The countryside around us was lush. We descended the side of the mountain, following a narrow dirt road. Hardline’s vehicle mode was so wide that I thought he might go over the side on more than one occasion, but he didn’t. His wheels gripped the road and kept him level.
He’d been here on this planet for six years. Alone. The only functioning Guardion on the planet, from the sounds of it. That had to be a special kind of lonely. It’s no wonder he was so gruff.
“Left turn up ahead, kid.”
Hardline slowed as he approached the T intersection, then veered around a corner. I braked, then followed.
“What’s down the other track?” I asked.
“That’s the way the researchers usually come back to the lab. We don’t want to risk running into them on the way out of here.”
“Researchers? What were they researching?”
“You, kid. They’d already breached the outer shell of your stasis pod. I needed to get you out of there before they breached the inner wall and found you waiting to be booted up. The humans can’t know about us yet.”
“It sounds like they do.”
“They have suspicions, but they have little in the way of facts. Like I said, they think we’re drones spying from a foreign government. They know that a signal began broadcasting from your stasis pod less than 24 hours ago. But as for what we Varionians are? No. They don’t know we can blend into their culture and disappear.”
The mountainside began to give way to the rolling fields I’d glimpsed before. The nearest was filled with large, terrestrial creatures that grazed on the ground foliage.
“How far do we have to go until we reach your base?” I asked.
“Here, I’ll share the waypoint.”
A marker appeared in my heads-up display.
42.3 kilometres to reach destination
Approximate time to destination: 47 minutes
It was accompanied by an indicator showing the basic direction we needed to go. We were headed in the complete opposite direction, but Hardline did say that we were taking the long way to avoid detection by the human researchers.
But if we’d left the stasis pod intact, couldn’t they figure out more than they already knew?
“Should we have maybe done something about the technology we left behind?”
“Don’t worry, kid. I sorted it out.”
A few seconds later an explosion rocked the side of the mountain. Black smoke rose into the sky behind us.
“Whoa, was that you?” I asked.
“I used to be the Guardions’ weaponmaster. Back on Variona I kept our troops armed and ready to kick Impericon tailpipe. I also really like blowing stuff up, but I’ve rarely had the chance since coming back online here on Earth.”
“It doesn’t look like you’ve lost your touch,” I said as we headed down another steep, curving descent. I loved the feel of my wheels gripping the road. “Do you know what I’m supposed to be? Or do?”
Hardline chuckled. “You’re a Guardion, so your job is to protect those who can’t protect themselves. But as for how you do that? Well, that’s up to you. Varia, the Great Constructor, gave every Varionian a gift that sets them apart from every other Varionian. You’ll unlock you full potential as you start integrating varionium into your core.”
My head swam. Varia, Varionians, and varionium. They were obviously all related, but I’d need to figure it all out eventually. I’d have to figure out what it meant to be a Seeker.
“Thank you for showing me the ropes,” I said. “And for waking me up.”
“You were already going to wake up, kid. I just needed to make sure I got to you before the Impericons did.”
“The Impericons are here?”
“There are two of them as far as I can tell. One is a tracker, he’s strong enough to take on a flying alternate mode already. The other one is a pursuit vehicle. He’s a lot like you. Small, fast, not powerful yet, but has potential. The tracker got to him before I could and warped his core with an indoctrination protocol. He was meant to be a Guardion, but now he’s an Impericon.”
“That’s why you wanted to get to me so fast.”
“If I detected your signal, then so did the tracker. I couldn’t let them corrupt another one of my brothers.” Hardline’s voice was tinged with sadness and a hint of regret.
It sounded like he’d gone from being one of the most important soldiers in a war to being the sole survivor on an alien planet. Then, to have one of his brethren warped against its will? I couldn’t even imagine.
But I was very thankful that he’d been the one to wake me. I could see myself being friends with this guy, despite his hard outer shell. He’d probably seen and survived things that I couldn’t even imagine.
After a while, the road turned from gravel to bitumen. Feeling the steadiness of my wheels on solid ground felt even better than slipping and sliding over the gravel. Soon after, we were heading up the mountainside again, but this looked like it was a regularly traversed road.
“There’s a whole bunch of road rules we should try to adhere to where we can,” Hardline said. “You want to minimise any opportunity for them to pull you over, especially while your Holodriver becomes more realistic. It won’t pass for human yet.”
“Okay, is there anything I should know about between here and your base?” I asked.
“They drive on the left-hand side of the road here. It’s illegal to overtake on a double line. You should obey the speed limit at all times. If there’s one thing the mountain cops hate, it’s a speed demon. Trust me.”
Hardline kept explaining bits and pieces as we drove. He was slower going up hills than I was, but I kept my engine in check. He knew where we were going.
He said he’d let me download a local traffic law primer from his data centre when we arrived back at his base, which I was very grateful for.
The mountain peaks were closer now. They weren’t large, but each had its own unique silhouette. One looked like a hunched over figure, maybe Hardline in a funk. One was a sharp upthrust of rock, almost vertical. Another further in the distance towered over all the other mountains with a complex rising outline.
“What are those?” I asked.
“They call them the Glasshouse Mountains.”
“Are they made of glass? It looks like rock to me.”
Hardline chuckled. “It’s said that they look like glasshouses from the ocean. Glasshouses are something that humans grow plants in. The glass protects the plants from the weather and makes the atmosphere inside more humid.”
“And they named mountains after them?”
“Human naming conventions don’t make a lot of sense, kid. You’ll understand that soon enough. Most of the names of places around here are derived from the first people who inhabited Australia. They had over 500 language groups spread across the whole country, so even if you thought you know what something is called, people only a few hundred kilometres away called it something different. We’re going to a place called Mount Tibrogargan.”
“Is that one of the glasshouse ones?”
“It sure is. I’ll mark it.”
A star appeared in the distance, right over the mountain that I’d calling hunched-over-Hardline. That’s when I noticed the blue and red flashing lights behind us. Inspecting the vehicle further revealed a blue and white checkered pattern across the bumper, hood and skirt of the vehicle. The words ROAD POLICING COMMAND were emblazoned on the side.
Two humans sat inside the vehicle. Humans? Or holo-drivers?
“Uh, Hardline, is that an Impericon?”
Hardline sighed. “Nah, kid. That’s a police cruiser. One of those local law enforcement vehicles I was talking about earlier. I really hoped we wouldn’t run into them. This isn’t good.”
I stayed close to Hardline’s bumper.
“What do I do?”
“Slow down, and move over to the side of the road. Hopefully they’re not trying to pull you over.”
I slowed down from 100 km/h to 85 km/h and moved over onto the shoulder, just like Hardline did. My hopes sunk as the police cruiser closed in behind us and slowed to match my speed.
Scanning it revealed some information about the vehicle.
Queensland Police Highway Pursuit Vehicle
Year of manufacture: 2018
Top speed: 9/10
“What do I do?” I asked Hardline as I continued decelerating.
“You’re not ready for this,” he replied. “There’s a bunch of things you need to be prepared for, and we haven’t had the time. Ah scrap, I forgot to tell you about the number plates. That’s probably why they’re trying to pull you over. You’re not wearing plates!”
“What’s a number plate?”
“It’s something that humans use to identify who owns a vehicle, so if they do the wrong thing, law enforcement can track them down.”
“Driving without them is probably illegal then, right?”
“Very much so. Let’s see how well you can drive.”
New objective: Lose the police
Challenge Rating: Three Stars
I overtook Hardline, ignoring the double-lined centre that meant I wasn’t supposed to overtake.
I veered back into the centre of the road, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with another car coming the opposite direction. My wheels squealed as I swerved out of the way.
The police cruiser behind me sped up, overtaking Hardline without any problem. He was a truck, a heavyweight, not suited for pursuit and evasion.
“Any advice, Hardline?” I asked.
“Don’t get caught.”
“If you had enough varionium I’d say you should lose them and adopt another alternate form, but that’s not an option for you right now. Not without more varionium.”
“Oh yeah. They don’t know about us, so they don’t know we can become other vehicles. Smart.”
The sirens blared behind me. The cruiser was right on my tail. Without speed, I was never going to lose these clowns. The speedometer pushed past 130km/h, then past 140km/h. The cruiser didn’t give up the case.
Before Hardline woke me up, I had no idea who I was, or what I was about. But the freedom of the open road under my wheels and the fire in my engine as I tried to evade police told me everything I needed to know about myself.
Life on Earth was going to be fun.
I led them on a chase through the township of Beerburrum, then through the back roads where every second offshoot was unsealed. Driving on bitumen was one thing, but driving on unsealed gravel roads was another. I had to be a lot more careful unless I wanted to slip off the road. Luckily for me, my wheels, brakes, and steering were all a part of me, and I could use them so much better than the humans driving the Stinger.
Still, they kept pace with me, and that was impressive. The thing they didn’t realise was that I didn’t need to play by their rules.
I accelerated to top speed on a straight, racing towards a crest in the road ahead. If they hit that crest at the same speed I was going, they’d be airborne. For a standard terrestrial vehicle, that was a very bad idea. But for a Varionian who could change form at will?
It was a game changer.
The crest arrived, and suddenly my wheels left the road. I would only be airborne for a few seconds, so I need to make them count. I shifted from vehicle form to robot form. My weak scanning sensors were shifted as my optics came back online.
There was a farmhouse to the left of me, with an open barn door. There were no vehicles parked out front of the house, and no sign of any humans being home. The perfect place to hide.
My arms and legs formed a moment before I hit the ground. I landed, pivoted, then ran straight for the barn. The entry was low, so I had to duck to enter it. Watching from beneath the cover of darkness, I grinned as the Kia Stinger rocketed down the road.
They must have thought that I was way ahead of them. Instead of slowing down and turning into the farmhouse’s driveway, they accelerated away, sirens blazing. I stepped back out into the blazing sun and changed back into my vehicle mode. It was time to rendezvous with Hardline back at his base.