Heavy clouds had begun to gather as the tired old sun, as red as her child Mars, hung low in the sky. The heavy links of chain salvaged from the Marina were arrayed in four long columns, westward down Skylab Road from the resting place of the Ark to a length of fifty fathoms. One hundred yards of heavy, rusted iron per column, each link the size of my head. The chains alone seemed to outweigh the assembled Mules and Escorts and Mechanics and Scouts… how could they hope to pull their eighteen-thousand ton payload as well?
“Looks like rain, kid. Why don’tcha come with me?” Blazer took me aside while the chains were being attached, and led me inside the Marion crawler-transporter. “The EMP fried the control systems of this old girl, but not her drivetrain. Sixteen traction motors, powered by four megawatts from the gennies, which are driven by these two Alco V16 diesel engines, good for almost 2,800 horsepower apiece. Locomotive engines, older than I am. Idle for ten years, but not seized.
“We’ll need our strongest Mule to spin one of the jacking & steering gennies. That’s all we can afford, just to free up the steering armatures. The Marion herself will do the heavy lifting and propulsion, but the Mule Train will do the steering.”
“Is it gonna work?” I asked, understanding maybe every third word he’d just said, but reading the doubt in the worry-lines on his forehead.
“Hell, I don’t know, kid.” He chucked me under the chin. “We got anything better to do today?”
We stepped outside, and the first drops of rain began to speckle the dust on the Marion’s fenders. Blazer frowned, then pushed me toward the cab. The Marion was built for a crew of thirty, and the cab was huge and creepy for a little kid like me.
“Stay in here. That rain is bad for you. And I’ll have a job for you to do.” He pressed a thickish gray rectangle in my hand and pointed to a dashboard slot. “This side goes up, this end goes in. Only when I tell you. Then turn that knob all the way to the right. Then push that blue button down, hard as you can, and hold it until this thing lights up. Can you do that for me?” I nodded. He squeezed my shoulder once, then headed down the stairs and ran to the near end of the Train, holding an old jacket over his head. He carried a long cable uncoiling in his hand, tossed the end to Junior, then jogged up to his K-5 at the head of the column next to Cougar.
As he climbed in and dropped his pants, I could see that all the Drivers were hitched to the Train, Mules and Escorts and Scouts and Mechanics alike. Cougar’s top was up for the first time I could remember, smooth and black as the rest of her bodywork. The rain began to pour hard, harder than I’d ever known it to fall in my life. Somebody told me that once upon a time, before Chelsea had her little episode, Californians looked forward to rain as an uncommon but life-giving friend.
But rain since the Little War was evil, caustic, poisonous stuff, slippery and foul-smelling, and hell on the paint. And after an absence of a year or more, now it came at the worst possible time for us, a cosmic Fuck You to those of us trying to escape the deadly, nauseating grip of the wasteland. Cougar’s left arm emerged out her window, then she thrust her fist skyward, and as one the SHITGO engines of the Mule Train roared to life. The Major’s
Pink Panther Knobbly stumbled a bit at idle, then corrected. Momo purred like a kitten. Gentleman Jim’s elegant Studebaker took a few tries to fire up, but then idled strong and eager like an elderly prizefighter dunked in Ponce de Leon’s fountain. Junior’s air horns blatted, and the combined roar of the Train drowned out the deafening hammering of the rain on the cab’s roof.
Blazer’s arm emerged, and his thumb crooked back toward me. I slid the gray dingus into the slot, twisted the knob, then stabbed the button and held on for dear life as the entire can convulsed in a basso rumble that felt like the planet itself was feeling the regrettable aftermath of Junior’s pancakes. The rumble settled into a smooth low-frequency vibration, and the dash lit up with green and amber lights. And then I could hear, faintly from the speakers in the cab, much more loudly from the E.A.R.A.C.H.E. festooning Junior’s rig, the fading sound of an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, plinking away on a madrigal from the last century while someone crooned “Ahhhh-ahhhh. Ahhhhh-ahhhh.” And then it faded into the faint hiss and squeak made by the weird gray rectangle.
And then. Oh, and then…
The loudest music the world had heard in a decade came forth. Drums… drums in the deep, more propulsive and insistent than a gun to the back of the head. The drums boomed, the rain poured… and the Mule Train came to life.
Gears were shifted, clutches engaged, throttles opened, and as one, the Mules leaped forward a couple inches, taking up the slack in their massive chains. Exhaust blatted skyward through custom headers routed through the hoods of the Mules, and the Drivers expertly feathered their gas pedals to avoid losing traction through an excess of applied torque. And slowly, agonizingly, the platform and the Ark began to move. The heavens above split with a blinding flash and I cried out in terror.
“Lightning, my child. Lightning struck the payload. You are safe here. It cannot hurt you.” I opened my eyes in confusion; I was alone in the cab. “All is well. The payload is safe, well-secured, and leveled. You may proceed to our destination.”
“Oh. Uh… okay.”
“Query: Launch Tower ST-ARK1 is not responding to pings. Has there been a revision?”
“Uhh… well, the old launch tower is gone. The roaches ate it.”
“Did they? We rather expected that to happen some years after our departure. I find myself unable to ping the time server. Could you tell me the date?”
“No? Oh, dear. Not even a… bzzzt-thip!… an estimation?”
“Mom gave me a Christmas present a while ago. But it doesn’t fit anymore.”
“Good boy. Eat those vegetables.”
“There aren’t any. None that I can catch, anyway.”
“I believe I must have missed an important systems update or two. Activating Geiger sensors…”
“A celery stalk bit my ankle a few days ago…”
“I believe I now grasp the essentials of the situation. Are we headed to Edwards Air Force Base?”
“That’s what Mom says.”
“Caution: low overhang on this route. The next overpass requires a maximum clearance of fourteen feet three inches. This payload exceeds the maximum safe height by two hundred seventy-four feet two point three inches. Calculating detour…”
“I wouldn’t worry about the overpasses. What should I call you?”
“The staff at Kennedy Space Center referred to me familiarly as Franz, but…”
“You don’t sound like a Franz. How about Marion?”
“I will respond to Marion.”
“Got any snacks in here, Marion?”
“There was half a bag of Cheetos beneath the seat you currently occupy when I was last sold, but I fear it may be past its expiration date.”
After a bit, the music began to fade. I was disappointed. I thought it kicked ass.
“Can we play the song again?”
“Not immediately. My 8-track deck lacks rewind functionality. My chassis is what is popularly known as ‘vintage’.”
“I will route control of the public-address system to our navigation team below. They may have more media available for the journey.”
“How long will this take?”
“Without detours for overpasses? One hundred thirty-one point four hours. In heavy traffic, further delays may be expected.”
“Okay. Got any more Cheetos?”
Down below, the rain poured, the Mule Train heaved, tires spun, mud sprayed, steam rose from rain-spattered hoods and exhaust headers, headlights strained to pierce the drowning gloom, and the Ark inched down Skylab Road, preparing to make its first right turn onto Bolsa Chica Road. The first turn of our journey to the Red Planet.
Shopping and Missions coming in the morning…
EDIT - (Pinkie’s no more. Knobbly takes her place. 9:12 AM PST 2/04)