Emily smacked her lips, fresh lipstick, an invitation to something that had to wait. Ryan groaned. They shouldn’t have done that, but at that moment he was glad they did. He thought Emily would leave Kitty and she would come back to Austin. Now he knew otherwise.
He snatched the bag of space dust from the pillow, opened it. Part of Rainbows charm was the fragrance, sweet, like candy. Emily smelled the same. He poured the contents of the bag onto the nightstand. The red and white powder sparkled against the dark wood. It reminded him of the parking lot where they met Marcus.
Marcus’s fire engine red minivan was two parking spaces away. He leaned against the van, brushing his horseshoe mustache. “Bomboncita,” he lifted Emily and spun her. She kissed his cheeks until he put her down.
“What is this?” Emily said, looking in the windows of the minivan.
Ryan pointed to the dent in the rear quarter panel.
Marcus waved him off. “My minivan,” he said to Emily. “This is the project I was telling you about before you left Austin. I finished her this year. Isn’t she beautiful?”
Emily stepped over Ryan’s camera drone crate to sit in the driver’s seat. “How does this work?” She held the steering wheel.
Marcus followed her in. Ryan leaned against the van, grinning at Emily’s excitement.
“That’s the steering wheel,” Marcus said.
“Yea, but what does it do?”
“It turns the tires, so I can steer.”
“And these?” Emily said. She pumped on the pedals under her feet.
“Aye, aye aye. You will break them,” Marcus said. The one on the right is to go, and the left is to stop.
“I don’t get it. Why would you want to drive when you could—”
“We should move Viper to the limo, so Marcus can get back on the road,” Ryan said over her. Something about the hot afternoon sun made him feel rushed.
Marcus winked at him. “I knew you two wouldn’t let a limo ride go to waste,” he said in Ryan’s ear, then pointed over his shoulder. “Hey, hey what is that?”
They had parked in a lot just south of the Frontier Diner. A crowd gathered in the diner’s parking lot.
“We should check that out,” Marcus said.
“Yes, we should,” Ryan said. He was too tall to sit on Viper’s crate, and a pile of trash behind the crate made the rear of the van off-limits. Was that soda bottle full of urine? He didn’t want to know. He squatted between the two front seats.
“You will have to drive us Bomboncita,” Marcus said.
Emily bounced on her seat. “What do I do?”
Marcus instructed her to start the vehicle and put it in reverse. Emily punched the accelerator pedal. The van shot out of the drive, crossing the highway into the vacant lot on the other side. Ryan fell forward, Viper’s crate struck his ankle.
Emily screamed. Marcus grabbed the steering wheel. The van coasted into the vacant lot, bumping a parking guard to stop.
“Aye, aye,” Marcus said. “Not so hard, now,” he pushed a button on a screen in the dashboard, “gentle.”
Emily tapped the accelerator and the van crawled forward.
“Good, good,” Marcus said. “Now turn on the road. Yes. Very good. A little faster. Good, yes, now slow before the parking lot.”
Emily followed Marcus’s instructions. They crawled to the diner’s parking lot, where a trolley car full of people approached from the opposite direction. Emily turned in front of it, yelped when she noticed it barreling at them.
“Punch it.” Marcus said.
The minivan lurched into Frontier Diner’s parking lot. The trolley car stopped hard. Ryan waved to people flying birds.
“Now over there,” Marcus pointed. Emily turned, and they crawled into a parking spot.
The minivan bounced to a stop. Ryan laughed. The idea of driving was insane. Riding in a custom-built vehicle with a first-time driver was too much.
“I did it!” Emily kissed Ryan on the lips, crawled over him and did the same to Marcus. “That was fun. Now what?”
“Find out what this crowd is about,” Ryan opened the door, pulled Viper’s crate out behind him.
A century ago, reporters used drones of Viper’s size. But cameras were everywhere now, and EC One reporters didn’t use drones, they used their access to the world’s cameras to capture their stories. PNN affiliates didn’t have that access. In exchange for bankrolling PNN Explorer Corporation extracted the requirement that PNN reporters work with conspicuous equipment. Sometimes the drones made getting a story impossible, other times their novelty helped to relax interviewees.
Ryan tossed Viper’s ball-wheel on the ground. It expanded to full-size, unfolding like an origami creature come to life. The central mounting rod attached to a platform on the ball-wheel, it extended to accept the camera and microphone unit, which Ryan attached with a torque screw. He added a battery pack and Viper’s camera ball nodded, indicating his AI was online. Ryan headed for the crowd. Viper hummed next to him.
They met a man in blue coveralls. “Do you know what’s going on?” Ryan asked him.
“Captain Smart and her daughter’s here to thank us dock workers,” the man said with a Welshman’s accent.
Emily caught him by the arm. She had removed her heels to catch his long strides. They dangled from a finger. “What is it?”
The man in coveralls scanned Emily from top to bottom and back again, grinning like a Cheshire. “They say Captain Smart and her daughter Erin is in the Diner. Giving hugs and farewells to the dock workers. But I would settle for a hug from you.” The man shortened his stride, turned for Emily. With a finger gesture, Ryan put Viper between them. The man stopped short, looked up at Viper, who had extended his camera ball to above Ryan’s head. Foiled, the man turned back to the crowd.
Ryan found a more presentable couple standing at the back of the crowd. “Excuse me. Ryan Jameson from The Terra Channel. Can you tell me what’s happening here today?”
The man shrugged. “I don’t know. They say some EC Space Fleet captain is inside. We just wanted some apple pie and coffee.” The woman with him said they should leave. The man took her hand, and they walked away.
Ryan took advantage of his height to peer over the crowd. A woman in a blue jumpsuit with a red ballcap pulled low over her face shook the hand of another woman in civilian clothes.
“Captain Smart,” Ryan yelled. “Captain Smart, Ryan Jameson with The Terra Channel.”
He motioned Viper to go ahead of him. The drone parted the crowd. Ryan followed, pointing him at the woman in the jumpsuit.
“Captain Smart,” he extended his hand. “Ryan Jameson with The Terra Channel. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Is it true you’re here to thank the dock workers before you leave on the First Expedition Crossing?”
“Terra who?” The captain said.
“The Terra Channel, we are part of PNN.”
“Never heard of it,” She shook someone’s hand.
“Is your daughter Erin here? I would like to interview you before you leave.”
“I will be conducting interviews with EC One from the Santa Maria tomorrow,” the captain said.
“But I am not with EC One Captain Smart. I am with The Terra Channel. I won’t take more than five minutes of your time.”
The captain advanced in Viper’s direction. The drone rolled back.
“Oy,” someone yelled, “That’s my foot.”
Viper tilted with someone’s push.
“Careful, that’s my drone,” Ryan said.
The man in blue coveralls stepped around Viper. “Well, your drone’s gone and crushed my foot. Put me on disability he will if he keeps up like that.”
Ryan gestured Viper forward. He stopped centimeters from captain Smart.
Ryan’s tablet buzzed. He glanced at it.
I have to go. Kitty needs me to assist Mr. Hobson.
Keith Hobson was at the exhibition hall? Ryan looked over the crowd for Emily. He couldn’t see her, but the limousine was pulling into the drive.
“What is this thing?” Captain Smart said.
“That’s my camera drone,” Ryan said. He was glad to have some interaction with her. “I will tell you all about him, if you will give me five minutes to interview you about the First Expedition Crossing.”
The captain took Viper by his central pole and pushed him out of the way. “I get enough geekery on my ship,” she said. “But I will give you a sit-down, exclusive of the other EC One reporters when the Santa Maria is underway.”
“I am not with EC One, Captain. I am with The Terra Channel, and I doubt I will be on the Santa Maria.”
“What about my foot then?” The man with coveralls said.
“Davies, is that you? Charles Davies from my first docking bay crew?”
“Jenna,” the man yelled, flinging his arms wide to hug the captain. Viper tilted on his ball wheel to avoid the couple, then spun around and backed out as the two embraced.
Ryan’s tablet buzzed.
I am sorry. I have to go.
He looked over the crowd. Marcus tapped the top of the limo as it drove off.
Wait, he typed back to Emily.
He was in the middle of a group of dock workers who all knew Captain Smart on a first name basis. He motioned Viper through the crowd, then made a dash for Marcus.
The limo was out of sight.
What the hell, he typed to Emily as he ran. “What’s up?” he yelled at Marcus.
“Kali strikes again,” Marcus said. “But, don’t worry, I will get you to the,” Marcus looked at his tablet. “Gate A Exposition Coliseum with time to spare.” Marcus did a double take. “Really? Exposition Coliseum?”
Ryan’s tablet buzzed, I am supposed to assist Mr. Hobson after his speech. He is speaking now. I need to get back I am sorry.
Stop saying that. Ryan typed back.
I sent a gate pass to your tablet. Marcus said he would get you to the hall in time. Kitty is calling.
“Fuck,” Ryan squatted, his tablet hand hanging between his legs. Viper stopped next to him, his camera ball descending.
“That’s a bitch,” Marcus said. “It wasn’t a joke, was it? You two really did hook up in that limo.”
Ryan swallowed. His chest shouldn’t feel like this. He hadn’t seen Kitty or Emily in over a year. It was just a fuck in an expensive limousine. He shouldn’t read anymore into it than that.
“I am missing Keith Hobson,” he said.
“Oh, Calaca, I am sorry, you are missing your hero too.” Marcus saw through his ruse.
He thumbed off his tablet. “Let’s pack Viper and go.”
They walked back to the van in silence, Viper following like an honor guard. At the van, Ryan disassembled the drone. Watching the hexagonal sections of the ball-wheel collapse into a flat plane reminded him of how he ended up here, on the extended gravel parking lot of a roadside diner in New Mexico instead of anchoring in New York.
As part of a required consolidation, PNN reduced overhead by eliminating regional offices, consolidating them in New York. The structure was similar to Earth Channel One’s with its primary Channel One, and thousands of alternate stations.
Select affiliates from each region presented candidates for new anchoring positions in New York. Kitty overdrew TTC’s accounts, flew to New York and auditioned. He didn’t know about the opportunity until she returned with the job. She packed and left for New York that day. Emily followed later that week, leaving him alone, and broke, in Austin.
“What are you thinking, Calaca?” Marcus said as he lifted Viper’s crate into the van.
“That I could use a hit,” Ryan said.
Marcus hugged him. “I will get you there. Kali’s luck is over, it’s your turn now.”
Ryan crawled into the passenger seat.
“You don’t want to drive?” Marcus said. He looked like a dealer offering a free bag.
Ryan shook his head.
Marcus took the driver’s seat, then did a slow pass by the crowd. “You will get that interview with Captain Smart and on the Santa Maria. I am telling you, Calaca, by the end of this week you and Captain Smart will be best friends. I know it.”
Ryan laughed. “Yea, and I will marry her daughter.”
Marcus took his hands off the steering wheel as he accelerated down the highway. He punched Ryan on the shoulder with one, reached under his seat with the other. The van wandered across the center line. Smoke poured up behind a cargo transport as it screeched to a stop.
“I got it,” Marcus said. “Relax, Calaca, the navis almost never hit me.”
“Almost.” Ryan braced his feet against the floor, his hands against the armrests, and resigned himself to a wild trip. The road emptied of traffic once they left Truth or Consequences. Marcus punched the minivan’s accelerator, and the desert rolled by. To his right, he caught glimpses of a reservoir. The afternoon sun and hazy atmosphere created sun dogs off the water. On his left, the dark tower of the spaceport loomed ever larger against the mountains. The time was twenty-one hundred on the Santa Maria. Marcus adjusted his seat, looking under it for something he hadn’t found. The van wandered across the center line. Ryan closed his eyes and trusted his fate to his best friend.
“Calaca, we are here,” Marcus said like a minute later. Ryan checked his tablet. Twenty-one thirty, ship’s time. He had dozed off. An adobe wall extended from the white portcullises of a gate. Marcus stopped the van at the guard station and rolled down his window.
A man dressed in a black leather-looking jumpsuit with a motorcycle helmet approached the van.
“Fuck. ECPO.” Ryan said.
Explorer Corporation Police Operations. They appeared after Earl Clark’s death. The new head of Explorer Corporation, Michael Planck, said EC needed them to stop terrorists from sabotaging Explorer Bridge. But Explorer Bridge was in deep space, while ECPO had infected Earth like roaches. The Viking was ECPO, he had to be. He ordered officers to take Emily to Kitty after they assaulted the lottery event. Then he used their obedience to threaten Ryan with Emily’s life, or worse. He hated every one of them. Marcus, however, sought the best in people.
“Hello, my friend,” Marcus hung his head out his open window. “This is Ryan Jameson from Terra Channel—”
“The Terra Channel,” Ryan said over him.
“He needs to be at the Gate A Exposition Coliseum for the Special Correspondents Lottery. He is going to be on the Santa Maria.”
“Do you have a pass?” The guard said, his visor down, his face a mystery.
“Aye, give me your tablet,” Marcus said to Ryan.
“That’s quite a suit,” Marcus said to the guard as he handed over Ryan’s tablet.
The guard didn’t respond. A light came from his helmet, scanned the tablet.
“This pass is for one individual named Ryan Jameson. The guard pointed to Ryan’s photograph. I can let him through, but not you or the vehicle.”
“OK.” Marcus said. “How far to this coliseum thing?”
“The Exposition Coliseum is at Gate A, this is Gate B.”
“Where at the wrong gate?” Ryan said, “We’ll never make it.”
“How far to Gate A?” Marcus asked the guard.
“Gate A is only accessible by rail,” the guard said.
Ryan leaned across the van to look the guard in the visor. “It is really important to me that I get to the hall before they hold the drawing, I need to be present to win. Can you tell us the fastest way to get there?”
“Mag-lev from Alamogordo,” the guard said, handing Ryan’s tablet back to Marcus.
“But I don’t have a train kemosabe,” Marcus said. “Is there another way? We would really appreciate your help.”
The guard looked back to his station, then back to the van. “There’s a paved road inside the security perimeter, it would be the quickest.”
“Gracias, gracias,” Marcus waved and rolled toward the gate.
“Hold it right there,” the guard pulled his sidearm, pointed it at Marcus’s head.
Marcus hit the brake hard. The van’s rear bounced with the stop.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The guard said.
“To the paved road. You said it was the fastest way,” Marcus said.
“You don’t have permission to enter the compound. Just Ryan Jameson. Not you, and not this contraption you’re in.”
“It’s a minivan,” Marcus said.
“Shit,” Ryan said, leaning back in his seat. “Forget it, Marcus. I’ll never get there in time. Emily screwed me when she left with the limo.”
“Back out, now,” the guard yelled at Marcus. “Get this red piece of shit out of my drive.”
“See, see,” Marcus backed into a parking stall at the gate entrance. “I am sorry, Calaca. I couldn’t get through.”
“It’s all right, Marcus. There’s no chance I was going to win. Just go back to the diner, and we will get a room for the night.”
Marcus punched the steering wheel with his palms. “No, fuck Kali. You are going to report from the Santa Maria this week. I know it, now think of something.”
Ryan laughed at his friend. Marcus had a way with people, of charming them into doing something you didn’t think they would do. He would have made an excellent reporter. Instead, he was assistant to the Lieutenant Governor of Texas.
“What about your government credentials. Will they get you in?”
“See. I will try,” Marcus got out of the van and walked for the gate.
Two guards exited from the shack, each with their weapons drawn.
“What did I tell you,” one of the guards said. It must have been the one they had just talked to. You couldn’t tell for the helmets. “You are not allowed at this gate.”
“See,” Marcus raised his tablet. “I am the personal aid to Lieutenant Governor Orozco of Texas.”
“Who the fuck is that?” one of the guards said.
“He is the Lieutenant Governor of Texas,” Marcus said slowly.
One of the guards snatched Marcus’s tablet from him. Scanned his credentials with that light from his helmet, then handed it back.
“Well, would look at that? This guy is the personal aid to Lieutenant Governor Orozco of Texas.”
“No shit,” the other guard said. “Doesn’t get you on Explorer Corporation property.”
Marcus got in the van. “Those guys are getting on my nerves.”
“Yea, ECPO. They are above the law.”
“It’s not right,” Marcus said. “What EC has done.”
“But they are the only game in town,” Ryan said. “Reporting from their flagship would be huge for Terra Channel.”
“The Terra Channel,” Marcus said.
Ryan held his hand up, Marcus slapped it. “The Terra Channel, mother fuckers,” Marcus yelled at the guards. “We have the best camera drone in the business.”
One of the guards flipped him off, the two of them returned to the guard shack.
“What did you say?” Ryan said.
“I called them mother fuckers.”
“No, about Viper?”
“He is the best drone.”
“Not the best, but he is the fastest.”
“The scooter,” they said as one.
Ryan beat Marcus out the door. They assembled Viper as a team, then released three supporting slats from the inside walls of his shipping crate. They flattened the crate with a tug. Ryan folded it over again, and—with Marcus supporting one end—he attached it to the ball-wheel’s platform. Marcus threw two smaller ball-wheels against the ground, where they expanded, and he attached them to the rear of the platform.
Ryan inserted a battery to wake Viper. He pulled a leather helmet from his luggage bag, then tied the strap of the bag to the main rod.
“Aye,” Marcus said.
They hugged. The warmth in Ryan’s chest reminded him of the moment Marcus found him under an overpass, but he wasn’t going to get soppy now. After the hug, they shook hands, looking at the ground.
Marcus wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. “Everything will work itself out,” he said.
“As long as you keep trying,” Ryan took Viper by the supporting rod, and guided his camera-drone, become personal scooter, to the gate.
One guard exited the shack, shaking his head.
“Ryan Jameson, for the First Expedition Crossing Special Correspondents Lottery,” he handed his tablet to the guard.
The guard’s visor went up. The man inside was grinning ear to ear. “Mr. Jameson. The paved road follows the wall. Good luck,” he winked, the visor snapped shut. The gate opened, and Ryan Jameson entered the New Mexico spaceport.
He turned Viper onto the paved road and added a second battery pack to push his Viper-scooter to maximum speed. He needed a better name for the configuration.
Viper’s ball-wheels hummed against the smooth blacktop surface. The adobe wall of the spaceport security perimeter raced by on his right, the launch tower loomed in front of him and to his left. The late afternoon sun reflected off the raised rail that had brought him to the spaceport the first time. It cut across the horizon like a dark string. The wind in his ears muffled the distinct double boom of a landing. It was twenty-one thirty, ship’s time. At Viper’s best speed, he guessed he would reach the exposition hall in about fifteen minutes.
He arrived with five minutes to spare, wheeling up to the double doors of the hall, expecting them to open, but they did not. He dismounted, pulled on the doors, but they didn’t budge.
“Are you kidding me?” Ryan said. He cupped his hands to look through the glass. The dark tint and late afternoon sun made it impossible to see in. He knocked.
He pounded on the doors with both hands.
Music blared from inside the hall, a deep bass note rattled the doors. He yelled for someone to open the doors.
He took his tablet from its perch on Viper’s camera ball, tapped a message to Emily.
I am here. Get someone to open the doors.
He repeated the message to Kitty.
The stinger played again.
“And now to announce the Earth Channel One Special Correspondents Lottery winning number, welcome back to the stage Earth Channel One’s founder, Keith Hobson,” Kitty’s voice, muffled by the glass of the building.
Music played, people cheered, Ryan fell against the door. He was missing the drawing and Keith Hobson. Missing Mr. Hobson was worse.