The Wake-Up Call (Written By TAD)
Chapter 43: Junction
The narrow walkways barely wide enough to squeeze a person along followed the congested roads, dipped around and over dark grey tunnels. The bright light of the direction markers took on a surreal quality. Being the main source of lighting they created a spooky orange glow to every surface. The fumes from racing transport road trains together with their deafening noise created a dull scene of hellish chaos. The multi level tunnels were the arteries through which this concrete monster sent its orange blood cells of commerce. Projected beams from unsteady direction posts bounced along the roof and sides of the tunnel walls. The traffic attacked all the senses. In every direction a new and seemingly unavoidable hazard raced towards them. The gangs of swipe freaks followed Hetch on his improvised chain. The occasional tug from the gang's leader made sure Hetch never got too far ahead.
Scoot jockeys streaked past at incredible speed, darting in and out of the speeding traffic flow. Their metal leg guards often dashing off a concrete slope sending the rider across the path of another driver. Sparks chased behind their wide, low bikes as they used the sidewalls as overtaking ramps. The thick tires almost half a metre across absorbed most of the heavy impacts as roadways changed gradient or surface quality. These riders were expert maniacs on their prized machines. The low handlebars and near-flat facedown riding position were all designed for speed. Hetch remembered the gang outside the dirty café and the reputation of these hardened road racers. If he could slip this chain he could hotwire a bike and disappear into the sunset.
The ground shook under their feet as a careless transport driver glanced off a tunnel exit. The heavy cargo inside the train of connected canister trucks vibrated in anger like a rope of vipers spitting and twisting in fury. Hetch threw the chain over a bolt sticking upright from a sign support. The controlling gang leader slipped on the narrow ledge, lost his hold on the chain and grabbed at the rough wall frantically searching for a way to keep him upright. The rest of the gang took shelter along the narrow steps and ledges. Sparks flew and the smell of hot brakes smothered the tunnel.
This could be his only chance. But Hetch remained motionless. His arm wrapped around the trapped chain and squatting down to keep his centre of gravity low he waited for the smoke and noise to clear. One by one the gang members emerged from the shadows. His eyes focused on each silhouette and counted each one. But there was one missing. The odds were getting better. Swipe freaks operated in dark alleyways where they could ambush their victims. Hetch felt more at home in this hectic environment. Overloaded with their bodies and low-grad loot they had difficulty keeping their footing.
"Hey mule!" shouted the leader
Hetch stood up carefully on the ledge. His artificial arm twitched as he watched the chain being unhooked from the bolt and waited for the predictable snap of the chain.
The hazardous journey ahead continued along the narrow paths. Each step was difficult, dirty and dangerous. The gang members followed Hetch as he wove a zigzag course through the jungle of barricades and traffic. He hoped that another few accidents might occur and reduce their number yet further. His luck had run out. They approached each step with caution and kept focused on the route.
Hetch struggled pushing the body over the top of a wall then followed it. Looking through the thick grime covered plexi-glass he spotted a refuel station and storage garage. They had made it. He scanned around looking for the most suitable vehicle to steal. There were dozens of battered transporters, semi-repaired scooters, huge recovery trucks and rusty shuttle pods some of them were being used as makeshift lockers or sleeping quarters. Like most of the nodes on the road network small refuelling points like this operated almost 24 hours per day. He would have to be very careful, one false move and an angry mechanic would soon raise the alarm or throw him into the traffic stream for fun.
Below him a group of drivers were heading towards the local ‘rapid-sleep' pods or bars looking for some alcohol or female refreshment before resuming their 14-hour shifts delivering cargo. Some headed back to their long trains of connected containers, checked the tech. Seals, adjusted the environmental settings or simply kicked any lights which showed signs of flickering.
The long-haul drivers are an unusual bunch of individuals. Most have come from scoot-jockey gangs or have recently been released from a large prison complex. Drugs pay a large part in their work. Pulling 100's of tonnes of high speed metal through endless grey tunnels day after day has an effect on the mind. Psychoses, mental breakdowns or plain old-fashioned cabin fever rampages often occurred after long shifts. Automated delivery systems were always under attack from organised crime using some newbie hacker to fry the controls and offload the cargo next to some factory where it would be shifted using power-skeleton lifters into smaller transports. The danger increased with the value of the cargo. Ex-Military groups often patrolled along side the high value transports. For the main part, the road network, like many places in the city is a lawless one. Survival is all that matters.
Hetch signalled for the gang to take shelter in a dark corner of the storage bay and then walked carefully up to the leader.
"Cut me free" ordered Hetch
"Why would I want to do that?" came the reply.
"Depends if you want to carry all that loot another 3 hours through these tunnels and walkways or" Hetch already knew the answer "you give me 5 minutes to crack the tech. Lock"
The leader narrowed his eyes and scanned around him.
"If I try to run you can cut me down with the crossbow," added Hetch.
"And we just stay here waiting for a passing patrol to see us?" grunted the heavy gang member.
"You stay in the shadows. Hide your loot in one of the rusty pods and keep an eye on me" replied Hetch
"Don't worry. I will keep both my eyes on you punk!"
Hetch smiled to himself as the chain was released from his neck. The leader grabbed him around the throat and pulled Hetch's dusty hair up almost ripping it from his skull "Don't get any cute ideas. Right?"
"You try, you die. Clear and simple."
Hetch rubbed his neck, glanced at the leader's eyes, which followed him around the room like two hooks on a fishing line, and he crawled his way beneath the transporters. The ground was pitted and oil-stained from decades of use. The passing lights of traffic and frequent noise from the bars halted his progress. His heart raced with adrenalin and fear until the passing driver or automated repair drone had faded into the distance. A look back to the gang confirmed how angry they were with his slow, careful progress. Crawling using two tired legs and one arm was difficult but he knew his reward was in sight.
An old, well used freight truck stood not too far from the storage entrance partly concealed in the shadows and looking like the tech. Locks were too old to pose too much of a challenge. This would be Hetch's choice. A stone bounced off the ground and caught his attention. The gang leader pointed to his watch then the crossbow. Hetch made his way behind some barrels and over some crates. He picked up a few small, thin fragments of metal, held them in his teeth and slid under the truck.
The gang leader squatted down and focused on Hetch.
"What the fuck is he doing?" said one of the gang
"I say we finish him now before someone else comes out"
"The tech. Lock is on the door. What's he doing underneath?"
The leader silenced the gang with a hiss and a point of his finger.
Hetch struggled with the panels under the truck. Years of dirt and damage made the protective covers difficult to open. The screws and bolts refused to turn. He turned himself beneath the truck and kicked against the bolt. A thud travelled through the storage bay. Nothing happened. The nearby traffic masked most of the sound. The gang leader aimed the crossbow at Hetch. Another kick with his heel and the metal panel buckled. There was a slim gap between side and cover.
The crossbow bolt missed Hetch and bounced off the truck's axel. His heart pounded against his ribs as his eyes scanned his body for holes. His hand snatched at the crossbow bolt and stared back at the gang. He forced the bolt into the gap and bent the metal in two directions. Looking inside he searched for the emergency release circuits. The darkness beneath the truck, only occasionally broke by passing orange or bright-white headlights, made it difficult to make out where he should use the shards of metals to trigger the emergency door release circuits. A few blue sparks directed Hetch to the correct circuit and a few moments later the emergency hatch jumped open. The tired sounding pistons and release catches groaned at the sudden activation.
Hetch crawled from under the belly of the metal monster and slid through the emergency hatch. He quickly searched around looking for a weapon or a means to escape. He was inside, but still needed to crack the intruder protection system before the owner returned to his truck. Junk and unused tools littered the cab. The once thick comfy seats were now patched collections of industrial repair tape and mixture of layers of salvaged foam mattresses. His arm twitched again as the damaged mechanical links and pistols turned on twisted magnetic gears. It was going to need more than a screwdriver to fix it this time.
Through the thick multi-layer windows he noticed the dark outline of the gang members surrounding the truck and preparing themselves to ambush the driver if he returns. Hetch knew his fate once he had given the gang some working transport. He would be added to the growing pile of biological cargo. He faced a choice, whether to attempt an escape and risk facing the wrath of a group of swipe freaks or becoming a living organ donor.