s security systems. We flew under the raised barrier and hooked it hard left onto the exit road. In my mirrors, I saw both interceptors follow us, fishtailing as they took the turn.

“Now what, Marli?! They’re right on us!”

“Driver, go across intersection, straight onto service road.”

“No way, it’s closed off! The bollards only drop for the buses!”

“Driver, hack team have compromised. Say immediately when you are past obstacle.”

Oh, you sly bastards.

Ahead of me, Ryzhkov corrected his angle and headed straight towards the service road. In front of him, I saw the reflective detailing on the two steel bollard columns blocking the road. They started dropping into the ground. Ryzhkov’s car backed off and adjusted speed. The bollards continued dropping. I lost sight of them in front of Ryzhkov’s car as the road straightened. I was shaking.

And then he was over the bollards, with only their top faces glinting off my headlights, flush with the road surface. I stomped on the loud pedal and flew through the gap.

“Now, Marli!”, I screamed.

“Now!”, I heard her repeat.

In the mirrors, the interceptors approached, flat-out. And the bollards started rising slowly out of the ground. My heart was racing. Rising too slowly?

The front of the first interceptor cleared the rising bollards. And then it all happened in an instant. Huge crash of metal on metal. The car’s rear end flew up, slamming it to a halt, pitching it nose-down at a crazy angle, blocking the road. The bollard must have just made contact with the car’s rear end in time.

“Yes!”, I shouted into the comms, jubilant.

Marli’s voice was its usual calm monotone.

“Driver, Race Control confirm pursuit terminated.”

Yep, damn right. And I’d noticed two of the follower drones turning round to film just before the lead interceptor hit the bollards. Spliced in with footage from the rear-facing camera on my car, it would make ratings gold. The viewers would fucking love it.

 

Time 04:33 / Arrays 56%

“Marli, can you check with Ryzhkov’s crew if he still wants to race?”

The drivers weren’t allowed to communicate directly, to stop intimidation and trolling.

“Driver, standby.”

It was a fair question to ask, but how would it come across? I was winding down from the adrenaline overload of the interceptor chase, and every muscle in my body felt shaky and unreliable. The car’s ergonomics were perfect – the whole cockpit had been built to my body shape. But my arms and shoulders were sagging, my wrists stiff and aching. Was it more myself who wanted to call the race off?

Marli clicked in.

“Driver, consulted opponent’s engineer. They patched in their audio so I could hear confirmation. Ryzhkov response is yes yes yes, continue with race. And something about your mother, but my Russian wasn’t good enough to understand that. His engineer found it funny.”

I grinned inside the tight helmet.

“Understood, confirm to Ryzhkov that the race continues”.

 

Time 04:34 / Arrays 55%

We were skirting the Leadmill complex when the panel came alive: PURSUIT. And then a tiny pause before it changed to PURSUIT – AERIAL.

Chopper! Oh, shit. On the map, a large red blob was pulsing, east of us but gaining, unhindered by the zigzagging, indirect roads.

“Marli!”

“Driver, Race Control confirm patrol helicopter in pursuit. Standby.”

“Don’t tell me to stand by! We got big problems, here!”

“Driver, Race Control withdrawing drones to avoid notifying location.”

In the mirrors, the follower drones peeled away to the north, cutting their floodlights a moment later and disappearing into the dark.

“Have they called the race off?”

“Driver, Race Control notify split route in next 30 seconds. Still intention to re-group after pursuit, and conclude race.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Driver, re-routes as follows. Ryzhkov to turn left bearing south, towards Old Market district.”

Lucky bastard. Low-lying, dense, plenty of cover, lots of ways in and out. Ryzhkov’s car slowed and swung hard left down a sidestreet.

“Driver, proceed north-east on current road towards Citadel. Topography will assist to escape pursuit.”

Great. The badlands. But I’d take whatever I could get, right now. And maybe the lie of the land was OK. A maze of residential towers of varying heights and sizes, landscaped over multiple levels, connected by ramps, overpasses and car parks. And a lot of darkness, both literal and otherwise.

“Driver, Race Control advise decoy units being deployed on intercept course to draw helicopter away.”

Nice work. A couple of the boy-racers that the organisation retained on standby, ready to fire up their modified hot-hatches and distract the chopper crew.

“And driver, Race Control also advise of welcome party at Citadel for helicopter.”

What?

 

Time 04:36 / Arrays 53%

Here we go, right into the city’s asshole. If the Clouds were a Utopian vision of social housing, then the Citadel was its malignant opposite. Eight blocky, slab-sided towers, all at least ten storeys high. Cheap decaying concrete, rusting balconies, and stairways you knew would reek of stale piss. Grimy, under-maintained roads and service yards, dark corners and shadows. They’d had those riots a few years back, and the police didn’t go out of their way to visit. The black economy of dealers and pimps had the free run of the estate after nightfall.

Would it work for or against me? I’d normally avoid this area like ebola, but maybe the no-go zone aspect might do me a favour. The chopper could blaze through unhindered, but the cops would think twice about sending in any interceptors. Too easy for someone to drop a concrete block off one of the walkways. Or for a crew to emerge like wraiths from an alleyway with Molotovs lit and cop-hatred blazing in their eyes. Was something like that the ‘welcome party’ Marli had mentioned?

The car still felt good and tight as I bombed down the approach road with the Citadel looming up ahead. As soon as I passed the gap between the nearest towers, I’d follow the route which Race Control had highlighted on the panel’s map, skirting around the inner car parks, throwing a couple of deception turns to kid the cops I was heading straight back out. I then had to scream flat-out across the open central area. Race Control’s route went no further than that. I guessed they were waiting to see what the chopper did.

The scrolling map showed the chopper was closer, but was maybe hanging back, without the drones’ lights to give away my location. They had infra-red, but I was darting in and out of electricity substations and plant buildings, all glowing white or yellow on their thermal screens. Maybe they couldn’t get a coherent fix on me.

I reached one of the bullet-straight roads pizza-cutting across the heart of the Citadel, swung right as instructed, and was about to plant the pedal to the floor when Marli cut in.

“Driver, Race Control advise continue current route, but slow to 40 kilometres per hour. Repeat four-zero-kay-emm-aitch. Confirm?”

“What? That’s barely 25 in old money. The chopper’ll be straight on me!”

“Driver, speed four-zero-kay required to synchronise with local assistance.”

Ah, dangling me as the bait while they set something up with sympatico elements nearby.

“Marli, confirm holding at four-zero-kay until new instruction”. It wasn’t like I had much say in it.

I crawled along at what felt like walking pace. Seconds later, the chopper rose over the block ahead, its cone of floodlight sweeping the area in front of it. It looked like it was going to cross over the road well ahead and miss me. But the chopper’s engine note and attitude changed, and it started banking towards me. Busted.

“Marli, chopper’s on me. I’m fucked!”

“Driver, stay with four-zero-kay”

Jesus.

The helicopter came straight at me, its searchlight pointed directly at the car. I tilted my head down to shade my eyes. But then the chopper’s engine note altered again, and the spotlight beam moved away. I looked up.

The chopper had risen slightly, and was now a vivid neon against the dark sky, illuminated by a chaos of dancing, flickering beams of light. Mostly green, some blue and red. A wall of dizzying flashes picked out its underside, windows, and the slashing rotor blades above.

Laser pointers. Hundreds of them, aimed from all around at the hapless chopper, dazzling and night-blinding its crew. Race Control must have called in some favours and gotten the word out across the Citadel. Every crim, boot-boy, or cop-hater had been mobilised. The welcome party.

The height of the surrounding towers meant that some of the lasers were pointing down into the cockpit. It must have been a maelstrom of light and disorientation inside, but from down here, it looked almost beautiful. Drone footage would have been great, and I figured the producers were regretting that they’d called them off. But you could bet that phone video was being filmed right now by the locals, and would make its way to the organisers. They’d cut it into the show. More ratings gold.

Marli’s voice broke through the chopper’s abrasive noise.

“Driver, helicopter delayed, accelerate, take next left onto radial road, leave Citadel heading south-west.”

I wanted to chance a final look at the light show, but I couldn’t risk a second’s delay. I threw the car left & stomped the accelerator down.

 

Time 04:41 / Arrays 52%

I was on edge, and knew I had to watch out for inattention and stupid mistakes. Too much adrenaline, clouding the rational mind. My breath was stale and foul inside the helmet, and my racing suit felt like a tight cocoon of filthy, rank dishrag. I needed to focus and concentrate.

“Marli, talk to me. Have the boy-racers drawn the chopper away?”

“Driver, Race Control confirm decoy unsuccessful. Helicopter continues pursuit.”

Shit. They were no more than a minute or two behind, and they would be calling ahead for backup units on the ground, now we had left enemy territory. I was on borrowed time.

I was heading past the old retail district, deserted for a decade. The entrance ramp to its multi-storey car park was coming up on the right, its barrier a splintered stump.

Let’s hide out in there.

“Marli, give me a minute. Got an idea.”

I trod on the brakes, swung in, and accelerated up the ramp. At the top, the battery arrays in the car’s floor scraped, sending out a shower of orange sparks behind me. Damn, didn’t want to ground this thing out and beach it like a whale.

My lights revealed years of dense graffiti on the walls of the deserted car park, piles of garbage and debris, remnants of trash fires. I figured I’d go up a couple of floors, find a discreet spot towards the centre of the building, lie low and call Marli to get me the hell out of here. Maybe get some Fixers over here, get them to pop a flare gun near the chopper and frighten the pilot off. It had worked before.

I’d just turned off the ramp on the second floor, when the chopper reared up outside the building, spearing me with its searchlight.
I whipped the car around and powered across the floor towards the central stairs, avoiding rubbish and concrete debris, dimly aware of the chopper matching my move, circling around the building.

To the right of the pedestrian stairway doors was a small nook for parking motorcycles. The cover was good, concrete walls on two sides, a pillar on the other, enough overhang to cut down the other angles. I eased to a halt in the space and killed the lights.

I’d be safe here, but only for moments. The chopper would keep circling, probing with its thermal cameras. And the car’s battery arrays would still be pumping out heat for at least half an hour.
I lowered my voice as I hit the talk button.

“Marli, I’m in the car park of the old shopping place on Grantland. Chopper has me pinned down. Need help, now!”

Silence.

“Marli!”

The panel’s heartbeat symbol was black. Comms were down. Had the cops tracked down the base that Race Control were using? I tried again several times, almost doing that cliche thing of pounding the panel.

If all else fails, switch it off and back on again. I tapped in the reboot sequence, watched the countdown, then saw the screen go blank. Only at that point did I wonder if it would come back up again, and bring the car back to life.

After a nervous moment, the boot sequence started. Another few seconds, and the panel lit up with the usual speedo/map combination. Come on, baby. Give me comms.

The status indicator flashed up STATUS UNKNOWN, NO COMMS TO BASE.

 

Time 04:42 / Arrays 48%

The dead comms meant no cop-tracking on the map, but the backup units could only be moments away. They’d be pissed off too. We’d made fools of them tonight, trashing one of their interceptors on camera, and endangering their prize toy, the chopper. Any security cameras in this decrepit car park would have been stolen or smashed years ago. And I had an idea the cops’ body-cams would all develop unexplained problems, right about the time they closed in on me.

I decided to ditch the car and make a run for it. I released the harness and hauled myself out, grabbing the flashlight from its clip. I tried the pedestrian doors to the stairwell, but they were locked. I turned around and looked through the gloom. The sky had a hint of pre-sunrise, and I could just make out the edges of the building. I started out on a shambling run towards the exit ramp, my muscles and joints creaking after being hemmed into the cramped driving position. I hadn’t taken my helmet off; keeping my face covered might be the difference between getting away with it or not.

I ran towards the edge of the building facing out onto the street I’d come from, looking for some sort of fire escape or emergency ladder. I’d just leaned over the edge to look down when the chopper rounded the corner, its searchlight pointing straight at me.

I reflex-dived onto the concrete floor, and winced as the helmet impacted and jarred my neck. I scooted my legs around and pressed my body up under the parapet, trying to stay out of view. Had they spotted me already? I waited for the loud-hailer to scream, but it never came. The chopper continued along the side of the building and away around the corner. I exhaled.

Trying to cut and run wasn’t going to happen. They would be on me in seconds, whichever direction I went. The area outside was largely open ground. Without any cover, I’d be a bright yellow target for their thermal cameras. My only option was to drive the car back out of here and take my chances on the roads, rather than waiting to be flushed out.

I got to my feet, and shuffled to the other side, keeping my head low. The pre-dawn sky lit the exit ramp ahead. The chopper was some way off, so I chanced a look around the corner. The ramp led down the rear of the parking garage, with the lower floor feeding into it halfway down. Towards the bottom of the ramp was a black mass which I couldn’t make out in the dull light. I clicked on the flashlight. The beam picked out the wreck of an old car facing towards the exit, its windows smashed or missing, surrounded by garbage and debris, blocking the exit ramp.
Shit. The only way out was the entrance ramp I’d come up through. I knew the barrier at the bottom was gone. But once the chopper crew spotted that the exit ramp was blocked, they would surely sit tight outside the entrance ramp, knowing they had me cornered.

I needed a diversion to keep them away from the entrance for long enough for me to escape. But I had nothing to work with. No massed laser pointers here, no collaborators sent by Race Control to act as decoys. Just me and an electric racing car.

Hold on. The battery arrays. The car’s floor held nearly two thousand lithium-ion cells. Treat them wrong and they turn into tiny incendiary bombs. Everyone has seen clips of phones or laptops spontaneously bursting into flames, or of some poor bastard getting his nuts torched when an e-cigarette in his pocket destroys itself in a blaze of sparks and fire. I’d seen footage of idiots smashing the things up with hammers, and running away as the cells flared up into pillars of flame.

Could I set a fire, and draw the chopper’s attention away? But that would destroy the car, and I’d still have to make a run for it on foot, still alone and with the cop-heat being turned up moment by moment. Could I partially cripple the car, but still leave it drivable? I knew there were two battery arrays, for easy maintenance and swap-out. But were they wired in series or parallel?

I ran back to the car, knelt down and pointed the flashlight into the cockpit. The two arrays formed the floor of the car, and were the size of large concrete slabs, but much thicker and heavier. The rear one was obscured by the frame of the racing seat, but I could see the four release handles for the front array, flush with the sides of the cockpit.

I’d seen the arrays being installed and removed dozens of times. They had recessed casters built in at the corners. The techs would roll the arrays into position under the car, and use a low-profile floor jack to lift them up into the car’s floor. Turn the four handles to lock the array in place, then connect its stub cable to the power distribution rig, on the left-hand side of the cockpit. It was the reverse procedure when removing an array.

I reached into the car and tugged the front array’s stub cable out of its socket. And then swore as I realised I hadn’t shut the car down before pulling the plug. I looked at the panel. Dead black. Had I power-spiked the whole thing and turned the car’s central system back into a kid’s toy?

I hit the start button. And exhaled with relief as the boot sequence began. It seemed to drag on, but I couldn’t tell if I was imagining it or not. Finally, the panel came up. It showed the expected dead comms heartbeat from Marli, but all else looked OK. All except the power meter, which was now reading just 24%. The arrays must be wired in parallel. So it’s a crippled car with only half power, but it’s drivable.

The chopper was still circling the building, but I had enough cover. I removed my helmet and balaclava facemask, and put them down on the seat. Holding the torch in my teeth, I dived into the cockpit and located the release handles. The first turned easily, but the rest became progressively harder as more of the array’s weight was hanging off fewer mountings. No luxury of a floor jack to take the weight here. The last handle was a bitch and I had to take off a glove to get enough purchase to inch it round. With a huge effort, the handle reached the end of its travel and the array slammed out the car onto the concrete floor. Were the casters still OK? I needed it to roll.

I got down on the ground and pushed the array out with my foot. It slid across the concrete, the casters squeaking as they rolled.

The array’s aluminium lid was easy to remove, just a couple of catches on either side. I lifted it away. The wave of heat hit me like opening an oven, and fresh sweat broke out on my forehead. Nine hundred and sixty cylindrical cells looked up at me, neatly interconnected with hand-soldered busbars across the terminals, all cradled in their air-cooling matrix. Our techs took huge pride in the workmanship, packing the cells tightly into the array, modelling the airflow in CAD software. But now I was about to smash the shit out of their masterpiece in the hope it would destroy itself and win me some time.

I grabbed the crowbar from its clip in the cockpit, hooked it onto the tool loop on the suit’s waistband, and pocketed the flashlight.

I pushed the array with my foot towards the exit ramp. The casters grated and dragged on the pitted concrete floor. The chopper was a distant presence, some way around the building from me. I stopped just shy of the ramp, hanging back in the shadows. I laid the flashlight on the floor, pointing at the array.

I knelt down, the crowbar held two-handed above my head, its sharp end pointing down like a spear. I brought it down with all my strength. Nothing happened, just the sound of plastic shattering. I’d missed the cells and hit one of the sections of matrix between them.

I raised the bar again and smashed it down. I felt it contact against something hard. Still no reaction. I grabbed the flashlight off the floor and leaned down over the array to see what had happened. At that moment, a shower of red-hot sparks shot out of the cell that I must have hit, barely missing my face. I felt its heat against my cheek, jerked back, and smelt the stink of singed hair.

The damaged cell continued spitting and fizzling. OK, we’re on our way. I nailed the array again with the jemmy, puncturing another cell towards the front-left corner, but wise to the blow-back. One more for luck. I slammed the jemmy in again, towards the rear corner. A third jet of flame and sparks spewed out.

The whole surface of the array was now a sea of crazy flame, pumping out a pall of dense smoke. I stood up and pushed it with my foot to the lip of the exit ramp, aligned it towards the abandoned car, and then kicked it hard down the ramp.

The array gained speed as it rolled down, trailing its angry smoke column, fresh flames spurting out as more cells caught fire. It skittered on the rough surface, dragging to the right, bouncing off the kerb, then back towards the centre. It rolled under the wrecked car, banging as it came to a halt against some obstruction underneath.

The flames caught on the garbage and detritus, spreading across the underside of the wreck and crawling up the sides. A tongue of flame slipped through a broken window, and the car’s interior lit up as the headlining started burning. A fresh burst of black smoke belched out of the car, and I could now smell the acrid stench of burning upholstery.

The heat and the smoke would show on the chopper’s thermal rig, as soon as they came round the corner of the building.

I ran back to the car, jumped in, and almost broke my tailbone on the helmet I’d left in the seat. No time for that. I threw it away into the shadows. They’d find it, but the DNA was no problem – I wasn’t on the database. The chopper’s beam come round in my peripheral vision as I buckled up the harness, then heard its sound change. They’d spotted the blaze, and were homing in. I reversed out of the spot, leaving the headlights off, and drove towards the entrance ramp.

I inched the car around the corner onto the ramp. The sky was lighter, with the sunrise closer, and I was able to crawl down the ramp without needing to hit the headlights. I swung off the ramp at the bottom. I’d already decided to head back the way I came – not back to the Citadel, but skirting it, taking the old dock road back towards where the race had started. I was following the old rule of thumb; if you’re in deep shit, try to get back towards friendly territory.

I floored the pedal. And it was only then that I realised what a gutless, underpowered turd I was now driving.

 

Time 04:55 / Arrays 21%

The car felt alien, nothing like the body-extension it had been just a while back. The missing section of floor was playing hell with the airflow, sucking all sorts of dust and street debris into the cockpit. Grit was being driven into my eyes, and I regretted throwing the helmet away.

The car’s dynamics were horrible. Running on half-power, the throttle response was distant and insipid. When I took the first corner I came to, the handling was leaden and the steering barely responded. Dropping 90+ kilos out of the car had totally screwed the weight distribution. Every nuance of suspension tuning, every hour of tweaking, were now rendered useless. At the next bend, I needed to scrub some speed. I dabbed the brakes, but the car oversteered abruptly as its mass moved forwards, the back end stepping out and the rear tyres screaming. I caught the slide just before it turned into a full-on spin. The car had gone from a perfectly balanced racing machine to a skittish basket case.

“Driver, confirm comms!”

Marli! My earbuds were still in, but I could barely make out her voice over the roar of the wind.

“Where you been? What happened?”

“Driver, Race Control believed base location was compromised, ordered evacuation. Lost comms, but now mobile in truck”.

“I need help here. Car is dying, need immediate bug-out.”

“Driver, repeat please, unclear.”

The wind was screwing up my throat-mic. I cupped my hand in front of my mouth.

“Marli, the car is fucked! I need extraction. Now!”

“Driver, telemetry reports only 21% power, with array one non-functional. Is this correct?”

“I had to ditch the array. Long story. Just get me out of here, OK? I’ll explain later. Did Ryzhkov make it?”

“Driver, confirmation race abandoned 11 minutes ago. Opponent already extracted. Continue on current route, heading towards start area. Requesting extraction. Standby.”

 

Time 04:57 / Arrays 15%

I was still waiting on Marli’s response when the car juddered and slowed. The panel’s status changed to LIMP HOME.

Oh, now this. The car had sensed we’d dipped under 15% charge and had cut its power back, to squeeze out as much range as possible. Not what I needed.

“Marli! Car has gone into limp-home. Dropped me to fifty kays. I’m dead meat, here! Where’s the extraction?”

“Driver, no ETA for extraction yet. Proceed.”

“Fuck that, they’ll be on me any second. Can the techs re-map the powertrain? I need speed, not range.”

“Driver, standby.”

If they could just switch off the get-you-home mode, I’d have that little bit more power to put distance between me and the cops. Might give me the crucial seconds to hook up with the extraction boys.

“Driver, technicians have downloaded new power mapping to the car. No safeguards, repeat no safeguards. Needs reboot.”

“OK Marli, rebooting in 10 seconds.”

I aimed the car straight along the middle of the street and hit the reboot sequence. The power stopped, and I coasted along. The only sounds were the tyres’ contact on the road surface and my stuttering breaths. The car’s momentum ran out, and we eased to a halt.

The panel’s boot sequence started. 10…9…8… Come on, come on, come on.

Booted! Yes! The panel’s status read SHIT OR BUST. I smiled. Nice touch of gallows humour from the techs. I pressed the accelerator. The car felt a little more responsive.

“Marli, car rebooted, proceeding towards docks. Where’s that extraction?”

 

Time 04:59 / Arrays 4%

I was juggling speed and range. After the re-map, I’d stomped it straight up to 120 kays, but the charge plummeted alarmingly and scared the piss out of me. I’d slowed back down to 70, but had no idea how much longer I had left. I was on the ragged end of panic, my stomach churning and my mouth parched.

Marli pinged in.

“Driver, extraction details. Continue to Redwater Road, two kilometres from current location. Extraction via motorcycle.”

“Oh, thank fuck! How will I know them?”

“Driver, evac and assistance both black sports bikes. Evac rider’s challenge word is the city where you spent your twenty-eighth birthday. Your response word is the island where I met my wife. Understood?”

Clever girl. We’d never seen the need to set proper security questions. But Marli had come up with two that only she and I could know, buried deep in conversations we’d had while working on the car, months ago. Smart – not even trusting the encryption on the comms link.

“Confirmed, understand OK.”

I took the bend onto Redwater. Nothing ahead, just the scruffy industrial street revealing itself in the pre-dawn. I drove on, but felt panic rising as I approached the intersection at the end. Where were the extraction guys?

The car cut out. No warning, the re-map having taken out all the safeguards. The panel was dead. No lights or any indication of power in the cockpit. A hundred or so meters later, the car ground to a halt.

I heard the roar of engines being gunned behind me, and clawed frantically at the race harness, making a pitiful sound and feeling tears prickling in my eyes. The engine sound was right on top of me as I climbed out to run for it. A hand grabbed my shoulder and flung me around. I tensed, ready to lash out.

Big guy in motorcycle leathers, visor flipped up, intense eyes, serious demeanour. He spoke.

“Prague.”

What? Oh, yeah.

“Corfu,” I replied.

No change at all in his expression, eyes drilling holes in me. Then I realised.

“No, wait it was Cyprus! Cyprus!”

His face relaxed, and he extended a gloved hand. We shook, and he passed me a helmet, which I started strapping on.

“It’s OK, man. She said you’d probably get it wrong first time. Name’s Ronnie. You don’t need to know that guy’s name.”

He was gesturing across to the rider of the other bike, who had turned the dead car’s steering wheel, and was now pushing it towards one of the buildings across a narrow section of sidewalk. The car bumped to a halt against the kerb, and he beckoned us over to help. The three of us shoved the car over the kerbstones and let it roll into the building’s front door alcove.

The guy had now retrieved a jerrycan of gasoline from his bike and was emptying it into the car’s cockpit. I could see what was coming next. They’d torch it to make it look like I’d crashed. The remaining battery array would join the pyrotechnic party. By the time the firefighters had it under control and realised no-one was inside, we’d be miles away.

Ronnie and I ran back to his bike. He fired it up, and I jumped on the tiny pillion seat. He double-tapped my leg to warn me, clicked into gear and gunned it.

I glanced over my shoulder as we pulled away, just in time to see the car flare up in a ball of flame. The other rider was running back to his machine. I noticed for the first time that he had a body-cam strapped across his chest. Even more ratings gold. I hoped the producers would remember to pixellate my face, if they’d caught me in shot.

In the distance, blue lights turned onto the road behind us, quickly obscured by the thick smoke billowing from the flaming car. I guess Ronnie saw them in his mirrors, too. The bike’s engine note climbed abruptly and we surged forwards. The other rider drew near us, then peeled off down a sidestreet. I clung on hard as Ronnie powered the bike through the gears, towards the sunrise.

THE END

(c) copyright Chris Bardell 2017

Image (c) Can Stock Photo / ArtImages

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