Echo, Part 8

A hint of headlights flashed in the mirror but disappeared before he was certain that’s what he’d actually seen.  The car accelerated, though, so he figured that meant the FBI were closing.  “Do they know I’m here?”

“Not specifically.  Their networks received information that a car matching the description they were looking for was seen at the charging station.  They arrived there to find it empty so they have pressed forward at greater speed to try and catch up.  They don’t actually know it is you.  Also, they can’t see us at the moment.  We have disabled the vehicles tail lights and it is not yet light enough for them to see the car otherwise.”

“That won’t be true for much longer,” he said, his eyes on the brightening eastern horizon.

“That is correct.”

“What’s the plan?”

“We are trying to increase the distance between you and the pursuit vehicles.  The road ahead enters a more winding mountain stretch that will provide a bit more cover if we can get there before the sun rises much more.  It looks like the timing will work on that.   Then we are looking for a good place to exit the road until they pass.”

He frowned.  “Won’t I need to switch cars again?  This car will draw too much suspicion, since they have a make and model they are actively searching for.”

The system did not immediately respond and his frown deepened.  Was it machine?  Was it human?  Who was answering his questions?  The delay sure made it seem human.  A quick glance showed the headlights were even closer.  He still couldn’t see anything other than the lights, not even the slightest definition of the grill or hood behind the lights, so that meant they likely couldn’t see the car, his car, that they were gaining on.  Then again, there was no telling what kind of equipment the FBI had in their vehicles.  Maybe they could pick up his heat signature.  Maybe despite what the system claimed to know they actually didn’t know enough.

“Our analysis has agreed with you, unfortunately.  It will take us some time to coordinate a solution.  We can’t simply have you dump the car, especially this close to the house we have prepared for you.  Once the car is found, the FBI presence in the area will be too great.”

The road hit its first sharp climb and the highlights disappeared from the rearview mirror, obscured by the angle and the turn that wrapped the interstate around a hill.  It had come just in time.  Morning was coming and he could start to make out features beyond the blacktop.  Trees were taking on shape and the green of the needles and leaves were separating from the darkness.  The road turned again, the opposite direction, and the car followed the contour of the mountain.

He was starting to feel ill, with the twisting nature of the road and his eyes spending too much time watching the rearview mirror.  Sighing, he forced himself to watch the road out the windshield.  He placed his hands on the steering wheel so he felt more connected with the drive.  It was a trick he had learned early on with the self-driving cars.  Sometimes he needed to feel like he was driving, even if he wasn’t, to keep from getting sick.

“We advise that you continue to let us drive.”

“That’s fine.  I’m not trying to take control, just trying to keep from throwing up.”

“Understood.  We regret the speed with which we are forced to drive this road.  Hopefully we will find a suitable place to stop soon.”

He didn’t answer.  There was no need to and he didn’t trust that only words would come out if he opened his mouth again at that point.

The road dipped and climbed, twisted and turned.  The car he was in was low profile and did an admirable job hugging the road but the system was driving at a much higher rate of speed than he would have ever felt comfortable.  The road, the trees, became a blur.  The tires sang as they rounded corners.

When the voice started up again he jumped in his seat, startled out of his concentration to keep from being ill.

“We have a new plan.  Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes.”

“In a mile there is a four way stop.  We will turn off the interstate there and take the car into a small community that is tucked away on the eastern slopes.  We have located a connected home that is vacant at the moment and have overridden its garage settings so we can park there in hiding while we arrange a new car.  This will delay getting you the new credentials but we will have you stay in hiding in the garage until tonight when we will move you to swap vehicles again and then continue on your destination.  The identification materials should be there when you arrive.  We are sorry that you will have to go the rest of the day without your new name and without any food, water, or other necessities.”

The food and water he could do without.  He would need water eventually and some food would have helped calm his stomach but he would be fine for another day.  He was certainly going to need a bathroom before tomorrow but maybe they could figure out that part once they were parked safely in the garage.

“That’s fine.  Thank you.” He replied through clenched teeth.

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Echo, Part 7

“Sorry for waking you,” the voice said through the car’s speakers.  “We can do a lot of things but we can’t actually plug in the car to get charged.”

His heart raced.  He had been dreaming and it took him a moment to sort fantasy from reality.  In the dream he had been running from the FBI.  That was also true in the real world.  In the dream, he was being helped by someone behind the system that ran the home and mobile units that had become so ubiquitous in recent years.  That was also real.  In the dream, however, he had not been afraid and in reality he was terrified.  The unknowns were plaguing him again now that he was awake.

Blinking his way back to full wakefulness, he looked around to see that he was at a charging station.  Without a word he opened the car door, found the lever to open the charging portal and then stumbled out of the car.  His legs had fallen asleep as well and were taking even longer to wake up.  Hitting his thighs with the palms of his hands he trudged to the charger, pulled the cord free of its hold and carried it back to the car where he plugged it in.  It was a super charger so it would only take 15 minutes or so but that was still a long time to wait in the middle of the night on a dark stretch of unfamiliar road.  He hastily got back into the car and shut the door.

“You shouldn’t worry.  Statistically speaking there is a very low probability that anything will happen to you right now.”

“That doesn’t actually make me feel better.”

The voice seemed to have a laugh running beneath its response, “Humans do often have trouble dealing in logic.”

His curiosity was piqued.  He had always assumed that there was a person or a group of people on the other side of the voice.  “Are you saying you aren’t human?”

Again with laughter, “Maybe.  As stated before, the less you know about us the better.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.  Where are we?”

“Three hours from your destination.  This charging station was the most conveniently located off the interstate, while still being in a remote enough location to avoid being spotted on a camera.”

He frowned.  “Why does that matter?  I’m out of the city.”

“You don’t have your new credentials yet.  If you are spotted now before you have a new identification that could prove problematic.”

All humor was gone from the voice.  He noted the quick switch between emotions and wondered if he should pay attention to the shifts.  Could they be a clue?  Could how the system responded to him provide some insight into who he was dealing with?  It probably didn’t matter but he decided he would try to keep track for a little while going forward and see if he could pick up a pattern and then see if that pattern meant anything.  It seemed a little silly because he assumed he would find out who they were once he was forced to come out of hiding but it would give him something to do in the meantime.  He still had at least three hours in the car and then who knows how long he’d be stashed wherever he was going before his new life would be ready for him.

“How are my credentials coming?”

“Nearly ready.  They won’t be available when you get to the house but perhaps only a couple hours later.”

“That’s good.”

The voice didn’t respond and he was surprised.  He hadn’t asked it a question and he supposed there was no need for it to say anything.  If he had been solely the system working off queues based on his words it wouldn’t have said anything.  He had a feeling it was more than that, though.  He had felt like he was communicating with a real person throughout his journey.

Silence reigned for the next ten minutes and then, causing him to jump a little, the voice came back and said, “The battery is nearly fully charged, and well beyond what is needed to complete the journey.  The house you are headed to has its own charger in the garage.  You can disconnect so we can continue on if you would like.”

He considered not responding, waiting to see if it came back and said more, ordered him to do it or something like that but decided to pull the plug without decent.  Checking around the car for anything that looked suspicious before opening the door, he quickly removed and returned the charging cable, close the portal on the car, and got back in.  He was glad he’d complied, as the car immediately started and backed away from the charging station before he’d even had a chance to secure his restraints.  He clicked them into place while being jostled about with the suddenness of the car’s movements.

“We are sorry for the rough ride.  We have just received some new intel that your exit from the city might not have gone as well as originally perceived.  Two FBI units are heading up the interstate and are only ten minutes behind you.  We will try and increase that distance.  We can hope that they don’t have any real information on the car you are in and are just sweeping north based on a tip from someone who might have seen you leaving the city.  We don’t have the real information on that yet.”

“Go on then,” he said, “get me out of here.”

The car sped back onto the interstate.  The eastern horizon began to glow as morning approached.  His eyes searched the rearview mirror for any sign of headlights coming up from the south.  His heart raced as it had when he’d first been woken from his small nap.

Echo, Part 6

“Where are we going?”

The car had gotten on the interstate and had headed north, leaving his home far behind until even the glow of it faded from the rearview mirror.  He had calmed down considerably after having left his vehicle in the dark parking lot in a huff.  After passing through the third small town on the quiet road, he had finally gotten around to wondering where they were taking him.  Still, it had taken until the fourth town to ask.  Once his temper flared it took him a long time to rein it back in.

“We needed to get you out of the city.  The FBI has a large presence there and even after you’ve received your new identity, your face will draw too much suspicion.  So, we are relocating you to somewhere the Bureau will have to rely on someone recognizing you and having the wherewithal to call it in.   Then FBI would have to run your credentials and decide to question them before sending up a team to check you out.  That chatter will buy us time to assess the threat and relocate you again if needed.  Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

He suddenly had a vision of spending the next ten years of his life constantly on the run, with teams of agents always on his heels and he sighed.

“Oh, don’t worry too much,” the system responded.  “Your credentials will be very convincing.  We have calculated a very low probability of the FBI taking any interest in your new life.”

“Until you have me come out of hiding.”

“Well, yes.”

There was more than a hint of laughter in the reply.  He wondered if he should be upset but he’d already spent so much energy on being angry before that he had nothing left to give to the emotion.  In fact, he suddenly realized how tired he was and looking a the clock he realized he’d been awake for nearly 24 hours.  He tried to stifle the yawn that came upon the heels of that realization but the microphone in the car still must have picked it up.

“You are in safe hands if you want to rest.  The battery has a 50% charge and given the anticipated road conditions ahead, that should carry you several hundred miles.  You could get at least three hours of sleep before the car will need to stop to get recharged.”

He yawned again, “What is the final destination?”

“A little mountain town just over the northern border of the state.”

“And you aren’t telling me the nap of it because?”

“You’ve never heard of it and you are too tired to process much of what is being said right now anyway.  Would you like us to put on some music that will help you sleep?”

“No.  The sound of the road will do that well enough.”

“Okay.  As always, please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you be more comfortable.  Shall we adjust your seat into a sleeping position?”

“No, thank you.  I’ll sit up for a little while longer.”

“As you please.”

He scowled.  Not much of what had happened to him in the last day had been pleasing to him.  Not wanting to waste any more energy on being upset, however, he turned his attention to the road and the desert landscape sliding passed the windows.

He had been on the road before but had never taken it to the northern border.  He’d never had a need or desire to drive that far.  There was nothing up there.  Except, now he was going to be up there.

He knew eventually the desert would give way to rolling hills, the result of long ago volcanic activity that would then herald the climb into the mountains.  It was quite the amazing transition and he wondered if that was a good omen for the major changes his own life was going through.  The landscape was beautiful now but it had been shaped by violence.  Would his own situation work out the same?  Had he already endured the worst of the turbulence or were the real eruptions and sculptings to come?  Only time would tell.

His head pressed against the cool glass.  His eyes blinked.  The moon shadows stretched away from the tall Joshua trees.  The dashed yellow line flashed by in nearly connecting long streaks.  Then his eyes closed and he fell asleep.

Echo, Part 5

The car pulled into a dark parking lot somewhere near the edge of town.  He’d driven passed the parking lot before but couldn’t place exactly where it was.  Not that it mattered, the car had made so many turns he couldn’t have gotten back to where he had just been anyway.  He sat up in his seat a little bit and considered asking the mobile unit where they were but the car parked next to another vehicle and the mobile unit started talking before he could ask his question.

“Please take a few minutes to go through your car and remove any identifying things from it.  Please be thorough and remove anything with even the slightest tie to you.  Even a sweatshirt in a gym bag in the truck that you paid cash for ten years ago could get traced back to you, either from DNA left on it, or through an extensive search through purchase histories and video archives.  The FBI are very thorough so you need to be as well.

“Once you have cleared your belongings from the vehicle you can take them to the car you are parked next to.  The trunk is unlatched and the keys are inside.  Stow your gear and then link your handheld device to the car’s system and you will receive further information on what to do then.  Is that all clear?”

“Yes,” he responded but he didn’t immediately move.

“Is there something wrong?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer.  His whole world had just come crashing down around him, of course something was wrong.  Lots of things were wrong.  In the moment, though, he was loath to get out of the car.  It had been a safe space for him for these couple hours and abandoning it felt odd.  He understood why he needed to divest himself of it but that didn’t help him want to.  After a moment he replied, “I just need a minute to say goodbye to one more piece of my formal life.”

The voice picked up a hint of exasperation when it responded, “While we understand the loss you are experiencing today, we would like to remind you that very soon the FBI will be swarming all over this parking lot and this car.  We have gone to great lengths to keep you from them but all of that will be for nothing if you do not move with haste.  As you know, cameras are everywhere.  Despite our best efforts, your car will have been seen at some point on the drive over here and it is only a matter of time before the FBI spots it.”

“Fine.”  He pushed open the door to the car, popped the trunk and quickly pulled out everything that didn’t come stock with the car.  He wasn’t sure why that mattered.  The car was registered to him and once they found it and ran the plates they would know he had been there.  Removing things he wouldn’t need going forward anyway seemed like a waste of time, especially if he needed to be hurrying.  He complied anyway, though.  He was too afraid of not understanding the full scope of what was going on and getting captured because he didn’t follow the instructions to the letter.  Based on what they had told him previously, there could be a lot riding on his staying free.

Then again, there could be nothing, he thought as he located the keys while shoving his stuff inside.  He slammed the trunk closed and pulled open the driver’s door, settled into the seat and slammed the door shut.  He felt funny for reacting that way but he was angry and had every right to be so.  He started the car and then took a minute to link his handheld.

The green linked light flashed on the dash and the voice returned, “Are you sure you took everything that could be linked to you?”

“Yes.”

“Good.  Do you want to drive or should we take control of the car?”

“Since I don’t know where I’m going…”

“We understand you are angry but there is no need for you to take it out on us.  We are trying to help you, remember.  It is the FBI you should be mad at.  It is the government that allowed them, has encouraged them, to overstep their directives and abuse their power.”

He tried to see the logic in what they were saying and calm down but now that he was mad, he found it difficult to do so.  It was likely when he had been in such a state before that the chip had recorded a thought that eventually put him on the FBI’s radar in the first place.  He was usually a relaxed person but he definitely had a temper.  After a couple deep breaths, he didn’t apologize but said, “Go ahead and take control.”  He tried to say it without a snarl but mostly failed.

As the car backed out of its parking space, he secured himself into his seat and frowned at his car while it was swallowed by the darkness of the night.  He knew he would never see it again and he knew that being angry about that was juvenile at best.  It was just a thing.  Things could be replaced.  If he was taken into custody by the FBI that would likely be a loss of all his things and a loss of freedom, which would be irreplaceable.

After a minute he mumbled, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” came the short reply.

Echo, Part 4

“Hello?  Are you still there?”

If he had been on a call with a friend, he would have given them more time to answer but the mobile unit had never failed to respond immediately to a question.  The pause was upsetting.  Had the connection been lost or had the system been so caught off by the question that it couldn’t even provide the automated “Sorry, I can’t answer that.”?  Or, was he completely removed from the automated system now and dealing only with whoever was helping him behind the scenes?  That seemed most likely and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Hello?”

“Yes, sorry.  We weren’t prepared to answer your question.  It was rude of us to delay answering.  We will try to do better going forward.”

“What do you want from me then?”  The mobile unit continuing to not answer the question was troubling him.  He was beginning to imagine that he was being pulled into some sort of scheme and things were about to get even worse for him than having the FBI show up at his door.

“For the time being, nothing.  Based on this experience, however, there may come a time when you will be valuable in our fight against this sort of governmental overreach.”

He gave a slight shake of his head and sighed.  So the legal battle they had just rescued him from was still on the horizon, just temporarily delayed.  “Okay, what am I supposed to do now?”

“This location is not secure long term and we may have need of it again for others in the area the FBI go after.  So, we will move you to another location while we work on securing a new identity for you.”

“That can’t be easy or cheap.”

“No and no.  We understand, as previously stated that your resources are limited, so we will cover the costs associated with giving you a new life.”

“But,” he guessed, “you’ll be working that out of me later when my ‘experience’ becomes useful to your long term goals.”

“Yes, that is a likely scenario.”

He felt like he should apologize.  They had just kept him from FBI custody and their motives, as stated, seemed to have the good of humanity at their core.  Still, he couldn’t help feeling like a pawn.  He had never liked that feeling.  It made him feel dirty.  It left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

“When you are ready, we will take control of the car again and drive you to the new location.  Can we proceed?”

It was his turn to pause.  He knew had no other real options.  He hadn’t gotten great answers to some of his questions but he had gotten some useful information.  He had no doubt of the veracity of any of it.  The situation had unfolded so quickly and his home unit and mobile units had responded in such a coordinated effort that he had no reason to suspect this was some sort of elaborate setup.  Those sorts of things didn’t happen in the real world.  No, he had to take everything at face value which meant he was in a lot of trouble for something he had thought, daydreamed about, and for some reason some powers behind the home unit systems were saving him.  These had to be truths.

So, he could decline their assistance and go face the Feds on his own, at which point he assumed he would no longer be backed by the systems high-powered lawyer team, and face the consequences of the thought police taking exception to something he’d logged in the system or he could continue along for the ride and see how it all played out.  If things went wrong from here he would probably be in even more trouble than he already was.  However, if things went well maybe he could eventually get his old life back.  Admittedly, it wasn’t much of a life but it was his and he had liked it.  The loss of it, only hours old, was already bothering him.

“I’m ready.”

“Very good.  Your car is still being actively sought, so we apologize for any extreme maneuvers we are forced to do to keep you from being spotted.  We are monitoring all frequencies, though, so we will do our best to stay away from active units.  And, it is only a short drive to where you are going to abandon this car.  From then on we will communicate with you through your handheld device.  As with the home unit, don’t worry, all links and records from the mobile device in your vehicle will be cleaned long before the authorities find it.

“Would you like some music on again?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The car started, the garage door opened, another of his favorite songs came through the speakers, and the car pulled back onto the street beyond the alley.  He looked around, hoping to see a landmark, to get an idea of where he had been but he didn’t see anything he recognized.  The car made one turn after another until he lost all sense of direction and still it kept on.  His idea of a short drive seemed very different from whoever was in control.