No Driver

Dan Carver watched the countryside roll by through the APC’s reinforced glass. Nearly a decade since he’d finished serving, these hills were still a dried-out hell hole. The smoke trailing from the horizon was as likely the result of a terrorist attack as of an accident or industry.

“Don’t you get nervous traveling in a machine with no driver?” he asked, looking at Captain Jackson. It was strange, seeing a soldier cradling an assault rifle in the seat where the driver should have been. No wheel, no pedals, just another space for a fighting man.

Jackson laughed, as did the other members of his squad.

“No, sir, Mister Secretary,” he said with a wolfish grin. “Not next to getting shot at seven days a week. This thing saves them putting a driver on the line, and it’s a better navigator than Fussell ever was.”

Fussell, the tallest guy there, growled a friendly obscenity from the back seat.

Dan nodded. This was the sort of intel he needed to bring back to Washington. Reports on how the self-driving vehicles performed in the field.

Something blinked on the dashboard. Jackson frowned.

“Anything on coms about a route change?” he asked.

“No, sir,” Fussell replied.

There was a bump as the vehicle swerved, veering off the rutted track and down the hillside.

Dan grabbed hold of his seat as they jolted across rocks and packed dirt. Jackson swore and slammed a fist against the console.

“Override’s not working,” he said. “Someone else is driving us.”

“Can these things be hacked?” Dan asked. A bump slammed his head about and he bit his tongue. Between the rocks and low trees, he’d caught a glimpse of armed men up ahead. Men who weren’t wearing friendly uniforms.

“If they can, no one told us,” Jackson said.

“We need to get out.” If those were enemy combatants, Dan knew he’d rather leap out of a speeding vehicle than face them. He’d seen too often the ugly things they did to prisoners.

The door handle wouldn’t give. The soldiers swore as they tugged futilely at theirs.

Fussell pulled out a pistol and aimed it at a window.

“Get ready,” he called out.

“Ricochet, you idiot,” Jackson yelled.

They were on another track now, one too narrow and broken to be used by the U.S. military. Ahead, men with dark clothes and assault rifles lined the road. To their left, another man crouched over a laptop.

“Give me that.” Dan grabbed the pistol.

He thought back to the military procurement briefings he’d attended and the schematics he’d poured over. The details had mattered to him. Making sure this generation of young men didn’t get butchered by crappy equipment like his old squad had.

Shaken by the car and by the tension of enemies ahead, he struggled to remember details as he scanned the dashboard. Where were the controls for the locking mechanism?

The men in the road raised their guns.

Pressing the pistol against the dashboard, Dan gave himself half a second to pray before squeezing the trigger.

The roar of the gun was deafening in the confined space. Slivers of plastic and circuit board slashed his hand as recoil jerked his shoulder back.

The vehicle lurched. A door swung open as Jackson pulled the handle.

Dan didn’t turn to try his own door. He shoved Jackson out and leapt after him. The others were doing the same, rolling as they hit the ground. A back wheel clipped Fussell as he rolled, knocking him flat in the dirt.

Old reflexes fired and brought Dan to his knees, gun raised, ignoring the scrapes he’d taken as he landed. All he could hear was the ringing aftermath of his shot, but he could see the ambushers screaming as the APC skidded toward them. Muzzles flashed as they fired at the squad.

Jackson swung his arm. A webbing’s worth of grenades flew through the air, hit the road and rolled beneath the vehicle as it stopped in front of the ambushers.

With a flash, the APC exploded, taking the attackers with it.

Dan lowered his gun, sagging with relief. The ringing in his ears was starting to fade and he thought he could hear a motor.

A combat drone shot through the blue sky toward them. One of theirs.

Except the APC had been one of theirs.

Dan raised the pistol and waited to see what came next.