School’s Out

Even Richard Doutman’s modified XSV-9 struggled beneath the weight of the emergency transport trailer. His cycle hadn’t been designed to transport two dozen 12- and 13-year-olds against the movement of the Trans-Continental Conveyor. He didn’t mind. He expected his life to be interesting.

“How’re they holding up?” Local patrolman George Alberton asked over the comm.

Doutman checked his mirror. They sat remarkably still and seemed almost solemn. “Scared them good.”

“Lucky you were around,” Alberton said. “We’d have sent copters and never have had them out in time. Great work rigging the transport to your cycle.”

“Just doing my duty, sir.”

Alberton laughed. “Saving the world, a day at a time.”

“And signing autographs. Don’t forget the autographs.” Doutman played into his popular persona. The people enjoyed it. “Any luck locating their teacher?”

“We’re working on it. According to what the kids told us via comm, he stepped out at the last service station to finalize some official documents, but the school rejoined the Belt on autopilot before he returned. Odd we haven’t received a complaint yet.”

Looking at the students again, he saw them arguing, with at least one girl crying. A low-end Conveyor residence might reenter the Belt accidentally, but a school, without its teacher? A tech school, no less? No, it had been a prank. The kids had probably hacked into the piloting system and took off before their teacher knew what happened. A well-played prank until the U-turn had failed. A costly prank.

But the teacher hadn’t reported in yet? It was more than odd. It was…. “Alberton, I’m disengaging the transport. Send someone to pick it up. Something’s wrong.”

Leaving the students to flow along the 1st Belt, he whipped his cycle about, revved the engine, and shot past them. He switched off the comm. He preferred to do his serious riding in silence.

Traffic was heavy this close to the Conveyor’s end. Personal jetties, corporate barges, rented two-story getaways, pleasure yachts all congregated in the 1st and 2nd belts and waited for their U-turn. Even with the proper authorization and fees paid in full, they might still be pressed over to the berm to park until the right strings were pulled. Those that refused to pull off tumbled into the great hole where the Conveyor ended, to join the wreckage of those who had come before.

He zoomed into the 3rd, then 4th belt, redlining his cycle and hurtling forward with increasing speed at each belt. The tech school, christened, Hello, World!, sped toward the pit along the 5th. Under normal circumstances, such an esteemed vessel would be queued up for immediate U-turn. But something had gone wrong.

Doutman swerved tightly alongside the roaming residences of rich men and luxurious government offices, reveling in the danger even as he pressed forward, his engine rumbling against his chest. In front of him, an intricate structure of girders, cranes, cables, and pneumatic arms marked the Conveyor’s eastern extreme. High above, a mansion hung suspended, moving gracefully in giant claws, destined for the West Conveyor, where it would make its return trip across the continent.

Blaring alarms reached him over the wind tunnel of his speed. Alberton would turn them off when he realized what was happening. Glancing at his traffic screen, linked into the official grid, he located Hello, World! a mile ahead. He had only minutes before it tumbled over the edge into the junk heap beyond.

He pushed another ounce of power out of his cycle, leaning low over the tank. He smiled. He would make it, just barely.

He flipped on his thermal scanner as he approached. Nothing. He hadn’t sensed anyone extra last time, either. He pulled a tight circle around the school, his knees nearly scrapping the ground, and burned rubber as he skidded, brakes tight, through the entryway. He’d left the door open when evacuating the students.. Tearing across carpet, across the foyer, he swerved into the dining room, and jerking left, rammed through a double-hinged door with enough force to crack it. The kitchen. In a quick motion, he jumped off, setting the kick stand, and pried open the freezer, the only place a heat signature could have been hidden. An older man was huddled in the corner, hugging himself for warmth.

“Quick!” Doutman said. “There’s no time.”

The man started to speak, but Doutman pulled him up and threw him forward toward the cycle. Doutman jumped on, revved the engine, and waited impatiently as the man climbed on. His sensors told him Hello, World was about to say goodbye.

“Hold on!”

The cycle leapt forward. Doutman felt the panicked grip of the teacher around his waist with grim satisfaction. The floor beneath them began to tilt as Doutman exited the kitchen. With a straight path to the entry, he gunned it as the incline steepened. He felt laughter rising in his throat. He shot out of the school into air. He hung for a moment, Hello, World! tumbling down, down into the pit….

Then tires touched Conveyor, and Doutman pulled laboriously away from the edge. The man was screaming, more rage than meaning. He was going to flay the kids, break their bones, stuff them into dark, little boxes until they begged forgiveness.

Doutman flipped on his comm. “Alberton, this is Doutman. I found the teacher. The kids had left him to die.”

“Murder?” Alberton was incredulous.

The teacher’s words continued to pour over Doutman like lava, searing his ears. The man was devising tortures. “Perhaps not without provocation.” Doutman passed beneath a palatial structure, inches from the pillars supporting it. That shut the man up.

“Lucky you were here,” Alberton said again.

“Yeah, guess so.” It was an interesting life, that was certain. “As long as you take care of the paperwork.”

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  1. Cool story! Though I’m still a little fuzzy on what kind of transportation system this was. Apparently some kind of automated beltway but on wheels? Monorail? Hovercraft?