It's a fixer-upper, Dorothy. Tornados'll do that to a house.

Neuman's Land
by Mark Everglade and Joseph Hurtgen ©2021

Oneira hadn't wanted to pull into the rest stop, a nondescript trucker haven outside Miami. She was ready for her weekend with her wealthy financier for a fiancee, Darian Holdbaugh, but she'd driven through the night and needed to stretch her legs. Before the exit, a billboard advertised new homes in a subdivision called Neuman's Land; the fine lines read Must be under forty to apply

These were houses with gables upon gables, massive homes with a half dozen bedrooms, bowling alleys, and private movie theatres. She killed the engine and dismounted, didn't bother to shut the door, and raised her arms skyward. She felt good, felt relaxed for a moment stretching and thinking of what her life could be like in one of those houses in Neuman's Land. She caught movement in her periphery and snapped back to attention.

Four muscled operators in Teletubby masks and riot gear swarmed around Oneira's military grade All-Terrain-Vehicle. They picked her up and threw her in, slipped into the plush leather seats behind her, beside her. Mercer forced her into the passenger seat, throwing his green horns back with laughter as Cartwright moved to take the wheel. Berger found the car's external USB interface, uncoiling the long cord and ramming it into the slots at the base of her neck, a red circle hanging precariously over his head. Fabron shoved an inhaler against her lips and depressed the canister, filling her mouth with a neon acidic taste as a pinkish-orange cloud of some bizarre designer drug was released. The antennae on his mask swayed to the right. Oneira's panic melted into a tired ecstasy, her head going slack, eyes fluttering in an instant REM state.

Mercer jacked in to override the car's automation, stole the access keys straight from her head.

They had control.

The ATV headed to downtown Miami and soon skidded to a stop in front of CryptoBank, taking out an electronic parking meter and a trash-incineration can. The three in the back fanned out, shattered the glass of the front door, barked orders at the tellers, and set the timer on a bulky, home-made device. Passersby crossed the street, showing little interest in the quasi-military force staging a chaotic bank robbery.

Oneira, eyes drooping, looked at Cartwright, a hulking form in the driver's seat, all camouflage, wires, and random paraphernalia. The purple triangle above his masked head swam in crazy circles, speeding up, slowing down.

"Hello, Oneira," a wavering voice spoke from outside her, or maybe within. Oneira felt she was nowhere. She was online but her head wasn't right. She was plugged in but dialed out.

"Hello?" she answered.

"Drug's wearin' off, is it?" asked Cartwright.

The thhree masked bank robbers rushed back to the vehicle carrying bags. They jumped in and sped away, but even if they had the car's access codes, she was still connected to the controls as well. She slammed the brakes. The conflicting signals caused the car to oscillate. Fabron pushed another canister against her lips. More acidic sleep hit Oneira's nerves.

An explosion burst the windows of the bank behind them. White papers sprayed the air. They headed away from the city center.

"Oneira. Hello? Input received to head to the harbor. Please confirm." This time she was sure that the car was talking through the speakers.

Oneira tamped down the angry feeling of regret at pulling into a rest stop, especially in a car worth more than a small home. Think, think! She thought, the words echoing. The man beside me is jacked into the car to take advantage of my access codes, which only work while I'm also jacked in. A SMART automated vehicle would never consent to taking hostiles anywhere. But if he's connected to take advantage of me, then I'm also connected to him and can reverse the feed.

Roads streamed into her mind in time lapse. She redirected the route, replacing their carefully selected backroads with the most trafficked arteries to buy her time.

"The hell?" exclaimed Cartwright. He punched the map, reselected the previous route.

Her headspace jerked with jagged motions, moving toward her then away. "Access GPS," she whispered. Virtual maps splayed open; five blinking red dots showed they were everywhere at once. Then, there was only one dot, then none, back to five, and then five hundred.

Cartwright smashed a gloved hand against the screen. "Thing's screwed!" He switched the vehicle to autopilot, turned off the display map. "The girl's messin' with it!"

From the back, Fabron grabbed her long red hair and pulled, keeping her in her place. She reached back to grab her metal hairpin and shoved it in the cigarette outlet. The shock threw her body against the seat and transferred it to Fabron. He slammed his teeth tight, body shaking, but it wasn't enough.

"What the hell!" he yelled, as they both quickly recovered.

The car's surveillance camera was in her mind's eye, showed her a hunting knife unsheathing. Her heartbeat was ragged, her head still taking her down weird avenues. She was jumping into childhood puddles and feeling the joy of the open road, sensors reporting optimum performance levels. The knife cut right to the top of the incoming data.

Drunk drivers normally survived crashes because their bodies stay relaxed, so new airbags had been designed to release a sedative gas when triggered. Already sedated herself, it might put her on equal ground. She grabbed the wheel and pulled hard. Cartwright pulled back but lost control. They went into a spin.

"Crazy bitch!" Cartwright exclaimed. As the tires lost purchase on the road, he slapped her, marking her skin. The hunting knife flew through the air, clattered against the front windshield. They were airborne now, speeding toward destruction and pain. Time disappeared. The observable faces behind the Teletubby masks revealed unmitigated fear, surprise, rage.

Airbags burst forth embedding faces and flooding the car with sedative gas as the men behind her coughed and, though late to the party, joined Oneira in hypnagogic hallucinations. She'd been careful to hold her breath. She kicked the door open and ran.

A block away, she sat down, pulled out her phone, and saw she'd missed a dozen calls and a pile of texts from Darian. She dialed him back.

"What the hell's been going on, Oneira?" "I've just been . . . some guys carjacked me. I'm really shaken up."

"You're shaken up? I've been getting damage reports from my car all morning!"

"I . . . I had to crash it to get away."

"Crash it?! That car's worth more than your life!"

"Please, I need help."

"Yeah, you do need help. Good luck finding it."

"Darian, listen!"

He'd already ended the call.

Oneira looked down at the big diamond on her ring finger. She hocked the jewel and bought an old beat-up station wagon. No air conditioning. No power steering. No on-board AI around to chat with or monitor you, but it belonged to her. She challenged the open road and felt the rush of being in control. She drove out of the city, blew past the exit to Neuman's Land, and figured she'd see just how far she could go.

x x x

Mark Everglade and Joseph Hurtgen are a new team to anotherealm. They've published elsewhere, but I won't hold that against them. Stories like this will always find a home here. Welcome aboard you two. Travel with us again soon. - GM

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