Spring, Near Future
Amadeus Brunmeier vomited into the urinal. Acidic brown flecks splattered onto the index cards on which he had written his speech outline, soiled by anxiety. He heard the bathroom door open. Someone grabbed a clump of Amadeus' loam brown hair and pushed him forward, smashing his forehead against a hard white wall. His body crumpled like a deflated balloon. On the cold tile, he vomited again, just as a kick went into his back, near his kidneys. He rolled over. Davy loomed above him, his eyes bulging from his fat pink face like a frog's.
"I told you I'd find you," Davy said.
"We both know you won. I already told you."
"Not what the judges said. This is grad school at Penn we're talking about. Penn State."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's not my fault they figured out you hired Pakistani freelancers to do your research."
"Somebody told them. I think it was you." Davy spit on Amadeus just before kicking him in the stomach. Amadeus wheezed. "You're lucky there are people out there, Brunmeier."
The bathroom door opened, and he saw a familiar figure step in: his old friend, Grassal Delgado. Grassal stood a head taller than Davy and just as wide and carried himself like a bull.
"Especially me," Grassal said, grabbing Davy by the belt and tossing him against the wall. Davy cried out as his face slammed into the white tile. "Clean yourself up, you've got a speech to give ... valedictorian." Grassal had his hands on his hips. Davy started to stand. Grassal placed a foot on the small of his back and held him down.
"No. No way. I'm not doing it," Amadeus said. "I'm shaking, my stomach is sick, my face is bloody, and there are so many people, thousands of people. They'll be watching, looking at me, waiting for me to screw up."
"You worry too much," Grassal said. "Just do the speech. It's easy. We've practiced it a hundred times. You sound fine."
Amadeus remembered the crowd he saw only moments earlier, an echoing arena packed with well-dressed relatives. Amadeus sighed as Grassal helped him to his feet. He gave Amadeus a paper towel and put his arm around Amadeus' shoulder, guiding him out of the bathroom, leaving Davy on the floor. Amadeus tore a bit of the paper towel off, stuck it in his mouth, and started to chew.
"Yeah, maybe you're right," Amadeus said, dabbing at his nose, allowing himself to be led out the door. As soon as they stepped through the door to the concourse, however, Amadeus pushed Grassal's arm away. He ran through the fire exit doors and onto the sidewalk, leaving Grassal panting and bent over, hands on his knees. Amadeus found his motorcycle in the parking lot and roared away from the crowds, Gampel Pavilion, and the terror. His stuff was already moved back home, and he had had enough of UConn anyway. Amadeus decided someone else could give the valediction.
Two hours later, back in Stamford, Amadeus was sitting on a stone bench under the gnarled oak tree across from his mother's grave. When Amadeus heard the car he sat upright. Though his first instinct was to run, he stayed and watched, expressionless, as his father walked up. He smiled at Amadeus, his smile making his slight face appear full. Amadeus felt the shame all over again.
"I let you down," Amadeus said. "I let Mom down. I let everyone down."
"Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. It was just a speech. Scoot over." He sat down next to his son and put his arm around him. Amadeus' shoulders tensed, then relaxed.
"She'd be so proud of you. You're still valedictorian, even if you didn't give a speech."
"Now everyone knows I'm a failure."
"No, Amadeus. You failed at your speech, you've got blood on your face, you smell like puke, but you're not a failure. Every failure is an education, and you just graduated. Now you can fail even bigger." His father removed the band from his ponytail, letting his long, grey hair dangle over his shoulders. They sat in silence for a while. A spring breeze swept over the hill, making the plastic roses quiver. "But I still wish you were just a little more ambitious. I mean, geovisual analytics?"
"Geography is a great field, and I can continue my work on health mapping. Plus, I won't have to give speeches or present papers. I've got five job offers for this fall, and I intend to start working as soon as I've had a couple months to decompress."
"You'll either get bored or rusty, Amadeus, and I don't just mean this summer. Study quantum physics. You'll need a couple prerequisites, but it's not too late to get you into Cal Tech. This old man still has some friends at university."
"I'm not like you, Dad. I don't understand systems I can't see, can't handle and analyze. I struggled with Newtonian physics. Computers, systems, shaded blobs on maps, these things make sense. Calculus doesn't. Quantum physics makes my brain melt."
"It doesn't make your brain melt."
"You're disappointed. With me."
"Come on, kid," Tommy said, standing up. "Let's go home. We've got relatives to entertain."
Amadeus followed his father back to their three-story house outside the city, parking his motorcycle in the garage. Inside the house, black and orange balloons covered the floor like a plastic fog. Jazz played on the stereo, something from the middle of the last century, cacophonous and frantic. The saxophone reminded Amadeus of a ball bouncing down a stairwell. His aunt and uncle, Mark and Annie, sang a processional as he walked in the door. Dah duh dah duh ... Amadeus' stomach grew queasy; the anxiety from earlier returned. He felt like he had forgotten to do something, but chalked it up to nerves.
Amadeus looked at his father, who sat at the big blond oak table beside his brother, and wondered how much time his father had spent locked in his room, studying and learning. He would've been a young man in the early days of the internet, so he never would've been short on access to research and people to contact. Amadeus would have to ask his father sometime. Amadeus' own childhood had been so quiet, just the three of them, then later just the two of them, though Grassal spent so much time at their house that Amadeus decided he should count him as well.
"Hey hey!" Amadeus heard Grassal yell in the hallway. "I'm glad everybody made it down here for our boy's graduation afterparty! Where's my weak-stomached friend?"
"You hacker trash," Amadeus yelled back. "I made a reasonable decision based on the circumstances." He heard Grassal plodding down the hall towards him. Amadeus gave Grassal his best defiant look.
"Bullshit on two counts. One, hackers aren't trash, we're respected information security professionals. And two, you gave up and let your anxiety get the best of you. Man, you should've seen the dean running around just before the ceremony. She looked like a little girl who'd just lost her puppy. But whatever," Grassal said, throwing a big arm around Amadeus' thin frame. "You're still my brother, even if you act like a terrified conejito."
"You're an asshole," Amadeus said. "What's a conejito?" Grassal just shook his head. Amadeus tried to slip from Grassal's grasp, but Grassal led Amadeus to the kitchen. Amadeus cringed when everyone turned toward him.
"Ah, there they are. Everyone," Annie said, "I believe Uncle Mark has an announcement." She held a half-eaten baby carrot in her hand. She motioned to her husband to start, then shot Amadeus an apologetic look. A boot-sized object covered in brown cloth sat upon the table. Mark placed one hand on the cloth.
"Now, in honor of our brilliant nephew Amadeus, I commissioned a work from our friend. He likes to capture people in transition, when they're at a big milestone or a turning point in their lives, ready to begin new adventures. His work is quite popular in ... some circles in New York. So, we told him about our little Amadeus, how he was valedictorian at UConn and getting ready to start his adult life. Our friend, his name is Twiggy, by the way, Twiggy said, 'Give me a picture of him, I can make something good.' So we did, Amadeus, and Twiggy ... made ... this!"
He removed the cloth to reveal a statue, about ten centimeters high, of a young man, sinewy and naked, one hand at his side, the other holding a sling draped over his back. The statue had Amadeus' face but, Amadeus thought, the rest was idealized and familiar.
"Oh god," Amadeus said. For the second time that day and the fourth time that week, he felt vomit escaping his stomach and racing towards his throat. No, he thought, they really, this is just a cruel joke. I have to pretend to like it. I can't puke. Have to lie, have to lie. "I mean, wow! It's, uh, wonderful. Wow!" He leaned in closer to examine the statue. The genitalia were larger than his own; maybe the artist was trying to do him a favor. A plaque at the bottom read "Amadeus Brunmeier: Onward and Upward." Who the hell, Amadeus wondered, was this artist? Surely his uncle had better taste than this. But maybe not.
"Watch this," Mark said. He pressed a button on the statue's back and said, "Record." He picked up the statue, panned it around the room, then set it on the table. The left nipple flickered and the scene Mark had just recorded projected itself onto the table, a bemused family and one embarrassed child.
"This would be great for a video journal," Mark said. "Think of it like talking to yourself. Sure, it hasn't got the fastest processor, but it's all off-cloud, non-Tivooki, just like your father likes, and can hold a ton of data. The sling extends into a USB plug." Mark pressed on the sling and a plug protruded from the small of the statue's back.
"Vintage," Grassal said. From his pocket, he pulled out a pink USB stick attached to a key ring. "Mine's more talisman than anything else, but it feels good to store my stuff on something tangible."
"Wow, thanks Mark," Amadeus said, looking over at Grassal. Grassal was trying not to laugh. Amadeus slunk back, almost out of the kitchen, covering his mouth, fighting his reflexes.
"Speech! Speech!" Mark said. Amadeus looked down at his feet, his face flushing. He started to back out of the room with its thin air and stifling heat, the five sets of occupying lungs taking all the oxygen from the room and replacing it with something noxious, definitely not carbon dioxide. Amadeus felt light-headed. All their eyes were upon him, waiting, expectant.
"Thank you, it's very nice. But ... excuse me," he said as he ran to the bathroom. His internal organs felt like wet nylon rope from which someone was trying to wring out the water. In the bathroom, he didn't puke but he locked the door, turned the lights out, and sat on the toilet, taking deep oxygen-rich breaths, enjoying the blurry, forgetful feeling that came along with so much oxygen. Between breaths, he tore off scraps of toilet paper and shoved them into his mouth, chewing them up and spitting them out. He expected some well-meaning knock at the door, but thankfully none came. After about fifteen minutes, his breathing slowed and he was ready to return to the kitchen. There, everyone was eating and talking as if nothing had happened. The statue sat in the center of the table, projecting a recording of Grassal contorting his face.
"There he is!" Mark said. "Annie, get this boy a plate of food."
"No. No." Amadeus put up his hands. "I'm fine. No, really." Annie got up from the table and started making him a plate. "You really don't have to do that, I can make my own food."
"You sit there, mister. Today's your big day, and maybe you can relax for at least one day of your life." A minute passed. She poured some sweet dip into a bowl and sliced up an apple. She lowered her voice. "I'm sorry about the statue," Annie said, her tone confiding. "That's all Mark, you know. The artist is his friend, and you know how he is, wanting to make everybody happy. I said to him, Mark, what's he going to do with a statue of himself ... and a naked one at that, just give him a little flex-screen, or some money, but he went on and on about Michelangelo's David as an ideal for any young man."
"I thought the torso looked familiar," Amadeus said, thinking back to his art appreciation class.
Annie set the plate of food down. "We're a lot alike. Mark likes to drag me to these society parties. So many people around, it looks like everyone is having fun, but I'd rather be in my office, alone, working on another piece."
"So everything still good at the Times?" Amadeus said.
"I love it," Annie said. "It really feels like I'm a part of something. Movers and shakers. Having an audience of millions."
"It was, at first, but I worked my way up. It's not like one day I was forced to speak before all those people. But I'll leave you alone, Amadeus. Try to relax." Amadeus smiled for what felt like the first time in a week and said he would, but instead of joining everyone in the living room, he picked at the fruit plate, rolling a pale green grape around like a glass marble. After a few minutes, his father came into the room and piled several cubes of pungent, crumbly blue cheese on top of some roast beef slices.
"Amadeus, why don't you come in here and join us? It's not like you get to see your uncle Mark often. You seem so sad, just hiding away in the kitchen all day."
"I'm okay, it's just ... well, after today, I'm kind of ashamed of myself." His father frowned, then put his arm around his son.
"You've got nothing to be ashamed of. You're still the smartest boy in the class. Just because you freaked out, ran away, and let six thousand people down doesn't make you any less of a person," his father said, smiling like a salesman.
"Oh, thanks for that," Amadeus said, but he realized he was smiling, too. "Fine, I'll come be social. Are Mark and Annie staying here tonight, or are they staying at a hotel?"
"You think I want my drunken brother doing things to his lovely wife in the room next to me? You bet your ass they're staying at a hotel. Come on, kid." Tommy put his hand on Amadeus' elbow. Amadeus allowed himself to be led by his father and, together, they joined everyone in the living room. Amadeus eventually forgot himself and became caught up in the familiar rhythms of family banter. Hours later, when the roast beef trays sat nearly empty, rubbish was overflowing the bin, and Mark was staggering and slurring, the party was declared a success. Amadeus walked Annie and Mark to their car.
"Don't worry about the speech," Annie said. "The worst is over. Sorry about the statue. Keep in touch." She gave him a little kiss on the cheek. Amadeus blushed, thankful no one had bothered to replace the porch light that had burned out months ago. He went inside to find Grassal and his father finishing off a bottle of rum. Tommy grinned at his son.
"Guys, let's go to the basement," Tommy Brunmeier said. "I've got something cool to show you."
The basement was long and cavernous, divided into three parts: a storage area, a workshop, and the lab. The storage area held parts and components, neatly labeled in boxes and drawers. Long rows of shelving held a cornucopia of electronic components in various states of disrepair. In the workshop were fabrication tools: a lathe, drill press, and 3D printer.
The lab took up the most space and was a basement unto itself, complete with lead-lined walls, server racks, a separate control room for experiments, and a small cyclotron Tommy had installed several years ago. For as long as Amadeus could remember, a Union cavalry sword had hung over the interior lab door, right below the M4 Carbine rifle his father had used in Afghanistan.
In the lab, Amadeus and Grassal watched as Tommy pried open a wooden crate. From it, he removed several black metal rods and a glass cylinder in a metal housing that glowed blue. He handed a couple of the rods to Amadeus. "A graduation gift from Jones. Amadeus, you remember Jones. We could use these to fabricate new pistons for your bike."
"That could be interesting," Amadeus said. He had considered selling the bike and using the money to take a trip to California.
"What's this other stuff?" Grassal said.
"Kipium. It has a negative mass but stays stable. Used to be called exotic matter. Some miners in West Virginia discovered their vacuum lasers were creating small amounts of it. Now the coal mines scrape the stuff off their ceilings."
"The same kipium you used for the teleportation research?" Amadeus said.
"I didn't ask him to send it. I told you I brought that work to an end."
"What work?" Grassal said.
"The work that I wasn't allowed to talk about," Amadeus said. Grassal raised an eyebrow. "Einstein-Rosen bridges, a.k.a. Lorentzian wormholes." Amadeus met his father's gaze and held it. Neither would look away.
"Awkward," Grassal said. Tommy cleared his throat then spoke.
"Einstein talked about 'spooky action at a distance.' The man was a master of understatement. I saw enough spooky action right here to last a lifetime. I'm done with that. I've returned to more 'respectable,' non-controversial research." He pulled his salt and pepper hair back into a ponytail and picked up a rod.
"But you wish you could've learned more," Amadeus said. "To keep going forward. Is that why you have this?" He grabbed the kipium from his father's hand. "You're going to risk everything you've worked so hard to build back up?"
"That's enough, Amadeus," Tommy said. "And that's not what this is. I told you I don't know why he sent it to me. Put it down. I'll, uh, send it back to him."
Amadeus' face flushed. He looked over at Grassal, who had busied himself with learning the operating system of the statue and was pretending not to hear any of this conversation.
Tommy took the kipium from Amadeus and set it on the shelf. "We used to need a whole building to keep stuff like that stable. Now, though ..." Tommy trailed off. "Hey boys, let's see how this metal likes the lathe. What do you say?" Amadeus remained silent.
"That's why we're down here," Grassal said, looking up from the display projected onto the workbench. "Think your lathe can handle it?"
"Jones said it should as long as we use a diamond-tipped cutting tool. Let's find out if he's wrong." He changed the parts, set the rod in the lathe, and put on a facemask. "I'll just cut down a couple millis and see how it works. You two turn around, don't want any bits of metal flying around. It's all fun and games ..." Amadeus threw up his hands and turned around. The machine spun to life.
"Way to change the subject, buddy," Amadeus said to Grassal. Grassal shrugged. Ping! A piece of metal ricocheted around the room. Everyone ducked.
"Damn," Tommy said. "That was the hardest bit I had. Maybe lower speed, or less pressure."
Amadeus' stomach growled. "I'm going upstairs for a sandwich. You guys want anything?" Both asked for beers but no food.
Upstairs, streamers hung from the ceiling like wires exposed in a partially demolished building. Amadeus felt hot despite the cool of the house. He made a roast beef sandwich. When he took a bite, the mayonnaise dripped out of the end onto a balloon by his feet. He picked up the balloon, popped it. Mayonnaise splattered onto his shirt. Cursing, he dabbed at the mayonnaise with another paper towel and stepped outside into the cool night to eat. Fog hung low over the field around the house. He finished his sandwich, went back inside, and stepped on another balloon. It squeaked under his shoe until it popped.
When it popped, the sound of crashing glass filled the house. Lights shone through the windows. Amadeus screamed in surprise and ran down the hall towards the basement. Another crash. Heavy footsteps tromped over wood floors. Lasers reflected off mirrors. At the foot of the stairs, Amadeus spun around. A man in a black helmet dusted glass from his clothes. He held a rifle and looked like death.
Amadeus slipped into the stairwell, closing and locking the door behind him. Three explosions tore up the door. Gunshots. Splinters landed in his hair. More shots. He stumbled downstairs through the workshop to the lab. His father held the door open and waved him in.
"Oh god, Amadeus, are you okay?" his father said. "Grassal, kill the lights."
Grassal ran out and hit the main switch on the breaker box. Darkness fell over the basement like a blanket. Tommy pulled out a flashlight, guided Grassal back into the lab, and pulled the door shut behind him.
"Bastards. Shot. At. Me," Amadeus said. He tried and failed to catch his breath. His heart wanted to jump out of his chest and run away. "Jesus, Dad, what is this?" Sound of footsteps running across the upper floors.
"I never thought it would happen," Tommy said, shining the flashlight from Amadeus to Grassal. "Amadeus, Grassal, I'm sorry. I brought this on us. It's my fault."
"What do you mean?" Amadeus said.
"I mean there are people who want to do some real nefarious shit with the work I've done," Tommy said. Through the window of the lab, towards the other end of the basement, Amadeus saw the first of the flashlight beams coming through the broken basement door. "Not much time." Flashlight in his teeth, Tommy Brunmeier grabbed the statue of Amadeus, pulled the plug out, and connected it to the server. Tommy entered a few commands into the server before Amadeus realized what he was doing: copying data.
A barrage of shots slammed into the lab. Instinctively, all three hunched down. The lead walls kept the bullets from coming through. He pulled two smooth black medallions from a drawer on the workbench and tossed them to Amadeus.
"Distortion field generators," Tommy said. "Fuzzers. They'll make you invisible to surveillance equipment."
"But we're not criminals."
"Not yet," Tommy said, grabbing the statue.
"Everything I've done is on here," Tommy said. "Journals. Videos. Notes. Schematics. I've made some mistakes. Now those mistakes are coming for me. Learn everything you can, Amadeus. You have to. Figure it out. My work, it could change everything." He put the statue in Amadeus' hand, closed his fingers around it. "Go to Colorado and find Jones." He scribbled down a phone number on a scrap of paper. "Don't look back. Don't come back for me. Grassal, I'm sorry, but you're a part of this now, too." Another round of gunfire. Tommy pulled the M4 from the wall and fired several rounds into the server.
"No! Dad, what is this?"
"All my work is destroyed except for what's on the statue. I had four partners. To open these files," he shook the statue, "you'll need fingerprints and blood samples from three of them. I don't have time to remove the security. Study my research to learn countermeasures. If someone with bad intentions replicates my research, the results ... it'd be brutal. Find out who did this."
"This is about the wormholes, isn't it? You know I can't understand any of that!" Amadeus said. Tommy touched his son's face, then stuffed the statue into Amadeus' pants pocket. Flashlight beams shined through the windows of the lab.
"You're a smart boy, son. You'll figure it out. I love you. Now get the hell out of here. Into the crawl space. Hide this underneath." He handed Grassal the kipium, then pointed with his rifle to the small grate. "Go, boys, go!" Tommy cracked the door open and fired a few rounds toward the flashlights.
"Amadeus, he's right," Grassal said, taking Amadeus by the shirt and pulling him to the floor. "In there." Grassal slipped into the crawlspace first.
"They're going to kill you."
"Go. Now!" Tommy fired a couple more rounds. "Before they gas the place."
Amadeus looked into the dark of the crawlspace, then took one last look at his father, firing an assault rifle through a slit in the door. At that moment, he had no idea who his father was. He shut the door to the crawlspace. Amadeus started to open the door, but Grassal grabbed his arm.
"Come on, we've to go. You can't help him.
"Goddamnit, let go of me," Amadeus said.
"Don't make me drag you outside. You want to get us both killed?"
Amadeus started to cry and shake. He pulled a crumpled five-dollar bill from his pocket and stuffed it in his mouth. "This isn't happening. This is just another nightmare." His voice was muffled.
"Nightmare or not, Amadeus, we are getting out of here. You don't want to come? Fine. You stay and eat paper. And wait for them to put a bullet through your forehead." Grassal scrambled on through the crawl space, squeezing under the heating vents. He found a box of plumbing supplies and deposited the kipium inside. Gunshots came faster, louder, closer. Amadeus made his decision and started following his friend. "Garage," Grassal said. "Across the yard. Motorcycle inside. We got to run, buddy. You ready?" Grassal leaned back on his hands and kicked the main ventilation grate away. Amadeus started to run out, but Grassal stopped him. "Wait, got to check, make sure there's nobody out there." Amadeus leaned his head out. Nothing but an empty, fog-shrouded yard. They slipped out and hunched beside the house. When Amadeus stood, his knees and palms burned with pain. "Three, two, one ..."
They ran across the yard to the garage. Amadeus put his thumb on the doorknob, waited two seconds. The lock clicked and they stepped through the door into the cool garage. His bike sat inside. Beside it, a grey cloth covered his father's vintage, wheel-less Aston Martin.
"You start the bike," Grassal said, "and I'll throw the garage door open then hop on." Amadeus opened the key box on the wall. Grassal put on his usual helmet and handed one to Amadeus. Amadeus put the key in and pressed the ignition button but got only a fast clicking sound. He looked down at the headlight switch. He'd left it on. More gunshots from inside, call and response.
"Battery's drained. Get the jumper cables," Amadeus said. He pulled the cloth off the Aston Martin, popped the hood, and started the engine.
"Too bad we can't take the car," Grassal said, grumbling to himself as he connected the cables from the car to the bike. "No wheels. What good is a hot rod on jack stands?"
Amadeus pushed the starter on the bike. Nothing happened. "Wait for it," Grassal said. Amadeus counted to ten, grinding the paper between his teeth as he did so. He tried again. The bike coughed to life, filling the garage with white smoke. Grassal lifted the garage door then hopped on the bike. Amadeus popped the clutch, took off with a squeal of tires, and drove through the damp grass behind the house. Over the roar of the bike's engine, more gunshots, this time louder, not muffled by the walls of a house. Coming from behind the house, making the turn, almost on the concrete of the driveway, the back end slipped out from under them. Amadeus put his foot down, righting the bike. Balanced, he drove on through the grass and onto the driveway. More gunshots. Both ducked and the bike swayed, but Amadeus kept it upright.
On the way down the long concrete driveway, Amadeus weaved an erratic pattern. Gunshots cracked behind them. He knew they had to escape, but he wanted to turn back and help his father, damn the risks. He couldn't let their last conversation be an argument. Amadeus had to go back and say more, but Grassal and the gunfire would lead him in only one direction: away. He turned on the helmet headset.
"You okay?" Amadeus said.
"I'm fine. You?"
"Oh, I'm great, just having a fabulous time. No, I'm not okay, you fucking moron. Of course I'm not okay." He turned from the driveway onto the main road, roaring away into the night. At first the road was dark, empty, the distance between them and the place they were leaving a black gulf growing wider and wider. But after only a couple minutes, headlights flashed in the rearview mirror. They grew closer, larger, expanding, looming. Amadeus opened the throttle on the bike, trying to go faster, but he was already pushing 120 km/hr and though Amadeus knew these roads, the curves made him nervous.
He had to get to the highway, take the bike as far away as fast as possible. The lights grew larger, brighter as the vehicle came closer. Amadeus thought they looked like lights from a full-sized van. The curves changed to suburbs. Only a few more kilometers to the highway. One hundred meters from an intersection, the light had just changed from green to yellow. On both sides of the intersection, cars sat, waiting to proceed. The lights from the van caught his mirrors, blinding him. He downshifted for more torque, pulled back on the throttle. The engine whined. The cars started to pull out, their drivers probably paying more attention to the GPS voices that told them where to drive than the traffic around them. Amadeus swerved to avoid the side of a truck, going into the other lane, then back with a meter to spare. Behind them, a crash. In the mirror, a green sedan spun around while the van pushed on through.
"What the hell is this?" Grassal said, craning his neck to watch the van behind them.
"I don't know, Grassal, I don't know. For all I know this is just an elaborate game, a learning scenario. It's got to be. God, I hope it is." Amadeus liked this idea. "We'll play along, but it's not real. Can't be. No way." Grassal said nothing.
After the intersection, the road became a four-lane highway. Red tail lights lined the way before him like runway lights. He rode the center line, honking as he passed befuddled drivers. He kept the bike in lower gears, redlining the engine. He had never driven like this. The handlebar grips were slick with perspiration. As he wiped one hand on his pants, the shooting started.
They both ducked. The bike swerved and Amadeus' shoulder grazed the side of a car. More shots. The left-side mirror exploded, leaving only the metal frame. The van was just behind them, closer, closer. Amadeus twisted the throttle, but the engine sputtered. A loud thunk and Amadeus' head lashed forward and banged against the speedometer. He had been shot. The bike started to veer right.
Grassal leaned forward and grabbed the handlebars. "Hey! Damn it, Amadeus, hey!" He smacked Amadeus' helmet. With a start, Amadeus jerked upright. His ears rang. He saw double. While Grassal steered the bike, Amadeus ran his fingers over the helmet, tracing the rough line the bullet had torn through the Kevlar-reinforced fiberglass. Close, so close. The ringing receded, replaced by the drone of traffic. Amadeus took back the controls.
"I'm okay," Amadeus said. Ahead, two tractor trailers were driving side-by-side in both lanes. Amadeus took a deep breath and squeezed the bike between them. He could've spread his arms and touched them both, like a giant in the Grand Canyon. He opened up the throttle. Hitting high RPMs, the v-twin roared like a bear. Amadeus made it through the trailer canyon and was back on open road. The van was stuck behind the trucks. It tried to pass on the left but couldn't get through. Amadeus took his chance and pushed the bike as hard as it could go. Behind them, the van grew smaller and smaller. Ahead, the elevated highway was plumb straight, like a spool of wire unrolled over the land. After several minutes of face-melting speed, Amadeus couldn't see the van in his rearview.
"Think we lost them," Amadeus said.
"I'm not sure of anything." Amadeus looked at the sides of the highway, the high walls that projected the noise upwards, and thought if enough rain came, this could become an elevated canal or an aqueduct.
"We should get off the highway. Maybe they'll keep going," Grassal said. "Because I think this is real. Those were real bullets. Your dad, the expression on his face was real." Static crackled in their headsets. Amadeus realized this was an open channel. He slapped Grassal's knee, made a talking gesture with his hand, then a slashing motion across his throat. Grassal patted Amadeus' back, as if to say he understood.
"Yeah, we should definitely get off at the next exit. We need some gas. They're probably way back there," Amadeus said.
They continued past the exit and drove fifty kilometers farther before Amadeus drove onto a pull-off and parked in front of an abandoned semi, hopefully hidden from the highway. Amadeus got off the bike and examined his helmet, then handed it to Grassal.
"Still think this is a game?" Grassal said. "Do I need to say you're damn lucky?"
"No ... and no." His knees were weak. The world started to hum and spin. Something pulled on his insides, making breath scarce. He checked his pockets for paper, found none. Instead, he cried. Grassal held him and told him it would be okay.
"It's not okay, this isn't happening, this isn't happening." Cars passed by, unnoticed by Amadeus. Eventually, he was able to speak. "They were using a scanner or something to listen to us."
"Who keeps a scanner like that in their car?"
"Who smashes into a house and tries to kill everyone inside? No, they didn't kill everyone. They didn't kill anyone. We have to go back."
"No, man, no way. Your dad told us to go to Colorado. If they didn't ... if he can he'll contact us there. But you got to prepare yourself, man."
"What do you mean, prepare myself?"
"I'm just saying ..."
"What are you saying?"
"Nothing. I'm not saying anything except that we should keep moving, stay hidden. Pretty soon we might need to ditch the bike, but right now we ride it for all it's worth. For all we know, they're tracking us right now. Which reminds me. Give me your phone."
Amadeus patted his pants pockets and came up empty. Sighing, Grassal pulled the phone from Amadeus' sweater pocket and threw it onto the ground. Amadeus tensed.
"You want to do the honors?" Grassal asked.
"Can I at least--"
Grassal placed his own phone beside Amadeus', grabbed a socket wrench from the bike's tool bag, and reduced their phones to glistening bits.
"Hope your backup daemon was running."
Amadeus looked at Grassal, debating whether to hug or hit him. He decided to decide later. Instead, he said, "I need more coffee."
They sped off down the highway into the red-tinted night.